We were still in a hug the next morning. I don’t think either of us had moved all night, so deeply had we slept. It didn’t feel as if we had; my muscles ached, and I felt as if I was about 30. I looked into my sleeping friend’s eyes and wondered why I was awake while he was patently still fast asleep. I didn’t have the heart to move, since that meant waking him, and wondered how I could possibly get comfortable like this. I was still wondering when I opened my eyes again and found him looking gently into them. All thoughts of aching muscles vanished, and I only knew a mental peace that was so much more important.
Carl was, inevitably, up and doing, as were all the boys. We got a silent clamour of comments about the previous night, and it was almost worse when we held up our hands to stop the flow of mental activity that was overwhelming us. For that started them all onto using their voices as well, and the noise was far too much to stand, that early in the morning. At last someone pointed out of the window.
“Look, there’s a man going into Miss Flude’s house!”
Well, there was. It was the doctor. He went in. That’s all there was to see.
She’s all right.
I looked at Efan.
“How do you know?”
“I… just do.”
“You did well last night, Efan. It obviously worked, that mint.”
“I knew. That’s why I did it.”
I could ask him how he knew, but the answer would have been the same: He just did. It was a gift he’d been given. I wondered how far it would go, what he’s be able to cure. But the age of five wasn’t the time to find out.
We had breakfast, and were clearing away while the boys were grumbling their way upstairs to get their clothes on, when there was a knock at the door.
Miss Flude, still looking rather white, but also looking very much alive and, somehow, softer round the edges than usual. I was so surprised at seeing her there that all I could think of for a while was how glad I was that I’d dressed before breakfast, for a change, although the real reason was that I wanted to persuade the boys that it was a good idea. Ben and Carl had done the same, thank goodness.
Once I had overcome my surprise, I stammeringly asked her to come inside, and the next thing I knew I was sitting with her at the table drinking a cup of tea that Carl had conjured up. We had said little until then, and there was a silence that was starting be uncomfortable. The way she broke it took my breath away.
“The Doctor says I should have died last night.”
I had no idea what to say. As usual, I said the wrong thing. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Sorry I’m still alive?”
I mean, a lot of people chuckle, or laugh, or even just grin. But to see Miss Flude do it was rather like being charged by a raging tiger only to have it stop and recite a nursery rhyme at you. I blinked.
“It may come as a surprise, but I’ve discovered I quite like being alive. Especially when I heard what the Doctor said.”
“Oh?” I was giving nothing away.
“Yes. He told me that I’d been suffering from whatever it was he called it for a long time, but he didn’t want to tell me and worry me. I only called him this morning to get him to check my nose — I kept on smelling mint, although there’s none in the house. He smelt it too, and quite exceptionally strong mint it was. Although none of us could find any, apart from what was growing in the garden. Until, that is, we found lots of footsteps, really small footsteps and other bigger ones and some medium sized ones, and two mint stalks, and a big dent in the earth where I’d been lying.”
“It’s all right. I don’t know what happened but I think I have to thank you and those boys for saving me. The funny thing is…” She tailed off. “The funny thing is, the doctor’s said that this whatever-it-is is much better, and I need more of whatever it is you gave me.”
Right on cue there was a thundering on the stairs, the door flew open, and seven small boys did a comic domino effect as the first one realised we had a visitor and stopped suddenly. With their ability to read thoughts I wondered how they failed to realise it when Miss Flude came to the door, but the look of apprehension on their faces denied any pre-knowledge. Except on the face of one. One of the dominoes picked himself up and crossed to the old lady without hesitation and held her hand, and looked her deep in the eyes.
Efan. Bright as a button, quite fearless, come to check on his patient. She, normally so barbed, softening noticeably as this small angelic medic held her gaze.
“You’re better.” he said. It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“Yes. Thanks to all of you.”
“It was actually Efan who…” What did I say? Cured you? Looked after you? Saved your life?
She looked at me, surprised, as if she’d read my mind. Not someone else, I hoped.
“You mean, he… but… he’s only, what, five?”
“I knew what to do.”
He was so emphatic that there was no denying him. I could see her fingers tighten slightly on his as what he said sank in. The way he was looking at her would have melted a glacier, let alone a grateful elderly lady.
There was a silence, but a smile was growing on Efan’s face, and, miracle on miracle, Miss Flude’s was reflecting it. At last she gave a laugh — a real laugh — and her ‘doctor’ smiled his widest.
“It seems I owe you my life… er… and I don’t even know your name.”
