A few hundred miles south, on the downs outside Brighton, the Cracksman family was gathered around a much-scarred table in Grandma’s enormous kitchen. Everyone cradled a huge mug of viciously strong tea.
“So. What’s the plan?” Jim Cracksman senior dunked a ginger biscuit in his tea.
“Well. I ain’t happy with that school,” Jim junior growled. “How they can mislay a child and not notice…”
“We aren’t surprised,” Cy spoke for the twins. “It used to be a really good school, but the new head teacher don’t have any time for Pikeys. She wants them all out.”
“Even though more than half her roll are Cracksman kids?”
“Even though,” Matt shook his head. “She is that prejudiced, and that stupid. We was about to talk to you about finding some place else for the little men. Couldn’t you talk big school into classes for younger kids?”
“Probably could,” Jim senior scratched his armpit. “But is it that bad?”
Charlie raised his head from his tea mug.
“It is. It don’t bother me. But it has been getting to Bill. He tries to protect me, coz I’m little. But I’m tougher than him. Ask Dad.”
Jim cuffed him lovingly.
“Yeah. I had to get Charlie here to promise not to tell the head teacher to fuck off.’
“But what’s her problem with a five-year-old boy?” Grandma Cracksman sounded deeply annoyed.
“Oh. I expect it’s because he is so clever,” Patsy said. “It gets on my tits at times. And I’m his mother.”
“Even so. She has a duty of care. And she failed.”
“She did. She and the staff in charge of this exchange trip. Six staff and twelve kids. They should’ve noticed Bill was missing. And they should’ve checked.”
“But they never. Though we do have one question. How did the stupid little sod let himself get took? I mean, he knows better…”
“They didn’t entice him,” Jim said in a voice of deep disgust. “They used violence.”
But he’s only seven,” Cy expostulated. “The bastards.”
“Oh indeed,” Patsy agreed. “You may as well know. They treated him very roughly indeed, and it was about to get much worse. Fortunately, the cavalry arrived on time.”
There was a suspicious crack in her voice and one tear ran down her cheek.
Charlie reached over and touched his mother’s hand. His own, round, brown eyes filled with tears.
“Poor Bill. But he’s OK now, isn’t he?”
“Yes little man, he’s fine. He’s currently having a whale of a time with Uncle Rod.”
“He is,” Jim agreed. “But you lot will have to tread carefully with him. No taking the piss if he’s a bit wobbly.”
Four boys spoke as one. “We won’t.”
“Good. Now there are decisions to make. Doctor Sam recommends that we keep Bill out of school until September. By my reckoning, that means you all have the choice of what to do between now and September yourselves. Hands up anyone who wants to stay in school.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody raised a hand.
“Right,” Patsy grinned at her brood. “That’s about what me and your Dad thought would happen. So. Jamie. Anna tells us you’d like to spend some time in Silicon Valley with a group of people who are designing the next generation of software. And she’s willing to arrange it if you want.”
Jamie didn’t say a word, but his eyes shone, and he nodded vigorously. His father laughed.
“Okay. That’s a goer. Now then Matt and Cy. You’ve been angling for the States too. The ranch in Montana. You want?”
Cy gulped, and Matt actually laid his head on the kitchen table. Their grandmother stroked Matt’s head and patted Cy on his cheek.
“If I get on to your aunt and uncle this afternoon, we can maybe get you away by the end of the week. Give you three months with the horses…”
Neither twin could find his voice, and little Charlie spoke for all the rest of the family when he looked aghast at his brothers.
“Bugger me,” he said reverently.
Patsy tapped him gently on the head.
“Language. But I do know what you mean. We’ve dealt with your brothers. Now tell us what you want to do with your free time?”
“What’s Bill doing?”
“Mostly being at home. I guess. Though Uncle Rod is taking him to Shetland to see twenty-four hour daylight. Apparently Bill is fascinated by the idea.”
“I am too. Do you think they’d take me along?”
“I’m sure they would.”
“I’d like that. And also I’d like to be at home with you and Daddy and Bill.”
“Then we’ll make it happen.”
Jim senior shared a look with his son.
“I think I’d better visit the little men’s head teacher. Today. I feel the fear of God coming up. Then we’ll go bully the other school into classes for smaller kids. Surely there’s enough of them at small school to make it worthwhile.”
“Only one problem,” Jamie said. “Big school is fee paying. How many of the extended family can afford school fees?”
Jim senior smiled.
“Not a problem. I think the company can afford an education fund. Remind me to ask Anna if it’s tax deductible.”
Grandma smiled at the assembled company.
“Right. Drink your tea you lot, there’s puppies need feeding, and arrangements need making.”
“Mine’s gone,” Charlie piped up. “I can do puppies if somebody gets the food down for me.”
“Good man,” Jamie grinned. “Shall we do it together?”
They went out and Patsy looked a question at her mother-in-law.
“They’ll be fine. Charlie helped me yesterday and he’ll remember exactly who had what.”
“I guess he will. That child’s brain is positively frightening. Where does it come from?”
“Oh. You and Jim are so thick ain’t you?” Jim senior laughed. “Just let him get on with his work, the rest of us have stuff to do don’t we?”
Jim junior’s phone rung.
“Geordie Jackson. That could be ominous. Hi Geordie. Oh? Well bugger me.” Then he listened for quite a long time. “Why’d she do that? Oh. I see. I guess. You’ll let me know? Right. Pass on my thanks.”
He ended the call, looking troubled.
“Twins. Would you mind buggering off? Go help with the puppies for a while.”
The twins got up without a word of argument, and left.
When they had shut the door behind them he opened and shut his mouth a couple of times.
“Out with it, boy,” his mother said firmly.
“The gentleman with the plans for Bill is currently enjoying a taste of his own medicine. Mairead MacDonald in Edinburgh got to hear what he was up to, and took exception. She intends sending him back to his boss in a body bag. But not until they find out how long he can survive the treatment he planned for Bill.”
“She is doing what?” Jim senior said. “Why? I mean… I know why. But. She could get herself in serious trouble.”
“She don’t care. It seems she has cancer. Inoperable and terminal. So…”
“So indeed. I can see why you didn’t want the gruesome twosome to listen. Even they could be traumatised by that.” Patsy took her husband’s hand and held it.
“What are you finding it impossible to spit out, Jim?”
He looked at her and then hid his face in her hair for a moment. He stood up and his face and voice hardened.
“They were going to rape him.”
For a moment nobody moved or spoke, then Jim senior’s mug shattered as he threw it viciously against the wall.
“Bastards,” he growled.
All the bones in Patsy’s face stood out against her fair skin, and she seemed to be struggling for breath. She pulled herself together with a visible effort.
“But it didn’t happen. The cavalry got there in time. Thank God. The cavalry got there in time.”