EVEN MORE KADISON


BRAMLEY AND TRICKSON

Bill Bramley and Plod Trickson started at Jepps High on the same day, Trickson because it was an ex-grammar and he was a snob, Bramley because he was skint.

"You’re not one of these union chappies are you?" the Head asked him at interview.

"Not at all," he said

The first thing he did after being appointed was to join the NUT.

Trickson was Head of English, Bramley was his inferior. It was obvious to Bramley as soon as he met him that he was gay. He had no trouble with that. It was equally obvious to Trickson as soon as he met Bramley that he was easy-going. He soon discovered he was a leftie. He went on demonstrations. He was a member of the Anti-Nazi League. He thought Karl Marx a witty writer. Trickson was soon flying around the school in a panic. He thought socialism tantamount to treason. Trickson’s father ran a sweet shop in Rawtenstall. He had made a handy fortune from rotting the teeth of the town’s children. Trickson was his father’s son. The Daily Mail was the household Bible. From his armchair, Trickson senior held forth on every topic under the sun and the less he knew the more categorical he became. Plod soaked it all up and grew into an ultra-conservative, unhappy, repressed homosexual with a 2:1 from Durham. On the mantlepiec his parents had a photo of him in his mortar board and gown. They had no inkling of his sexual longings. Sex was very much in the background of Trickon’s dad’s life. The foreground was all Mars bars, humbugs and profit.

Bramley decided Trickson was a boring fool. He kept him at arm’s length. The days and weeks came and went. Bramley was hoping to find another job. Trickson marched around trying to set the universe to rights, constantly complaining and spying on his colleagues.

It was three weeks from the end of the summer term and the weather was warm and pleasant. Bramley went up to his room to find seven second years.

"Where’s everyone ?"

"On the trip, sir."

He’d forgotten. It was the era and the season of form jollies. In those days before the National Curriculum, league tables and OFSTED, schools were still human enough to allow kids a day a year for fun. 2W had gone to Alton Towers.

"Well, we’re not going to do any English so just amuse yourselves quietly."

They were biddable, friendly pupils. They liked Bramley and weren’t going to cause any difficulty.

"Sir," one of them said, " can we go and watch the cricket ?"

Bramley had no idea. It didn’t interest him. Grown men hurling a hard object at one another’s genitals seemed too Freudian. He was wary because they might be having him on.

"What cricket’s that, Robert ?"

"Staff v sixth-form, sir. We went out to watch it last year."

Bramley wracked his brains to remember if there’d been any announcement. Maybe there was something on the notice board he’d missed .

"Well, to be quite honest, I don’t know if we’re allowed."

"Everyone went out last year, sir."

"Okay. I’ll tell you what. I’ll take you out and we’ll see how the land lies. If there are other people out and it’s clear we can stay, we will. If not, we’ll come back in. Is that okay."

"Sir."

He led his little troupe out to the field. Boys in their cricket whites were sitting on the steps of the pavilion. The game was in full flow, the staff distributed around the field, the Head of P.E. rubbing the ball on his groin, running up to the wicket with a threat of fierce delivery and unleashing a ball the sixth-form batsman whacked easily into the outfield, sending the diminutive, bald R.E. teacher running helplessly. Beyond the boundary were groups of lads sitting or lying on the grass and teachers wearing sunglasses and straw hats, their sleeves rolled up, chatting and enjoying the play. It all had that quasi public school aura which made Bramley nauseous.

"Well, it looks like we’ll be okay. I think we’ll go over there and join Mr Jackson’s group."

Jackson was a young, relaxed teacher so Bramley felt comfortable about asking him. The pupils dutifully followed him around the boundary.

"Sit down here, lads," he said. "Don’t make too much noise."

The boys joined Jackson’s group, sat down, tugged at the grass. Some of them got out cards and began a school. Those who were bored simply took the opportunity to lie on the grass and drift off into their thoughts.

"Are they okay to be out here ?" said Bramley. "I didn’t know the crack."

"Sure. Leave them with my lads, they’ll be fine."

The two chatted idly for a while, turning over the usual complaints.

"Play cricket yourself ?" asked Jackson.

"No. It’s a mystery to me. "

"Me neither. Matter of fact I could do with a fag."

"You go. I’ll stay with this lot."

"Aye. Okay. I’ll only be five minutes. Back of the bike sheds."

Bramley pretended to be taking an interest in the game. The sixth-form batsmen were thrashing the ball all over the ground. Some of the staff were well over fifty. They ran, their backs stiff and their pace hopeless, after shots that were zooming to the boundary like missiles. Bramley looked around at the groups of boys and the staff perched on chairs. He spotted Fran Dally sitting on the grass.

She smiled as he came near, pulled up her knees and wrapped her arms round them.

"Enjoying the game ?" he said.

"Oh yes. And getting my legs brown."

She stretched them out in front of her again. They were pretty legs and she was a pretty woman, which she knew well enough. Bramley stood facing her.

"Cricket is a closed book to me."

"Oh, I like it. It’s exciting."

"Is it ?"

"Oh yes !"

"Where’s the excitement ?"

"In the score."

"What is the score ?"

"Eighty-seven for none."

"Is that good ?"

"No, it’s awful."

"Is it still exciting ?"

"Oh, yes."

"Why ?"

"Because you never know."

"Don’t you?"

"Once they get they openers out the wickets might fall quickly."

"Might they ?"

"Oh yes !"

She sat back, her arms stretched behind her for support and as she pulled up her knees again they parted enough for him to see her white lace knickers. She smiled her sweet little smile and tilted her head.

"I can’t get excited over a cricket score," he said

"Oh, I get really excited !" and she smiled again.

"Yes, I can see that."

She giggled and let her knees open a little again as she stretched her legs out once more crossing them at the ankles. Jackson appeared.

"No need to stay out here then if the game doesn’t interest you. I’ll keep an eye on your lads."

"You sure ?"

"No problem. Go and have a cup of tea, read the paper. This is the time of year to take it easy."

"Okay. I will. Thanks for that. See you."

"See you later !" called Fran and waved.

Bramley went slowly to the staff-room, thinking of Mrs Dally. He had books to mark but fancied a drink and a quick whip through the paper. There was no-one else. He made himself a cup and sat down with the Guardian, thinking of Mrs Dally’s legs. He’d been reading five minutes when Trickson came in. Bramley looked up and noticed his ugly, slightly sneering expression. He turned back to the paper, thinking of Mrs Dally’s lace thong.

"You free ?" said Trickson.

"Eh ?"

"Shouldn’t you be teaching ?"

"Only seven second years, the remnants of 2W. They’re out watching the cricket."

"Unsupervised?!"

"No. Kevin Jackson’s keeping an eye on them."

"There are kids running wild all over this school," muttered Trickson.

"Are there ?" said Bramley.

"It’s ridiculous."

"I didn’t see any trouble," said Bramley. "They were all quiet and well-behaved."

Bramley looked up. Trickson’s eyes had a mad cast, as if he were about to commit an act of violence. He began stomping around the staffroom. He went to his pigeon-hole, pulled out the papers and began to mutter. He lurched to the notice-board read something and exclaimed:

"I can’t believe it !"

Bramley began to feel he was sharing the room with a lunatic. He turned back to the paper hoping Trickson would tire of being ignored and disappear.

"It’s ridiculous !"

But Bramley refused to be drawn. Trickson stormed out as if the place were on fire. Bramley went on trying to read, but Trickson had destroyed his mood. Even the thought of Mrs Dally’s thighs couldn’t dismiss the ill-feeling left by the madman’s antics.

Two days later, Bramley was called in by the Head. Gareth Larding was an ex-public-school, Oxbridge man who was glad to have landed the job at Jepps. There weren’t many places where he could have taken the job as Head, now that most schools were comps. A real comp would have scared him witless. But Jepps was only sort of a comp and its voluntary aided status meant it could keep the tide of egalitarianism at bay. Larding liked to think of himself as a liberal. He’d read John Stuart Mill. He’d listened to The Beatles. He believed the working-class were human beings.

"I believe you were left with only seven second years third period on Tuesday ?"

"That’s right."

"Can I stress the importance of keeping boys under supervision. I appreciate it’s only seven second years and you may have judged them to be well-behaved, but they can’t be left without a teacher."

"They weren’t. I took them out and Kevin Jackson offered to look after them."

Larding narrowed his eyes quizzically. He said nothing. Once more, Bramley felt he was in the presence of a mind from which something essential was missing. Perhaps it was the religion which had driven them all to distraction. Larding was staring at him. What was he supposed to say ?

"They were your responsibility," Larding said finally.

"Of course," said Bramley. "But Kevin was out there with his own group. He was happy to look after my lads. There were plenty of other staff around. Mrs Dally, for instance, was close by."

At once the delightful image of his colleague came into his head. He saw her brown legs, her flimsy knickers, her enticing smile, the darling tilt of her head.

"Yes, but it can create problems if staff don’t stay with their classes."

"I don’t see that there was any difficulty," said Bramley. "They were quiet lads. They just wanted to lie on the grass and play cards."

Larding stared at him. He narrowed his eyes again like an eastern mystic.

"Cards ?"

"Yeah."

"If they go out to watch the cricket, Bill, they must watch the cricket."

Bramley found himself hearing Mrs Dally saying, It’s exciting and Oh yes ! He saw her bring up her knees and flash him her crutch. Did she want to have sex with him ? Was she that brazen ?

"I see."

"The match is traditional. We allow boys to go out but on the strict understanding that they follow the game. It’s disrespectful to the players to have a card school."

Bramley didn’t know what to say. It seemed foolish to suggest the boys were being disrespectful. They were polite and biddable and pleasant. He thought of Trickson. The low sneak had reported him. Of course, he would defend his position by claiming professionalism: it was concern for the well-being of the boys and the school that motivated him. Bramley despised him for concealing his cheap behaviour behind such an excuse. Would he confront him ? He knew how useless it would be. In a different context he would have dealt with him more directly. But the restraints of the professional situation spavined him.

"Sure," he said.

"What are you doing over the holidays ?" Trickson asked him later that day.

"I’m going on an anarchist summer school," he said.

"Eh ?"

"Yes, it’s all free love and learning how to flypost. There are still places if you fancy ?"

" I’m going to America. I’ve booked it all myself."

"How clever of you."

"Eh ? Five-star hotels. Class."

"That’s what the summer school’s about."

"Eh ?"

So the summer came and went and it was deadly September again. Bramley knew he needed to move from Jepps. He wasn’t prepared to compromise his easy-going ways for a modest salary and continuity of employment. He scanned the educational press for jobs. They all asked for "enthusiastic" or "forward-looking" applicants, as if there were hordes of lethargic, regressive would-be teachers about to descend on schools. He applied for a dozen or so but none took up his references.

Trickson was in school at eight every morning and never left before six. He stomped and banged around. He complained that he had too much marking. He whined that no-one worked as hard. He was dismayed by Bramley’s relaxation.

"Have you seen him ? Eh ? Eh ? Have you seen the way he talks to the kids. It’s ridiculous ! It’s an outrage !"

He never missed a chance to undermine Bramley to his colleagues: he was ill-dressed; he never cleaned his shoes; his hair was too long; when did you last see him taking books home ?

But then his car broke down.

He was very proud of his car. He cleaned it every Sunday. He washed it twice and waxed it three times. His garage was full of spays, tubs, canisters: anything that could be applied to the bodywork of a vehicle. It was a BMW and he believed it adequately represented his superiority. Bramley, of course, travelled on public transport. All the same, his brother was a mechanic. Trickson had been brought up to make contacts. His father was in the Masons. He never paid the market rate for anything, though he was a great believer in the market. If a pipe burst, if the carpet was worn, if a window frame began to rot, there was always someone in the lodge who owned a business or knew someone who did. Bramley’s brother was reputed to be good and cheap. When Fran Dolly’s Beetle went on the blink, he fixed it in an hour and made no charge.

"Did he do a good job ?" asked Trickson.

"Oh yes !"

"No problems since ?"

"Not a thing."

"How much did he charge ?"

"Cheap as chips !" she giggled.

Trickson liked to catch people on the hop. He waited till an inappropriate moment and pounced. It was Friday afternoon. Bramley was just about to start teaching a difficult third year. Trickson marched into his classroom like Hitler into Poland.

"I believe your brother’s a mechanic, Bill ?"

"Sorry ?"

The boys were starting to fill the desks. Bramley was sorting out books.

"Your brother. A mechanic. Could you have a word with him ? My car won’t start. You know how much I think of my car," he smiled and leaned close to Bramley as if he might be about to grab his arse.

"He’s very busy," said Bramley. "I asked him to sort out a banger for me months ago and he hasn’t got round to it."

"But mine’s a BMW."

Bramley stopped and looked at Trickson to see if he was serious. He could discover no hint of irony on his face.

"If he could do it. Over the weekend. Cheap. You know. A favour."

Bramley stopped again. He looked Trickson in the eye. The man was utterly in earnest.

"Yes," said Bramley. "Of course. I’ll ring him tonight. I’ll sort it out."

"If you could, please. Sit down, lads."

Trickson strode out.

That evening, Bramley went to see his brother. They didn’t get on. Colin liked to get his hands dirty and thought teaching English a soppy way to earn a living. He was a fervent Man United fan and couldn’t understand why his brother was stolidly unmoved by football. In his teenage years he’d got involved in a bit of football violence and had appeared before the magistrates for smashing a bottle over the balding head of man he thought was a rival fan but who turned out to be a fishmonger making a delivery to the ground. Bill had called him a "goon" for which he’d never forgiven him. But he was a flourishing mechanic now with his own lock-up and a new Mercedes. He was quick ,thorough, honest and reasonable. His competitors were mostly expensive, lazy, bent or all three. He worked ten hours a day six days a week and earned twice as much as Bill.

"How’s Shakespeare, then ?"

"He’s okay. Can you do me a favour ?"

"Still after a banger ?"

"No. A bloke I work with wants his car repairing."

"What is it ?"

"BMW."

"What’s the matter with it ?"

"Won’t start."

"Has he hit the starter motor with a hammer ?"

"He wouldn’t know what a hammer is."

"Oh. Bit like you, eh ?"

"I want you to do the most expensive repair you can."

"Friend o’ yours, then."

"He’s a twat."

"Most teachers are twats, in my experience."

"Aye, well, you hardly made their job easy did you, Col ?"

"Jobs aren’t supposed to be easy, Billy boy. My job’s not easy. But I’m fuckin’ good at it. What’s he done to upset you ?"

"He reported me to the boss."

"What for ? Shaggin’ the secretary ?"

"If he’d reported me for that I’d have no complaint. For letting seven second years watch a cricket match."

Colin stopped wiping his hands.

"What ?"

"I left them with another teacher. He went and told the boss they were unsupervised. I got a little lecture."

"Why don’t you knee him in the knackers?"

"He hasn’t got any."

"Well, I’m busy. He’ll have to wait."

"Do it tomorrow. I’ll see you right."

"You really like this bloke, don’t ya ? Okay. Make sure it’s here by eight."

"And you make sure you charge him top whack. Don’t cut any corners. No scrap spares."

"I get the picture, brother."

Bramley rang Trickson who felt as pleased with himself as Stalin after a purge. Yes, he knew how to handle people. He knew how to get his own way. He dropped the car off at eight. Colin looked him up and down.

"When will it be ready ?"

"When I’ve finished."

"Will that be today ?"

"That depends."

"Will you give me a ring ?"

"Aye, if I’ve time."

Trickson held forth loudly in the staffroom about how he was having his car fixed on the cheap.

"Contacts ! That’s what you need in life. Contacts."

When Colin gave him the bill he said:

"This can’t be right !"

"Why can’t it ?"

"Eight hundred and forty pounds ! It’s ridiculous ! It’s an outrage !"

"Are you questioning the quality of my work ?"

"It was supposed to be a favour !"

"There are no favours here, mate. I don’t do favours. I’m a pro."

"But your brother said…."

"Don’t take any notice of that cissy little twat. I hate him."

"Eh ?"

"Make the cheque out to CB Motors."

Trickson told everyone on the staff who would listen about Bramley’s perfidiousness. He stomped, strode, banged, crashed and thumped around for weeks. And he refused to talk to Bramley.

A respite for which Bramley was intensely grateful.


 

THESE DAYS

I saw the picture of Guy Birney in the Evening Telegraph shortly after he’d been appointed Chief Executive of Advanced Logistics plc. He looked the part: dark suit and collar and tie, sitting stiff-backed, eyes turned to the camera, in profile, with his chin slightly raised and the corners of his mouth pulling downwards. I’d taught him twenty years or so earlier and fell to thinking what a prig I’d taken him for and how sure I’d been that he’d end up as Chief Executive of something or other. Long before I started teaching him though, at the age of just twelve, I met his mother and father. I’d finished university in an odd, drifting frame of mind and taken a job at the local office of the Department of Social Security. I was filing pink, blue and grey forms all day and looking up dusty documents and going mad with provincial boredom. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my supposedly promising life except play the guitar, go fishing and get to know sweet women. I had this idea that if I could take low-level work which would pay the bills it would give me freedom, but all it gave me was a headache and resentment and the only consolation was that some of the women in the office were very sweet and good-looking , even if they did have successful husbands, no doubt astonishing mortgages and demanding children. Mrs Birney wasn’t like that at all. Her husband was a ponderous senior manager in the place and for all I knew that’s how she got her job. She was very efficient and very intent on letting everyone know just how efficient she was. At the time I spent my few sad months in the place, her daughter had just started school.

" I believe in traditional education," she would declare in front of an audience of weary clerks, " St Hilda’s is expensive, of course, but you get what you pay for in this life, don’t you. Small classes, good discipline, a proper uniform. You can’t start too early making sure your children learn the right values."

On one occasion, when she was telling us about just how much better than the local authority schools St Hilda’s was, Don Brimley was in the office. He was a stocky, busy little man with a paunch and a bald head who wore his reading glasses low on his nose. He knew I’d read Latin at university and used to try to catch me out by putting a quotation from Terence or Juvenal in front of me. The time I got one wrong he snatched the paper from the desk:

" Now autumn

with its pestilential winds was yielding to winter’s frosts.

Sickly winds ! That’s a good one ! Sickly !"

And he waddled out of the office shaking his head. Just how he got hold of these quotations I never discovered, but after that I always folded the paper , put it in my pocket, looked up at him impassively and said:

" I’ll bring you the translation tomorrow."

Mrs Birney had just finished telling us about Miranda’s reading age:

" It’s just as well we decided to have her educated privately. The state system probably couldn’t cater for such a child. She has a reading age of fifteen already. She’ll have to go to Oxbridge, no other university would be able to challenge her. I’ve asked the headmistress if she can take some O Levels before she goes to secondary school. She’ll be ready."

When she left, Brimley turned to us:

"` She’s got her head screwed on that one. An astute woman. Very interesting. And her children. Very interesting. Very gifted family."

Brimley had me down as a classical scholar. He’d been educated at a local grammar like me, only he was twenty or more years older and had gone there when only the middle-classes got through the door. I was a scholarship boy from the lower middle-classes whose parents thought a place at grammar school was the next best thing to admission to heaven. I did Latin at university because my father wouldn’t let me go to art college.

" What kind of a job are you going to get with a degree in fine art ? In any case, those places are full of idle, sex-mad drug-addicts."

My father always knew how to keep things in proportion. In any case, Brimley seemed to think I’d studied a dead language to show off my superior brain and he was one of those people who was a fool for any test: he did the Times crossword every day and was always solving brain teasers and he was a chess fanatic, which he claimed was the best training a brain could get. He took it for granted the Birney children were geniuses and it was obvious to everyone he had a secret thing for Gwen Birney.

She was a tall, thin woman whose hair had fallen out through alopecia and had grown back wispily so her scalp was visible. Her face was always red as if her skin were sore and her forehead was sometimes dry and flaky. She did everything as if her life depended on it and apart from what needed to be said to get work finished, a word never seemed to come from her lips that wasn’t about herself. She was one of those people I left behind and hoped never to see again. Not least because she got me sacked.

Jane Whittle was the prettiest of the women in the office: dark, blue-eyed, energetic, thirty-four and in a foundering marriage. She had a lowly, routine clerk’s job but lived very well because her husband was a big-wig in an accountancy firm. You could tell from the way she dressed she had money. Every day seemed to bring a different outfit. I used to notice what she wore because I noticed her. She favoured short-sleeved jackets, usually blue, tight skirts with a slit in the back or the side, shoes with a good heel, as she was conscious of being small, and tops or blouses cut low and pulled tight over her breasts. She always managed to look effortlessly smart but behind the apparent effortlessness I sensed a surreptitious panic. Sometimes she looked at me furtively with a kind of pleading in her eyes and her brows used to rise and pucker a little as if tears weren’t far away. One day, needing to tell me about yet another mistake I’d made, she stood very close to my chair so that my shoulder was touching her midriff. I looked up into her face and she just gazed down at me very serious and still and with something that seemed to me infinitely hurt in her eyes.

" Fancy a drink at lunch-time ?" I asked without knowing where the question had come from.

" Yes," and she turned and went back to her desk and pretended to be very busy and absorbed.

She lived a little mile away and it was her idea to go to her house. I was amazed at how quickly we were out of town. Our office was on the western periphery, about three quarters of a mile from the centre, so less than two miles from the busy streets, the take-aways, the pubs that disgorged drunks in their thousands at the weekend, was this handsome house set back from the road with a big square of cropped lawn in front and a paved drive leading to a double garage; and behind it, nothing but fields, as far as you could see, fields and little copses and more fields.

"I’ve never been out here before," I said as we stood by the car in the garage.

She smiled, turned away and unlocked the blue door that communicated with the house. As I followed, I was thinking this must be one of the most expensive places in the vicinity and at the same time my eyes were watching her neat behind in the tight navy skirt and how it jogged to her quick movement, strong, contained and athletic. We were in the kitchen before I began to think clearly about the situation: this was another man’s wife, after all, and his house, or theirs, the place their kids thought of as home. Amanda stood facing me, leaning back a little, her hands at either side of her on the expensive kitchen surface. Her right ankle was crossed over her left and the toe of her dark blue shoe was balanced like a ballerinas on the terracotta tiles. She was looking straight at me.

" Would you like a sandwich ?"

There was a gravity in her expression which made the question ridiculous. She looked tense and uncomfortable, like someone waiting to be interviewed or examined, and I didn’t know what to say. I moved over to her and put my right hand on her waist. I was surprised to feel a little ripple of flesh in the curve.

The bedroom she and her husband shared was as big as my flat. There were built-in wardrobes of expensive, sunny wood and an ensuite spacious enough to live in. I surveyed its perfection from the bed as she skipped out and with a neat bend at the waist and flick of the wrist picked her bra from the floor.

" We better hadn’t be late !" she chirped, pulling on her skirt.

She gave a little hip wiggle to get herself in and I wondered if she did that when she got dressed alone. I was so comfortable I could have stayed all afternoon and sleep was creeping up on me like drunkenness at a party.

" Don’t nod off !" she called. " Come on, look at the time!"

I got out of bed and she cast a sideways glance my way. Her face had taken on a cheeky, girlish aspect and she pulled her head down slightly into her shoulders and pressed her small, pink lips together. As I pulled on my clothes she chattered away like a sparrow in the spring:

" Oh, the state of this room ! That’s what happens when you work full-time. I never get a chance to do anything except at weekends."

" You could come home at lunchtimes," I said. She chuckled, her face creased and her eyes almost closed as her shoulders lifted a little more and her head tilted to the right.

"I sometimes think I should hire someone, but the place is such a state I’ve had to clean it before I could let a cleaner see it."

I laughed out loud and she seemed pleased , as if no-one ever appreciated her humour. I looked around. It was probably the cleanest and tidiest house I’d ever seen.

"I’ll be in the kitchen. What kind of sandwich do you want?"

"Oh no !" I called, trying to go after her down the stairs and pull up my pants at the same time, "there’s no need to do that."

By the time I got to the spotless, everything-in-its-place kitchen, she already had the bread in front of her and a little, sharp, black-handled knife in her hand. She was quick and capable and I could imagine how pleasant it would be to live with someone who could do simple things with such grace and generosity. She took ham from the fridge, sliced cucumber and cherry tomatoes, arranged some fancy lettuce whose name I didn’t know and cut the square diagonally to make two triangles, talking all the while.

" I hope you like ham ? It’s lean. I always buy it lean, I can’t stand fatty meat. I’ll put some nice salad on it for you, make it a bit more interesting. A plain ham sandwich is so depressing."

She tore off some tin foil to wrap the item and was clearing up at the same time, wiping the surface, shaking the cloth over the sink, rinsing it, wringing it and wiping again.

" That’s okay. I can carry it in my hands."

" More hygienic. Who knows where your fingers have been."

She put on a very matter-of-fact expression, turned away, lifted her left foot from the floor as she reached for her keys from the hook on the wall and headed for the blue door.

She didn’t pause for breath on the drive back and I didn’t have to come up with a thing to say. The thought went through my head that it was kind to be able to talk that way and that there was feminine genius in it, but maybe that was all tosh and she was just a chatterbox. In any case, I’m hopeless at small talk and open my mouth only when I need to. I began to think a lovely woman like Mrs Whittle could do a callow man like me a lot of good.

She stopped the car in a lay-by a hundred yards from the office and turned her calm and pretty face towards me. The light caught her eyes and they shone with an icy blueness in the summer heat.

" You’d better get out."

" People must have seen us leave together."

" Best arrive back separately then." She gave a little, affectionate shrug of her shoulders and her face creased into a smile again.

