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CHAPTER ONE

Albert Winter had had a bad day. He hadn’t meant to call Lucy Dredgewater, Juicy Eggsnorter, but it had seemed funny at the time. It wasn’t funny when he realised how upset Lucy was, or when he had had to explain to Mrs Havers why he had continued to say it when Lucy had repeatedly asked him to stop. The words had just sounded so deliciously amusing to him. It wasn’t personal. Mrs Havers had then stared at him intently, asking him sternly if he’d like to be called Albert Autumn – he didn’t understand how that was funny at all.

Later during Art, Albert had innocently leant across to wet his paintbrush when he knocked a plastic cup of murky water flying over Gerald Flintoff’s masterpiece of Stickman on a bicycle in the zoo. He personally thought the picture looked more abstract with a layer of dirty water on top, but Gerald had started flicking paint at him in anger so that Albert ended up looking like a polka dot child.

At this point, Mrs Havers had had to have a serious talk with Albert about his behaviour. It was apparently ‘very disappointing’. Albert often thought that teachers couldn’t be very happy people, as they seemed to be very disappointed on a daily basis. He would never have raised this with Mrs Havers though. Nobody answered back to Mrs Havers. A teacher who emanated an aura of unyielding discipline, she was tall and pencil thin with dark brown hair that was always pulled back and up into the shape of a bun that perched on the top of her head. So tightly was her hair forced back that it gave the impression of her skin being stretched too thinly across her face, her cheekbones seeming to protrude through from underneath. She wore brown-rimmed glasses that were always pushed down to the tip of her thin nose, so that she could look at you more closely when she was ‘very disappointed.’ At which point, children of all ages stood rooted to the spot, conflicted with an overwhelming desire to look away, while being utterly hypnotized by her sinister dark eyes.

Mrs Havers 1

The most peculiar thing about Mrs Havers though was the way she wore her jackets. Draped around her shoulders, the garment hung like a cloak and no one had ever seen Mrs Havers put her arms within the sleeves. This had often baffled Albert. Even on the coldest of days her long, thin arms stayed firmly without. When she moved about the school the sides of her jacket would flare up and Albert on more than one occasion fancied Mrs Havers became more like a bird of prey swooping swiftly towards its unsuspecting victim, than a Year 5 classroom teacher. By the end of this serious talk, Albert had learnt that his behaviour was not reflective of how students at Hardwicke Primary School behaved. Mrs Havers expected to see a significant improvement or the dreaded telephone call home would have to be made.

The day didn’t get any better. When he came to eat his lunch, he discovered his mother had made him a combination of banana and egg sandwiches. What was she thinking? Mushy, brown banana oozed out of the sides of the slices of white bread, while a strong aroma of eggs filled the air. Albert hastily tried to conceal his lunch, but not before Johnny Miller had seen and delighted in announcing to the class that Albert had diarrhoea sandwiches for lunch. Feeling hungry and thoroughly miserable, Albert spent the rest of the day thinking it would have been better to stay in bed.

At last the school day came to an end and Albert’s spirits were lifted when he found a packet of jelly babies in the front of his school bag, where his mother always put his bus money. Having satisfied his hunger with jelly babies, Albert hopped off the bus and ran happily along Badgers Avenue, which was just around the corner from his house. Trees lined the street, arching upwards and hiding the houses from passers’ by with their thick, summer foliage. As he was nearing the turn for his street, a short, old man, with a grey beard and moustache, wearing a light grey suit, with matching umbrella and bowler hat was walking briskly towards him.

Albert’s parents would continually remind him of the importance of basic good manners. His father liked to read philosophy and would constantly quote his favourite sayings to his son, so that Albert already knew many by heart. ‘A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.’ “Make sure you like who’s looking back at you son,” his Dad would always say. It was instinctive therefore that Albert moved to the side of the path and ran onto the grass verge, allowing good manners to reign supreme and the old man to keep to the pavement. The man raised his hand to his bowler hat and tipped it slightly, smiling at Albert as they passed. At precisely which point, Albert’s legs came out from underneath him as he skidded in a particularly large and soft dog poo, landing smack on his bottom.

