The Yellow Road
by Arthur Mackeown
The auctioneer sighed as he looked at the painting before him. It wasn’t badly done, but he’d seen hundreds just like it in his long career, and expected to see hundreds more. If he got twenty quid for it he’d count himself lucky.
“Lot no. 75, The Yellow Road,” he said. “An autumnal scene. Unknown artist, but a nice little lot, even so. One of my favourite items in the whole sale, as a matter of fact,” he added. “So what will you give me for it? 100 pounds?”
“Yes!” yelled someone from the back of the room. A plump elderly man jumped to his feet, waving his card in the air. The auctioneer stared at him in astonishment, then pulled himself together and brought his gavel down with a satisfying crash. “Sold to the gentleman in the green jacket for 100 pouuunds!”
The gentleman in the green jacket, a retired teacher named Timothy Wilcox, hurried off to collect his prize. He knew he’d paid well over the odds, but he didn’t care about that. He hadn’t bought the picture for its artistic merits, but because he knew the man who’d painted it.
* * *
When he reached home, Mr. Wilcox unlocked the front door and called out, “I’m back.” There was no answer and he remembered his wife was at their daughter’s for the afternoon. Just as well, he thought and went straight to his study, where he impatiently tore the wrapping from the picture and examined it under the light.
As the auctioneer had said, it was an autumnal scene. In the centre, a man in work clothes and cloth cap was leading a cart horse along a narrow, muddy, yellow country road bordered by massive oaks. Beside the horse trotted a spindly-legged foal with ribbons in its tail. The trees were bare. The fallen leaves covered the grass in a thick orange, red and brown carpet.
In the foreground, on one side of the road, stood a signpost with an artist’s easel leaning against it. The easel was topped by a familiar-looking, broad-brimmed straw hat. The words on the signpost were just legible: London 67 miles.
Mr. Wilcox tilted the picture towards the window to see if he could find a signature. Sure enough, there was an indistinct scrawl in the lower right-hand corner. Funny the auctioneer hadn’t noticed it, but then, he probably couldn’t be bothered. Mr. Wilcox brought a magnifying glass from his desk and looked again. He pored over the signature for almost a minute before he succeeded in deciphering it.
It wasn’t the name he expected to see at all. “Well, I’m blowed!” he said to himself. “He knew all the time...”
Accompanied by a tired master in a wide-brimmed straw hat, the crocodile of small boys trailed silently up the road in the twilight. The eldest was aged around ten, the youngest no more than seven or eight. Each wore a grey cap, a grey sweater, and a grey school blazer with a red and blue badge. Their trousers were grey as well, and so short they barely reached the knee, a throwback to the old Victorian belief that freezing knees would somehow make a man of you.
Eight year-old Timmy Wilcox hated these Saturday walks. You could get out of them if you were sick, but if the nurse thought you were faking she’d dose you with cod-liver oil just to teach you a lesson.
The only good part of the walk was being allowed to gorge yourself on ice-cream — paid for with your own pocket money, of course. This afternoon on the sea front he’d polished off two large cones of vanilla topped with chocolate crumble, and now his stomach churned as he limped painfully along behind the others.
“Do get a move on, Wilcox!” the master snapped.
“But, sir...Please, sir...”
“I’ve got to go, sir...”
“Why didn’t you go before, when I asked if anybody wanted to?”
“Because I didn’t want to then, sir.”
“Well, now you’ll have to wait,” said the master grumpily. “You don’t want supper to get cold, do you?”
The master’s name was Mr. Forsythe, and he was the school’s art teacher. The boys called him Paint Brush behind his back, not just because of his job but because he was tall and thin, and his bristly hair stood up on end when he took his hat off.
“And see that you do wait,” the master added. “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten what happened last time.”
Timmy remembered perfectly. He remembered Paint Brush’s furious face, and the cold bath, and the hard, gritty soap. Most of all, he remembered the belt in the master’s expert hand, and the cracking sound it made as it whistled through the air. Why did they always whack you six times? he wondered. And why did they call it six of the best?
Mind you, there were worse things than getting the belt — especially if it was for... well, you know. The morning after in the schoolyard was worse: the giggling, and the pointing, and old Mrs. Smith opening the window of the laundry and yelling, “Hey, you... That’s right, Wilcox! You’re the one I mean. Don’t you pretend like you can’t ’ear me. Next time you can wash ’em out yourself, you nasty little toad...”
Oh, yes. That was definitely worse.
Yet life at Victoria House Preparatory School for Boys wasn’t only about getting whacked. There were good times, too: the beach, and cricket, and comics from home, and Sweets Shop on Friday after tea, when you had your weekly ration of Bulls-Eyes, or Fruit Drops doled out into a white paper bag.
