An April Fool – a short story

Edith paused at the door. She could hear laughter inside. She knew what she would see when she opened it. Highlighted by the sun streaming through the window, she would see her classmates giggling together over a joke, or a secret, which they either wouldn’t or couldn’t share with her. She reached up to her chest and touched the tiny bump made by her silver Saint George medallion. It hung around her neck concealed under her uniform tunic and blouse next to her skin. She said a soft prayer to herself. “Saint George, be with me, help me face and fight my dragons!” The Saint George was new; her mother gave it to her to help her combat her feelings of hopeless rejection by her classmates. Her mother, a most practical and generally unspiritual person instructed Edith that when she felt threatened or unhappy she was to remember Saint George and to know that he was there to assist her in fighting her dragons. As she drew upon her strength to open the door, she heard the Durham Cathedral bells chiming nine am followed by bell ringing in the hall. Both heralded a call to class. Edith took a deep breath, clasped the cold door knob and, opened the door. The girls inside the room turned and stared at her. Katie, an attractive athletic blond, and unquestionably the most popular girl in the class, approached her. Katie was the oldest in the class as her eighth birthday was in September. She was tall for her age and towered over Edith, who was naturally small and was almost a year younger with a birthday in August. Katie came close and bent down so that Edith could feel her breath on her cheeks.

“Hey Edith” she said, “you’ve still got your breakfast on your face; it’s even on your blouse!” She giggled and turned to encourage the others to join in. Midst the ensuing laughter, Edith instinctively put her hand up to her face and then looked down at her blouse. Could she have had dirty hands and soiled her clothes when she felt for Saint George?

“I, I didn’t know,” She stammered. “I’ll go to the bathroom.” She glanced at their mocking faces wishing that she could melt into the floor.

“April fool!” yelled the class in unison, “April fool.”

Their teacher came in. The girls stood to attention and greeted her, “Good morning Miss Harrison.” Miss Harrison led them in the Lord’s Prayer and then turned and wrote 1 April, 1953 in bold script on the top of the black chalk-board. Her white chalk made a familiar rasping sound as it passed over the dark surface of the board. Over the course of the morning’s instruction, Edith began to understand the significance of 1 April and that April fool was an acceptable custom reserved for April first. Katie told Miss Harrison that her dress was hitched at the back. Louise said that her mother had fallen and broken an arm. Miss Harrison merely smiled at each comment and told her class that she was not falling for their April fool’s antics.

Edith clutched her wooden desk and traced her finger over the carved initials on its surface. DH, who was DH, she mused. Why would whoever was the carver carve telltale initials on her desk? Edith did her best to concentrate but when Miss Harrison came to math facts, she let her mind wander. She was confident in arithmetic and knew that if she was called upon she would be able to respond without pause. How she wished that she could revert back to those three years spent in the cocoon of a one-room school. It was a place without cliques where the older children helped the younger ones, no-one teased, and there were no April fools. She thought of her teacher, Miss Woods, a tiny woman with wispy grey hair; tweed and long lanky cardigans. Edith, and her eleven or so classmates, thought her to be inconceivably old.

“Edith,” Miss Harrison turned her, she spoke kindly, “Edith, seven eights?”

“Fifty –six” Edith responded without hesitation.

She forced herself to bring her attention back to the present, and now she heard the clank of milk bottles in the hall outside alerting her that it was almost time for morning recess. Again, she mused of the past, her ‘old’ school and to the occasional sound of boy’s voices echoing in the hall outside their cozy room. She remembered how she and the other children always hushed at the sound. They imagined the “Big Boys” of Durham School, where their classroom was located, to be as big as their voices. The Big Boys were creatures almost inhuman in their mysterious, but infrequent comings and goings. Edith smiled to herself, what wouldn’t she give to have one of those Big Boys come to this room to April fool Katie?

Miss Harrison opened the classroom door. She told Zoe, whose desk was next to Edith’s, to distribute the milk bottles which stood in a crate outside. Edith held her bottle and peeled off the aluminum cap. She was glad that it was intact; sometimes they were torn by birds making the milk inside seem even more indigestible.  Edith disliked the milk, but she knew that she was required to drink this unlikely ‘gift’ from the government. She held the bottle up to her mouth and drank. When she finished she realized that the entire class was waiting for her. As they filed out into the hall and from thence outside Katie came up behind her and pinched her arm.

“You couldn’t have done that any slower; you fool.” She hissed. “You’re not only an April fool; you’re an everyday fool!” Katie might have gone on, but as they crowded into the sunshine of the gardens where they were to enjoy their morning recess Katie’s younger sister Kara came up and touched Katie’s hand. Katie’s sneer left her face supplanted by a loving smile. She paused and bent over her sister.

“Hey poppet[1],” she said, “you go and play with your friends. Be good.”

Recess was always held outside. There were no swings or slides in the gardens of their playground. They sloped down to a wall along the River Wear towpath. The children played Cowboys and Indians in the wooded area, ball on the lawns, and hop-scotch on the pressed dirt paths. Edith hated Cowboys and Indians as the unpopular girls got to be Indians, among them the lowest echelon was to be an Indian’s horse. She hated being a horse on the losing Indian side. Today was different, by an unspoken common agreement which Edith did not understand; they congregated along the steep dirt driveway which swept from the school gates down to the school’s main entrance. Generally, there was a member of the teaching staff on duty outside during recess but on this April 1st the girls were unsupervised.

