Winston always dreaded the start of the new school year. For some reason, he had regularly found himself in classes where he knew hardly anyone and had to overcome his shyness in an attempt to make new friends every September. Friends? No, he never made friends; he had to invest all his energies into withstanding his enemies and trying to keep the rest of the class neutral towards him. This already daunting task was made worse by the reaction of his classmates as soon as they heard his name. He was the instant butt of jokes, teasing and bullying. In a way, it was boring. They were always the same unimaginative puns on his name and initials – Winston Chambers, W.C. “Here comes the Winning Pisspot” was about the least offensive and hurtful. He was inured to the bad jokes and teasing, but he still feared the bullies. And they knew it.
As he entered his new classroom on this sunny autumn day he could feel his heart sinking into his socks. Very few familiar faces, and those belonged to people he least desired to see. Didn’t the powers-that-be, the members of staff responsible for allocating kids to classes, realise what went on?
Winston drew a deep breath and walked to the place that would be his during this school year. To his surprise, hardly anyone took any notice of him. He glanced up and saw that the bully boys were already busy, their attention focused on a small chap with a quivering lower lip, the sign guaranteed to goad a bully to even greater heights – or depths – of torment. Winston’s first reaction was to shrink down into his seat, away from the bloodthirsty horde. Then he heard what they were saying and a flame of anger shot through him.
“Poor little ice-arse!” and similar jeers struck a chord and before he could stop and think Winston found himself striding across the room to the side of the miserable victim.
“Shut up, the lot of you!” His voice was loud and fierce. His eyes were blazing and he suddenly looked much bigger and taller. He felt he was towering above the lads who were now gaping at him. One of them giggled, but they stopped their banter and shifted their attention to Winston.
“Who’s this?” asked one of the boys Winston didn’t know. “Batman come to help Robin?”
“Bogman, more likely,” sniggered another. “It’s old WC, the chamber pot. One shithouse come to the rescue of another!”
The gang laughed and for a moment it looked as if both Winston and the little chap were going to get battered, but at that moment the door opened and the class teacher walked in.
“What’s your name?” Winston whispered hurriedly.
“Nicholas Winterbottom,” muttered the boy, flushing deeply.
Winston returned to his seat and it wasn’t until break that he was able to find and speak to Nicholas, tucked away in a quiet corner in the shadows.
“It’s bad enough being called Nicholas,” said the boy, “but then Winterbottom as well …”
“I know what you mean,” nodded Winston feelingly. Knickerless winter bottom, he thought. What on earth were his parents thinking of when they named him?
“Look, Nick,” he said, “That lot in there – do you think we can face them, together?”
Nicholas looked at him hard. Winston returned the gaze. Neither flinched and something – neither could say exactly what, but both felt it – passed between them. Nicholas nodded.
“You’re brave,” he said. “You make me feel braver than I’ve ever felt before.”
Winston smiled. “We can stand up to them, you know. Together.”
He wasn’t sure what made him feel so positive, but he remembered that sensation of power that had suddenly filled him the moment he had taken his place by Nicholas’s side earlier. He had faced the enemy, looked into his eyes, and seen – what? Surprise? Yes, but more than that: not fear exactly, but … respect. The other boy had looked away first, and had backed off. Winston was discovering confidence, self-assurance. Perhaps, too, he had grown a few inches during the summer holidays. He was unaware of it himself, but in the past hours his posture had changed: he was standing up straight and tall, his chin raised, his entire body proclaiming: “Don’t mess with me.”
The effect on Nicholas was startling. For the first time in his life, he had a champion. More than a champion, a role model. By the end of the first week of term, encouraged and inspired by Winston’s new attitude, Nicholas was also walking tall, his head up and his gaze steady.
That was all a very long time ago. Years. Decades. So much water under the bridge, Winston thought, as he re-read the headlines on his computer screen. New Year’s Honours List – well, well! In his mind, he saw Nick’s young face, as it had been that first week when the two of them had decided on their strategy and had enrolled in a martial arts course after school. And look at them now.
“Never looked back!” he murmured to himself. “Good old Nick!”
He picked up his phone.
“Professor Chambers here,” he announced. “Is Sir Nicholas available?”