"That's not what I meant," protested Miss Wickham, blushing furiously. "Freddy, dear. Come to me at playtime and I'll try to make you understand."
But for seven-year old Freddy Bates, the damage was done, and Miss Wickham, his erstwhile favourite teacher, fell from her pedestal with a crash.
Freddy was an only child, and as a baby had suffered from a mild form of what in 1921 was called St. Vitus' Dance. This resulted in his being over a year late in starting school, and although his mum had taught him the rudiments of reading and writing, she had also tended to spoil him.
Freddy's first day at school was a traumatic experience for both himself and the Infants' teacher. When she took him on her knee to soothe his tears, he drummed his heels into her shins and then lay on the floor, screaming for his mum. However, it soon became apparent that he was quite a clever boy, and after only six months he was transferred into the first-year junior class under Miss Wickhams care.
The motherly junior schoolteacher could do no wrong in Freddy's eyes. Even her unsavoury habit of prospecting for earwax with a hairpin weighed little with Freddy. She was kind, patient, and encouraging, and Freddy thrived in her care. If Miss Wickham said a thing, then it must be so.
Under her gentle treatment Freddy rapidly grew in self-confidence, and his artistic talent was allowed to flourish. He turned out many promising pictures, all of them with a strange plasticity that gave vivid life to his work.
Freddy had a well-rooted propensity to tell lies when in trouble"Please, miss. It wasn't me, miss!"but invariably Miss Wickham treated his peccadilloes with an affectionate pat on the head and her oft-repeated dictum, "Tell the truth and shame the Devil."
Freddy's only experience of the Devil was when his beloved Uncle George had gone to a fancy-dress ball. Freddy remembered that night very well. It was just going dark when there was a knock on the front door. His mum answered it and gave a sharp scream. And then, "Oh, it's you, you soft clown. I might have known. Well, come in and let's have a look."
Uncle George had taken off his hat to startle mum. Now he unfastened his long mackintosh and held it open. "How's this for Old Nick?" he'd said, and later Freddy had been intrigued by mum's explanation.
One day in school the children were asked to make a picture of a relative, and Freddy thought of his uncle. And then he thought of his uncle as Old Nick. And then he thought of Miss Wickham's catch phrase "Tell the truth and shame the Devil."
The resulting portrait excited a great deal of comment, and Miss Wickham's statement became even more firmly rooted in Freddy's mind. Here was a fellow with a pointed black beard and moustache, dressed in red Long Johns with a pink balaclava on his head. Out of the balaclava protruded two rather limp horns, and a drooping pointed tail snaked out from his bottom. Instinctively, Freddy had succeeded with the eyes. His happy use of a plus and minus sign coupled with the general limpness of the whole body made for a very interesting picture. It created quite a sensation. Miss Wickham had to hide a smile.
Then came the art exhibition in which all the class competed for a prize, a shiny black tin of watercolour cakes complete with brush, palette, and colouring book. Freddy was in his element. Taking his battered tin of broken pastels, he retired to a corner and was soon hard at work on his favourite topic: castles. They appealed to his sense of order and gave him a feeling of security.
After a short while he produced a perfectly symmetrical fortification, with a round tower at each end and a gate complete with portcullis in the middle. He took particular care with the battlements and placed a flag on each turret, again perfectly symmetrical (Freddy had no truck with wind direction). The rigidity of the subject was offset by his inability to draw straight lines; there was a surrealistic quality about the picture. He added a central sun and a pair of symmetrical woolly clouds and then sat back, well satisfied.
Miss Wickham had worked out a system of judging that seemed to work very well. The children came to the front of the class in three groups of ten and held up their pictures. The best three from each group were chosen by the class, and then the final nine were judged again.
At last, only three children remained at the front of the classand Freddy was one of them. The rest of the class voted once again, and each semifinalist received nine votes. There was great excitement.
One of the other pictures belonged to a boy called Billy Forster, Freddys best friend. Billy had drawn a steamship with numerous decks and four funnels that belched out lots of black smoke.
The third picture had been drawn by a little girl called Dora, Billys cousin, who had been born with a malformed left hand. The class had long become used to seeing a shiny red stump with no fingers, and it was no longer remarkable, either to them or to Dora. She had drawn a vase of pretty flowers with very thick brown stems.
Then Miss Wickham made a tactical error. She invited the three children to vote. Billy voted for Freddy, and Dora voted for Billy. So Freddy and Billy each had ten votes and Dora had nine.
And then .
"Which picture do you think's best, Freddy?" Miss Wickham asked fondly.
And Freddy, in a clear, confident voice, answered, "Please miss, mine?"
In the silence that followed, Miss Wickham's fond expression changed to one of disappointment. "Freddy!" she murmured reproachfully, "That's not very nice. I'm surprised at you. Think of other people's feelings. Pride comes before a fall, you know."
Freddy understood nothing of that. He thought for a moment and then said, "Please miss, do you mean I mustnt always tell the truth? I was shaming the Devil, like you said."
Miss Wickham didn't look at Freddy, and busied herself collecting the pictures. "That's not what I meant," she sighed, lifting her eyes to heaven in self-reproach. "Freddy, dear. Come to me at playtime and I'll try to make you understand."
The fact that Freddy won the competition did nothing to ease his dismay. On that distant day in 1928, Miss Wickham lost a child's trust and a favourite maxim. As for Freddy, he received his first lesson in something called diplomacy, but could still only equate it with downright lies. Grown-ups were so hard to understand.
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.