The clamour of the hand bell echoed through corridors and hallways, it was followed in an instant by the scrape and thud of thirty pairs of assorted boots and shoes on the bare floorboards of the classroom.
Miss Robinson stood and removed her specs. They fell to the end of their chain and swung gently over her ample bust. “Thank you Class Four collect your things. For homework today I want you to write an essay.” None of the children actually groaned but Jed noticed one or two pairs of eyes rolling heavenwards. For him though there was a flutter of excitement deep in his stomach, he loved essays.
“Your work is to be entitled “The River” and is to be at least five hundred words. Hand it in tomorrow. Now bow your heads for the prayer.” Thirty heads bowed in unison and the mutter of childish voices strove to find a way to whatever God looked down on this benighted part of Yorkshire.
As they filed out, each of the children took a sheet of cheap paper from the corner of the teacher’s desk “Cn I tek a spare bit Miss.”
“Yes Jed of course you may.” The language correction was kind and subtle, these children had more to think about than correct speech. Many of them had hard lives and this one harder than most. His mother dying in childbirth left him to live with a vicious tempered step-father, who, if his teacher were right, caused many of the bruises on that young skin each day. Surely, she told herself yet again, he was better off in his own little terraced house, squalid and difficult as that might be than up in “The Home” with the other orphans. She closed her eyes briefly, and prayed anew that her reluctance to interfere was the result of kindness and not, as she often suspected cowardice.
Jed ran down the cobbles. The story was already forming in his mind. If only Barry dun’t belt us agen tonight it’ll be lovely, grand. He could lose himself in the magic of words. Ah shud be awright, Ah sided up in t’scullery afore school and cleaned up after t’pigeons. Ah peeled t’spuds and med beds. I did it all din’t ah.
He ran round the corner, down the passage and lifting the flagstone, he grabbed the big old back door key. Like a jug of iced water the shock hit him as he stepped into the grimy room. There on the table lay Barry’s good shirt.
“Ya lazy little tyke, wash this afore ya go gadding of ta bloody school or I’ll know the reason why.” The words echoed in his head rebounding from the greasy damp walls and hovering like a crowd of violence above the pile of grimy cotton cloth on the table. He glanced at the clock, ten past four, it was warm and sunny and Barry wasn’t due home until about six. He muttered to himself.
“If ah wash it quick now and hang it in t’yard it’ll appen dry afore e comes in.”
Lighting a fire Jed boiled water in the big old kettle. Then he scrubbed at the stained collar as hard as he could with the heavy piece of green soap and finally hung the shirt on the piece of rope strung across the yard. On his way back into the house he opened the pigeon loft to let the birds out for their evening flight.
The clock ticked ponderously, the only other noise in the dim room was the gentle shush of pencil lead as it laid down its magic on the grey paper. Tic tic tic…
With a resounding crash, the world exploded, “Ya little shit, ya lazy good for nothing toe rag” the words brought with them the thud of a fist against a childish skull and the clatter of a chair as the young body shuddered onto the lino.
“Barry, yur early, wot’s up?” Jed tried his best not to sob as he wiped at the trickle of blood sliding down the side of his head.
“Wot’s up? wot’s up? I’ll tell ya wot’s up ya useless lump a lard. Look at this. Me good shirt covered in pigeon muck. I told ya, I told ya this morning tek it in afore ya lets birds out. Did ya listen? did ya buggery. Too busy wi yur namby pamby writin aren’t ya?” With this the great hand reached out to snatch up the piece of paper on the table. He threw it into the grate and the remains of the fire lighted earlier.
Jed leaped forward but it was hopeless. As he watched, tears half blinding him, the reeds and the riverbank, the dragonflies and water voles, all the wonders in the little world of his creation were gobbled up by the greedy flames.
The thin childish hand reached out and the bony fingers wrapped around the handle of the poker. With a scream half child, half animal, he turned and whacked in fury at his step father. Again and again his arms flashed back and forth and as Barry fell to the floor he bent and kept on bashing and belting until again all that could be heard was the old clock. Tic tic tic.
Now there was just the sound of the pencil lead as it laid down its magic on the piece of paper.
I can see the river before me, it is red, if flows in tiny rivulets along the cracks in the lino. The source is beyond my vision but it creeps ever nearer to the door where it will form a crimson waterfall over the steps.