A Plucky One
Little Delia war story
Mrs Busby was never one to mince words. Her views were set. Her opinions well-supported, her arguments intractable.
Delia enjoyed the advantage of being her daughter. Sometimes she enjoyed it too much. For example, if she took two sweets from the grocer’s bin, instead of the one he offered, he said nothing and avoided confrontation-- or so she thought.
What Delia didn’t see was the extra farthing her mother gave him each time, and with a wink too! Mrs Busby was someone who protected her family and wouldn’t back down from her righteous stance. She more often than not left her opponents, female or male, wondering where the ferocity and energy of the diminutive woman came from. Frankly, the women in her village were afraid of incurring her wrath and the men simply avoided her. But this was just from those who didn’t know her well. To the ladies of her church she was the one who could be counted on to get donations from town businesses for the fund-raising silent auctions. She was the one who could cut through the red tape the newest town council threw at them when they wanted to use a vacant lot for the spring’s fun faire.
Delia was eight when her school’s headmaster called her mother to his office.
It was not the first time.
Mrs Busby was sat on the anteroom’s hard oak bench, her gloved hands rested in her lap. Delia sat beside her. All 4 feet dangled, but Mrs Busby’s legs were crossed at the ankle and still. In contrast, Delia’s arms were crossed and her shoulders slouched down whilst her feet twirled imaginary circles in the air. Mrs Busby and her progeny had furrowed brows. Their facades were impenetrable and ready to deflect whatever Mr Hughes, the headmaster, cast at them. Or subsequently whatever Mrs Busby cast at Delia.
Before opening the door, Mr Hughes refilled and relit his pipe, adjusted his robe and cleared his throat. He knew what lay ahead.
“Mrs Busby, Good afternoon. What a pleasure to see you again.”
Mrs Busby arose and turned her head to glare at Delia. “Good afternoon, Mr Hughes”, she replied as she strode into the office.
Mr Hughes was stood to the side of his desk, peering at several framed photographs. He pointed to children in front of Argoid Infant’s school. “Remember this one, Maxine?”
How could she not. He used the same warming-up method each time he had to face her in his office. The first time it was somewhat welcome. A reminder of simpler times. The children sitting and standing on the pews set outside for the photos. Boys in the back two rows, the girls in front. Maxine with the large bow on the back of her head and the light fringe on her forehead. Dylan Hughes standing behind her, with a hand on her shoulder, and a gleam in his eyes that showed through the black and white print and the frame’s smoke-stained glass.
Now, his stance simply served as a marker of his lame attempt at avoiding the obvious. For although little Dylan may have had an early crush on her, the Headmaster was tasked with an uncomfortable enterprise. Mrs Busby was polite, but also a woman of action. Unnecessary delays and inconveniences were sometimes tolerated, but never appreciated.
Pointing to a smaller photo of 4 boys he said, “Our Richard volunteered. We had no idea he’d be the first in the village to go off to fight. He was so sweet to everyone. Not a mean bone in his body. Our Tony is still working the pits at Oakdale. You can see the mischievous glint in his eyes, even at age 6. A right devil, he was. He hasn’t changed much.”
“Mr Hughes, if you please, I would appreciate getting on with the purpose of your 'invitation'?
Clearing his throat, and relighting his pipe, Mr Hughes took his place behind the desk. Pointing the pipe’s mouthpiece towards Mrs Busby, he began. “I’ve had reports from young Mr Jones’ teacher, Miss Turnbull that your Delia, er…, Miss Busby, hit the younger Jones boy in the face with such force that it caused his nose to bleed and nearly knocked him to the ground. His brother says he fell and that his jumper was torn in the process. The poor lad is being seen by Miss Turnbull who is also acting as school nurse. The lad’s father will be here soon.”
“Have you spoken to my daughter about this allegation?”
Mr Hughes’ neck turned red as he responded, “No. I thought it best to wait for your arrival before speaking to her. These facts are quite disconcerting.”
These days there were many women who came to the school without their husbands, the war and long shifts in the mines saw to that. Most mothers who came alone to his office bowed to his rank. None of them wanted to be there; there was too much work to be done at home. It was easier for each side of the desk to resolve matters quickly, albeit often painfully for the children involved.
