THE LESSON • by Avis Hickman-Gibb

I was six years old when I was branded a thief.

You understand that I don’t mean literally branded — I escaped that! I mean I was caught red-handed with stolen goods. There was no doubt but I was guilty. I was caught stealing a sherbet dab — for a dare by some older lads. And I ended up in the local police station, miserable: sitting on a wooden bench to one side of the sergeant’s desk, waiting for my mam to come. I remember looking down to hide my shame — watching my legs dangling above the dirty floor. My tears plopped dark, fat circles in the dust.

After the rare scalping I’d been treated to by that sergeant, I fully expected to be saying goodbye to her, not going home for supper. I was surely marked for the local Home for Delinquent Boys; they would straighten me out for certain, he’d told me. I remember hoping desperately that she would bring my old teddy; I’d never get to sleep without him. Maybe I’d be allowed to visit home sometimes — if I behaved myself and stayed out of further trouble? Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.

I vividly recall sitting on that hard, shiny wooden seat — eyes swollen with the tears I’d cried, my frame racked by a harsh sobbing I couldn’t stop. Would my mam remember me? Or would I fade from her memory? Would she forget that I liked chips, and chocolate, and a cuddle when it thundered? I sat there frozen, wretched — my teeth chattering uncontrollably. When mam did turn up, she swept one look at me, then glared ferociously at that sergeant, and without a word she took me gently by the hand and led me home. I can honestly say I’ve never in my life been as thankful as at that moment. Ever.

A bit drastic for the size of the crime? Well, as that sergeant told me then, you can’t be soft on first timers, you know. You might only have that one chance to make the lesson stick. Ask any bad ‘un, they’ll tell you that — straight.

I’m eighty-five now, and thinking back — y’know, that brand did stick? On the inside, where nobody but me could see it. And no matter how hard I’ve tried over the years, I could never fully wash it away.

It’s funny what you pick up when you’re six. It’s even funnier what you can lose.

Avis Hickman-Gibb lives in a small market town in Suffolk, England. She lives with her husband, son and two cats. She is the only female in the house and it makes her feel so special.

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