The woman stood facing the window, the phone clasped tightly to her ear. The northern sky cast its cold light on her furrowed brow. She looked up at the scudding rain clouds and listened intently to the ringing tone.
“Gladys, it’s Phillipa. I’m sorry to drag you out of the classroom. Norman’s been taken ill at work. I have to get to Birmingham today, somehow. I don’t know when I’ll be back – it might not be for a day or two.”
The voice on the other end of the party line sounded tinny.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that dear. Try not to worry. Would you like me to send Michael home on the bus? I think there’s a Midland Red around lunchtime.”
No, I don’t want to take him with me. He’s only eight; I don’t want to involve him in all this. I was wondering if he could stay with you for a couple of days, with the boarders I mean. I would be happy to pay the extra fees.”
There was a pause and she listened intently for a reply.
“There’s no question of paying, but I’m afraid there’s no room at the inn. I took on a couple of extra boarders this term so we’re bursting at the seams. You know how it is, I really have to consider getting bigger premises, now that business is picking up.”
“Oh dear, I was hoping …”
“Look, don’t worry, leave it to me. I’m sure we can find someone willing to take him in for a night or two.”
“Oh, that’s very kind, but I wouldn’t want him staying in a strange house with people I don’t know.”
“No, no, he’ll be all right. You fuss about him too much. He’ll be as right as rain. Leave it to me. You worry about Norman.”
“Look, I’ll give Rex a ring right away, you know my brother Rex and his wife Joy, don’t you?”
“Yes, yes that would be all right, I suppose. Thank you very much. I’m at my wits end. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to upset Michael, taking him out of school.”
“Of course not, I’m sure Joy will be happy to have him; he’ll be good company for John.”
“Are you sure, I wouldn’t ask but I don’t know anyone else who could take him in at such short notice. Tell him I love him and that I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“Righto. I better go now and ring Rex. Leave it with me: you get off to Birmingham. Goodbye.”
Phillipa Weston stood for a moment staring at the phone, trying to gather her thoughts.
She pictured Norman lying in his digs in Birmingham. Pneumonia, the doctor had said, best come right away.
Michael sat quietly with the other children at the big table, waiting for Miss Glebe to return. He stared out of the French windows at the lawn, fringed by the pink and yellow prize-winning chrysanthemums and dahlias tended so carefully by old Mr Glebe. He could just see the old man, clad in waistcoat and battered trilby, tying up runner beans in the long garden that stretched behind the lawn into the orchard beyond.
He jumped guiltily at the sound of his name.
“Could you come here for a moment please, I’ve got something to tell you.”
He got down from his chair and walked uncertainly towards the door where the woman stood waiting. She closed the door and bent over him in the hallway. He looked down and stared at the pattern of squares and diamonds on the hall tiles, smelling the wax polish on the wooden wall panels and the hint of cooked onions drifting from the kitchen. He could hear the clattering of pans and knew he would have to deal with mutton stew for lunch.
“Your mother rang a little while ago. Nothing’s wrong, she just has to go and see your father in Birmingham. She’ll only be away for a few days.”
Michael knew his father worked away from home during weekdays, but his mother never went to see him when he was away. He looked up at the stooping woman, her right hand tightly gripped round the bone handle of the cane with its rubber foot. The lenses of her horn-rimmed spectacles magnified her brown eyes, so different from the cool grey-blue of his mother’s. She had a strong smell, not like the sweet smell of his mother. He looked at the crooked leg, clad in thick, lisle stockings and at the heavy, black boot with its leg iron.
“Why – why does she have to go?”
“She’ll be back soon. You’re a big boy now. It won’t do you any harm to be without your mother for a day or two. John’s father has kindly agreed to let you stay with them for a few days. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
Michael didn’t like it, but he mumbled, “Yes Miss Glebe.”
John was a year younger than Michael, a pale, skinny boy who wore wire-framed NHS glasses. Not the kind of boy Michael usually played with. They’d once walked up the road together to see his father’s motorbikes. ‘Glebes Motors’ had turned out to be a lopsided wooden shed, painted in faded green, with a few derelict machines nestling in the long grass outside. Inside the dark interior, his father had been clutching the proverbial oily rag, repairing a battered sidecar. He’d seemed pleasant enough, with the same sallow complexion and lantern jaw as his teacher, only younger.