“I’m Efan. But everyone helped.”
She looked up at me, then at the encircling boys, and at Ben and Carl who had come back into the room, then back at me.
“For once, young man, I’m lost for words. Except to say thank you, and I’m glad you’re all here. But…” She stopped, and her smile faded. She turned to me. “May I talk to you, Aidan? Alone?”
I wondered if she was going to change back to her usual self again. I she was, I didn’t want to talk to her.
“I’d like Ben and Carl to be there as well, please.”
I was no longer in awe of her. After all, one of my sons had saved her life.
“Very well. But I’d like to see you all again when we’ve done, please.” This was to the boys. They smiled politely and backed away, then went outside to play.
Once they were out of hearing, she turned to me “I am a churchgoer, and like everyone in the Village except a few, have always been one. I disapprove of you going up to… to… that place and… er… well… whatever it was you did. I disapprove of your agreeing to go through the Village, in front of everyone, naked, even as young as you are.”
I was about to join the argument, but she held up her hand; a return of the hectoring ways of the past. “But… wherever these children came from, one of them saved my life. I can’t pretend to know what’s going on, because obviously that obnoxious smith is telling lies, but I’m just grateful that you are all here.”
There was a silence. I wondered what to tell her. Do I try to say that what the smith had told her was probably the truth? Do I say that these five-year-olds are actually only a few weeks old? But Carl piped up in my stead.
“Thank you for your understanding, Miss Flude. Aidan had to go through a lot because of the smith and the Council, and none of us envies him that. But we and the boys are here, and if we can help you again, we will.”
She looked at him, surprised, as if only just seeing him for the first time. “Aren’t you Carl? The Woods’ boy?”
“Yes… well, no. I mean, I lived with them for some time, yes, but they aren’t my parents.”
She looked puzzled. Then her face cleared, and she looked, once again, almost gentle. “Ah yes. The fire. My friends. Carl, I’m sorry. I should have remembered.”
“You knew them?”
“Yes. And once, a long time ago, your father and I… well, before he met your mother, he and I were walking out together. He was… it was a great loss to me when they were killed.”
There was a silence. Carl’s eyes were riveted to her face, and at last she looked up and caught his expression, and smiled ruefully. “And now, all these years on, you’ve a family of your own to help look after. Guard them well, and keep them safe. I can’t know what’s happening, but I’ll give you support if I can. But please… no more naked parades through the Village?”
“I don’t want to do that again, ever,” I said with feeling. At the back of my mind, though, were the times we visited the glade at night. Would she see us?
“Would Efan come and help me again, do you think?” she asked. “And what was it that he did that saved my life?”
“He breathed mint at you,” I said.
She looked astonished.
Some time later, Efan and I returned to her cottage alongside her. Efan asked her to sit on a chair that he’d got me to drag into the garden, near a flower bed, and relax. It was, of course, a wooden chair. Without warning he pulled off his shoes and socks, and struggled out of his T-shirt — struggled because it had been only quite recently they had all learnt how to undress themselves. I knew what was coming next — or more accurately what was about to vanish from his body, and wondered how the old lady would react to it after her near-apology to us. Sure enough, right in front of her, the elasticated waist eased past his small bottom, and the underwear followed, all as swiftly and unceremoniously as if he was in his bedroom at home.
She gasped, but said nothing. He retreated to the same mint patch he had used the night before, and pulled two roots from the ground. Once again, the leaves were stripped from them, the bare stalks laid back on the earth, and he crossed back to us. Carefully he dug his hand into the soil of the flower bed, then put the leaves into his mouth and chewed on them, a look of intense concentration on his face.
After a while his face cleared, and he stood, gripped the chair and looked straight at Miss Flude’s face. Very slowly, he breathed out, and she had no option but to catch the full strength of the live, enhanced, pure zest of the herb that his breath bore to her. The look of puzzlement and disapproval at his nakedness left her, and her own breathing became deep, as if a weight had been lifted from her chest. Her eyes closed, and it was as if she slept.
We waited, he having removed the wad of used mint leaves from his mouth in the approved small-boy manner.
At last her eyes opened and she smiled. Even when she saw him still naked, the smile remained.
It was to be the first of many such visits.
At last we were free to walk home, and did so in companionable silence. But the nearer we reached the only corner between Miss Flude’s cottage and our house the more we were aware of a noise; a noise of loud, excited, childish voices. I looked at Efan, who seemed unconcerned, but I was wondering what on earth was happening to our family and started walking faster, forgetting he was unable to keep up. There was a hurt whimper from behind me, and a feeling of pained disappointment in my mind, so I stopped and waited.
