Nobody knew why Tom was there. He hardly knew himself. He had happened upon Henry’s obituary a week earlier while visiting the Queen. It was discovered during his staff’s customary reading of articles from local papers, which they did anytime they ventured to a town or city outside London. It was another way he had tried, and of course, failed, to be a man of the people. Henry was a man of the people. A man whom every person he had ever met, loved. The people packed into this small Windsor chapel were there because they loved Henry. But none of them knew why Tom was. He wished he could tell them, he was there because he loved Henry too, loved him like a father. The only father figure that Tom had ever really known. Even though he hadn’t seen him since Eton. That was almost forty years ago. Tom knew it wouldn’t be right to stay for the service. He wanted to pay his respects but Henry’s family and friends were more focussed on him than they were on the vicar, taking it in turns to look around to see their Prime Minister. He knew they didn’t want him there, whether they supported him or not. And these days it was more likely not. They didn’t want his surprise appearance to take their attention from remembering Henry. And neither did Tom, so he snuck back out, as quietly as he and his security officers could.
On the way back to Number Ten, Tom didn’t read through the pile of files on his lap. He stared out of the car window, into the rain, and let his mind wander back to the first time he met the man who had just passed. He could see him so clearly, standing on Dutchman’s Playing Field, smoking his pipe, wearing his athletic shorts and vest. He could almost hear his warm grin tinting his encouraging shouts to the runners as they sploshed around the muddy track. Tom remembered how scared he felt on that first meeting, despite Henry keeping the calm, even tone he always kept. Perhaps it was his bushy sideburns or his hard-to-place accent. Men that Tom knew, growing up, spoke in very precise Received Pronunciation and usually had incredibly manicured appearances. Even at that young age, Tom could see the irony in being more comfortable around men who fussed over their looks, public figures like his father. He had been raised to uphold his own level of presentability above all else. He had often been walloped by Nanny for having an untucked shirt or a hair out of place. He dared not put his hands in his trouser pockets and always arrived at any occasion in appropriate shoes. Yet, whether it was his fault or Nanny’s, he had left for his first term at Eton without his plimsolls. Instead, he turned up to his introductory Physical Education lesson in his best loafers. Henry kicked off his own plimsolls and told Tom to change into them, instead. At the time, he thought Henry was scolding him. But later realized that his best loafers, and possibly his athletic future, were saved by Henry’s kindness. Henry, of course, spent the rest of the rainy PE lesson in nothing but his bare feet.
Tom pictured Henry shoeless, sinking into the neverending mud and oomska of the torn-up field. He imagined how cold his feet must have been, the freezing rain beating down on them. Trivial things like the elements never bothered Henry, at least as far as Tom could tell. Henry was strong, fearless. He had been in the Navy from a young age. Maybe even as young as thirteen or fourteen. He told Tom he lied about his age to join, and back then no one seemed to check. He remembered Henry’s story of coming home on leave, when he was fifteen or so, and finding that his parents, his whole family, no longer lived at their family home. They had moved out without telling him. He had no idea. What’s more, he had no idea how to find them, not within the leave time he’d been given, at least. Instead, he went back to his ship and the Navy became his family. Tom had always thought that’s why they got along so well. Henry, essentially orphaned as a teen; and Tom, who hardly ever interacted with his parents, raised instead by Nanny and a series of boarding schools. The day after Henry so kindly lent Tom his plimsolls, Tom found a brand new pair left outside his room. “Daps,” Henry called them, short for “Dunlops.” Probably only cost a couple of bob from the market but they meant more to him than anything Nanny had passed along from his parents, particularly his best loafers that Henry’s kindness had saved. The plimsolls came with a note: “Tomorrow’s your lucky day.” Tom discovered it was.
He climbed out of the car at Number Ten and thanked his driver. His security officers passed a large umbrella over his head as he walked the five or six steps to the front door. He had been protected from the elements by his staff for so long, he almost forgot what a few drops of rain felt like. These days the bad weather never seemed to end. He thanked his security officers and stepped inside. His wife, Laura, greeted him with a dry kiss and let him know that his supper was already set up in the study. It had become the evening routine, supper and a pile of papers with no interruptions from staff or family. He had long known that Laura was resigned to not spending time together. His work had gotten in the way so many times that now it just silently, automatically took over. Running the country didn’t allow for family time. Even though everyone in the country knew he wasn’t running the country well. Still, work had to come first. He assumed Laura thought he worked so hard because he loved it. But he was really only truly happy when he was spending time with her. In the early days, he had put work first out of a sense of duty. But he managed to work efficiently enough to get enough done, each day, that he still had time to spend with his wife, and eventually with his kids. As the years went on, he got busier and busier until there was no time left. Work just kept piling up, figuratively and literally, hence the supper routine. These days, it went so late into the night that everybody else in the house was already in bed by the time he finished.
