I cannot remember the offence that had caused me to make the slight, but as far as I was concerned, that is all it was , a slight - but words, like arrows, once loosed are not easily retrieved.
"You Son of a Bitch!" I yelled at the other boy, as our mates crowded around us in the playground.
It was not normally an insult I would have used. I don't think I had used it ever before, and I don't remember using it since. Maybe I had read it in an American comic the day before. In any event, the damage had been done, and the boy - who had, up until that point, been a good friend - demanded satisfaction.
"Nobody calls my Mother a bitch!" he said back, and there was a slight lull in the onlookers as the full import of his reaction was digested, followed by a frantic commotion as they arranged the contest between us that was to settle the matter once and for all.
Within five minutes it had been broadcast to the entire school of 700 pupils that Stephenson and Jennings were to meet on the small patch of rough ground beyond the school gates at 4.30 prompt, in order to have it out with bare fists until one lay on the ground refusing to stand up, hopefully bleeding profusely from the face.
For the rest of the day, sporadic chants of "Bundle! Bundle! Bundle!" rose from various groups on the playing field, like - I imagine - they would have from the expectant crowds in the Amphitheatre in Rome.
The thing was that, unlike the rest of the Irish and Gypsy boys with families of 10 brothers each who went to our school, Jennings and I were hardly fighters. We had no stomach for it, and I suspect we were as much afraid of each other as we were of damaging each other, so when we ran into one another in the corridors that day, we exchanged furtive and worried glances.
At last, the final school bell rang and a large crowd began to assemble outside the main gate. I went to the cloakroom and fetched my coat and bag, and there was Jennings doing exactly the same thing. We both moved very slowly.
I cannot remember who spoke first, but we came to an arrangement. I apologised for calling his mother a bitch, albeit inadvertently, and he apologised for taking it too seriously. Of course, we both realised that there would be a serious loss of face as a result of our arrangement, but since we were not renowned as hard nuts anyway, depriving the others of a gory spectacle would not do any real damage to our reputations in the long-term.
We went through the gates together, and the crowd became almost hysterical with excitement. When we had made our little speech, the chants of "Bundle!" became chants of "Cowards!" and the crowd began to disperse. We let them go on their disappointed way before we split up and made our own way home.
I sometimes wonder in what different direction my life would have gone if I had taken advantage of the situation, and decked Jennings with one sharp blow to the head when he least expected it - just as he was giving his little explanatory speech to the mob.
It might have saved me from the many pummelings I was to receive from all the Irish kids over the next few years, and I doubt if I would be a worse person for it now... there again...