Sorry. I just want to see what’s happening at home.
Nothing. It’s just the others have come to play.
I blinked. What others?
Boys and girls from the Village.
Oh. And that was meant to be all right? As we rounded the corner the noise hit us. There were about twenty children, all ages from four to eight, kicking a football from one side of the street to the other, using our fence on one side and a tree, by the look of it, at the other, as goals. And, naturally since our lot were without doubt the ringleaders, none of them was wearing a stitch of clothing.
“Wait!” I heard from behind me. I turned. Efan was hopping along, having undone one of his shoes, trying to undo the other. At last it became loose and fell to the ground, to be followed by a trail of clothes left behind by his struggling, half-running figure as it ridded itself of the restricting clothing; the underpants dropping from his frantically hopping, comically staggering, naked body as it reached the outside of the melee.
Having picked up his clothes, just like any parent after bedtime, I joined Ben and Carl at the gate and we watched the action. It was obvious that our seven only had the slightest idea about football, but they were nothing if not fast learners. Soon they were giving quite a good account of themselves even against the more experienced eight year olds. It was odd to see the girls playing with them all as equals, especially as there were so few distinguishing factors between them at that age. Most of the younger Village girls wore their hair short, since it was easier to keep clean, and most were as nimble on their feet as the boys. The only real difference was the obvious one.
As they began to tire, there were little accidents, a few tears. And we began to notice that each time one of them was hurt and started to come to us, either the young Ben or the young Aidan — or sometimes both — would go to them and comfort them before ever we needed to get involved. And if there was an argument, it was always Hamish, with one of the other two, who would sort it out and get an agreement between the aggrieved parties. I wondered how this could be, having from time to time watched the delightful chaos that was the playground of the Village’s nursery school, where each of the tiny children was unaware of the problems of any other apart from himself. But then, ours were special children. As it was, one of the Village children had cut himself, and I was about to go and comfort him, and still his crying, and then try and find some sort of dressing in the house. But before I could get there, my namesake had reached him, rescued him from the melee, and sat him down. And Efan was already returning from the nearby undergrowth with what looked like a dock leaf. But the time I had reached them, the leaf was over the wound, the boy had stopped crying, and Efan was grinning at me as if to say “I know what to do!”
At last a piercing whistle sounded from the house, and Carl appeared with a tray of drinks. Football was forgotten in a moment, and they clustered round, reaching eagerly. He looked at us, and his face was radiant.
“They’ve been doing this for the last hour, give or take. It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like they were wild, but human, all at the same time. I’ve laughed so much, I’m exhausted; and…” He seemed to look at us with hesitation in his mind. “…I’ve even, er, cried…” A pause. We waited. “It’s just so… sweet”.
He looked defiantly at us, as if daring us to laugh. But we had watched, too, and he was right. It was sweet.
I know what you mean exactly, I told him, as quietly as one can from mind to mind. And we both agree with you — exactly. He looked relieved at that, but had to get up because there were cries of “More… more…” from our well mannered children (!) and hopeful looks on the faces of the others. And more there was. But the football was over because they were tired, and they sat around talking excitedly between swigs of the drinks and bites of biscuit and cake that Carl had apparently also conjured up from the house.
As the first of the anxious parents came round the corner and saw the twenty or so children it was comical to see their faces. The realisation of the lack of clothing and the fact that both sexes were involved was taxing to them, it was obvious. At the time it was as natural to we three bystanding ‘parents’ as it was to the youngsters involved, but looking back, from a different viewpoint, it could have been risky in the extreme. Nowadays, when we have succeeded in swamping the innocence of childhood with our adult fears and worries, we would be criticised and pilloried for allowing them to play naturally in innocence, but then, particularly on the Island, although it was surprising for parents it was not alarming. And neither, of course, was there any need for it to be so.
After we had eaten, I remembered our promise to Angharad to bring her brothers to see her at the Glade. Although they were tired they were really happy at the thought of going.
“We go quietly,” Ben told them, “and when we are in the wood we all take off our clothes, so no running ahead.” I could feel the agreement to this — it was the right thing to do, they seemed to be saying. We stopped inside the wood as soon as we were suitably out of sight of anyone from the Village, and stripped off in the now time-honoured way. The wood itself was as dark and gloomy as usual — no bad thing, really, as it kept out most of the village’s explorers — apart from the younger ones who plucked up the courage to explore anywhere in the way that both Ben and I had done all those years before.
