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The Red Alfa
by Alison Prince

Chapter Three

The old man was not in the playground when the children went out at lunchtime, nor at the mid-afternoon break. He must have gone back to the Old People's Home, thought Robbie, wondering how he spent his time there. Did he read books or watch the t~ly or just sit? Perhaps he collected stamps or something.

When the bell went for the end of school Robbie paused at Miss Trotter's desk.

"What's the matter, Robbie?" she asked. "You look very bothered"

"I was just wondering," said Robbie, "about that measure the old man brought. Do you think it's his?"

Miss Trotter laughed. "I doubt it," she said. "He probably picked it up somewhere from the Home. I gave it to Mr Andrews and he said he'd return it and have a word with the Warden."

"Oh," said Robbie. That was all right, then.

Mr Andrews, the Headmaster, was the sort of person who could manage anything. But all the same...

"He shouldn't have taken it, though, should he? Wasn't it stealing?"

Miss Trotter put her head on one side as she always did when she was considering a knotty question. "Well-yes, I suppose it was) strictly speaking. But you see, old people get a bit muddled in their minds sometimes and you can't really hold them responsible. You have to think of them as being rather like toddlers and just keep things out of their way.

"Jolly big toddlers!" said Robbie, grinning.

Miss Trotter laughed and gathered up her books.

"Off you go," she said. "See you in the morning."

"Yes. Goodbye, Miss Trotter."

"Bye-bye, Robbie."

Robbie went down the corridor to the cloak- room. Come to think of it, the old man was rather like a big toddler. Sort of messy and wobbly and friendly. It must be horrid to be like that, he thought.

As he approached the cloakroom, Robbie could hear some kind of argument going on. It was always noisy in there but this time there were people shouting angrily. It sounded as if there was going to be a fight.

"Well, they were there this morning!" Paul was shouting, "And somebody must have taken them!"

"Mine too!" said Billy, his face scarlet, "and I've been collecting them for months!"

"What's the matter?" asked Robbie.

Paul swung round and stared fiercely through his spectacles. "Look!" he said, pushing out his blazer lapels with his thumbs for Robbie to see. "All my badges-all gone!"

Collecting badges had been the great craze that term. Club badges, football supporters' badges, badges advertising shoes or sweets or cocoa, and all those joke badges which said things like 'Eating People Is Wrong'. Paul's collection had been the best in the class, with Billy Rowson's a good second.

But today, somebody had removed every badge from every coat in the cloakroom.

"First money, now badges," said Allan Watts darkly.

"Somebody's a thief," said Billy.

Paul went up to Kevin. He was much smaller than Kevin and had to look up to confront him. "You were in here this morning," he said bravely. "You said you were going to the toilet and you didn't come out for ages. Did you see anyone else?"

"No," said Kevin shortly, shrugging on his anorak.

There was an uneasy pause, then Billy said what they were all thinking. it

"Then did you take them?"

"'Course I didn't," said Kevin. "I don't collect badges. They're stupid."

"They're not stupid," said Paul, looking as if he might cry in a minute. "And if you didn't want them you could sell them or swap them for something else."

"Oh, get lost," said Kevin. He jerked his head to Robbie. "Come on."

They went out into the yard, followed by a silent, suspicious group of boys.

Marjie at once came rushing up.

"Kevin! Kevin! Can I have a lolly?" "No, you can't," said Kevin flatly.

"Oh, go on, Kevin! Only fivepence! You've always got fivepence, Kevin!"

"Well, I haven't today, so shut up!" said Kevin fiercely. Marjie's face crumpled at h sudden anger and she began to cry.

"Look, I'm sorry, said Kevin, "but you can have blues every day. Have a ribbon instead." "Look, I'm sorry, said Kevin, "but you can have blues every day. Have a ribbon instead."

He pulled a white ribbon, tied in a bow from his pocket and gave it to the little girl

"That's mine!" said Frances suddenly snatching it. "I lost it in P.E. this morning You are rotten, Kevin. You could have given it back!"

Marjie burst into tears afresh and Kevin shrugging his shoulders, turned away from the boys and began to walk towards the gate.