Miss Glebe looked up at the sound of giggling from the other side of the door. She opened the door and hobbled inside.
“Boys, girls! That’s not the kind of behaviour we expect, is it?”
She propelled Michael towards the table and he sat down.
“It’s nearly lunchtime. I’ve got a few things to attend to. I want the senior boys and girls to copy down the rest of the sums from the board. You little ones, arms folded and heads down. Ten minutes sleep until I return. William, you’re in charge – I want no noise while I’m away.”
When she had gone out, the older children began to converse in hoarse whispers.
“What did you do?” William hissed at Michael.
“Nothing. My mum rang, it’s nothing.” It was none of their business so he didn’t mention staying with John.
“Did you bring your stamps?” David whispered in his ear. "My dad gave me a penny black, I bet you haven’t got one.”
“I’ve got my album in my satchel, I’ll show you at playtime,” Michael replied. “I’ve got a lot of colonials and three penny reds. Not mint, though.”
“They’re not worth much if they’re not mint,” William almost shouted.
“Quiet,” one of the older girls hissed, “You’re supposed to be in charge."
The sound of Miss Glebe’s uneven tread sounded in the hallway and they began to hastily copy down sums from the board. Michael dipped his pen in the inkwell and made a nasty blob on his exercise book. Lunchtime was approaching with the threat of mutton fat and half cooked onions.
“It’s not far now,” John said, skipping ahead and half turning to face Michael as they crossed the High Street.
“I’ve got to look at something in Woolies,” Michael said, as they came up to the red shop front with the golden letters.
“I’m not allowed,” John said, but he followed on behind as Michael went through the glass doors.
“Come on, I just want to look at the latest stamps.” Michael made his way quickly to the display of cellophane packets. There were packs of all sizes, even some quite good ones at sixpence each, brightly coloured issues from Equatorial Africa, some of them mint by the look of them.
“Lets look at the guns now,“ he said, making for the toy section.
The one thing he wanted was a decent cap gun. He had lots of other toys but his father had refused to allow any guns. He said there had been enough killing in the war and wouldn’t have one in the house. His mother had talked his father round and bought him a pirate pistol for Christmas. It shot a stick with a rubber end at a target. It was a baby’s toy and he was ashamed when he took it out to play cowboys and Indians with the gang. Even the young kid next door had a cap gun; he was the only boy without one.
“Wow, look at these,” Michael said, picking up a realistic looking six-gun. The chamber revolved automatically and the breech broke open to load the roll of caps. It was moulded in a blue looking metal and had a white plastic butt. The black and white ticket showed five shillings, a sum way beyond Michael’s sixpence a week pocket money, which he rarely got anyway. Then there was the price of caps at four pence a roll.
“There’s some here for a shilling,” John said, picking up a cheap aluminium casting with a droopy looking muzzle and a crude red star painted on the butt.
“They’re no good,” Michael scoffed, “they only fire one cap at a time.” It was the sort of gun a kid like John could get away with but Michael wanted nothing but the best.
“Let’s go,” he said, “We’ll be late.”
An October drizzle had started while they were in the shop. They ran down Queen Street and John led the way down a narrow lane with rusting corrugated iron fencing on either side. At the end of the lane lay a street of red brick terrace houses with slate roofs.
“This is it,” John said, opening a low gate with peeling paint and running up to a lead-lighted front door. He rattled the letterbox and waited until a whey-faced woman with too red lips and a weak chin opened it. John ducked inside, under her arm, leaving Michael waiting politely on the doorstep.
“Come inside Michael,” John’s mother said, holding the door wide. Take your wet things off. She hung up their blue raincoats putting their school caps above the wet garments. Michael noticed his cap was on the wrong hook.
“Better take your shoes off dear, they’re all muddy.”
Michael reluctantly complied.
Joy walked up to a closed door and knocked. “Rex, the boys are here,” she called out, leading them to the door. “Are you ready for them yet?”
“Ready,” a muffled voice said from the other side of the door.
Joy opened the door and shepherded them into the lounge to reveal Rex standing with his back to the empty fireplace.
“Come in boys,” he said with mock jocularity. He beckoned towards them with the clumsy movements of a man of short but muscular physique.
“Line up,” said Joy, arranging the boys in front of her husband.
