The Unforgotten Coat
Year Six. We had been at school for six years and until that moment I thought I had probably learned all I would ever to learn. I knew how to work out the volume of a cube. I knew who painted the "Sunflowers". I could tell you the history of St. Lucia. I knew about lines of the Tudors, and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day. But in all that time, I had never had a single lesson in eagle-calming. I had never ever heard the subject mentioned. I'd had no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills.
And in that moment, I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings. I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne.
I wanted to talk to the new boy. I wanted to talk about eagles. But Mimi seemed to regard the whole Chingis incident as a minor interruption in the ongoing global cosmetics conversation. Only the boys were interested. At lunchtime, dozens of them crowded round Chingis and Nergui, asking them if they really had eagles, and how big they were, and whether he was a liar or not.
"Where d'you get eagles from, then? Eagles R Us?"
"Everyone has eagles where I come from."
"Where's that, then?"
They poked and pestered little Nergui, who still had his hat pulled right down, hiding his eyes. They kept telling him to make eagle noises. The kid - Nergui - huddled down in his coat, pulled his arms out of his sleeves and crossed them over his chest. His sleeves were flapping loose and he did fully look like a bird.
Then Chingis spotted me over their heads and shouted, "You. You must come and help me."
I don't know what he expected me to do. But I was fully delighted to be asked. I slid past the boys and then turned on them. "All right," I said, "Move on. Haven't you seen a pair of Mongolian brothers before?"
"Well you have now. So move on."
"As if they're Mongolian, anyway." It was Shocky. "Why would they come here from Mongolia? They're probably from Speke."
Everyone agreed that the brothers were probably from Speke and then went back to their footie.
"Please stand still," said Chingis. He moved me back a bit and pulled something out of his bag that looked like an old fashioned radio.
When he pressed a button, it made this whirring sound, the top half shot open and a lens popped out. I know now that it was a Polaroid camera. At the time I think I thought it was some kind of mad, starey cuckoo clock.
"I need a picture," he said. "So I can remember which one you are. You are to be our good guide here. OK?"
Mimi had come over by this point - she could hear a camera being deployed at five hundred metres. We both did our loveliest smiles, and that would be when Shocky and Duncan came over and tried to get into the picture. Almost as soon as Chingis had clicked the button, a strip of paper rolled out of the front of the camera. He peeled off some kind of label, then waved the paper around in the air, and there we all were. Caught for ever. He wrote something on the photo, which I didn't see at the time.
I saw it for the first time today. He'd written, "Our Good Guide."
"You will be our Good Guide," he said. "In Mongolia we are nomads. When we come to a new country, we need to find a good guide. You will be our good guide in this place. Agree?"
Of course I agreed. No one had ever asked me to be anything before, definitely not anything involving a title.
And that was when I stopped thinking about make-up, lips and Shocky.
That was when I started walking round the place thinking, Hi, I'm the Good Guide.
I really did want to be a good guide.
The Unforgotten Coat. Text copyright © 2011 by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
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