'Could have a word with you, Hargraves?' said the burly, red-faced man in the blue Guernsey sweater who confronted me outside the school book shop. His voice had the clipped tones of an old-style military man, yet his blue eyes twinkled with a benign mischief. We had not talked before, but I knew him to be Major Baxter, the Senior History Master and one of my Uncle John's old regimental chums.
'Yes, Sir,' I answered him, in the tentative, dutiful tones of the new boy I was. For I had been at the school for barely a week..
Major Baxter's large finger prodded me amiably in the stomach and made me laugh.
'Your uncle tells me you're very interested in politics.'
'Yes, Sir. Indeed I am.' My reply was more confident now, since at the tender age of thirteen I had pretty much mapped out the rest of my life: three years at university, at twenty years or more in the Army and after that, a seat in the House of Commons, preferably a rural constituency like my part of Yorkshire, where I could relax at weekends walking through the countryside and spending long happy hours ploughing through my favourite books. School was but a stepping stone to this end. For the moment, I lived and breathed politics, scouring The Daily Telegraph at home for the most obscure items of news and tormenting my unfortunate father and uncle with questions and arguments.
'I thought of going into politics when I left the forces,' Major Baxter said, pulling a little wistfully on his pipe. 'But then I ended up at this place and somehow I never left. Your uncle has told me rather a lot about you, Hargraves. We must have a very long talk soon.'
'Yes, Sir,' I nodded.
'You'll be getting an invitation to tea in the next few days, old chap. I live the other side of the Rugby fields, in that stone cottage over by the copse.'
He smiled, a little mysteriously, I thought, as if delighted by some hidden knowledge. I realised that I was excited, but I did not at this point know why.
The invitation came, as promised, by the next morning's pigeon post. It was less of an invitation, more of an order. 'Hargraves, you will report to me for tea and toast, this p.m., straight after Rugger. Stuart Baxter.' Being from a military family, I was used to such but friendly commands, yet the brevity of the noted intrigued and teased me. It was written in deep blue ink, with a clear, strong script. Throughout the day, I found myself pulling it from my pocket, glancing at it with eager anticipation.
It was a bitterly cold day, with the first sharp frost of the year still hardening the ground by the afternoon. I did not enjoy Rugby very much, but I played it with vigour largely to please my father. For my pains, I had already been selected for a House team, which in practice would mean Rugger nearly every day. I was not at all times a solitary chap, but I preferred to stride over the Yorkshire Dales I knew so well to the rigours of the playing field. I loved to climb to a high place like Wild Boar Fell or one of the Three Peaks to look down over rugged countryside or across, on clear days, to a distant sea. I liked to sit for hours, absorbed in a newspaper or history book, teaching myself to think. Never tremendously academic, I had learned more from talking to my interesting family than I had at school. My grandfather, who had commanded a Gurkha regiment during the War, spoke
frequently to me of Eastern religions, odd tribal customs, of mountains that tested every muscle in the human body. My father, a Royal Navy Commander, was often away at sea. When at home, he spent most of the time sitting by our wood fire, reading field sports magazines, smoking his pipe, talking animatedly about life on the ocean wave and telling bawdy jokes whenever the excuse arose. In summer, he played cricket for the village team.
Yet it was with my Uncle John, his bachelor brother, that I had the strongest rapport. John was a Major in one of our Yorkshire regiments until he retired to teach Geography and History at a preparatory school near our home, serve as a local Councillor and spend as much time as possible with me. He had taught me to shoot when I was young, and these days we went for long walks together when we talked, continuing our conversations at home and often late into the night. John was a strong but affectionate man, tall, thin but muscular with thinning dark brown hair and a dry sense of humour and a laugh which came easily. I regarded him not only as an uncle, but as my best friend. Each day, we discussed the news together and he treated me more as adult than child as he gently encouraged me to question everything. I thought of Uncle John as I began the long cold trudge to the Rugger field. Yet the suggestion that I was even the slightest bit homesick would have met with an indignant reply from me. This, in the English public schools, we have learned to call 'character-building'.
The match lasted little more than an hour but appeared to go on for eternity. It was Thursday and there were no afternoon lessons or any other commitments for several hours. Major Baxter had said 'straight after Rugger'. I took his command literally, and so I did not go back for a shower but strode purposefully towards 'Thistle Cottage', Major Baxter's house. To keep out the cold, I put on over my Rugger kit a green 'Woolly Pully', the Army sweater with patches on the elbows and shoulders which I enjoyed wearing at home and in my free time at school. It was a present from Uncle John, who had given it to me to match his own.
'How was the game, Hargraves?' asked Major Baxter, as he ushered me into the front room, where a small coal fire burned brightly.
'It was good, Sir,' I said, 'but I much prefer Cricket to Rugger.'
'So do I, old chap.'
Major Baxter pointed to a comfortable armchair, close to the fire.
