The Egg Collector
The Egg Collector
The boy hated Sunday school.
The teacher, Miss Green, was boring. All she ever talked about were the Jews. She never mentioned the Romans or the Greeks. Even the Egyptians would have been more interesting, the pyramids with dead bodies wrapped in bandages, and watering their gardens from the Nile. They had lessons about the Romans and stuff in ordinary school, but Miss Green didn't seem to know anything about those sorts of things.
He kicked a stone at the side on the lane and watched as it bounced into the ditch. It hit the far bank and fell out of sight with a splosh.
'Oh, my shoes.' Alarm filled his voice and he peered down at them, but the stone hadn't made any mark. He breathed out, puffing his cheeks. The shoes had been new for his birthday two weeks earlier. He'd get a thick ear if he made them scruffy so quickly.
The sun glinted on ripples at the bottom of the ditch. Something was moving and he scrambled down to have a look. At the side, in the weeds where the water was shallowest, two frogs were wrestling. He'd never seen frogs fighting before. One was on top, clasping the other one round its middle and it must have squeezed really hard, because all the insides of the other frog came out, but it made no noise. You'd think if it was hurt it would croak or something.
He began to have doubts about it being the frog's insides, and bent down so he was closer to the frogs. It was more like frog spawn.
Whatever it was it sank through the water, but he could still see it. A few inches away he could see a mass of floating jelly. That was definitely frog spawn. I'll come back with a jam jar after Sunday school, he decided and scrambled back to the lane.
'Oh, my goodness. Look at my suit.' The suit had been new too. 'I'll get more than a thick ear when Gran sees me.' She was really fussy about his Sunday suits and he'd made this new one muddy. He knew it would be worse on the seat of his pants where he'd been sitting. Still, it's too late now. I'll have to wait until it dries and ask Miss Green to help brush it off when I get to Sunday school. It would leave stains though, and he knew he'd get a clout.
Fair enough too.
He pulled his cap off and shook his head to straighten his hair. 'That's better,' he said, as he scrunched the cap into a roll and stuffed it into his trouser pocket. He didn't like caps. If it hadn't been for Sunday school he wouldn't have had a cap.
Sunday school… He grimaced. It was the first sunny day for ages and there were so many more important things to do. The rain had cleared up after breakfast, but the wind was still strong and it seemed to be getting stronger.
He poked a finger into the collar of his shirt and eased it. It was only after he lowered his hand that he noticed how muddy it was. The collar would be filthy, but it was all because of the tie Gran made him wear. Why did he have to wear a tie for Sunday school? He didn't have to wear one for ordinary school.
Ties… They were worse than caps.
He tried to work out which he hated most, ties or Sunday school. Sunday school he decided. He pulled the bottom of the tie out from his jacket and examined it. Aunty Lily had given it to him. She'd said it would go with his new suit, but it was just plain dark blue and boring. Aunty Lily… This was just the sort of tie she would buy, but he hadn't wanted to hurt her feelings. Not after she'd given him those wheels.
The suit was just as boring… Grey. It was still short pants, which was good. He hadn't wanted a new suit, but Gran said he had to have a suit to go to Sunday school and his old one was too tight.
The shoes too. They were a bit big, but Gran said he'd grow into them. Grandpa had said, 'If he doesn't kick the toes out first.' Gran had told him to be quiet and stop giving the boy ideas. That was silly. He didn't go round kicking the toes out of his shoes. They just got like that.
The boy loosened the knot of his tie and unbuttoned the neck of his shirt. Collars dug in so much.
Sunday school… They didn't do any proper lessons, not sums, or writing. Nothing like that. Miss Green just told them stories. Strange stories. There was one about this man who fed thousands of people with just two loaves and five fishes… Or was it two fishes and five loaves… He couldn't remember. Not that it mattered. He didn't believe it, which ever way it was. No fish would be big enough for that. No loaves either. The baker wouldn't be able to get them in his van.
Sunday school was held in the Endowed school in Down End. People said it was part of the Church, but you'd never guess. It was nowhere near the Church.
