A story by Mark Bickerton previously published by William Aston as “Mr Spedding’s Dragon”.
“Which house did you say?” said Mr Johnson.
“Kestrel,” said Neil.
“Ah, Kestrel. It always struck me as amusing to name them after birds. I never said as much to the Headmaster of course.”
“You taught me for five years,” said Neil, trying not to sound annoyed at being unremembered still.
“Such a long time ago, you see,” said Mr Johnson, “And I’m afraid my faculties, they er…”
They were in the kitchen of Mr Johnson’s large Georgian house in Didsbury, drinking tea from the pot he’d freshly brewed, from bone china cups belonging to a set he explained was missing two cups and three saucers due to breakage. And if Mrs Johnson were still alive she’d be vexed with him for being so clumsy.
Neil had been back in Didsbury for two months having spent the previous forty years elsewhere. He’d taken a flat near to where Mr Johnson lived, but in the not-so-leafy and sought-after part because it was all he could afford. The six-month tenancy he’d signed would be enough, he’d decided, before he’d move on again, because that was his way. He was a freelance journalist and he always felt the necessity to go and look for story rather than wait for it to come to him, or at any rate that was his philosophy, and anyway journo or no journo he enjoyed travel, seeing new places, meeting people, some of them new some of them old…
They’d bumped into each other in the high street that morning or, to be more accurate, Neil bumped into Mr Johnson.
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Neil.
“That’s quite alright young man,” said the old man.
“Sir!” exclaimed Neil, “It’s you!”
“I’m sorry I…”
“Mr Johnson! Grammar School! Woodwork!”
“Ah yes indeed. I taught there for a long time bang to rights. But I…”
“Sorry Sir, Neil Welsh.”
“Neil Walsh, er…”
“Welsh. Neil you say?”
“Oh now come come,” said Mr Johnson with a touch of irritation, “I’m sure there’s no need to call me Sir after all this erm…”
“Forty years,” said Neil.
“Forty years. Well now. Is it?”
And they’d talked a little while on the pavement outside Costa, Neil explaining he was a journalist and back in the area, and Mr Johnson joking he can’t have been a very inspiring teacher if he hadn’t considered carpentry as a profession, and recalling with sadness that he’d been retired for over thirty years and didn’t get out much as he was only able to walk with the aid of a stick; he’d thought about one of those mobility whassanames but reckoned he’d be a hazard to children. And they’d laughed at that, causing Mr Johnson to wobble slightly and Neil having to steady him. Mr Johnson had said he was right as ninepence but Neil had insisted he’d walk him to his house to make sure he got home safely, and if it was just around the corner it was absolutely no trouble, he wasn’t in any kind of hurry. He didn’t correct Mr Johnson when he suggested carpentry hadn’t been something to consider as a profession.
“Now for that cup of tea,” he said to Neil when he’d helped him through the hall and into the kitchen at the far end of the house, “By way of remuneration for your kindness.”
“There’s no need to think of it like that,” said Neil, “You’re very welcome. You nearly came quite a cropper there.”
“And not for the first time!” laughed Mr Johnson, filling the kettle, “I was a fool to venture out, bound to be busy on what I believe they call Black Friday. All nonsense in my view.” His hands were unsteady, causing some of the water to splash on his clothes though he seemed not to notice.
It was a large gloomy kitchen which Neil could see led off to other smaller gloomier rooms, perhaps a laundry room and downstairs toilet. He knew lots of houses like this, many of which now converted into flats, and was somehow reassured that this was one of the survivors, yet somehow would have to admit if challenged that it was a waste as it probably had six bedrooms that could house six persons instead of just a single elderly one. It depended how you looked at it, he supposed, as he watched the old man swill boiling water around the teapot before tipping it out then putting in two spoonfuls of tea in and refilling it.
“Now we’ll allow that to brew for a while,” he said, “while we take the weight off our feet.”
“I feel guilty,” said Neil, “I should’ve offered to make it.”
“Nonsense!” said Mr Johnson, “Now, which house did you say?
“Neil Walsh, Kestrel.”
“Neil Welsh. You didn’t perhaps have an older brother?”
“No,” said Neil, “I’m an only child.”
“And were you particularly bright? It would worry me if you were particularly bright you see, because I always remember the particularly bright ones.”
“Really,” muttered Neil.
“I said neither particularly bright nor utterly dim.”
“Ah,” said Mr Johnson, rising slowly from his chair to pour the tea.
