Peter: The Beginning of Strange Things
“Covent Garden. I’m sure it’s Covent Garden,” whispered Connor, a sixteen-year-old boy from Westminster.
“No, no, no,” replied his brother, Frank. “It’s definitely Canon Street,”
“Shut up, both of you. It’s Trafalgar Square, and that's the end of it,” said Henry, a bulky boy that had gained a reputation for being the most unkind and unintelligent student in London.
The term bully to describe Henry was an understatement. By lunchtime most days, he had already harassed half of his class, and was already thinking of something rude and disrespectful to say during his daily talk with the principle.
“We’ll get off the train with him at Embankment and keep him back until the platform is empty. Then, we strike,” said Henry, and Connor and Frank nodded in excitement.
Henry’s two companions weren't as big as he was, but they were always up for a fight, especially the ones in which they outnumbered their opponent. The three boys were students of Aldersgate Ward School of London and were dressed in its smart school uniform; black shoes and trouser below the waist, with a white shirt and stripy loose tie above it. As per usual, the London district line was busy with workers and soldiers, but on Friday afternoon, it was almost impossible to move. In the crowd of people, Henry and his friends stared at Peter, a student at Aldersgate in the year below. Henry clenched his fist and a vein popped out of his forehead.
“Are you alright?” Connor asked him.
“I’m fine,” replied Henry as the train came to a stop. “I’m just fed up with his good boy act.”
Henry didn’t know Peter too well, but he knew enough to warrant a good beating up or two. He never failed to remind him that he was in the year below, and that teachers and nurses at Aldersgate couldn’t protect him forever.
Peter Norrington was sitting comfortably on a wooden chair by the carriage door. He was a short, scrawny boy of fifteen who had untidy light brown hair, deep blue eyes and a smile that was difficult to forget. His uniform was slightly scruffier than his fellow students in the carriage, and his school bag was torn in places that forced pieces of paper and the corners of textbooks to stick out from the side. His shirt was mud stained and untucked, and there were blotches of blood on his collar. His eyes were drawn to the other end of the carriage where Henry and his friends were sitting. At first, he tried to pretend he hadn’t seen them, but the growing redness in his face gave it away. Peter averted his eyes, rose up sharply and squeezed his way to the middle of the train.
“He’s gone,” said Frank, pulling at Henry’s sleeve.
At once, Henry stood up and surveyed the carriage. He forced a little boy out of his seat, so he could stand on it. He started scanning people’s faces and spotted Peter nudged in between two tall soldiers close to the emergency exit.
“I see him,” said Henry, stepping down. “Right, Frank, you grab Norrington’s bag and get his English paper for us to copy. Connor, you hold his arms back, that way I can get a few easy punches in.”
Peter was more nervous than usual when the train stopped at Embankment station a few minutes later. He was ejected out the door and onto the crowded platform.
‘Mind the gap!’ announced a conductor as the train refilled with passengers. Peter was walking toward to the ‘Way out’ sign when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Give us your paper Norrington.”
Peter turned around and lifted his eyes at the sullen voice. Henry loomed over him, thick of neck and red of face, with two of his friends behind him. He knew Connor, the ugly one with a posh voice, but had forgotten the name of the third. Peter hardly ever spoke to any of them, if he could help it. They were terrible students at Aldersgate School, brutes and bullies, without a shred on honour between them.
“Leave me alone,” replied Peter as the train pulled away.
Henry waited for the platform to empty before responding.
“You’ve already written your English essay, haven’t you?” he said when they were alone, pulling Peter in closer by the scruff of his neck.
Peter looked at Henry’s friends who were both a head taller than he was, but they didn’t scare him.
“Give it here!” Connor said. “Or we’ll break your arm.”
“Try,” interjected Peter.
He reached for a book inside his jacket, but Connor grabbed for his arm and twisted it behind his back.
“You make us look bad,” Frank said sharply, as he unzipped Peters’ school bag and started rummaging through the papers.
Connor jerked Peter’s arm upward on him, hard. Pain lanced though him, but he would not cry out.
“Little Norrington can take a hit,” said Henry, before swinging his fist at Peter’s stomach.
The wind inside his lungs escaped him, and he started coughing frantically. He raised his arm to retaliate but Henry caught it and bent it backwards. Peter grunted, and his face reddened even more as he cradled his hand.
“Have you found it?” Henry asked.
