The Pencil Box
Rummaging around in the storeroom a few weeks ago, quite by accident I come across it.
Made of Indian teakwood, “it” is rectangular in shape. Approximately six inches long, two inches wide and an inch deep. Years and years ago, it held a collection of writing implements. Otherwise unremarkable, it belonged to my father. His name, D. Hyde-Lay, etched into the wood, stares back at me from the sliding panel, next to the letters LDR, a reference to Laundimer, the boarding house of which he was a member.
It is September 1939. A young boy, barely 14 years old, already having departed China two years earlier in advance of the invading Japanese, and having completed prep school in the Scottish Borders, enrolls at Oundle School in Northamptonshire, England.
Despite hardships and restrictions brought on by an ever expanding global conflict, a fulfilling high school career beckons. By nature positive, mischievous and optimistic, the young boy looks to take advantage of his time at one of the country’s most prominent educational institutions. He makes friends easily, perseveres with his studies, throws himself wholeheartedly into the multitude of athletic opportunities on offer.
Growing up 25 years later, my siblings and I dine out on accounts of the young boy’s life at the school. Everything seems to involve stories. A good number of these, in the era of corporal punishment and for various transgressions of a decidedly archaic rule book, link directly to his pencil box. Here, notches and adjoining numbers, cut proudly into one of the edges, represent the event and the number of swats received in a caning. Over three plus years, a total of 68 swats, 2 here, 4 there, occasionally 6!! The misdeeds include making toast during study hall, barely avoiding a bull’s horns when, late for class, chased across an adjoining farmer’s field, or cheekily pushing a roommate’s face into a cream pie while at dinner.
Still, the most memorable tales involve sport. A fine, all-round athlete, the young boy takes quickly to boxing, displaying nifty footwork and a more than useful left hook. Fit, fast and strong, he also enjoys considerable success in track and field, later training for the decathlon.
However, it is rugby which truly captures his imagination. Under the tutelage of legendary coach Frank Spragg, the young boy finds a natural outlet for his speed, grace, and power.
A coveted position on the senior squad soon becomes reality. And with it, a chance to finally represent Oundle on the hallowed turf of the Two Acre.
Enthralled, I learn that the Two Acre, situated smack in the middle of the sprawling campus, is so much more than just a rugby pitch. Rather, it is an almost mythical swathe of perfectly manicured grass, to be used on just a few occasions each term and only by the 1st XV for matches against traditional rivals such as Uppingham, Harrow, Radley, and Rugby.
Fast forward more than a half century. It is the fall of 1998. I embark from Canada on a grueling six-week rugby referee exchange, travelling throughout Europe for senior club matches each Saturday.
However, thanks to friends in the East Midlands, who know about my Oundle “connection”, it is a midweek contest I most keenly anticipate.
October 13. Harrow at Oundle, to be played on the Two Acre. For me at least, my involvement will quite literally be a dream come true.
I travel from my base in Birmingham. East down the M6, onto the A14, then the A427. Arrive at the school grounds, eventually turn left on North Street, take a quick peek at Laundimer House. Note numerous additional impressive buildings, some dating back to the founding of Oundle in 1556. Everywhere is a hive of activity, as students pass through the streets, commons, lanes and fields on their way to class or other pursuits.
Soon enough, it is game time. The Two Acre is everything I imagine, and more. The playing surface, firm, crosscut and with grass cropped close, resembles a massive checkerboard. Perfect white lines, blue flags and post pads complete the picture. Overcast skies and a cool breeze replace the morning sunshine, but this does not dissuade a growing number of spectators from ringing the field.
Alas, little goes right for the home side. Though the two teams are quite evenly balanced, everything Harrow touches turns to gold as they run in six tries en route to a resounding 45-0 victory. In contrast, multiple dangerous Oundle attacks founder at critical moments, with pressure not converted into points.
In defeat, one Oundle player in particular does capture my fancy. At centre, then later at fullback, he is both shifty and abrasive. His efforts never flag, he merits at least one, perhaps even two tries, while he tackles forcefully throughout.
Hours later, the post-game gathering complete, I return to my hotel. It has been a long and tiring day. Nonetheless, despite the lopsided score line, the fixture has been a joy to officiate. A simply wonderful experience.
While sleep proves elusive, eventually I doze off. Still, a kaledioscope of colours, emotions, and stories floods my mind. Of burned toast, of a rampaging bull, of fruit pies. Of a pristine pitch and of the one Oundle player talented enough to lead his opponents a merry dance.
Slowly, this particular Oundle player morphs into someone different. Yet someone also so very familiar. Indeed, it is the young boy of some six decades earlier that I now see clearly. My father.
As he would always tell us to do, I expect him to be holding the ball in two hands. Except this time, in my dreams, as he twists away from a despairing tackler on the venerable Two Acre, instead of a ball he carries the pencil box.