A Valuable Lesson
Written by Daaniel Hammonds aka Wade
Chris settled on the grassy bank overlooking the vacant school playground. The children wouldn't arrive for another hour, by which time he would be long gone, conforming to a worldly pursuit of ambition. The school he decided, would be his final stop before leaving, completing his farewells to his home town.
Free from interruption, Chris merely wanted to revel in the serenity of the moment, the virgin day in its infancy. It was a fresh Spring morning, flushed with shades of pastel and spirited with rousing wildlife. The trees which he had once treated as climbing frames were now boasting adornments of blossom, and the dew soaked grass shimmered under the rising sun as a playful breeze stroked its long green belly.
The school itself stood dormant, a two storey cube of red brick and symmetrical formation, blemishing the landscape with spiteful intent. Chris empathized with his younger self, submerged in the shadow of the towering structure and dreading the day in wait. The actual building in its banality was an average primary school with paintings taped to the windows and scraps of litter strewn at its base, but for Chris it held tainted memories of formality and constraint.
Tangible events of the present gradually succumbed to a montage of recollections as Chris drifted into a state of nostalgic comparison. There was little to contradict his memory, things had barely altered since he was a boy. The school exhibited doors and window frames of varnished pine, replacing the formal black and white of previous years. Other changes were more apparent in the surrounding areas of the school, such as the caretaker's shed which had surrendered itself to a teachers' car park. Then there was the old pond in which many bags, balls and even the odd child had been drenched; that too had vanished, a piece of turf concealing its former existence. Fundamentally, everything remained as it had been eighteen years ago when he had sat upon this same grassy bank.
It was during a cold mid morning break and his new shoes had been causing him discomfort since arriving at school. He had hoped to participate in a makeshift football game his friends had arranged for their break time, but his blistered feet intervened. Instead, he assumed the frustrating role of the commentator, offering verbal support and redundant advice.
His friends shunned him, too enthralled with their game to notice his boredom. They weaved between one another, grunting and panting while thrusting their manic feet towards the ball when the opportunity arose. It had started with energetic ardour, arrogant yells of 'Goal!' and quivering cries of 'Cheat!' could be heard regularly from the boys as egos swelled and tempers flared. The game continued into the latter half of their break, one goal following another in rapid succession, each seeming less significant than the last as the boys grew breathless and weak.
Meanwhile, Christopher found greater interest in neighbouring events; girls skipping, older boys wrestling and a developing commotion around the lower floor classrooms. He wasn't sure what was happening there, but it seemed to be drawing children towards it, breathing them in from across the fields.
'Fight!' yelled Christopher, pointing at the crowd.
It was only a presumption, but one which succeeded in its plea for attention. The boys halted, stared across the playground, then picked up their coats.
'Fight! Fight! Fight!' they echoed, chanting in harmony as they scurried towards the multiplying rabble, leaving Christopher hobbling slowly behind.
By the time Christopher caught up, a complete wanton chaos encircled the classrooms, jolting back and forth whilst screening the mysterious incident. Supervising teachers were already present, attempting to contain the disorder with whistles and raised voices, but to no avail. However, it wasn't long before the children caught sight of the approaching headmaster.
'You have twenty seconds to get into your lines,' he barked, and began counting. 'One, two, three...'
It took less than five seconds for the mass to scatter, and before the count of ten, all pupils had fallen into rows of regimented order.
Christopher stood silently, suppressing his gnawing curiosity and making no effort to stare beyond the children before him. Then suddenly, without prior warning there was a raucous din to his left, causing him to flinch.
'You! Heath! Get over here now!'
It was the headmaster's voice taken to its limit. Some unfortunate boy had provoked his wrath.
'Did I tell you to push? Did I tell you to move? What did I tell you?' the headmaster shrieked.
'No Sir, sorry Sir,' came a feeble whimper.
Christopher remained perfectly still, his pounding heart an exception.
'Get back into line,' the headmaster said, as if the novelty of his power over the boy had started to fade.
The scorned and humiliated child tucked back into line. This small demonstration certainly paid off, as each and every child stood paralysed for ten minutes.
The next voice Christopher heard was that of Mrs Clarke, his class teacher, distinguishable by the growling pronunciation of her R's and stinging T's; which she often over played.
'Rrrrrrightt class. I want to see a neat line following behind me as I walk into the building,' she announced.
Her class trailed behind like a slithering snake, fixed to the predetermined formation. Mrs Clarke resumed speaking. 'When you have deposited your coats in the cloak room, you will proceed into the hall where you will sit silently until furrrrtherrrr notice.'
Christopher limped behind the girl in front, into the cloak room where he slung the hood of his coat over a steel hook. He then trundled silently into the hall and sat like a Buddhist on the cold wooden floor.
Mrs Clarke left for a few minutes and returned accompanied by six final year junior boys carrying chairs and tables. 'I want the tables pushed together and the chairs around them. You can place my chair at the frrront of the hall,' she ordered.
They acted on her instructions as the cross legged children watched curiously. Once the orders had been completed the boys were ushered out of the hall and the door was slammed shut.
'Rrrrrightt class. Find yourselves a seat. You will be given paper and pencils in one moment.'
Christopher raced to find a chair adjacent to his friends and sat with his arms folded. When everyone was seated, Mrs Clarke circled the tables distributing pencils and paper.
'Attention class,' she commenced, clapping her hands together. 'For the rrremainder of the day we will be conducting lessons rrright here. The headmaster will be along to speak with you in a few minutes time, but while we are waiting I want you to write your name and today's date at the top of the paper in front of you.'
Moments later the headmaster burst through the door. The children stood up from their seats and Mrs Clarke welcomed him with sycophantic eagerness. 'What do we say children?" she asked.
