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The Punishment

A Short Story by
Paul England

Giggling and laughing, the three small girls climbed into the car. Lee, their elder brother, stood watching from the door of the house with his grandmother.

Lee's parents were taking the children to the beach. Lee was not going with them.

As a punishment for his misbehaviour that morning he was to remain at home with his grandmother.

"It's no good smacking him," mother was always saying. "You knock in more devils than you knock out."

Father had agreed, as usual. He always seemed to agree with mother.

"It's better to deprive him of something he really enjoys. I know he wanted to go fishing today. We'll go to the beach and Lee can stay at home and do his homework," he said.

Lee pulled a wry face when he was told. It was expected of him. He had to be seen to suffer. It was true that he wanted to go fishing. That's what holidays are for. But he did not want to go with his sisters.

To Lee's way of thinking girls were silly, and he always seemed to get into trouble when they were around.

Like this morning, Lee thought. He had got up early, while his sisters were still in bed. In the garden he had found a lizard sunning itself, half-asleep. Then he had taken it into the girl's bedroom and put it on the bed. For all the screaming and noise those silly girls had made, it could have been a snake, instead of a harmless lizard.

They were always giggling and making a noise, and they couldn't do anything properly. The last time he had gone fishing with them he had spent most of his time putting worms on their hooks. They dare not pick up a worm. Lee had even put one in his mouth once, just to show them how harmless worms were, but Mary was sick. He had got a clout from his father that time, and his mother had called him ' a little monster '.

When one of the girls caught a fish, Lee had to take it off the hook. The last time he had gone fishing with them they had tangled their lines with his. He had not enjoyed it one bit. He liked to go fishing with his father, but not his sisters.

He watched his mother fussing around in the boot of the car, making sure everything was packed, while his father tapped the steering wheel in frustration. It was always the same. Mother spent more time messing about getting ready for a trip than was necessary.

Lee complained about being left with his grandmother, but his parents were adamant.

"Bad behaviour has to be punished," said father.

Better not overdo the complaining, Lee thought. Mum and Dad may relent and decide he could go to the beach after all.

Finally the car moved off, but a hundred yards down the road it stopped. Lee's heart missed a beat, as he thought his parents had changed their mind at the last minute. He need not have worried. Mother had decided she wanted something out of the boot of the car. The car started up again when mother had got back in, and was soon out of sight.

"Come on, Lee, you have to do your homework," said grandmother.

"Do I have to, Grandma?" Lee knew what the answer would be. Grandmother was no different to his parents.

"Yes you do. If you had not been so naughty this morning you could have gone to the beach with the others."

"Very well, Grandma, I'll do it in my bedroom," said Lee, knowing full well that his grandmother would prefer him to serve his punishment where she could see him. The bedroom was a long way from the kitchen, where the old lady spent most of her time.

"I think I'd prefer to have you where I can keep an eye on you," said Grandmother. "Granddad's old study is the quietest room in the house. Do your homework in there."

"Oh, Grandma, do I have to?" Lee complained. But secretly he was glad that the study had been proposed. He had been wondering how he could suggest it without arousing suspicion. "It's so dark in there, and it frightens me."

"There's nothing in there to be afraid of, and the quicker you finish your homework the sooner you can leave the study. Now run along and get your books."

Lee went to his bedroom complaining volubly. From the look of satisfaction on the old lady's face, she seemed pleased that the boy's punishment was not going to quite as easy as he thought it would be. She appeared to be satisfied that she was in charge of the situation, being able to watch the study from the kitchen. Her grandson was as mischievous as any small boy, but she would make sure he spent as least three hours at his homework.

Lee returned with an armful of books, still complaining. Grandmother held the study door open, and closed it behind him when he was inside.

The room was dark, lit only by the sunlight that filtered through the grapevine on the patio roof outside. When grandfather was alive he had taken Lee in there sometimes, and showed him books and pictures and other wonderful things. That was several years ago, and since the old man passed away the study had remained closed.

