The school Alex went to was quite a small and old building, with grass growing high around the thick wooden stumps it sat on. On this particular day a strong wind was blowing, throwing sharp drops of rain against the peeling paint of the weatherboards and the rattly old windows. Alex looked out of the classroom, to the coast. He longed for the bell which would release him to the beach where he could walk freely in the dunes or on the flats.
Mrs. Wolfowitz shook her head, then said, “Alex, the class is in here.”
Some other boys laughed softly and looked at each other grinningly.
“Yes Miss,” said Alex, taking up his pencil and looking up at the board. It was a history class, which was one of the more interesting subjects taught at Winton Primary. Still, Alex was stuck between the wooden desk and chair, which gave him a particular peculiar feeling he could never get used to. He sat and waited, doing his best to keep his eyes on the tiny black letters and his mind away from the open expanses beyond the school’s fence.
Before too long the bell had rung and Mrs. Wolfowitz was reminding children about their homework. By then the rain was falling much harder, the wind had strengthened and it was getting even colder.
As Alex came out the door Emma was waiting for her mother under the front awning of the school.
“Alex! You’re not walking home in this weather are you?” she said.
“You bet I am!” said Alex.
Emma laughed. “Come on, wait a bit. Mum’s going to be here shortly. She likes you, you know!
Alex smiled, and said, “all right then, thanks.”
Emma was one of the most beautiful things Alex had seen. She had a round face and shining hair, and was very kind. He imagined that years later they would be married, living quietly far out of town in a house built of stone, wood and mud, hidden in a forest on the side of a hill. He always wanted to tell her all about it, but he thought he’d better wait until he was sure she liked him too.
“It’s getting cold,” said Alex, “don’t you have a jumper?”
“I’m all right.” Said Emma. “You should be worried about yourself!”
The pair leant against the railing, trying to squeeze as far as they could from the rain.
“It’s nice, this weather, isn’t it?” Alex said.
Emma laughed. “You don’t talk much, and when you do, it’s the weather or something!”
Alex shrugged and smiled and looked at Emma’s twinkling eyes. “What else is there?”
“But actually,” said Emma, “I don’t mind it, as long as I’m not stuck in it, waiting for my mum.”
“Oh yes, that would be awful!” said Alex with a laugh.
The rain fell on and on while Alex and Emma waited and waited. Soon it was quite dark, as heavy clouds hung in the sky and the sun behind them was almost beneath the horizon.
“You don’t talk much,” said Emma.
“You said that before!” said Alex.
“I don’t know where mum is, maybe we should use the phone inside.”
Just as Emma was speaking a police car pulled up outside the school. Two grim faces had a good look at the children before one of the officers opened the door and walked slowly through the gate. It struck Alex as quite strange that he would be walking so slowly in such weather, without even an umbrella.
The officer stopped on the steps leading up to the awning. “Emma Hobson?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Emma, “that’s me.”
The police man looked away to the side, but said “there’s been an accident, and your mother’s been taken to the hospital in Durra. Can you please come with us to your uncle’s?”
Emma looked at Alex with wide eyes, and stammered something he couldn’t make out.
“Is Mrs. Hobson all right?” Alex asked the officer.
“I can’t say,” the officer said, adding hastily, “I’m sure she’s doing very well though.” He tipped his head forward. “Regardless, we need you out of this cold young lady.”
“Bye Alex,” Emma whispered, looking back as she walked slowly down the steps.
Alex watched her walk behind the officer from the steps to the gate, but then Emma turned around without warning and ran straight back to Alex, throwing her arms right around him.
“Alex!” she cried into his neck,” don’t forget me!”
As the car drove away, and Alex began his long walk home in the dark, beside the crashing waves, Alex wondered why she had said it.
Years later, another cold wind blew in from the sea. Alex, quite a bit taller, but still only ten, sat in the corner as the class did their work. A chill flew in the window and circled the room, ruffling paper as it went. Feeling it, Alex remembered the warmth of Emma crying into his neck.
“Alex!” said Mr. Thomas. “Have you finished already?”
A few boys chuckled and exchanged sly smirks.
“Not yet, sir,” said Alex, quietly.
“Have you stared?”
“Uh,” Alex began, but before he could start he was interrupted.
“You needn’t bother, I supposed. Carry on.”
Mr. Thomas was not as nice as Mrs. Wolfowitz or Mr. Jameson. In fact he was greatly feared by everyone in the class, except a few boys and one girl who, Alex joked to himself, might be paid by him like henchmen. Those were Daniel Peterson, Billy Gudry, Liam Horwit and Nicole Lambert.
Behind the school another building had been built by Nicole’s father to sell sweets and pies to the children. Mrs. Lambert operated the canteen with the help of Mrs. Horwit, Liam’s mother. Alex liked the sweets, and often asked his father for money to buy them, like the other kids. But there never was more than a few cents spare and Alex was lucky if he had a few a week.
On this day, as on most others, Alex sat on the wooden bench under the classroom window. From that place, he couldn’t really see most of the other children, who played around the canteen, throwing sweets into their mouths.
As he ate his lunch, Liam and Nicole walked up. Alex grimaced inside, knowing that he had to be careful not to get hurt, or repeat the mistakes of last time, mistakes that had got him into a lot of trouble.
“Alex, what’re you eating, an air sandwich?” Liam said, looking to Nicole for support, as if she were his teacher.
“Don’t be stupid, Liam. It’s not a sandwich, it’s just bread!” said Nicole.
“Why not have make it a sandwich then?” Liam snatched Alex’s bread tore a pocket in it, picked up a handful of dusty dirt from the ground and let it run through his fingers into the pocket. Then he gave it back to Alex and patted him on the head. Alex was still. He didn’t move. Anything he said, he knew from experience, would be pointless, and only serve in the bullies’ interest. He knew that he wasn’t half as clever as either of them – and neither did he want to be, if being clever meant being cruel, which it often seemed to.
“Well, aren’t you going to eat it?” said Nicole, “a sandwich is worth much more than measly plain bread, you know. Doesn’t your dad teach you about value? Mine does. ”
“I’m not hungry,” said Alex, putting the bread beside him on the bench.
Liam laughed meanly and started to walk off, but Nicole grabbed his arm.
“Alex, you know that you’re the stupidest kid in the class, don’t you.”
“No,” said Alex, “I’m not!”
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Nicole said to Liam.
“Like what?” said Liam.
“Make him eat it, idiot!”
Liam picked up the bread and shoved it into Alex’s mouth. Alex started coughing.
“Eat it!” said Nicole.
Suddenly, Liam stepped back, with blood dripping from a cut on his mouth. “You little prick!” he said.
Nicole ran off, screaming, “Mrs. Gudry! Mr. Thomas!”
When they found Liam he was in very bad shape, with cuts and bruises all over his head. But Alex was nowhere to be seen. In fact he was far from the school, when he himself realized he was running along the cliff top, more than half way home. Feeling the burn in his legs and the noticing how short breath was coming, he slowed to a walk, and then collapsed onto his back on the soft long grass. The cooling wind enveloped him.