“Visiting Hugh” by Stephen Busby

 

While driving in an unfamiliar part of the country, Nathan came by chance upon the old
road to the School. He had forgotten it was there. He parked his car near the end of
the long driveway, walked under the stone archway and became a child again. There
were the familiar playing fields and the summer light flickering between the leaves of the
chestnut trees on either side of the graveled drive. The air was clammy and close.
Nathan glanced across at something moving over on the far side of the cricket fields: at
the figure of a man perhaps; he couldn’t be sure because the light was in his eyes and
the views across the fields were hazy in the heat.

Nathan approached the jumble of ancient brown-stoned buildings standing silent in the
summer afternoon and he was blind to their twenty-first century extensions and
signposts. He looked up at the walls and the old lead-lined windows. Where was that
window? Squinting against the sun he found it on the first floor: the study he had
shared with two others: one of them his friend Hugh, the other – Peter – about whom
he had felt indifference, as had everyone. Peter had conjured indifference in others and
this had turned out to be dangerous. He had seemed to transmit something that
attracted scorn, abuse, rage, as hot sweat attracts flies, regular and unremitting. Up
there was the window Peter had thrown himself from one night when he had decided it
was enough.

The study had been small and a welcome mark of seniority: a haven and a shelter. Yet
it would have been foolish to consider himself safe there, for into it might come Chris
and Geoff at any moment of the day, unannounced. Then in a second what before had
been relative shelter and tranquility became chaos and pain.

Small boys did not learn things, Nathan now knew, they absorbed and integrated
things so completely into their little beings that everything essential to survival became
second nature, first even. They did not need to learn how to pick up signs of menace:
they were themselves live antennae that were never switched off. They were sensitive
to the slightest movement – to the possibility that in this person or in that place there
had suddenly flickered some dark intent. An effective antenna would detect this before
even the enemy had become aware of it himself. Nathan remembered how something in
him froze and withdrew into itself before an idea in the enemy had begun. Those who
had failed at this had done so at some cost to themselves: they had been the nails
waiting to be hammered down. They had attracted this to themselves and since
everyone had known this and had welcomed it even as a law of life there had been no
pity: none in the tormenter or in those watching, breathing as neutrally as they could in
relief that today at least their own antennae could be trusted.

As he stood looking up at the window, Nathan had an inkling of the cost of all this. His
antenna-instinct had never gone away. Through instinct he would go to the chair with
the widest view of the whole room, would scan and test for unconscious intent, keep
his gaze averted. The cloak of caution he would never shrug off. He shivered a little: he
could not contemplate now the risks not taken, the strong weather not met. It felt cold
outside despite the thin summer sun. He stepped forward towards the front door.

Nathan stood framed in the front doorway as the sun shone in from behind him down
the long stone corridor. Splinters of heat and light pierced into the cold seventeenth-
century interior. There was no one about, not a sound and this was unexpected.

He did not need to know where to go. The tortured geography of the place was as
familiar as his own hand. He had lived there for longer than he had at home. The
corridor stretched away in front of him. To his left was the sports notice board: in his
time he had made sure that his name was on the most crucial list of all there: Excused
Sports. He had manifested strange symptoms that no one had understood in order to
keep his name on that list as often as he could. He recalled a doctor in a hospital once
prodding him in despair and how he had felt proud then that the system could be
beaten: that good or poor health was a part of the same game: a far cleverer game
than the dull ones repeated every day on the playing fields outside.

He remembered the games, and sitting on a radiator for hours afterwards in winter
until his fingers had recovered enough sensation to be able to undo his buttons and
change clothes. A little thing: to undo a button. He knew what it was like not to
manage it, to weep with despair. To have no one there. He knew there was a point past
misery, when it shifted into something else. Out on the battleground playing-fields
every afternoon he had learned to slip away from the world even while appearing to
move in it – you had to move in the snow for instance, or you’d die. But he had not
really been there. Dissimulation, evasion, invisibility. He wondered if he had ever come
back.

Nathan looked away down the corridor: silence; dust caught in the sunlight from the
cloisters on the right; closed doorways on the left to the libraries, the common rooms,
the refectory and – further down – the chapel, the hours wasted there in worship. He
thought he heard the echo of a footfall in the distance: someone else who had just
turned the corner at the far end of the corridor before he had come in. Perhaps after all
he would be stopped here and questioned; what would he say? He prepared a few
words: their effect would be to appease, to convey the impression that he posed no
threat; he would be polite, he was just passing through. There was no one there.
Nobody came.

