The morning sun danced lightly upon the pale tawny-tiled roofs of the Fekenham folks’ cottages. Dewlip Lane grew out of the green heart of Fekenham like a cobbled snake that wove its crooked way across the blessed countryside. The sharp June sunlight fell in golden spiky shards that bedazzled the eyes of Verity Lambush who sat, prim and proper, perched upon her bicycle like a mantis. Verity was fifty- four and, for twenty years now, the headmistress of Fekenham Comprehensive.
Thin with a sculptured face, Verity, who hated her forename and would much rather have been named Amelia, cut a figure which inspired alarm in all who saw her, but in reality was an entirely different person from the one who seemingly floated into classrooms and assembly halls. For the past thirty years Verity had dedicated her life to the passion of her being – teaching. She loved her career and adored her school children, whom she really did see as ‘her’ children. She held a totally different point of view, though, in respect to her staff, of whom she saw as being well intentioned but aimless.
Any motivation required she supplied. She had energy enough for two schools full of teaching staff and some to spare. Although she insisted she was not a snob but merely a woman with standards, she nonetheless made a great many feel wholly inadequate in her presence. Her politics, she would say were her own but had she been a gunslinger then her holster would have hung on her right hip. Her heart was good though even if it played second fiddle to her head.
She pedalled her bicycle with precise and easy energy and navigated her way up and over Tolbunt Hill with graceful ease. She passed the Post Office and nodded her good morning greeting to the petite frame of Cybil Lovelock who smiled and said,
“Morning Verity. Another fine day.”
Verity smiled back but pedalled on. A twinge of guilt pinched her soul but she did her best to ignore it. It was best to bury past mistakes and look only to the future. She cycled past Tom Theobold’s Iron Monger’s store, which lay on her right, and Horace Gracegirdle’s Greengrocer’s shop, and through the wrought iron gates of the school, which stood towering and auspicious, with its four tall columns of faux Greco-Roman style decaying and yellowing like English teeth. She pulled into the school bike shed, where she chained up her bicycle and took her handbag out of the front basket – the self-same basket that held her diary, the self-same diary that she had kept for more than thirty years and which contained her personal history and more Fekenham scandal than you could wish to uncover. The diary was indeed a rare and special book, as it held not only a secret, but also the heart and thoughts of one of Fekenham’s most prominent citizens.
Marching into the main school entrance with her handbag swinging by her side, Verity was greeted by a flustered Primrose Heathernip, whose flushed face and anxious demeanour betrayed the fact that here was yet another problem that Verity would have to solve.
“Verity,” stammered Primrose, “Billy Twist has set fire to the Chemistry department. I – I thought you should know.” Her face wrinkled into a maze of lines that should have made the average person feel some form of pity for her, but Verity Lambush was far from average.
“I take it the fire has been put out and Billy Twist is unharmed, as are the rest of my children, and that he is at this point in time waiting for me in my office anteroom. If not, why not?”
“Oh yes, Verity. I had Mister Gravehearth put the fire out with a bucket of water. It went everywhere, and I had to get a mop and…”
Primrose wasn’t allowed to finish before Miss Lambush interjected with a sharp retort.
“Yes, yes but is everyone else uninjured? The children I mean?”
“Yes, Verity, everyone is unhurt.”
Verity brushed past Primrose, marching on with a brusque stride and shouting back over her shoulder, “I will deal with young Master Twist, but before I do I would like you to telephone Marvus Buckstraw and arrange for a meeting today at 2 P. M. in my office. Tell him I want to run over the school’s finances. Tell him to be punctual.”
Primrose didn’t bother to answer as Verity was out of earshot, storming on toward her confrontation with the troublesome Billy Twist, who, at this moment, was considering whether he had time to eat another wine gum before ‘The Dragon’ roared in. Unfortunately for Billy, he made the wrong choice and popped the gum into his mouth just as Miss Lambush entered. She placed her hand out in front of her, palm up, and commanded Billy to spit, which he did. Without breaking her stride, she caught the offending sweet and threw it into her wastepaper bin.
“So then, Billy, starting a career in arson, are we?”
At first Billy thought that Miss Lambush had flipped and was using a rude word, and then he realised that she was just doing what she always did, using her way with words to put him on the back foot. “Don’t understand, Miss. Sorry.”
“Oh, I think you do; time to explain yourself, young man, and make me consider if I should take away your right to play for the school football team. Mister Ballbanger tells me you are a wizard in midfield.”
The options weren’t good but one thing was for sure: when Verity Lambush laid down her terms you either rolled over and did as she said or just gave up – full stop.
