The Life We Choose – Episode 51

An hour early, Sarah arrived at the door of the Wee School to find Rachel waiting for her, wearing a russet pinafore and with her hair neatly braided. Her face shone with anticipation, and she beamed when Sarah admired the pinafore.

“Mammy made it,” she said proudly. “It’s to be kept for best, but she let me wear it the day ’cause the man in the bowler hat’s comin’.”

Sarah couldn’t help smiling. An exact description of the visitor had obviously travelled round Langrigg like wildfire.

Inside, Rachel bustled around, lighting the fire which had been laid the night before. She beamed with pride at the special flower book she had shown Sarah, which now formed the centrepiece of the examples of pupils’ work laid out on a table at the back of the room. Sarah wondered if Mr Leadbetter would think the display frivolous. The School Board liked their classrooms to be unadorned, save for evidence that the Three Rs were being taught.

She had little time to reflect as the children arrived, all scrubbed to a shine and dressed in their best. For once, all of them, with the exception of Abie, Rachel’s brother, were early for school. His seat in the front row was still empty when Mr Leadbetter arrived. He was obviously a man who did not stand on ceremony. As a flustered Sarah gestured to the children to stand and welcome their visitor, he made a dismissive gesture.

“Never mind that,” he said brusquely. “Just give me the register, if you please, and go on with the lessons.”

Removing his hat and placing his large briefcase by her table, he sat down.

A moment later, the scullery door opened and a dishevelled Abie Makin clattered across the floor, his boots leaving a track of mud across the clean floor. Rachel leapt from her seat at the rear of the room and grabbed him by the back of his neck.

“Get back in there, ye wee midden,” she said, her voice sounding loud in the breathless silence of the room. “Ye’re late again. An’ rakin’ aboot up the ferm road by the look o’ they boots.”

Still holding him by the back of his neck, she propelled him into the scullery.

Some of the children giggled nervously but stopped as Mr Leadbetter fixed them with a gimlet stare. Pud Maxton, who was two years too old for the Wee School, and big for his age besides, started to laugh, attracting Mr Leadbetter’s attention. For a moment, Sarah felt tearful.

Order was restored when Rachel delivered Abie to his seat, bootless and looking chastened. Mr Leadbetter was staring again at Pud Maxton.

“What’s your name, boy?” he asked.

“Alexander Maxton, but they cry me Pud ’cause Ah’m fat.”

Mr Leadbetter peered at the register.

“When are you takin’ oor foties?”

Mr Leadbetter jumped slightly as Abie Makin made his enquiry.

There was a murmured echo of enquiry from the rest of the children.

“Quiet, children.” Sarah tried to keep the tremor out of her voice.

Pud Maxton was tugging at his collar.

“If he doesna hurry up an’ take the foties, ah’ll choke,” he announced. “This collar’s too ticht.”

Mr Leadbetter glared at him.

“I am not here to take photographs. I am here to see if you are learning your lessons properly. How old are you, boy?”

Pud Maxton didn’t answer but applied himself earnestly to his book. His classmates followed suit. Sarah lifted the pointer.

“Look at the blackboard, children,” she said, wondering why Rachel had tiptoed from her seat at the back and was tugging Mr Leadbetter’s sleeve. A moment later he followed her pupil to the back of the class, where Rachel proceeded to give him a tour of the table where special things, including her flower book, had been laid out. He seemed interested.

Sarah’s voice steadied and the normal rhythm of lessons began.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.