Nathan was bewildered at himself for having come here. Had he in fact ever been here
before? Perhaps it had all happened to someone else. What was he remembering,
really? He didn’t know. All that he believed of his childhood: he could have made it up; it
could be no more than a story he had repeated to himself over the years because it
had helped to explain a space in him: something that had grown with him and had
became myth. The myth had lead him today to a locked door in the poor dull center of
himself and he did not care for a key.

*        *        *

Nathan passed the door to his old study. And next to it the door from where Chris and
Geoff would sometimes emerge. He remembered one of their many visits and saw
himself silent witness to it, sitting quietly in the study corner. Chris had begun. He had
said: Crikey Geoff it’s so quiet in here you can hear a bloody pin drop. Even quite a
small bloody pin, said Geoff, following Chris into the room. Where do you think this pin
thing comes from? said Chris. Not a clue, said Geoff, let’s ask around. Anyone in here
know where it comes from? Doesn’t look like they do, said Chris, Funny that,
considering how clever they all are. Yes, suspiciously funny, said Geoff.

I think we ought to carry out a little pin-dropping test just to check everyone
understood the question, said Chris. Have you got one Geoff? I have, as it happens,
said Geoff. It’s an old tie-pin but I think it will do. It will suffice, said Chris, As old Willy
Williams says. Yes he has a nice turn of phrase, has old Willy, said Geoff. But we won’t
need him for this little test, will we? said Chris, I mean it’s not as if we’re in bloody Latin
now. No, said Geoff, We’re not in bloody Latin now. And old Willy’s not here anyway,
said Chris, Which is just as well. It is just as well, said Geoff, So who shall we test first?
Oh, I think… our old mate Peter’s been rather quiet, said Chris, So quiet you’d have
thought he was asleep! Or dropping pins. We’ll wake him up a bit shall we, said Geoff,
But where shall we wake him?

Try… here, said Chris, Look there’s no point in struggling: see how Geoff can hold you
down. You know how he is. You are strong today aren’t you Geoff? You don’t need a
hand? No I don’t need a hand, said Geoff, Thanks for the offer. That’s what mates are
for, see. Look if I hold you like this Peter my old mate, then Chris can do the test – as
soon as you’ve told that us you agree to the test of course – far be it for us to go
forcing anyone now. And this is what it comes down to, said Chris, And naturally we’re
hoping you’ll agree. Because as usual we only have your best interests at heart, do we
not Geoffrey? Yes, the very best, said Geoff.

The test is with this pin here. Can you see it? said Chris. Look, hold his head up Geoff
so he can see the bloody pin. That’s right. Now, in this case you have a choice – never
let it be said we aren’t generous, eh Geoff? No, never let it be said, said Geoff. Either
you tell us whereabouts you’d like us to stick you with the pin, said Chris, and if we
agree then that’s fine of course, or you don’t tell us, in which case we have to choose.
What do you think? Sounds all fair and square to me, said Geoff. Or, said Chris, how
about this: since you seem to be choosing not to choose, which is your perfect right of
course, we’ll ask someone to choose for you. Never let it be said we aren’t democratic –
that there isn’t some freedom of choice here. No, never let that be said, said Geoff. So
we’ll ask. Hugh, said Chris: he’ll choose where you’ll be tested. But Hugh’s gone very
quiet too, said Geoff, Or is he just thinking? If he is that could take some time.

Ah – he was just thinking, said Chris. There you go, and thank you Hugh – a very good
choice. Yes I know you never said anything so I’ve chosen for you. I mean for Peter, as
it were. And your ass it shall be. An excellent choice, said Geoff, If I may say so myself.
There we go – are they fully down Chris, the little trousers? Fully down now, said Chris,
And here’s the little pin Geoff. Suddenly I feel spoiled for choice. I think we’ll have to
play it by ear and do several tests until we find the one that sounds right. I just don’t
know where to stick it first. There. Oh yes… How did that first one sound to you Geoff?
A bit muffled Chris, said Geoff, But I wasn’t paying much attention – could we try just
here for example? Yesss… that’s a bit clearer, much clearer. I bet they almost heard
that one outside!

A little louder do you think? said Chris. I think a bit, said Geoff, I mean we want to
make it worth our while: there we go, much better, now I think we’re getting into our
stride. But we’ll be needing some paper soon, won’t we. Will someone be kind enough
to go and get some toilet paper for us so that Peter can clean up his bloody bloody
little mess? You said it Geoff, said Chris: a right bloody mess. You always were a
bloody messy little blighter weren’t you Peter my old mate. So I suppose we’re going to
have to teach you to be tidier too. These lessons never end. It’s a good thing we’re
teaching him for free, Geoff. Just think what it would cost if he had to pay.