Verity had time for Billy, for beneath that cool exterior there was a woman who could instinctively see into the hearts and minds of virtually all her children, Billy no less than the others. Billy had missed a great deal of school in his early days and was suffering now because of it. He had been diagnosed with a mild form of epilepsy that, during his childhood, had plagued him with fits, and in consequence he had spent much of his infancy and early childhood either in hospital or at home in bed. His mother, Julie, was a stout and robust woman who, even when her husband left her, had soldiered on undaunted. She made no fuss about being a single parent, and woe betide anyone who dared to bully or tease her son, as she could be a cat with claws drawn if called upon to defend him; but conversely, and this was what really impressed Verity, she took no nonsense from Billy either. She never pampered him, but made him get up and dust himself down whenever he had a seizure, and if he tried his capers with her, she could be as much of a disciplinarian as Verity Lambush herself.
The funny thing with Billy was that, although his grasp of mathematics and the sciences was awful, he was good at reading, with a wonderful imagination that at times staggered his English teacher. And of course Billy really excelled in football. He could do things with a ball that other boys only dreamt of. The ball seemed to be glued to his feet, and he was brilliant with both as he danced past the defending opposition.
Now Billy stood in front of her with his head bowed and his eyes downcast, his hands twisting an imaginary piece of string.
“So, Billy, tell me exactly what happened from start to finish and don’t leave anything out.”
Billy shuffled and scuffed one shoe against the back of his trouser leg. “Well Miss, it’s like this. I was just showing the class that you could set fire to your farts, er, I mean blow offs, Miss, and I was just showing them, when I blew so hard that I caught fire to the curtains, and, well, then Miss Heathernip came in and tried to put the curtain out, and by doing that she pulled the curtain down onto a jar of petroleum based jelly and that went ‘boom,’ and the sparks set fire to the Master’s papers and then…”
Verity Lambush had raised her hand, and Billy knew well enough to stop, especially when she was looking like a chicken that had just had its tail feathers burnt.
“There is a lesson to be learnt here, Billy. In fact, there are two. One is not to practise arcane forms of science by expressing one’s wind in such a manner, and in case I do not make myself plain, that means not setting fire to your farts in class again, and the second lesson is this.” She raised her head toward the ceiling as if receiving some form of divine guidance. “School is for learning and not tomfoolery. I am afraid that I will have to punish you for this. You will report to Mister Ballbanger at the end of school, and you will do one hour’s football training – sit ups and such – and, as I said a while ago, if I hear of you setting fire to anything again, you will be out of the school football team. Do I make myself clear?”
Billy nodded and thought that, as punishments go, that wasn’t too bad. Maybe ‘The Dragon’ did have a heart after all.
“Yes Miss,” said Billy sheepishly
With a nod of her head and a wave of her hand Verity dismissed Billy who left red faced but thankful he had survived the tongue lashing.
Clarence Trott, Fekenham Comprehensive’s history teacher, was unwell and had telephoned Verity earlier at her home to apologise for his absence, requesting that someone should cover for him. When his class had heard the good news, from their perspective only, they had let out a large cheer. The joy of the situation soon evaporated though when they were told that a replacement teacher would be covering for the absent Mister Trott. This soon wasn’t seen as too bad because whoever came in would most likely give the class a relatively easy time.
The morning bell rang for lessons to begin and the various classes strolled to their respective rooms. Mister Trott’s class room was littered with dusty books that took pride of place in two cases sitting either side of a large, long blackboard. On the walls was a series of picture posters that featured a multitude of different scenes set in the period they had occurred: an Egyptian Pharaoh standing tall and magnificent while below him thousands of black slaves toiled as they built the pyramids; Alexander the Great slicing through the knotted rope of Cordium; Roman soldiers marching in a tight formation; Normans battling the Anglo-Saxons with Harold staggering as an arrow pierced his eye; The battle of Agincourt where the English fought against the French and won; Napoleon standing imperious, on the back of a white horse as Europe trembled beneath his massed armies; The Great War where the diminutive and paler version of Napoleon, his distant nephew, had assassinated Kaiser Wilhelm throwing the world into the first and last world war.
The children shuffled in dragging back their chairs before nosily sliding into place. One boy, Timothy Turtle, now that the teacher was away, threw his feet onto the desk where he crossed them with a cavalier attitude. The girls giggled at the sight while secretly thinking the lad to be one sandwich short of a picnic. The boys all laughed and started to throw hastily created paper aeroplanes. Then the door opened and in glided Verity Lambush as though on castors. She didn’t look at the children at all but simply went straight to the blackboard where she picked up the board eraser and wiped off the notes from the previous lesson.
With her back to the class a hushed silence fell like a muted Atomic bomb.
