“Gosh! Will you look at this, you chaps?” Hemming shone his torch into the room. Over his shoulders, Pearce peered and Covington cowered.
“I don’t think we ought –” Covington jabbered. In terror, he buried his face into the shoulder of Pearce’s blazer. Pearce shrugged him off.
“Grow up, Covvy,” he sneered. “We’re forty-eight not fourteen.”
“Even so, I don’t think we ought – Out of respect and all that.”
Hemming rounded on him; Covington recoiled, squinting from the flashlight. Hemming too was glaring.
“Forty-eight and still entirely without balls, eh, Covvy? I’ll say this only once and then what you bloody do is up to you. Squiffy’s with me, aren’t you, Squiffy?”
“Bloody am!” Pearce confirmed with a grave nod.
“This place is ours now – well, the Consortium’s. So we have every right – and what better way to show our respects than to raise a glass to the Old Bastard in his own office? Which is now technically our office, and which is soon to be the fourth floor of a multi-storey car park and part of the largest retail park in the whole bloody county. Wahey!”
“I should cocoa,” Pearce agreed.
“So come on in or bugger off; it’s entirely up to you. See if I care.” Hemming strode into the room and perched on a stack of boxes. “About here, his desk was, wouldn’t you say?”
“Rather!” said Pearce, joining him. Hemming gripped a bottle of champagne between his knees and twisted the cork.
“Bring those glasses, will you, old boy?”
“Rather,” said Pearce.
Covington remained in the doorway and peered at the scene. In the gloom and after the passage of three decades, it was difficult to believe this room had been the Old Bastard’s lair. Stripped of all furniture and denuded of decoration, the office seemed paradoxically smaller. Or perhaps, Covington reflected, it is we who have grown? Hemming certainly had – mostly around the middle – and he, Covington, had always been what people used to call ‘portly’. What had once been dismissed as puppy fat was still hanging on his frame – doggedly, you might say, what! But Pearce. Good old Sheridan ‘Squiffy’ Pearce was as lithe and taut as he had ever been. A bit weathered around the eyes, perhaps, with the odd fleck of white in his moustache, certainly, but of the three of us, he was certainly the best preserved. And it made Covington feel a kind of warmth, to think they had stayed in touch, throughout all these years.
“I say, Hemming,” he called from the doorway. “Do you ever hear from Whatsisface these days?”
“Who?” Hemming grunted, still twisting the bottle neck.
“Whojimmyflop – Perkins!” Covington wracked his memory. “Good old Percy Perkins!”
Hemming let the name sink in. He shook his head sadly. “No, can’t say that I have.”
“After it happened, he sort of disappeared,” nodded Pearce.
“That’s right,” Hemming agreed. “Got sent down. Quite right, too, after what he did. Dreadful shame, though. I always liked Percy Perkins. He was a good egg.”
“Um…” Covington, who had only arrived at the school the term after ‘it’ had taken place, inched a few footsteps over the threshold. “What did he do exactly? Your friend, Perkins.”
Hemming and Pearce glanced at each other, enjoying the memory of a secret shared.
“Oh, I suppose it won’t hurt to let you in on it,” Hemming conceded. “After all this time. And you are part of the Consortium, after all.”
He jerked his head, beckoning Covington to approach. Hemming lowered his voice so Covington would have no choice but to draw nearer.
“Did you never hear the story about the elephant, Covvy?”
Covington’s eyes darted as his mind raced. His jaw dropped. “You mean – but that – that was just a legend, wasn’t it? Something to tell the younger boys.”
“On the contrary! It was all true.”
“Rather!” confirmed Pearce.
“And it happened right here, in this very room.”
Covington’s eyes widened as they appraised his surroundings anew.
“That’s right. In this very spot it stood. Right where you are now.”
Covington’s mouth worked and his eyebrows dipped in a frown; it was a while before he could get any words out. “But – how? Where? It’s impossible!”
“How: we shall never know,” Hemming shook his head. “Perhaps Perkins was some kind of magician. And as for the where – well, there is a safari park not far from here – which is why our retail park is so well-placed. Shop till you drop and then take a leisurely drive through some animals – their enclosures, I mean, of course.”
Pearce nodded sagely.
“Of course, the whole thing was hushed up,” Hemming continued.
“Utterly,” added Pearce. He even placed a finger on his lips as illustration.
“It’s reckoned it’s what triggered the heart condition that eventually finished the Old Bastard off.”
Hemming and Pearce nodded gravely.
“Of course, we – the boys, the staff, even the groundsmen – were under strict instruction never to talk about it. Not to breathe a word. The Old Bastard was keen not to have his reputation undermined. If word got out that he had been made a fool of – well!” Hemming gestured expansively as if the dire consequences were self-evident.
Covington wasn’t listening. “I suppose if you took those windows out and got a crane – a bloody big one, mind you – Er, how did they get it out again?”
“They didn’t,” laughed Hemming.
“I should cocoa,” Pearce joined in.
“He couldn’t, you see. So the Old Bastard kept it in here. And no one was allowed to say a word about it. You had to pretend it wasn’t here. So, when he called you in for a talking-to, or a telling-off, or what-have-you…”
“Six of the best,” Pearce interjected.
“You had to squeeze into a corner and pretend it wasn’t there. We all got used to it, after the novelty had worn off.”
Covington’s frown deepened. “But what about the smell?”
Hemming smirked. “I suppose the elephant got used to it.”
At last, his efforts to liberate the cork proved successful. Pearce cheered, eagerly holding up the glassed.
“Wahey!” Hemming cried as he poured.
The trio clinked their glasses together and raised them in a toast.
“To Percy Perkins!” proposed Pearce.
“To the Old Bastard!” cried Hemming.
“To the elephant!” suggested Covington. They drank heartily to all three and to each other and to their Consortium.
Later, as they staggered down to their cars, Covington nudged both Pearce and Hemming.
“You were having me on, just then. Own up!”
“What?” Pearce was puzzled.
“No, we really want you in the Consortium,” grinned Hemming.
“Not about that. About the elephant. I don’t see how it was possible. Nobody puts an elephant in their headmaster’s office.”
“Don’t they?” Hemming pulled a quizzical face.
“I mean, I think it’s a good story and all that, but, as you said, the Bastard was Old and had a heart condition. I think perhaps your friend Peter Perkins –”
“Percy!” Pearce corrected.
“I think he did something else. Scared the old man some other way. Perhaps – perhaps – he knew something – and he threatened to blab – perhaps.”
Hemming and Pearce stopped in their tracks, all humour evaporated.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hemming, his lips tight.
“Some things you just don’t speak of, old man,” said Pearce.
Sensing they were no longer in the party mood, Covington let himself into his car. As he drove away, he glanced in the rear-view mirror. His friends were still there but they were not watching him drive away. They had turned their backs and were gazing up at the headmaster’s window.
What had happened in that office? Covington would never know. What was so bad that the entire school would enter into a conspiracy to scare an old man to death? Carrying on as though there was an elephant in his office and he was the only one who couldn’t see it! It was absurd! What had the so-called Old Bastard done to deserve that?
A shudder of realisation ran down Covington’s spine.
All those boys, those poor boys…
It was no wonder Covington’s chums had strived for years to gain the means to knock the building down.