Later that night, Sammy was tucked tightly into bed. His parents had said goodnight at ten o’clock. His mother had kissed a bruise on his forehead. They had both returned an hour later to check on him but Sammy found that he still couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about why the Rat Catchers picked on him.
‘It’s not fair,’ Sammy whispered to a large stuffed dragon he had been given by his uncle on his last birthday. ‘Just because my Mum works in the bank, they think I’ve got money.’
He squeezed the dragon’s front paws, staring into its coal-black eyes. ‘I can’t go back,’ he told the dragon. ‘No. I won’t go back.’
Downstairs, he could hear his parents watching television. It was nearly eleven o’clock and he knew his mother would be catching up with the soaps she had recorded earlier in the evening. His father would be pouring a glass of brandy whilst they discussed what to do about Ratisbury.
It happened almost every night. Sammy knew this because he had often sat at the top of the stairs looking into the lounge. His parents went over the same things about how he kept coming home with torn clothes and bruises. They discussed the school, the teachers, even the school governors who only showed up once a year at prize giving.
His parents had agreed that the school was no good, but they hadn’t yet done anything about it.
Sammy heard the television switch off and knew that they would be coming up to bed. He pulled the toy dragon close to his cheek and closed his eyes.
Sammy woke to the sound of his parents shouting downstairs. From the snippets he caught as he lay shaking in bed, they were still arguing about schools. His parents were always torn between wanting him to stand up for himself and wanting to take him to another school.
‘You don’t know it will be any better,’ Sammy heard his father shouting. ‘It might be worse!’
‘Nothing’s worse than Ratisbury. Just look in the papers!’ his mother screamed. ‘No son of mine should be bullied like that. He has to go to another school.’
‘Fine, Julia!’ yelled Sammy’s father. ‘I’ll make some calls.’
There was a slam of a door and it suddenly went quiet.
Sammy took as long as possible to get dressed. Even though he would miss his favourite Saturday cartoons, it was worth it to avoid his parents arguing.
About half an hour later, he crept downstairs into the kitchen. His mother was outside hanging the remains of his school uniform on the washing line to dry. His father was in the lounge talking on the telephone.
‘Hello Mrs Hubar…Yes, it’s Charles Rambles. I’m looking for a new school, yes, Sam…mm…you do? Well, as soon as possible…that’s good…thank you. We’ll visit this afternoon.’
Sammy filled a bowl with Sugarcorn Flakes. Amongst the flakes, a plastic toy fell out of the box. Sammy took it out of its wrapper and set it on the worktop. It was part of the set he was collecting; a tiny blue-green dragon.
He took his cereal and the dragon into the lounge and curled up on the settee opposite his father. He took two mouthfuls before he noticed that he had forgotten to add any milk.
His father put down the telephone. ‘Sam?’
Sammy looked up. ‘What?’
‘Your mother and I have decided that you should change schools.’ His father looked uncomfortable. ‘These Rat-thingys. I think you should stand up for yourself, but we have agreed to try another school…’
Sammy took a deep breath.
‘On the condition,’ his father continued, ‘that you will stick with this school. Even if it is ten times worse. You have to learn to stand up for yourself.’ Sammy’s father looked across at him and smiled. ‘Can you do that Sam?’
Behind his bowl of cereal Sammy grinned. ‘When do I start?’
His father frowned. ‘I have made some calls and there are three schools that may be suitable, although I should warn you, two are boarding schools. You would live away from home.’
Sammy stared. ‘Boarding school?’
‘Yes. I enjoyed it very much when I was your age. Gave me my confidence and you’ll find you’ll have friends in the evenings and at weekends as well.’
‘Boarding school?’ repeated Sammy, wondering if Ratisbury was that bad after all.
‘It has been decided.’ Sammy’s father put down his paper and frowned. ‘Fetch your mother and we’ll leave when you’ve finished eating.’ Sammy’s father frowned harder when he looked at the cereal. ‘You’re allowed milk, you know.’
