Gold and brown were the colours of the driveway of St Cuthbert’s School as it lay beneath the crisp blue sky of another autumn day. A playful breeze dislodged a flurry of leaves from the trees which lined the drive, almost smothering Botchit, the caretaker, as he raked the wind’s earlier deposits into a neat pile. He sighed and leaned a moment on his rake contemplating the decaying leaves. They were probably symbolic of something, but he couldn’t be bothered working out what.
St Cuthbert’s was one of a dying breed – a state-funded school with a private-school mentality. Once it had been a boy’s grammar, but those days had passed and the school struggled to maintain the prestige it had lost. Botchit was a remnant of those older days – a caretaker with his own cottage in the grounds – but every passing term made him feel slightly less a part of the changing regime.
The sound of a sputtering engine marked the arrival of one part of the new regime. The battered Mini struggling up the drive might have looked like it belonged to one of the old guard, but it was in fact the property of one Erasmus Hobart - or as some of the students called him behind his back – Hobbit.
As the vehicle passed, its engine misfired, giving the impression a cannon had gone off. A cloud of acrid black smoke drifted up to obscure the view, leaving Botchit coughing in its wake.
How the vehicle had ever managed to pass its MOT was one of life’s great mysteries. Though pupils would expound on theories involving men in grubby overcoats who exchanged cash-stuffed brown envelopes, none of them really thought that Hobbit would be capable of such dastardly deeds.
All of which was symptomatic of the children’s attitude to the teacher. Although he was young and wasn’t actually disliked, in his short tenure teaching Science and History at St Cuthbert’s he had already become one of them – a member of the other side in the long-entrenched battle of nerves that was the school. He had his nickname. He even had a mythology developing around him.
Already it was rumoured amongst some in the first form – for whom anyone older than fourteen was pensionable – that Hobbit’s history lessons were taken entirely from personal experience. In a few years, when the current first form had been and gone, this would undoubtedly be accepted as fact by one and all.
As the Mini passed along the drive, pupils, alerted by the wheezing engine, hurriedly hid conkers and other health-and-safety-unfriendly possessions, putting on expressions of saint-like innocence until they were sure he was out of sight and that they were safe from discovery. Others were not so quick to react, nor were they as capable of hiding their mischief.
‘Atkinson! Davis! What are you doing with that?’ The voice of Erasmus Hobart was an attribute that made him a firm fixture of school sports days, carrying some distance across the school fields without the need for a megaphone.
‘What, sir?’ Atkinson replied. He attempted to conceal his contraband behind his back and looked at the master with a gaze of attentive innocence. It wasn’t easy: the teacher’s hazel eyes had a way of making your stomach try to hide in a corner. The boy’s eyes watered involuntarily as he tried to retain the teacher’s gaze.
‘That big stick,’ Erasmus persisted.
‘What big stick?’ Atkinson replied, sure that admitting the object’s existence after attempting to hide it would carry far worse penalties than continuing to pretend it wasn’t there.
‘That big stick behind your back.’
‘Big stick, sir? I can’t see a big stick.’
‘You can’t? Well I can. It’s six feet long and sticking above your head. Perhaps I should ask Mr Salmon to give you some remedial lessons. That way you’ll know that six feet is more than four foot five.’
Atkinson, realising when he was beaten, pulled the item in front of him and looked at it in surprise, trying to convey the impression he’d never seen it before.
‘Well?’ Erasmus enquired.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a bow, sir.’
‘What are you doing with it? I trust you aren’t trying to shoot the school cat?’ In truth, Erasmus wouldn’t have minded this particular activity – he and the school cat had been engaged in a battle of wits since the rabid moggy had attempted to sink its claws into his leg on his first day.
‘No, sir,’ Atkinson protested. ‘It’s for the play. We’re doing Robin Hood, sir.’
‘Not with that you’re not,’ Erasmus told him. ‘Bring it here.’
‘Si-ir,’ Atkinson whined.
‘Here,’ Erasmus repeated, his voice going down in pitch and up in volume. It was a subtle change, but one to which experienced troublemakers had learned to respond. Atkinson may not have been an experienced troublemaker, but he was still intelligent enough to surrender the bow into the master’s hand.
