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Chapter 18: Late
“Luke Walker.” Mr Flanagan looked up from the register. “Luke Walker,” he said again.
Luke still hadn’t gotten used to catching the bus to school. He didn’t like rushing but he also didn’t like getting up early, and one or the other was now necessary. Graywood Comprehensive began its day at an uncivilised 8.30 am. What was even worse was that everyone was supposed to be on the premises ten minutes before that. The school bus, therefore, arrived at Gingham village square at 8 am every weekday morning and thirty two eager minds were supposed to meet it there. It was rare that all of them did. Luke, for one, would have preferred to make the two and a half mile journey by bike, but Mum said no because the roads were dangerous at that time of day. Then he thought he might walk, but when Dad told him he’d have to leave home at quarter past seven he was forced to reconsider and accept his fate on the noisy, smelly, crowded bus. The biggest problem with buses was that they amplified lateness. Luke had always had trouble getting out of bed but he’d found that if he hurried his breakfast, didn’t have a wash, and cut through the vicar’s garden instead of going the long way round, he was rarely late for school. That wasn’t possible any more. If he was just one minute late for the bus, he would be an hour late for school.
On Monday his form tutor, Mr Flanagan, told him that, from now on, every time he was late he would be forced to stay late at the end of the day. This motivated him more than anything else had to make sure he was on time. Luke had things to do after school, he couldn’t afford to get stuck there. So, for the first time ever, he decided to use the alarm clock Auntie Jane bought him for his last birthday. He set it for 5.30am.
It was cold and dark on Tuesday morning when Luke was rudely provoked into consciousness. He reached for the alarm but couldn’t find the off button so he pulled it under the covers and held it tight in an attempt to mute the noise. After a few very long seconds of fumbling he found the off switch and relaxed again. He closed his eyes and started to drift back to sleep. Luckily Dudley, who had also heard the alarm, started scratching at his bedroom door. Luke opened his eyes again and forced himself to sit up. He was determined not to stay late at school today. He had plans to watch Unacknowledged with Joe on Janet’s computer while Janet was at Judo. Janet only went to Judo on Tuesdays and by next Tuesday Joe’s free trial of Netflix would have expired. It had to be today. Luke had to be on time.
He dragged himself out of bed feeling very hard done by. It was true that he often missed the bus but he was rarely late for school. There was usually some friend of Mum’s, or some mum of a friend, who took pity on him and offered him a lift as he hurried on foot lugging his heavy book bag. So on average he wasn’t late to school more than twice a week.
By the time the rest of the family came down to breakfast, he was rinsing his cereal bowl in the sink.
“My goodness,” said Dad, looking out the kitchen window.
“What?” asked Luke, “what are you lookin’ at?”
“The flying pigs,” said Dad.
“Oh ha ha,” said Luke sarcastically, “you’re so funny!”
“Groan,” said Jared, “that’s such a dad joke.”
Mum walked in and headed straight for the pantry. “Who wants toast?”
“Sorry Jared, what was that?”
“Oh, and me, thanks love,” said Dad.
“Okay. Luke? Toast?”
“No thanks,” he said, turning to leave the kitchen, “I’ve finished my breakfast.”
“Well,” said Mum, pausing absorb the moment, “I never thought I’d see the day! My youngest son, all dressed and breakfasted before seven. What’s the special occasion?”
“Nothing,” said Luke, “just wanted to walk to school.”
Mum nodded slowly. “Or, … you could walk Dudley before school for me and then catch the bus as usual. I’ve got a lot on today,” she appealed with a smile, putting her hands together as if in prayer.
Luke tilted his head back and looked blankly at the ceiling. “Alright,” he said begrudgingly, “I’ll catch the bus, as usual!”
A few minutes later, Luke and Dudley were en route to the allotments to see Curly and Squirt. It was cold. The scarcity of light before sunrise made it feel even colder but when they got there they were eagerly welcomed by mother and son. Luke reached into his pocket for the expected treats. He let his friends choose who had which. Squirt snatched the carrot before his mother got a look in but that was okay because Curly liked parsnips. Little Squirt had learned not to hesitate when it came to accepting treats because Dudley was rather partial to carrots too. In this instance, Dudley was compensated for his lack of carrot by the tasty piece of cardboard which had fluttered from pocket to ground, unnoticed by Luke, when he pulled out the sheep’s treats.
