From the Fiction Files – “Charles Bigsby Does the Chaps Proud”

On the east coast of Australia, about a hundred kilometers south of Sydney – or perhaps four hundred kilometers south, though surely not more than that – you might, if passing through the town of Blue Ocean, spot Barnabas College, a private boarding school for boys. It was certainly one of the more scholarly schools I attended.

It was also one of the more expensive, and would have been beyond my father’s means except for the dramatically reduced fees applicable, courtesy of his appointment during my senior years to the security staff. My idealistic opposition to private schooling of the previous winter, inspired by a radical underground student newspaper – disseminated, briefly, through the dormitories of Sydney east’s equally exclusive Tresham College – was now only a hazy memory. Voluntary subjection to five months of inhumanity at Calamity High, a state school in some godforsaken suburb, had put paid to that, and I was grateful to have escaped to the more civilized environs of Barnabas.

“So are you in?” demanded Justin Thunderbright. It was the question I had been dreading. The chaps observed me intently.

I gazed out to sea, then down at the town below. Perched high on the hills of campus, it was possible to discern the rough-and-tumble crowds. Suited gentlemen stumbled from Magnificent Martingales harbor side to chambers on Main Street, reinvigorated, in all likelihood, by liquid lunches and a flutter on the markets. Councilors shuffled back to their drudgery in Town Square. Knockabout blokes departed taverns or promenades for docks and warehouses. Girls in short skirts / boys in scruffy shirts / lazed on the grounds of Overly High, the local state school. And tourists lingered on the beach or adjoining walkways. It all served as warning of what could befall a fellow if he failed in some way to live up to expectations.

I glanced back at the chaps, oppressed by their air of impatience, realizing I was not yet one of them, but sensing also that, through experience, I did possess some understanding of the situation. Having been chosen by my father to attend Barnabas, I knew something of the weight of expectation, and there was no doubt that few could be more burdened in this respect than the inimitable Charles Bigsby.

From birth, it seemed, Charles had been made aware of his responsibility to family tradition. It was not so much the Bigsby wealth that he was expected to accumulate more of, though, yes, there was wealth, and in time he would have to accumulate more of it. Nor was it a matter of influence, though, yes, the family had influence, and he would some day need to wield it. It was, first and foremost, a matter of academics.

Even so, I prevaricated. “Is the situation really so serious?” I asked, playing for time.

I received a unanimous snort from the chaps.

“It could hardly be more serious,” insisted Justin Thunderbright.

“My grades have totally crashed,” admitted Charles.

I was chastened by his humility and felt a wave of sympathy come over me. It was true, his grades had crashed in recent times, and now one of the college’s finest traditions was at risk.

“Perhaps I should have done more homework,” offered Charles.

“Nonsense,” said Thunderbright. “You mustn’t blame yourself.”

“Hear, hear,” said the chaps in unison.

Charles lowered his head, humbly conceding the point.

“We just need to pull together,” Thunderbright continued. “There’s too much at stake for you to fall short now.” He stared at me pointedly. “Almost everyone has been happy to chip in.”

The chaps nodded among themselves.

Deep down I knew they were right.

The issue at stake, in case more demanding readers expect an explanation, was the Upside Down Cross, usually referred to in casual conversation as “the Upside Down” and awarded each year to Dux of the school. Introduced in the late eighteenth century, shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet, the prize was financed out of the Bigsby Trust but independently administered by the school board. Counted among its past recipients were a prime minister, eminent professors, and, more to the point, a long line of Bigsbys.

Indeed, never had an eldest Bisgby – a Charles Bigsby – failed to take out the award.

The first to accomplish the feat, Charles I, attended Barnabas shortly after his father, Charles 0, arrived from London to observe governance of the colony of New South Wales with the intention of taking notes for preparation of his private papers. Each Charles Bigsby, without exception, had been regarded by his contemporaries as possessing an exceptional mind. Charles VII, in particular, the father of our Charles Bigsby, set all kinds of records in the state exams and came to be considered by many a genius.

