This is a tale told in circles of rain drops and gurgles from downspouts. . .
Wednesday morning, Granddad turned the radio up over the splutter of bacon. The announcer spoke calmly.
Berwick-on-Tweed to Humber
North or northwest 3 or 4, becoming west 5 or 6 later.
Rain or showers, occasionally thundery, fair later.
Good, occasionally poor.
Granddad twisted the dial back and poured Mattie a cup of tea. Grandma came with their plates and stood behind Granddad.
‘Make sure you both take your galoshes and raincoats.’
Granddad’s eyebrows flew up like a seagull’s wings and he pulled a proper face. She went off without catching sight of him. Mattie concentrated on cutting up his rashers and not laughing.
A little later, Tommy came in wearing his greatcoat and a knitted hat. Mattie looked carefully. It was a tea-cosy; a seam showed where the spout went. Grandma spoke first.
‘There’s a rasher or two going spare, can you find a home for them, young Tommy?’
‘Thank you, Auntie Anne.’
He took his hat off, stuffed it in a pocket and munched happily on a bacon butty. A gust of rain hit the kitchen window like a handful of gravel from a marble sky.
‘What happens when it rains? At school, like?’
Mattie shoved some comics in his satchel.
On the way to school, they made dams. They waded through the tea-coloured water taking turns to be the colossus in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. They found runnels and gullies and gutters to send leaf-and-twig ships on rippling journeys down to the sea. The steps up to Fisherhead ran in a cascade – a fine place for a splash fight. They got to school soaked.
All morning rainwater kept siling down the windows. Somebody came round with a hand-bell at playtime and the teacher swept out. Tommy showed up before the door finished closing. They survived on damp comics, and drawing noughts and crosses in the back of Mattie’s maths book.
At dinnertime, sandwiches disappeared quicker nor ice-cream cones on a hot beach. Even the last bottles of milk went. Boredom waited.
Mattie tried the cupboards. Two were locked; two others had only left-over exercise books and piles of paper torn out from the back of used ones. Another held a few crayons in a tin and a chess set with several pieces missing. He had a go at the last one. The door was stuck.
‘Let me,’ Tommy said.
He yanked it open and something rolled out, circled around like a huge coin then clattered onto the floor.
Mattie turned it over.
‘Look at that. A dartboard.’
Faded and warped, with the wires hanging off in places but still a proper dartboard. He shifted the coats off the back wall and tried the wire loop over a coat peg. It wouldn’t go. Sighs of disappointment rose to the high ceiling.
All sorts of rubbish lurked behind the radiators and the skirting board. He squinted and poked until he found a six-inch nail. He banged it in with the brick that propped the door open and hung the dartboard up.
The cupboard held nothing else but cobwebs, a broom and a yellow duster
‘Looks like we’ll have to invent us own darts.’
He drew an ochee with a bit of broken chalk and the boys queued up behind the line with all sorts of improvised missiles. Somebody tried with a pair of compasses. The point went in well enough but the weight of the other leg dragged it down and it fell to the floor. Mattie picked it up and gave it back.
‘Anybody got any better ideas?’
Straightened paperclips pinged from elastic bands, drawing pin nose-cones on aeroplanes, even hair pins nicked off the lasses – none of them worked. Squished-up paper balled together with spit and blown through an empty biro tube stuck on alright but it wasn’t exciting enough. And the pellets fell off the wires. Tother lads moved off.
Mattie stuck his hands in his pockets and thought.
‘Have you got your flither knife on you, Tommy?’
‘Oh aye – in the left hand pocket.’
‘Can I have a lend of it?’
Tommy nodded. Mattie tried it in his hand. Perfect balance.
‘Ta da. Texas Bill Shufflebottom rides again. Shift out of the road if you don’t want to be in on the act.’
The knife glinted and span through the air. It hit the board with a plink and fell. The 20 wire rocked. He picked the knife up and spat. He smoothed the glob over the nick in the floorboards with his toe. It looked a bit better.
They took turns all through playtime.
