By PATRICK S. WOLFE
Andy sat on the bicycle rack and ate his lunch slowly without tasting it and watched Evan and the other boys playing soccer on the grade one, two and three’s field. He felt out of place and isolated sitting there. It was the first time he had not played when he could have and he was aware of the strangeness and the newness of it and he felt trapped by it and not able to do what he wanted and for the first time in his life he felt alone. He wanted to play and he knew his side needed him, but something inside him, the thing that tied the knots, wouldn’t let him. All he could do was watch and want to play and wish the knots that were inside him weren’t there.
Usually the games were very even and it was rare that either his side or Evan’s won decisively, but that wasn’t so today. His side was being beaten badly. He watched the two sides clash like two enraged swarms of bees and he saw the swarm that was his side constantly pushed back. Instead of the more even back and forth motion of the two sides across the field that was normal for their games, the movement seemed to be going mostly one way. Evan was the force at the center of his side that propelled them on and Andy saw that his own side had no force to match Evan. Knowing that discouraged him and he no longer wanted to watch the game.
He pushed off the bicycle rack and walked around the edge of the field well away from the play to the lower corner where there was a solitary oak tree and a large, smooth-surfaced rock that protruded up out of the ground. He sat down on the rock and looked back at the school which was big and brick-red and seemed to lean over the field and he thought about the afternoon to come. He didn’t like looking at the school or thinking about the afternoon so he looked at the field and thought about it instead. It was only irregularly covered with grass and there were large patches of hard, brown earth spotted between the green. The corner he was in was completely grassless, although the tree and the rock made it seem less barren than it was. The field was walled-in on three sides by a big fifteen foot high wire and wood fence and behind the section of it that he was looking at was the thick dark green of trees and bushes so he could not see the houses that were hidden behind them and he wondered what the backyards of those houses were like. He liked mysterious things that were protected and hidden like that and he always wanted to find out about them and he thought that it would be neat to climb that fence sometime and sneak down into the other side to explore. Then some shouts brought his attention back to the game and he saw that his side was doing a bit better. But he could not look at the game without thinking about the thing that had happened and the school and the afternoon to come and the knot that was in him tightened like a vise so that he couldn’t think about anything else.
The game they had had yesterday had been much closer than the one that was going on now. He and Evan had been in top form. They had managed to get the ball quicker and kick it more often than any of their teammates. It had been a great battle and they loved battling each other. They were the biggest and the fastest and the best battlers of all the boys and they were the only ones who wore soccer boots. Evan’s were an old pair passed down to him from one of his burly big brothers, but Andy’s were new, a reward for being his parents’ first-born child. He had told his mother after he had finished his first year at school that what he wanted more than anything else was a pair of soccer boots for when he started grade two and she had said maybe. But all during the summer he was afraid she would forget so he reminded her about their games and told her how much fun they were when you had all the boys around you running and bumping and trying to get to the ball and kick it free so you could chase after it into one end or the other of the field and surround it again so that you could try and kick it free again and you were trying either to score a goal or prevent one depending on which end you were in and it was very exciting when you and crowding mass of boys around you were chasing into one end or the other and the force of the mass you were in sometimes pushed you and the ball and everyone else into the goal which was how goals were usually scored and was great fun because sometimes the movement just seemed to carry you along then drop you and often when that happened, which wasn’t very often because there weren’t very many goals scored, you ended up in a pile of bodies and most everybody thought that it was the neatest and wanted to do it again and again, but didn’t know how and you could only hope that it would happen again and when it did it was just as neat as before. And he told her too that he and Evan often got to the ball first and had to battle each other for it and got to kick it more often than their teammates, but that it wasn’t fair because Evan had soccer boots and could kick the ball further and better than he could. His mother probably would’ve got the soccer boots for him anyway, but he wasn’t positive and when he discovered them sitting on the kitchen table waiting for him one day at the end of the summer after his mother had been downtown shopping he had been sure that all his talk had convinced her.
