"Thank you, Mr O'Connor," said the deputy head as a deathly silence settled in the room. "Saves me having to ask everyone to settle down," he continued with a smile. The smile, however, looked forced.
But no one else in the gym was smiling. Everyone just looked at the empty space beside Mr Settle. The space where Lowry should have been. Jock looked over at Bill with an expression that indicated that he, as the ex Head Boy, should ask the question that was on everybody's mind.
"With all due respect, Mr Settle. What's happened to Herbert Byron?"
"That's between himself and Mr Griffiths. No concern of yours, Mr Lewis. Now, let's get down to the business of the programme for this afternoon."
Several voices were raised in protest, but Mr Settle made it quite clear that he was not going to be drawn on the matter. He produced a copy of the timetable for the main prize giving ceremony, and a seating plan of the theatre. He went on to tell us just where each of us was to sit, which side of the stage we were to use to enter it, that we must shake the hand of the chairman of the Board of Governors when he handed us our certificates, and our prize if we were receiving one, and to say 'Thank you' in a loud and clear voice, before leaving the stage on the opposite side to which we had entered and resume our seat.
But no one was really paying a lot of attention to him. Sure, we heard what he was actually saying, but the goodness seemed to have gone out of the day. We suddenly had another, much more important, thing on our minds. 'What's going to happen with Lowry?' was all we were really thinking.
"Right, gentlemen. That seems to have it all covered," Mr Settle finally said with another forced smile. "It's now turned twelve-thirty. The main dining hall has been reserved for those of you that want a school dinner. Any last questions before I dismiss you?"
"Yes, Sir," said Taffy. "To repeat what Mr Lewis here asked when you re-entered the gym earlier. What's happened to Herbert Byron?"
The smile left Mr Settle's face. "And to repeat what I said earlier, Mr Jones," he replied coldly, "That's between himself and Mr Griffiths, and is no concern of yours at all."
"But it is our concern," I interjected, trying to keep my voice as civil as possible. "Byron's a friend of ours, and that's what makes it our concern. Is he going to be allowed go on stage to receive his prize or not? A simple question, that surely deserves a simple answer."
"You'd be as well to learn a little respect, young man!" he spat at me. "Just who do you think you are? Seven years at grammar school should have made you realise that you're not allowed to talk back to your superiors like that. But I suppose that's what we should expect from a guttersnipe from off one of the council estates."
"That was uncalled for, Sir," interjected Bill. "He simply stated his opinion and asked a straightforward question. With all due respect, Mr Settle, I think Mr Murphy deserves an apology from you for calling him a guttersnipe."
I had to admit that I was pleased to have the ex Head Boy standing up for me like that, especially when he referred to me as Mr Murphy, instead of simply young man, as Mr Settle had done. I suspected Bill had done that deliberately, as a way to let him know that he had been disrespectful to me even by doing that. He'd addressed every other ex-pupil that he had spoken to up to that point using the Mr title. It felt as though he thought that my working-class background meant that I didn't even merit a title at all. And if he knew my background as well as it seemed he did, then there was no reason to believe the young man title to have been anything other than a deliberately intended snub.
But whether he realised that for himself or not, Mr Settle was not going to be moved.
"Enough!"he roared. "Get out of here now! To the dining room, every last one of you! And one step out of line by any of you in the theatre this afternoon and you will rue the day you were born!"
He drew his cloak around him, turned on his heels, and stormed out of the room.
There was stunned silence for several moments.
"You okay, Spud?" Bill eventually asked.
"Let's just say that I'm not a violent person, but I really do feel like following that prick out of here and giving him a good thumping." I said. "But, yea, Bill, I'm okay. A case of sticks and stones really. But thanks for sticking up for me like that. I really do appreciate it."
"Well if you do decide to give him a good hiding, let me know and I'll be more than willing to help you with it," said Jock.
"Forget it, Jock. It really wouldn't do any good," I replied. "Anyway, the real problem isn't me, or what that pillock might have said to me. The real problem is what's going to happen to Lowry."
"Well we've about an hour to find out the answer to that question," said Carrots. "I suggest we just head on down to the dining room. Unless Lowry's actually been sent home, the likelihood is that he'll either be in there now, or he will be in the next twenty minutes or so."