'Good morning Mr Harvey,' the children intoned, in a mindless and somewhat melodic harmony.
'Hello Mr Harvey. Would you like the children to remain standing while you speak to them?'
'You may sit down,' he said, totally disregarding her.
The children seated and waited with reluctant interest. Mrs Clarke stepped to one side and the headmaster commenced his speech:
'I'll get right to the point. During break, some impetuous imbecile thought it would be a good idea to throw stones at his fellow pupils. Well, through his efforts he not only managed to hit a girl directly in the face, but also succeeded in breaking your classroom window. As I have told the other classes, this school will not tolerate this type of behaviour and it will not tolerate dishonesty!' he roared, bombastically. 'You do not deserve to share your school with people like this. They are a danger to others and quite frankly do not deserve our services as a reputable school,' he continued.
'That's a valid point Mr Harvey,' added Mrs Clarke, nodding at the children then glancing at the headmaster for approval. Again, she received no response.
'If the culprit is in this room right now, you have until one o'clock this afternoon to come forward and admit to your wrong doing.' He paused and stared at the children, squinting at certain boys as if accusing them of the crime. Christopher was one of those boys.
He had never been acknowledged by the headmaster until now. He'd seen him shout, push and hit older children, but he himself had managed so far to evade him. It was a privilege granted to infants, but now, at the age of eight, his years of immunity had expired. Just one deviation from robotic orderliness would be an invitation for trouble. Indeed it was a frightening prospect, but Christopher had no immediate worries.
'Rest assured we will find the culprit before the week expires. God help them when we do,' the headmaster concluded.
'Thank you Mr Harvey. I'm certain that if anyone knows anything they won't hesitate in coming forward.'
'Thank you for your time Lisa,' muttered the headmaster, undermining her authority with intentional use of her Christian name.
She escorted him from the hall and closed the door.
Christopher thought about her name. It didn't suit her. Mrs Clarke was a lady of extreme primness and firm posture. An old fashioned lady attired in a long flowered dress, matching cardigan and flat soled sandals. She was only thirty six, but looked at least ten years older. She had wrinkles on her forehead, bags beneath her eyes and frizzy brown hair that sprouted subtle wisps of grey.
'Rrrright class. As we are unable to continue with lessons as normal, I have a fun exercise for you. A general knowledge quiz. The winner of which will receive a prize,' said Mrs Clarke, almost smiling, but not quite.
The children seemed pleased with the idea and began talking with one another.
'This is not an excuse to start gossiping as you will not be able to hear the questions will you?' she interrupted, peering over the tops of her half moon spectacles. 'Pencils on paper, let us begin.'
She sat on a chair with a book on her lap and commenced the questions, pausing between each one while the children scribbled down their answers.
'Name the planet closest to the Sun?'
'What is nine divided by three?'
'How many hours in a day?'
'How do you spell the word mountain?'
'Name an English river?'
'How many legs does a centipede have?'
The questions continued to the number of twenty, most of which were of relative simplicity.
'I will ask for your answers now. If you know the answer, do not shout out, put your hand up.'
The children sat waiting, some looking completely bemused, others jigging about with complacent grins.
'Rrrright. Question one. Did anybody answer it?' Mrs Clarke asked.
Five children waved their hands in the air, each desperate to prove themselves above the others. Christopher did not know the answer to this question and had left the space blank.
'Darren. What did you get?' she asked.
'Earth Miss!' he shouted enthusiastically.
There followed a few seconds of silence.
'Earth? Earth?' Mrs Clarke asked, as if taken back by the boy's stupidity. 'If Earth was the planet closest to the Sun we would all be dead. Burnt to a crrrisp.' She shook her head with dismay as Darren slouched in his chair, red with embarrassment.
'Earth,' she sighed, shaking her head once more.
'Do we have any sensible answers?'
Only one of the five hands remained.
'Mercury Miss,' Donna stated, bold and confident.
'Correct. Give yourself a tick.'
The questions continued, each followed by the waving of hands. A girl called Sophie answered the division sum, another boy announced that there were twenty four hours in a day and Darren managed to redeem himself by spelling "Mountain" correctly.
'So, what did you get for the rivers?' Mrs Clarke enquired.
Christopher found himself amid a forest of raised hands, his own eclipsed by those in front.
'Rrrichard. Name one.'
'The tens,' he mumbled timidly.
'I think you mean the Thames, but close enough I suppose.'
Several hands dropped to tick their papers.
The answers continued, covering the Severn, Trent and even the Ouse. Some children called out the names of foreign rivers such as the Mississippi and the Nile, but their attempts were appreciated.
'Have we covered them all?' Mrs Clarke asked.
Christopher held his solitary hand high. He was reluctant to give his answer, but without the teacher's verification he was unable to tick it.
'Christopher. You have another answer?'
'Piddle Miss,' he said.
The class burst out laughing.
'What did you say?' Mrs Clarke clamoured, her face almost white with shock.
'It's a real river Miss, I've been there,' replied Christopher, a little concerned by her reaction.
Some of the children continued to giggle, but most looked on open mouthed.
'Stand up young man!'
Mrs Clarke stepped over to Christopher and gawked at his paper.
By now he was quite desperate to prove his sincerity. 'Really Miss, I've actually seen it,' he warbled.
At that, she snatched the paper from the table and yanked Christopher backwards by his jumper. The hall blurred in motion as Mrs Clarke swung him around to face her, confronting him with piercing eyes which seemed to bulge beyond the tops of her glasses. Her breath reeked, a stale combination of coffee and cigarettes.