Frank had emptied the school bag and there were notebooks scattered across the ground while pieces of paper floated dangerously close to the metal train tracks. He handed Henry two pieces of paper from the front pocket and looked pleased with himself. Henry read from the top of the page.
“The theme of violence in Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet,” he said, his eyes bright with amusement. “How fitting.”
“Piss off,” said Peter with a voice like a hard edge.
Henry stepped close. “Norrington’s got a mouth on him,” he said. “Do you think your dead parents would want you to talk like that?” He and his friends laughed.
Then, Peter started to twist like an eel and he slammed a heel down across the instep of Connon holding his arms. There was a sudden cry of pain, and he was free. Peter clenched his fist and swung at Connor’s face, who stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. Then he flew at Henry, knocked him over a bench, and landed on his chest with both hands on his throat. Sweat trickled down his forehead as he pressed the attack. Connor and Frank pulled him off, throwing him roughly against the brick wall. Henry rose and began to kick at him. Peter was rolling away from the blows when a booming voice echoed throughout the platform.
“OI! STOP IT!”
Henry, Frank and Connor turned to the other end of the station where people had started to witness the commotion. A conductor was rushing forward with a whistle in his mouth and blowing hard.
“C’mon let’s go,” said Frank urgently, dashing down the platform.
Henry picked up the English paper and looked down at Peter. He drew a deep breath and allowed himself a moment to savour the victory.
When Peter opened his eyes again, Henry and his friends were gone, and he was surrounded by two conductors and a dozen Londoners. A few were picking up his books and giving them to a soldier who was collecting it all.
“Are you alright son?” asked the conductor gently.
Peter’s arm was throbbing, and it hurt to breath, but he nodded anyways.
“Those boys don’t act their age,” said the soldier, handing Peter his school bag. “There you go mate.”
“Thank you,” replied Peter, smiling at everyone boarding the train.
His frail and beaten appearance drew looks of sorrow and concern from the passengers as the train pulled away. Peter sat on a bench organizing his things and thought of all the impossible ways in which he could rewrite his English essay in time for tomorrow’s class. Then he looked at his watch, realized what time it was and limped towards the ‘Way out’ sign.
Somewhere, up high, the sun shimmered down on the great city, but the light was obscured by the ethereal veil of fog. Peter walked out onto Trafalgar Square, and there was not a hint of green anywhere. The buildings were dropped in the new-fallen snow, and much of Nelson’s Column was hidden in the grey of the clouds. Lining the streets were the charcoal outlines of winter trees with icicles hanging from the barren boughs. Lampposts glowed in the living darkness, coating the alleys and streets with a faint yellow light that pierced through the fog. The air was thick, and silent, and people walked briskly.
“Blasted fog,” exclaimed a policeman to his fellow officer. “It arrived so suddenly this afternoon. Can you believe it?”
Peter loosened his tie a little and ran across the street, narrowly missing a black taxi driving at high speed.
In the square, in front of one of the four lions he saw a long queue of men. They were all waiting to sign their names at the army recruitment desks manned by a group of soldiers in uniform. The desks were clustered with documents and pens, but there was a radio playing cheerful music in the background. Peter chuckled when he realized the men in queue looked identical. They were all physically well built, tall, clean shaven, with serious expressions on their faces that looked like they were ready for war. Scattered across the square were posters of King George the sixth reading, ‘Your Country Needs You,’ accompanied by paintings of the battlefields of France and Belgium depicting a victorious Britain. However, there was a particular sign that caught Peter’s eye. It rested against the statue of Henry Havelock and on it were just three words, ‘Astrasia Needs You!’
At first glance, Peter assumed Astrasia was an allied foreign country he had never heard of. He turned his attention to the street for a moment, and when he looked back at the sign, the word Astrasia had been replaced with ‘England.’ Peter blinked and spent a minute staring only at the sign, but it never changed. He scratched his head, thought nothing more of it and looked back at the queue.
He had heard stories of boys even younger than him lying to the recruitment officers about their age. He knew people as young as thirteen currently preparing for their medical tests, and that made him jealous. He wanted the honour and respect that came with serving his country as much as they did.
“I’m going to join,” Peter thought as the clanging bells of Big Ben echoed throughout London.
Convincing himself he had just turned eighteen, Peter started walking to the end of the queue in his scruffy school uniform. He removed his school tie, fixed his hair and straightened his back to appear older. He eyed a group of soldiers and caught a few words of what they had to say.
