© Cameron Mantle
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by Cameron Mantle
** = italics
Rio de Janeiro, 1973.
Many of the inhabitants of the shanty town on the hillside which overlooked the city would be dozing through the heat of the day. Certainly, there was little sign of life as the black Dodge minivan nosed its way off the tarmac of Avenue Niemeyer and on to the hard dirt track which snaked into the *favela*. The densely packed, ramshackle collection of dwellings quickly swallowed the van. Closely stacked two-, three- and four-storey buildings, thrown up with little thought for planning or safety, blocked out much of the sunlight. In the shadows, the low growl of the van’s engine was the only sound.
The vehicle had been designed to carry up to fifteen passengers but it had been modified shortly after being imported from the United States. The passenger windows had been blacked out. The bench seats had been removed and a dentist’s chair had been bolted to the floor in the rear. Behind the chair, above the headrest, was a steel framework attached to the roof, which could be lowered and raised. A man wearing a black balaclava helmet, despite the heat, sat astride the chair.
Five minutes after entering the *favela*, the driver muttered two words and the man in the back moved to the side door. The van came to a gentle halt. The side door slid silently open on well-oiled runners and the man wearing the balaclava stepped out.
In a narrow gap between two buildings a young boy was ferreting through a mound of rubbish, sifting plastic and cardboard, looking for discarded food. He ignored the van which had been positioned to block any view of the him. The man put his left arm around him, his right hand firmly covering the boy’s mouth. It was no great effort to lift the boy into the van; he was eight or nine and severely malnourished. His sudden, frantic struggles – his spindly legs arcing uselessly – troubled his captor not one jot.
As the door slid closed, the boy was already in the dentist’s chair, the fright in his eyes and his bloodless pallor enough to assure the man that he would not cry out. The driver watched passively in the rear view mirror. The man wordlessly secured the boy in the chair, using the broad leather straps which had been attached to its heavy frame – two across his legs; one around his waist; another across his chest; his wrists were secured to the arm rests; all very tight.
Satisfied, the man moved behind the chair and lowered the frame on to the boy’s head. The frame was adjustable: an exact fit was necessary for the procedure to be carried out accurately. Once it was in place, the boy could not have moved his head had he tried. As it was, he was petrified.
The whispers that circulated the *favelas*, which were used by mothers to frighten their children into good behaviour, were well known to the boy, though his unquestioning belief in them had been beginning to wane as he grew older. Now he was in no doubt: *o diabo nas sombras* – the devil in the shadows – had him.
The man, out of the boy’s sight, calmly clipped a small metal box to the frame. He flipped a switch and a green light glowed. He turned and opened a small drawer in a cabinet fixed to the side of the van. The foam inlay held a selection of needles, each seventeen centimetres long. He selected a 32-gauge hypodermic and, adjusting his position, screwed it on to the lever which protruded from the base of the box. The tip of the needle pointed directly at the back of the boy’s head.
Meticulously, the man checked the position of the frame once more. Then, he pressed the button beside the green light.
The light turned red. The lever extended. The needle tip advanced.
The procedure required absolute precision. For the needle to reach its target, it had to pass through the lambdoid suture, between the parietal bone and the occipital bone, two of the plates which, over time, fuse to give the skull its rigidity. The boy’s skull was still young.
It was always a tense moment for the man, watching the tip penetrate the skull. A small whimper escaped the boy’s lips as he felt the touch of the needle.
Curiously, there was hardly any pain; the needle had a long bevel and the 32-gauge is less than a quarter of a millimetre in width. After the initial tiny scratch, the boy was aware of nothing other than a very slight pressure.
The lever eased the needle point in to a pre-specified depth. The red light flashed and the man pressed another button. The hum of a small motor was barely audible over the noise of the van’s idling engine, but the man knew the operation was proceeding as a small glass phial at the back of the box began to fill with a nearly clear liquid.
When the liquid had risen to the correct mark on the phial, the man pressed the button again. The motor cut out. He flipped the switch on the box and the lever gradually withdrew the needle.