Twenty minutes later, Sammy found himself sitting in the back of his parents Range Rover. His mother was driving, his father barking instructions, eyes glued to the map.
‘Next left Julia,’ said Sammy’s father, ‘and we should be…’
Sammy looked up from his magazine. His mother brought the Range Rover to an emergency stop.
‘My son is not going there!’ she screeched.
Sammy looked out of the window. They had stopped outside a set of tall iron gates with razor wire wrapped from top to bottom. The gates were joined on iron hinges to a red brick wall that stretched high above the Range Rover. Multi-coloured graffiti obscenities peppered the wall as far as the eye could see.
‘Is that to keep people out?’ whispered Sammy.
‘Speak up Samuel,’ said Sammy’s father. ‘Don’t mumble.’
‘Leave him Charles. Sammy’s right. This school is most certainly not suitable.’
‘Fine,’ snapped Sammy’s father, ‘drive on.’
Sammy peered over his father’s shoulder. He had put a large black cross next to “St. Stephen’s School for Boys.” Underneath with a question mark was “Adrian Smythers School for Nature and Nurture.”
Sammy’s mother started the car and pulled a three-point turn.
‘Through town, then left at the traffic lights.’ Sammy’s father unrolled his newspaper and started reading.
Sammy put down his magazine hoping that the Adrian Smythers school wouldn’t be any good either. He didn’t like the sound of “Nature and Nurture”. The only nature he liked was watching documentaries on television at school.
As they went through town, Sammy waved to one of his Ratisbury classmates shopping with his mother. After an incident with the Rat Catchers, Philip Humphreys had a neck brace and his right arm in a sling.
The Range Rover came to a stop at the traffic lights.
‘Right, wasn’t it Charles?’
Sammy’s father didn’t look up from the paper.
‘It was left Mum.’
Sammy’s mother changed lanes. ‘Thanks honey.’
About two miles later, they were out into the countryside. Sammy’s father rolled up his newspaper. ‘Left at the traffic lights.’
Sammy’s mother clicked her tongue. ‘Where next?’
Sammy’s father rustled with the map. ‘It was back there on the left.’
‘There was no school there.’
Sammy shook his head, ‘I didn’t see anything Dad.’
‘Too busy with that magazine of yours I expect.’
‘You drive honey,’ soothed Sammy’s mother, ‘I’m sure you’ll find it.’
They switched places and Charles Rambles pulled the car away from the hedge. They stopped five minutes later next to another set of gates with a tiny plaque that read “Adrian Smythers school for Nature and Nurture. Closed until further notice.”
‘Oh,’ said Sammy’s mother, ‘that can’t be right.’ She got out of the car and pushed open the gate.
Sammy pressed the button to open his window. It stopped at half way and he leaned out to see if he could find out what had happened to the school. His mother was talking to a woman dressed from head to toe in a black robe. He leaned out further.
‘Sit back Samuel. It’s rude to stare.’ Sammy’s father sniffed loudly and took out his black pen. Sammy knew the Adrian Smythers School for Nature and Nurture was about to be crossed off the list.
Sammy’s father started the car as his mother got back into the Range Rover.
‘It’s no good Charles. They closed six weeks ago due to lack of interest. She said that we were the third set of parents from Ratisbury calling in today…’
‘…and they need twenty five students to qualify for subsidised running costs.’
Sammy’s father snorted. ‘Let’s try the last one then.’
‘After lunch Charles. I’m sure Sammy’s getting hungry.’
Sammy nodded hoping his parents would stop for burgers and chips.
‘If the next one’s no good, he’ll have to go back to Ratisbury.’
Sammy shuddered. ‘I’m not going back.’
‘You’ll do what you’re told,’ his father’s voice came from the driver’s seat.
Sammy was glad to stop for lunch at the Draconian Arms, an old inn run by a woman called Anne Witherton, who had gone to school with his mother, and her husband Ronan. Sammy thought Ronan Witherton had a dragonish face, the smokiest clothes and the worst breath that he had ever smelt.