Luke let Dudley off the lead while he went to the big shed. He refilled the nets with alfalfa hay and cleaned up the muck before laying down a thick bed of clean straw. Then he went back outside to check on the water trough. As expected, it had frozen over. He looked for the trowel they used to break the ice. Mum had done it yesterday. Where had she put it? Luke looked at his watch: 7.35. It would take ten minutes to get back home and another five to return to the bus stop so he didn’t have much time. He looked under the tarpaulins at the back of the shed; he looked in the old wooden chest under the tarpaulins. Where was it? He didn’t have time for this! He went back outside and scanned the area. Hurrying around the whole of his plot, he looked under shrubs and behind the wood pile. Nothing. He tried without success to break the ice with his elbow and then rushed over to his dad’s plot, maybe she’d left it there. Finally, he found it. She’d stuck it into the ground behind the coiled hose. He tugged on it but it wouldn’t move. The ground was frozen and the trowel was stuck.
“Great,” thought Luke, “thanks Mum!” Then he had an idea. The tap to which the hose was connected had its pipe lagged. With any luck it hadn’t frozen. He attempted to turn it on. The cold metal hurt his hand but he tried as hard as he could to twist it. It was stuck. He looked at his watch again: 7.46. He pulled his hand into his thick coat sleeve and tried again. The padding helped. The tap started to give and then, finally, there was running water. He wet the earth around the trowel to soften it, turned off the tap, agitated the trowel back and forth until it came free and then ran back to the water trough. With all his strength he hacked into the thick ice and broke it into floating chunks. As fast as he could he tossed the chunks over to Dad’s plot so that they wouldn’t re-join. Luke’s gloved hands were wet and stinging with cold. Curly and Squirt ambled over for a drink. The trough was half empty now. Would that be enough water for them for today? Maybe not. But he didn’t have time to refill it. He’d tell Mum to do it. No, Mum said she was going to be out all day. She’d probably left already. He ran back to the tap, turned it on and directed the hose at the trough. It took two minutes to fill. Finally, everything was done. Luke unfastened the gate.
“Dudley,” he called, “c’m ‘ere boy, quick!” Dudley was so busy playing with Squirt that he didn’t notice he was being summoned. Luke made his voice deep and stern. “Dud-ley!”
Dudley looked over at Luke, thought for a moment, and then resumed his game. Luke growled. He re-fastened the gate and ran after his dog. Dudley and Squirt were very happy Luke had decided to join them and ran ahead of him around the shed, wagging their tails and shouting with joy. After three circuits of the shed and one sudden and uncomfortable slip to the ground, Luke changed tactics. He went into the shed where Curly was enjoying the hay.
“Alright Curly?” he asked as he gently stroked her back. She turned to nuzzle her nose against his hand briefly before resuming her meal. In less than a minute, Dudley and Squirt put their heads around the door, wondering if they could get some of whatever Curly was getting. Luke smiled and put his hand in his pocket. The playmates hurried over for whatever he’d got for them and Luke clipped the lead to Dudley’s collar before they realised their mistake. They got over their disappointment easily while Luke, with a quick goodbye over his shoulder, ran with Dudley all the way home.
It was gone eight when he passed the bus stop which was still crowded with people. There was still hope. Luke stopped to catch his breath and Dudley took the opportunity to sniff for evidence of interlopers on the grass verge.
“Come on Dudley!” Luke chivvied, and the two of them pushed themselves to the limit. As soon as they got home, Dudley headed back to bed for a well-earned rest and Luke envied him. When he rushed back down the hill, slowed only slightly by his heavy school bag, he was relieved to see the bus had still not arrived. It pulled up just as he crossed the road to join the back of the queue. Ten past eight. Not bad considering. Sweating and out of breath, Luke undid his coat and took off his scarf as the queue moved forward. Passengers raced up the stairs and threw themselves onto the seats, making the bus sway. With just a couple of people now ahead of him, Luke put his hand in his pocket for his bus pass. Not there. He checked his other pocket. No. He checked his back pocket, he checked his coat pockets. Nothing. He looked up to meet the driver’s weary gaze.
“I can’t find my bus pass,” he confessed.
“I can’t let you on then,” returned the driver.
“I have got a bus pass,” Luke explained, “I am s’posed to be on this bus. I’ve just lost it.”
“You’ll have to get a new one then won’t you?”
“Yeah,” said Luke, relieved, and climbed aboard.
“Not without a bus pass. Step down please.”
