I'm fine in school. Trust me. I'm cool. You'd never know I wasn't having an ordinary day. I take an enormous interest in Pythagoras (Mr Brand), the bubonic plague (Mrs Greene) and the correct use of the inverted comma (Miss Raynham). This is what I learn: Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician who invented some theory about right-angled triangles and didn't eat beans because he thought they had souls; the plague, contrary to popular belief was not carried by rats but by the fleas who lived on the rats; and inverted commas are the punctuation marks that you use to indicate speech in text.
Wesley says: “Inverted coronas look a bit like beans, don't they Miss Raynham? Do you think they could have souls?”
“Wesley Parr,” says Miss Raynham, “you are a buffoon.”
“High praise,” says Niker.
I go with the flow. I smile, put my hand up, take notes, whatever's required. I simply don't have the time to think about anything else. Or anyone else. Certainly not David Sorrel.
At lunch I'm really normal. Chatting and grinning. Even though it's sausage casserole, which I hate.
“Are you auditioning for the wide-mouth frog joke?” Niker asks.
Which just leaves Friday afternoon games. I'm looking forward to it. Not, you understand, because I'm any good at football. I'm not. In fact, I'm completely hopeless at football. The only time I touch the ball is when someone mis-hits it and it ricochets off me by mistake. I did save a goal once though. But only, I think, because Niker deliberately aimed the ball at my head. And, as we know, he's good with his aim, Niker.
Anyway the reason I'm looking forward to games is because I really have to concentrate when I'm on the Pitch; Firstly, to keep my glasses on my nose and, secondly, not to fall over Niker's feet. He likes to trip me. He even does it when we're on the same side. I think his theory is that it doesn't much matter to the flow of play whether I'm standing upright or lying flat on my face. Anyhow; it's a bit of a blow when Miss Raynham comes into the cloakroom after lunch and announces: “No need to change, children. Games is off.”
“Mr Burke has been taken ill and, in view of the rain...”
There are wails and moans. I'm one of the wailers. Wesley looks out
of the window.
“Nil desperandum, Mr Parr,” says Miss Raynham. “We are, despite everything, going to have a most entrancing afternoon. Follow me, please.”
We follow her. I hope we are making for the gymnasium. Basketball is as much of a trial for me as football, and therefore requires as much concentration. And the floor is harder, if you fall on it. Which I do. But no - Miss Raynham leads us to the Art Room.
“Find your places everyone. Now - as you know, some children have been attending the Mayfield Rest Home. And some very interesting art works are beginning to emerge from the project, so...”
“What did you say, Robert?”
“You don't even know what I'm going to ask, Robert.”
But I do. She's going to ask us to do Show and Tell. Miss Raynham
is going to ask us to share our experiences of Mayfield. She's going
to make me speak about Edith Sorrel. And if I speak about Edith I'm
going to speak about Chance House and then...
Weasel bangs his fist on the art bench. “Fleas.” He makes a show of picking something up between finger and thumb. “Do you think the fleas have got him, Miss Raynham?”
“Wesley Pare. Stand out.”
“But Miss Raynham, look at him.” Weasel points at me. “He doesn't look too good, does he?”
“He always looks like that,” says Niker.
“No, seriously Pasty face. Boils. Sick. It could be the Black Death, couldn't it? I mean who's to say?”
“Wesley Par - stand out!”
Weasel stands up.
Weasel moves slowly if jauntily towards the basins. Miss Raynham waits.
“Right. Thank you, Wesley”
“Miss Raynham...” Kate has her hand up.
“What is it now?”
“I don't think Robert does look very well.”
“Thank you, Miss Nightingale.” Miss Raynham moves swiftly to my side and sticks a nail under my chin. “Florence is concerned about you,” she says.
“I don't want to talk about Chance House,” I say.
“That's lucky,” says Miss Raynham, removing her finger so fast my head falls on the desk. “Because, no-one's asking you to.” She beams. “Now, if we could proceed...” she makes her way to the back of the classroom and fingers some pieces of paper on the map drawers. “What have we here?” She turns a piece of paper over. “Oh yes, Kate. Kate Barber, perhaps you'd like to start? Tell us a bit about your Elder and what you’re doing with her.”
“Him.” says Kate, getting up and taking the paper.