The glade this time was as welcoming as any house. Angharad was there, of course, and once she and her brothers had stood and looked at each other there was a swift movement, and before we could realise they were all playing tag, quite soundlessly but with great concentration. At last their energy petered out and one by one they sat, just looking at each other. When all was quiet, I heard a movement in the bushes: the slender neck of a young fawn peered anxiously out, his wide eyes like brown pools reflecting the moonlight. Angharad rose, crossed to him, and embraced him, encouraging him into the circle. The boys were quiet, still, and I could feel the delight they were feeling at meeting him.
No words passed. None were necessary.
They were very tired that night. It wasn’t until the morning that the questions started. Dramatically.
“Why can’t we go to school like the others?”
“Please can we do all the things that the others do?
“You and Ben go to school. Please can we?”
“I want to see my friends again. Can’t I go?”
And so on. Eventually I looked at Ben, suddenly realising that they’d all been talking with their voices, even though there was no one else outside the family there.
They’ll need to go sometime.
But so soon?
They seem ready!
I know, but…
I was almost ‘deafened’ by the mental cheer that followed, before either of us had a chance to talk further.
When can we start? asked my namesake.
“We need to talk to the teachers first. It may be they have no room.”
I could detect a sort of mental snort coming from them.
“And when they say you can start, you can. But…” I paused for effect, and for once I had their complete attention. “But… what you must realise is that the others are used to being there. They know how to be polite to teachers. You’ll have to learn that.”
“What’s ‘polite’ mean?”
“It means that because they’re older than you, they know more. And you have to listen to them, and do what they say. Sometimes it’s strange doing that if you don’t know the reasons, but you should always do it and not ask questions, because they have twenty-five others to see to, apart from you, and it’s difficult.”
Hmmm… I could remember times in my earlier life when I wished I’d followed my own advice. Funny how things go a full circle. But that was nearly enough for them, and besides, Ben and I had to go to school… it’d be funny, being a pupil and knowing you were also a parent… what would happen at those meetings that Dad always had to go to to discuss my progress? How would Ben and I be treated? That’d be a challenge. It’d also confuse the teachers a lot. Hmmm… perhaps I was going to enjoy this after all. And would Ben and I be asked to help out with those little outings the young ones went on? As parents? And would we get their school reports? Memories of my father forbidding me absolutely to open my own report flooded into my memory, along with the paper knife and the glue I used to open it and seal it up again afterwards. Would they be like me? What would their reports say?
I laughed, and as we walked toward the old school house I explained my thoughts to Ben whose mind had been firmly on matters academic and firmly closed to my musings. By the time we arrived, we were both having trouble breathing because of the shared laughter. There were a few odd looks from some of our friends, but then we were used to that. We were the only two teenaged fathers in the Island’s history, so far as I knew.
We had agreed to meet outside the Headmaster’s door during break. After the inevitable discussions with the Secretary we were allowed in, not without some impatience on the woman’s part as we had refused to state our business to her.
“The equivalent of five years old, you say,” he said after we had introduced the problem. “I very much doubt that, very much indeed, since they’ve apparently only just been born. I realise the smith has said that these are no ordinary children, but to expect them to be schoolchildren so early is a bit much to swallow.”
“Sir, we realise that it’s not an easy thing to accept…” (I was proud of Ben for putting it like that) “…but neither of us is exaggerating. Perhaps if you saw them?”
“I’m a busy man, Ben. I don’t visit every pupil we take on. If I did I’d get no time at all for all the other work I have to do.”
“Perhaps we should bring them to you, sir.”
He looked at Ben impatiently. “Ben, what I am trying to say is that it’d be a waste of time, no matter how special they are, to expect them to keep up with the others. At that age, they’re not even anywhere near potty trained, let alone able to walk and run. Their speech can be no more than baby talk. I know you’re very proud of them, but it’ll be years before they’re ready for school.”
“Sir,” I started. “We…”
“No, that’s enough, Aidan. Ben hasn’t been able to produce anything to persuade me, so you stand no chance whatsoever. It’s out of the question. That’s all I have to say.”
“No, Ben. I have nothing else to say. Leave, please.”
We really had no option, but went outside and seethed. I said a few words that I shouldn’t have done. Ben agreed with me.
