Martin and Paul still weren’t speaking next morning, glowering silently across the breakfast table at each other.
Thomas told them to stop being silly, shake hands and make up. Paul, after a moments hesitation, said he was sorry and held out his hand. Martin looked at it, and then deliberately folded his arms staring silently ahead; still angry and hurt over the things that Paul had quoted as coming from Laura.
“Don’t be churlish Martin,” said Thomas sharply. “Paul has graciously offered you his hand, at least be gracious enough to respond.”
Martin obliged, but not in a way pleasing to his father, “sucks to you Paul I’d rather shake a pig’s trotter than shake your hand.” After a stern lecture from his father on ungentlemanly behaviour, he was sent to his room to think about it.
“Is that a smile on your face young man?” Thomas picked up his teacup and gazed over its rim at his remaining table companion who immediately altered his facial expression into one of a misunderstood angel.
“No uncle Thomas, of course not.”
“Hmmm.” Thomas was unconvinced of his nephew’s angelic capabilities.
Paul gleefully bounced into the bedroom. “Ha, ha, the tables are turned now aren’t they? I’m going round to call for Lollie- my best friend.” He went over to his bed, bending down to look for his shoes, of which he found only one, which meant his other one must be under his cousin’s bed.
Martin shook his head, smiling unpleasantly. “No way are you looking under my bed. If your rotten shoe is under there, it can stay under.” He lifted his cricket bat down from the shelf above his bed. Sitting cross-legged on his mattress, he swiped at Paul every time he tried to get near the bed.
“I’m going to tell Uncle Thomas of you.” Paul dodged a potentially lethal swing from the bat.
“You just dare, and I’ll tell him what you and Laura were doing, besides hopping trains the other night. Now get out of my room, before I bash your ugly face in.” He got up, prodding the bat into Paul’s stomach, forcing him across the floor, and out onto the landing, before making to slam the door closed. Unfortunately Paul stepped forward at the same time, intending to shove his way back in. The edge of the door struck him full in the face as it swung forward. Martin, who had put considerable force into hurling the door shut, stared in horror as Paul dropped to his knees shrieking with pain. A torrent of blood streamed from his face, soaking into his t-shirt. There was a thunder of feet on stairs as Martin’s parents came running to see what had happened.
“Martin did it,” Paul pointed a shaking finger towards his dumbstruck cousin, sobbing hysterically, “he did it on purpose, he’s broken my nose, he’s broken my nose, uncle Thomas!”
Martin stepped back into the room, pale faced with shock at the result of his jealous bad temper. “I didn’t mean to,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to do it.” His father barked a question at him and Martin shook his head vehemently. “No, no, daddy, I promise, I didn’t hit him with my bat. It was the door and it was an accident.”
“Go down to the dining room, Martin, find yourself a corner and wait for me, we’ll be discussing this presently.” Paul was ushered to the bathroom to be examined.
Martin sat unhappily on the edge of his bed, listening as his cousin told his parents what had happened, in between sobs, making it sound really unpleasant. “I just wanted my shoe...threatened me with his bat...nearly cracked my head twice...shoved me out...bashed the door into me.”
He stood up, knees trembling, as his father came back into the bedroom. His manner was icy to say the least.
“I believe I instructed you to go down to the dining room, why are you still here?”
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to do it.”
“I’m in no mood for arguments, do as you’ve been told and do it now.”
Martin hardly dared look at him as he walked past, head bowed to go downstairs. Now he was for it, and it was all Paul’s fault. He’d bled like that on purpose. He stood by the dining room window looking out and picking miserably at the lace curtains until he heard footsteps on the stairs and hastily transferred himself to a corner. “It was an accident,” he turned to look over his shoulder as the door opened and closed again, “I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
“I accept that it was an accident, Martin,” Thomas lifted a chair out from beneath the table, “what I will not accept,” he sat down, “is you threatening to hit Paul with your bat prior to the accident, nor will I accept the jealous ill temper and lack of self control that prompted those threats, because that’s what ultimately led to the action that caused the injury. Come here please.”
