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The Red Alfa
by Alison Prince

Chapter Two

The next morning was frosty and cold.

"I don't need a coat," said Robbie, seeing his mother go to the hall wardrobe. "Can't I wear my blazer?"

"Oh, no, you need to wrap up nice and warm this morning, dear," said his mother. 'You're lucky to have a good thick coat like this, you know. Think how many children haven't."

Kevin hadn't, for one, thought Robbie. He'd be wearing that old green anorak. But at least he could run in it. Robbie's winter coat was so heavy. Beastly thing.

Mrs Henshaw was looking puzzled. "Don't you like your coat, dear?" she asked.

"Put your coat on at once, Robbie, and stop making such a fuss," said his father. "I'll drop you off at school if you like, since it's a bit cold."

"No thank you," said Robbie quickly. "I like walking."

"P1ease yourself. I'd have given my ears for a ride in a car when I was a boy. Times change, I suppose. Kids take it all for granted."

His father went out, shutting the front door behind him. Robbie heard him back the Rover out and drive it away.

"You'll be late if you don't hurry up, dear," said Bobbie's mother, "You don't want to run all the way and arrive all hot and bothered, do you?"

"No," said Robbie, struggling into the fawn-coloured coat. He liked running all the way. Starting and stopping made the battery go flat.

"That's a good boy."

Robbie did not race through Monk's Meadow Park. He felt constricted by the heavy coat and he was in no mood for racing.

"Hello--Henshaw!" drawled Kevin, sprawled as usual on one of the benches. "Nice and warm?"

Henshaw! Kevin only ~sed Hobble's sur- name when he thought Robbie was being superior.

"It's my radiator blind, if you want to know-Delaney," he retorted, using Kevin's surname in reply. "Cold engines use a lot of petrol-or didn't you know?"

Kevin grinned. "All right," he said. "Don't get niggled."

"I'm not." Robbie's face was hot and flushed.

Kevin swung his feet off the bench and stood up. "Here," he said, "I've got something to show you, only we'll have to be quick. Can you run in that?" He nodded at Robbie's coat.

"'Course I can!" said Bobbie, nettled.

"Come on, then." Kevin set off, straight across the grass in the middle of the Park, towards the other side where there was an entrance to the swimming pool and the public library. At the gate he waited until Robbie caught up. Then he led the way across the tarmac car park and round the corner of the library.

"Look!" he said, pointing. Robbie stared, unable to decide what he was supposed to look at. He felt very hot and out of breath.

A flight of steps led down to the boiler house under the building. Just outside the boiler house door was a roofed-in space like a shed. Beckoning, Kevin darted down the steps, Robbie following rather doubtfully. Inside the covered space was a work bench with a heavy metal vice on it. There were tool racks on the walls but they were empty and cobwebbed. This place had not been used for a long time.

"Isn't it great!" whispered Kevin. "You could do anything in here-engine overhaul, tuning, re-spray-anything!"

His excitement caught Robbie at once. "Gosh, yes! A proper racing garage! Here, Kev, does anyone else know?"

"No, they don't." Kevin was suddenly serious. 'You won't tell, will you? It's just for us and the cars. Team workshop."

"I won't tell, 'course I won't. Gosh, it's terrific!"

Kevin was grinning. "D'you know what time it is?" he said cheerfully. "Lines must've gone in hours ago."

"We'll be late!" Robbie scrambled up the steps. Miss Trotter'll be awfully cross.

It was a long run through the car park and all the way across Monk's Meadow Park where the grass was hard and lumpy with frost. Robbie could hear Kevin's engine whin ing happily as he ran ahead, but for himself, unbearably hot and his chest aching with the cold air, this was no time for cars. Miss Trotter was going to be cross.