However, Mrs Busby was not like most mothers. Her presence was greater than her stature and she would not be brushed off or talked down to by apparent authority. She sat tall in the chair, looked steadfastly at Mr Hughes and firmly stated, “I trust, sir, that my daughter will be allowed to explain what happened? Or has that been predetermined and adjudicated without any investigation whatsoever? It appears punishment has been administered. Delia was not comfortable sitting on the bench and I’m supposing that’s due to the eager and sharp hand of one of your staff.”
By this time, little Tom, his brother big Tom, and their father were gathered outside the Headmaster’s office. Little Tom held a grey handkerchief to his nose. His older brother stuck his tongue out at Delia. She ignored him, but Mr Jones popped him in the head with the back of his hand. “If I’m late for my shift there’ll be more of that—and not just a tap on your noggin!”
Mr Jones joined Mrs Busby in the office. He single-handedly rolled a cigarette, snapped his thumb on the match, and lit it. He looked down at Mrs Busby and demanded to know why he had been called. Mrs Busby wondered how much longer this purported tribunal would continue. Mr Hughes told them there were reports little Tom had been punched in the face by a student without provocation. Little Tom had fallen to the ground and torn his jumper in the process.
“Bring in the boy that done this, let’s get this finished, alright.”
Mr Hughes looked perplexed a moment, but addressed the room. “Let’s bring in the children involved and resolve this as expediently as possible.”
Mr Hughes went to the door and said, “Miss Busby, Jones boys, come in now”. Delia bounced from the bench to the floor, but stepped slowly, skidding her feet on the worn lino as she entered the office. The three children stood next to each other, with Delia 3 inches shorter than little Tom and considerably shorter than the elder Tom.
Mr Jones lit another cigarette and firmly addressed his children. “What the bloody ‘ell is the meaning of this?! Are you saying this little scrap of a girl hit my boy and that’s why I’m brought ‘ere…?”
“… Mr Jones, Watch your language, there are women and children present-- If you don’t mind, let’s get to the root of this.” Mr Hughes interjected.
Layers of blue smoke filled the room. Delia stood silently, rubbing her right hand on her side as she brought her left hand up to rub her eyes. The room’s fug causing her eyes to water.
Mr Jones ignored the headmaster’s comment and addressed his boys. “Don’t say stories! You two are stood here, telling me, that this sprout of a girl punched little Tom for no reason?” The boys bounced their heads up and down in agreement. The cigarette waggled from his lips; he cracked his knuckles and he continued “And you’re saying his jumper tore when he fell? That’s what you’ve come up with, is it?”, he harrumphed. Their heads tilted down as they nodded less vigorously than before.
During this portion of the meeting, Mrs Busby appeared to be silent and respectful of the proceedings. Inside however, she wondered how her little girl could have been involved at all with the young ruffians accusing her of assault. Despite wanting to challenge everything being said, she kept quiet, waiting for her turn, but curious what possibly led her daughter to behave in such an unladylike manner, if this were indeed true.
The eyes of the adults in the room turned toward Delia and focused on her right hand, which she was still rubbing on her side. Headmaster Hughes spoke first, “Miss Busby, did you strike young Mr Jones?”
Delia turned toward her mother as if to ask permission before answering. There was no prompt or guidance as her mother watched her. Delia softly replied, “Yes, sir”.
With this meager pronouncement Mr Jones laughed. Not just a chuckle, but a hard belly-jarring laugh at the ludicrousness of the small Welsh miss who had so accurately landed a punch on his youngest son’s nose. Mr Hughes tapped on the desk with his pipe as if he were a judge and the pipe were a gavel whose pounding would bring order to the room. He then further inquired, “Why, Miss Busby, would you strike another student? Did he do something to provoke you?”
Mr Hughes raised his voice and asked, “You’re telling me you hit the younger Jones' boy for no reason?”
Delia bowed her head and made no verbal reply. Her mother, sensing there was more to the story, stood, took Delia’s swelling hand in her own and announced, “We’ll be right back.” With that she took Delia from the room.
With her daughter by her side, Mrs Busby marched through the anteroom and outside the building.
“Tell me what’s going on, girl. Your father and I did not raise you to be violent nor to run from a challenge. What happened?” She bent down to meet her daughter eye to eye. She softly ran her hand through Delia’s brown locks and waited.
It took a few moments of support and silence, but then the words spilled from Delia to her mother. Delia’s lips quivered as she told her mother what instigated these events. Her mother nodded and hugged her daughter.
“You have a good heart my girl. We just need to sort how you show it.”