'This is for trying to make a fool out of me,' Mrs Clark snarled as she slapped his legs. His trousers cushioned the sting of the attack, yet her abrupt frenzy had frightened him. He began to sob, holding one hand on his leg and the other over his eyes.
'I would send you to the headmaster's office if he didn't have more important matters to deal with right now,' she said, as her long nailed claw gripped his shoulder. 'Now sit down and don't say another word.'
Christopher slumped in his chair snivelling and spluttering.
'If you want to be the class clown, you best find another school, I don't have the time for silliness in my class,' she added, her back facing him as she strutted towards the front of the hall.
The wide eyes of Christopher's class mates were upon him.
'I am right, there is a river called that, I can prove it,' Christopher murmured to the observing children. 'One day I'm gonna be bigger than her and I'll come back to this school and hit her back.'
His peers listened with sympathy, but didn't reply.
Mrs Clarke continued with the answers to the quiz, but Christopher didn't participate, he just sat brooding until dinner time.
When the bell sounded, Mrs Clarke asked Christopher and some other boys to stay behind and help push the tables to one side to make space for the dinner queue. He resentfully complied, then trudged out of the hall alone.
He made his way upstairs to the school library. It was a pathetic little room with no more than six shelves, primarily consisting of children's fiction. There were three final year junior girls sitting at a table.
'Can you tell me where I can find a map please,' he bashfully asked them.
'You ain't supposed to be in here,' a blonde haired girl replied. 'Not without a teacher you ain't.'
'I need a map.'
Another girl looked up from a book she was reading and stared at him. 'Miss Simmons is in the next room, she can help you,' she said, continuing to stare.
Christopher shrugged his shoulders and glanced behind him.
'I can go and get her for you,' the blonde haired girl added.
She left the library and returned seconds later with Miss Simmons.
Miss Simmons had been Christopher's teacher in his final infant year; a warm, vivacious lady in her late twenties, adored by all of her pupils. Unlike Mrs Clarke, she had a real passion for her work and treated the children with patience and understanding. Christopher really missed being in her class.
'Hello Christopher, how can I help you?' she asked tenderly, smiling as usual.
'I'm after a map Miss. I want to find a river.'
'What's this river called?'
'It's called the river Piddle. No one believes me that it is a real river Miss.'
Miss Simmons gave a small chuckle.
'I can't say I've heard of that one, but we can have a look,' she said, placing her hand on his shoulder.
She guided him to a small bookshelf at the corner of the room where she knelt down and ran her finger along the line of books.
'Here, this is probably the best one to use,' she said, pulling a hefty oblong atlas from the row. She placed the book on the table where the three girls were sitting.
'Ever heard of a river Piddle?' she asked them.
'I have, it's by Devon I think,' one of the girls announced.
'Ah, okay, thank you,' Miss Simmons said, flicking through the pages of the book. 'Have a seat Christopher.'
Christopher sat down, observing the map with panic and confusion.
'I'll never find it,' he grumbled.
'Don't worry, it's here somewhere. The rivers are coloured blue, so just ignore the rest,' replied Miss Simmons, brushing her hand over his head.
Christopher blinked one eye and scrutinized the page while Miss Simmons gazed over his shoulder, quietly singing to herself. They searched for over ten minutes, then Miss Simmons tapped him.
'Is that it?' she asked, tracing her finger nail along a blue line on the page.
The line ran between Wareham and Briantspuddle, next to it were the words "River Piddle or River Trent."
'Yeah, that's it!' confirmed Christopher eagerly.
Miss Simmons withdrew a pencil from her pocket and lightly circled the text. 'You learn something new everyday,' she sighed.
'Thank you Miss,' Christopher said, continuing to look at the page.
'No problem, it's nice to be helpful.'
'Can I take this book to my next lesson to show everybody?'
'Well, you aren't supposed to, but if you promise to bring it back to me by break time I don't see any problem.'
'Thank you Miss, I promise to bring it back.'
'Remember, its on page eight, can you remember that?'
'That's how old I am so it's easy.'
'Of course, that's good thinking,' said Miss Simmons as she closed the book and handed it to Christopher.
The school bell announced the end of dinner and Christopher returned to the hall. The tables and chairs had been restored to their previous formation ready for the next lesson and Mrs Clarke stood by the door, counting the children as they entered. Christopher sat in his chair, concealing the atlas between his lap and the underside of the table, anticipating the right moment to reveal its purpose.
Clatters and rumbles echoed through the hall as tables and chairs were dragged out of view. The dinner ladies in their white outfits rushed to tidy up, while a short, podgy woman navigated a broom back and forth across the floor. Mrs Clarke stared impatiently, tapping her hand against her thigh like the ticking of a clock until they disappeared through a door at the back of the hall. There remained a lingering aroma of dinner and a faint hint of disinfectant in the air.
Mrs Clarke jolted her head backwards and marched to her chair where she commenced the afternoon register call:
She was halted by an aggressive knock at the door, through which entered the headmaster. Chairs squealed as the class jumped from their seats and stood adroit.
'Sit down class,' breathed the headmaster, flapping his hands vertically.
Mrs Clarke dropped the register book and scurried over to meet him. 'Yes Mr Harvey?' she asked, leaning towards him. 'I've just had Teresa Allen's parents in my office for the last hour discussing this brick throwing incident. She isn't too badly hurt, just a little shaken, but her parents are refusing to allow her back to school until the boy responsible has been expelled.' He purposely spoke loud enough for the children to overhear. 'I just need a word with the class if I may.'
'Please, go right ahead,' replied Mrs Clarke.
