‘Look Piggot, just finish the tidying up and get out would you!’ barked Skimpton at the rather plain-looking third-former whose job it was to keep the older boy’s belongings in order.
‘But Skimpton,’ pleaded the youngster through his unflatter- ingly protruding teeth, ‘I have hardly started on the bookshelves!’ ‘You can finish those to-morrow,’ retorted the senior angrily,
‘now just leave me in peace.’
Piggot was out of the door quick as lightning and down the
stairs in seconds, quite unaware that Skimpton had punctuated his departure by hurling a silver boxing trophy at the door after him. At last, Skimpton was alone in his study. The day seemed to have been an endless succession of infuriating interruptions; by masters seeking his attendance in the classroom and boys badgering him for advice on any number of trifling matters.
Setting his lips tightly, the reliable House Captain resolved to allow nothing further to come between himself and the matter in hand – a problem of some delicacy which demanded immediate and careful attention.
He was an attractive, amiable young man, widely held to be the most popular boy in the school. Having made his mark at Faysgarth initially as a sportsman of quite startling ability, Skimpton was now revered by his schoolfellows both as a good- natured Deputy Head Boy and an even-handed captain of Second House. Today, however, he was far from his easy-going self, as Piggot had discovered to his cost.
As skipper of Faysgarth’s First Eleven at soccer, it was Skimpton’s job to pick the team for Saturday’s final against arch rivals Rainingham, current holders of the Monktonshire Minor Public Schools’ Challenge Cup. Faysgarth had been turning in some pretty impressive performances in recent weeks, and Skimpton rather fancied his team’s chances against its fiercest adversaries.
Pausing over the team sheet, the captain troubled over the number nine position, and with some irritation reached into his blazer pocket and produced a crumpled sheet of paper – the cause of his present dark mood. He then read, for the hundredth time that day, the words written thereon:
My Dear Skimpton,
Forgive me for imposing on you at this late stage before the Rainingham match, but I am requesting that you pick me as centre-forward. I am certain that I will not let the team down. Regards,
Khan, or ‘Pearly’ as he had been dubbed by his schoolfellows, was the son of a wealthy doctor from Bombay, and had arrived at Faysgarth the previous term. Normally his request for inclusion in the First Eleven would have posed no problem, for, as the Indian was a hopeless footballer and would have been hard- pressed to secure a place even in the junior side, there would have been no question of the entreaty being granted. But this occasion was different. Some days earlier Khan had covered for Skimpton at some considerable risk to himself over an unsavoury incident involving a third-former, a hockey stick and a bag of fruit bonbons. And although Skimpton still felt indebted to the Indian for helping him on that occasion, selecting him for the Rainingham match by way of reward seemed to be stretching gratitude way beyond its acceptable limit.
And what of Marcus Dent, the undisputed School Scoundrel, whose custom it was to take the centre-forward’s position in this fixture? How would he react to being dropped in favour of a well-known duffer? Dent, although undoubtedly a vicious and despicable fellow, exerted not inconsiderable influence at Faysgarth, amongst both boys and staff. In addition, his combative presence in the attack would be invaluable in the tussle against Rainingham’s powerful defenders. Not normally known for his interest in sports, Dent always made sure to turn out in any soccer final, attracted by the sizeable contingent of female onlookers which generally arrived by bus from Faverstock, and in front of whom he could display his undoubted skill with the leather.
Crumpling the offending note into a ball and firing it vengefully in the direction of the waste bin, Skimpton felt himself close to making a decision on the matter. Everyone knew that Khan could not kick a football to save his life, let alone wallop it into the Rainingham net from twenty yards. Indeed, if his pitiful displays during PT were anything to go by, the young colonial would have his work cut out to tie his boot laces with any degree of conviction. Dent, on the other hand, had turned in a stylish performance last season, netting two excellent strikes, even though Faysgarth had been beaten by the odd goal in five. No: the matter was resolved – Khan’s request must be rejected.
As he was setting himself to pen a reply to the audacious Indian, a liquorice toffee popped into his mouth to aid concentration, there was a smart knock at the door. ‘Who is it now?’ rasped Skimpton impatiently. The door creaked open, and in the gloomy corridor, Skimpton could just make out the shadowy presence of Mohan Khan.
‘Ah, Pearly,’ said Skimpton crisply, ‘just the man. Come in.’
‘I see you have received my note,’ said the other. ‘I hope I am not presuming too much if I intrude upon your time with a view to pressing for a response?’
‘Not in the least. Sit down.’ Skimpton turned to face his visitor and, leaning backwards in his chair, took a couple of moments to study Khan closely. He was a presentable enough fellow, of quite stocky build, and with a gaze of such piercing intensity that it gave the impression that he was permanently in search of approval. Skimpton had always found him to be a reliable fellow and his impeccable manners more than reassured the House Captain of his breeding. ‘Pearly,’ he said presently, ‘I am well aware of the considerable debt I owe you over the Dodsworth incident, and I do not think I have yet had the opportunity to thank you fully for the part you played in resolving the issue in my favour. If, in the future, Icanbeof anyhelptoyou–inwhateverway–Iwillof coursebe only too happy to oblige. However, I am far from sure that I can comply with your wishes with respect to the Rainingham match.’
At this, Khan became agitated, his breathing visibly quick- ened and he began drumming his fingers nervously on the arm of the chair.
‘I regret to have to force the issue,’ he said, ‘but once you know the full facts, I am certain you will reconsider. You see, my father is an old Faysgarthian, and his fervent wish is to see his son score against Rainingham. There exists a long-standing wager between himself and his brother in Bombay, set down when my uncle’s son and I were infants. My cousin is now at St Hugh’s College, and suffering the same torment from his father as I am from mine.’
‘And has he also made no impression on his First Eleven at St. Hugh’s?’
‘On the contrary; Sanjit is an excellent footballer, but his captain refuses to play him anywhere other than at right full- back. From that position I gather he stands only marginally more chance of scoring a goal than myself.’
‘True. And your father is determined to break the stalemate, you say, to see your name on the scoresheet against Rainingham, and win the bet?’
