The truce was over but I was mostly away at school so I was able to ride it out more or less. I stayed at the school through Christmas Break each year to study one- on- one with professors eager to be paid extra wages to help me catch up with my studies. Every summer I studied with Ranjit Sahib in the languages of India. I finally staggered across the finish line of my academic studies in 1839 in the exact middle of my class. I graduated without honors but without demerits. Other cads and bounders and villains had come to the school and they long ago replaced me as Villain Number One. I was simply Nicholson the Unlikable rather then Nicholson the Frankenstein Monster or even the Gorilla of Gallstone.
I was still growing but not quite as fast and other boys were growing too so I did not look quite so grotesquely tall. I was still skinny but I was growing into my ridiculous height. My shoulders were broader and I was rather stalwart in build at least. My black hair was still unruly and too many punches left me with an inelegant aquiline nose balanced by a high forehead and my ever ‘unquiet’ grey eyes. My latest embarrassment was actually my voice — which was breaking and dropping into an deep base at the most erratic of moments.
For graduation Hogg Heaven showered gifts down on my head. The postman delivered my brand new Cadet Uniform. Grandmother Hogg gave me a beautiful silver brush and shaving kit. My brothers likewise gave me a plate silver brush and shaving kit. Ditto Uncle Hogg from London. His was an Indian brush and shaving kit. At least Mother gave me a bible. But as usual she stayed in her room. “Is this a less than subtle hint?” I asked as I pointed to the brush and shaving kits.
“A comb through the hair once in a while might help” Charlie pipped up. “I am going to play cricket for a living so everyone must buy be cricket bats for my graduation!”
“No one can live by playing cricket!”Mary shouted.
“Shaving can be a good thing John” Alex explained.
“What is wrong with my beard?”
“Ahhh John!” Willie replied. “How can be put this? A beard is grand — on a man. But people don’t expect a 16 year old boy to have a full beard.”
“It does not even cover your whole face” Charlie replied. “Your mustache is barely there!”
“Give it time!” I snarled.
“John. Dear!” Grandmother explained more gently. “It will be splendid — at a more appropriate time but right now you are just 16 and a brand new cadet in East India Company and everyone seeing you will assume you are a tad too old to be a mere 16 year old cadet if you are six foot one and still growing and have a beard. But clean-shaven, you do look rather more 16. Well. 17. Maybe 18. But not 20!”
“What everyone is saying you ass” Mary snapped, “In India there will be soldiers who are 40, and Indian sepoys who are 30, and native Indian junior officers who are 50, who will all be obligated to salute you and call you Sahib or Sir if you look 20 which is insulting enough! But at least as a cadet you won’t embarrass grown men into feeling they have to salute a snotty nosed brat of a 16 year old griffin!”
“Thank you Mary and where is your fucking gift?”
Mary grabbed a box and dropped it on the table. I tore it open to reveal an umbrella. “You will needed it asshole!” Mary snarled. “Monsoons! Sunstroke!” Mary turned her chair away in scorn. I looked at the wooden handle. It was engraved ‘To Nicholson from Nicholson’.
“Couldn’t you have engraved it ‘From Mary’ or else ‘Love Mary’ at least?”
“This way if you reject it I can repackage and give it to Alex for next Christmas!”
The boys snickered as I Mary and I fought over the umbrella. “I am keeping it just to spite you Mary! When I am dying in India and the newspapermen are writing my obituary they will harangue the giver of this umbrella no end!”
“Be that way! It was cheap anyway!” Mary huffed.
“Was not!” Charlie pipped in. “We marched to the best store on the high street and Mary had to pay extra for the engraving.”
“You write your letters to everyone ‘J Nicholson’ anyway John!” Willie laughed.
“So people will know who is writing!” I sputtered.
“Ahhhh!” Mary kicked Charlie under the table and then she kicked me in the shins. Then she stormed out of the room.
“Mary did mean it as a sincere and practical gift John dear” Grandmother said. “Mary drove the clerks in the store to distraction trying out every umbrella to find the strongest one to withstand monsoons!”