The headmaster stepped to the front of the hall and cleared his throat. He looked a little flustered, his brow glistening with sweat and his dark halo of hair sweeped erratically across his balding head. 'It appears that the person responsible for this morning's affliction has failed to come forward. Therefore, we are now requesting co-operation in apprehending the thug,' he said, sucking in a deep abdominal breath. 'If anyone knows anything relating to this, I urge them to report to me by break time this afternoon.' He exhaled, ran his sleeve across his forehead and turned to converse with Mrs Clarke.
Christopher surveyed the moment carefully. It was the perfect opportunity to broadcast his new found information; with the class silent and better yet, with the headmaster as witness. He lifted the atlas onto the table and sifted through the pages, observed by his curious class mates. Grasping the book tightly, he stood from his seat and made his approach. 'Miss, I found that river,' he said, forcing the book towards her face.
'Did I give you permission to leave your seat? We are having a prrrivate conversation here!' Mrs Clarke exclaimed, swiping the book from her view.
Mr Harvey lifted the atlas from Christopher and glanced at the open pages. 'What do you have there?' he asked.
'Mrs Clarke shouted at me Sir, for lying about a river, but I found it on this map Sir.' Christopher peered over the edge of the book and pointed to the pencil circle.
'The river Piddle. Yes, I know that one. I did a spot of angling there a few years ago,' said the headmaster, without expression.
'Go and sit down,' muttered Mrs Clarke, lightly pushing at Christopher's shoulder.
'Everyone thought I was being silly, but I knew it existed Sir.' He stood firm and spoke aloud.
'You completely misunderstood the question,' Mrs Clarke stuttered.
'But you said....'
'Look here. Mr Harvey has more important things on his mind right now, he doesn't want to be disturbed with such nonsense,' Mrs Clarke interrupted, forcefully steering Christopher back to his chair.
Having coerced him to sit down, she returned to the headmaster. 'I'm sorry about that. We had a little quiz last period. They all got a little too eager I think.'
Mr Harvey appeared not to be listening.
'The sooner we get back to normal the better,' she added.
'Yes, well, let me know if anything turns up regarding this matter.' He closed the atlas, handed it to Mrs Clarke and left the hall.
'Christopher, don't contradict me in front of the headmaster again. Do I make myself clear?' warned Mrs Clarke, pointing her finger at him.
She raised the atlas with both hands. 'Where did you get this?'
'From the school library Miss. Miss Simmons said I could lend it.'
'Borrrrow it! She loaned it, you borrowed it.'
Mrs Clarke slammed the atlas onto the table. 'Amy. Take this back to Miss Simmons will you?'
'Yes Miss.' Amy took the book and left the room.
Mrs Clarke stormed over to her seat and resumed calling the register, her face crinkled, her voice sharp and shrill.
'You're cleverer than the teacher,' whispered one of Christopher's friends.
'Yeah, you proved her wrong,' said another.
Their words of praise were of little consolation however. Christopher had anticipated glory, reprisal and the headmaster's respect. He had conceded an hour of freedom and missed out on dinner to prove his point, and now he was left hungry and frustrated.
Mrs Clarke closed the register book. 'I have some work to be getting on with so I expect total silence during the next hour. You will be left to draw.'
Her announcement was followed by a whispered cheer from the class. Everybody enjoyed drawing. Some appreciated the chance to exhibit their talent, while others merely longed for the freedom of expression that came so seldom. They began to discuss their plans with each other.
'I'm gonna draw a car.'
'I'm gonna do a picture of my mum.'
'What are you gonna do?'
'Silence!' hissed Mrs Clarke. 'I can just as easily set sums for you all. It makes no difference to me.'
The hall fell silent, but for a few restless children squeaking their rubber soled shoes against the wooden floor.
'Lee. You can distribute the paper. It's over by my chair,' said Mrs Clarke.
Lee circulated the paper while Mrs Clarke flung yoghurt pots across the tables. The pots were filled with felt tipped pens and coloured pencils.
'You have all you need, so get on with it. I will collect the pictures at the end of the lesson.'
Christopher remained stationary, watching as the children frantically grappled for the felt tipped pens. They disputed with facial gestures and raised whispers.
'Blue, I need the blue.'
'I had that first.'
'Gimme the green.'
'You ain't even using that.'
'Gizzit 'ere now!'
Mrs Clarke stood from her chair. 'I won't tell you again. This is your final warning,' she bellowed.
Once again the room went quiet, but this time it remained so. The class settled down with their thoughts and their plans, sharing the pens politely. Christopher on the other hand decided to use a standard grey pencil for his picture. It didn't really matter what he drew or how he drew it, Mrs Clarke would discard the class' pictures anyway, as she usually did.
Forty minutes later and Christopher had finished drawing. Before him lay a grey depiction of his house, scribbled with force beneath finger smudged clouds. A majority of pictures created by the class gleamed with colour; pink faces, garish green grass and primary yellow circles representing the Sun. His own appeared rather bland by comparison, but art had never been his forte.
'Rrrright class. We will continue with these pictures next period. Place the pens and pencils back in their pots and stand silently behind your chairs,' announced Mrs Clarke, removing her glasses and sliding them into her pocket.
Christopher placed his pencil next to his work and stood behind his seat, overlooking his picture with critical discontent.
Mrs Clarke donned her long brown coat and ordered the children into a queue by the door. 'I'm on break duty now, so you can follow me outside.'
When the bell sounded, Mrs Clarke escorted the children into the cloakroom where they grabbed their coats and trailed outside. Christopher was the last to leave, his feet still tender, his will to play impaired.
On leaving, he was caught in a release of older children, swarming from the door. Beyond them came a voice, calling his name.
He looked around. It was Mrs Clarke. She called him towards her with a curling hand gesture. 'Can I have a word please?' she asked.
