“Don’t, don’t, please, ahhh,” Twelve-year-old Malcolm whimpered in pain and fear as the hands tightened on him.
“You little narc. You told old Johnson I copied your work.”
“Ahhh, no, I didn’t. I never said anything. You copied it exactly, he knew from that.”
“Then you should have changed yours after I did, you stupid little burke.”
“Whatcha going to do with him, Burnsie?”
“Give him something to remind him who’s boss around this school.”
The pain came in bright flashes as, curled into a protective ball, Malcolm Wilson took his punishment knowing that to fight would only make it worse.
“What…? For heaven’s sake Malcolm, that shirt was new this week.” Get in here, if I can get the mud off it quickly it may not stain.”
“’S all right, I’ll do it.”
“No you won’t. I’ll just get it off…” there was a pause. “Malcolm! You’re covered in bruises, what happened?”
“I fell down.”
Jan Wilson snorted in disbelief. “Oh you did? Tell me the truth.”
He didn’t want to talk, Malcolm thought, it’d just make things worse, but he couldn’t handle it any more – the pain, the constant fear, always watching for them and waiting to be grabbed. He talked. His mother was outraged as she heard the story, she’d see that this was stopped. She had no understanding of the forces against her.
“I’m telling you, Headmaster, my son is being bullied and it’s been going on for months. This Murray Burns and his two friends have been stealing Malcolm’s lunch money, copying his schoolwork, and yesterday was the last straw. Murray copied Malcolm’s maths homework then beat him up because my lad didn’t change his own work after that and their teacher realised that this Burns boy had copied Malcolm’s answers. I thought this school had a zero tolerance policy on bullying and I want something done about it.”
“It does. Leave it with me.” The headmaster was annoyed but kept his face bland. Parents did exaggerate so, probably young Malcolm was only trying to get out of trouble with his mother, the headmaster had never seen anything of this supposed bullying, but he’d have to make inquiries now that it had been brought to his attention. In seventy-five years the school had never had a blot on its record, and there wasn’t going to be one now.
Jan stared at him, sensing the reservations and wanting to make things clear. “I’ll leave it with you, but I’ll see some action or I’ll know the reason why.”
“Narc! Narc! Dirty little narc. Gonna get you, just you wait an’ see.”
“Headmaster said your mum told him. So I’m suspended for a week an’ my dad belted me. Guess who’s gonna get it now? Hold him down you guys.”
“No, no, don’t…” The frightened, pain filled cries broke off abruptly and another young voice spoke anxiously.
“Geeze, Burnsie, look at him, he looks bad, I think you’ve done him for good.”
“Nah, he’s just faking so’s we’ll stop.”
“Wasn’t no “we” Burnsie, I’m outa here. I’m not taking no rap if the cops come asking.”
Running footsteps faded, leaving a small motionless figure lying half in the gutter by the back gate of the school. It was assistant principal leaving late after refereeing football practice that almost fell over the unconscious boy, who dropped to one knee, then pulled out his mobile phone to call for help.
The policeman dealing with the assault charge hid his disgust as he spoke. “You told the Burns lad who it was who’d complained about him and what they’d said, Headmaster? At least that is Malcolm Wilson’s testimony as to what his assailants said to him?”
“Well, yes, I felt Murray had a right to know who his accuser was and what they’d claimed.”
The detective bit back a rude comment. Typical of this sort, too much education, not enough common sense, they never thought where events could sometimes lead. He spoke patiently. “And it never occurred to you that telling a known bully that his victim had complained might lead to violence?”
“No, no, of course not. Do you think I’d have said anything if I’d thought that this could be the result?”
“I can’t say about that, sir. So you suspended the Burns boy, who apparently waited with his friends outside the back gate of the school. Once Malcolm emerged he was seized and held by the other two lads while Burns beat him so severely that they feared Wilson was dead and ran. Your assistant principal, a Mr. Johnson found the injured boy and phoned an ambulance.” He looked at the Headmaster sternly.
“Mr. Johnson tells me that Murray Burns is a known bully, it’s been common knowledge amongst the teachers that the Wilson boy was his most recent target and that you would not support him?”
“Well, really, detective. It was all supposition and accusations with no actual proof. Murray Burns has always been very polite to me. I interviewed him and he said that Mr. Johnson didn’t approve of him, I’m not making accusations but there was some suggestion of personal dislike there.”
