|......It was bitterly cold; an icy wind whistled along the road and rattled the tall iron gates. The congregation of mothers waiting outside were huddled together in tight groups, as much for warmth and comfort as for companionship. The hum of various conversations merged into a gentle babble as each group chatted together.|
......"Shouldn't be too long before they let them out," said one woman, separating herself from her friends to peer through the gates at the blackened stone of the old school buildings, through the windows of which she could just make out the bent heads of children working at their desks. She shivered as the wind chased a flurry of dead leaves around the empty playground.
......"I can't cope with this cold weather, the sooner I get back in the warm the better. I just hope my Hugo hasn't been kept in detention again; I had to wait an extra hour for him yesterday, and it was freezing. He's turning into a proper little devil, bless him."
......"What's he been doing this time, Mrs Knight?" asked one of her companions.
......"Oh, the usual: tormenting the other kids and tempting them into mischief. Still, it's all good practice for when he grows up, I suppose. All the same, he's a real handful, and no mistake."
......"Yes, they're such a worry at that age, aren't they?" sympathised the other woman in a melodic voice, " My Lilith is just as bad. She's just starting to notice boys; she can charm them already. I'm going to have to keep my eye on her, I don't want a horde of mesmerised males hanging round my door - well, no more than usual, anyway," she added, sweeping back her long blonde hair from her bewitchingly beautiful face, her deep blues eyes twinkling suggestively.
......This exchange set up a chorus of concurrence from others in the gathering; as if competing to claim the most mischievous offspring, more mothers interjected with accounts of their own child's misdoings.
......"My Boris has taken to playing truant," said one fragile-looking woman with an alarming skin condition, "He's developed a tendency for digging things up. They caught him in the graveyard of all places last week - you wouldn't believe some of the things he brings home with him." She shrugged carefully, as if afraid she might fall apart, "But, what can you do? Kids will experiment."
......"Yes, I know what you mean," agreed another. "Mine certainly likes to experiment; I almost wish we hadn't bought him that chemistry set. I couldn't begin to describe the thing he made the other day. Mind you, he's top of his class in science and biology," she amended proudly.
......A wizened little woman with a long nose, standing nearby seemed to take umbrage at this, "Oh, I don't know about that. My Gertrude is pretty nifty when it comes to brewing up mixtures and concoctions. A real chip off the old block, she is. I do wish she'd remember to use the right ingredients, though; they had to evacuate the class, last time. Her teacher tells me they still haven't got rid of the smell and the affects of it are still showing on a couple of her classmates. Still, she has to learn."
......"I have to watch my Karl very closely," lamented a rather hirsute woman, "Especially around this time. I feed him well, but he just can't resist a little something between meals. They're forever telling him off for eating in class, and he's such a messy eater." She looked a little furtive, "I'm sure I don't know where he gets his little snacks from ... but I don't think he takes anything from the other children." When none of her companions reacted to this, she appeared slightly relieved and carried on, "And, you wouldn't believe it, but he's already started shaving - and he's only eight. My husband is always complaining about him using his razor."
......"They're always picking on my Nick because he's so small," commented a diminutive woman with a squeaky voice, " He always gives as good as he gets, though. The little imp."
......"It's the other way round with Gustaf," said her neighbour, who towered above her," If he wasn't so big, he'd have a lot of problems. As it is, he gets so upset when they laugh at him behind his back. It's not his fault he looks ... well ... different."
......"The problem with my Ursula is that she has started to change," said a voice whose owner it was difficult to determine, "I swear I don't know who she is, these days - and neither do her teachers. One minute she's this, the next she's that, then, before you know where you are, she's the other. It's so confusing."
......"Kids, eh?" remarked a very slim woman with a scaly skin, in a sibilant voice, her narrow, yellowish eyes glittering," You bring them into the world and they repay you with grief. What annoys me is this having to meet them. In my day, you could go to school on your own with no worries. Now, though, it's not safe to let them out alone."
......"Yes," agreed a striking woman dressed in a long black cape, "There's all sorts of dangers on the streets nowadays." She continued, her unusually long incisors making her speech difficult to follow, "I don't know what the world's coming to."
......She was interrupted by the loud ringing of a bell, followed closely by the banging of desks and doors. All the mothers turned to the gates, as they swung slowly open with a grating creak. The air filled with chattering voices and laughter as crowds of children piled out of the school, their footsteps echoing around the playground as they raced to the gates.
......"Ah, here they are at last," said the large-toothed woman, "and there's my Victor, looking like he's ready for his supper," as an equally toothy, sallow-faced boy ran towards her and into her arms.
......"Hello, son, and what have you been learning about today?" she asked, affectionately.
......"Oh, boring old stuff about garlic and crucifixes. Why can't they teach us about interesting things, like blood types and bats?" he moaned.
......" Yes, I know your lessons might seem a bit tedious, my boy, but you'll find as you get older they'll stand you in good stead, so you listen closely to your teachers." Smoothing back his slick, black hair and tucking him warmly into his cloak, she went on, "Now, hurry along; it will soon be dawn, and we must get home before the sun comes up. I've got a nice juicy steak for you, very rare, just the way you like it"
......Behind them, the school gates clanged hollowly shut. Above them, a notice board hanging on rusty iron chains, swung in the wind:
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