'I must say, you showed great initiative this afternoon, taking it upon yourself to find that river.'
'Yes Miss. I knew it existed though.'
'I'm sorry I shouted at you. I've been under a lot of pressure today, with our class out of use.'
Christopher felt uncomfortable, unsure of what to say or how to react. Mrs Clarke had granted him his overdue apology, garnished with praise. In some ways he wished she hadn't. He'd been humiliated in front of his friends and reduced to tears. There was no sense of retribution in her apology, yet he felt compelled to forgive her and even felt a little sympathetic.
'You are a bright young boy. I have a little task for you if you are interested.'
Christopher looked up at her with bewilderment. It was as if her body had been possessed by a reformed personality. The Mrs Clarke he knew and hated would never have apologised and certainly wouldn't have complemented him, or anyone at all.
'Do you like History Christopher?' she asked.
'I dunno Miss, we haven't done it before.'
'When everything returns to normal we will be studying History. I thought you might want to find some information and get a head start over the class.' She glanced across the playground. 'I know boys like to play the fool and make everybody laugh, but you could do much better.'
Christopher blushed and began twiddling with the zip on his coat.
'Do you know about the dinosaurs that lived on Earth millions of years ago?'
'Erm.. Yes Miss, my dad told me about them.'
'Well Christopher, have you heard of something called fossils?'
'No Miss. Are they dinosaurs?'
'They are pieces of rock engrained with extinct dinosaur bones, insects and plant life,' she said, raising her eye brows. 'They are hard to find, but can be worth a lot of money.'
'Can you find them anywhere Miss?' asked Christopher, his pulse beating with enthusiasm.
'No one can say. Some small fossils can be found anywhere, but the large ones are usually discovered where there are no buildings, in rather desolate areas.'
'How can you tell if it's a frossul Miss?'
Mrs Clarke overlooked his mispronunciation and went on to explain. 'A fossil will have little marks on its surface which look like leaves, insects or even bones.' She paused for a moment to consider a simplification. 'Have you ever pushed a coin into Plasticine or putty?'
'Yes Miss, you get a print. The Queen's head and the date and stuff in the Plasticine.'
'Precisely. Many years ago, these rocks were soft, like Plasticine. Small insects, bones or plants where somehow pushed into them, leaving behind an impression.' Mrs Clarke sighed. 'Do you understand?'
'Yes Miss,' stated Christopher, glancing around. He was now eager to start looking for these fossils.
'There might be some small fossils around here if you look for them. Those grey rocks next to the school may be a good place to start.'
'Okay Miss, I'll go and look.'
'Let me know if you find anything,' concluded Mrs Clarke, before pacing into the playground.
Christopher contemplated informing his friends and asking them to help, but on further consideration he wanted the fossils and the money they would bring, all to himself. Therefore, he decided to search alone. He stepped over to the school where he crouched beside a thin, gravel filled drainage moat and began ferreting through the rocks. He picked one up, examined it, then threw it to one side. He picked up another and another and another, throwing them aside with disappointment. A cramp started to build in his legs, but he persisted, one rock at a time. He delved his hand deep into the gravel and retrieved another. This time he noticed something different. Engraved into the surface was a shell like pattern. A smile stretched across his face as his mind filled with the prospect of riches. He placed the rock in his coat pocket and began rummaging for more. Minutes later he had found another, this time with a leaf embossed pattern. Again, he deposited it in his pocket for safe keeping.
By the end of break, Christopher had found eleven of these fossils and another five of which he was unsure; he kept them anyway, just in case. He dragged himself to his feet and joined his class' line in the playground.
'Where you bin?' asked his friend. 'Found some new friends have ya?'
Christopher thought it best to keep his treasure hunting a secret. He didn't want anyone finding any of the remaining fossils after school.
'I didn't feel like playing. My feet hurt,' he replied.
As the class trailed towards the school, Mrs Clarke called Christopher to one side.
'Did you find anything?' she asked.
'Yes Miss. I found sixteen.' Christopher reached into his pocket.
'Leave them in your coat for now. You can show them to me later.'
'Hang your coat up as normal and we'll have a look after school when everybody has gone. Alright?'
'Run along back to class now.'
Christopher limped inside, replaced his coat on a hook in the cloakroom and returned to the hall. The rest of the class were already seated, scratching at their paper with pencils and felt tipped pens. Christopher sat down and followed suit.
'Okay class, continue with your pictures,' said Mrs Clarke, on entering the hall. She removed her coat and folded it over the back of her chair.
Christopher grabbed a blue felt tipped pen and began applying colour to his picture, diverting his attention from the fossils.
'I have to speak to Mr Harvey. Whilst I am gone I want you to be on your best behaviour.' She grabbed a piece of paper from a box beside her chair. 'Amy, you are in charge. If anybody misbehaves I want you to write down their names on this sheet of paper and I will deal with them when I return.'
'Yes Miss,' replied Amy, as she was handed the paper.
Mrs Clarke left the hall, leaving complete order behind. Amy sat pompously, her chin raised and her pencil hovering above the paper. It didn't take long for someone to break the silence; a boy called Samesh, intentionally provoking Amy with a forced belch. The class released a short lived giggle.
'Samesh, I'm putting your name down,' Amy whined, as she scribbled onto the paper.
'I couldn't help it. It wasn't my fault,' Samesh contended.
'I don't care.'
'God Amy, you're such a snitch,' said Robert, Samesh's best friend.
'That's it, I'm putting your name down too.'
'I don't give a damn, teacher's pet,' Robert replied.
Amy jotted Robert's name on the paper.
'Come on Amy, rub it out. I won't say anything again,' Samesh grumbled.
