Read 02 Mister Teacher Online

Authors: Jack Sheffield

02 Mister Teacher (8 page)

‘Aye, that’s reight,’ said John. ‘Ah’m diggin’ ’oles now, then ah’ve a job in Ragley t’price up. Ah’ll be back t’concrete y’posts when t’frost ’as gone. Then ah’ll fix y’gate tomorrow.’

‘Thanks, John,’ I replied. ‘That sounds fine.’

I glanced down at my watch. It was just after half past seven and the frosty path sparkled as the first rays of sunlight began to emerge.

‘’Ope y’don’t mind me startin’ early, Mr Sheffield. Old ’abits die ’ard.’

‘You sound cheerful,’ I said, shivering in my shirt-sleeves.

‘I allus whistle when ah’m content, Mr Sheffield.’

Vera had told me John’s nickname in the village was Whistling John, so I guessed he was content most of the time. It was also obvious that Whistling John did not appear to feel the cold.

‘Would you like a mug of tea?’ I asked.

‘That’s reight kind, Mr Sheffield. Two sugars, if y’please, an’ thanks for all y’doin’ for my little Molly. She’s lovin’ it in Mrs Grainger’s class.’

Molly Paxton was five years old and a popular newcomer to Ragley School.

I filled the kettle and looked out at Whistling John, who was digging furiously at the frozen earth. At six feet
inches tall and in his early thirties, John Paxton was built like a Viking warrior. A mane of long, wavy blond hair hung down on his huge shoulders and his bright-blue eyes twinkled with the deep satisfaction of manual labour. He had the strength of a Russian weight-lifter and, while he worked, he whistled his considerable repertoire of his favourite songs of the Sixties.

As the kettle boiled, he had reached the Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’, and the rhythm of his digging exactly matched the rhythm of the song.

Vera had told me that she knew an excellent gardener and general labourer who had recently arrived from Sheffield. ‘He’s as honest as the day is long,’ she said.

John’s lungs had been badly damaged by inhaling manganese dust while working as a grinder in the 1960s in one of South Yorkshire’s giant steelworks. Although he was proud that he could grind twenty-four-foot lengths of railway lines to an accurate profile of one-thousandth of an inch, he was nevertheless relieved when the giant klaxon horn shattered the dusty air on his very last day. No longer would the flying red-hot sparks burn his arms and scorch his overalls.

Following his redundancy, he had gradually recovered his health and made a new start in life. He had moved into a small cottage on the Morton Road with his wife and daughter, and Vera had said you could always tell his mood by the songs he whistled.

John thanked me for the tea and, as I left for school, he said he would call back for his money when the job was finished.

I thought no more about him as I drove carefully to school. Little did I know it but this gentle giant was about to have his peaceful life unsettled by a formidable enemy, one who had caused me many problems in my first year as headmaster of Ragley School.

Stan Coe was one of the wealthiest men in the area and owner of much of the land that surrounded Ragley School. His pig farm provided him with a steady income, but it was well known that it was his other deals that made him rich. He wore his ignorance like a badge of honour and had been a bully all his life. At the end of my first year as headmaster, Stan had been forced to resign as a school governor. However, he was now trying to gain support to become a local councillor and was determined that no one would stand in his way; but that was furthest from my mind when I arrived in the school car park.

Anne’s husband, John Grainger, a tall, bearded man in a thick Arran sweater, was untying sections of a large wooden construction from the roof-rack of his battered Cortina Estate. It looked as though he was unloading a mini garden shed.

‘Morning, John,’ I said. ‘Can I give you a hand?

‘Thanks, Jack – it is a bit awkward,’ said John, as the wind lifted the first piece of framework like a plywood kite.

‘What is it, John?’ I asked. ‘This isn’t quite your style.’

John was a well-known craftsman and woodcarver who turned trees from the local forests at the foot of the Hambleton Hills into hand-carved, solid oak and pine
. Such was the quality of his work, he had a waiting list of over eighteen months.

‘Knocked it together last night, Jack, from a bit of spare softwood and a few sheets of ply,’ he said, lifting another huge wooden section with his large woodcarver’s hands. ‘Anne needed a shop in the corner of her classroom so that the children could practise buying and selling. It could probably do with a lick of paint to brighten it up.’

Once in the classroom, John screwed on the hinges so that the four sides could stand safely and unsupported. One side included a small doorway and the opposite side held a counter.

Anne was delighted. ‘This is perfect, John. Thank you so much,’ she said, quickly filling the shop with empty cardboard packets of cereal, assorted tins, a large price list and a metal money box full of plastic coins and Monopoly banknotes.

