The Red Alfa
by Alison Prince Chapter Five
The next day was a Saturday, so Robbie did not see Kevin. School and all the people connected with it seemed a long way off at weekends because everything Robbie did belonged to a completely different life. On Saturday afternoon he helped his father rake up the leaves in the garden and make a bonfire, and on Sunday they all went out in the car to have tea at a cafe in a country village.
The cafe had a very low ceiling and even lower black wooden beams which Robbie could reach up and touch. They had scones and cream and raspberry jam and then drove home in the gathering dusk and Robbie saw a weasel dart across the road in front of them.
Robbie wished the weekend could go on for ever. He enjoyed school once he was there, but on Sunday evenings the thought of the coming Monday always gave him a tight feeling in his stomach, rather as though he had to own up to doing something wrong.
When Monday morning came, it was cold again, the lawn sparkling with frost. Robbie ate his breakfast uneasily, knowing he would have to wear his coat and feeling sure his mother would notice Grace's efforts to mend it. He'd better tell her about it before she found it, Robbie decided. There would be time after Dad went to work. It would be much easier when he was alone with his mother.
Robbie's father folded his paper and pushed back his chair - and at that moment Mrs Henshaw came into the kitchen holding Robbie's coat. Her face was very pink.
"Just look at this!" she cried, pushing the coat at her husband. "His brand new coat!"
Mr Henshaw inspected the damage. "Good Lord," he said, "what on earth have you done to it, boy? Been climbing trees or something? And what's all this messy looking mending? You could at least have had the courage to tell us, not go sneaking off trying to mend it."
"Grace mended it," said Robbie. "I didn't really want her to but she said she could do it properly...." His voice tailed away unhappily.
"Grace who?" asked his mother. "And why?"
"Grace Delaney - that's Kevin's sister. It got torn in that fight - and she was sort of on our side."
Mrs Henshaw pursed her lips. "Kevin Delaney," she said. "Whenever there's trouble, it always comes back to that boy. He's a thoroughly bad lot, as far as I can see. She turned to Robbie. "Well, you do look a sight, I must say," she went on. "Scarred face, torn clothes - a real little guttersnipe."
Robbie felt that this was unfair. The scratches on his face had faded to thin pink lines and were hardly visible. And his coat wasn't exactly in rags. He almost protested, but decided against it.
Mr Henshaw stood up. "I'll drop him down to school and have a word with Mr Andrews. If more parents kicked up a fuss we could stop this sort of vandalism. Put your coat on, Robbie. It'll do for today and your mother can mend it this evening - not that she hasn't got enough to do already."
It was a miserable car ride. Robbie kept thinking of Kevin waiting on the bench in the park for him, wondering why he hadn't come. And when he walked across the school yard with his father striding beside him, everyone stared.
The interview with Mr Andrews was short. The Headmaster thanked Mr Henshaw for coming, said he already knew all about the fight and that he would look into the matter of the coat and, as the whistle sounded from the yard. sent Robbie out to join the others.
Kevin was not there. Robbie wondered if he would arrive late, but he was absent when the register was called and when there was still no sign of him after Assembly Robbie realized that Kevin was carrying out his threat to stay away until the thief of the badges had been caught.
At playtime Miss Pickard, the senior mistress, beckoned to Robbie. "Robbie Henshaw, go and see Mr Andrews. Right away, please don't keep him waiting."
Robbie's heart sank. Now what?
"Well may you look scared, young man, said Miss Pickard severely. "People who get into trouble don't get away with it for long, you know."
Mr Andrews was sitting at his desk, thoughtfully stirring a cup of coffee.
"Ah, Robbie," he said. "We seem to be seeing a lot of each other these days, don't we? Now, tell me, why is Kevin absent?"
"I don't know," said Robbie, but he felt a telltale blush creep over his face.
Mr Andrews looked at him carefully. "I think you do," he said. "And I think you're going to tell me. Not now, of course, because you're being loyal to your friend and that's as it should be, but when you've thought about it, I think you'll see things differently, because you're a reasonable person. The point is, if you want to help Kevin, you have to find the best way to do it."
Robbie nodded unhappily.
"Kevin's mother is coming to see me this afternoon," went on Mr Andrews. "She rang up a little while ago from work. But she didn't say anything about Kevin being at home. And I don't think she knows he isn't at school. Do you?"
"I don't know," muttered Robbie. He stared at the floor. Why should Kevin's mother ring up? Had Kevin given her the note, after all?
"Do you know what truancy means?" asked Mr Andrews. "Yes," said Robbie.
"What does it mean? You tell me."
"It's when you stay away from school, not because you're ill or anything - just on purpose.
