The Red Alfa
by Alison Prince (Copyright 1971) Illustrated by the Author
Robbie Henshaw waited patiently to cross the road. At quarter to nine in the morning the traffic was thick, but Robbie didn't mind waiting. It was a good chance to watch the cars.
They were a very dull lot this morning. Apart from an extremely distinguished Rolls Royce, there was nothing worth looking at -just ordinary, medium-powered family cars and the usual clutter of vans and buses.
Then, round the corner came a bright yellow Lotus sports car. It stopped right in front of Robbie and the driver caught his eye and grinned at his admiring face. Gosh, what a super car. Just look at that short gear stick and all those dashboard instruments. Music blared from the radio.
"Are you coming, son?" called the crossing keeper, a grey-haired man who wore a hearing aid. A driver in the lengthening queue of traffic hooted impatiently but Bobbie, still staring at the Lotus, didn't move. The crossing keeper waved the traffic on and joined Bobbie on the pavement.
"Look, son, you must cross with the others when I tell you. I mean, that's what I'm here for, isn't it?"
Bobbie took no notice. He watched the Lotus intently as it pulled away. "Isn't she terrific!" he said. "They go like the clappers, those!"
The car accelerated away down the road. A puff of smoke came from its exhaust pipe as the driver changed into second gear, then it rounded the bend and was gone from sight.
The crossing keeper sniffed. "I'd put them off the road if I had my way," he said. "Ban them altogether. Nobody needs to travel at that speed."
More children began to arrive on the pave- ment beside Robbie and when there was a gap in the traffic the crossing keeper went out again with his round STOP notice.
"Now, you come along!" he shouted at Robbie. "Don't stand there gawping at the cars!"
"All right," said Robbie with dignity, adding as he crossed over, "I don't look at alt the cars, you know. Only special ones."
But the crossing keeper, deafened by the thumping engine of a stationary lorry, did not hear him.
Robbie went through the gate into Monk's Meadow Park, which saved a half-mile walk round by the road on the way to school. There was an open space in the middle of the park big enough for two football pitches. A tarmac path ran all the way round the edge like a race track and there were wooden benches at intervals along it, set among closely clipped privet hedges so that the people who sat on them were sheltered from the wind.
Bobbie revved up his engine. A practice lap of the track. Well, half a lap, anyway. Better not be late for school-it was Miss Fickard on duty today and she was strict. Start in first-second-hold it for the corner -third
"Oh. Hello." Robbie braked sharply, hands jammed against the steering wheel, and swung in for a pit stop in the privet hedge hay where Kevin was sitting on a wooden bench.
"What are you driving?" asked Kevin.
"Lotus," said Robbie. "Hey-I saw a real one this morning. A Europa. Yellow. How's your Alfa?"
"She's fine," said Kevin. "Listen, you know I was going to have a re-spray after that scrape with the Ferrari? Well, I've decide to keep her red after all."
"Yes. I thought she might be orange but it wouldn't be the same. Besides, some drivers think it's unlucky, changing colours. So I'll stick to red. Bright red."
"When are you going to do it?" asked Robbie.
"Dunno. Trouble is finding a place where there's no dust. Somewhere out of the wind. Otherwise you get grit in it, you see. Come on. We'd better go. Give you five yards' start."
"In a Lotus? You're joking."
Robbie set off at top speed, but Kevin's legs were longer and he always won. He was older, too. He was ten and Robbie was nine and eight months. Not much difference, but enough to make Robbie feel much younger sometimes. Kevin wasn't like anyone else. He treated most things as a kind of joke Except for the cars, of course.
Engines roaring, Robbie hard on Kevin's heels, they rushed through the school gate into the crowded playground, almost colliding, unluckily, with Miss Pickard, the senior mistress.
"Kevin Delaney! Do we have to have so much noise first thing in the morning? And you too, Robbie. You should know better."
Robbie switched off his engine. Why should he know better? Nobody ever said Kevin should know better.
"Stand by the wall, both of you," ordered Miss Pickard. "And don't move until I tell you." Then she blew her whistle and, with much pushing and jostling, the three hundred and fifty children of Monk's Meadow Primary School began to struggle into lines.
After Register and Assembl and a girl from 4B coming round with a Guide Dogs for the Blind box, they started Number work.