So began a month of remarkable lunchtimes. I was fed an appetising range of sandwiches, all on wholemeal bread and assembled with concern for my palate and health: pate, cottage cheese, tuna, brie, chicken, beef, salmon, egg, pork, lamb, mackerel, all dressed with a selection of lettuce, peppers, mayonnaise, tomatoes, and always wrapped in a swift tin-foil square. And I heard too a satisfying small repertoire of helpless calls: "Oh, Frank !" "Yes, Frank !" which aroused a tender feeling for her and made me wonder about her husband. She never spoke of him except in clipped asides, abrupt enough to make clear there was no room for inquiry or elaboration. What she would talk about was her children. She always called them by their full names Thomas, James and Katherine. I never asked if she didn’t lapse into Tom or Jimmy or Kate but I could imagine her calling to them:

" Thomas take your plate to the kitchen, please. Katherine please don’t put your feet on the sofa with your shoes on !"

Whenever I pictured the domestic scene and tried to add the dialogue, it always came out that way, with Mrs Whittle being very proper and not allowing herself to slip into the use of lower-class, street diminutives. Did she sometimes put her arm round the shoulder of one of her boys and say:

" Come on, Jim ! Let’s go and get an ice-cream !"

Somehow I couldn’t imagine it. The formal use of the names was in keeping with the clinical order of her house. To call her son Tom might just be too redolent of easy-going ways or of down-at-heel lives or the informal camaraderie of working-class getting-along with all that implied of failure.

So I listened to her talk of James and his wonderous mastery of the clarinet, of Katherine’s remarkable victories on horseback and Thomas’s brilliant scientific mind. Sometimes I wished she’d just talk about how funny or sweet or annoying they were. The litany of their accomplishments could get pretty cloying. In a way it was a relief when I no longer had to lie beside her with the early afternoon sun slicing through the gap in the curtains listening to the latest tale of success as she planned her children’s futures as diligently as she cleaned her kitchen.

One morning, Merrick Birney summoned me to his top-floor office. He was smoking his pipe, as always in those days before the panic over passive inhalation. The air was full of the sweet odour of the tobacco and he puffed like a child absorbed in play sucking on a lollipop. He wore his usual tweed jacket and a tie pulled so tight I wondered if it alone wasn’t responsible for the ruddiness of his features. His thick, dark hair was brushed fiercely back from his forehead and was crimped in deep furrows which ran from side to side. He asked me to sit down without looking up from his papers or taking the pipe from between his stained teeth.

"It has come to our notice that an inappropriate liaison has arisen between yourself and a female member of staff."

He had lost none of his thick-tongued, heavy Yorkshire way of speaking during his years away from his home county. I couldn’t help but be struck by the incongruity of his straight-forward accent and his mealy-mouthed form of words. I’d have been happier if he’d just said:

"Now lad, we can’t have you shagging Mrs Whittle every lunchtime can we ?"

There wasn’t anything for me to say. I wasn’t going to kick up any kind of fuss to try to hold on to my lousy, poorly-paid, temporary job, not when the cost could have been so high.

"You may say what you do in your lunchtimes is your own business but we can’t encourage licentious behaviour among colleagues."

I did believe my lunchtimes were my affair. It struck me as absurd too that work discipline could extend to intimate behaviour outside the workplace, but I was in a position of absolute weakness and I knew this was the end of a boring job for which I cared less than nothing and a sweet adventure that delighted, puzzled, excited and irritated me.

The next time I met Mr and Mrs Birney, they were seated opposite me in a chilly laboratory on a November evening as I ran redundantly through the marks in my book. Guy Birney was an exceptionally diligent pupil and that, combined with his native gifts, made him one of the most successful boys in his year. That he was driven was beyond doubt. That he was unimaginative made him disappointing to teach. All the same, his parents knew exactly what the system demanded and they made sure he didn’t put a foot wrong. His shortcoming was that he was no great athlete and in a school like Summit Grammar, that could be a problem. The one thing he could do was play cricket. He wasn’t a fast bowler or good enough to open the batting, but he managed a place in the second eleven going in at number seven and trying hard to concentrate in the outfield. That was just about enough to win him some respect amongst the all-rounders who ruled the place.

"He’s doing very well."

I looked up into Mrs Birney’s eyes. She permitted no sign of recognition . Her husband kept his gaze on the note-pad on his knee where he slavishly wrote my every word.

" Top set, one of the very best, he’s sure to hit a high grade at GCSE and ought to aim for the very highest."

Under normal circumstances, I would simply have lavished praised and sent them away happy, but I couldn’t find the words to overcome their stiff demeanour.

" He doesn’t seem to get much homework," said Mrs Birney with a little push of aggression in her voice.

"Oh, they get plenty," I bluffed.

Merrick Birney looked up and I thought he was about to say:

"It has come to our notice…."

He just fixed me for a moment before returning to his pad and I noticed the grey hairs among the dark waves across his head.

I’d taken the job at Summit because a friend had given me a tip-off: they’d appointed an English teacher who’d given backword. I needed to earn, had done my post-grad training in English as Latin teachers were in about as much demand as sheperds, and Summit was a mile from my brother’s house so I could camp there till I’d saved a bit. Once a grammar with quasi-private pretensions, it was now a comprehensive which regretted its former status. Parents like the Birneys used their knees and elbows to get their sons through the door because they got private-school standard education on the taxpayer. The place was full of bright kids from the well-heeled suburbs.

"Well, he seldom brings any home, does he Merrick?"

"That’s right," her husband concurred without taking his eyes off his paper.

This was a class of sharp third-years who whipped through the work and produced reams for every essay. Loading homework on them wasn’t entirely sensible. We had an agreement: if we got through enough work in the lesson, homework would be reduced to once a fortnight.

" A boy as bright as Guy," I said by way of explanation. "He’s quick. He forgets nothing. He never makes the same mistake twice."

When the Birneys left, I wiped my wet palms on my trousers.

The terms and the years ground on. Guy decided to try for English at Oxbridge, my attempts to escape Summit had come to nothing and so he was the star of my A Level group. At lunchtimes and after school I gave him extra literature tuition. He had no real feel for it. He was one of those students who can give back anything they’ve been taught, but thinking for himself was a step too far. Week in week out we sat in my dowdy classroom where the pictures of Joyce and Conrad and Jonson I’d pinned on the notice-board were defaced by scrawled, adolescent obscenities, as I tried to make Arthur Miller or Jane Austen come alive. One rainy Friday midday when I was tired and exasperated we were talking about Miller:

"Well, what makes a man like Miller write a play like Death Of A Salesman ? I mean, literature doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere does it ? Why did Shakespeare write a string of history plays ? Why did Lawrence write about sexual relations ? What is that makes Miller write this kind of thing ?"

It was an unfair question, but I wanted him to start thinking. After a few seconds he gathered his courage:

"Maybe he wanted to show the difference between success and failure."

Was there an assumption I didn’t like behind that answer? In any case, it gave me something to go on.

"Yes, that’s true. But from what angle ? I mean Loman is typical isn’t he ? He’s a metaphor. What does he stand for ? He’s not just some guy who can’t make it, is he ? He’s a whole culture. An entire culture captured in the phoney ambitions and the hopelessness of the unrealisable dreams of a little man. That’s what interests Miller isn’t it, the way society makes the mind and the way individuals get mangled by believing in what destroys them."

"But Willy is pathetic. He’s got no drive and feels sorry for himself."

"Sure. But his drive’s been robbed from him. And no-one can stare unblinkingly at their own failure."

He gave an uncomfortable little shrug and turned away his face. My tiredness was nagging at me and goading me to let fly to overcome my sense of decline. I always had this trouble with restraint. There were obvious things to say which had to be suggested because of the sensibilities of the students and a lurking fear of parental objection. Turning back to me he asked:

" What’s his tragic flaw ?"

" We don’t need to think in those terms about Willy."

"Well, his tragic flaw might be a lack of ambition."

The idea seemed so ludicrous I wanted to laugh out loud.

"Loman doesn’t lack ambition, Guy ! His problem is the ambitions his society has offered him are empty ! He’s like everyone, his ambitions are formed by his context. They don’t fall down from the sky. He has the ambitions a good American is supposed to have. The problem is they don’t work and he doesn’t have an alternative. That’s what he needs. An alternative to the failed values of his culture. And that alternative exists. His own son is starting to feel that the values he’s supposed to live by are sneaky, underhand, grubby. But Willy has never found his way through. He’s not educated. His tragedy is that he’s just this one-dimensional, straight-down-the-line American."

It was bad teaching,I suppose, but I felt better.

"Maybe we should finish there, Guy. Perhaps you can think along those lines for next time."

I made as if I was tidying my papers and he got up and left without a word. I glanced at his back. He carried himself very straight and stiff, his head cocked back slightly like a starling on a lawn, nervous of disturbance. When I went to the window I saw him in the quad chatting to Melanie Steele. She was the girl in my A Level group who constantly pestered me about her progress and her grades. Her sister had gone through the sixth form and won a place to read medicine. As usual, the parents expected something similar of the sibling and though Melanie was no sow’s ear, she wasn’t a silk purse in her field either. She was blonde and pale and had a habit of twisting the ends of her hair around her fingers as she talked; and she had a way of holding herself like a little girl who wants a hug from her daddy or a pound in her hand to run off to the ice-cream van. She would stand by my desk with her chin down, her feet pigeon-toed, her big green eyes round and fixed with the hard intensity of the lunatic as she explained how she just didn’t get Salesman and how worried she was we’d never reach the end of the play and how was she ever to answer a question in the exam if we didn’t. I knew my assurances cut no ice because what she wanted was special treatment and above all, someone to blame if she didn’t get the grades her parents expected. I was canny enough to be wary of students like her. I knew she’d explode like a neutron bomb before she’d accept her shortcomings. I was very careful about marking her work and made sure she was always involved in class discussion. But it made no difference.

Her advantage was that Guy Birney was smitten. He cast sly little sidelong glances at her and became puppy-dog sloppy when she paid attention to him. As I tidied away at the end of a lesson I’d hear her squeaky voice:

"Did you watch Corrie last night ? It was so good. I knew she was going to have an affair with him. I mean it was obvious…."

Guy would follow her out of the room, nodding and producing a phoney little laugh at what he thought were appropriate moments. When I was called in by the Head of Sixth Form and he told me Melanie Steele had complained, I knew at once that Guy Birney would be in on it too.

"She says you’re nowhere near finishing the play."

" Not so. I’ve told her, we’ll easily finish. She’s just wound up about it. She’s made it a big issue in her mind and it’s out of proportion. And she’s looking for someone to blame if she doesn’t get an A."

Phil Prideaux was six-feet four and gangling. His feet were flat and splayed and his hands thin with stiff fingers which never curled naturally towards his palms. His shoulders were narrow and his chest shallow, his whole frame lacked power, grace and ease. He had always thought of himself as physically dominating and all his movements were over-emphatic. He banged a book down on a desk rather than placing it, he shoved a file into his briefcase as if against some magnetic, resisiting force, his feet slapped against the floor and seemed remote from his body and beyond the control of his thin thighs. Even when someone was six inches away , he spoke loud enough to be heard at twenty yards, as if everything he said was for public consumption. I found it impossible to respect him but he was my superior and there were plenty of reasons for him to want to bring me down. As Head of English before his elevation, he’d tried to exert the kind of complete control loved by the immature. Not a directive or suggestion arrived from Whitehall but he’d want it implemented in every detail and every detail required a meeting and every meeting went on beyond the limits of its business and was dominated by the sound of his strenuously over-conscientious voice. To all this I responded with the langourous boredom that comes with disdain for flummery. I liked my subject and I enjoyed teaching it but all this "hidden curriculum" stuff just drove me to distraction. Prideaux, on the other hand, loved it and pulled himself to his full, skinny height whenever he announced some new initiative which must be followed to the letter.

"These people are our customers, Frank."

"They may be customers to you, personally I believe in liberal education."

"Guy Birney says you sat in front of the class marking books."

" Sure. They were doing a timed essay. What am I supposed to do for forty minutes, twiddle my thumbs ?"

" The whole group is complainng."

"The whole group ?"

"Most of the group."

"Is it most or is it all ?"

"We’ve got a problem if Melanie Steele doesn’t get an A."

"Why should she get an A ?"

"Her parents are on the warpath. She’s told them she’s complained to you and you’ve done nothing."

"Her complaints are neurotic. There’s no problem except in her mind."

"You can’t call our customers neurotic, Frank"

" I said her complaints are neurotic. They have no basis in fact. She’s confabulating."

Prideaux was on his feet and standing too close. His brown, soft leather shoes were a few inches from my chair. I looked up at him and he was glaring down at me as at a recalcitrant pupil. His hair, parted on the right, was as neatly combed as ever. I noticed the plastic belt which held his trousers around his slightly swollen midriff. His arms in his shirtsleeves were thin and had a curious stiffness about them, as if it was painful for him to move them at the elbows. His fleshy lips struck me as faintly obscene and I was suddenly aware of how large his nose was.

"What about this essay ?"

"What essay’s that ?"

" On this essay about Death Of A Salesman you’ve written: Where do Willy’s values come from ? Aren’t they the stock-in-trade of the middle-classes ? The problem with your answer is that you blame Willy, as if he’s entirely responsible for his own fate. Clearly the play is touching on something bigger then that:, it’s the failure of middle-class values in the face of the terrible economic facts of American capitalism that Miller is pointing to…"

He paused, holding the essay out in front of him like a policeman who has just read a confession to a serious criminal.

"What’s wrong with that ?"

"Her parents think you’re using the play to push your own politics."

" I haven’t got any politics!"

"Attacking the middle-classes doesn’t go down well with parents in this school."

"I’m not attacking them gratuitously, or even from some parti pris, I’m trying to make the girl see what the play’s getting at."

"In your opinion."

"Intelligent literary opinion would agree. She needs shaking out of this idea that Miller is condemning Loman as a failure."

"Look Frank, this is all about results. What we want is an A for Melanie Steele, then everyone’s happy."

"To get an A she needs to get the play right."

"Does she ?"

"For Christ’s sake !"

After that, teaching my A Level group became unpleasant. Melanie came in with her eyes lowered, followed by the protective Guy Birney who held himself tall and set his fresh, clean face in defiance and opposition. My interpretation of Miller didn’t move a millimetre, in fact I pushed away at the idea of the social aspect of the play. Melanie and Guy diligently took notes, but never met my eyes and I expected any day to be called in by Prideaux or the Head to explain my wayward take on Miller or my eccentric teaching methods. One by one, I spoke to all the students: no-one had raised any objection, nor intended to, except Melanie and Guy. But the complaint stuck. When I found a job in a college and asked Prideaux for his support he said:

"I’ll have to put a reservation in your reference."

I threw the application form in the bin.

Melanie Steele got a B in her A Level. Guy Birney got an A along with three more and a place to read English at Downing. I handed in my notice as I couldn’t face a couple of decades grubbing away down at the bottom in Summit. For a while I did supply teaching, usually in the worst schools with disaffected kids who tore my lessons to shreds and left me exhausted and humiliated, but I never found my way back into a full-time teaching job. When I got married and my first child was on the way, I needed something steadier, so I took a job driving a van for a printing firm. I deliver all over the country. Small jobs. I usually drive a little Bedford van and sometimes a Transit. The work has been plentiful and by taking jobs at the weekend I’ve managed to pull in a decent income, probably as much as the average teacher. But things are on the downturn in the printing industry. Firms are moving work abroad to where labour is cheap and I don’t get the overtime I used to. When I started, there were four of us driving, now I’m the lone driver. Sometimes I think if they make me redundant I’ll go back into teaching but it’s a long time since I taught Miller or anything else and in any case, I’m not sure I have much stomach for putting literature in front of the likes of Melanie Steele or Guy Birney, these days.


 

MANAGEMENT

Jill Texas loved America and Meryl Sprick loathed Jill Texas. Texas loved the place because it was big, because it was rich, because it was powerful. She was born into the Liverpudlian working-class. Her parents were socialists. But the lure of American glamour was irresistible. She went there as often as she could, taking her family each summer to Florida or Dallas, three weeks at a time. Once she went to New York. It was a great city but she preferred Florida. There was something suspect about New York. Some of the people weren’t typical Americans. They had the accents but their attitudes were cosmopolitan. Sprick scoffed. Texas delighted in Texas. She changed her name from Higton. Her motto was a slogan she’d learned in Dallas: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," she said to Sprick after telling her she wasn’t giving her a discretionary pay rise.

Shortly after, she took a sixth-form assembly. The theme was: There is no such thing as a free lunch. She felt very pleased to be able to influence the students with her homespun, American wisdom.

"Before long, you will go out into the world. It’s a big world out there. There are opportunities. You will have to make your choices. What are you going to do ? You might do this thing, you might do that thing. You might think it’s all coming on a plate. But it isn’t coming on a plate. And do you know why ? Because there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you want that thing or the other thing, whatever thing you want, you’ll have to work for it. That’s why you should be working hard now. Every summer I take my family to America. It’s a great country. But you know what ? Even in America….."

The bell rang and Texas was still talking. The students began to fidget. The staff shuffled. Sprick twisted the papers in her hands. This was her assembly. She was Head of sixth-form. But Texas had usurped her without asking. She had merely announced:

"I’ll take the assembly on Thursday."

Sprick believed in hierarchy as much as the next woman. There was nothing unconventional about her view of the world. She had faith in the necessity of authority. She’d worked at Highfield for thirty-five years. All her adult effort had gone into this one job. When she arrived, it was a Grammar so she felt comfortable, having been at a minor public school. The mistresses went around in gowns; the prefects punished younger girls; there was a matron; the sports fixtures were against private schools; lesbianism was rife; everyone kept quiet about the games mistress.

But there had been the sixties.

Sprick had started at Bristol in 1964. They stayed up till three in the morning listening to Bob Dylan, drinking plonk, talking about socialism. Harold Wilson was going to change the world. He was elected by working class votes in remote places called Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Tredegar. To Sprick these were just names and what the working-class might be like she had no idea. But it was impossible not to rally to the idea of the working-class, the ideal of socialism, the atmosphere of change. Her parents were Conservative Anglicans. To vote Labour was an act of rebellious independence. And Dylan sang rebel songs like Guthrie, The Beatles came from the industrial north. She became a Liverpool supporter though she knew nothing about football and had never been near the city.

"The point is, man, we’ve had a fucking revolution in this country ! A bloodless revolution, but the working class have got schools and hospitals and pensions by organising and using their votes. The rich can’t fucking stop it ! It’s a democratic revolution and only the antediluvians are against it."

Sprick listened to the mouthing politicos and felt she was part of something noble and irresistible. Her parents and the sadists who ran her school were the antediluvians. She nailed her colours to the mast of the bright future of democratic socialism.

But then came the eighties.

She was in her mid-thirties, a mother of two young children; socialism was disappearing like the rain forests; the Tories were selling off the people’s assets. She bought shares in everything. She gave her copies of E.P.Thompson and R.H.Tawney to the Oxfam shop. When the miners struck, she joined in the general excoriation of Arthur Scargill.

"Tunnel vision type !" she said.

She resigned from the union to help her promotion prospects. She began to talk about the immutability of human nature. When the fleet returned from the Falklands, the waving flags and the bare-breasted girls brought a tear to her eye. She believed competition would make the railways more efficient.

Now Osama Bin Laden was sending planes to crash into tall buildings and Texas was Headteacher, because they could find no-one better, because someone had to be. She’d been appointed after the second round of interviews. The county adviser didn’t rate her. The governors weren’t sure. She made a nervous start. Highfield wasn’t what she was used to. She’d always worked in comps and made her way through obedience. Anxious that the staff were stick-in-the-mud she threw her weight around. She’d read in an American book of management techniques that playing one person off against another is a good way to maintain control.

"When Joan Marchant retires I’ll be able to do things differently in maths," she told a young mathematician.

She approached a teacher in the corridor and asked if she was considering early retirement. She never missed an opportunity to criticise one member of staff to another. She promoted hockey which she thought more democratic than lacrosse. She feared the authorities would be on her back for being laggardly; the place had to change and she had been appointed to change it.

Sprick knew the school couldn’t stand still, but it’s recent past was her life.

"Parents like tradition," she said to Texas.

"Tradition is an excuse for laziness."

Sprick spread the word among the staff: Texas thinks you’re lazy. What she’d said to one member of staff was repeated to another. The negative feeling towards her began to grow. People felt she wasn’t on their side, they were undermined. They watched askance as she strode through the staff-room, her head cocked back, her fixed smile showing her large teeth. They detected criticism in her tone of voice. They believed every new policy was a plot against them.

Texas needed to win them round. For a long time most of the staff had wanted the one-hour-fifteen minute, decades-old lunch-break shortened. It remained because the P.E. staff had lacrosse turnouts. Lacrosse was sacrosanct. The school had produced a long line of county players and even a couple of internationals, but the eternal pause left most pupils idle and finding mischief. In the afternoon, they were over-excited, tired, unwilling. No-one wanted to offend the sports staff, but everyone wanted a shorter break. Texas thought the existing arrangement un-American. What would they do in Dallas ? Why, they’d do what was modern ! Traditional values in a modern setting ! And wasn’t lunch for wimps ? Wasn’t this the change to win the staff to her side ?

Indifferent, Sprick went with the sportswomen for the sake of taking on Texas.

"But the survey shows clearly most staff want a change."

"So ?"

"So they’re unhappy with the existing arrangement."

"Tough."

"I think that’s unhelpful."

Sprick snorted and shrugged her shoulders.

"I’ve drawn up three possibilities. We’ll get the staff to vote and then I’ll confirm the choice with the governors and the county. We should be able to shift next September."

"Lacrosse is very important here. Lots of parents send their girls because they’ll play for the school. And sixth form numbers depend on them. Undermining lacrosse undermines the school."

"I’m not undermining anybody, it’s what the staff want."

"It’s weak leadership to give in to the staff."

Texas blenched. She stared at Sprick who sat stiffly staring back at her blankly.

"I’m behaving democratically. If I impose my will on the staff they’ll be up in arms."

"You can’t be a Headteacher and a democrat."

Texas looked at her opponent. She would do anything to controvert. And she was spreading disaffection amongst the staff.

"I’m the Head. I’ve been appointed to change the culture in this school…."

"What’s wrong with the culture ?"

"It’s out of date. It needs modernising."

"Lacrosse isn’t out of date."

"That’s ridiculous ! I’m not opposed to lacrosse."

"But you’re making things impossible for the sports staff."

"They can practice after school."

"Not in winter."

"The needs of lacrosse can’t dominate the school !"

"Why not ?"

"Because that’s what’s wrong with this place. It thinks it’s a little Rodean and it isn’t. It serves everyone. It has to become inclusive."

"Spare me the buzzwords."

Texas put the alternatives before the staff who voted heavily for the shortest option. She ignored Sprick, had the plan passed by the governors, ratified by the County and implemented on 1st September.

What the majority of staff had long argued for, they had won. Texas had given it them. Yet their suspicion of her grew.

"Waste of space !" they could be heard to say.

Sprick was delighted. She and Texas stopped talking to one another. Sprick had sensed from the first Texas’s lack of confidence. Her public school mentality clicked in. People who lacked confidence, shy people, quiet people, people who didn’t use their elbows and knees, who didn’t push to the front of the queue and promote their inflated view of their importance and competence were natural victims. She had witnessed some nasty bullying as a pupil. There was a girl in her year who feared water. The P.E. mistresss forced her into the pool. She kicked and spluttered and panicked. She couldn’t even swim a width with a float held before her. The bullies waited till the P.E. mistresss left the side and dragged the victim to the deep end, shoved her head under till the bubbles rose.

"Get that girl out of the water !"

But secretly the mistress sided with the bullies. She hated a weakling. She loathed a girl who couldn’t swim or run . The school turned a blind eye to most bullying. It was looked on as character-building. Only the worst examples, when a girl lost an eye by being locked in a laundry basket while sticks were poked through its sides or another had hair spray forced up her nose, resulted in firm action. But the matter was always hushed up. Above all, the reputation of the school must not suffer.

Sprick didn’t want to take part in bullying but nor did she want to be bullied. She was a big lass, athletic and able to take care of herself. But the bullies were sly. They never left themselves vulnerable. They operated in groups. If they chose you as a victim, your time was very hard. So Sprick joined in the mockery of the weaklings, the outsiders. They were fair game. And the bullies left her alone, apart from the odd nasty incident when some ugly-minded prefect would whip away the glasses without which she was helpless.

"Can you see me, Sprick ! Come and get your specs. I’m over here."

But when she moved, she was tripped and, flat on her face, was laughed at. She learned to stand still, back into a corner and wait. She was poor sport. They never made her cry. They grew bored.

Now, thirty-five years after leaving school, the smell of a weakling stirred the old responses.

Sprick had believed she would be a headteacher but once she had started to climb at Highfield, she didn’t want to leave. It was a prestigious place with a large sixth-form, a middle-class catchment, an impressive tradition. If things fell right, the headship might come to her. So she pushed, played the game and waited. On the first occasion she was too young and on the second too old. She had risen to Head of Sixth-Form and Deputy Head. She would have to be content.

But Texas provided an opportunity.

If she were to fail, if she were to leave, if she were to be forced out, there might be a chance, even if only temporarily. And if that temporary elevation fell within her final three years, it could make a significant difference to her pension. Might there not be a chance of a long-term promotion ? She’d done it before. She had never had to make an application, fill in a form, go through an interview, and she’d slid up the greasy pole all the same. To end her career as Head, to see her salary go up by ten grand , to have a much bigger pension: it was attractive and satisfying. But she couldn’t do it alone. She and Texas at loggerheads wasn’t enough. The staff had to turn against her enemy. She had to be isolated. She had to feel the negativity of her colleagues day in day out. Sprick knew that a little poison can spread swiftly. She was subtle, almost understated. But she talked frankly to her confidantes on the staff, those she had taken under her wing, the future of the school.

Sprick noticed Texas spent more and more time in her office. She knew the major concern of the staff was discipline. Pupils were defying teachers at every turn. Some classes were unteachable. The school would get to the point of permanent exclusion; the parents hired a barrister; there was a technicality. The daily humiliation of being treated as skivvies by cocky teenagers drove some staff into depression, others ran for early retirement, some gave up the ghost and the pupils ran riot in their rooms. Sprick encouraged her colleagues to put pressure on Texas. She dug in her heels: poor discipline was a result of poor teaching. It was the government’s line; it was an American idea; she liked it. But being blamed for the epidemic of regression and boorishness among young people made the staff resentful. Why doesn’t she do something ? She’s the Head ! She should set the tone. Finally, Texas gave in. She would speak to the whole school in assembly.

