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Chapter 15: Luke Walker and the school play
“I am here today …”
“I am here tonight to warn you, that you ‘ave yet a chance and hope of escapin’ my fate. A chance and hope of my procturin’, Ebenezer.”
“of my procuring.”
“Of my procurin’ Ebenezer.”
“You were always a good friend to me, thank’ee!”
“You will be haunted by three spirits.”
“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?”
“I—I think I’d rather not.”
“Without the visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls One.”
“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Jacob?”
“Don’t move that, it’s mine!”
“Luke! It’s your line.”
“Expect the second on the next night … hey! Leave it I said!”
“That’s my bag!”
“She’s only putting it in the cloakroom, it’s in the way out here, someone might trip over it.”
“Can we please finish this scene! Go from ‘Couldn’t I take ’em all at once’.”
Butler pulled a face at Luke who reciprocated.
“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once and have it over Jacob?”
“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
Ms Robinson breathed a sigh of relief.
“Okay, that’ll do. Well done for getting the lines memorised both of you, but try to put a bit more feeling into it. Simon, remember you’re really scared, and Luke, don’t forget to rattle your chains and try to make your voice sound more ominous.”
“I don’t think Luke knows what ominous means,” he said with a smirk.
“Yes I do!” Luke replied indignantly.
Ms Robinson elaborated.
“Try to sound menacing, sinister. Make your voice deeper if you can.”
“I knew what you meant!” Luke lied, flashing Butler his most withering scowl.
“Okay Luke, take a break,” said Ms Robinson, “Simon, get in position for scene 3. First Spirit – where are you?”
Luke went to the cloakroom to find his bag. He didn’t trust anyone else with it – there was important stuff inside. He was relieved to find it safe on his peg, looking as though it hadn’t been tampered with. He confirmed this with the retrieval and measurement of his gobstopper – it was the same size it had been an hour and a half earlier when he’d put it in the zip pocket. He put the large sweet back into his mouth, took an orange plastic chair from the stack in the corner, and sat down to read his book. It wasn’t really his book, he’d borrowed it from the library, but it was so good that he thought he’d get his own copy if he got any book tokens for Christmas. The funny thing was, if Mr Beardsley hadn’t given them the book report assignment, he might never have picked it up. Its cover, a boring photograph of a corn field with a mountain behind it, would not normally have caught his attention, but its title – The Sustainability Secret – was intriguing. The word ‘secret’ had made him think of spies, secret agents, action and adventure, so he’d put the book on his ‘maybe’ pile and checked it out. He checked out seven books that day and after first trying and giving up on the other six, he decided, unequivocally, that The Sustainability Secret would be the subject of his book report. It turned out not to be about spies or secret agents but it was engrossing. He read it, and re-read it, every chance he got. Even when he was supposed to be watching rehearsals.
Participation in the school play had annoyingly failed to get him out of lessons because rehearsals were scheduled for after school and at weekends. On top of that Luke had had to spend an enormous amount of his free time learning his lines. Well, not an enormous amount, but some. As it turned out Luke was very good at memorising lines. Not only his own but those of everyone else in the scene. This was a very valuable skill to have and he determined to put it to more productive use in future. For example, there were lots of important facts in The Sustainability Secret that he wanted to commit to memory. A lot of it was scientific stuff which was harder to memorise but he wrote things down, over and over, until they stuck.
“Good Heaven! I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!”
Butler’s voice could really carry.
Finding it difficult to concentrate, Luke closed his book and put it away.
“If they’ve on’y jus’ got to ‘I was a boy here’ it’s gonna be ages ’til I’m on again.”
He considered popping out to see Curly and Squirt but since time passed quicker when not at school he knew it was too risky. If he missed his cue again everyone would moan at him. He decided instead to hang out in the classroom. Pupils weren’t really allowed in the classrooms without adult supervision, not since the “mindless vandalism” of class 6, but Luke felt that since he wasn’t a mindless vandal, the rule didn’t apply to him. The chairs were turned upside down on the desks; the bins were empty and the paint pots were washed up and stacked on the draining board. Everything except Mr Beardsley’s desk was swept and dusted and tidy.
Mr Beardsley’s desk was always a mess – he said it was the only way he knew where to find anything. Luke decided to see if there was anything worth finding. There were post-it notes, pencils, pens, two coffee mugs, a pencil sharpener, a stopwatch, a calculator – a calculator?!
“One rule for them, another rule for us!” thought Luke.
There were two piles of exercise books – blue maths ones and yellow history ones. Luke sought out his own for a sneak preview of his grades.
“He hasn’t even marked ’em yet!” he grumbled, exasperated, “what’s the point of makin’ us hand ’em in on Friday if you’re not gonna mark ’em ’til next week?!”