They pushed open the classroom door and crept in. Miss Trotter was saying something in a serious voice and everyone was very quiet. A few heads turned to look at Kevin and Robbie as they came in but nobody smiled or spoke. "You're very late, boys, but just sit down for now," said Miss Trotter. She went on, "At the staff meeting yesterday Mr Townsend decided to ask all the teachers to tell their classes about this. He feels that most of you will be just as worried about it as we are and we re sure you will want to help us find out who is responsible." There was a general rustle and nodding of agreement. Responsible for what? Robbie wondered.

"Now get out your topic books," said Miss Trotter. "Quietly. Robbie and Kevin, come here."

Amid a subdued buzz of conversation, Robbie and Kevin went up to Miss Trotter's desk.

"We've been talking about stealing," she told them. "Money has been disappearing from people's pockets in the cloakroom. The boys' cloakroom, that is. The one you use. It's never very much money-just a few pennies at a time, but we're very anxious to stop it and we want you all to help by not leaving anything valuable in the cloakroom. And, of course, by telling us at once if you know who is responsible."

"You mean, who's been taking it, Miss?" asked Kevin innocently.

Miss Trotter looked at him. "Yes, Kevin, that's just what I do mean. And now will you please explain why you were so late?"

"Me Mum's ill, Miss, and I had to help," said Kevin at once. "Washing up and that. And one of my sisters couldn't find her plimsols."

Robbie felt a blush spreading over his face. It was a lie. An absolutely dreadful, cold-blooded he.

"And what about you, Robbie?"

"He came to call for me, Miss," explained Kevin eagerly, "and I said 'just hang on a minute, I won't be a moment', only it was longer than I thought you see, Miss, and I made him late."

Miss Trotter shook her head. "Kevin," she said with a little sigh, "I don't believe a word of it. Is your mother really ill?"

Kevin stared at her, flicking the hair out of his eyes with a jerk of his head. "She's not very ill, Miss," he said. "But she gets these pains in her back. She says it's through working in the shoe shop, bending over people's feet all the time. Honest, Miss."

"Listen, Kevin," said Miss Trotter gently, "Robbie, go and sit down, dear-you must let me know if things are difficult at home. Will you do that? Because sometimes families can be helped if-if Daddy isn't there and Mummy's not well. Promise me?"

"Yes, Miss," said Kevin mechanically.

"All right. Run along back to your place. Now then, stop talking, everybody. Are all those topic books ready?"

The children sat up attentively. A tinkle of piano music came from Mrs Jessup's singing class in the hall and, like stage lighting flooding up, a pale yellow sun suddenly broke through the mist and cast a sparkling radiance across the frosted yards. Heads turned to look at it and Miss Trotter unexpectedly smiled.

"I tell you what," she said, "let's have our P.E. lesson now, while there's nobody else using the yard." A yell of appreciation greeted this and she put both forefingers to her lips, quelling them with the unspoken suggestion that such a noise would disturb the whole school. "Put your plimsols on quickly. Wear a woolly but no coats. And quiet in the cloakroom!" Miss Trotter opened her desk drawer and took out her whistle.

Changing his shoes in the cloakroom, Robbie felt deeply worried about this stealing business. Kevin always had money, didn't he? Look at yesterday, when he gave Marjie fivepence. What had he said? "People are careless." Something like that.

Robbie glanced across at Kevin who, already wearing his plimsols, was drawing something on the wall with a stub of pencil. He went across. "Here, Kev-you'll get into an awful row!"

"No, I won't," said Kevin. "It's Art, isn't it?" The few lines of the drawing were already sham and streamlined in spite of the roughness of the cream-painted brick wall.

"Is it your Alfa?" asked Robbie.

"Yes." Kevin added another line and then Miss Trotter's whistle sounded from the yard. He pushed the stub of pencil into his pocket and he and Robbie ran out to join the others.

"Find a space," called Miss Trotter. "Make sure you can't touch anyone else."

They spread out their arms exaggeratedly, making a comedy of space finding.

"Now imagine your feet are glued to the ground," said Miss Trotter. "No moving them! Explore 6e space all round you. Imagine you're inside a plastic balloon. Push it away-make it as big as you can.

