• 11 May - 17 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘Promise me you won’t die in childbirth.’

‘As if I would.’

After school that afternoon Ruby came round carrying carefully a paper bag containing a dozen pullet’s eggs.

‘Mum said to give you these.’ She handed the bag to Betty.

‘Oh, how kind, aren’t they little!’

‘They’re from our pullets.’

The eggs were snowy white, brown and speckled, half the size of hen’s eggs, like marbles compared to Bobs’s and Dittany’s bluegreen duck eggs.

‘Don’t forget to say thank you very much, will you, Ruby?’

I could see that Betty had changed her opinion of Gloria and wanted to be friends, and I was pleased. Then Ruby had to say, ‘They’re ninepence.’

Gloria had had her hair done for the inquest, at BelindaJayne’s, and she was wearing a navy blue costume with a gold brooch on the lapel, a white blouse and navyandwhite shoes. With her blonde hair, stretching her mouth to apply fresh lipstick, snapping shut her gold powder compact, she did look like a film star, and she moved in a cloud of scent and cosmetics. You could not have imagined her banging about with a brush and dustpan in a friedegg, cigaretteash dressinggown. Ruby had new black shoes with silver buckles and new white socks, her hair was in loose, crinkly waves, held of her face by two round tortoiseshell slides and she wore a kilt and a red jumper. I was wearing my kilt too, Black Watch, whereas hers was red and yellow, and a blouse with a navyblue cardigan in blackberry stich and my hair was in one net plait tied with a matching tartan ribbon. I held tightly to Percy’s hand with my own, whose fingers felt fuzzy because my nails had been cut for the occasion. Percy had brilliantined his curls and he was handsome as a film star too in his charcoalgrey suit with a narrow chalk stripe and black tie, except that he had cut himself shaving and stuck a fleck of cigarette paper on his chin to staunch the blood. He held his hat, which Betty had steamed into shape above the kettle, in his free hand as we went up the steps to the Coroner’s Court, the four of us who had travelled into town by bus, in a haze of anxiety and cigarette smoke.

Percy, Ruby and I stopped dead in our tracks in the entrance hall. Professor Scoley was sanding there in a black suit, smoking a pipe, talking to Dittany and Bobs. I gripped Percy’s hand. Ruby grasped mine. Was he a ghost, or had he never really been dead, or had he come back to life.

‘Professor Scoley, this is Mr Harlency and the two little girls, and Ruby’s mother, Mrs, er…’

‘Richards,’ said Gloria, ‘pleased to meet you I’m sure, but aren’t you supposed to be… I mean, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?’

She was the only one of us who hadn’t met Professor Scoley, but she was puzzled. Ruby looked as if she were about to be sick, with the freckles seeming to swirl on her white face.

‘Supposed to be dead?’ said Professor Scoley in his reedy voice, with a bleak smile.

‘Professor Scoley is Professor Scoley’s brother,’ Dittany explained.

‘Lionel Society,’ said the Professor. ‘How do you do?’

Percy pumped his hand vigorously clapping him on the arm, as if now that little misunderstanding had been cleared up, we could all get on with enjoying ourselves. Then he put on a solemn face, saying, as the cigarette paper wagged on his chin. ‘Allow me to offer my condolences, Professor, tragic business.’

‘I take it you’re the chap with the wheelbarrow.’

Percy looked embarrassed.

‘It was brand new, that was the first time we used it…” I said.

A policeman told us all to go in. The panelled room smelled of polish. It was cold and I felt clumpy in my cardigan which had been knitted by a woman in the village who had a brass plaque on her gate which read Miss L. D. Pollard. Machine Knitter Registered Blind. If it had been me, I’d rather have had a guide dog. The edge of my kilt was scraping my bandages and I wanted to suck my fingers to stop them irritating. I whispered to Percy to take the paper of his chin.

The stationmaster testified that Professor Scoley had been behaving in an eccentric manner and had travelled without a ticket.