For the first time since the procedure had begun, the man moved to look at the boy. His dark eyes were open, but he seemingly saw nothing. The man nodded to himself. He released the framework from the boy’s head, pulling it up and away. Then he undid the straps. The boy lay immobile in the chair.
The man spoke softly. Two words. The driver acknowledged him with a nod of the head. He checked the wing mirrors and the road ahead.
The side door slid open. The alley between the buildings, where the boy had been foraging, was strewn with rubbish from overflowing dumpsters.
The man in the back glanced one way, then the other. The boy groaned softly as the man hauled his limp body from the chair. He placed him gently on a bed of discarded cardboard between two bins, where the boy curled, tucking his knees to his chest.
Then he boarded the minivan and slid shut the door. The driver moved off slowly seeking a way out of the *favela*.
The whole procedure had taken less than ten minutes.
It wouldn’t be the fall that would kill him. It would be the impact. Jack Drew knew this with utter certainty. The river in the floor of the valley ran smoothly far below like a gently winding steel ribbon. But hitting water from this height was no different to hitting solid rock: a bloody, broken death.
Hanging beneath the bridge, seventy-five meters above the water, Jack felt as good as he always did when focusing on a climb. A fresh early morning breeze whistled quietly through the girders and wires which carried the narrow roadway, two hundred meters from one side of the gorge to the other. It would have been reassuring to most people had they at least the comfort of a safety rope. Jack Drew revelled in the fact that he had none. The only thing that stopped him plunging to his death was his faith in his ability. He hung from a narrow lip of steel by the last joints of the fingers of his right hand, swinging gently.
Jack had been climbing for three years, ever since his twelfth birthday – an outing with friends on an indoor climbing wall. He had been hooked immediately: the sport appealed to his sense of independence. Of course, it was more sensible to climb in groups, but Jack had always felt held back. His natural ability had always led him to want to take greater risks than those around him. And adult supervisors would never condone the sort of risks he liked to take.
From artificial walls, he had progressed to ever more demanding ascents and, in the last year, to the most dangerous form of the sport: free-soloing. Choosing to climb without ropes or any other artificial aids seems foolish in the extreme to most people. To some climbers, however, it represents the purest form of their sport.
The only concession to his wellbeing was the lightweight Kevlar helmet he wore; though that, he recognised, would afford him no protection at all were he to lose his tenuous hold on the metal of the bridge. He wore it to avoid the discomfort of banging his head as he moved under the great structure, and because it allowed him to record his progress: a compact headcam was attached to it.
There was no question the view was worth recording. He paused to gaze up the valley towards the docks of Bristol far away in the early morning haze; then back down the river as it carved its way through the gorge on its way to the Bristol Channel.
In the last month, he had scaled the great tower on the Leigh side of the gorge, nimbly running up the massive suspension chains from the middle of the bridge – an easy ascent, for him – and sliding down the other side, then fleeing before the angry shouts of the bridge keepers as they realised what he was up to. He had still to tick off the Clifton tower, but that would keep. Today he had set himself the task not of climbing over the bridge, but under it.
The span which carried the roadway was just shy of ten metres wide, not a great distance to traverse; indeed, the most difficult part was surmounting the structure’s side rails and the wires which were installed to prevent suicides.
He had found the matrix of girders with their useful rivets a bit of an anticlimax once he had swung himself beneath the roadway. He was out of sight of anyone in authority on the bridge, and someone peering up from the road that ran alongside the river far below would not be able to raise the alarm before he had finished. He took some time to explore the way the bridge had been constructed. Brunel, he thought, would never have expected his masterpiece to have become a climbing frame.
Jack had been in Bristol for four years. His father had chosen Claymore College for the all-round education it offered and the fact that it still took boarders. He worked for the UK’s Diplomatic Service and, while he travelled between Europe and the USA for much of the year, he wanted some stability for his only son while he studied. Jack’s mother had died when he was very young. While not excelling in his academic work, Jack was doing well enough and had few worries about the exams he would sit next year.