"Now," said Miss Trotter, their class teacher, "who remembers what we were doing yesterday?"
Miss Trotter was young and cheerful and the children liked her.
"About how you measure one side of a thing and then the other and multiply them together to find what the area is."
"Yes, good. Everybody clear about that? Kevin?"
Why did he always call her 'Miss'? Robbie wondered. Everyone else called her 'Miss Trotter' and it made Kevin seem sort of silly although he wasn't really. You could see Miss Trotter thought he was silly. But then, Kevin didn't care about school. He always said he wanted to leave as soon as he could and earn some money because ever since his dad died it had been jolly hard for his Mum keep- ing the family all by herself.
Robbie tried to imagine what it wourd b like without his own father. It was a very up setting idea. Fancy nobody coming home a twenty past six-just him and Mummy al alone at the supper tab]e. He thought abou something else quickly. The Lotus-
"Robbie, are you listening?"
"Yes, Miss Trotter." Oh dear.
"What was I saying?"
Miss Trotter heaved a sigh, which made everyone laugh, and said, "Elizabeth, explain to him on the way out, will you? Now, every- one show me your Number books-" Robbie scrabbled hastily in his desk for his. "-and show me a pencil. With a point on it ... sharpen them quickly then, you two. Use the big sharpener on my desk. Everyone else line up at the door."
"We're going to measure the yard," Elizabeth told Robbie. She had long, straight, very fair hair and pale eyelashes.
"What for?" asked Robbie.
"To find out its area. We're going to do it by stepping, like this, with our heels touching our toes each time. We count the number of footsteps from one side to the other, both ways, and when we come back we measure our feet to see how big they are and-"
"Quiet, everyone. Remember there are other classes working. Lead on, first one.
"-and mukiply it out," hissed Elizabeth.
It was quite difficult to walk without space between the paces, Bobbie found. Putting the heel of one foot down so that it touched the toe of the other produced a funny hobbling gait and it was difficult to remember how many paces you had counted.
A slight commotion broke out near the netball post. Somebody was lying on the ground and lots of people were laughing. Bobbie lost count of his footsteps completely and went to see what was happening.
"Get up, Kevin," Miss Trotter was saying. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Trod on me foot, Miss," said Kevin cheer- fully, flat on his back. "I tried to pick up the back foot, you see, but it was underneath the front one."
The girls giggled, hands pressed to mouths, and the boys thumped each other's shoulders and staggered about with great shouts of laughter. Faces began to appear at classroom windows to see what all the noise was about.
"Get up!" said Miss Trotter, hauling Kevin to his feet. "And get those feet of yours under control!"
"Yes, Miss." Kevin gazed up at her with a perfectly serious face and giggles broke out afresh. Even Miss Trotter laughed, shaking her head ruefully. "You're a hopeless case, Kevin!" she said. "Right, everyone. Time for business now. Let's find out about this yard. Suppose we wanted to cover it with new tarmac; we'd have to know how big it was."
"We ought to cover it with lino, then it wouldn't hurt your knees if you fell on it," said Paul Taylor, blinking through his glasses.
"Cover it with carpet!" said Billy Wilson.
"If you like," agreed Miss Trotter cheerfully. "In that case we'll have to work out how many yards of carpet as well as the size of the playground. You can do that, Billy."
Robbie grinned. She was a good sort, Miss Trotter. He began another measuring walk. This time he was very careful. "Seventy-four, seventy-five, seventy-six He arrived at the low wall by the gate. "Seventy-six," he repeated, opening his book to write it down.
"What are you doing?" asked a quavery voice, very near to him. Robbie jumped. It was an old man, sitting on the wall and star- ing through the wire netting, the fingers of one hand hooked through the mesh. Robbie had seen him before. He often came to sit on the school wall and watch the children.
"I'm measuring the yard," Robbie told him, writing down "76 to wall" in his book.
The old man seemed to be thinking hard. His head wobbled slightly all the time and his eyes were red as though he had been crying. "Why d'ye want to measure the yard?" he asked slowly.
"To know how big it is, I suppose," said Robbie.
The old man thought a little longer. "Ye could use one of those-those tapes," he said. "In a round . . . case. Pull it out."