"That's right. Now, there's a law in this country which says that children have to go to school."
"I know," said Robbie.
"And there are people whose job it is to chase up the ones who don't."
Robbie said nothing, but his blush grew and grew until he felt hot all over. Whatever should he do? He'd promised not to tell anyone about the workshop by the swimming pool - and that's where Kevin would most probably be. But it was a secret. And Kevin would hate it if people came hunting for him, trying to trap him. He might run away or-anything. Involuntarily, Robbie gave a little shake of his head which was almost a shudder. He couldn't tell. It would be awful.
"Kevin's not at home," said Mr Andrews. "I know that much. He left with his sisters as usual this morning. Grace and Marjie tell me he waited for you in the Park."
"I came with Dad," said Robbie. "In the car.
"So you did," agreed Mr Andrews. He finished his coffee and Robbie fidgeted uneasily.
"Pop that back to the staffroom for me, said Mr Andrews, pushing the empty cup across his desk. "And have a think, won't you? Any time you want to see me, I'm here - remember that."
"Yes, said Robbie. He seized the cup hurriedly, anxious to be out of the room. The teaspoon fell off the saucer on to the carpet and he picked it up, fumbled for the door knob,and fled.
The rest of the morning was dreadful. They were doing diagrams of the yard and writing down the results of their measuring walk and Robbie put the numbers in the wrong place, lost his rubber and couldn't rub them out, scrubbed at them with a damp finger and made a terrible mess, and was caught by Miss Trotter trying to tear the page out because it spoiled the whole book.
"It's just careless, Robbie," said Miss Trotter, exasperated. "Now, for goodness' sake pull yourself together."
By lunch time, Robbie had decided what to do about Kevin. He would have to tell Mr Andrews - but not until he had warned Kevin first.
As soon as the bell went, he dashed straight outside without bothering to get his coat from the cloakroom, ran through the gate and out across Monk's Meadow Park. He had gone before anybody saw him, as every- one else was either going into the first dinner sitting or else they were collecting their coats from the cloakroom.
Robbie was certain that Kevin would be in their workshop by the swimming pool. It was a super hiding place and nobody else knew about it. Kevin would be jolly hungry though, Robbie thought. Perhaps he could persuade him to come back for school dinner.
Robbie had two biscuits in a paper bag in his pocket. He had meant to eat them with his milk at playtime, but there hadn't been time because of seeing Mr Andrews. Kevin could have those, if he wouldn't come back for dinner. It would be better than nothing.
He clattered down the steps to the workshop, shouting, "Kev! It's all right-it's only me!"
But the workshop was empty. Robbie stared about him, the biscuits clutched in his hand. Kevin must be here. There was nowhere else. He put the biscuits down on the bench, hoping for some sign that Kevin had been here or was coming back soon. There was nothing. Just cobwebs and dust.
Disappointed and somehow hurt by Kevin's absence, Robbie turned and began to climb back up the steps outside. As he reached the top, a new thought struck him. Of course! If Kevin was hungry, he would have gone home to get something to eat! That's why he wasn't in the workshop.
This new idea posed fresh problems. Was there time to get to Kevin's flat before the second school dinner sitting started? Otherwise there would be awful trouble when Robbie's absence was discovered. And anyway, could he find Kevin's flat? There were so many flats in those big blocks, and they looked so much alike.
Robbie decided that it was worth a try. He must see Kevin somehow. He set off at a brisk trot across the Park.
As he came to the gates, panting from his long run, he stopped in surprise. Kevin had not gone home, after all. He was there, leaning against the teleph6ne box outside the park, his back turned to Robbie, absorbed in watching the passing cars.
From the way his shoulders were hunched and his hands thrust deep into his pockets Robbie knew that Kevin was feeling cold and dejected. He stopped, suddenly irresolute. It seemed wrong to shout Kevin's name - it would startle him, and there were so many difficult explanations ahead that Robbie felt he had better lead up to them rather carefully.
Suddenly Kevin straightened up, his attitude alert. A long, low, red sports car flashed past and Kevin ran to the edge of the pavement to see more of it. As it disappeared round the bend he stepped out on to the crossing, craning his neck to catch a last glimpse of it.
Robbie, as if in a sick dream, saw the agonized face of the following motorist as be jumped on his brakes to avoid the boy on the crossing. Tyres screamed and the car slewed sideways, touched a cyclist who was riding alongside, and came crazily to a halt half across the crossing. The bicycle lurched and fell, clattering across the pavement to land almost at Robbie's feet and the rider, who had pitched across the bonnet of the car, slid down with an appalling slowness, landed on his face in the road and lay still. He was a thick-set man wearing a grey jersey and a navy-blue boiler suit with straps which crossed at the back.
