…It Tolls for Thee.
"William Horace Whitehead"
"William Horace Whitehead"
"Has anyone seen Horace this morning?" a deafening silence filled the small schoolroom.
McAllister, the be-speckled schoolmaster glared angrily around the upturned faces of his class, a sea of blank pink expressions met his ferocious gaze. He looked over to where the other two Whitehead brothers were sitting,
"Well, Henry, do you know where he is?" Soon to be thirteen years old, Henry was almost a man; he'd be down the pit with his dad this time next year. For all that, when it came to McAllister, he was still nothing more than a child and one who had tasted the schoolmasters cane on more than one occasion!
He shook his head, gazed down at his feet, and said nothing. "What have you to say, Charles… or have you lost your tongue, like your brother?"
Ten-year-old Charlie glared back at his archenemy. He opened his mouth to give the teacher a tirade. Henry's swift kick to his ankle soon reminded him that it would go ill with him if he took on McAllister. The teacher had already dismissed the question and had turned to his blackboard but over his shoulder, the Whitehead brothers grinned at each other, confident that their silence had been effective.
"You two can stay behind after the class". The master never paused, he just continued to write on the board… and although the class numbered over thirty, the TWO, knew exactly who they were. More importantly, they knew what was likely to transpire when the day’s lessons were done!
A warm breeze was blowing over the grassy sea of the meadow; a hawk hovered against a cobalt dome. Horace watched, he was transfixed by the beauty and grace of the hawk, it pinned him to the grassy knoll on which he lay. This was the best time of the day he thought. He knew by the height of the sun that it must be around nine in the morning. He had meant to go to school that day but the sun was so warm and the call of the outdoors had proved to strong for the eleven-year-old.
"Come on Squidge, we've got to go". His brothers Henry and Charlie had pleaded with him as they had all walked to school that morning. "You know we'll get whacked if we bunk off again… and Dad says that if Old Mac canes us again, he'll have his belt off to us when he comes home as well".
Horace…or Squidge, as he was more commonly known (due to his small size) was having none of it. "I'm not going an that’s final. You two can go, if you want. I'm going down the Grips!” Charlie shrugged off Henry’s arm, "Well, I'm not frit neither, I'll go with our Squidge!"
"Come on Squidge, You know it’s not right to get little un whacked! Don’t let him come with you". Henry stood, his back to the old village cross. "Tell him he's got to come to school". It was not just filial duty that drove Henry, he knew that as the oldest, he'd be held responsible if Charlie didn't go to school, Squidge, well that was a different matter, but young Charlie had to go.
"Yeah, you go with Henry, Little Un", this from Horace who was already looking up at his younger brother,” We’ll only get in more trouble if you don’t go. I'll see you later"; he had already removed his jacket and was skittering down a back lane to make good his escape before anyone else saw him. The brothers Whitehead turned and trudged their way towards the sound of the summoning school bell.
There was a heavy silence in the room, although the fire blazed in the grate there seemed to be a chill in the room that no heat could disperse. They all sat around the table, five brothers, the eldest two, Ron and Jack, looking at the three schoolboys.
"Well, I shouldn't like to be in your shoes when Dad gets in!” Jack nudged Henry.
"It weren't my fault," protested Henry; “I didn’t bunk off!"
"No, but you let Squidge go though, didn't you?" this from the other brother Ron.
"Oh… and I suppose that YOU would have stopped him?" Henry quickly retorted, "Somehow I doubt it."
Both Ron and Jack looked away at this. It was true, although the smallest of the brothers, Squidge, had the reputation of being the feistiest. Whenever any of the brothers got themselves into fights, the cry would go up, "Fetch our Squidge". Invariably the fight would have one outcome and Squidge's reputation would gain further esteem amongst his peers.
"Wait while Dad gets in, I'm going out, you coming Ron?" Jack pushed his chair away from the table, looking at the cause of the forthcoming excitement; "I can't stand the sight of blood". His grin at Horace was returned by a broad pink tongue and loud raspberry.
The Westminster chimes rang out the hour. Squidge looked up at the clock on the mantle, he knew that his father's arrival was imminent. He looked over at the other two boys at the table.
"Nowt we can do" shrugged Henry, "It was just bad luck that Ma ran into Mac at the shop."
Charlie nodded his head, "We wouldn’t have blabbed on you, Squidge."
"I know, still - the bugger could have kept it quiet, even if it meant I got whacked in t'morning. He didn’t need to tell Ma. Dads going to kill me!"