Lee remembered some of the books he had been shown, and had often wanted to look in the room since. But for reasons best known to his parents and grandmother the room was out of bounds to children. Now he had three hours to explore. He cleared a space on the big desk by the window and put the books down. The room smelled of books and old paper. There were cupboards and drawers, rows of shelves stacked with volumes and manuscripts. Prints of old masters hung on the walls with out of date calendars. Grandfather never threw anything out.

Lee remembered his grandfather reading a book to him a long time ago. It was a big book, red, and it had lots of pictures. One particular picture he recalled was of a fish. A big specimen pike, with a small boy standing beside it.

"Lee, you're very quiet in there. What are you doing?" called grandmother from the kitchen.

"I'm studying, Grandma, and I can't concentrate if you keep calling me." Lee thought about the answer he had just given. It was true enough; he was studying, although not his homework. That could come later. There was not much to do anyway.

The gloomy study began to take on an air of an Aladdin's cave, to Lee. There was so much to find, so many treasures to discover. In an old rosewood box he found an ancient set of drawing instruments. Not plastic or cheap chromium like the ones he used at school. These were solid brass, and heavy. He took a compass from the box. It felt good in his hand. I wonder what Grandad used them for, he thought.

Further investigation uncovered a small brown jar with a screwtop lid. It was very heavy for a jar, and the lid was tight. After putting his handkerchief on top, to get a better grip, he removed the lid and found the jar contained old coins. Pennies and halfpennies, farthings and sixpences, many green with age. Some coins that Lee had never heard of.

There were pencils and inkpens, erasers, paper clips and rubber bands. Note pads, old diaries, typewriter ribbons and sheets of notepaper half filled with Granddad's stylish scribble. Almost everywhere he looked in the dusty room, some little article would attract his interest. And every item fitted perfectly into the picture Lee had formed in his mind, of his grandfather.

Lee remembered sitting on the old man's knee in the study. He was very young then, and had not even started school. He recalled his grandfather's soft white hair and coarse beard. The room had the same smell after all these years, a sort of a tweedy, musty smell, not unpleasant. And pipe tobacco, yes, he remembered Granddad's pipe and the sweet pungent tobacco smell.

He could almost feel his grandfather in the room with him, hear the clicking of the typewriter and see the blue tobacco haze. What was his name? Lee could not remember. He had always called him Granddad, but Grandma had a special name for him.

Suddenly he saw the book he had been looking for. A big, red, tattered volume on one of the top shelves. He moved a chair close to the shelves and stood on it. He could just reach the book, but it was heavy. Carefully easing it out from the other books that held it, he took the weight and got down.

The book was a Boys' Own Annual. Lee opened the cover and read on the flyleaf, 'Presented to Vernon Bartrum for good attendance at Burbank Sunday School during 1915'. That was his name, of course, Vernon. It had been so long since he had heard his grandmother use it. 1915 was a long time ago, I wonder how old Granddad was then, he thought. It was difficult to imagine the white haired old man as a young boy. Perhaps I'll get old one day, just like Granddad.

Then he found the picture he remembered so well. For a long time he sat and looked at the pike. Those needle sharp teeth in the long, wicked looking mouth.

Imagine trying to take a hook out of those jaws, he thought.

The outing to the beach had not turned out quite as expected. Lee's mother and sisters had got sunburned, father had stepped on some glass and cut his foot, then on the way home the car had broken down. Lee sat silent as he listened to his mother relate the problems and discomfort they had all endured to Grandma.

"Has Lee behaved himself today?" father asked, when mother had finally finished her tale of woe.

"He's been as quiet as a mouse all day," said grandmother. "Takes after his grandfather, does that one. Vernon used to lock himself away for hours in that study. I even had to remind him when it was time to eat."

Lee said nothing. He was imagining himself sitting by a stream with his grandfather, fishing. That pike in the book must have weighed at least ten kilos. How it would have fought. He could see the float diving under the surface, and feel the tug on the line. Then the rod top bending almost double as he tried to stop the pike running for the weeds. He saw himself gradually playing the big fish into clear water, then bringing it to the bank where Granddad gaffed it and brought it ashore.

"Did you finish your homework, Lee?" said mother.

"Yes, Mother."

"Good. I hope this punishment has been a lesson to you," said father sternly.

"Yes, Father," said Lee. And he meant it. It had been a good day.



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