Endowed. He'd looked it up in the dictionary Miss Bevan had in her desk. She was his headmistress at ordinary school and she'd helped him. Endow:— To furnish with a gift, faculty or quality. He didn't know what faculty meant and he didn't like to ask Miss Bevan for two answers, not in her dinner time anyway, but he did know about gifts. Funny thing to give anyone, he thought. Not much use for anything. He wondered who'd given it, and how much it had cost. And who had they given it to. No one seemed to own it.
He was glad he didn't go to the Endowed school. The County was his school and they didn't think much of the Endowed at the County, at least the teachers didn't. He'd heard them talking about it when he'd been eating his sandwiches. All the other boys and girls went home for dinner, but because he lived so far away, Gran used to give him sandwiches and he ate them with Miss Bevan and the other teachers in one of the class rooms. He liked Miss Bevan. She was nice. She used to make him a cup of tea to go with his sandwiches.
Miss Bevan wasn't married, even thought she was old and the head mistress. They said she had been going to marry a soldier, only he went off and got himself killed in the war. So now she wasn't married at all. Pity really, because she would have made a nice mum. He knew ladies had to be married before they could be a mum. Gran had told him. But… that couldn't be right. Mary Askle was a mum, and she wasn't married.
Perhaps she wasn't a lady. She mightn't be old enough. I wonder how you tell a lady, he thought. All the ladies he knew were old, so that had to be it. But Mary was his friend so he didn't care about her not being a lady, or being a mum.
Same with dads. They had to be married before they could be a dad. Only… God is a dad and he's not married. Well, he didn't think he could be. No one ever mentioned Mrs God. So he couldn't be… Could he? But… Everybody said God had a son. And wasn't Miss Green always calling him Our Father.
If Miss Green is right, he sent his son down to be with us. Why? the boy wondered. Why did he send him away from heaven? God must have been really angry with him. Perhaps he'd been especially naughty, but sometimes grown-ups got angry over nothing. You never knew with grown-ups, and God was a grown-up. Had to be. He'd been round long enough.
I wonder why God hadn't got married, he thought. Maybe the lady who was going to be Mrs God got herself killed in the war, just like Miss Bevan's soldier. He'd have to ask Miss Green. She knew all about God.
At school during dinner-time Mr Cardwell, one of the teachers from the big boy's school, used to come through and eat his sandwiches with the teachers from the primary school and he'd sit close to Miss Bevan. Mr Cardwell used to whisper things to her, but he could never hear what they were. He saw her blush once.
When he'd told Mary about them she'd said, 'Mr Cardwell fancies Miss Bevan.' He didn't understand, so he'd asked her what she meant.
'He likes her,' she said.
'So do I,' the boy replied.
'Yes, but he doesn't like her like you like her,' Mary said. 'He's a man.'
'How else can he like her?'
'He wants to do things with her,' Mary said.
'Well, I do things with her.
'Do you really?' Mary laughed, but he couldn't see what was funny. 'What sort of things?' she asked.
'We do sums and she teaches us our tables. We read books and things and she takes us for writing.'
'I don't think Mr Cardwell wants to do those sort of things with her,' Mary said.
'Well, what does he want to do then?' he demanded.
'You'll learn,' Mary said, but she wouldn't say any more. He hadn't learnt though. He still didn't know what Mr Cardwell could want to do. He'd asked Mary several times since, but she just laughed again and wouldn't tell him.
If I don't stop dawdling I'm going to be late, he thought, but it won't matter. Miss Green never shouted. She was nice. She was old too. Not as old as Gran. Not as old as Aunty Lily. Not as old as Miss Bevan even, but a lot older than him.
She wasn't married either.
Gran said she was walking out, whatever that meant. He walked out all the time, but Gran said nothing about it. Well, she said nothing to him.
Sometimes he didn't give Miss Green the penny he'd been given for the collection. She didn't know about the penny. At least, he thought she didn't know about the penny. Even if she did, she wouldn't have got angry. She said it was bad to get angry. She said you had to turn the other cheek, but she never explained which one it was. The boy wondered if it made any difference. Not that he cared, he couldn't see the sense in it. How was it supposed to help?
He got angry sometimes. Last week he'd got angry when Joe Baybutt had started to pick on him after Sunday school, pushing him off the footpath and trying to trip him. They were in the road on the way home. Joe Baybutt was bigger than him. He was older too, about two years. Well, he wasn't going to take that from Joe Baybutt, so he clipped him one on the nose. It stopped him and he began to blubber, but his big brothers saw what happened and came after him.
