I’m not an adult but a boy, fifty years ago. I’m seated at the end of a long table with thirty boys either side of it in a vast dining hall overlooked by a sombre paintings of old headmasters and overseen by a master with a gavel who is reputed to be the most ferocious beater in the school. His job is to keep order over 800 boys at breakfast, lunch and supper, seven days a week. We fear but do not revere him.
It’s supper time, in winter, and we all know what is to come because the menus are displayed on the notice board outside. Egg and chips. The only time we will get chips all term. In my innocence, I tremble in pleasurable anticipation. At home, this is my favourite tea – so I’m going to feast myself on memories, a boy’s own version of Proust’s madeleine.
The table is arranged hierarchically. At the top sits Locke, the house captain, an Olympian being with his own study and fire. I know this because I am his swab and he regularly threatens me with the sack. And then, in descending order, the monitors and sixth formers and, year-by-year, down to the first years. The two monitors supervise the dishing out of food from huge metal containers.
The eggs arrive, in a flat tray, swimming in fat with highly coloured yolks already acquiring a thick yellow skin. These we will tolerate, as a fitting companion for the chips, which are borne aloft by the serving staff with an ironic smile. We all stare avidly. If we were dogs, we would be salivating on to the table. Two containers per house. Ours are deposited on a table only a few feet away from us underlings. The aroma of fried potato induces a kind of melancholy at the thought of the transient happiness we are all about to experience.
Of course we have to wait. A long wait. Boys are served in strict order of seniority, apart from the monitors at our end. They watch approvingly as chips are piled wantonly on the plates of the sixth formers and monitors. We wince but calculate that, if the rest are shared out equally, we will do well enough. Boys a little older than me scurry up the table, two plates in each hand, then scurry back again to be re-laden. Five minutes, tops, and it will be our turn. We watch as the first container is emptied and the next is begun.
Then the first set-back. A serving boy returns with two used plates.
“Locke and Etheridge want seconds of chips.”
The monitors at our end look at each other, and then at the container of chips.
“OK,” one of them says, laconically, and starts piling chips on the first plate. Before he is finished, the other monitor signals him to stop.
“Tell them we’re running low. If there’s any left, we’ll send them up.”
The serving boy looks doubtful, as the second plate is lightly loaded, then shrugs and departs.
“Greedy twats,” the second monitor says, and resumes ladling out the chips for the increasingly junior customers. I calculate that we can expect around nine chips each. Not a feast, but not a famine either.
The serving boys return once again to be replenished. One of those plates will be mine, I calculate with growing excitement. The eggs will be cold by now but the chips will be from the bottom of the pan, the warmest part. I look to see where the salt and pepper are, and fantasize about having tomato sauce.
Then something happens.
“Hang on a mo,” monitor one says. He takes a plate and begins to pile it high with chips.
“Don’t want to be left with the scraps,” he says. “We’re entitled to a proper share…”
We underlings look aghast as they put the finishing touches to a tall pyramid of chips.
“OK, that should be enough. Don’t let Locke see…”
They position tea cups and jam jars in front of their plates to shield them from prying eyes and resume ladling out the last few chips.
My plate arrives with four chips. One of them is a fine specimen, but the others look puny. The bile of injustice rises in my throat.
“We’re done,” the first monitor says, holding the container aloft so its empty interior can be seen from the other end of the table.
Then they tuck in. I toy listlessly with my supper, watching their forks spearing chips into their mouths. After the twentieth chip I give up counting.
Come the revolution, I say to myself, egg and chips will be served in inverse order. The most junior boys will have the biggest helpings.
And then I remember the Gospel of St Matthew: Whoever has will be given more and they will have an abundance; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken away from them…