The school provided many diversions beyond study, among which was Mr Campbell’s climbing club and Jack was an enthusiastic member, often helping the teacher organise outings to the great gorge which carved its way along the western edge of the city and across which the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanned. The Avon Gorge drew climbers from all over the country with its routes of varying difficulty. Jack had successfully tackled all its recognised climbs with the club; then he had revisited them, alone and, increasingly, without ropes. There were teachers in the school who suspected he was breaking one of its strictest rules, but so far no one had caught him in the act. And the climb videos he often uploaded never showed his face.
Now, as the taut muscles in his right forearm and shoulder trembled slightly under his full weight, Jack was more concerned with the risk of being caught than with the inherent risks of free-soloing, especially on such a straightforward stretch as that afforded by the bridge. But this early on a Sunday morning, the chances of being seen were remote. He swung his legs upwards to hook a heel over a rivet and dragged himself on to the flat narrow surface of a beam. Gulls soared below him, oblivious of his presence.
He shifted his weight and shoved himself towards the tapered triangular gap created by three converging girders. He estimated the distance between his current position and the steel stanchion which was his intended destination on the far side of the bridge. A short jump would carry him to the ledge from which he should be able to haul himself through the gap and up on to the barriers which guarded the roadway above him.
As he moved, a sudden pain stabbed his right calf. Despite the fitness training he put himself through, cramp was always a threat given the contortions that climbing imposes on the body. He sat for a moment, straddling a beam, and stretched his leg to ease the pain, before reaching for the gap to squeeze through. He managed to get his head between the girders but, due to his orientation, his shoulders struck the rough edges. The opening was narrower than he had thought. Still he was not worried. He would have to traverse around his intended route and come up five metres further along.
Then the cramp returned.
For the first time he had a feeling of disquiet. Not about his safety; about being stuck, and caught. With the leg useless, he could not attempt the traverse. For a few seconds, he pictured the commotion on the bridge as it came to the notice of the keepers that they had a fifteen-year-old boy hanging below the roadway. There would be sirens as the police and fire crews turned up; ambulances, too. The bridge would be closed. The few people out this early would gather to gawp, pointing at him, as the rescue rolled into action. Then there would be all the hassle afterwards. He drove from his mind the image of Dr Rawlins’ oak-panelled study. The Headmaster could be a forbidding man. Jack nearly panicked before regaining his resolve. If going back was not an option, he would have to go forwards.
Again he addressed the narrow gap. Head through, he strained once more to push his shoulders past the steel opening. No joy. He paused to take a breath, gritted his teeth and twisted his right shoulder. There was a soft pop as the head of the humerus eased out of its socket. It was uncomfortable rather than painful but, as he had anticipated, the dislocation of the joint allowed his upper body to squeeze – just – through the triangular hole. He wriggled on his stomach and inched his way forward. The rest was easy enough despite the cramp. He dragged himself on to the ledge just beneath the roadway. He paused to align his damaged shoulder, then leant it against the metal of the bridge. Putting the joint back in was always a little more uncomfortable than popping it out. He pushed hard against unyielding structure and let out a gasp as the ball slid back into place. He articulated the joint to make sure it was working properly before completing his climb, pleased with the way it had gone.
The trick with the shoulder was a legacy of a fall he had had when he was five years old. His father had sought advice at the time and the medics had offered a range of options to remedy the injury; however, Jack had discovered that he was well able to relocate the shoulder at will. It never gave him undue pain nor inconvenienced him. In fact, he had used it to his advantage on more than one occasion. In his early years at Claymore College, he had used it to get out of rugby and the other team games he disliked so much. By the end of the second year, the games masters had given up trying to recruit him to their teams. And he stuck to the solitary sports he enjoyed.
Perhaps the diversion of the shoulder distracted him; he would never know. But, when he eased himself through the wires above the barrier and dropped to the walkway which ran along the side of the carriageway without checking, a stern voice startled him.
“Jack Drew! Got you!”
