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A Special Moment

A Special Moment

Elderly man returns to the school he left seventy three years ago seeking a lost memory

Standing at the school gate, Harry Connor cursed softly. Memory, you damned trickster. A tantalising image had shaped in the furred conduits of his ageing mind. A gem of reminiscence teasingly snatched away, evading his grasp.

He had made this journey seeking to recall a special face. Now, the school’s soot-darkened bricks and stark arched windows had fleetingly evoked a significant moment, long forgotten.

Bent against the chill north westerly, he stepped tentatively into the schoolyard, straining to retrieve the image, but it drifted away. Elusive as the swirling leaves swirling like formation dancers across the windswept schoolyard, while old take-away cartons rolled among them like escaping vermin.

Slowly crossing the yard, he wished he had made an appointment. Schools were busy places. Mr Rodney, his old headmaster, rigidly correct, black-suited and as imposing as the monument in the centre of town, would have given uninvited strangers short shrift.

At the main door, he had to battle against the strong return spring. His physical frailty annoyed him. Inside his head, he was a young and robust as when he heaved opposing centre-halves out of his way on Benton Park. Only that joker, memory, let him down.

The door gave him a final spiteful shunt as it closed behind him, and he staggered, his eyes already widening in wonder. An Aladdin’s cave of a place, belying the grim exterior. Walls were festooned with the yellows, blues, reds and green outpourings of young imaginations. Paintings, drawings, strange works in fabric, and suspended overhead, model birds flapped their wings in the wake of his entry.

In awe, he recalled bare stone floors where now he stood on carpet, with two easy chairs by the far wall. Such an entrance.

“Can I help you?”

The deep, brown voice startled Harry. A youngish man, shirt-sleeved, with a green tie, stood regarding Harry with some suspicion in his brown eyes.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. This is all so beautiful. Is it all children’s work?”

“Yes, it is. Are you here to see somebody?”

“Yes, I suppose I should see the headmaster.”

“I’m the headmaster, Ron Greaves.”

In shirt-sleeves? Rodney would have died first. Harry had thought it might be the caretaker. Holding out a hand to be shaken, he introduced himself and told the headmaster that he moved on from this school in 1932.

Ron Greaves surprise showed as he said, “My word, you’d be eleven years old then.”

Harry nodded, “Just turned.”

Calculating rapidly, Ron Greaves went on, “2005 now. Why that makes you—”

“Eighty-four,” Harry said proudly. “Two schools then, junior here, senior next door.”

“All one now—called a Middle School. Nine to thirteen-year-olds. Would you like to look around—see the changes.”

“I’ve seen some of them already,” Harry said, nodding at the work, but he needed no second offer. Walking the main corridor, he told Ron Greaves of being retired from the railways, and how he’d travelled from York.

“Claire, my dear wife, passed on five months ago. I had a feeling that the old shunter was moving in on me, so I’m staying at my son’s for a couple of days, searching out old memories.”

Mentioning Claire no longer drained his emotions but he reverently stored the essential images of her face through all their years together. Those delicate features of just six months ago, framed in silver hair, and still a joy to his eye. The sweated, strained but joyously triumphant face under damp tendrils of hair, minutes after the birth of their first son. And that face, radiant in a bridal veil that had brought tears of joy to his eyes. He cherished them all.

But the set was incomplete. That trickster, memory, steadfastly denied him one aspect of her

“And where have you revisited so far?”

The question brought him out of his reverie with a start, but he was able to talk about the old burn valley, where, as boys, they had paddled the stream, and how the hill where they’d flown kites was a housing estate.

“Things change,” Ron Greaves agreed. “The council have promised to rebuild this place, but when? That is the question.”

Two boys approached, neat in blue jumpers and striped ties. Harry saw the sniggering scorn in their eyes as they scanned this old scarecrow of a man in his long raincoat and scarf. And he recalled the clothes they used to wear in his day, old, but washed and mended until proud mothers had to admit defeat.

“Would you like to see a working classroom?” Ron Greaves asked, after bestowing a chastening frown on the two boys.

Harry knew exactly the classroom he wanted. The fourth door on the left. The one that had sweltered when the sun shone and froze in the winter. Already he was aware of the warmth on this corridor, once so wind-chilled.

He indicated the room he longed to see.

“Eleven- and twelve-year-olds in there. Mind them asking about your time here? I’m sure it’s pretty different.”

“I don’t mind talking, “Harry told him, “Claire thought I talked too much.”

The room had a modern turn handle. The door that Harry recalled had a sneck that clicked up. Oh, how he’d watched for that sneck going up. Harry’s breath caught in his throat. Proximity banished the damned trickster. He could remember, would remember!

The way it was, with bare, brown glazed walls, solid rows of hefty desks with benches to sit on. Boys on one side girls nearer the window. And in the corner, one girl, eyes so nervous, as chalk dust, like some tormented spirit, twisted and swayed in the sunlight.

Oh, he was so close to recalling that face.

Then the door was open. And it was a different world. Beyond a sea of startled faces, an impressive mural of tall ships covered the back wall, bold in its execution. The windows were shaded by elegant, vertical sun-blinds. Overhead, strips of neon would light the room where Harry recalled gaslight.