‘When can I have it back?’ he asked.
‘You can have it at the end of term and not before,’ Erasmus told him and his tone told Atkinson that any argument was about as futile as expecting divine help to part the waters of the Trent in search of a lost ball.
The boy looked down at his feet with a hangdog expression, awaiting whatever fate Hobbit had in store for him. Erasmus smiled at the tousled head. He wasn’t a cruel man – it wasn’t that long since his own scholarly career of mischief had come to an end – and the boy’s antics were scarcely as disruptive as – to take an example at random – creating a build-up of static electricity that separated a teacher from his wig. Since he knew Atkinson wasn’t the type to intend a major disruption, Erasmus decided on clemency. Not immediately, though: he waited until the boy glanced up then gave him a stern look, prompting him to examine his shoes even more minutely. Then, after he had waited for what he felt was an appropriate time, he dismissed the boy. Atkinson, grateful at being spared punishment, nodded politely before turning on his heel and running back to where Davis was waiting.
‘Atkinson!’ Erasmus called out after him.
‘Walk. Don’t run.’
‘Sorry, sir,’ Atkinson called back and he then continued his journey at a more sedate pace.
After watching the boy for a few moments, Erasmus examined the bow with interest. It wasn’t the normal bit of twig and string you found attached to teenage boys; it had real tension in it. He tugged it experimentally, considering what it would do for his odds against the school cat. Then, realising he was still blocking the driveway, he tried to bring the bow in through the car window. This proved difficult, since the bow spanned roughly six feet, whilst the car was only about five feet from wing mirror to wing mirror. He eventually managed to wedge one end of the bow in the passenger’s footwell whilst the other end stuck out of the sunroof, giving the impression of a dodgem aerial. Driving carefully so as not to get the bow caught in any low tree branches, he proceeded along the driveway to his parking space, leaving a trail of wide-eyed children, many with their hands held firmly behind their backs.
The classroom was a dark one; the north-facing windows, set just below ceiling height, allowed little natural light to penetrate and a number of electric strip lights struggled bravely to illuminate the dark and cobwebby corners. For Erasmus, however, this was a home away from home. Without the intrusion of sunlight, there was no difference from one season to another, no time except that which he marked with the staccato sound of chalk on blackboard and no distractions to draw the pupils’ attentions away from their studies.
This was a room in which a teacher could set the class an essay question then sit and peacefully while away the hours with a mug of coffee and a pile of books to mark. He had to use a different room for science lessons, of course: the school wasn’t so well-equipped as to allow the laboratories to be tied up with his history lessons, but science lessons tended to be in the afternoons when most of the youthful energies had been expended on the playing field, and the pupils always seemed more docile when they were armed with a piece of veroboard and a power-pack. True, it was probably because they were working out how to electrify Harrison’s pencil case whilst he was out of the room on one of his frequent trips to the lavatory, but Erasmus firmly believed a few electrical shocks were acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.
For the moment, however, the room was devoid of pupils as Erasmus kept himself occupied working through a series of torturously complex equations on his blackboard. Soon the nine o’clock bell would ring, signifying the end of registration and the beginning of the slow
exodus to the first lesson of the morning.
Turning briefly from his calculations, he glanced at the pile of books on his desk; form 3A first this morning – hopefully Atkinson wouldn’t make too much of a fuss about his bow. He looked at the weapon, propped up next to his umbrella in the corner of the room. Where the boy had acquired such an article was a mystery – he hadn’t seen anywhere selling them and Mr Gaunt certainly wouldn’t have got the pupils to make one in woodwork. He shrugged: small boys seemed to have a natural ability to locate destructive implements, no matter how hard they were to acquire. If the UN had had the foresight to send a squad of thirteen year-old boys into countries suspected of harbouring weapons of mass destruction, you could guarantee they’d locate any nuclear arsenal in a matter of hours. True, they’d probably set off a few bombs just to see what they could do, but at least you’d know where they were and could take the appropriate action.
