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Teaching Alfred a Lesson
By Robert Dando

“Well, you have certainly gone too far this time, Alfred, my boy,” his father said, sternly. “Just wait there a moment.” He scribbled some words on a note of paper, and then folded it, and handed it to Alfred. “Take that note along to the police station, and give it to the sergeant at the desk,” he said. “And don't you dare peek at it on your way there. The sergeant will know for sure if you have”.

Disconsolately, with his heart in his mouth, and not knowing what the immediate future might have in store for him (though he was fearing the worst) Alfred left the house and shuffled along the dismal East End street. (Back then, in the year 1905, it was even more dismal than it would be now.) In an attempt to delay the fateful moment, he tried to drag out his journey as long as he could, by walking as slowly as possible. But finally, and inevitably, he came to the police station. Tremulously, he walked up the steps, made his way inside, and went over to the main counter. Hearing him approaching, the desk sergeant looked up from some work that he had been in the middle of.

“Hello, and what brings you here, young Alfred?” he asked.

“P-please, sergeant, my dad told me to g-give you this,” Alfred stammered, and handed him the note.

“Oh yes” said the sergeant. “And what might all this be about, then?”

He took the sheet of paper from Alfred's shaking hand, unfolded it, and started to read it. It gave all the details of Alfred's misdeed, and it ended with the words: 'Teach him a lesson, sergeant. Lock him in one of the cells for five minutes.'

“Oh, so you've been misbehaving, have you, Alfred? Well, just you come along with me, my lad.” And so saying, the sergeant took a large bunch of keys from his desk, and walked along the corridor to the cells. He beckoned to Alfred to follow him. The boy did so, very, very reluctantly. The keys were jangling ominously.

The sergeant stopped at the first cell, where he unlocked the door, and then, with a nod of his head, he told Alfred to go inside. In fear and trembling, the boy obeyed. The sergeant said: “This is what we do to naughty boys”, and with that, he slammed shut the door. It made a resounding clang. The sound seemed to echo in Alfred's head, even after it had actually stopped.

For Alfred, the time crawled. The seconds seemed to pass with agonising slowness. It is a characteristic of time that it always crawls when you want it to fly, and vice versa.

If only Alfred had known before he had entered the cell—if only the sergeant had been considerate enough to tell him—that he would be in there for five minutes, and no longer, then perhaps it might not have been such a terrifying experience for him as it was. But unfortunately, he did not have the comfort of that foreknowledge. For all he knew at the time, he was going to be in the cell for hours. And at the time, it seemed to him like hours.

He noticed that high up, on one of the walls, there was a small barred window, that let in a tiny amount of daylight. If only, he thought, he was able to look out of that window, it would be a tangible connection with the outside world—an outside world that already seemed to be part of some remote, distant dream. It was almost as if his whole life, right up to that point, had consisted of his cell and nothing else.

He went up to the window, but unfortunately, the window was too high up for him to see out of. He tried standing on tiptoe, but that didn't do any good. Then he jumped. He was hoping to get a momentary glimpse, however short, of the outside, during his brief moment in mid-air. But that didn't work, either. The window was too high up. He jumped again. This time, he was hoping to grab hold of the bars and hold on to them, so that he could haul himself up to the window. But that ended in failure, as well. True, his hands did make momentary contact with the bars, but he wasn't able to retain hold of them, with the result that he dropped back down to the floor again.

Giving that up as a bad job, he went over to the door. If he couldn't see any of the outside world, then he could at least try to hear something of it. So accordingly, he put his ear to the door. But unfortunately, the door was so think that he couldn't hear anything that was going on outside—he couldn't hear anything at all.

It was at this point that his loneliness, misery and fear finally overcome him, and he burst into tears. 'Oh please, someone, open that door,' he thought. He promised to himself that if only that door was opened and he was let out, then he would never, never, never, repeat the transgression that had landed him in the cell—and he would never commit any other transgression, for that matter…

It may be difficult, now, to gauge the exact effect that his imprisonment had on him, but it is a matter of public record that it left him with a lifelong fear of being locked up. And it also left him with a lifelong fear of policemen.

At the end of those five minutes, surely the longest five minutes of his life, the door was unlocked again. The sergeant was standing in the doorway.

“Well, Alfred, have you learned the error of your ways, then? And are you going to behave yourself from now on?” he asked.

Alfred nodded dumbly. It was all that he was able to do. He seemed to be totally incapable of speaking.

“All right, you can run along now.”

Alfred didn't need to be given that instruction twice. He was only too glad to obey it.

“And” the sergeant added, “just let that be a lesson to you, young Hitchcock.”

By Robert Dando