Do you want to pay us Peter? said Geoff, Or would you like another little lesson in pain?
We’ll take that as a yes shall we, said Chris, since we have the whole afternoon in front
of us. We don’t need paying for more pain.

*        *        *

Nathan left the study corridor and climbed the stone steps up to the first dormitory
floor. He stood in a doorway and surveyed the rows of little beds on the polished
wooden floor, about ten down each side of the long room. The beds were made up,
very neat. Sunlight shone in through the windows. He saw that now each bed had
some curtains that could be pulled round and a little table, and perhaps more blankets
than he remembered. He wondered if despite the curtains and the blankets anything
had changed.

Some years ago he had tried to tell a friend – someone whose education had been kind
– how it had been then not to sleep at night for hours until terror had turned
eventually into exhaustion, until it had been safe to allow sleep. The onset of night had
been worse, when he’d been most tired, the antennae not at their best. By day there
had been some semblance of order and authority in the Masters, a regulated timetabled
life and a means somewhere to escape. By night all that had evaporated away: life laid
bare, no boundaries that could not be breached; the seniors free to let their
imaginations run wild without limit, as had been anyone with the slightest power over
anyone else in terms of brute force or bravado. But the worst thing – Nathan had tried
to tell this friend – was that everything had depended on other people’s whim, on their
random moods of the moment. The night could just as easily be a quiet one as not, as
easily a fall – unexpected – into sleep as an endless drama filled with the Prefects’ most
extreme depredations.

His friend couldn’t grasp any of this. ‘But surely it was all just wrong’, the friend had
said, as if there had been an oversight which somehow could have been corrected.
‘Why didn’t you just go the Masters?’ the friend had asked. Nathan had seen then that
it was hopeless to explain, to point out that his own Housemaster was famous for
spending much of his free time loitering outside the toilets hoping to catch a glimpse of
a boy in mid-masturbation. Besides, those who sneaked on others had been singled
out for special punishment and sometimes reprisals enacted on whole dormitories at a
time. He remembered one cold night: they had all been made to queue up outside the
headmaster’s study in their pajamas so that the eminent holder of that office could
beat each of them in turn, alone in his study, his raised gym-shoe and arm falling and
rising tirelessly long into the night.

The dormitory was silent now, baking and airless in the summer sun. Hard to think of it
as a place filled with fear, stinking sometimes of semen and shit; a place where cheap
alcohol was smuggled, porn magazines traded, beds and boys stripped for laughs, bets
taken, dares failed or fulfilled, little lives saved or broken, the survival instinct tested
and made sound.

At the back of the room, still with the elevated status of its own shelves, Nathan saw
the Prefect’s bed – every dormitory had had one. He remembered the reign of B in
particular. How B would choose in a long drawn-out and very public deliberation which
boy should approach him that night as he lay naked on his bed. How B’s eyes had
shone dark somehow, even in the dim light of the night. The dormitories had been
kingdoms where allegiances to competing clans had been crucial, loyalties tested,
vendettas carried out. They had been the birthplace for the games of power which in
later life were played out in the boardrooms, or in Bosnia, say, and in parliament,
Nathan now knew. They were where you went under or where you swam and survived;
where you were deemed to be a man-in-the-making or where you took on the
unmistakable odor of an underdog: a smell impossible to wash off. Nathan had never
felt like a man-in-the-making, rather somebody who may not be there.

Once he had encountered B at an official opening of an exhibition in the city. He had
watched him from the corner of the room, feeling nothing except an overriding need
not to be seen. So there he was: this adult version of someone whom once he had
despised. B had looked suave in a suit that day, gesticulating in the small circle of
people around him in the gallery yet at the same time very much a boy, still boasting.
One day Nathan had by accident witnessed another aspect to B, he remembered, when
hurrying down a small lane behind the School’s library, late for prep. B had been sitting
on a bench gazing out at the playing fields and something unexpected about him had
made the boy hesitate, sneak a second look. The face – its familiar square jaw, its eyes
wide-set and small – was, Nathan had seen, frozen and inward-looking, shot-through
with sadness. It had been more than that even – as if in a private moment B had
become victim himself to some tearing tragedy or abuse; he had looked stricken and
scared.