Paul, maddened by this indifference rushed after Kevin and grabbed at his sleeve

"Just a minute!" he yelled. "What else have you got in your pockets?"

"Oh, shove off," said Kevin, elbowing Paul aside. Paul, caught off balance, tripped and fell, and in that moment the damage was done.

"Pick someone your own size!" shouted Billy, pushing Kevin in the chest. Kevin's temper suddenly flared and he hit Billy hard in the ribs. In the next instant the other boys were on him, punching and pushing and grabbing at his anorak, trying to get at the pockets.

Robbie dived in among them with some idea of helping Kevin and found himself in the middle of his first fight. He doubled his fists and tried to see what he should aim at, but found at once that knees, shoes and elbows hurt more than fists. Something sharp scraped down the side of his face and some- body was holding him by the coat belt so that he couldn't move. Kicking and elbowing, he tore himself away and suddenly Billy Rowson was right in front of him, shouting something. Without stopping to think Robbie hit him hard on the nose.

Billy grunted and put both hands over his face. They came away covered with blood and Robbie instantly felt rather sick. After all, he liked Billy.

"Oy! You pack that in!" Mr Burgess, the caretaker, strode into the grappling mass of boys and hauled them apart. Billy's nose was streaming with blood and Kevin had a large blue swelling under one eye. Paul, breathing hard, his spectacles sideways, suddenly bent down, grabbed at something on the ground and held it up triumphantly. It was a badge.

"Look at that!" he panted. "Well where are the others?"

Kevin, now very angry, shouted, "that's my badge! It came from the shoe shop where my Mum works! Look, it's one of those adverts for those tracker boots!"

"Thought you didn't collect badges," muttered Billy. Kevin clenched his fists and it seemed for a moment as though the fight was going to start all over again. Then an incisive voice said, "What's all this?"

Mr Andrews, the Headmaster, stood looking down at them, his briefcase in one hand and the old man's measure in the other.

"This is nothing short of a brawl, gentle- men," he said. "Billy, will you kindly go and attend to your nose.

"No idea what caused it, sir," said Mr Burgess. "I came out attracted by the noise, like, and there they were, at it 'ammer and tongs, you might say.

"Hammer and tongs indeed," agreed Mr Andrews. He looked at the boys one by one carefully and said finally, "Robbie. Can you tell me what started all this?"

"They thought Kevin stole the badges, sir," said Robbie. "They've all gone from the cloakroom, off everyone's coats."

"One fell out of his pocket," blurted Paul, scarlet with embarrassment, but still determined to see his investigation through.

"It's mine, I tell you!" shouted Kevin.

"It is, sir, honest!" put in Grace, who had hovered anxiously on the edge of the fight, putting in a kick whenever she could. "Mum gave it to him."

"Yes, she did," chimed in Marjie.

"He had my ribbon, though," said Frances, holding it up for inspection.

"Right," said Mr Andrews, "I don't want to hear any more just now. It's high time all you people were on your way home because Mr Burgess wants to lock up. Now, off you go. Kevin, will you come and see me after Assembly tomorrow morning? And you too, Robbie, just to see fair play. Then we can sort this out."

"Yes, sir," muttered Kevin and Robbie.

"'Bye, sir." The group began to drift off. Mr Andrews raised a hand in general farewell and went across to the cloakrooms to inspect Billy's nose.

Robbie set off rather unhappily across the Park with Kevin and the two girls. Fighting, he thought, was not for him. His cheek smarted and his hands felt bruised and sore, and it was upsetting to hate people who were really your friends. And yet, although he felt ashamed of hitting Billy's nose, it had been somehow exciting.

"Gosh!" said Grace. "Your coat's torn. Did you know?"

"Oh, no----is it?"

"Yes, the belt's torn right off on one side. Look!" Grace held up the dangling end. The belt was not one which went all round the coat, but a half-belt fitting across the back. Twisting round, Robbie inspected the dam age, remembering the sudden freedom as he pulled away from someone's grasp in the fight.

"Will your Mum be cross?" asked Marjie.