‘That is correct. I don’t know if you are aware, but my father is an influential figure behind the scenes at Faysgarth, and a considerable benefactor of the school. His patience is already running out, and I fear that if he is not soon satisfied, hewill remove me to another institution and curtail the generous financial support he affords the school.’
‘This bet sounds mightily important. How much is it for?’ ‘Ten rupees.’
‘Ten rupees! Is that all?’
‘It is not the money that is important, Skimpton. The issue
has become a matter of pride between my father and uncle, and the two families have been in a state of prolonged conflict over it for several months. My father and his brother appear to have taken the animosity they felt towards Rainingham as schoolboys, and turned it against one another!’
Skimpton whistled to himself. Seldom had he been confronted with so tricky a dilemma. With the school’s finances at risk, not to mention his own reputation if his team lost the game, what should he do? And then there would be the undoubted outcry from Marcus Dent once he had discovered that he hadn’t been picked! In the end, he tossed a coin, took no notice of the outcome, and fixed a determined gaze on Mohan Khan.
‘Have you ever played top-flight schools’ soccer before, Pearly?’ he asked.
‘I am afraid not, Skimpton. As you know I am entirely useless at sports.’
Skimpton smiled wanly, stroked his chin, and thought for a second. ‘Meet me at lunchtime to-morrow on the football pitch in full kit,’ he said. ‘We’ll thrash the leather around for half an hour.’
‘Thank you, Skimpton,’ said Pearly, a broad grin spreading over his face. ‘I promise you I will do my best not to let you down.’ ‘I am sure you will, Pearly,’ said Skimpton. And as the Indian turned to leave, he pencilled his name onto the team sheet. ‘Oh,
and Pearly...’ he added. ‘Yes Skimpton?’
‘See if you can manage the odd sit-up or two before then, will you?’
‘My giddy aunt!’ shrieked Binns the next day. ‘Skimpton’s gone stark raving mad! He’s picked Pearly to play against Rainingham!’ A group of Main House boys had gathered around the noticeboard in the Senior Common Room, where Skimpton had posted the team sheet for Saturday’s game. A sizeable majority of them were openly aghast at the captain’s astounding team selection.
‘And at centre-forward as well!’ piped up a voice from the back. ‘Old Dent will have an opinion on that!’
Instantly, Marcus Dent appeared, smoking a small Cuban cigar. Smiling, he strode to the noticeboard, boys hastily removing themselves from his path. As his eyes scanned the team sheet he began chuckling malevolently. ‘So,’ he murmured to himself, ‘it’s true. Skimpton’s dropped me to left-half and picked that weasel Khan as centre-forward.’
‘That’s right Marcus,’ shouted Binns, ‘what do you have to say about that?’
Dent paused for what seemed like an eternity, drew deeply on his cigar, scanned his audience through heavily lidded eyes, and only when the last vestiges of smoke had been expelled from his mouth, said, ‘I didn’t know they played footer in the colonies.’
‘They don’t,’ said Skimpton from the doorway, having observed the brouhaha with mounting unease. ‘I’ve picked Pearly because I was impressed by his determination to succeed. Besides, we could do with a little muscle in the final third.’
‘But Skimpton!’ yelled Binns, ‘Dent’s our best forward, everyone knows that. Why on earth would you want to play him at left-half?’
‘Because that is where I feel he will be of most use on Saturday.’ ‘We’ll see about that,’ muttered Dent.
‘Besides,’ continued Skimpton, ‘bearing in mind the number
of cigars he smokes these days, I doubt very much whether Dent would be able to keep pace with the rest of the attack!’ A stunned silence greeted this comment, and Skimpton, sensing that he had perhaps been too provocative – bearing in mind the frailty of his case – turned briskly and walked away.
Dent, furious, stubbed out his cigar on the floor, marched to the noticeboard and crossed his name off the team sheet. Then, in capital letters, he scrawled ‘NOT AVAILABLE’ next to it, breaking the pencil in half in the process, before striding purposefully over to the door. ‘Binns! Spate!’ he fumed. ‘My study NOW!’
Once outside, Skimpton, sensing the possibility of danger, Dent and his adjuncts only a few seconds behind, prudently increased his pace, making off in the direction of the soccer pitch. After changing, he ran out with a ball and met Pearly Khan, shivering in the goalmouth.
‘I wish to thank you Skimpton,’ offered the Indian boy through chattering teeth. ‘I have seen the team sheet.’ In addition to his footer kit, Khan also wore gloves, three scarves, a balaclava, a bobble hat and a pair of swimming goggles. Round his neck, hanging from a piece of string, was a circular pendant. It looked like bone, stained red, and on it was a rather child-like depiction of an elephant.
‘That’s an unusual piece, Pearly,’ said Skimpton, ‘what’s it made of?’
‘Ivory,’ explained Khan, sniffing all the while. ‘I was given it by an old soothsayer in Bombay. It is reputed to bring good luck.’ The Indian boy then sneezed mightily, almost falling over in the process.
‘Are you suffering from a cold, Pearly?’ enquired Skimpton, testily.
‘Perhaps I am not yet accustomed to your English winter,’ came the snivelling reply. ‘In Bombay we have sunshine all year round, except in the rainy season.’
‘Well, you’d better get used to it pretty quick, for there are only five days to go before you’re due to turn out for the First Eleven.’ ‘Worry not, Skimpton. My lucky charm will ensure that I
do not let you down.’
‘Hmmm. Well, let’s start with some physical jerks, shall we?’
Skimpton dropped to the grass and commenced a burst of press- ups whilst Pearly looked on. ‘Think you can do a few of these?’ he asked, looking up at the weaker boy.
‘I’ll try,’ replied the Indian, at which he began tentatively lowering his limbs to the ground, groaning as he did so.
‘Come on, man,’ encouraged the sportsman, ‘surely you can manage a dozen press-ups!’ Pearly lay face down, placed his palms on the ground beside him and pushed for all he was worth. Try as he might though, he could no more complete one press-up than he could fly to the moon, and after a seemingly interminable performance of huffing and puffing, the Indian gave up, utterly exhausted.