Tom loved Laura more than anything. He had always been surprised that a woman like her would feel the same about him. She was way out of his league in the looks department, smarter, better at school and at university where they met, climbed the ladder much faster when they were both training to be barristers, was much cooler and calmer under pressure, a better dresser, a better parent, better partner. He felt the unbelievable luck of being with her from the first time they went out together. Nowadays, she did so much to support him running the country, that their relationship had become more like employer and employee. He wished there was more time.
He stared out of his study window, into the rain, and remembered back to the first time he met Henry’s family. He was invited over by Henry’s wife, Pam, who knew how awful Boy’s Supper at Eton could be, and often told Henry to bring the boys over so they could have at least one good, home cooked meal. And Tom had heard that Pam could really cook, so he and Henry walked the half mile or so in the rain after school, talking about their time at Eton. Tom admitted he was having trouble getting along with the other boys, and thought it was probably because of his sheltered upbringing. He confided that he was lonely without Nanny and without their family dog. Henry told him that a lot of the other boys at Eton, especially at his age, were lonely too, but really, none of them were actually alone. He suggested Tom try speaking to the other boys in his house about how they felt too, not just about school work. And that it didn’t have to be a lonely life at Eton at all. He said he had the same feeling when he first joined the Navy. That they didn’t truly work well as a unit until they shared the non-Navy aspects of their lives with each other. It was how he went from being abandoned by his family to finding a new one, one that would never leave him behind.
Tom remembered getting to Henry’s front porch and stepping in from the rain. Henry shook his battered umbrella and left it outside, wiped his feet and led Tom in. Tom remembered Henry’s three girls, racing down the black and white checkered hallway excitedly to greet them. He remembered how Henry kissed each of them lovingly on the tops of their heads and asked them if they wanted to say “hello” to his friend, Tom. The girls took it in turns to shake Tom’s hand and each of them told him something about themselves, then led him through their cozy home to the kitchen to meet their mother. He remembered how Henry would always call Pam his “love” and how the whole kitchen smelled better than any meal he had ever eaten. Like he was smelling all of the love that had gone into it, on top of the steak and kidney that went into the pie itself. Henry led him back through to their sitting room where they waited for the pie to cool before eating. He remembered how they all sat together, Henry in his comfortable armchair, surrounded by his pipes, cleaners and assorted paraphernalia; the girls drawing, reading and dancing, respectively; and he and Pam sitting on the sofa as she explained the various pieces of art on the walls and the few photographs of them all.
Tom’s eyes wandered over to the clock on his study’s mantelpiece. It was already past ten. He had missed bedtime. He hadn’t even heard it. He stepped out of his study and tiptoed up the stairs. His and Laura’s bedroom door had been left ajar, as always. He crept past it to the boys’ room and poked his head around their door to see them already sleeping soundly. He thought about what kind of a father he had been. And had to admit, he had not been much of one. His family life had been an important issue in the press when they were both born. They had been a strong factor in his early success, bonding with his constituents and other party members. But as they grew older and his attention was drawn away, towards the issues that seemed irrevocably broken throughout the country, they began to be left out of the conversation, out of the news and, ultimately, out of his daily life. Laura always said that she didn’t want a nanny raising them, she preferred to do it herself. So she and the boys became a tight, functional unit, while Tom followed along from the sidelines. Whether he liked it or not, the absent father figure was completely natural to him. His own father was forever happily occupied with his parliamentary role as Secretary of State for education. And, in Tom’s case, his mother was forever happily occupied being the wife of the Secretary of State for education. And Tom had Nanny, so his parents didn’t feel they needed to spend any of their time on him. He knew he was perpetuating the same fatherhood abyss that his own had begun. There was no affection between them. His father had never once hugged him. The only physical contact he had ever received was a handshake. He looked down and flexed his fingers. His father never even called him by his name. He was “boy” for as long as he could remember, until, eventually, he found his way into politics and his father promoted him to “my boy.” At least there was a feeling of attachment in that, part of the old man’s pride that his boy was following in his footsteps. When Tom became Prime Minister, his father switched it up entirely and started calling him “P.M.” That was the most affectionate he’d ever been. The position had clearly meant more to him than Tom had himself. These days he was just content with surpassing his father’s legacy in the cabinet. He had shown him that he was better than him, in his career at least. His father’s political peak had been Secretary of State for education, and as far as Tom could see, not a very good one. He had never been interested in Tom’s stories about school. His father had gone to Eton too, of course, but then his father didn’t have Henry. Tom wished he had stayed in contact with his PE teacher, his mentor, once school was over. It was too late to fix that now. He thought how unfair it was that Henry’s time on earth was over, while his father lived on. And even though he knew he wasn’t meant to admit it, he would trade their places in a heartbeat. Tom gently kissed his two boys on the tops of their heads, pulled their door to, and stepped quietly down the stairs.
