Sam Arthur Tack knew that he was on the threshold of an adventure: the biggest adventure of his life. In fact it was his first adventure, being as he was only twelve years old. He wasn’t to know just how dark and dangerous his adventure would be, but he was still close to tears.
“Be brave, son,” said his father.
His mother had tears rolling down both cheeks. “You make sure you write,” she said. “As soon as you get there.”
“I can’t, though, I—”
“As best you can, love. Draw a picture.”
“I will.” Sam’s voice was a cracked whisper and his lips were wobbling.
“It’s an opportunity,” said his mother. Her voice was swerving and shaking too: she tried hard to steady it. “If anything goes wrong, I want you to promise me—”
“Nothing will go wrong,” said his father. “He’s only off to school. Now, where’s that pound I gave you?”
“In my pocket.”
“You buy a sandwich when you get to Exeter. We’re going to miss you, son.” He shook his son’s hand. “Good luck. Good-bye.”
The train should have left then, to avoid further embarrassment. But trains never leave conveniently and this one was already six minutes late due to a mix-up over staff in the buffet car. The sad farewell had a little while yet to run. Sam rested
his chin on the window of the carriage door and let his hands disappear into two long blazer sleeves. He was wearing brand-new clothes: jacket, cap, shorts, shoes, all of them too big. The only thing that fitted him was the black-and-gold striped tie, which roped in an oversized gray shirt collar. He pushed the window a little lower, and everyone tried to think of something to say.
It was lucky for one and all that just at this moment a fat boy, in the same unmistakable school colors—the black and gold of a bee—should cross the platform lugging a well-stocked briefcase, plus various parcels.
“Darling, look!” said Mrs. Tack. “A Ribblestrop blazer!”
It was true. The boy was wearing the very same garment as her son: the same vivid stripes that caused the eye to jar slightly as if a mild hallucination was taking place.
“Hello. Are you Ribblestrop?” said Mr. Tack.
The fat boy looked up. He was breathing heavily. “Yes, I am,” he said. “Jacob Ruskin, I’m a second year—I thought I’d missed this train!” He had a cheery voice and was full of beaming confidence. “Can I get in here? Is this your boy? I say, a new recruit!”
“This is Sam.”
“I thought I’d missed this train. I’ll just—”
“Watch out!” cried Mr. Tack.
The boy yanked open the door and Sam immediately fell on top of him. His parents watched as their son’s two bare knees smacked onto the concrete platform and the new school cap, grabbed at and scrabbled for, rolled between platform and train.
There was a moment of silence.
“I’m sorry,” said the fat boy. “I didn’t realize he was leaning—I thought he was . . . oh Lord. Is he all right?”
“Blast it,” said Mr. Tack. Mr. Tack was lowering himself painfully and was staring into the dark space under the train.
“Nobody wears those caps,” said the fat boy. “I wore mine once for the school photo: I couldn’t tell you where it is now. I say, your son’s very brave . . . Do you need a handkerchief? Look . . .”
The boy climbed up into the carriage and offered Sam, who’d staggered to his feet, a chubby little hand.
“What a gaffe. Sam, do you need a hand up?”
“His knees are bleeding,” said Mrs. Tack.
“Excuse me,” said a voice.
“I think I . . .”
Sam was more worried about the fact that his left eye had hit the fat boy’s head when he fell, and he now felt as dizzy as if he’d been punched. There was a throbbing in his skull and the station was swimming.
“I’ll get it, Sam,” said his father. “I’m worried this blasted train will set off and—”
“Excuse me!” said the voice again. It was pitched high but had a strange grating sound under the shrillness. “Excuse me please, do you mind? What’s that? No, no—I can’t hear you . . . Could you . . .” It was an elderly woman: severe, tall, and thin. She was sweating with the strain of dragging a large suitcase-on-wheels while trying to talk into a cell phone. The strap of a handbag had become coiled around one arm, and she was also carrying a large, boxlike briefcase that appeared to be metal. She wore a high-necked white blouse under a gray suit and, as she fought her way forward, she gave off the powerful scent of cigarettes, perspiration, and heavy perfume. Mrs. Tack, Sam, and Ruskin tried to move out of the way as a wheel of the suitcase rolled over Sam’s toes. They cowered back as best they could, and the woman grunted her way up into the train. Her metal case tipped dangerously, and Ruskin moved in to assist. “Leave it, thank you!” rasped the woman. “I can manage. What’s that?” The case crunched against the side of the train, scratching the paintwork. “No,” she barked into the cell phone. “No, no, no . . .”
