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Walnut Wisdom: Episode 8

Alan, a young boy evacuated from the city to live on a farm during wartime, spends his first day at the village school.

To read earlier episodes of Arthur Loosley's engaging novel please click on Walnut Wisdom in the menu on this page.

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'Eternal Father, strong to save, whose arm hath bound the restless wave . . .'

A dozen young voices, male and female, aged between about seven and ten years, rang through the schoolroom on a dull October morning. Alan looked around him to see if he could recognize any of their faces. There was only one - a girl of about his own age with ginger hair hanging in ringlets. She had called at the farm a couple of times to buy eggs. He did not know her name, but she seemed all right - for a girl.

The teacher, Mrs Cooper, was at the piano, leading the singing at the top of her voice.

The words of the hymn reminded Alan of his grandmother's order to the family to stop having sugar in their tea, to spare the lives of the brave seamen who had to bring it over to England in ships. He smiled as he remembered the way she had talked of them being 'drownded', and he silently recited the line 'No shipwrecks and nobody drownded, and nothing to laugh at, at all' on a record he had played so many times on the family's wind-up gramophone that he could now recite the whole tale.

'Oh. Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.'

Alan was still grinning when the singing came to an end and he noticed that Mrs Cooper was looking straight at him.

'What is so funny about this hymn?' she asked, sternly.

All heads turned in his direction. He could feel his face becoming flushed. This was a bad start to a new life in a new school.

Mrs Cooper did not persist in asking for an explanation but addressed the whole class.

'Alan is new here,' she told them, 'so let us all show him that we are all good friends, and please will you all help him to get used to our ways.'

Her calm voice reminded him of Old Matey. She was the second grown-up he had met who could manage to speak without shouting and scolding. Perhaps this was the way they did things in the country.

Mrs Cooper moved away from the piano and mounted her little platform at the front of the class, not very high but enough to show everybody that she was in charge, and made a solemn announcement.

'I don't need to remind you that we are at war,' she said, 'and we are all in danger if we do not take proper precautions, so we will have an emergency drill some time today. I hope you have all brought your masks with you.'

Alan suddenly realized that he was in trouble after all. He had not brought his gas mask although he knew he should, but the smell of that horrible black rubber made him feel ill, even in its little cardboard box. Nervously, he raised his hand and asked 'Please, Miss, can I go back for it now?'

'Of course you can, and must,' the teacher replied, still with that kind and gentle voice, 'and by the way, it is "may I", not "can I". Off you go, and don't be too long about it.'

He needed no second bidding. He had made two mistakes already this morning and he had got away with both of them! This was really weird. But his feeling of well-being changed abruptly when he arrived back at the farmhouse, where his mother greeted him in her customary manner.

'If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times . . .' she yelled, thrusting the box into Alan's hand. 'You can get locked up, you know, and they'll blame me, too!' He didn't wait to hear any more but ran straight back to school.

Mrs Cooper called him over to her desk as soon as he arrived. 'Don't cry,' she told him, we all make mistakes.' She then read to the class, another episode from a book that she had apparently been reading to them for several weeks. It was about some men on a boating holiday, and had most of the class in fits of giggles. Alan couldn't follow the story because he had missed too much of it already, but was delighted when the teacher kindly offered to lend him a copy of the book to take home with him so that he could catch up.

That was something else new to Alan. Books were not welcome at the family home in Adley Green, where the only reading that went on was his mother with her pile of tattered back numbers of Woman's Own and his father chuckling over the cartoon strips in the Daily Mirror. Alan did own one book however - a pocket-sized illustrated volume of British Trees, bought for him by Uncle Bob, his favourite uncle and a very special friend of both his parents. That would come in handy now that he was living in the country.

There were also shelves of books at the farm. Perhaps Old Matey would allow him to read some of them, but so far he had not found the courage to ask.

By now it was time for the mid-morning break and the ginger haired girl walked round the desks, pouring milk from a white enamel jug into yellow mugs. Alan didn't like milk, but drank it anyway, rather than risk being out of step yet again. Then it was play-time, and they all trooped outside. The girl set about washing the mugs in a bucket of cold water under a pump in the corner of the yard, and looked up and smiled when she saw him. He offered to help and she was happy to accept, and said she would do the same for him if he wished, when it was his turn to be milk monitor.

Her name, she told him, was Angelina, and she lived just a little way down the lane, by the footpath leading behind the orchard. Alan knew this already because he had seen her from his vantage point when playing on the old cart. Perhaps she would like to come round to the farm one day and join him there; maybe even sit on Old Matey's bench, now that he was its official guardian. It would be nice to have a friend, but he was too shy to ask. Not now, anyway.

Break time over, Mrs Cooper blew her whistle to summon the children back indoors but before continuing with the lessons she announced that the school would be closed after lunch today because she had an important meeting elsewhere, but she would be back for lessons at the usual time tomorrow. A small cheer went up when they heard this, but Mrs Cooper did not share their happiness. Alan thought she looked rather sad and probably was not looking forward to the meeting.

They spent the rest of the morning occupied with a craft lesson, using various scraps of card, empty packets and blue sugar paper.

'Who can tell me why it's called "sugar paper"? she asked the class, but received no reply.

'Well then,' she said, 'that is something you can do this afternoon - ask around and see if you can find out'. She then held up a circular box of waxed cardboard that had held those little soft cheese triangles and told them to ask their parents to save any empties because they would be needed for another next craft project. Then it was time to go home for lunch and an unexpected half-day off. Alan knew he was going to enjoy this school, as long as he could keep out of trouble. Half-way across the yard on his way out he remembered something and turned back. Mrs Cooper was standing in the doorway, smiling patiently.

'Are you looking for these?' she enquired, handing him his gas mask and the precious book. Alan thanked her and smiled politely but was careful not to grin when he realized that she, too, had been forgetful and had not held the gas mask drill she had warned them about. Some grown-ups were human after all, fortunately.

Arthur Loosley

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