Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks (6 page)

‘Of course, but I’m afraid it will have to be quick as I left the nursery short-handed.’

‘Let’s get on, then. Goodbye children.’

We left the Head with Shouty Shouty (who needs a new nickname, like Nicey Nicey).

The Lull
Before the Storm

I trailed after the others, and shut the door. The punishment was obviously going to come later. We just had to wait it out. I didn’t know how I felt, but however I felt, at least I knew we were all in it together. If I’d had to pretend I was the only truant I’d have felt a whole lot worse, that’s for sure.

‘What happened, Keener?’ I ignored Fifty’s whisper. Walking along behind a frosty-looking Miss Walsh wasn’t the best time to talk about how I got caught bunking off. He said it again, only louder.

‘Fifty, I’m sure he’ll tell you all about it later, and hopefully he might add how sorry he is to have caused all this fuss. As the Head said, we’ve wasted quite enough of the afternoon already.’ Miss Walsh wasn’t in a good mood. And in future, not even the very tip of a toenail of a member of 6W will scrape outside the school gates in school hours. Understood?’ I had a picture in my head of us all dressed in Egyptian clothes, wearing brown leather sandals with long yellow toenails scraping the ground in front of us. And that thought reminded me of something else.

THE WORLD RECORD FOR THE LONGEST FINGERNAILS

(That should be renamed the world record for the most revolting thing ever.)

Shridhar Chillah, from India, grew the nails on his left hand for fifty years. They were brown and knotty-looking, like tree roots, and they twisted and curled. If I touched one, I’d have to wash my hands ten times in super-biological germ powder and never eat anything with my hands ever again. They weighed so much that his hand was damaged and eventually he had to have the nails cut off. He did it to be famous, but he ended up deaf in his left ear from the strain it put on that side, and he couldn’t use his hand any more. That’s totally stupid. And a complete waste of his life.

An equally mad American lady grew the nails on both her hands. They also looked hideous, but at least they were clean.

If I was going to get a world record I’d choose one that didn’t ruin my life, like eating the most cream crackers or spending the most time in a hammock.

I sat in class, listening to Miss Walsh going on. No one did anything wrong, which made a change. Alice kept her hand down. Jamie kept his mouth shut. I think everyone knew Miss Walsh was ready to blow. It probably wasn’t that great to be the teacher of the class that was always in trouble.

Eventually, after the longest lesson ever, it was time for afternoon break. We rushed to the patch, them desperate to hear what had happened to me, me desperate to find out what they thought was going to happen to us, Copper Pie desperate to know what it all had to do with his mum.

The conversation went like this:

Copper Pie: How come you came back with my mum?

Bee: Did she catch you at Jim’s?

Jonno: We were really, really worried.

Fifty: Thought you’d been run over. You know, flattened.

Bee: We didn’t want to tell.

Jonno: There wasn’t any other way. Ed and Lily were right.

Fifty: I thought you were dead. Squashed. Like a hedgehog.

Bee: But not as prickly.

Jonno: And better at surfing.

Copper Pie: How come you came back with my mum?

(My turn at last.)

Keener: I ran straight into your mum when I left Big Jim’s. She was putting the bin out.

Copper Pie: No way! She never leaves the house in the day. Never. (He kicked the tree as he said that.) So unlucky!

Bee: Did she shout at you?

Copper Pie: Of course she did. That’s all she does.

Keener: No. She didn’t shout. She was nice. She let me make the snacks for the nursery kids.

Copper Pie: Are we talking about my mum here?

(I nodded.)

Jonno: Why didn’t she bring you back right away?

Fifty: Same. Then we wouldn’t have had to imagine you flat, complete with tyre marks.

Keener: She couldn’t leave until one of the other nursery people got back from lunch. I didn’t exactly mind. I wasn’t in a hurry to find out what was going to happen to me.

Fifty: What
is
going to happen?

(A long silence. Too long to be called a pause. They seemed to be happening a lot.)

Copper Pie:I’ll get shouted at by Mum, and she’ll ban me from the telly or something else I like. And the Head’ll make me sit outside her room again, probably till Leavers’ Week. (He looked glum.)

Keener: My mum won’t believe it. And when she realises I really did bunk off, she’ll . . . I don’t know what she’ll do. I’ve never been in the sort of trouble your mum gets to hear about. (I looked glum.)

