– II –
The silver, hearse-like Mercedes rumbled along Devon’s leafy byways that glorious September afternoon, hurtling the twelve-year-old boy inside it towards his new boarding school and the adventure of a lifetime.
Had he known he would be thrust into the middle of an ancient treasure hunt, he might have asked to be sent away earlier. But how can anyone, in fact, ever know they are about to play an important role in history?
For the moment his thoughts and wild imagination remained unkindled. He was conscious of nothing more than the last of the summer heat that stubbornly held on and what the others would make of him, especially as he was burdened with the rather antiquated name of Chester. And yet everyone had always preferred to call him by his surname, Bentley, and he hoped that would continue.
Bentley was sharper than he looked, which was ordinary, apart from his height. He had kind eyes and a genuinely friendly smile. He was tall but not hugely built, possessing a slender yet strong physique. Bentley should have been beastly overweight with all he put away, but his metabolism and over active mind quickly burnt off the excess. His nose was a little odd though, probably a bit of French in him while Mother Nature had brushed back his hair, permanently fixing it into what would have been the envy of the other boys, had it not been for the piece sticking up at the back like an antenna.
The narrow rural roads, swallowed up by ancient hedgerows, ran all over the county like a rabbit warren, leading travellers into a hidden wonderland that even Alice couldn’t have imagined. Villages, country pubs, modest farms and grand estates were all tucked out of sight and off the radar. This was a part of the world where people came to hide.
Although Bentley was clueless as to where his destination was on the map, he did know that he was going to a life he could not have envisaged no matter how hard he tried. He had been told it was ‘special’ and a ‘privilege’ but initially he thought it was little more than a punishment for badly behaved children. It was rumoured that Buckland House School offered an ‘Edwardian’ education, with all of its discipline. Bentley hoped that would not include a dose of bygone brutality. Only time would tell.
If the past, as some writer his father would always quote, was ‘a foreign country’, then boarding school was another world and he was about to get his first taste of it, whether he liked it or not.
Mother studied the road surface like a professional driver and drove like one. She seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing there was no vehicle coming in the opposite direction as she swung round the blind corners. Bentley knew it was dangerous and at times he was convinced they wouldn’t make it at all.
His mother possessed lucid, silver eyes and clear cut features and her elegant grey hair flowed in the speeding wind. Her pearl earrings looked as if they were a permanent part of her, and her larger than average diamond ring was matched by a man-sized watch. She was an original classic.
The piano music that filled the car was soothingly familiar, and once the dangerous corner had been taken he tried to relax back into his seat.
Mother sat silently at the steering wheel, her eyes fixed straight ahead. He knew the signs.
“Erik Satie, mother?” enquired Bentley, referring to the melancholic tunes, keen to make her happy.
“Ah! Chester! We’ll make a sophisticate of you yet, just lacking a little practicality in the world of business. You certainly have my side, only missing your father’s now. Let’s see if this new school can help out, hey?”
He couldn’t remember the number though, “Number Five?”
“Number Six, but never mind. Some day you’ll remember my favourite piece.” And with that little flare of conversation now at an end she returned to her driving.
Whenever she listened to piano music she became another person. Normally she would bound along to the singing of Diana Ross and the Supremes, but when life was about to take a turn she would come down from the clouds and immerse herself in profound bouts of reflection. The last time Bentley had heard her listening to Satie’s Six Gnossiennes in the car she had been en route to the vet’s to have the dog put down.
Bentley’s thick-fleck tweed jacket, crisp white collar and salt and pepper flannel trousers made him feel like an uncomfortable country gent. His Oxford leather shoes were stiff, making his feet rigid. All he knew was that he felt different. He was a child growing up in the early eighties, and unsurprisingly it was no longer the done-thing to dress like a pencil-moustached major from a forties black and white movie. Despite feeling entirely out of place, he was about to enter a setting where his new attire would immediately blend in, a place where time had seemingly stood still since the funeral of Queen Victoria.
Bentley sat bolt-upright and tightened his blue-brown regiment-striped tie one last time. A loose tie was as uncouth as yawning with your mouth full of breakfast, or so he had been told.
The car slowed at a grassy crossroads where discreet black and white poles signed the way. It lurched right and entered a dark area of densely covered road before being engulfed in sunlight. They passed the cluster of hamlet buildings which constituted Filleigh Parish, and Bentley could now see the moss-mottled gate pillars ahead. He knew the view that awaited him on the other side as he had already visited the school briefly, but it would still impress him. What he didn’t know was how he would feel when it was time to sleep. He would have to bunk up in a dormitory this time and not bed down in the familiar comfort of his own room.
The car crossed the threshold of the stone gateway, rippled across the cattle grid and crackled over the thin sprinkling of gravel that covered the driveway. There was no turning back now.
Bentley’s stomach somersaulted. He took in an instinctive deep breath as if he had just jumped overboard and had to swim for his life. But what worried him most was not beginning a new life, but the reason why he had to start a new school in the first place. After all, he was only coming for the last year of prep-school. Who came for just one year, and the final year at that? People were bound to ask questions. He prayed no one would find out. Bentley hated having to be the only one carrying a secret, but it was a secret that had to be kept.