A few weeks have passed since Mick had to follow his newly wed mother and stepfather to the latter's hometown in Missouri. This story is about one particular, decisive scene in class and later on in a more general way about settling into the new life he will have to get used to in a way.
When it comes to picking a soundtrack for scenes from Mick Carpenter's life, I seem to have a pretty one-track mind. Sorry, but it is the Boss again. This time not for his lyrics, but because "The River" has this beautifully melancholy atmosphere that mirrors Mick's emotions as he misses everything he had to leave behind and tries to find solace in his own quiet and solitary way.
I had a hard start at school, sticking out not just because I was new but also because my stepfather was Dr. Daniel Cleaver. My new spotless clothes and unusually longish unruly hair sufficed to make most of the kids consider me arrogant and uppish, an impression that obviously wasn't helped by the fact that I was taller than most of them or my cautious reticence around my new schoolmates. They didn't make me feel particularly welcome, and in turn I preferred to watch the class dynamics from the outside rather than plunging right in.
There was a bunch of loud, boisterous, uncouth boys calling the shots in class, a large group who regarded fistfights as a kind of sport, headed by a big coarse bully called Tim Weiner.
I hadn't minded the occasional schoolyard brawl back at my old school, but only if I'd had a cause. I despised that whole gang, especially Weiner. He recognized this instantly. He tried to hassle me a few times, mocking my way of speaking, hiding my stuff or staging some "accidents" like overturning an inkwell so that my fresh shirt was spoiled or knocking my books off the desk and stepping on them.
I kept ignoring those attempts to torment me as best I could, so Tim and his mates stepped up their sneering about my looks, frustrated that I didn't allow myself to be dragged down to their level easily.
"Oh, here's our pretty girl!" someone shouted as I entered the classroom one morning. "Hey, Carpenter, where's your skirt?" another voice chimed in. "Oooh, look at her handsome curls!" cried a third one. "And those pink cheeks! Did it take a long time to paint your face this morning?" I pretended not to listen and proceeded towards my desk.
"Hey! We are talking to you!" hollered Tim's best friend, Roddy Deane.
"Are you?" I said coolly, walking on. Deane stuck out his foot and I tripped on it, lurching forward awkwardly but not falling. I felt myself flush with anger for not having seen that one coming, but I continued towards the back of the room.
When I passed by Tim's desk, he gave me a violent shove that sent me banging into the next desk painfully. Still I didn't want to give in to his provocation and tried to push past him without a word.
"Carpenter's indeed a girl, a stuck-up one, and a wimpy one, too. Are you afraid to fight, pretty girl? Will Mommy scold you if your nice shirt gets dirty? Oh, no, even worse - she won't let you use her lipstick any more!"
Something exploded inside me, wiping away all my good intentions of staying calm, and I smashed my fist right into his smug fat face. A murmur of surprise ran through the classroom. One of the girls gave a loud gasp. Tim made a weird sound, something between a yelp and a howl, and gingerly touched his lip and cheek with a dumb expression on his face. There was blood on his lower lip.
"What's going on here?" demanded a harsh voice from the doorway. Miss O'Brien! All those who had stood and stared at the scene dumbfounded now went scurrying to their desks.
"Carpenter hit him in the face", Roddy said in a whiny accusing tone.
"Just like that?" asked Miss O'Brien sceptically, shaking her head as she briskly walked to the desk and set down the books she was carrying. She was a severe-looking, thin woman in her fifties with steel-grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses. She exuded a kind of natural formidable authority, and she didn't believe in caning as a means of making pupils respect her. Not that she would have needed it anyway. I had grown quite fond of her.
"What happened before that?" she demanded in a piercing voice.
Nobody spoke. I wouldn't be stupid enough to rat on Tim, and he sure as hell wasn't going to confess.
The teacher gave both of us a sharp look. "Fine, then. Timothy, Michael, you both go stand in the corner. Opposite corners, that is. The rest of you, will you please sit down and be quiet?"
"But Tim is bleeding", Roddy piped up again.
"I'm sure Timothy has got a handkerchief", was Miss O'Brien's unfazed response.
Tim sniffled and nodded, producing a grubby-looking piece of cloth from his pocket with which he dabbed at his lip clumsily.
"Press it on your lip until it stops bleeding", she said with an exasperated sigh before giving each of us another stern look. "I do not want to see any such scene again in here, am I clear?"
Both of us nodded obediently. Tim seemed to be earnestly afraid of her, while I took the punishment in my stride, hoping I had made my point with Tim and his cronies.
And indeed, while the incident certainly didn't earn me his friendship, he treated me with a kind of wary respect from then on. I did get picked on sometimes, but considerably less often and less violent.