He spun round. The red face of Mr Pincott, the Deputy Headmaster, was suffused with rage. “What, in the name of all that is holy, are you about?” Next to Pincott stood Mr Charles, one of the oldest masters at the school. The two men were old friends and would often take a constitutional on a Sunday morning. Evidently today they had decided to stroll through Leigh Woods. The school was barely a half mile from the bridge.
There was no point in trying to deny it: they’d watched him emerge from beneath the bridge. Rather unwisely, Jack tried levity: “Just hanging around, sir.”
Mr Pincott seemed about to explode; then he reined in his fury and said, coldly, “Come with me, boy. We’ll see whether Dr Rawlins views this episode with anything approaching humour.”
Jack walked behind the two masters, stretching the cramp from his leg.
“Gated? For how long?”
“Forever,” Jack told his friend, Thompson Earnshaw.
Thompson looked at Jack. “Forever’s a long time, pal,” he drawled. He spoke with an east coast American accent; he was from Vermont, New England.
“Well, it might as well be forever,” Jack responded, eyes downcast. “End of term.”
“That *is* forever. What did Rawlins say?”
“The usual stuff: ?Danger, blah, blah, blah. Not what’s acceptable from a student at Claymore; I expected more from you...? You know the routine.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Could have been worse, though.”
“Oh, he mentioned parental involvement.”
“My guess,” said the rather astute Thompson, “is that he won’t want to admit to your father that the school let you get into such a perilous position.”
Jack had been given a hard time by the Headmaster; he’d been given a second dressing down by his Housemaster, Mr Chivers, who was now under explicit instructions from the Head to “keep a very keen eye on young Drew”. Jack knew that to put one more foot out of line might seriously jeopardise his career at Claymore College. The rules were there for a reason. Oh, God; now he was thinking like a teacher!
They were an odd couple, Jack and Thompson. Thomo, as he was called by nearly everyone, wore his hair in tight cornrows and he had a disarmingly bright smile which displayed perfect teeth – “Unlike you Brits,” he would say when people complimented him on them. This happened a lot; he put it down to his out-going personality and sense of fun.
Jack towered over his friend. He stood at a shade over six feet and was lithe and lean. He had rather a shy smile and he was topped off by a shock of very red hair.
They were in the old school hall eating supper together along with a good smattering of other boys and girls from various years throughout the school. There was nothing formal about the Sunday evening meal: students came and went as they chose. The only requirement was that they were back in House by half past nine; the younger ones earlier.
Both boys still had a little homework to be readied for handing in tomorrow; they were planning to be back in time to finish it off. Jack knew Mr Chivers would be looking out for him.
It was strange that two boys of such differing character should become best friends. Jack’s slight introversion might have clashed with the big Thomo personality, but they had met and bonded in their first year at Claymore College.
As the school year entered the final term before the summer break, the air of industry lifted a little. It had always been the practice at Claymore to give its students as wide an education as possible and the last term of the year was one that everyone looked forward to. Most of the teachers ran extracurricular activities, many far removed from the subjects they taught. In the classrooms during this time teachers devised activities and projects to stretch students’ abilities; to expose them to the wider world. But it was outside the classroom that things really became interesting. There was always a rush to sign up for the most popular or novel options.
Trips last year had included gliding over the Mendip Hills or piloting a light aircraft or a hot air balloon. Groups had gone to the Castle Coombe circuit to drive single-seater racing cars. Football teams from each year had travelled to Italy to train at the San Siro with the coaches and players of AC Milan; afterwards, there had been a visit to the Ferrari Factory. And sport had featured closer to home: golf at some of the country’s top courses; Wimbledon for the tennis; Lord’s for a test match. The joke that the teachers got more out of it than the students was not quite a joke.
The boys had discussed at length what they would do, given the opportunity. Now, it looked to Jack that he would have no chance to take advantage of any of the special offers.
“Rawlins was quite clear about that,” he told Thomo. “Gated means gated. Whatever happens, the summer term just got boring for me.”