“Front of the class, now.”
Kate goes and stands by Mrs Simpson's desk. She looks uncomfortable.
“I'm not asking you to declaim Shakespeare, just tell us a little
about your Elder and the work you're making together. You could
start perhaps with the man's name.”
“Good. Now tell us something about him.”
“Well, he's eighty-two and he left school at thirteen.”
“Lucky,” says Niker.
“Then he earned sixpence a day working first in the saw-mills and then ‘on the building’. He clocked on at half past six in the morning and finished at six at night, with half an hour off for breakfast and an hour for lunch.”
“Not so lucky, then, perhaps,” says Miss Raynham, meaningfully.
“And for the artwork we re collecting songs. Because Albert really likes singing. And you know the story Catherine told, about the Prince who wouldn't speak? Well, Albert's idea is that you can sometimes sing things you can’t speak. So if he was trying to break the spell, he might sing to the Prince. And maybe the Prince would sing back.”
“Good. Good. Thank you, Kate. Can you show us the work?”
“Well, I can't sing it, but this is one of Albert's favourites.” From the paper she recites:
The first time I met you, my darling
She holds up the paper for us to see. The poem is written in black ink on a square of grey. Around the edge of the picture are sketches of flowers which have yet to be painted.
“Why have you drawn it on a gemstone?” asks Niker.
“It's not a gravestone. It's a paving stone. Albert's idea of the path, remember?”
“Well, I think it's wonderful,” says Miss Raynham. “Thank you very much, Kate.”
“Can I do it now?” asks a voice from the basin.
“If you can be sensible, Wesley. Can you be sensible, Wesley?”
“Yes, Miss Raynham.”
Wesley goes to the back of the class and collects some red, orange, yellow and blk strips of paper.
“Is yours a paving stone, too, Wesley?” asks Niker.
“Nope. Mine's a fire.” Wesley makes his way to the front and perches himself on the corner of Miss Simpson's desk. “Gotta warm dat dere princie up. Dat's what Dulcie and me reckons.”
“Dulcie and I,” says Miss Raynham.
“Dulcie and I,” repeats Wesley, “Dulcie and I have been discussing
potatoes. Dulcie is seventy-six. When she was my age she used to
come home from school at twelve o'clock, boil some potatoes, eat
them and return to school by one-thirty”
“That they didn't have chips in those days, Miss Raynham. And,” he adds quickly as he sees her finger begin to wag, “that they had more responsibility”
“Yes. As well as lighting the gas, Dulcie got to peel the potatoes with a very sharp knife and drain boiling water. On top of that - it was her job to light the parlour fire every morning. Get the coal in, lay the fire and light it. Me - my mum doesn't even let me have a match.”
“Really,” says Miss Raynham.
“So these are some flames Dulcie and I have painted. This one,” he indicates an orange strip, “this one says we didn't come to no harm.”
“Any harm,” says Miss Raynham.
“No harm...” says Wesley. “That's what Dulcie said.” He mimics: “’You lot is babied today. We didn't come to no harm’.”
“I see,” says Miss Raynham. “The verbatim report.
“Carry on, Wesley. You interest me.”
“And this one,” Wesley waves a red flame, “says ‘No Irish. No Blacks'.” He grins.
Did I mention that Wesley's black? Or rather, he's the colour of coffee with milk in, on account of his mum being black and his dad white. Miss Raynham is always trying to get Wesley to talk about What it Means to be Black in Today's Society. And Wesley is always telling Miss Raynham that He Hasn't the Faintest Idea.
“That's the good news,” continues Wesley.
“The good news?” inquires Miss Raynham.
“Yeah. In Dulcie's day you see, they didn't like renting to Irish people or blacks. So they stuck the ‘No Irish, No Blacks’ notice in the window of their houses. To save embarrassment.”
“But now,” says Wesley triumphantly, “it's different. There’s progress. People rent to the Irish, don’t they?”
“But not to black people, is that what you re saying, Wesley”
“I haven't the faintest idea, Miss Raynham.”
“How does any of this help the Prince? says Niker.
“Knowledge,” says Wesley, tapping his nose, “is a very wonderful
Niker collects what looks like two blank sheets of paper and makes his way to the front. He begins to talk, and as he talks he walks, pacing slowly in front of the desk, pausing occasionally for dramatic effect.