He closed the door to his study quietly and put on his headphones. Laura always left them next to his supper plate. She knew he liked to shut the world out when he was working. He thought back to one of Henry’s most terrifying Navy stories: during the Second World War, he was stationed in the ship’s crow’s nest when they were hit by a torpedo during a raging storm. The hulking ship leaned starboard like it was going to topple, catapulted him out of his post and attempted to throw him two hundred feet down into the freezing water. He managed to grab hold of the headphone wire, which, luckily for Henry, was as thick as a rope back then and permanently connected to the radio. With nothing but the stormy expanse below him, Henry dangled perilously above the blazing skirmish and, inch by inch, swinging this way and that, managed to claw his way up the thick wire, back to the relative safety of the crow’s nest. Tom remembered back to his first time climbing ropes in Eton’s sports hall, and the paralyzing fear he had, looking up at the twenty five or so feet they were expected to scale. It seemed so paltry against Henry’s near catastrophic drop from the very top of his ship. Henry calmed Tom and the other boys down by telling them they didn’t need to be afraid of heights. They should, of course, be afraid of falling. They’d be barking mad not to be. But being afraid of falling would ultimately stop them from falling. They would be so conscious of falling, that they wouldn’t allow themselves to. So, really, there wasn’t anything to be afraid of. Tom appreciated Henry’s circular logic, even back then.
He wasn’t hungry. He had just realized. He got up and poked his head out of the front door, and asked his security officers if they would like anything. They thanked him and politely declined. He looked out at the hard, steady rain and asked if they would like a hot drink. They politely declined again. He really wanted to ask if they hated him as much as the rest of the country. And if there was anything he could do to make them, meaning the whole country, like him again. But he knew it was too far gone. He thought about how they were probably ex-military, like Henry. And hopefully just as fearless as Henry too. Tom thought back to an epic fight that broke out in the Boys’ Dining Room. He remembered how hard the rain was outside and how it had made everything so slippery. None of the other Beaks wanted anything to do with it. They kept their distance and hoped it would work itself out. It didn’t look like it would. Those things never did. In fact, more and more boys were getting involved. Like a full on ruck. A mess of slipping and punching and shouting profanities. Of course, Henry just strolled straight in and grabbed the two ringleaders by their collars. None of the other boys dared even looking him in the eye, let alone shift their swearing or fists onto him. They all just stepped aside, parted like the Red Sea, picked up their trays and books and any clothes that had been ripped off during the scuffle, and quickly and quietly walked away.
Tom never considered himself much of a physical fighter but remembered the first time Henry taught him and the rest of his PE class to box. The idea of it scared him more than anything, the thought of someone landing a fist on him. He had been boxed around the ears by Nanny enough times for not doing what she asked, and had endured various forms of corporal punishment at school, caning and birching, but he’d never been in an actual fight. Henry told him it wouldn’t hurt. That his opponent was fourteen years old and wearing mittens. That they were nothing to be afraid of. That he shouldn’t even think of it as a fight. Instead, just think of it like a conversation. Think of it like debate. Every swing is a word, words are going to be thrown back and forth and the goal is just to get more in than your opponent can. “Don’t fear the words,” he said, “anticipate them. Hear them, encourage them, and then return them, hard.” Tom was already fairly good at debate, but boxing made him better. And because of the boxing, he got even better at debate. He felt in command of the situation, and of his opponent. He’d toy with them, entice them in, let them swing a few, then pelt them right back. Then he’d ease off until they thought they had a chance, and then clobber them into submission, or at least until “out of time” was called. After that, Tom was never afraid of confrontation again. Though, these days, they were far more likely to be word-based.