'Hargraves, I would much rather call you by your Christian name,' he announced. 'So from now on you're Robert, if that's all right with you, old chap.'
'I'd prefer Rob, actually, Sir,' I said, blushing at my own boldness. At home I was known as Bob, but Rob sounded more grown-up, I thought, and I was thirteen now, after all.
'Very well then, Rob it is,' said the Major, smiling rather warmly now. He wore light brown corduroys and, to my delight, a green Army sweater like my own. The walls of the room were plastered with old military prints. A Sikh warrior, armed with a dagger, glanced menacingly at me from above the stairway. There was an old map of the world with large portions shaded in pink, a photograph of the Major playing county cricket and shelves lined untidily with books of varying age and size. The room was not warm, despite the fire, and smelled of pipe smoke.
Major Baxter and I had little politics to argue on, except perhaps which of us was the staunchest Tory. Over tea and toast, and more toast, our talk ranged over Army life, the cricket scores Down Under, World War II, the shooting team (for which I had trials tomorrow), the loss of Empire (which he still regretted) and railways (which we both liked). At last, Major Baxter took the pipe from his mouth and played with it, tentatively, as he spoke.
'Your uncle told me something else about you, Rob,' he said, his voice suddenly solemn.
'Oh, what was that, Sir?.'
'He told me that you rather enjoy being tickled.'
I blushed. It embarrassed me that he should speak of such a thing, and yet it made me excited, almost uncontrollably excited.
'Where, precisely, do you enjoy being tickled?'
'I - well, Sir, I think -'
'You don't have to answer that, Rob, as I intend to find out for myself. More toast old chap?'
'Yes, please, Sir,' I said, because I was genuinely hungry after the game and because I wanted to postpone the inevitable. At home, I got tickled every day, without exception, and often many times. With my father, it was a fairly routine tickle. He would pass me on the stairs, the landing or outside in our garden and start poking me in the ribs and stomach until I was doubled-up with laughter. When I was reading, I would often be surprised by his hands prodding me under the arms or digging into my ribs as he cried 'Diggy, Diggy' and I dropped my book convulsed with helpless laughter. But it was my Uncle who was the truly merciless tickler. We would be talking, animatedly, on the large sofa we habitually shared, when without provocation or warning he would assault with both hands, his long bony fingers working into every ticklish crevice of my body until I was on the floor, reduced to helpless, writhing pulp, gasping for breath, trying desperately to form the words:
'Pleeease, pleease Uncle Jooohn. ...'
'Diggy, Diggy, Diggy, Diggy,' he would reply, as the tickling reached ever more intense heights. When he tickled me, he always smoked his pipe, gripping it with his teeth as he attacked with his hands, and I smelled the enticing aroma of tobacco as his face moved closer to mine. Uncle John would often spend entire afternoons tickling me. When he did this, he grinned as if he had become a naughty schoolboy. When he was around, I knew I could be tickled at any time, in any place and that there would be know warning. We talked occasionally about 'our tickling game' and thought of it as part of our unusual closeness to each other. At my preparatory school, which I attended from the ages of eight to thirteen, my extreme ticklishness was quickly discovered by the other boys and many of the masters, too. Indeed I was tickled so frequently by the Headmaster, another old Army man, that I suspected that my uncle or my father had had words with him, although both denied it. He knew that I was 'Army barmy', as they say, and invited me for regular talks about the War and military life generally, which had always ended with my being tickled. At my new school, I had spent the first tickle-free week, indeed the first tickle-free day, that I could remember at all, and was already starting to wonder how long this would last.
'I like a chap that's ticklish,' said Major Baxter, in a crisp, matter-of-fact way that dragged me back to the present circumstances. He put down his pipe, stood up and strode towards my armchair. Before I knew what had happened his large hands were on my chest, his fingers gently nudging my ribs, his thumbs probing my armpits.
I laughed silently, beginning to crease into a ball as Major Baxter's tickling intensified. Although I felt, quite literally, as if I were at home, my heart was pounding, as if with some unfamiliar desire.
'Diddy, diddy, diddy.'
The Major tickled me beneath the ribcage with one hand, beneath my left knee with the other. I bellowed with laughter.
'That's better, Rob,' said Major Baxter. 'I promised your uncle that I would take a special interest in you, and this is one of the ways I mean to do it.'
'But Sir -'
'But nothing, old chap! Diddy, diddy, diddy!'
'No, no, Sir, not my thighs, not my - Oh, OOOh. He. He. Haaa. Ha. Ha.'
I felt that I was beginning to dissolve, to lose control. I tried to hang on, tried desperately not to laugh, not to surrender, not to fall on the floor.
'Nooh. No. Oh. No. He. Heeee. Ha. Ha. Haaaaah!'
I fell on to the Major's comfortable, woolly hearth rug, laughing uncontrollably. Then I lifted my legs into the air to try, try anything to defend my chest.
