A Surprise for Parkens
By: Michael A. Arnold
One prank, back at school, got out of hand. You might find it fun.
I remember it all so well. Snow was tumbling in the black night outside, with strong winds hitting against the tall and square-shouldered windows. Because of that, and the blazing fire, the room felt snug and cozy. We (the Scholars, as we were called) had been staying up late, chatting with some of the Potwinners. Eventually it was just Parkens, Sampson, Peters and myself still up, as midnight slipped by.
We were in Parkens' room, General D Parkens now, who at that point in life was a fat-faced (but great ape cheeked) boy with no ambition in life except hitting things as hard as he could with a cricket bat. I doubt he could have told you the difference between a conjugation and a declension, but by god he could send a ball far. But friends, that is another story.
Speaking of declensions and all, we had all just been voicing complaints about Livy. We all seemed to find him duller than a bad dinner.
It was not the teaching, oh no. It is just that Livy is no Virgil. Virgil was full of monsters and romance and war, all that good stuff, and I'm sure we all still respect Mr. Stephens our old, venerable Latin tutor, to be polite. It has been said (by us) that the first stones of St. Alban's School were set in place around him. I liked to imagine him standing in the middle of the wilderness - listing off endless words to memorize at anyone who happened to walk by, and so they decided to build a school around him. But he did teach his subject with gravitas and passion, and we did respect him.
Mostly. He was a man of strange temperament. Before I get back on topic I really must tell you a little more about him. Mr. Stephens famously hated the letter K. He hated it so much he would get into blistering arguments with the Greek tutor, Mr. Andrews, over it, and whenever the newspapers from the nearest town were delivered he would read them just to enjoy his strange hatred. You could tell whenever he was reading the papers too. Because of his sheer anger toward 'that damned K', pages and pages of journalism would go flying out his window making it snow like the deepest of winters' cascades. When we were in Sixth Form we loved it, it was a good way to get extra kindling for our fires.
"How can a word really accuse another word? I don't think I'll ever understand that" said Parkens laying across the armchair before the fire, like a proud walrus on an icy shoreline. He was attempting a joke he had not quite worked out, and we all knew it.
"Parkens, how long have you been studying Latin now?" I said to mock him.
"Lay off me McCreedy," Parkens said.
"It's a good thing you're such a good drybob, Parkens," I said, there was a titter of laughter, like a good motorcar starting up.
"Quite", Parkens said, playing with an invisible pipe in his hands, as was his habit whenever he got a fire-side seat.
"I don't know how good your Greek can be. Hey Peters, were you not getting one to one tuition with Mr. Andrews on Aeschylus?" I said.
"Yes, he seems to think I should go for studying old Aeschy exclusively when at Cambridge," Peters, a fat mouse of a boy said.
"Wow, Peters, you are being so brave. This is the most I've seen you talk this season!" Parkens said, putting his invisible pipe into his mouth.
We laughed again. As much as boys might snipe, it does not mean they dislike each other.
"You're a real goose, Parkens," Sampson, who was another of the Potwinners, said. He was an otter-like boy, tall and frighteningly thin but surprisingly strong. He was one of those types who always seemed to surprise you. You never betted against him in an arm wrestling context, no sir! He was liable to send a boy cart spinning away like a car's wheel eventually.
"Sampson, how are you feeling about it? The Livy test?" Peters said.
"Prffft, I'll be fine. Father made me read Martial and Caesar over the summer's break, make sure I was up to scratch. I should be alright," Sampson said.
"Livy is a lot harder than Caesar or Martial, Sampson, he's like a Virgil," Peters said.
"What do you care? Aren't you a Greek Scholar?"
"He just means 'don't go sleeping in class!' Sampson," I said.
Sampson smiled at this. "That happened one time, four years ago, and I'd been out rowing on the lake all morning. And you never, ever let me forget it," he said in mock indignation.
"That's ok, Sampson, not many people remember when McCreedy started crying for mummy when he first came here," Parkens said.
"I was a baby," I said.
"Still are, aren't you?" Sampson said. We all laughed.