It had rained during the night, and the undergrowth and trees along the narrow drive down to the main school building hung in luxuriant spender, their damp leaves and branches pendulant and laden with moisture, creating a pungent arcade of green. The air, fresh and clean brought the mantle of foliage into brilliant focus. The girls, from kindergarten up gathered along this driveway. Their children’s high pitched chatter drowned the incessant squawking of the rooks that inhabited the trees and were responsible for the white splotches on the ground below.  The excitement was because, in accordance with tradition, the sixth form[2] girls had managed to bring an old bicycle to school. This unlikely piece of equipment was retrieved from the bushes near the gate and used as a conveyance to hurtle down the vegetation and girl-lined narrow drive to come to a stop in front of the school main entrance.

Behind the main entrance, the staff sat in their cozy staff room drinking tea and making small talk. Of course, they knew what was going on outside but did not intervene.  Years ago when the tradition had begun they had rationalized that little harm could come from a bicycle, and a few happy sixth form girls enjoying April fools in front of the rest of the student body. What they might not have known was that the bicycle had no brakes and that the sixth formers rode three abreast their legs splayed out as they gathered momentum during their ride down the steep drive. On each trip, the entire student body clapped in unison. A couple of the staff peeped through their window to get a surreptitious view of the spectacle.

By the fourth pass the youngest children, including Kara were getting bored.  Edith stood near Kara on the south side of the drive, separated from the rest of her class on the north side. Just as the laden bicycle descended Kara decided to make a dash across the direct path of the bicycle to join her sister. She ran across the green-shrouded drive in front of the loaded brakeless bicycle. Edith didn’t think; she reacted. She ran behind Kara and pushed her out of harm’s way.  The effort slowed her down, and the tip of the bicycle handle bars caught her arm. She fell. The  bicycle and it’s three passengers fell on top of her. Her prostrate body made a cushion so that none of the sixth graders was hurt. It was different for Edith, she had no broken bones only cuts and bruises and an ego more damaged than by the humiliation of April fool jokes.

In the uproar which followed someone sagaciously managed to remove the bicycle and conceal it in the abundant green undergrowth, while the entire teaching staff erupted into the driveway.  Katie was by her side.

“You’re not hurt are you?’

Aided by the school nurse Katie encouraged Edith to get up. When Edith stood the nurse ushered her inside to tend to her grazed body. Edit was quiet and refused to cry. She insisted that she did not need her parents to pick her up. Her embarrassment was supreme; all she wanted was to do was to become invisible and hold Saint George in her hand. When she returned to class, Katie sat in Zoe’s desk. She passed a note to Edith. It read, “Cowboys and Indians after lunch? I want you on our team!”

[1] Poppet is a term of endearment used in North-East England.

[2] The 1953 UK lower and upper sixth forms are equivalent to the USA eleventh and twelfth grades.

6 thoughts on “An April Fool – a short story

  1. Yes, a few memories there! When your stories concern Durham of course I can instantly place them into the scenery. Durham School is still there, as I’m sure you know. But this is a wonderful story of childhood and whilst it exposes the bullying that is an undercurrent in the British private education system, it also demonstrates how one act of selflessness can change victims to heroes.

    That strikes a few chords for me, it really does.

    • Thank you Frederick. I’m glad that my descriptions conjure up true images of the real places to which I allude. The scene of the girl’s school is now an expensive residential enclave although I believe that the infamous driveway is still there!. The rampant bullying of the old British private education system is not exclusive; I have seen it in other groups of this century’s children. For example, amongst under five year-old girls in Honduras.

  2. There are so many lovely details in this; i can really sense it with all of my senses. The St. George medallion was a very nice touch. For a child who may be especially sensitive or feel like an outsider to the conventional, and become a target for that reason, school can be hell It was Edith’s own asserting herself (in spite of herself and because of her good nature) that brought change; I like that about this story. The climate caused by schoolchildren—the meanness—probably always did exist and probably always will. It’s a learning and proving ground, as Ian suggests. I find some of the latest stories in the news, about current college students needing to have “safe spaces” where they don’t have to deal with what upsets them (e.g. ideas other than their own) to be a bad omen for their generation.

    • Thank you for your insightful comments. I do wonder whether Edith’s elevation to the in crowd meant that someone else got downgraded. I agree about the college kids and hope that eventually each finds a way to navigate through society in which there will always be someone with whom one disagrees and who may discredit ones sense of self-worth. I think that the happier ones are those who achieve an inner peace through their own self-acceptance. It is odd that many of the very successful, by society’s evaluation, seem to be the unhappiest (Michael Jackson, Robin Williams etc.)

  3. We complain about today’s schools and how they can be dangerous places for our kids to visit each day, but as I recall bullying was alive and well in schools I attended up to and including high school. We learned lessons how to cope and protect ourselves along with learning in academic exercises. I think that experience prepared us for entry into the more dangerous world of business where intrigue is rife and people walk over others in their quest for top positions.

    • Bullying in the English boarding schools was rife even in the 1950s. The system was called ‘fagging’ in which a younger boy became the ‘fag’ to an older boy and became his virtual slave. Schools today appear to be better with academic systems often set up so that no-one fails but I suspect that the children still develop pecking orders and cliques. I found “The Lord of the Flies” very credible.

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