The stationmaster closed his watch when the sound of the locomotive reached the platform. Spot on time. He alerted the porter to the train’s imminent arrival with a pip on his whistle.
London had given way to arable farmland and then open moorland but now, with every passing mile, the young man’s view of the journey west became a constancy of seemingly uninhabited chalk downs on the right and glimpses of white cliffs and gleaming sea on the left. Motion and noise were in concert and somehow he found it comforting. At Waterloo he’d been disappointed that the journey to Hampshire would be by steam but now, especially in the solitude of the compartment, an advantage that would have been unavailable in a modern diesel, he felt at ease and was enjoying the trip.
His letter of introduction was tucked in the inside pocket of his sports jacket. It was sealed and so he hadn’t read it but that hardly mattered because he’d been party to its composition. It gave an outline of his academic and sporting achievements, particularly regarding his cricketing prowess and then it went on to support his suitability for a scholastic career.
The open countryside that had prevailed for the past two hours eventually gave way to woodland that hemmed the train in on both sides. Occasionally there were clearings splashed in sunlight and once the train’s whistle disturbed a herd of deer, the animals leaned off, disappearing into the forest. It made him smile. A short while afterwards he heard the guard announce Brockenhurst as the next stop. He disembarked with his case and umbrella and his woollen coat folded over his arm. The train doors thudded shut, the stationmaster checked his watch again and signaled for the locomotive’s departure.
The man made a call from the public box outside the station. He introduced himself, said where he was and received an assurance that a car would be sent to collect him. He waited on a wooden bench dappled by the shade of a huge oak and became aware of a constant hum. It took him a while to work out that it was coming from a bee’s nest somewhere high in the tree. It made him think of the relentless freneticism of London and how the tranquillity of this New Forest village enhanced its Home Counties charm. After a short time a newly registered Solent blue Austin A40 pulled up. The driver, who was dressed in groundkeeper’s livery collected the man’s belongings, put them in the boot and then opened a rear door.
Apart from their initial greeting the driver didn’t speak again until they got into the school grounds where he asked if his passenger would like to be shown to the headmaster’s house. The man declined saying that he thought he could remember the way well enough.
‘Christian dear boy, come in, come in. How pleasant to see you. Come in.’
‘Thank you sir,’ Christian handed his coat and case over to the headmaster.
‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘That would be very nice. Thank you, sir.’
‘Please, Christian, I know old habits die hard and all that but I insist that you call me Aubrey. You’re a grown man now,’ said the headmaster.
‘Oh. Very well,’ said Christian and they both laughed at the awkwardness.
‘What year did you go up?’ asked the headmaster.
‘Just after victory over Japan was declared.’
‘1945 eh? So that makes you what, 25 now?’ said the headmaster.
‘24, I’ll make my quarter century this year,’ Christian held his hands up and stepped his left foot as if playing the forward defensive shot. They both laughed.
‘You were one of the best cricketers the school has ever had, Christian. Were you captain all the way through?’
‘Yes, I was made captain after the first trial and was lucky enough to remain so.’
‘Luck had nothing to do with it, dear boy. You got it on merit; that was down to sheer talent,’ said Aubrey, ‘we host Hambledown today, so you’ll have a chance to see what the third years’ captain is made of. The head of PE says he thinks he might be as good as you were. I find it hard to believe myself.’
‘Oh please. Without the school’s support I would never have developed as I did.’
But that’s what St Barnabus is all about, spotting a boy’s talent whatever it might be and nurturing it. But it was delightful to see a boy such as you excel academically as well as on the field. What with a first, and now your doctorate in theology from Cambridge you’re able to take yourself in the direction of your own choosing. What’s it to be?’
‘Well I think I’ll have a better idea at the end of this half sir, sorry, Aubrey. If teaching is for me I should know it by then.’
‘And if not, is it still to be The Church?’ Christian nodded, ‘I see. Well whichever path you choose I know that you will excel. Now let me pour the tea.’