‘I’m sorry Skimpton,’ he gasped, ‘I appear to have no strength whatsoever in my arms. Perhaps we could try something else?’
A number of boys had gathered on the touchline, alerted to Pearly’s feeble endeavours by Binns and Spate, on their way to lunch. Some began jeering the young Indian mercilessly. ‘I don’t know about Pearly Khan,’ quipped one of them, ‘looks more to me like Pearly can’t!’
‘Take no notice,’ said Skimpton, helping the other boy up, ‘let’s try some running on the spot, shall we?’ Thankfully, though, the session was interrupted before Pearly could test his stamina further, when Piggot arrived bearing a letter for Skimpton. ‘Go and get changed, Pearly,’ said the fitter of the two resolutely, ‘we’ll have another bash to-morrow.’ A desolate-looking Khan then trudged off in the direction of the changing rooms, hoots of derision ringing in his ears.
‘What’s this then Piggot?’ questioned Skimpton, taking delivery of the missive from his trusty fag.
‘Looks to me like a letter from your father Skimpton,’ replied the ever-perceptive Piggot, ‘if the handwriting on the envelope is anything to go by.’
‘Very good. Now run along and supervise Khan in the shower for me. And make sure the water’s freezing for him, would you?’ A letter from his father was such a rare event that Skimpton felt compelled to mark the occasion by purchasing some fruit bonbons from the tuck shop and retiring immediately to his study to give it his full attention. Aware that such a plan meant him probably skipping double geography, he instructed Jack Varley to make his excuses for him, plying his housemate with sweeties for his pains and pleading an headache by way of explication of
The news that his father intended to visit Faysgarth the follow-
ing Saturday would ordinarily have been a cause of considerable celebration for Skimpton, since these days he so rarely managed to meet with the old fellow. On this occasion, though, his pater’s overture provoked mixed feelings in the young man.
Skimpton’s father was a high-ranking government accountant whose work frequently took him away from home. This meant, even during the holidays, Skimpton’s only contact with his sole surviving parent was the odd postcard, often sent from some far-flung outpost of the Empire. That weekend, though, he was due to attend a conference on the subject of penal budgets in nearby Crownbridge, and would be well-placed to put in an appearance at Faysgarth after wrapping up his business on Saturday afternoon.
Skimpton’s father had, however, promised to visit his son at school on numerous other occasions but had never appeared, and Skimpton half hoped that this time would be no exception. For, although he enjoyed seeing him enormously, he was anxious that his father should not witness any ignominious defeat suffered by his team at the hands of the Rainingham boys.
Although in his heart of hearts he knew that the cause was in all probability already lost, the determined all-rounder settled into his armchair, took pen and paper and began formulating a rigorous training schedule for Pearly Khan. Fully aware that Marcus Dent had by now almost certainly removed himself from contention, he decided that if all else failed he would play centre-forward himself, moving the Indian into defence and allowing him first shot at any penalty which came his team’s way. And although he knew that there was very little chance of it reaching its destination before the weekend, he also penned a short note to his father, care of the Home Office in London, in an attempt to subtly dissuade the latter from visiting Faysgarth the following Saturday.
Meanwhile, over in Main House, Marcus Dent was holding an impromptu meeting with his chums on the subject of the day’s humiliating events. Pacing the room restlessly, the bounder was becoming increasingly irritated by the whole business. How, puzzled the blackguard, could he turn the embarrassing situation to his advantage? His face crimson with rage, he scoured his rancid imagination for a retributory ruse of sufficient maliciousness that – through it – his reputation as School Scoundrel would be considerably enhanced.
‘What on earth’s Skimpton thinking of, picking the Indian!’ screamed Binns. ‘Why, he’ll give the match away!’
‘Precisely,’ agreed Dent. ‘Apart from that, his stupidity could well set a dangerous precedent. Before long, these colonials will be beating us at our own games, and we can’t have that. For, after all, what’s the point of inventing a sport if you can’t then be assured of beating every other bugger at it!’ Unsure whether or not their leader’s rhetoric demanded a verbal response, those present followed Spate’s lead and broke into polite applause. ‘Stop all that,’ snapped Dent acidly, ‘I need to think!’
The three minutes’ silence, which he had previously de- manded should follow any utterance tinged with more than awhiff of rancour, enabled Dent to pour himself a stiff drink, settle on his chaise longue and formulate a plan of action. ‘Binns,’ he commanded presently, ‘organize some transport, a charabanc will do. And Spate, get on the blower to the landlord of The White Swan in Faverstock. Inform him that we shall require use of his upstairs room on Friday night from about eight.’
Towards the end of the fifth afternoon’s training session, Skimpton and an exhausted Pearly Khan found themselves enjoying each other’s company in the long-jump pit. Having all but abandoned any notion of building up the other’s fitness and strength, Skimpton had decided to spend the hours available to them trying to improve the Indian’s limited skills with the ball – a time-consuming exercise which involved the sports supremo crying off afternoon lessons all week. They had been working on Pearly’s penalty kicking that last afternoon, and – aware that his protégé had put everything he had into the previous few days’ work – Skimpton felt that a few words of encouragement might be appropriate.
However, after much soul-searching, he found himself unable to summon up the required positivity for such a task, and decided instead to be brutally honest. ‘Pearly,’ he said grimly, ‘you’ve worked jolly hard this week, and I’ll say this for you: you’re a plucky fellow. I’ve been impressed also by your politeness and affability, and on those counts you deserve a chance to fulfil your father’s ambition for you. However, I feel I must tell you that, despite my tuition, you are no better a footballer now than you were when you first came to me with this hair-brained scheme. If anything, your level of skill is slightly worse than it was at the beginning of the week. In fact, my fag Piggot is far better than you and he’s only a junior.’
‘What are you implying, Skimpton?’
‘Very well, I shall endeavour to be more forthright. Your chances of scoring against Rainingham to-morrow are approxi- mately nil, my friend. I therefore recommend that if you wish to avoid heaping disgrace upon both yourself and your school, you cry off with an injured leg. I shall of course provide corrobora- tion for any such public statement.’ Pearly turned away, unsure how to respond.
‘Well?’ prompted Skimpton. ‘What do you say to that?’
