• 27 Apr - 03 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘Penny for the Guy!’ they shouted. Then somebody, probably Titchy, exclaimed. ‘Stone the crows! He’s dead!’

‘Stupid boy,’ said Percy, pushing on, sweat pouring down his face. ‘I’ve told your mother to get some black coffee on the go. I’m not having this geezer letting those girls down.’

We hurried on with the boys at our heels round to the back door of the Copper Kettle.

‘You run round and tell the girls there’ll be a slight delay. Say the train was late, but the Prof’s on his way.’

Percy rested the barrow on our grass saying, ‘Right, Professor, time to sober up, old chap.’

But all the black coffee in the world couldn’t wake him. Titchy, if it had been he, was right for once. Professor Linus Scoley was dead.

Dittany came panting through the gate pushing the boys aside, with flapping sleeves. ‘What on earth’s…’

Percy, white–faced, barred her way.

‘You must prepare yourself for a shock. I’m sorry. That lecture Samuel Palmer: Ancient or Modern? Well, I’m afraid its going to be more a case of Hymns, Ancient and Modern now. With particular reference to the funeral service, if you take my meaning.’

Betty had her arms round me and Ruby, shielding us from the dead man.

‘Go on, all you kids. Go home,’ she said. ‘No, go and get Dr Barker. Tell him it’s urgent.’

Percy sat down on the grass with his head on his knees. ‘I’ve just pushed a corpse through the village in a wheelbarrow.’

Dittany was on her knees sobbing onto the Professor. She looked up, her face all red and bleared.

‘April, be a love and go and fetch Bobs. And tell he to bring my sketchbook and a pencil.’


The Copper Kettle was closed on Monday as a mark of respect. Our kitchen and garden had been full of people suddenly on Sunday afternoon: Dr Barker, Constable Cox, Bobs and Dittany, assorted children. Eventually Mr Oswald arrived and said a prayer. And an ambulance came and Professor Scoley was lifted onto a stretcher and driven away. Ruby and I watched from the kitchen door. We had been sent inside, rather pointlessly, as the afternoon was already impressed on our memories for ever. Dittany had whizzed through her drawing book, making sketch after lightning sketch.

‘Morbid,’ said Betty. ‘Still, that’s one model who’d keep still for you, I suppose.’

Dr Barker ordered Betty to rest. He was worried about the effect of the shock on her and the baby.

‘There was nothing you could have done,’ he tried to reassure Percy, who was walking around stunned, like a man who had been hit on the head. ‘There will have to be a post–mortem, or course, but my immediate diagnosis is heart. The little girls may be called at the inquest, I can’t say yet but that will be up to the corner. Try not to distress yourself.’

‘But a wheelbarrow,’ Percy said. ‘Poor old bugger. Pardon my French, Doctor.’

‘To him, “the reed is as the oak”,’ said Dr Barker snapping shut his bag.

Professor Scoley’s long green legs had been folded like bent reeds in the barrow. I had told those people he was an escaped lunatic and I would never know if he had heard. Somebody had shouted ‘Penny for the Guy’.

I felt drained, set apart and yet oddly, shamefully, excited. I did not want to go to school to face curious questions and accusations in the playground.

‘Don’t let’s go,’ I said to Ruby, when I called for her.

‘Where would we hide?’

The orchard was the obvious place. We stared at each other and turned and ran in the opposite direction to the school.

‘How will we know when it’s time to go home for dinner?’ she said, when we were safely on the path beside the river. Neither of us had a watch.

‘By the sky. The sun will be directly overhead at noon.’

It was a grey morning and besides it would take at least half an hour to get home from the railway carriage.

‘When we get hungry, we’ll know it’s getting on for dinner time, and we’ll start for home,’ I said.

‘I’m hungry now.’

We stopped at the spring under the elder tree and scooped up handfuls of ice–cold water to drink and ate bunches of elderberries.

The orchard grass was cold and wet and our socks and shoes were soaked through. We lit a fire to dry them inside the railway carriage, and the air smelled smoky and damp and of scorched socks. Rooks’ ragged caws sounded desolate in the sky outside; we heard the distant thud of gunshots, the farmer with his gun.

‘Wonder what they’re doing now?’

‘Milk time, probably.’

I heard the clatter of the milk crates, the sound of bubbling milk and air gurgled through straws, smelled the sour smell of the creamy silver bottle tops, and with a sick lurch of the stomach, I remembered that I was Milk Bottle Monitor that week.

‘What’s that?’ Ruby said, ‘over there in the corner?’


‘That white thing.’

She walked barefoot to pick something up, and held a man’s white handkerchief between finger and thumb, at arms’ length.

‘Somebody’s been here!’

The dangling handkerchief, dusty from the floor, with a blue border, had a blue initial C in one corner. I snatched it and threw it on the fire. A brown burn appeared and then flames pierced the cotton and charred it. C for Clement.

Suddenly fear possessed Ruby. ‘Let’s get out of here!’ She started dragging a damp stained sock over her foot, pulling on her saturated plimsolls. We stamped out the fire and Ruby opened the door slowly, half expecting a murderer to be standing there. The orchard stretched before us, lonely, full of tree trunks where somebody could hide.

‘Run for it!’

I closed the railway carriage door and we fled, stumbling through the rough grass. I felt terror too. Although I knew who had been in our secret house, that did not mean a madman with a pitchfork or gun, or sack and knife might not leap out to bar our way.

May Chacksfield was down the meadows, poking damp sticks into her shopping bags. No point in asking her the time, but at least she wouldn’t tell anybody she had seen us. Half–way up Lovers Lane John Cheeseman overtook us on a tractor, reminding me of Granny Fitz’s arrival in state atop a wad of hay.

