Summary: Little Joe has a problem with the new student at school, and Miss Jones proves to be no help whatsoever… but it all leads to what if’s and if only’s in the end.
Rating: G (1,910 words)
Elbow to Elbow
She did not have red hair. Well, most of the class instantly decided that she did but so far as Lucy Allsopp was concerned her hair was NOT red. A coppery gold perhaps, or in her more fanciful moments a rich titian. She had no idea as she stood demurely in front of the class that most of the children there were already sketching her as a little matchstick figure with RED hair.
Sixteen pairs of eyes devoured her as Miss Jones introduced her to the class. She stood hoping that no one would notice that her knees were knocking together and that she had to hold really tightly to her slate and books to stop her hands shaking. She kept her eyes cast down, and waited for Miss Jones’ monologue to come to an end. She knew the class wished Miss Jones would stop talking as there came the distinct sound of shuffling feet and scuffling papers.
“Very well, Lucy, you may go to your seat.” Miss Jones smiled at her new student and with a wave of the hand indicated that Miss Allsopp could join the class.
Joseph Cartwright swallowed hard as he glanced rapidly around the class room. He knew that he had an empty chair beside him and without understanding why he did it, he tried to spread himself over two seats in order to prevent her from taking the seat. It wasn’t that he disliked her, after all, he didn’t know her, but he didn’t want to have her sitting next to him. It wasn’t just the red hair that put him off, but the freckles. He didn’t have anything against freckles, after all he had his fair share of them, but this girl … she was just one mass of freckles.
She paused now in the centre of the aisle, hesitantly looking around her and wondering where to sit. The boy with the thick mop of hair and freckles certainly didn’t seem to want her anywhere near him. She pulled some spectacles from her pocket and carefully placed them on her nose, pulling the thin wires over and behind her ears so that she could see more clearly to the back of the room.
The boy with the thick mop of hair glanced up and stared at her. He had hazel eyes and long lashes, and was really a nice looking boy, but his stubborn line of a mouth and jutting out chin indicated once again that the seat next to him, which he seemed to be trying to claim as his own, was not available.
“Lucy – take your seat so that we can get on with the lesson, please.”
“Yes, Miss Jones.”
There was nothing more to be said, in a flurry she quickly took the first seat that was available, even though the boy tried valiantly to prevent her from doing so.
Realising that nothing was going to prevent her from taking the seat Little Joe edged back into his own, and scowled. He hadn’t meant to be unkind, to make her first day there harder than it already had been, he didn’t want her to think he was mean and selfish, it was just that having her seated by his side was going to present problems. He knew it would, because anyone sitting next to him always produced problems.
So they sat elbow to elbow in the classroom. Little Joe’s elbow would nudge Lucy Allsopps and she would tut and mutter because his elbow would jog her elbow and cause her writing to go squiggly and scratchy. Sometimes Little Joe would tut and mutter beneath his breath because while he was thinking of something to write down she would start writing and jog his elbow and make his writing, when he got down to it, all spidery and untidy. It was just the problem he had anticipated and dreaded.
“Joseph Cartwright” Miss Jones murmured in that sultry voice of hers, “what kind of work do you call this?”
“But, Miss Jones, it ain’t -”
He sighed, and shook his head
“It isn’t my fault, that girl -”
“Yeah, well, she keeps jogging my arm and making me write bad.”
“Nonsense, Joseph, you just aren’t concentrating. A bad workman always blames his tools. Now take this work home tonight and rewrite it all out as it should be done.”
Joe meekly took his scrap of paper and dragged himself back to his desk. It was hardly his fault that he was left handed, and it didn’t exactly make life easy being so either, there were all kinds of problems that came with being left handed, but his Ma had never forced him to change his left to his right, because she believed that this caused more damage than good. Head in hands and staring at his written work Joe wondered whether or not Ma had been right.
When Miss Jones looked at Lucy’s work she shook her head and sighed, obviously she now had two exceptionally untidy pupils offering her appallingly bad written work. When Lucy whined that Joe caused her bad writing because he jogged her she was told not to whine and be more lady like which confused her because she could not see where etiquette came into the question.
Adam Cartwright dismounted from his horse and glanced up and down the street as though to make sure that it was clear for a quick getaway. This was the third time in a week that Miss Jones had summoned him with regard to Joe’s work and general demeanour in class. He adjusted his hat and licked his lips before taking the pathway to the school in long strides and reaching the door just as Miss Jones opened it wide for him to enter into the schoolroom.