‘My father has sent word from Bombay that he will be dispatching a representative to oversee the match on Saturday. I cannot answer for the consequences if he finds out I did not make the team.’
‘But you must understand, Pearly,’ insisted Skimpton, ‘that on present form there is no possibility of you scoring. Can you not convince your father and his brother that they should forget their childish wager?’
‘I suspect not. I do have another suggestion, though.’
‘And what is that, pray?’
‘I gather there is a new rule in operation this season with
respect to the use of substitutes, is that right?’
‘Correct. The footballing authorities have decided to try
it out in schools’ soccer initially, with a view to extending the regulation to the professional game, in the fullness of time.’
‘Then perhaps you could be persuaded to let me start the match, on the understanding that if things go badly, I will feign injury and allow you to replace me with another player.’
‘Not a bad idea. We haven’t had recourse to use one this season, but I’ll see if I can encourage young Terry Dunstan to don the substitute’s jersey. Failing that I suggest you retire to your study and pray for a heavy downfall of snow.’
In the event, the sun shone brightly the following morning. Skimpton, watchful for any early sign of his father, had trotted out just after breakfast to put Pearly through his paces in the penalty area. Unwilling to entertain the thought of his father arriving at Faysgarth only to witness his son’s team beaten roundly by Rainingham, Skimpton left strict instructions for Piggot to place a fine bottle of brandy in the staff-room, and introduce the old fellow to it early on. If precedent was anything to go by, such an enticement would doubtless retain his attention, out of sight of the soccer pitch, until the final whistle.
As was usual, a crowd had gathered on the touchline, eager to glimpse more of Pearly’s bunglings with the ball. Numbered amongst them was Marcus Dent, looking slightly the worse for wear after having reputedly spent the previous evening making merry with his chums at The White Swan in Faverstock.
‘Come on Pearly,’ mocked the school villain, ‘let’s see what you’re made of! Summon us up some Oriental magic with the old leather!’
Apart from this final coaching session with Pearly, Skimpton had another reason to vacate Second House earlier than usual that day. Colonel Coombes, the irredeemably short-sighted chemistry master, had become suspicious of the sportsman’s excuses for missing lessons all week, and was said to be on the warpath. Everyone knew that the volatile master’s viciously haphazard use of the cane, coupled with his fearsome temper, had on many occasions left boys in need of lengthy hospital treatment. Indeed, Skimpton himself had suffered at the hands of the demonic chemistry man some years before, and had no intention of repeating the experience today. The brutal encounter had happened when the irate Colonel had smashed a tennis racket over Skimpton’s head after having accused him of smirking without permission on school premises. The unlucky third-former had merely paid a routine visit to the dentist that afternoon and returned with his mouth slightly contorted as a consequence of the anaesthetic. He spent the rest of the day in the casualty department of Barnchester Royal Infirmary having seven stitches inserted into his head.
That afternoon, though, it was Skimpton’s hope that the Colonel might have his hands full running the line at the football game, rather than devote his attention to pursuing Skimpton for his alleged absences. Aware that his eyesight problem had lately been the cause of considerable controversy as a result of several fiercely disputed offside decisions, Colonel Coombes had recently adopted the bizarre tactic of attaching himself by a length of rope to a first-former named Kydd, who would accompany him at the touchline and advise the master about tricky decisions. Indeed, so dependent had the Colonel become on his young accomplice that during the hours of darkness he could often be seen being led around the school by him like a perplexed dog on a lead.
With the crowd swelling in number and kick-off time rapidly approaching, Skimpton placed the ball on the penalty spot and invited Pearly to have one last crack at bursting the net. ‘Just keep your head down and belt it as hard as you can!’ he instructed, taking up a position in goal. But Pearly’s poor level of expertise, even after five days’ intensive instruction, allowed for no such accomplishment. After a brief, uncertain run-up, the Indian swung his right leg awkwardly, missed the ball entirely, near- somersaulted, and ended up flat on his back in the mud.
‘I say Pearly!’ hooted Marcus Dent from the touchline. ‘How about taking up gymnastics? I’m sure you’d make a grand fist of the parallel bars!’ At which all present fairly whooped with laughter, including, it has to be said, some of the masters.
With only a few minutes to go, and Colonel Coombes ready and tethered to his assistant on the half way line, Skimpton felt a pang of trepidation shudder through his limbs, for the strapping fellows from Rainingham were now taking to the field. They were a fairly homely bunch, widely held to be from a slightly lower social class than the fellows at Faysgarth. Many members of the team, it was rumoured, were scholarship boys, and their untutored accents as they called to one another brought to mind popular characters from radio comedy programmes. However dubious their origins though, the Rainingham lads had already enjoyed a spectacularly successful season, and had only that week secured top place in the Monktonshire Minor Public Schools’ League Championship (upper division). This game represented Skimpton’s last chance of the season to wrestle some glory from their grasp.
‘Skimpton!’ bellowed Colonel Coombes from the touchline. ‘I’d be very grateful if you would see me after the game today, as I must speak with you urgently on the topic of your classroom attendance this week!’
‘Of course, Colonel.’ replied Skimpton blandly. That was the last thing he needed. How in Heaven’s name would he be able to concentrate on the game with the promise of an hideous punishment from the Colonel hanging over his head? And where on earth were his team? Surely they must have clambered into their togs by now!
Eventually, the Faysgarthians emerged. But they resembled nothing like the side he had picked. In fact, the outfit which took the field was primarily made up of players from the Junior Eleven, supplemented by various oddities from elsewhere! Riley, the lanky fourth-form ’cellist appeared to be playing in goal, and taking up a position rather reluctantly on the wing was the infamous surrealist Rodney Carstairs, whose father was reputed to run an African-style dance troupe in Finland.
‘What in God’s name is going on?’ demanded Skimpton of his diminutive fag Piggot, as the latter joined him in the centre circle. ‘It was Dent, Skimpton,’ returned the junior bleakly. ‘He took the First Eleven out revelling last night in Faverstock, and they are all so ill as a consequence that we youngsters have been forced to take their places!’ With a toss of his head, Piggot indicated a group of grey-looking fellows huddled behind the visitors’ goal. Dent had joined them and was surreptitiously
distributing Cuban cigars.