“But I’ll be late!”
“So you will. Not my problem. Get. Off.”
He stepped off the bus and looked up just in time to see Joe peering down at him from the top deck asking inaudibly what was going on. When the bus pulled away Luke felt like going home to bed. Why not? he thought. After all, he’d made every effort to catch the bus; it wasn’t his fault the driver was unreasonable. If he went to school now he’d be in trouble for being late whereas if he called in sick he could avoid that and have a day in bed. It was very tempting. However, today was woodwork and he didn’t want to miss that. It was the final day for working on his toolbox. Next week they’d got to start making picture frames. His toolbox was brilliant. He already had a padlock for it. It would fit his walkie talkies, the wire cutters he’d bought with his Christmas gift voucher and Jared’s Swiss Army knife for which he was currently in negotiations. With obvious effort, Luke hitched up his heavy rucksack and set off at a brisk pace. It was quarter past eight. If someone gave him a lift, he might still make it before the bell.
As he walked past the village shops, the pub, the cemetery and the allotments, he noticed that there was an unusual amount of traffic coming through the village, but his hoped-for offer of a lift didn’t materialise. Normally, since the dual carriageway had been built, the only vehicles entering the village belonged to residents or delivery vans. It was quicker now for drivers to bypass Gingham if they were headed anywhere else. But as Luke approached the northern edge of the village it was clear that today, for some reason, the main road was closed. Not only cars but vans, lorries, even ambulances, were taking the slower route, too fast, through the village. It was noisy and smelly. Luke kept walking.
When he crossed the boundary into the adjacent town he saw, across the road, a horse, tethered on the grass verge. She recoiled every time a vehicle rushed past her and if it was something big like a lorry she tugged and pulled at her reins, trying desperately to get away. She was tied to a wooden fence on the other side of the grass verge. She had no room to retreat from the traffic and was in considerable distress. Luke, no longer caring how late he was, crossed the road towards her at the first opportunity.
“Easy girl, easy,” he spoke soothingly in an effort to calm her and carefully took hold of the reins under her chin. Thanks to a brief lull in traffic she calmed and watched Luke as he smilingly whispered these same words to her over and over. He rested the heel of his left hand between her nostrils and softly stroked her beautiful nose. The next few passing cars were considerate, giving the horse a wide berth and driving slowly. Now that she was more relaxed, Luke took the opportunity to drop his bag to the floor and rummage in it for his apple. When he turned to look back up at her he was startled by a huge lorry that came out of nowhere. The horse panicked again, pulling her head up and back, trying desperately to free herself. Luke knew he had to get her away from the road. On the other side of the fence was a meadow. No crops, no animals. She would be much happier in there. Luke unbolted the gate and pushed it wide open. Then he stood with the mare, stroking her and talking to her to keep her calm while he waited for the traffic to die down again. Once he was sure she was calm, he untied her from the fence and encouraged her to come with him. Happy to move away from the road she followed him into the field.
“This is better isn’t it?” he smiled, “you’re safe from the traffic in here. The grass is short but there’s plenty of it. Oh, and there’s this,” he offered her his apple and she took it eagerly.
As the traffic built up again Luke was relieved to see that she remained relaxed. When she’d finished the apple, she bent her head to the grass at her feet and grazed comfortably. In this position her reigns dragged on the floor so Luke was worried she might trip on them. Best to take them off, he thought. He gently unfastened all the straps and lifted the bridle over her ears. She dropped the bit from her mouth and was free. Luke disposed of the tack over the fence, out of harm’s way. Now she looked happy and so was he.
He wondered how someone could just abandon her on the side of the road.
“I should think of a name for you,” said Luke, “erm, how about Cocoa? Yeah, that suits you.” He realised he was going to have to come up with a very persuasive argument to get his parents to let him keep her. Then again, maybe that wasn’t the best idea because she’d be lonely without another horse to keep her company. A better idea would be to ask the horse sanctuary to take her. The one that Isabel had told him about. Yes. Then she would have friends.
Just as Luke was deciding that he couldn’t possibly go to school now, a car pulled up at the gate.
“What are you doing?” said an angry man.
“What are you doing?” returned Luke.
“Did you move my horse?”
“She’s your horse?” asked Luke, “you should look after her better! She don’t like it by the road!”
The man slammed his car door and climbed over the fence. “I know she doesn’t like it,” he said angrily, “that’s why I tied her there, so she can get used to it!”
