Prove it

Prove it – a short story

A childhood friend falls to one side.

Had there been a photograph at the head of the column, it would have shown a fresh-faced boy with a round mop of black hair above a round, plump face, a face with plump, round cheeks that looked as if they had been painted red.  Beneath the small, round nose, the top lip rose steeply upwards then fell back across the face.  The lower lip rose upwards then turned outwards.  Behind the lips lay the teeth.  They were thin and fine, but when you first met Lionel they remained out of sight.

The sentence was six months, for burglary.  The newspaper lay crumpled on a friend’s table.  It was nine months since we had all parted company, since we had left school.  Since then, the glory and wonder of leaving at last, of the long summer holiday and then the job and the business of work and new friends, all that had swept us into our later teenage years.  What had happened to Lionel?

There had been an inkling, the previous October, just as that last long summer slipped away.  The same friend, who lived near Lionel, had rung.  He had met some old classmates of ours; they had stayed in the sixth-form.  Lionel had been seen back in school one day, prowling the corridors.  When the bell had rung for the end of lessons, the howls of outrage from the changing rooms could be heard all round the main building.  Someone had systematically emptied the pockets of thirty pairs of trousers that had been left hanging there while their owners had been out on the sports field.  One of them remembered seeing the familiar figure of Lionel in school, then realised that he had no longer any business there.

It would not have been difficult for him.  He knew the routines, the times of lessons, the places to avoid and the ways in and out of the school what were not overlooked, the routes we had used when there had been opportunities to leave early.  He knew that it was a place of trust, that doors were seldom shut and rarely locked.

The police had caught up with him in the high street within half an hour of the alarm being raised.  All that was found in his possession was cash.  When challenged, apparently, he had said, “Sure, I took it, but you prove it.”  He was cautioned.

When we had met as first-years, as eleven year-olds, we became good friends.  An hour’s bus ride, seven miles and a change on the way did not prevent frequent visits to each other’s homes.  In my parents’ large garden there was room to play outside and be occupied with bonfires and tree houses.  In his father’s home, closer to London, it was the large loft-space and the enormous spread of Trix model railways that was the attraction.  His mother lived, separately, nearby.  I never met her.

I could not believe how lucky he was.  Whenever I could persuade him, we played with the model railway that filled the attic of his father’s substantial house.  But play with it was all we could do, turning the dials to send the noisy tin models racing around the roof timbers amongst the dust and the darkness.  We could not model it – someone else had assembled it all and set it up to run whenever a childish hand set it in motion.  I never saw Lionel’s father up there – it was as if the lavish provision was sufficient to excuse him, busy elsewhere.

For a year or so at senior school, we lived out our childhoods, still playing imaginary games.  Then, as we completed our first year, there came adolescence and demands that we take some responsibility for ourselves.  Gone now were the assurances and comfort of being in a junior school.

As it happened, neither of us was prepared, “to strive for excellence.”  We survived on our wits, but as I learnt to challenge authority, in ways which all good teachers tacitly encourage, Lionel could not bring himself to join in this game with adults.  My quotations from Shakespeare would be contrived, pointed our as such and my attempt to fool the teacher mocked.  I accepted this as part of the risk attached to an idler’s approach to the study of literature.  Lionel could see no point in trying to trick teachers; his empty page and silent shrugging of his shoulders troubled our teachers more, I suspect, because they provided no handles to seize, because they kept the teachers away from whatever it was that made him tick.

I will never forget the Spanish verb, saltar.  It means, “to jump.”  Our Spanish teacher wanted me to demonstrate.

“Salta en la silla,“ he said [Jump up on the chair.] and he waved his hands enthusiastically to encourage movement on my part.  I understood that I was to get up on the chair and did so with all the dignity that a fourteen year-old schoolboy could muster – what do you want to trouble me for with this puerile demonstration?

I was in error.  I was to get down from the chair, an old-fashioned wooden chair, solid seat and sturdy wooden legs.  Then I had to repeat the performance – more adolescent reluctance to behave like a performing poodle, and I slouched up onto the chair.  Again, I had failed.

This time the words of instruction did not change, but the arm movements that accompanied the instructions were far more emphatic.  The penny dropped – I was to jump up onto the chair.  The clarity of all this cleared the way for action; if I was to leap, I would leap wholeheartedly, just as my teacher wished.  I leapt so high that I had time to consider the nature of my landing as I soared above the chair – I had received no instructions in this regard.  Having leapt energetically, I saw no reason not to land in a similar fashion; it was a very hard landing.  The chair was completely demolished and fell in two halves, one on either side of me.  I had done exactly as I had been told.  I smiled, a modest smile, the class roared and the teacher joined in the laughter.