She stood on the stage, Sprick seated to her left.

" I have to speak to you this morning about something my staff have asked me to speak to you about. It’s not a thing I like to have talk about but I have to talk about it. Some of you and I know it is only some of you aren’t doing what you’re here for. I’m not happy. My staff aren’t happy. If you think it’s funny to talk all the way through a lesson. If you give cheek to your teachers. If you never do your homework. What do I say to you ? I say maybe you shouldn’t be here. Why should you be here ? Some of you think the rules are for you. Well, the rules are for everyone and the rules will apply to everyone. I’ve seen things around the school, it may be the graffiti thing, it may be the litter thing, it may just be walking around with your blouse hanging out, but I’ve seen things I don’t like. I don’t like them. I want them to change. They will have to change. We’ve had new toilets. I go to those new toilets and what do I find ? Someone’s turned on all the taps and left them running. Is that funny ? Is that the way to treat what’s provided for your benefit ? It won’t do. And you know what my motto is ? It’s something I learned in America…….."

Sprick’s mouth curled into a smug, sardonic little smile. To stand in front of the girls, of the entire school and by implication suggest they were all letting her down, was the very worst thing she could do. By goading her into it, Sprick had hastened her downfall. In truth, Sprick had no complaint about the girls’ behaviour. The truly disruptive and disaffected were no more than a passing irritant. In the solvent of middle-class conformity their recalcitrance quickly dissolved. She had talked up the seriousness , claimed teachers were swimming against an impossible current, predicted a parental revolt. Texas had gone for it like a salmon for a fly. Now she was going to be caught as she leapt and clubbed to death.

Most of the staff were pleased, but many pupils,as Sprick predicted, turned sour. They weren’t to blame. They felt they were being told off for nothing. The ill-feeling spread and within days someone spray painted on a wall : TEXAS MUST GO. Sprick was thrilled.

The pupils’ behaviour didn’t change. Texas stayed behind her office door as much as possible. At a morning briefing, someone asked her to explain a decision.

"This isn’t the forum," she said.

The teacher protested, Texas lost her temper, closed the meeting and ordered the staff to their classrooms. The following day she was absent. Sprick started to feel sure the Headship would fall into her lap. She walked past Texas in the corridor and ignored her. She kept feeding stories of incompetence and stupidity. Whenever Texas appeared before the staff, the atmosphere was sinister. It was that vicious and cruel mood that seizes groups when they’re sure they are right and have an enemy in their sights; the mentality of the pack baring its teeth; the howling of the crowd that drowns the modest voice of reason. People whose true judgement of Texas was essentially neutral found themselves drawn into the vortex and condemned her out loud. Cowards who would never have stood up to a strong Head they knew was wrong, began to throw their weight around.

After the Christmas holiday, Texas announced she was leaving. Sprick knew they would never appoint in time for the next term. She was home and dry. She began to feel justified. Shouldn’t she have been appointed to a Headship long ago ? But when she took over, she found herself fearing the staff. Supposing they turned on her ? Supposing they saw her as weak ? Supposing they put two and two together ? Those loyal to her who knew they would be rewarded put the word out: she was working hard, she had the best interests of the school at heart, everyone should back her. The mood swung behind her, though in truth, little changed, but she surfed the wave of popularity and buffed-up respect. One day she brought sheaves of documents and armfuls of files into a staff meeting and dumped them unceremoniously on the table to show how overwhelmed she was.

She managed a paltry term as Acting Head. The following September a new, young woman took over. Sprick made herself like her. Undermining one Head was enough for anyone, and in any case, there were no stakes to play for. The new woman did much the same as Texas, but she was subtle, discreet, diplomatic. Put in the picture by the school adviser, she kept carefully on the right side of Sprick. She was on the verge of retiring. No need to face her down.

"You know," one member of staff remarked to another, "one of the things everyone hated Texas for was not allowing school trips. But have you noticed, this new woman is closing down even more."

"Yeah, do they ever change ?."

It was suggested Sprick might intercede on their behalf. Two older colleagues who thought themselves close to her were delegated.

"People feel closing down on the trips is narrowing what the school offers."

Sprick nodded.

"Some of these are long-established. A lot of hard work has gone into them."

"I know," she said.

She held out her palms and raised her shoulders. Her mouth turned down in sympathetic regret.

"It’s the new ideology," she said. "Children should be in the classroom."

When the supplicants left, Sprick went to speak to the Head.

"I’d better warn you, people are getting hot under the collar about trips. I’ve told them where you stand, of course."

"Thanks for that, Meryl."

As Sprick’s career neared its last few weeks, she began to put in review her years of making her way, playing one rival off against another. She was proud of her strategy. To think of herself as Machiavellian gave her a sense of esteem. She’d made it to Headteacher, however briefly, and the boost to her pension would be a constant reminder. Nearly forty years. It concertinaed in her mind. She could run through the major events in seconds. She’d made a memorable contribution. Yet in spite of herself, in defiance of her efforts to convince herself it had been a bagatelle, she couldn’t help returning to the thought that her ousting of Texas was her greatest achievement.


RUNT

For six months, Ken Bowen had been putting out resolute little notes to his members assuring them the union would have nothing to do with performance-related pay. When one busy morning he read an off-the-cuff quote from the General Secretary suggesting a slackening of opposition, his stomach shrank. Was he going to have to recant ? Would he have to apply ? Would he look ridiculous and time-serving?  No-one else bothered. Calculation was the dish of the day. But Bowen was  uncomfortable. He felt weak and insignificant. He was a diligent trade unionist, in his small way, at a very low level; but wasn’t that democracy ? Weren’t we supposed to have faith in the good sense and courage of the common people ? He hated the term. The common people or ordinary people. The condescension made him nauseous. Shouldn’t democracy obliterate the convenient distinction between the common people and the rest, whatever they were called: the elite, the plutocracy, the aristocracy, the untouchables? The trajectory of his confused life had been shaped by democracy’s apparent promise. Yet he’d fallen precipitately to earth and felt the ground crumble beneath him. On the march was a deeply anti-democratic sentiment. Teachers were being tested; the government was throwing two thousand pounds in the gutter and daring them not to get down on their knees and scramble. Bowen knew he couldn’t do it. To apply for a pay increase, to beg, to go as a supplicant, to be required to prove he’d been doing his job was humiliating and manipulative; and it was justified on the dishonest grounds of competency. The two issues were comingled in a muddy mixture intended to be impenetrable. But Bowen insisted: pay should be determined democratically, through negotiation. Competency was a separate issue which should be dealt with by its own set of procedures. All the same, he could see what was coming.

In a hopeless attempt to garner support he declared his steadfast refusal. At least he was at ease. But the measure did its work: people began to worry. They searched out with great diligence fawning evidence in support of their applications. Like lottery players they thought of their own chances. How many would go through ?  Who would they be ? In the end, the only question in most minds was: will I go through ? Still, there was sufficient residual solidarity for people to help one another. The management made as much data available as possible. The Deputy Head read through every application and did all he could to strengthen them. Nevertheless, David Blunkett reiterated his tedious mantra: the majority of teachers over time. It was obvious the government didn’t envisage most teachers getting through in the first cohort.

“Ninety per cent of teachers will get this money,” one of Bowen’s colleagues said.

“Not this time,” he replied.

“Then the unions will fight case by case.”

“We’ll be overwhelmed. If it comes to hand-to-hand fighting, they’ve won. We’ve lost the principle: pay should be determined in national agreements.”

“Yes, but it’s fair enough to reward those who do a good job.”

“That’s the management’s line. And who decides what a good job is ? Once we hand over to them the sole and absolute right to make that judgement, they’ll hammer us with productivity deals. We should stand firm: pay is one thing, competency another.”

“But you can’t pay people who aren’t doing the job properly !”

“That’s the red herring. Hardly anyone is incompetent but they make competency the very essence of the pay structure. Some people drink too much, but prohibition isn’t the answer.”

“I know, but it’s reasonable enough to try to make sure everyone’s pulling their weight.”

“It’s driven by ideology. They want to spread the myth the system is riddled with incompetence. They want to blame individuals for the failings  and they want to exculpate themselves. This is Pontius Pilateism. It’s a witch hunt. It’s a regime of fear and it will eat into the mind of every teacher.”

“Well, let’s get the money and see.”

“It’s the King’s shilling. Once you’ve taken it, you’re in their hands.”

Bowen was in a minority of one. The government’s cynicism was well-placed: there was  no will among teachers to stand for a principle at the cost of two thousand a year. Then Bowen read a sneering piece in the Guardian. The journalist declared it would require superhuman principle to refuse to apply. He thought it farcical. Superhuman ? Simply to turn down two grand offered in such demeaning circumstances! It struck him that was just the kind of comment to be expected from someone pulling in a hundred thousand for writing fifteen hundred words a week.  Some dinner-party Islingtonite, no doubt. He put the paper aside and felt more resolved than ever. Yet as he imagined his burning boats, saw himself falling further and further behind in pay, he felt a surge of anxiety. He wished he was out of this nasty business. He was forty-seven. He would lose tens of thousands before retirement and his pension would be petty.

“It’s an expensive principle,” one of his  members said.

“Principles are expensive, but only in money.”

When he told his wife he wouldn’t apply she said:

“Is that what trade unionism gets you ?”

She wouldn’t stand absolutely against him, but she couldn’t go along with losing the money. One of those excited by the extension and ease of credit, she had a burdensome and worrying little stack of debt. It amounted to about fifteen thousand, though she wasn’t sure. Somehow, it was difficult to keep track. Real money was easy. If she had three tens in her purse, she could do the subtraction as she spent; but plastic wasn’t real. In her mind, money evaporated to be replaced by a general beneficence of bankers who offered credit like a kindly uncle offers sweets. There, in the fashionable window, was a gorgeous warm winter coat for her youngest, stylish and beautiful, and here was her ever-complaisant plastic. People wanted to give her money. Why shouldn’t she take it ? Everybody did. Only when the statements arrived with their horrible demands for minimum payments, their cold insistence, their unsmiling demand for promptness and probity, did her feeling change. Sometimes she ignored them. The envelope stood on the mantelpiece for days.

“Do you know there’s a letter for you here ?” asked Ken.

She raised her brows and sipped her tea.

The more she thought , the more she resented her husband’s action. Two thousand a year ! And increasing as he missed moving up the scale. She did the quick sums and it was what, twenty, twenty-five, thirty thousand  ? This was worse than her spending. After all, she spent mostly on the kids. This was wilful neglect of the family! At times she sank into bitter outrage from which she escaped by shopping.  If he wouldn’t seize what was offered, she would ! She strode through Marks and Spencer and Debenhams as if escaping persecution, on her face the blank, fixed expression of a woman who has ceased to think, who is rebelling against thought, and in the murder of her rational self as she handed over her credit card, she experienced a sense of absolute triumph. At other times she relented. He explained his stance. It was the long game. There was a future to fight for. Then she admired him and felt she’d behaved badly, nestled sentimentally against his shoulder and ran her long fingers along his taut thigh. But the feeling soon ebbed and  was replaced by anger at not being able to afford a new car or more holidays. One day she was probing: could they go to the sunshine at half term ? When he said they needed the money for new window frames, she snapped:

“Well, we’d have the money if you’d just fill in a form !”

The draining sense of letting down his family chewed at Bowen. Sometimes he would look at his heedless children and think of what they’d have to do without. Then a steely little resolution arose in him to suffer the bitter reductions himself. All the same, he was sometimes overwhelmed by a gush of sentimental relenting. He saw himself requesting the despicable form, completing it in a compliant whirl; but when he actually did ask and the paper was in his hands, when he read the stupid pages and realised how he would have to lie and twist and lower himself to get the money, he tore it in half in bitter spite and dropped it in the bin. He was an outsider and that was that. Let others do what they would.

It was uncomfortable, hearing the urgent conversations, seeing the anxious process going on around him and being as excluded as a runt. He almost wished he could be thoughtless and conformist.  Yet, when he asked himself who among his colleagues he would rather be, he was glad to be himself. Maybe his stern resistance was nothing more than an insignificant gesture, but it was him. Then a surprising development took place: the NUT was to take the Secretary of State to court for having promulgated a change to teachers’ pay and conditions. Bowen’s beleagured spirits rose. For a few minutes, he envisaged a government retreat; but if they lost  wouldn’t they simply put the changes before parliament? All the same, it was a chance to spavin. When the Judicial Review came to court, Justice Jackson ruled the government had acted unlawfully. The overweening arrogance of the Secretary of State had been brought low. Blunkett, in a panic, blamed his “Sir Humphrey”. At once his rhetoric changed: the months-old ritornello was replaced by a woeful moan that he was being prevented from giving money to teachers, all teachers, by the self-defeating actions of the NUT. Bowen chuckled. The Sunday papers, however, were filled with the same argument: now teachers might not get their £2,000; the NUT had scored a laughable own goal; the unions were insanely out of touch; teachers wanted and deserved the money, the legalities meant nothing to them; the scheme might fall; it was a disgrace; it was a farce; yes, Blunkett was a fool, but the NUT was worse; performance pay was a good idea; the NUT stood in the way of every good idea; now they had attained the apogee: they were denying their members money ! Never had the uselessness of trade unionism been so conspicuously displayed.

Bowen put his paper aside. The press delirium annoyed and amused him.  Blunkett had broken the law. He asked himself how the journalists would have responded had the NUT been the delinquent. That teachers wouldn’t get the money was ludicrous.  It was Blunkett who was drowning. The government would have to send out the lifeboats. Teachers couldn’t be asked to re-apply. They would have to be given the money. And the change in Bunkett’s chorus was telling: if only a minority  got the money, there would be uproar. It was a clever move by the union, for now the government’s majority of teachers over time was effete. Blunkett, from being the nemesis of the profession had transmogrified into honest Dave, the teachers’ friend. He portrayed himself as victim. He had been let down. He had been bullied. He wanted nothing more than to distribute largesse to hundreds of thousands of deserving teachers. If only those vicious Trade Unionists would get out of his way.

“Looks like you’re all in the same boat now,” said his wife as she read the paper.

“No, the press just won’t admit the union’s victory. They’re panicked. We’ve used the courts and defeated the government, but they’ll have to give us the money.”

“Including you ?”

“Those who’ve applied.”

“All of ‘em ?”

“Yeah, they daren’t do anything else now.”

“So some people will get the money who might not have done.”

“For sure.”

“Is that what they call performance pay ?”

“It always was a scam, Sarah.”

“What kind of performance pay is it if you give everyone the money ? It’s a joke. Fill in the form, get the money.”

“It is a joke. They didn’t want this. They wanted a minority through in the first cohort.”

“So two thousand is there for the taking and you still stick to your prissy principles.”

“In the long run this scheme is bad for teachers, bad for education, bad for the pupils, bad for society. It’s old fashioned productivity. Everyone’s being nailed down. First they do this, next they’ll go after our pensions. Then they’ll make a fuss about sick pay. The best way to resist is to say no from the beginning.”

“Ken contra mundum. You’ll just get crushed.”

“Posterity will see we were right.”

“Well, good for posterity.”

Sarah’s ill-will couldn’t completely expunge his frail sense of victory, but when he arrived in school on Monday morning he was met in the buzzing staff room by an aggressive, ugly, squat and solid Bob Wildgoose who came towards him  head down and  eyes fixed.

“Don’t you want two thousand bloody quid, then ?”

Bob was close enough for Ken to detect the stale coffee on his breath. He stepped back and smiled:

“What’s the matter, Bob ?”

“Your union’s the matter. Two thousand quid down the drain.”

“That’s not so.”

“They’ve gone to bloody court to stop us getting our money !”

Ken shook his head but Bob had turned away and was stalking out with the rocking gait of man looking for trouble. That was the beginning of a long litany of comments Ken had to parry as calmly as he could.

“Look,” he’d say, “the judgement puts Blunkett on the back foot. He’s got no choice now but to give as many teachers as possible the money. He’s broken the law and he’s fighting upwards. The NUT has done every teacher in the land a favour.”

But one after another his colleagues refused to meet his eyes, or shook their heads, until, near the end of lunch a few days later Nigel Cornthwaite said:

“Well, that’s not what Phil Nixon says.”

“What does he says ?”

Cornthwaite explained that over the weekend Nixon had rung round telling people the NUT action meant they wouldn’t get the two thousand, and he’d come into work early,  met people as they arrived and made sure they understood the message. Nixon was a Deputy Head and had once been on the national executive of the NASUWT.  The NUT had a minority position in the school: seven teachers out of fifty-five. Ken was stunned but his puzzlement over his colleagues’ aggression ebbed. The more he thought about, picturing the ungainly Nixon rushing to stop people, leaning from his thin waist, insisting in that whining monotone, exaggerating in his anxiously persuading way, the more it became clear and the more appalled he was.

“I believe you’ve been telling people the court action means they won’t get the money.”

He was sitting in the gangling Nixon’s office. Leaning back in his swivel chair, the older man nodded and smiled smugly.

“But that’s not true, Phil ?”

“Isn’t it ?”

“You know it isn’t.”

“Do I ?”

“Well, don’t you ?”

“Nope,” and Nixon swiveled, the little smug expression on his crooked lips.

“More people will get the money. Blunkett’s made a fool of himself. The rhetoric of “the majority over time” is dead. He’s flailing his arms and legs in white water. Who’s suggesting people won’t get the money ?”

Nixon pushed out his fleshy lower lip and held out his palms in exorbitant display.

“I thought Bob Wildgoose was going to punch me the other morning.”

When Nixon sniggered Ken felt like slinking out.

“I don’t think it was very wise to wind people up, Phil.”

“Me, wind people up ?”

“Isn’t the truth important ?”

“Is it ?”

“Nobody expects the Daily Mail to be objective, but from one union to another , to stir up this bad feeling and to give credence to the myth that the NUT has scuppered the scheme, the money will go back to the Treasury and teachers won’t get a penny. It’s pretty poor, Phil.”

“What your union does is its business, I was just telling my members they would have to wait for their money.”

“As I’ve heard, you told them more than that.”

“ I told what I knew.”

“And where did your knowledge come from ?”

“Responsible journalism.”

“There isn’t a paper in this country has told the truth. They’d rather see a Secretary of State break the law than a union enforce it. But just listen to the change in rhetoric. Blunkett meant what he was saying. Now he’s falling over himself to dish out the loot. Our action did that.”

“Maybe.”

“In the long run they’ll want to make the scheme do what it’s supposed to do.”

“What’s that ?”

“Sort the sheep from the goats.”

“Is that a bad idea ?”

“Isn’t solidarity a better one ?”

Nixon scoffed and smirked.

Only two teachers didn’t get through and they weren’t Ken’s members. In spite of the unions’ assertions that each case would be fought, they were abandoned on the grounds that the judgement was probably fair: one rarely took books home, the other was known to have problems with classroom order.

“The unions are doing the management’s dirty work,” said Ken to Sarah.

“But most folk have got the money.”

“There’s a right and wrong way of getting money.”

“What’s wrong with applying for it ?”

“It turns us into supplicants, for god’s sake. It puts all the cards in management hands. It gives them the right to make all the demands and us no right to make any. It’s as if we employed a cleaner and asked for an eight page form every twelve months to prove the carpets had been vacuumed.”

“It’s only a bloody form, Ken !”

“But it isn’t, is it ? That’s like saying a brothel is just a building.”

“Who’s talking about brothels ?”

Exasperated and weary, Ken stupidly wanted sympathy from his wife. Had he expected she’d smile and put her arm round his shoulders, give him a loving pat and say: “Good for you,love. Stick to your guns.” Hadn’t he been married to her for twenty-seven years ?

“Think about it,” he said, aware of an unpleasant insistence in his voice, “the existential difference between having your pay and conditions negotiated by third parties, which means you get them as of right and they’re collective, and having to prove yourself as an individual, to talk up your efficiency, to convince your boss you’re worthy of approbation, is huge. There’s no point of contact between the two. This is a regime of anxiety which makes everyone look into themselves to find fault or merit. It makes the victim show gratitude to the executioner. Its purpose is to drive people apart. It denies the social nature of employment contracts.”

“Existential,” she retorted with contempt, “what’s that supposed to mean ? You’re talking philosophy. What’s all the fuss about. Everyone else fills in the bloody form and gets the money. You admitted yourself the system’s rubbish. Apply and you’re virtually guaranteed to go through. I just think it’s sick to turn down money. We’ve got kids to look after.”

The letters accumulated on the mantelpiece. When Ken mentioned them, Sarah ignored him or flounced from the room as if she had more important things to think about. At length, his solitary protest was forgotten. The collective capitulation to the culture of individual advancement turned people inwards. No-one thought for a second about his stance. One day, a colleague, sitting by him at break said:

“The money’s not bad now though, is it, since we got the two grand ?”

“No, not bad,” he said.

He realised his tiny act of resistance was all but worthless. His colleagues, like his wife, could see nothing but the money. He began to feel acutely embarrassed and to search for the fault in himself which made him break ranks. The wrankling resentment over money wore away at the affection between him and Sarah and sure of her ground because with the majority she goaded him at every opportunity. At length, she came to him one Friday evening when he was sunk in the shifting cushions of the sofa, his legs stretched on the sheepskin, a book in his hands.

“Here,” was all she said as she dropped next to his feet a wad of envelopes and left the room.

Alone, he opened them slowly, one by one, as if they were Christmas cards and, his heart quickening with each statement, did the arithmetic. When he put aside the last, he’d calculated roughly sixty-one thousand.

“What’ve you spent it on ?” he asked.

She looked away and half-closed her eyes, leaning back against the kitchen surface. A girlish, self-indulgent little smile, as if she was eight and had eaten all the chocolate biscuits, almost jolted alive his desire.

“I don’t know. I just fritter it.”

“How do you fritter sixty-one grand, Sarah ?”

“That’s over a few years.”

“It would need to be. How the hell are we going to get out of this ?

She shrugged, lifted her chin and looked away, as if it didn’t concern her.

“You’ll have to go bankrupt.”

“I’ll lose my job.”

“Why ?”

“Don’t ask me, it’s just an FSA rule.”

She exulted a little in the fact she earned more. Seeing him crestfallen, the stack of shameful demands in his hands and sensing the responsibility passed to him, she felt he’d got what he deserved.

Ken spent the next week negotiating a loan with the building society, taking out credit cards at zero interest, until the entire debt was in his name.

“We’ll save about four hundred a month in interest payments,” he said.

She flicked her eyes from the television.

“So I don’t owe anything any more.”

He could have leapt at her and strangled her.

“It’s what we owe, Sarah. This is a partnership.”

“But it’s all in your name now,” she said, turning back to her programme. “I wouldn’t’ve done that.”

 


 

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

 

Sap Capstick got most of such  education as he had in the Victorian town library where the oak fiction shelves were six feet high and stacked with complete sets of every author since Richardson. On his fortieth birthday, lugubriously surveying the thin set of biographies of celebrities, the single, small shelf of poetry and the drama section without a single play by Jonson, he was beset by a dragging sense of failure and futility: over twenty expectant years devoted to books and writing but no more than a pamphlet of two dozen poems which had been praised by faint damning in three small magazines, sold two hundred copies and sunk into deep oblivion. His definition of himself as a writer was hard to maintain. An embarrassing little panic at his pretension made him flush and wince. He had to write something that would find an audience! Surely biography couldn’t be too difficult. And he began to sift his poor brains for someone he could write about. It must be someone leftish to match his own views. Someone whose life was yet unwritten. As he slid his spoon beneath the froth of his cappuccino, the idea came to him: Barry Noonan! The popular leftist poet who’d pranced across stages from Inverness to The Isle of Dogs, risen on the wave of sixties pop culture and ridden it ever since: the perfect subject. He was about to turn sixty. What better way to celebrate than a life?

As soon as Capstick arrived home he sat at his computer and wrote:

Dear Barry Noonan,

Twenty years ago I attended a reading of yours: Barry Noonan at forty. I’ve been a fan of your work since Straight Talking and wondered if you’d be interested in a biography or even just an article about your life and work?

Yours,

He included his phone number and less than a week later Noonan rang him.

“Hi, Sap! Barry Noonan!”

“Oh, hello.”

“Got your letter. Great. Why don’t you come down and see us?”

“Yes, sure.”

Capstick told his wife.

“Barry Noonan! He’s really famous isn’t he?”

“Quite famous,” said Capstick not meeting her eyes.

The following gloomy Saturday he was on an early train to London. He felt very serious and literary among frivolous shoppers, football supporters, lap-topped businessmen. His trips to London had been few and short. He’d never met any of the capital’s literati. There’d been a time when he’d hung around notorious bohemian pubs in the hope of running into someone worth knowing. Didn’t friendships spark up that way? Once he bought B.S.Johnson a drink but when he tried to stimulate conversation Johnson said:

“Who the fuck are you anyway?”

Finally, he was gaining entry to the world he loved but from which he’d been excluded: writers, books, novels, collections, plays, directors, actors, reviews, biographies! And Noonan knew just about everyone.

At Euston he followed the anonymous crowd up the black platform. Everyone was hurrying. They all had their pressing little business. And he had his: an appointment to begin work on the book which might presently be on the shelves of every library. To be lifted from obscurity at last! To correspond with the famous. To meet them in pubs, restaurants, their homes. It was as if concrete blocks had been lifted from his shoulders. He took the rocking tube to NW3 and emerging pulled out the scribbled directions Noonan gave him over the phone. The day was overcast and greyness seeped from every surface. Hampstead, home of intellectuals, politicians, actors celebrities; but it seemed impossibly ordinary. The pavements were cracked and uneven, the tarmac as worn and weathered as at home, the trimmed hedges were conventionally trimmed and the untended  sprouted waving stems of privet just as they did where he came from. The place failed to meet his vague expectations.