Mr. Tack was still on his knees trying to locate the fallen cap.
“When the train leaves,” said Ruskin, “you could hop down onto the tracks. Then you could send it on.”
“Blast it!” muttered Mr. Tack.
“He won’t need it, honestly,” continued Ruskin.
“Go on, darling,” said Mrs. Tack. “You’d better get a seat, both of you.”
Sam let the fat boy lead him shakily down the carriage. He pressed two handkerchiefs to his knees. It hadn’t been a hard fall, and he wasn’t a frail boy. But he did suddenly feel rather faint: the result, he knew, from eating no breakfast. It was also, he knew, a result of the tension of the morning. From his parents’ loving attentions as they admired his silly clothes, carried his trunk out to the car, and drove earnestly through the South London traffic to get to Paddington way too early. They’d sat in a café for an hour not eating anything. When the train finally moved and the platform slipped away, Sam’s faintness turned to sickness. He pressed one hanky to his mouth and waved the other.
“You blub if you want to,” said the fat boy. “I did. I thought your gran seemed rather nice.”
“That’s my mother, actually.”
“Oh. Are you their only one?”
Ruskin pressed his cheek to the glass to get a final view. “Yes, she’s crying her eyes out, poor thing. I expect you’ll get a bit homesick, won’t you? The new boys always do. We had two leave last term, they just couldn’t stand the place. And another boy fled. Boarding isn’t for everyone, I suppose, though Dr. Norcross-Webb tries to make it jolly. I love it!”
“Who’s Dr. N.or—?”
“Norcross-Webb’s the headmaster. He founded the school and does everything. Or he did last term. We’re supposed to have a load more teachers now, after the accident—and that includes a new headmistress, which’ll be fun. I just hope there’s enough boys, it’s boys we really need. Five wasn’t enough for anything.”
Sam looked at his sleeves and wondered where his hands were. Ruskin sat back with his arms folded. “I love it,” he said. “It wasn’t at all what I expected, so I just hope it hasn’t closed. Money’s pretty tight and everyone’s on these scholarships, so no one really pays full fees—I’m on a singing scholarship.”
“Dr. Norcross-Webb wants to start a choir. There’s an organ in the chapel—or there was. No one knew how to turn it on, thank goodness, because I can’t sing a note. It was out of bounds anyway, the roof was so dangerous. After the fire, well . . . that was that. What made you choose Ribblestrop? It’s a good school, but . . . what on earth made you choose it?”
Sam stared at Ruskin. He’d had to make several adjustments very quickly and at least it had taken his mind off feeling sick. Ruskin was built like a ball and his thick glasses were round as well, as if there were two marbles stuck to his eyes. He had short, jet-black hair that seemed to be painted on his head like a helmet. His mouth, when it wasn’t talking, settled into a friendly, wise smile. He was smiling now, waiting for Sam to answer.
“We saw an advert,” said Sam. “The fees were low and my parents don’t have much money.”
“Nor do mine.”
“They wanted to send me to private school, you see. The school where we live is quite rough and they promised they’d send me to a private one if they could find one cheap enough.”
“I got bullied at my last school,” said Ruskin. “And the food was bad. It was chips every day. My father used to be a boxer in the army—so they wanted a school with a good sporting tradition.”
“I love sports, it’s the only thing I’m good at. Is there lots?”
“No. None at all.”
“Oh. I thought you—”
“There will be. Dr. Norcross-Webb says we’re pioneers, like in the Wild West. We can do anything and everything, if we put our minds to it.”
“It is a real school, isn’t it? We saw the brochure and we thought it looked quite posh.”
“Yes, I saw that. It’s called ‘marketing,’ Sam. He spent lots of money on the brochure because it was a calculated investment.”
“I was worried it would be too posh.”
“Well, the building’s pretty grand, if you stand at the other side
of the park and look at where Lady Vyner lives. It was falling down when I arrived, and then Miles set fire to the dining hall, so we lost the library and the chapel. He was expelled, so that meant we were down to four, because two had left; and then poor old Tomaz ran away. That’s why he had the brochure made, you see, because we needed more boys. By the time we get there, there could be loads! There’s Lord Caspar—he’s the grandson of the owner—but he doesn’t come all the time. He’s a law unto himself quite honestly and he may not come back, he says he hates the place—but then, to tell you the truth, he’s just a teeny-weeny bit spoiled.”
“Who set fire to it? One of the boys?”
