We were all at our mess table, table number seven. Table number seven was in the middle row at the end of the east wall of the St John’s Boys School dining hall.
Above table number seven, on the wall, was a small crucifix and ‘Grace-before-Meal’ inscribed on cut-out black prints.
We exchanged small chit-chat and munched on breakfast as we waited for the bell.
The devoted Brother Richard, of the Order of St John, stoically made his rounds among the rows of tables and bobbing heads, his fingers working the rosary beads and his lips moving in silent prayer.
Scattered biscuit crumbs and spilled tea littered our mess table. For lunch and dinner, the staff would come with their own mess to spill on the tables. The dining hall was a discord of narratives, banging cups and shuffling feet.
At my end of the table, I was busy observing an army of ants scavenging biscuit crumbs when my concentration was disturbed by three hard knocks on the mess table.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
“Okay guys, listen up!” It was Tobias. “If you’ve been forgetful or busy looking at the clouds and not consulted the notice board, according to the schedule for evening prayer our table leads this week. Uh, starting this evening.”
All fourteen eyes were on him now. “Here’s how we’ll organise,” he continued after downing his remaining tea. ”Max, you take the first decade…."
“But TB, I recited the last time our table took lead!" Max protested.
"I know Max, but you have a good voice. And, uh, if you think about it, last week I did you a big favour. You’re going to repay that favour this evening. No whining," Tobias responded.
Since Tobias talked and talked and talked all the time, the members of table number seven, in a spirit of subservience, let him assume the role of table leader in mess duties and responsibilities concerning the table.
Tobias was in Grade Nine. Everyone called him TB. It might have had something to do with tuberculosis, I wouldn’t know. To everyone in school, he was TB.
The mess table seated eight. Four on each side. Table number seven had a Grade Ten student, two Grade Nines, three Grade Eights and two Grade Sevens. Eight different characters, cramped together every meal time all through the year. You got to know each of them; details that would stay with you as memories.
Gibson, the Grade Ten, didn't talk much. He was a lone wolf. You didn't see him much during the school week but on weekends he’d be found lying under the school's Southern Cross water tank at the back of the senior dormitory totally engrossed in either a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys detective adventures. Everyone called him Gibbs the loner.
"Okay, I'll begin the first decade but someone has to take lead next time," Max responded and slumped on the table.
Maximus was in Grade Eight. He was a good, humble kid but well known in the school because of his soccer skills. He had scored the winning goal in the recent final of the schools’ carnival. He was given a packet of mint lollies for his effort by the team matron, Ms Maggy-May.
"Ford and Stone, you two will follow Max. You can decide yourselves who will be first." Tobias looked at the twins sitting together facing me.
Both looked at him timidly and nodded in unison still munching on their biscuits.
Ford and Stone came into this world together as identical twins. Actually, their names were Johnsford and Johnston. It made things easier to call them Ford and Stone. As long as you identified with their names, you could distinguish their faces. They were strikingly the same, like human clones.
Their father owned a construction firm that won many government contracts. They said their father wanted them, his only sons, to take over the business one day.
"SP and PS, you two will close the prayer,” Tobias said. “Decide for yourself who'll be the last man on the platform." The two class mates nodded.
The initials SP and PS had been construed by table number seven for the duo. Simon Peter, the class captain of 8A, and Peter Simon, the bass guitarist in the school band. They were the best of friends, inseparably close. The members of table number seven respected them because of their roles in the school.
The bell rang and the dining hall erupted like a market place as uniforms and feet raced towards the exit.
"Okay table number seven, I think we are set for this evening. And please, don’t be late." Tobias rose from his seat and looked at me. "Since you won't take lead in reciting the Hail Marys tonight, you and Gibbs can help me clean up the table for lunch."