“Jack? You are to work with Angelica, please. Sarah and Alice, please. Chen with Martin; thank you. Wallis...” Mr Watts peered over his glasses, searching for Wallis. Jack Drew was fending off the surreptitious poking that Thompson was inflicting on him. There was a broad grin on Thomo’s face; he loved an opportunity to rib his friend. Mr Watts had just paired Jack for the history term project with Angelica Vega.
“You got the Vega-bomb,” Thomo hissed. Jack was aware that a number of his classmates were looking at him, some with ill-disguised envy. He fought the urge to look over at Angelica Vega; something told him the right reaction was cool detachment. Not that he felt cool detachment. As soon as he had heard the pairing, his heart had begun pounding; he knew that he was going to blush the same colour as his hair; he kept his head down.
Angelica Vega was the undisputed beauty of Year 10; hell, she was the most strikingly attractive girl in the whole school. She was tall; but, rather than gangly, lissom, was the adjective which best conveyed her gracefulness. She had the air of confidence which comes with beauty. Her jet hair fell below her shoulders; she had warm hazel eyes and a complexion kissed by the Mediterranean sun of her native Andalucía. Her perfect English was given a hint of the exotic by her Castilian lisp. Every time she said “yes”, for example, it came out on the tip of her tongue, “yeth”. She’d rarely spoken to Jack before, let alone said, “Yeth,” to him.
When she and her group of friends passed along a school corridor they invariably turned heads. There were usually four or five of them together at a time. As a group, they excelled academically, were dedicated to their studies and competed to outdo each other in the classroom. Across all disciplines the girls, and especially Angelica, shone brightly.
Now, Angelica Vega had been paired with Jack Drew, from the Realm of Geek. He was only too aware that his distinctive interests and rather gawky appearance led some of the kids in the school to label him the Earl of Nerddom (though, not to his face; he was clearly large enough and fit enough to look after himself). He preferred to think of himself as self-contained and self-sufficient. Anyway, he had friends, he reminded himself; not a lot, but they made up in loyalty for lack of number.
He tried really hard not to glance over at Angelica; however, in the tail of his eye he thought he could see one of her friends giving her the Thomo treatment. He briefly considered asking Mr Watts to review the pairings; of course, he’d have to do that after the lesson...when Watts suddenly snapped: “Don’t ask again, Freddy! The pairings are set in stone. You’re with Jenny for a reason. A lot of thought has gone into this.” He waved the sheet of paper from which he had been reading. “The only way I’d consider revising my carefully considered plan is if one of you spontaneously combusted.
“Now, that’s all of the pairs.” He flicked a switch on his laptop and the whiteboard at the front of the classroom lit up. It showed a slide which detailed the task that lay ahead. Each year, Mr Watts announced the subject for the school’s history prize; each year, competition for the prize was stiff.
“We are experimenting this year with the history prize. We have decided to link up with the careers department. Mr Pincott suggested that, with work experience week fast approaching, it might be a good idea to have you all thinking about the things you want to do when you leave Claymore and go off into the big wide world. Professions, occupations, jobs: those are your subjects this year. The history of whatever career or occupation you want to pursue or think you want to pursue. We hope you will produce a full report of the history of your chosen occupation. Any questions?
Jack had not given a great deal of thought to his future, at least not the work-related part of his future. He had plenty of half-formed plans and ambitions, most of which involved travelling to far-off locations to take on some of the iconic climbs he had seen online. In particular, he wanted to visit Monument Valley in Arizona. He briefly considered the possibility of trying to persuade Angelica that climbing was a viable occupation in England, before dismissing the notion.
“I don’t mind, Chen,” said Mr Watts. He paused as Chen elaborated. “I suppose so – footballers are professionals; they’re called professional footballers, so, yes, I suppose a history of professional football would fit the criteria. Helen?”
“What about singers, sir?”
“Are we talking operatic or pop?”
“I’m not sure there is an officially defined career path for rap singers...” Mr Watts knew he would have to field questions – both genuine and mischievous – from his class, and did so with good humour. “But I am sure the genre has a rich and interesting history.”
