Becoming number 1

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Anyone could have done it. But only James had a crisp Pounds 5 note, a stepladder, a key to the chemistry cupboard marked "flammable" and a misdirected sense of curiosity. Forbes Smith, a teacher at St Flannan's Primary School in East Dunbartonshire, writes this week's winning entry in The TES Magazine short story competition. Illustrations by Frances Castle

To James it was merely a problem to be solved and James liked solving problems. It was a bit like numbers really. Numbers could form patterns: they were regular; they were predictable. James found comfort in their predictability - unlike people. People, he found, were unpredictable. It was like when his big sister screamed: "I hate you" after he had inadvertently upset her, only to have her buy him sweets the next day. This confused James.

His inability to understand people had led him to living an isolated life - not that he minded at all. Other children may have thrived on friendships or looked on James as being lonely, but this was of no matter to James. As long as he had numbers and problems to solve he was content. Happiness did not enter into it. He had numbers and problems.

Unfortunately, he was about to experience problems that he did not care for, or, indeed, look for. They found him.

James was in his first year of high school. He had grown used to primary school over the years and, over the years, primary school had grown used to him. He was a polite boy who had never been in any trouble, for he was never interested in getting into trouble. This had endeared James to his teachers but had led to him being looked on with suspicion by his classmates. "Oi" they would shout, as he stood alone in the playground, "Whachoo doin' there?" "Counting," would be his reply.

This was the truth; James liked nothing better at his primary school than standing in his favourite spot, facing the main building and counting the bricks. There were 4,380 on one wall alone. They were red; it was his favourite colour.

In time, his classmates had grown used to him and James faded into the background of childhood: another face that made up the numbers in a school photograph, but hardly registered any meaning. This, however, was about to change.

A group of second year boys had made it their business to make the first years' lives an absolute misery: tripping up in corridors; pushing into walls; elbows finding the weakest spots in ribs and backs; even, it was whispered in dread, taking lunch money.

This was done in the slyest of ways, under the noses of staff. The teachers could never prove a thing. They knew it was happening, even knew the names of boys involved, but they could never prove a thing. This was where young James came in.

It was only a matter of time before James became the object of their attention. Unfortunately for them. James had never come to their attention before so they knew nothing about him, or his profound ability in solving problems.

"Ere, you," one of them called out to him in the corridor one day.

James stopped walking to his class, turned around and looked at them. He had been counting the number of steps between classes. He had 40 - three more steps to take before he had been interrupted. There were three of them. He said nothing.

"Gie's money, or else," one snarled.

"I've none," he replied truthfully.

"Well, find some. Or we'll come looking," came the threat. With that, they walked away, leaving James thinking. James knew what bullies were. He had seen them before, picking on classmates, leaving them tearstained and penniless. To take away someone's numbers was not acceptable to James, not at all. He had to do something; he had to solve this problem. This set James thinking.

James had been at the school for some while now and had become familiar with its layout. He had to, despite his initial discomfort, as he knew that he was going to be there for a while. What was unfamiliar soon became familiar to him. Indeed, his favourite place was near to the chemistry department. The walls there reminded him of his primary school walls: comfortable red bricks. And so many to be counted. James continued to his classroom.

It was while into the lesson that James had an idea. He was in general science and the topic they were studying was moths. Moths, their teacher explained, were similar to butterflies, but they had one fatal weakness: they had an overwhelming attraction to bright light. Even, to naked flames. Their teacher went on to explain that, despite the danger, a moth would be so filled with desire to reach the light, that it would be consumed in the flames. It was the agent of its own destruction.

The agent of its own destruction.

The phrase stuck in James's brain. Perhaps this was the solution he was looking for. With this thought in mind, James set to making his plans.

The following day James was standing in his usual place, looking at the same wall. The three bullies approached him without a word and stood between him and the object of his attention. "Well then," said one, "Tell us. Where is it?"

James looked directly at him without blinking and, pointing behind them, said: "There."

As one, the three boys turned around, following the direction of his finger. Behind them was a door, clearly marked Chemistry Store - No Entry - Flammable. Their eyes looked up. Above the door was a clear glass window and, taped on to the window, was a crisp, bright, brand new pound;5 note.

The boys turned back and looked at James. "Whassit doin' there?" asked the biggest of the three.

"Safety," replied James.

Despite the obvious unusualness of the situation and the distinct lack of fear in James's eyes, the boys were unable to resist the bait. They took action.

"You stay out here and look out," the biggest instructed one of the others. "We'll get the dosh," he indicated to the other. "And," he warned, "keep an eye on this one. We'll only be a moment." He looked threateningly at James and turned. Opening the door without any hesitation, the two boys entered the store. James remained where he was, the other boy eyeing him with a look of scorn. Some of James's classmates passed, realising that trouble was brewing but powerless to help.

Suddenly, a loud crash was heard, followed by screams. The other boy immediately pulled open the door and entered. James quickly pushed the door shut and, removing a key from his pocket, locked the door. He walked away without even looking back.

Everything had gone according to plan and, despite the secrecy over his preparations, it was not long before everyone in the school knew exactly what had happened. James, the unusual boy with no friends, soon had the respect and admiration of every pupil in the school.

The boys, it transpired, had, on entering the store, used a ladder to get to the Pounds 5 note. The biggest had climbed while the other held it steady.

His actions were ultimately doomed as, unknown to them, someone had taken a hacksaw to the ladder, weakening it to the point of collapse when a certain amount of stress was placed on it. James's calculations had been precise.

As the boy reached the top, the ladder buckled under, causing him to fall backwards, striking a conveniently placed stack of assorted noxious substances. As his fall continued, he struck his partner in crime, causing both of them to propel into the said noxious substances.

The entry of their final partner had added to the confusion. The boy had dislodged yet another convenient assemblage of substances which, combined with the already spreading concoction, added its distinctive, pungent contribution to the melee.

Soon, the noise of the disturbance and, it has to be said, the extreme smell, inevitably attracted the attention of those who were in a position to do something about it. Because of the nature of the chemicals involved (not to mention the smell), it was decided that the situation was best approached from a distance, as it were.

The fire brigade was duly summoned and, once the three had been released, sobbing, from the store, they were removed to a safe distance in the play- ground. There was a fire hazard, according to the brigade's sub-master, and the boys were treated accordingly - much to their humiliation.

As a bonus, the school was declared unsafe until the mess had been neutralised. An extra holiday was the order of the day. Needless to say, no one revealed what had happened. James had unwittingly become a hero. Not that this was any concern of his, oh no, he was much too busy with his numbers, so many numbers.

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