School turned out all right.
To his surprise he discovered that he was the only one in the class who could read properly. He had been reading for ages, that was how he knew about Joan of Arc and God and the Holy Ghost. He didn’t remember how he had learned to read. He was already a member of the local library. He took out six books at a time which was the most you were allowed. He went every week. He loved reading. His favourite was a book about horses called Black Beauty.
Their teacher was called Sister Dominic and she looked like a young saint. She was impressed that he could read. She put him to the back of the class and gave him a pile of books to get on with while she taught the others to read. Some of the class were very slow on the uptake and they were moved to the front of the class. He noticed that after a few weeks it was mostly the poor kids at the front. Some of them smelled of rotten eggs, others of cabbage. Dennis Coffee’s nose ran all the time and he never stopped sniffling. He could make himself burp and sometimes he even farted out loud which made everyone laugh. When that happened Sister Dominic blushed and pretended she hadn’t heard. Most of the time it was hard to stop giggling and you had to make sure you didn’t catch anybody’s eye or you would get an attack of the giggles which you couldn’t stop. If that happened as a punishment you would get hit over the knuckles with a ruler. If you still didn’t stop you got put outside in the corridor. If Sister Bernadette found you there you were for it.
In the playground he did slow-motion fighting with his friends. Mostly they were cowboys and Indians. He was an Apache. Derek Ryder was always Billy The Kid. Footballs weren’t allowed but someone used to bring in an empty Jif lemon container and they played with that until the janny came out and stopped them. The janny was an old man with white hair and thick black glasses with blue-coloured lenses and no-one liked him. He stopped you doing everything. The next day they got another lemon and did it again. It was fun being part of the crowd and doing something wrong. In the end the janny gave up. They stopped playing when someone threw the Jif ball over the wall..
Derek Ryder became his best friend. One morning Derek came to the house and they walked to school together. After that he came every day. The school was five minutes from his house past the big Post Office building that had shiny marble floors where his mum bought stamps to write to her sister in Scotland far away. The road was lined with big old sycamore trees that formed a canopy and it was like walking through a tunnel. At one end of the road was the church. There was a convent in between. Then there was the school. They ploughed through the piles of fallen leaves with their feet pretending it was snow. One day Derek put Brylcreem on his hair and combed it straight back like a Teddy Boy. He had a leather jacket and knew how to smoke. You could buy real cigarettes one at a time from the sweet shop if you said they were for your mum. Derek read the Beano and the Dandy and the Hotspur. He knew about football too and had been to see a team called Spurs with his dad. That was up in London. You went on the train. London was the capital of Britain and the Empire. Derek was quite clever but he was lazy. He was in the middle of the class. When he grew up he wanted to be a joiner like his dad.
After a bit Patricia Fitzgerald got moved back to the desk beside him. She was very pretty with curly blond hair and Chris blushed whenever she looked at him. They sat together for two years but he never spoke to her because he was too shy. Once she offered him a jelly baby but he shook his head even though he wanted one. Whenever she spoke she had a posh voice. She put her hand up first and answered all the questions until Sister Dominic said give someone else a chance. Her dad was a teacher at the school. Chris knew most of the answers too but he was too shy to put his hand up. Soon she was top of the class and Chris was second.
The girls were cleverer than the boys except for Rose Regan. Rose Regan was bottom of the class. She was really thick. She didn’t have a dad and someone said she was really a diddikay. She smelled of rotten eggs and she wore a brace on her teeth because they were all crooked. She wore glasses too and they were held together by elastoplast but they were squint. She chewed gum all the time and never did what she was told. She was tall and she often hit the other boys and called them names. When she farted she didn’t make a noise but you could smell them. No-one liked her. Sometimes she said bad words and got put out into the corridor. She didn’t care. She was the only one who wasn’t scared of Sister Bernadette. When she was out in the corridor they could get on with their work.
After a bit they got homework. Mostly it was copying words and making sentences out of them. Sister Dominic said they were learning to write. Chris wrote with his right hand but Dennis Weaver wrote with his left. He could draw cartoons and pictures really well even though he was left-handed. He wanted to be a fireman when he grew up.
At first his mum met him after school along with the other mums but after a few days she didn’t bother and he went home with Derek Ryder, kicking up the leaves as they walked. They usually stopped at the sweet shop and bought gobstoppers and liquorice with their pocket money. The shopkeeper said they were lucky. Sweets had only come off the ration not long ago, he said. It was something to do with the war.