He reconnoitred Noonan’s avenue and seeing a woman heading away from him with baguettes in her arms, wondered if it was Noonan’s wife out buying the titbits for lunch. But he was early and disappointed: he would have liked to arrive in a rush like a man with much to do, to have had the confidence to time his appearance to the minute; but the petty anxiety  he might not easily find his way made him cautious as a sparrow. He stood on the lonely corner wondering how to kill the eternal hour and a half. Was there a café? He wandered, but not too far for fear of getting lost, and coming across an estate agency, paused to consider the prices. A one-bedroomed flat on the fourth floor was thirty thousand more than his family semi. A place with four bedrooms cost more than he would earn in his entire teaching career. Walking on he passed a few shoppers, well-dressed, middle-aged, middle-class men and women with confident expressions and purposeful demeanours. He tried to look as if he knew where he was and where he was going. At length he came across a second-hand bookshop and ducking into its gloom felt more at home. He hoped he might find something, but the prices were high. Even foxed paperbacks were marked at what he’d pay for a hardback in the north. Then looking up from the rows of orange and blue spines on the packed table in front of him, he met the eyes of a face he recognised. For a few seconds, they stared into his own before the man moved to the biography shelves. Who was it? It took an instant for his aching brain to find the answer: Joseph Brodsky. He looked round in time to see him leaving. Should he go after him? What would he say? “Excuse me! Joseph Brodsky? Pleased to meet you. I’m a great admirer of your work. I’m just on my way to Barry Noonan’s. Yes, I’m working on his biography. Maybe we could grab a quick coffee?” But lacking the courage, his mind at once sprang to correction. Was he the kind of pathetic hanger-on who would do such a thing? All the same, the disturbing idea arose of mentioning it to Noonan: “Oh, I was in the bookshop round the corner and bumped into Joseph Brodsky.” The ambiguous suggestion of acquaintanceship pleased him. But the truth was he found Brodsky’s work boring.

He left the shop after what seemed a long hour only to find he still had forty-five minutes to waste. He mooched, looked in another estate agency window, read the headlines in a cramped paper shop before very slowly making his way to Noonan’s . Tall on its mound with three worn stone steps up to its racing green, brass-knockered door it immediately set Capstick thinking about prices. Three storeys and a mansarde. This alone made the famous socialist a millionaire. But perhaps he was mortgaged to his marrow. All the same, he’d need a fine income to pay it. He was trying to put these thoughts out of his mind and force himself into an easy mood when Noonan opened the door just wide enough to poke his head round as he struggled to restrain a barking, eager sheepdog whose muzzle was forced desperately through the narrow gap. Capstick looked down at the pointed snout, the unfriendly eyes and bared teeth.

“She’s friendly, honestly. Never bites. Won’t bite. She’s a guard dog, that’s all. We need a guard dog here. Quiet, Norma. It’s a friend. A friend, Norma. Quiet. She won’t bite, honestly. Just a second.”

The door closed on ferocious  yelping, the scratching of nails against polished wood and the sound of Noonan’s insistent voice:

“Quiet, Norma. Quiet. It’s a friend, Norma.”

When he opened for the second time he had his thick fingers curled round the dog’s black leather collar and as she lurched for Capstick, yanked her back so her paws lifted from the floor and her yelp rose nearly an octave.

“Come in, Sap. Come in. Quiet, Norma. It’s a friend, Norma.”

Noonan dragged the animal down the long hallway as Capstick closed the door behind him, trying to ingratiate himself with soppy baby talk, but the barking became only more fierce and Noonan’s struggle more strenuous. Capstick stood still. He became aware of the size of the place. The ceiling was at least twice his height. Ahead, broad stairs carpeted in burgundy went up to a little landing and doubled back.

“Look, I’d better put her in the kitchen for a minute till she calms down. She’ll be used to you in no time. Come on, Norma. It’s a friend. Come on.”

He tugged the sliding dog away down the hallway that narrowed to the left of the stairs leaving Capstick, who’d hoped for a smiling, handshaking welcome, looking around trying to understand why Noonan had brought the dog to the door and wondering if her obvious instinctive aversion to him was shared by her master.

“She’ll be all right now. Just not used to you. Never seen you before. She’s a friendly dog. Never bites, never bitten anybody. Come on through.”

“Thanks.”

The room they entered was divided in two, the rear part lower by two steps and in the front a great, bare wooden farmhouse table dominated, sitting in the half circle of the tall, lace-curtained bay window which, even on this dull day, shed a heartening dose of light.

“Good to meet you, anyway,” said Noonan extending his broad hand. “Did you have a good journey? I’ll just go and get Alison.”

He disappeared again and Capstick was about to sit down but restrained himself. He liked the room. It had the right kind of artistic feel. The chairs around the table didn’t match and in the lower half were two huge sofas and an armchair. There was no carpet but fringed, exotic rugs on the varnished boards and plenty of books and papers in the kind of disorder which spoke of a mind preoccupied with important things.

“This is Sap. Alison.”

Noonan circled the continent of the table, looked out of the window.

“Nice day. Good day.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Capstick shaking the hand of the little woman whose creased and ageing face still showed the strong, handsome qualities that had served her well on stage.

“Hi, do sit down.”

“Let’s have some coffee!” said Noonan.

“Yes,” said Alison. “What about  you, Sap? Coffee okay?”

“Fine, fine.”

“Are you hungry?”

“No, no.I grabbed a sandwich on the train.”

Noonan bounced off to the kitchen.

“So, how was your journey?”

“Oh, okay. No delays.”

“No. How long does it take from….?”

“Three hours. Just a bit more.”

Alison’s legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Her hands lay with the fingers intertwined in her lap. She wore jeans and a big, heavy, sloppy, burgundy sweater that reminded Capstick of his student days: the dressing down, the hippy hangover, the general derision, at least in his circle, for slick consumerism. The emollient, gentle, controlled tone of her voice made him wonder if she was acting. Behind the smalltalk he detected her desire to get to the heart of him and it made him wary. Conscious of his nervousness, he realised his oikish accent and manners gave him away. Here was a woman, well-spoken, educated who had worked in the British theatre for years and, since her marriage , had rubbed shoulders with some of the most lauded writers in the country, and here was he, a teacher from a non-descript northern town who knew no-one, had no profile and spoke like a joiner or bus driver.

“So what do you do up there in……?”

“Teach.”

“English?”

“Yes.”

“What kind of school?”

“Comprehensive.”

“That must be hard work, I guess?”

“Well, quite. Not made any easier by the government’s lunatic policies.”

“I know. Our children went to comprehensives. They did okay, though Jessica had a troubled time. I was privately educated, like Brian, so what I know of comps is all second hand. Is yours in the centre of……?”

“No, it’s in the suburbs. Middle-class place as a matter of fact.”

“Oh, you’ve got it easy then!”

“Easier than some but it’s not easy anywhere these days.”

“But the children will be biddable, won’t they? Is it mixed?”

“No, boys to sixteen, then co-ed in the sixth-form.”

“A sixth-form. That must be better.”

“Yeah. It’s a relief from the younger ones.”

“Well, you’ve got it quite cushy! How long have you been teaching?”

“Thirteen years.”

“Are you Head of Department?”

“No, I haven’t managed to get promoted.”

“And do you come from…….?

“Born and bred.”

“Ah, never had itchy feet?”

“Oh yeah. Never thought I’d go back. But you know how it is, things happen you’ve no control over. My father was ill so I went home. Needed a job. Took this one. Got married. The kids came along and moving on became more difficult.”

“Kids haven’t stopped us! We’ve been all over the place. America, Australia, Kent, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Scotland, North Wales, East Anglia. We haven’t lived in a house for more than eighteen months.”

“Really.”

“Yes. In fact I tell a lie. We’ve been here, what, twenty months I think. That’s the record.”

“So, do you still act?”

“God, no. I gave that up when Billy was born. I run a little business. Theatrical agency. My contacts were useful. It ticks over nicely and supplements what Brian can bring in.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Capstick, but he was thinking about their income. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d be visiting the rich. Noonan was known, after all, for his excoriation of privilege and inequality.

“So, is your wife a teacher?”

“No, she works in Boots, in the opticians.”

“She’s an optician herself then .”

“No, no, she’s just an assistant. Does the booking and the preliminary tests and so on.”

“I see.”

Capstick thought he detected a little collapse of interest in Alison’s tone.

“She’s got a degree. Fine art. But she didn’t want to teach and finding a job using her skills where we live…”

“Yes, pity. She’s wasted.”

“She is.”

“And how old are your children?”

“Six and four. Boy and a girl.”

“God, six and four. Long time since mine were that age. Do they get on?”

“Yes, pretty well. They have their moments but in general…”

“And you’re a writer! I’m surprised you find the time.”

“Well, I try to do a bit. The holidays are useful of course.”

“Yes, I can imagine. What have you published, then?”

“Poetry.”

“Did it sell?”

“No, small print run. Usual independent press thing. Few hundred copies. Got some nice reviews though.”

“Oh, that helps. Brian always manages to get his books reviewed where it matters. Knowing a few people is invaluable. Who publishes your books?”

“Only one actually. It was done by Bluestream press. They’re based in Rotherham. It’s a one-man outfit. John Weights. He’s a writer himself and he does a good job.”

“I see. What was your book called?”

Oranges and Lemons.”

“A children’s book!”

“No, not at all. The title’s from one of the poems which is about singing nursery rhymes to my kids.”

“Oh. Oranges and Lemons. I don’t remember hearing about it, and Brian didn’t mention it. Will he have a copy?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t send him one.”

“You must. Let us have a copy. I’d love to read it. Yes. So, is there a thriving poetry scene in……?”

“No. Nothing happens. A few of us used to meet in a pub once a fortnight and read our stuff to one another, do the odd performance and that kind of thing. But there’s no vibrant literary culture in the town.  Not that kind of place. It lacks imagination and with a small population you just don’t get sufficient numbers of interested folk.”

“That’s a shame. Brian is very friendly with the Liverpool poets, of course. But I suppose Liverpool’s a different kettle of fish. Do you get there much?”

“No, hardly ever. I go to Manchester more. But the Liverpool scene was very much of the sixties. The pop music and all that.”

“Oh, yes. Brian’s a great fan . He’s got all the records.”

“Coffee!” called Noonan balancing a wooden tray on which the cafetiere slid dangerously.

“Sap’s children are six and four, Brian. Remember those days?”

“Six and four. Yep. Great times when kids are little. Great times.”

There were three small, thick white cups decorated with a frieze of vines and little matching saucers, a bowl of brown sugar, three spoons and a generous plate of digestives nestling alongside irregular fingers of fruit cake. They had to wait for the coffee to brew.

“Have you got a copy of Sap’s book, Brian? Oranges and Lemons.”

“ Er, don’t think I have, no. Who published it?”

“Bluestream,” said Sap hoping Noonan would know the name.

“John Weights! I didn’t know he was still going.”

“Yeah, he does quite a lot. Still gets money from Yorkshire Arts.”

“He did some of Ted Byron’s stuff. Great. Great poet, Ted. Read with him in Liverpool.  Know him?”

Capstick was at once struck by the idea that being northern Noonan assumed he knew everyone who wrote poetry from Birmingham to The Borders; as if that mythical place The North was an homogenous destination where geographical, intellectual, moral and psychological distances were magically dissolved.

“No, I’ve never met him. I know his stuff of course, but our paths haven’t crossed.”

“Does he live in……….?” asked Alison.

“No, I think he lives in Manchester these days.”

Noonan pressed the plunger and poured the steaming coffee. They drank and ate, Capstick accepting a tapering column of the moist, brandy-rich fruit cake. The desultory conversation spluttered along, the Noonan’s at moments talking about matters which excluded the visitor who at once felt he’d failed to engage their interest.

“We’ll eat about two shall we, Brian?”

“Two, fine. That’s great.”

“Is there anything you particularly don’t like, Sap?”

“No, I’m pretty omnivorous.”

“Right,” said Noonan, “let’s go to my refuge!”

He led the way along the book-lined hall, through a couple of small rooms cluttered with odd bits of furniture and full of volumes at all angles, out to the garden and down the winding little crazy-paving path to a pitch-roofed shed the size of a four-berth caravan. It was served by the central system and was warm with that soporific stifle of small, over-heated places. There was a long desk which faced the stretching, oblong window out onto the garden, plenty more books and further inside, beyond the window’s extent, two armchairs, a coffee table, a television and a cooker. What Sap noticed first, however, was a little model of The Beatles sitting on the backwall shelf, complete with collarless jackets, forward-combed hair, replica guitars and a tiny drum kit behind which a beaky Ringo sat, the drumsticks in his bejewelled fists, his head tilted and thrown back in concentrated effort. Noonan noticing his glance turned to the maquette.

“I had it made,” he said, “after I first interviewed them. I was the first journalist in Britain to publish an interview. Fantastic. My proudest moment was reading on Paul’s world tour.”

Capstick nodded, smiled and pretended to be admiring the figures. He’d been a Beatles fan himself. At twelve he queued outside Hindley’s Record Shop to buy She Loves You, handing over the shillings he earned delivering papers, and from then on bought every single, E.P. and L.P., listening to them endlessly in his bedroom or with  friends in their living-rooms when their parents were out, the stylus arm rocking as it followed the groove, the thin sound emanating from the single speaker of the second-hand Dansette. It had been a delirious five years of identification with fabulous wealth and fame, a fantastic whirl of expectation that life would forever be as simple and undemanding as a Lennon-McCartney song; a mad confusion of realms in which the slick marketing of entertainment had been conflated with Harold Wilson’s promise of white-hot progress and cherry-sweet equality; and it had all come crashing humiliatingly down when at seventeen Capstick began to listen seriously to Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Stravinsky and Shostakovich and to read George Orwell, D.H.Lawrence, Walt Whitman and R.H.Tawney. He was deeply embarrassed to find himself duped, sold his pop records at once and in one of those revolts against a stupidity of our own which we can never expunge from our minds, swung to virulent dismissal of  pop culture and castigated The Beatles as musical idiots with three-minute minds.

He hadn’t expected Noonan to be as adulatory towards them as a thirteen-year-old knicker-wetter, those screaming girls whose factitious emotionalism put him off getting tickets for concerts. The image he’d evolved was of a serious man (and the house, after all, was full of weighty books); a thinking leftie, furrowed and with that dark tone to his character typical of minds that climb to the lofty and perilous branches of objectivity. Didn’t even the playful and childlike Einstein evince it? Capstick had long ago concluded that all entertainment was debased art and the reverse side of the economy’s compulsive work ethic. His instinct was to mock the childish little model and to say tush to admiration of pop music. But he was Noonan’s guest. In another man’s house, you behaved well. He’d been brought up in those strict ways of the northern working-class. He had no right. At the same time, he felt he was being tested. There was an inauthentic exaggeration in Noonan’s attitude. Was he trying to provoke him? Was he striking a pose as a man of the people, a thoroughgoing populist and daring Capstick to challenge him? He smiled and nodded as Noonan sat at his desk.

“I asked John Lennon why they’d chosen the name, and he said because a man appeared from a flaming pie and said…”

But Capstick wasn’t listening. Desperately trying to conceal his discomfort, he was running his gaze over the books. Fighting the thought he’d made a bad mistake, he was striving to adjust his thinking, already composing the sentences carefully expressing Noonan’s charming spontaneity in responding to Helter Skelter or Mary Had A Little Lamb. Noonan talked at length about his time as a journalist, how thrilled he was to get to know the Fab Four, his instrumentality in getting the first charts published in the British press, but little by little the conversation turned towards his own early life. They moved to the armchairs and Noonan sat with one heavy thigh over the other, the childlike little smile in which Capstick imagined he detected something forced often on his eyes and lips.

“Yeah, my dad was an economist. Worked for The Bank of England!” and the little smile flickered. “Don’t know what he did. Helped come up with some theory about money supply, something like that I think. He was a quiet man. When people came to the house he went out among his roses. He was a great rose-grower.”

“What was he like as a father?”

“Yeah. Er, he was kind. But my mother ruled the roost. My mother was all energy. She was a whirlwind.”

Capstick listened, threw in the occasional predictable question, nodded smiled and laughed as Noonan’s recollections oozed and spread like spilt paint. Capstick was surprised at how much his subject liked talking about himself  but at the same time struck by the odd sense of it all pouring involuntarily, as if some part of Noonan’s mind needed to unburden itself of what he knew about himself, as if there was a pursuit of blankness, of some atavistic purity, some state prior to experience. When he came to his first marriage, Capstick felt almost intrusive. He’d met Pam on a blind date organised by his great friend Doug Payne, now married to a best-selling popular novelist; they fell into a mad affair and went to Ealing Register Office after seventeen weeks; two children were born in the first two years and when the second developed a high fever and red rash at the age of three months, Pam refused to let Noonan take him to the hospital or a doctor. She belonged to a sect which believed all illness was sent from outer space; medical knowledge was powerless against it. Noonan took the child to his GP and he was admitted to hospital with measles. Pam threatened to kill him and in days he’d walked out.

Something in Noonan’s tone gave Capstick the feeling he was talking about someone else’s experience. As if it had all happened   without him being able to intervene to prevent it. And at times a curious glance appeared in Noonan’s eye, leftward and shifty which made Capstick’s heart quicken with unease. But the shape and tenor of Noonan’s life was coming together in his mind, in the way a crossword grid  fills with letters. The outline he’d created from the poems, articles and interviews was twisted into a new form. Noonan, he realised, was hardly anything like he’d imagined. 

The lunch was delightfully simple: baguettes, salad, tuna, sardines; the kind of thing Capstick might have hurled together for himself in his usual impatience with preparing food, but here, carefully combined and presented, as straightforward but attractive as Alison’s clothes. For dessert there were raspberries and ice-cream. The big tub of vanilla sat beside the steep white dish which gleamed starkly against the red juice of the marinating fruit and when Capstick wanted a second helping he hesitated to use the spoon he’d already eaten from. But as there was no communal cutlery, he wondered if the Noonans were unfussy. Perhaps the best thing was to do without. But then he thought that might appear churlish. To eat heartily was a compliment. So he sank his spoon in the soft yellow just as Noonan turned from the table, skipped down the steps and disappeared. In seconds he was back with a serving spoon, but seeing Capstick’s heaped dish, tried to conceal his motivation by tapping it against his palm before discreetly slipping it onto the table. Capstick felt the heat in his cheeks but what could he do except continue to lift the melting, sweet stuff to his mouth?

The little mortification of the table stayed with him all afternoon as they sat in the cabin, Noonan elaborating enthusiastically more details of his life.

“I’ve written a short autobiog. Up to eighteen. I like childhood. Publisher offered me ten thousand but I’m sticking out for twenty.”

Capstick nodded but he wanted to exclaim: “You turned down ten grand! I have to work a year to bring that home!”  

And as the one-sided conversation rattled along, Capstick became more and more conscious of the gulf between his socialist subject and his own experience as an easy-going oik. He couldn’t expel from his mind the thought that Noonan was very much a product of his upper-middle-class, public-school, Oxford background.

“I had to leave the Courier. Changed the office. I was put in this place with no windows. I couldn’t stand it. Gave me nightmares. So I walked out. Mortgage, kids, mmm. Rang Johnny Ovenden, he was editing The Mirror. Went down to see him and he gave me a weekly column and that let us move to London.”

“How did you know him?”

“He was at Oxford with me.”

Capstick ran the story through his mind: a change in working conditions; gives up his job; rings an old friend who finds him another and better; and comparing this to his own working life, the keeping going day after day whatever the conditions, which was most people’s fate, he felt flat and out-of-place. Noonan’s was the old-boy-network world, closed, self-flattering and hypocritical. How could that be squared with socialism? It barely even tallied with Tory meritocracy. It was essentially a nexus of inherited privilege. He was inured by the time Noonan told about the play on Richmal Crompton he’d written and sold for ten thousand to his old friend Sir Michael Horne at the National, even though it was never performed.

By the time Capstick had to leave to catch his train, he was beginning to feel a weight of negativity bearing down on his mind. Perhaps it would be better to give up the idea? But when, as he was pulling on his shapeless coat, Noonan said:

“Well, maybe the article then?”

Capstick insisted:

“No, no. I’d like to have a go at the book.”

The phone rang. Alison answered. It was Noonan’s eldest son. There was some problem so Capstick gently withdrew and waited outside while they talked. On the way to the station, Noonan said:

“My son Colin’s manic-depressive. Thirteen years this has been going on.”

Capstick looked at him, his eyes on the pavement, his face curiously intense but bewildered. He felt atrociously sorry for him and grateful for his hospitality and the kindness of walking him to the tube; but at the same time he felt an uncomfortable sense of revolt against the assumptions of his culture.

It wasn’t uncomfortable enough, however, to make Capstick change his mind; or rather, he persisted in a perverse defiance of a better impulse. The first draft of the first chapter went off to Noonan. Pages of questions were responded to by tapes of Noonan’s halting baritone. Capstick typed away, banged off letters. Wrote and rewrote and the manuscript was touching fifty thousand words. His wife excitedly told all their friends about the project. Capstick began to try to interest publishers and agents. He wrote to Henry Judge, the famous poet who’d been at Oxford with Noonan, but he refused to answer any questions until the manuscript had been placed. Then he needed to contact William Broughton who Noonan had worked with on a translation of Ovid.

Do you have a current address for Bill Broughton?” he wrote.

Two days later came the brief reply:

Dear Sap,

How dare you call my good friend Bill? It’s William Broughton, even to those closest to him, among whom I’m proud to count myself.

Capstick was flabbergasted and at a loss. This little jab in the sternum from a man who proclaimed himself an enemy of all pomposity, who identified with all-boundaries-down pop culture, who claimed to be an avid supporter of Liverpool F.C., seemed like simple snobbery, a public school rebuke to a vertical-invading oik. To lift himself from his humiliation, Capstick wanted to write back:

Don’t be such a snooty toffee-nosed cissy. Do you think the working folk you claim to support go around calling one another, James, Kenneth, Joseph, Andrew, Stanley and Edward all day long?

But he was restrained by fear of Noonan’s withdrawal. It occurred to him that the response was perhaps a way of putting him off. Maybe Noonan just didn’t have confidence in him, was fed up with the project but too polite to say. The more it nagged, the more he wondered if Noonan was right: maybe it was intrusive and impertinent of him to use a diminutive about his friend; maybe the easy-going ways of the back-street culture Capstick was raised in were sentimental; perhaps the more formal manners of Noonan’s upper-middle-class culture really were superior. The thought that the fault was with him made him writhe and worry. But he soon rebelled and felt like giving up. He’d chosen Noonan because of his public image as a subversive, a mischievous imp, always willing to spike inherited privilege, inequality, the power of money. Now he found himself put down for a trivial lapse.

He thought better of renunciation, however, imagining his book on the shelves of Waterstones in every town from Exeter to Inverness. It was worth playing down Noonan’s brittle petulance for the prize of publication. It happened that Noonan was on tour. Once a year his agent organized a thirty venue sprint, he pulled in a thousand quid a night, and retired to his cabin for months. He was reading in York so Capstick said he’d get over, and bring his wife. Noonan promised to arrange free tickets and the generosity was a balm. The throbbing sore of Capstick’s injured pride which made his heart skip and his mouth go dry calmed. The Saturday arrived. They drove over early, ate in a gentle vegetarian, mooched in the busy, narrow streets. Capstick browsed a couple of well-stocked, dusty second-hands. At seven they turned up at the venue and, leaning on the tall, pale walnut counter he asked the little dark woman in glasses and a purple blouse unbuttoned to her cleveage:

“Is there a pair of tickets for Capstick?”

“Capstick?”

She foraged. Her long white fingers whose nails were painted black flicked through the tickets in a long, narrow wooden box.

“No, sorry. When did you ring?”

“Oh, I didn’t ring. Brian Noonan was supposed to be organizing it.”

“I see. I’ll just check.”

She clicked and twitched her mouse, her little dark eyes scanning the screen.

“No, there’s no message. Just hang on a minute.”

She disappeared through a rear door. Capstick turned to his wife who raised her brows and tilted her head. He shook his. She turned away and idly surveyed a poster. He drummed his fingers, tried to assume an untroubled demeanour. The two minutes before she came back seemed very long.

“No, he hasn’t left anything, but if you’d like to go through those doors at the end John South will have a word with you. He’s the arts officer.”

“Thanks very much.”

Capstick gestured to his wife who followed him as he strode. His confidence rallied. He’d come across South in writing workshops, at readings and their poems had appeared in the same little magazines. The couple passed through the swing doors and found the bearded little man spreading books and leaflets over a large table. He turned and looked at them over his round, gold-framed glasses, went back to his work and made them wait a few seconds.

“What’s the problem?” he said coming towards them.

He was dressed in clean, neatly-ironed jeans and a fawn crew-neck sweater which met the thick hair of his neck. It was obvious he wasn’t going to acknowledge Capstick.

“There should be a couple of tickets for us. Brian Noonan was organizing them.”

South shook his head and turned down his mouth. His fixed gaze was an accusation. Capstick felt a little rage rising.

“I’m working on a biography of him you see. He promised he’d set the tickets aside.”

South went on shaking his head in the same way and his look was all disdain for a cheap trick.

“There’s nothing here,” he said. “Brian didn’t mention it.”

“Has he arrived?” said Capstick.

“Yeah.”

“Can I speak to him?”

Capstick’s confidence was now at a critical point: if he got to speak to Noonan, he would make South look silly. The poet would admit his neglect, tell South to sort out the complimentaries. Capstick would be vindicated and take his seat serenely. But South shook his head again.

“No chance.”

Capstick, standing no more than a metre away fixed him.  South looked back, a little sneer on his lips. In those two seconds, Capstick had to decide: either there would be a row or he would have to withdraw, but he knew that if he started to raise the temperature he’d lose his sang-froid and in seconds he’d be saying things he’d regret.

“Okay.”

He walked out calmly, his wife beside him. When they were through the doors she said:

“Officious little man!”

