The Red Alfa
by Alison Prince Chapter Seven
When Mrs Henshaw opened the door and saw Mr Andrews standing on the step beside Robbie, she looked so alarmed and horror-stricken that Robbie gave a nervous giggle but, thinking of it afterwards, he had to admit that she had been marvellous about the whole thing.
Mr Andrews came in and had a cup of tea with them and explained briefly what had happened. When Robbie had finished his tea he went upstairs to play with his cars and it was quite a long time before he heard Mr Andrews leave. He must have explained things very we~, Robbie thought, because when his mother came up to see him, she was very kind and concerned and didn't say a word about the unpleasant fact that it was Kevin who had caused the accident. His mother was lovely, thought Robbie. When she was so nice it was difficult to remember that she had ever scolded him.
When Robbie's father came in he said, "Well, I didn't get much joy out of Andrews this morning. Polite enough, I suppose, but not exactly eager to help."
"Ah," said Mrs Henshaw, "but we've had lots of developments since then, haven't we, Robbie?"
"Developments," groaned Mr Henshaw. "Good Lord, when I was a kid we just used to go to school and keep our noses clean. Otherwise we got six of the best. Simple."
"Yes, and you hated every minute of it," said Mrs Henshaw briskly, "or so you've often said. Robbie, go and wash your hands, dear. Supper's ready."
Robbie's father listened patiently to the story as they ate their supper, and at the end of it all he said, "Well, it seems tough luck on the cyclist. Riding along, minding his own business, when some neurotic kid dashes into the road and nearly kills him. What was the crossing keeper doing, anyway?"
"He was the other side," said Robbie. "Kevin just saw a very interesting car, you see.
"You ai~4 your cars," said his father. "Cars are real, you know. Not just a lovely dream. What kind of car was it that hit the cyclist?"
"I don't know," said Robbie. "A Ford, I think."
"There you are," said his father. "You'd have known all right if it had been a Maserati. As soon as you're big enough to reach the pedals, Robbie, I'll teach you to drive. Plenty of space round the house, you don't need to go on the road. Then perhaps youil understand how that Ford driver must have felt when he hit the cyclist. Shakes you up, you know, that kind of thing."
Robbie felt a quake of alarm at the thought of driving a real car. His father's grey Rover was so big, and smelt of leather. It was so much easier in the Lotus....
Robbie's knife slipped out of his hand and clattered across his plate.
"Oh, Robbie, you're half asleep," said his mother. "Are you going to finish up those peas?"
Robbie shook his head, and suddenly gave a huge yawn.
"Bed," said his father. "That's the best place for you, lad. You've had quite a day." He reached out and ruffled Robbie's hair affectionately. "Don't look so gloomy. You've come out of this rather well, as far as I can see. Off you go, now.
For once, Robbie made no objection.
It was nice to be warm and cosy in bed with his old, threadbare teddy for company. Robbie's mother kissed him goodnight and turned off the light, leaving his bedroom door a little open so that he was not in total darkness.
Although he was so tired, Robbie did not seem to be able to slip away into sleep. Little bits of the day's events presented themselves again and again in a confused way, as if he was watching a film that kept stopping and starting. There was the cyclist, for instance, sprawled face-down in the road with his hands above his head like a sleeping baby. Then Robbie seemed to be walking across the playground again, between Kevin and the tall policeman. Then they were in the Head's study and Kevin was crying. Robbie had never seen Kevin cry before. Kevin never cried. And his fat little mother looked as if she wasn't used to hugging anyone so big.
There was Robbie's mother too, giving a little gasp of alarm when she heard about the accident. And his father-"some neurotic kid running out." It would be awful not to play with Kevin any more. Nobody else, not like Kevin. They were all right, Allan and Paul and Billy-mad about football, though. Always pretending to be one of the First Division s~ tars.
Another film began to run through Robbie's mind. He was running across the playground after one of Allan's high- powered goal kicks, chasing it across the tarmac for miles and miles until he came to the wire fence where the ball was resting and the old man was there, staring through the wire with his watery eyes.
