'Your shout, Buttons,' he said.
That was fair enough. Frank, who is the most recklessly generous man I've ever met, was already six outings ahead of me at least, but I didn't like being called Buttons - which struck me as a very silly name - in front of someone who wants me to be Comus.
'Button,' I said.
'OK,' said Frank. 'Button. Why are you called that anyway?'
I explained that, as a child, I'd had an explosive temper and my sister, Bobo, had nicknamed me this after the Little Green Button Man, a character in a children's book, who, if he didn't get his way, flew into a rage, spinning like a top. I'd been the same, I said, turning plum red if thwarted and smashing up my quarters.
'Must have stood you in good stead at Winchester,' said Frank, 'and later in the SBS. Small wonder that you've shaped up better than your near-contemporary the Prince of Wales.'
It was perceptive of Frank, I think, to twig that the difference between Wales and me (my refusal to indulge in mawkish introspection or, when love dies and everything ends, to embark on self- pitying vendettas) was down to the fact that whereas he'd been bullied at school I, for the most part, had duffed up others.
Equally, and unlike Wales's case, my father - a sweet man who had wanted to be a piano player or a soft- shoe dancer on the Scottish halls - had been no match for my filthy temper. I never, I think, humiliated him in front of others, though I did defy him once in the matter of schools, and in front of Sir Basil Smallpiece, the Chairman of Cunard. One morning, I was invited to visit my father in the billiards room, where he and Sir Basil were discussing shipping routes.
'William, isn't it?' he said. 'I'm your father. Here's a cheque. Now then.
Schools. I'd like you to go to Gordonstoun, which, as you know, I attended.
All right with you?'
'Certainly not,' I said. 'I've decided to go to Winchester.'
'Of course, of course,' my father said. 'Tell them to send the bill to me.'
And so I went to Winchester, where, to my disappointment, I discovered that bullying was not encouraged. Don't get me wrong. How Winchester gained its reputation for academic excellence I'll never know. Prowess at games was everything (I was constantly in hot water for mobbing up Hopper Pot, the cricket competition; never once for idleness in class), but first-year swots were not applauded on the whole for beating up senior boys behind the cycle shed - which, it seemed to me, would be the amusing thing to do.
Not on my own, of course. In the first week I had the foresight to pal up with Grafftey-Smith, a startlingly mature boy who, at the age of 13, sang basso profundo in the choir and excelled at boxing.
Boxing was taken by ex-PTI 'Jumper' Cross, who had been middleweight champion of the Navy and who, if you ask me, rather enjoyed giving the prettier boys a helping hand with the vaulting-horse ('Over you go, little 'ornsby') and inviting them to box him as hard as they could amidships. No harm done, I think. At that age you take things in your stride, and we were all in love, in any case, with Virginia Mayo and Gloria Grahame. That said, PTI 'Jumper' Cross picked quite the wrong sparring partner in Grafftey-Smith.
'Right, Mr Grafftey-Smith, Sir,' said 'Jumper' Cross, up on his toes and dancing round the gym in an exaggerated Ali-shuffle. ' 'it me, Sir] 'It me anywhere you like] 'It me 'ere in the bread-basket, Sir - gor strewth bloody hell]'
Grafftey-Smith had levelled 'Jumper' Cross with a bolo punch that would have knocked a police horse bandy. I'd seen enough. I palled up on the spot with Grafftey- Smith, and thereafter, we double-teamed older boys behind the cycle shed and ran into library, where we took the prefects' trousers down and toasted them like muffins in front of the fire.
'They weren't expecting that,' I said to the assembled company at Scribes, noticing, out of the corner of my eye, that Isabelle, who wants me to be Comus, was breathing somewhat irregularly and moving backwards and forwards in her seat. 'What's the matter with her?' I said.
'She likes the bullying,' said Frank. 'Boys suspended upside down like muffins on a fork. No doubt she enjoyed a private education. So, you only toasted a few prefects?'
'Of course,' I said. 'No fun victimising a doe-eyed junior half your size.
What could be funnier than this, however? You corner a swell, who, by keeping his nose clean and empowered by some medieval statute, has just acquired the privilege, on Hatch Thoke, of walking on the grass in Foricus Court, and, having packed him in a laundry-skip - leave it out, Isabelle - you toboggan him down a stairwell.
'His brain drops out, you see; order, hierarchy, regularity - none of it will ever make sense again. At best, he'll acquire a sense of humour, wearing a red nose and participating in a skit for Comic Relief; at worst, he'll become a self- dramatising wimp, playing the cello and, when love fails, parading his grief in public. I, on the other hand, having been a bully . . .'
'Can we go home?' said Isabelle. 'Please.'
How could she be so insensitive? Couldn't she see that I was in mourning for my baby still? That, a year and a half on, I dreamt continuously of her witty infidelities, her insolent unconcern; still missed her small schemes and nursery tears, her little calculations.
'Oh my God, I miss her so]' I cried. 'How could she have done it? I'll take a terrible revenge, I'll do such things, I'll . . .'
'Your shout, Buttons,' said Frank.
'Button,' I said.
'Of course. Button. Anything you say. Pardon me for breathing.'
Frank went to Radley, of course.Reuse content