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  • Writer's picturesamuel butchart

The Bell

For as long as I can remember, I have always been a worrier. The first time I really worried about something – the first Big Worry – was when the bell rang on the morning of my first day at school. I had not been briefed about the bell, so had no idea what it meant, still less what to do when it rang.

If it had been your first day at school as well, you would not have noticed a small boy, standing alone in a forgotten area of the playground, watching with a look of panic on his face as the entire school rose into the air and, with one movement, began swarming towards the main building. The boy saw before him a mass of starlings, shuffling back and forth like a cloud of black sand in the sky. This great mass broke into several sub-masses, each one, a kind of terrible organism, moving as though with one body, one mind, towards some unknown destination.

This bizarre spectacle appeared so rehearsed, so choreographed to him. How did they know, all the other kids, what the bell meant, and what to do when it rang, and why had no one told him? The only thing he knew for sure was that by continuing to stand there motionless he was doing something very wrong, and that this had surely to reflect something invidious about his character, some flaw or moral weakness that he would have to strenuously apologise for at the first opportunity.

He stood, utterly paralysed by his own ignorance, and watched desperately as the last of the children peeled away from him and disappeared indoors, leaving him by himself in the playground. He was, suddenly, for the first time in his life, alone – radically alone – and the world had never before seemed to him a greater or more treacherous wilderness.

Don’t worry, the boy told myself. Just stay calm. If you think carefully about it, you can surely work out the mystery of the bell. Then you can take the right action and find your way out of here.

But it was too late – he was worried. Very worried.

He heard footsteps approaching from behind. A grownup – a woman – appeared and asked him what he was doing. He explained to her his problem, that he hadn't been told about the bell. He said that he thought it probably meant that he should go somewhere, but he just didn’t know where. Then he asked her what she thought he should do. To his surprise she smiled, as though she were about to laugh, took him by the hand and said, "Come on."

The woman guided the boy to one of the buildings, the same one that his mum had brought him to earlier that morning. As they walked, he said to the woman, "You don't think I'm a bad person, do you? I swear I didn't know about the bell. Nobody told me. How could I know? How could I know?" The woman just kept smiling, led him inside the building and into a room. "This one's yours," she said to another woman. "Ah, there he is. Thank you, Janine," replied the second woman. "Come here, Thomas."

Here we go, he thought. Now I’m in trouble. Luckily I already have my explanation and my apology ready. "Listen, I’m sorry," he began, "I didn't know about the bell…" But she wasn't really listening. Like the first woman, she just smiled at him, said, "Here," and filled his arms with a stack of colourful paper.

He shuffled away with a nagging sense of irresolution and sat on the floor next to a boy with freckles who he had never met before. "Hello," he said. The boy didn't reply. Then he leaned close to him and said quietly: "Hey, you know before, outside, in the playground – what was all that about?" The boy turned to him, opened his mouth and showed him the colourful paper and the glue he had put inside it. He turned away, disgusted, and asked the little girl on his other side: "Excuse me, do you know what the bell means?" She shrugged without looking at him, hardly listening as she tried to get a grip on the plastic scissors in her little doll hand. Jesus, he thought. I can't seem to get a right answer out of anyone.

Later, the boy's mother picked him up and he asked her about the bell. She said plainly that it meant recess was over and that he had to go back to his classroom. "Of course," he said. "I was just supposed to know that, was I?"

Anyway. I stopped worrying about the school bell a long time ago. After that first day, whenever it rang, I simply rose into the air and fluttered away to class with the rest of the kids. However, now I'm a man, I worry about other things, other things nobody has told me about yet.

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