The Unforgiving Minute
Mr Jex spun out the words to indicate the difficulty of the task. Carol adjusted her position on the hard wooden chair, tossing her curly, red-gold ponytail in delight at the prospect of committing to memory another new poem. She hoped Mr Jex would choose to test her, for she knew she would be not only word perfect, but would perform the poem beautifully.
‘I expect everrrrry one of you to know this poem perrrrrfectly by heart by tomorrow. I will be testing you!’ As he spoke the last, threatening sentence he tipped his head back and looking down his long nose stared into the eyes of Wiggy McGuigan. Wiggy returned the stare, wiping a new line of snot onto his threadbare grey sleeve and giving a terminal sniff. There was a faint sman from the Boys At The Back.
That afternoon Carol walked home alone. She had no desire today to be delayed by the other girls’ dawdling and idle chatter. She hugged her leather satchel, thrilled by its contents and the task that lay ahead.
As she entered the kitchen her mother turned to her with a smile and proffered a glass of milk.
‘No, thanks’, she said, ‘I’ve got loads of homework!’
She rushed up to her bedroom. No Crackerjack or Blue Peter tonight! She threw her gabardine coat onto the bed and took her poetry book from the satchel. She smoothed her hand over the puppies-in-baskets wrapping paper she had used for its cover. Eyes closed, she sniffed the book’s sharp nearly-newness and savoured the creaking sound of tight-stitched glossy paper rubbing over itself as she opened it. With due reverence, she placed the volume onto the Formica-topped table and sat down on the stool that had once belonged in the kitchen, her legs dangling. She took a deep breath through her nose and read aloud the title, ‘If’. The very word offered promise!
She read the poem though in silence, thrilled by each new sentiment as she met it. She swore that its ideals were those she would live her life by. She read each line aloud, closing her eyes and repeating it before moving on to the next. By the time her mother called her downstairs for supper she was pretty sure she had the first two stanzas committed to memory.
Her father was newly home from the office. He hugged Carol close and asked her about her homework. His coarse tweed jacket with its creaking leather elbow patches bore the comforting smell of tobacco smoke. Carol treated him to a flawless performance of the piece so far learned. She stiffened a little when her father joined in with some of the lines but, in the spirit of the poem, said nothing. After eating her prawn sandwich, Carol spread herself a slice of spongy, white bread thick with butter and blackberry jelly and gulped down her cup of sweet, milky tea. Claiming exceptional circumstances, she was permitted to take the jammy piece up to her bedroom to complete her homework.
Outside night was falling. The scrawny black shadow of a climbing rose thrashed itself against the window beyond the curtains. Inside Carol worked on learning the poem. She savoured its heartbeat
rhythm and its precise, alternating rhymes. Soon she could not only recite it perfectly but also write it without so much as a comma out of place. The poem was hers forever; inscribed on her heart to be pulled from her memory whenever she needed guidance on Doing What Was Right.
That night she went to bed contented. The cool, clean sheets smoothed against her legs and the soft pillow cushioned her head. As she drifted to sleep she dreamed of Mr Jex smiling and rocking on his brown slip-on shoes as he listened with mounting pleasure and utter satisfaction as Carol performed If before the entire school. Such was the glory of her performance, she rose angelic above the assembly and floated over the hall, her white nightgown billowing, fluffy rabbit slippers on her feet, reciting clearly and distinctly (as her mother had taught her) Kipling’s words to a tearful crowd of teachers and children. Gazing down she saw Wiggy McGuigan arms stretched aloft, grey jersey barely covering his oxters, cheering her on. She smiled down upon him, and waved a discreet greeting as she reached the final, uplifting phrase, that she delivered directly to him, ‘you’ll be a Man, my son!’ With this she whizzed away on a Disney swirl of fairy dust, through the open Gym door and off into the pink-clouded distance.
The next morning Carol got up early. She selected her favourite white socks, pants and vest for luck. She was pleased with her new zip-fronted pinafore dress that had recently replaced scratchy serge gymslip; it sparked like firecrackers as she pulled it over her nylon blouse. As her mother brushed her hair, Carol recited the poem. She put on her blue Clark’s sandals running her finger over their crisp white stitching and admiring their yellow soles. So much nicer than the clumpy black shoes she had just outgrown!
She called on Meredith, feeling a bit guilty for avoiding her after school yesterday. She came out, a slice of cold, charred toast in hand and clutching under one arm a brown paper carrier bag with string handles that she seemed not to trust.
‘Do you know the poem?’ Carol asked her.
Meredith shrugged. ‘Kind of. I’m hoping Sexy Jexy winna ask me.’
Carol was shocked. ‘Don’t say that word, Meredith!’
‘It’s what Wiggy calls him. Fit dis it mean, onywey?’
Carol wasn’t too sure, but she knew her mother would not have approved. ‘Do you want me to test you?’
‘On the poem? No. Nae really.’
Her favourite subject dismissed, Carol had nothing more to say and let Meredith jabber on about how she was going to get her hair done like Lulu’s and wear thick black eye make up as soon as she was old enough. As they reached the playground a game of elastic was just starting. The girls ran over to join in. Awaiting their turn, talk in the queue got round to last night’s homework.
