by Cathy Rosoff
In the beginning of fourth grade, Christian’s father decided to sign him up for ballroom dancing classes. When Christian learned of this decision, he declared war against him. Yet even after using all the weapons in his arsenal – nastiness, coldness and painful indifference – Christian could not attain his usual easy victory over his father. He could not, in fact, achieve any at all. No matter how tenaciously he fought him, his father refused to surrender. Christian would be going to The Foxcroft Academy of Dance’s ballroom dance lessons for nine year-olds.
Sascha, therefore, pushed his extracurricular-activity-phobic academically obsessed parents to allow him to go and proceeded to pretend he was forced to go after a phase of brutal resistance on his part.
Ballroom dancing classes at Foxcroft were the thing for Bristol Falls parents of children around the boys’ age in which to enroll their progeny. Sascha was therefore relieved to notice upon the first class’ commencement that none of Hunter’s gang, which had begun eating lunch with them at school but had yet to seep into their lives outside the parameters of Oxitern, was present.
By the end of the first class, however, Sascha was actually planning on doing something he had never done before – voluntarily withdrawing from something Christian was doing that he had been permitted to do. (He was only not a fellow camper at the all-boys Christian camp Christian’s father worked at and made Christian go to because his parents had forbidden it.) Like Christian, he was trapped in an awkward Foxtrot torture chamber with a teacher-paired comely catfaced Clairwil girl. (Clairwil girls were girls from the Clairwil Academy for Girls, Oxitern’s sister school. Sascha’s sister Isabelle was a Clairwil girl.) Sascha’s partner, Avery, however, would at least look at him with slightly less revulsion whenever he did something klutzy than her twin sister Ashley would when Christian did the same, which was far more often. Yet once Christian told him his dad still refused to let him drop out, Sascha lost his resolve to leave, and though he didn’t know why, by the time the day of the next class rolled around, he actually found himself looking forward to it. For the second class, Sascha and Christian arrived a little early just after a few other students. They walked to the back room where they were supposed to put their bags and coats. After Sascha put down his things he turned to Christian, who was rifling through one of the other student’s knapsacks.
Leaping over to him at the speed of light, he whispered, “Christian – stop – they’re right out there, they’ll see!”
“Which you of all people should know what a delicious possibility that might be,” replied Christian in his posh languid British accent of Lord Merriweather, the stepbrother of Sir Simon who introduced him into London’s “club” life.
“Was it not you who said that crime performed out in the open is a delicacy any true lover of the art should experience?”
“Yes, Lord, but it was also me who said –” Catching himself, Sascha stopped his Sir Simon-accented answer.
“Who said wha-”
“Who said what,
Sascha’s eyes softening, he began a guilty truncated laugh.
“Who said what, Sir -”
“Who said that the true crime lover should only risk committing the most exquisite crimes in so dangerous a way,” he said, all hesitation dissolving from his Sir Whitwell voice. By giving in, he realized, he could actually distract Christian for just long enough. “Do you consider this crime exquisite?”
Christian arched his brow slyly. Dropping his voice, he answered,
“It could be.”
“What are you doing?” asked Ashley.
“Um, uh . . . it’s just a game,” Sascha said.
Avery raised her eyebrows suspiciously.
“Yeah . . . um,” Sascha looked to Christian, whose face suggested no answers. “It’s um – it’s just a . . . thing we do.”
“Just a game,” Christian murmured tonelessly.
“What kind of game?” Ashley asked, giving a smile that could have been a grimace, but Sascha was unsure.
“Can we play?” Avery asked.
“You wouldn’t know how,” Sascha blurted out, regretting it after he had.
A subtle sneer permeated Avery’s laugh as she replied, “Try us.”
“Yeah, how do you play it?” Ashley asked.
Sascha and Christian stood there dumbly.
“Come on, tell us.”
Sascha looked at Christian, whose face was still devoid of answers.
“Pleaasee?” Avery pleaded.
“Pretty please?” Ashley added.
“With sugar on top,” Avery cooed.
The spark he saw alighting in Christian’s eyes somehow gave approval to Sascha’s own excitement, which now began to rise unfettered up his belly.