I had also made an impression with my other classmates. They regarded me differently after the incident. Some even admired me openly for the way I had dealt with the bullies. One of the girls, Louisa Jackson, began writing me little notes during class, which I found embarrassing and flattering at the same time, even though I didn't care much for her.
I also got closer to some of the boys. None became as good a friend as Thomas had been, but I wasn't sure if I wanted that at all. It sufficed that I didn't have to spend the breaks alone at the edge of the schoolyard any more and that we occasionally met after school for a ball game.
The two things that I really came to love after all had nothing to do with school or games or superficial friendships anyway
One was the piano lessons Dan let me have. I had stubbornly remained silent whenever Mom asked me if I didn't like the beautiful house and all the nice stuff in there, but when I had seen the gleaming black piano in the parlour, a small sigh of admiration had escaped me. Dan had encouraged me to strike a few keys. I gave it a try and quickly found a simple melody.
"Why, you have got musical talent, Mick!" Dan exclaimed in surprise. He arranged for his old piano instructor to teach me once a week. I loved those lessons, even the tedious finger exercises Mr. Byrnes had me practice, and made good progress within short.
What I loved even more was dreamily playing to myself. My favourite was the slow rocking rhythm and melancholy tune of the "Skye Boat Song". My mother found it strange that I played it over and over. She thought it was far too solemn and encouraged me to choose something merrier instead.
I didn't tell her the two reasons why I loved the piece so much and had asked Mr. Byrnes if he had the tune somewhere among his giant collection of sheet music. Its rhythm and lyrics reminded me of my beloved sea, and, most important, it had been one of the lullabies my father used to sing for me when I was little, and it brought back this pleasant safe and secure feeling his warm voice and familiar figure by my bedside had always given me.
The other thing I became very fond of in this nondescript small town was the river. It couldn't quite make up for the sea I missed so much, but it came a close second. When my homework was done, which was the prerequisite for Mom letting me leave the house, I often went down to the steep river banks not far from the house. There was a weeping willow that became my shelter. I climbed into the tree or just hid among its low-hanging branches, reading or simply staring into the water, watching the occasional boat drifting by, imagining myself sailing around the world, dreaming of adventures just the way I had dreamed back in Maine. As the summer holidays arrived, I spent as much time as Mom would allow.
When the summer heat became too stifling, I dived into the river and swam for a while, parting the water with the determined stroke Grandpa had taught me, afterwards laying down on the dry grass by the water to dry in the sun.
I found a certain comfort in this solitude. The water slowly flowing by gave me a sense of connection with my grandparents and also with my father.
On the few occasions when a letter from Grandma arrived, I took it down there with me, delaying the precious moment of opening it until I was almost bursting with anticipation. I savoured every word she wrote, reading her neat longhand over and over. Grandpa wasn't much of a writer, but he usually added a few lines about the weather and the fishing which made me hear his deep rumbling voice in my head.
I still missed both of them badly. No one here understood me effortlessly like my grandfather had, almost without words, and I wasn't sure if anyone ever would.
Not my mother, certainly – I loved her dearly but she was always so worried about everything, afraid I might fall ill or get injured or die. And she had closely scrutinized the few classmates I brought home with me, disapproving of virtually everyone for fear they might be bad influence on me and lead me astray somehow. She was very proud of our ascent towards the upper echelons of society as the town doctor's wife and stepson, and the thought that someone or something might ruin my chances in life, now that I was the first one in our family to stand a real chance of going to college one day, was unbearable to her.
Not Dan either, although I began to see some good in him. He would never be a father to me, and I still hadn't quite forgiven my mother for marrying again, but that wasn't his fault and I found he wasn't that bad. He tried hard to make me like him without being obtrusive, and I discovered that I had a precious ally in him when my mother became all too protective of me.
"You can't lock him up all his life just because you're afraid something bad might happen, Alice", I once overheard him saying. "Boys need their freedom and their little adventures, even if that means they'll skin their knees or get the sniffles once in a while." I almost loved him for that, making things much easier for me by acting as a counterpoint to Mom's permanent anxiety.
Outwardly, I kind of settled into that new life that had been forced upon me.
But the desire to return to what I still thought of as home, to my hometown in Maine, to my grandparents and to the sea I loved never subsided. It was stuck in some small spot inside my chest, close to my heart, like one of those tiny splinters that remain lodged under the surface of the skin. I got used to that subliminal feeling. Usually, it was subdued and hardly palpable, but from time to time something would cause it to flare up in a sharp little pang and make me want to run away, to try and make my way back to Maine.
Maybe one day I would.