Within a few days of my arrival at the military institution that was to be my home for six years, the new boys were given a conducted tour of the school buildings and grounds. I should add that it was the kind of place that if you ran away, you were severely beaten so we were quite apprehensive of the rather tall head boy who was our tour guide. In the dining hall, he paused under an imposing painting of orphans marching through the main gates and delivered a short history of the school. Invariably our attention began to wander and several of us noticed a panel on which were listed winners of the Victor Ludorum Trophy.
‘Who was Victor Ludorum?’ piped up a small voice from the restless throng.
The head boy stared coldly at the youngster for several seconds and then replied, ‘Victor was a boy at this school who passed away under tragic circumstances. He was very popular and his heartbroken mother donated this trophy which is awarded each year in his memory. Please remember him in your prayers.’
We gazed in awe at the trophy before being led away to view the toilet block and the chapel. As the days passed, however, some of us recalled the tour, and, needing to satisfy our curiosity, enquired about poor Victor and his untimely ending. Though memory fades, I think I was told that Victor had been searching for a master’s favourite dog on the cliffs overlooking the bay. Stumbling around in the darkness on a wild, wintry night, Victor had fallen several hundred feet down the cliffs onto the shingle beach below. His last resting place was in a nearby village graveyard. ‘The dog? Sound asleep in its kennel the whole time.’
I had made friends with Joe, a boy who was later sent to work on a farm in Australia. Oh, how we envied him! When I told him about Victor, he looked puzzled and said that there was no grave. During a particularly violent gale, Victor, with no thought for his own safety, had jumped fully clothed into the local harbour to rescue another boy who had fallen from the pier. Though the rescue was successful, poor Victor himself had been swept away and was never seen again. Some onlookers were sure they heard him singing the chorus of the school song until it faded away, drowned out by the howling wind. ‘Play the Game, Play the Game, Play the Game.’
Somewhat puzzled, we shared our versions with another friend who said that we were both completely wrong. He told us that during World War 1, brave Victor had rushed to the rescue of a German fighter pilot whose plane had crashed on the sports field. Having been dragged from the burning wreckage, the pilot stood up, pulled out his luger pistol and shot poor Victor through the heart. ‘Curse those dastardly Huns!’ we cried in dismay. But it gradually dawned on us that we had been duped and, with the passage of time, yesterday’s gullible newcomers were to become tomorrow’s artful storytellers.
Indeed, the ways in which our hero met his unfortunate end were limited only by the imagination of those whom the newcomer consulted. For example, you could hear how he had missed the bus from town and, not wishing to be late for prayers in the chapel, had taken a short cut through a tunnel and been run over by a goods train laden with pig iron. ‘A 1936 Silver Jubilee Locomotive - type 4-6-0 to be exact.’ You might even have heard how he had perished whilst rescuing members of the wealthy and well-connected Ludorum family who were trapped in a hotel fire. ‘Unfortunately, the ladder caught fire just as he hopped out onto the top rung.’ Then there was the sad tale of how he had taken the wrong turning during a cross-country run, lost his way in the snow and, not only missed his tea, but died of hypothermia within sight of the school’s gates. ‘They would have been locked, anyway.’
Sometimes, the causes of his premature departure beggared belief but the audience would listen spellbound. Apparently, Victor was keen on making large kites and was always willing to demonstrate their flying capabilities to the younger boys. One gusty afternoon, during such a demonstration, he and his magnificent kite were lifted by the wind and carried some distance away. Cheering his maiden flight with enthusiasm, the young lads ran after him and then watched in horror as he plunged to earth and was impaled on spiked railings which bordered the school’s southern boundary. ‘You get a great view of the castle from there.’ Or, whilst suffering pangs of hunger, he crept out of the dormitory one night and broke into the kitchens where he choked on a stale piece of bread. Or did he fall into a vat of porridge? Anyway, whatever the cause, he met his maker that night. ‘Alone and in his nightshirt.’
My own contribution was quite modest. One wet afternoon, he had engaged in horseplay with friends and had accidentally been crushed. Unfortunately, no one took his cries for help seriously. ‘He was a very good actor for his age and would have made a superb Hamlet.’ The unfortunate fellow died in agony trapped between two iron bedsteads. By a strange coincidence, the scene of his tragic departure was always the very dormitory in which the story was told. ‘Which two beds? Well, to be honest, it’s yours and the one next to it’
Was there a photograph of young Ludorum to be seen anywhere? There were literally dozens of them. Almost any boy in an old school or sports team photograph would do. Victor could be extremely tall or very short, fair or dark haired, light or dark skinned, exceedingly good looking or utterly repelling, studiously intellectual or grinning like an idiot. As sweets were rationed, a sharp lad could easily boost his week’s supply by offering to point out Victor’s desk, coat hook, favourite library book, seat in the dining hall, or even the trombone he played in the school band, ‘Such a wonderful musician. Had he lived, he could have played for the Royal Philharmonic.’ For an additional contribution, you could be taken to the exact spot where Victor fell. Some attention to detail was required here; not much use showing a disused railway line to those eagerly anticipating a rusty spike.
Had anyone seen his ghost? The ghastly third verse of the school song guaranteed it.
And though our lonely grave be dug in some far distant land.
Our spirits will return again and hover close at hand.
And the boys will hear us whisper and the boys will understand.
Play the Game! Play the Game! Play up Game!
It used to give me nightmares. It still does. Many a newcomer must have spent an uncomfortable night foregoing the call of nature than risk seeing Victor’s spirit hovering close at hand. Oddly enough, though Victor generally departed on a wild and stormy night, he never contemplated suicide. I don’t think the poor lad ever had the time to consider it.
And so, as the years rolled by, more newcomers arrived at the school and were taken on the grand tour. Another head boy would stand in the dining hall paying homage to the memory of our heroic lad, and more tales of his brief but busy life would unfold. I sometimes wonder just how many painful and tragic endings the poor lad suffered since that day nearly sixty years ago when I stood under the portrait of the marching orphans and gazed in wonder at the trophy. An award which we all eventually discovered was presented annually to one particular student: the school’s athletics champion, the winner of the games, or as they say in Latin, the Victor Ludorum.
Now there is a curious twist to this tale. Years ago, I received a letter from an old school friend. It was from Joe, the one who had emigrated to Australia to enjoy life on a farm in the warm sunshine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the paradise that he imagined it would be. For all the beatings he received, he might as well have stayed at the school. Anyway, he had returned on holiday to England and had visited the place for old times sake. Later, he went exploring the fields and villages of our youth. In a churchyard, he discovered a sad little row of long-forgotten graves. The stones were barely visible amongst the ivy and undergrowth, but he had managed to clear a path to them. To his surprise, he found they were the final resting place of boys who had died at the school many years before we had arrived there. Gently brushing away the lichen, he found he could just about decipher some of their names and ages. The last one in the row was a lad called Victor Ludorum. For some reason that escapes me, I didn’t believe him.
Tony Crowley (c) 2001