It was one of those wild, windblown days which seem at regular intervals to punctuate the brittle heat of early summer. We were bored, fed up both with the uncertainty of the weather and with the predictably aggressive reaction of the maladjusted boys we work with. That afternoon we were sitting in the staff room, lingering over the last dregs of coffee, when Bob looked out of the window and stiffened in alarm.
“Christ!” he said. “There’s a kid up on the roof!”
–Don’t disturb him,” I drawled. “He might decide to come down.”
–No. I’m serious,” he continued, moving to the window for a better view. “There’s someone up there.”
–He’s right, you know,” called Brian. “Over by the big chimney stack.”
We poured through the door and stood gazing up at the roof of the east wing. There was no sign of anybody but the roof was sloped and dotted with numerous windows and old chimney breasts. If there was someone up there he could stay out of sight for as long as he wanted.
–I–ll go round to the front,” I said. “See if I can spot him from there.”
I went through the main hall and out onto the car park. Almost immediately I caught sight of a shape “a boy, high up, balancing on the very edge of the roof. I could not see his face which was shaded in the shadow of the building but, from his build, he seemed to be one of our younger boys. And from the way he was swaying he did not look particularly safe. A sixty-foot nose dive onto the tarmac of the car park would not exactly do anyone’s headache much good, I thought to myself.
As I watched, the boy looked down and in that second I recognized him.
–Fuck off, you bastard!” he screamed. “Leave me alone!”
Charming, I thought, and promptly left him to it.
When I got back to the main group the Principal was calling the roll with the other boys.
–He’s up there,” I said. “Jamie Pritchard.”
* * *
Jamie was a little thirteen year old who had been with us for about two weeks. In that time he had inflicted more damage on the staff, boys and building than a tornado. When most lads threw a tantrum or hit out you could usually work them through it in ten minutes or so. But Jamie would keep going for hours on end! At the drop of a hat he would kick, bite, scream, throw himself all over the place in an effort to avoid restraint. Now, for the second time in a week, he was up on the roof.
“We’ll have to get him down,” I said. “He’s right on
the edge “one slip and he’s over. A dying swan straight into the car
It took us a few minutes to work out our strategy. The Principal and I would go out to the front of the house and try to keep Jamie talking. Brian and Bob would go up to the roof and, if the chance arose, grab him. The other staff would keep the rest of the boys out of the way “an audience being the very last thing he needed.
“Whatever you do,” said the Principal as we moved off, “just don’t upset him.”
* * *
A few minutes later I saw Bob’s head appear out of a skylight. Jamie saw him at the same time.
–You come out here,” he shrieked, “and I–ll bloody jump!”
The rest of their conversation was lost, whipped away by the wind, but it was obvious that Bob and Brian were attempting to talk things through with the boy.
–For God's sake don’t agitate him,” breathed the Principal as Jamie tottered closer to the edge of the guttering.
–If that drainpipe breaks he’s had it,” I said.
After ten minutes of continual talking, following Jamie as he paraded around the roof, we were still there. He showed no sign of wanting to come down and then, eventually, he was caught by a sharp gust of wind. His arms sailed as he fought to regain his balance.
“Christ!” said the Principal when Jamie finally regained his footing.
That single expletive seemed to sum up all our feelings. Suddenly, almost before we realized, before the boy had time to recover from his shock, Bob leapt out onto the roof, grabbed Jamie in one arm and dragged him back to the skylight. It was a superb piece of gymnastics but the finer points of his skill were lost to us. Jamie was down, nothing else mattered.
“Thank God for that,” said the Principal. “Have a chat with him, Phil, find out what it’s all about.”
Bloody marvellous, I thought. Just what I need.
Jamie would not talk. He was raging. He spat and kicked out at me, then smashed the telephone off my desk. Eventually, I had to hold him down on the office floor. It took me a full hour to finally quieten him down.
“Sorry, Phil,” he sobbed, eventually. “I don’t know what got into me.
I handed him a cigarette and we began to talk. Slowly, gradually, the story came out. It was all fairly simple. He had never been away from home before and was missing his mother.
I found his file and read over the case history. The home was not a good one. Dad had walked out on the family two years previously, leaving Jamie and his mother to manage on their own.
–He was a bastard, anyway,” Jamie sneered. “Glad to see him go.”
Within six months the boy was totally out of control. He stayed out at night, refused to go to school and began to commit offences. There was some suspicion of cruelty by the mother or boyfriend “nothing to go on, just the odd bruise or cut noted by alert teachers or social workers. Eventually, after he had stolen a car and crashed it on the motorway, he was placed on a care order and ended up at Bracken House.
Earlier that day the other boys had been teasing him. They disliked him, resented the fact he was always crying, always asking to go home. I think they saw it as a weakness, something they were unable to tolerate. The escapade on the roof had been the result.
–I just miss mum,” he sobbed quietly. “If I could see her for a few minutes, I’d be O.K. I know I would, I really do.”
The poor little devil had a point. He was a skinny mite, barely five feet tall, the epitome of a deprived boy. And, when I thought about it, I wouldn’t have liked to be taken away from home when I was his age, no matter what the reason.
“We might be able to get her over to see you,” I said, finally. “I–ll see what I can do.”
His eyes lit up and he scrambled excitedly to his feet.
–Do you mean it? You–ll really bring her here?”
I smiled. "I said I’d see what I could do. Now go and have your tea.”