Unfortunately, through no fault of anybody in particular, the long-term sustainability of the Bigsby dynasty had now been put in jeopardy.

Sitting meekly atop the hills of Barnabas campus, purple blooms of a jacaranda sprinkled about ourselves, my duty was becoming poignantly clear. Along with the others, I simply had to take action. Somehow, in spite of a record of less than academic excellence in junior and intermediate years, a way had to be found to secure Charles Bigsby Junior – to degree eight – the Upside Down Cross.

“Alright,” I said, succumbing at last to my destiny. “I’m in.” I felt a heavy burden lift and a peace come over me.

If the chaps were pleased, they concealed their emotion with dignity.

“It’s the least you can do,” observed Thunderbright.

Justin Thunderbright’s plan, like all good plans, was beautiful in its simplicity, he told me. A boy was assigned to each of Charles Bisgby’s subjects. Initially, it had been supposed that each boy, in his specialization, could submit his work as Bigsby’s, with Bigsby returning the favor. However, Bigsby, for complex reasons, was not altogether inclined to commit the necessary time to assignments or exam preparation, making it clear that it would be in the best interests of other boys to submit their own work along with Bigsby’s. This was universally deemed viable provided everyone took care to dumb down their own work relative to Bigsby’s.

Thunderbright had assigned himself meteorology, with similar arrangements being formulated for other subjects. Fractal geometry, for instance, was left to Mandlebrot Junior, revolution studies to Karl Marx Junior, theology to Thomas Aquinas Junior, and so on.

Some fellows were called upon to play special roles. Most notable, in this respect, was Guthrie C. T. Timms-Biggles Wiggleton. Guthrie was a much respected all-round scholar, especially in cases where rote-learning and rapid handwriting could be fruitfully applied. The general feeling within the group was that Guthrie’s memory was so prodigious, and his writing hand so nimble, that his presence at Barnabas would simply pose too much of a threat to Bigsby, even if he handed in deliberately inferior work for the entire year in his subject of specialization.

Recognizing the conundrum, Guthrie offered to defer his enrollment for a year to pursue other interests, an offer promptly accepted by the others.

My own role remained unclear to me. “What exactly do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Two things,” replied Thunderbright. “The first is simple. Keep your mouth shut, along with the rest of us.”

I could see the sense in this. Although none of us relished the prospect of acting in a way that might be interpreted as, in some sense, underhanded, it seemed prudent to keep our operations covert in case somebody unconnected with Barnabas caught wind of them and sought to make trouble, for example in the press or courts.

Thunderbright explained to me that there was also a concern that one or two of the junior masters might feel somewhat compromised if they knew that Bigsby’s improved academic performance was not, if we must be crude for a moment, entirely down to his own efforts. You would think that centuries of tradition might have earned more respect than that, especially in a place such as Barnabas, but we lived in very modern times in which young teachers were exposed to unsound educational theories often touted as egalitarian when, in reality, they amounted mostly to insidious forms of reverse snobbery.

“Your second task,” continued Thunderbright, “is to locate test and exam papers prior to their sitting. This will help in preparations for Bigsby’s assault on the final exams.”

This task also seemed fitting. I was well placed to perform it in view of my father’s job in security.

“Are you up to it?” asked Thunderbright. He seemed skeptical, but didn’t say so.

I nodded. In fact, it would be a simple matter to obtain the appropriate keys at the appropriate times without anyone untrustworthy needing to know. God, of course, would see all, but the cause was just and right, and my conscience clear.

We discussed tactics for a while. It might seem to some readers that tradition required only that Bigsby outperform the rest of us in a relative sense, not reach any particular heights in absolute terms, and that, therefore, obtaining exam papers ahead of time was unnecessarily risky. But Bigsby felt strongly that, if at all possible, he should not only take out the prize, but do so even more impressively than his predecessors.

A bell sounded, signaling the end of lunch hour. We descended in silence from the hilltop to school buildings below, affording me a moment to reflect on what the future might hold.

