Authors: T.M. Alexander
‘Jacket potato, please,’ I said to the dinner lady. It didn’t even sound like my voice.
At the table I could hear my friends talking, but it was like the words had been put through a scrambler because I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
‘Don’t forget to grab a football, like I did.’ Jonno’s voice came through the fog.
I nodded. But I wasn’t going to take a football, was I? No, because I wasn’t leaving the school grounds or helping Jim, I was going to faint. Some time soon.
‘Get going, Keener,’ said Copper Pie. I looked down at my plate. It was empty apart from a few pieces of potato. They looked a bit like snowflakes. I like snow. Sledging is fun, but what I really like is building. I made an igloo last winter. A real one, with snow bricks that I shaped using the garden spade. It stayed frozen for ages after the rest of the snow had disappeared.
Disappear . . . that’s what I needed to do
. I got up.
‘We’ll keep an eye on Callum and Jamie,’ said Fifty.
‘Good luck,’ said Jonno.
‘Same,’ said Fifty. Even though I was about to go, I could tell from Fifty’s face that he didn’t believe I was really going through with it. (He was right, but he didn’t know it yet.) I smiled a plastic smile, and left.
Where shall I faint? Where shall I faint?
I walked towards the entrance hall. Loads of people pass through, including teachers. It seemed a good enough place. I decided to hold my breath. When I was smaller I used to do that a lot (whenever things didn’t go my way, according to Amy) and faint without meaning to. I took a huge breath in.
And would you believe it? Nothing happened. Except eventually I had to breathe out. I must have looked a bit odd, just standing there. I wished I’d had acting classes so I knew how to go floppy. There was the noise of people coming down the stairs.
Just do it,
I thought. So I did. I closed my eyes, bent my knees and wobbled. I was about to let myself drop to the ground when someone poked me in the back.
‘What are you doing, Keener?’
It was Flo. Why does my little sister always turn up when she’s absolutely totally
‘I’m . . . waiting.’
‘Waiting for what?’
‘Waiting for Fifty.’
‘He’s gone in the playground. I saw him.’
There was nothing else for it. I walked towards the door, darted out, grabbed a football, kicked it over the school railings, ran after it, picked it up and then kept on running, with my heart drumming away inside. All the way to Big Jim’s.
I ran in through the gate and banged on the back door.
‘In you come,’ said Big Jim’s big voice.
‘So it’s you today, is it Geeker?’
‘I’m Keener, not Geeker.’
‘Keener, Geeker, I don’t know. “Swot” you’d have been called in my day, or “Encyclopaedia-on-legs”.’ He laughed.
I laughed too, not because it was that funny, but because I’d made it to Jim’s. I had, for the first time in my life, and hopefully the last, left school without permission, also known as truanting or bunking off. It felt quite good.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked.
‘If you don’t mind, I’d like a nice cup of coffee and if you could make me a sandwich, that’ll be grand.’
I filled the kettle and switched it on. Then I went to get a mug off the shelf and realised they were all in the sink. In fact the sink was piled high.
‘Shall I wash up quickly?’
‘That’d be a fine thing. Thank you, Keener.’
While I washed up the stuck-on food and the gooey treacle in the bottom of the mugs, Big Jim talked to me about his school days. He left school when he was fourteen and worked in a solicitor’s office. He used to steal the stamps and sell them half price. He worked in lots of places and then joined the army. I don’t know how old he is but he said he was in the Second World War. Awesome.
I got the bread out. It was a bit hard.
‘Would you rather have toast? I could heat up some beans?’
‘Go ahead. I was never much of a sandwich man but I decided not to let old Robin Redhead near the gas.’ He chuckled. ‘What a boy, he is!’
I poured the water on the coffee and added the milk (there wasn’t much left), stirred the beans and buttered the toast. Big Jim carried on chatting.
‘I had a friend like that Copper Top when I was young. Football mad. No time for books or learning. We raised hell at school. Always up to something, bit like those Tribers.’ He winked at me.
I put everything on a tray and carried it over to him. He rested it on his lap and I sat on the other chair.