Tomorrow, I thought, We’ll bring them down anyway so he and the teachers can see them and talk to them. Then they’ll see!
You’re probably right. Surely they can’t go against what they see with their own eyes?
They’re teachers, remember? They’re probably used to doing just that.
Mine aren’t that bad!
But you have most of the same people as I do!
I thought about that, and it was true. The teachers I thought were incapable of understanding me were the same as those who Ben liked because they talked sense. I sighed inwardly. How could I ever understand these people? I was thirteen, for God’s sake! Surely they should be treating me as sensible by now, especially as I was a father…
We went gloomily back to lessons. So much of what was laid before me to learn that morning seemed so trivial, at least compared with the family I knew needed to be here and to start learning about the ways of human existence. I wondered if they would be able to accept the apparently senseless school rules we had to live with and observe. No running in the corridors… keep to the left on the stairs… present the stub of your old pencil before you could be given a new one… I smiled, and got a steely glare from the teacher.
“What was I saying, Aidan?”
Damn. Here we go…
“Er… about reproduction in plants, Sir.”
“What about reproduction in plants?”
“Er… the pollen is carried from the semen of one flower to fertilise another, Sir.”
There was a chuckle from around me, then as the others realised what I’d said, and who had said it, an uproar.
“Silence!” There nearly was. He looked exasperated. I was told to look it up in the book after school and come to see him afterwards.
I found Ben waiting for me, late leaving though I was. When I explained what had happened, he laughed.
People must think you have semen on the brain!
I thought a moment. The nearest I get to that is having yours in my mouth.
He looked at me, surprised. Then, gentler than the boy-to-boy banter of before: You don’t… do that and… hate it do you?
It was my turn to be surprised. What would make him think such a thing? I looked down at his trousers, and imagined… and knew him… and wanted him so badly, there: then.
No. I said it at softly as I could. I love you… And I love every minute we spend together like that. I’d like it to be here. Now.
He smiled down at me from his fifteen year-old height. I could just take you to the nearest patch of undergrowth, and we could show our love.
We were in the middle of the Village… It would be a very bad idea — unless we could make sure we were invisible.
But the talking had had an effect on each of us, the effect that thoughts of physical exploration always have on boys. I watched entranced as the cloth of his trousers pushed outwards, and even wobbled slightly as he walked. And I could feel my own body being painfully restrained by the combination of underpants and trousers. Walking was difficult
Think of Miss Flude, he said after a silence.
I did. It worked.
We were still so — well, I hate to use the word about something so natural and wonderful, but — randy that night that I’m ashamed to say we left Carl alone with the boys and returned to the Glade. This time was different from before when we’d gone there, it was that randy feeling that had got to both of us, and made us want to take risks. Although it was still dusk, we were still in sight of the Village as we stopped to strip, and we mentally dared each other to do so at a distance of only about 500 yards from the nearest house, facing it as we did so. The sensation of delightful naughtiness filled us, and we laughed at each other as we each exposed our anxious, blood-engorged manhood to be enjoyed or exclaimed over by anyone wanting to watch. Not that we expected there to be anyone. Most would be safely indoors mending, reading, or working by the scant light of lanterns.
At last we calmed down, and set off into the gloom to the Glade, and the delight in each other we knew would be waiting there.
Carl was waiting for us when we returned.
“What about school, then?”
My mind switched tracks abruptly, as did Ben’s.
“We couldn’t get them to agree,” he said. “The Head thinks they’re little babies and won’t be ready for school for years.”
“I hope you told him what they’re really like.”
We looked rather shamefacedly at each other. “It wasn’t that easy. He wouldn’t listen. He just told us to get out.”
“That’s ridiculous! Why didn’t you ask him to see them?”
“We did,” I explained patiently. “He said he was too busy.”
“Well in that case we must take them to see him. I’ll bring them down tomorrow.”
“That’s what we thought would be best. He’ll have to see them then, especially if you take them in to see him.”
“I take them in? It should be you!”
“Well, we’ll take them in, then.”
The best laid plans… There was still something in the air between Ben and me that night, and we were playing in the bedroom for ages. There are some times when the human mind becomes insatiable, becomes fixed on a certain subject. For us, that night, it was each other. I couldn’t say what time it was we eventually slept, but it must have been in the early hours. The next morning we could hardly drag ourselves out of bed, not only because of tiredness but because of the physical attitude in which we had finally finished our lovemaking, totally spent.
Breakfast was cold, the boys were puzzled, and we were late for school. We thought it best not to take the boys with us as we were so late.
