It was the last lesson of the day. Astronomy, Tom's favourite, so it should have been a joy. Unfortunately, it was the last lesson of the day, and Mrs Smith had this incredible gift for making the last lesson of everyday interminable. Earlier in the day, the same lesson would have set the world alight, but not this late on. This late she had the power - a power which she never failed to use - to make the clocks run slow, almost to stop.
Eventually the school bell sounded loud and clear, of course. It was accompanied, as always, by sighs of relief all round - until Mrs Smith held up her hand for silence. "And what is it, children , that we do last thing before we all go home?" All the hands shot up.
"We write tomorrow's date across the top of the blackboard, miss!"
It wasn't a blackboard, of course. This was a modern school. Its boards were all white boards, but everyone still called them black.
"Indeed we do. Well done, Tom. You seem much more alert today!"
He was alert. He had 50p in his pocket, which he would spend on his way home.
"And tomorrow the date will be... "
"Wednesday, the sixth of March, Mrs Smith!" said Tom
"Excellent!" said Mrs Smith, and began to write, slowly - and, Tom thought, laboriously - across the top of the board in her immaculate script (Which she could not have done with chalk on one of those old blackboards. No way!): Wednesday, 6th March. She finished with a flourish, turned to the class and silently clapped her hands together, the signal for them to leave as silently.
Tom made for the bookshop. It had a 50p table which he was in the habit of visiting whenever he was flushed. Today, though, there was another table beside the 50p one. On the new table two or three splendid books were displayed. "Hi Charlie!" said Mr Thomas as Tom pushed open the door. He'd always called him Charlie, since almost his first visit when he hadn't known Tom's name.
"Hello!" Tom had replied , before burying his nose in a particularly attractive book on the new table. "Signs and Wonders of the Heavens" it was called. The coloured maps and photographs were stunning. Tom was all but salivating over it. He looked back to check the price. £20. His heart sank, but he read on. Well, in fact he couldn't read a great deal. Not with understanding. Most of the text was beyond him. There was a chapter on time that caught his eye, though. Again, he couldn't get it all. His dad was always talking about time as if it was a river, just flowing on by. Unstoppable, unchangeable. Remorseless. "Time and Tide wait for no man." he was always saying, which didn't seem to Tom to be quite the same thing as his Time and river saying.
The chapter on time appeared to be suggesting that time was not so much a river as a sea, and that it sometimes came in waves and could be pulled around by the heavenly bodies in the same way that the moon affects the oceans. He wasn't sure he understood all that it said, but he had learned long ago from his foraging in Mr Thomas's shop that you didn't always have to fully understand a book in order to enjoy it. What you did have to do, though, was be able to afford it! At this point he noticed that Mr Thomas was heavily engaged with a man in a rather fierce argument. Before he even knew what was happening , Tom had slipped the book into his school satchel and slipped out of the shop.
And then, on the way home, he had just reached the little green with the newsagent's shop when he noticed, could not but help noticing, that the window of the shop, which had been badly cracked the week before by skateboarders, was being replaced by a man from EverGlass. It was Bob, the man who had put in their new double-glazing back in the autumn.
That evening Tom took the book to bed with him and studied the chapter on time until his mother came in and said the word "Sleep!" in her usual authoritative e way. Dad would have said; "Time to hit the hay!" Mum merely repeated "Sleep now Tom" and turned out the light as though the action was all part of the sentence. Usually it worked - better than dad's hitting the hay - but not that evening. That evening he simply carried on reading under the blankets with the aid of his powerful torch. He fell asleep, still not having grasped what the chapter was attempting to tell him.
When he awoke in the morning he felt rather different about it. His conscience had kicked in. He was distraught. He had done a terrible thing. How could he have? He had no peace all day at school. What could he do? How to put it right? He didn't fancy taking the book back and making a clean breast of it. By the time that Chloe was telling Mrs Smith to write Thursday, 7th March, he had resolved what to do. Just before he would get to the book shop on his way home was a beautiful little church which they sometimes went to as a family. He would go in there. That's where you went when you were in the sort of trouble he was in.
Tom entered very cautiously, but need not have worried: it was empty. He stopped in front of the statuette of Jesus. Then he went down on one knee. He was just about to launch into the intricacies of his moral dilemma when an incident from a recent visit to a store in town came into his mind. A woman had approached one of the assistants very belligerently. Then, thumping the counter with her hand, had demanded to see the manager - "The general manager. Don't try to palm me off with some under manager!" His dad had told him that such behaviour was the height of rudeness. To go in like that, demanding to see the man - or woman - at the top was not the way to behave. You should state your case, and let the person concerned decide who was the one to help resolve the issue. Only if you found yourself getting no satisfaction, should you take the initiative and demand to go higher. He saw a similarity with his own case. Maybe he shouldn't go straight to the boss! He moved on. But who else was there? Ah, he thought he knew. In a stained glass window was an image said to be of Joseph. Yes, he was of about the right seniority. He explained it all to Joseph and as he got back to his feet, he was sure he saw the image wink!
Tom left the church not really knowing how he felt. Without noticing much of what was going on around him, he reached the little green with the newsagent shop, he noticed, though it hardly registered, such was the state of his mind, that Bob, a man he knew vaguely, was replacing the cracked window of the newsagent's shop. After which, though, Tom did notice, and with increasing unease, that he was meeting and passing the same people as the previous afternoon, and at exactly the same points on his journey home. The killer blow, though, came when, soon after he had arrived home, Tom turned on the telly to find himself watching the very programmes that he had watched the previous afternoon. He checked with The Radio Times. No, this was not what was listed for Wednesday afternoon. "You daft thing," said Mum." It's Tuesday! Tuesday, the 5th!" No, maybe that was not quite the killer blow. Maybe that came when he went up to his bedroom to renew his acquaintance with the book that was causing all the trouble. The book was nowhere to be seen.
He ate his evening meal with nothing clearly resolved, and went back to school the next day, still in a turmoil. His turmoil increased alarmingly when he looked at the blackboard. Across the top, in Mrs Smith's immaculate script, was written: Wednesday 6th March. The day went by in a blur. He couldn't wait to get back to the church. Joseph would have to sort this out! And if Joseph couldn't, then he, Tom, would demand to see the absolute boss! But when it came to it, he ran straight on by. Something impelled him to the book shop. He crashed through the door ("Steady on, Charlie!" said Mr Thomas.) to be confronted by the two tables, and on the first, displayed as ever was: The Book, "Signs and Wonders of the Heavens". He skidded to a halt in front of it. "You like that book, don't you?" grinned Mr Thomas. "I do, yes... I thought that you had sold it!" said Tom. "Nope. I've had a lot of folk look at it," said Mr Thomas, "but there it's stayed so far, right where you see it on that table!" Can a person dream his way through a day before it even happens? wondered Tom, or did Joseph know some way that he could send time back a day and rewrite it, like me erasing a sentence I had written? I do believe he might have fixed it so that I never did take that book in the first place! And what confirmed Tom's belief in that second possibility was the realisation that he could remember not one word of what he'd read. Not only had he not taken it, but he'd also never read it. Well, that would follow logically, wouldn't it?
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