“Hands up!” Rex shouted suddenly, fumbling inside his jacket before pulling out a brace of pistols.
John rushed forward to receive his gift. Rex kissed the top of his head and looked expectantly at the older boy. Embarrassed, Michael displayed a poker face and took his gun with ill grace. He knew his mother would have expected better of him but he hated faking gratitude.
“Thanks Mr Glebe,” he said, examining the weapon he had so recently despised in Woolworths. If anything it was worse than he had thought.
Rex fumbled in his pocket and disentangled something from his handkerchief.
“There’s a roll of caps each as well,” he said, handing out the red spirals of cardboard punctuated by neat spots of gunpowder.
“That was very kind of your father, wasn’t it John?”
“Yes Mum,” it’s great, John said, genuinely pleased with his gun.
Joy led them out of the ‘saloon’ and up the narrow stairs. “I’ve put you in John’s room,” she said. The room was furnished with a chest of drawers and two truckle beds. Michael wrinkled his nose at a musty smell.
“I’ve put out a pair of John’s pyjamas for you and there’s a clean flannel and towel in the bathroom."
Michael followed her into the bathroom and wondered about his toothbrush.
In answer to an unspoken question, Joy said, “We don’t have a lavatory upstairs, so you’ll have to use the one outside before you go to bed. If you have to go in the night, there’s a jar under the bed.”
Michael didn’t like the sound of this but it explained the smell in the bedroom. He was familiar with potties under the bed from his grandmother’s house but had never known anyone to actually use one.
“Wash your hands and come downstairs,” Joy said, leaving them on their own. “Your tea will be ready in about ten minutes. You can play with your guns in the garden afterwards.”
Tea was fish paste sandwiches, milky tea and rhubarb and custard. Better than school dinners anyway, Michael thought. The back yard consisted of two muddy strips of grass separated by a concrete path and a clothesline. There wasn’t much cover to shoot from just a couple of battered dustbins.
They soon got the hang of tearing a cap off the roll and inserting it behind the hammer.
The guns mostly worked ok and Michael soon forgot his scruples, shooting at John and imaginary bandits over the next-door fence.
It was getting dark when Joy called from the back door, “come in now, it’s bedtime.”
Michael had used up all his caps and was tired of playing in the wet yard. At home, he had plenty of trees and fields to play in.
Inside, Joy lined them up again and said, “I want you boys to be good tonight, John’s father has got some paperwork to do and doesn’t want any noise. No playing up, I want you to go straight off to sleep.”
Michael rarely went to bed before eight thirty and, being an only child, entertained himself in his bedroom until quite late. It was barely seven o’clock according to the clock on the mantelpiece.
“Rex, you said you had another surprise for the boys.”
“Right, lets be quick then, the news will be on in a minute.”
He left the kitchen and went into the lounge. Joy followed with the boys and lined them up again in front of her husband. Rex groped in his trouser pocket and held aloft two sixpences, one in each hand.
“If you boys are good tonight, you can have these in the morning.” With exaggerated care, he placed the coins about six inches apart on a battered cocktail cabinet, as if preparing for a conjuring trick.
“Only if you’re good, mind,” he said with a warning look, his face creasing briefly into a smile. Michael noted the glint of gold among the jumbled tombstones in Rex’s mouth.
Lying in the gloom of the bedroom, Michael resolved not to resort to the filthy jam jar beneath his bed. He thought of the pack of triangular stamps that had taken his fancy in Woollies. He reflected that a wonky gun was better than nothing and sixpence in the morning was better still. He planned to visit Woolies again to buy the stamps and show them off to his school friends at lunchtime. He gave no thought for his mother and her trip to Birmingham as he drifted off to sleep.
Michael woke up feeling cold. He sat up and parted the curtains. It was still dark and a half-moon was riding low over the rooftops. He needed to do a wee urgently. The lavatory was in the back yard a few yards from the house but he knew the back door would be locked. He tried to hold on but gave way at last, groping under the bed for the jam-jar.
He filled the jar half full, feeling with his fingers in the darkness, but what to do now?
He didn’t like the idea of putting it back under the bed and decided to take it to the bathroom. He crept down the landing to the bathroom, went inside and closed the door.
He couldn’t decide where to put the jar so he poured the contents down the sink and washed it down with water.
