The desks were cracked and lined, scribed with graffiti from an earlier time. The pens lay in shallow grooves. They were nibbed dowels of poplar which had to be frequently dipped. The inkwells were mysterious cups of bakelite, recessed into every desk. They had a small aperture, surrounded with a flange, and were caked in dried ink, faded and crystalline. They emitted a strange odour. On occasion we would drink from them. Blue tongues offset the foul taste.
On each desk a bible lay open. King James edition. Some old books smelled of shit. The bibles smelled of something else, mildew perhaps, or cheap gossamer paper, or the ink from the archaic illustrations. These pictures provided a faint relief from the weekly ordeal of scripture class but they were few, and hundreds of pages apart. An hour is a long time for an eight year old.
The routine was to sit and silently follow the passages in our bibles which our teacher read aloud from his. He would sometimes pause to flick his cigarette ends over his shoulder, through the upper window behind him which we had closed beforehand. They bounced harmlessly to the floor. He never seemed to notice. He had a few thin hairs brushed over his pate and walked with a limp. War wound.
The boy next to me was known to be very clever. His natural grasp of mathematics left everyone far behind. There was a loneliness to his intelligence. It came with fits of rage. He hit me once with a cricket bat, leaving a bump on my head larger than the ball, and sending me to another universe for a few seconds. He stole all the sweets I had been hoarding for months in preparation for a sugary midnight feast. We were friends.
In the weekly scripture class he had a custom, which he always followed. It made an impression on me that has lasted. As the teacher read each page, he would calmly rip it from his bible, scrunch it in his fist and toss it to the floor. It was not an act of bravado but of quiet defiance. He did not look for accolades.
I wonder what he is reading now.