Peter Booth sat and watched the classroom clock tick round reluctantly from three forty four to three forty five, the second hand dragging itself across the roman numerals as if each tick would be its last. Peter made the clock move slowly, of course, by staring at it instead of focusing on his work, but whenever he tried to concentrate on the pages of the old atlas he was dragged back to the second hand. Every afternoon was the same when Miss Fenton announced it was project time. ‘Projects’ consisted mainly of copying pages out of old text books onto thin paper, on which the ink from the pupils pens blotted chronically. Peter’s project this half-term was ‘Deserts of the World’ and he tried unsuccessfully to trace the shape of the Sahara from a map of Africa, which showed the British Empire edged in red. For Peter the last thirty minutes of each school day were the longest of his life. Today the minutes seemed even longer because he wanted it to be home time more than ever.
In between his vigil of the clock and half-hearted attempts to study, Peter’s gaze wondered round the austere school room. Miss Fenton made it cold and cheerless and its appearance had not changed in all the five years Peter had been at school. The wooden desks stood in rows facing the teacher’s desk and the walls were bare, apart from one or two old biblical prints and the ‘Dig for Victory’ posters that the school governors had insisted Miss Fenton put up to encourage the pupils. In his sweep of the room Peter’s gaze fixed on a black and white marble plaque mounted high up on the school room wall above the clock. The plaque said:
In Memory of John Horsefield
1884 – 1916
Headmaster of this school who died
Fighting for his country
In the midst of life we are in death
Peter didn’t know who John Horsfield was and supposed it was pity he’d died, but he found the inscription strangely comforting all the same: reciting it had become his mantra in times of difficulty or boredom. Today Peter sat and wondered how many times he could read the inscription in a minute and then in a quarter of an hour. He read it once, timing himself against the dying clock. Eight seconds: that’s nearly ten times a minute or… The arithmetic defeated him as it always did and he stared hard at the clock as if it might give him the answer.
But he stared too long and Miss Fenton gave one of her warning coughs. Because projects was a silent study time, she wouldn’t speak, but Peter knew the cough was for him and it sent him back to his book for a while. To the twenty seven children in Standards Three and Four, Miss Fenton was a tall, elderly, tweedy ogre. She ruled the classroom with a ready hand and a caustic voice and made sure everyone kept mostly to their work. The children neither liked nor respected Miss Fenton and they suspected that she neither liked nor respected them. Peter had once overheard his mother telling his grandmother that Dorothy Fenton was an old rasp tongued bitch, but his grandmother had said it was quite sad, although odd that she’d stayed on at the school, considering. Considering what? Peter had asked, and was told to mind his own business.
Peter’s bottom ached now because the old wooden school chair he was sat on was so uncomfortable and he’d been on it since play time. He wriggled around, trying to find a position that would ease the numbness but all he managed to do was scrape his chair across the polished wooden floor. The noise of the scrape sounded louder than an air-raid in the silent room and once more attracted Miss Fenton’s attention. This time there was no cough and she stood up and moved almost silently down the classroom. Each pupil tensed and became guiltily furtive as Miss Fenton neared them and relaxed when she passed by, knowing that today they were spared. Miss Fenton stopped at Peter’s desk and he became totally absorbed in the book, his face almost touching the page. He sensed, rather than saw, Miss Fenton standing behind him and suddenly felt small in comparison to the teacher towering above him in the high ceilinged school room. Mr Copley, the school caretaker, had once told Peter that the ceiling was over thirty feet high and now Peter wished he could float up there above Miss Fenton and the impending trouble. One day, a bird had got into the room and spent all day perched on a beam before escaping out of the high arched window behind the teacher’s desk. That bird had messed on the floor and onto one or two of his classmates and Peter wished he could be that bird and do the same to Miss Fenton.
It was the worst, the very worst time to snigger, but Peter couldn’t help it as the image of Miss Fenton covered in bird muck filled his mind. The snigger electrified the classroom, and the twenty-six pairs of eyes of Peter’s fellow pupils looked up from their books. This was an encounter worth breaking the rules for. No words were exchanged between Peter and his teacher: none were needed because the hard slap round Peter’s head was eloquent enough. It jerked his head round and made his eyes water instantly and that was it: arrest, trial and sentence in one blow. Miss Fenton gazed fiercely round the room and everyone’s eyes snapped back to their books. Peter held his hand to his stinging right ear and choked back tears as Paddy McDermott, who was sat next to him, gave him a sly dig of comradeship in his ribs. Then, just when Peter thought his punishment was over, Miss Fenton spoke words of doom.
‘See me afterwards’, was all she said, but it was enough.
Peter sat, filled with remorse: not for doing wrong but for getting punished. He knew he was trapped now and would be kept back to allow Miss Fenton to prolong the agony of project time. When home time came with the mumble of the evening prayer, it would not do so for Peter. But he must get home tonight, must be back before mum set off for the station. It was three fifty two, and pointless counting the seconds because there were too many to count. So, for what seemed like several ages, Peter miserably filled the time with attempts to trace the map, but his pencil was completely blunt and the tracing paper almost opaque.