"Like a tape measure?" suggested Robbie. "Yes," agreed the old man eagerly, his head wobbling more quickly. "Yes, like a tape . . measure, that's it."
Miss Trotter came across. "Robbie," she said, "have you measured the other way as well?"
"No, Miss Trotter."
"Then I suggest you hop a]ong and do it."
"Yes, Miss Trotter."
The old man rattled at the wire netting. "Miss! Miss! Ye could use a.. . a measure.. He began to cough.
Miss Trotter smiled at him kindly."I expect we could," she said. "But we're learning how to do it another way, you see. And she walked across to the school door where most of the class were waiting. The old man stared after her, not understanding.
In the cloakroom after school, Kevin said, "I'm going round by the shops. Got to get some sausages for tea. You coming?"
"I can't be very long," said Robbie. "Mummy says she worries if I'm late. She wonders if I've been run over."
"Bad luck," said Kevin. "My Mum doesn't get back from work till six so I'm all right Only the model shop's got a terrific car in the window. A Porsche. One of those big kits made up.
Robbie hesitated. A Porsche. He wouldn'i mind driving a Porsche instead of the Lotus "Come on, then," he said.
Kevin's two younger sisters were waiting in the playground. Marjie, who was only five shouted, "There he is!" and rushed across "Kevin, you got any money?" she asked "Grace and me want to buy an ice lolly."
"No, I haven't," said Kevin. "Only for the sausages and they're for tea."
"Oh, Kevin, go on!" wheedled Marjie. She was a tubby little girl with a mop of dark hair like Kevin's. Her eight year old sister Grace, who was standing by the gate with a group of girls, was as thin as Marjie was plump. Her long arms and legs always seemed to arrange themselves at awkward angles and she wore her long hair in bunches tied with rubber bands. She waved at Kevin.
"Going to play in the Park," she shouted. "Be back at half past five!"
"All right!" Kevin shouted back. Then he turned to Marjie. "Grace doesn't want an ice lolly. It's just you."
"Yes," agreed Marjie, unashamed. "Can I, Kevin?"
Kevin sighed and took five pence out of his pocket. "Here you are. You going to Potters?"
The little girl nodded. "Thank you, Kevin!" she said, beaming. Then she rushed off towards the gate, clutching the money.
"Come round to the model shop!" Kevin shouted after her. "I'll wait for you there!"
He turned to Robbie. "You're lucky, not having brothers and sisters," he said. "They're a real nuisance sometimes, having to be home to let them in and that."
"I'd like a brother," said Robbie.
"M'm. Not unless he was the same age, about," said Kevin.
They went out of the gate and turned left down the path which led to the road.
"Got to do that re-spray," said Kevin. "You can't have bare metal on a car for long. It rusts out in no time."
"My Dad used a tin or undercoat stuff when he had a dent in the Rover," said Robbie. "He put it on with a brush."
"Could do that," agreed Kevin. "What I really need is a workshop, though. Be great, that would."
They were passing the Old People's Home, a huge, old fashioned house standing back from the road behind dark trees.
"Is that where the old man comes from?" asked Robbie. "The one who sits on our wall?"
"'Spect so." Kevin stared at the house. "Must be awful in there. Sort of prison."
"It can't be a prison if he comes out to watch us doing P. E.," objected Robbie-and at that moment two elderly ladies who had been approaching them turned in through the gate and walked up the drive. They were carrying shopping bags and chatting to each other cheerfully.
"There you are!" said Robbie. "They don't look like prisoners!"
"All right," said Kevin, sounding bored. "Brrm! Brr-rrm!"
"Brr-rr-rrm!" Robbie responded with a full-throated roar and they set off at a controlled run, idling down to the starting line. Something was worrying Robbie.
"Kev, did you give Marjie part of the sausages money? I mean, can you get the sausages all right?"
Kevin laughed." 'Course I can. I had a bit extra. Found it."
"Found it? Where?"
"Oh-around. People are careless, aren't they." Kevin lengthened his stride.
"What d'you mean?" Robbie shouted afte him.
Kevin raised an arm above his head, jog trotting along, then swung it down hard and instantly turned on a great burst of speed The chequered flag was down, Robbie under stood, and Kevin was already yards ahead.
This was another race Robbie was not going to win.