‘Bell’s going to go any minute,’ Mattie said.
‘One last go, please.’
He handed it over.
‘It’s yours anyroad.’
Tommy got the bull’s eye. He grinned from ear to ear.
The door opened and the teacher walked in. She stared at the knife: it was still trembling. She turned to Tommy. Her voice fell like sleet down back of your neck.
‘Thomas Archibald Flaup, there is no possible excuse for this. That is your knife, is it not?’
Tommy nodded slowly and bent his chin to his chest.
‘And is this your classroom?’
He shook his head.
‘So you had no business to be here?’
He looked at his boots. Mattie didn’t feel good about this.
‘Answer me. You had no business to be here, did you, Thomas?’
‘No Miss. Yet you have damaged school property and endangered other children with your stupid behaviour.’
Mattie stepped forward. The teacher turned her head and glared.
‘Please Miss, it weren’t him.’
Her lips glistened with spit. Mattie took a breath in.
‘It were me.’
She gave him a sickly smile.
‘Much as admire your ungrammatical gallantry – Matthew, isn’t it? – I find the evidence contradicts you. You are new to this school and can be forgiven for a white lie in defence of your friend – but sad to say, Tommy has no such excuse.’
During the afternoon, the rainclouds passed north towards Strenshall leaving blue sky and sunshine at home-time. Mattie looked for Tommy to walk back with. No luck. Pity.
He set off and then heard something off to one side: the sound of laughter. He got closer and heard splashing. Gillet’s Yard was thronged with lads. Some turned and grinned, then let him in the circle. Others carried on staring and laughing.
All round the close, drainpipes led down to water butts to save on pumping. They were old barrels from the Strenshall Brewery, cut down, tarred and set on bricks. The lids came off to get a watering-can in.
A big lad stood beside one of the barrels putting on a performance. A Circus Ringmaster, milking it for all it was worth. He reckoned to have hold of the hair of some skinny kid with freckles. The kid stood on a bit of board over the rainwater. He held the Ringmaster’s chubby hand away from his scalp. His mouth grinned and wide dark eyes stared at a wall.
The Ringmaster announced, ‘And now for your entertainment and education, the Great Freckelini will execute another death-defyin’ dive into this here lake of…,’
The Ringmaster spread out his hand and spoke with low menace,
With a grand gesture, the Ringmaster dunked the freckled kid into the open barrel and then dragged his head straight out. The kid came up spluttering. The Ringmaster let go and the kid shook like a dog. Water shot over the crowd, and guffaws and shuffling filled the close. The kid stood and dripped, then they did it again.
All around the gang nodded, laughed, and spoke to each other.
‘He looks like a drowned rat.’
‘They all do when they get wet.’
‘Aye. You can see what they really are.’
In a far corner, one lanky figure laughed so much he couldn’t talk. Right above him, a second storey sash-window rattled up. A woman in a flowery overall leaned out and bellowed at the gang of lads.
‘Have you lot no homes to go to?’
She flung her brawny arms wide, gesturing for them to go.
‘Go on, go home. Show’s over. Jamie Sheader – I shall tell your mam – and you – Harry Megginson. And you’re the Henshaw lad, aren’t you? What would your grandmother say if she knew? ’
The gang broke up and sidled away with sighs and mutterings and the odd chuckle. The woman’s tone softened as she looked down at the lanky figure beneath her.
‘Tommy Flaup – get us that lid back on – eh, there’s a good lad.
She pulled her head in, leaving the window open. Her voice was quieter but disgruntled.
‘I’m not sure I want that water on my veggies now one of them’s been in it.’
The Ringmaster led the Great Freckelini away, still play-acting. Mattie caught a look in the kid’s eyes. He turned to Tommy.
‘Is he OK?’.
‘He’ll be right,’ Tommy said. ‘He likes it – they all do, webfoots – the lot on’em.’
‘Look, I’m sorry about the dartboard business.’
Tommy’s smile meant what he said. He were a proper friend – and it felt good.
Header image by John Noonan on Unsplash