"Wahh! Wahhh!" I started mock-wailing. It is important to not take yourself too seriously among friends, they end up not being friends sooner or later if you do in my experience.
"Virgil has such a weird writing style, yes? He's very descriptive" Sampson said.
"What do you mean?" Peters said.
"Well, Sampson is right," I said, "Virgil is like I don't know, Percy Shelley? I guess?"
Sampson turned to Parkens, "Say, Parkens, shouldn't we go to bed about now?"
"We probably should," I said, getting up from my chair, urging Peters to do the same.
Parkens checked the clock on the wall. "Yes, perhaps, would not want to be late for service again I hate being in the choir, why on earth did I agree to it?" He said.
"Fancy trying for the boats again? After service?" Sampson said, stopping at the door.
"After this snowfall?" I said, I could not quite believe what I was hearing.
"Have you ever seen the steam rising from a lake in a bright, warm winter morning, McCreedy? It makes the icicles on your nose worth it," Parkens said.
"Sounds splendid. But I could never be a wetbob" I said, "cannot stomach those early mornings."
"Ha, typical Scholar you are, McCreedy. You get used to them. Ah, goodnight everybody!" said Sampson.
"Yes, Goodnight!" I said as we all except Parkens left the room.
"Goodnight! Goodnight!" Parkens said as his door shut behind us.
As we walked the central hall toward our rooms I said: "Sampson, I'm still wide awake." It was horrible but true. I knew we had to be up early in the morning for church, but the old brain was just not going to switch off. And who knew what the time actually was I doubt even Parkens really read the clock in his room, even though he was in the habit of looking at it a lot.
"I am too, I'm afraid, McCreedy" Sampson said.
"Me too," Peters said, although I felt it was more a want to join in and agree with whatever we said. He was a natural people pleaser; I knew that well enough
At the mid-point of the central corridor was a staircase with the shoe print frozen on it. We liked to tell each other it was the trace of a ghost, a student's ghost, who had died there a hundred years ago. I thought about it as we got closer, and as we passed it, I looked up at the large window above the stairs which let us get a view of the tumbling white tempest outside. It always eased to see that; I love to watch snow fall. "What are the lessons tomorrow?"
"The sciences, I think?" Sampson said.
A strong wind blew hard against the roof, and it make our school wing groan like an old man snoring in a distant room. That apparently gave Sampson an idea.
"You can still get onto the roof from your window? McCreedy?"
"Why, yes, yes you can."
"Good," Sampson said, "How about a practical demonstration of physics?"
"Parkens will still be awake, you know how he is," I said.
Sampson nodded, smiling devilishly. It was nice to know we were on the same evil page.
I could already tell this was going to be good.
After a few heaves we were up on the roof of the school. Cold white was falling all around us, and you could only see a pure darkness when you looked over the sides of the school building. It was a very good thing that roof was pretty flat. If it was very arched, like in the Romantic or Victorian style, we would have found walking around up there much harder going.
But, as I have said, the roof was pretty flat, which was good for us. We had been up there several times during our St Alban's career, so we had much surer footing than we should have had. There was always going to be a few loose bricks and tiles, that we knew, but giggling and determination kept us from being too sensible.
Sampson himself had been a part of the team of boys who had climbed onto the roof early in the school year, and let down a torrent of 'Welcome, Fresh Meat!' at the new school starters. That had been a sunny but chilly autumn morning and watching some of the young faces just fresh from some preparatory school or another - looking either overly proud (which was always quickly changed) or terrified was great. The same thing had happened to us when we started at St Albans'. How time changes little! Was it that Heraclitus or Xenophon that said that everything is always changing? How wrong he was!
We seemed to find that, actually, the snow was not even that bad up there. Sampson being stronger than Peters and I, moved around with a lot more confidence than we did, so I think that helped. The wind was blowing strong though, but you could almost anticipate the icy blasts, and brace yourself, and your feet more importantly, for the assaults. It was not long (a few minutes?) before we were stable, and able to walk around just like we were on terra firma.