“Yes, I told you—Miles. He was one of those rather disturbed children that can’t really fit in. He was friends with Tomaz, and Tomaz was the orphan who ran away. Miles got really upset, so he splashed a load of gas around and the fire went right through the roof. We had five fire engines; it took ages to get under control. One of the things we’re supposed to be doing this term, actually, is rebuilding. The headmaster sent off for a book on DIY, and our summer project . . . well. Take a look at this.”
Ruskin was delving among his parcels. The train was speeding along now and Sam knew there was no turning back. He watched the fat boy untie some string and gingerly withdraw something from brown paper.
“We had to build a model. You had to calculate the maximum span of a timber beam, bearing in mind a load of—I can’t remember—one hundred thousand kilos, I think. Ever so complicated. My brother helped me a bit, but it took ages . . . What do you think?”
Sam wasn’t sure what to think. Ruskin’s model had four walls and was then a mass of struts and beams. It was exquisitely built and reminded Sam of a cathedral in miniature.
“You could probably get away without some of the purlins,” said Ruskin. “But we decided to be better safe than sorry. It took most of the holiday, but the best project wins a rosette.”
“And that’s the roof we’re going to build?”
“If there’s enough of us. It’s not as complicated as it looks, actually. The principles are pretty straightforward; it all works in triangles. Do you want some tea, Sam?”
Sam didn’t know what he wanted. Thoughts and feelings were getting more confused than ever, so he nodded gratefully. Ruskin smiled happily and attended to the other items in his bag. In a short while he’d laid out a flask and two plastic cups. The train was juddering, so pouring was tricky, but soon there were two steaming cups of boiling water. He produced two tea bags from his breast pocket and dunked vigorously. He had cubed sugar, a whisky miniature that held fresh milk, and a plastic teaspoon. Finally, he set down a lunchbox and opened it to reveal a stack of homemade cookies.
“I expect you want to know about the other boys,” he said.
“Well, they’re both good fellows. Do you take sugar? One of them is from South America. He’s a funny one, I’ll tell you about him—ever so nice, I really hope he’s coming back. The other boy’s quite old. Sixteen, he says. But he looks older, and he doesn’t really talk. We so need eleven! The only game I’m any good at is soccer.”
“I thought it was a big school. I thought I was lucky to get in.”
“Oh, you are! It is! It’s a smashing place, really! It’s got such an interesting history, too—it was a research base in the Second World War. You know how these stately homes got taken over by the army? They built bunkers and everything—there’s tunnels underground. So after the war, it became a donkey sanctuary, I believe. Then the monks arrived, and they’re still there, but you don’t see them—am I talking too much? I’ll just tell you this. The story goes that our headmaster bought the place in one day. He made ‘the offer’ in the morning and took the cash round in a suitcase that afternoon. He bought the donkeys too. They live on what used to be tennis courts, but what will be the soccer pitch—not that you can really play, not with three people, even when the
headmaster goes in goal. And Sanchez can’t run too well, because he lost a toe.”
“Sanchez? Hang on, is he one of the other boys?”
“Sorry, yes. The South American boy. He was injured, so he can’t really do games, though he does try. When you lose your big toe your balance goes, so he’s got a limp.”
“How did he lose his toe?”
“It’s a secret, but I’ll tell you. You’re bound to find out.” Ruskin leaned forward and his voice became a whisper. “This is true, apparently. Though it sounds like I’m making it up. He was kidnapped and held for ransom. And the kidnappers, to show they meant business . . .”
“Yes. With pliers.”
“Did his parents pay the ransom?”
“Sanchez said they didn’t. When the toe fell out of the envelope, they sent the bodyguards in. There was a shoot-out.”
“And Sanchez escaped?”
“He’s a very tough boy. I wouldn’t want to mess with Sanchez. He’s not a show-off, but he can wrestle a donkey to the ground. I saw him do it after Miles had bet he couldn’t—admittedly, it was Peter Pan, the oldest donkey, but even so . . .”
“Who kidnapped him?” said Sam. His eyes were wider than they’d ever been. His mouth was slightly open.
“I don’t know. His family is from South America, rolling in money. All his clothes are tailor-made. But he’s not a show-off, honestly.” Ruskin lowered his voice and leaned in over the table. “The reason he’s at Ribblestrop is so no one can find him. He keeps a gun under his bed, just in case: there’s a little hole in the wall. Seriously. Dr. Norcross-Webb knows his father, and my father thinks that’s where the first lot of money came from. You see, nobody would dream a boy like Sanchez would go to a school like Ribblestrop. So he’s safe.”