The sound of youthful conversation drifted through the door and returned the teacher’s attention to the real world. Erasmus checked his watch: it was three minutes past nine – obviously the tannoy still wasn’t working. He checked the volume control on the wall-mounted speaker: it wouldn’t surprise him to find that a pupil had adjusted it – he’d heard Mr Alesage complain they’d put his clock forward in order to get out of double French early. Erasmus glanced at the clock over the board, but not with any particular interest: unlike Mr Alesage, he never relied on school equipment - experience had taught him to wear a watch to work instead.
Hearing the conversation outside was getting louder, Erasmus put down his chalk and began to wind the crank which turned the blackboards on their rollers and gave him a clean surface on which to write. A loud thump outside the door disturbed him and, realising he couldn’t put the moment off any longer, he strode to the door and opened it.
‘What was that noise?’ he demanded of the straggle of boys who were lined along the wall.
‘It wasn’t me, sir,’ Kirkby protested.
‘I asked what the noise was, not who wasn’t responsible. Have you got a guilty conscience or have you just neglected to wash your ears out this morning?’
Kirkby didn’t answer – he couldn’t see what the right answer was.
‘Well?’ Erasmus directed his gaze over the whole class.
‘Please, sir.’ Harrison’s unbroken voice rang out like the song of a lark that had just undergone an intensive interrogation.
‘Yes, Harrison,’ Erasmus prompted.
‘It was my sandwiches, sir.’
‘Your sandwiches? What have you got in them – gunpowder?’
‘No, sir,’ Harrison objected. ‘Barnstaple threw them at the door.’
There was a chorus of ‘sneak’ from the back of the queue. Erasmus took a discreet look and noted Barnstaple and his usual bunch of cronies. He felt sorry for Harrison: he admired the child’s sense of duty and fair play, but sometimes he felt it would be better if the boy just kept his mouth shut. He looked down at his feet and found a small packet of sandwiches, so tightly wrapped in cling-film you felt that Harrison’s mother was trying to suffocate the contents and make sure they were dead. He motioned to the boy at the front of the queue, who obediently bent down, picked up the package and passed them to the master.
Erasmus looked sternly at Barnstaple. ‘Why did you throw these?’ he asked.
Barnstaple maintained a sullen silence.
‘We’ll stand here until someone tells me,’ Erasmus informed them, ‘and you know what that means, don’t you?’
Some of the smaller boys nodded. Erasmus’ system of punishment basically involved adding up the minutes for which his lesson was disrupted and claiming the time back in a detention. It wasn’t an entirely fair system, since the whole class were punished for the fault of a handful of troublemakers but, as Erasmus himself pointed out, his detentions weren’t about punishing people, but about making sure they came out of school with the right amount of education. British education might be going to the dogs, but there was no way this teacher was going to turn his school into just another kennel.
Barnstaple, knowing Erasmus wouldn’t back down and unwilling to undergo an entire hour’s detention, held up a small wooden device.
‘I was testing this,’ he admitted.
‘Bring it here,’ Erasmus demanded. Barnstaple made his way to the front, the line of boys leaning against the wall to let him pass, whilst simultaneously staring curiously at the contraption. Erasmus took the device from the boy and examined it closely.
‘It’s a catapult,’ Barnstaple explained.
‘I can see that,’ Erasmus told him. ‘More accurately, of course, you should call it a trebuchet. Now what are you doing throwing people’s sandwiches with a piece of siege artillery?’
‘I thought they might want to use it in the play.’
‘I see. This would be the famous production of Robin Hood, would it?’
‘And where in the legends does it say that the outlaws fired sandwiches from trebuchets, hmm?’
Barnstaple shrugged. ‘They had them back then,’ he managed.
‘Trebuchets, yes,’ Erasmus agreed. ‘However, I believe they were somewhat short of sandwiches and, even if they weren’t, I doubt it would ever have occurred to them to use them as ammunition.’
‘The French used to throw animals over castle walls,’ someone contributed. ‘Perhaps the English just used to throw their lunch.’
Erasmus looked up, trying to find the source of the comment, one eyebrow raised quizzically. He identified the source of the comment as Atkinson and looked at him levelly. ‘Do you understand why the French threw cows over castle walls?’ he asked.
‘Because they had BSE?’ Atkinson suggested.