Nathan had kept in touch with Hugh over the years. He had never met Hugh’s family or
seen him in the company of anyone else. They acknowledged that what they shared
may not be expressible to others; they failed even to express it to themselves. They
would sit for an hour or two, side by side every few months, in a half-empty pub
somewhere in the city, or very occasionally in Hugh’s flat. Sometimes they would play
chess. Their conversation was inconsequential: small details of their days and
occasionally – perhaps after a second drink – the larger movements in their lives. They
enjoyed a philosophical perspective on what they had become but knew that this was
not the reason they met. They met in order to see each other as adults. As if to say:
yes it is possible after all to be here, to have come from there and now to be here, to
be having a drink in this pub, to have made it this far. At the School, every day had
been an achievement; and as an adult it still was. Nathan thought that Hugh had
realizedmore than he had back then that there were moments when he, Hugh, might
not have gone on; that Hugh had been pushed much closer to the edge and had had
to learn to live there.

Despite this, Nathan believed that Hugh had reached the best kind of accommodation
with his boyhood. His manner seemed to Nathan resigned; he did not expect or hope
for much in life. On the rare occasions in the pub when, after several drinks and a
couple of games, they brushed too close to a topic which might invite some emotion,
Hugh’s eyes flickered slightly and his face clouded for a moment as something was held
back, still defended. He became a boy again then, the antennae in place.

Hugh’s life seemed to be burdensome, filled with stresses which he said were related to
the office, to monies lost or unaccounted for, to a pension fund not as secure as he’d
thought. Nathan thought however that Hugh’s stress came from trying hard to contain
everything, that one day he would implode. He remembered Hugh’s strategy: his
silences in the little study they had once shared with Peter, how content he had been
that others thought him stupid, ineffectual, not worth their attention, whether
malicious or benign. And how he had often gone up to sit for hours, alone, in one of
the silent attic-spaces, ‘just to get my head down’ he would say later and Nathan
would nod in reply.

Once Nathan went to meet Hugh in the office where he worked in the city center. Hugh
was involved in the money markets though this turned out to be in accounts, unlike the
money brokers themselves who could be seen on the other side of the large internal
window, bawling and gesticulating to each other as millions of pounds’ worth of
commodities were bought and sold in an instant, the fates of countries hanging upon
their tiniest gesture, upon someone screaming figures across the room so aggressively
that other people’s offers were stifled. Growing up in an all-male boarding school meant
that it was impossible to look upon any man as ever fully-grown: one saw immediately
the little boy in short-trousers hiding inside the adult. All the enduring boyhood tics
and defenses were still there, better disguised. They had all been there that day on
display behind the glass in Hugh’s office.

Some months after this office visit, Hugh had called Nathan in a voice that had sounded
small and shaken on the phone. Hugh had said that he had suffered a kind of
breakdown and that it was probably best they didn’t meet.

*        *        *

The first-floor dormitory lead out onto a wide passageway which, after several study
doorways, the bathrooms and toilets, became a narrow corridor – poorly lit, leading
downwards into the bowels of the building. Nathan knew it lead first to the kitchens,
the infirmary (where he had been frequently confined) and eventually on down to The
Club: a suite of underground chambers where hobbies were allowed. Wood and metal
work had been taught and practiced there, some electronics, a small darkroom too. He
had spent much of his time in those rooms whenever excused games. He would go
back down there now. He didn’t know why.

The corridor wound on down past the ground floor doorways. Nathan paused in the
dim light which had now almost disappeared. Each time he came to one of the several
flights of stone steps his feet knew where to slow and step forward carefully to the top
of the first step. The body remembered. Nothing forgot.

The cold stone walls of the corridor seemed to him more real than anything he could
ever remember and yet even now he could not be certain that he was there. As if in
answer to this, a door banged further down at the end of the corridor – in the breeze
he supposed: there were drafts due to the ventilation shafts that kept the air fresh
in the basement and filtered away the fumes from the boilers nearby.

Nathan went on and came to the heavy steel door. It opened with the same squeal into
the first of the subterranean rooms, visible in the weak greenish glow of some
emergency exit signs. He saw the ceiling was still wreathed in tubes and piping, flaps of
insulation materials and electric sockets dangling from above. And the smell of metal
work, of industrial lubricants and machinery, and of something recently burned.