Jonno: I think my mum and dad might be OK about it. I mean, it depends how you look at it. If you look at it through Big Jim’s eyes, we did the right thing.

Fifty: Do you think they’ll tell
our
mums? (He was talking to Bee. They were the only two that hadn’t bunked off.)

Bee: The Head said ‘the parents concerned’. That might mean ours too, I’m not sure. But we might have to tell them anyway. (Fifty’s face didn’t seem to agree.)

Fifty: Why?

Bee: Well, we’ve got to stop bunking off. So the problem that started all this is still there – Big Jim. If we can’t help him, we’ve got to find someone who can, before they call the hospital police, or whoever’s waiting to take him away.

Keener: He’s not our problem any more. Not now Copper Pie’s mum knows.

(Copper Pie made an I’ve-just-realised-something-important face. That’s a rare thing.)

Copper Pie: I reckon that’s why she didn’t shout at you, Keener. She feels guilty. (He smiled.) Maybe I won’t get banned after all. Maybe I’ll get thanked!

Bee: Mums are one thing we’ll just have to deal with. I’m not worried about that, I’m worried about school. The Head won’t leave it, she’ll be cooking up some way to make us suffer.

At exactly that moment the Head’s head appeared out of the door. The Head’s head scanned the playground and settled on us. The Head’s head focused, by narrowing its eyes, and then zoomed in.

‘In my office after school, please. The five of you.’

The Head’s head zoomed out, turned about, and disappeared.

‘Let’s not go,’ said Copper Pie.

‘Same. Let’s catch a bus and then a train and then a taxi and then a ferry . . .’ said Fifty.

I knew he was joking. That sentence is out of a picture book Fifty used to keep in his desk when we were in the infants. It was about a boy going to stay with his grandad for the very first time. Fifty liked the pictures. (I quite liked them too but I pretended to like the digger book the other boys were mad about.)

Bee was thinking, I think. She had her mouth shut anyway. Finally she said, ‘Let’s go and say that unless the Head helps us look after Jim, we’ll keep bunking off.’

‘You are a lunatic,’ I said. ‘Firstly, that’s blackmail. Secondly, the Head can’t look after a stranger just because he happens to live next door to someone in one of her Year 6 classes – she has to look after the school. Big Jim is not her job.’

‘It’s not anyone’s job. That’s the point. So unless someone makes it their job, Big Jim will probably die.’ Bee can be a drama queen.

We joined the line to troop back into school. Flo was at the back of her queue and as she went past she said, ‘Keener, Jack said you bunked off. I said you’d never bunk off because you’re a scaredy-cat.’

I looked at my sickly little sister with her yellow hair and pink lips (she was wearing Amy’s lip balm with a rosy tint again – strictly not allowed).

‘So I bunked off. Who cares?’

If I’d had a camera on my phone I’d have had the best picture ever. Her bottom lip fell so far away from her top one that I could see all the lumps where the bottom of her teeth were stuck into her jaw.

‘I’m telling Mum.’

What did it matter? She’d know soon enough.

The
Storm

We all stood in a line opposite the Head, who was sitting at her desk. She said, ‘I have a problem on my hands.’ Copper Pie looked down at her hands.
What an idiot!
‘You are, as I’ve said before, not irresponsible children, in the main. Yet you insist on repeatedly flouting the rules. And this time, you have pushed me too far. To leave the school without permission not only puts you in danger, but shows the school to be failing in its duty of care to your parents to look after your safety whilst you are in its care. Do you understand?’

Of course we did. We’re not in Reception. I nodded.

‘Yes,’ said Bee.

‘But my problem is not how to deal with this affair, as much as how to let the rest of the
school
know that this behaviour will not be tolerated, for I understand word has got around that the “Tribers” have been leaving school in the day. This may be seen as a reason to look up to you, to want to be like you.’
The other kids want to be like me!
What a great thought. Trying to stop myself grinning made the corners of my mouth hurt, so I gave in and grinned behind my hand. ‘I cannot have you seen as heroes by the younger and more impressionable children in this school. So, I need you to help me show the rest of the school that breaking the rules is never the answer, even if breaking the rules helps someone else.’

‘Excuse me,’ said Bee,’ but how are we going to do that?’