“Stop that hollering, Paul, I can’t think straight, calm down, you’re not dying.” Evelyn spoke sharply to her nephew as she tried to stem the flow of blood from his nose, probing gently to see if it was broken. From downstairs came a sound like a pistol shot and then Martin began yelling. Really, she thought, was it any wonder she suffered from headaches. “Your nose isn’t broken, but it is swollen and bruised and you’ve got a lovely black eye coming up, a real shiner.” Paul’s top teeth had punctured his lower lip, and he had a tiny cut on his eyebrow, but otherwise, it wasn’t too bad. She gave him a hug. “You’ve been lucky, your front teeth are undamaged.”
Paul didn’t feel very lucky, he felt as if a truck had hit him. He followed his aunt of the bathroom and downstairs, not feeling any better as the dining room door opened and his cousin emerged, hands clamped to his bottom, his face awash with tears. Ignoring both Paul and his mother he darted upstairs.
Sitting miserably on the couch holding the ice pack his aunt had given him against his swollen face, Paul felt very sorry for himself, it hurt even to blink. Tears began to trickle down his cheeks.
Thomas laid aside his book, yet again. He was never going to get it read at this rate. He held out his arms, indicating for Paul to come to him. “Let’s have a look at you. Sit here next to me.” He made room on his chair and Paul squeezed next to him. “What a sight you are. You look as if you’ve done five rounds with Cassius Clay.” Paul tried to smile, but it hurt too much. “Would you like me to read to you, take your mind off things?” Paul chose a book and leaned quietly against his uncle, who draped a comforting arm about his shoulders. Closing his eyes he tried to pretend that it was his own father cuddling him and reading to him.
Thomas stopped reading and looked down at his nephew. “What is it Paul?”
“Are you and aunt Evie really sick of me being here, are you going to ask dad to send me away after all?”
“Who told you that?”
“Martin, last night.”
“Martin’s a very naughty boy and he was speaking out of turn as well as out of temper. Your aunt and I love having you here with us and so does Martin. There’ll always be a home here for you.”
“Thanks uncle Thomas,” Paul rested his head against his uncle’s shoulder. “I bet dad does send me away, when he marries that woman. He never wants to spend any time with me.” Paul started to weep, “he’s a pig I hate him, and her. They’ll stick me in a rotten boarding school whether I like it or not. Well I won’t go, I won’t, I’ll run away first.”
“That’s enough Paul. Your father has said nothing to me about boarding school. It’s pointless upsetting yourself over something that may never happen. Now, let’s get back to this book.”
“I think you have something to say to Paul don’t you Martin?”
Martin stubbornly shook his head at his mother. He’d been made to come downstairs for lunch, but he would not apologise to his cousin. Once set on a course of action he was hard to shift, in his estimation it had been a pure accident and he had not deserved the sore bottom he had received for it. He said so.
Thomas was not impressed, he wagged a finger at him, “think about this Martin, none of this would have happened if you’d shaken hands with Paul this morning. Instead you allowed spiteful bad temper to escalate completely out of control and get the better of you. Do the honourable thing now, apologise to Paul.”
Martin stared straight ahead, remaining determinedly silent.
Evelyn spoke quietly, “intentional or not, you caused a nasty injury to your cousin while indulging in a fit of pique. Do as your father says and apologise.”
“It’s alright auntie Evie, if Martin doesn’t want to say sorry, I don’t care.”
“I care Paul and Martin can say sorry, or he can go straight back to his room after lunch.”
Martin stood up. “I’ll go now. I don’t want any lunch and I’m not saying sorry.” He marched out of the dining room without a backward glance at any of them. He lay on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, hands behind his head, brooding on why Laura hadn’t called yesterday or today. Perhaps it was true that she thought he was a drip, maybe she really didn’t want to be his best friend anymore? He wished Paul could go home for good; he had stolen his best friend and made his parents mad at him. It wasn’t fair, why should he have to say sorry? He turned on his side as the bedroom door opened.
Paul smiled awkwardly at his cousin; he hated falling out with him. He was just about to tell him that Laura hadn’t said any of the things that he’d said she’d said, when Martin turned his back on him, saying nastily, “I’m gonna tell dad to phone uncle Edward tonight and tell him to come for you. I don’t want you here any more, so get what you came in for and shove off.”