The old man.
Suddenly Robbie was wide awake. It was the old man who had taken the badges. He'd been in the yard when they went in after P.E. He was sitting on the cloakroom steps. He'd taken the measure from the Old People's Home, so why not the badges? That was it. Of course. Thank goodness the prob- lem was solved at last.
Feeling completely satisfied, Robbie turned over and fell fast asleep.
"Time to get up, Robbie," said his mother, pulling back his bedroom curtains. The cold morning light flooded into the room and Robbie closed his eyes again, trying to re- capture the warm darkness.
Gradually he became aware that. he was feeling excited. Why? Of cours~the old man had taken the badges.
Robbie got out of bed and began to put on his clothes and, as he did so, the excite- ment slowly ebbed away.' Perhaps it was just a silly idea. You couldn't accuse a grown-up person of doing a thing like that. And there was no possible way of proving it.
"Are you coming, Robbie?" called his mother. "I've cooked your breakfast."
"Do you want some cereal first?" she asked.
"No, thank you," he said. His egg would be all hard if he ate cereal first. He cut off a piece of bacon and pushed it carefully into the middle of the yolk. It was a beautiful egg, dark yellow and splendidly runny.
"Daddy," he said, "if you think someone 5 done something but you don't know they have, is it wrong to ask them?"
Mr Henshaw put down his paper. "If you what?" he asked. "More tea please, dear- try again, Robbie."
"Well," Robbie already regretted starting this enquiry, "if you think someone's done a sort of crime, do you have to be absolutely sure it's them before you say anything about it?"
"I think you'd better tell me exactly what this crime is," said his father, stirring his tea. "I'm no good at abstract questions first thing in the morning."
Robbie sighed. "It sounds silly, really, but you know I told you everyone thinks Kevin took those badges? And that's why he wouldn't come to school?"
"Well, he didn't. I mean, I'm sure he didn't. And I thought it might be the old man.
Robbie's father raised his eyebrows in comic horror. "Heaven help us! You mean you have old men in your school? What next?"
"No, listen! He comes from the Old People's Home and he's always about-he likes watching all the things we do, I think. But he tried to give us a measure and it wasn't really his."
"How do you know it wasn't his?"
"Because Mr Andrews took it back. And Miss Trotter said she thought it couldn't be his. He's like a sort of toddler, she said. Sort of not understanding about things."
"This old man-have you ever seen him in the school?"
"Yes-well, in the playground, anyway. He was sitting on the steps."
"Eat your breakfast, Robbie," said his mother. "It's getting cold. It's a possibility," she added to her husband. "Don't you think so?"
"Worth a try," he said.
Robbie ate his bacon and egg and buttered a piece of toast. It was nice to be taken seriously, even if it did prove to be a silly idea in the end.
"Come on," said his father, getting up from the table. "You can eat that piece of toast in the car as lon~ as you don't drop crumbs. I want you to show me where this Home is.
Robbie put on his coat, now neatly mended by his mother, and they went out.
It seemed a long wait, sitting in the car outside the Old People's Home. Robbie wished his father would hurry. He wanted to see Kevin before school started, and explain why he hadn't been in the Park this morning.
At last his father came back and got into the car. "The Warden seems a decent chap," he said. "Says he'll look into it. He thought you might be right about the old boy, Robbie."
When they arrived at school the yard was empty.
"I'm late!" said Robbie, scrambling out of the car.
"Only a minute or two," said his father. "Give them my apologies. Tell them not to fuss over details. Goodbye!"
"'Bye!" shouted Robbie.
Rushing into class just in time for the regis- ter, Robbie could do no more than exchange a grin with Kevin before Assembly.
Mter that, there was a radio lesson on Creative English and as soon as that was over, a girl from Miss Pickard's class came in and said, "Mr Andrews wants to see Robbie Henshaw and Kevin Delaney."
My goodness," said Miss Trotter, "when I want to see Mr Andrews, I have to give him three days' notice! You two must tell me how it 5 done!"