"There must be a loose brick somewhere" I said. And it was Peters who found one shortly after. When we helped unloosen it one from some chimney or other I could feel the thrill of chaos. The bricks were usually quite slack among the topmost parts of those chimney stacks, and there were so many sticking up toward the sky it looked like a very short forest, so there were a lot of loose blocks to pick from, I guess.
Now all we had to do was find the chimney leading down to Parkens' room.
Using mathematical formulae, based on our entrance point to the rooftop (my room) and the location of Parkens' room on that wing of St. Alban's main building, and the few chimneys still emitting a small flow of smoke, we moved in on a promising one.
"I think this is the one!" Sampson said, through the still thick but now softly falling snow.
"Are you sure?!" I said. It was difficult to look at his face, large flakes of snow kept falling into my mouth and eyes, and I could almost taste the bite of winter's cold.
Sampson looked down the chimney, as much as he could without getting any of the smoke in his eye. 'It is in the right place, and the fire is on,' he said.
"What if it's not?" Peters said.
"Ah, just throw it down anyway!"
Peters raised the brick over his head but seemed to struggle with either the weight or his conscience.
"Erm, ahhhh" Peters said.
"Oh, give it to me," Sampson said.
Sampson took it, and raised it (trembling, I noticed) over his head.
"Ok, one' I said as Sampson stood over the chimney mouth, ready to hurl it downward with all his strength.
Sampson, as fitting his biblical name, hurled the brick as hard as he could down the chimney's mouth a hard bellow rose upward as the brick slammed into the fire below. Then we rushed back into the building, to appreciate the carnage unfolding down there.
Back in Parkens' room the word 'carnage' was not quite enough. It was a veritable pandemonium of screaming demons. Someone was yelling 'a brick must have come loose, it bombed straight into Parkens' fireplace!' We, being Parkens' great friends of course, had been allowed straight in to see everything.
The brick had struck with such a force, burning fragments of wood and coal had been sprayed all over the floor. Parkens and another one of the drybobs, a tall chap called Horsley, were furiously trying to stamp all the little fires out as someone ran around shouting "Where is the water bucket? Where is the water bucket?!".
Many other boys from the neighboring rooms had been standing around Parkens' door, but since we had entered they all joined in. For our part, we were desperately running around trying to make it look like we were doing something helpful, while trying to hold in as much laughter as was possible at the time. Really all we were doing, and I hasten to add we were far from alone in this, was adding to the chaos. Everyone was running around screaming and throwing their arms in the air: "The school will burn down! The school will burn down!" It was as if it was the final hours of Judgment Day.
Of course, no one ever dared to call on the masters. No, that would be an instant flogging for the entire Sixth Form for not acting like 'civilized gentlemen', and that was no good for anyone. Besides, I could already see people were smirking. We all blamed a loose brick falling because of the winds, but you could tell everyone already knew what had really happened, although they might not have known who had done it. It was not the first time something like that had happened at St. Albans, and I was sure it would not be the last and it wasn't.
Eventually all the small sparks of flame had been safely stamped out. Parkens looked at Hawker, who was notorious for doing this sort of thing, and said "I suppose you think this is clever, Hawker?"
"What? Me!?" Hawker said, indignation dripping from his mouth, "boy, I was asleep!"
"He was! He was!" another boy shouted from across the room.
I glanced at Sampson, who was looking at me out the corner of his eye, and because we could not laugh it was even harder to keep it in. "Why Parkens," I said, "why don't you just go to sleep before you accuse other innocent chaps of things they have not done?"
Parkens was no fool, but he could not do anything more without looking bad before the rest of the boys. He looked at me with a 'Oh I will get you, McCreedy!' look in eye, and I started to laugh. I had to fold my mouth up to stop laughter coming out.
"Well. I suppose you are right, McCreedy," Parkens said. There was a note of venom in his voice, "I'm sorry Hawker, I was annoyed and all that and I was out of line. Well, boys, let's to bed, too much excitement for one night and all that."
All the time he was speaking his eyes were locked on me. I do not know how I did not explode into fits of laughter. I did later when I was falling asleep.