‘What a bunch of asses!’ exploded Skimpton. ‘Getting
themselves into that state the night before an important match. And as for that rotter Dent, why, I’ve a good mind to...’
‘It’s useless, Skimpton,’ interrupted Piggot. ‘Kick off’s in one minute and the referee’s waiting to start!’ Skimpton, unable to contain his fury, kicked the air in frustration, a large lump of mud from his boot flying off and hitting Pearly Khan full in the face
‘What’s the matter Skimpton,’ bellowed Dent from the touchline, ‘lost your marbles as well as your team? I’d stick to chemistry in future if I were you, that way you might stay out of trouble!’
‘Take no notice Skimpton,’ urged Piggot, ushering his rattled fag-master towards the centre spot. ‘We’ll win this game if we have to run ourselves ragged!’
Just then, a flurry of activity near the school end corner flag heralded the arrival of three individuals so heavily insulated against the cold that they were almost impossible to identify as human. Pearly Khan shuffled over to Skimpton, and, with an air of resignation, intoned, ‘It is my father. He has travelled from Bombay with his brother to watch the game.’
‘Poor show,’ sympathized Skimpton, scanning the crowd, ‘and there’s no crying off injured either, Pearly, for there goes my substitute.’ The skipper directed Khan’s attention to the other end of the field, where an unsteady and pale-looking Terry Dunstan was being led away by Binns after collapsing on the touchline as a result of extreme dehydration.
‘By the bye,’ asked Skimpton, ‘who’s that other fellow with your father and uncle?’
‘That is my cousin Sanjit. He has come to look round the school. My uncle is considering transferring him to Faysgarth next term with a view to him playing in an advantageous position in the First Eleven.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ frowned Skimpton cheerlessly, taking his position to face the first onslaught from the Rainingham forwards. ‘Come on chaps!’ he cried, summoning up every last vestige of inspiration. ‘Let’s give these fellows what’s for!’ At which the crowd cheered, the referee blew his whistle, and battle commenced.
By half-time, Faysgarth, playing with a strong wind behind them, considered themselves lucky to be only four goals down. Pearly Khan, apart from woefully mis-kicking an early chance some six yards out, had hardly touched the ball, and although putting all their might into the fray, the junior Faysgarthians were no match for Rainingham’s muscular team. Skimpton’s cause had not been helped when Carstairs had put through his own goal in a misguided attempt to assist his chum Riley after a corner. Bizarrely, the young surrealist punched the ball into his own net, assuming the mantle of goalkeeper after spotting his musician friend unconscious on the ground. The latter, entirely unchallenged, had disastrously collided with a goalpost minutes before and had lain comatose for some time.
Khan’s father, on the touchline, could hardly conceal his disgust at his son’s performance. After the young Indian hadscuffed a clearance into the crowd, a furious Dr. Khan had angrily hurled a muffler at his son. When, much to the dismay of the crowd, it missed, an inattentive Khan instantly obliged by tripping over the item and falling face-down in a puddle.
‘That’s the ticket Pearly,’ whooped Marcus Dent, ‘save yourself the bother of a bath afterwards!’
Skimpton was aware, as the game progressed, that the touchline quips at the young colonial’s expense were affectingKhan deeply, and was on the point of suggesting he retire when the whistle blew for half-time.
‘Come on Pearly,’ the worthy young captain urged, ‘I have a notion these Rainingham chaps will tire in the second half – their defence looks groggy already. Chin up! We’ll get you that goal if it’s the last thing we do!’
In the event, the second half was only seven minutes old when the opportunity he had been waiting for presented itself to Skimpton. Rainingham, now six-up and beginning to lark about, gave the ball away on the left wing. Piggot, speeding down the line, dribbled past the full back with an emphatic feint and sent over a ripping centre. Lunging backwards, hopelessly out of position, the Rainingham ‘keeper fisted the ball across the mouth of his goal. Skimpton, thundering in at the far post, expertly trapped the leather at the feet of Pearly Khan only two feet from the goal line. Stepping backwards out of his way, the captain had presented the Indian with an unmissable chance, the empty net gaping in front of him.
‘Whack it in Pearly!’ cried the Faysgarthians.
‘Come on Mohan,’ yelled his father, ‘put the ball in the net!’ And with the defence stranded, Pearly withdrew his leg, faltered, and blasted the ball blindly wide, his miserably sliced effort eventually coming to rest only a yard from the corner flag.
‘Right in front of the bally net!’ groaned Skimpton. ‘It was an absolute sitter!’ Pearly, utterly deflated, trudged away, his head bowed in shame. Dr. Khan, quite beside himself with frustration, sunk to his knees in despair, as his brother chuckled to himself, content that there was no way on earth, given his nephew’s astounding ineptitude, that the wager would ever be settled in anyone’s favour other than his own.
By twelve minutes from the end, Rainingham were holding onto a nine-goal lead, and it seemed that only a miracle could save Faysgarth from one of the most humiliating sporting defeats in its history. As the ball rocketed past Riley in the Faysgarth goal for Rainingham’s tenth of the afternoon, Skimpton’s plucky troupe of youngsters dragged themselves into position to face yet another irrepressible bombardment by the Rainingham lads. As he placed the ball onto the centre spot, Skimpton looked around at his bedraggled team-mates and prepared to will them on for one last effort. Then he noticed the absence of Pearly Khan. ‘Why, the blighter’s sloped off without permission,’ he exclaimed, ‘leaving us with only ten men!’ So incensed was he by the Indian’s insubordination that he took the ball from the kick off, raced goalwards, slid through the Rainingham defence and belted the leather resolutely into the opposing net from fifteenyards out! Ten - one!
Skimpton’s feat, however, could raise little more than an half- hearted, ironic cheer from the crowd, who were beginning to drift away disconsolately. That was until the dramatic reappearance of Pearly Khan. Amidst unspeakable insults from the Dent contingent, the Indian pelted onto the pitch during a brief interruption. Seemingly revitalised, he quickly dispossessed a Rainingham forward, waltzed into the penalty box and delivered a defence-splitting pass to a team-mate, who duly prodded the ball home! Goal! The crowd, sensing the remote possibility that Faysgarth may yet squeeze a scrap of dignity from the match, duly went wild, and their cheers seemed to propel the boy from Bombay into even greater feats of footballing magic.
