THE NECK of the boy queuing in front of him was an even grey, speckled with tiny flecks of black. His hair was cut short-back-and-sides, and the grimy neck was clearly visible above the crumpled collar of his dirty shirt.
Billy hopped from foot to foot in the queue. His own feet were filthy, like the neck of the kid in front of him. His socks were filthy too. One night, he had taken off his socks to climb quickly into a freezing bed, and they had stood up by themselves like little lopsided casts of his feet, held together by sweat and dirt.
Right now, Billy was most aware of his scabbed knees. Not the scabs, of course; when you wore short trousers all of the time, and you played rough games outside, your knees were always scabbed.
No, it was the wind that was blowing winter across the playground and up his trouser legs. Billy glanced down at his knees. He wondered if they would turn blue.
His shoes on the old paving stones were round-toed and scuffed where he had kicked shards of broken brick on the common or scrambled through bombed out buildings.
The queue moved forward. Billy wondered why they had made a playground out of stone flags. He felt slightly sick when he remembered tripping up during a game and falling, cracking his head hard on the paving stones. He had felt his brain move in his skull, like tripe slipping on a plate.
“Next,” an adult shouted.
He stepped up into the school, glad to be out of the wind. The corridor was painted in two colours: a dark green below, and a creamy yellow above, with a black stripe between the two. The floor of recently varnished wood reflected the light from an arched window in the high ceiling.
Billy’s heart was racing. The nurse would tug his hair painfully with her fine-toothed comb, but she was at least cheerful and didn’t seem to mind her nickname - “nitty Nora, the hair explorer”. He was not anxious about the nurse, but of what was to come after the nurse.
The boy with the filthy neck went into the store cupboard that had been converted into an examination room. He left the door open, and Billy leaned on the door jamb peeking in. There were blank exercise books on the shelves and two board rubbers still covered in chalk.
Mrs Routledge was deadly with a board rubber. Middle-aged and heavy, she wore glasses on the end of her nose and could hurl a wooden board rubber at a lazy child with a clattering precision that brought everybody to attention.
Her aim, she said, was to hit a desk, cracking wood on wood to make a noise like a ball hitting a cricket bat. Or at least that’s what she had said after she had bloodied Sam’s nose and the headmaster had been called in.
Billy shuddered. His mouth was dry.
The nurse was tugging at his hair now, pulling his head from side to side and examining the contents of the metal comb closely before tapping it noisily into a white, metal bowl.
Billy’s hair had been cut by a comedian. It was a joke Billy’s Dad always made, and it worked because it was true. The barber was a comic who spent his days clipping away at filthy hair with a pair of hand-cranked shears, and his evenings telling filthy jokes in working men’s clubs.
But Billy was still thinking about the headmaster. He was a scary man with shiny, Brylcreamed hair and a brown woollen jacket over his shirt and pullover. He always wore a tie. The kids who played football with him on the recreation ground a long walk away said they liked him, but Billy wasn’t one of those. He thought the headmaster was scary and bad-tempered.
Even so, Billy had been shocked when Mr Weightman had swung Charlie around and around by his hands in the assembly hall and, finally letting him go, had sent him flying across the hall like one of those balls on a rope thrown by strong men in competitions. Charlie had landed hard and then slid across the polished floor on his back before crashing into a pile of stacked chairs that fell around him noisily.
Charlie laid there, sobbing, and Mr Weightman walked out of the hall, his fists clenched. Miss French, the pretty, young teacher Billy had once accidentally and embarrassingly called ‘mam’, saw what had happened from the door and rushed across the hall to pick Charlie up. He was okay. Kids like Charlie were used to being knocked around by adults, it was normal.
Charlie didn’t come to school the next day, or the day after that, and a week passed before news of the ‘inquiry’ emerged.
Charlie’s Dad, a heavy-drinking riveter down at the shipyard not known for keeping his fists to himself, had been angry at the headmaster, some said. Others said he had just spotted an opportunity to try for compensation - and who could blame him? Everybody in this town needed money. Somebody else said Charlie had been injured, that bones had been broken.
Whatever the reason, Charlie’s Dad had levelled an accusation at Mr Weightman, which somebody had turned into an official complaint that had led to an inquiry.
The nurse tapped the stubble on the side of Billy’s head with her hand, affectionately. “You’re okay, Billy,” she said. “This time.”
Back in the corridor, he moved as slowly as he could towards the assembly hall, shuffling his scuffed shoes on the varnished floor.
Charlie was an idiot, he thought. He did things that would wind up a nun, and Mr Weightman certainly wasn’t one of those.
Religious education was compulsory. Nobody wanted to go to the hall and sit cross-legged on the hard floor while a teacher - and there had been several - talked about Moses or Jacob or one of the other boring stories from thousands of years ago. Men with camels and headdresses didn’t seem that relevant to kids whose dads were on short time from the steel mills.
Finally, Mr Weightman had taken over the class, although he didn’t seem happy about it either. Maybe he didn’t even believe in God, Billy thought.
