Nick discovers the word ossuary when he’s fourteen in 1960 and delights in its euphony. Discovering its meaning, he finds it perfectly describes Candleton Boys’ Grammar School in which he’s imprisoned; what better description could there be for the old white male bones of the staff? Leo, a fellow classmate, and the only Jewish boy in the class, is less concerned with the sound of words than the ugly meaning of the whispering anti-Semitic innuendoes he endures.
The Ossuary focuses on certainties: rugby, cricket, Anglicanism, duty, the rights of passage to Oxbridge, a robust heterosexuality and a tolerance of kicking against the traces as long as it isn’t in any way threatening to Ossurarian certitudes.
In common with many single-sex communities, gossip and intrigue are rife but the favourite game of all is bullying. No one knows how it starts, but, mysteriously, victims are chosen and the juggernaut of oppression begins.
At first Nick doesn’t understand what’s happening. His friends blank him. His interventions in English Literature classes are met with an almost inaudible hiss from his classmates. He knows it’s going to be bad when he finds the word ‘queer’ scrawled in chalk on the lid of his desk. He knows the worst when, after rugby, no other boys will join him naked in the showers. They simply point and laugh.
At the same time Leo is bewildered when he becomes everyone’s best friend. He’s invited to join a few boys to share a fag on the walk home from school. He’s astounded when he’s asked to explain what happens in the Synagogue on a Saturday morning. He feels respected.
It’s mid morning. Nick is stopped by Leo and a group of boys.
Leo stands close to Nick and says, Behind my back, you’ve been calling me a fucking Yid.
Liar, the boys shout.
I’m going to make you pay, Leo says. In the lane, after school today,
Suddenly, the boys behind Nick chant, Fight the Jew boy! Fight! Fight! Fight!
At the end of the school day Nick is setting off for home when a group of boys push and shove him out across the yard and into the lane where Leo and more boys wait.
Leo takes off his blazer and shirt and, with fists up, says, Come on, fight, you fucking queer.
Why? This is all a mad game. They’re making fools out of us. You’re Jewish and they hate you. I’m queer and they hate me. They’re just bastards.
Boys chant, Fight!
Leo punches Nick in the face and blood pours from his mouth.
Nick doesn’t move. He makes no effort to retaliate
Leo stands back, shocked. I’m sorry. You didn’t call me a Yid, did you?
Boys, disappointed, fall silent.
Truce? Leo asks.
We’re not at war, Nick says
They shake hands as the last of the disgruntled boys leave.
I’m sorry I called you a queer, Leo says.
You’re a Jew. I’m queer. So what’s in a name?
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© Phil Cosker 2021
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.