“W-well um,” Sascha stammered. “ . . . It’s kind of hard to explain but, um, it’s like. . .we do these characters. . .”
“These characters . . .” Christian repeated robotically.
“Like, um, sometimes they’re ones we make up and sometimes they’re real.”
“Is Whitwell real?” Ashley asked.
“Yeah,” Sascha said.
“ . . . He is,” Christian added.
“He, was this, um, nobleman . . . this English nobleman from the 18th century. . . . He was the leader of this club the Christian Soldiers.”
“So he was, like, some religious leader?” asked a confused Ashley.
An involuntary cat-that-ate-the-canary smile crept up Sascha and Christian’s lips before a truncated chortle emitted from them.
“What?” Avery asked.
“They called it a club – that’s what they called them back then,” Sascha said.
“The gangs,” Sascha answered.
“Gangs? But I thought you said these guys were nobleman.”
“They were, but back then, there were all these young nobleman in London who were in gangs.”
“Like street gangs?”
“Yeah,” Christian replied.
“Are you serious?” asked a suddenly glimmering-eyed Ashley.
“Like what did they do?” a smiling Avery asked with dilating pupils and nostrils.
“They, um . . . ”
Sascha looked at Christian. His small excited smile made him continue.
“They did – lots of crimes.”
“Who did?” asked a Clairwil classmate of the twins named Tegan, her emerald eyes as a glitter with intrigue as those of her companions: another Clairwil girl named Tamsin and a tall freckled-faced boy from Uxbridge named Tarquin.
But before Sascha could answer them, Ashley explained, “The Christian Soldiers, this street gang of English noblemen in London in the 19th-”
“The 18th century actually,” Sascha said. “But just the first few decades, there were a lot of them in London: the Mohawks, the Sweaters, The Fun Club, the She-Romps –”
“Of noblemen?” an enraptured Tegan asked.
“And what did they do?” asked Tarquin.
“That’s what we were asking.” Avery said, looking to Sascha expectantly, who looked at Christian expectantly, who looked back at Sascha expectantly, who in turn, answered,
“Well, they . . . committed crimes.”
“Like what?” Tamsin asked.
“Like . . . ”
“Like what?” asked another Uxbridge boy named Deaver, whose presence Sascha did not notice in the room until this moment. “Well they each had their own specialities –”
“Like what?” asked a Clairwil girl named Quinnie, who, though only entering the room now, had obviously been a spectator for some time, this apparent by both her question and a look dancing in her eyes, which provoked Sascha to boldly answer,
“The Mohawks, when they walked down the streets liked to do this thing called ‘tipping the lion –‘ they even had special instrument just for it – where they would crush the nose and make the eyes pop out of a passerby.”
After a collective gasp, the room became so electrically silent, so intently focused on him, that a pleasant nausea flooded into Sascha’s belly.
“They even had an instrument for it,” Christian said with thrust-back shoulders.
“And the others?” asked Riley, yet another Uxbridge boy Sascha was seeing for the first time.
“Like, um, the Sweaters – what did the Sweaters do?” asked Tegan, who, along with Tamsin, moved ever-so-slightly closer to Sascha in a way that made Christian immediately answer,
“They’d, when a man would be walking down the street in front of them, one of them would draw their swords and prick him in the butt and tell him –”
“’Don’t turn your back on a gentleman –‘” Sascha said, with even more authentic-sounding accent and effect as usual, earning an irritated sideways glance from Christian who continued with,
“And so then, the man would turn around, but he’d see that there was a man right behind him.”
“He was surrounded by them, so then he’d turn around –”
“And he’d be turning his back on another Sweater, right?” asked Ashley.
“And he’d get pricked by another sword, right?” asked Avery with a tight lip-curling smile, her body, like Ashley’s gliding a bit closer to the boys.
“Yeah and, you get the idea,” Sascha answered.
“And the She-Romps?” asked Tarquin.
“The She-Romps would pull passing girls off the street into their club and would –” Sascha stopped abruptly.
“Would what?” asked Riley.
“Um would . . . ”
“What?” asked Quinnie.
“They’d make them walk on their hands and –” Sascha stopped again.
“Whip their bare thighs,” answered Christian.
“Gross,” said a smattering of the girls as a dark laugh ran through the male contingent of the audience.