As usual, Anne and Ronan came out to meet them from the gravel car park. Sammy followed behind as his father and Ronan. Although they didn’t really get on, they talked about the weather and whether it was a good time of year to go fishing. His mother had already linked arms with Anne and was half walking, half skipping up the stone steps into the restaurant.
Anne and Ronan showed Sammy and his parents to their usual table, away from the main tables in a quiet alcove. A young blonde waitress brought them menus written in Gothic script that was almost impossible to read.
‘Can I get you any drinks?’ she asked with a lisp.
‘No thankths,’ said Charles, highlighting her lisp and making the waitress blush. ‘I’ll have the sthteak,’ he continued, ‘and my wife will have…’
‘The chicken, thank you honey,’ said Julia, ‘and burger and chips for our son.’
Sammy grinned. ‘May I have a cola as well…please,’ he added feeling his father’s frosty glare. “With good manners,” he had been told on many occasions, “you can get almost anything you want.” He sat back in the comfy chair and wished he had brought his magazine from the car.
An hour later, his father was sipping a large brandy counting out twenty pound notes to cover the bill for the meal. He scattered a handful of coins on the plate and helped Sammy’s mother back into her fur coat.
Minutes later they were waving goodbye to Anne and Ronan. Sammy sniffed his jumper sleeve. As usual it stank of tobacco. He screwed up his nose and opened his magazine.
Charles unfolded the map. ‘St. Elderberries High School is about three hours away. Anyone need the toilet?’
Sammy shook his head. Sammy’s mother started the car.
It was almost dark when they arrived at the gates of St. Elderberries High School. An elderly looking man with a short grey beard was talking to a small woman wearing a long black tunic with matching wide brimmed hat and silk scarf.
They moved aside as Sammy’s mother pulled the Range Rover onto the kerb, dangerously close to their ankles.
Sammy’s father leapt out of the car almost before it had stopped. ‘Mrs Hubar? Good evening. My name is Charles Rambles. I telephoned earlier about a place at St. Elderberries for my son.’
The woman peered into the back of the car and chuckled. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘When you said “Sam,” I assumed you meant Samantha. This is a school for girls.’
‘Do you mean to tell me,’ demanded Charles Rambles, clicking his tongue violently, ‘that we have driven all day to find this place and now you tell me it isn’t suitable!’
‘My friend here might be able to help you though,’ interrupted Mrs Hubar. ‘He’s the headmaster of a mixed school, not far from here.’
From inside the car Sammy couldn’t quite see his father’s face, but he could imagine he wasn’t best pleased. He hated anything not going to plan. Sammy craned his neck to hear the conversation.
‘My name is Sir Lok Ragnarok,’ said the man. ‘As Mrs Hubar says, I am headmaster of a mixed boarding school. I would be happy to take on your son’s education. There are always places for talented students.’
Charles Rambles paused for a second. ‘Very well then, it’s settled.’
Sammy saw the bearded man give his father a business card.
‘Directions are on the back,’ he said and to Sammy’s amazement, as his father turned to pass the business card to his mother through the open window, both the woman and the man shimmered in a gold haze and disappeared.
‘The 6th of September?’ Sammy’s father turned around. ‘Hey! Where have you gone?’
‘They just disappeared,’ said Sammy helpfully.
‘I can see that.’
‘Perhaps we should go back home and try again tomorrow, dear?’
‘No.’ said Charles Rambles firmly. ‘Samuel is going to that school if it’s the last thing he does. I’m sick of traipsing around on a wild goose chase. This place, this…’ he peered at the business card, ‘this Dragamas, will be just fine. My son is talented and he’s going there.’
Julia Rambles started the car and they drove home almost in silence. The only sounds above the engine were the swish of Sammy turning the pages in his magazine, even though he was too excited to read, and the clicking as his father tapped and twisted Sir Lok Ragnarok’s business card for Dragamas.