Ten-two down with only seven minutes to go, and Pearly took a few seconds’ breather to confide in his captain.
‘It was my lucky charm,’ he whispered. ‘I lost it a few days ago in the dressing room. Without it I am lost!’ Skimpton recognized the colourful talisman which Khan now wore around his neck as the one he’d seen him sporting at the first training session earlier in the week.
‘If that’s all it takes to get the best out of a fellow,’ laughed Skimpton, ‘then put me down for a dozen! Come on, Pearly, let’s get you that goal and have no more done about it!’
Certainly, it was a new Pearly Khan who had taken the field in those final minutes. His speed and intricate footwork brought two more goals – one from a lively Piggot who had pounced on a thirty-yard screamer from the Indian which rebounded at his feet from a post, another a spectacular diving header dispatched by Skimpton from a pinpoint cross by the Bombay Bombshell. But try as he might, the Indian could not score himself. It seemed incredible that, with goals now going in at the Rainingham end every few seconds, Pearly could not find the target. Even Riley, the lanky goalkeeper had wandered up and nodded one in from a free kick! And Carstairs, his unconventional sidekick, had sent one rocketing into the top corner via his pelvis!
With the score standing at ten-nine and only two minutes left, a determined Pearly collected the ball on the halfway line,strode manfully up field, with it seemingly tied to his boot, wriggled through a platoon of defenders, and placed a precise shot towards the bottom corner of the goal. The Rainingham ‘keeper flung himself across his six-yard box, but to no avail, for the leather was already way beyond his reach and heading for the net. Then, from nowhere, a burly full-back launched himself at the line in an attempt at a spectacular last-ditch clearance. The crowd gasped in amazement as he made contact with the ball, but his tenacious kick only sent it rocketing into the roof of his own net for a spectacular own goal! Ten-all and Pearly had still not managed to score!
What a game, thought Skimpton, and for the first time he scanned the faces in the crowd, desperate that his father’s should be amongst them.
Then, with only seconds left on the watch, a clear chance for victory presented itself. Pearly had wriggled into a dangerous position in the left of the Rainingham penalty box, and slotted the ball through to Skimpton, a few yards to his right, in acres of space and with only one defender left to beat. Selling the Rainingham full-back a perfect dummy, the Faysgarth skipper deftly pushed the ball through his challenger’s legs and bore down on goal, preparing to round the ‘keeper and slam the ball home. The visitors’ last line of defence, though, had other ideas. Skimpton feigned to shoot then flicked the ball to the left some six yards out, and the Rainingham ‘keeper flung himself at the Faysgarthian’s feet bringing him crashing to the ground with a blatant rugby tackle! Foul!
Skimpton knew, even as he heard the whistle blow for a penalty, that he would play no further part in the game, for he had fallen so heavily that his right foot had become twisted under him, and his ankle injured in the process. As he lay prostrate in the penalty area, somewhat dazed from the assault, Skimpton was vaguely aware that Marcus Dent appeared to be running onto the pitch. Before the skipper had quite recovered his bearings, he felt his shirt being pulled roughly over his head. ‘What on earth are you doing, Dent?’ he demanded.
‘In the absence of any other suitable candidate,’ explained the bounder, ‘I am taking your place in the team.’
‘Over my dead body!’
‘I am afraid, Skimpton,’ said Dent, donning the latter’s jersey, ‘that you have no choice in the matter. When a player’s injury prevents him from taking any further part in the game, a substitute can be used – that, as I am sure you are aware, is the new rule. I am stepping into the breach.’
Skimpton, struggling to his feet, his ankle throbbing agonisingly, was in no position to argue, and with the aid of his trusty fag Piggot, he hobbled bravely to a position just beside the visitors’ goal, cursing Dent under his breath.
The crowd was in uproar subsequent to the foul being committed. Fierce arguments broke out the moment the seriousness of Skimpton’s injury was confirmed, for the thorny question then arose as to who should take the penalty. Dr. Khan insisted his son should be given the job, though many around him, his brother included, thought otherwise. Pearly’s cousin Sanjit, obviously wishing to distance himself from the dispute, kept his own council. Binns and Spate, though, were in little doubt as to who should be entrusted with the final kick of the game. ‘Why everyone knows it must be Dent!’ screamed the louder of the two. ‘With all due respect, Doctor Khan, your son has played a blinder for the last ten minutes but seems singularly incapable of putting the ball in the net!’
At one point a contingent of prefects sought to bring Colonel Coombes into the fracas, but the chemistry man was busy trying to disengage himself from his young assistant Kydd. The master had ended up practically strangling the youngster after the rope used to connect the two of them had become tangled around a goalpost.
In the end, it was down to Skimpton, as captain, to decide.
‘Bearing in mind his sensational contribution to the game this afternoon,’ he pronounced, ‘and since my injury precludes me from doing so, I should like to offer my friend Pearly Khan the opportunity to win the game for Faysgarth!’
Behind the goal, Dr. Khan looked to the heavens, gave out a cry of thanks, and rubbed his hands in anticipation of his son’s impending triumph from the penalty spot. Pearly though, appeared troubled, and after a brief word with Skimpton, marched over to the referee, took the ball and handed it solemnly to Marcus Dent. There sounded a series of gasps from the crowd, followed by an eerie silence, punctuated only by a further strangulated wail of anguish from Pearly’s father.
‘Thanks, Pearly,’ said Dent slyly, taking the ball from the Indian boy. ‘No hard feelings eh?’
‘Not in the least,’ replied Khan casually. ‘I understand that
none of your comments this afternoon have been directed at me personally.’
‘Good show. Always best to put school before self, eh?’ ‘Well played Pearly!’ called out Binns from the touchline. At this point the Rainingham keeper piped up. ‘Do you
think,’ he sighed, a trifle impatiently, ‘that we could get on with it? I’d like to get back in time for tea.’
