Days passed in a flurry of housework for Jill, as she struggled to fill the rubbish skip that arrived as promised, on Thursday. The driver who delivered it was a jovial, friendly sort, and told her she could keep it over the weekend at no extra cost. This made the task easier, and with Toby’s help she cleared all the clutter from the remaining rooms. She managed to track down a chimney sweep, who cleaned the flues and assured her it would be safe to light fires in the bedrooms.
It was Monday afternoon, when Jill heard the steady beep, beep as the truck reversed up to the skip. The pile of rubbish it held was an eyesore, and she would be glad when it was gone. Toby ran outside to watch as the driver spread nets and rope over the top, securing the load in place. When she looked through the kitchen window, she saw her son and the driver deep in conversation. Toby was, no doubt, asking dozens of questions about the workings of the truck. She noticed, how anxious he was to speak to any man they met, be it in the shops or on the street. It was the same with the chimney sweep, and he followed him from room to room, watching as he worked and driving him insane with questions. The engine of the truck started up and she heard the groan of the hydraulic lift as it picked up the skip. Once the noise died down, she went outside to pay the driver.
“I hope he hasn’t been annoying you?” She handed him the envelope.
“Not at all,” he patted Toby’s head. “I’m used to it. I have a nephew about the same age.”
“He’s in my school,” Toby added.
“Well, thanks a lot,” she started to lead her son away. “I’m glad to see the back of that.”
“No problem,” he climbed up in to the cab.
They watched as he drove away, Toby waving until he was out of sight. When they got back inside the house, Jill noticed he was chewing something.
“What are you eating?”
“Toffee,” he opened his mouth.
“Where did you get it?”
“Mike gave it to me.”
“I’ve warned you about taking sweets from strangers.”
“But I know him,” Toby’s voice rose to a whine.
“Not really,” she tried to be reasonable. “You only met him today.”
“And the day he brought the skip.”
“He’s still a stranger.”
“Awe, leave me alone,” he stomped up the stairs to his room.
The headlines of the old newspapers made her more watchful, and she hoped her need to protect him had not spoiled the new bond that formed over the past few days. Resolving she would not allow this to happen, she prepared his favourite dinner and carried it up to his room on a tray. She knew he would see it as a white flag. He was lying on the bed reading when she peeped inside, and he gave her a sullen look, until he saw the tray.
“I thought you’d like to eat up here for a change.”
He sat up, and allowed her to place the tray on his lap.
“Yeah, thanks,” he plunged a fork into the nearest chicken nugget.
“Listen,” she sat beside him. “I’m sorry for the dramatics. I worry about you, you know?”
“I know,” he chewed for a moment. “But I’m big now, and I know when someone is bad.”
“Yes, I know you are,” she struggled to find the right words. “But bad people don’t always look bad, if you know what I mean. They don’t all wear masks like in the cartoons.”
“God, I know that,” he threw down his fork and folded his arms across his chest.
“Of course, you do,” she stood. “It’s me, I’m just being silly.”
“Yeah, you are,” this seemed to appease him, and he started back on his food.
Pausing in the doorway, she looked back at him.
“I love you more than anyone in the world,” she said.
“I love you too,” he blushed.
“Take it easy with me, if I go a little over the top sometimes.”
“It’s o.k.,” he shrugged. “I know you can’t help it.”
So, she was forgiven her moment of madness, but she knew all mothers were the same, when it came to protecting their children.
Her appointment with Toby’s teacher was for eleven the next day. He arranged it so the boy did not see his mother when she arrived at the school. This was at her request, as she didn’t want to antagonise her son any further. Luckily the class were on a nature ramble, and she was free to wander the corridors without fear of running into him. She saw through the glass panel in the door that Mr. Jackson, Toby’s teacher, was waiting for her, and he motioned her in before she could knock.
“Mrs Purcell?” He held out his hand.
“It’s Miss,” she blushed.
She imagined from Toby’s description that his teacher would be older, and she grew uncomfortable, as he motioned her to sit. To her relief, she was not forced to huddle down in one of the child-sized chairs, as he had arranged for a normal chair to be brought in. The smell of the classroom was familiar, the air filled with the scent of chalk dust and books, and she looked around the walls at art work that belonged to the children.
“We have some budding Van Goughs here,” Mr. Jackson smiled.
“Yes,” she had to admit that the colours were brighter than sunflowers.
“You said you were worried about Toby?”
“Yes,” she laced her fingers together and placed them in her lap feeling once more the pupil brought to task by the teacher.
“Take your time,” his voice was calm and soothing.