Robbie grinned. As he and Kevin and the girl from Miss Pickard's class were walking along the corridor he said, "I'm sorry I wasn't in the Park this morning, but Dad gave me a lift to school because he went to see the Warden of the Old People's Home. You know that old man who tried to give Miss Trotter the measure? Well. . .
"Ssh!" said the girl. "Don't chatter outside Mr Andrews' door. I'm going to knock."
"Bossy-boots!" said Kevin, as the girl tap- ped politely on the door and listened for an answer.
"Come in!" called Mr Andrews-and, once again, the boys went into his study.
A young man in a thick sweater and a sports jacket rose to greet them. "Hello," he said, shaking hands with them each in turn. "You're Kevin and Robbie, are you? My name's Tony Minster-Warden of the Cedars Home for Old People. I think we owe you an apology."
But neither of the boys was listening. They were both staring at the large pile of assorted badges which was heaped on the shining mahogany of Mr Andrews' desk.
"You got them back!" said Kevin. "Then who had them?"
"I'm afraid it was your elderly friend from the Home," said Mr Minster. "By the way, which of you is Robbie Henshaw?"
"Me," said Robbie.
"Ah, yes. I believe I can see a likeness, now I come to think of it. Your father came to see me this morning, as you know, and I was very glad he did, because its not always easy for us to know what's going on. We try not to place any more restrictions on our old folk than we have to, you see, which means that they have a fair degree of free- dom."
Kevin was looking completely blank.
"It was the old man," said Robbie. "That's what I was going to tell you."
"Yes indeed," agreed Mr Minster regret- fully. "I'm afraid so. Mr Ambrose, the old gentleman in question, is very wandery in his mind although you wouldn't think so to talk to him. He lives very much in the past- about the time of the First World War, as far as I can gather-and I'm sure he didn't real- ize what he was doing. I do hope you won't think too badly of him."
"That's all very well," said Mr Andrews with unexpected severity, "but these boys have had a very rough time because of Mr Ambrose's little games. Epecially Kevin. Now, Mr Minster, can you give me some assurance that you can keep an eye on this old gentle- man and make sure he is happily occupied in other ways?"
Mr Minster hesitated. "People aren't animals, you know," he said. "You can't just get rid of them when they do inconvenient things. Of course I will try to make sure he's properly supervised-but it is a very great pleasure to him to watch the youngsters playing."
"Poor old bloke," burst out Kevin suddenly. "How would you like it? No proper home or anything-I mean, it's not the same as a house of your own, is it?-and then people wanting to shut him up. It must be awful."
Both men smiled. "Good lad," said Mr Minster. "I'm glad you can see it like that. But I really will try and get Mr Ambrose to understand that he mustn't come into the school premises."
Mr Andrews stood up. "Fine," he said. "That's all we can ask. Now we mustn't take up any more of your time, Mr Minster. Thank you very much for coming."
"Not at all," said Mr Minster. "And once again, I really am frightfully sorry about the whole thing."
Having shown Mr Minster out, Mr Andrews came back and sat down at his desk.
"How's your mother, Kevin?" he asked. "What did the doctor say about her back?"
Kevin brightened up. "She's got a whole week off work," he said. "Going to the hospital for some sort of heat-thing they do in the mornings, and she's supposed to stay at home and rest in the afternoons. Isn't it great?"
"Great," agreed Mr Andrews. "There's good news of the cyclist, too. He's coming out of hospital today. No bones broken or any serious damage. But, Kevin, I really think you ought to write him a letter and say you're sorry you caused the accident. Because you do realize, don't you, that if the man had been killed, it would have been your fault?"
Kevin's face fell. "Yes," he said.
"Or you might have been killed," went on Mr Andrews seriously. "And just think how your Mum would have felt." Then he turned to Robbie. "As to you, young man, I really don't know what to say. I suppose it was my fault that you went off to find Kevin. You thought you were doing the only possible thing. But you shouldn't have gone out of school like that, should you?"
"No," admitted Robbie. "But. ..