Here is where the Physics Master had tutored him in electronics, the teacher more
excited than he at the possibility that the Hi-Fi amplifier which the boy had built might
work. This Master had had a rare enthusiasm for his subjects and for life – he had been
curious about quantum physics long before it became fashionable. He had smelled of
sweat and photographic chemicals, had worn shabby clothes, and had never relented
until you had understood why something was significant and true. His disabled
daughter had sometimes trailed around after him, the butt of lewd jokes and of insects
dropped down her dress.

This room lead into another: the wood-working room where Colonel K, tall and mute,
had schooled boys in the secrets of wood with a gentleness and patience quite at odds,
Nathan had thought then, with a military career. Light still entered this room through
two small dusty windows set high up in the whitewashed wall. Nathan listened as the
patter of rain started to fall against these windows yet there was still enough light to
illuminate the familiar tools hung around the walls, the same worn wooden tables and
benches, the wood-turning lathes and – in the far corner – someone who was hunched
over, working on some wood.

Nathan stared across the low room at the figure in the corner. He saw someone in dark
overalls who looked up at him, then straightened slowly and smiled. Nathan prepared to
formulate his excuse for being there. But his voice trailed off into silence as he took in
more of this woodworker who seemed to be entirely alone in the School. Nathan took in
how the man smiled, how all the light in the room seemed to radiate from the corner
where he was standing, how something in his features was familiar: the shape of the
face, the eyes, the slope of the shoulders, how vulnerable this man still seemed in the
way his hands hung loosely at his sides, one of them holding a chisel. Time folded away
then and Nathan knew who was still there, working on wood. Peter, Nathan said.

*        *        *

Nathan stood next to Peter, watching him carving. Peter stopped, removed the piece of
wood from the vice and handed it to Nathan with a gentle smile. It was shaped like a
cross: the crossbar very short compared to the long upright stem. Nathan saw that its
entire surface was covered with an intricate pattern of carvings: an elaborate
interwoven knot that Peter had etched into the soft wood. From between the winding
strands of the knot peered a multitude of small forms: tiny animals, flowers and other
foliage, thistles, the heads of snakes, flocks of birds even, in full flight. As Nathan
looked more closely still in the light which seemed to emanate from Peter beside him, he
saw entire scenes – some of which he recognized from his own life, others not; some
contemporary, others apparently archaic; all played out and moving within the endless
weave of carved spiraling lines. There were whole worlds erupting even as Nathan
watched and was drawn further into the fabric of the wood. Fingering it, he could not
see any beginning or end to the curving threads of the knot as they wove back and
forth, crossing over and under each other and returning to where they began only to
start over again. There was a sense of eternal movement in what Nathan now recalled
may be an ancient Celtic design. He turned and looked more closely into Peter’s face.
Like the carving, it drew him in. Peter’s eyes were light blue-grey and very large, just as
they had been before.

Nathan knew he would confess to Peter that he was still a boy, hiding and uncertain. He
would explain to Peter how – since the School – everyone was still a stranger: a threat
in the making, and how when you attuned so completely to others’ moods so that they
did not feel confronted then you lost yourself, and how it was too late afterwards to
revert back. There was no-one to revert to, the container was empty.

Looking into Peter’s eyes, Nathan saw that nothing need be explained. Instead, he
turned and walked back through the basement rooms, up the corridor to the ground
floor, then through the kitchens into the car park outside. The air was fresh now after
the rains, the surfaces cool and wet.

*        *        *

Some weeks later Nathan arrived outside a block of flats in one of the suburbs of the
city. He pushed the button by the door; there was a buzz and he was admitted. He
climbed the three flights of stairs and pushed open the door to his friend’s flat. Inside
he saw that all the furniture had been removed from the dark hallway since his last visit
and that the door at the end was ajar, a little sunlight shining from it down along the
hall.

Inside the small sunlit room Hugh was sitting on a chair looking down at his hands on
his lap. Nathan saw that almost all the furniture that he remembered had been taken
from this room too: there was now only a second chair and a low table with the chess-
board set ready for their game. Two mugs of tea were on the floor. Nathan saw that
this was where Hugh sat – for hours, days, weeks he supposed, alone in this room,
recovering something he had lost in himself.

Hugh looked up, smiled, and gestured for his friend to sit down, to begin the game.
Nathan sat and began to play.

 

 

Stephen Busby is a traveler and writer based in the Findhorn Community, northern Scotland.  His prose and poetry have appeared in Cezanne’s Carrot, r.kv.r.y. (visiting hugh and love ends), Visionary Tongue, The Battered Suitcase, Santa Fe Writers Project, and Secret Attic.  Stephen also works in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors, running transformative learning events there. His website is here.

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