Henry had had more to do with Tom’s political success than he ever realized. He gave him confidence, helped him connect with others, coached him to debate better, taught him conviction to trust what he believed in, stopped him from relying on validation from his father, and helped him learn the importance of looking after those that depended on him. Tom thought back to a time that had stuck with him, and probably with a lot of the other boys, for many years. During a cross country run that Henry had taken them on, on a wet and windy day. They had already been fairly apprehensive before heading off. The rain hadn’t stopped in weeks and the ground was soggy and waterlogged. The wind had been whistling through the school buildings and shaking the shutters all day. Henry told them that it was just rain and that it wouldn’t hurt any of them. By that time, most of the boys had begun to think of Henry as a sort of commanding officer, they would have followed him anywhere: into battle with climbing ropes, or boxing the enemy in debate, or running in heavy weather through soggy fields. So they set out. As they found the rhythm of the run, staying in a tight formation as Henry instructed, the rain and the wind stopped bothering them. If anything, it cooled them down and propelled them on. They felt invigorated. They felt fearless. Until a few miles in, when the skies suddenly changed. Dark clouds rolled in and a closeness in the atmosphere threatened thunder. Tom could see some of the weaker boys slipping back, away from the pack. He ran around behind them and tried to give them an inspiring speech. He had them chant the Eton motto as they ran, “Floreat Etona! Floreat Etona!” Henry pushed on ahead and the weaker boys caught up. Tom never left the rear so he could watch out for them all. Then thunder came and shook the sky. Lightning flashed all around them. Tom continued his command of the rear as Henry led steadily forward. They had to cross a series of open fields, to get to the woods on the other side where they would be better sheltered and out of harm’s way of the forking lightning bolts. Tom had done as much convincing as he could, and now too felt compelled to stop and wait for Henry’s guidance. The whole pack came to an anxious halt as Henry turned to see them fall behind. He told them that lightning scared him too. That he knew it seemed unpredictable. That he had been out in the middle of the ocean before, in this kind of weather, wishing they could turn back. But like now, he knew that wasn’t really an option. He told them turning back now would take longer and be more dangerous than pressing forward. And that staying where they were would bring them all down with a chill. Moving forward was the only course of action. A few of the boys told him they were scared of being struck by the lightning, so he told them to count. If they counted the time it took between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, it would tell them how far away it was, and how unlikely they were to get hit by it. He told them to look out to the open fields. To count how long it would take them to run from one small shelter or tall tree to another. That they could time it so they would never be out in the open when the lightning struck. He told them that they could move faster by helping each other over the styles and walls and through the streams. That they weren’t twenty eight boys running through the open fields, they were one unit. They would step into the first field as one unit and they would make it all the way to the woods as one unit. The boys counted out loud between the lightning and the thunder. They counted out loud between the two deadly elements three times. They were, indeed, moving away. Henry primed them all to make a run across the first field after the next lightning bolt hit. As it lit up the sky and his reliable face, he cried his now legendary battle cry, “C’mon lads! Tomorrow’s your lucky day!” He started running, and they all followed.
“Suffice to say we all made it,” Tom said to himself. He looked out at the endless rain in London, and thought how trivial that storm seemed now, to a man his age. How it must have seemed to Henry at the time. A Navy man, by golly. A man who had dangled two hundred feet above a battle over raging water in far worse conditions. But Henry didn’t belittle it. He didn’t make fun of the boys, he could see what they were feeling. He understood. And he did what he needed to do to inspire the strength they wished they had. Henry was a born leader. Those qualities were his instincts. His leadership didn’t need to be analyzed, or reasoned over, or focus group tested. He just did what he thought was best for the good of his people.
Tom thought back to the letter he wrote to Henry when it was his time to leave Eton. How he thanked him for everything he had done for him. He told him what his plans were now, he wanted to become a barrister. How it was Henry’s boxing lessons that had made him love conversation and debate. He wrote about how he wanted to inspire those around him just like Henry did on that stormy cross country run. How he wanted to teach others to better themselves just like Henry had taught him. He remembered the day he gave the letter to him, Henry had recently started wearing glasses and some of the other boys were teasing him for being ‘blind.’ Henry shook it off with a laugh and a joke about how he had “already seen so much.” He remembered Henry had a whole handful of letters from other boys and he wondered if he had ever actually read his. If he even remembered who Tom Walker was, now the Prime Minister of England.
Through the sheets of rain outside the sky grew steadily lighter. Laura poked her head around his study door and asked if he had gotten any sleep. Tom reached out to hold her hand, kissed it and told her he would, tomorrow.
He bathed and changed, then got in the car and let it speed him off. He stared out into the rain and thought about how the country had fallen apart. How it all started with his cabinet. How there was so much positivity at the beginning but none of them had had the gumption to do what was needed, to keep them all together, moving in the same direction. How the country didn’t need leaders like them that were only in it for themselves. How the healthy debate at the beginning had resorted to spitefulness and a lack of trying. And how once it had all started, they had all just let it go on.
He got out of the car and left the speech that was written for him on the backseat. The speech that was analyzed and reasoned over and focus group tested until it no longer said what he wanted to say. He walked through the crowded parliament building shaking his colleagues’ hands. He knew it was too late to create the kind environment that Henry had created for him and the other boys. He still saw so much potential in everyone around him but knew that he wasn’t the right one to lead. He told himself that it was his lucky day, then he stepped up to the podium, and resigned.
As the car took him back to Number Ten for the last time, just for a moment, the rain stopped.
Inspired by stories of my grandfather, who taught PE in the 1950s to England’s future leaders at Eton.