The two brothers nodded, the mention of whacking had brought back painful memories of their day's end, when McAllister had admonished them for "their dumb insolence in class earlier that day." With six whacks apiece, admonishment it most certainly was.
Squidge looked over at the babies of the family, Cyril and young Grace, playing contentedly with their elder sister Sarah. He knew that when the forthcoming confrontation with his father occurred, the young ones would be terrified, not that Herbert, their father was a cruel man, rather that he was, as most other men were, in this year of 1900, regarded as supreme being, in their own homes. He wasn't really worried, though he knew from past experience, how painful his father's discipline could be.
The sound of the latch heralded the arrival of Herbert, a dozen eyes flashed towards the door that led into the scullery. His voice, strong and clear, as he greeted his wife… then somewhat muted as she replied and spoke of the events of the day.
Squidge stared at the door… he felt as though his heart would explode out of his chest, so strong was it beating. Any minute now, he thought. Then nothing… quiet, nothing could be heard from beyond the door. No raised voices, nothing, this was worse he thought than a full-scale row. The door opened, his father entered the room, and he smiled at all his children… all of them, except for one. He pointedly ignored William Horace; he merely sat down at the table and waited until his wife, Emma, brought in his mug of tea.
Sqidge lay awake; the rhythmic breathing of his two bedfellows had not lulled him into their state of deep sleep. He brooded over the events of the evening & his father’s silence, until all the younger members of the household had retired for the night. Then came the explosion he knew had been brewing. The feel of his father's belt, on his behind, was still painfully acute but his father's words had been much more hurtful to the errant eleven-year-old. He was truly sorry for the pain that he caused his parents but he was equally angered with the person he felt was responsible for his present predicament, McAllister!
He knew that school would never hold any appeal for him, but he had promised Dad that he would not play truant again. Indeed he had sworn to change, to be the ideal student. Never again would he even be late getting to his lessons and as he'd made his vows he had really meant them, but… tossing and turning, sleep eluded him; to appease his father he'd promise that his behaviour would change, but that would mean McAllister had won and the thought of giving his teacher that satisfaction was more than young Squidge could bear.
McAllister stood at the doorway of the Classroom, arms folded, watching his class file past, each muttering a muted "Morning Sir," or similar greeting. They were of course totally ignored; the teacher was on the lookout for his "favourite" student, William Whitehead,
Across the asphalt play yard, the gate opened and three brothers boisterously larking about, spilled into the school. Spotting the Master, the boys quickly became quiet and strode towards the door. Henry and Charles sidled past the bulk of the teacher, William's progress barred by the master's cane dropping between the three.
"I trust your father had words with you, last night!” A smirk seemed almost on the teacher's lips, he knew exactly what would have occurred the previous evening, following his chance meeting with Mrs. Whitehead in the shop.
"You've only just made it on time again, this morning" he commented, glancing at his pocket watch, "Make no mistake, young man, the next time you are missing or even late, I shall enjoy teaching you the error of your ways", the cane swished through the air, "Now get to your seat!
Squidge made his way to his seat, he knew that the entire class had heard the warning, that fact if nothing else made it imperative that he couldn’t allow the situation to remain as it now appeared, McAllister had to be dealt with, but how?
The day seemed unending; the hours dragged by until finally the bell, which hung high above the school, rang out it's song, freeing the students for another day. It would soon be ringing again but this time for the students as they arrived for another day with Mr. McAllister. Squidge suddenly realised he knew exactly how he could get even with his mentor.
The three Whitehead brothers sat attentively at the front of the class. Their young faces stared at their teacher apparently rapt with attention and eagerness to begin their lessons. McAllister, staring over his spectacles, scowled at the trio. He knew somehow, the morning’s chaotic start had been down to them, or more likely one of the three. The schoolroom, behind the brothers, was almost empty & he glanced at his watch… almost nine thirty… another pupil sheepishly sidled through the door,
"Sorry Sir, I didn’t hear the bell". McCallister looked through the window to where the Bell rope had been neatly severed thirty feet above the playground.
"That's hardly surprising,” he muttered staring again at the angelic face of William Horace Whitehead. The eyes looking back at him seemed to mockingly say, "You know, I know… but you'll never be able to prove it!"
Lacing his fingers behind his head, Squidge leaned his chair back onto it's back legs, a smile began to play around his lips, as he remembered the exhilarating midnight climb to the bell-tower.
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