Twice a week during supper you could listen to ‘Journey into Outer Space’ on the wireless, and when Paint Brush was in a good mood he liked to talk about the battles he had fought in the Western desert. He would get annoyed when nobody believed him when he said the sun was so hot at midday you could fry eggs on the turret of your tank.
Best of all was story-time, after lights-out in the dorm. This was the hour of blood-curdling tales of ghosts, and murder, and monsters under the bed waiting to grab the toe of any unfortunate who needed to go to the loo in the dark. In the faint moonlight a dressing gown on a hook became a hanged man or a vampire’s cloak, and night sounds like the sudden call of the owl in the tree outside the dormitory window would send the more timid boys diving under the bedclothes.
But not everything that wandered the halls of Victoria House in the dark was imaginary: this was also the time when Miss Chalmers, the gym teacher, went on the prowl. Miss Chalmers did not like boys, and was quite the virtuoso when it came to whacking them.
She had no preferred instrument, but would cheerfully wield whatever was to hand, be it cane, belt, strip of lino or — worst of all — the thick, springy, rubber sole of a plimsoll. Timmy himself had run afoul of her more than once, the worst time being after one of those story-telling sessions in the dorm.
That unhappy evening began just like any other, with the Duty Master, old Mr. Dudley, saying, “All right boys, time for bed. And no talking. You all know what you’ll get if I catch you.”
This didn’t worry them in the least, for Mr. Dudley was the most lenient of all the masters. If he had to punish someone for talking after lights-out he did his duty, but in such a lackadaisical fashion that the boy in question would sometimes yawn his head off throughout the entire proceeding.
And so it was on this particular occasion. Mr. Dudley hauled the whole lot of them out of bed and wandered down the aisles, giving each one six little taps on the rear with a bedroom slipper.
And then came Timmy’s turn. He had just received his first tap when Miss Chalmers entered the dorm. She waited silently, observing Mr. Dudley’s performance with raised eyebrows. When he got to tap number four she said: “Not like that, Mr. Dudley. Let me show you.”
And show him she did.
There was a rumour going round that Paint Brush and Miss Chalmers were sweet on one another. Miss Chalmers had been overheard calling Paint Brush by his Christian name, which was Stepney. Timmy found this a little odd, as he had an auntie who lived in Stepney. He found it even odder that anyone could possibly be sweet on Miss Chalmers.
Some humourist even printed “Paint Brush loves Miss Chalmers” on the blackboard in six inch-high letters. (None of the boys knew Miss Chalmers’ Christian name, and would not have been surprised to learn she didn’t have one.)
Paint Brush was not amused. “All right,” he said. “Who did it?”
“He’d better own up,” warned Paint Brush, “Otherwise the whole class will get detention instead of cricket this afternoon. Wilcox, do you know anything about this?”
“And one other thing,” continued the master. “Who, might I ask, is ‘Paint Brush’?”
No-one knew that either.
Not long after this the school began preparing for Guy Fawkes Day. Some of the boys made a Guy Fawkes doll out of pillows and pushed it round the town centre in an old pram, collecting pennies for the Guy under the supervision of a master. The take had been good last year, and every penny from this year would go towards buying fireworks for the big night.
Guy Fawkes was Timmy’s favourite holiday, and he laboured manfully, dragging dry branches onto the waste ground next to the football pitch until he was quite worn out, and Paint Brush said he could help light the bonfire because he had worked so hard.
Timmy also had another treat in store: a packet of sparklers had arrived from home. Miss Chalmers, who was handing out the post that day, told him not to open the parcel until Bonfire Night, and he promised he wouldn’t.
Then he remembered there might be a letter inside from his mother, so he opened the parcel anyway. Sure enough, there was a letter, and he went into the dorm and sat down on his bed to read it.
He had scarcely begun reading when Miss Chalmers tapped him sharply on the shoulder.
“What did I tell you?” she asked. Then she picked up the opened parcel and walked off with it.
“But Miss...” said Timmy.
Miss Chalmers stopped and looked back at him. Then she smiled.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “you’ll get them back — when you go home for the Christmas holidays.”
This was when Timmy decided to run away.
* * *
He knew exactly where he was going: he was going home. And he knew exactly how to get there, because he had seen a signpost on one of the Saturday walks. The signpost stood at the entrance to a turn-off about a hundred yards before the school gates, and it read: London 67 miles.
London was home. His mother lived there, and all his uncles and aunts and cousins. He wasn’t quite sure how far 67 miles was, but if Dick Whittington could do it, so could he.
Timmy chose the morning before Guy Fawkes to make his escape, in the hope that everyone would be so busy they’d never even notice he was gone until it was too late. By that time he was sure he would have covered those 67 miles to his mother’s house, where she’d be so delighted to see him she’d never ever send him back, especially not after he told her about Miss Chalmers and the sparklers.