"Yes, I think she will," said Robbie miserably. "It's new, you see."

"I'll mend it for you if you like," offered Grace. "Then she need never know."

"Could you really? I mean, would it look all right?"

"She's jolly good," said Kevin. "She mended Marjie's teddy when its ear came off and it looked like new.

Robbie was undecided. He would have to tell his mother sooner or later. But not just now. Not just after the fight and everything.

"Oh, come on," said Grace. "It won't take a minute and we live quite near you.

Robbie had never been to Kevin's house before, simply because Kevin had never asked him. But Grace sounded so decided that it would seem awfully rude to turn down her offer.

"All right," he said.

They crossed the road and turned left, towards the Council estate. Robbie gazed at the rows of houses, wondering which one was Kevin's, but they went on until they came to the tall blocks of flats. Kevin turned into the stone entrance way in the first block, an they clattered up the steps and along balcony.

"Here we are," said Kevin, opening one of the doors with a key which was tied with long string to the belt on his trousers.

He led the way in through a tiny square hall and into the living room. Robbie stared The floor boards were bare except for a mat in front of the fireplace. There were four wooden chairs and a small table but no other furniture. Some cardboard boxes full of miscellaneous things stood in the corner, The general air of unfinished bareness reminded Robbie of the day they moved into their house and, without thinking, he said "Have you only just moved in?"

"No, we've been here ages," said Marjie gaily.

"We're just not posh, that's all," said Kevin with deliberate rudeness. Robbie blushed.

"Give us that coat," said Grace, fishing in a cardboard box for needle and cotton

Feeling very uncomfortable, Bobbie sat on one of the chairs in the bare room while Grace stitched his coat. She was two years younger than him and yet her bony little fingers drove the needle fiercely through the thick cloth as though she had been doing for years. She was more like a sort of aunt than a little sister, Bobbie thought.

Kevin stood with his hands in his pockets staring out of the window and whistling through his teeth. The bruise under his eye had puffed up into a dark swelling.

Grace put in the last stitch, bit off the cotton and threw the coat across to Robbie

"There you are," she said. "I wasn't long, was I?"

"No," said Bobbie. "Thank you very much I'd better be going now."

Kevin followed him to the door, hands still in pockets. "You might come to tea one day," he said. "Mum's a super cook."

"Yes," said Bobbie. "Thanks."

"If your Mum'll let you, that is," went on Kevin. "We have it a bit late because of Mum coming home from work."

"Yes," said Robbie again. "Super. See you."

He very much wanted to get home.

"Darling, where have you been?" asked Robbie's mother, opening the front door, Robbie wriggled past her and hung up his coat, noticing with a sinking heart that Grace's mending was rather obvious. He wished he had come straight home.

"Tea's been ready for ages," his mother went on. They always had a light tea when Robbie came home from school and a proper meal later, when his father came in.

"I want to know," she insisted. "Another five minutes and I'd have rung the police. Now, where were you, Bobbie?"

"I went to Kevin's house," said Bobbie. Just for a minute." He went ahead of his mother into the dining room.

"Kevin Delaney?" Mrs Henshaw frowned. "Isn't he the boy who came to your party and stayed upstairs all the time?"

Bobbie nodded. Kevin had been so fascinated with Bobbie's collection of model cars that he had played with them in Bobbie's bedroom all afternoon, explaining calmly that he hated Blind Man's Buff anyway.

Bobbie's mother poured out the tea. "You could have let me know, dear," she said. "You could easily have popped home first."

"Sorry," said Robbie, taking an egg sandwich. Not with that torn coat, he couldn't. His face still hurt and he wondered uneasily what it looked like.

"I'd really much rather you asked your friends here," said his mother. "And, Bobbie -are you quite sure Kevin is the right sort of friend for you?"

"He's all right," muttered Bobbie. "Can I have another sandwich?"

As he looked up to ask the question, Mrs Henshaw caught sight for the first time of the double line of red weals which ran down the side of her son's face. Unmistakably, they had been caused by somebody's finger nails.

"Oh, Robbie," she said, aghast, you've been fighting. Now, this really is a bit much."

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