“I suppose I was average really.”
“Do help yourself to milk and sugar, as much as you need of course.”
“Thank you,” said Neil, “Anyway it doesn’t matter.”
“That you can’t remember me, it doesn’t matter.”
“So many students come and go you see. So many faces, so many names. You’re not the first to stop me in the street or in a shop and say “Hello Mr Johnson!” and I say “Hello!” and can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“Perhaps they don’t all bump into you and nearly send you flying,” laughed Neil.
“That’s true, er…” Mr Johnson said, looking at him over the rim of his cup, his shaking hand causing it to wobble and spill into the saucer. He had beady eyes still, but nowadays magnified by very thick spectacles, and his hair that was always cropped was balding and grown long at the back, probably fixed in place with Brylcreem or something or other. Back then, Neil only ever saw him in a white overall so it was difficult to tell if he was tidy or unkempt, but easy now to see it was the latter – his brown trousers were shiny from many years’ use and there was a slight evidence of cack at the rear, his shirt had a dirty neck and his tie hadn’t been tucked under the collar on one side. The cardigan that covered it was badged with various dinners.
“Sadly I don’t seem to bother much these days,” he said, as if reading Neil’s mind, “With anything. People. I don’t socialise you see, most of my friends and colleagues are dead. I don’t know if you recall Eddie Latham, Mr Latham to you?”
“The last of the gang to die. They buried him four years ago, I think. I went to his funeral, packed to the rafters it was! Oh there were many alumni in attendance, a popular man, a fine man and a fine teacher. I thought “It’ll be you next, Johnson.” Sometimes I’m surprised to wake up in the morning. Sometimes I say to myself “Oh God not again!” Some days go by and I speak to nobody but myself. If at all. Yes I’m afraid you get out of the habit of talking when you get to this age. Not much chance of the chapel being packed to the rafters when I pop me clogs! Ha ha.”
“That is sad,” said Neil, and might have added “but true.”
Though Neil was irked not to be remembered, he was not in the slightest surprised. Looking at the frail old thing that sat across the table from him, you wouldn’t believe he used to be a giant and a tyrant of a man, feared by all the pupils and, Neil shouldn’t wonder, by the staff too. In fact, if Johnson had told the Head he found the idea of naming forms after birds amusing, it’s conceivable that the Head would’ve taken flight in terror. It was no surprise at all to Neil that he lived alone and had no friends. He wondered even if Mr Latham was actually his friend. And it would be no shock at all if Johnson were cremated with not a single soul in the chapel to sit in black and mumble Crimond.
“How long ago did Mrs Johnson die?” he asked, after a lengthy pause, “if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not at all,” he said, “Let me see, must be ten years. Ah she was ready to go in the end. Nasty business it was. Nasty nasty business.”
“Alzheimers, poor girl. Oh they said I could put her in a home of course. I didn’t think that right, you understand. We said till death us do part and we meant it! She wasn’t going into a home, not as long as I was still breathing!” Johnson banged the table at that, causing the spoons to dance, then needed a drink of tea to wet his mouth.
“So what happened?”
“Poor girl fell. That’s what did for her in the end, not the bloody Alzheimers.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Lost her footing on them stairs she did.”
Neil looked behind him down the corridor to the hall, where the newel post acted as Johnson’s coat-hanger, and imagined the poor old girl lying at the foot of the stairs, then looked back at Johnson and saw he was crying.
“I’m very sorry Sir,” he said, “I didn’t mean to bring it all up.”
“I was out at the time, at the chemist, fetching her medicines. To this day I wish I’d been quicker, then perhaps…”
“I’m very sorry Sir,” Neil repeated again.
“Nonsense,” Johnson spat, shaking out of the awful memory, “And I thought we’d agreed you would refrain from calling me Sir!”
“It’s just I remember her too,” said Neil, “English right?”
“And a very fine teacher she was. Respected.”
“She had a temper, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Ha ha. The dragon I would call her. Affectionately only you understand, and in the home not in work. She did have a temper, like me I suppose. But I respected her,” he said proudly, “Like she respected me. I was deeply impressed with her knowledge of Shakespeare, she could recite long long passages from most if not all of his works, plays, sonnets alike. And she was deeply impressed with my carpentry skills.”