Dent, after a brief perusal of the crowd to make sure his female friends were present to admire his sensational last-minute contribution, stepped up to the penalty spot with the ball. After placing it carefully on the ground, he took three steps back, wiped his cheek with the arm of Skimpton’s soccer jersey, and looked the ’keeper straight in the eye. He then glanced first left, then right of the hefty Rainingham goalie, as he made up his mind which corner to aim for.
A hushed silence descended the field as all waited in unbear- able anticipation. Finally, Dent ran forward, placed his left foot onto the ground beside the ball and swung his right boot into the leather, propelling it powerfully goalwards. The ’keeper though, had only to thrust upward a fist to keep it out, for Dent had cannoned the ball straight at him! As the leather flew skywards, the Faysgarth forwards stood motionless in stunned amazement, in contrast to the Rainingham boys, who fairly flopped to their knees in relief. Only one figure in the twenty-two retained his wits in those crucial finalseconds, and that boy was Pearly Khan. Sensing that the ball was hurtling earthwards only two or three yards in front of him, he raced forward and thumped a perfectly timed volley straight into the back of the net! The whistle blew and that was that! Faysgarth had won, eleven goals to ten – all thanks to the battling boy from Bombay!
‘Hurrah!’ came the cry from behind the ropes. ‘Pearly’s done it! Faysgarth’s won the cup!’
Within seconds, ecstatic members of the crowd had hoisted both Skimpton and Pearly Khan onto their shoulders, propelling them joyously towards the cricket pavilion, where lemonade and sandwiches awaited, by way of an accompaniment to the presentation of the trophy by an esteemed member of the local Rotarian society.
Meanwhile, on the field, Marcus Dent was being consoled by his usual coterie of sycophants.
‘Never mind, Marcus,’ squawked Binns. ‘At least you didn’t miss the target! Good job Pearly was following up though, otherwise my guess is you’d’ve been extremely unpopular!’
‘For mercy’s sake button it, Binns,’ snapped Dent wrathfully, ‘and get me my blazer.’ Before he could don his school jacket and slouch off unnoticed though, Dent was intercepted by an uncommonly agitated Colonel Coombes. Recently released from his entanglement with young Kydd, and, as a result, desperately lacking the visual assistance afforded by the youngster, the master stopped Dent as he was leaving the sports field. He accomplished this by simply walking straight into him.
‘Ah, Skimpton!’ he exclaimed. ‘Just the young man I’ve been looking for. Do not think that because you have triumphed in the sporting arena today that I have forgotten your scholarly transgressions earlier this week!’
‘Colonel Coombes,’ said Dent calmly, ‘there seems to have been some mistake. You see, I am not the individual whom you wish to upbraid, but an entirely...’
‘Do not attempt, young man, to pull the wool over my eyes. Are you not wearing a jersey with the number seven emblazoned across its back?’
‘Yes sir, but if you would let me explain...’
The Colonel’s face was beginning to redden and his left leg had started to make its characteristic jerking movements – a sure sign that the temperature of his anger had reached such a dangerous level that only extreme violence would extinguish it. ‘According to my team sheet,’ he continued, ‘that position was filled today by a boy named Skimpton,’ he rattled, ‘whom I am rather keen to interview in connection with his absence from afternoon lessons this week.’
‘But Colonel Coombes...’
‘Enough! I will tolerate no further interruption! Take yourself
off to the gymnasium at once! Your impudence demands no less than a thorough beating, even before the more serious matter of your truancy is addressed. Now go!’
Having dispatched Dent to prepare himself for the inevitable thrashing and consequent sojourn in hospital, Colonel Coombes strode off purposefully to his study with a view to carefully choosing a weapon whose size and maleficence might do justice to his fury.
A little later, the Monktonshire Minor Public Schools’ Challenge Cup having taken pride of place in Faysgarth’s trophy cabinet, Skimpton, his ankle securely strapped, was limping towards the senior changing rooms. Outside the door, arguing the finer points of football, he encountered Pearly Khan’s father and uncle. They were a curious looking pair, clothed in a peculiar combination of Oriental formal dress and English woollies. ‘But you must understand,’ insisted the latter in mellifluous, exotic tones, ‘that after the penalty has been missed a member of the defending team must touch the ball before it can be kicked by an opposing player!’
‘That is only if the goalkeeper has not touched it first! On this occasion, the ball clearly struck the Rainingham ‘keeper on the hand before my son blasted his shot into the net!’
‘Excuse me gentlemen,’ interposed Skimpton. ‘I don’t suppose either of you has seen Pearly, I mean Mohan, Khan have you?’
The doctor, evidently rather annoyed by the interruption, turned to face Skimpton. After positioning very deliberately a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles further up his nose, he peered quizzically through them at the soccer captain.
At length, he replied disinterestedly, ‘My son is inside the changing area with his cousin.’ He then removed his spectacles, returned to his brother, and resumed hostilities. ‘Now hand over the ten rupees Vasu,’ he insisted angrily, ’or I shall be compelled to write to my wife’s uncle who is a barrister in Calcutta!’
Inside the steamy changing rooms, Skimpton could just make out what he took to be the figure of Mohan Khan showering alone. The rest of his team, being juniors, he assumed were busy changing in their own facility elsewhere. ‘Pearly!’ he declared, ‘I’m glad to have caught you. That was a wizard game, what?’
‘It certainly was by jingo,’ replied a third, fully clothed young man stepping forward from the gloom. ‘Skimpton,’ said he, as his countryman emerged from the shower, ‘I would like you to meet my cousin Sanjit, one of my country’s finest footballers.’
‘Yes, Skimpton. It was Sanjit who came on, not me, in the final ten minutes of the game.’
‘The improvement in performance had nothing to do with my lucky charm, it was Sanjit who scored the winning goal.’
Pearly’s cousin stepped forward and proffered Skimpton his hand. ‘I am pleased and honoured to make your acquaintance,’ he said.
‘My cousin and I felt that he possessed far more chance of scoring a goal and putting an end to our family feud than I did,’ continued Pearly. ‘We quickly changed clothes when no-one was looking. He did a fine job don’t you think?’