“My Elder is called Mavis. I do not know how old she is because she does not know how old she is. As well as forgetting her birth dale she seems to have forgotten almost every other thing that has ever happened to her. If you ask her about her past, she says ‘I'm going to Abingdon'. If you ask her about the future, she asks you when tea is. In fact, I think ‘When's tea?’ was the first sensible thing Mavis said to me. But after she'd said it six times in a row, it suddenly didn't seem quite so sensible any more. In fact, it seemed mad. And...”
“Is there a point to this, Jonathan?”
“The point, Miss Raynham, is get on with your life while you can. That's what I'd tell the Prince. Stop mucking about and get on with it. Before it's too late.”
“Oh,” says Miss Raynham, impressed despite herself. “Well - let's see the pictures then.”
Niker held up the first piece of paper. It's a pencil portrait of Mavis as a chicken. But it's not a grotesque caricature, it's a detailed, accurate and quite fond picture of Mavis. It shows her with her head on one side and a bewildered but charming chicken look in her eyes. On the second sheet of paper, he has dawn Mavis as an angel. In this picture she is much younger, in her twenties. The chicken wings are soft, downy, fledgling angel wings and her look is one of serenity and hope. Once again it is piercingly accurate.
“I wish I could draw like that,” says Kate, voicing the class's thought.
Miss Raynham, who's never seen Mavis so doesn't know bow accurate the representation is, nevertheless appreciates the quality of the drawing.
“Jonathan,” she says sadly, “you’re a wasted talent.”
“Thank you,” says Niker.
Then it happens. Miss Raynham turns to me.
“Robert,” she says, “if you’d do us the honour.”
Niker resumes his seat. I don't move from mine.
“If you'd like to find the artwork...”
But that's the problem. Or one of them. While the other have been busy cutting and sticking I have been talking to people a lot madder than Mavis. I've been talking to a man who may or may not be married to a woman who may or may not remember some dreadful thing that happened to a boy who may or may not be her son. And instead of having a nice piece of paper with a drawing on, I have a cut on the inside of my cheek from eating gravel from a grave and the distinct taste of strawberry jam in my mouth when I think about star-shaped holes in windows.
“Robert...” prompts Miss Raynham, “could you speed up a little, do
“Robert!” yells Miss Raynham. “Front of the class. Now!”
I get up. I go to the front of the class. I stand there. My mouth is opening and dosing like a fish's.
“Yes, Robert. And?”
“Sad,” says Niker.
“Name?” says Miss Raynham.
“Not your name, Robert. I am aware of your name. Robert. The name
of your Elder.”
“I haven't done a drawing.”
“Well, don't tell us what you haven't done, Robert. Tell us what you have done.”
“I've been to the Top Floor Flat, Chance House, twenty-six St Aubyns.”
“Liar,” says Niker.
“I had to go. She asked me.”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Edith. She asked me. She said it was there. Her wisdom. But it isn't. There's nothing there. It's derelict.”
Miss Raynham walks to the front of the class and puts a sweaty hand on my forehead. Or maybe it's my forehead that's sweaty.
“Are you still feeling sick?” she asks.
Wesley swipes the desk. “These fleas,” he says.
I cough. Miss Raynham delves into her pocket and produces a large, folded cotton handkerchief. I put it to my mouth.
“Gross,” says Niker.
He thinks I'm spitting and that gives rile an idea. I chew the inside of my cheek and then I do spit. Blood goes on to the handkerchief. Feebly I present the bloodied rag to Miss Raynham.
“Oh Robert, dear child. Come with me.” And this giant, suddenly motherly woman conducts me out of the Art Room and along the corridor, her arm around my shoulder, her bosom wobbling against my face.
“Temporary sick room,” she says, opening the door of the staff room. It smells of stale perfume and stale smoke.
“Sit.” She indicates a green, soggy-looking armchair. “I’ll phone the nurse.”
But I don't want to sit. In fact I can't sit. Because something inside me is heaving. I bend double, I convulse, then, without warning, my body straightens like a whip, and something red and evil vomits out of my throat. It lands on Miss Raynham's large bosom. It spatters her. I think it's Sausage casserole.
“Oh dear,” says Miss Raynham, rather mildly. “Oh dear, dear, dear.”