But Major Baxter seized my legs, running his fingers along the backs of each, from the edges of my shorts down, slowly but surely, towards my feet.
'Ha, ha. Ha. No, please, Sir. Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa -'
As he tickled me with one hand, with the other he produced from under the cushion of his armchair a pair of rusty old handcuffs.
'Now, Rob,' he began.
'No, Sir,' I begged. 'No, Sir, you're not - Ha, ha, ha. Haaaah.'
Major Baxter sat on my stomach, making me feel his full weight as I strove to escape his tickles. Before I could move, he had seized my hands with one of his and I felt the cold metal close around them. His face lit up as he puffed triumphantly on his pipe.
'You are well and truly vanquished, aren't you, old chap?' he chortled.
'Yesssir,' I nodded, gulping for breath between laughs as he tickled my sides.
'I can do anything I like now, can't I, old boy?'
'No, Sir, please. No. yes, Sir, you can. Yes. Yes.
'Diddy. Diddy. Diddy.'
He took off my Rugby socks.
'Ha, ha, ha.'
'Oh, how I like tickling feet. Especially smelly feet!'
He held my naked right foot in both his hands. As he stroked my toes, I flailed convulsively, screaming with laughter. I knew that the cottage was in the remotest part of the school, that I would not be missed for several hours and besides, Major Baxter had earlier telephoned my Housemaster to say that we were having a very long talk and that I would not be back for several hours. But then I could not think about anything any more, just laugh, just writhe, just laugh.
'Oh. OHHHHHHH! Oh. Ha. Ha. Ha. Heeee. Heee! Heeee - '
I farted. It was the most satisfying kind of fart - long, loud and uncompromisingly smelly. Usually I was rather proud of my farts. In the dormitory at my last school, we had sometimes organised competitions to determine who could do the longest, loudest and smelliest and I had repeatedly won on all counts. I had even used farting as a weapon against Uncle John. The smell would halt his tickling momentarily, but only to return with renewed vigour. Farting in front of my uncle or other boys was all very well, but in the Senior History Master's sitting room it was rather embarrassing, despite the fact that I was handcuffed and having the daylights tickled out of me. The smell lingered in the air.
'Impressive,' said Major Baxter, holding his nose. But undeterred, he turned his back on me placed his bottom, which was large, against my face.
'Ha. Ha. Ha. Hee, hee, Haaaaa-' I went on laughing as he tickled my sides. Then he farted in my face and my goodness it was smelly. An overpowering, meaty, masculine smell that passed through the corduroy trousers and straight up my nostrils, making me motionless but still laughing to myself, the best form of tickle-fodder that anyone can imagine. At that point, Major Baxter turned around, his hands pressed menacingly against my chest.
'Diddy, diddy? Diddy. Diddy. Diddy!'
'Ha, ha, ha. Haaa, Haaagh. Ha! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.'
'Ha, Ha, Ha. Haaa, Haaagh. Ha!'
'Your uncle warned me, Rob.'
'Ha, ha, warned you about what, Sir, ha-ha-ha, Heee?'
'About your flatulence, of course, old boy.'
'Well, two can play at that game, can't they, Rob Hargraves?'
'Ha, ha, ha.'
'Can't they? Diddy, diddy.'
'Ha, ha, yes, Sir, Ha, ha, yes, Sir, ha ha.'
'Diddy, diddy, diddy.'
He reached beneath my sweater.
'Noooooh. No, Sir. Haaah.'
Then my Rugby shirt. His hands were cold, very cold, and sent an exhilarating chill through my whole being.
'Sir, no, pleease, Sir. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ho. Ho. Heeee. Haaaah.'
Then something else happened. Something I had not quite dared to think about before, although it was there, somewhere, waiting to be brought to the surface. Major Baxter pulled my Rugger shorts half way down my legs. To my embarrassment and shame, he saw my erection.
'Now, old chap, when you're an older chap, I'm going to tickle you in a very special place. A very special place.'
I blushed, then writhed with anticipated pleasure and pain as Major Baxter waved his middle finger at the skin beneath my crotch.
'Diggy. Diggy. Diggy.'
'Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Ha. Ha. Ha.'
But it was my armpits he tickled. The Major replaced my shorts and relit his pipe.
'You know, my dear, Rob, I can hardly wait for you to get older!'
'Nor can I, Sir,' I said, so surprised by my words that I think I blushed again. But the Major just tickled me.
'Haaaaaaaaaaaaggggggggghhhhhhh! Heeeeeee - Haaaaaa. Ha. Ha. Ha.'
Major Baxter went on tickling my sides and armpits until we were well into evening. As he released me from my handcuffs, he whispered something in my ear that made me tremble with relish and terror.
'Just think, old chap. You've got five more years of this to look forward to.'
As I wandered back to the House after a spot of supper and a talk with the Major, I felt that something had changed inside me, that I had undergone a rite of passage. When I got back, I tickled my roommate, but that is another story...