A friend and I had cause to be in central London on Bank Holiday Monday, where we visited a Starbucks. The story below is inspired by something we saw whilst there. Hope you like it and, if the little man in question reads it, I hope it gives him ideas.
Ralph’s attention drifted from the test paper on the desk in front of him, his brain rebelling against the endless practising for an examination he didn’t even want to take. His father’s cough sounded low from across the room, he was being watched, he knew, so he had no option but to plod on. He bent his head back to his work and tried anew to figure out which shape could possibly be the odd one out.
Ralph had been excited when his father had suggested their trip to Starbucks. He so rarely spent any time with his dad, who always seemed to be busy at the office or locked away in his study doing serious things, his heart sang as his father chose to spend his precious bank holiday with him. However, once they arrived, Ralph’s hopes had been dashed. His father had ordered a single drink, a black coffee, and then pointed Ralph to a prison of a table, wedged between the wall and the high side of the counter with soft sofas in front of the table that would trap him for sure if anyone sat down in them.
His father had carefully placed the test booklet on the table, together with a pencil and a ruler. “You have an hour,” he’d said with no further explanation. “If you complete the test satisfactorily, I’ll buy you one of those milk drinks you are so fond of.”
With that his father had turned his back, walked to the other side of the room and chosen his own seat by the door where he proceeded to read The Economist, occasionally glancing up to check his offspring was being compliant.
Ralph’s spirits sunk – he hated the eleven plus, he’d had to do a test paper each and every week day of the holiday, he did a quick mental calculation to check just how many that made in total, seven times five, 35 tests! An hour for each test, followed by 20 minutes of terror each evening as his father marked them then another hour whilst his mistakes were laid plain for him to see and repair. That was 105 hours of his precious holidays wasted on a stupid test he didn’t even want to take. He didn’t want to go to Boughton House, like his father had, he wanted to go to St. Thomas’ with Simon and Mohammad, he didn’t want to be sent away from home, only seeing his mother during the holidays and never allowed to call during term-time. His father called it character building but Ralph thought his character was okay as it was. He didn’t want to make the ‘right’ kind of friends, he liked the ones he already had and anyway, he didn’t want to work in a bank, or any other kind of office, come to that and, if he ever did get a job, he wanted it to be because he was smart, not because of who he knew.
Ralph finished the final calculation and looked over at his father who was engrossed in the article he was reading. A shiver of panic travelled down his spine – he’d finished too soon. He must have got something wrong. Hastily he flipped the booklet over and turned each page, scanning for the mistake, but he could see nothing. He let the final page fall to the table and carefully put the pencil down beside it, uncertain what to do next.
Two women had filled the sofas as he feared someone might, and he was trapped. He looked over at his father for help but his father wasn’t looking this way and wouldn’t want Ralph to disturb his reading anyway. He looked around the table, as if searching for a previously unseen magic door to open and release him, but none appeared. Finally he headed straight for the sofa, even though he could see the space between it and the table was insufficient to his needs, he just didn’t know what else to do. Mercifully one of the women saw his predicament and asked her friend to move so he could squeeze passed. His father heard him whispering his thanks and put down his magazine, looking expectantly at the boy.
Ralph made his way over to his father, the paper shaking in his hand a little and laid it down in front of him, “Finished?” he asked.
Ralph nodded silently.
The man glanced quickly through the booklet, “Let’s get you that drink,” he smiled down at Ralph, “I have a feeling you’ve earned it.”
The two of them went over to the counter and Ralph’s father ordered himself a second coffee and Ralph a strawberries and cream Frappuccino with cream and everything. Ralph walked back to his father’s table but before he could sit down his dad picked up his copy of The Economist and gave it to him.
“Why don’t you go and read this back at your table whilst I mark your work?” he asked, though Ralph knew it wasn’t really a question.
He took the magazine and his drink, squeezed his way past the two ladies, who looked at him sadly, and returned to his prison seat to enjoy his reward, silently.
He could hear them whispering under their breaths about him and his father, they seemed to be cross but he couldn’t really tell with whom. He tried to tune them out and focus on an article about the need to maintain free trade in the global commodities markets in areas of conflict. He didn’t really understand anything he was reading but, as his father had taught him, he ringed the truly baffling phrases with his pencil for later discussion.
Ralph had almost finished his strawberries and cream Frappuccino when his father called him over with another discrete cough, he was relieved to see the grumpy ladies had gone so it was easy to free himself, he was careful to pick up his pencil, ruler, magazine and beaker, he was hoping not to return.
“You know Ralph,” his father almost smiled down at him, “I think that if you keep performing at this standard, Boughton House will have to invent a new top set, just for you.”
“Thank you, Father,” Ralph replied, and that’s when his wicked idea hit him. He did a quick mental calculation, the holidays would be over in less than two weeks, that was around another ten tests his father would mark. Another ten tests he had to pass. But Father wouldn’t mark the real test, he realised with relish, if he deliberately answered those questions incorrectly, Boughton House wouldn’t want him at all, not in any of their sets. He’d be free to go to St. Thomas’ with Simon and Mohammad. Free to sit with his mother for breakfast, free to play football after school and see his Nanna whenever he wanted and, best of all, free from his father’s expectations and plans for his life. He would be free.
He smiled a deep down smile that travelled from the secret places, through his stomach, into his chest and burst forth onto his face with a force that could not be stopped.
“Feels good to win, doesn’t it son?” his father asked.
“Yes Father.” Ralph answered.