For generations, privileged young men have attended St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, groomed for success by the likes of Roy Straitley, the eccentric Classics teacher who has been a fixture there for more than thirty years. This year, however, the wind of unwelcome change is blowing, and Straitley is finally, reluctantly, contemplating retirement. As the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike, beginning as small annoyances but soon escalating in both number and consequence. St. Oswald's is unraveling, and only Straitley stands in the way of its ruin. But he faces a formidable opponent with a bitter grudge and a master strategy that has been meticulously planned to the final, deadly move.
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December 31, 2006
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Excerpt from Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris
If there's one thing I've learned in the past fifteen years, it's this: that murder is really no big deal. It's just a boundary, meaningless and arbitrary as all others--a line drawn in the dirt.
Like the giant no trespassers sign on the drive to St. Oswald's, straddling the air like a sentinel. I was nine years old at the time of our first encounter, and it loomed over me then with the growling menace of a school bully.
no unauthorized entry beyond this point by order
Another child might have been daunted by the command. But in my case curiosity overrode the instinct. By whose order? Why this point and not another? And most importantly, what would happen if I crossed that line?
Of course I already knew the school was out of bounds. By then I'd been living in its shadow for six months, and already that tenet stood tall among the commandments of my young life, as laid down by John Snyde. Don't be a sissy. Look after your own. Work hard, play hard. A little drink never did anyone any harm. And, most importantly, Stay clear of St. Oswald's, occasionally punctuated by a Stay bloody clear if you know what's good for you, or a warning punch to the upper arm. The punches were supposed to be friendly, I knew. All the same, they hurt. Parenting was not one of John Snyde's special skills.
Nevertheless, for the first few months I obeyed without question. Dad was so proud of his new job as Porter; such a fine old school, such a great reputation, and we were going to live in the Old Gatehouse, where generations of Porters before us had lived. There would be tea on the lawn on summer evenings, and it would be the beginning of something wonderful. Perhaps, when she saw how well we were doing now, Mum might even come home.
But weeks passed, and none of that happened. The gatehouse was a Grade 2 listed building, with tiny, latticed windows that let in hardly any light. There was a perpetual smell of damp, and we weren't allowed a satellite dish because it would have lowered the tone. Most of the furniture belonged to St. Oswald's--heavy oak chairs and dusty dressers--and next to them our own things--salvaged from the old council flat on Abbey Road--looked cheap and out of place. My dad's time was entirely taken up with his new job, and I quickly learned to be self-reliant--to make any demand, such as regular meals or clean sheets, qualified as being a sissy--not to trouble my father at weekends, and always to lock my bedroom door on Saturday nights.
Mum never wrote; any mention of her also counted as being a sissy, and after a while I started to forget what she had looked like. My dad had a bottle of her perfume hidden under his mattress, though, and when he was out on his rounds, or down the Engineers with his mates, I would sometimes sneak into his bedroom and spray a little of that perfume--it was called Cinnabar--onto my pillow and maybe pretend that Mum was watching TV in the next room, or that she'd just popped into the kitchen to get me a cup of milk and that she'd be back to read me a story. A bit stupid, really: she'd never done those things when she was home. Anyway, after a bit, Dad must have thrown the bottle away, because one day it was gone, and I couldn't even remember how she'd smelled anymore.
Christmas approached, bringing bad weather and even more work for the porter to deal with, so we never did get to have tea on the lawns. On the other hand, I was happy enough. A solitary child even then; awkward in company; invisible at school. During the first term I kept to myself; stayed out of the house; played in the snowy woods behind St. Oswald's and explored every inch of the school's perimeter--making sure never to cross the forbidden line.
I discovered that most of St. Oswald's was screened from public view; the main building by a long avenue of linden trees--now bare--which bordered the drive, and the land surrounded on all sides by walls and hedges. But through the gates I could see those lawns--mowed to banded perfection by my father--the cricket grounds with their neat hedges; the chapel with its weather vane and its inscriptions in Latin. Beyond that lay a world as strange and remote in my eyes as Narnia or Oz; a world to which I could never belong.
My own school was called Abbey Road Juniors; a squat little building on the council estate, with a bumpy playground built on a slant and two entrance gates with boys and girls written above them in sooty stone. I'd never liked it; but even so I dreaded my arrival at Sunnybank Park, the sprawling comprehensive that I was destined by postcode to attend.
Since my first day at Abbey Road I'd watched the Sunnybankers--cheap green sweatshirts with the school logo on the breast, nylon rucksacks, fag ends, hair spray--with growing dismay. They would hate me, I knew it. They would take one look at me and they would hate me. I sensed it immediately. I was skinny; undersized; a natural hander-in of homework. Sunnybank Park would swallow me whole.
I pestered my father. "Why? Why the Park? Why there?"
"Don't be a sissy. There's nothing wrong with the Park, kid. It's just a school. They're all the bloody same."
Well, that was a lie. Even I knew that. It made me curious; it made me resentful. And now, as spring began to quicken over the bare land and white buds burst from the blackthorn hedges, I looked once more at that no trespassers sign, painstakingly lettered in my father's hand, and asked myself: Whose ORDER? Why this point and not another? And, with an increasing sense of urgency and impatience: What would happen if I crossed that line?