Gradually the atmosphere in the classroom began to change and the pupils became restless and fidgety as they anticipated the end of the school day. Peter should have shared their sense of excitement, but instead he felt leaden and desperate. When finally Miss Fenton pronounced that it was time to clear away, all the desk lids banged and all the chair’s scraped back from the desks apart from Peter’s.
Normally at home time the class placed their chairs on top of the desks, so that Mr Copley could sweep the floor unhindered, but today Miss Fenton intervened.
‘You may leave your chairs down tonight children’, she said coldly ‘Peter Booth will be putting them up for you. Now hands together and eyes closed.’
After the final amen, each row of children was allowed to file out of the classroom and Peter heard their shouts of freedom as they ran out of the playground and away down the street. In a minute the school was empty and the silence that fell over the classroom was the deepest that Peter had ever felt. Miss Fenton sat at her desk, marking exercise books and ignoring Peter, so he spoke to the top of her head.
‘Please miss, I’m sorry miss, I didn’t mean to laugh.’ Peter’s tumbled apology broke the silence. ‘But I need to go please miss because my dad’s coming home.’
Miss Fenton did not look up, not even the fraction of an inch. Her attention remained riveted on her marking as though Peter’s words had never been uttered.
‘Coming home from where, Booth?’ Miss Fenton barely glanced at Peter, but her question gave him just a little hope.
‘From his regiment Miss, he’s on embarkation leave.’
‘And how long is he home for?’
‘Just two days, Miss.’
‘Then there’s plenty of time to see him once you’ve done some jobs for me. Bring me your work’
Tearfully, Peter carried the dog eared atlas and his tracing up to Miss Fenton and stood in front of her desk while she, stony faced, inspected Peter’s Sahara Desert.
‘This is complete rubbish’, she said, tearing up the tracing and unceremoniously dumping it in the wicker rubbish bin by the side of her desk.
‘Take another piece of paper and a sharp pencil and do it all again. And don’t make such a mess this time. We are being rationed in this school you know.’
Miss Fenton handed Peter another piece of the precious tracing paper from her desk drawer and he trudged back, defeated, to his place. For nearly fifteen minutes he carefully traced round the outline of the Sahara. This time he wasn’t going to make a mistake because he knew that Miss Fenton would throw his work away again if it wasn’t to her liking. No rasp tongued bitch was going to get in the way of Peter meeting his dad from the railway station. Then once again Peter stood in front of the desk while Miss Fenton studied his map.
‘See what you can do if you try hard’, she said. ‘Now do the chairs. Mr Copley wants to sweep up in here and he hasn’t got all night to wait for you.’
It was sixteen minutes past four and all week his Peter’s mother had drummed into him:
‘Be home by half past on Thursday, or you can’t go with me to meet your dad at the station.’
It took five minutes to walk home from school, three if he ran, so that left him about ten minutes to put up twenty-seven chairs. Peter moved quickly between the pairs of slope topped desks, turning each chair upside down and placing it carefully on the desk so that it didn’t slide off. After each three pairs of desks Peter checked the clock, but once the hands had reached four ‘o clock they had taken on a new lease of life. Where they had dragged before they now leapt between the minutes. The first six chairs took one minute and twenty seconds, the second six one minute thirty. Out of the next six, two fell off, costing him an extra twenty seconds and harsh words from Miss Fenton, but he still came to the last three chairs with two minutes to spare. It was twenty four minutes past four when Peter was stood back in front of the teacher’s desk. He stood there in silence, waiting to be dismissed while Miss Fenton sat there reading what looked like a letter, oblivious to Peter’s presence. Peter allowed a few precious seconds to slip by while he waited. But there was no more time left to wait.
‘Miss, I’ve finished the chairs. Can I go home now, only mum said I had to.’
Miss Fenton was startled and hurriedly hid the letter underneath the attendance register on her desk. She didn’t answer straight away, but stared fixedly at the clock off to her right.
‘How long have I kept you waiting Booth?’
‘How long have I kept you waiting here this afternoon?’
Peter looked up at the clock. It said it was twenty five past four.
‘Twenty five minutes Miss.’
‘And is twenty five minutes a long time?’
This question baffled Peter. Of course it was a long time, but he was afraid of saying so unless his teacher disagreed and lengthened his punishment.
‘I’m not sure Miss.’
‘Well I’ll tell you it’s not. I’ve kept you waiting for twenty five minutes, but what would you say to waiting for twenty eight years?’
What was she talking about? Teachers, even Miss Fenton, made sense by and large, but Peter couldn’t make sense of this and Miss Fenton was talking in a far away voice that scared him.
‘What do you mean Miss?’
‘I mean that I keep you waiting for twenty five minutes before you can go and see your daddy and I have to wait twenty eight years longing to see…him.’
Miss Fenton was still staring at the wall, but Peter noticed that it was John Horsfield’s plaque she was staring at and not the clock.
‘He said he’d come back to me’, she continued. ‘Mrs Horsfield, I should have been, but he never came. All I have to show for twenty eight years’ wait is one telegram,’
As the clock ticked on to four twenty seven Peter suddenly felt that he was trapped forever in the classroom, like the dead headmaster in his marble plaque and Miss Fenton behind her desk. As Peter ran away in fright he thought he saw his own name on the plaque.