12+ The bench outside the school headmaster's office was hard. It was designed to make you squirm. But once you'd sat down, you daren't wriggle to relieve the creeping pins and needles. Because if you did, the hallway would echo with the squeak of the bench legs on the polished wooden floor and the headmaster, Old Heavy-handed Hamilton, would look up through the glass of his office door and note your fidgeting.
Fidgeting could earn a black mark against your name in the headmaster's discipline file. And that black mark could be the difference between detention and a caning.
Charlie Edwards knew the bench well. He'd sat on it many times, keeping perfectly still, reading the names of students listed in gold on the school honour boards. Charlie recognised some of the names, but his name was not among them and he knew it never would be.
"Edwards," the headmaster summoned him through the glass door. Charlie stood and walked to the door. He took one last deep breath, entered the office and stood in front of the headmaster's desk, clasping his sweaty hands behind his back. The headmaster did not look up. His pen was poised above a fresh page of the thick, foolscap discipline file, a file as familiar to Charlie as was the bench outside the headmaster's office.
"Well, Edwards, what have you been up to this time?"
Charlie swallowed. "Um, nothing, sir."
"Don't try and be smart, Edwards," rebuked the headmaster, still looking down at the page, making a small black cross in the punishment column. "Who told you to report to me?"
"No one sent me, Mr Hamilton," Charlie replied, trying to keep his voice calm. "I've come on my own."
The headmaster lifted his head and gave Charlie a sharp, unfriendly stare. He noted with some surprise the boy standing in front of him was wearing a school uniform. Or at least, what passed for a uniform these days. In twenty years as a headmaster, Hamilton had steadfastly opposed any relaxation of school dress standards and discipline. As ex-army, he knew the benefit of a uniform. But nowadays, a headmaster's authority seemed secondary to the wishes of politicians, bureaucrats and parents.
"Are you trying to be funny, Edwards," Hamilton snapped, marking another black cross in the punishment column.
Charlie gripped his hands tighter behind his back. He had known this visit would not be easy, but he also knew the hardest part was yet to come.
"No, sir, I'm not trying to be fu-funny," he stammered nervously. "I've done nothing wrong ... this time. As I said, I've come here on my own." Charlie swallowed - his mouth felt dry. "I want to talk to you, Mr Hamilton, about ... about next year."
The headmaster lowered his pen. "Next year?"
"Yes, sir, I've come to see you about changing some of my subjects for next year."
"Changing subjects? Next year?" A faint smile flickered across Hamilton's lips, which he quickly extinguished. "I don't think there's any need to discuss next year's subjects, Edwards. From what I understand, you won't be coming back to school, next year. And just as well, for all concerned," he added, leafing back through Charlie's thick wad of pages in the discipline file.
Charlie licked his lips. "Well sir, that was my intention, but ... but I've changed my mind. I want to come back next year and finish high school and sit my final exams."
The headmaster glared at Charlie. Surely this was another one of the boy's countless pranks. He cocked his pen and began filling in the sheet in the discipline file. "You've wasted enough of my time, Edwards," he said briskly. "I'm giving you two hours of detention for this latest escapade. Be thankful it's not detention with a caning as well."
"Please sir," Charlie pleaded, "I'm not trying to waste your time, I do want to come back and finish high school next year."
The headmaster's pen froze mid-sentence. He looked up at the boy again. Charlie's face was shiny with sweat. Hamilton had based his own modest success in the army and education system on two factors: iron discipline and an ability to judge character. On Charlie's first visit to the headmaster's office, he had summed up the boy as a no-hoper. It wasn't a matter of intelligence, he had brains enough, but the boy lacked direction and discipline. Charlie's subsequent visits had left Hamilton with the opinion the boy would end up in jail, or worse! But now he saw something different in Charlie's eyes: an urgency. Was it fear?
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"What's brought about this change of heart, Edwards? Have your parents finally talked some sense into you?"
"No sir, they've got nothing to do with it, I haven't told them, it's purely my decision."
Hamilton took in a breath and eyed the boy warily. "Then why? Why the change of heart, Edwards?"
A line of sweat rolled down Charlie's neck, tickling his skin as it trickled along the collar of his unfamiliar school shirt. Charlie longed to scratch it; he longed to turn and flee from the office. But he didn't dare move. Charlie knew he was teetering on the brink of a caning and, worse still, of losing his only chance of returning next year and finishing high school.