Andy thought that his soccer boots were the swellest things that he owned and he hoped that with them he would be able to break away from the crowded mass of his classmates and score goals properly. None of them had ever really scored a proper goal like he’d seen the big boys do. They only seemed to score when they all piled up in the goal after chasing the ball into one end or the other. He loved the pile ups, but now that he had his soccer boots he didn’t love them as much. The pile-ups just happened and instead of having neat things like that just happen to him, he wanted to make them happen. And the more he had played wearing his soccer boots the closer he felt he came to making things happen. For a couple of days before the trouble happened he had felt he was very close to being good enough to break away from the others so that he would be alone in front and on his own with the ball and because of how close he felt to being able to do that he tried extra hard hoping that he might actually do it. But Evan was very close to being able to break away like that too and he and Andy seemed to be coming together at the ball more often and yesterday when they did the trouble happened.
The ball had been in the defensive zone of Andy’s team and he and Evan had been battling for it in the middle of the swirling, swarming mass of boys. Their booted feet had flailed away at it and it had gone shooting off into the surrounding mass only to repeatedly return to them at the chaos’s center where they sought to free it again. The last time the ball had come back toward them it had rebounded off someone’s knee and Evan, hoping to blast it free, had tried to mightily kick it, but his timing had been a second off and he’d missed the moving ball and had connected instead with Andy’s unprotected shin. Andy had screamed as an injured warrior might and had tumbled to the ground holding his hurt leg. The mass of boys had surged forward and then moved back after Andy had gotten up again. His eyes had been fierce and full of tears and he’d jumped on Evan and wrestled him to the ground. They’d hung on to each other angrily and thrashed madly about on the ground until they’d been pulled apart by an older student, a prefect, who’d told them to report to the principal’s office.
That was when the trouble really began. Andy’d heard the stories about the principal’s office and how the strappings that made you cry were given there and he’d heard how some of the teachers liked strapping and liked to see you cry and he’d hoped he’d never have to go to the principal’s office. He just wanted to be left alone. He didn’t really like school very much, but he sure liked the games you got to play there and he just wanted to be able to play the games. But when he had to go to the principal’s office he forgot all about the games. From the moment he and Evan and the prefect had started walking across the field to the school he could think of nothing but the principal’s office and what would happen there. It had startled him when Evan had shouted encouragement to his teammates, who had resumed the game, and he’d thought Evan was either very brave or very stupid. He’d completely forgotten about the soccer game himself which had been so important just before.
When they’d reached the steps of the school Andy impulsively decided that he wasn’t going to go in with them or anyone else and he’d darted across the basketball court that was beside the school and down across the grade five’s field which had a lot of oak trees on it and out the gate trying to flee the strapping he was sure was waiting for him in the principal’s office. He’d thought the prefect might have shouted at him to stop, but he hadn’t been sure, although he had known that he wasn’t being chased. He’d been aware of the bright early autumn sun and the dark shadows on the ground from the trees as he’d run through the schoolyard. It seemed the sun was trying to violate some dark protected place and bring him out into the open. He’d run madly, without thinking, for two long blocks toward his home. Then he’d alternately walked and run the rest of the way in terrified exhaustion.
He’d gone into the basement and stayed in the furnace room where the tools and garden implements were kept. He’d stood at the back of the room beside the long, sturdy wooden workbench and he’d thought about nothing just letting the fear rise and fall inside him as he’d caught his breath. A few minutes after he’d gotten there his mother had come downstairs and asked him what he was doing there and why he wasn’t in school. He’d told her what had happened, but she hadn’t understood. Authority, she’d said, was something that had to be obeyed and she’d told him to go back to the school to face up to the situation. Then she’d left him there alone. He’d stayed there for the rest of the afternoon.