“Timothy Turtle take your overly large feet off the desk now, pick up your school bag, go outside the door and stand facing the wall. I will speak with you after this lesson has concluded. The aerodynamic engineers who so cleverly designed the paper planes that now are scattered all over the floor will, as quietly and as expediently as possible, clear them up. Belinda Bulrush please button up your blouse, it is gratifying to note that you have grown breasts but the rest of us, even if the boys might disagree, do not want to see them.”
Without drawing breath Verity Lambush turned to face the class. Her hair, still brown but with flashes of grey, was drawn back into a neatly prepared bun. Her face was slender rather than thin although by having her hair pulled back from her forehead the overall appearance was of someone stern. Her cheekbones were well defined and her nose long but well-proportioned whilst her eyes were of an engaging, if not a little stern, grey She was, by anyone’s standards an attractive woman but one who took her role as headmistress very seriously.
“As you all know, Mister Trott is unwell and will not be conducting today’s history lesson. Unfortunately, for class 3G, I will be. Now then, who knows anything of Tarwinkle Mullins?”
A sea of blank faces looked back at the formidable Verity Lambush.
“Oh come, come, surely someone has heard of Albion’s foremost Aquanaut, Wessex’s renowned nautical engineer, Fekenham’s favoured genius and inventor of the Submarine?”
From an ocean of nonplussed children all but one of who were at a loss as to what their headmistress was talking about and all of whom were still shell shocked by her sudden appearance, a lone hand timidly climbed above their heads.
“Yes Clara? Do you have something to say, some light to shed on the matter of Tarwinkle Mullins?”
Clara Lightermen shuffled uncomfortably, her head bowed and her hands locked together like nervous crabs. Then her voice, as pure and pretty as day break sang out in a faltering soprano.
“He was large and fat
And wore a felt hat
Skipping down the street
On booted feet
His long suffering wife
The love of his life
Begged him desist
But her pleas he’d resist
Around Fekenham he’d caper
And on scraps of paper
Wrote bits of this
And bits of that
A ship he designed
Of unusual kind
Upon it he strode
But the thing did explode
With a rocket pack
Tied to his back
He flew from the ground
Spinning round and round
Although folks did laugh
At his rusted bath
He built an machine
with his periscope
And a length of rope
In his aquamarine
He sunk from the scene
A scientist of sorts
Of the aquanauts
Clara’s singing stopped and for a moment an absence of sound swamped the classroom but then Bobby Jackhammer started to titter. He wagged his finger at Clara and in mocking tones began to deride both her singing and the song.
“Who told you that you could sing? That was awful. My old cat can sing better than that and what was that drivel you sang, where on earth did you find such a stupid song?”
His caustic comments were cut short as the sound of clapping cut through his diatribe like a hot knife through butter.
“Well done Clara. That was beautifully sung and it was good to hear that old children’s nursery rhyme again after so many years. Where did you learn it? Before you answer me though I think it only fair that we should allow Bobby Jackhammer to demonstrate how better his singing is after all he does seem to know something about the subject. Come on the Bobby, show us all how it’s done.”
“I would Miss but I can’t think of any suitable songs to sing, sorry.”
“Oh, do not be such a deafest, I will give the perfect song for such an occasion; you will sing ‘The Lions of Albion’ our national anthem as composed by Gustav Holst.
Some minutes later, having sung with a voice like broken nails being dragged over a chalkboard, a red faced Bobby Jackhammer sat down followed by several moans and complaints from his class mates about his vocal abilities. Verity Lambush clapped her hands together and gathered the pupils’ attention.
“The song that Clara sang to us is an old nineteenth century nursery rhyme that was written by Mary de Capon. It was written to celebrate the achievements of a Fekenham born man who went on to become one of Albion’s most celebrated scientists and an inventor of note. It is Tarwinkle Mullins we have to thank for inventing the Aquamarine; an invention which has allowed us to explore the deepest parts of the ocean floor enabling us to learn more about our environment and the world we live in. Now then, turn to page one hundred and fifty seven in your history books paying particular attention to dates and places and make notes. There will be a test on this subject and you will be providing me, by tomorrow morning, a short essay of Tarwinkle Mullins.”
A slow, deep rumble of discontent scuttled up from the throats of some of the children.
“If that monotonous moan is displayed again then those making that primordial sound will be spending time with me after school in detention.”
There followed a rustling of paper and a scratching of pens.
“Heathcliffe Flygauge. If you were to remove your index finger from your left nostril it may be easier to write.”
The boy instantly did as he was told placing the offending bogey that clung to his fingernail onto the underside of his chair. There came a dull knock on the classroom door followed by the mousey voice of Primrose Heathernip.
“Miss Lambush, may I please come in?”
Verity, with two quick strides was at the door opening it a fraction.
