Good Enough For Nelson

By: John Winton


‘The Bodger’s back!’

The impact of that message, telephoned up by the sentry on the Main Gate, seemed to induce a series of seismic tremors through the whole College, as though several electric charges were bolting through the very brickwork to earth. Rooks on the high sycamores behind the cricket pavilion rose cawing and calling into the summer air. One Britannia beagle bitch looked up at the commotion and howled in sympathy and at once both packs in their kennels gave tongue together. The horses in the paddock next door moved around restlessly until one bay mare kicked up her heels, and in a moment they were all careering madly in several half circles, their hoofs drumming on the hard ground. Inside the College, some of the keener-eared lecturers stopped in mid-sentence, whilst they and their classes listened for a few seconds, wonderingly, as though waiting to hear again a distant clap of summer thunder. The main light bulb in the planetarium display, in the centre of the astro-navigation laboratory, chose that very moment to expire with a surprisingly loud ping, like an egg-timer whose time has come. On the model of the frigate fo’c’s’le in the seamanship lecture room, a model blake slip inexplicably parted and several feet of model cable rattled out until the model anchor hit the deck below. The Senior Tutor, lecturing a class of Royal Marine subalterns on Byzantine oarsmanship of the sixth century, had been drawing for the several hundredth time in his teaching career a possible seating arrangement for a quinquereme, when his chalk broke dramatically in his hand. The grating squeak of it made every marine tooth tingle and every marine hair prickle, as though with foreboding. While the warm southerly wind floated the intelligence of The Bodger’s coming up, and up again, to the crew of the College helicopter flight, in their draughty hangar high on the hill at Norton, a residual echo carried the news down the wooded, wild-garlic reeking steps to the river at Sandquay, where the floating bridge ferry hooted as though astonished. All life and all work over the whole of the great naval hillside by the Dart paused to assimilate the fact of The Bodger’s arrival.

Meanwhile The Bodger himself came on up the hillside, driving his motor car energetically and confidently. A midshipman in shorts and singlet, doubling down the hill, stopped and stood to attention as the car passed, he knew not why. The spikes on the flowering chestnut trees stood up straight with him. A wood pigeon, showing its white wing roundels in a composite blue and grey flash, swooped low over The Bodger’s motor-car and then sheered up and away, as though anxious not to have to salute.

A large motor-mower was cutting the fairway grass on the hillside golf course. The driver was skilfully swinging his machine around in military right angles.

‘Golf!’ said The Bodger. ‘That’s new.’

The car suddenly rode up on the vicious little tarmac ramp of the ‘sleeping policeman’ with a shudder that seemed to loosen every tooth in The Bodger’s head.

‘Hell’s teeth!’ he said grimly. ‘That’s new.’

At the top of the drive, beside the massive white flagstaff with its White Ensign, national flag and signal for the day flying, The Bodger stopped his car and got out. When he shut his car door and stood still for a moment, The Bodger had the sudden scalp-tingling sensation that he had never been away. By some acoustic quirk of the hillside contour, he could hear again, as clearly as though he were down there, the sounds of the river: the piping of coxswains’ whistles, the motor-boat engines, the washing of water churned by many propellers. The twenty years since his last visit were as though they had never been. Time had run back, to fetch an age of gold. There in front of him was Sir Edward Aston’s great College facade, still as The Bodger himself had once said, a fine example of stockbroker’s Titanic. There, still, was that same presence of Edwardian stability, exuding confidence from every line, just as it had done since Edward VII laid the first stone in 1902. This was clearly a structure built in the high and palmy days when Great Britain had dreadnoughts, when she wanted eight and would not wait, when the pound sterling was worth a pound in gold, when a woman’s place was in the home, children were seen and not heard, God was in His Heaven and all was right with the British Empire, upon which the sun never set.