There are bullies. There are idiots. Morrie Smith was both.
He was a big lad – in his final year at Junior School he towered over the other ten year olds on whom he preyed without mercy. If he had had better posture he could have looked Mr Kirk in the eye. And the teacher was a tall man. He, like most of the staff, dealt with this brute of a boy by ignoring him. Morrie sat in a double desk all to himself in the half of the room otherwise unpopulated. If his parents had been interested enough to question this the answer was ready and waiting and approved by the headmaster. It was because of Morrie's size – and the spare side of the desk was needed to accommodate the collection of objects he brought with him to school. The pathos of this was not entirely lost on Mr Kirk. He understood that the lad had nowhere to keep them at home. He was one of nine children living in a miserable hovel behind, and partly underneath, the Wesleyan chapel. His mother was the caretaker of this grim establishment. His father was a council employees , one of the “Midnight Alarm” brigade – they collected human sewage from the outside lavatories of most of the village houses.
Sybil was in Morrie's class a year earlier than the norm – she had jumped a class. She was well aware of Morrie's reputation but at first she tolerated him, even pitied him, sometimes pretending interest in the birds' eggs and other bric-a-brac in the extra compartment of his desk. But the day he began to pick on Jack her attitude changed. She watched him like a hawk after Jack told her how Morrie had tormented him behind the Games Shed.
“Did he lay a finger on you?” she demanded. “Did he hurt you?”
“No – he never touched me,” said Jack. “But he wouldn't let me go. I was hiding behind the pigswill buckets and he spread his arms and I couldn't get back to the game.”
Because she watched him closely, Sybil became aware that Morrie's behaviour was worse than she had ever suspected. He never joined in the playground games but constantly disrupted them. He did not get into scraps but jeered at these playful skirmishes, egging on the participants to “poke him in the eye,” “ kick him in the shins”, “give him what for”. He tweaked a pigtail here and there but never actually lashed out at girls or boys.
And then he suddenly became secretive about his collections. Whereas up till now he had welcomed a show of interest in his pebbles and feathers and bits of string – now he would bang the lid shut if anyone approached his desk. At the same time things began to go missing. A favourite marble, a hair slide, a set of Snobs.
The day Sybil volunteered to be blackboard monitor she seized her chance. She cleaned the board as the class filed out for Playtime. She hurried down to the yard with the “duster” - a wedge of wood with a felt face – and banged it with a ruler. Then she returned to the classroom with it, replaced it on the ledge built into the easel – and made her way to Morrie's desk in the far corner of the room. She lifted the lid. The first item she saw made her gasp. It was Jack's miniature horse shoe. Sam had made one for each of his children – small enough for a “pocketful of luck” he had said. Sybil also recognized her best friend Meg's dark blue hair ribbon, her own much-lamented blood alley marble – and Mr Kirk's bicycle clips.
Sybil knew in her heart of hearts that she should report all this to the teacher. And it was with no sense of the dishonour attached to tale-telling that she decided against this. She discussed it with Jack and Meg on the way home. The school was five minutes away from the Moss house but it often took half an hour to get there. There was the ritual gossip and some acrobatics on the railings outside the gate. Then the children would climb over the park wall into the Squire's plantation and make their way, parallel to the road, along the much more interesting pathway through the oaks and beeches, pausing now and then to dare each other to shin up to a highish branch or to gather whatever fruits were in season: beechnuts, blackberries, conkers.
“I took our stuff,” said Sybil, reclining on a large boulder while she opened her hankie bag and handed over the ribbon and the horse shoe.
“Oh, let's tell on him,” said Meg. “We could go straight to the headmaster now...”
“Yeah,” agreed Jack eagerly. “He's got a cane tha' knows ...”
“No!” Sybil was firm. “They'll make all sorts of excuses for him … him being so poor and that. We've got to find some other way.”
The discussion ended there for the moment because Jack spotted a rabbit bobbing across the cricket pitch and they all burst out of the thicket to give chase.
A few days later Fate played into their hands.
“Look what I found in the letter box,” said Meg when she called for Sybil and Jack.
It was Saturday and very early. Daisy was none too pleased, especially as Meg had left clods of mud on her white-stoned step.
“I shall have to scrub that all over again,” she scolded. “What's that you've got there, young Meg?”
Meg reluctantly handed over the small packet.
“Why – whatever next!” exclaimed Daisy. “It's a laxative sample.”
She tore off the wrapping.
“Looks like chocolate to me,” said Jack. “Better hide it from our George.”
“What's it for?” asked Sybil.
“It's to make you go – do your Number Twos,” said Daisy. “Like the syrup of figs I give you when you're constipated.”
“Tho' old Sarah's home-made concoction was a sight better than either of them,” she added.”Now, Meg, I'd best keep this for you while you're up on the Rec.
And by the way, Meg, how did you get it afore your Mam?”
“She'd not noticed it. It was wedged under the flap,” Meg explained. “It's too early for the post and the paper – so it was just sort of stuck there. I didn't see it till I was outside.”
“Ok,” said Sybil briskly. “You keep it, Mam. Come on you two or we'll not find the best place for our den.”
She hustled them out and along George Street but when they turned into West Street she stopped abruptly.
“Now, don't bombard me with questions. We've got to be quick. Just watch.”
She crept up the short path to the front door of the first cottage. Sure enough, the plain brown package was trapped in the letter box flap. Sybil eased it out with her right hand, keeping one finger of her left hand under the flap so as to close it soundlessly.
Jack was carrying a knapsack with the picnic Daisy had provided for their lunch. Sybil popped the laxative sample inside.
“You take the next house, Jack,” ordered Sybil. “You the one after, Meg. I bet we get twenty packets before we get to the Alley. And there's ten houses up there too.”
Sitting in a dip overlooking, if you stretched your neck, the hallowed bowling green on one side, the swings on the other the gang munched their potted meat sandwiches.
“Shall you sneak them into Morrie's desk?” asked Meg.
“That's the general idea,” mumbled Sybil, mouthful of bread and paste.
“Will he fall for it?” questioned Jack, reaching for a Bakewell tart.
“Well, the printing is very small – you didn't even notice it, Meg” said Sybil. “And anyway he can't read. He'll just rip them open, see chocolate – and gorge his greedy self.”
Jack put down the pastry.
“And then … ugh!”
“Mmm,” murmured Sybil. “I wonder how long they take to work ...”
Meg was peering over the top of their hiding place.
“Well, I'll go to the foot of our stairs,” she whispered. “If it isn't our neighbourhood bully himself. Careful, Jack – he'll see you.”
Jack slithered back down amongst the bread crusts and the uneaten apples.
“He's pushing that little lad off the baby swing,” he said. “And the lad's big sister looks frightened to death.”
“Right,” said Sybil. “Ready for Plan B. Do we know those kids, our Jack?”
“I think she's called Janet – she comes from Leabrooks.”
“This is what we'll do then ...”
Morrie watched the five children scuttling away. Patting the pocket full of chocolate bars he made his way up to the shelter of the dip. Just as he had thought, the remains of a picnic lay scattered. He settled down, made himself comfortable in the long grass and started on his feast.
At one o clock the Village Bowling team arrived decked out in their immaculate whites for their Saturday practice. The Green was sacrosanct. No child had ever set foot on it. The Warden, a fierce old fellow, surveyed it from his hut and was out like a shot if anyone younger than forty approached. Today however he was not quick enough. The women screamed and the men shouted as Morrie appeared in their midst, face smeared in chocolate and the rest of him smeared in something much worse.
... END ...