“Dear boy! Dear boy!” cried the old man, bending down and helping Albert to his feet. “So sorry dear boy, can’t stop, can’t stop!”

“That’s okay,” said Albert grimacing as he contemplated his shoe which was covered in dog poo. Breathing in he dry-retched as the overpowering, terrible stench reached his nose. The old man stooped down once more, picking up Albert’s bag and handing it to him. “So sorry dear boy,” he reiterated and then turned on his heels and walked off briskly down the street.

Albert watched him disappear into the distance, placing his bag back down on the ground. Finding a clean patch of grass he began to drag his foot backwards and forwards through the long blades. He put his heel into the ground and swivelled it from side to side. He bent his knee back, lifting up the heel of his shoe so that he could look at the sole from over his shoulder. Not clean yet. He stepped to a fresh section of grass and started the process again. After repeating the procedure a further three times, Albert lifted up his bag with a sigh and slowly walked the remaining stretch home.

Having thought he’d managed to get rid of it all, Albert entered 72 Park Road and went straight upstairs. He was only just in his bedroom when he heard the cry from his mother. “Albert Sidney Winter!!!” Oh no, the triple crown! ‘Albert’ signified he’d done something wrong; ‘Albert Sidney’ indicated things were getting serious; but ‘Albert Sidney Winter’ – well, he may as well put himself up for voluntary adoption now. “What have you trodden in? It’s all the way up the stairs!!”

Albert sat down on the sofa with a heavy heart. Having faced the fury of a mother who immediately announced that new carpet would have to be bought as the stain and the smell were immovable, he then had to endure a speech from his father of quite astounding proportions on the need to be more careful. George Winter summed up his address to his only son with a quote that Albert felt even his father sensed exceeded necessity. “Son,” he declared, “It is better to be careful a hundred times than to be killed once.” Having delivered this portentous statement, his father had cleared his throat and told Albert that if anyone wanted him he would be in the vegetable patch. Albert knew his father was playing to his mother’s heartstrings. Julia Winter was a kind, gentle and good-natured woman, who lost all sense of reason and perspective in the event of anything being spilt, dropped, or dribbled onto her precious carpets. Dinner was eaten in silence as the Winters reflected personally on the dog poo disaster.

The Winters

Knowing that there would have to be consequences for his innocent blunder, Albert sat despondently on the sofa, having lost all television rights for the evening. Instead of watching his favourite show ‘Killer Bugs – Are They in Your House?‘ he had had to sit through ‘On the Money’ with its ingratiating host Danny Brightside.

And now, as if he hadn’t already suffered enough, it being Thursday night meant that it was time for what he and his friends classified as sick-making television. ‘The Doctor Wants a Wife’ followed selfless doctors in their forties, who had dedicated their lives to helping others, only to find themselves single, lonely and loaded. Julia Winter was addicted to watching these grown men and women talk about their search for love, often resulting in uncontrollable crying. The whole show made no sense to Albert whatsoever and he often found himself cringing uncomfortably as he sat next to his mother who would surreptitiously dab at her eyes with a hankie.

What was even more nonsensical was the fact that his father always watched ‘The Doctor Wants a Wife’ too. Albert told himself that his father was just keeping his mother company, but this didn’t explain why it was series linked in the planner in case his father should get held up at work.

Albert’s mother came into the lounge, just as the title music began. Evidently recovered from earlier events, she smiled at Albert and asked him to let his father know ‘The Doctor Wants a Wife’ was starting. Albert innocently ran outside and yelled “DAD! THE DOCTOR WANTS A WIFE IS STARTING!” When there was no answer, he yelled out again, whereupon George Winter came careering down the garden like a thing possessed. Puffing, blowing and shshing, he bundled a startled Albert in through the back door and told him never, ever to yell that out again. Julia Winter had come into the kitchen at this point looking sheepish, “Sorry darling,” she said apologetically, “I thought you were upstairs.”
Parents, thought Albert, unfathomable!