“Cologne was bombed last night, did you hear?”
“Churchill’s been told to expect a German raid later this week. He’ll make the announcement later today.”
Peter stopped dead. Fear flooded him. He looked back at the soldiers as if to ask them about it but decided not to.
A familiar voice was calling his name. He looked over his shoulder and saw Miss. Primrose on the other side of the street, waving at him. She was the owner and operator of Primrose Cafe, a very successful London business that sold the sweetest buns in all of Britain. A few years ago, Peter had gone around central London asking for work, and Miss. Primrose had offered him a cleaning job in her new Cafe. She was a kind old woman, with long grey hair and a hunched back. She always wore great long dresses often patterned with bright coloured flowers which Peter found amusing.
“You’re late,” Miss. Primrose said sharply.
A few men in the crowd laughed and cheered as Peter dashed across the street.
“How did you get that bruise?” she asked, gently grazing the side of his head which was slightly red.
“I fell,” Peter mumbled, avoiding her eyes.
Miss. Primrose nodded and looked back at the recruitment desk. “You shouldn’t be over there.”
“I was just looking,” said Peter.
“You don’t ever want to go to war,” she said ferociously. “My younger brother fought in the great war, and what a shame that was.”
“What happened?” asked Peter, following Miss. Primrose down a street towards the River Thames.
“Well, my brother was in the army you see,” she began, pausing to wave at someone she knew across the street. “He was barely five and a half feet and hadn’t even started shaving before he enlisted. It drove my parents mad, but he just kept telling them he wanted to join his friends in France.”
Peter glanced up at a union jack flag hanging from an open window across the street.
“He was a fast learner and was good at following orders without question,” she continued. “But that wasn’t enough, and in January nineteen seventeen, he was killed in battle. When they buried him, he was no more than twenty years old.”
Miss. Primrose stopped to dab her teary eyes with a cloth, but Peter’s attention was drawn back to the union jack, which had gone. In its place was a flag he had never seen before. It was dark beige, and stitched onto it was a shielded crest, crossed with a bow and sword in the exact middle. Surrounding it were words written in a language Peter didn’t understand.
“Do you see that?” said Peter, drawing Miss. Primrose’s attention to the mysterious flag.
By the time she had neatly folded her cloth into her handbag and looked up, the crest had vanished, and the flag was back in Britain’s red, white and blue colours.
“What are you talking about?” she said, frowning.
“The flag changed, just now!” claimed Peter.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Miss Primrose, leading him up the steps to the tiny cafe which huddled despondently among the London buildings.
In the summer and spring, the patio was usually clustered with chairs and round tables topped with bright flowers, but today it was empty and wet. Through the window Peter could see the warm and cheery interior, with bright lights and colourful walls. He stepped inside, and the cold breeze was forgotten. In the corner of the dining area was a small counter topped with menus, kettles and a display of cakes, rolls, muffins and buns. The daily soup specials were written on a chalkboard above the kitchen door.
“It’s quiet,” said Miss. Primrose, removing her coat and handing it to Peter. “Looks like you can leave early today.”
Peter nodded and headed for the closet. After he had hung up Miss. Primrose’s frock coat, he reached for a wooden broom and began sweeping the floor. He meandered his way within the maze of tables, narrowly avoiding customers shoes and briefcases. It was when he began clearing tables that he saw it. Right there, on the front page of the Daily Express, under the train times to Manchester was a picture of himself. He was dressed in a strange sports uniform and in mid celebration. On his shoulders and elbows were protective pads, and he wore a shirt with the number four on it. He scratched the picture to make sure it wasn’t a drawing, but it was pure ink. Peter felt unsettled, so he focused on his breathing for a moment, took and seat and read the article at the bottom of the page.
‘Today, Peter Norrington had an unexpected visitor. Turn the page to read more.’
Peter quickly turned the page and continued reading, but his eyes met a map of Scotland and the weather predictions for the upcoming week. When he turned back the page to see his picture again, it had gone. A weather map of England had taken its place, and there was no mention of him anywhere across the articles. Peter slowly set the newspaper on the table, and after a glass of water, he concluded that he was severely unwell. He approached the counter where Miss. Primrose was busy serving a man a slice of carrot cake.
“Yes, what is it Peter?” she asked.
Peter cleared his throat and said, “I’m not very well.”