“What is it Mrs Heathernip, I am trying to conduct a history lesson.”
“I really am sorry Verity but there is a man downstairs in the reception area who asked to speak to you.”
“A man, what sort of a man?”
“A rather rough looking one if I may say. He said his name was Seamus Fliphook and that he wanted to speak with you on a delicate matter.”
“Seamus Fliphook? Is he that odious little man that often frequents the Frog and Radiator regaling us all with his obnoxious views?”
“The very same, he is quite insistent that he sees you.”
“I don’t care how insistent he is, I am taking class and not to be interrupted. Ask him to make an appointment. Thank you.”
With that Verity Lambush closed the door returning to her place at the head of the class where each one of the pupils before her was busy making notes in their exercise books.
Her concentration broken by the interruption, she ruminated a while on why such a man would want to see her. A nagging doubt grew in her mind but she dismissed it pulling her considerable intellect back into line to focus on the process in hand that of teaching a class full of teenage children. She noticed that Lucy Locktight was surreptitiously holding hands under the desk with Simon Lithechap.
“I would like to see both sets of hands on the desk at all times please class.”
Verity Lambush governed her children with a rod of steel albeit a flexible and caring one. Seamus Fliphook would have to wait. She was convinced it was of little importance.
Outside the school gate Seamus Fliphook looked back over his shoulder, his face a malicious contortion. He would go away for now but he would be back and when he returned the bitch had better treat him with some respect; some respect and some courtesy for the news he brought was not to her advantage at all.
As Seamus ruminated on what he perceived as bad treatment by Verity Lambush, at the other side of the village a young female was taking a stroll.
Myrtle swung her hips from side to side with sensual ease, rolling them like sex on hydraulics, in a fashion that not even Marilyn Monroe could compete with—an easy, slow wiggle that made it look as if her lower section might embark on a separate journey from the rest of her body. It was such a natural and effortless gait that any male of the species watching could not prevent himself from stopping, jaws slack, eyes glazed and nostrils flared, to watch in mesmerized awe as she manoeuvred past, a slinky, sexual beast of flesh that sent signals of a very base nature. Myrtle was a big girl, and when I say big, I mean very big. She had the brownest eyes, eyes of such a definitive shape and size that the butter on your knife would melt away at one look from them. Her eyelashes were extra ordinarily long and curled, and her cheekbones carved like sculptured stone. Her face was broad, a delicate shade of latte brown with a crop of hair falling into a fringe on the crown of her head. Her nose was a light pink and ran wet and cold, and she flapped her ears and tail constantly to fend off the flies that haunted her flanks and face.
Myrtle is, of course, a cow—a pale brown cow, but not just any old cow, as she is the pride and joy of Mrs. Micklethwaite. Long before the Hamfists had started farming in the county, the Micklethewaites had run a farm of their own, and quite a considerable farm at that, with a combine harvester and a tractor and a large herd of cattle, and many other forms of livestock too. Those days had gone, and all that was left of their farm was a large field inhabited by the sole remaining member of their once large and affluent farmstead, Myrtle. Not that Myrtle minded. Every morning the Missus washed her hands in warm water and then trundled over to Myrtle’s barn, which lay to the left hand side of the field, where, with loving care and warm hands she milked Myrtle, thereby eased her swelling udders of their daily burden. Once that task was completed, Myrtle was set free to wander around her field, swishing her tail, swinging her hips, and setting a passion burning in the hearts and loins of the neighbours, the Hamfists’ bulls. Myrtle was an old cow, but like many an old cow she still knew how to capture the boys’ eyes and set their pulses racing.
Today, though, as she sashayed through her field, her sumptuous hips happened to bang against the gate of Gloria the goat. Gloria was a little in awe of Myrtle, not just because she seemed to attract such attention, but also because of her size; but this day Myrtle just kept on plodding by, her eyes focused on a patch of grass that looked as delicious as a patch of grass could. So while Myrtle grazed and Mrs. Micklethwaite collected washing from the line, Gloria slipped out of her pen and wandered, as free as a butterfly, off down the lane. If Gloria could have whistled, the tune she would have blown would have been John Lennon’s ‘Free as a Bird.’ But Gloria couldn’t whistle, so she just kept on tripping along, stopping occasionally to chew on a thistle or some other countryside delicacy.
Mrs. Micklethwaite has a head like a sieve—not that it is riddled with holes, but she is known to forget things, and often misplaces her glasses or her keys. You don’t really need keys in Fekenham, but she spends a fair few hours searching for hers nonetheless. As far as Gloria was concerned, it would be many an hour before Mrs. Micklethwaite realised she was missing, an hour or two of Gloria wandering about chewing bits of this and that.