“Oh yes,” Johnson said, rising to replenish their cups, “she was a great fan of my carvings you know. One in particular gave her immense pleasure. Pride of place on the bedroom wall for years and still is. I used to say it was a bugger to dust, so intricate were its markings, so minute was the detail in places, worked with chisels large and needle-thin. But she wouldn’t let me move it you see.”
It’s true Johnson had a temper, Neil remembered all too well. He could also be unfair and cruel. During exams in his fourth year, Johnson was the adjudicator sitting at the front of Kestrel, where Neil was poring over his history paper. When handed in, the pupils were supposed to wait while the adjudicator gathered in the papers and made sure they were all present and alphabetical. But Johnson went further and began to read, and suddenly laughed sarcastically. As the pupils fidgeted and exchanged nervous glances, wondering whose paper caused such mirth, Johnson sensed the current, looked Neil in the eye and said, “Yes it’s yours lad, and don’t expect me not to pour scorn on it. I am not in the habit of celebrating mediocrity.” Neil could only look at his neighbour and shrug, but inside he was maddened and humiliated, and privately afterwards he’d wept in the toilets. Then came the time when he handed in his piece for woodwork, which over the weeks and months he’d toiled with great care and, he thought, dexterity and artistry. But when Johnson received his piece he dismissed it to the floor and said, “Not what was asked for lad! It’s a waste of good timber. I hardly think it’s going to be carpentry for you! You will only ever be average in whatever you amount to if you amount to anything at all!” But Johnson was wrong, it was a brilliant carving of a dragon he’d summoned from the depths of his imagination having been read mythical stories by his father at bedtime. Pratchett, Tolkien, and stories his father had made up himself of weird characters and monsters, dragons and the phoenix. The carving he handed in was to him, and incidentally to his classmates, evocative, beautiful and worthy of any wall. And carpentry happened to be the thing Neil most loved, and most wanted to consider as a profession. Weeks later, when it came to collecting the work and taking it home to show their parents, Johnson told him it was no longer in the store cupboard, he’d thrown it away. In those days there was no recourse to complain; the Grammar School system was like that, punishments were given and taken, blows were dealt and suffered with smarting, cruelty taken as read. It didn’t matter if you were particularly bright or average or poor, cruelty was allowed and encouraged to breed on a level playing field. And actually Neil was particularly bright, memorably so, and forty years on he often reflected on that, harbouring the resentment at the humiliation, the fact that if his teachers had been better, he may have fared better too, that it wasn’t his innate ability that was in question, more the boredom and disinterest felt in uninspiring lessons.
Neil decided to ride the bus back, the weight of the thing in his bag not inconsiderable. But he walked to the bus stop with purpose, the surety of his gait contrasting with the uncertainty in his mind. Was this actually the carving? It didn’t matter that he’d engineered bumping into Johnson in the street, or that he’d insisted quite forcefully on escorting the man home after his near fall. And it made no odds that he’d said he was very thirsty on the doorstep of Johnson’s home, and lied he was diabetic and needed the sugar and a sweet cup of tea was essential or there’d be another incident and this time an ambulance would be necessary. He felt a twinge of guilt at the look of anguish in the man’s eyes when he said that, and the sweat on the man’s brow. But like that man, Neil would shrug off the memory of that nasty nasty business. The memory of humiliation and shame, the dullness of lessons, the cruelty, the uncorroborated or unreported stories of what happened in the store room, the dubiousness of Johnson’s version of events to the police surrounding the dragon’s death. Like Johnson he would shrug off the memory of being caught in the man’s bedroom having gone upstairs on the pretext of needing the toilet, the claim and counter-claim, the deal he tried to broker that meant if he got what was his he’d make no historical accusations, the brief and slight struggle that followed before his departure from the house. Yes, he was not to be feeling too bad about what he’d done, because he’d done it for a reason.
So when he found his seat on the bus he took the carving from his bag. He ran his fingers over it, recognising and enjoying its cold curves, its contours, the way the grain worked and he’d worked with the grain. “A lovely piece of timber, Welsh,” Johnson had said, “Teak. An expensive piece lad so don’t waste it.” And he hadn’t wasted it, he’d made it work, he’d created a thing of beauty inspired by his father and the stories he read to him at bedtime, the thing he was enjoying right now, that was worthy of any wall. And when he turned it over, there on the back and faintly but definitely, was his final mark of the chisel – the letters N W.
“That’s nice,” said a lady opposite, “Who made it?”
“A fifteen-year-old boy called Neil Welsh who would probably not amount to much,” he proudly said, and clutched the thing to his chest.