‘How are you?’ I asked. Mum always gets us to say that if we ring our aunts or uncles to say thank you for our birthday presents. She says it’s important to show an interest in other people.
‘Not so bad. The wrist’s a bit of a nuisance. Weak as a kitten. But I’m not so sore as I was.’ He shifted in his seat a bit and held his side. I guessed that was where his ribs were bust.
I didn’t know what to say next – I wouldn’t be much good as a nurse – so I asked about the cat.
‘She’ll be along later. Ginger Nut fed her this morning so it’ll be teatime before she comes sniffing.’
When he said ‘time’ I sprang up. I looked at my watch. ‘What time is it?’ You know if you’re really frantic you can’t speak properly or work out what someone else is saying, well I couldn’t tell the time. I could see the clock face and the hands but they didn’t make sense.
‘Nearly half-past one,’ said Big Jim. ‘You’d better be off.’ I already was.
‘Thank you, lad,’ I heard as I ran out of the door, up the side of the house and
straight into Copper Pie’s mum carrying a black bin liner out to the wheelie bin.
We call Copper Pie’s mum Shouty Shouty, because she shouts. (You probably could have worked that out for yourselves.)
‘Keener, what are you doing here?’
There was a pause so large that it couldn’t really be called a pause.
‘I . . . ‘
And another one, about the same size.
‘We . . . ‘
‘Come with me.’ I did what she said. People generally do. I was too late to get back to school before the bell anyway. My whole life was over. I’d be expelled. I’d have to go to school somewhere else. I’d be a new boy, like Jonno was, except no one would make friends with me, because I’m a geek. And the geeks wouldn’t make friends with me because I’d been expelled, so they’d think I was trouble. Mum would be mad. Dad would be
Tribers would forget all about me and let someone else join like Ed or Lily. One day one of them, probably Fifty, would say,’ Do you remember that blond kid we used to know? He didn’t like runny food. And he could remember the number plates on everyone’s cars.’ And the others would all shake their heads, shrug, and carry on being Tribers without me.
TRIBE WITHOUT KEENER
I followed Copper Pie’s mum into the kitchen. She pointed at the chair so I sat in it, while she said something to one of the girls that works for her in the nursery.
‘Come on then, Keener. You know you’re going to have to tell me so we may as well get on with it.’
She was right. So I did. I didn’t look at her, I looked at my knees. But I told her all about Big Jim, and Copper Pie’s promise to look after him, and how we agreed to share the job so there was less chance of getting caught by Callum. I waited for the yelling to start, but it didn’t. So I risked a glance at her face.
Now, I know I’ve known her all my life, but I don’t think I’d ever looked at her properly before. She’s actually got quite a kind face and is even sort of pretty-ish. (Don’t ever tell anyone I said that.)
‘Well, first things first. We need to call the school and tell them you’re not under a bus. I’d run you in but I can’t leave the nursery until Brooke gets back from her lunch break. I don’t suppose your mum’s around?’
It was Thursday. She does a late surgery. I shook my head.
‘Well, you can help me for a bit. And don’t worry, Keener. You meant well.’
It was astonishing. She was being really understanding. She gave me some carrots to peel and chop, and went off to ring the school. When she got back I was dying to ask her what had happened:
Had she spoken to the Head or just Miss Walsh? Did they know I was missing already or had word not spread yet? Had the Tribers told Miss Walsh I’d bunked off because they thought I might be under a bus and wanted her to ring round the hospitals?
I did the cucumber next, and then put the cherry tomatoes in a bowl. I was filling the water jug when Brooke came back. I knew it was Brooke because Copper Pie’s mum said, ‘Hello Brooke’. Then she said, ‘Can you hold the fort for me while I run Keener back to school? I shouldn’t be long.’
‘Of course,’ said Brooke. She hung her coat on the pegs by the door, put on a red apron and took over from me. ‘Bye,’ she said as I left. ‘And good chopping – my carrots are never that tidy.’
Isn’t it funny how you can bunk off and everyone treats you really nicely?