Instead of rows of heavy desks, there were tables, set in little islands, around which sat boys and girls together, uniformly dressed.

At the back of the room, two computers, and everywhere there were books for reading, for reference and for enjoyment. Then there were piles of exercise books. Harry remembered starting off with only a slate and a piece of chalk.

The charming young lady teacher, fair hair pulled back from her round flushed face, widened her eyes appreciatively, when Ron Greaves told her Harry’s age.

When he was introduced to the class, Harry noted the mixed reactions. Most sat up, interest showing in their glowing eyes. A few boys remained slouched, sullen and resentful. Harry’s eyes flickered to the far corner by the window. No one sat there.

The questions came quickly. First from a boy with dark curly hair, “How much homework did you get?”

“None,” Harry replied, telling them about the slates. One or two resentful eyes turned on the headmaster.

A girl with fair urchin-style hair raised her hand and asked, “Did you have to learn your times table?”

“Oh, yes. If you couldn’t answer any table, you got the slipper on the backside.”

That produced a collective gasp, and a boy’s voice from the rear chuckled, “You’d have a real sore bum, Bawkey.”

Harry, enjoying giving answers, pressed his advantage, “Make a big mistake and you had to stand on a chair for fifteen minutes.”

He enjoyed the shocked disapproval on their faces. Even the more apathetic boys were showing some interest, as Harry spoke of ragged clothes, no uniform, darned socks, and walking two miles to school.

“Bikes not allowed.”

“We were too poor to have bikes.”

Then came the question he knew would lead him into much deeper territory, “Was the slipper the worst punishment?”

Harry nodded, “In the junior school, yes. Except if you were put on the black-list. Then you could get the belt.” Harry paused, letting that sink in behind those frowning faces, memories poured into him now. Could he really recapture it all?

“What was the black-list?” And it was Ron Greaves who asked.

“Kids called it that. A piece of card with spaces for all the lessons each day. Every space had to be signed to say you had not misbehaved.”

“Oh, yes, like a report card. A few schools still use that system. It doesn’t lead to a belting though.”

Harry nodded, “Ours did. If any of the spaces on your card weren’t signed Mr Stewart from the senior school would come down on Friday afternoon and administer his belt.” Recollections poured into his head, crystal clear, a rush of faces and emotions.

“Did you ever get it?” An unsolicited voice from the back and Harry was ready.

“Only once. In this very room.” That caused a stir. Harry turned to Greaves “Have I timed to tell them?”

“You remember it?”

Did he remember it? He could hear Stewart’s rasping tones and almost feel the pain. And something else was rising now. Was that special moment, beyond the pain, held somewhere in time?

He could not recall how he got onto the black-list. He had loved coming to school. Teachers were always praising his writing and number work. But some incident, maybe that larking about in the toilets, squirting water at each other, found him out. arry was ready.

So on the Monday morning of that fateful week, he was handed his card. It was on the Wednesday in P.T he had gone in chewing a piece of cinder toffee his Gran had made. Trying to grind it down before the lesson started, it stuck to his teeth. Mr Stanton, the P.T. teacher saw his mouth movement and refused to sign his spot on the card.

Friday morning he went to hand his card in at the office, where gentle-eyes Mrs O’Maley glanced at it, looked up into his anxious eyes and said, “Oh, dear, Harry.” Her ominously sympathetically words haunted him into the afternoon.

A visit from Mr Stewart was rare in the junior school, consequently, at lunchtime, gloating kids crowded around Harry and Lenny Cail, a renowned light-fingered liar, openly contemptuous of authority. His card had empty spaces, but he had been on the blacklist before and derided Harry’s palpable nervousness.

“Stewey lifts the belt right over his shoulder before he brings it down.”

This observation, eagerly offered, rattled through Harry’s troubled mind. This should not be happening. He was a good boy. He liked school. Lenny’s fierce bravado was just a sham, he was sure of that.

Friday afternoon arrived. The lesson was geography, the Mississippi delta. He could even remember that. The sun streamed in and the stale smell of sweated bodies and old clothes mingled with the dry tickle of chalk dust.

He tried to listen to Miss Brown’s droning voice. Most eyes were on that door sneck. Mr Stewart was due. The Mississippi was well out of contention.

Harry’s hands were sweated. Moisture trickled on his neck. His lips were dry. He watched the sneck.

Suddenly it clicked up. A spontaneous inhalation of breath hissed around the class.

A little head appeared and a voice piped, “ Can Miss Cannon borrow some chalk, Please?”

Audible sighs, as Miss Brown’s tongue, clicked irritably.

But the moment would not be delayed for long. The sneck went up—the hiss of expectancy was repeated, as the door was flung back its full distance. And there—

Harry stopped, only partially for effect. His lips were dry as they were all those years ago, the power of the memory overcoming him.

Before him, those faces, better-fed faces, but they held the same, slack-mouthed, in-drawn look of nervous anticipation. Surprised and delighted at their enthralment, Harry continued his finger-pointing.