There was nothing else of interest on top of the desk so Luke tried the drawer. It was unlocked.
“Aha!” He lifted out a large hardback diary, “let’s see what you’re gonna make us do next week.”
He dropped the dog-eared book onto the desk and opened it to the first week of December.
Monday was left blank so Luke, cleverly imitating Mr Beardsley’s handwriting, wrote:
On the Tuesday page was a barely legible scribble which seemed promising:
The Wednesday page foretold a spelling test and a fire drill.
The Thursday page confirmed what Luke already knew: there would be a full dress rehearsal of the Christmas concert in front of the rest of the school and the senior citizens from the village. He smiled, knowing that meant no lessons.
The Friday page contained a still more glorious statement:
“Yo ho there! Ebenezer!”
Luke flinched at Kenny’s very loud portrayal of Fezziwig and knocked over one of the mugs which was still a quarter full of cold coffee. Thankfully, his reflexes were second to none and in slamming the diary shut he ensured the rest of the desk stayed more or less dry. He carefully placed the book back where he’d found it and rejoined his fellow Thespians.
“Will you check on Curly ‘n’ Squirt for me after school?” Luke asked Joe on Monday afternoon as the credits rolled at the end of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
“Yeah, why? Another rehearsal?”
“Yeah. I’ll be glad when it’s over an’ done with.”
“Not long now.”
“Thank goodness!” said Luke with relief, “I think it was a mean trick them tellin’ us we can be in the play without tellin’ us we wunt be doin’ the practices in lesson time.”
“It was,” Joe agreed, having had to give up a lot of his own free time to paint the scenery.
Mr Beardsley switched on the lights and clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.
“Wakey wakey everybody, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. It’s nearly half past three, so let me just remind you to bring your Christmas shopping money tomorrow. Full school uniform is compulsory – we don’t want to lose anybody.”
The bell rang loud and long, precipitating a riot of excited voices and chair legs scraping the floor.
“Exit quietly please,” he requested, “see you tomorrow.”
“I haven’t got any money,” said Joe to Luke confidentially.
“Me neither,” Luke replied, “but that doesn’t matter. It’ll still be good to get out of school for a few hours.”
Luke and Joe went their separate ways.
Luke made himself comfortable in the middle of the row of chairs at the back of the hall. He put his bag on the chair to his left, his coat on the chair to his right and his feet on the chair in front of him. He took out his reading book and his notebook, popped his gobstopper back in his mouth and, keeping one ear open for the approach of his cue, read.
“Your reclamation, then. Take heed! Rise and walk with me!”
After reading page 78 he wrote:
After re-reading page 69 he wrote:
“Remove me! I cannot bear it!”
“I told you these were the shadows of the things that have been. That they are what they are do not blame me!”
After reading page 80 he wrote:
“… but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Luke swiftly returned his books and his gobstopper to his bag and hurried to stage left. It was time for the Third Spirit.
At ten forty-five on Tuesday morning, Luke and Joe climbed aboard the school minibus and grabbed two of the back seats. Tania and Isabel grabbed the other two.
“This should be good,” said Isabel.
“Yeah, I need to get something for my mum and something for my grandad,” Tania replied.
“Is that all?” Isabel was impressed, “I’ve still got to do all mine.”
The engine started.
“Okay everybody,” Thomas shouted from the front, “seatbelts on. Off we go!”
Luke and Joe pulled their lunch boxes out of their bags. Isabel laughed.
“We’ll be there in ten minutes,” she said, “you shouldn’t spoil your appetites – I bet there’ll be some delicious Christmas food at the market.”
“Nah, we’d rather eat now,” said Luke as he bit into his blueberry muffin.
Tania looked over at their lunches and it reminded her of something she’d been meaning to tell them.
“Thomas is a veggie.”
“Is he?” said Joe.
“I think so. I saw Mrs Tebbut offer him one of her homemade mince pies yesterday and he asked if they had vegetable suet in them. She said she wasn’t sure so he said no thank you.”
“He’s cool,” said Luke approvingly.
“Yeah,” Joe agreed, “it’s good he works in our class and dint stay with Ms Robinson.”
The Christmas market was really crowded. It stretched the whole length of Fish Street which had been closed to traffic. Mr Beardsley told everyone to make sure they were always in sight of himself or Thomas. They were not to go off anywhere by themselves.
There was a Christmas tree at the car park end of the street, huge and covered in twinkling white lights. Next to it the Salvation Army band played Christmas carols and the whole atmosphere was happy and festive. The first stall sold reindeer food at a pound a bag, for anyone who wanted to leave a treat for Santa’s friends on Christmas Eve.
At the second stall, if you weren’t short of cash, you could buy a hand-calved Buddha.