Or should I say, everyone
‘Jump in,’ said Copper Pie’s mum. If you actually jumped into a car, you’d hit your head. I stepped in. ‘The Head’s expecting us, Keener. I want you to tell the truth, the way you told me.’
I wanted to do what she said because she’d been so nice, but knew I couldn’t. I’d be ratting on Copper Pie and Jonno if I told the truth, because they’d bunked off too. But maybe I could say I was the first to go round to Jim’s, then they’d be in the clear.
‘But then —’ I said.
Copper Pie’s mum interrupted me. ‘I know what you’re going to say. But you must tell the truth, even if it means getting your friends in trouble. Even if it means getting my son in trouble. Do you understand?’
I did. Stupid, stupid me! If only I hadn’t done the washing-up, or bothered with the beans on toast, I’d have been back in plenty of time. By not hurrying, I’d dropped everyone else in it. What was I thinking? I’d acted as though I’d dropped round for afternoon tea, when I should have been like a German in the Second World War racing to do just enough to keep the Jewish friend in the attic safe and well,
getting caught by the Nazis.
We walked in and went straight to the Head’s office, a place I’ve seen too much of lately. It was pretty full already. There was Miss Walsh, the four Tribers, Marco, Ed and Lily.
What was going on?
The Tribers looked a bit confused too. They were probably wondering what I was doing arriving back at school with Copper Pie’s mum. Copper Pie’s face was more than confused. He looked terrified, which was understandable.
Your mum and the Head in a room together – not ideal.
‘Keener! You’re all right.’ What exactly was Bee expecting? Me on a stretcher? Me, but with some vital bits missing?
I nodded. I was fine. It was her who didn’t look right.
IS IT A STROKE?
ace – is it dnoopinq on one side?
rms – can the person raise both their arms?
peech – is it dcirred?
ime – to call 999
‘Are you all right?’
She pointed at her lopsided mouth. It looked like she’d had a stroke. (Did you see the FAST ads on the telly? I remembered it all just in case.)
‘Dentist,’ she said, in a lispy, saliva-y voice, complete with dribble. That explained it.
‘Hello,’ said Copper Pie’s mum. ‘Here he is.’ She pushed me in front of her.
‘So, we find ourselves here again, Keener. How much time do you think the Tribers have spent in this room over the summer term?’
There isn’t an answer to a question like that.
‘The answer is too much,’ said the Head.
Or maybe there is.
Bee butted in. ‘But we were only trying —’
‘Thank you, Bee. I’ve already heard your version of the story. And as much as it is commendable to want to help someone in need, leaving school without permission is not the way to do it.’
Bee shut up.
I could understand why the Tribers had been dragged up to see the Head. I mean, we were all in it together, and Bee had obviously filled in the details (which was good because it meant I didn’t have to), but why were Ed and Lily and Marco there too?
‘Keener, you have caused quite a commotion this afternoon. You are fortunate in that so many people seem to be concerned about your welfare, and that they had the common sense to report your absence.’ I couldn’t bear the not knowing any more. I interrupted.
‘What are they all doing here?’
‘We’re making sure you’re not minced under the wheels of a pick-up,’ said Ed.
‘We were worried,’ added Lily.’ When you weren’t there at afternoon registration Bee whispered to me about the bunking off. I told Ed and he told Marco. When Miss Walsh went off to find out if you were with the nurse, we decided we had to tell someone.’ She looked across at Ed. ‘The Tribers were trying to think of a way to find you without admitting the truth but . . . ‘
Her voice trailed off.
‘You did the right thing coming to me, Lily,’ said the Head. ‘And you Ed, and you Marco.’
That cleared things up. I never realised I was so popular. The only thing left to clear up was the punishment.
‘Right, you’ve all seen that Keener is safe and well so, Miss Walsh, could you please escort your pupils back to the class and salvage what remains of the afternoon’s lessons.’ We must have all looked a bit surprised to be let off so easily, but she hadn’t finished. ‘I shall consider what action to take when I have spoken to the parents concerned. Thank you.’
The Head turned to look at Copper Pie’s mum. ‘Perhaps we could have a word now?’