Paul flushed angrily. He groped under Martin’s bed for his lost shoe, his hand alighting on it at last. As he pulled it out, his hand brushed against something else, Martin’s beloved cricket bat, which he’d used to poke and prod him with earlier. Grabbing hold of it he smuggled it quickly out of the room before Martin noticed. Sneaking into the garden shed with it he rolled back the rubber handgrip and taking a hacksaw out of his uncle’s toolbox, he carefully sawed part of the way through the handle, then he rolled the rubber grip back into place. It looked exactly the same as before. Hugging himself gleefully, he smuggled it back indoors, hiding it in the cupboard under the stairs until he got chance to slip it back under Martin’s bed later on.
“You’re kidding me up.” Laura stared in astonishment at Paul’s face, “I don’t bloody believe that Martin did that to you, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Paul went on to explain and Laura shook her head sadly, “poor Martin,” she felt sorry for her disgraced friend. “Poor you too,” she added, seeing the look on Paul’s face. She liked Paul lots and lots, he was her second best friend, but she liked Martin in a special way that she couldn’t explain. She had been upset that neither he, nor Paul, had called to see why she hadn’t been round. Her parents did not own a telephone, so she couldn’t phone them up, and her poor mother had been run off her feet, because she and both her brothers had gone down with the chickenpox at exactly the same time. After the train escapade, she had been brought home and put to bed fast asleep, her father intending to deal with her in the morning, but she had woken up feeling unwell with a high temperature and a headache. The tell tale blisters began to pop out shortly afterwards. By that same evening Sean and Robbie were also displaying signs. She lay back against her pillow. It was nice to have some company, even though she still felt really grotty. Her face and body itched unbearably and she was liberally dotted with calamine lotion to cool and soothe the painful blisters, giving her a somewhat motley appearance. “I’ve even got them up me bloody nose,” she complained.
Laura’s bedroom door opened and another spotty little figure padded in, staring with considerable interest at Paul. Taking his thumb out of his mouth he said, “you look nice Paul, like Henry Cooper.”
Paul couldn’t help smiling, and then regretted it as his sore lip cracked and oozed blood.
“What do you want Sean?” Laura snapped irritably at her brother, he’d been padding in and out of her room all morning he was driving her mad.
“Robbie’s making funny noises and he’s doing this.” Sean made odd little jerky movements.
Laura got out of bed and followed Sean into the boy’s room. Robbie was doing exactly what Sean had described. Worse still, there was white stuff bubbling out of his mouth. Laura panicked and began screaming for her mother. “Mammy, mammy, there’s something wrong with Robbie I think he’s dying!”
Sean burst into frightened sobs, caught up in his sister’s hysteria. Mrs Archer charged up the stairs and she too seemed inclined to panic. “Oh Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he’s having some kind of seizure. Paul, run back home,” she turned to him wild eyed, “ask your aunt to phone the doctor.” She knelt by Robbie’s bed, holding the little boy’s hand and calling his name, tears pouring down her face.
Paul ran like the wind.
“The doctor’s on his way.” Evelyn gently pushed the distraught woman to one side, kneeling by the bed. “Let me see him Catherine.” She took one look at Robbie and said briskly, “he’s having a febrile convulsion.” Catherine looked blank and Evie explained, “he’s too hot, we must get his temperature down.” She began stripping the bedcovers off him, then his pyjamas, which were buttoned up to the neck and tucked in at the waist. He was even wearing mitts. She instructed his mother to get her a bowl of tepid water and a sponge, while she opened the window to let some air into the stuffy room. Thomas picked up Sean, who was still crying, took a firm hold of Laura’s hand and whisked them out of the room indicating for Paul to follow him and gave space to the invalid. Evelyn and Catherine began sponging the child’s hot body. Just stripping the covers and pyjama’s off him had helped a little and by the time the doctor arrived he had stopped shaking and foaming at the mouth, but was still well out of it, mumbling fitfully.
The doctor nodded approvingly at Evelyn as he examined the child. “You did the right thing. Poor little man, he’s really got it bad hasn’t he?” Robbie was thickly covered in the watery spots. They were on his scalp, under his arms, in his mouth, his ears and even on the souls of his feet. He was a very unhappy little boy.