“Alright everyone,” said Thunderbright, when we reached our locker area. “Keep me posted, especially if there are any problems.”

For much of the year, however, everything went according to plan. There was the odd minor hiccup. For instance, Dr Hazelbury, one of the more respected masters, had to advise Michelangelo Junior to take more care in Sculpture to distinguish Charles Bigsby’s statues from his own. But otherwise, the master was full of praise for Bigsby’s much improved technique. Indeed, all the chaps were impressed.

I myself got into something of an awkward situation, mistaking, on one occasion, the door key to the Principal’s Office for a history-room key. Happily, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the security guard detecting my error took me aside and explained the different patterns of incision. This proved most helpful, but the incident could have turned out differently under less ideal circumstances.

On the whole, though, things went smoothly, so I feel fully entitled to skip ahead.

It was not until final exams that we found ourselves confronting real danger.

“Hold on a second, young man!”

The voice we heard was unfamiliar, and deeply unpleasant. We turned to learn the source of our angst.

It was Dudley Tott, a maverick substitute teacher, lurking in a passageway as we prepared to enter the examination hall for Trigonometry. Without further warning, he lunged toward a stunned Pythagoras Junior, rudely seizing papers from his hand.

“Right, everyone. Wait here.”

Some of us waited as Tott, a weedy little man with thinning hair, inspected the pages.

Dr Hazelbury and a number of other masters must have heard the commotion, and now joined us in the passageway.

“Is there a problem, Tott?” asked Dr Hazelbury. He motioned apologetically to the chaps, indicating that we should wait where we were.

Some, by now, were already inside the examination hall. The rest of us remained in the passageway.

Dr Hazelbury looked back at Tott, as we all did, demanding an explanation.

“It is this,” said Tott, barely coherent, holding up the papers he had snatched off Pythagoras for all to see.

“Yes?” said Dr Hazelbury impatiently. “What about them?”

Tott suggested that they were “irregular”, and claimed that he had witnessed Pythagoras Junior attempting to “smuggle” them into the examination hall. He further claimed that they appeared to be a “pre-prepared answer” and that the name “Charles Bigsby VIII” was penciled in at the top of the front page.

On hearing this, all the chaps were rightly outraged, and the masters appeared sympathetic to our plight. The allegations were clearly preposterous. Justin Thunderbright stepped forward to outline our case.

“First,” said Thunderbright, “Pythagoras would never ‘smuggle’ anything into an exam room, pre-prepared answer or otherwise. He is simply too classy a fellow for that.”

“Hear, hear,” said the chaps, united on this point.

“Second, if he did ‘smuggle’ a pre-prepared answer into the exam room bearing another fellow’s name, there would be perfectly good reason to do so. It is ludicrous on its face that he should be expected to write up two sets of answers from scratch in the time permitted.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed a chap hidden in the crowd. “The very idea is fanciful.”

“Third,” continued Thunderbright, “suppose that Pythagoras did, for whatever reason, write somebody else’s name at the top of the front page. This would in no way be for the purpose of falsifying his identity. This should be obvious from the fact that an official cover sheet is always provided prior to an exam commencing. Only then is it necessary to indicate one’s identity.”

The masters appeared to take this argument on board, though Tott remained obstinate.

“The fact that the name is written in pencil, and therefore intended to be erased at a later time, further underscores the point,” added Thunderbright.

We all nodded in unison, registering our support in the strongest possible terms.

The case seemed watertight. The masters, congregated in the passageway, with some chaps peering out through the doorway of the examination hall, seemed ready to accept the explanation.

It would occur to me later, so well did the case appear to be going, that if the defense had been allowed to rest at this point, things might have turned out differently. But Justin Thunderbright had not quite finished:

“Fourth, even if Pythagoras did ‘smuggle’ a pre-prepared answer into the exam room, what possible good could it do before knowing the questions on the exam paper?”

It was then that I realized Dudley Tott was still scrutinizing the alleged pre-prepared answer. For some reason I had imagined it was in the safe hands of Dr Hazelbury.