“Pillock!”

“What shall we do?”

Capstick would have gladly left, gone to the cinema, found a pub, but the sense of duty the biography had become weighed. At the counter he handed over his card and as he waited for the quick little woman to process and deliver the tickets, the awful sense came over him that she thought he was a charlatan.

“That’s thirty pounds,” she said and once in his seat Capstick couldn’t keep himself from a quick headcount: three hundred. What was Noonan pulling in. A grand? Two? And then the book signings.

The lights went down. He galloped on stage, somewhat awkward and overweight and went through the routine he’d perfected over the decades: the early stuff first, the old favourites like Magna Carta Milk Shake , then the newer stuff, interspersed with songs and piano accompaniment. When it was over there were queues for signatures. Capstick caught Noonan’s eye as he was sitting down, but he quickly put on his glasses and picked up his pen.

In the car on the way home Capstick’s wife said:

“He’s a bit babyish, isn’t he?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, the way he skipped on stage, like a lamb in spring. It just struck me as sort of, infantile.”

“Maybe.”

A few days later Capstick got a reply from Victor Brown, an old Oxford friend of Noonan’s, a poet who was close to Kingsley Amis and John Wain, and married to the biographer Sally Brown who had written lives of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Marie Corelli:

Get back to me when you’ve done some proper work.

His wife had appended a little hand-written note:

I suppose it’s too early yet to go into details about the breakdown of the first marriage, all that heartache…

Capstick, who disliked Brown’s collar-and-tie poetry, was furious. Some proper work! It was true the manuscript was still first draft, but he was teaching full-time, looking after a young family and writing in the gaps. Brown, manufacturing marathon reviews for the Sundays, could get up in the morning and sit at his screen all day. Capstick was all but ready to give up, but though the work he’d done was only preparatory, it amounted to hundreds of hours. If he could interest a publisher, the effort wouldn’t have been wasted. He switched his attention. For weeks he did nothing in his spare time but bang out letters and sample chapters to publishers and agents. After seventy-five rejections, he decided they’d made his mind up for him.

He let time go by without adding a word or making contact with Noonan. At length, he got a note. He replied that he’d tried hard to raise interest, but no-one wanted the book. In the circumstances, he didn’t feel it worth carrying on. Noonan graciously thanked him for what he’d done, expressed regret that there was so little response and asked if he’d keep the material, just in case someone else came along.

Capstick packed it all in a cardboard box and put it in the attic. Eighteen months later a flyer arrived from the local theatre: Brian Noonan was on tour. He dropped it in the bin and didn’t mention it to his wife.

 


 

EH ?

 

In those days, he’d believed he would have his own office and the power to spend his days telling others what to do. He was relaxing strenuously in his extension: it’d cost £15,000 but that was before the credit crunch wiped £23,000 off his investments. He knew it was true: playing the markets meant you could get skinned, yet he felt an injustice had been done him: he was a small investor, he’d trusted the system; he expected to see his money grow steadily; and even though it might recover, it was a big loss and made him disgruntled and moody. He reflected on his place in the hierarchy; as he liked to say to the pupils, he was the ninth most senior member of staff. All the same, when he thought of what he’d expected, his feelings became ugly. He would’ve liked to hit somebody, to swing his thin arm and watch his petty fist break someone’s lips. He set the paper aside and got up.  He needed to be doing something but the lawn was shorn and clipped, the hedges had short back and sides, the flower beds were bare of weeds, the kitchen was spotless, his shirts were ironed, the carpets showed not a crumb, the bed had been changed, he washed the car the day before, nothing was out of place. How many people in Britain could say that ? How many people had his values ? He went into the kitchen and wiped down the pristine surfaces then picked up the phone and rang Gowling to see if he wanted a game of tennis.

Gowling brought along Durran and Kubick.

Though he’d worked with him for fifteen years, Strickland had never thought of Kubick as a tennis player, but here he was in his whites, a professional-looking, full-faced racquet under his arm, oozing  that infuriating ease which elicited such murderous impulses in Strickland. The other three were Sunday players whose approximate hand-eye coordination and slowness around the court marked them out as dilettantes, but from the first, it was obvious Kubick was a natural. He swung the racquet fluidly, struck the sweet spot, kept the ball low over the net, sent it skidding down the tramlines, tucked it in just behind the baseline, smashed it so it was impossible to return, served swerving aces and made Strickland look stupid as he lurched and reached or stood stark still as another passing shot left him nailed to the shale.

“How’m I supposed to get that back ? Eh ?” he called.

As they changed ends, he pushed his face close to Kubick’s and said:

“I just can’t get those back ! They’re impossible ! Impossible !”

Kubick and Gowling won the first set 6-0 the second 6-2, at which Srickland declared:

“Let’s change pairs, eh ?”

He ordained he was to play with Kubick. While his partner took his position for service at the baseline, he walked over to him, his head bowed as if great matters of State weighed on his mind:

“Play on Will’s backhand. Eh? That’s their weakness.”

Kubick gave a short nod, looked inscrutable, and when Strickland had taken his stance close to the net, delivered an ace which lodged the ball in the trembling green netting. Strickland came to speak to him.

“Good shot. Don’t try it this time. Don’t want any double faults, do we? Eh?”

Kubick served the first ball into the net. Strickland trotted to him:

“Slow it down. Put it on his backhand, eh ? I’ve got the net covered.”

Kubick’s second serve, faster than the first landed plum in the corner of the service court, kicked off to the right, rose no more that three inches and left the receiver bent and intent in anticipation. Strickland ran to Kubick.

“Lucky shot. Too risky. Second serves nice and slow from now on, eh? Remember. I’ve got the net covered.”

Kubick won his service game to love; he walked towards the net, Strickland alongside him:

“Good start, but take my advice. Play on the backhand like I said. Don’t take risks with the serve. You stay at the back for this game. I’ll cover the net.”

Durran took the serve; he was one of those players who have never mastered the sequence of throwing the ball, launching the head of the racquet from an arm crooked at the elbow, getting the whole weight of the body behind the shot, lifting both feet from the ground, and following through fully; so he tossed the furry, yellow sphere timidly in front of his face and patted it with a stabbing jolt; it flew high and plopped wearily into the middle of the service court. Kubick stroked it at moderate pace past Gowling who was gargoyling the net. By the time he looked behind him, the ball was rolling gently under the steel and netting door.

“Well done,” said Strickland, “but you should’ve played it cross court. Buddy could’ve reached that and put it past you down the tramline, eh ?”

Strickland stood a foot behind the baseline to receive, as if Pete Sampras were about to deliver the serve of his life. The first attempt hit the net, the second limped over so unwillingly, bounced with such apology and rose with all the energy of an octogenarian getting up in the night, Strickland, though he sprinted in his ungainly, lanky way, could only hold out the strings to the dead ball like a mendicant child offering her bowl to a politician.

“What was that ? Eh ? Was that supposed to be a serve ? How am I supposed to get that back ? I think you should take that again. What do you think Stefan ? Eh ? He should take that again. I wasn’t ready.”

“It was a perfectly legal serve,” said Gowling.

“Legal ? Legal ? We’re not in a court of law. Eh ? I wasn’t ready. That’s why I couldn’t get to it.”

“You looked ready,” said Gowling.

“I may have looked ready,” said Strickland with exaggerated reasonableness, “but I wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know he was about to serve.”

“The serve was good,” said Kubick.

“I know it was good, Stefan. I’m not saying it wasn’t good. There’s no argument about that. I’m saying I wasn’t ready. Do you get my point ? Eh?”

The other three looked at one another and acceded to Strickland’s unreasonable request. Durran tapped his first serve feebly into the net. The second went high, dunked into the service court, bounced in slow motion as Strickland came in for the kill; he swung with all the ferocity he could muster, attempting to put on top spin as he’d watched Kubick do, but caught the ball with the top edge and sent it sailing gracefully over the netting into the neighbouring garden.

“Can’t you serve properly ?” he called to Durran.

“It was in.”

“I know it was in, but what kind of serve is that ? How am I supposed to return something that bounces this high ? Eh ?”

When it came to Strickland’s service game, he rattled off three double faults in a row.

“Is that net the right height ?” he called.

Durran and Gowling won the set 7-5.

Back in his extension, trying to convince himself the effort had done him good and he was at ease, Strickland felt more restless than ever. He was convinced Kubick had lost the set on purpose. On the losing side three times ! Of course, he couldn’t convince anyone, not even himself, he was a better player than Kubick, but he was certainly a better tactician. Kubick’s problem was:  all talent and no guile. Was it any wonder they lost ? He went into the garden and trimmed the impeccable lawn. Coming back into the house, he noticed a faint footprint on the laminate floor and spent the next hour cleaning every millimetre with disinfected wipes.

At teatime, he decided to walk to the newsagents for an evening paper, though there was never anything in it. In the neighbourhood was a vagrant, a man wrapped in a heavy overcoat tied with thick string in the warmest weather; he was crossed-eyed, filthy-bearded, had only the black stumps of three teeth, and dragged his right leg heavily in his hurrying locomotion; if he came close enough, your nostrils would fill with his acrid stink, and if he could capture your attention for a second, he would limp along beside you as he told of the horrible accident which left him halt;  when he came to the point where he declared:

“But ah can still ger about ! Ha, ha!”

his survivor’s cackle would rise from his rough throat and fill your ears with the sound of madness. No-one knew where he came from or where he spent his nights, but day after day he would be seen, hauling his useless limb from rubbish bin to rubbish bin, sleeping in the afternoon on the bench in the little park, reading the inscriptions on the cemetery headstones, ducking behind the shops to ferret in the skips. As Strickland turned the corner out of his avenue of 1960s dormer bungalows, the old man appeared.

“I ‘ad a bad accident,” he croaked.

Strickland ignored him and tried to quicken his pace.

“Threw me t’other side’t road. Big van. Ah was in’t ‘ospital five month.”

Strickland crossed over and with a little skip onto the pavement, ran a couple of yards, but the tramp caught up with him; his breathing was short and heavy, the stench from his sordid clothes felt like an infection and he talked on and on, repeating the same phrases as if he’d learned them for a performance and the quicker Strickland walked, the more his exerted himself, till sweat ran down his filthy cheeks and thick spittle dripped from his lips and off his chin.

Not till he was in the shop did Strickland manage to shake him off.

“They should do something about that bloke,” he said to the newsagent. “He shouldn’t be allowed to wander the avenues like that. Eh ?”

“Freedom, innit,” replied the bald, paunchy Mr Hoque.

“What about my freedom, eh ? This is a good area. My bungalow’s worth 200 grand. I had an extension built, cost me nearly twenty thousand. People like that hanging round it puts buyers off. Eh? He should be locked up.”

“He ain’t a criminal innit ? Can’t lock people up for stinkin’ !” and the little Asian rocked lightly with easy laughter, pleased at his own formulation.

“I’m not saying he’s a criminal. I mean he should be locked away for his own good. Someone should be looking after him.”

“Who’s gonna pay innit ? You wanna pay more taxes ? He can walk the streets all I care. Come in my shop I spray ‘im with disinfectant. Only way innit?”

Strickland paid and left, an ugly sneer of hurt and disdain on his face. He saw the vagrant disappearing in the distance and wondered if he should ring the police when he got home. Wasn’t it harassment after all ? Such freaks were to be expected in town, but a residential area like this needed to be exclusive. His property  was at the lower end of the price range; there were no council houses, or as they say these days social housing; it was resolutely middle-class and above. Everyone who lived here was respectable. It wasn’t right the stench of a down-and-out should linger in the garden-fragranced air. It occurred to him there was something of the unwelcome outcast about Kubick. He’d been in his house only once: knowing he’d never be invited, he’d invented a pretext and turned up one Wednesday evening at eight; the three children, all under seven were running round naked; there were babygrows drying on every available hook; odd socks and shoes lay here and there; the dining table was piled with washing, newspapers, books and toys; in the kitchen, where he was taken for coffee, the two sinks were full of pots; the drainers hadn’t been emptied; pans were stacked on the hob; the lawn was weeks tall; the wrought-iron front gate badly needed painting. It was horrible. When he mentioned it to a colleague she said:

“Well, three young kids..”

He lifted his chin and turned away. The reminder of his unmarried, childless state pained him. Was she saying that kind of untidiness was justified ! And if he had three children, they’d be in bed by six thirty. No, Kubick lacked something. He had no values. Or not the right ones. He was always scurrying off to art galleries and classical concerts of course, and he played the French horn in some kind of outfit. But what kind of person puts going to an art gallery before mowing the lawn ? Eh ? It just wasn’t right.

On the first Monday after the half-term, Strickland took an executive decision: he challenged Kubick to a singles match.

“Too busy. And I’m knackered.Work and the kids and then Tina’s seldom home before seven these day….”

“Sunday,” said Strickland. “Eh ? You can get out for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon can’t you ?”

“It wouldn’t take me a couple of hours,” replied Kubick with a wry grin.

“Eh ?”

But Strickland couldn’t persuade him and slighted by the refusal he regretted he couldn’t order Kubick to play; he was his Subject Leader, after all. Perhaps he could arrange a departmental round robin ? That would be quasi official. Then it came to him that Laura Lindsell was leaving at the end of term; there would have to be a celebration; he could arrange a tennis party and barbecue. How could Kubick refuse ? He spoke to each of his six colleagues in turn, leaving Kubick to last.

“Stefan,” he said, sitting too close to him in the staffroom, “we’re having a little do for Laura. You know she’s leaving at the end of term ? Well, I’ve spoken to all the other colleagues in the department and suggested either going out for a meal or having a barbecue at my house. Could you let me know, no later than Wednesday, which you prefer. Eh? Is that okay ?”

Kubick nodded, went on reading the paper and said:

“I prefer going out somewhere.”

“Eh ?”

“A restaurant. Neutral ground. I always think that’s better.”

“Right. Right.”

Strickland sought out Wendy Dunmore, his dutiful second-in-department.

“I think we should have a barbecue, don’t you ? Eh ?”

“What’s the consensus ?”

“I’ve asked everyone to tell me their preference by Wednesday, at the latest, but I think I should make an executive decision. A barbecue at my house. It’s more personal. Eh? We can play tennis here first. Round robin. Everybody plays everybody.”

“Well, I don’t mind, but shouldn’t we go with majority?”

“That’s very democratic,” said Strickland with a squirm, “but I’m Subject Leader. I feel a special responsibility. If we go out somewhere, it doesn’t have the same departmental feel.”

“If the others are happy.”

“Stefan wants to go to a restaurant.”

“Oh.”

“Well, he would wouldn’t he ?”

“Why ?”

“Between you and me,” and Strickland lowered his voice conspiratorially, “he’s scared I’ll beat him at tennis.”

“I didn’t know he played.”

“Like everything, he does it sloppily. He’s got the shots but no discipline, no tactics.”

“Okay. Barbecue is fine by me. When ?”

“The thing is, I want you to speak to Stefan. You know what he’s like, if I tell him I’ve made an executive decision he’ll go all power-to-the-people. You talk to him. Tell him there’ll be a barbecue and tennis tournament and everyone has to come to make it work.”

“I can’t tell him he has to come.”

“For the numbers. Six. If there are only five it won’t work.”

“Why not, if everybody plays everybody?”

“What I mean is it won’t work as well. And if there are six we can make three pairs for doubles.”

“When will it be ?”

“Sunday 30th.”

“I can’t tell him he has to come on a Sunday.”

“You can’t tell him he has to come but you can tell him everyone is coming. If he doesn’t turn up he’ll ruin it.”

“Well, I can ask him and see.”

“The other thing is, people will have to make a contribution.”

“Fair enough.”

“I can’t fork out for a barbecue for everyone, so I thought ten pounds a head. That’s reasonable. Eh ?”

“I don’t mind.”

“So if you could tell him and report back to me. Asap. Eh ?”

“Okay.”

Though she disliked being Strickland’s go-between and dogsbody, Dumore was too complaisant, too timid of authority and too hesitant of her boss’s moods to gainsay him. She knew his sulks, his tempers and she knew how he could request her to stay after school for a management meeting at which she found herself alone with his complaints, whines and demands. On one occasion he’d talked for fifty-five minutes about how he’d been through a black period, felt he was coming out of it, was overwhelmed with work, was the only person on the staff who did his job properly, was marking books till midnight every night and was paid a measly seven thousand extra for his responsibility. She agreed, commiserated, smiled, cajoled;  he talked for twenty-five minutes more about his extension: the workmen were lazy, the mess was atrocious, every day he had to complain, and it was costing him fifteen grand ! She had learnt to bend to his needs, whims and exigencies.

She took the message to Kubick.

“Sunday ?”

“That’s the only day everyone can make,” she lied.

“No, I’m busy that afternoon.”

She went back to Strickland.

“Busy ? Eh? How can he be busy on a Sunday? This is a departmental event. He can’t just say no. He’s letting the team down. Go back to him and tell him.”

“Tell him what ?”

“That it’s departmental. Ask him what he’s doing. What can be so important? Eh? This is a colleague leaving and I’m doing a barbecue at my home. The whole department should be there.”

“But it’s a Sunday, Leslie. We can’t order him to come.”

“I’m not ordering him,” he protested, while his head bent forward as if under the strain of explaining world-shattering complexities to an idiot, “but it’s departmental. Everyone has to make an effort. Eh ?”

She went back to Kubick.

“Leslie wants to know why you can’t come to Linda’s leaving do.”

“Sorry ?”

“He says it’s departmental. Everyone should be there.”

Kubick shifted in his chair.

“It’s my mother’s birthday. We’re having a party.”

The flatness of his delivery and the intentness of his stare made the lie blatant.

“You didn’t say it was your mother’s birthday before,” she said without thinking.

“I’d forgotten.”

She went back to Strickland.

“The lying bastard !”

“That’s his excuse.”

“Did you tell him everyone else will be there ?”

“Yes.”

“He’s not one of the team.What am I supposed to do ? Eh? I’m organising this in my own time. People are coming to my house. He should make an effort. Eh ?”

Having announced the round robin, he had to go ahead. He abandoned the doubles and in the singles was beaten by two of the women.

“You kept playing on my backhand !” he protested as he left the court after his first 6-0 defeat. “I can’t get them back. It’s impossible.”

The little red-headed woman looked up at him, her freckled face flushed from effort.

“You didn’t do too badly,” she said.

“Eh ?”

The barbecue began well. He’d made marinated pork kebabs, salmon in foil dressed with a lime and coriander sauce, coleslaw with his own mayonnaise, Cumberland thick sausages in hot dogs with caramelised onions, spicy burgers, chicken thighs drenched in a Mexican concoction he dreamed up the night before, three salads, one with mustard and honey , another with balsamic vinegar and garlic and the last with classis French vinaigrette; there was a tarte aux abricots, a fresh fruit salad, crème brulée, a richly alcoholised trifle and thirteen different cheeses with a selection of savoury biscuits.

“Good, eh?” he said as he served another hot dog. “Those onions, I do them my own way. You won’t taste better anywhere. Eh ?”

His colleagues and their partners complimented him on his skill and attention to detail; but shortly before five a sudden wind began to shake the awning, the branches of the blossoming apple tree rocked, black clouds swept in from the west and in ten minutes, a fierce rain whose giant drops seemed to explode on the dry patio and which battered the fuchsias in the hanging baskets by the door, whipped everyone indoors where the rescued food huddled on the work surfaces. The downpour grew worse over the next hour, the kitchen began to feel chilly and one by one the guests made their excuses. By seven he was alone with a ballast of food heavy enough to sink a small vessel, the house growing cold, the light fading and the rain, energetic and relentless, beating its mad tattoo on the windows. He spooned trifle into a bowl and went and looked out onto his front garden and the avenue. His colleague’s comment: You didn’t do too badly, tormented him. He saw himself at twenty-two. There was nothing in his way. The ambitious young man he’d once been, sure of advancement, disdainful of the competition had become a middle-aged, semi-success, thwarted, haunted by doubt and resentment. He hadn’t done too badly; but when he thought of those who’d risen beyond him, all the rains of the world lashed viciously about his head.

Something moved at the edge of his vision; he turned to see the tramp, dripping, struggling. He stopped directly opposite and nodding madly, holding his hands out under the deluge, began to cackle as if the apocalypse was imminent and he was glad. The black cavern of his mouth disgusted Strickland. He waved him away, but the old man thinking he was beckoning, clicked open the gate.

Strickland picked up his mobile and rang the police.


CASTILLOS EN ESPAÑA

Mrs Bremner was thrilled when she was called for interview at Whitechapel Grammar.   Its  reputation was severe. She would belong  to the educational elite; its results were the best in the county, outside the private schools, and though she would’ve preferred to work in one of those, Whitechapel was next best. There were four interviewees. What swung it for Mrs Bremner was her pedigree. She’d  been sent to private school herself. True, she got her degree from Portsmouth Poly, but her compliant demeanour and obvious bending before the centuries-old cachet was appreciated. She was determined to make the best of her good luck. She knew how to ingratiate herself. And her boss found her extraordinarily attractive.

David Scurfield knew how to ingratiate himself too. He was one of those public-school educated men, sensitised early to minute differences of status, who throw themselves at the world, like a baby onto a bed, in pursuit of full acceptance. Born as the Second World War ended, he was inevitably influenced by the new atmosphere. At the age when he began to think politically, the NHS was in place, rail, coal and steel were nationalised, trade union leaders on the television every day and The Beatles about to become a best-selling commodity.  The old order seemed to be crumbling. When Alec Douglas-Home was defeated by a grammar-school boy from Huddersfield who’d made common cause with an energetic orator from the Welsh coalfields, Scurfield felt his private-school background might soon become a symbol of dishonour. Had the Tories remained in power, he would’ve looked for a job in a private school. Instead, he applied to grammars. He wouldn’t’ve contemplated a secondary modern, but not wanting to look antediluvian if the social mind changed utterly, he became a firm supporter of comprehensive schools. He voted Labour because he believed social democracy was the best defence against socialism.

The day Caroline Bremner was interviewed, he decided he’d  have an affair with her. She was young, ambitious and ready to please.  He was sixteen years older, experienced, cynical and sure of success.

Twenty years later he still hadn’t got her into bed and comprehensivisation had done its work. The local ex-secondary modern, which had trailed badly when Bremner was appointed, now rivalled Whitechapel for results. The laurels on which the place had rested for years were withered. She was forty-two. Scurfield was inches from retirement, but his campaign didn’t falter. Tantalised but kept on a stiff leash, he rode the rising and crashing of his anticipation and disappointment without ever telling himself the truth. All he needed was the right moment to wrap his arms around her waist from behind or to press his palms on the breasts so diligently displayed beneath her tight, open-necked blouses. Like a boy who clings into adulthood to the illusion of a footballing career, he saw himself successful where in fact there was no possibility.  By astute manipulation, by batting her eyelashes and waving her marriage certificate, she’d kept him keen and got herself promoted, but she would have arced at the suggestion. She believed herself thoroughly professional and her advancement the proper reward for hard work.  All the same, eighteen more years ! She wished she’d taken a job in the private sector.

“I can’t go on for all that time !” she complained to her husband. “There must be a better life. The discipline is atrocious. Eighteen years ! There’s got to be a way out.”

Charlie Bremner was retired. He was twenty years older, had worked in education too, lecturing for a time and then finding his way into administration, which meant having an office of his own and pretending to take important decisions. He was old enough for the sense of age’s reductions to play keenly on his mind. He saw himself at eighty, slow and stiff, unable any longer to adequately tend the garden or walk in the hills, and though his own pension was enough, Caroline’s career would provide the compensatory material ease. He’d encouraged her to push, hoped she’d make it to Headteacher and filled the backs of dozens of envelopes with spatchcock sums. As she’d complained more and more about declining behaviour, increasing management intrusion and the long wait to maybe put on a dead man’s suit, disappointment dragged at his nerves. There must be some means to turn all this descent to advantage.

“Spain !” he said.

“Are you serious ?”

“Why not ? There are loads of opportunities in private schools. You can teach the cream. And we can get away from the rain and the milky skies.”

He believed Spain was relatively backward educationally. A well-qualified, experienced woman like Caroline could take a school by storm. There was easy money to be made from the monied looking for qualifications for their children. And wasn’t Britain still regarded world-wide as the best source of certificates? In the long run, they might own their own school; only the rich would get through the door; the fees would exceed the average income; they would pay the staff modestly and make them work for every penny. He imagined a white hill-top villa looking towards Africa. He would sit by the pool dozing or reading something light beneath a sky of taut, uninterrupted blue. The days would blend into one another and the hours would pass in untroubled delight. His old age would be warmed by gentle winds. He would decline slowly towards death as Caroline kept  money cascading into the bank. With no children because she found them noisy and importunate and thus denied the delight of grandparenting, the money, the light, the food, the wine, the villa would comfort him.

  They began their research on the web. There were plenty of schools  looking for English teachers. She got herself on an EFL course. They took the car on the ferry to Bilbao and spent four weeks of the summer touring.

“It’s a wonderful country,” she said to her colleagues in September. “The south is where I fancy. Malaga. You should see the skies down there.”

“Oh, lucky you !”

“Yes, I can’t wait.”

They sold their big house in the suburbs for three hundred thousand and moved into cramped rented accommodation. All their furniture was in storage. It was simply a matter of hitting on the right school. She applied to one in Badajos but they turned her down at interview. She’d gone alone and sitting at a café table in the early evening she tried to convince herself the alienation she felt was a passing phenomenon. Her Home Counties posture, her Marks and Spencer’s dress sense, her fixed little smile of tolerant condescension marked her as unflinchingly English and resolutely middle-class. She would always be an outsider. Some people were able, after a time in a foreign place, to modify their habits by imperceptible stages so they became, at least superficially, indistinguishable from the born and bred; but she could never be like these dark-skinned Spaniards who walked with a sensuous sway and seemed to inhabit a realm of timelessness. Mañana. She was familiar with the cliché but there was something more than just putting things off: even the men with briefcases, no doubt involved in serious business, looked as if they cared about nothing more than the next glass of  red. She ate an olive, gingerly skewing it on her pick. She noticed a man at another table targeting her with fanatical dark eyes. Walking back to her hotel in the stifling heat she was convinced he was behind her, but when she turned to look there was just a shuffling old woman in a black dress down to her ankles and a boy on a bike.