Catherine was distraught. “I’m so stupid. I had no idea that I was doing him any harm. I kept his body covered and put the mitts on to stop him raking and scratching at himself. He was going mad with the itching, and then he’d have a screaming fit because they hurt when he took the tops off them. I had no idea, none at all.”
Evelyn comforted her. “It’s not your fault Catherine, hush now.”
Robbie opened his eyes and began to cry. Catherine knelt by his bed and held his hand. “Alright my angel, mammy’s here.”
The doctor left, telling Mrs Archer to keep him cool, give him plenty of fluids and he’d call back in a couple of days.
“Robbie’s- in -the- nuddy,” chanted Sean who had escaped his minder and slipped back into the bedroom. “I- can- see -his -willy.”
Robbie, back in a deep sleep was undisturbed by his brother’s observations, but his mother was mortified, deeply conscious that Martin’s mother was unlikely to approve such language. She gave her son a pat on the rump. “Be quiet and get back into that bed, you little devil.”
Evelyn noticed her flush. She liked Catherine Archer and was aware that the woman felt slightly intimidated by her. A shy woman herself in many ways, Evelyn wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
“Can I have some more of that white stuff on mammy I’m starting to itch again.” Sean wriggled and squirmed. A new blister seemed to pop out every few minutes in ever more uncomfortable places. He turned to Mrs Mitchell with an engaging smile. “I’ve got the chickenpox all over, even on my willy. Do you wanna ‘ave a look?”
“SEAN!” His mother gave him a wild stare.
Sean’s bottom lip began to tremble, “but she’s seen Robbie’s spots on his willy. I just wanted to show her mine.”
“Penis,” said Evelyn, “that’s what you call that part of your body.”
Sean’s lip stopped trembling. His cheeky little face split into a huge grin, fully displaying the gap where his front milk teeth had been. “PENIS!” He shrieked, clapping a hand to his mouth, his eyes sparkling with delight. “Penis,” he whispered, beginning to giggle, “penis,” repeating the word again and again. Curling up on his bed, his itchy spots momentarily forgotten, he hugged himself, chortling and sputtering. He couldn’t wait to tell Robbie that word.
Catherine almost died of embarrassment. Turning to Martin’s mother apologetically, she said, “You must excuse him...” She stopped. Evelyn had a hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking, eyes crinkling at the corners. She was laughing. Catherine suddenly relaxed and started laughing with her, feeling comfortable for the first time in her company. “Thank you Evie,” she used the woman’s shortened Christian name without the usual spurt of self-consciousness, “thank you for helping Robert. You must think me very silly.”
Evelyn wiped her eyes with her handkerchief, shaking her head vehemently. “Certainly not. As you know I was a nurse before I married and I worked on a children’s ward for a while, so I’ve had first hand experience of this kind of thing. Let me know if there’s anything I can help with, anything at all.” She stroked Robbie’s red hair, “poor little soul. Martin was just the same when he had them. Every part of his body was covered - even his penis.” They started laughing again. When Catherine made her guests a cup of tea, Evie smiled with quiet pleasure when she was handed a plain earthenware cup, instead of the usual delicate china one.
Hearing the front door open and voices, Martin hastily brushed cake crumbs from the front of his t-shirt and wiped his mouth. Rushing to the sink, he rinsed the milk traces from his glass, so it looked as if he was drinking water. His parents didn’t approve of snacking in between meals, particularly if the meal hadn’t been eaten in the first place. Venturing out into the hall, trying not to look guilty, he asked his mother about Robbie, he was fond of both of Laura’s brothers, but Robbie was his favourite.
“Fine,” she assured him, “they’ve all got the chickenpox, probably caught off Colin and Amy, but he’s got it the worst, poor lamb. Laura sends her love,” she said kindly.
“Really?” Martin’s face lit up.
Evelyn nodded and patted his face, “really.”
Thomas wasn’t so kind. He looked coldly at Martin. “I don’t recall giving you permission to come downstairs. Go back to your room at once.”
Martin pretended he hadn’t heard, asking his mother. “Where’s Paul?”