The old hall comfortably seated the whole school for lunch. Nearly six hundred boys and girls sat on benches arranged either side of long refectory tables. Dr Rawlins and the senior teachers occupied a dais at one end and occasionally peered down over their charges as they ate. Traditionally, this had been the way of the school since it had been founded by a Scottish merchant who had settled in the port city of Bristol after accumulating a vast fortune importing guano in the mid-nineteenth century. Archibald Claymore’s bust, rendered in stern grey marble, stared sightlessly across proceedings from its plinth at the far end. As usual, a splash of Tipp-Ex had been added to his skull by some scurrilous but unknown pupil to represent the substance he’d made his money from.
Things had moved on since Archibald’s time. The Dickensian atmosphere that the hall risked conveying at mealtimes was offset by the sparkling cafeteria which had been installed at great expense some years previously. It offered a range of foods to entice and satisfy all tastes, though the emphasis nowadays, post-Jamie Oliver, was for the wholesome and healthy. No matter: youthful cravings were satisfied in nearby Clifton village, where a number of establishments tailored their offerings to those students who needed sugar, fat and salt.
Jack and Thompson sat under one of the high stained-glass windows at the end of one of the tables. They had both chosen the gammon, and ate it with potatoes and beans. Jack had arranged to meet Angelica after lunch, when they both had some spare time, to discuss their approach to the project they had been set.
As the mealtime drew to a close, Dr Rawlins rang a hand bell and silence fell over the hall.
“A few notices,” he began. He was tall and peered down over his half rim spectacles. He informed the students of various events that were due to take place in the school and re-emphasised some of the rules relating to behaviour in the village. “Finally, may I remind everyone that the school is hosting a lecture later this week by the owner of the Wolfenbach Clinic, which has recently opened a new branch here in Bristol. Dr Paulo Romano has kindly agreed to discuss his life in medicine with members of the Sixth Form. This is by way of an introduction ahead of the tour of the new facility which is due to take place on Saturday. I am told it is one of the most sophisticated medical establishments anywhere in the world. I urge any students considering a medical career to grasp this opportunity. I’m sure it will be highly illuminating. I believe there are a few places left. Please sign up with Mr Pincott by tomorrow afternoon. It would be nice to have a full house for Dr Romano.”
Jack had never heard of the Wolfenbach Clinic, nor had he heard of its owner. He began to zone out as, one after another, teachers followed Dr Rawlins to make their own announcements. He idly chased a leftover piece of ham round his plate.
He was startled to hear his name called out from the dais. “Is Jack Drew here?” It was Mr Porter, Head of PE.
“Sir?” he said, self-consciously raising his hand.
Mr Porter spotted him. “I’ll see you at the staffroom directly after lunch, if I may.” Jack nodded at the request that was really an instruction.
He shrugged at Thomo’s whispered enquiry. “I dunno,” he said, wondering what else he might have done wrong.
There were a few more requests from teachers, then Mr Pincott stood. “Owing to a rather serious incident, the bridge is out of bounds until further notice, except to the Sixth Form. The keepers have been informed and will report any breach of this rule.” There was no need for him to mention Jack by name; the gossip had gone round the school after his latest escapade. To his intense discomfort, most heads in the hall turned in his direction.
Leaving the hall, he headed for the school library where he was due to meet Angelica, before remembering he had a more pressing engagement with Mr Porter. He sighed and headed for the staffroom.
He had had his fair share of trouble at Claymore College over the years. Usually, it had been for minor breaches of the rules. His latest transgression had been his most serious. He was unable to think of anything he might have done to incur the wrath of Mr Porter and was relieved and surprised at what the master had to say.
“Jack, thank you for coming. I have a favour to ask of you.”