He heard the doorknob rattle. Suddenly the light went on and he turned blinking in the sudden light. Rex stood in the doorway, his greasy hair stuck up at all angles.
“What are you doing out of bed?”
“I needed a drink,” Michael said, painfully aware of the jam-jar in his hand.”
“Hurry up and get one then,” Rex said, shuffling back down the landing. “Put that light out when you’ve finished.”
Michael skipped the drink, put the, light out and ran back to bed. He lay there shivering, listening to the sound of Rex’s footsteps going down stairs and, after a while back up again.
Rex went into the kitchen and sat down. He wasn’t happy about the boy being in the house. He’d heard bad reports from Gladys about his character. Something about shoplifting from Currys’ hardware shop, a penknife he recalled. Anyway, he didn’t like his attitude. It was like Gladys said he was spoilt and ungrateful.
He went into the lounge and looked at the sixpences. Why should he give the boy anything? It was all Joy’s idea. She was too soft Gladys always said so. They could ill afford to put him up, never mind provide presents. With John, he didn’t mind but why give presents to a stranger.
He decided to tell his sister that Michael wasn’t welcome, but what excuse could he give? A glimmer of a plan formed in his mind. He picked up the sixpences and went into the hall. Groping in the darkness, he found Michael’s raincoat and put the coins in the left hand pocket. In the morning, Joy would find the coins missing and questions would be asked. He could then do a quick search and find them in Michael’s pocket. He hesitated for a moment, knowing John would be disappointed if he didn’t get his sixpence. He decided he could give it to him when Michael was out of the way.
“Hurry up,” John said, shaking Michael awake. “You better get ready quickly or my Mum will be cross.”
Michael stumbled out of bed and dressed with cold fingers. He didn’t bother with the bathroom. He decided to use the outside lavatory after breakfast.
Over breakfast of cornflakes and milk, the boys exchanged excited whispers about the sixpences. Rex sat listening to the radio, drinking a mug of tea. He waited until the boys were dressed and ready in raincoats caps and woolly gloves before taking action.
He went out into the hall, where Joy and the boys were waiting expectantly.
“Now, I wonder if you boys were good last night. I hope no one was walking about the house while we were asleep.”
Michael’s heart sank. He was sure he wouldn’t get his sixpence.
“Hurry up, Rex,” Joy said, I’ve got to get them off to school, you know what Gladys thinks about lateness.”
“All right, all right, lets go in the lounge then.”
He went into the lounge and said dramatically, “Joy, the sixpences are not here. Did you move them last night?”
“Of course not, they must be there, let me see.”
Rex made a play of looking round on the floor. “They didn’t get knocked on the floor he said. There’s only one explanation. They must have been taken by someone, John, did you take them?”
John shrank back. “No dad, I never went in there.”
“Well someone was out of bed last night, I heard them creeping about.”
“What do you mean, dear,” Joy said.
“That boy there,” Rex said, pointing at Michael, I caught him in the bathroom late last night.”
“I’m sure Michael wouldn’t do anything wrong,” Joy countered. “Anyway, there’s no time now, we can talk about it later.”
“Just a minute,” said Rex, I want to look in his pockets. He lunged at Michael and groped in one pocket and then the other. Finding nothing he looked wildly round. “All right then, but I’m not satisfied about this.”
Joy pushed the boys outside and shut the door. “I don’t know what’s got into you,” she said.
”I don’t like thieves,” he replied, striding about, trying to think what had gone wrong. “I’m ringing Gladys. He’s not going to get away with it. She can search him thoroughly when he gets to school.
When they were out of sight of the house, Michael said, “What’s got into your Dad? I never went near the lounge. Did you take the money?”
John held his head down and walked quickly away. Michael ran after and grabbed his arm. Here, lets have a look, he said, going through John’s pockets. He soon found the two coins. “You did take them,” he said, showing John the sixpences.
“I never,” said John, pulling away, “leave me alone.”
Michael didn’t care who had taken them. They had been promised sixpence each and they had got sixpence each. “It’s all right,” he said, running after John, you can have yours back. We can buy stamps from Woolies now.”
John seemed mollified by this. They soon had a packet of shiny new stamps in their pockets as they set off towards the school.
