Latchmere Road Junior and Infants School, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey.
The soft crooning of the trolleybus provides a bemused counterpoint to the wracking of my shameless sobs. Mum hugs me tight to her side whilst staring miserably at our dual reflections in the opposite window. An old lady wearing a hat shaped like one of Granny’s dumplings cranes around from a forward-facing seat, her lips alternately pursing and pouting as she tells herself the story. Across the aisle, a mother with a cavernous shopping bag smiles faintly, head tilted in sympathy.
At the school gates anguish breaks like a cold wave. Either side of the wrought-iron fence, children swarm like flies, wild-eyed and random. The noise is suffocating – the shriek, scrape and clatter of hundreds of urgent lives in collision. Like an invisible gas in a strong wind, the scent of disorder swirls amongst them. I reel with it, fighting for breath. Gently but firmly, Dashing a hand against her own tears, Mum detaches herself from my panicky grip and slips away, amongst the crowding mothers handing over satchels, spit-wiping downturned faces with hankies and struggling with loaded push-chairs. I lean back against the cold bars, my gaze fixed on the turning weathervane on the gable end over the main entrance, one moment pointing the way home, the next towards the terrifying unknown. Numbly, I wait for the first of the whistles and the long, shuffling queues.
John Schofield sits next to me in the double desk. He’s not frightening like Alwyn Dawes, who, wordlessly, chokes the breath out of you in the playground with one arm around your throat and the other behind your neck. But he smells – a pungent mixture of urine, leaf-mould and damp alleys and hallways. He wears boots with laces looped and tied around their tops. There are sores at each corner of his mouth.
As tiny Welsh Mr. Price walks past the desk to take up position at the rear of the room, John places his ruler at the desk’s rim and flicks the end, drawing its length inwards on a jabbering rising note. Immediately he thrusts it into my hands and buries his own under his thighs. A heartbeat later there is the sound of Mr. Price’s blakeys accelerating across the woodblock floor from the back of the classroom and a stinging slap is delivered to the side of my head. I’m choking with shock, tears springing into my eyes. Then Mr. Price is in front of the desk, his small concave face flushed, inches from mine, his lipless mouth a brief compressed line under his toothbrush moustache. In a swift sequence of movements he seizes the ruler, straightens my fingers and brings the flat of it down across my palm four times in quick succession. Breathing a little harder, he turns away and moves with his springing dancer’s gait towards the blackboard, indifferent now in the wake of justice. My sense of pain, mortification and suffocating unfairness is almost intoxicating. And the hatred that follows – not for John Schofield who merely did what he must do as one who knows no better, but for Mr. Price – is so pure that tears cease and as I begin to breathe again, the world has changed…