A Promising Pupil

Awarded First Prize at the Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2016.

The heavy front door of the Boys School flew open onto the playground under the pressure of the crowd of screaming children. It was the last day of term, better still, the last day of the school year, and the pupils of the Lyautey Primary School, French and Algerian alike, were determined to celebrate the event in the traditional way: already the chanting had swollen from classroom to classroom and into the corridors:

"Gai, gai, l'écolier
C'est demain les vacances...
Adieu les analyses, les verbes et les dictées
Tout ça c'est d' la bétise
Allons nous amuser...
Gai, gai, l'écolier...


It was late June and already very hot. As soon as the first boys reached the playground, satchels were riotously thrown up in the air, scattering around books and pencil cases, slates and multi-coloured chalks, sweets, dried up apple cores, lovingly assembled catapults and polished apricot stones. Shrieks of delight and drumming noises filled the air. Some mothers, assembled to collect the younger ones, tried to pick up from the floor whatever could be rescued. They soon gave up, rounded up their offspring and took shelter from the heat and the dust under the lone plane tree in the middle of the playground, waiting for the joyous tumult to abate and crowding the covered asphalt area, near the toilets. From there they started to walk slowly home, pulling along the reluctant children who dragged their feet in an attempt to stay behind and enjoy the fun a little longer. 

The older children, aged fourteen and more, were the last to come out of the building into the bright sunlight. They stepped out, looking important and with a false air of detachment that fitted their age and the momentous occasion. For nearly all of them, this day was their last day of schooling. Few would go on with their studies, most would start some apprenticeship. The staff were the last ones to appear on the doorstep. The teachers, unusually well disposed towards the children, waved and smiled indulgently at the most boisterous ones, their thoughts already on the three-month long summer holiday stretching in front of them. The Head alone stayed out. He wanted to say a special good-bye to René, his star pupil, the brightest of all his fourteen year olds, the one who came first in the whole county in the final exam, the “Certificat d’Etudes Primaires”. The Head wanted above all to tell him once more how sorry he was to have failed to persuade René's parents to let him pursue his studies at a secondary level. He recalled his visit to the family, some months before. He had been so confident that he would plead successfully and convince Rene’s father, Mordecai, that his son was gifted, that he deserved the chance to study and, who knows, to even become a teacher! He had successfully recommended René for a government grant for the duration of his secondary education, so impressed was he by his protegé's lively and curious mind and his facility to learn and retain.

René's father had remained silent and aloof during the whole pleading and had ended the interview with a guarded, but firm, “Thank you for your interest, but my son is to work with me, his father, in the shop. He will learn a good and useful trade and bring some money to the family. Goodbye”.

The Headmaster found René near the fountain of drinking water, which stood in the centre of the playground, under the tree. With his back to the others René bent over, cupping both his hands under the tap. He drank avidly and for a long time, as he always did before engaging on the three kilometres walk home. He also wanted to make sure that the other boys of his class had gone. He did not feel like joining them. He was close to tears and did not wish anyone to be around. Seeing the Head walking in his direction, he suddenly picked up courage and ran towards his peers, rejoined them, red-faced and gesticulating, sprinkling water around and cheering louder than ever as the occasional projectile flew overhead.

Gradually, boys dropped out of the group to their various destinations. René lived the furthest away from the school and he was soon walking alone. He had always enjoyed that particular moment, a time of privacy when he could think of the day's events. All through his school life, he had been an assiduous and thorough student. He had known from the start that there would be no chance of any help from home, but his teacher had often come to the rescue and lent him some books. Rene had a few of his own, books he had received as prizes at the end of every school year, without fail, during the solemn "Distribution des Prix". These were very special events, although he could not recall any occasion when his mother or father had managed to attend.

He approached his favourite spot: straight in front of him stretched the magnificent "Pont suspendu", a marvel of engineering, a swinging bridge across the sheer drop of the Rummel, a steep gorge carved in the rock by the river down below. He always enjoyed waddling across it, amplifying the sway of the structure and laughing at the shrieks of the women, half fear, half excitement, as the wooden platform started to undulate under their feet. René would keep his legs firmly wide apart, pressing on each one alternately, ignoring their pleading to stop. On that day, a regiment of Senegalese soldiers were about to cross the bridge. From a distance, their red fezzes were bobbing up and down rhythmically. On approaching the remarkable structure, the soldiers were ordered to break step. The well trained troop adopted then a more relaxed pace, and for the duration of the crossing the men in khaki uniforms regained their native nonchalant and graceful gait. “The danger is to do with the increasing momentum” Rene had heard once. “I don't quite understand what that means... I’ll  ask my teacher…” His train of thoughts stopped at that point. He was not to see Mr Dupanloup again and this brought a lump to his throat.

He approached his father's shop, in the old jewish quarter of Constantine, in Eastern Algeria. He was relieved to know that, the day being already advanced and close to the Shabbat, he would not be expected to stay behind and help him. Today more than any other day, the prospect repelled him. In truth, everything in the shop repelled him. He loathed the dank smell of leather, the poor light coming from the small window and from the tiny opening in the roof, the work surface sticky with the special wax, covered with all the tools of the trade to which he was destined. Today more than any other day, he felt angry and resentful towards his father and his obstinate determination to make a shoemaker of him, solely because this was how it had always been, generation after generation.

Mordecai was about to close the shop. The day had gone well and he was in good spirits. He would walk home with his son and would use that opportunity to talk to him, man to man, about what to expect, now that his time at school was over - thank God! Of course he would come to enjoy the business. It was a respectable and lucrative occupation and he would learn to like it. As his own father had always said to him: “If you cannot do what you like, you must like what you do!” What had worked for him would work equally well for his son. And that was the end of the matter.

René fell into step with his father. They walked in silence for a while. Head down, he wondered whether to make a last attempt to talk to him, but Mordecai was the first to speak "Time to learn a proper trade, son, and not a minute too soon. There is enough work for two in the shop and I am not getting any younger. No more of this college nonsense. I have never been to school and that did not stop me becoming a good worker and making an honest living...”

René had stopped listening. They had entered the inner yard of the block of flats and his attention was drawn by an unexpected sight. Smoke came up from a heap of charred, unrecognisable objects, piled up in the middle of the yard. He walked closer and looked again. Among the ashes lay his beloved books, partly consumed: last year's prize, his cherished collection of Jules Verne, the illustrated La Fontaine's Fables he had received the year before last, his school reports, some exercise books, the beautiful graded ruler he got from another boy in exchange for his best picture postcard of Dorothy Lamour, the one in her bathing costume. The small Atlas, property of the school, was not recoverable, its brightly coloured pages curled up and still smouldering.

René crouched onto the floor, choking. He heard his parents talking behind him, his mother's plaintive objection, covered by Mordecai's proud claim that there was no need any more for all this school stuff, now that his son was of age to help him in the shop and work for a living. Rene realised that the deed was his father's alone, carried out during his lunch break, well before the end of the day, when lighting a fire so close to the Shabbat would have been a sin, God forbid, an unforgivable departure from the Law.

Without a word, he got up suddenly, stormed through the house, pushed away his mother and older sister who tried to restrain him, grabbed his jacket and rushed out of the house.

This was his first absconding, the premonitory sign of the derangement which was to plague him for the rest of his life.