The third stall looked more fun – they were selling robots playing snooker. Luke thought he wanted one but forgot about it as soon as he saw the bird whistles on the next stall. He’d always wanted to be able to communicate with birds.
The fifth stall sold snake-length marshmallows; the sixth sold Turkish Delight; the seventh had models of owls and elephants in jars; the eighth sold rock crystal lamps; the ninth had reindeer-shaped planters. Before long the market lost its charm for two boys with no money.
“Let’s go over there,” Luke suggested, pointing to an empty bandstand on the lawn behind the stalls.
“Mr Beardsley said we’re s’posed to stay in sight,” said Joe.
“We will be,” Luke assured him, “we’ll be able to see everybody from up there.”
The boys squeezed between the chocolate scissors stall and the cannabis incense stall and climbed onto the raised platform of the bandstand. They sat comfortably with their feet dangling and tucked into their sandwiches while they watched the merry throng.
“This is good,” said Luke smiling, “I don’t mind shoppin’ if I don’t have to actually shop.”
By the time they’d finished their lunches their classmates were out of sight and Joe felt they should try to catch up. Luke disagreed.
“No, we might get lost. We should wait coz they’ll have to come back this way. Look, I can see the minibus from here.”
“That’s not our minibus. Ours doesn’t have a green stripe down the side.”
“Doesn’t it?” said Luke, a little thrown. “Oh, well, they’ll still have to come back this way. I think we should wait.”
They only had to wait for another quarter of an hour before they saw a couple of familiar faces. Tania and Isabel were hurrying across the lawn towards them.
“There you are!” said Isabel, gasping for breath.
“Luke! – You’ve got to come! They’re selling reindeer skins!” said Tania.
“And reindeer burgers!”
Luke and Joe, crestfallen, climbed down from the bandstand and followed the girls to the far end of Fish Street, where all the food stalls were. Luke was sad but not surprised to see what looked like hundreds of people eager to indulge in deep fried flesh foods, jostling to hold their positions in the queues.
“Say something!” Tania implored.
“What d’you want me to say?” Luke asked.
“Tell them they’re despicable to kill reindeer! Tell them it’s sick to sell reindeer burgers at Christmas!”
In addition to the stalls selling reindeer, there was one selling inferno cheddar (cheese laced with chillies); another was selling turkey sausages spiced with chilli and paprika; another was using a cute-looking model pig to sell pork scratchings.
“You can tell ’em that if you want,” Luke said, loud enough to be heard by anyone who wanted to listen, “an’ I agree with you, but it won’t do any good. Not while there’s so many stupid people who want to buy this stuff.”
“Who’s stupid?” said a large man in the spicy sausage queue.
“You lot,” said Luke unapologetically, “all you lot in these queues.”
“Is that right?” he said slowly, turning to face Luke with eyes narrowed.
Tania and Isabel blushed and took a step back. Joe looked at his feet. Luke didn’t move.
“Yeah,” said Luke, “Don’t you think it’s stupid to pay for somethin’ what’s killin’ the planet?”
A few more people turned to listen. Luke went on.
“Well, I call it stupid coz animal farmin’ kills the sea and the rainforests and makes more greenhouse gases than cars an’ planes an’ all transport put together!”
“Says who?” asked the man sceptically.
“Said the United Nations. Over ten years ago.” He paused briefly to let them absorb it before concluding. “Yeah, it’s pretty stupid to spend your money on killin’ the planet you live on. You’re killin’ yourselves. An’ your children. An’ your children’s children.”
Luke was surprised and disappointed to get almost no reaction to his shocking revelation, but he didn’t give up. He had more.
“An’ I should say it’s pretty stupid to let people starve coz you paid for their food to be given to seventy billion farm animals, just so you can eat meat an’ cheese. Yeah, anyone who pays for that is pretty stupid alright. And selfish.”
The large man laughed stupidly.
“But it tastes so good!” he scoffed and turned back to wait for his sausage.
In the silence before the conversational hubbub rose again, three or four people walked away from the food stalls. Luke turned back to Tania and Isabel.
“See, there’s no point tellin’ people they’re horrible for sellin’ horrible things. They don’t care. They’ll sell anythin’ if people’ll pay ’em for it. It’s the people what pay for it who make it happen. If they didn’t buy it, no one would sell it.”
The girls nodded. Isabel looked guiltily at the half-eaten bag of pork scratchings in her hand and quickly tossed it in the bin. All four children walked back to the bandstand to look out for the rest of their class returning to the minibus. When they were back in their seats on the bus, Tania made a declaration.
“I’m going to make an early new year’s resolution,” she paused for effect before announcing, “I’m going vegan!”
“Me too,” said Isabel, smiling.
Luke looked wonderingly at Joe. Joe nodded.
“D’you want to join our secret society?” they asked.
“Good Spirit, your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
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