Once again, I marvelled at how Anne brought life and excitement into her teaching and I knew I was seeing an infant teacher who made learning fun for her children. The reception children loved coming to school and it was easy to understand why they found Anne’s classroom a journey of discovery. However, marking Class 4’s English comprehension books was, occasionally, a slightly different journey. The first exercise book I opened that morning belonged to Tony Ackroyd. Tony had written, ‘An octopus has six testicles.’

In red ink, I underlined the words ‘six testicles’. A few minutes later, Tony, with a grin on his face, returned with his book.

‘Sorry, Mr Sheffield,’ he said, thrusting his book towards me. ‘Ah know where ah went wrong.’

I looked at his book. Tony had crossed out ‘six’ and changed it to ‘eight’.

Teaching might not be well paid, I thought, with a smile. But it has its compensations.

During morning break I joined Vera, Jo and Sally in the staff-room. Anne was on playground duty. Vera was scanning the local newspaper and studying a large photograph of Virginia Wade, who was consoling a heartbroken Sue Barker following her crushing fifty-five-minute defeat by Chris Evert in the Wightman Cup.

‘What a shame for Sue Barker,’ said Vera. ‘It’s about time she found a nice young man.’

‘That’s just what I need,’ retorted Sally, who frequently complained about the boring life she spent with her husband.

‘What time does
start, please, Vera?’ asked Jo, showing sudden interest in the newspaper. ‘I’m going tonight with Dan.’

‘Oh to be Lois Lane, just for this weekend,’ said Sally. She gave a sigh. ‘Christopher Reeve is gorgeous.’

‘I’ve got my own “Man of Steel”,’ said Jo, with a grin.

‘Lucky you,’ said Sally. ‘Meanwhile, I’m stuck at home with boring Clark Kent.’

‘Oh no,’ said Vera. ‘Look who’s coming up the drive.’

‘It’s Ragley’s Lex Luther,’ said Sally, hastily finishing her coffee. ‘Good luck, Jack.’

I looked out of the staff-room window. A mud-splattered Land Rover I recognized was bouncing up the drive.

Stan Coe never wasted words. He stood in the car park, a thick polo-neck jumper stretched over his huge belly, his wellington boots coated in mud and manure.

‘Ah’ll keep this short,’ he said, his yellow and brown teeth almost grinding in anger. ‘Some money’s gone missin’ from our ’ouse. It were a ten-poun’ note on m’table jus’ inside t’front door an’ it’s been tekken.’

‘Why are you telling me, Mr Coe?’ I asked.

‘’Cause it’s one o’ your kids ’as tekken it!’ he shouted. ‘Name o’ Paxton.’

‘Surely not, Mr Coe,’ I said. ‘l can’t imagine little Molly Paxton taking money. How did she get in your house?’

‘She came in wi’ that great useless lump of a father this morning. ’E came t’price up a job f’me. Told ’im it were daylight robbery and t’sling ’is ’ook. Little girl were just inside t’door. She must ’ave tekken it then.’

I realized that, although his allegation sounded unlikely, I would have to investigate. ‘You had better come into school, Mr Coe,’ I said. ‘And please take your boots off first.’

‘Let’s get on wi’ it, then,’ said Stan, angrily kicking off his wellingtons. ‘Ah’ve already telephoned ’er mother an’ told ’er ah want me money back an’ she says she’s comin’ ’ere. An’ ah’ve called t’police an’ they’re sending someone round.’

Suddenly, this was becoming serious.

‘You should have come to me first, Mr Coe,’ I said.

‘Nay, ah want ’em punished. It’s thievin’ is this. An’ m’next call will be t’newspaper.’

The thought of a case like this in the local
Easington Herald & Pioneer
didn’t bear thinking about.

I left Stan Coe in the entrance hall while I went into the staff-room. Anne and Vera looked up anxiously. Anne, in her usual unflustered style, immediately grasped the situation.

‘Vera, please will you go to the school gate and wait for Mrs Paxton?’ said Anne. ‘When she arrives, bring her in the side entrance to my classroom. I’ll go and find Molly. We need her mother present when we talk to her. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation.’

This seemed to make sense.

‘I’ll take Stan Coe into the office and wait for the police,’ I said.

Minutes later, much to my relief, it was PC Dan Hunter who walked in. I noted his new professional demeanour: he was on duty and it showed.

He took a black ball-point and new-looking notebook from his breast pocket. ‘Now, Mr Coe,’ said Dan, ‘what seems to be the trouble?’

Stan Coe radiated malevolence. ‘Ah want t’report a burglary,’ he said. ‘It’s a den o’ thieves is this school.’