“Yeah, right. Well, we’ll be changing all three of the boys in the youth court. Malcolm Wilson has broken bones in both hands, a fractured skull, and internal damage. I’m told he’ll be in hospital for another three or four weeks. After that he won’t be fit to return to school for the remainder of this term.”
The headmaster looked worried. “What will happen to Murray and his friends?”
“Very little probably, since they’re all under fourteen.” Detective Harris said sourly. He left on that note, muttering under his breath as he departed. He knew bullies, eventually many of them ended up in his hands once they were older. He’d quietly suggest to Mrs. Wilson that Malcolm be sent to another school if that were possible.
Three months later a man knocked on the Wilson’s front door.
“Your son is Malcolm Wilson?”
“Yes, look, who are you?”
“My name is Jonathon Phillips, I’m truant officer for the area. Your son has not attended school for three months.”
“Of course he hasn’t.” Jan Wilson stared at the man. Blooming civil servants, and didn’t he look the part. Suit and tie, polished shoes, thin lips and the blank expression of an android from one of Malcolm’s science fiction books. Dried up little prune.
“You say “of course”, Mrs. Wilson? Would you care to explain that?”
She boiled over. “Yes, I would. Three pupils at my son’s school half-killed him, he was in hospital for weeks and he still isn’t well. His doctor says the Malcolm isn’t fit to go back for another month yet and when he does he won’t be going back there. Happy now?”
“There’s no need to be unpleasant, Mrs. Wilson. I’m only doing my job. I’ll expect a report in four weeks that your son has been re-enrolled.”
“You expect what you like.”
Jonathon Phillips returned to his office to make a note against the Wilson file. He knew that sort of woman, solo parent, probably spent half her money on gambling or drinking, he’d watch the truancy list and it wouldn’t surprise him at all if she didn’t send the boy back to school when the time was up. If that happened he’d be right onto it. Children should attend school, and really, half-killed? Probably an exaggeration and anyhow, he’d been bullied once or twice at school and it had done him no harm.
Jan was finding that besides the truancy laws and Malcolm’s injuries she had other things to worry about.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wilson, but we’re unable to accept Malcolm, you don’t live in the catchment area, you see.”
“I was told there might be an exemption?”
“Yes, I’ve checked that. It would only apply if he’d been expelled from his previous school. I’m told Malcolm is an excellent student and his previous headmaster would be happy to have him back there.”
“Yes, but that’s where he was bullied and attacked. He’s terrified. The same boys that hurt him went back as soon as they were off suspension.”
“Very unfortunate, Mrs. Wilson, but there’s nothing I can do. Malcolm isn’t eligible to transfer here and there’s nothing that I can do about it.”
“Jonathon Phillips, Mrs. Wilson. I see that Malcolm has not yet returned to school. I’ve spoken to his doctor who says that Malcolm is fit to go back to class now and I understand that his old school will accept him.”
“I beg your pardon?” Jonathon was astounded. “I would remind you that under the Truancy Act your son must remain at school until he is sixteen. He isn’t thirteen and you intend to deprive him of his education?”
“I intend to keep him safe. He’s going somewhere else.”
Jan Wilson stifled a shriek of frustration. “I don’t know. It’s all about the criminal these days, isn’t it? My son’s the victim here, but those kids who nearly killed him are welcome back at the school. The headmaster says it’d be punishing them twice to expel them. Malcolm can’t go to another school because he wasn’t expelled so no other school will take him out of the catchment area.”
“That isn’t my problem, Mrs. Wilson”
Really, Jonathon thought, the woman’s an idiot; do I have to explain everything to her over and over?
“My job is to see that he attends school and he isn’t doing so. If he isn’t attending school within the next ten days you fall under a fine of $150 for each day after that.”
He rang off with a feeling of satisfaction. That sort scared quite easily when you invoked the law – and when they saw that it’d really hurt them in the pocket if they didn’t cooperate. Malcolm Wilson would be off the truancy list any day now.
“No, I’m afraid Professor Hudson doesn’t have a vacancy for seven weeks.”
“But it’s important.”
“So are his current patients, Mrs. Wilson. I can fit you in on the 27th of next month, but that’s the earliest he could manage. Shall I make the appointment?”
Jan Wilson hesitated. “Yes, yes please.”
