Greenheys School 2, Moss Side, 1965
There had been nothing else on the telly for ages, not even cartoons. Just fuzzy black and white pictures of men in white suits, hopping about on a beach of grey sand and black rocks.
'I wanna be an astronaut when I grow up,' said Gary. Everyone laughed, because no one from Greenheys School ever became an astronaut or anything on the telly, even if Mr Boyle said. Mr Boyle was the headmaster. He came about two years ago. He looked like Ken Barlow, only he had a mole on his left cheek. Mr Clark, the old headmaster, had died during the summer. He got married whilst on holiday and had a heart attack on his wedding night. So for three glorious weeks Greenheys was headmaster-free. Mrs Lodge, the deputy, didn't like to use the cane, so life was a riot until Mr Boyle arrived. He was kicked out of his last school after he hung a third year with his own shoelaces for chewing a Bazooka Joe in class, Carl said. So when Mr Boyle revealed his new plans for the school, no one laughed or made fun, not even the teachers.
And now, two years later, with a choir that sang carols at Manchester Cathedral, an orchestra of xylophones, glockenspiels and tambourines that brought the house down at the inter-school music festival at the Free Trade Hall and the annual Christmas party to Belle Vue Circus, James was sure of one thing: he didn't like Mr Boyle. They even had an assembly for Martin Luther King. Everyone sang 'We Shall Overcome' all day, and Mr Boyle had tears in his eyes, but James couldn't see why. How could he give you the slipper for fighting one minute, then blubber like a baby the next?
James didn't like Mr Boyle, but he hated Miss Young, really hated Miss Young. She hated him too. He knew, because she'd said so. 'He will not do as he's told, Mrs Phillips,' she said to Mum, even though Mr Mackenzie wanted thirty Playtex bras done before five o'clock. 'Just because he's in the school orchestra he thinks he's mister high and mighty. I hear you're moving house, Mrs Phillips. Ashton-under-Lyne, James says. You must be very pleased.'
Mum went to see Mr Boyle afterwards but she didn't tell James. She gave him a bob for fish'n'chips instead.
So by the time of the men on the moon, the whole school was well prepared. Firstly, all classes would stop at the sound of the bell. Then, one by one, starting from the first years up to the fourth years, each class would line up in the hall. And on Mr Boyle's whistle, everyone would sit down in silence.
'And I mean silence, or it's back to class and a spelling test for everyone, do I make myself clear?'
'Yes Mister Boyalle.'
Then he would nod to Miss Ryan to switch on the telly at the front of the hall. Greenheys Girls never lost a rounders match that year and the football team won five-nil in the schools' final. Still, no one from Greenheys would ever become an astronaut, even if Mr Boyle said over and over again.
When singing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' the right way to say iron was eye-ron eye-ron eye-ron. Mr Boyle made you practise over and over again until you had nightmares. He would clap his hands and stamp his feet until the floorboards shook.
'No one is leaving this room until everyone gets it right.'
They had to wait for Michael, and he did get it right eventually, but not until tears and snot ran down his face, and Cynthia was sent for a box of tissues from the staff room. By the time of the concert at Manchester Cathedral they'd got it so right they could have made a record. But they didn't. They didn't have their picture taken for the Manchester Evening News either. Mr Boyle had insisted. 'No,' he told the reporter, and everyone was really disappointed, but no one said.
Mr Boyle had killed a pupil by shouting so loud her eardrums burst and water poured out, Cynthia said. Despite this, he allowed James to stay home to take care of Mum as she lay moaning in bed after the holiday of a lifetime to the West Indies. When she got better, James was allowed to go on the school trip to Chester Zoo without paying. Mr Boyle also caned James for fighting with Michael on the back seat of the coach. So when James returned to school for the very last time before they moved to Ashton-under-Lyne, Mr Boyle said: 'I think it's for the best in the long run, Mrs Phillips. I try very hard, but there's only so much I can do.' Which James didn't understand one bit. When he saw Mrs Rowbottom, his teacher in the infants, through the window of another class, she waved to him, and he waved back, even though he would never forgive her for getting married when she was Miss Mather, the greatest teacher in the world.
Anything else and it would be dead boring, sitting cross-legged on freezing cold floorboards with teachers along the side to block all possible routes of escape. You couldn't understand what they said either. Just bleeps, scratches and James Burke getting overexcited. And when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon, James could have sworn he was going back up the ladder.
Still, it was better than lessons, any day.
(Forever and ever amen, pages 129 to 132)