Ever taken part in a police line-up? Me neither. But an incident at school came close once.
Across the road from the main gates, the chairman of the governors had a grocery shop and one sweltering day some lunchtime chancer pinched a melon and a couple of pomegranates. The fruit and veg counter was outside the shop and I’d often been tempted myself but never had the nerve.
Presumably, the spoils were divided and scoffed by the thief and others before the afternoon school bell went because no trace was ever found and a melon’s not the sort of thing you can shove in a satchel and hope it won’t get noticed.
We knew something was wrong when the bell went again half way through the first lesson. It wasn’t a fire drill: one short burst meant we had to assemble in the hall.
It didn’t happen often, but when it did it usually meant someone was in for a caning.
The headmaster’s regime was firm, occasionally violent and usually just. Six of the best across an offender’s hand was all it took to make sure most of us didn’t transgress.
On this occasion, the girls were sent back to class and the boys hung around nervously, hoping for the best, expecting the worst. And sweating.
We didn’t have to wait long.
The headmaster arrived with the chairman of the governors and from the stage we were briefed about the Case of the Missing Melon.
The thief had apparently been spotted hotfooting it away with his booty and his blazer was all the evidence needed to point the finger at one of us.
We were lectured about telling the truth and schoolboy honour and given the chance to come clean. For a minute that lasted several hours we studied our shoes. Looking innocent is a knack, but it’s not easy when your adolescent hormones are in overdrive. The blush factor kicks in with everything from a smile by the girl you’ve been having forbidden dreams about to a hug from your mum in front of sniggering pals.
No one confessed, so we were lined up while the wronged grocer strutted his stuff, squinting accusingly at each of us in turn.
We looked straight ahead. And sweated.
It was agony waiting for him to reach me and when he did the game was up. I knew he knew it was me and I was all set to confess.
Then he moved on.
Strange thing, guilt. It can make you a quivering wreck even when you’re innocent.
The culprit was never fingered, but every boy in the hall grudgingly shared the blame and we were detained during the headmaster’s pleasure which meant an hour after school while he lectured us again and we considered the error of our collective ways.
We each came out sporting a halo. As miscarriages of justice go, it was no great shakes, but the air of injured innocence it generated hung around us for days afterwards.
It tasted good.
Infinitely sweeter than a slice of melon.