My dreams, my plans, my future, my whole life smashed into a thousand pieces. The school’s decision to place me into a non-academic class had killed a twelve-year-old boy. My exam results were not good enough. Hanging around the local café with my pals every night hadn’t helped. All of us were facing vocational education. It didn’t bother any of them, but it bothered me.
I had tried to study, but it wasn’t easy. There was no lighting nor heating in the bedrooms, let alone a desk and chair. Whilst downstairs in the living room my siblings and parents were always arguing about something. The noise of them shouting and screaming at each other was even louder than the television. Often the quarrels would lead to violence. Either my brothers were fighting with each other or my father exerting his authority, by using his large frame to beat my brothers or my mother. I sat under the stairs pretending to be invisible and doing my homework. But they could still see me. ‘Do you think that you’re better than us, you lazy shit?’ The question rotated between my brothers and my father but was always accompanied by a kick or a punch. No, I didn’t think I was better than them, but I was different.
I was the youngest of four brothers, slightly built and short for my age but I was fairly smart too. My teachers said that I was intelligent and should make the most of my potential but my father didn’t care. He wanted me to be the same as my brothers. Most of their schooling didn’t suit them, but they liked working with their hands and enjoyed their craft classes. Three wooden fish sat on our mantelpiece, testimony to their skills. I had no wish to add to the tally.
I wanted to make something, though. A future, away from this hell which masqueraded as life. A decent education was to be my escape tunnel. My plan was to keep my head down and burrow away until I had achieved the qualifications required to join the Merchant Navy. I would then leave this black hole behind and never return. But the light at the end of my tunnel had suddenly gone, just like the electricity in the house which had been cut off because of unpaid bills. I had received no final reminders, no warnings in red ink but it had gone all the same. No one had seen the switch being thrown or the narrow walls and low roof collapsing around me, trapping me underground in a dark and claustrophobic world.
I walked out of the school gates in a trance and wandered for one hour after another until my legs turned to stone. I don’t know where I went, or how far I walked but in the gloom of night, I reached the bleak council house where I slept. I found no solace in the dimness of my bedroom. The moon shone through the windows, where curtains had never hung, and I could make out the shapes of my brothers as they lay sleeping, oblivious to my pain. My bullying siblings, my tormentors and now my mentors to be.
Exhausted, I crept under the old coat, my pauper’s duvet. The course horsehairs of its fabric prickled my naked skin, whilst I struggled to find a spot free from the sharp rusty springs which protruded from the urine-stained mattress, I then pulled the coat over my head and lay motionless as I cried myself to sleep.
As usual, I rose at 4 am and dressed in the dark before stumbling downstairs. I paused for a moment before opening the living-room door, knowing that I would be greeted by the stench of last night’s cigarettes, beer and whisky and wondering if he, who claimed to be my father, would be slouched out on ‘his’ chair with his fag doubts stubbed out on top of his last can of McEwan’s IPA or if he had managed to stumble upstairs to his bed.
Sadly, this morning I was welcomed to the sight of ‘him’ sat there on his throne, snoring in a drunken stupor. Gently shaking his shoulders I woke him up. ‘Dad, dad’ I repeated. Before the ogre awoke and pushed past me. I was oblivious to his cursing as I forced open the reluctant windows to let in some much needed fresh air before tidying up the disgusting debris. The dregs from the glasses and butts from the overflowing ashtrays before washing them in the kitchen sink. I poured the remains of the beer cans away knowing that if I didn’t before I sneaked out the back door to be welcomed to a brand new day. Every dawn should give us a fresh start, new challenges, and new hope, but this morning a dark cloud greeted me. I clambered over the barbed-wire fence. My oversized Wellington boots seemed heavier than usual as I lumbered through the grey grass towards the farm where I worked to pay my keep.
David Mackie, the dairyman who hired me for the local farm, gave me much more than a job milking 120 Ayrshire cows every day. He gave me confidence and self-respect too. He treated me as a colleague, a friend, a young man. David was even taller than my father and heavy set. Not once did I hear him raise his voice, nor see him raise his hand, in anger. He must have been ten years younger than my dad, but he was more of a father figure than the fifty-year-old alcoholic who beat me with a leather belt.
David picked up on my low mood. The red puffy rings which had formed around my tear-stained eyes told a story. The usual cheery Stuart Henshaw replaced by a troubled twin. David did not question me about my mournful mood but during the next three hours, we chatted until he understood the reason for my sullenness. He wanted to see me do well at school and encouraged me to meet the Head Master direct and make my case. ‘Stuart you are a smart lad with a bright future ahead of you, don’t throw it away. Tell him you want to study. Let him know how much education means to you. Beg for a second chance’.
A few hours later, I found myself in the corridor outside the Head’s Office. For nearly ninety minutes, I sat there before being summoned into his office. As I entered the room the enormity of the situation hit me. I stood there alone, vulnerable and shaking. For an age, my lips refused to move but then nervously I uttered my words. Although I had rehearsed them in my mind, they still sounded foreign when spoke out loud. I appealed to him to give me a chance to prove myself.
‘I’m sorry, I should have done better. I’m capable of more, ask my teachers. Education means everything to me, if you give me another chance I won’t let you down, I’ll study harder than anyone else. I’ll be the perfect pupil. Please, I’m begging you’.
Mr Marshal listened to my plea and then mulled things over. The room filled with the deafening sound of silence. And then slowly he began to speak ‘the decision cannot be reversed’.
A knife stabbed me in my heart, my head drooped forward, and my legs gave way. I was sinking, drowning. But then I heard his voice continue. He was throwing me a lifeline. I resurfaced gasping for air, but still alive. He towered over me, his dark brown eyes, magnified by his thick spectacles, peered down at me. His manicured moustache moved up and down. ‘I will speak to your teachers and consider the options. Come back in two days’. His words were few, but they meant a lot. They gave me hope.
After the longest forty-eight hours of my short life, I was back standing in front of his gigantic oak table. At the other end sat Mr Marshal in a huge leather chair.
I listened in silence as his commanding voice announced my sentence. He wouldn’t allow me to transfer into the academic class, but I could repeat the second year. On one condition, though, I would need to place in the top six of the class. I accepted, without hesitation. We had a deal.
For the next ten months, I spent every evening studying in the Struantoun Library. My parents sat next door in the local pub, drinking their lives away. They didn’t know where I was and cared even less. I wasn’t bitter, I appreciated that life couldn’t have been easy for them, bringing up four children with little money. The horrors of World War II were never spoken but a curved Ghurkhas’ knife adorned our living-room wall, acting as a silent reminder of their past. They had fought for a better future but did they get one?
I also fought for a better future. I sacrificed my childhood and lost my friends. My new classmates wondered what I was doing in their class. ‘Why is he being kept back, is he some sort of spastic?’ I overheard someone whisper. I could have easily lashed out at him but that was my father’s way. I didn’t want it to be mine too.
Life was tough. At times, I struggled, but I persevered. I worked hard and got the results. My exams went better than I could have hoped for. I kept my part of the deal and finished in the top six. I placed first in the class.
On the day of the prize giving ceremony, I’m sure Mr Marshal winked as he presented me with my diploma and a £5 book token. I should have been happy, but I didn’t belong here. I stood out like one of the many pimples on my adolescent face. The other prize winners looked so smart, in their pressed school uniforms and shiny shoes. Their family and loved ones surrounded them. Smiling and sharing in their success.
I stood beside the door, dressed in faded jeans, a red tartan shirt, and scuffed trainers. There was no one there to congratulate me or to wipe away my tears.