One vicious little boy held the head of the other boy inside the toilet’s pan and flushed it. He heard the screaming and crying and watched the snot mix with tears as he emerged. That’s not all he did: he took every opportunity to lead the others in tormenting him, the odd one out, just for the sake of it, and always took pleasure in his misery.
Looking back on my schooldays I am deeply, deeply ashamed of myself. Bullies are disgusting creatures. The trouble is, many boys are bullies – perhaps it’s some kind of unchecked cruelty that diminishes in later life. If any boy is different from the others, has a strange face, a funny walk, a club foot, anything at all, other boys make fun of them, they make their lives a misery. I thought with shame how the master with the funny walk was jeered at, and the misery of the boy who stuttered in class.
My shame was one of the reasons why returning to St Boniface school, after all these years, was such an effort. Because the place apparently now regards me as one of their ‘success stories’, the headmaster had asked me to give them a talk today, on the school’s Founders Day, some little homily to advise the boys on how to make a success of their lives.
I should know. The brutal and vicious regime of public school had equipped me well for the hustle and bustle of life. After a short career as an officer in the army, I took various jobs in business, eventually ending up as a multimillionaire. My motto for business life ‘dog eat dog’ has served me well and I’ve never looked back. Because the truth is, the winner really does have it all, and the loser is always forgotten.
It took a lot of courage to come back here, to face the place where it all started, and where I behaved in such a shameful way
The day in fact went fairly well. I gave my speech, there was a lot of clapping and ‘three cheers’, and the headmaster, a fussy little man called Prenderghast, shook my hand warmly.
There were quite a few other ‘old boys’ there from my year, and it was surprising to see how little some of them had changed, as we pottered about chatting about our various careers, families, politics and so on. Most of us fortyish men still have our hair, but many of us have put on weight and a few have acquired a faintly comical air of self-importance.
It was late on in the afternoon that I spotted him: my nemesis, the boy who I was ashamed to remember. John Maddock, whom I’d always called ‘Maddock’, just as he’d always called me ‘Archer’ – we always used just surnames in those days. Maddock was apparently now, of all things, a bishop. I asked the headmaster about him, and he waxed enthusiastically about him, how Maddock sat on all sorts of committees and had led all kinds of movements helping the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill. He was, according to the headmaster ‘a truly good man who’s achieving some truly great things.’
And I looked across the crowded room at him. He hadn’t changed that much. Still small, weedy with a pasty face and a nose like an anteater. Now his narrow shoulders were hunched, and the clerical collar circled a scrawny neck, making him look like more like a turkey than ever.
I realised that I had to go and talk to him. I had to clear the air. We’d each spent a lifetime doing our own things, and we’d each achieved a lot, albeit in our own different spheres. He was clearly a ‘good’ man, whatever that may be. And me? Well, that’s for others to judge.
I caught up with him in the lavatories, or ‘the bogs’ as we used to call them when we were children. We were on our own. He was standing at the urinal, his back was to me, and he had no idea I was there.
“Maddock?” I called out to him. “Do you remember me?”
He turned round, zipping up his fly, a half smile of recognition on his face until he saw me and froze.
I could see the fear in his eyes, just as I remembered it from when we were both ten.
“I want to apologise,” I said to him, tears forming in the corners of my eyes, as the years fell away and I remembered, in this very room, all the tortures and the pain and humiliation.
I came closer to him.
And then, as he looked up at me, I kneed him in the groin. And as he was doubled over in pain I smashed my fist full in his face.
“That’s for all the times you made my life a misery, you bastard!” I spat in his face. “All the times I let you bullied and beat me and I never fought back! I’ve been ashamed all these years of not fighting back when I should have done. But I also wanted to thank you. Because of you, every time I came across a bully in my life, I’ve always fought back, whatever the odds. And do you know what? I always won.”
As I kicked him one last time and turned to leave, I caught a glimpse of my face in the cracked mirror over the sink. The huge bright pink birthmark that covered my features, my bulging eyes and strangely protuberant ears were every bit as horrific as they had always been, and they were the reason why Maddock and the other boys used to call me ‘the elephant man’ and bullied me mercilessly, and I just took their beatings and humiliation without fighting back.
But Maddock had done a lot for me. He had taught me to fight back.
“Sorry mate.” I turned back, knelt down and offered him my hand and helped him to his feet, putting my arm around his shoulders companionably. “I really am sorry.”
Luckily, life had also taught me to be kind.