It would mean Malcolm had to go back to that school for a few weeks but maybe he’d be all right for that length of time. Then as soon as he saw Professor Hudson and she explained, showed him the report of Malcolm’s injuries, she was sure that the psychiatrist would sign an exemption certificate so Malcolm could stay home, or maybe with his certificate in place another school would be prepared to take her son after all?
She’d move if she could, but where would they go? She had a good job in the local factory here. She could walk to work so she didn’t have to pay for transport, and she’d recently worked her way up to forewoman on better pay. Her elderly next-door neighbour kept an eye out for Malcolm, letting him study in the neighbour’s small unused back-bedroom until Jan got home at five. That way no one could say that he was home alone.
If they left this house she’d have to begin again and just having their furniture moved would cost money she didn’t have. She’d have to sell it and buy secondhand again wherever they went and as usual, what money you got when you sold something would be a fraction of what it would cost to buy again. Still, if this Professor couldn’t help that’s what she’d have to do. But maybe if she tried hard she could stretch out the time before Malcolm had to go back to that school.
“Jonathon Phillips, Mrs. Wilson, I see that Malcolm hasn’t yet returned to school. You do know that if he isn’t attending this Monday you’ll be fined?”
“He isn’t well.” Jan did her best to stare him out.
Jonathon was mildly amused at the transparent lie. He had an answer to parents who tried that one “Really? I can have a department doctor come over at once to see the boy. Of course you’d have to pay, and if he says there’s nothing wrong… “ He allowed his voice to trail off threateningly. Without hope, Jan Wilson surrendered.
They were waiting for Malcolm when he came through the school gates.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the little narc come back. Proud of yourself, are you? Dobbed me an’ my mates in, an’ got us in trouble with the cops. You’re gonna be real sorry that you did that, we promise you.”
“Murray Burns, what was that that you were saying to Malcolm just now?”
“Just saying how nice it is he’s back, sir. I reckon we should let bygones be bygones like my dad says. We’re sorry if we upset him last term.”
Mr. Johnson listening from the sidelines couldn’t believe that the headmaster was swallowing this but it seemed that he was.
“Ah, yes, very fair of you, Murray. See that you all keep to that excellent resolution.”
Assistant Principal Johnson made a resolution of his own at that point. Unfortunately he couldn’t be everywhere at once – although he did make the attempt.
The sports teacher was irritated at the slowness of some of his pupils. “Run, boy, run. Don’t just jog. This is cross-country, not girls’ dancing. Now that it’s summer term we’re having an hour’s cross-country last thing every Friday.”
Malcolm ran but he wasn’t a runner, Burns and his friends were – they were also bigger and stronger with the advantage of numbers.
“What happened to you, boy?”
“I fell, sir.”
“Clumsy. Well, get changed, and be more careful.”
Week after week that happened until it was unbearable. He was hiding what was happening from his mum, there wasn’t anything more that she could do. He knew that they couldn’t afford to move, she tried but no other school would take him, that Professor who might have helped had put the appointment back, and the truant officer was just waiting to fine them. Malcolm knew that Mr. Johnson suspected something was going on still but his tormenters were too clever. They made sure there was no proof, no eyewitnesses, and each time Burns caught him it was worse. His depression and fear were almost paralyzing by now and he just couldn’t cope any longer. He left for school that Friday – and never arrived.
Five days later there was a knock at the door. “Mrs. Wilson, I have a fines notice here. Malcolm did not attend school last Friday, it is now Wednesday and there is still no sign of him. You were warned, the notice is for $600 and another $150 for each day this truancy continues unless you have a very convincing and provable excuse.”
Jan Wilson faced him with reddened eyes. “Would a death certificate do you, you pompous little jerk? You forced Malcolm back to where they kept bullying and bullying him until he couldn’t take it no longer, so he came back home last Friday after I left for work an’ killed himself. Course that isn’t your fault, is it? No, it’s never your sort’s fault. Next thing you’ll tell me is that you don’t make the laws you just enforce them. Well, no one enforced them for my boy an’ now he’s dead, so clear off an’ if you ever have kids I hope they die too. I wish I was dead myself.”
The door slammed viciously and Jonathon shrugged. Most probably she’d use Glennon and Sons just around the corner for the funeral, he could get a copy of the death certificate from them to complete his files. He eased his shoulders, it was almost four-thirty, a reasonable time to head home – and in the morning he could thankfully cross another truant off his far too heavy caseload.