As a matter of general policy, Bertie and his friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, tried to entertain themselves during the mid-morning play-break at the Steiner School.
This was not out of any disinclination to socialize – both Bertie and Ranald were reasonably gregarious and enjoyed the company of others – but was prompted by the particular dynamics of the playground. This space was dominated by two camps, at odds with each other on most points, and both Bertie and Ranald had little taste for the machinations of the leaders of both these factions.
The dominant group was led by Olive, Bertie’s nemesis in so many encounters, and holder of that controversial document relating to her proposed marriage to Bertie when they both reached the age of twenty. Olive claimed to have little interest in the doings of any of the boys in the class, but from behind this façade of indifference she watched the boys closely. She was convinced that boys somehow had more fun than girls, and devoted a great deal of time to ensuring that this should not be the case. Olive had heard of systems of keeping track of dangerous offenders, and she took the view that a similar system should be introduced for boys. All boys should be obliged to sign up on reaching the age of seven, Olive said, so that girls would know exactly where boys lived. This would also be a great help to the police, Olive thought, as if a crime were to be committed it would simply be a case of finding out where the nearest boy lived and dealing with him in as expeditious a manner as possible
“I feel sorry for boys,” Olive announced. “Boys may not know it, but they’re history, Bertie. History.”
The main opposition to Olive was headed by Tofu, a boy of Bertie’s age but of a very different disposition. Tofu, who was the son of well-known vegan parents, ran several small-scale rackets in the playground. The most lucrative of these involved protection, with subscribers paying ten pence a week to ensure that nothing went wrong with any items of property they brought to school. Tofu’s other source of income was a numbers racket, participation in which was virtually compulsory. Each participant was given a number between one and twenty, valid for a weekly draw, at which Tofu would announce the winning number. The profits that Tofu made were used mainly for the purchase of various salamis, which he bought from one of the senior students whose father ran a delicatessen. These he discreetly consumed in the school grounds each afternoon while waiting to be collected by his father. He had the time to do this, as his father’s car, having been converted to run on olive oil, was very slow, usually arriving well after other parental cars had collected their charges and left.
Although there were occasional payments made to others, for the most part the prizes in the numbers racket were won either by Tofu himself or by his close ally, Larch, Tofu’s all-purpose enforcer, known for his tendency to spit at anybody who disagreed with him. One of Larch’s main targets was Olive. He tried, if at all possible, to sit behind her in the classroom, in order to be able to spit at the back of her head without her noticing. Other opportunities were seized where and when they arose, including during the performance of the school play when Larch, in his role as a Birnam Wood tree in Macbeth, was able to spit from the side of the stage at one of the three witches, played by Olive.
In the playground that Monday morning, Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson were conferring about the puppy they had been given by Wee MacTavish, the well-known Glaswegian dwarf and circus performer. The puppy had been with Ranald since Saturday, when they had brought it home from the circus on the Meadows, and Bertie was eager to hear how it had settled in.
“He’s fine,” Ranald reassured his friend. “I’m keeping him in our shed. I’ve made him a bed and he’s got a bowl of water.”
“And food?” asked Bertie. “What has he had to eat? You have to feed dogs, you know, Ranald.”
“I know that,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “I gave him some smoked salmon and I found some lamb chops in the fridge. He ate everything. He really likes smoked salmon, Bertie.”
It was while they were discussing their plans for the puppy that Olive and Pansy, flanked by two lesser acolytes of Olive’s, Marigold and Hermione, approached the two boys.
“Look out,” said Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. “Look out, Bertie – here comes Olive.”
Bertie made to move away, but was too late.
“Don’t try to get away from us,” scolded Olive as she intercepted Bertie’s attempt to walk away. “You can’t run away forever, Bertie Pollock.”
“I wasn’t running away, Olive,” said Bertie. “Ranald and I were just trying to have a private conversation – that’s all.”
Ranald Braveheart Macpherson was temporarily emboldened. “We don’t want you sticking your nose in, Olive,” he said. “Boys have rights too, you know.”
Olive spun round and glared at Ranald. “Used to have rights, Ranald. And you’d better watch what you say, or you’re going to get into serious trouble.”
“Yes,” said Pansy. “Really serious trouble, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson. You just wait and see.”
Marigold stepped forward. “I know something about you and Bertie,” she said, coming up to Ranald and addressing him barely an inch away from his nose.
Ranald drew back. “You don’t know anything, Marigold,” he said. He spoke as firmly as he could, but his voice lacked conviction.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ranald,” jeered Olive. “You tell him, Marigold.”
Marigold grinned. “My cousin lives next to you, Ranald. She’s called Peggy Bogie. She goes to South Morningside School. She’s the cleverest girl in the school. She has a certificate that says that.”
“I know all that,” said Ranald, affecting indifference. But his heart had already sunk. Peggy Bogie and he were not on the best of terms.
“She says that she saw you and Bertie in the garden the other day,” Marigold continued. “She can see right into your garden, Ranald. She can see everything. And she says that if she stands on a stool she can see right into your Mummy’s bedroom.”
“Yes,” continued Marigold. “And you know what she saw the other day? She saw you and Bertie putting a dog away in your shed. She says that you and Bertie have a secret dog.”
Bertie glanced at Ranald in dismay. This information, which needed to be kept as secret as possible, had fallen right into the worst possible hands.
“Well,” Olive crowed. “Aren’t you going to deny it, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson? Perhaps not – because it’s true, isn’t it?”
“It’s none of your business, Olive,” said Ranald. “Nor of yours, Marigold.”
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong,” said Olive. “You can’t keep a dog in secret like that. You aren’t allowed to have a dog, Ranald, and you know it. If your parents knew, you’d get into real trouble, sure as anything.” She paused. “The only reason I tell you that we know, Ranald – and you, too, Bertie – the only reason is that we are concerned about the dog’s welfare.”
Bertie decided to appeal to Olive’s better nature. “Please don’t tell, Olive. Please.”
Olive flounced. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I have to do my duty, Bertie. I know you’re not as stupid as Ranald, but you shouldn’t get involved in this sort of thing, you know. You should think about the consequences of what you do, Bertie – you really should.”