Dan’s expression never flickered. He put down his pen. ‘Perhaps you should be cautious what you’re saying, Mr Coe,’ said Dan politely. ‘Start from the beginning with the facts, please.’

Suitably reprimanded, Stan Coe launched into a graphic account of the events of the morning.

Meanwhile, outside Anne’s classroom, a distressed Mrs Pauline Paxton – who had run all the way from the
Road – was being calmed down by Vera and Anne. Sally and Jo were hovering, anxious to help.

‘Ah knew ah should’ve brought ’er t’school m’self, but my John said ’e was comin’ into t’village so it was no trouble,’ said Mrs Paxton. ‘If ah get me ’ands on that Stanley Coe, ah’ll murder ’im.’

As Mrs Paxton was six feet tall and an ex-South Yorkshire schools discus champion, this threat sounded entirely plausible. It occurred to me that here was a woman who could just possibly beat our own Mrs Critchley in an arm-wrestling contest.

Anne sent Jo out into the playground to find Molly Paxton, while Sally trotted off to the staff-room to make a cup of tea. Anne and Vera took Mrs Paxton to sit down behind Anne’s desk.

In the cold months, the youngest children were allowed to play in Anne’s classroom during the lunch break, so a few were building sand castles in the brightly coloured plastic sand tray. Victoria Alice Dudley-Palmer and Charlotte Ackroyd were playing in the new shop and Dawn Phillips was teaching Terry Earnshaw how to iron a beanbag in the home corner.

Molly, red-faced on such a cold day, rushed in excitedly, blonde curls flying, to see her mother and gave her a big hug.

‘Hello, my little poppet,’ said Mrs Paxton. The anger immediately left her and she looked almost tearful.

‘We’ve gorra new shop,’ said Molly, pointing towards John Grainger’s plywood construction. Victoria Alice Dudley-Palmer was rearranging the empty biscuit tins,
of jelly cubes and a collection of red and yellow beanbags from the PE store.

‘It’s lovely, dear,’ said Mrs Paxton, absent-mindedly untangling Molly’s hair. Then she looked enquiringly at Anne Grainger, who took the lead.

‘Molly,’ said Anne softly, ‘do you remember coming to school with your daddy this morning?’

‘Yes, Mrs Grainger,’ said the bright-eyed Molly.

‘And do you remember stopping at Mr Coe’s farmhouse?’

‘Yes, Mrs Grainger. Ah saw some pigs,’ answered Molly cheerfully.

‘And do you remember seeing any money like this?’ Anne pulled a ten-pound note out of her purse and held it up.

Molly screwed up her little face, thinking hard. ‘Yes, Mrs Grainger,’ said Molly.

Mrs Paxton’s closed her eyes in disbelief.

‘Can you tell me about it?’ asked Anne very gently.

Molly took a big breath. ‘Yes, Mrs Grainger.’

Everyone held their breath.

‘Go on, Molly,’ said Anne. ‘Tell us what you remember.’

‘When Daddy was talking to the shouting man, it blowed away,’ said Molly.

‘What blew away, Molly?’ asked Anne.

‘The money-note,’ she replied, pointing to the ten-pound note.

‘And what happened then?’ Anne asked.

‘I told Daddy,’ said Molly.

‘And what did Daddy say?’ asked Anne.

Molly looked at her mother with wide eyes. ‘He didn’t ’ear ’cause the ’orrible man was shouting at Daddy and Daddy was upset,’ said Molly.

‘So what happened to this money-note, Molly?’

‘It blowed all the way down the path.’

‘And where did it go then?’ prompted Anne.

‘Ah don’t know, Mrs Grainger. But Terry was walkin’ past with ’is brother.’

Anne called across the classroom to Terry. ‘Terry,’ she said, waving the ten-pound note, ‘did you find a money-note like this on your way to school?’

Terry looked up from behind the tiny ironing board and nodded.

‘And what did you do with it?’ asked Anne.

‘Ah spent it, Mrs Grainger.’

Anne sighed. The problem was not going away. ‘And what did you buy with it, Terry?’ she asked.

‘Bee-bag, Mrs Grainger,’ said Terry, pointing to the bean bag on the ironing board.

‘And who sold it to you, Terry?’ asked Anne.

‘Vicky,’ said Terry, and he returned to his ironing, lips pursed in concentration.

Anne looked across the classroom to the shop, where Victoria Alice Dudley-Palmer appeared very much at home playing the part of a shopkeeper. ‘Excuse me, Victoria Alice,’ said Anne politely. ‘Did you sell a bean bag to Terry?’

Victoria Alice had just completed the sale of an empty tube of Smarties to Charlotte Ackroyd for a one-hundred-pound
banknote. Charlotte was insisting she received some change.

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