'No,' she replied, abruptly.
Samesh and Robert decided to cease pleading with Amy and accept Mrs Clarke's consequences.
Mrs Clarke slipped into the room with a look of self satisfaction spread across her face. 'Amy. Did everyone behave themselves?'
'No Miss, Samesh made rude noises and Robert kept talking,' she replied, handing the paper to Mrs Clarke.
'Rrright. Samesh, go stand by my chair. Robert, go and stand in the corner.' Mrs Clarke stood akimbo as she watched the boys follow her request.
Samesh cautiously trundled over to the chair while Robert plodded, head down towards the corner of the room.
'I can't leave you alone for one second can I? There's always someone acting the fool!' shrieked Mrs Clarke. She stepped over to Samesh and slapped him across the legs.
Samesh began crying, loud and dramatically.
'Here come the waterworks,' said Mrs Clarke, unsympathetically. 'Go and stand in the corner.'
Samesh walked over to the corner of the room and propped his tear streaked face against the wall.
'Robert, come here.'
Robert trudged over to her, covering his legs with his hands.
'Move your hands,' she ordered.
He dropped his hands to his side and Mrs Clarke walloped his buttocks. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, but did not cry.
'Now go back into the corner and think about your actions.' Mrs Clarke approached the table, picked up Robert and Samesh's pictures and tore them into pieces. 'Back to work class, there is nothing more to see.'
Twenty minutes into the lesson and the door was barged open by Mrs Moran; teacher of the final year class and deputy headmistress of the school.
'Yes?' queried Mrs Clarke, somewhat disgruntled by the sudden intrusion.
Since Christopher could remember, there had always been an awkward lack of formal etiquette when these teachers met. No words of greeting, parting or thanks ever passed from one to another.
'Is there a Christopher Miller in your class?' asked Mrs Moran.
Christopher looked up from his picture and shuffled around in his chair.
'Yes there is,' Mrs Clarke replied, making no effort to indicate his whereabouts.
'Mr Harvey would like to see him in his office.'
Christopher felt his body dominated by a sudden limpness, while a dull ache swelled up in his abdomen.
'Christopher, go with Mrs Moran,' said Mrs Clarke, swiping at the air with the back of her hand.
Christopher stood from his chair, his legs trembling, precariously supporting his body. Mrs Moran held the door open and slammed it shut behind him.
'Go and sit outside his office. He will call you when he's ready.'
'What for, why have I got to go Miss?' Christopher stuttered.
'Don't ask questions, just go will you?'
Christopher made his way through the corridors, past the classrooms and into the foyer. There he was faced with two padded seats, covered with black, leather like plastic. Next to them were two closed doors; offices belonging to the headmaster and the secretary. He plunged into one of the seats and anticipated his fate.
After several minutes of waiting, the tension was alleviated by an older boy passing through the foyer with a quire tucked under his arm.
With a graceful spin, he turned to face Christopher. 'What you 'ere for?' he asked.
'I dunno, I just got sent here.'
'You in trouble?'
'Dunno. I ain't done anything wrong.'
'I tell ya, Harvey's bad man,' whispered the boy, fixating a stare on the headmaster's door. 'I'm gonna go before he catches me.' The boy raised his thumb and grinned, before bouncing through some double doors at the far side of the foyer.
The doors swung back and forth to a rhythm, then stopped. An ominous reticence hung in the air. Christopher was left alone, tormented by his own foreboding. Perching on the edge of the seat, he scanned the foyer, in search of a distraction from his thoughts. The room was illuminated via two small windows and a release of daylight from the main entrance. The surrounding walls were sparsely decorated with plaques, framed photographs and shelves occupied trophies; awarded to the chess, football and netball teams of previous generations.
The headmaster's door creaked open.
'Miller?' came a voice, echoing from within.
Christopher sprung to his feet. His body shook uncontrollably and his knees bowed beneath him. 'Yes Sir,' he warbled.
'In here Miller.'
Christopher entered the office with reluctance.
'Close the door,' said the headmaster, sitting comfortably in a green cushioned swivel chair.
The door slammed shut and Christopher turned to face Mr Harvey.
'Anything you wish to tell me?' asked the headmaster, casually brushing his hand across the desk.
Christopher couldn't think of anything he wished to share. He gazed out of the window and observed the birds at play, longing to be among them. They sang and performed manoevers about the sky, taunting him with their limitless freedom.
'Well?' prompted the headmaster.
'No Sir,' Christopher replied.
'Have a think about it.' Mr Harvey leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands together.
Christopher brought his focus into the room, averting the headmaster's stare. A wide oak desk occupied the centre of the office, on which rested framed photographs, a telephone, an empty cup and a half eaten sandwich. Behind the desk there stood several towers of paper, daringly propped against the far wall. Christopher flitted his curious gaze to the top of a metal filing cabinet where he noticed a long blackboard ruler. It filled him with panic, induced by a presumption that this ruler was a tool of punishment.
'I cannot tolerate a liar. We both know what I am referring to,' said Mr Harvey. 'Are you or are you not responsible for breaking the window this morning?'
'No Sir,' said Christopher, casting a furtive glance upon the ruler. He couldn't shift its threatening presence from his mind.
Mr Harvey reached down and pulled Christopher's coat from beneath his desk. He pointed to the name tag on the collar. 'Is this your coat?'
'Yes Sir, but I left it in the cloakroom.'
Mr Harvey spread the coat over his desk and reached into one of the pockets. 'Explain this to me.' He withdrew a handful of stones and scattered them around his desk.
Christopher had forgotten about his fossil hunting until now. It was all a reasonable misunderstanding. 'They aren't bricks Sir they're...' He paused, unable to recall their proper name. What had Mrs Clarke called them?