He planned his flight with care. First of all, he stealthily slipped some slices of bread and a packet of jam into his pocket during breakfast. Then he went back to the dorm on the pretext of having forgotten his maths homework. There was no-one there to see him, so he put the bread and jam in his satchel, together with the latest copy of the ‘Beano,’ a tin of tooth powder and a toothbrush.
When the bell rang for class he waited until the clamour died away, then skipped down the stairs and out the front entrance. As he had expected, nobody challenged him, because they were all in class, or putting the finishing touches to the bonfire. He knew that Mr. Simms the gate-keeper was off sick, as well, which meant he had only to walk through the gate and he was free.
* * *
It was a lovely day for it. His mother had told him his father was always saying that before he went off to the War and never came back. Timmy had not understood what she meant at the time, but he understood now. The morning was warm and echoing with birdsong. Light breezes sent fallen leaves spiraling upwards like red and yellow butterflies, and there were puddles left by last night’s rain. Timmy deliberately stepped in the puddles because he knew how much it would have annoyed Miss Chalmers if she’d seen him doing it.
In the street there was no-one to be seen apart from a tired farmer leading a cart-horse and a foal with red ribbons in its tail. The foal trotted up to Timmy and nuzzled his hand for food, and Timmy gave him a piece of bread. A grey squirrel shot across the road and disappeared up a tree trunk before he had time to find a stone to throw at it. Several large geese honked angrily at him as he passed the war memorial, and he crossed over to the other side of the road to get away from them.
When he reached the road to London he stopped and read the signpost carefully, just to be sure. There was no doubt about it: this was the way home, all right. He took a deep breath.
“Wilcox, what are you playing at?” said a voice behind him.
Timmy froze. He turned round slowly, and there was Paint Brush. The master was sitting on a folding chair with a brush in his hand.
In front of him stood an easel with a canvas on it.
“Get over here now,” Paint Brush said.
Timmy complied and stood wordlessly before him.
The master reached out, opened the satchel and looked inside.
“Now, then, what have we here?” he muttered to himself. He took out the bread and the jam and placed them on the grass. “You wouldn’t have got very far on this,” he said. “What were you thinking of, you stupid boy?”
“I’m going home,” said Timmy.
“Back to school is where you’re going,” said Paint Brush, and began gathering up his things.
“Come on then,” he said. “Let’s get you back before Miss Chalmers goes on the warpath.”
At the mention of Miss Chalmers Timmy’s heart sank.
“It’ll do you no good to look like that,” the master chided him. “Sometimes one just has to face the music; take it on the chin, so to speak.”
It wasn’t his chin Timmy was worried about, but he saw it was no use arguing, so he shouldered his satchel and hurried after Paint Brush, who was already striding off down the road towards the school.
He caught up just as they reached the entrance. The first thing he saw as they entered was Miss Chalmers standing on the steps with her hands on her hips and a face like thunder. When he looked up he saw his classmates peering curiously down at him from the windows.
“And what have we here?” Miss Chalmers said. She spoke quietly, a sure sign of trouble.
“We’ve just been for a walk,” said Paint Brush.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Yes, a walk,” repeated Paint Brush. “I thought the poor lad was looking a bit peaky and in need of some fresh air, so I took him along while I did a spot of painting.”
Timmy recognized the look on Miss Chalmer’s face as the one she wore when she knew one of the boys was telling a porky, only she couldn’t very well call Paint Brush a liar in front of half the school, so she sighed and said huffily: “Well, you should have asked my permission first. I’ve got him for gym class this morning, and I’ve been looking for him everywhere.”
“Well, he’s here now, so no harm done,” said Paint Brush.
“I suppose not,” Miss Chalmers said. Then she turned to Timmy. “As for you, get back to class this instant. And when you get there, stay there. If I find you’ve gone walkabout again I won’t be responsible for my actions. Understood?”
“Understood, Miss,” said Timmy.
* * *
Mr. Wilcox was roused from his memories by the clatter of china. He opened his eyes and saw his wife standing over him.
“I’ve made us a nice cup of tea,” she said. “I...”
She broke off when she saw the picture on the wall behind the desk.
“What’s that piece of junk doing here?”
“It’s not junk,” Mr. Wilcox protested.
“You’ve been down that auction house again, haven’t you?” his wife said. “How much did they take you for this time?”
“Twenty...? They must have seen you coming.”
“It’s by an old friend of mine.”
“And who might that be? Picasso?”
“See for yourself.”
Mrs. Wilcox’s eyes were much better than her husband’s. Her reading glasses were more than enough to make out the signature.
“Paint Brush?” she said. “Whoever heard of an artist called Paint Brush?”
“Now thereby hangs a tale.”
“Then I’ll just pour the tea,” she said, “and you can tell me all about it.”
Copyright © 2012 by Arthur Mackeown