Say Your Lesson by Max Dunbar

After fifteen years the High Master’s door retained its power to unnerve. Generations of boys had waited outside that door, staring at the governors’ plaque and the cracks in the floor tiles with that miserable dread of which only boys are capable and whatever hilarious hoo-hah that had sent them here receding into a dim, sad mist.

They would stew in their future hells until, at some point, the gold catch on the High Master’s door would clack open and they would go to receive their punishment.

Above the High Master’s chair was a nineteenth-century pendulum clock. On the High Master’s walls were framed mementos marking the success of the men that he had made from boys. Newspaper coverage relating citations and commendations for St John’s boys in actions stretching back to the Crimea. Portraits of St John’s boys in cricket whites, some from the days of Felix, Pilch and Mynn. Copies of patents for innovations designed by St John’s boys; arrest reports from St John’s boys who had collared notorious criminals (but nothing from the boys who had become notorious criminals); old, frightening toys and strange, ungodly statuettes donated by St John’s boys who had conquered far-away civilisations; other trophies and relics from how far back. Some of these men would of course visit the school on occasion, for Rector’s Assembly or Prizes. The men who sat before the High Master’s desk now were also alumni, but they had not come for speeches or prizes.

‘It is a surprise to see you here, Mr Carstairs,’ said the High Master. ‘As I recall, you read law at Balliol, then joined a highly regarded chambers. Last year you were made a full partner. What could you possibly want from me?’

‘You will remember, sir, that soon after becoming partner I represented one of my firm’s most prestigious clients, the security firm Hadwell’s, in a libel action against a blogger who had claimed on his website that my client’s workforce were regularly engaged in violence and torture against migration detainees.’

‘I have been following the case,’ said the High Master. ‘You seem certain of success.’

‘Well, sir, it has come to light that the defence has hard evidence supporting its allegations that they can produce in court.’ Carstairs, a nervous man with his hands, picked something from the occasional table to fiddle with and dropped it in a flash as he realised what it was. He went on. ‘Their brief approached me this week with a demand to drop the case and pay his costs. I cannot drop the case for the shame of my peers, but nor can I win against such strong evidence. And so, sir, I have come to you.’

The High Master appeared to gaze into the distance – he was actually looking at the original of Walter Sickert’s Ennui, hung over the supplicants’ heads. Above his desk, the pendulum swung. At last he nodded.

‘Very well, Carstairs. I shall arrange this. Dismissed.’

Carstairs made his thanks to the High Master but did not acknowledge the other two men as he crossed the room. The gold catch clicked and clacked.

The High Master seemed to relax an octave. He looked at the man sitting in the middle of the bench.

‘Mr Blythe! I had not expected your presence. You are now, I seem to remember, a managing director of a public relations firm. I might have believed that your business had suffered from the economic mismanagement of this wretched Labour Government, but your accounts appear sound. I am therefore at something of a loss to explain your reasons for making your appointment with me.’

‘My problem is not financial, sir. Beneath my boyish and personable exterior I have long harboured a taste for sexual sadism. My whole life has been a largely successful attempt to conceal this side of my character from friends, intimates and enemies.’ Blythe ran the heel of his wrist across his stubble, an old habit when stressed. ‘Fortunately, I am wealthy enough to be able to satisfy my perversions by means of paid agencies. However, on the last occasion – I am sorry to say that there were drugs involved – I got a little carried away and the lady died.

‘The police stopped me at the river and, well, sir, it is a miracle I was even granted bail.’ Blythe watched the pendulum until the High Master spoke.

‘It will be arranged, Mr Blythe. There will be no trial, no disgrace. You are dismissed.’

Blythe rose. ‘But – how can you do something like that? How –’

‘You are dismissed, Mr Blythe, unless you are in need of an assignment of lines to reinforce the lesson.’

Blythe crossed to the door, gave the High Master one last curious, stricken look, and exited.

There was one boy left in the room.

‘Mr Upshaw – please forgive me, it is Lieutenant Upshaw now, I believe? Of all the boys that have walked these halls – generations of boys, Lieutenant Upshaw! – you are one of the very last that I would expect to return to this office in shame and need. Captain of the First Eleven! Winner of the Rector’s Medal for Valour and Promise for three consecutive terms! Sandhurst scholarship, Lieutenant Upshaw! And now I gather that you are stationed in Mesopotamia, fighting the Moslem hordes. What finer example?’

Lieutenant Upshaw didn’t say anything for a while. He had his hands over his face and he was sobbing. The pendulum swung. At last he spoke. ‘I have been implicated in the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The allegations are true.’

‘And what do you expect me to do about that, Lieutenant?’

‘Absolutely nothing. I plan to resign my commission and submit to court-martial, and I will abide to its verdict. I am here to let you know that I have failed you, and that I have failed St John’s.’

It was rare, the High Master thought, to find a disgraced alumni who actually felt remorse. Most of them – generations of boys! – came in fear, not sorrow; they came to the only man who could resolve their failings in the wider world; they came to the one man who could make their disgrace go away. There was sometimes even a grudging aspect below the fear. And why not? He had shepherded these boys into men. If they had failed, it was his failure too.

He got to his feet. ‘Well, this is a pretty fix, is it not, Lieutenant Upshaw?’

Upshaw had his face in his palms again. He did not see the High Master go to the door; but he knew the sound, even after fifteen years, was that of the lock and not the catch.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He also writes criticism for 3:AM and Butterflies and Wheels. He blogs at and tweets @maxdunbar1He lives in Manchester and can be contacted on