Kevin stood rigidly on the crossing, about a yard from the kerb. His hands were clapped over his mouth as though the terrible thing was still happening. Cars coming from both directions pulled up and drivers got out. The crossing keeper rushed at Kevin and began to shake him by the shoulder. "Look what you've done!" he kept shouting. "Just look what you've done!"
Robbie took a half step towards Kevin, who still had not seen him, but found that he could not stop looking at the man in the boiler suit who was lying in the road. The driver of the car which had hit him had got out and was bending over him. Robbie had a terrible feeling that the man was dead. They needed a doctor or something. An ambulance. Must ring up. Dial - what was it? Zero - Zero - Zero.
Robbie tugged at the stiff door of the telephone box by the park gate, and went inside. It smelt of dirty plastic and cigarette ends. He lifted the receiver and listened until there was a click and a purring sound, then dialled number zero, three times. A woman's voice answered at once, "Which service do you want?"
"There's been an accident," said Robbie, his voice oddly breathless. "There's a man been knocked off his bicycle."
"I'll put you through to ambulance," said the voice calmly.
This time a man answered and Robbie told his story again. "Right," said the man. "I've got all that. Now, where are you?"
"In the phone box just outside Monk's Meadow Park," said Robbie. "Not the shops entrance, the other one, near the swimming pool."
"Good. We'll be there in a few minutes." There was another click, and the receiver purred again in Robbie's hand. He put it back on its stand and went out of the telephone box then thought, with a new pang of anxiety, that he should have told the police, too.
It didn't matter. A policeman on a motor bike had arrived and was talking into his radio. The cyclist had recovered consciousness and was sitting on the kerb with somebody's coat round his shoulders. The driver of the car which had hit him was kneeling beside him. The crossing keeper was holding Kevin, who looked very white, by the arm.
Kevin saw Robbie for the first time and stared at him in obvious astonishment, but they were too far apart to talk to each other, and there were too many people in the way for Robbie to get any nearer. Where had they all come from? Robbie wondered. It seemed a tremendous crowd to have gathered in such a short time.
A police car drove up and three policemen got out. "Move along, please," they said. "Come along, now. Nothing to see, move along, please." The tallest of the Policemen came across to the crossing keeper, who still had a firm grip on Kevin. "This the boy?" he asked.
The crossing keeper nodded eagerly. "Just walked straight out," he said. "Straight out - never looked one way or the other. I was over the other side, you see - couldn't do a thing about it. I mean, I didn't even know he was there, it wasn't my fault, honest it wasn't, not just walking straight out like that."
The policeman nodded. "All right, all right. Well get it all down in a moment. How about the cyclist? Anyone sent for an ambulance?"
People glanced at each other and heads were shaken. Robbie forced his way through the crowd."Please - I did," he said."I rang up.
"Good lad. This boy a friend of yours?"
"Yes," said Robbie.
"You go to the same school?"
"What are you doing out? Been home to lunch?"
Robbie swallowed hard. "Not exactly." Lunch. Oh dear. Second sitting must have started ages ago. What on earth was he to do?
At that moment the ambulance arrived with a brisk peal of its bell. Its blue light was flashing and two uniformed men jumped out and went over to the cyclist, who was still sitting on the pavement.
"You two hop in here," said the policeman to Robbie and Kevin, opening the door of the police car. "We'll come and talk to you in a minute. Oh - are you both all right, by the way? No bumps or scratches - the car didn't touch you, did it, son? You've got a nasty black eye."
Kevin shook his head.
"No," said Robbie. "We're all right."
"Good." The policeman shut the door.
Robbie stared out of the window and saw the man in a boiler suit being helped on to a stretcher and covered with a red blanket.
"I don't think he's badly hurt," he said rather huskily to reassure Kevin.
Kevin did not answer. He looked very cold, sitting huddled up in his green anorak. Although it was warm in the police car, his mauve - blotched knees were pressed close together and his hands were tightly clenched. Robbie could see that he was trying not to shiver.
The ambulance pulled away and the policemen were busy writing things in notebooks and measuring the road with a long tape like the one the old man had brought to school.
School. Robbie was reminded of Mr Andrews and his warning about truancy - and the fact that Kevin's mother was coming to school this afternoon. He must tell Kevin, thought Robbie. This was the only chance he would get.
"Kevin," he began, "lots of things have happened. That's why I came to tell you. Kev?"
But Kevin gave no sign of having heard him. His face was chalk-white except for the purple stain of his black eye, and he stared with fierce misery out of the police car window, at nothing which Robbie could see.
It was no good. This was no time to try to talk to Kevin. No time at all.