Charlie had been pushing his luck from the start, digging his mates and throwing pieces of rolled up silver paper at the heads of the girls in front. It was when he made a loud farting noise with his hand and his mouth and everybody laughed at once that Mr Weightman called him over.
Charlie was still grinning back at his classmates as he stepped towards the headmaster, and he didn’t really stop grinning when Mr Weightman spoke to him quietly.
Billy knew what would happen. The relationship between children - especially boys - and adults was explosive. Adults demanded respect, whether they deserved it or not; a lack of it usually led to a slap to the head that hurt and could leave the ears ringing for ages.
But Mr Weightman had taken hold of Charlie’s wrists, trying to calm him down, trying to get Charlie to focus on his face, trying to stop him being so … silly.
Charlie had done the worst thing possible then. He had danced sideways as if he were practising a Scottish reel, and - holding him by the wrists - Mr Weightman had been forced to turn circles as the boy danced around him.
The headmaster’s face changed then. He went red. He was breathing differently. He tried to say something but it came out wrong, and then he had just carried on the dance until Charlie had been lifted off the floor and then thrown across it.
Billy was almost at the entrance to the assembly hall.
This was hard, he thought. Charlie was an idiot, but he was also Billy’s friend. He knew Charlie had gone too far. Maybe he had got what he deserved. But if it came to a choice between Charlie and Mr Weightman, what should he do? His Dad had always said ‘stand by your mates, son, through thick and thin’. It seemed like the right thing to do, but then Charlie was such an idiot wasn’t he?
“Come in, son,” a kindly voice said, “come in.”
Billy found himself standing in front of three adults, two men and a woman, all of them wearing long overcoats. The woman wore a hat. There, right next to them, was Mr Weightman.
The man with the kind voice made some introductions. Billy didn’t hear them really, although later he thought he had used the words ‘governor’ and ‘authority’.
“We want to ask you a few questions about something that might have happened in this room,” the kindly voice said.
Billy didn’t say anything. He was looking at his scuffed shoes. The man started: “We have had a complaint …” But Billy wasn’t listening. He was trying to make his mind up about what to say.
And then the man stopped talking and there was a long silence. Billy looked up.
“Did you hear or see anything, then?” the man asked.
Words tumbled out of Billy’s mouth: “I heard a sharp crack when Charlie got thrown to the floor,” he said.
Somebody stifled a laugh that came out as a snort. It was Mr Weightman, but he didn’t sound as if he thought anything was funny.
“A ‘sharp crack’,” Mr Weightman said, laughing again and looking at the other three adults, mocking Billy’s florid language, appealing for adult solidarity.
He was smiling, but his eyes were not. He looked … it took Billy some time to realise it … really scared.
Billy began to panic. Why was Mr Weightman so scared? Would he lose his job? What had he just done? Why had he said what he said?
He looked at the headmaster one last time, and Mr Weightman just nodded and the other adults nodded and smiled and Billy was told he could go.
Outside, in the freezing playground Billy was still trembling. He didn’t know why he had said that thing about the ‘sharp crack’. Had he really heard something? He didn’t know. Maybe he had made it up to help Charlie.
One of the footballers shouldered him as he passed. It was the sort of thing that happened all of the time in the playground, just boys being tough. But this time Billy wondered if they had heard what he had said about the headmaster, and how he had scared Mr Weightman. That night, he ran all the way home.
It was bath night: it happened once every two weeks. He always went in after his two sisters, which annoyed him because he was the middle one. When he complained, his Mam corrected him and said, ‘no, you’re the dirty one’, which was true. People burned coal in this town, and the soot fell in the streets and on to the slag heaps where the kids played and dug in the dirt. The steelworks and coke ovens played their part too. Everything was filthy, even the snow.
The big tin bath was lifted down from its hook in the back yard and placed in front of the black grate in the kitchen where there was a coal fire. Nobody made bread in the grate’s oven anymore, but the fire was useful for heating water, which was poured into the bath in great steaming panfuls.
Billy would sit at the kitchen table with his back to the grate while his older sister and his younger sister got washed, sometimes together, or if his younger sister was being annoying, one after the other, and then they would sit at the table with their back to him while he jumped in. The water was grey with dirt and soap suds by then, and cooling, but Billy didn’t mind - even when his Mam took a nail brush to the ingrained dirt on his ankles, cursing as she scrubbed.
When it was all over, he stood up dripping; a small boy, thin and hairless as an egg, and his Mam draped a warm towel across his shoulders.
By the time he had curled up in a bed covered in old overcoats for extra warmth, he had stopped thinking about the inquiry and Charlie and Mr Weightman. The bath - and the fish and chips his Dad had brought home - had made him sleepy.
It was Saturday tomorrow and he would go to the pictures. He hoped it was a cowboy film - the Lone Ranger or something with John Wayne, where the bad guys dressed in black and the good guys wore shining stars and rode white horses.
The thing about cowboy films, his Dad said, is that you know where you are with a good cowboy film.
And then Billy slept.