January 26th, 1910
Beeston Hill, Leeds, England
On the 26th January, ten year old Clifford Hulme was perfecting the art of being invisible. He wanted not to be noticed, so that afterwards when asked, people just couldn’t recall whether he was there or not.
At school this was really important. If he was invisible then he wouldn’t be bullied. No-one would tease him or laugh at him or cringe when they were told to go and sit next to him. Plus Mr Robinson, his teacher and expert tyrant, wouldn’t ask him any questions and get really cranky when he didn’t know the answer.
At home being invisible was critical. If he wasn’t there he couldn’t see what his Da did to his mother, Mami. He couldn’t see the brutal fights. He couldn’t get punished when he couldn’t get his clumsy body out of the way of Da’s flailing fists. He couldn’t hear Mami wailing. He couldn’t feel the gut wrenching guilt that rose like bile in his gut after a fight when he had not been able to protect her from him - again.
On the 26th January, Clifford had had a better day than most. School had just gone back after the Christmas break. He was now in fifth form, tall and gangly with what his older brother Albert called a ‘permanently dopey look on his face’.
Clifford had managed to stay out of everyone’s way nearly all day. He had answered ‘present’ when Mr Robinson called the roll but otherwise he had not said a word to anyone. He hadn’t looked at any other person and he didn’t think anyone had looked much at him. Except when he got the cuts before recess because he hadn’t copied the sentences off the board. But this was normal, and the other kids didn’t laugh at him so much anymore because he had also learnt not to cry. Mr Robinson only hit him five times over the knuckles today and this was bearable - far better than when Da hit him.
He hadn’t even been kept in at lunchtime because he hadn’t got any of his sums right today. And his lunch hadn’t been stolen, so he actually got to eat it all. His Spanish mum had made him chorizo bologna and cheese. The other kids couldn’t stand the stinky smell so they left it alone. Yep, this had been a pretty good day.
So he was a bit stunned when Mr Robinson asked him to stay back after school.
Mr Robinson waited until all the students had left. It took a while because Maisie and Emily wanted to clean up their desks first. Right little teacher’s pets they were. Always trying to please.
And now they were alone. Cliff kept his eyes down - it was always better that way. Look someone in the eyes and they start talking to you and prying into your business. Cliff assumed his dopey, smiley mask face.
‘Clifford why do you come to school?’ Mr Robinson asked, his tone steady and with just a hint of sarcastic malice which was totally wasted on Clifford.
Cliff just stared slightly away from him - focus on the wall he thought. He stood in front of his teacher with his shoulders stooped - he tried to make his big frame fit into the least space available. Tried to fold in his bits so he was hardly even there.
This was a stupid question! Mr Robinson knew the answer so why would he ask such a dumb question? He had to go to school! There was nowhere else to go.
Home was not an option - he wanted to get away from there as much as possible. The streets were not safe - every time he had truanted in the past he had got caught by the bullies or the police. No sir, he would far rather be in school. And the school room had a fire and this meant warmth.
This was the only chance he had of any heat in a bitter January in Leeds.
‘Well answer me boy. I know you are dumb but you are not totally stupid! Why do you bother to turn up? You haven’t learned anything since you have been here. You still can’t read. You can’t write and your maths skills are nonexistent so why are you here? You just take up space.’
As Mr Robinson got going into his tirade his lips started growing in size and spittle came out of his mouth. He always had fat, full lips. They seemed to be too big for his skull like face and they started to move really fast; quivering up and down. Clifford put his head down, he started to panic. Mr Robinson was starting to look like the Blue Cod on the fish monger trolley in the high street. The one that wasn’t quite dead yet, mouth opening into an ‘O’ before the fat, blubbery lips snapped shut. The cod that was Mr Robinson was starting to thrash about - he was even starting to smell fishy.
But Clifford was having a good day. Mr Robinson is not really a fish he thought. Don’t get panicky, don’t show any fear - put the dopey smile back on your face and look away. Be invisible.
‘It’s useless,’ the cod-like Mr Robinson yelled, hooking Clifford back into the moment and reeling him even closer.
‘I am wasting my time and your place in this class can be given to someone who wants to learn. A child who is polite and respectful. Are you even in there?’ he shouted.
Mr Robinson grasped Clifford’s head and roughly forced it around to face his own.
The cod’s face was far too close for Clifford. Fishy eyes swivelled, probing his private thoughts and staring into him - the pain of this invasion was huge. He felt revolted and nausea waved within.
Clifford gulped and Mr Robinson let out an outward breath that came out as a hiss: the steamy, tropical breath was a concoction of his lunchtime snack of sardines, mixed with cigar and a whiff of medicinal whisky imbibed just a few minutes before.
Clifford put his hands over his face to black out the unwanted sensations but not before his lunch came up and projectile vomit flew out all over Mr Robinson. The cod was now covered in Clifford’s vomit. Two hours ago it had been chorizo bologna and cheese - now it was a reeking, brownish goo.
Mr Robinson roared and stepped back.
‘You little bastard,’ he screamed. ‘You did that on purpose. This is my best suit - ruined and you’ve covered me with your foul spew. I was trying to help you, you’re an ungrateful whelp.’
‘Get out of here,’ he roared. ‘This will be the last day you ever come into my classroom you stinking little dago whoreson.’
Clifford was not only good at being invisible, he also knew just when to disappear. And this seemed like the perfect time. He was only ten but he bolted from that classroom like he was trying out for the Olympics. He didn’t stop to retrieve his jacket or to say a fond goodbye to his desk, his inkwell or even the stove (the only thing he had ever really liked in that room).
He tore from the room and then out the front entrance of the school with its bleak Georgian facade that had been built on the site of the old workhouse.
No he didn’t stop to reminisce about his ‘good old school days’. In renovating the Holbeck Union workhouse to become the Beeston Hill School, little in the way of improvements or comforts had been incorporated. Lives were still being ruined in that place like they had for the last two centuries.
Clifford left and did not go back.
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