Peter glanced at the date pinned to the school notice board: Friday, May 13th 1960. For a Friday 13th, he’d managed to escape the worst so far, but who knew what catastrophe might be waiting in ambush. Peter looked back over his shoulder as he broke into a run. There must be a clock somewhere. He was going to be late.
He didn’t see her. How could he? She must have knelt down. His hands flew out to break his fall, his fingers locking around her skirt, yanking it halfway down her legs. She let out a high-pitched squeal like a slaughtered pig and tumbled on top of him, her knee digging into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.
Letting go of her skirt, he struggled to get free. To his surprise, she fought to keep hold of him, pinning him to the ground as she clumsily straddled him, her skirt still at half-mast, her pants in full view. She grabbed his arm and clawed deep into his flesh.
“Oie!” he cried out.
She clambered to her feet, pulling up her skirt and tucking in her blouse, then walked away without a word, leaving him sprawling on the floor, staring at her retreating back. Who was she?
Peter examined his arm. Blood was seeping from four gashes and had stained his shirt. He hoped the girl had clean nails, because there was no time to tend the wounds. He picked up his satchel and got up. Frowning, he turned into the bustling corridor and saw his form waiting for a noisy group of third formers to free the classroom.
The boys were the first to leave, several of them from the third-form rugby team. They were the worst. They pushed and shoved as if they were out on the rugby pitch, sending several first formers flying. He’d learnt to keep out of their way. That didn’t stop one trying to stomp on his toes. Peter flattened himself against the wall, narrowly escaping, but not quick enough to avoid the elbow that dug in his stomach, just where the girl had got him earlier. Arrogant swine, he thought, bent over double trying to breathe. How he hated rugby!
The girls huddled around Mrs Greengage, the English teacher, jockeying for her attention. He glimpsed his sister’s girlfriend, Fi, amongst them. Despite the school uniform, she always looked different from the other girls, brighter, more colourful, more full of life. His pulse quickened. The sight of her always had him wishing he were somebody else – she only had eyes for girls – maybe then she’d pay attention to him.
When the girls finally released the teacher and left, Peter’s class filed in. Seeing Mrs. Greengage, he suddenly remembered his homework. Blast! He’d forgotten it again. His frown deepened. It wasn’t that he disliked English, it was one of his least boring subjects, apart from maths that is. Rather, it was English that disliked him.
How many times had his teachers told him he was clueless? His spelling was atrocious, they moaned, his compositions wild and incoherent and when he tried to read out loud, he stumbled over even the most common words. At such times his guts shrunk to half their size in humiliation.
As he searched for his textbook, a tense hush stole over the class. It was so out of place he pulled his nose out of his satchel to look for the cause. Peter groaned. It was the new girl whose skirt he’d just pulled down. She strode into the room, back straight, head held high and chin jutting forward. She was taller than most of the other girls and looked to be slightly older. Her blond hair was tied back in a knot making her look severe, as did her sharp, angular features. Even if he hadn’t already had a skirmish with her, he would have disliked her.
“I’m Priscilla Wit,” the girl said, addressing the teacher, her upper-crust accent sounding out of place in a state school.
“You are in the wrong class, Miss Wit,” Mrs Greengage informed her, having run her finger hastily down the attendance list.
“I am to attend this class, the Headmaster said,” the girl insisted, her unswerving self-confidence doing nothing to make her likable.
Not Miss Wit but ‘misfit’, Peter thought, concealing a grin.
“Take a seat then, Miss Wit,” the teacher said.
There were a number of free desks, but the dim wit – what a useful name – bagged the one next to his. He caught a whiff of her new uniform, a smell that recalled both pleasant and unpleasant memories.
Turning his back on her, he stared resolutely at Mrs Greengage who was writing: Animal Farm – 1945, on the blackboard.
“Hands up those who have read Orwell’s book,” she asked.
Hands shot up around the class, including the eager hand of the new girl. He glanced at her waving hand out of the corner of his eye and shuddered at the sight of a set of sharply pointed nails. His own hands, with their chewed nails, remained resolutely hidden in his lap, hoping no one would notice. He had no idea who Orwell was and knew nothing of a book about animals on a farm unless it was Shadow the Sheepdog.
Shuffling sideways to get her overlarge frame through the narrow spaces, the teacher shifted between the desks till she reached his.
“Have you not heard of Animal Farm, Mr. McCloud?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“What was the last book you read?”
The new girl leaned closer, no doubt hoping to catch his reply. There was no escaping. If he answered, he’d be crowned with derision. If he didn’t, he’d be just as much a fool.
He hesitated between the only two novels he’d ever read and opted not to mention J.M. Barrie’s book. “Shadow the Sheepdog,” he mumbled, hoping only the teacher would hear. Miss Wit clearly did because she burst out laughing. Others sniggered. He was mortified.