On hearing Thunderbright’s final argument, Tott’s eyes lit up like Satan’s. “The answers specifically address the set questions,” he announced.

Dr Hazelbury bravely came to our aid. “Nonsense, surely. Please.”

“Here’s the proof.” Tott held pages up again for the masters to see. “He even wrote out the questions to be answered! They match exactly.”

I was appalled by this latest revelation. All the chaps were.

Tott handed the pages to Dr Hazelbury with transparent glee.

Dr Hazelbury raised a hand in mollification, but Tott waited relentlessly for a response.

Eventually, a measure of sanity returned. Dr Hazelbury instructed the masters to follow him to the staff room for a cup of tea and a more calm and reasoned consideration of the situation. Unfortunately, the vile Tott insisted on accompanying them.

I turned to see Pythagoras Junior, pale, leaning against a wall, stunned by the monstrous injustice. The other chaps stood silent, some still lingering in the examination hall.

Justin Thunderbright suggested calmly that we take recess in the garden footing the hills of Barnabas campus. Truly, it was to be our Gethsemane.

Once in the garden, it was Charles Bigsby who spoke to us on the matter of the Upside Down Cross. It was the first time he had spoken of it since the original formulation of our plan. It was a measure of the fellow that, in his hour of need, he took it upon himself to lift our spirits and encourage us in our efforts to secure him the award. As he spoke, we listened, and it became clear what needed to be done.

Almost in a trance, I turned toward the entrance of the garden, sensing someone’s presence, and my father appeared to me as a white light. He informed me, and indeed all the chaps, that we were to join with the masters in Main Quadrangle to resolve the situation. The irrepressible Dudley Tott was demanding a scapegoat.

Although we had all known that this hour might come, recent events had been especially trying for Pythagoras Junior, and his behavior became quite erratic. On entering Main Quadrangle, he burst into cries of innocence, which were deeply touching, and cause me pangs of guilt to this day.

“It was not I!” he said truthfully. “I was framed!”

The words, now voiced, seemed to embolden him, and he marched ahead of the rest of us, imploring the masters to hear his plea.

“Who, after all, has access to the classroom keys?”

He allowed the words a moment to sink in. Then, turning abruptly, he pointed directly at me, though not in an accusatory manner, I like to think.

The Deputy Principal, who in his younger days had been a pilot in the air force, approached somberly. “Is this true?” he asked.

I remained silent, feeling the heat. The other chaps edged away, giving me space, which I appreciated.

“Do you have nothing to say for yourself?” the Deputy asked.

I hesitated for a moment but knew how I must reply. “If it were my integrity that mattered, we would debate, but it is not my integrity we seek to defend.”

The Deputy nodded, understanding, then turned to the other chaps. ‘What sayest thou?”

The chaps were clearly torn and my heart went out to them, but they managed to hold a dignified silence, in honor of Charles Bigsby Junior.

“We must have a scapegoat,” the Deputy lamented. “Who shall it be?”

“Not I,” said Pythagoras Junior.

“Not he,” agreed the chaps, at last finding voice.

The Deputy sighed. He motioned for me to follow him to where the other masters and security personnel waited, under the eagle eye of Satan himself, Dudley Tott. Sunlight broke through white clouds, revealing the steps to the balcony that traced the edge of Main Quadrangle.

I suddenly felt weak, and stumbled. Simon of Cyrene Junior, a considerate intermediate student, helped steady me until we stood, facing the steps, behind which was the Principal’s Office.

The Deputy addressed the crowd. “Is there no one here who can speak for the boy?”

My father stepped forward. Dudley Tott glared at him, but my father refused to flinch. He addressed the Deputy:

“For the love of the school I ask my son to do this, so that whosoever believeth his story shall not stand in the way of the Bigsby tradition continuing indefinitely into the future.”

There was a gasp of respect from the masters.

I saw that it was right and good, yet cried out in anguish, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

After a discreet pause, the Deputy caught my gaze and motioned with authority and poise toward the school’s front gate.

I lowered my head, knowing I was finished at Barnabas College.

Share