Nobody liked the Baybutts, especially the big brothers. They were twins and looked so alike he couldn't tell which one was which. They were older than Joe and bigger, and they'd been coming for him. He turned to run, but he knew it'd be no good, because they could run faster than he could. A little way ahead he could see a hole in the fence and he was going to slip through to take a short cut across a paddock, but he found this loose stake. He grabbed the stake and turned to face them.
It made a good club and he hefted it over his shoulder, just as he'd seen the Ancient Brits in the Beano comic. As the first of the twins came at him, he swung. The stake smashed him right in the face and his nose started to bleed. It stopped the big brother Baybutt dead in his tracks and he started howling.
The other big brother had stopped too, but close enough for him to jab him in the tummy with the point of the stake. That made him double up and he'd clobbered him too. It was a hard crack, right on the ear, and he started to howl louder than his brother. They sounded just like the dogs after Grandpa had thrown at stick at them.
When Joe Baybutt saw what had happened to his big brothers he turned and took off, but he was slow because he was so fat, and the boy soon caught him. He didn't need the stick for Joe Baybutt and he'd belted him good and proper.
Joe Baybutt wouldn't bother him again, but his big brothers might. He hadn't thought of it at the time. He just wanted to stop them bothering him then, but he thought of it now. They'd be waiting for him all right. They'd want to get their own back.
They'd bother him, sure as eggs are eggs. They wouldn't turn the other cheek, which ever one it was. He should have kept the stake, but he'd thrown it away. Now he didn't want to go to Sunday school at all. Not ever again.
He'd never ever liked going, but now he was afraid to go. Well, he was afraid the Baybutt twins would be waiting for him. That nice Miss Green wouldn't be able to help him. The Baybutts wouldn't care what she said. She'd ask him to say sorry, but he wasn't sorry. Why should he be sorry? It wasn't his fault. Anyway, he was glad. The Baybutts had picked on him and they'd have smashed him if they'd have caught him. So he'd smashed them first.
Somebody had to smash them. The other boys who'd been there should have helped, but they hadn't. Maybe the Baybutts would pick on them from now on and leave him alone.
Maybe… but he didn't think so.
He reached the top of the hill, half way to the main road, and looked across the paddocks. In the distance he could see the sun glint on the water in the flash and he thought of the ducks. They were thick this year. Grandpa said he'd never seen so many. Millions of them, and they had nests all over the place.
They'll be full of eggs, he thought.
Gran liked duck eggs, but they didn't have any ducks at the farm. Their pond was a mile off. It might have been a bit more, he wasn't sure, but it was a good mile across the fields. It was too far away to keep ducks, Gran said.
I won't go to Sunday school, he decided. I'll go and find some duck eggs for Gran. It'll be better than getting my head punched in by the Baybutts.
The boy stood at the edge of the flash, on the shore end of the remnants of the foundations of a house. Rows of these foundations stuck out into the water like piers, but not many reached out to the reeds. This one did.
The rows of stones and bricks were all that was left of the streets of colliery houses that used to be here, before the land sank down when the pits flooded. That was years back, long before he was born. The flood had happened one night in the middle of winter. Miss Bevan said it was a flash flood, which was why the lake was called a flash. Hundreds of people died.
It was a big flash, two hundred yards at least to where it started to curve round, and these foundations were all along the bank. If the water had been still he knew he'd have seen more bricks under the surface, lots of them. But the wind was making waves and he could only see the rows coming up the bank out of the water.
The flash was shallow at the edge by the foundations, but it wasn't shallow for very far. In the middle it was deeper than the sea. How deep no one could tell him. Some people said that where the pit shafts used to be it had no bottom, but that couldn't be right. Everything had to have a bottom, just like it had a top. If there was no bottom all the water would have leaked out.
Each year the ducks built their nests on the rafts of reeds floating on the water. That was where they were safe from foxes and cats. It didn't stop him though. You could get to them if you kept to the reeds. Last year he'd been out checking on the ducks' nests, heaps of times. He hadn't told Gran because she wouldn't have liked him going on the flash. She would have told him not to go. Grown up were like that. Never liked you doing interesting things.