Mr Porter was proud of all the school’s sporting achievements. His staff ran competitive rugby and football teams; his cricketers, though struggling in recent seasons, were beginning to develop nicely; some of the hockey players at the top of the school were good enough to play at county level. However, he reserved his greatest passion for tennis. This was not lawn tennis, a game he secretly despised. His enthusiasm was for real tennis, the forerunner of the game played at Wimbledon, the game which had developed and thrived since medieval times across Europe. It had gone into a rapid and ignoble decline over the course of the twentieth century and now only a few courts remained in England. One of them, and the reason why Mr Porter had first come to the school, had been built by Archibald Claymore when Claymore College had been founded. It was tennis that the teacher wanted to discuss with Jack.
“Got to keep this between ourselves, Jack, but we’ve got a bit of a VIP coming to the school in a day or so. You’ve heard of Sir Michael Brody, of course?”
Jack nodded, a frown on his face. Sir Michael Brody was one of the school’s most famous ex-pupils, and one of its most successful. He had founded the advertising agency *In Yer Face* in the 1980s. It had grown rapidly to become one of the largest businesses of its kind in the world. From there, Sir Michael had expanded into various high-profile areas of industry with a seemingly golden touch. The *In Yer Face* brand covered banking, telecoms, retail and much more besides. And his burning self-belief had led Sir Michael to front all his campaigns. His was one of the most recognisable faces in the country – all teeth and tousled blond hair.
His great success had led the school to quietly forget the fact that he had been forced to leave Claymore ignominiously in the 1970s: something to do with French matron, according to school mythology.
“He’s due in Bristol on business shortly and he wants to play the old court. He’s asked me to provide a suitable opponent and you sprang to mind. What do you think?”
“What does he play off, sir?”
“He tells me that he was off 30ish before he had an enforced lay off. That should put him on a par with you.”
Tennis was a game that operated a handicap system which meant, in theory, that players of any standard could play each other and still have a decent match. Jack, who had taken up the game with some enthusiasm when he had first come to Claymore College, was a very promising player whose handicap was 32 and falling.
Mr Porter went on. “The boys in the Sixth are too strong for him, but you should give him a good game. He learned to play when he was here as a pupil and wants to revisit his youth, I think.”
“It’ll give you a bit of match practice before we play Ambleside.” Jack was one of the players that Mr Porter was taking to Oxford for a match at the end of the week. “Sir Michael wants as little fuss as possible; wants to keep the whole thing low key. If you’re happy, I’ll go ahead and fix it. I’ll let you know the arrangements once they’re settled.”
Jack wandered off to the library pondering this latest development, secretly glad he had something to tell Angelica which might impress her. Then he cautioned himself: she might not like sport. “Tread carefully,” he muttered.
He had expressed his concern over his lack of ideas for the history project to Thomo during the chemistry lesson that had followed history earlier in the morning.
“Don’t sweat it,” Thomo had told him. “Just go along with whatever she says she wants to do. You pretend that – miraculously – whatever her ambitions are, yours are the same. You’ve instantly got something in common.”
Jack was dubious. “And if she wants to be a ballerina?”
“Little bit sexist,” Thomo laughed. “Unlikely, though, I’d say. Anyway, *you* could want to be a ballet dancer.”
“Do I look like I’ve got the body for ballet?”
“The best ones are tall and thin.”
In the event, it turned out Angelica wanted nothing more than to be a doctor. “Surgery, like my father,” she told Jack, when he asked.
Jack whistled. “Really?” he said. “Same.” The thought had never entered his head; however, what could be so hard about pretending? It wasn’t as though he would have to go through with it; just some research and they could put together a decent report for the history project.
He had been nervous about working with her but, as it transpired, they found that their different approaches to research complemented each other. Angelica was meticulous: she was systematic and recorded everything, indexing her research on a spreadsheet and colour-coding it to provide her with an effective visual record. Jack’s was a more scattergun technique. He darted from one idea to another, one webpage to the next, following hyperlinks, then creating chains of thought that took him to unforeseen places. He returned his results to Angelica who added them to her records. Soon after they set to their task, they began to feel at ease with one another and, though it concerned the work they were doing, their conversation quickly became light and lost any self-consciousness either of them had felt.
