Tony doesn’t decide to go to school, that’s just where his feet take him. The class has already garbled morning prayer, sung the time table and moved onto arithmetic. Mrs Thompson stands, a solid figure, in front of the blackboard, white chalk in hand when he trails into the classroom.
‘You’re drookit,’ Pizza Face says, sniggering. Everybody laughs, even the quieter pupils in the back desks join in when they work out it’s safe enough, and Mrs Thompson won’t punish them.
‘What time do you call this?’ Mrs Thompson asks, her tone neutral.
‘Dunno,’ Tony shrugs and looks up at her, as if she’s not there, or he doesn’t care, and that raises a few titters from his classmates, which Mrs Thompson silences with a look.
‘Well, perhaps I’ll need to help you remember.’ She places the chalk in a dusty groove at the foot of the blackboard, lodging it beside a stub of broken-off blue and a dab of pink chalk. Her hands slap together, white dust motes sparkling the air. She tilts her shoulder, stepping with sensible shoes, into the gap between blackboard and her desk. The tawse is kept in her desk drawer and she pulls it out. A nervous excitement charges around the class.
‘Put your hands up,’ she tells Tony, steps delicately in front of the blackboard and stands taller and broader by flinging her shoulders back.
He knows the procedure. Elbows in, arms straight out, one hand resting on top of the other, the meat of the hand showing and fingers extended. The problem of whether to tuck in the thumb in with the other finger, or spread it out, away from the hand and risk it taking the full brunt of the leather strap if a teacher misjudges the distance is a matter of choice. One thing is agreed on in the playground, the belt is much sorer when hands are cold as his are.
Two hard cracks of the tawse, Tony’s top hand shuffles, replacing his bottom hand, and two further cracks of the belt, leaves both hands stinging and he shoves them under his oxters to melt. He shuffles over to his desk and Pizza Face glances over, his face sympathetic, but waiting to see if his pal burst out greeting, when he takes the empty seat next to him.
Mrs Thompson resumes the lesson. On the blackboard she has marked out a long-division problem, in a stepwise fashion with 12 on the first step and 1456 sheltering under the chalk box.
‘Perhaps you would be kind enough to assist us Anthony?’ She holds out a piece of white chalk for him to take.
Tony slides from his seat and stands in front of the blackboard, chalk in hand, very small and very pale, looking at his feet. Usually, he would be able to work it out quite easily, but his head is abuzz as if white mice have crawled in and chewed out the wiring of his brain.
‘Well,’ Mrs Thompson says, waiting, pressing him with her bulky presence eating into him, until he lifts his eyes to the blackboard, then to her face and his shoulders droop. ‘What is the first thing we do, when we have long division?’ she asks in a monotone voice.
Pizza Face’s eyes narrow to mirrored cracks. ‘121.333,’ he says softly, with timidity not usually associated with his outbursts.
‘What?’ Mrs Thompson asks Pizza Face. The classroom silent as fifty odd children try and work out what has happened.
‘121.333. That’s the answer.’ Pizza Face grins at Mrs Thompson, some of his cocky assurance returned.
Mrs Thompson takes the chalk from Tony’s hand. On the blackboard she goes through the routine steps and the answer 121.333 appears on the top line. A murmuring comes from the back of the class, which she turns to address as the school bell goes for morning playtime. Desk drawers open and bang shut as workbooks and in a blur blue jotters, pencils and rubbers disappear, but Mrs Thompson holds her hand up flat, a sign to pause such activity. She scratches at the nape of her neck, where her hair meets blouse and chafes her skin, before pointing an accusing finger at Pizza Face, ‘You boy, out here,’ and turns towards Tony, whom she seems to have temporarily forgotten, ‘And you boy as well, stick your hands up and out.’ Her eyes swivel around the class, outside the noise of kids in the playground rises up, but she reaches for the drawer and the tawse and her voice rises up louder, ‘if anybody else wants to join them?’ She pauses, gauging the quality of silence.
Pizza Face stands beside Tony, his hands raises and grins at his pal, and sniggers, giving him courage.
Outside in the playground, with their coats on and the rain coming needling down horizontal, Pizza Face playfully punches Tony’s shoulder and pushes him towards the run-down hut used for toilets, where older lads congregate to have a fly cigarette, push and shove each other towards the stink of toilet stalls and take turns looking out for the janny. ‘She’s fuckin’shite at the belt,’ he says and starts laughing. ‘I could take about six aff her and I wouldnae even blink.’
‘Aye,’ says Tony. And wonders when is the best time to tell him about his da. At first he follows on behind his pal’s assured step, but then he stops. Turns his head, as if listening.
‘Where you goin’?’ he hears Pizza Face shouting as he weaves past some kids jumping and splashing in and out of a puddle and runs towards the school gates. Maybe my da will be home now, he thinks, waiting for me, because I’ve not done anything wrong. I’ve been a good boy. He’ll be wondering where I am. It always seems to him quicker coming home than going somewhere.
When he charges up the stairs in his close, he glances through the window out into the back courts. Angela beats a broken branch against the bin lids, her back to him with her hood up. He doesn’t chap the window or wait for he to turn round, because he has no time to wait. He hurries upstairs. The key in the lock and the door opening takes too long. But when he steps into the lobby the house tastes empty and he has all the time in the world to wait.