Dragged in front of the Head at break, this time at his demand rather than ours, we were told off in no uncertain tones about timekeeping. He must have been in a mood, because he was more angry sounding than usual. I think he may have been just about finishing his lecture — I wasn’t really listening — when a particularly loud series of screams came from the juniors in the playground which was unfortunately just outside his window. He turned, further annoyed, to see what was disturbing his peace. We craned our necks to see, too.
Two teachers were trying their best to act as sheepdogs. They were attempting to separate a small group of young children from the remainder, who were meant to be getting back into class. As we watched, one or two of them — the school’s children — would double back again to start playing with the intruders. Unlike their friends who were intent on continuing to play, the intruding group of boys, as fast as they were parted, would double back and join onto — and dodge — the queue, trying to get in with the class. Each time they all had to be brought out, separated, and the whole charade started again.
It was inevitable that the small group consisted of seven boys. Our boys.
I swear that at least one of the real schoolchildren started to undo his trousers on the assumption that, if they were playing with these children, they would always do so naked. I hoped that sense would return quickly, otherwise Ben and I would have to do some serious explaining. I sighed. Immediately the Head’s attention switched to me.
“I hope you’re not giggling, Aidan McKee. I see nothing funny in unruly behaviour.”
“No Sir,” I lied. “It’s just that… they’re our boys.”
“Nonsense. You said they’d only just been born.”
“That’s right, Sir, they have. But they were born as five-year-olds, as we said.”
He looked at me, then Ben, then at the melee outside. “But…”
There was a pause while he took in the situation and its probable consequences. Presumably he had bowed to the inevitable, as they say. Finally he looked back into the room at both of us.
“They’ll have to come to school,” he said. “But will they obey you if you tell them to stop playing around now?”
“Of course, Sir,” said Ben. “They’re our sons, after all. And they’re the ones who are trying to get into class.”
When we broke the news to them that night they were ecstatic, as was Carl. It took us a long time to quieten them down and get them to bed, and then, tired though we were, we felt we had to go to the Grove to report progress. Though it was warm there, and welcoming, there was no one to welcome our love or to respond to it as before. Because of the rain that had fallen, quietly, but as if it had really meant it, between our getting home and the boys’ bedtime, the ground was wet, something we thought odd since it had never seemed to be so before during all the times we had made love there. We were dimly conscious of our bodies getting rather stickier than usual, and wetter, though not cold; but it was a good feeling rather than an unpleasant one, and we became as passionate as the previous night. At last our needs were spent, it was time to go, and we stumbled from the peace and warmth of the place into the outside world. And at once we were cold, and uncomfortable, and when we reached the edge of the trees we could see each other properly.
As we were so muddy, to put our clothes back on would be a waste of time, and since all the Village lights were off we picked them up instead and flitted back home from shadow to shadow like muddy, naked ghosts. Fortunately Miss Flude’s lights were off too, although since we had tamed her I wondered if she would be offended any more. I still had no wish to find out the hard way, having her discover me naked.
We woke at a reasonable time the next day, mainly because there had been an excited buzz of 5-year-old voices in the house from about six o’clock onwards. I came from the room first, forgetting that Ben and I had been enjoying an early morning cuddle, and that my body was still aroused. Yes, I know that now, as an adult, it’s not something you can fail to realise, but at thirteen your penis is lighter, shorter and when erect is tighter against your abdomen. It doesn’t get in the way when you’re naked. And, of course, erections happen on their own then anyway, for no apparent reason. You get used to them. So when the noisy ones saw me, they stopped, aware something was different, and fourteen eyes bored into the middle of my body.
It wasn’t just one, it was all of them asking in unison.
I’ll tell you later: tonight. Remind me. For once I was almost embarrassed.
Is there a special toilet you use for when it’s like that?
It took me a few moments to realise what he meant, then my mind automatically started trying to design one.
Our reception at school was confusing. The teachers of the five-year-olds had known Ben and me since we were that age ourselves and would normally speak to us as older pupils on a regular, friendly basis but still as teachers. Today, things were subtly different. We were being asked questions about our boys in an almost respectful way, as if our opinions and wants mattered. We explained that there might be a few areas where basic knowledge was wanting, but that to balance it there were a lot of things they knew automatically that the others wouldn’t. We tried to explain that they had grown as plants, as drakes, for the equivalent of the first five years of their lives, but by the faint, polite smiles we got in return for this information we knew they couldn’t grasp it. It was outside their experience, therefore it couldn’t exist.