“He’s keeping Laura company for a while.”
“Can I go to see her mummy, please?” Martin looked at her appealingly from his large blue eyes.
“No,” said Thomas firmly, “do as you’re told and go back to your room.”
Martin, jealous and upset that everyone but him, had been involved in Robbie’s crisis and angry that Paul was with Laura, his Laura, threw caution to the winds and argued with his father. “I don’t want to, I want to visit Laura. I’ll apologise to Paul while I’m round there. I promise I will, you can ask Paul when we get back.”
“Ask me what?” Paul pushed open the front door and looked enquiringly at his cousin.
“I thought you were staying with Laura?” Martin glared at him accusingly.
“She was tired. Mrs Archer said she needed to rest.”
Martin was furious, feeling as if there was a conspiracy to keep him away from Laura, and that Paul was behind it. He’d tired Laura out on purpose, and just as his father looked as if he was beginning to waver.
There wasn’t much sign of a waver in Thomas’s tone as he said smoothly, “you can make that apology now young man.”
Martin turned to Paul, “I’m sorry,” he said silkily, before bawling. “SORRY I DIDN’T BREAK YOUR STUPID FAT NOSE THAT IS!”
“Martin!” His parents stared at him with marked disapproval.
Martin, wild eyed, blew a huge raspberry, yelled “BLOODY HELL” and shoving Paul roughly aside raced out of the house before anyone could stop him.
His stunned parents and cousin stared after him.
“I don’t have a fat nose do I uncle Thomas?” Paul turned towards his uncle, who appeared to be having some kind of seizure, like Robbie. Paul stared in wonderment, he wasn’t having a fit, he was laughing. One hand across his mouth, the other holding the banister for support, tears of mirth trickling down his cheeks. Paul couldn’t help grinning. He had never seen his uncle laugh so much; he was by nature a sober man. His aunt wasn’t amused at all. She glared at her husband as if he’d taken leave of his senses.
“It’s not funny Thomas. I hope you’re not going to allow Martin to get away with bad behaviour like that, it’s simply not funny at all?”
“I’m sorry Evie,” Thomas took out his hanky to wipe his eyes. “You’re quite right, it’s not funny at all, he was very naughty and when he dares to come home I’m going to tan him, but dear oh dear the look on his face, that raspberry. I’m sorry, I’ll make some tea.” He headed down the hall shaking his head. Another bout of explosive laughter sounded from the kitchen.
Paul, tickled pink, watched his uncle as he sat in the deckchair in the garden, reading his book. Every now and again his shoulders would start to shake and out would come the white handkerchief to wipe his eyes. Then he would take a deep breath, shake his head and put the handkerchief away.
Laura was sleeping when Martin got to her house. He stayed anyway, he was already in bother, and he might as well make the most of his freedom. He liked Laura’s mother, with her soft Irish accent and gentle manner. He sat talking to her as she busied herself about the kitchen, preparing the evening meal.
Catherine smiled as she listened to the boy talking. She had taken to Martin from the start, well spoken, polite and essentially good-natured. There were no airs and graces about him. He accepted Laura for what she was and her family with her and they returned the favour.
“May I watch your television please Mrs Archer?”
“Course you can darling. I’ll switch it on for you. Do you want to stay for your tea?”
Martin shook his head regretfully, “better not Mrs Archer, thanks all the same, I daren’t stay out too long. Dad’s on the warpath with me.”
Mrs Archer grinned. “I know, Paul told me. You deserved that hiding you got Martin Mitchell. That poor boy’s face I’m surprised at you.” She ruffled his hair playfully, bringing him lemonade and biscuits while he watched television, stretched out on the battered couch, quite at home.
Sean wandered down, Martin grinned at him. “Hiya spotty. Is Laura awake yet?”
Sean shook his head. “Nah, she’s still snoring. I heard her when I passed her room. Do you wanna see my spotty willy?”
“Cool,” Martin dutifully admired it.
His mother glared at him in exasperation. “Sean Archer if you don’t stop flashing that thing around, you and I are going to be falling out.”
Having bribed Sean to wake Laura up Martin spent a pleasant half hour with her before looking regretfully at his watch. “I’d better go,” he said reluctantly.
