What’s the Time, Henry Wong
Henry Wong was in my class at school, right from primary one until the day it happened. I remember the day we started school, when my mother abandoned me in the middle of the room with a bunch of children I had never met before. Henry was among them of course, but I don’t remember paying much attention to him then. Which is quite funny, when you think about it, considering he looked very different from the rest of us. Well, for a start, he was Chinese of course, which meant his father had to own a local Chinese take-away, which he did.
But not just any old take-away. It was one of the best take-aways I have ever been in. I mean, how many Chinese take-aways do you know where you can actually watch the chefs preparing and cooking the food through a glass wall which lets you see right into the kitchen? That’s what Henry’s old man’s take-away was like. You could order up your meal, and stand and watch while it was cooked in minutes, right in front of your eyes. The cook would pour some oil in the old round-bottomed pan, turn up the heat until it started to smoke, and then throw in the food, stirring it around and turning it over, not letting it touch the pan long enough to burn, and all the time the scraping of the metal spatula on the metal pan, some shouted orders in high-pitched voices, the smoke getting thicker and the flashes of colour as the food was emptied, still spitting, into the metal containers. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you could watch them chopping chickens, or slicing vegetables with the big shiny silver knives which hung in a row on a magnet on the wall.
I had never been in Henry’s place of course, when we first met in the sandpit in the playroom of primary one. That was to come years later, when I had some spare cash from the milk-round. Often on a Sunday night when we were fed up, somebody would suggest going to the “Chinky’s”, an expression which made me feel a bit uneasy in a way that I couldn’t explain, but I reckoned it wasn’t worth making a fuss about it, as the rest of the gang would only have called me a nancy-boy.
As we waited for our chips in curry sauce, I would read the menu to myself as if it were some kind of oriental poetry: hot and sour soup; beef and green peppers in black-bean sauce; aromatic duck with crispy fried noodles; chicken with spring onions in garlic and ginger. For years, I had been warned about going anywhere near the Chinese or Indian carry-out shops by my parents, who believed their own stories of disappearing cats and dodgy curries, preferring, themselves, to stick to a healthier diet of fried sausages, black pudding, eggs and bacon.
At first no-one paid much attention to Henry. He hardly spoke any English, so he hardly spoke at all, and if he didn’t bother any of us, we didn’t bother him. After all, if there was one less person to fight for the best coloured pens, or a place in the dinner queue, then so much the better. Henry survived by keeping quiet, working hard and keeping himself to himself.
When I think about it now, it must have been a lonely existence. I don’t think Henry necessarily saw it that way, though. He seemed happy enough just to be there, as if it was some kind of privilege to be educated, to be in the same building with us. And he was always very polite when the teacher asked him a question, or gave him his instructions, or asked to see his work, which is more than could be said for the rest of us.
As I said, nobody paid much attention to Henry in the beginning, but it wasn’t too long before it became obvious that Henry was different, even to the most unobservant of observers. For a start, he began to grow at an amazing rate, so that by the time we left primary school for the secondary along the road, he was six feet tall, by far the biggest boy in the class, and his trousers, which had fitted him a month before, flapped a couple of inches above the top of his shoes. His hair, as black as the feathers on a crow’s back, seemed to grow up and out in spikes as much as it grew down, and his feet were fixed like the hands of the clock at ten minutes to two, so that when he ran across the playground with his schoolbag strapped to his back, he looked a bit like a frogman in a parachute, who had just taken off his mask and was running to dry his hair.
Running was something which Henry had always done, not in a sporting or athletic kind of way, but just to get from one place to another, as if it was part of his nature, and we would laugh when we saw him, the way you laugh at those clips on the telly of people’s dogs playing football. But it was just around this time, soon after we started secondary school, that I noticed he was beginning to run everywhere. He would run to get to his classes on time, he would run to get into the dining-hall at lunchtime, he would run to be first out of the gate at half-past three. While the rest of us were happy to take our time between classes, and half of the population would take a detour round the back of the PE block for a quick smoke, Henry was racing to his next class, sometimes arriving before the teacher if it was one who couldn’t be bothered to take us and was finding another excuse to be delayed in the staff-room. When we finally caught up with him, there he would be, sitting at his desk with his books out, ready to start the lesson, reading over yesterday’s work, or trying to improve the story he was working on.
In class, Henry was the same as always; doing his homework, minding his own business and trying to get to grips with a crazy language which his classmates were mangling with nonchalant ease. Out of class, I don’t think I ever saw him strike up a conversation with anyone, and I never saw anyone make the effort to talk seriously to him. Which is not to say that he was ignored. Far from it. Everywhere he went people would shout, “Run, Henry, run!” or “Go, Henry!” and I think a lot of the kids really meant it in a friendly kind of way.