‘I was coming to that, Bee. Every spare minute you have tomorrow will be spent sitting outside my office. That means before school – if you are here before the bell, morning break, lunch break and afternoon break. This will allow plenty of time for the other children to see what happens to those who are not good citizens of the school, and it will also allow me to keep an eye on your whereabouts. And Jonno, in the circumstances, I don’t think we will need you on the Leavers’ Week Committee after all.’

Hardly an imaginative punishment. But at least we weren’t suspended and Leavers’ Week is rubbish anyway. Trust the Head to bring up the ‘citizenship’ thing. It’s her latest fad. I looked around at the rest of the Tribers to see if they thought the same.

Oh no!
I could see Bee was getting ready to blurt something out. Her lips were pressed tightly together as though they were trying to block the words that her brain was trying to push out. They came out anyway.’ I don’t see that what we did means we
aren’t
good citizens. I think it means we
are
good citizens. We helped someone who needed help. That’s kind.’

Shut up, Bee!
Why does she always have to say what she thinks is right. Why can’t she just pretend to agree out loud and disagree inside? That’s what I do.

Bee didn’t shut up. She carried on. ‘Citizenship means getting on with everyone, being kind, helping out, stuff like that.’

‘And it also means respect for yourself, your fellow pupils, your teachers and the rules of the school. You should
not
have broken the rule about leaving school grounds, and I will not have you answer me back, Beatrice.’ The Head was livid. Her face was bluey-red and the veins in her forehead were bulging out, like snakes crawling down out of her hair Medusa-style. I was quite frightened. I didn’t want the Head to be my enemy, Tribe’s enemy.

We left her office, me first.

Jonno said ‘Thank you’ as he left. Wish I’d thought of that.

‘One more thing.’ The Head’s voice stopped us all dead. ‘Be very clear, this is not a school that will allow its reputation to be damaged by a group of children who think they know best. This is not a school that will allow truancy. And if you think being a Tribe gives you the right to do as you please, then be warned, there will be no Tribe at this school.’

It was just like Neville Chamberlain’s speech all over again. The Head was threatening to declare herself at war with Tribe.

Reputations
at Stake

I walked out of school to find my mum and Flo waiting, which was odd because usually they go home in the car and I walk home with my friends. Actually, it was even odder than that, because it was Thursday, which is Mum’s late night at the surgery so it should have been Amy picking Flo up, not Mum at all. But in a way none of it was odd, because my mum had obviously found out that her hard-working, honest boy was in fact a truant, and that explained her change of plans. (I was so angry about the Head saying Tribe was damaging the reputation of the school that for a minute I’d forgotten about my own reputation.)

‘I’ve had a call from the Head. I think you’d better come in the car with me, don’t you?’ Mum said.

Fifty, Copper Pie, Bee and Jonno all melted away, leaving me on my own.

I nodded. ‘Yes, Mum.’

Flo started to ask questions but for once Mum shut her up. ‘Flo, this is something that your brother and I need to sort out on our own, thank you.’

Flo made an ugly face. I preferred it to her normal one. It suited her personality.

At home we had a snack (cheese scones and apple juice) that we ate in complete silence. I had trouble swallowing the scone so I washed small pieces ofit down with gulps of juice to stop it getting stuck. Eating when you’re nervous is a dangerous activity.

‘Flo, can you go and watch CBBC while I have a chat with your brother?’ I wanted to go with my sister. I wanted to be little again and for
Clifford the Big Red Dog
to be my favourite programme.

Flo walked ever so slowly towards the living room, looked back and smirked at me. Mum saw, and shut the door on her, leaving the two of us. I am so rarely in trouble (although it happens much more now I’m a Triber than it ever did before), that I didn’t know what to do with my face, or my hands, or whether to stand up or stay sitting where I was. Mum sat down next to me, so that sorted out one question.

‘I think you’d better tell me all about it.’ Mum put her hands on the table, pressed together like she was praying. I did the same with mine. It wasn’t that comfortable but I thought it made me look sorry. Mum looked sorry and she hadn’t even done anything.

I took a deep breath and started at the beginning and finished at the end. I didn’t leave anything out, not even the bit where I tried to faint. I reckoned the more Mum knew about how much I didn’t want to do it, the quicker she’d forgive me.

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