So at last we told them to be good, and to do what they were told, and we would see them at break time. They all hugged us, all seven of them. If any of our own classmates had been there, watching, I think I’d have been highly embarrassed. As it was, only the other 5-year-olds, their parents, and of course the teachers were there to see. All the parents were doing the same, so it was no big deal.
It just took us longer.
Some of the parents looked at us a bit strangely, but we were well aware by now of our special status in the Village and ignored their looks as we walked — not away, but toward the part of the school where the older students went. Our part. The sudden change from parent to student was a definite line, and challenging to cross effectively. Exactly where it happened on the short journey I can’t say, but we both experienced it, as we discovered afterwards. Strange indeed.
They all seemed so happy at the morning’s break that it took some time for them to realise we were both there watching their antics. All at once games of football, skipping, tag, and what looked like hopscotch were forgotten as they clustered around us, deafening us with their tales. We listened, exclaimed, wondered… and then they were called back by the bell. It was short, but exhausting. We felt as if we’d had no break at all.
They were due to finish at lunch time, and Carl was coming down to get them. I guessed he’d have non-stop talk all the afternoon. Half of me envied him that whilst the other half was glad to have the comparative peace of my own lessons. When lunchtime came Ben, Carl and I met by the juniors’ part of the school and waited, just like all the other parents, for our charges to spill out into the playground. Standing and looking at that special space that is a playground, the place where I had played as a junior in my distant past, it seemed to me to be a long time ago, a different life. And now, despite my memories, I felt the delightful responsibilities of parenthood starting to creep back, and wondered at myself.
At last they were surging towards us, and yes, the talk started at once as they verbally leapt over each other to tell us what they’d done all morning. The same scene was being played out on a smaller scale all round us, though with less excessive enthusiasm. It was our boys’ first day, after all. They almost persuaded me that there was something in going to school after all, a thought that was often foreign to me. We waved them off as they followed Carl like a small flock of sheep. As they turned the corner and went out of sight it was as if a cloud had obscured the sun.
Reluctantly we returned to our own lunch break, and then back to the afternoon’s lessons.
Will they cone and meet us? I asked Ben as we met at the senior playground entrance.
Probably too busy at home.
They won’t have homework, surely?
No, but they’re bound to have a lot of their class there playing football or something.
And so it was. As we came within earshot of the house I could hear the inevitable shouting, and the noise of a football. I wondered why the Spirits hadn’t insisted on eleven sons, then we could have had a one-family football team. They were playing with school friends, as Ben had guessed, and inevitably none of them was clothed or worried about the fact. And once again we watched as that peculiar magic took over when there were arguments, or one of the visiting children got hurt, or there was a problem with the ball. Not once did any of them come to us, the adults, for help. The problem was always solved by one of our boys.
They were so tired, so early that night that they forgot to ask me what my erection of the morning was meant for.
That day set the pattern for many months. It didn’t take long for the school to realise that these were no ordinary children, for not only did they have voracious appetites for knowledge, they encouraged all those around them to ask questions and to learn fast too. At length it was decided that the junior class should be divided into two, with a new teacher brought in from the mainland since we had no one on the Island who was either qualified or, to be honest, interested in teaching children that young. We were told — as involved parents — about this, and asked not to be surprised when strange faces started to appear at the school as they would be teachers on trial.
“I wonder how they’ll cope with someone else.” Ben mused, as we three were sitting alone after bedtime for the boys one night.
“The same as we always used to,” said Carl. “Give them half a lesson and they’ll have decided whether they like them or not. No matter what they do after that, unless it’s really bad, that’s how they’ll be branded.”
I knew what he meant. We’d seen very few new teachers over the years, but it had taken us a very short time to judge them. It had nothing to do with their abilities, it was just whether they were ‘nice’ and could be trusted, or not.
Watching the new teachers going through their paces in the junior playground was an interesting experience for Ben and me. We were at once parents, interested in making sure that the right person was being considered, whilst also students judging the person from the traditional pupils’ point of view. I think the pupils’ method was the best. It was quicker, and in our estimation more accurate. One or two of the candidates made us laugh, and not for the right reasons. I suppose it was inevitable that we instinctively discounted most of the young women, although I wasn’t aware of exactly why at the time. It just seemed to me that the best person was going to be a man.