And that was exactly where we found him. When we entered the room it was empty apart from Lowry himself, who was sitting at one of the dining tables tucking into a plate of meat, spuds, and two veg. Just about everyone immediately made their way over to his table looking for news as to what Griff had said to him. I started following them, but Jock took hold of my elbow and held me back.
"He's still here," he said. "There's far too many people asking him questions right now. Let's just get some dinner and wait a while. We'll hear what's happening soon enough."
It turned out that Mr Griffiths, our beloved ex-headmaster, had told Lowry to go home and change into something more suitable. Apparently Lowry had reluctantly agreed to do that, but the head had then insisted that he also visit a barber and get his hair cut as well if he expected to be allowed to appear on stage in front of the current pupils, parents, and the Board of Managers.
Lowry had refused to have his hair cut, claiming that, as he was no longer actually a pupil of the school, the head had no authority to make such a pre-condition. The head had then stated that he was going to ring Lowry's parents to see what they thought of things. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may have been, neither parent happened to have been at home to answer the phone when he did ring.
So Mr Griffiths had informed Lowry that he would not be allowed to receive his certificate and prize on the stage. He would be an 'embarrassment to the school' was what Mr Griffiths had reportedly told him. Instead he was arranging for them to be brought back from the theatre where they had already been taken, and he would be given them privately. In the meantime he had been escorted to the dining room and told to get a dinner, but not to leave the dining room and mix with any of the current pupils. Apparently Mr Griffiths would personally collect him as soon as he had his certificate and prize, hand them to him, and then escort him off the school premises with the strict understanding that he was not to be found inside, in the vicinity of, or try to enter, the theatre where the ceremony was to be held.
We all ate in near silence. Whispers could be heard from almost every table. Jock and myself were all for boycotting the ceremony. The majority of the others on our table were in agreement, but a few were opposed. Their opposition was not because they didn't see the injustice of the situation, but more due to the fact they didn't want to let their parents down. Many of their fathers were taking the afternoon off work to see their sons receive their certificates. I didn't have to worry about letting down my father, as I'd not seen him in over eight years. My mother, however, was taking time off work. But I felt certain that, even if she didn't agree with me, she would support my decision should I take part in a boycott.
The minutes ticked slowly by. There wasn't the usual happy and excited chatter going round the room that might normally have been on a day like this. Instead there was a lot of obviously heated, but mostly quiet, conversations taking place at the different tables. Bill Lewis started going round the tables one by one. He'd stay at each one for a minute or so talking, and then move on to the next one. When he got to ours he asked us whether we thought Lowry should have agreed to have his hair cut, and if we would in favour of a boycott or not. He wouldn't be drawn on what the general consensus appeared to be.
Shortly before one o'clock he went over to the table at which Lowry was sitting. He spoke with the others for a minute or so and then turned and spoke to Lowry himself, who rose from his seat and followed him over to a corner of the room. An intense, but annoyingly quiet, conversation ensued between the two of them. I couldn't hear what was being said, but it appeared that Bill was trying to get Lowry to agree to something. Lowry kept shaking his head. The more he shook his head, the more Bill seemed to be pleading with him. The more Bill seemed to be pleading with him, the more Lowry seemed to be shaking his head. I was beginning to wish I could lip read.
"I hope the pillock's not trying to persuade him to get his hair cut," muttered Jock.
"I doubt that," I replied. "More likely he's telling him about a possible boycott, and Lowry's saying it's not necessary."
"Doesn't matter whether Lowry thinks it's necessary or not, Spud," said Taffy. "There's a principle at stake here."
"Well said, Mr Jones," said Jock. "One must always look out for the underdog. For, although we may not be the underdog at this very moment in time, who knows what the future may hold for each and every one of us? One day we may well find ourselves in the unfortunate position of actually being the underdog. And if that ever does happen, hopefully we shall find others just as willing to look out for us."
Before anyone could reply the doors to the dining room swung open and Mr Griffiths marched into the room. Without even looking at anyone he called out in a loud and commanding voice.
"Mr Byron! Accompany me to my office now!"
Lowry broke away from Bill and started toward the headmaster.
He had got no more than half way across the room when Bill spoke up.