“Why does she have to get used to it?” asked Luke, equally angry.
“I’m training her to pull a buggy,” said the man, “and if she’s easily spooked by traffic she could get us both killed!”
“You shun’t make her pull the buggy then!” said Luke, stating the obvious, “you shun’t make ‘er do anything she don’t wanna do!”
The man was livid. “Shouldn’t you be in school? What have you done with her bridle?”
“Don’t you tie her up again, that’s illegal!” said Luke, desperately, “an’ I should know, coz me mum and dad are police!”
“Yeah, an’ they just arrested someone last week for leavin’ his horse tied up by the road!”
“What? That’s ridiculous!”
“Oh, is it?” said Luke with increasing confidence, “I’d have to disagree with you on that coz it happened. They arrested him on charges of ….. bad animal welfare.”
“The Animal Welfare Act?”
“Yes!” said Luke, thankful for the help. “The Animal Welfare Act makes it illegal to tie horses by the road because they don’t like it and it’s cruel!”
“I would never …!” the man was offended. “I have always taken exemplary care of my horses,” said the man, a little quieter, “I’ve done this training many times and none of them have ever been hurt.”
“Well, I wun’t do it again if I were you,” said Luke, “coz they’re crackin’ down.”
The man was uncertain whether to believe him but the boy seemed confident of his information. He decided to test him. “What police force do your parents work for?”
“Belton,” said Luke without hesitation.
“What are their badge numbers?”
“My mum’s is 2357, and my dad’s is 111317.” Mrs Cassidy was right, it is important to remember the prime numbers.
“I’ll check,” threatened the man.
“D’you wanna borra a pencil?” asked Luke.
The man shook his head and commenced retrieval of the bridle. “Stupid law!” he grumbled, “how am I supposed to train her now?”
“Well, I mean, who’d look after ‘er if you got arrested?”
The man didn’t answer, he just put her bridle back on.
“Has she got any friends?” Luke asked, sad that she wouldn’t be able to go to the horse sanctuary.
“I’ve got two other horses,” said the man, which was something of a relief.
“Bye Cocoa,” said Luke as the man led her into his trailer.
Luke watched wistfully as his new friend departed before his mind was brought sharply back into focus by the sight of his school bag on the ground. He looked at his watch. It was 9.25. The bell had gone almost an hour ago and his plight seemed hopeless. School was still half an hour away. Hopefully that was enough time for him to think of something.
He walked briskly, coming up with ideas and then dismissing them almost immediately. When he was just ten minutes away he was annoyed by a plastic carrier bag in the hedge.
“Flamin’ litter bugs!” he said with disgust, “I am sick an’ tired of clearin’ up other people’s mess!” He yanked the bag angrily from its roost and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he had an idea. A good one. He smiled. No need to worry. He wouldn’t have to stay after school today.
Twenty five minutes later Luke entered the school gates and made his way directly to the Deputy Head’s office. The Deputy Head, Mr Paxton, had been a teacher at Graywood Comp for over thirty years. He’d been there when Mum was there. She remembered him. According to her he was just as horrible in her day. He was one of those teachers who sorely missed corporal punishment. Inflicting it, not receiving it. He told them that every time someone talked in Assembly. Another important thing to note about Mr Paxton was his bad memory. He was always forgetting things – even things that had only just happened half an hour earlier – and he was very embarrassed about it. He seemed to think it would show weakness if he admitted his lapses so he never did. He always pretended to remember, even when it was obvious he didn’t. Luke knocked on his door.
Luke entered with a carrier bag full of litter. “I’ve done it sir,” he said.
“Done what?” Mr Paxton scowled.
“Picked up the litter.”
Mr Paxton had no idea what Luke was talking about but, assuming he must have forgotten, he faked understanding. “Ahh, good!” he said gruffly, “and I hope you’ve learned your lesson!”
“Yes sir,” said Luke.
“Alright, go on with you, get to class!”
“But sir, ….” said Luke with feigned timidity.
“What? What now?”
“Well, you said you’d write me a note for Mr Flanagan. To explain why I was late.”
“Ahh, yes, quite right, I did,” said Paxton, almost remembering it himself. “Quite right,” he said again as he began to scrawl a brief explanation for Luke’s form tutor. “And your name? Come on come on, a thousand kids in this school and they expect me to remember all their names!”
“Yes, of course,” he said, finishing the note. “Here you go – now get to class!”
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