It was during one of the lunch breaks that we were watching. Our boys had somehow persuaded all their classmates to stay on and play at school before — usually — heading home with a smaller group to throw off their clothes and play there. We were watching this day, as one of the more promising young teachers was being put through his paces. He thought, no doubt, that it was the school authorities he had to convince: we and the kids playing knew that, in fact, it was we who were actually the judges. He appeared to be enjoying himself, surrounded by the shouting melee, but also seemed to have that aura of control that says safety here! to any child. As we watched, Carl came to join us as usual.
“Hallo, Ben, Aidan. Who’ve they got for us to watch tod…?”
The sentence was never finished. As one we turned to look at the usually communicative Carl. His mouth was hanging open, his eyes riveted on the teacher as he seemed to swirl around with the crowd of children, always with them, never being too strong, just being there.
“What’s the matter, Carl? D’you know him?”
“Carl? Carl? What’s the matter? Carl?”
He seemed to jump. With his eyes never leaving the figure in the playground he said softly: “What?”
It was a shout, I know, but his behaviour was so uncharacteristic that I was getting worried. The teacher turned toward my voice, but instead of my eyes he met Carl’s.
When we’d been on the mainland our teachers had introduced us, for the first time, to the cinema. Obviously it had been for educational reasons to start with, but towards the end of the stay we had been taken to watch a mainstream film. Inevitably there was a love scene. We could hardly believe it when these two pairs of eyes, one male, one female, met across the dance floor and couldn’t tear apart. We thought it was just too silly for words, and one or two of us sniggered our way through the rest of the film, to the disgust of the teachers. The reaction between Carl and the candidate teacher in the playground reminded me exactly of that moment, and I was suddenly aware that what had been on the screen, and what was happening in front of my eyes, was exactly what had happened between Ben and me. It was just working quicker, and under less trying circumstances.
As it was, the figure before us had ceased all movement, and the surrounding children looked up at him with some alarm. All I could “hear” from our seven were sort of mental question marks. I’m sure if there had been danger threatening they would have been aware of it before anyone else.
In my mind I felt a noise as if an elastic band had broken, or a balloon had burst. What it was I didn’t know, but the contact between the two pairs of eyes seemed to rip apart. A sense of deep hurt wafted through my emotions, though I knew that it didn’t directly affect me. What was going on? The activities before us had been interrupted for about five seconds only, yet it seemed like forever. It continued now, though I was sure it was a changed teacher in front of us.
“Do you know him, Carl?”
At last he turned to Ben. “No. I’ve never met him. But he’s good with them, isn’t he?”
He seemed to be back to normal, but there was something amiss…
“Do you like him?” It was a stab of a question, I know, but I had to ask because of the memories of that film. He looked at me, and his eyes were troubled. He said not a word, but the smile came and eased some of the trouble from him. That was answer enough.
At last the break was over. Usually that meant that the boys would rush over to us and mob us before being taken home with a crowd of others by Carl. Today they came over, but with the teacher in tow.
“This is Carl, he looks after us while Aidan and Ben are at school. He’s nice. You like him.” That was the unravelling of the shouts that they gave, mostly simultaneously. And it wasn’t “you’ll like him”, it was definitely “you like him”. They knew.
“When are you going to come and visit us? We’re at home all afternoon. We play football with our friends. We don’t wear anything ’cos it’s nicer. Nor do they. Come on! Come with us now!”
He smiled at them, then looked at us. As his eyes met Carl’s the smile faded and the look was more concentrated, it seemed. But he regained his composure and did his best to talk to all three of us.
“I’m Mr McKendrick. You’ll be their brothers, I suppose. It’s good to meet you. I’d like to come back and play football with you, boys, but I have to stay and talk to the Headmaster, to see if they want to give me the job. Then I have to get back to the mainland.”
They looked disappointed. “Do you live far away?” asked Carl in a voice I hardly recognised.
Again that deep look. “In Edinburgh, I’m afraid. I have a long way to travel.”
“You could stay here tonight.” Hang on, I thought despite myself, it’s our house!
Wistfully… “The only way I can get back to Edinburgh is to take the coach in the morning from the mainland. The first ferry’s too late for me to get back there in time tomorrow, and I have to be back the next day because I have another interview to go to.”
“Oh you don’t need to go to that,” said Hamish, “they’re going to give you the job here.”
Most adults would have laughed. He didn’t. He just looked at Hamish and smiled. “I hope you’re right. I really do. Living here would be my idea of heaven.” And if his eyes had shifted back to Carl as he said the words, I, for one, knew exactly why.