"Well, don't ever do it again. Either of you. Now, about these badges."
Mr Andrews scooped up the badges into an empty chalk box and pushed them across his desk to Robbie. "Will you take these back to your class and distribute them to their owners? Have a bit of sense about it, though. Don't do it in the middle of poor Miss Trotter's lesson. Wait until playtime."
Robbie grinned. "All right," he said. Then he picked up the box and turned towards the door, but Mr Andrews had one last thing to say.
"By the way-the policeman told me it was you who rang for the ambulance. I was very happy to hear about that. Not many grown-ups are so sensible, let alone children. Well done."
"Oh!" Robbie blushed, not sure what to say.
"Off you go with those badges. Kevin, you stay here a minute."
What did Mr Andrews want to say to Kevin? Robbie wondered. But he had arrived at the classroom door before he had thought of a satisfactory answer. Miss Trotter asked him to stand by her desk and explain to the class all about the old man and the badges, and a few minutes later the bell went for morning playtime.
Handing out the badges was not an easy business. A great crowd of boys gathered round Robbie, pushing their hands into the box and grabbing up fisifuls of badges, hoping to find their own particular ones. Several boys had forgotten which were theirs, and quarrels broke out over ownership of specially prized ones.
"Kev!" shouted Robbie, seeing Kevin come out of the door by Mr Andrews' study. "Over here!"-and at that moment the box fell or was knocked out of his hands and the badges were scattered across the muddy playground. Paul Taylor, crouching down to retrieve them, glanced up and said, "Do you want some, Kev?"
"You know I don't," said Kevin. "I never did."
Paul's face was red as he bent to his task, and he made no reply. He stood up and handed the box back to Robbie. "I don't know whose these are," he said. "They seem to be left over."
"Give them to the old bloke," said Kevin, with a nod of his head towards the gate. "Old Mr Whatsit-Ambrose. Look at him, all miserable. I mean, he's only like a kid really. He wants something to play with."
They all turned and stared. The old man sat huddled on the wall, crabbed fingers clinging like a bird's claws to the wire as he stared intently through the fence at the shouting children.
"All right," said Paul. "If you like."
"Bags I not," said Allan.
"He's creepy," said Billy.
Kevin took the box from Robbie's hands and marched across the playground, out of the gate and along the wall a little way until he came to the old man. The others watched him from inside the playground.
"Present," said Kevin, offering the box.
"Eh?" The old man peered up at him with watery eyes, his head wobbling.
"Present for you. Like you gave us the measure. We're giving you these." Kevin picked out a badge and showed it to the old man then, noticing that it was rather muddy, rubbed it on his trousers. With shaky fingers, the old man took the badge and began to polish it lovingly with a large, unexpectedly clean handkerchief which he pulled from his pocket.
"Used to have-brass buttons," he said. "Had to keep them-lovely and shiny. Even in the mud we used to. Lovely shiny buttons."
"That's great," said Kevin. "You get them all nice and shiny." And he came back into the yard. The old man, obsessed with his new-found task, did not notice that the boy had gone.
"Have a bit of chewing gum," said Billy, offering the packet to Kevin.
"Thanks," said Kevin. Billy hovered for a moment as if there was something else he wanted to say, then he looked away to where the others were playing football, and rushed off to join them.
"What did Mr Andrews want you for?" asked Robbie.
"He's got some nutty idea about the wall outside his room," said Kevin. "You know- where people sit when they're waiting to see him. He says I can paint on it. He wants a race track scene-cars and things. I've got to go and see him after school."
"That's super!" said Robbie.
Kevin gave a slightly embarrassed grin. "Don't know about super. Itil be jolly big, though. I've got to do a sort of design for it first, Qn paper, then he says he'll show me how to transfer it on to the wall."
"Will it take long?" asked Robbie.
Kevin shrugged. "Dunno. Can't do it all to- night, of course. I mean, I'm only just starting. But I might be pretty late, so you'd better not wait in the Park for me."
"No," said Robbie. "I suppose not."