“And the Christian Soldiers?” Tamsin asked.
“They were the worst.” Christian said.
“What did they do?” Riley asked.
“They u-umm,” Sascha stammered.
“Show us,” Ashley said. She turned the rest of the audience behind her. “They act out these people. Sascha was talking as Whitwell before. It’s like a game they play. ”
“Do it for us,” asked an eager impressed Tamsin.
“Yeah – show us,” Tegan asked.
“They do that really cool English accent Sascha was just doing when they do it,” explained Ashley. “They were telling us how they play the game before you all came in.”
“Will you finally show us?” asked Avery.
“Um – well – it’s kinda hard to.” Sascha answered.
“Aw come on,” said Tarquin.
“Please?” pleaded Tamsin and Tegan simultaneously as a few of the other girls begging with their eyes in tandem.
“You gotta now, they’re begging. If not for me –” deadpanned Tarquin gesturing to the girls, “ – then for a bunch of pleading girls. I mean look at their faces. They’re begging you.”
As the girls cartoonishly exaggerated a desperate expression, Christian and Sascha’s cheeks flushed just a little while their shoulders unknotted.
“Please?” Avery asked.
“Don’t let them humiliate themselves,” faux-begged Riley.
Ashley cocked her head coquettishly. Sascha looked at Christian, whose eyes were cool, but whose mouth had a little excited smile creeping up it.
He turned back to his audience.
“Okay . . . here’s how we do it,” he said, turning back to Christian. “One of us will start, we’ll start as a character –”
“But we won’t like, say ahead of time, before the game starts, ‘I’m gonna be Sir Simon Whitwell and you’re gonna be Lord Merriweather –‘ Lord Merriweather’s Sir Whitwell’s stepbrother – the guy who got him into London club life – that’s what they called the whole London aristocratic youth gang scene then –” Christian explained.
“Lord Merriweather was the original leader of the Christian Soldiers, which was originally called the Young Lords,” Sascha added. “So, like, anyway, when we play the game, we don’t decide we want to start playing the game ahead of time and start. One of us starts it out of the blue. Like we might, be say, watching t.v., and I say, might all of a sudden go like, ” Sascha switched on his Sir Simon accent. “So, Lord Merriweather, what’s on the agenda for you to show me for tonight? You tell me this gang the Young Lords is the most depraved of all the London street clubs.”
“Which is why I am not sure if you are ready, Sir Whitwell,” Christian answered in accented character, “ – with your youth and your only recently defiled heart . . . ”
Sascha hadn’t known why Christian’s eyes had started to wander, why his speech had started to slow a bit as he was speaking. But now that he had abruptly stopped he knew why.
His eyes followed Christian to Riley, who was visibly trying to stifle a laugh. He then noticed that Ashley and Avery were doing the same.
Surveying the room, he saw identical pairs of mocking eyes.
Only now did he understand everything.
“You dummy, why did you do it?” Christian whispered, grabbing his collar and pushing him against the wall of the now-empty coat room.
“Why did I?! You were doing the same thing!”
“You were the one doing all the talking!”
“I thought that was ‘cos you weren’t used to being around girls.”
Christian’s eyes froze, demanding an explanation but scaring Sascha into giving one, any one.
“You know, with you going to an all-boys’ school and camp and having no – Lookit, it wasn’t my fault.”
Christian’s eyes were unrelenting.
“It wasn’t! – Anyway, why do you care what some brats –”
“Brats from Clairwil and Uxbridge,” Christian murmured, as if invoking the sacrilegious. “Clairwil and Uxbridge,” he repeated, almost soundlessly this time, as if the words were too horrible to speak.
And it was at this moment that Sascha knew why Christian was looking at him in a way that scared him so much. It wasn’t the rage in his eyes. He had looked at him with rage before.
It was the hate in them.
For the first time since their meeting four years earlier, Christian was looking at him with hate, genuine hate.
And it was at that moment he saw the future.
A future of punishment for not obeying the impulse that, for just one split-second, had forced itself upon him when he had first spied Christian stealing in the coat room.
A future that he saw, as sharply and clearly as the feral eyes that were now eviscerating him, would begin soon, very soon.