About this time Lionel was confronted with his weekly report book; it was worse than mine.  He did not throw it at the teacher, but he slapped it down very hard onto his desk, glared at the teacher, and turned away.  As he turned, I saw into his eyes and, for the first time I noticed his teeth.  Why, I wondered, why was he so very angry?

Then things began to vanish from desks, small things at first, hardly noticed, coloured pencils – not everyone had complete sets in those days – then fountain pens, bottles of ink, note pads.  We accused one another without much care about retrieving them, but then we became aware that Lionel was no longer part of our group and resented the suggestion that he had taken things.  Finally, we knew that he was responsible and he turned away from us.  Because I had been a close friend in the early days, things fell to me.

“Why don’t you just put it back?  No one’ll say anything.”
“But they’ll think I did it – especially if they reappear now.”
“They know you did it – it couldn’t have been anyone else.”
“How do you know?”
“If it wasn’t you, who could it have been?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.  It wasn’t me, got it?”
“Look – it’s no big deal.  We all know you took it; why don’t you just put it back?”

For a second I thought he had turned away to think before he spoke again, but before I had had time to reflect further, he had grabbed the collar of my jacket and pulled my face down, level with his.  I was so surprised that I offered no resistance and watched his face, fascinated; its colour and shape were unchanged but the mouth was now black and his voice forced its way past the fine teeth.

“So what if I took it?  What’s it to you?  A bloody purse and a couple of bob.”
He pushed me away.  “Just keep off me, will you?”  Lionel was nearer the classroom door; he turned and walked out.

In some places I suppose Lionel would have found himself confronted and knocked about, or reported to a teacher.  Neither course was open to us – we did not sneak on others, certainly not for petty theft, nor were we aggressive in any deliberate or calculating way.  Support for CND and the Anti-Apartheid movement were much the thing at the time.  No, the girls paused in their interminable knitting campaign – blankets for what we had yet to call the third world – and collected for a new purse and the coins to go in it.  Things, we thought, had been put right.

But Lionel had become an outsider.  We felt uneasy about it.  He was now even more unlikable, yet we felt it wrong that he had somehow put himself beyond the reach of our concern.  We had our pursuits; some of us had targets, academic perhaps, or practical – a way out of school – and some of us were social beasts.  Some of us tried to be both.  Lionel was neither; for him there was no walking home with the girls after school, nor was there the camaraderie of places like the printing room or the cadet hut where some of the more interesting aspects of school life were pursued without the interference of our teachers.  For Lionel, there was not even the sanctuary of the school library.  We watched this outsider from the comfort of our pursuits and were far more careful about our possessions.

Half-way through our fifth year we were faced with mock examinations, preludes to the “O” levels that coming summer.  Lionel’s desk was towards the front of the hall and, during the second exam, we became aware of a disturbance around Lionel.  We looked on as Lionel was escorted from the hall by a teacher.  He walked down the aisle, the eyes of all one hundred and twenty of us upon him.  His face was redder than usual and his eyes burned with a kind of shame.  As he came level with me I looked up quizzically, sympathetically, instinctively trying to share the burden.  He glared and, for a second, we saw the teeth.

Afterwards, we could only think that he had been caught cheating.  Lionel appeared again for the next exam, but he was isolated from us at the front of the hall.  He was brought in after the rest of us had settled, and afterwards, was made to wait until we had all left before he was released.  No one was inclined to ask him what was going on; the natural sympathy of pupils for one another had now diminished to cold indifference, a dispassionate tolerance that did not trouble Lionel.  We saw less and less of him as the orderliness of our time in school crumbled into the vagaries of exam timetables.  Once the exams had finished he did not rejoin us and he missed the trips organised by some teachers, and the things we organised for ourselves – the volley-ball on the tennis courts – the first mixed sport for some of us.  We enjoyed being left to our own devices; we were growing up.

The newspaper remained crumpled on the table.

“It was his mother’s home that he burgled?”
“Yeah – they go into it on the next page.  There’s a psychologist’s report.”
“Did they say how the police managed to catch him?”
“He was unlucky, dead unlucky.  It snowed that night and his footprints were frozen in the snow the next morning, right outside the window he got through.”  My friend paused and thought for a moment.  “Strange, isn’t it – he always did count on his luck.”

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