“The place wasn’t for me,” she said to Charlie. “Very unfriendly.”

 She tried another in Madrid. Nothing. She kept sending  her CV and carefully phrased letter. The weeks and months went by; she began to think it wasn’t going to be so easy after all.

“Nothing to worry about,” said Charles. “There are bound to be hoards of applicants. Everyone wants to work there. The life is amazing. For three hundred grand we’ll be able to afford a huge villa with acres of land. We’ll grow grapes, olives and oranges. Think of it, Caroline, stepping out in the morning and picking oranges off your own trees. Who wouldn’t want that ? You’ll get something in the long run.”

And wasn’t Charles proven right ? She was invited to attend at the Amanda De Rome Academy on the outskirts of Malaga ! Could it have been more perfect ? She considered she handled the jealousy of her colleagues with great aplomb. It was a shame for them. They were staying in the rainy north in the grim atmosphere of schools under threat from Ofsted, league tables, unreasonable parents and children who learned their manners from television chefs. She was on her way to a sunny, easy-going country, a school where the pupils had to pay to be taught, were kicked out if they didn’t behave, teachers were respected and the plentiful private tuition guaranteed to double her income.

There was a sentimental farewell at Whitechapel. The customary collection raised £187.56. When Laura Mountcastle, subject leader for Modern Languages, left, they bought her a kayak and a life jacket. How much would that come to ? She’d been in the school almost as long. Her position wasn’t as elevated, but all the same her title was senior tutor without departmental responsibility. Jealousy, she reasoned, must have held her colleagues back. She made a smiling little speech in which she fulsomely expressed how much she’d miss everyone and what a wonderful place Whitechapel was. Scurfield kissed her on the cheek and held her too long and too close.  A month and half  later, she and Charlie moved into their rent-free apartment. Concrete, flat-roofed, one-bedroomed, when the temperature fell that night they piled jumpers and dressing-gowns on the bed. The shower didn’t work, they found cockroaches in the kitchen cupboards and the rings on the gas cooker burned with such feeble intensity warming a pan of beans took half an hour.

She complained. They’d been promised proper quarters. They were used to comfortable circumstances. They must be found something else.

“There is nothing else,” said Ms De Rome. “This is the only temporary accommodation we have.”

“We expected a decent flat. The place is freezing at night and there’s no heating.”

“But it’s only temporary. You will find a house soon.”

Having to make do, they ate out every night, went back as late as possible, wore thick t-shirts in bed and left little trails of white, insecticide around the kitchen. They started looking for houses but the prices were far higher than they’d imagined and some of them were tucked away in the hills, ten or fifteen miles from the school.

“That’s for the long-term,” said Charlie philosophically, as if they could live as they were for a decade.

Eager to begin teaching, Caroline believed that once she was underway, the teething problems would resolve themselves; but her timetable was so heavy she barely had a minute to herself; she was expected to work on Saturdays (was that in the contract ?); the pupils were spoiled and arrogant and at the end of September, her pay failed to appear in her bank account.

“It sometimes happens,” said Ms De Rome as if a tap had started dripping. “I will speak to accounts.”

By the end of October, not a euro had appeared.

“How are we supposed to live !” protested Caroline.

“Oh, two months. You must have brought enough to live for a little while.”

Caroline  said nothing to the other staff, wanting to maintain a positive front, but it turned out no-one had been paid. Those who’d been there a few years began to talk apocalyptically. Two teachers disappeared overnight.

“What’s going on in this place ?” said Caroline to one of the English teachers.

“De Rome’s a crook, that’s what’s going on ?”

“What ?”

“Have you seen where she lives ? The police’ll be here any day I bet.”

Ms De Rome was taken away in handcuffs before the amused and scandalised boys and girls. The school was locked. Caroline and Charlie were told they had to leave the flat, piled their belongings in the car, booked into a hotel and sat facing one another and their future over an indifferent paella.

“I’ve worked for two months for nothing !”

“I know.”

“Suppose I don’t find a job.”

“There’s always supply.”

“Supply ! and she clanked her fork down on the table.  

“For the time being. In the right places.”

“I am not doing supply anywhere under any circumstances” she uttered.

On the day they arrived back in England there was a couldn’t-care-less wind and lashing rain which grew ever more resolute and fierce as they moved north. Their sad belongings were shipped home and put in storage and they moved in with Charlie’s reluctant brother and wife, an alcoholic barrister whose career had been ruined by the bottle and who lounged around the house in revealing nightwear from breakfast-time to the early hours. They stayed two nights, decamped to a roomy flat over a bank, discovered the car park was the haunt of the local youths who rode tiny bikes recklessly with their dark hoods pulled over their shaven heads, threw empty lager cans at their bedroom window, screamed and shouted raucously and left their used condoms on their back doorstep. Adept at dissolving into the night before the police cars arrived they terrified them by their lawlessness, though in fact they were merely bored youngsters showing off. Desperate to leave, they found a beautiful old house in an exclusive area, exchanged contracts and moved in within a month. Caroline had made sure the cul-de-sac was child-free, but a fortnight after their arrival, the house opposite welcomed a new family of five. The children were aged from two to thirteen.

“We can’t stay here !” she whined. “Imagine the noise.”

“It’s a good area. They’ll have to be kept in check.”

But the mere thought of the children kept her awake. They put the house on the market for twenty thousand more than they’d paid; people trooped through, smiled, made approving little noises and disappeared.

“Nothing, again !” sighed Caroline, setting the Times Educational Supplement on the coffee table.

“Don’t worry. Something’ll come along.”

“There are jobs I could apply for in London.”

Charlie made no response.

“Perhaps we should think of going south.”

“London ? Think of the house prices. We’d be living in a box in Fulham.”

She turned away to look at the honeysuckle whose leaves were brushing the broad, sash window. It was true. They could live well here, were high on the ladder of property and wealth; but they were eating into their savings week by week ( she’d even begun to think weekly rather than monthly). Charlie had advertised and found a few private pupils, but the pressure was on her. She wished she hadn’t left Whitechapel but at the same time her nerves grew tight at the thought of what she’d had to put up with. If only a job would come up at one of the exclusive private schools. Still, the dashing of her expectations in Spain had left a residue. She couldn’t envisage a better life without at the same time fearing she would be let down, and caught in this snare, she felt as if the air was thickening and it was getting harder for her to breathe.

People she’d kept in touch with at Whitechapel spread word of her return. One day, she ran into an ex-colleague in town. He was a scrawny little man, full of an energy which seemed too much for him and he talked excessively quickly, laughing at his own observations though she found nothing funny in them. She wanted to get away quickly but he quizzed her about Spain and the more she revealed, the more ashamed she felt. She was on the wrong side of a dream of happiness and it was shredding her heart. 

But two days later, Scurfield rang her: her replacement had thrown in her hand. They hadn’t seen him for a fortnight and he wasn’t answering the phone. Was she interested ?

It was fate. She couldn’t resist the thought some higher power was looking after her and her mind raced: she would go back to take the low-level English job, but surely they would promote her ? She would have to be complaisant of course,  exhibit humility, work diligently, stay on the right side of  David; but she believed this was her opportunity. It was too unlikely to be mere coincidence. It was meant to be. She would have to tolerate rude, ignorant youngsters with their I-know-my-rights arrogance, but only for a year or so. She saw herself elevated, given her own office, making decisions along with the other half dozen members of the Senior Leadership Team, and though she would still sit in the staffroom some lunchtimes, would chat amiably with her lower-level colleagues, she would rise above them, impose on them, become impervious to their complaints and behind the closed doors of elite meetings, exchange knowing glances and derogatory remarks about their fecklessness, laziness and general inadequacy. She would assume the burden of superior responsibility. She would be superior.

David Scurfield too felt providence was acting on his behalf. Like a lion sniffing out weak prey, he knew Caroline was injured. She’d confided to him her exorbitant hopes for her future in Spain and her prim-and-proper middle-class mentality predisposed her to believe life must deliver her pleasantness. Cruel blows, she believed, must be reserved for those who deserved them: principally the lower orders. The working-classes, of course, weren’t so sensitive. It was in the order of things their lives should be hit by disappointment and failure. They were untrustworthy, selfish, indulgent, uncultured. But her own kind were made for success, advancement, reward, belonging. Wasn’t that the meaning of meritocracy ? And as a thoroughgoing meritocrat she voted consistently for the party in the middle, not because she thought at all deeply about politics, but to distance herself from unseemly passion. When she saw Arthur Scargill on the television, her blood ran cold, but it wasn’t his arguments which offended her. In the mouth of a cool and measured Cambridge professor, she’d have found them the very model of reason. It was Scargill’s demeanour, his accent, his gestures. He was so obviously a cocky little working bloke, had he passionately defended the rotation of the planets she would have been impelled to disagree. He was the kind of man who drank pints in a working mans’ club on a Saturday night, whose wife went to bingo and whose scruffy children played noisy games in the street. He wore a suit and a collar and tie, but they looked awkward. She saw a picture of him in The Guardian, coming up from the pit, a young miner in his dirt, his upper chest and arms on show in his singlet. That was the real Scargill and that was where he belonged: underground, in the dark, getting on with the work ordained by his betters. So it had been a bitter lesson to her, the failure in Spain. She had to convince herself and others it was no fault of her own. Over and over her mind came back to her hopes and to their shattering and over and over she had to fight against the defeating idea that she’d made a bad judgement.

Scurfield knew the injury now at the heart of her. He would be kind, he would let her know at once he was on her side, would do all he could to push her on; she could use him to climb. But of course, he would extract his pound of flesh and the thought of her naked, that stiff correctness violated by his urgent thrusting, made him run around madly, as if night and day themselves depended on him. He had little time, but he was sure she would succumb. If her promotion depended on it. If he were subtly insitent.

  So Caroline returned to her familiar classroom and explained to the importunate pupils how things hadn’t quite worked out in Spain.

“Did they sack, you Miss ?”

“Did the food give you the shits, Miss ? My dad always gets the runs when we go to Tenerife.”

“The school ran into financial problems,” she said. “Quite beyond my control.”

All she’d wanted to escape was once again part of her every day routine. Some pupils came to her lessons without a pen or book. Others simply refused to do any work. The boundaries were constantly challenged and on the qui vive every minute, she went home exhausted. But she compensated by remembering it was Whitechapel, whose reputation, though fraying at the edges, was still intact, and there were excellent pupils and some good classes. She had a job. Scurfield had even swung it so she was paid on her former scale so £2,200 went into her account every month. The days and weeks went by and it was as if she’d never left.

“The problem is,” Scurfield said to her, “the authority insists on posts being advertised nationally.”

“Oh, well.”

“Of course, there’s nothing I want more than you doing the job.”

“Yes.”

“I’d give it you right now, if I could.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll have to try to find some way round it.”

“Is there a way ?”

“Oh, a man can always find a way, if the motivation’s strong enough.”

“What about the Head ?”

“He’ll want to do things by the book, but he’ll leave it to me if I speak to him.”

“I see.”

“Even if we advertise and interview, I can probably ensure you get it. But you never know, a good young candidate who’s cheap…”

“The Head would go for that.”

“I’d go for that, let’s face it. That’s the game these days. I’m doing you a favour, Caroline.”

“I appreciate it.”

He approached the Chair of governors and explained how much the school valued Caroline’s work, then he went to the Head with the governors’ agreement that the post didn’t need to be advertised externally and the Head informed the authority that on this one occasion, in this particular circumstance, they were waiving the rules and advertising internally. A tiny notice in eight point appeared in a top corner of the cluttered  staffroom board:

Colleagues are invited to submit applications for the post of  Teacher of English. Apply by letter to the Headteacher by the last day of the month.

Caroline wrote of her achievements, her commitment, her loyalty, her admiration for Whitechapel. She explained how she felt fate had returned her to the school where she belonged and she expressed her ambition to take on a leading role. She was sure Whitechapel was where she would stay for the rest of her career. She was now ready to assume serious responsibility. She gave the letter to Scurfield, who didn’t bother to show it to the Head.

She was re-appointed.

“I won’t be here much longer of course,” he said as she sat in his office to receive the good news.

“How much longer ?”

“I haven’t decided. It depends. There are things I still want to do.”

“You’re very committed.”

“I’m still energetic.”

“Oh, yes.”

“I can outperform a lot of men ten or fifteen years younger.”

“That’s obvious.”

“I could line you up for my job.”

“I’d be grateful.”

“We’ll need to talk a few things over.”

“I’m available.”

“After school.”

“I’ve no pressing engagements.”

“We keep this between ourselves.”

“Naturally.”

“There’ll be jealousies.”

“Human nature.”

“It’s yours if you want it.”

“I want it.”

He groomed her, fed her information and kept potential rivals in the dark, let the Head know how much she was helping him, what a fine colleague she was; but though she smiled and tilted her head so her blond hair fell sweetly onto the shoulder of her smart, navy-blue suit, though she laughed at his weary stories and limp jokes, though she stayed till six or seven alone with him in his quiet little office, he never found just the right moment to slip his arm round her waist or to kiss her long neck.

Two years passed quickly. Every day he hoped his opportunity would come. On many, he went home to his wife in a dismal mood. He was abrupt and sank in the sofa with the newspaper. When the time came to resign, he told himself he’d failed; he would never kiss her, take off her clothes, draw the duvet around them. Yet hope sprang up in him at the thought he’d stay in contact and, no longer employed, perhaps he’d feel less constrained. He was still robust. He played golf three times a week. He still had a physique. All that was necessary was that perfect instant in which he would know she was saying yes.

His post was advertised internally ,in keeping with the regulations. There were four applicants. The other three knew full well Caroline was favoured, but they imagined they could come across well enough in interview to overtake her. Such are the illusions by which injustice maintains its rule. On the day before the interview, she was modesty itself.

“I’ll be lucky if I get it. There are three very good candidates against me.”

But driving home she mentally prepared how she would conduct herself after her appointment: she would feign surprise, she would claim she interviewed badly, she would express anxiety about her ability.

The other three were no-hopers.

The collection for Scurfield raised £563.48. They bought him a plasma tv as he was a keen fan of sports transmissions. He made a heartfelt speech about how much the place meant to him, how he would miss everyone, how he would treasure the values of honesty and integrity on which the school was founded. There was a tear in his eye when they presented his gift. He laid on a lavish leaving party at the Masonic Hall. From one end of the room to the other an unbroken line of trestle tables supported whole dressed salmon, sides of beef, hams waiting to be sliced, deep bowls of salad, coleslaw, rice; enormous oval plates spilling triangular tuna, egg, ham, beef, prawn, salmon, cheese, and cheese and tomato sandwiches; castles of succulent pork pies, sausage rolls still warm to the touch; fruit salad in which apples, grapes, kiwi fruit, oranges, manadrins, pears, pineapples sat packed in alcohol-laced juice; cheesecakes, gateaux of lemon, strawberry and chocolate and a cheeseboard big enough to satisfy a medieval king and his entourage.

There was a disco.

The beer wine and spirits flowed. Scurfield got very drunk. He watched Caroline dancing with her husband who was three inches shorter and, grey-haired and pot-bellied, might have passed for her father or a seldom seen uncle. She weaved her way through the jigging  bodies and he thought she must be going to the ladies, but then her saw her veer to the right and realised she was heading outside. With all the discretion of a man whose speech is slurring badly and whose legs seem to be controlled from outer space, he lurched across the floor. Outside, the night was still and inviting, the clear sky had a bluish hue and the stars, which he noticed with a child’s surprise and delight, seemed to dance. She was alone leaning on the balustrade overlooking the bowling green and at once the idea seized him that she’d come out here to give him his chance. He approached her and as she heard the click of his Italian shoes she turned and smiled.

“Oh, hi Dave !”

He grabbed her by the waist which, to his astonishment had a little roll of fat, and pressed his mouth against hers. At once she began to struggle but his strength restrained her. It was true, he was still fit and strong. She was making little squealing noises and pushing hard against his shoulders and something filtered through to his consciousness to say this wasn’t quite right, but he was so sure she wanted him he went on kissing her warm mouth with all the passion he could muster till he felt strong hands on his biceps and  was unceremoniously yanked back. Two of his colleagues, a burly P.E. teacher and martial arts I.T. man held him tight.

“Leave her alone, Dave.”

She wiped the back of her hand compulsively across her mouth. People had spilled out of the building and their uninhibited drunken chat and laughter was carried on the motionless air. Charlie Bremner came across the gravel, his rubber soles making a soft crunching sound. He asked his wife what was going on; she shook her head and set off back to the hall. Scurfield’s arms had been set free. His glasses were awry. He took them off and staring towards the source of the party-noise made out indistinct shapes in a swaying fog, till he slipped them back in place and saw Caroline’s angry back and her podgy husband at her side, climbing the steps in a stiff-kneed way. The P.E. teacher slapped him on the shoulder and said:

“Don’t worry, Dave. We didn’t see anything.”

Scurfield nodded.

His rescuers put their arms round each other’s shoulders and, singing raucously, pulling and pushing one another like carefree adolescents, crossed awkwardly the expanse of white stones. He was alone. In a few days he would no longer be a Senior Leader at Whitechapel. In September Caroline would assume the responsibilities which had made him feel competent, superior, almost indispensable. Finally, he’d taken his chance and she’d rebuffed him humiliatingly. As he dragged slowly back to the gathering, careless of what anyone might know or think, what seized his mind was the image of Caroline in his office, addressing the school, talking to parents, writing references, interviewing applicants for jobs. That she was second-rate went without saying but what upset him wasn’t her advancement exceeding her competence but that he no longer had any power, she no longer needed to be nice to him; he’d lifted her to ascendancy and felt himself falling, falling forever  through an endless emptiness of  shame and regret.

There was nothing he could do but find his wife.

 


 

 

KIM RIGARD’S COMPLAINT

 

The exams were approaching and Kim was worried. Her sister got four As and a place at Oxford. She wouldn’t. Her parents would be disappointed. She needed someone to blame. She bit her nails and twisted her blonde hair around her finger.

“Will you come with me if I go to Mrs Fricker ?” she asked Colin .

He sat stiffly looking into her eyes, his usual wan smile making him look like a clown near to tears. She flicked her gaze to something across the room. For a long time he’d wanted to ask her out but didn’t dare. They were together in English and French and as he was the brainbox of the year, she was glad to befriend him. He was one of those obedient boys who never explore the wild and wanton ways characteristic of some of their gender, but stay close to parental aspiration. Lacking the frank, uncomplicated will to go after the satisfaction of his needs, he’d developed that compensatory mentality which sits sadly on fresh and vigorous youth. His affection for this curious creature who chewed her lower lip, inspected her split ends and let her head fall to one side like an inquisitive pigeon, had overwhelmed him. He stuck to the narrow path of diligence, but his heart pounded urgently when she threw back her chin and her top pulled tight over her chest. He helped her with translations and essays; she batted her eyelids and went all helpless; he got a hard on and hoped she didn’t notice.

“Yes,” he replied.

He had no idea what she was going to complain about. As far as he was concerned, Mrs Mellor was a good enough teacher. He was hesitant to ask as he was always shy of offending . He knew she patronised him but she was so good-looking, so much the kind of girl a straight-down-the-line, clean-behind-the-ears, boy-scout, Christian, do-your-homework-first, unprepossessing boy like himself couldn’t hope to attract, that he was always balanced on a razor’s edge in her presence.

“Do you want me to say anything ?”

“Well, I’m going to complain about the Hugo. We’ve only done, like, twenty poems out of sixty. I’m going to say, like, we’ve told her lots of times and it’s just totally unfair. I mean, I’m just well nervous about that exam. I’m just so not ready for it !”

Colin smiled in his weak, strained way. For his face to break into a real smile was as likely as snow in July.

“But didn’t she say we only needed to study, like, about twenty ?”

Colin didn’t normally pepper his speech with “like”. He’d been brought up to speak impeccable English. He was a bit disgusted with himself and even worse, she didn’t seem impressed. His mother was a teacher who’d studied Divinity at Cambridge and frustrated in her desire for an academic career, hoped her only child would surpass her. Aware of the early influence of rich language on a child’s mind, she’d spoken and read to him endlessly until he left her to begin school and would have curled her nose to hear him imitating American street slang.

“Yeah, but like, that’s so, you know, unfair. I mean what if those are like the twenty most solid poems ? Like, how do we know ?”

She watched him closely. He smiled unconvincingly.

“And remember when she gave us those sentences to translate ? I mean that was just so solid ! And she just sat there marking books, like, I mean, isn’t she supposed to teach ? I mean, isn’t that what, like, she’s paid for ? And my dad says, like, we’re the customers. I mean, she’s supposed to do what we want, like, results. You know? My results. I mean, Our results. And if I don’t get an A, like, it’s gonna be well her fault.”

“Yes,” said Colin wishing he had the courage to ask her out.

The next morning they were in Fricker’s office. Kim wound her hair around her finger, hunched her shoulders and made herself as pathetic as possible.

“Well, like it’s Mrs Mellor. I mean, me and Colin think she’s, like, not teaching us proper.”

“Why’s that ?” asked Fricker, perched on her swivel chair her glasses round her neck.

“Well, like, we’re doing this poetry, aren’t we Colin and I mean, it’s dead solid. You know, hard. Isn’t it Colin? And, like, even Colin doesn’t get it and he’s applying, like, to Oxford. And we’ve only done twenty poems out of sixty and we’ve told her lots of times and she just, like, totally ignores us, doesn’t she Colin ?”

Fricker put on her glasses and made a few notes.

“Is that all ?”

“No! She’s, like, such a bad teacher, isn’t she ? I mean, she puts stuff on the board, grammar stuff and all that, verbs and stuff and past particles and I’ve never heard of it and I don’t get it and when I say it’s solid she just says, like, you’ve got to learn it, doesn’t she? And, oh yeah, I said I didn’t know all these verbs and stuff and she said I’d just got to learn them too and that’s, like, so unfair. I mean. I’ve never seen them before. And she thinks it’s easy but it’s solid for us, isn’t it Colin? And one day she marked books and gave us some sentences and, like, I just had no idea. And she comes into the lesson and says, like ‘Now, what shall we do today ?’ Like, with no preparation and that’s , like, unprofessional and I’m gonna totally fail because of her.”

“I don’t think you’ll fail,” said Fricker. “Do you have anything to say, Colin ?”

“I agree with Kim.”

Fricker looked over her glasses. She went to her filing cabinet, took out a file, ran a finger down the report .

“You’re predicted an A in French, Colin.”

“Yes.”

“It doesn’t get any better.”

“No.”

“But Colin’s dead clever and he, like, works all the time and his mum’s a teacher but like me and Liam….”

“Where is Liam ?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you talked to him about your complaints?”

“Yeah !” asserted Kim.

Colin shifted uncomfortably.

“Leave it with me,” said Fricker.

 

 Dimbare was away on the annual mountaineering trip so the complaint had to be passed to his second in department who confronted Mrs Mellor.

 

“There’s no problem,” said Mellor. “I’ve told them. They only need to study a selection of the poems. Colin is set fair for an A. Kim has a good chance of a C. It’s a chaos in a coalbox.”

But when Dimbare returned and demanded his usual blow-by-blow account, Ms Coward said:

“The upper sixth have complained about you-know-who. Apparently she goes into lessons completely unprepared, sits there marking books instead of teaching, hasn’t taught them the literature properly. They’re panicking. And you know what Kim’s parents are like. They’ll go mad if she doesn’t get an A.”

“Is she capable ?”

“I think so.”

“Right. We need to gather evidence. I’ll talk to the sixth-formers .We’ll establish our case. We’ll get her this time. Enough’s enough. She’s too relaxed altogether. But we need a cast-iron brief against her. She’ll go to the union if she gets the chance. We’ll have to be brutally honest. Pin her down. Don’t let her know we’re investigating. Tell the students not to mention it. We’ll assemble the evidence and then we’ll have her. We’ll call her in and put her on trial. The two of us. If she’s guilty we’ll go to the Head. ”

For the next week Dimbare and Coward gathered all the evidence they could. Coward went to the lower sixth French group:

“How are you getting on with Mrs Mellor ?”

“Fine !”

“Are you getting through the work okay ?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she always well-prepared for lessons.”

There was a silence.

“Fairly.”

“What do you mean, “fairly” ?”

“Well, she’s okay.”

“Okay isn’t good enough is it ? Does she come in unprepared ?”

“Well, she’s, I don’t know, laid back.”

“Yeah, she’d dead laid back.”

“So she is unprepared ?”

“Well, sort of. I suppose.”

“And does she mark books while you work ?”

“Sometimes.”

“Has she covered Media with you yet ?”

“No.”

“So she’s not even covering the syllabus ! Do you want to complain about her.”

No-one spoke.

“Look, if you’re unhappy, you can get your parents to write a letter of complaint and we can do something. But don’t be afraid to speak up.”

Dimbare and Coward sat down together.

“So, what have we got against her ?”

“Well, the students say she’s unprepared.”

“Right,” said Dimbare, making notes in his small neat hand. “She’s totally unprepared.”

 “I don’t know if we should say “totally”.”

 “What then ? Mega ? Shall I change it to mega-unprepared.”

 “I don’t know.” Coward’s cheeks turned slightly pink. “Maybe she isn’t always unprepared.”

“No, I know what you mean and you want to be nice to her. But if we’re going to make a convincing case.”

 “It’s not that I want to be nice to her.”

 “I know. What I mean is, you’re a nice person. You want to behave like a nice person, Ruth. But we’re dealing with a serious professional matter here and we have to be brutally honest. Brutal honesty is what’s needed, don’t you agree ?”

He leaned close to her in that falsely intimate way he had, as if they were old lovers or shared secrets the rest of the world would never know.

