• Tom Binnie

A Drive in the Country

Updated: Feb 16

A day long anticipated, Nevil Grey drove his new Triumph Vitesse along the B roads of the undulating open countryside of Leicestershire. He had engineered three weeks leave, his first in nine months.

Nevil had not taken an extended break since, when, college he guessed. A competent deputy had at last been found and broken in. He had approved the appointee and would not overly worry. Now he had gained the time to enjoy the polished grey-green, two-litre, twin-carburettor convertible that had sat cold in his garage for the past six months. It ran so smoothly and pulled up the hills like a spit in a climb. He had considered the MG - smarter more attractive - but it was less practical and a little under powered. His Triumph was the devil in disguise, a smaller car but with four seats - there was more leg room for his large frame -and boy-oh-boy did it take these curves well.

Nevil liked England. He liked the way the changes in the landscape across the counties mirrored the character of the indigenous people. Leicestershire was rolling, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire less so, Lincolnshire and Norfolk flatter than a French crepe. If there were shipping forecasts for the terrain, these would be mild, moderate, and calm. Not his own county, Derbyshire, there the heights and vales of the Peak District and the crags and hollows of gritstone would merit a storm warning. But he had left that beat behind for these three weeks and his mind delightfully wandered calmly to the mild, warm south.

The B9247, a scenic road, an ambling byway between Leicester and Northampton. Anyone in a hurry would follow a different route. A long left, a sharper right, a steep rise and he caught a glimpse of a church spire against a rolling green backdrop. A village, an inn perhaps, he might just catch a half of mild before the two-thirty bell. The road narrowed as he slowed and his eyes strained, mindful that the straight at the other end of the curve might hold a straddling tractor, but it was a glance sideways that almost caused him to run into the verge.

A trick of the light? Had his relaxed mindset been overindulged? He brought the car to a clean halt. Shaking then turning his head, he reversed the car so he could see the road sign again, more clearly. He had not imagined it: a red-ring rounded thirty sign on each side of the road; a ‘Slow Children’ sign, and next, in bold, black letters on a rectangular white background, the name of the village: ‘Neville Grey.’ He laughed out loud, checked the road behind him and reached to pull out his yellow, AA Motoring Association, Handbook from the glove box to confirm the name on the map. The village was too small to be identified in print.

Moving off, he took the first left, off the B road, to find a triangular green adjacent to the village church and its burial ground. A grassy bank hosted an oak tree in full leaf imposing a dark shadow across the road, a bus stop, the village centre’s heraldic signpost and, charmingly, a set of old stocks. A pretty place, no more than a hamlet, a few thatched cottages, lived in, not well groomed, and a long high red brick wall, likely the periphery of a large residence.

He parked opposite the green, just beyond a gate which opened onto rough pasture and, picking up his box Brownie, got out of the car. He had planned twelve one-twenty colour slides to record his holiday, and this would be an excellent start. As he walked toward the village signpost, he saw there were two tall entrance posts at one end of the high stone wall each signed with writing - which he could not yet distinguish – each topped with an ornate ironwork finial. The two matching gates, one open, one closed, completed the entrance. No one about, and this was unfortunate as he wanted a photograph of himself and the village heraldry. He then spotted a boy sitting on a long bench in the deep shade of the oak tree. A young photographer was just what the job required.

Walking in the direction of the boy his eyes made out the wording on the gateposts, ‘Neville Grey Preparatory School’, and ‘Strictly Private’. Which made sense as the boy, a tall gangly-limbed creature with a mop of unkempt blond hair, was dressed in school running-whites, muddy from, presumably, the afternoon's outdoor exertions.

As Nevil got closer, he arrested at the sight of the boy. His young head was down, his pallor unhealthy, and something about him appeared not-quite-right. Nevil looked around, no life signs other than the persistent chatter of a swarm of small birds in a nearby bush and the occasional call of a young kite. He forgot the photographic mission and decided after a little hesitation to approach the boy. As he neared the bench, the boy did not look up, so Nevil walked to the bench, sat at the opposite end, and fiddled with his camera. For a while they sat in silence before Nevil chanced an attempt at a conversation.

