“Examination Day”By Henry Slesar
The Jordans never spoke of the exam, not until their son, Dickie, was twelve years old. It was on his birthday that Mrs Jordan first mentioned the subject in his presence, and the anxious manner of her speech caused her husband to answer sharply.
‘Forget about it,’ he said. ‘He’ll do all right.’
They were at breakfast table, and the boy looked up from his plate curiously. He was an alert-eyed youngster with flat blond hair and a quick, nervous manner. He didn’t understand what the sudden tension was about, but he did know that today was his birthday, and he wanted harmony above all. Somewhere in the little apartment there were wrapped, beribboned packages waiting to be opened, and in the tiny wall-kitchen something warm and sweet was being prepared in the automatic stove. He wanted the day to be happy, and the moistness of his mother’s eyes, the scowl on his father’s face, spoiled the mood of fluttering expectation with which he had greeted the morning. ‘What exam?’ he asked.
His mother looked at the tablecloth. ‘It’s just a sort of Government Intelligence test they give children at the age of twelve. You’ll be taking it next week. It’s nothing to worry about.’ ‘You mean a test like in school?’
‘Something like that,’ his father said, getting up from the table. ‘Go and read your comics, Dickie.’ The boy rose and wandered towards that part of the living room which had been ‘his’ corner since infancy. He fingered the topmost comic of the stack, but seemed uninterested in the colourful squares of fast-paced action. He wandered towards the window, and peered gloomily at the veil of mist that shrouded the glass. ‘Why did it have to rain today?’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t it rain tomorrow?’ His father, now slumped into an armchair with the Government newspaper rattled the sheets in vexation. ‘Because it just did, that’s all. Rain makes the grass grow.’ ‘Why, Dad?’
‘Because it does, that’s all.’
Dickie puckered his brow. ‘What makes it green, though? The grass?’ ‘Nobody knows,’ his father snapped, then immediately regretted his abruptness. Later in the day, it was birthday time again. His mother beamed as she handed over the gaily-coloured packages, and even his father managed a grin and a rumple-of-the-hair. He kissed his mother and shook hands gravely with his father. Then the birthday cake was brought forth, and the ceremonies concluded. An hour later, seated by the window, he watched the sun force its way between the clouds. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘how far away is the sun?’
‘Five thousand miles,’ his father said.
Dickie sat at the breakfast table and again saw moisture in his mother’s eyes. He didn’t connect her tears with the exam until his father suddenly brought the subject to light again. ‘Well, Dickie,’ he said, with a manly frown, ‘you’ve got an appointment today.’ ‘I know Dad. 1 hope –’
‘Now, it’s nothing to worry about. Thousands of children take this test every day. The Government wants to know how smart you are, Dickie. That’s all there is to it.’ ‘I get good marks in school,’ he said hesitantly.
‘This is different. This is a - special kind of test. They give you this stuff to drink, you see, and then you go into a room where there’s a sort of machine –‘ ‘What stuff to drink?’ Dickie said.
‘It’s nothing. It tastes like peppermint. It’s just to make sure you answer the questions truthfully. Not that the Government thinks you won’t tell the truth, but it makes sure.’ Dickie’s face showed puzzlement, and a touch of fright. He looked at his mother, and she composed her face into a misty smile. ‘Everything will be all right,’ she said.
‘Of course it will,’ his father agreed. ‘You’re a good boy, Dickie; you’ll make out fine. Then we’ll come home and celebrate. All right?’ ‘Yes sir,’ Dickie said.
They entered the Government Educational Building fifteen minutes before the appointed hour. They...