“Another nasty one coming through,” he warned Angelica. “Graphic content warning.” Somehow, they had fallen into competition, each one trying to outdo the other with gruesome facts about surgery down the ages. “This is one that the Aztecs used; and you can really feel it in your bones...”
There was a pause as Jack pinged the information to Angelica’s machine; she opened the attachment. “Wow! I was just looking at a site which describes this procedure but from the twentieth century. This is from five hundred years ago. It is called medullary fixation and nowadays they use stainless steel. They insert a rod into each end of the broken bone and pull the ends together. The Aztecs did the same thing but with wooden pegs.”
“Yeah, and no anaesthetic.”
“I’ve got another from South America. Stitches.”
“Okay, what did they do?”
“If the wound was too big to heal naturally, they pinched the edges together with their fingers and then applied a termite to it. The termite bites the wound either side, closing it. Then they twist the body off the termite and leave the wound to heal.”
“Yeah. They do that in Africa, I’ve heard.” Jack had read about it somewhere.
“I’ve got some data on the earliest forms of surgery. Believe it or not, Stone Age people were doing it. Amputations. I’ve got a photo of a cave painting which shows figures with fingers missing. Some place in France. The archaeologists reckon they could be for frostbite or even punishments. But this is something like 30,000 years ago.”
“Jeez. What sort of instruments must they have used?”
Angelica was less fazed by the thought of the suffering that must have gone on before pain relief techniques were developed. “I would guess a piece of flint with a sharp edge, used like a chisel.”
Jack cringed inwardly. “And no anaesthetic,” they both said together. He gritted his teeth and continued his trawl of the horrors and miracles that made up the history of surgery. Some of the images he was turning up were difficult to view – blood, bits of bone visible, organs being cut up – but, he reminded himself, he did have the compensation of working with Angelica.
Over the next couple of days, Angelica kept Jack at it. Her determination and commitment to the project were impressive. He found he was enjoying the work as much as he enjoyed her company.
She reviewed much of the information he uncovered and pointed him in other directions she felt might be fruitful. She encouraged him to adopt her own methods of recording the data he uncovered. This was fine, and it taught him some extra skills, for which he was grateful. He surprised himself at the ease with which he settled into the partnership with the Vega-bomb, as Thomo insisted on calling her. Ordinarily, he would find the situation awkward, to say the least.
But, as he half grumbled to Thomo in Burns House, he had other commitments and she was taking up a lot of his time.
“Jack,” said Thomo. “Don’t say it like it’s a burden. May I remind you that you are working with Angelica Vega. Alone. For long periods. There’s a lot of people in the school that’d happily trade places with you.” There was a glint of humour in Thomo’s eyes. “Me included. It’s no hardship sitting next to her.”
“She’s a bit of a slave driver,” he said, still protesting, though he knew his friend was right: he was enjoying the envious looks he got from some of his schoolmates.
“Stick with it, man. You never know where these things might go. You might impress her.”
What little spare time Jack had to himself he spent on the tennis court pushing himself to develop his fitness and hone his game. He approached all matches with the attitude to win; the one against Sir Michael Brody, scheduled for the next day, would be no exception.
Despite the request from Mr Porter to keep the fixture quiet, Jack had told Thomo who was quite excited about it. He had, through his friendship with Jack, developed a liking for the game. It appealed to his American sense that everything in England was ancient and therefore to be venerated. Though he didn’t play himself, he spent a lot of time watching Jack play. He was looking forward to seeing the famous old boy on court.
“The other thing is,” Jack told him, instinctively lowering his voice, “I’ve got to get another climb in.”
Thompson was suddenly serious. “Don’t be a jerk,” he said. “You’re gated. You’ll probably get expelled if they catch you.”
“Yeah, I know all that, but when urge is on you...”
Thompson looked at Jack sharply. “When?”
“I’m going to slip out later today.”
“You’re a bloody idiot, you know that? You’ve got a perfectly good climbing wall in the gym –”
“It’s not the same,” Jack insisted.
“Don’t come crying to me when you get caught.”
“Or when you fall off.”