‘Would you say, from your experience, that this suggested a deliberate attempt on the late Professor’s part to defraud the railway, or might it have been attributable to the absentmindedness associated with a man of his calling?’

‘I wouldn’t know, Sir. All I can say is, he told me he was deaf and dumb and so were those two young girls who came to meet him, and they had failed to purchase platform tickets.’ My heart lurched. I felt shamed. There was a policeman and a policewoman there, as well as Constable Cox.

‘Should I offer to pay?’ I whispered. Percy shook his head. The coroner turned to Professor Linel Scoley. ‘Professor Scoley, would you ay that your brother’s behaviour as described by Mr Mullard was typical of him or that it suggests that he was feeling unwell? I take it that he was not deaf and dumb, in view of the fact that the purpose of his visit was to deliver a lecture? Professor Scoley?’

‘I beg your pardon? Sorry, miles away.’

Our legs were trembling as the policewoman led Ruby and me up to where the coroner leaned over to take in our version of events. Then Percy was called.

‘If I’d realized the Professor was ill, I’d have called an ambulance,’ he said.

‘As it was, you assumed that Professor Scoley was just drunk and you loaded him into the wheelbarrow with the intention of sobering him up before his lecture.’

‘Yes sir. When you’ve been in the licensed trade as long as I have…’

‘You mustn’t blame yourself, Mr Harlency; you did all that could be expected of you in the circumstances.’

The verdict was that Professor Scoley had died of natural causes. Heart failure. Bobs or Dittany was sobbing quietly with an occasional loud sniff.

Outside, it seemed as if nobody knew quite what to do. Professor Scoley was polishing his spectacles with a khaki handkerchief. Percy offered round his cigarette case. Gloria looked cross, somehow disappointed, as if she had her hair done for nothing and she needn’t have bothered to buy Ruby those shoes. ‘Why don’t we all go back to the Rising Sun, for a bit of a … pickmeup?’ she suggested, flicking a thread of tobacco from her lip.

‘She nearly said “a bit of a kneesup”,’ Ruby whispered to me, not quietly enough. Gloria cuffed the side of her head. Everybody looked embarrassed, except Professor Scoley, who said ‘Jolly good idea,’ and we all, except Constable Cox and Mr Mullard, had to pile into his darkgreen Alvis.

‘Mind your great feet on my nylons. You girls could’ve gone on the bus,’ Gloria grumbled. Then, pretending to be nice, she said, ‘That’s prettycardy, April, did your mum make it?’

‘No, it was Miss L. D. Pollard, Blind Machine Knitter.’

‘She’s not totally blind,’ snapped Gloria, making Miss Pollard soundlike a cheat who faked all that Fair Isle and blackberry stitches.

Poor Professor Lionel Scoley, I thought and wondered if sometimes he might think he saw his brother Linus when he looked in the mirror. Dittany, who was squashed between him and Bobs in the front seats, was trying to comfort him by repeating that Linus’s last words had been o the Lamb.

‘My brother was jewish. We both are.’

‘Oh, but I am sure God wouldn’t hold that against him, in the circumstances.’

Ruby and I started singing quietly, simultaneously, a skipping rhyme we often used:

‘Nebuchadnezzar the King of the Jews

Bought his wife a pair of shoes

When the shoes began to wear

Nebuchadnezzar began to swear

When the swears began to…’

‘Oh, do stop it,’ Bobs cried in an agonized voice.

‘That’s enough,’ said Percy sharply. I sulked, fidgeting itchily on his bony knees.

‘What do you mean, they’ve gone to the Rising Sun?’ Betty demanded when Ruby and I got back. I explained about Professor Scoley’s twin brother. ‘Twins, eh? It doesn’t seem possible that there should be two of him. Perhaps you’d better get the wheelbarrow ready,’ she added nastily.

‘Have you been busy, Mum?’

‘Rushed off my feet, I don’t think. Only your Mr Greenidge and a travelling salesman in ladies underwear.’

We stared at her.

‘How did you know?’ I asked.