‘In the thirteenth century,’ Barnstaple sneered.
Erasmus looked at Barnstaple sternly and the boy fell silent. ‘Believe it or not, Atkinson,’ Erasmus continued, looking back towards the boy, ‘you’re actually thinking in the right area. It was common in siege warfare to hurl diseased animals into besieged castles – the idea was that the disease would spread amongst the inhabitants and lead to an early surrender. However, I fail to see what relevance this has to Robin Hood.’ He looked down at Barnstaple once more.
‘I was just getting into it,’ said Barnstaple. ‘You know, history and all that.’
Erasmus pushed back the classroom door and ushered the pupils to their seats. He handed Harrison his sandwiches as he passed. Once the last few pupils had filtered past, he closed the door and made his way to his desk.
‘Taking an interest in history is very commendable,’ he told the class as they stood quietly behind their desks, ‘but plays about Robin Hood actually say very little about the history of this country. In fact, there are significant elements of the plays which flatly contradict history as we know it.’
He motioned for the class to sit and, as they complied, he surveyed them: there did seem to be a spark of genuine interest, even if it had initially revolved around a practical interest in siege weaponry.
He waited for the noises of scraping chairs and low murmuring to subside, then addressed the class. ‘Can anyone give me an example of a historically dubious aspect of the Robin Hood legend?’ he asked.
Harrison raised his hand, eager to be the first to answer. Erasmus decided not to choose the boy: he’d already embarrassed Barnstaple once this morning and it wouldn’t do to let him draw too much attention to himself – not with double Physics after lunch, anyway.
‘Heathfield,’ he called out, noticing the child was holding his left arm up and supporting it with his right as if it were becoming burdensome.
‘Marion, sir,’ Heathfield said.
‘What about Marion?’
‘My Dad says she didn’t exist, sir.’
‘Does he now? And what makes him say that?’
‘He says that women knew their place in the Middle Ages, sir, and that they didn’t go out partying with their friends to all hours of the night.’
Erasmus tried hard not to smile: Heathfield Senior’s remarks often said more about the insecurities of twenty-first century man than they did about the position of twelfth or thirteenth century woman. He noticed Harrison had put his sandwiches on the edge of the desk – should he tell the boy to put them away? He didn’t understand why Harrison had to wave his sandwiches around like that anyway – did he think they’d run away if he left them in his bag?
‘I was told the French made her up,’ Atkinson contributed. ‘She wasn’t in the early legends and the French added her in.’
‘Why would the French do that?’ Barnstaple challenged.
‘Hufter,’ Thomas sneered. ‘We were all French back then anyway – that’s just like saying we made it up.’
‘If we were French, why were they called Normans, then?’
‘Everyone was called Norman, that’s why they invented surnames – cos it got too confusing.’
Erasmus banged on the desk with his board rubber. ‘Can we have a little order?’ he asked. The room fell silent, except for a few murmurings from Barnstaple, still seething at being insulted.
‘Now,’ Erasmus continued. ‘The example I had in mind is the return of King Richard – that’s been a part of the legend for as long as we can trace it back. Historically, it seems extremely unlikely. Richard spent most of his time out of the country and there’s plenty of evidence he didn’t care about the place in the slightest. Even if allow for possibility that Robin could have met the King during the siege of Nottingham Castle, it seems unlikely that standing up for the rights of English peasants would have pleased Richard. Marion is an interesting one, though. It’s widely held she was, as Atkinson pointed out, added by French-inspired romantics at roughly the same time that Guinevere was added to the legend of King Arthur, but a new school of thought has it that Marion was part of the original legends and was removed by chroniclers of the day, possibly because they shared the opinions of Heathfield’s father.’
There were a few chuckles around the room and Heathfield’s face flushed red.
‘Please, sir,’ Harrison held his arm so high Erasmus wondered at how he didn’t dislocate it.
‘Yes, Harrison,’ Erasmus prompted, expecting one of Harrison’s regular requests for the lavatory.
‘Did Robin Hood really exist?’ Harrison asked.
Erasmus sat down on the edge of his desk. ‘That’s difficult to say,’ he admitted. ‘It’s usually true that legends have at least some historical basis, but it’s very hard to tell how much of the legend is attributable to a real person.’
