Never too late to make amends

21st December 2007 at 00:00
Curl up with this ghost story by Margaret Mallett, the winner of The TES Magazine short story competition. Illustrations by Caroline Thomson.

Rosie's Christmas medal

I hadn't expected to be climbing the hill up to the village school until the beginning of the next term. School had finished a couple of days previously and I had returned to my parents' house in Newcastle for a quiet Christmas. They had promised to cosset me while I made progress on my MA thesis. I had permission to take away two of the school logbooks for research, but in the rush and excitement of the last day of term I had forgotten to collect them. This unexpected journey back to North Yorkshire was an infuriating waste of my time. Nearing the top of the hill, I glanced back at the village.

It was a clear, mild December day but, even so, at this time in the afternoon the lights were on in most of the houses. It was to be a quick visit; no need to call in to greet Mrs Stone in whose house I had a bedsitting room in term time. The caretaker did not work on a Saturday and so my visit could, I thought, be accomplished swiftly without bothering anyone.

I opened the front door of the school, closed it and then walked along the corridor to the records room. The school, built in 1904 to serve the rural community, had been constructed round a central courtyard. Senior teachers found the records room a convenient refuge if the staffroom was in use. As a new teacher I would not normally have had a key, but because of my research an exception had been made.

The logbooks were on the desk where I had left them of course, together with the disk I had been working on - yes I had managed to leave that behind as well. Sitting in the records room, looking out into the courtyard with its wintry trees and nature area, had a calming effect. The room, perhaps 10 foot square, carried the school's history. As you entered you saw, on your left, a wall entirely given over to shelving that housed the school logbooks; there was also a row of admissions books, each carefully labelled. Against the opposite wall stood a bureau with an extra large drawer at the bottom, labelled Miscellaneous.

Perhaps you are wondering what my study was about? My topic was rewards and punishments in village schools from 1930-1940, using this school as a case study. Most schools during this period gave rewards certificates and book prizes for good behaviour and success in tests. This school had been rather unusual in that a Christmas medal was awarded to the child in each class who had produced the best piece of writing during the autumn term. It was not an award for handwriting, I hasten to add, but for the quality of the writing, an admirable recognition of the need to encourage children's creativity.

The Christmas medals for writing continue at this school to this day. I lifted the hefty logbooks into my bag. Then I noticed that a letter had fallen from one of them. Turning on the light, I began to read the copperplate handwriting.

August 2006

Dear School Secretary

I was a pupil at this school from 1930 until 1935. I am writing to you now as there is something on my mind that you may be able to help me with. I'm almost 82, so I'm going back a bit.

When I was at school, a star-shaped Christmas medal on a red ribbon was awarded to the pupils who had written the best story or poem. When I was 10 the medal for my class went to Rosie Wilkins. You never saw anyone so pleased. She was one of a large family who had their struggles. She said she was going to show the medal to all her relatives.

After reading her story to the whole school at the Christmas assembly, Rosie seemed a bit over excited. For some reason she came up to me and taunted me about the very worn boots I had on. It was in front of my little group of friends and I was overcome with anger and humiliation.

At break I took the medal from her desk and put it in my pocket. I passed a room that I think was called the records room and saw the bottom drawer of the bureau open. No one was there and so I flung in the medal.

Of course I had not anticipated there would be such a fuss. The teacher said Rosie should have looked after the medal better. Rosie was extremely upset. I thought perhaps I could slip into the records room again and get the medal and put it quietly back. But I never got the chance - there was always someone in the room. And such a big thing was made of the incident - to such an extent there was no way I felt I could own up.

You must be wondering why I'm raising all this now. Well, this week I met someone who had been in the same class as Rosie and me. He told me she had lived in the village all her life and was now buried in the churchyard. Her husband was a stonemason and had made a beautiful white marble statue of an angel for her grave. There is a chance that the medal is still in the drawer. Could I come and see if it is still there and take it to Rosie's family? Even after all this time I would like to make amends.

With good wishes,

Eric Cartwright

At the bottom of the letter was a pencilled sentence: "Sadly, when we tried to get in touch with Mr Cartwright it was to discover that he died shortly after writing to us and so this matter was not pursued."

I looked in the bottom drawer of the bureau. There were old coins, children's toys and an assortment of school trophies. Caught between some blank certificates, there was a medal in the shape of a star with a red ribbon to tie round the neck. The initials R.W. were engraved on the back. Rosie's Christmas medal! There was an old spoon that I also pocketed as I had a plan to help Eric.

I became aware that someone else was in the building; there were footsteps and then I saw the school caretaker in the doorway.

"Miss Milbourne. What are you doing here? I saw the light on and came straight over."

"Oh, Mr Hartley. I left some books behind and came to collect them."

"Why didn't you let me know you were coming? Now if you've got what you need let me see you out. You'll be wanting the bus to Harrogate train station. I'll walk down to the road with you."

"No, I need to go left, I want to pay my respects to someone buried in the churchyard."

"Well then, safe journey and Happy Christmas to you."

I walked along a holly hedge, the berries a shining presence in the darkening afternoon, and then across a field to the small church yard. The little church was in blackness and there was now just enough light for me to track down Rosie's grave. Knowing about the white marble angel helped me of course. The angel was looking straight ahead, her hands round a book in her lap.

I took the medal and the spoon from my coat pocket, knelt down and began to dig near the edge of the grave. I worked quickly: I did not want to offend the vicar as well as the school caretaker. Recent rainfall had softened the ground and when I had made a reasonably deep hole I lifted up the medal. It seemed a shame to put it directly into the earth. I found a piece of lace in my bag and put it round the medal, tucking in the red ribbon which was still remarkably bright and silky.

Soon I was gently patting down the earth. My job done I looked up at the angel. I've thought about what happened next a lot over the years and I am as sure as I can be about what I saw.

Just for an instant the face of a young boy was superimposed on the angel's. Although silent, the moving lips unmistakably said: "Thank you"

Margaret Mallett taught in primary schools in Northumberland and Kent. She is a school governor and loves reviewing children's books.

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