‘Why yes, but...’
‘We knew that in all probability no-one would notice the difference – after all, in the eyes of a white man, one colouredfellow looks very much like another. Besides, Sanjit and I are used to exchanging identities, our families see so little of us these days that they are unsure which of us is which. And today my father and uncle were far too concerned with their petty rivalry to notice anything was amiss. I hope you will not think too harshly of us.’
Skimpton, somewhat staggered by Pearly Khan’s extraordinary revelations, took a few seconds to survey the two young men who stood before him; one clad in overcoat, scarf, gloves and woollen hat, the other stark naked and dripping water onto the floor. In that the colour of their skin was identical, the two did indeed appear somewhat similar. Their facial features though, were obviously entirely different, the cousin even sporting a puta- tive beard, apparently tolerated at St Hugh’s after the relaxing of rules with regard to facial hair. In summary, Skimpton felt rather a chump, having allowed himself to be tricked into believing the two colonials to be the same person.
‘Do not feel foolish, Skimpton,’ said Pearly, ‘you were far too involved in the game to realise that Sanjit had taken my place. You are first and foremost a sportsman, and one of quite astounding talent and commitment, and it is in this field of endeavour where your perceptivity lies – not in the more aesthetic arts.’
‘But Pearly,’ Skimpton protested, ‘judging by today’s perfor- mance everyone at Faysgarth will expect you to turn out for the First Eleven on a regular basis! I couldn’t possibly sanction Sanjit stepping in for you again!’
‘Of course not. My cousin is also needed over at St Hugh’s to add mettle to their first team’s defence. But if you will agree to keep today’s deception a secret, Skimpton, I will, before the start of next season, announce my retirement from the game on health grounds.’
Seating himself wearily on a nearby bench, Skimpton shook his head in a baffled gesture of resignation. ‘I’ll say this, Pearly,’ sighed the skipper, with a wry smile, ‘your way of doing things is rather queer. But I’ll say no more about it if you don’t.’
‘I had made a promise not to let you down, Skimpton,’ said Pearly, ‘and knew that whatever happened I must keep my word.’ Which, in a way, he had. Skimpton now turned his attention to Khan’s cousin, Sanjit. Handing the shivering youngster a towel, he said, ‘As for you, young fellow, though not exactly condoning your behaviour, I’d like to pay tribute both to your fine display this afternoon, but more importantly, to your selfless decision in refusing the opportunity to take the final penalty.’
‘I did not feel confident of scoring, that is why.’
‘I thought you had lost your nerve, Sanjit!’ said Pearly, teasingly. ‘It was more important that the team win than it was for your
father to feel satisfied, Mohan,’ replied his cousin. ‘Nevertheless,’ said Skimpton, ‘such magnanimity and loyalty to team-mates I am sure makes you a great asset to the First Eleven at St. Hugh’s. My hope is, for the sake of the opposition at least, they keep you at full back, where you can
inflict least damage!’
Pearly placed a hand on Skimpton’s shoulder in a brotherly
fashion, and smiled broadly at his somewhat restive conspirator. ‘Thank you, Skimpton,’ he said, ‘for all the help you have given me in the last few days. As far as football is concerned, I think I would make a fine club doctor. Wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Possibly. You’d have to promise not to send your cousin to treat the injured players though, when you didn’t feel like it!’
‘Nonsense!’ put in Sanjit, ‘I intend to train as a veterinary surgeon. The two disciplines are pretty much identical, are they not?’
‘Sanjit!’ warned Pearly. ‘Do not be mischievous! Skimpton has had a very confusing time of it already today.’
‘But Mohan, I still stand by the point, the common-or- garden General Practitioner is no better qualified than theaverage Veterinary Surgeon!’
‘That is patently absurd...’
And as the two cousins continued to squabble over the relative merits of their intended careers, Skimpton quietly removed his togs and, unnoticed, stepped into the shower.
On his way to Second House, half an hour later, Skimpton noticed a dwarfish figure in full footer kit standing guard at the school gates. Closer investigation revealed it to be his diminutive fag, Piggot.
‘Ho ho, young shaver!’ hailed the Senior. ‘What concerns
you here at this late hour? Shouldn’t you be at supper?’
A shivering Piggot flashed his unruly teeth in a deferential grin in the direction of his hero, and replied, ‘I am on the lookout, as you requested Skimpton, for your father, who I
believe is due at Faysgarth some time today!’
Skimpton looked at his watch, lamented the trouble
caused by the two other parents that day, and for a moment believed that he might be better served staying well clear of all family entanglements for the foreseeable future. ‘I very much doubt,’ he said, ‘whether my father will turn up today. He has probably been detained in Crownbridge on government business and intends to take the last train back to London.’ An accurate conjecture, as it turned out, for at that moment, his pater was in fact seated in The Railway Tavern in Faverstock, accompanied by a copy of
The Illustrated London News
and a copious brandy, awaiting the eight forty-seven to Paddington.
‘I say what a pity!’ said a crestfallen Piggot. ‘I was so looking forward to meeting him. Has he sent you no word of his intended movements?’
‘Good Lord no! That is not his style.’
‘It’s a shame he couldn’t have been here to see the match. What a scorcher it was too, eh? That would certainly have been a satisfaction for you had he been present! Tell me, what’s he like?’
Skimpton paused for a moment. In truth it had been so long since he’d seen his father that he had about as little idea of him as had Doctor Khan and his fractious brother of their interchangeable sons Mohan and Sanjit.
Laying his blazer over Piggot’s shoulders, and strolling in amiable silence with him down the drive, Skimpton pondered the question further, and struggled to formulate an adequate reply. As they rounded the corner of Main House, the youngster preparing to peel off in the direction of the junior changing rooms, Skimpton gazed over towards the farthest end of the quad where the warm lights of the refectory beckoned in the late winter gloom. ‘My father...’ he mused, somewhat ruefully. ‘Well, Piggot, he’s got grey hair and a rather unruly moustache. And I gather he works for the government. Further to that, I suppose you’d have to ask his friends in the Home Office.’ And on that note, the two Faysgarthians parted.