'They look like bricks to me,' stated the headmaster, raking them into a pile.
'No Sir, they're dinosaur rocks, but I forgot what they're called Sir.' Christopher looked up at the ceiling. 'Thistles or something.'
'I will not tolerate a liar!' screamed the headmaster, slamming his fists on the desk. His voice ricocheted off the walls.
Christopher winced. 'No Sir, they ain't bricks,' he muttered, gasping for breath.
'I will ask you again. Did you break the window?'
'No Sir,' Christopher mumbled, his bottom lip quivering as his eyes filled with tears.
'I will not tolerate a liar!' yelled the headmaster, pounding the desk once again.
Christopher started to cry. 'I'm telling the truth Sir. I promise.'
Mr Harvey calmed his temper and leaned back in his chair. 'Where were you during break time this morning?'
'I was with my friends, playing football,' he spluttered, using his sleeve to wipe the tears from his cheeks.
'I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Give me their names.'
'Your friends. The friends you were apparently playing football with.'
Christopher recalled their names best he could remember. 'Gary, Robert, Owen, Dean, Samesh, Alan...'
'That will do,' Mr Harvey interrupted. He picked up the phone, held the receiver to his ear and pushed a single button. 'Nancy, go to the hall. Mrs Clarke's class are in there right now. I want you to bring me,' he paused, 'Robert, Dean and Owen please.' He paused for a moment longer, replaced the receiver and stood from his seat.
Christopher backed against the wall and watched Mr Harvey pace around the room. He was a sculpted skyscraper of a man with broad shoulders and hefty stature, accentuated by a thick woollen vest, worn over a white shirt. His facial features were far less majestic however, revealing his age with thin cracks and wrinkles. His eyes were little more than narrow insiscions, carved deep into his skull, and his nose was large and bulbous, host to some unsightly hair growth. The lower part of his face was occupied by a wide unbalanced mouth, dragged into an inverted smile by weighty jowls.
'I'm a lenient person. If you're friends can confirm your whereabouts this morning I'll be willing to reconsider my accusation. However, if it turns out that you have been lying, if you have been wasting my time, I will come down on you like a tonne of bricks.'
'Now go and sit outside,' he ordered, opening the door suggestively.
Christopher strode into the foyer and sank into the black chair. He took a deep breath and allowed his pulse to settle.
Mrs Ansell, the school secretary, arrived soon after. She was followed by three of Christopher's friends; his saviours, or so he hoped. Their faces expressed selfish concern and resentment, though they remained speechless.
Mrs Ansell rapped at the headmaster's door before pushing it open. 'I have the boys you requested. Shall I send them in?'
'Yes, please do,' came a voice from within.
Robert, Dean and Owen sank inside, and the door was closed, sealing them into the room.
Mrs Ansell offered Christopher a consoling smile. She was a benign old lady, drawing close to retirement, presumably. Each day she would run the headmaster's errands without question or quibble and accepted her position with content humility.
'I'll be in my office if Mr Harvey asks for me. Okay dear?'
Mrs Ansell entered her office, leaving the door slightly ajar. A stream of yellow light shone though the gap, casting a narrow rectangle across the floor.
Christopher could hear muffled voices from inside the headmaster's office, but was unable to decipher their content. He gave up trying and rested comfortably in the chair, content in knowing that his friends were proving his innocence. Now, all he could think of was retaining his rocks and meeting the praise of Mrs Clarke.
The door to the headmaster's office opened. Owen was the first to leave followed by Dean then Robert.
'Mr Harvey wants you to go in,' said Owen.
'What did he say?' asked Christopher.
'He wanted to know where you was this morning.'
'What did you say?'
'Did I tell you to indulge in conversation? Get back to class,' hollered Mr Harvey. 'Miller, get in here.'
The boys turned their backs and wandered out of the foyer. Christopher walked into the office and closed the door.
'Right. I've spoken with your friends. It seems they cannot recall you playing football this afternoon.'
'Don't interrupt me,' groaned Mr Harvey. 'You're friends said they haven't seen you outside of lessons at all today. You were not playing football this morning.'
'My feet were hurting so I wasn't playing, but I was..'
Mr Harvey cut him short. 'So you were'nt playing football with them after all!' He crashed the palms of his hands upon the desk, causing his framed photographs to topple.
'No Sir I was..'
'You were throwing stones about the playground!' He banged the desk again.
Christopher began sobbing, wailing through clenched teeth.
'You have been lying to me all of this time,' yelled Mr Harvey, standing from his chair.
'You have had your say and all you have done is lie,' Mr Harvey interrupted, once again. 'Now you will listen to me.'
Christopher lowered his head and through his blurred eyes, gawked at the floor.
'You don't seem to understand the severity of your actions. A girl was nearly blinded and you have damaged school property.' He approached Christopher. 'Look at me when I'm talking to you.'
Christopher tilted his head backwards and looked up at the looming headmaster. 'Yes Sir,' he stammered.
Mr Harvey stooped, forcing his face close, with little more than an inch between contact. His eyes were open wide, unveiling his glassy blue irises. Inert and un-blinking, he probed Christopher's inner thoughts with a hypnotic and terrifying stare. Slow, intrusive breaths brushed against Christopher's cheeks and filled his nose with a stale odour.
'Your are an evil little boy, tainting my school with your lies and your sins,' droned Mr Harvey, trembling as he spoke. A bulging vein appeared on his forehead as his eye lids peeled back into their sockets. 'You are an utter disgrace to your parents. They should be ashamed to own a child like you.'