“You’re dad has probably calmed down by now,” said Laura, sensing her friend’s nervousness.
“I wouldn’t bet on it. I’ll see you tomorrow - if I’m still alive.”
Taking off his shoes, Martin cautiously entered the house. Sneaking towards the sitting room he peeped in, his mother was sewing. He tiptoed past the door heading for the kitchen. There was no sign of his father, but he could see Paul through the kitchen window, kicking a ball around in the garden. He jumped a foot in the air with fright, as his father’s crisp tones seemed to come from nowhere.
“Good evening Martin. You’ve decided to return I see.”
Martin turned to see his father standing in the kitchen doorway with folded arms and stern expression.
“Hello daddy. I’m very sorry about earlier, I really am.” Martin thought it expedient to make an apology as quickly as possible.
“I should think you are.” Unfolding his arms Thomas moved quickly towards his son, taking hold of his arm he swung the palm of his hand against his backside several times, “your behaviour was disgraceful. I hope you’re prepared to put things right with Paul now?”
Martin nodded vehemently, he’d gotten off much lighter than expected he wasn’t going to risk upsetting his father again.
Thomas called Paul in from the garden and the two boys stared awkwardly at each other across the kitchen table.
“Sorry.” Martin made his apology as lacklustre as possible.
“Not good enough,” said Thomas sternly, “try again.”
Martin glared at his father, but obediently repeated the apology. “I’m sorry for losing my temper and hurting you. I didn’t mean to.”
“Better,” said his father, “now shake hands.”
They exchanged a limp handshake, eyes averted.
“Goodnight Martin. You may go to bed now.” Thomas smiled pleasantly at his son, but there was steel like glimmer in his eye.
“What! I said sorry didn’t I?” Martin was dismayed, so much for getting off lightly.
“Yes, but only under duress. And you didn’t seriously expect to escape proper retribution for your earlier behaviour did you?” His father smiled drily. “No one gets away with making rude noises and swearing at me.”
“What about dinner?” Martin suddenly noticed that there was no sign of an evening meal being prepared. “I’m hungry.”
His mother handed him a tray with a sandwich, an apple, a banana and a glass of milk on it. “Take it upstairs with you, there’s a good boy. Brush your teeth and go straight to bed after you’ve eaten it.”
Poor Martin stared in bewilderment at the tray, “but why can’t I have a proper dinner?”
“Because I’m not making one this evening Martin. Your father and I are taking Paul out for dinner.” Taking his elbow, his mother guided him towards the stairs. “Mrs Bell is coming into sit. I know you won’t cause her any problems by leaving your room, or being difficult.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek, ignoring his tears, “I love you very much, but your behaviour has been appalling today and you don’t deserve treats.”
“Hiya, daddy.” Sean wandered into the kitchen, where his father was sitting enjoying a cup of tea after returning home from a two ‘til ten shift at the steelworks.
“Hiya son,” he smiled, “it’s a bit late for you to be up. Go back to bed there’s a good lad.”
“Do you wanna ‘ave a look at my spotty penis?”
Mr Archer sprayed tea halfway across the kitchen.
“Are you ready Martin?”
“Ready dad.” Martin stood poised, bat in hand waiting for his father to bowl.
Martin struck, and then stood dumbfounded as his bat parted company with its handle.
Paul thought he would die laughing at the expression on his cousin’s face as he stared, open mouthed from the stump in his hand, to the bat on the ground. He doubled over holding his aching ribs.
“This has been tampered with.” Thomas examined the bat closely, noting the clean saw marks and, he thought grimly to himself, it doesn’t take a genius to guess by whom.
Martin started crying, his beautiful beloved bat that he’d spent hours and hours rubbing with linseed oil was completely ruined.
Paul saw the expression on his uncle’s face and abruptly stopped laughing. He started to run instead, yelling over his shoulder. “It was a joke uncle Thomas, just a little joke!”
Martin, still holding the severed handle, listened in satisfaction outside the dining room door as sounds like pistol shots rang out, closely followed by his cousin’s yells of grief.
Copyright Ester Phillips / Cat 2015