‘It wis sair haird, I reckon,’ Hazel attested. ‘My dad reckons it was unco lang for us tae hae tae learn.’
‘Ay. Far ower lang’, voices in the queue agreed.
‘I dinna ken it at a’,’ someone admitted.
‘I learned it,’ Carol said. Then, sensing the mood of the crowd, added, ‘But it took me ages. Right up to bedtime, and I didn’t get to see any television.’
‘Ay. It was far o’er muckle tae larn by the morn’s morn. We shouldnae be spending a’ oor free time learning stupit poems.’
As the game progressed and moved onto ‘kneesies’ with no-one yet out, a group of boys came over. Wiggy seemed to have been elected spokesman.
‘Fit did you quines mak o’ the hamework?’
There was general uproar about the scale of the task.
Wiggy continued, ‘Some i us forgot awthegither and some ithers fa mindit canna mind half o’ it, so we’ve cam’ up wi’ a ploy’.
The game stopped. The ‘posts’ stepped out of the elastic loop. One of them folded it into a roll and placed it in her pocket. The girls were all ears.
‘But it winna work unless yous all agree,’ Wiggy admitted. He checked his audience for their attention. It was rapt. ‘We reckon if we a’ say Jexy nivver telt us tae learn it, that we nivver heard o’ thon poem or any chiel ca’d Rugyard Kiplet..’
‘Rudyard Kipling,’ Carol corrected, then blushed as Wiggy shot her a glance.
‘So we reckon, we all say we hae nae mynd o’ it, we nivver heard o’ it, that he nivver telt us tae learn it and he’ll think he makkit a mistak and we’ll get aff wi’ it.’ Wiggy had the air of a Trades Unionist getting his men to agree to an all out strike. ‘Fit dae yous reckon?’
There was excitement and agreement from the girls. ‘Ay, he’ll reckon he’s awa wi’ it!’
‘Serve him richt, gien us o’er muckle hamework.’
Carol said nothing. She focused her gaze on her blue sandals as she pulled up her white socks.
When the bell rang, the walk to the classroom seemed endless. By the time Carol was at her desk she was feeling sick. There was a buzz of excited anticipation in the room that did nothing to calm her nerves. Wiggy was chewing gum wide mouthed, sitting halfway sideways on his chair and catching the eyes of The Boys At The Back who giggled in reciprocation. Mr Jex eyed him with suspicion, instructing Wiggy to turn to face front with a waggle of his finger. As he read through the register Carol wished she was at home sick, or might be taken ill and rushed off to hospital out of her terrible situation.
As Mr Jex reached for his poetry anthology Carol was shaking hard. She could feel the flush of her cheeks and her stomach was rumbling. She scarcely breathed in the vain hope that she might become invisible.
‘If,’ announced Mr Jex, pulling back the covers of his text. ‘Who’s first?’
Carol lowered her head and stared at her hands, clasped and sweaty on her lap. She was praying now, making bargains about being good forever, becoming a nun, anything!
‘Gordon McGuigan. Let’s hear you. Stand up so we can all hear.’
Wiggy grinned, still chewing. ‘Hear fit, Sir?’
‘Empty your mouth, boy!’
He did so and returned nonchalantly to his desk, kicking aside his chair.
‘If, Gordon, thank you.’
‘If what, Sir?’ Wiggy said, a picture of innocence.
At least half the class smaned. Carol, head still down, bit her lip.
‘Your homework, McGuigan. The poem I asked you to learn by heart. Word perfect. Let’s hear it!’
Wiggy did an exaggerated shrug. ‘Poem, Sir? Fit poem?’
‘You know perfectly well what poem! Are you telling me you haven’t learned it?’
Wiggy raised his eyebrows and donned an expression of utter astonishment. ‘Poem, Sir? You didnae ask us to learn a poem, Sir. Did he, boys?’
There was a general muttering in agreement. Mr Jex’s eyes flew round the room, gaining contact with Meredith’s.
‘Stand up, please, Meredith. Let’s hear if you remember any better than Gordon McGuigan.’
Meredith stood up slowly. Wiggy at the next group of desks gave her an encouraging smile. Meredith looked Mr Jex in the eye. ‘Poem, Sir? What poem?’
From around the room her words were echoed, soon the whole class were shaking their heads and denying knowing anything about the homework. The whole class, that is, except Carol. She sat motionless and sweating. Tears were forming in her eyes, she prayed that the inevitable would not happen.
‘Carol.’ Mr Jex paused. ‘If.’
Carol looked up into his eyes, helpless and pleading. Mr Jex indicated that she should rise. She did so slowly and her chair toppled behind her. A silence fell over the room. Wiggy leaned towards her willing her on. Mr Jex nodded.
Carol breathed in. The sentiment of the poem that had so moved her rushed through her. Without moving her head she glanced at Wiggy who, mouth open, was making a noise like new potatoes being scraped.
A cheer erupted. Mr Jex, now purple, spun on his heel and stormed out of the classroom. Wiggy and The Boys At The Back jumped up on their chairs and desks and danced in victory.
‘I love you Carol Smith!’ Wiggy cried.
Carol, chin in one hand let the silent tears fall unbidden onto her desk.
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