 “Oh yes ! But perhaps we should say sometimes unprepared.”

 “I’ll say often. No, Very often. Very often or virtually always unprepared. Are we agreed ?”

 “Okay.”

 “Now, what else ? Mmmm? Completely unprofessional?”

 “I don’t think we can say completely.”

 “But unprofessional, we both know that. Mmm? Thoroughly unprofessional ? Shall we say that ?”

 “That’s much the same as completely. I wouldn’t say she’s always unprofessional. And she has had some good results…”

 “Yes, but with good classes. Anyone can get good results with those. Eh ? She’s untidy, disorganised, she’s so laid back she’s almost horizontal ! Not that I’d want her horizontal. Mmm?”

And he smiled his broad unctuous, ingratiating, childish smile which displayed his ugly, uneven, yellow teeth, as if he had said something really funny and leaning towards her once more made her wriggle with discomfort, blush and smile milkily in return.

 “Overwhelmingly ? What about that ? Overwhelmingly unprofessional. Eh?”

 “Couldn’t we just say, at times she can be a bit unprofessional ?”

His upper lip rose in exaggerated disgust, and his big nose wrinkled ludicrously so he looked like an infant about to cry because his ice-cream had fallen in the sand.

 “But that doesn’t sound very good does it ? We’ve got to be brutally honest, here Ruth. If we’re going to get her sacked…”

 “I didn’t say I wanted her sacked !”

 “No, but you know as well as I do she should be sacked. Mmm? She’s not one of the team. Eh?”

 “Maybe not, but she does her job….”

 “She comes in the morning. She stands in front of classes. Eh? Is that doing her job ? Does she mark till midnight every night like me ? Mmm? I was marking sixth-form essays till one o’clock last night. They take me ages ! Does she do that ?”

 “But she has a family.”

At this reference to his bachelorhood, Dimbare took on the hurt demeanour of a teenage girl no-one invites to the disco. He thought himself conscientiousness personified and from the heights of his superior commitment viewed with disdain the lesser efforts of his colleagues. To go home without a bootful of exercise books he considered the epitome of laziness and that people might beguile their evenings in happy play with their children he thought an affront. All his life he’d been engaged in a fierce struggle to prove himself. His compulsion for invidious comparison dogged every second of his life: his car was more expensive than his neighbour’s, he had more holidays abroad than his golfing mate, he arrived at school earlier and left later than anyone, he prepared more, marked longer. Yet none of this could quell the little boy’s anxiety which lodged at the centre of his mind and which threatened at any moment to break its flimsy bounds, flood his consciousness and leave him tearful and bereft.

 “I live on my own,” he uttered after a second. “It’s hard. I have to go home, cook, clean, mow the lawn, keep the place shipshape. I have to do all that myself.”

 “Oh yes.”

 “I work incredibly hard. I have this department to run. I know you do your bit as second in department but I write all the policies, I keep all the files up to date, I do all the exam administration and that’s on top of my teaching load. And I mark properly. Eh ? How many people in this place mark as much as me ?”

 “I know.”

 “She may have a family, but she has to do her job. Eh ? When did you last see her take any books home ?”

 “You’re right.”

 “Utterly unprofessional. I’ll put that. Now, what about a letter of complaint ?”

 “What ?”

 “That’ll frighten her. You know how relaxed she is. We need something to set her nerves on edge.”

 “But there is no letter of complaint.”

 “No, but their could be.”

 “I don’t think we can make it up.”

He turned his head aside and grimaced.

 “I’m not saying we should make it up. I’m saying that there could be a letter of complaint. If the students are dissatisfied. It’s quite likely a parent will complain.”

 “I know, but we can’t say they have done until they do.”

 “I’m saying we can suggest it, to put her on the spot.”

 “Well, I’m not in favour of saying it until there is a complaint.”

 “Right. Now, what else is there……”

 

The following day he went into Mellor’s room at the end of first period. She was quietly tidying her desk. Her calm at once goaded him. What right did she have to be so blithe ?

“I believe there was a bit of a kerfuffle while I was away last week.”

“Sorry ?”

“The upper sixth have complained.”

“Not all three of them. Kim. It’s nothing. Storm in a teacup. She was in a flap about the literature but there’s no problem.”

“We’d like a meeting with you this morning break in room 33.”

“Why ?”

“There are issues. We need to sort out the issues. Will you be there, please ? Start of morning break.”

“Is there an agenda ?”

“Sorry ?”

“If it’s a formal meeting there should be an agenda.”

“It’s not formal,” he said, a sudden hint of jauntiness in his voice. “Can you be there, please ?”

 

The room was empty. Mrs Mellor walked among the desks and looked out over the field where the pupils were playing. Dimbare and Coward came in together. He had a black ring binder under his arm and bustled with his usual fuss. His tall frame seemed out-of-place. He always seemed to be trying to make himself fit and he bent his head forward and slightly to the left in an attitude of false modesty, as if about to appear before an adoring crowd. Coward was brittle and a bit shamefaced but hid her discomfort behind a show of schoolmaamish efficiency At once Mellor picked up on the atmosphere. They didn’t look at her. Their demeanour was official, frosty. They spoke to one another in barely audible whispers. They sat close.

“Sit down,” ordered Dimbare.

She sat opposite them.

“Ruth and I have been looking into these complaints, haven’t we, Ruth.”

Coward nodded.

“All three of the upper sixth are unhappy with the way you teach.”

“What, including Liam ?”

“Including Liam,” said Dimbare definitively.

“And the lower sixth are unhappy too,” said Coward.

Mellor looked at her. She was pulled up stiff; her neck seemed artificially extended; the corners of her mouth turned down; her stare was hard and condemnatory. She looked prim and obedient as a well-trained dog. She was one of those people whose demeanour exudes certainty and who respond curtly to the intrusion of doubt. She’d been brought up a Catholic and knew the punishments for disobedience. The terror of perdition made fear the abiding tenor of her life.

“How so ?”

“They’ve got exactly the same complaints against you as the upper sixth. The alarm bells have started ringing.”

“You sit in front of them and mark books,” said Dimbare.

“When was this ?”

“You go into lessons unprepared. You throw the text book on the desk and say ‘What shall we do today ?’. Isn’t that right, Ruth ?”

Coward nodded.

“You haven’t finished the literature. The lower sixth haven’t covered the syllabus. And there’s a letter of parental complaint coming into school, isn’t there Ruth ?”

Coward flinched, hesitated and nodded.

“The lower sixth have made no complaint to me,” said Mellor.

“Well, they’re unhappy,” said Dimbare. “I’m afraid this is quite unacceptable.”

“Very good,” said Mellor getting up. “You’re the managers . You do what you have to do.”

She walked out. She’d stayed calm but she was seething and had to restrain her tongue.

That evening she wrote an account. She made particular reference to the threat of a parental letter and finished with a threat of her own: a grievance procedure. The next morning she handed the account to Fricker and sent a copy to her union’s Regional Office.

Last lesson of the morning was the lower sixth.

“I’m not going to teach you today. We need to clear the air. I believe you’ve complained about me.”

Most of the dozen faces looked up in surprise.

“No,” said one of the girls.

“Well, I’ve been told you’re unhappy with my teaching and you’ve put in a complaint . I want you to speak to me frankly. Nothing will go beyond this classroom. There’ll be no repercussions. But rather than going behind my back, let’s discuss it. You tell me how you’d like me to change and I’ll do things differently.”

“We haven’t complained,” said one of the boys.

“So you’re not unhappy with the way I do things ?”

“No!” came the collective response.

“And what about the letter of complaint from parents?

They were all looking at her. She surveyed their faces for small signals of dishonesty or dissembling. But they were frank. Her instincts told her they were baffled. There was no hint of opposition. She felt her defensiveness ebbing away. She could relax and joke, teach them in her easy-going style. At the same time, she was angry at the accusations. These students were supposed to have complained. The sense of being conspired against sapped her confidence.

“You can tell me. Is there someone here whose parents are going to write to the school ?”

“No.”

They shook their heads.

“Okay. As we’ve come this far we may as well go the whole hog. Let’s talk about how we do things in these lessons. What would you like me to change ?”

Later that day she tracked down the third upper sixth student .

“Could I have a word with you for five minutes, Liam?”

She sat behind her desk as he stood awkwardly to one side. He was a big, overweight, untidy lad who constantly brushed his curtains of black hair away from his face. He was trying to grow a beard: his jaw line sported wispy black hair. Bright enough to do well, he was just on the cusp of that adolescent questioning which leads to compensatory certainty and having learned to strum a guitar as well as the majority of pop stars, spent most of his spare time in his garage with three other lads as versed in musical theory as in Sanskrit grammar, thrashing out a barely melodic noise they hoped would bring them overnight wealth and fame.

“Sit down, Liam.”

“I’m okay. I’d rather stand.”

“Look, don’t be nervous. You’re not in any kind of trouble. On the contrary, I’m the one in trouble. What I wanted to ask you about were the complaints you’ve made to Mrs Coward.”

“I haven’t complained.”

She watched him closely. He was fidgeting and trying to smile and pushing his recalcitrant hair .

“Well, Kim and Colin have complained and Mrs Coward says you wish to support their complaint.”

“No. I don’t really talk to them. I don’t have much to do with them, actually. They’re together all the time but they don’t, you know, talk to me. Not much.”

“So have you discussed my lessons with them ?”

“No.”

“Because they have serious complaints and if you feel the same I wouldn’t want you to keep it quiet.”

“No.”

“Do you mean you’ve no complaints, Liam ?”

“Yeah. I’m okay. I mean, I’m happy. The lessons are okay.”

She looked up at him and wanted to laugh. A big, clumsy, disorganised, benign lollop of a lad. At once the thought of Dimbare and Coward came to her. Wasn’t it all too ridiculous ?

“Okay, Liam. Thanks for your time.”

For weeks, she and Dimbare didn’t speak but the day after she’d handed her letter to Fricker, Coward came towards her on the corridor with a plastic smile as wide as a motorway.

“Morning, Fran ! Can I just talk to you about this course ?”

She took a letter from her bag. Mellor listened and nodded as she explained.

The days came and went. She taught her classes, marked books, had confrontations with unruly pupils. At home, she barely mentioned the events. She waited. When was Fricker going to get back to her? Surely she must have spoken to the Head by now ? What was she going to do about the threat of a letter from parents ? She wanted redress for the bullying tone.

After a month, she went to see her.

 

“I just wanted to know what you’d found out.”

“Not much.”

 Fricker looked down at her from behind her glasses.

“What does the Head think ?”

“I haven’t told the Head .”

“What about the letter of complaint.”

“I can’t find anyone who wants to complain.”

“So where do we go from here ?”

She shrugged.

“I’ve waited a month.”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t the school going to do anything ?”

“About what ?”

Fricker bent forward and peered over her lenses as if looking at a specimen.

“I was told a letter of complain was coming into school. I think I should have some explanation.”

“There is no letter of complaint.”

“Then why was I told there was ?”

Fricker shrugged.

“I’m not happy if this is going to be brushed under the nearest heavy carpet.”

“I investigated and came up with nothing. What’s the problem ?”

“I was summoned to a little kangaroo court on the pretext of an informal meeting. My competence was questioned and I was told there was a written complaint coming from a parent. You know as well as me how quickly teachers can find themselves on competency procedures these days.”

 “No question of any such thing.”

 

“ Can I take it the sixth formers are happy with my classes ?”

“As far as I’m concerned.”

“So I can get on with my teaching and be left alone.”

“Sure.”

She got up and left.

It took a long time for a thaw to take place with Dimbare. Oddly, she felt sorry for him in a way. He was so lacking in confidence, so ill-at-ease with himself that his only way of boosting his feelings was to bully and control. But at the same time she knew his crawling obedience made him dangerous. He would tell tales to anyone in authority. Worse, he would make them up.

Her lessons with the upper sixth became stiff and joyless. She couldn’t trust Kim and Colin who continued as if nothing had happened. Kim chewed her nails and twisted her hair and Colin sat beside her like a parent next to a wayward child on the first visit to the psychiatrist. Lesson by lesson Kim asked questions which betrayed a need to be spoonfed and cosseted. Mrs Mellor did everything by the book and at the end of each lesson said:

“If there’s anything you weren’t happy with , please let me know in writing.”

Colin got an A and went to Oxford. Kim got a B and a place at Manchester. Many months later Kim was in the staffroom reading the paper when Dimbare strode through.

“Free ?”

“That’s right.”

“ By the way,” he said, as if a propos of nothing, “Did you ever hear anything of Kim Rigard ?”

She looked up. He was leaning with his palms on the back of the chair opposite. His thin arms in his short-sleeved shirt were faintly obscene in a way she found hard to pin down. Somehow he made himself too apparent. He seemed to be showing off. She had the feeling he was displaying his manhood for her admiration.

“Yes, she went to Manchester.”

“Doing well ?”

“What I heard,” said Mrs Mellor, putting the paper down, “ is that she became a Goth,took up with some guy who played in a Heavy Metal band and spent all his time smoking dope.”

“Really !”

“Apparently.”

“What about Colin ? I thought those two were an item.”

“Oh, she took the opportunity of the separation to get rid of him. She was only interested in what was between his ears.”

“And he was only interested in what was between her legs. Eh ?”

His face creased into his self-satisfied grin, as if he’d amused or impressed her.

“She was a bright girl, though,” he said, becoming quickly serious and professional. “She’ll go far.”

“As a matter of fact,” said Mrs Mellor, “she failed her first year exams.”

“I find that surprising.”

“She dyed her hair black, had numerous body piercings and spent her time drinking and clubbing, so they say.”

“So is she being kicked out ?”

“Oh no, she put in a complaint about her tutor. Said it was his fault she failed.”

“She won’t get away with that !”

“On the contrary,” said Mrs Mellor, picking up the paper, “her complaint was upheld. The tutor, so I hear, was disciplined.”

 


KATIE JAMESON

 

Every Friday and Saturday the streets of the little town filled with drinkers. The young women wore flimsy tops and pelmet skirts, even in the most biting weather. The young men, in a display of macho resilience, strode around in shirt sleeves, barking and laughing joylessly; failing to reason that if the women could expose their flesh to the chill, it could hardly be proof of masculinity. The pubs were crammed and noisy with musak. In the cheap curry houses and low-grade pizzerias the waiters didn’t have time to blink. As evening declined into night the atmosphere gained a hint of threat. The dark police vans waited on the corners. Inevitably the sirens wailed, there was a scuffle, people were yanked and bundled to the cells. So it went , week after week, like a lathe set to run at a regular rate.

Matterface seldom went into town. It was too young, raucous and threatening. He liked his local where he could lean against the corner bar , slowly pour five pints into his rotund belly and hold forth, confident his education and quick temper would prevent contradiction. Everybody knew not to cross him. When John Vernon told him his views on economics were tosh, he threatened to break his teeth. He was one of those men who quickly flip into irrational, exaggerated reactions to the merest perceived slight. A challenge to his opinions was fended off with the violence of man fighting for his life. One Saturday, however, at a loose end, he went early to the Dog where, years ago, a group of bikers used to gather. He was still a motorcyclist; in good weather he would head for the hills and could take a bend at reckless speed or rev up to a hundred and twenty on a long stretch; but since he lost control on a left-hander, smashed through a hedge and ended in a shallow river his hip broken and his bike demolished, he’d become more cautious. It was a nostalgic visit. He was sentimental. The old days. The camaraderie, hard drinking and fights. But the pub was no longer  a rendez-vous. It was quiet and served a small, polite constituency. He swigged a quick, whetting pint and going out into the yet sparsely peopled street saw ahead a figure he recognised at once. Guilty about following, he slinked close to the buildings, hurrying to catch up. It was Watt all right, hand in hand with a blonde on tottering heels, twenty years his junior.  He followed till they slipped into a little trattoria, then caught a taxi home thinking all the while of the advantage he might gain.

On Monday he was up early and in that near-frantic rush which was his way of dealing with the demands of work, panted and sweated around the house before dropping heavily into the seat and driving to school. On the corridor he came across the despised Katie Jameson. A somewhat nervous but ambitious young woman he loathed her as he did all subordinates.

“You haven’t shown me those lesson plans yet,” he said abruptly.

“I told you, Mick, the union says I don’t have to.”

“And I say you do.  Today or I’ll flatten you.”

He wagged his stubby finger in her face and waddled away as fast as his bulk would allow. He was pleased with himself for having threatened her and he liked the shock and fear on her face. In his classroom he met Lou Wiper, pale, sullen, defensive she looked as though she’d passed a depressing weekend.

“I just gave it to Katie,” he said.

“What did you say ?”

“I said I’d lay her out if I didn’t get those plans.”

“She’ll go to the boss.”

He stared at his accomplice.

“No need to worry about him.”

“We should take a grievance.”

“For what ?”

“The meeting. She said we were incompetent.”

“Did she ?”

“I heard her.”

“Okay. We’ll take a grievance.”

Later, Matterface knocked on Watt’s door. The muffled call made his heart leap. He hated being summoned. Having to wait enraged him. He wanted to barge in. Why should he give way to a younger, lesser man ?

Watt was at his desk, his flimsy, gold glasses halfway down his nose, the usual wad of papers in front of him.

“Morning, Mick. Sit down.”

Matterface had an impulse to respond:

“Do you think I’m going to stand to talk to a  runt like you?”

Watt finished reading his page.

“Sorry, Mick. What can I do for you ?”

“Katie Jameson.”

“Sorry ?”

“We need rid.”

“Why’s that, Mick ?”

“Useless.”

“Brent seems to think she’s done well since we promoted her.”

“He’s a wimp.”

“Mick, I have to object to you talking about a colleague in those terms.”

“You’re wasting your breath.”

“I have to stop you there, Mick.”

“I was in town on Saturday.”

 

Sweat ran slowly down Matterface’s temples like rain descending a window. His face was flushed.  Watt blinked, unhooked his glasses and took his chin in his hands.

“What are you saying ?”

“I was in town. I saw you nipping into that little Italian on Brunswick Square. Good was it ?”

“Very good. You should try it.”

“I don’t eat out. Not much fun on your own.”

“No.”

“Wife enjoy it ?”

“Sorry ?”

“Mrs Watt. Is she partial to Italian ?”

“She wasn’t with me. She was unwell.”

“No, I didn’t think it was her.”

“Who’s that, Mick ?”

“The woman on your arm.”

“Oh, you mean my daughter !”

“I’ve met your daughter.”

“Have you ?”

“I’ve met her. More than once. She’s a brunette.”

“She is. Naturally. She dyes it. They all do these days. She dyes it peroxide.”

“She’s tall.”

 

“Sorry ?”

“Your daughter. She’s a tall girl. She’s taller than you. She must be over six feet.”

“That’s right. She’s tall. She’s a big lass.”

“I’d know her anywhere.”

“It must be a year since you’ve seen her.”

“I’ve a mind for faces, for demeanours. I’d know her. I’d pick her out in a thousand.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Mrs Watt better ?”

“Sarah ? Call her Sarah. She doesn’t stand on ceremony. Yes, just a tummy bug. She’s fine.”

“That’s good. I’m pleased to hear that. I must mention it to her next time we meet.”

“That’s kind.”

“Anyway. Katie. I’m taking a grievance.”

“Why’s that ?”

“She called me incompetent.”

“Did she ?”

“In a meeting.”

“Is it minuted ?”

“No. It was informal.”

“That may be a problem.”

“I doubt it.”

“You have to give it me in writing, Mick. We have to stick to procedure. Everything above board.”

“Of course. All proper and as it should be.”

“It can be an unpleasant business.”

“That doesn’t bother me.”

“Well, I’ll wait for your letter then.”

“I’ll do it today.”

“Good. That’s good. No time like the present.”

Matterface went to the gents and swilled cold water over his cheeks. His heart was racing in spite of his beta-blockers. His breathing was short and rapid. He rested his palms on the edge of the basin. Once, he’d been quick and strong. He was school champion at wrist-wrestling. In a fight, he used his head and knees as well as his fists. He’d never imagined he would become slow, his thighs would tighten and he’d pant climbing stairs. He’d never imagined either being abandoned. For twenty-three years he’d believed his wife was too weak to go, but one day he came home to find a note and her wardrobes empty. If he’d known where to find her he’d have given her a thump. His face in the mirror scared him. Swollen, florid, marked by all the signs of age, it was the face of a man who has failed. He was subject leader for English. He earned almost forty thousand. The mortgage on his big house in a village four miles from town was paid. He’d bought his wife out and struggled with the repayments. He had plenty to congratulate himself for, but the knowledge of failure ran through his veins like sap through a stem. He should have been a headteacher. He was unfairly overlooked. Men like Watt, weak men, had overtaken him. And now the profession was feminised. Young women who couldn’t control a class were rising like drain-water in a flood.  He was fifty-eight. How much longer would he live ? Maybe he should pack it in. The stress couldn’t be good for him. But as he’d done a thousand times he ran through the quick calculations: a pension of about eighteen grand and a lump sum of fifty-four. He’d be okay. He could manage. He could cut back.  But his pride rebelled. His income would be lower than teachers thirty-five years younger ! It was the first step to an old age of scrimping neglect. He had to go on. He would keep going to sixty-five if possible. He wouldn’t sink. He would fight to his final breath to be as good as the next man and what did that mean if not earning as much and having the same status ?

Despite the cooling water, the sweat was trickling again. Under his arms, his shirt was soaked. He yanked a paper towel, dabbed his face and went to find Lou Wiper.

“I’ve told Watt we’re taking a grievance.”

“Is he on our side ?”

“He has to be.”

“I don’t get it.”

Matterface stared hard at her. Her frightened look made him want to seize her throat. Such a poor accomplice! Yet he admired her vindictiveness almost as much as her subordination. He pushed his face close.

“I saw him in town. On Saturday. With his floosy. He gets in my way, I go to his wife.”

“Shit !”

“We can do what we like. Let’s get Jameson in a meeting this afternoon. We’re all free last thing. Go and tell her to be in the office.”

“What if she says no ?”

“Nobody says no to me,” and his face came closer, his eyes bulged, he glanced down at her cleavage, met her gaze, looked again at her exposed flesh , turned and left.

Lou Wiper knew Katie Jameson was teaching year 7. She went straight to her room, walked in without knocking and held out a paper.

“Mick wants you in a meeting in the English office at half two. Don’t be late.”

“What’s it about ?”

“What does that matter ?”

“I need to know what it’s about,” said Jameson looking at the paper.

“Whatever it’s about, you have to be there.”

Jameson turned to look at the unusually silent and attentive class.

“There should be an agenda.”

“It’s informal.”

“But what is it about, Lou ? I don’t understand why you can’t tell me.”

“Mick’s called it.”

“Then why didn’t he come to see me ?”

“He sent me.”

“I’m not coming unless I know what it’s about.”

“You have to come.”

“No I don’t.”

“It’s non-contact time. If you don’t come, Mick will have you disciplined.”

“Disciplined ? For what ?”

“Do what you’re told.”

“Who’s going to be at the meeting ?”

“Ask Mick.”

“I’m not coming.”

“That’s up to you, but watch out.”

Wiper left. Striding the corridor, she was glad the pupils had heard.  It would spread like ‘flu in October. The thought of Jameson’s nervous face, the little tremble of her hands as she took the paper, the sorry plea in her voice, made Wiper glad. She wanted to see her prostrate, just like Connie Egger who had to be dragged out screaming, whose nervous collapse was complete and who never came back. She and Mick had done a good job. Drip by drip they’d poisoned the cup of her confidence till she couldn’t face a class. But that was nothing to what they’d do to Jameson.

“I told her,” she said to him at lunch.

“What did she say ?”

“She says she’s not coming.”

“I’ll have her on a disciplinary.”

“She wants an agenda.”

“My arse !”

At two thirty, Matterface and Wiper were sitting in the little English office with their mugs of coffee. It had once been a simple store-room but Matterface, feeling an office was in keeping with his status, threw out hundreds of books, had more shelving put up, bought a new desk and computer for himself and treated the place as his sanctum sanctorum. Gloomy, ill-ventilated and with a heavy oak door, a relic of the long gone days when the place was a grammar school, the room was chilly on the hottest days in August.

“She’s not coming,” said Wiper.

“I’ll have her in the Head’s office in the morning if she doesn’t.”

“Shall I go and look for her ?”

“No.”

“What’s our plan ?”

“Hit her with the grievance.”

“First off ?”

“Get the best punch in at the beginning.”

“She might flounce out.”

“She won’t flounce while I’m around.”

There came a timid knock.

“Come in !”

Jameson entered as if her presence brought with it an insupportable odour. Matterface and Wiper looked down at their papers.

“What’s this about, Mick ?”

“What’s what about ?”

“Why have you asked me to a meeting ?”

“It’s just a meeting.”

“What about ?”

“Sit down.”

“Is there an agenda ?”

“No.”

“There should be.”

“Who says ?”

“It’s good practice.”

“Who says ?”

“Union advice is….”

“I’m in a union.”

“I know. But I’m not staying unless…”

“Sit down.”

“I will if you tell me what the meeting’s…”

“Sit down, for god’s sake.”

He’d pulled off his glasses and thumped the table.

“I don’t have to put up with that kind of behaviour.”

“ Who’s running this department ?”

“I’m not questioning your position.”

“No, you’re not. We’re taking a grievance against you.”

“What ?”

“I’ve told Tom Watt today.”

“A grievance.”

“You said we were incompetent,” said Wiper.

“When ?”

“In the meeting.”

“What meeting ?”

“Departmental,” said Matterface.

“I didn’t.”

“You did. We both heard you,” said Wiper.

“I didn’t say that.”

“We both heard you,” said Matterface. “We’re taking a grievance.”

“You’re questioning our professionalism,” said Wiper.

“It’s slander,” said Matterface.

“You’re slandering us. That’s a legal matter,” said Wiper.

“I’m not staying.”

“You can go now,” said Matterface putting on his glasses.

“What about the meeting.”

“The meeting’s over.”