‘Got the time please?’ Ruby, called out to him.

‘If you’ve got the inclination.’

‘Pardon, Mrs Arden?’

‘Quarter to eleven.’

Only quarter to eleven and a vast morning stretching behind us. We took a long short cut round the edges of fields to the church, where we hid in the belfry among plush red and blue bell–pulls which we dared not touch lest they peal out the betrayal to the whole village that two pupils were playing truant from school. Hopping the wag, as Granny Fitz would have said.

Dittany was in the tea–room, when at last I want home for dinner, drinking coffee.

‘April, I’m sorry to have to ask you this, but did Professor Scoley say anything before he… any last words, I mean…?’

‘He said something about Baccaniates or something like that.’

‘Baccanites? Bacchantes?’

‘Bacchantes, that’s right. What are they?’

I didn’t tell her that he had said they were waiting to tear him to pieces.

‘Bless him, his mind was on classical sculpture to the last. That’s a comfort. Did he say anything else?’

‘He said he was really looking forward to the lecture and the afternoon tea.’

‘Which turned, alas, to funeral baked meats. Strange how grief can sharpen the appetite. Was that all?’

‘Well, his actual last words were “why is that sheep here?”,.’

Something made me say the truth.

‘Sheep? Was thee a sheep?’

‘No, he meant…’

‘The Lamb of God.’ Dittany exclaimed.

Her face was radiant. She pushed away he cup and saucer and stood up.

‘I must tell Bobs.’

She walked out like a sleepwalker without paying for her coffee. I took her cup and saucer through, finishing a half–eaten Welsh cheese cake on the way, glad that I hadn’t told her the Professor had called them Dobs and bitterly.

I remembered something else Professor Scoley had said, ‘Mum, what’s harpies?’

‘Toilet cleaner,’ Betty said, ‘which reminds me, but look at the state of you! Whatever have you been doing at school this morning?’

‘Nature study, Miss Fay took us on a nature walk.’

’Well, it was very inconsiderate on a Monday morning when some people had clean frocks on and look at your socks! I’ve a good mind to go up the school.’

I knew she wouldn’t and ate my egg and chips and half an individual fruit pie with increasing nervousness for afternoon school. Then, feeling like a criminal, I went up to my room. I could not do my mother’s wanting so I took my John Bull Printing Outfit and inked the little rubber letters that spelled out:

Dear Miss Fay, I am sorry April was not at school this morning because she was sick. Yours sincerely, Mrs Harlency.

Miss Fay read my note in silence and then she read Ruby’s while we hovered in front of her desk. I had been told to change my dress and socks, while Ruby was still in her elder–berry–stained blouse and jumble–sale gymslip, and her soaked plimsolls with grass seeds in the eyelets.

‘What a coincidence that you should both be unwell at the same time, and how nice that you should both make such a speedy recovery, but your mother’s handwriting, Ruby, leaves much to be desired, I’m afraid. What is our golden rule?’

‘A finger space between each word, Miss Fay,’ Ruby mumbled.

‘Quite so. Perhaps next time you are taken ill your mother might like to borrow Mrs Harlency’s John Bull Printing Set. It’s at times like these I miss Major Morton most,’ she sighed.

‘And his cane,’ one o the boys called out. Miss Fay ignored him.’

‘You can both stay in after school and write sincerely two hundred times on the blackboard.’

‘I can’t, I said at once, and gasped at my own daring.

‘There is no such word as can’t,’ said Miss Fay.

She was wrong. I can’t meet Mr Greenidge now, I thought, and didn’t know if I were more frightened or relieved. A grey misery built up in my chest all afternoon until, by the time the others had put their chairs on the desks and left, I could hardly breathe. Miss Fay wrote ‘sincerely’ on the top of the blackboard, the new green double blackboard, and went through to Mr Reeves’s classroom.

I didn’t mean to, I didn’t know I was going to do it but suddenly I was sitting with my head on my desk crying and I could not stop. The handkerchief in our secret camp, Mr Greenidge, Professor Scoley, all the lies I was enmeshed in shook my shoulders, under Ruby’s arm, and gushed out of my eyes.

‘What’s up, ducks? Kept you in has she?’

Mrs Carter who cleaned the school had come into the classroom. Her flowered overall and silver bucket dazzled and wavered in front of my eyes but I could not stop crying.

‘It can’t be that bad,’ she said, ‘here, wipe your eyes.’

She put her arm around me and mopped at my face with a handkerchief. Her kindness made me cry again, gulping against her soft bouncy flowers that smelled of disinfectant.

‘You don’t want to take no notice of old Troutface.’

‘Look, April,’ Ruby was giggling. ‘This’ll make you laugh.

She had chalked ‘sincerely 200 times’ on the board. It made Mrs Carter laugh.

‘Go on,’ she said, ‘go and tell her you’ve done it and you’re going home.’

All three teachers were sitting on desks, Mr Reeves on his own desk, smoking cigarettes.

‘Please, Miss Fay, we’ve written sincerely two hundred times so can we go home now please?’ Ruby asked.

‘Just a moment, young lady. You don’t leave these premises until I’m satisfied that you’ve carried out your task.’

Mrs Carter was standing with her back to us, her arms wobbling as she cleaned the blackboard.

‘Oh, afternoon, Miss Fay. Just doing the blackboard for you. Wiping the slate clean, so to speak.’

She beat a little cloud of chalk dust from the striped board rubber.

‘Do I detect insubordination?’ Miss Fay demanded. ‘Are you trying to undermine my authority, Coralie Carter?’

‘Can’t keep me in after school now, Miss Fay. Only doing

my job.’