‘Cross country?’

No reply, no reaction, not even a look. The boy was picking at his fingers and Nevil sat silent for a while longer.

‘The oddest thing, I was just driving along this road in my car and I came across the village…did you notice the car, I’ve just bought it, a Triumph Vitesse. Twin Solex carburettors, it does the ton easily, sixty in fourteen seconds. Not on these roads though.’ It was almost imperceptible, but for a fraction of a second the boy raised his eyes to look across the road. Nevil persisted, ‘Anyway, the oddest thing’ The name of the village, Neville Grey. It is an odd name but perhaps you are used to it.’ Nevil checked to see if the boy was listening, ‘But that is not the odd thing. You see my name is Nevil Grey. Yes really.’ The boy looked sideways. ‘Here I’ll show you,’ and Nevil pulled out his driver’s licence and stretched along the bench to show the boy, who glanced at it, then turned away, his head still predominantly down. ‘I was going to take a photograph,’ and he held up his camera. The boy showed no interest.

‘You do not seem well; would you like me to take you back to the school.’ At that the boy shrunk, shook his head, muttered something, perhaps ‘No, sir.’ and pushed himself further, to his end of the bench. Nevil was quite taken aback.

‘Sorry, lad I do not mean to worry you. If you just say, I shall leave you alone.’

The boy did nothing. They sat quiet for a bit longer and Nevil wondered whether to try another tack.

‘Can I fetch someone from the school?’ The boy shook his head.

‘I’m Nevil, well you know that now. What is your name?’

In the softest voice he said, ‘John, sir.’


‘John Bright.’

‘Do you need something John, I have time and I’m happy to help.’

‘Train fare, sir.’

Nevil did not say no as he did not want to lose the connection.

‘Is there a station here, I haven’t seen one?’

‘No, Harborough, sir.’

Nevil knew that must be ten miles at least. There was something odd here. Many a boy of his age has wanted to run away from boarding school. This boy, however, had, Nevil noticed, purpled bruising at the top of his right arm.

‘I cannot give you the fare. That would be kidnapping, and no one would know where you had gone. Shall I take you back to the school?’

The boy shrunk again shaking his head, it was not reluctance, Nevil realised, it was fear.

‘Is there someone you could call. Not at the school?’

‘My father, sir.’

‘Well, I can stand you a phone call, is there a phone box?’

Again, a shake of the head.

As Nevil stood and slowly circled to stand several feet away in front of the boy. Now, he spotted more severe marks, bruising and red wheals on his legs at the top of his right thigh. He spoke gently,

‘What if I come to the school with you and we can phone your father from the school?’

‘In a whisper the boy replied, ‘They won’t let me, sir.’

‘They will if I ask, surely?’

The boy repeated the only motion his head seemed to know.

‘Let me promise you and I do not promise lightly. We will go to the school and I will stay until you are allowed to phone your father.’

‘They would listen in, sir.’

‘Surely not, I assure you will be given privacy while you talk to your father. You have my word.’

The boy momentarily considered the suggestion and slowly got up and they walked together to the gate at a snail’s pace. John Bright was limping.

‘How did you get those bruises, John?’

‘Fell sir.’ John replied immediately and sharply loud, then softly repeated it, ‘fell sir.’

Nevil wanted to put his arm round him but chose to reassure him with words. ‘I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you will get through this. We will hear what your father has to say. I will also speak to him if you wish me too.’

Nevil had become more concerned having seen the marks. He well knew that schools can be cruel places and lazy teachers often missed things being easily outwitted by vindictive older boys. He realised he was interfering, but he could not leave this boy to his fate and keep a clear conscience. It was probably a trifling issue, but he would get to the bottom of it.

It was an impressive building, long, two storeys with a string of dormers indicating rooms in the roof space, a hotch-potch of styles, stones and centuries. Caught in the full afternoon sun it looked nothing except beautiful, peaceful and idyllic.

Nevil asked John Bright, to lead him to the Headmaster’s Room. They walked together up the ancient stone steps to enter a panelled corridor which appeared as dark as night when coming directly out from the glare of the afternoon’s sunlit gardens. They reached a door marked School Secretary. The boy stood; Nevil knocked, opened the door and went in.