But as far as I know, Henry never had any real friends. I would see him in the dining-hall sitting on his own, eating a bowl of soup, the only thing he ever ate, and playing with his Gameboy at the same time. That Gameboy was never out of his hands at breaktimes, and he was a bit of a genius at it; I’ve never known anyone make the kind of scores that he did. Mind you, he did have a love of gadgets, anything electronic. One of his favourite tricks was to synchronise his watch precisely with the school bell so that he could tell to the second when the bell was about to ring, and before too long the rest of the class had latched on to that fact, so that hardly a class would go by without without one or two of us shouting across the room, “What’s the time, Henry?” and he would count down the seconds till the end of the lesson – “Twenty five second…………fifteen second…………..five second……………bell ring now.” And sure enough the bell would ring at precisely that moment, without fail. In the end, some of the teachers were using him as a speaking clock too, to help them time their lessons.
It was pretty obvious however, to anyone with half a brain, which is exactly what most of us had, that life was not wonderful for Henry. Although I never actually witnessed it myself, I did hear stories of him being pushed in the corridors, or of things disappearing from his desk when his back was turned. I once even heard it said that other boys would spit on him from the top of the stairwell, but I liked to think that the stories were exaggerated. And I suppose that’s how the events of that summer term came as a real shock to all of us, even though when you think about it now, they could have been predicted.
Gary Grossman was trouble from the minute he arrived in school, which he did right in the middle of the assembly, strolling in five minutes after the assembly had started. Now, most of us would have sneaked in at the back, and tried to avoid the attentions of Smoothie, the Headteacher, or better still, waited outside until assembly had finished, and then tried to bluff our way back to class and say that the bus was late or the electricity had been cut off, but not the bold GG as he liked to be known. First day in the place and he just waltzes in at the front of the hall as bold as you like and sits himself down in the middle of the assembly, without so much as a by your leave, and I could see old Smoothie nearly losing the plot, but managing to remind himself just in time that he was Mr Cool.
Grossman certainly made an impression that first day, which is exactly what he intended of course. He had been transferred from another school, apparently because his mother’s new boyfriend lived on our side of town, but it was rumoured that he had really been expelled for pushing a teacher into a table when the teacher tried to keep him in after the bell. “The man” himself was in no hurry to deny the rumours, preferring to let them add to his reputation as a hard man, and before long he had gathered around himself a gang of admirers.
Why Grossman should have taken a dislike to Henry is anybody’s guess. It could have been the fact that Henry was tall and he was short. It could have been the colour of Henry’s skin. It could have been the fact that Henry had learned how to cut himself off from the rest of the world. Who knows what petty things can sometimes make a person jealous. What we didn’t know at the time was that one day not long after the first appearance of Gary Grossman, Henry had arrived at his French class ahead of the teacher, to find our new student emptying the contents of her purse into his pocket and stuffing the purse back into the desk drawer. What was said between them, and what deals were done, will remain a secret, but you can bet that even though Henry didn’t grass him in, and Mme Oublier probably wouldn’t have known who did it but for what was to happen later, it had probably sealed Henry’s fate.
Just round about that time, there was a definite change in Henry, which is easy to spot now, looking back on it. He seemed to withdraw more into himself, and when we shouted across the room , “What’s the time, Henry?” he became agitated and said nothing, as if he was annoyed at us for asking. Nothing could have prepared us though for what was to happen on that summer’s day in the final week of the term.
Lying in wait before the start of the first lesson after lunch, the craft room gave Grossman the perfect cover, with big solid benches to hide behind, and he knew that Henry would be first to arrive, as usual.
By the time we turned into the doorway, we knew that something was seriously wrong. There was Henry standing with his hands over his ears, looking down at Gary Grossman, who was lying folded up on the floor, holding his arm or his side as if to hold in the blood and stop it running out between his fingers. The funny thing was, although he was moving, and making faces like he was in real pain, he wasn’t making a sound. Lying right beside him was a long, shiny, silver knife and the broken pieces of Henry’s watch.
We never did get to find out what really happened that afternoon, and there are only two people who will ever know. That was the last I ever saw of Henry. Some people said that he was locked up, or that he was smuggled out of the country by big-time gangsters, but I know for a fact that he’s now training to be a doctor in Hong Kong. As for Gary, he came back to school after a couple of months, but this time his entrance was less dramatic. His reputation had grown, in a funny kind of way, but I don’t think that was really what he was after any more.