Joe sat with his head hung down and his hands listlessly twisting his hat round and round between his fingers. He didn’t look up as Adam approached him, after all he recognised his brother’s footsteps well enough
“What’s he done this time?” Adam asked the school teacher with his hat between his hands, the brim of which he tapped impatiently with his long fingers.
“He’s turning in scrappy work and accusing the new pupil of being the cause.” Abigail’s voice was at its most prim and prissy, and Adam heaved a sigh as he glanced at his little brother, “Miss Allsopp is a very promising student, and his behaviour is having a bad effect on her, a very bad effect.”
“It ain’t -” Joe piped up shrilly.
“Isn’t -” Abigail and Adam retorted which quelled the rebel in Joe who slunk immediately back into his chair.
“I’ve told him,” Abigail folded her hands neatly into her skirts and drew herself ramrod straight, “a bad workman always blames his tools, but it’s not made a blind bit of difference.”
Adam frowned and sighed again, he put out a hand and touched his brother on the shoulder, Joe looked up hopefully,
“C’mon, Joe, let’s go.” Adam’s voice was gentle, he looked at Abigail and nodded, “I’ll get this sorted out, Miss Jones.”
“Er – yes, of course, Abigail.”
They left the building quickly, Adam’s hand on the centre of Joe’s back as though to make sure he moved as fast as he could from the doorway to where the horse was waiting. He then walked with Joe to where he had his pony hitched and when Joe was in the saddle he mounted his own horse, turned its head and with Joe beside him galloped out of town.
“You put me in an awkward position, Joe, every time something happens at school it’s me who has to come bail you out.”
“Ain’t – isn’t – my fault,” Joe cried, “Lucy Allsopp jogs my elbow every time she writes something when I’m writing something. She does it all the time.”
“Dunno” came the sullen reply, “But it always happens when someone comes to sit beside me and -”
“Of course it would -” Adam replied with a scowl, “I’d have thought Miss Jones had enough intelligence to have sorted that problem out for herself.”
“What problem?” Joe bristled, “You calling me a problem?”
“No, just that being left handed creates a problem for you and anyone who sits besides you. You’re left handed and they’re right handed so you’ll always be working elbow to elbow. I’ll write Miss Jones a letter and put forward a suggestion which, if she carries it out, will put the matter right.” he leaned forward and tousled Joe’s thatch of curls, “Don’t worry, little buddy, this will soon be put right.”
Joe grabbed at his hat before it fell off, and then smiled over at his brother. His confidence in Adam’s ability to put matters right with Miss Jones never faltered and with a lighter heart he rode beside his brother whistling tunelessly all the way home.
They sat elbow to elbow in the stagecoach on the way to Sacramento. Her elbow kept brushing against his elbow just as his knocked against hers and when their elbows touched they would look at each other, smile and she would blush and he would sigh and look bemused.
“Funny thing,” Joe thought to himself, “Now that Lucy’s all grown up and looking so pretty like she does I don’t mind how much or how often her elbow bumps into mine.”
“How odd,” Lucy thought to herself, “I never noticed before how handsome Joe had become and I don’t mind in the least that his elbow is bumping mine.”
“Do you remember …” he started to say just as she said “I was just thinking of the time when…”
They laughed together now as they remembered how all it had taken to solve the problem of knocking elbows was to switch seats. It had pleased Miss Jones who had gone a little pink when reading the note containing Adam’s suggestion and even pinker when she found the solution such an easy one to implement. In her eyes Adam had majored with a gold star and was bound for heaven.
It was a long journey to Sacramento by which time it was more than their elbows that were ‘elbow to elbow’ . When they finally arrived at their destination Joe felt a sadness and regret at the thought of her never returning to Virginia City. Even though their paths had separated once they had left school the occasions he had met her in town had always been pleasant, leaving him with thoughts of what could have been and the possibilities of romance. But now he took her elbow very gently in his hand and led her across the main street to where she would be staying, then he looked down at her pretty face,
“I wish I had taken the time to get to know you better, sooner.” he said.
“I wish I had got to know you better too,” she murmured.
He watched as she entered the hotel to be swallowed up by the darkness beyond the door. For a moment he stood there, twisting his hat round and round in his hands, thinking of the times they sat elbow to elbow at school all those years ago.
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