Photo of Old Hall, reproduced by kind permission of the Dragon School.
Ned was a 10 year-old pupil at the Dragon School, Oxford, exactly a hundred years ago. In December 1912, excited by the end-of-term singsong (still one of the school’s great traditions) he and another boy decided to get the best seat to view it from. Slipping out of their boarding house in Charlbury Road, they ran over to the main school site into the Old Hall and up the stairs to the balcony at the far end.
So far so good.
But then Ned determined to go higher still. Above the balcony a rafter ran the width of the room, offering a tempting seat – if you could reach it. Ned climbed, missed his footing and fell, hitting his head on the floor below. Briefly unconscious, he came to and seemed not badly hurt. He was put to bed early. But the next morning, when Matron came in to wake him, he was dead.
Tragic though this story is, what struck me particularly was its timing on the eve of the First World War. In my head I muddled the dates, making Ned a 13 year-old boy who died in 1910. If he’d lived, what were the chances of his – or many of his friends – being alive a few years later?
WW1 looms large in Dragon School history. Something like 100 names of Old Dragons who gave their lives in that war are inscribed on the memorial cross and this is a pattern repeated in probably every school and every community in Britain. Arguably Ned’s early death spared him the trauma suffered by the rest of his generation.
I had the germ in my mind of a children’s book called Ante’s Inferno: a recreation of Dante’s and Virgil’s journey through the classical underworld complete with Styx, Cerberus, Harpies, Minotaur, Furies, rivers of flame and frozen wastes... but I needed a dramatic, life-changing event to spark it off. Ned’s story gave me the idea of a boy falling from a balcony in a fight with another boy on the eve of the First World War. An accident? Murder? No one knows. But enough mystery remains to prevent Gil – the dead boy – moving on into the Afterlife. He remains stuck in an alternative reality on the balcony until the day 100 years later when Ante, fleeing from her enemy Florence, causes a crash that sends all three of them into the Underworld, starting Gil on the journey he should have begun a century before.
The question is: which – if any of them – will return?