Christopher felt his heart throbbing beneath his chest. His entire body stood in a rigid stupor, bereft of control; even his ability to cry had been oppressed. He knew he should defend himself, he was undeserving of this abuse, but a risk of provoking the headmaster any further was one he wasn't willing to take. He longed to be at home with his parents, who would listen to him and fight his cause.
'You are going to pay for your actions,' growled Mr Harvey, prodding Christopher in the stomach.
There was a faint tap at the door.
Mr Harvey pacified the confrontation and eased back into a standing position. 'Please enter,' he said, merrily and almost song-like.
The door handle twitched and turned, then Mrs Ansell emerged, holding a cup in her hand. 'I just thought you would like a cup of coffee,' she said, placing the cup on the desk.
Christopher wanted to embrace her, to plead for solace. He even contemplated racing out of the open door and home to his mum. However, it was an unrealistic thought, an action he would never see through. As the scenario played in his mind, he felt his arm bounce off the door, his feet pushing against the ground and a gust of wind envelope his body as he burst outside. The pavement beneath him was solid, a grey smear zipping past him. He was breathing cold air. The tactile chaos he had just witnessed had been real. In an act of impulse, he had actually made a run for it. His mind was still a little hazy, but he was no longer in the headmaster's office, he was running towards the school gates. His arm ached and his feet stung, but he continued to run, past houses and cars, across roads and into the park where he stopped to catch his breath. Sitting on a bench he pondered his next move. Where now? What would his mum say when he reached home? How could he face school the following day? What had he done?
A vague recollection of the event started to flood his mind. He remembered pushing Mrs Ansell to one side and banging his arm against the open door, he recalled the headmaster's voice roaring behind him and a startled girl passing through the foyer. The details were blurred.
For a brief moment, he wanted to go back to the school and check on Mrs Ansell. His coat had also been left behind, along with his fossils. He figured the headmaster would have called his mum by now, she would be expecting him. Picking himself up, Christopher trundled through the park and all the way home.
He never returned to the school again. The headmaster had called Christopher's parents to a brief interview where he displayed his evidence; the stones in Christopher's coat pocket, a failed alibi and Mrs Ansell's sprained ankle. His little escapade had implied a guilty conscience, impeding his case beyond salvation. In addition, Mrs Clarke had supplied a written reference, portraying Christopher as a troublesome child, detailing several unruly incidents during her class. It was the word of an eight year old against theirs. The interview had concluded with a financial settlement to cover the expense of the broken window and Christopher's dismissal from the school.
It took more than three years to restore his parent's confidence, but with impeccable behaviour and ardent study in his following school, he had managed to regain their respect. Unable to let the matter rest, Christopher made a special effort to research information regarding fossils and ancient history. It had served him well during school projects and paved his ambitions. Mrs Clarke had sparked a curious obsession within him, introducing a fascinating world of potential, an answer to many unsolved questions. Mrs Clarke remained a rather fond presence in his memory for many years, like a mentor of sorts. It wasn't until he was older and wiser he identified her solely responsible for his expulsion.
Mrs Clarke had virtually planted the stones in his pocket, then presumably, it was she who had suggested the coat search to the headmaster. Her reason for doing so remained a mystery. It was possible that she took offence to him proving her wrong about the river Piddle, but it would take a very petty person to react in such a vengeful way. Further speculation lead Christopher to believe that Mrs Clarke sacrificed him to promote her career. From what he had heard from old friends, she had done just that and was now acting headmistress of the school.
Nevertheless, things had worked out well for Christopher too. He left secondary school with exceptional grades and went on to study palaeontology and archaeology at University. With such enthusiasm and dedication, he was destined to succeed, and that he did. He landed his first job two years ago at his local history museum. It sufficed until present, but a greater destiny was imminent.
Chris stood from the grassy bank and brushed down his trousers. A quick glance at his watch told him it was time to leave. Enthralled with his childhood reminiscence, he had exceeded his intended schedule. He had two hours to reach the airport and board his plane, allowing little time for further reflection. Chris reached into his pocket and withdrew his plane ticket. 'North America, here I come,' he said to himself with a smile.
Four weeks prior, he had received the final contract. He was jetting off to North America to live out a life long goal as an endorsed palaeontologist. The contract guaranteed indefinite employment, visiting dig sites throughout North America and Canada. A lifetime of discovery lay ahead.
Taking a final glance at the school, he made his way across the playground. A car pulled up on the teacher's car park, but Chris walked on by with little regard.
'Excuse me!' called a voice.
Chris stopped walking and glanced backwards. A haggared looking lady with grey hair stood by the car.
'You are trespassing,' she announced. 'You are not permitted to be on these premises.'
'Sorry, I'm just leaving,' Chris replied.
'I am within my rrrrights to rrreport you to the police.'
Suddenly, the realisation hit him. It was in the way she pronounced her r's. It was Mrs Clarke. He stepped over to her and scrutinized her face. Age had taken its toll, but it was definitely her.
'What do you think you are doing on these grounds?' she blathered.
Chris recalled the time she slapped him in front of the class. It infuriated him.
He didn't respond to her prompt. Staring into her face, he could see the spiteful bully who had framed him. 'I used to be a pupil here.'
'What is your name?' she snapped.
'Christopher Miller, though I prefer to be called Chris these days.'
'I rrremember you.' A sickly smirk stretched across her face. 'I had better check the building for broken windows.' She folded her arms and raised her nose, tauntingly.
Chris clenched his hand into a fist and held it by his side. He remembered the words of his younger self, the vain promise he had made to his fellow pupils. 'One day I'm gonna be bigger than her and I'll come back to this school and hit her back.'
With a benevolent smile, Chris turned around and resumed walking towards the school gate. He was a far bigger person than she would ever be.