The wind seemed stronger down by the water because there were no trees to stop it. It was coming from behind him, straight across the paddocks, tugging at him as he set off down the line of bricks and across the reeds. It was as if it was trying to push him into the water.
The ducks had been busy. So many nests, and hundreds of eggs. He pulled his cap out of his pocket and started collecting them. It was soon brimming, but he'd only taken one egg from each nest.
He had reached the centre of the matted reeds, a long way from the foundations, when he felt water splash his ankles. The reeds seemed looser and they were bobbing up and down so the water came over his shoes. He looked down at his new shoes and pulled a face. His feet were sopping wet, but he had the eggs, so maybe Gran wouldn't scrag him hard. It seemed a long way to the bank. He hadn't realised he'd wandered so far. It was much further than he'd been before.
In the open water at the centre of the flash he could see the waves were enormous, bigger than he'd ever seen them. Little islands had separated from the mass of reeds and were sailing across the flash with the ducks' nests, away from the line of bricks. If he didn't get to the bank soon, he'd be sailing across the flash too.
He started back. After a few steps he realised that the reeds were floating lower. They were getting thin too and his feet were sinking deeper. In some places they looked as if they were coming apart.
His fears grew stronger and he no longer had any doubts. The reeds were breaking up and the water was so cold. As if to confirm his thinking the matted reeds sank beneath his foot. His leg shot down as the reeds submerged and the water came over his knee so the bottom of his pants' leg was soaked. He dragged his leg back, kneeling on a firmer patch of reeds while he recovered from his fright. The water seemed even colder and he shivered, glancing around. He was half way back to the bricks. I'll soon be safe, he thought, and set off again, but more cautiously.
The bricks were closer and he grew more confident, but when he stepped onto another patch of reeds they came apart and both his feet sank below the surface. Before the reeds separated completely he threw himself forward so that he was lying face down on a thicker mat. Water was creeping over his back, but he didn't drop his cap. He didn't want to lose the eggs after all this. He crawled forward until the reeds were firmer and he could stand again. It was only twenty yards to the bricks now.
What would Gran say about his new suit? It was sopping wet. Even his shirt and tie were wet. She'd really scrag him. A few duck eggs wouldn't make any difference.
The wind was stronger, biting through his wet clothes. It was as if he wasn't wearing anything at all. He was so cold. When he glanced behind he was horrified to see how big the waves had become. They were not quite so big at the shore by the bricks, but the reeds there were breaking up too. If he didn't hurry he'd be marooned.
He felt like crying, but crying wouldn't help and he was wet enough already without having tears streaming down his face. The eggs rattled in his cap, even though he tried to hold his hands steady, and he was afraid they'd crack. But he was getting closer to the line of bricks.
Ten yards now.
As he was about to step forward the reeds opened in front of his feet. He stopped in alarm and took a quick glance behind. The raft he'd just crossed had broken up so there was no way to go back and in front of him the gap was getting wider. It was more than a yard and growing as he watched.
His feet caught on the edge of the raft and the reeds shredded, but he fell forward, still clutching his cap and the precious eggs. The raft was wobbly, just like a jelly. For a moment he lay on his stomach with his legs dangling in the water. He knew he couldn't stand up and grabbed at the tangled reeds to pull himself forward. They came apart by the handful, but he persevered, dragging himself forward until his feet were out from the water.
The wind had grown stronger and in the gusts he had to struggle not to be pushed into the water. He crawled onwards like a baby, dragging his cap along beneath his chest, and biting his lip against the cold.
He was shivering so much his cap slipped. One egg fell out and floated away. He'd have to be careful or he'd loose them all. With the reeds breaking up he couldn't see a clear path back to the bricks, but he crawled forward from one patch of reeds to another until he was almost there.
At last he was close enough to leap the gap. He gathered his courage and stood to jump, but the reeds disintegrated as he pushed off and he dropped into the water, gasping in fear. I'm going to die, he thought. His feet sank into the mud at the bottom, but they hit something hard and he stopped sinking. He had landed on some bricks, but they were loose and wobbled, and he realised he was on part of a submerged foundation. For an instant he felt warmer, but the feeling fled and he couldn't prevent his teeth from chattering. The water was lapping at his chest, but he held his cap above the surface. For a while he stood, wondering what to do. His arms were tiring, but he fought the growing ache, determined to keep the cap clear of the water. After all this he wasn't going to drop the eggs.