‘Can’t you just look up his birth certificate?’
Erasmus smiled. ‘They hadn’t started keeping them back then,’ he said. ‘But there are Robin Hoods in the records.’ He noted Harrison’s sudden look of enthusiasm. ‘They’re all years later,’ he said.
‘What about going back to the earliest version of the legend?’ Atkinson asked.
Erasmus shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The trouble with legends like Robin Hood is that they usually begin as an oral tradition. The first written stories of Robin appear at least a hundred years after the time of King John and it’s possible these left out elements, like Marion, which were added by later writers who knew some of the oral traditions. It’s also possible the original writers added some of the political material of their own time to the message.
‘Robin, we are told, robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but this was supposed to happen at a time when we’re told money wasn’t in wide circulation. Peasants were living off the land and they paid for the rights to that land by working the lands of their masters. Their masters mostly earned their keep by means of military service.’
‘So where did all the robbing come from?’ asked Atkinson.
‘Possibly from when the stories were written down. By then, the feudal system had been devastated by the Black Death, labourers were being paid to farm, and King Edward the Third was expecting to live just us as well in a country where thirty percent of the population had died in a few short years.
‘Robin Hood was the perfect tale to carry the sentiments of the people of that time, which might explain why King John is given such a poor portrayal. King Richard, by contrast, is portrayed as a great king even though he was hardly ever in the country.’
‘Sir,’ Harrison asked. ‘What’s the feudal system?’
‘I’m glad you asked that,’ Erasmus told him, ‘because that’s what we were supposed to be studying today. Now, if you’ll all turn to page 130 in your textbooks, we’ll have a look at what life was like in the Middle Ages.’
There was a general rustling of pages and Erasmus drank deeply from his lukewarm tea. In a way he was grateful for the school play – he’d never have been able to get the pupils interested in the Baron’s Revolt and Magna Carta if they weren’t already thinking about the period. That was the trouble with the curriculum, History was expected to be a dry repetition of facts: there was no real understanding to go with it. If you could put the class into one of those reconstruction villages for a week, like a mediaeval version of Big Brother, now that might help them to understand what it was like.
He opened his own battered copy of the textbook to the relevant page – oh well, time to get on with the lesson. He noticed Barnstaple was leaning over toward Harrison’s desk, his eyes intent on the smaller boy’s sandwiches. Almost unconsciously, the teacher picked up his board rubber and hurled it across the room. The projectile hit the desk within an inch of Barnstaple’s hand and bounced off towards the back of the room; the sound of the impact made both boys jump and Barnstaple, already in an imbalanced position, fell from his chair with a crash. A ripple of laughter spread across the class as Barnstaple picked himself up, his face red with embarrassment and one hand clutching his forehead.
‘Now what’s the matter?’ Erasmus asked.
‘I hit my head,’ Barnstaple replied. Erasmus summoned the boy to his desk and inspected the purple swelling just above his eye. It was nothing serious but, if it meant he could rid the class of a disruptive influence for long enough to get the other boys settled into some work, then it was an opportunity worth taking.
‘Go and see the nurse,’ he instructed the boy, ‘and don’t be too long, you’ll be making the time up tomorrow evening.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Barnstaple, thoroughly cowed, then made his way out of the classroom door. The other pupils watched him go then looked expectantly at their teacher.
‘Right,’ said Erasmus in a businesslike tone. ‘What we’re going to do today is to read the chapter on Magna Carta and then I want you to write a thousand words on what effect you think the document had on the common man. Heathfield, you can come here and distribute the exercise books.’
The ginger-haired boy made his way unhurriedly to the front of the class and took the pile of books from his teacher. Erasmus watched as each child accepted his book and turned to see what mark they had received for their homework. Atkinson was staring wistfully into the corner of the room and Erasmus followed his gaze, which was trained somewhere just above his confiscated bow.
‘We’ll never know, will we sir?’ Atkinson asked.
‘Whether Robin Hood really existed.’
‘Perhaps we will one day,’ said Erasmus and he shot a glance at the equations, just visible at the top of the board. ‘Perhaps we will.’