In that very doorway, there stood Mr Stewart. Broad and squat in a black pin-stripe suit. Round-faced, with black hair plastered down like a skull cap. Close-set, mean, piggy eyes, with a thin black moustache that underlined his pointed nose. This lips set in a permanent sneer, he walked slowly, eyes scanning the class, who sat hypnotised as a rabbit before a snake. Hanging from his right hand, the wrath of the devil, a long, wide black belt.

Mr Steward spoke briefly to Miss brown, who touched the bun in her hair affectedly. Turning to the class, Mr Stewart snapped, “Cail, Connor. Out here.”

Harry stumbled as he squeezed past Kenny Moffatt, and Lenny, bold, brash, Lenny, bounced like a hedge sparrow ahead of him. Straightening up in the aisle, Harry saw the worried face of the new girl in the corner. He hadn’t registered a girl as being pretty before.

Nervously he stood behind Lenny. Seeing that girl had produced a great resolve in him. He wasn’t going to cry. He had never spoken to her, but she wasn’t going to see him cry.

“Left hand, Cail.”

Lenny stuck his hand out like a railway signal.

Harry saw the belt go up to the shoulder. He should look away. Then it was swinging down, a brief fizzing sound.

And Lenny pulled his hand away.

The plummeting belt caught Mr Stewart on his knee. His face turned the colour of the plums his mother had stewed that previous Sunday. Mr Stewart grabbed Lenny's hand and held it, “Out. And keep it there.”

The belt fizzed once more and struck with a mighty slapping sound, leather on flesh. Lenny yelled.

“Other one.”

Another one? Harry felt his insides loosen. Both hands?

The second blow seemed even louder, and Lenny, tough, cocky Lenny was directed, howling, back to his seat.

Harry stood in his place. He wasn’t going to cry like that, he repeated the resolve to himself. A glance towards that corner by the window. She had looked away.

“To the front, boy! Left hand, and no tricks.”

His hand hung out nervously flaccid, as the belt went back. Then Harry felt it being driven down under an unbearable weight. Mr Stewart’s eyes were malevolently intent. The other hand, and the same intolerable weight. But no pain. It hadn’t hurt. As he turned away the girl’s eyes remained averted.

Then, shockingly, like molten lava, heated agony poured into his hands. Scalding, devouring heat forced him to tuck his flayed fingers into his armpits, clutching them there, desperate to suppress the agonising burning.

His hands were seared yet he hadn’t cried. “Don’t cry. Don’t cry,” Kenny Moffatts’s solicitous tones.

Harry raised his head. Miss Brown and Mr Stewart were talking together.

And they were laughing!

Harry’s whole being revolted. He wasn’t a bad boy. Mr Stewart didn’t even know him but had just tortured his hands. And now he was laughing.

Not the pain, not Kenny’s urgings, but the sheer maddening injustice finally brought hot stinging tears rushing to his eyes. He bent his head and wept, ashamed that this girl should see such weakness.

The elder Harry’s own eyes were moist now. The children sat transfixed. He had almost got there, almost touched the moment. He waited in the silence.

Finally, Ron Greaves said, “A very moving story. Wasn’t it?”

Heads nodded. Murmurs of agreement. A girl’s hand went up, right in front of him. “What about that girl? The one—”

Harry smiled, his moist eyes lingered on that corner. Now, he was so close, he could reach out to experience again that special mislaid moment.

It was playtime. The curiosity of his classmates had dissipated. The show was over and they were all outside. Harry had soaked his hands under the cold tap in the corner of the cloakroom. He sat on the hard bench, head down, an occasional shuddering gasp replacing the sobs.

His throbbing hands lay palms up in his lap, as red and brittle as Autumn leaves. His head and heart were full of hate for school and all it stood for. He wanted out of it.

“It must have hurt so much.”

And she was standing over him, her cornflower blue eyes moist, tawny hair lightly curled on her brow.

Thrilled and confused by her presence, he said, “I hate them.”

“Please, don’t hate. You were very brave. He shouldn’t have laughed like that.”

She had noticed that. She bent and her fingers touched his burning hands, an act of kindness and sweet gentility, “It’s a cruel thing to do to anybody.”

The elusive moment, as, with those pale cool fingers soothing his hands, he looked up at her, taking her into himself. Hair, eyes, gentle voice, the very delicacy of her, sustaining him, renewing him, giving him resolve, as she would when childhood passed, for the rest of her life.

He stood, perfectly steady in front of the youth of today recalling the youth of yesterday. How had that ever slipped from his memory? But he had defeated the trickster. He had relived that special moment and found that she fortified him still.

And her girl’s face completed the set fixed so warmly in his mind.

The taxi met him at the school gate. He paused and looked back at the old building. Let the old shunter take him when he would. Only time or chance or fate will remind us that occasionally, out of all the moments of our lives, we have failed to recognise an instant of significant splendour, of rare consequence, a jewelled moment. And reminded, we rage to recover it. He was grateful for having been granted such a chance.

As the taxi pulled away, he settled back. He was totally contented.






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Copyright © Copyright redwriter 2019
The right of redwriter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design, and Patents Act 1988

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