‘Sir?’ said the evidently surprised middle-aged lady behind the desk, then harshly, ‘What have you done, Bright?’

‘Oh, he has done nothing amiss, Miss. I am sorry to disturb, but we would like to see the Headmaster, is he in?’

‘What do you want? Go to your class Bright.’

Bright moved a little further to the rear of Nevil.

‘Just the Headmaster,’ said Nevil with a firmness that made the boy look up and the secretary back down.

‘Well, I will see if he is free.’

As the secretary dialled, Nevil heard the phone ring in adjacent room. When the phone conversation became extended, John took the boy’s hand and went to open the adjoining door.

‘Sir, you cannot…,’ but he did.

‘What the…’ the Headmaster, his back to the window, quickly stood up from behind his desk.

‘I am so sorry to disturb you Headmaster. It is a minor matter which I am sure can be cleared up very quickly.’

‘Bright, go back to your class.’ Again, Bright shrunk behind Nevil.

‘If he may stay, while I explain…’

‘It is school business, sir, not yours.’

Nevil was taken aback by the attitude and demeanour of the Head.

‘A minute of your time, Headmaster, I found this boy, John, he said softly, somewhat in distress in the village. I have promised him that he can phone his father in private. It is only this promise that has brought me here and brought John Bright back to the school. So, I ask, sir, that we allow him that, and then hopefully all will be well, and we can both get on with our day.’

‘Impossible, it is not allowed. As I say, it is school business. Now, if you would please leave my office and the school grounds; they are private.’

‘I have sworn, sir, I cannot. A phone call may be against your rules, but it seems reasonable to me in the circumstances.’

‘Absolutely not.’

The Headmaster picked up his desk phone. ‘Joan, can you get Father Roberts, and, err, Macintyre to come to my office immediately.’

Nevil spoke calmly, ‘If I may say, Headmaster, I find your reaction odd in the circumstances. Look at the boy he is terrified.’

‘It is not your business; you are no relation to the boy. My masters will show you out.’

Nevil pulled out a chair and sat down making sure the boy stayed near to him.

Five minutes passed in silence before Joan showed the two masters into the office. Macintyre in a rugby top and track suit bottoms, Roberts, a wizened grey haired, little man in a chalky, black school gown. The only testament to ordination, a small wooden cross strung round his neck.

No introductions were made.

‘Ah, Macintyre would you escort this gentleman from my office and out of the school, please.’

Nevil stood up but did not move. He had spotted Macintyre’s muscled arms were turned to flab and his potted stomach indicated a poorly disciplined life for a sportsman. If this move was meant as intimidation, it was not going to work. The whole episode, to him, was becoming farcical. Nevil had to stop himself from laughing. He kept Bright close. The boy to his credit had, distracted by the goings on of his seniors, relaxed slightly and had apparently lost his immediate worry.

Macintyre took a step, but a hard look from Nevil stopped him, leaving the priest to then look questioningly at the Headmaster.

‘A simple phone call, Headmaster, then I am out of your hair.’ He couldn’t resist it; the headmaster was bald.

‘Sir, I do not think you fully understand the situation. We, that is the school, are in loco parentis, we act as parent, and as such are entirely responsible for the boy’s welfare. I will speak to the boy alone. You are being of undue and, I may say, disruptive, influence and have no position nor authority here.’

‘I do fully understand, and I apologies for the intrusion, but I see now that it is you this boy fears, not I, and I am beginning to understand why.’

‘John sat down again as the Headmaster reached to pick up the phone, ‘Joan, please phone the local constable will you, and ask him to come to the school. No, not the Harborough constabulary, just dial 201. Well, there you have it, I have had to summon the police.’

Nevil stood up. ‘I do apologise, Headmaster, really, but that is not at all necessary.’

The Headmaster relaxed at this turn of events and smiled in his victory.

Nevil continued, ‘Perhaps I should have introduced myself properly, Nevil Grey, Detective Chief Inspector Nevil Grey, Derbyshire CID. The police, you see, are already here.’

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