Miss. Primrose took her bony little hand and gently pressed it against his forehead.
“You’re a little warm,” she said, handing him a dirty washing cloth from under the counter. “I just need you to clean the kitchen a little before you go. It shouldn’t take too long.”
Peter found it extremely difficult to focus on cleaning plates while his mind played tricks on him. When he finished work an hour later, he was in such a daze that he bumped into someone just walking out of the cafe.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, as the tall man stumbled forwards.
“No worries mate,” he replied.
It was a few seconds before Peter realized that the man was a soldier in uniform. On his lapel was a line of ribbons and silver medals awarded for bravery in battle. His wrists were covered in bandages, and a scar crossed his left eye to where his right ear used to be. Peter got the feeling that he had just returned from somewhere dangerous.
“Where did you get those medals?” he asked.
“Here in London,” replied the soldier in his strong Scottish accent. “I just got back from France.”
Peter could hear the sound of a dozen spitfire engines just beyond the clouds flying south.
“What’s it like?” he asked.
“The war?” replied the soldier, lighting a cigarette, and Peter nodded.
“If you’re lucky enough to survive it, nothing beats the thrill of coming home. But when you’re there on the front, with a gun in your hand and blood on your face, everything good in the world is a like lost dream.”
The silence that followed was broken by Miss. Primrose handing Peter his school bag which he had forgotten in the cafe.
“You fancy having your own medals?” the soldier asked before blowing smoke.
“Maybe one day,” replied Peter, smiling at the thought of serving Britain alongside his fellow countrymen.
“We’ll if you’re of age, the recruitment desk if just over there,” the soldier told him, pointing towards Trafalgar Square. “You could have a medical by the end of the week.”
In that moment, two Chelsea pensioners in bright red uniform walked past. Peter caught what one of them was saying.
“And I told him, right there and then, Peter, do not sign up for war, it’s a mistake.”
The other pensioner nodded in agreement, and a strange alarm bell starting ringing in Peter’s head. For a short while he stared at the pensioners, thinking it all over in his mind. He watched them closely as they walked into the cafe and ordered a coffee. Was that message meant for him?
“Fancy one?” said the soldier, offering Peter a cigarette.
Peter took a step back and tightened the straps of his school bag.
“I’ve got to go,” he said.
The soldier smiled and had the last puff of his cigarette. Meanwhile Peter rushed to Embankment station with a million questions exploding in his head like fireworks.
Fortunately, he had managed to settle his mind on his journey back to Aldersgate School, and he came to the decision that he wasn’t ready to join the army. The thought of gaining a serious injury, or even worse, being killed made his insides curl. His current worries ranged from getting to class early and handing in assignments on time. There’d be no way he’d be able to hop straight into battle and ‘finish off the Jerry's,’ as one of his teachers put it. The plays of Shakespeare, mathematical equations, science experiments, and the occasional theatre performance were his current focus. ‘Leave the killing and nursing of soldiers to grown men and women’ he thought, as he hopped off the train.
It was when he walked past the school courtyard that he noticed something peculiar; a sunflower that seemed to be moving on its own. For a second, Peter didn’t realize what he had seen, so he jerked his head around for another look. There was a tall sunflower tucked in-between the bushes, but it made no movement at all. Was he imagining things? It was probably just a trick of the fog. When Peter reached the front doors, he looked back again, and now saw a sunflower and long tulip shaking and swaying in tandem like a dance. He rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath and entered the school.
Peter stopped at the toilet to wash his face, but when he could see his corridor creeping around the corner, he stopped and stood rooted on the spot. Principle Foxwell was standing there in front of his bedroom door, watching students whisper to each other as they walked past.
What despicable thing had he done? Only once before had he been requested by the principles, and that was for always being late to physics class, his least favourite subject. Had he forgotten to hand in a recent assignment? Had one of his roommates finally made a complaint about the messy state of his bed? Or perhaps, worst of all, had Henry and his friends lied and told everyone that it was he who started the fight in the station?
Peter bit his tongue and rounded the corner. “Principle Foxwell,” he said, his heart sinking.
“Ah, there you are,” replied John.
Peter had never ever seen Principle Foxwell or his wife in a cheerful mood, so it was quite odd to see him with a smile on his face.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
Principle Foxwell opened the door to his bedroom and gave him a pat on the back. Peter swallowed and stepped inside.