Gladys pounced as soon as the boys came through the door. She pulled off their coats immediately and began a thorough search. All she found was the stamps but it wasn’t hard to put two and two together. She questioned them separately and soon got the story.
The stories matched but there was something wrong somewhere.
She had already helped Phillipa out with the incident of the army knife. It was obvious that Michael had stolen the knife from Curry’s even though he refused to admit it. If she’d had her way she would have got the truth out of him, but the boy was not yet admitted to the school. She didn’t want to lose a valuable customer, so she had given him the benefit of the doubt.
Phillipa had found the knife and asked her advice as a friend. Apparently, they had been shopping in Curry’s and Michael had picked up the knife from an Army Surplus bin and asked if she would buy it for him. She refused, of course and made him put it back. His story was that he found the knife in next-door’s shed and was only borrowing it. Either way, he had stolen it. She had persuaded Phillipa to take the knife back to the shop and apologise. She had driven her there herself, with Michael in the back seat, so he knew what for.
It all fitted in with what Rex had told her on the phone. Michael had taken the coins and involved John in the crime by buying the stamps. Saying he found them in John’s pocket was a lie, one that she could not forgive. Phillipa might be her best friend but the boy’s dishonesty had to be dealt with firmly, before he got any older.
When all the children were in their places, she clumped into the classroom and said in a strident voice, “Anyone who has brought stamps to school, bring them up to my desk immediately.”
A ragged crew assembled in front of her and surrendered sundry albums and loose stamps.
“No more stamps in school. Your parents can have these back when they come to collect you, and not before.” She wanted to make sure that everyone knew that she would not tolerate dishonesty in her school.
Michael got through the rest of the day somehow. He knew something bad was going to happen and hoped his mother would turn up soon and take him away from this place. He didn’t want to go back to John’s house but where else could he go.
It was Friday, so the borders were collected by their parents and driven back to the outlying farms. Michael waited alone in the classroom until everyone had been packed off home for the weekend, a ball of fear knotted in his stomach.
Eventually Gladys Glebe came in and stood in front of him, revealing the unnatural evenness of her false teeth in a grim smile.
“Well now, Michael,” she said, in her most cheerful tone, “what are we going to do with you?”
She waited until he had mumbled, “don’t know Miss Glebe.”
“I don’t know what you mother will have to say about all this, but I do know she will be very disappointed.”
She took him down to the kitchen where the old man sat listening to the racing results, checking his afternoon bets. He gave Michael a knowing wink. “Been in the wars ‘ave you lad? I’m off to the Service Club,” he said to Gladys, picking up a knobbly walking stick and making for the back door.
Michael got a corned beef sandwich and a tepid cup of tea. The milk was off.
“Now off to bed, Gladys said, but you better have a bath first so into the bathroom with you. I’ll be up shortly.”
It seemed a long way up the wide stairs. Michael stood waiting in the bathroom until
Miss Glebe had made her painful way up the stairs after him, one step at a time. He could smell the sweat of her exertion when she ran the bath. She didn’t put much water in, most of it being cold.
“Get undressed, now,” she said, “I want you nice and clean if you are going to be sleeping in my beds.”
He felt uncomfortable being naked in front of a woman who was not his mother. Worse, she had decided to wash him herself, scrubbing every part of his body with the awful Sunlight soap she used everywhere in the school.
“Now, you know I just want you to tell me the truth. You needn’t worry, I wont be cross as long as you own up. We know you took the money, but that’s over with now, all we want is for you to be truthful. You do want to be a good boy, don’t you?”
She kept up a stream of probing and cajoling for what seemed like hours. Eventually she lost patience and, drying her hands, stood looking at him from the doorway. “I’m going to leave you here to think about what you’ve done. I want you to own up and say sorry to Rex and Joy for all the trouble you’ve caused. Your mother won’t be home until Sunday, so you’ll have to stay with me till then. I’ll be coming back shortly to ask you again.”
He listened to her climbing down the stairs again and walking down the hallway to the kitchen. He shivered as the water became quite cold. He went over things again and again but could make no sense of it. It was like the time before with the knife. They said he was a thief but it wasn’t true. He did find the knife in the shed next door but he didn’t take the sixpences, at least not from the house.
After what seemed an age, he heard her labouring up the stairs again. He knew she would make him confess, just like before.