With that, the Busbys returned to the headmaster’s office. The men looked to Delia, as if waiting for her to explain herself. Instead, Mrs Busby spoke. Her words not unlike a barrister addressing a defendant in the courtroom. “If you please, Mr Hughes, perhaps the boys can explain what they were doing just prior to my daughter striking little Tom.”
Big Tom said he ducked as Delia threw a punch at him with her left hand. “I was too quick” he laughed, as he said she missed him. He added, then she cocked her right hand and hit little Tom.
By this time, Mr Jones was impressed with the young girl’s right hook, but knew something was amiss. He swatted big Tom in the head again and directed little Tom to give up the ghost or suffer the consequences.
“It was Peggy started it, Da. She came over to us and kept pushing her doll in my face. I told her to bugger-off, um, I mean to leave me alone. She wouldn’t. Then her shoe fell off as she walked back. I picked up her shoe. It had a hole in it. I put my finger in the hole. Two fingers fit in the hole, didn’t they Tom?”
He smiled as he continued, “Tom told me to toss him the shoe so I did. He backed up, put his fingers in the hole and twirled the shoe. He held his arm up and told Peggy to come and get it. She kept jumping up but couldn’t reach his hand. It was funny. We laughed. Then Delia ran over and told Tom to stop. He didn’t. He tossed the shoe to me and I held it up. Peggy ran over. Then Robert joined in and we tossed the shoe around. We played ‘piggy in the middle’. It was fun, Da, really it was. Peggy in the middle! Piggy in the middle! Peggy in the middle! Piggy…”
By this time in the story, Mr Jones’ neck was turning red and he exclaimed, “Stop there boy! Back and fore, was it?”
“Aye, but that’s not all tad…” little Tom said as big Tom shot daggers from his eyes to his younger brother and whispered “Babi-lol” his direction.
“Which girl is Peggy?” Mr Jones enquired.
“The fair one, small for her age, strawberry blond. Wears her hair in plaits.” Mr Hughes shared. Mr Jones nodded in recognition.
The town was small, the gossip mill strong, and Mr Jones knew just who Peggy was. She had been at church with her current family going on a few months now. He was no stranger to hard times growing up and recognized those experiences when he first saw Peggy. His work at the colliery was difficult and working at all was subject to the whims of the bosses and owners. Suffering with not enough to eat and no clean clothes, well that was par for the course in a coal miner’s family.
Peggy’s suffering was different but perhaps worse due to the separation from her familiar surroundings and loved ones. Her family sent her alone to the countryside to avoid the blitz in London. She had been shuffled from one extended family to another all around South Wales and was now in Pembrokeshire living with complete strangers, her Welsh family unwilling or unable to take in one more mouth to feed. This was made worse by the loss of her loved ones who stayed in the city. The young girl had been separated from her parents for over a year. She always wore ribbons on her plaits. They were frayed at the ends and had been bright white once, but no more. Like Peggy’s mood and demeanor, they had darkened and had worn out over time.
Mr Jones animatedly took over the room. “Daro. I’ve ‘ad a real bellyful of this, now! This Peggy’s but a dwt, no bigger than a bara-bit, she is! And you picking on them that’s down…”
Gesturing towards Delia he added, “This girl has more sense than the two of you put together. Righting a wrong, she was. Go wait outside you fools. I’ve business to finish in here, I do.”
Delia and Mrs Busby watched in silence as the two boys scurried from the room. Mr Jones looked at Mrs Busby and said, “I hope you won’t be too hard on the girl. She showed some courage out there and in ‘ere. She didn’t spill the beans. Dun you worry none neither. My boys won’t be causing any more trouble with your Delia nor with Peggy. I’ll see to that. Mr Hughes, I’ve got a shift to get to. I’ll take my leave. But take no mind, these boys won’t be any more trouble. I’ll see to that”.
With that, the headmaster nodded his approval and Mr Jones left the room.
Delia remained standing, mouth agape at what had transpired. It looked to her as if she was to be free and clear from any additional punishment. And she hadn’t even needed to tell her side of the story. Her mind buzzed with what had happened. How she had hit someone, told the truth and gotten away with it!?
Mr. Hughes was speaking but what with all the noise in her head, she didn’t hear him. It wasn’t until her mother spoke that she was brought back to the here and now.
“I concur that violence between students is not appropriate behavior. Since the school has already extracted their pound of flesh from my daughter and Mr Jones voiced no objections, I’ll be taking Delia home. Any further discipline will be determined by Mr Busby and me and shall be administered forthwith”.