Bending and pushing dutifully, Bobbie watched the others. Little Paul Taylor's glasses were steamed over with the effort and Billy Rowson had a rhythmic swing like a road mender with a shovel. Most of the girls managed to make it look like a dance, but Elizabeth's   face was scarlet and she seemed to be working terribly hard. Kevin, without moving his feet, had bent his knees until he was in a crouched position and was groping outwards just above ground level.

"Good, Kevin!" called Miss Trotter. "Your balloon is going to be wide at the bottom as well as the top!"

Everyone crouched, imitating Kevin, until Miss Trotter blew her whistle. "All jump about now!" she said. "Shake those arms and legs!-Now find a partner."

Turning sharply to look for Kevin as a partner, Robbie almost collided with an un expectedly large figure in a shabby grey coat. It was the old man who had been sitting on the wall yesterday. He had come into the yard and was making his way with shaky determination towards Miss Trotter. He carried something under his arm wrapped untidily in newspaper.

"Oh," said Miss Trotter, "er-can I help you?"

"Measure," said the old man breathlessly. "Brought you-measure.""Measure," said the old man breathlessly. "Brought you-measure." He unwrapped the newspaper parcel and took out a measuring tape of the kind used by surveyors. It was in a blue case about nine inches across and it looked absolutely brand new. "For you, said the old man, thrusting it into Miss Trotter's hands. "Measure."

"Oh, but I couldn't-no, really!" Miss' Trotter tried to return it to the old man.

"Measure," he repeated. "I brought it. You and children-measure the yard." He began to cough. "Don't want to do that walking,' he wheezed. "Children."

"Oh, I see," said Miss Trotter. "Like we were doing yesterday, you mean, Well, it' terribly kind of you to lend it, but we're not doing that just now, you see. Perhaps if you'd sit down over there on the wall, you'd like to watch the children doing PE."

The old man stuffed the newspaper which had been round the measure into his pock and shuffled off, but instead of going back to the gate, he went across to the steps which led up to the cloakroom door and lowered himself down stiffly to sit on the bottom step.

"Now!" said Miss Trotter, "one from each pair of partners come and get a band."

Kevin put his hand up. "Can I go to the toilet, Miss?"

"Yes, be quick. Bobbie, partner Frances for now. She's odd one out."

Robbie glared reproachfully at Kevin's back as he went up the steps, past the old man and disappeared through the cloakroom door Kevin did not come out again for a very long time and Robbie felt even more annoyed. It was too bad, going off like that and leaving him with the lumpish Frances. Her hair ribbon had come off and she kept fiddling with her hair, trying to tuck it behind her ears. At last Robbie decided that he had put up with her quite long enough.

"Shall I see where Kevin is, Miss Trotter?" he asked.

"Goodness, isn't he back yet? Yes, all right, Robbie."

Kevin was exactly where Robbie expected to find him, kneeling on the bench of the cloakroom, finishing off his drawing of the red Alfa on the wall. He had filled it in with red crayon and it really looked rather good.

"You've been here ages," said Robbie.

"M'm." Kevin coloured a wheel hub yellow.

"Come On-you've got to come out."

"All right." Kevin stood up. 'I've finished it now."

The old man was still sitting on the step when they went out. He turned his head to look up at them.

"Cold," he said.

"Blooming cold," agreed Kevin easily. "Nice and warm indoors, though. Why don't you go home?"

"Nice and warm," said the old man, "Indoors." He huddled his chin into his coat collar and closed his eyes.

When the lesson ended and all the children charged back into the cloakroom the old man stumbled to his feet, staggering slightly with cold and stiffness.

"Thank you very much for lending us this," said Miss Trotter, trying again to return the measuring tape. "It was very kind of you."

"No!" said the old man, waving his arms. "Don't want it. Present for the children. For you. Present."

And he stood there in the playground, insecurely balanced on his feet, grinning wheezily and shaking all over, like a scare- crow standing waist deep in a cornfield on a windy day.

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