“I’m probably being silly,” she started. “It’s just that I have recently split up from Toby’s father. Well, if I’m being honest, he left us, and now with the move to a new area, I worried about how Toby is settling in.”
“I know this is a challenging time, for both of you,” Mr Jackson said. “But you have no need to worry. Toby fits in very well here. He’s popular with the other children and his schoolwork is frankly, remarkable, but don’t tell him I said so,” he laughed. “He really is very gifted and he loves the art class. I was speaking to Mr. Keane, his art teacher the other day, and he remarked on how well Toby was doing. Perhaps,” he mused. “You would like to speak to him? He spends more individual time with his students than I do, as his classes are much smaller. We divide the students in two groups, those who prefer games and arts. Not all boys like the same things and we don’t believe in pushing them in to doing something in which they have no interest.”
“That would be great, thank you.”
He stood, and Jill followed him. For such a small village, the school seemed rather large, and she questioned him on this as they walked.
“People drive their children from all over surrounding counties,” he said. “We have quite a reputation, and they are happy to drive the extra few miles. The children from the village only make up a third of our students.”
She had to admit that the school was impressive. She considered each classroom, as they passed through the maze of corridors that led to the art room. The rooms were all painted in bright, cheery colours, none of the staid, drab greys she remembered from her schooldays. The mumbling voices drifting out made her recall her times tables, and she started to recite them in her head.
“Here we are,” he stopped, outside the art room.
Hundreds of paintings lined the walls outside and a multi-coloured sign proclaimed that they were indeed at the right place.
“I’ll get Mr Keane for you,” He said, tapping on the door.
A class was in session, and she waited while he slipped inside. He returned to say the teacher would be with her shortly.
“His class is almost finished, so if you wait, it shouldn’t be too long.”
“Thank you, you’ve been very kind.”
They shook hands and he left her with a guarantee that she was free to call on him at any time. She hoped the heat she felt from his touch was not transmitted to her cheeks, and she scolded herself for her foolishness. A clatter of chairs scraped across the floor of the art room. The door flew open and children surged through it. Each held a sheet of paper, the product of the day’s work. No one paid her much attention as they passed, too intent on reaching their next class.
“Miss Purcell.” The lisp reminded her of the snake in some cartoon, but she held out her hand to the man.
Mr. Jackson had informed him of her unmarried status.
“Yes, hello,” she smiled.
“Please come in,” he stood back to let her pass.
To her untrained eye, the art room seemed in chaos with easels dotted haphazardly and jars of paint lining each surface.
“I like to promote a feeling of freedom,” he said, at her look of dismay. “I want my students to express their inner emotions.”
“Now,” he perched on a corner of his desk. “Dominic tells me you are concerned about Toby?”
“Yes.” She was pleased to learn Mr Jackson’s first name. “We’re new to the area, and I was wondering how he’s settling in.”
“I have no problem with his work; in fact, he’s really gifted.”
The man’s lisp made the really, sound like wheelie. A small operation would have saved him years of torment. He was thin, to the point of emaciation, and the skin on his face stretched over the bones, giving him a feral look that would have been frightening, had he not seemed so comical. Admonishing herself for such unkind thoughts, she continued.
“Has he said anything to you about his father?”
“He has said on occasion that he misses him, but it’s only normal.”
“When does he say this?”
“Sometimes he stays after class to help me clean up, of his own accord I assure you,” he was quick to point out.
“I understand, I’m concerned he’s not able to confide in me.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger or someone outside the family, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right, but it bothers me nevertheless.”
“Be assured,” he smiled, drawing his thin lips back even further over his teeth and reminding her of a wolf. “If I was the slightest bit concerned, I would contact you immediately.”
“Well, thank you,” she held out her hand. “You have put my mind at rest.”
“Glad to help,” he took her hand in his and the feel of his bones beneath the skin made her stomach turn.
She was relieved to be out of the room and hurried down the corridor to the door marked exit. Leaning on the steel bar, she pushed, praying it wasn’t alarmed. The chilly air felt like a slap on her face, when she burst through to the school yard, and she gathered her coat closer. Once inside the car, she tried to take stock. The art teacher unsettled her and she wondered why? She’d never had such a reaction to another human being. He’s an ordinary man, she thought, as she turned on the ignition, he’s probably married with children. Still, he was not the sort of man she imagined her son confiding in, but then, perhaps, she was being unfair. Her mind was all over the place of late, and her imagination was apt to play tricks on her. Deciding she would question her son about his teachers when he got home, she tried to put the incident out of her mind.
Looking back at the classroom windows, she was surprised to see the art teacher watching her. In the dim, grey light his face looked ghost-like, and she waited until he retreated into the shadows before driving away.