“Your laughter is not helpful, Miss Wit,” the teacher said, her tone icy. “We’ll talk about this after class, Mr. McCloud.”
He glanced up briefly, wondering if that might be a sympathetic smile etched between the many creases of her face. Wonderful! Now the whole class would think Greengage was playing nanny to him.
“Who can tell me what Animal Farm is about?” the teacher asked, moving away.
To his relief, at no time did Greengage call on him to read out loud. She did ask Miss Wit, who read impeccably, of course. Greengage didn’t ask him any questions either and she made no comment when he failed to hand in his homework. He was beginning to believe he could slip away unnoticed at the end of the period, but when the bell rang the teacher motioned for him to stay.
Miss Wit lingered for at least five minutes, peppering Greengage with questions about books he’d never heard of. When she finally turned to go, the girl glanced back over her shoulder at him and smirked, mouthing a word he couldn’t understand, before going out and leaving the door wide open.
Mrs. Greengage sighed and got to her feet to close the door. “Take a seat, Mr. McCloud,” she said over her shoulder. It was morning break. No one would disturb them.
He sat at the front desk. It felt odd to be sitting in Susan’s seat. She was the girl whose blouse always looked too small for her. The world was quite different from her place. He tried unsuccessfully to think himself into Susan’s head. She would surely know how to deal with Greengage. She was one of the best in English and wrote such lovely stories. Not that he had much to do with her, apart from surreptitiously studying the growth of her breasts, but when they did speak, she was kind enough. Most of the other girls made him feel uncomfortable or poked fun.
To think he’d welcomed the idea of going to a mixed school, where girls were a recent addition. Odd that such a change could have taken place in a conservative town like Tallford. Many parents threatened to transfer their precious boys elsewhere but there was no alternative. Peter’s mother had been one of them. “Girls are an unnecessary distraction at school,” she’d said.
He hugged his satchel as if it could shield him from what was to come. The satchel was not new, but it still smelt strongly of leather. Resting his chin on its handle, he savoured the smell as he looked up at Greengage. She sighed. When grown-ups sighed that meant trouble.
“I don’t know what to do with you McCloud.”
Neither did he.
“Do you have any friends in the class?”
He shook his head. He had very little to do with his fellow first formers. He always hurried home after school, living out in the country, a long bike-ride away. Even if he’d wanted to hang around, there was nothing to do in such a sleepy town except watch pensioners shuffle around or mothers chattering about their babies as they did their shopping.
Mrs. Greengage frowned as she picked up a copy of Orwell’s book. “How often do you read?”
“From time to time.” Rarely would have been a more honest answer. He liked stories, didn’t he tell himself stacks of them, but reading books wasn’t the same.
“Do you have any books at home?”
“Apart from Shadow the Sheepdog, what’s the other one?”
“You could go to the library.” She sounded sceptical.
He shrugged. How could he tell her it wasn’t personal? He just didn’t enjoy reading.
“I have an offer to make. At home I have a great many books covering a wide range of subjects for boys and girls of all ages. Why don’t you come and pick one? You can read at my place, if you like. No one will both you there. Try it and we’ll see how that works out.”
That there were books written specially for girls appealed to him. He might read them without anyone poking fun. He glanced up at the clock. Break was almost over and he didn’t want to get caught with Greengage. The boys would make fun of him for staying behind with the teacher. “Ok.”
She wrote her address on a scrap of paper, adding a phone number and handed it to him. “How about this Saturday afternoon at three? Unless of course you want to watch the rugby.”
“No!” The thought horrified him. “Saturday is fine,” He got hurriedly to his feet, muttering “Thanks” as he fled.
Relieved to have escaped, he was about to set off for his next class when a female voice stopped him.
“So, not only are you a pansy, you’re illiterate too!”
He spun round to find Witless leaning against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest, her lips curved in a sneer.
“Do you steal your sister’s knickers?” she asked, delight and disgust in her voice.
Peter shifted from one foot to another, his face on fire. How could she possibly know?
She nodded at his tacit admission.
“I can always tell one when I see one.” She made a show of sniffing the air around him. “They always smell bad.” She stepped back, her nose wrinkling in disgust.
“You are one of God’s oversights. The imperfect ones that slipped by when he had his back turned.”
Peter was riveted to the spot, terrified. The girl was mad!
Priscilla lashed out and grabbed him by the tie, jerking him forward. “Don’t worry,” she grinned. “I’ll set God’s mistake right. When I’m finished, there’ll be one less imperfection in the world.”
Her hold tightened and he coughed as he began to choke.
“Miss Wit!” he heard Greengage call out, her voice cutting. “May I have a word with you. Now!”
The girl released him, but not before hissing: “I’ll get you later.”
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