He’d gone home because that was the only place he could go. He’d done it automatically. But his mother had said that he’d been wrong to come home and he’d felt even more afraid than he’d been before. She’d always been there to help him in the past and when he’d discovered she was no longer there he’d felt very alone.
The fear and the loneliness were still there when he awoke the next morning. Somehow he’d slept and rested well, but as he’d gotten dressed he realized that his parents wouldn’t let him stay at home any longer. And when he realized that he also realized that he didn’t want to stay there any longer and hide alone in the basement, an exile from everything but his fear. So, when the time had come, he’d left for school. Perhaps they’ve forgotten, perhaps nothing will happen, he’d thought. And during that morning nothing did happen. But that was not a good thing for he hadn’t been able to concentrate and he worried about it all the time. When the noon hour bell had rung it hadn’t made him happy as it usually did because he knew it didn’t free him from his fear and that his waiting had to continue.
The first thing he’d done when he’d gotten out of class was to find Evan and ask him what had happened to him in the principal’s office the day before. Nothing, Evan had told him. He’d only been lectured about fighting. This had relieved Andy a little, but he was still very concerned. He’d thought he’d get in more trouble because he’d run away. As he walked to the bicycle racks by the grade one, two and three’s field to eat his lunch he’d wished the fight had never happened.
He was still sitting on the rock that protruded out of the ground by the oak tree in the corner of the field when the one o’clock bell rang. As the other boys ran off the field he remained sitting there for a moment looking at the school before him and he wanted to face the thing and get it over with, but he still feared it and hoped it would go away.
That afternoon just after Mrs. Jackson, his teacher, had taken the attendance she told him that he was to report to the principal’s office at three o’clock. He thought about it all afternoon. He tried to listen to the lessons, tried harder than he usually did, but his mind kept on seeing the strap fall and he kept on wondering whether he’d cry or not and he could not think beyond the time he’d be in the principal’s office. Early in the afternoon he’d thought the time when the bell would ring would never come, but then later on it seemed as though the time was speeding by and he wanted it to slow down so he would be more ready when the bell rang. But when it did ring he wasn’t ready for it at all.
As the other children were leaving for their homes Andy walked down the main hall to the principal’s office. He knocked on the door and the principal’s secretary let him in. She told him to sit down, that he would have to wait until the principal got off the telephone. It seemed the principal was on the telephone for a very long time. Andy could hear his authoritative, business-like voice and he could see into his office by looking past the slightly ajar door, but he could not see the principal who was a big and imposing man. Andy had never spoken to him before. He had only seen him at the school assemblies and he knew how quiet the students always were in his presence. Finally, the principal stopped speaking and put the receiver down. The secretary told Andy he could go into the principal’s inner office now.
Andy stuck his head into the office and looked around the door at the principal who told him to come in. Andy stood in front of the principal’s big desk and looked across it at the principal. He noticed that the window behind the principal looked out on to the grade one, two and three’s playing field, but his eyes were really intent upon the principal’s face. There was a momentary pause and the principal looked at Andy. Then he spoke. Andy said nothing, only two words, “Yes, sir,” when the principal had finished. Andy was astonished. Nothing had happened. He had only been lectured about fighting and told not to do it again. The principal hadn’t said anything about his running away and had even smiled at him when he said he could go.
Andy had forgotten about his fear and his loneliness the next day and he looked forward to playing soccer again and battling for the ball and trying to break away from the others with it, but it rained during the noon hour and they couldn’t play which disappointed Andy very much. The next day though the early October sunshine was bright and the sky brilliantly blue and Andy felt wonderful battling for the ball in the midst of the chaotic milling mass of boys. On two or three occasions he actually managed to break away from the mass and once he even scored a goal. He couldn’t wait to tell his mother, but then maybe he wouldn’t tell her.
Text copyright © 2020 Patrick S. Wolfe
All rights reserved. Short segments may be quoted with due attribution.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
- This story was originally published in GRAIN, Volume IV, Number 1, February 1976, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 12-17. ↑