In the mud at his feet he could feel the bricks quiver, threatening to topple under his weight. He started to shuffle forward, wondering how deep the water was at the sides of the bricks. The foundations were narrow and the knowledge filled him with dread. If he hadn't landed on the bricks he would have drowned. He moved carefully, feeling with his feet for the edge of the bricks. Now he was so close to safety he didn't want to fall again.
His toe stubbed against a vertical piece in the submerged wall. The bricks teetered more than ever as he stepped up and he had to wait until they steadied before he moved on. Above the water the bricks had been much firmer, but these were slippery and green with algae.
Slowly the water became shallower until it was only up to his knees and he could see another rise in the bricks. Soon he'd be safe. The wind was now so strong that it was blowing twigs and bits of branches across the flash and it was colder. It was colder even than the snow had been in February. He had never been so cold.
He waited, bracing himself, trying to balance on the slippery bricks. Now he was almost safe he was more afraid than he'd ever been. Out in the middle he hadn't been afraid at all, but now… If he didn't get a move on he'd catch his death and it was only one more step before he was out of the water.
He rushed as he took it and his foot dislodged a brick, so he fell again, but flung himself forward as he'd done on the reeds. As he landed on the line of bricks, he banged his elbow and cut his knee.
Angry with himself, he scrambled into a sitting position, rubbing his elbow, watching the blood pour from his knee. He looked at his suit and his shoes.
'Oh! Gran'll be furious. She'll scrag me rotten.'
His cap had fallen with a bang too. When he picked it up, it was a mess of runny yolks and whites. Not one egg was left whole.
Once he was off the bricks and onto the grass he stared round at the flash. Most of the reeds had broken up and were drifting to the far side. His shivering was as much from fear as from the cold. He realised he'd been lucky. I won't ever go walking on the reeds again, he vowed. I could have drowned.
He still wanted to cry, but he was a big boy now. Big boy's don't cry.
A single tear trickled down the side of his nose, but that didn't count. He hadn't been blubbering, but he was going to get a real scragging. He couldn't escape that and he knew he deserved it, but he'd take Gran the eggs anyway. Or what was left of them.
At least they'd show he'd tried.
Gran hadn't scragged him. She hadn't even said anything about his suit or shoes. She'd just taken his cap without a word and made him get out of his soaking clothes and into bed. He was still shivering and the bed was cold, but the hot water bottle he was clutching was lovely. It was a stone bottle and so hot Gran had wrapped it in a towel so he wouldn't be burnt.
She was crying now. His bedroom was over the kitchen and he could hear her sobs through the floor. He couldn't think why. Perhaps it was because he'd broken the eggs.
He must have fallen asleep, but it was still light when he opened his eyes, and he was hungry. He lay wondering what he should do. After a while he slipped out of bed and crept downstairs.
Gran rushed from her rocking chair as he came into the kitchen, and wrapped her arms around him, pressing his head against her chest, but she had stopped crying. 'Are you all right?' she asked.
'Yes, Gran. Is Grandpa about? He was so angry with me.'
'It's all right. He's gone out. It was only because you went on that flash. It gave him a fright.' Gran took a deep breath and sighed. 'It gave me a fright too,' she said. She watched him in silence for a moment, then said, 'Promise me you'll never go on that flash again.'
'I promise, Gran.' It was an easy promise to make.
Gran made a plate of sandwiches. 'You'll be hungry.'
'Why did you go on the flash?' she asked as he reached for one. 'You know I don't like you doing things like that.'
'Yes, but the Baybutt twins would have belted me if I'd gone to Sunday school, and I wanted to get you some duck eggs. I know how much you like duck eggs, but they all got broken.'
A look of despair crossed her face. 'I don't…' She stopped and her face softened. 'Not all of them were broken.' She pointed to the kitchen sink.
The boy turned and saw one solitary, pale blue egg sitting on the draining board. The shell was all shiny and clean now she'd washed it. 'Are you going to have it for your tea, Gran?'
'I wouldn't eat that egg, not ever. Your Uncle Ben is going to blow it for me. Then it's going in the china cabinet.'
Why isn't she going to eat it? he wondered. But he didn't like to ask.
© Jim Ditchfield 2,000