At school in the afternoon Miss Fay was casting the Christmas play. Although it was only October, the parts of Father Christmas, the fairy queen, children, reindeer, elves and fairies were handed out. Ruby’s and my names were not called. We looked at each other in growing hope and anxiety: either Miss Fay was saving us for something special, or we were not going to be allowed in the play.

Mr Reeves popped his head round the classroom door.

‘How’s it going, Miss Fay?’

‘All done, Mr Reeves.’

She shot a baleful glance at me and Ruby.

‘If the mince pies can be trusted not to go gallivanting off to inquests during rehearsals.’

Mince pies. I felt like a mince pie, hot, the edges of my pastry crumbling, as I sank down in my chair.

One of the infants, a tiny, bossy girl called Trina with two big pink bows in her hair, squeezed past Mr Reeves and came into our classroom, saying ‘please Miss Fay, Miss Elsey says can she borrow Albie please because somebody’s been sick all over the floor.’

Albie heaved himself up, gripping the sides of his desk, as if he might throw it over. His face was bright red.

‘Just because I’m fat everybody thinks I have to like clearing up sick. Well, I’m sick of it.’

‘You’ve got to,’ said tiny Trina, ‘Miss Elsey said so.’

We all laughed at this infant bossing Albie around, but Albie looked close to tears.

‘It’s not fair.’

‘Life isn’t fair, Albert, as you’ll find out soon enough. Now do as you’re told and run along and help Miss Elsey at once, quick sharp,’ Miss Fay said.

Albie glared at her, without moving.

‘It’s got nothing to do with your being fat, Albert. Now if you continue to defy me, perhaps we can find somebody else to play Father Christmas, with the aid of a couple of cushions in his costume.’

‘Sir, do I have to?’ Albie appealed to Mr Reeves.

‘You heard what Miss Fay said, now of you go.’

Mr Reeves looked a bit sick himself and you could see that he was just backing Miss Fay up. She didn’t seem grateful. Albie lumbered out, muttering under his breath, ‘Supposing I was sick, who’d clean it up then?’ and we heard Trian’s piercing voice: ‘AND it’s gone in the wastepaper basket as well.’

The next time Pat Booker had one of her nosebleeds, Miss Fay dealt with it herself, at arm’s length, and when two boys in the top class, Mr Reevers’s, were ill after eating all their own Harvest Festival gifts, Albie was not summoned.

I put Michaelmasdaisies and golden rod on the table in the tearoom. The church at Harvest time was so beautiful it made you catch your breath at the reds, yellows, magentas, of beetroots, apples, tomatoes, dahlias and chrysanthemums, striped gold and green marrows, wreaths of hops and fluted pumpkins, polished potatoes, blazing sunflowers and an enormous glazed loaf in the shape of a sheaf of corn leaning against the pulpit, and the rustling gold ears of real sheaves. Hundreds of scarlet hands clasped the Rising Sun as the Virginia creeper turned, fluttering and trembling but holding it firm. Rosehips’ red lanterns against the blue sky and the hawthorn’s red beads jolted my heart. Ruby and I made necklaces of conkers. I would have been so happy if Kirriemuir’s red brick had not bulked at the end of every lane of thought.

‘I’ve got something to show you,’ Mr Greenidge said when I brought him his coffee. I stood up from patting Liesel. He took, from his inside pocket, my letter, on toytown stationery with a golliwog stamp, the remains of a babyish post office set.

‘I carry it next to my heart,’ he said, kissing the envelope and putting it back in his pocket. ‘ “Love from April.” ‘ I hadn’t known what else to put. Percy had given him the letter.

‘I hope those pretty knees are not going to be scarred.’

I was hoping they would be. The bandages had been replaced with small plasters now and my hands were quite healed.

‘I’m not going to press you,’ Mr Greenidge said.

I started nervously although we were alone, imagining myself pressed to his chest.

‘I won’t nag you into meeting me, I know it isn’t fair. I’ll just wait until you feel like coming to see me, how’s that? Can’t say fairer than that, can I? Just don’t leave it too long, will you? That’s all I ask.’

to be continued...