‘Your Dad and me have to talk to you,' his mum said a few days before his fourteenth birthday.
‘What's up Mum?' he asked cheerfully, expecting her to ask him to do a few extra chores. William was still suffering from very poor health and now he was almost three, he needed extra medicine and even the occasional doctor's visit. ‘We'll wait for your Dad. Now, have you done your homework?'
‘No. Just going to do it.' He stared at his mother. Usually, she tried to get him to do anything, rather than suggest homework. ‘Oh, Mrs Draper's asked me round again, by the way. On Friday. Is it OK?'
‘We'll have to see, son,' Frances replied. She looked upset but took a breath and snapped at him in her usual way. After tea that evening, William was put to bed and Archie sat down between his solemn faced parents.
‘This is hard for me to say, Archie. You must have realised things have got much tougher lately. The thing is, I've been taken off night shifts. The colliery's going on to short time now the war's over. The night shift is the first to be cut back. They've tried to make it fair and cut everyone's time so they don't have to sack too many but it means that we're going to be very strapped for cash.'
‘I see. Maybe I could get some more errands?'
‘It's more serious than that lad,' his mother said.'We need more than few pennies.'
‘How d'ya mean?'
‘I'm sorry but there's nowt for it but you leavin' that posh school you're so fond of.' The words came out in a rush and Archie almost failed to understand. ‘I'm sorry lad. So very sorry,' Dad said. ‘I know how much it means to you.'
‘What d'ya mean? I'll have to stop going to school for ever?'
‘I'm afraid so,' Ralph replied.
‘It was never a good idea in the first place,' Frances snapped. ‘I was always against it. Giving you ideas that you're summat special. Better than the rest of us. You start work Monday.'
‘On Monday?' Archie echoed. ‘Next Monday.'
‘Aye lad,' his Dad said gently. ‘Mr Copestake's come up with a job for you. Don't worry, you won't have to go down the pit. It's on the surface. You'll be working in the office. I told him you've got a real feel for numbers and he's going to give you a chance to help the clerks out. It won't pay much but it'll make up the difference between what I was getting and my wages after the cut backs.'
‘But Dad. Mum. I can't work at the pit. I just can't.
Everything's so black there. The air's grey and so are the people. Everything's dirty and…' The boy's voice failed him. All his dreams of working in the china factory, were disappearing. His visions of beautiful things to lighten their drab, grey lives were vanishing.
‘Don't talk rubbish, boy,' Mother said roughly. ‘Your Father's worked there all his life and he doesn't complain. Besides, the pot banks are hardly clean, are they? Just 'ave to look at the smoke pouring out of them kilns. Filthy places.'
‘I didn't do very well in maths this term,' Archie lied rebelliously. ‘I doubt I'd be any good at working in the offices.' He scrubbed fiercely at his eyes, trying to stop the tears from streaming down. He bit hard at his knuckles. His Mother would pour scorn on him if he broke down now.
‘I'm sorry son. I've really let you down, haven't I?' Archie looked hard at him as his Father spoke. The kindly man looked as if he were about to burst into tears as well. Poor Ralph. He'd always tried so hard to keep his first son at school and his efforts had failed.
‘'S'all right,' he managed to stammer. ‘But I'd still like to go to the Draper's on Friday.' With that, he turned and ran upstairs to the small, cold room he shared with his little brother. He stared at the sleeping toddler and cursed him. Then he felt very bad. ‘Poor little sod. You didn't ask to be born did you? It isn't your fault if you're always being ill.' He leaned over and gave him a guilty peck on the cheek. Then, fully clad, he lay back on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. It was almost dark. He put his mind to thinking, thinking harder than he had ever done in his life before. He dreaded the next two or three days…his last days at his beloved school. He'd had such high hopes that it would make all the difference. But this wasn't the reality. He must leave it all behind and forget his dreams. At least he'd be spared the unkind taunts and gibes of some of the other boys. Because there were rarely any faults in his work, they found other things to ridicule. The blazer he had worn so proudly was now threadbare. They laughed at his socks which were definitely not regulation but his mother's old stockings, folded down into his shoes. They too were becoming worn out and more than once, he'd padded out the soles with pieces of old card. But he could cope with any amount of derision knowing he was better at most things than they were.