It was two weeks before I was able to arrange it. His mother was hard to get hold of “she worked during the day and spent most evenings in the local club. Eventually, however, I managed to track her down. At first she was not too keen. Apparently she relished her new-found freedom, a life suddenly uncluttered by an adolescent boy. And, of course, she was bitter.
“What for?” she said when I asked her if she would come.
–You bastards took him into care, now you look after him.”
In the end, after I had promised to pay her fare, she agreed to visit next Saturday afternoon. Jamie was ecstatic when I told him. He literally danced down the corridor, hands and arms waving in the air.
“She’s coming,” he shrieked. “She’s coming!”
I only hoped he would not be disappointed.
* * *
Saturday was oppressive and sultry with grey-black clouds massing in the West like a frightful portent of disaster. Jamie was unconcerned about the weather “heat wave or typhoon, he wouldn’t have cared.
“What’s his mother like?” asked Bob as we sat in the staff room over morning break.
–I’ve only spoken to her on the “phone,” I replied. “That was bloody awful. She wouldn’t come unless I agreed to pay her fare. I know he’s caused her problems but, hell, he is her kid. I don’t know what Jamie expects but I’ve got a feeling she’s not going to match up.”
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and leaned back in my chair. The heat was stifling, almost unbearable in the tiny room.
–I’d better get ready for another trip onto the roof, then,” said Bob, flexing his arm muscles.
He smiled but behind the smile there was no humour.
From 1 o–clock onwards Jamie sat in the front hall, nose close up to the windows, eyes misty and vulnerable.
“She’s late!” he half cried as I passed through the hall on my way back from lunch. “She should have been here ten minutes ago.”
–Give her time,” I said. “It’s a long walk from the station.”
I knew Mrs. Pritchard had finally arrived when, five minutes later, I caught sight of Jamie bounding like a demented rabbit down the road. He had seen his mother rounding the corner of the lower drive and was on his way to meet her.
A quarter of an hour later he brought her to see me.
“This is my mum,” he smiled, face beaming, eyes big as marbles in his head.
We shook hands, coldly. She was a tall woman, scrawny with a well beaten look about her. Her face was thin and gaunt with lines of pressure engrained across her forehead and around the eyes. A hard face, I thought, one which matched the voice.
“What about my money?” she asked.
We went to my office and I paid her out of petty cash. The whole time Jamie hung around his mother’s heel like a whipped and beaten dog, desperate for a pat or a kind word.
“Would you like to stay for tea?” I asked.
She sniffed and smoothed down her skirt. “Can’t. I’m working tonight, behind the bar in the club. I–ll have to be away in half an hour.”
She motioned with her hand and the ash from her cigarette crumbled to the floor. It lay there on the carpet like an accusation.
For five long seconds she sat there, staring at it.
–He’ll have had enough of me by then, anyway,” she finally said.
Half heartedly she pushed Jamie towards a chair.
“Sit down, there’s a good boy. Can’t stand you leaning over me the whole bloody time.”
Jamie’s face fell slightly but he sat obediently in the chair. After a few moments I left them alone. I was glad to be out of it. The whole atmosphere was overpowering, strained.
I sat on the balcony wall in front of the main house and watched the dark thunder clouds massing. Pretty soon now, I thought, there would be a storm. We needed it to clear the air.
The front door opened and Bob and Brian came out. They joined me on the wall.
–I guess that was Mrs. Pritchard?” commented Brian, motioning towards the main house.
–Yes, that’s her. No bloody wonder the kid's got problems.”
We sat and talked for a few minutes. Two distinct peals of thunder rang out, close and threatening, and the first few drops of rain began to fall. We retreated to the front hall and ran straight into Mrs. Pritchard and Jamie.
–I’m just off,” she said. “Don’t want to be caught in the rain.”
Too late,” remarked Brian, turning towards the window. “It’s already started.”
She followed his gaze, her face more elongated and hard than ever. She seemed bored. Casually she placed a cigarette in her mouth.
“Can’t anyone give me a lift?” she asked, eventually.
Bob agreed to take her to the station in the van. Her goodbye to Jamie consisted of a quick pass of her lips over the top of his head. Then she was gone.
Jamie was in tears, his small face screwed and twisted into a dozen different masks. Now for it, I thought.
“Thanks, Phil,” he said suddenly. “Thanks for getting her here.”
I was amazed. It was hardly the reaction I had expected. Brian and I exchanged quick glances.
“She couldn’t stay,” Jamie explained, wiping away the tears with the back of his hand. “She’s got to go to work, see.”
He moved slowly towards the door which led to the boys” sitting room, towards the regular Saturday afternoon ritual of television and pocket money. Possibly towards some type of acceptance from his peers.
“She said she might come again in a few weeks. I’m lucky really “lots of kids haven’t got anyone.
Slowly his face dissolved into a smile.
–I–ll be O.K. now. I was just upset to see her go. I’m better now. I–ll write to her tonight.”
I was speechless. What in the name of God had that cold and distant twenty minutes given to the kid? Brian gazed at me and saw the confusion on my face.
–I suppose,” he said, “it only goes to show you just can’t replace parents. No matter how bad, in the end blood is thicker than water. No way round it!”
Basically, he was right. No matter what the woman had done to him, no matter how many times she rejected him, Jamie would still want her.
And who’s to say that he was wrong?