“You’ve got the information,” said Wiper.

When Jameson had left, she turned to Matterface. Sweat was dripping from his chin.

“Well, what do you think ?”

“What’s to think ?”

“She’ll bring in the union.”

“Screw the union.”

“We’ll have to synchronise our stories.”

“There’s nothing to fear. We’ll have her.”

They submitted their letters and a few days later Watt called them in one by one. The union’s local official had written asking to see minutes of the meeting.

“I told you, it was informal.”

“We need evidence, Mick.”

“We heard it.”

“That’s not enough.”

“Isn’t it ?”

“It might not be.”

“It should be.”

“Why ?”

“You wouldn’t question my word would you ?”

“Not me, Mick. Her union.”

“They don’t decide.”

“In a grievance, the governors decide, Mick”

“You appoint them.”

“Not all of them.”

“They’re in your pocket.”

“I don’t think I like that, Mick.”

“It’s true.”

“The union will fight hard. If there’s no evidence…”

“I told you, we heard her.”

The union officer requested a meeting. They gathered in Watt’s office at the end of a rainy afternoon. She was a big, bulky woman in her fifties, one of those radicals who had known the swirling expectations of the sixties and been battered by the eddying waves of reaction in her thirties, but who had stayed true to her vision of a sunny democracy whose beneficent light reached even into the workplace.  A hard-working maths teacher, running a department and leading a year as pastoral head, she was overwhelmed and had elaborated a slow, diligent, unflustered manner which allowed her to keep going seventeen hours a day; though the black moons beneath her eyes and the greyness of her complexion spoke of lack of sleep and fresh air. For Jameson, who sat beside her, the meeting might have been an appearance before a hanging judge, but for Martha Franklin, it was routine. She knew the school and had once caught Watt out badly: he’d changed comments on performance management documents to justify blocking promotions.

Matterface sat opposite her. He despised her instantly. Overweight, frumpy, she reminded him of his disappeared wife, except she exuded confidence, even nonchalance. He wanted her to fear him. He would have liked to have seen on her features the sparrow’s twitchiness he saw in Jameson. He suspected she would be competent and articulate which goaded him to insult her. After all, what could anybody do to him ? What he knew kept him safe.

“There seems some doubt,” she said, “over the accusation.”

“Both Mick and Lou heard the comment,” said Watt.

“But they’re hardly independent.”

“It’s a matter of perception,” said Watt. “Perhaps Katie didn’t quite mean it the way it was taken.”

“How else could it be taken ?” said Matterface.

“What exactly is she alleged to have said ?” asked Franklin.

“There’s no alleged about it,” said Matterface.

“We heard her,” said Wiper.

“The precise form of words is important,” said Franklin.

“She said we are incompetent,” said Wiper.

“So, in speech marks, she said: “You are incompetent”.”

“Yes.”

“How do you know she was talking about both of you ?”

“She was,” said Matterface.

“As the meeting wasn’t minuted, we’ve no way of getting the context. It just seems odd someone should pipe up in a meeting, a propos of not very much, “you’re incompetent”.”

“She did,” said Wiper.

“It’s slander,” said Matterface.

“It’s the way it’s taken,” said Watt.

“We can’t get agreement,” said Franklin. “Ms Jameson doesn’t believe she said it. She certainly doesn’t remember. It would be unfortunate for this to proceed to grievance. I’ve spoken to Ms Jameson, and though we’re not prepared to admit to the form of words Mr Matterface and Ms Wiper claim, we’re willing to accept they feel something was said which offended them. Ms Jameson apologizes for that. She is willing to say that anything she said which caused offence is withdrawn. Are you willing to accept that so we can find a modus vivendi and everyone can get on with their job ?”

“I want it in writing,” said Matterface.

“That’s fine,” said Franklin.

“I want my own apology,” said Wiper.

“We’ll do that. A letter to each of you and that will be the end of the matter ?”

“That seems a good way forward,” said Watt.

Matterface and Wiper went to his classroom. She sat on the edge of the table as he stomped about, shoving papers in his filing cabinet and generally tidying an already impeccable order.

“What do we do now ?”

“That bitch !” said Matterface.

“We’ve agreed not to pursue it.”

“We’ve agreed nothing.”

“We turn down the letters ?”

“I’ll have her sacked and nothing less.”

“The union woman will object.”

“She’s an impotent bitch. We’re having our grievance.”

The following day Matterface took a small, white envelope inscribed Mick, in a neat, tight hand,  from his pigeon-hole. The letter read:

Dear Mick,

                             I am sorry if during the last departmental meeting I said anything which offended you. I didn’t mean to. I hope we can now put the misunderstanding behind us and get on with teaching.

                                                        Sincerely, Katie.

He found Wiper and discovered the wording of the letter to her was identical.

“Silly cow !” he said.

He went at once to Watt.

“This is no good.”

“What’s the matter, Mick.”

“I’m not having if.”

“But she’s apologised, Mick.”

“She has to apologise for calling me incompetent.”

“She doesn’t recall that.”

“I do.”

“This is a way forward.”

“Not for me.”

“You’re making me think you don’t want a resolution.”

“She needs to be sacked.”

“People have rights. We can’t just sack her willy-nilly.”

“I’m taking the grievance.”

“I can’t stop you.”

“No-one can stop me.”

He recounted the interview to Wiper and she in turn went to Watt who summoned Katie Jameson. He explained to her. Pale and tense she twisted her hands in her lap.

“It would be easier if you write an apology for having called them incompetent.”

“But I didn’t.”

“Well, you don’t remember.”

“No, I didn’t. I never said it. They’re making it up.”

“Why would they do that ?”

“They want me sacked.”

“Oh, that’s getting things out of perspective !”

“Look what they did to Connie.”

“Sorry ?”

At Watt’s bridling, she felt her confidence subside. His face took on the alertness of a stalking cat. The tight suggestion of threat sat on his shoulders, arms and hands. She was afraid to speak but she knew clearly enough what needed to be said. It was no secret. The whole school was au courant. Poor Connie had been driven half insane, tranquillized and referred to a psychiatrist; it had taken her two years to start to function normally. Everyone knew she was a perfectly good teacher. Mick and Lou’s strategy wasn’t subtle or concealed. And Watt himself was a bully. Hadn’t he hunted down Aidan Richardson, put him on competency, destroyed him so his niece could apply for his job ? And wasn’t she now Subject Leader after only one year in the school ? The corruption was blatant, yet her tongue froze. To say what everyone knew was forbidden. All speech had become a form of deception and collusion. Watt stared at her.

“She was forced out,” she said, her voice cracking.

“I don’t think so, Katie. I think she left on health grounds.”

“But they destroyed her !” she cried.

“You’d better be careful what you say. Nobody gets destroyed here. That’s not how this school works.”

“Why won’t they accept my apology ?”

“You haven’t apologised for the offence.”

“I can’t apologise for something I didn’t do.”

“Why not ?”

Jameson sent long, rambling, emotionally-charged e-mails to Franklin. At every hurtful recollection, she turned on her lap-top. She had little capacity for objectivity and even less for discipline of style. The sense of the self-evident rightness of her position robbed her of the will to restraint and she fell into one of those outpourings of justified complaint which seem exaggerated and strained to those who hear them but utterly understated to those who make them.  Martha Franklin sifted them and did what she could but her efforts to settle came to nothing, Jameson crumpled under the stress, was signed off and prescribed heavy doses of anti-depressants which robbed her of the ability to read or express subtle communication,  and the grievance went ahead.

The Chair of the three-strong committee was Mrs Clatworthy, a small, dark, neat woman in a natty navy-blue suit. She smiled broadly at the tableful and welcomed them as if they were together to celebrate a christening. Beside Watt was his chétif secretary, a quick, vole of a woman whose nose twitched like a hamster’s and whose scrawny hand transcribed the proceedings like a machine. She looked over her flimsy glasses only when something shocked or delighted her, otherwise she might have been a recalcitrant learner on Ritalin. In addition to Franklin and Jameson were Dick Pullen, the County’s HR man and the two wing committee members: Mr Greencut, a rotund, be-suited local butcher, florid in complexion and dull in speech, whose daughters were in the school and Mrs Sander, another parent-governor, over-dressed like the poor invited to society events, who met no-one’s eyes and said nothing.

Wiper was first.

“Can you tell us exactly what Ms James said in the meeting on 24th November ?”

“She said I was incompetent.”

“In what context ?”

“No particular context.”

“Everything has a context, Mrs Wiper. Nothing happens without a context. There must have been some subject under discussion.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember what the meeting was about ?”

“Not in detail. It was informal.”

“How informal ?”

“What do you mean ?”

“Well, was it just a chat ? Was there an agenda?”

“No there wasn’t an agenda.”

“Were the date and time decided in advance.”

“I suppose so.”

“And there were just the three of you ?”

“Yes.”

“But there are six in the department?”

“Yes.”

“Why weren’t the other three invited.”

“I don’t know.”

“But you’re Second in Department, Mrs Wiper. A meeting is arranged, a time and venue decided, yet three members of the department aren’t invited. Isn’t that a bit odd?”

“I think Mick just wanted a word with Katie.”

“About what ?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wanted a word. That sometimes means something negative, doesn’t it.”

“It can do.”

“Was it on this occasion ?”

“I can’t remember.”

“But you can remember that Ms Jameson called you incompetent.”

“Yes, you don’t forget something like that.”

“Was she speaking to just you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not ?”

“The way she said it.”

“What way ?”

“As if she meant both of us.”

“So let’s try to get clear just how this alleged remark was made. What were you talking about.”

“I can’t remember.”

“You must remember something that was discussed.”

“We talked about levels.”

“What about them?”

“Making sure the sublevels were accurate.”

“Is that when Ms Jameson made the alleged remark.”

“It could have been.”

“Mrs Wiper, you’re as vague as a melting mist except over one detail. Given your recollection of the meeting is so inadequate, how can we set any store by your conviction ?”

“I just remember it because it was so hurtful.”

“Did Ms Jameson simply blurt out, you’re incompetent !”

“More or less.”

“That seems extraordinary behaviour, doesn’t it.”

“Her behaviour is extraordinary.”

Franklin had dug out a witness. Judy Nicol had been a supply teacher in the department at the time Connie Egger suffered her breakdown. She’d submitted a written statement about systematic bullying and hearing Mick Matterface tell Connie to “go and fuck herself”. No longer teaching, relaxed and pleasant, dressed in a dark green skirt and jacket she looked appropriately formal but exuded friendliness.  Mrs Clatworthy questioned her. Matter-of-fact and brief she confirmed what she’d written. When Franklin got her turn she said:

“Would it be true to say, during your time here, there was a culture of bullying in the English department ?”

“Yes.”

“And can you be sure you heard Mr Matterface tell Mrs Egger to go and fuck herself ?”

“Oh yes ! I was there. I heard him.”

When Wiper was asked what she thought she said:

“She was only a supply teacher. She wasn’t here very long. She’s not reliable.”

Matterface put up a much more aggressive defence. To every question he replied, you’re wasting your breath or I refuse to answer that or this isn’t relevant or I heard what I heard. When Mrs Clatworthy suggested he might be a little more forthcoming he said:

“If the questions were more intelligent, Chair, I would be willing to answer them in kind.”

It took three weeks for the judgement to appear. They recommended Ms Jameson should apologise for the inappropriate remark. Also, she should attend a course designed to improve her “communication skills”. External mediation to improve relationships in the department should be tried and Mr Matterface and Mrs Wiper should accept the intervention of a member of the Senior Leadership Team in their department until working relationships were restored.

Franklin advised Jameson to write the apologies: it would be worth it to get the mediation. Once Matterface and Wiper received their letters, they went to Watt and refused all intervention. Franklin made angry calls to Watt and Dick Pullen, but the protocol was voluntary. They were within their rights. When Jameson returned to work they ignored her. She lasted a fortnight. The doctor prescribed more Prozac.

Recently, the school has undergone an Ofsted. It was deemed outstanding, and in the paragraph on senior management is written: under the leadership of a very able Headteacher, the school is exceptionally well managed. Its anti-bullying policy was also singled out for praise. Tom Watt has been awarded a CBE, Mrs Wiper promoted to Advanced Skills Teacher, and Matterface  temporarily made Assistant Head.

Katie Jameson spent six weeks in a psychiatric unit. Her first suicide attempt was unsuccessful.  


ON Y VA ?

 

There was to be a trip to France organised by Arthur Wouldhave. He’d been in the school for three years but resisted insistent pressure from the brittle Subject Leader, Colette Bentham, being anxious about responsibility. At home, he refused to have other people’s children in the house or garden, in case something happened. His little son and daughter were puzzled but played together heedlessly as best they could. What might befall he didn’t see clearly; it was simply an ever-present possibility of disaster and therefore of blame, and his life was organised around avoidance of  both. There would be five members of staff, including Sue Willacy, fifteen years his senior; a woman of stunning beauty whose figure, demeanour, voice and intelligence fascinated him. Though she’d taught in the place for twenty-two years, she’d been passed over for promotion, principally because she spoke her mind. She was one of those people who take the slogans of democracy at face value. When the Head suggested something she thought stupid, she objected. When specious reasons were adduced for an ill-thought-out policy, she would carefully strip them bare in a staff meeting. Given the chance, she would have explained to the Pope the shortcomings of his views on contraception in the expectation of a rational response. The irrationality of power irritated and, at times, infuriated her, but it couldn’t nudge her from her truth-telling trajectory. All the same, watching time-servers and sycophants of dubious talent scurry up the booby-trapped ladder of advancement for more than two decades while she stood as fixed as a star, had wearied her, and a dragging hint of defeat betrayed itself in her slow gestures and considered speech.

When Wouldhave thought of being in St Malo with Sue, he began to lose what he thought of as his moral orientation. A Christian by default, as he would have been a Muslim if raised in Kabul, a Jew in Tel Aviv, a Hindu in Mumbai, a Lutheran in Stockholm and an atheist in Greenwich Village, he believed he believed in the commandments; in fact, like most Christians, he broke, in thought or deed, all of them every week. He couldn’t help imagining the fortuitous circumstance in which he might be able to get his hands on her inviting hips; his imagination took off like a horse before a firework and in seconds she was naked, his palms were on her tits, his tongue wriggling in her fishy cunt, his cock filled her succulent mouth as her diligently filed nails scratched his tight balls.

“Joshua, if you don’t stop that noise now, you can go on the naughty step !” he said as he wiped the kitchen work surface and looked sternly at the four-year-old.

The bemused child looked up with that blank expression which often met Wouldhave’s peremptorily inflicted discipline and which evinced in the father the anxiety he might be raising a psychopath. Jessica was dutiful, compliant, nervous-to-please but her brother had a wild streak: sometimes he would leave his shoes in the hallway, or on occasion even fail to tidy his bed. Wouldhave believed these serious deficiencies were hallmarks of a flawed inheritance: his wife’s father had once been convicted of driving without due care and attention. When this revelation had been jokingly made at an intoxicated family get-together, a small shock ran through him. No-one in his family had ever broken the law. The terrible thought flooded his mind that he’d married into a criminal clan and convinced from the snippets he read in newspapers of the determining power of genetic inheritance, he slumped inwardly at the fearful recognition of an immutable disposition to delinquency.

“Right, that’s enough, Joshua !”

He took the child by his upper arm and led him squawking to the stairs where he forced him onto the bottom step.

“Now you can stay there till you learn to do as you’re told.”

The child’s gasping sobs convinced him he was doing right and later, when from the bedroom came the little boy’s incantation, “Daddy is stupid, daddy is stupid”, on and on for an hour till sleep displaced mockery, he could only conclude that more of the same was going to be needed to stamp some morality onto the dark soul of his son.

He called a meeting. The terrible responsibility of taking forty-three children abroad for four perilous days and the floating possibility of some horrible disaster for which he’d be held responsible, meant everything had to be planned to the final detail. Anything which might drift for a second from his control filled him with the dread of perdition. Sue was the last to arrive, sauntering in with her usual nonchalance as if time didn’t exist and the congealed tragedies of the ages were mere bagatelles. It had to be decided who should look after the money. Wouldhave had talked to Sue about this and she’d said:

“Oh, give it out. That’s what I always did when I ran my trips to Rome. I gave everyone their whack of lira and said ‘That’s yours. Do what you like with it.’ That way, people are independent and if they fancy a coffee or a beer can get one. Nothing worse than keeping the other staff dependent.”

Wouldhave nodded politely but his heart filled with horror.

“I’m taking some of my own money,” he said. “Just in case I run out.”

“Spend my own money on a school trip ! God, Arthur, I’m not paying for the privilege of looking after forty-three manic teenagers.”

He reflected. Sue’s easy-going ways made him shrink like a slug before salt. Yes, he could simply divide the amount allocated by five and distribute it, but what if someone squandered their allowance?  Or supposing they were frugal and brought most of it home. A parent might find out; they could protest; this was the pupils’ money after all; there might be an investigation; would it be against the law ?; could he be taken to court ? Strict control of the funds was essential.

“Veronica, I’d like you to take charge of the money. The children will get an amount at breakfast each morning and the staff fund will be your responsibility.”

Veronica Toulmin, brisk, sharp, loud and loquacious was one of those young professionals, narrow in imagination and wide in ambition who impress by sycophancy, mistaking their compliance for courage and conformism for originality. At twenty-six she was an Assistant Head, strutting the corridors and paths like a starling after worms. Wouldhave believed in her because he believed in hierarchy.

“Also, Veronica, I’d like you to be in charge of toilet supervision. At the airport for example, if you can count the girls in and out. And Sean and I will do the same for the boys.”

This particular duty struck Wouldhave as especially important. The image of boys and girls stampeding to the facilities never to reappear turned his bowels to liquid. There was bedroom duty too, and mealtime duty. Who would pour milk onto the cornflakes at breakfast ? He pictured the pupils quietly seated, their bowls of dry cereal before them, as staff went round with jugs dispensing just the right amount.

“Can’t they pour their own milk ?” said Sue.

Despite his infatuation , and notwithstanding his violent impulse to possess as he looked into her oceanic blue eyes, this subversive intervention set running his internal clock of catastrophe. He saw them fighting over the provision. Someone was bound to take too much. They would tussle and snatch. A jug would smash to the floor. Someone would grab a viciously sharp ceramic weapon and slit the throat of his rival. Knives would be sunk into viscera. The shameful sound of sirens would fill his distressed ears. Riot police would rush into the dining hall with automatic weapons. Bullets would ricochet from the walls. It would be on international news: the bodies being stretchered out, the tearful girls clinging to one another.

“I think it’s better if one of us takes charge,” he said.

“I’ll do it,” said Veronica with a little wiggle of her torso and a compulsive straightening of her blouse.

“I can give a hand,” said Laurie Rainford.

“Thanks, Laurie. That’ll be fine then, if Laurie and Veronica look after milk at breakfast.”

Wouldhave had absolute faith in Veronica because she’d done what she had to do to gain promotion and was, therefore, the kind of woman who in every circumstance would do what she had to. As for Laurie, he was the NQT, willing but inexperienced and given the run around by pupils preparing for careers in annoyance. But Veronica would bully him and he’d do what he was told because he was ambitious and afraid.

“Nat, will you do bedroom duty? Make sure everyone’s in their room at the appointed time and the rest of us will patrol the corridors till they’re asleep.”

Nodding and smiling, Nat Penny agreed, as he would have had he asked him to wipe their noses or wash their underwear. On a temporary contract and breaking his spine to bend over backwards for the management, he agreed to anything. When an unruly pupil disrupted his lesson and spent the time doing nothing, he wrote in the child’s monitoring diary: Excellent lesson ! He worked really hard for the whole hour. To do otherwise was to risk the disapprobation of the Head, whose agreement with the government’s propaganda was so categorical he believed teachers were the enemies of learning and disruptive pupils merely misunderstood and presenting badly.

The meeting dragged anxiously through every possible contingency. What if someone was sick on the coach ? What if someone was late back after a stop on the motorway ? What if someone got lost ? What if someone developed an allergy ? What if someone was homesick?  What if someone complained to their parents ! Of all the fears that crowded in on Wouldhave’s tortured consciousness, this was the worst. A complaining parent could end a teacher’s career as easily as Stalin could end a dissenter’s life. Parents, now customers of the education service, consumers to be satisfied like visitors to the local massage parlour must be treated with the terrified respect accorded to funnel web spiders and komodo dragons.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to go,” said Sue.

“Yes, sorry. We have overrun a bit haven’t we ?” said Wouldhave.

Sue picked up her handbag and left without further fuss as Wouldhave looked down at his list and realised they weren’t yet halfway through.

“I think we may need another meeting,” he said.

It didn’t occur to him that for two hours Sue Willacy had sat  listening to responsibilities being attributed to others while she was by-passed like a village of narrow streets by a juggernaut. His interest in having her along was remote from her professional competence, about which he had grave doubts. After all, a woman who works for sixty odd terms and makes no headway must have something wrong with her. His faith in the discerning powers of the system was unflinching. Had Sue been ugly, he wouldn’t  have invited her. But her beauty, like a drug which transforms all perception, melted his criticism, and his brain, robbed of all power of resistance, was flooded with sweet thoughts of intimacy which made him her slave.

The arrangement had been that, leaving at one thirty, they would have the morning off, but when Wouldhave asked the Head he was turned down flat. He didn’t dare protest.

“So I arrive at school at eight thirty and keep going, without a break, till midnight, lose my weekend and will have worked twelve straight days. Does he know he’s breaking EU regulations ?”

Wouldhave always hated it when Sue quoted regulations. He followed management directives like an ant after sugar, but Sue’s objections were always to abuse of rules that protected teachers. His stomach began to feel queasy. His firm convictions oozed like butter in the sun.

“Well, it’s not really work.”

“What is it Arthur ? Up at seven, forty-three kids to kick out of bed and look after till they deign to pull the sheets over their heads at eleven. Is that supposed to be relaxation ?”

“No, I know what you mean. It is work, but we’re not actually in school.”

“If we were I could knock off at three thirty and adjourn for a glass of red. Go back to him, Arthur.  Tell him either he lets me have the morning off or while we’re in France I’m taking the day’s break I’m entitled to.”

“Mmm,” said Wouldhave.

He didn’t mention it again and assumed Sue must have forgotten. Meanwhile, she castigated him for his pusillanimity in one staff-room conversation after another.

The coach arrived an hour early encouraging the pupils to swarm it like the Taliban a lost American. Wouldhave ordered the hordes to retreat, with the success, as Veronica observed, of Cnut.

“A slight rearrangement of letters and you’d be more accurate,” said Sue.

“Get back, get back ! Come on, now ! Out of the way you lads !”

When the voyagers gathered with their elephantine suitcases, dressed in designer tops, trainers, jeans, they looked like petty replicas of airport adults, heading off for the sun on a package designed to make them hand over thousands in return for a little specious glamour, the chance to play at being jet-setters or envied celebrities. These children were ostensibly embarking on an educational visit, but education was as far from their thoughts as a Red Dwarf from earth. They were going on holiday ! Their teachers were couriers and they expected service. They had learnt importunate ways from their consumer parents, people who believed the world came into existence to satisfy their whims; who chafed at every restraint while regretting the excessive liberalism extended to the undeserving; their entitlement to whatever they saw fit was the defining trait of their mentality and they admired in their offspring the ability to manipulate every situation to their own ends.

“Sir !”

“What, Nathan ?”

“Can you lend me a pound ?”

“Why ?”

“I want to go and get a bottle of Coke.”

“You can’t go now !”

“Why not ?”

“Because we’re getting you on the coach. You can’t wander off.”

“Well, will you go and get me a bottle then ?”

“Of course not ! Anyway, you’ve been told. No fizzy drinks on the journey.”

“But I don’t like still drinks.”

“That’s too bad, Nathan. No fizzy drinks !”

“I’ll get one at the motorway services,” said the boy, turning away and Wouldhave couldn’t be bothered to have the last word.

The bald, pot-bellied driver sweated and grunted to pack the luggage in the hold and Wouldhave, wanting to show he was fit and strong, hauled a few bulging cases, leapt up and crawled inside to pack them tight and coming out with too much display of nimbleness caught his forehead on the bodywork, opening a neat one inch gash from which  blood rushed like bees from a hive.

“Look !” called one of the girls, “Wouldhave’s bleeding !”

The children turned and pressed to see the teacher with his reddened hand to his head and a great mocking roar went up which, as it subsided, allowed the chant of “ Loser ! Loser !” to fill the air. The staff went among the youngsters, reprimanding and demanding order, but it was minutes before the last cries disappeared and Wouldhave, an obliquely angled Elastoplast across his brow, could resume his baggage throwing.

“How’s your ‘ead, sir ?” cried one of the lads as he bounced up the steps.

Wouldhave was dutifully counting them on. He checked four times, then asked Sue to check again.

“They’re all here as is goin’ !” she declared having waltzed up and down the aisle.

Wouldhave was tempted to ask her for the number but thought better. They driver pressed the green ignition, the engine stuttered, chugged, belched, a great plume of black smoke choked the waving parents and slowly the coach manoeuvred out of the main gate.

Eleven and a half hours later, after being stewed on a bus, roasted in an airport, pressed on a plane and bumped and swayed along perilous roads in a darkened coach, they fell, staggered and stumbled into the little Hotel Voltaire whose shabbiness was matched only by its lack of space. The bedrooms were reached by a metal spiral staircase that trembled under the weight of Rabelaisian luggage and as Sue pushed her reluctant legs upwards she could feel the swelling in her ankles. When Veronica entered their room, she was surprised to find her colleague flat on the bed with her legs stretched and propped against the wall.

“Expecting company ?”

“My ankles are as puffy as a battered boxer’s eyes.”

Veronica neatly stowed her case, shrugged, brushed the hair from her shoulders, made a tight mouth like a controverted Pope and minced out:

“We’ve got to get the children to bed. It’s chaos out there.”

Out there, was one of the clichés Veronica used excessively and which irritated Sue badly. It seemed to represent some quasi-mystical realm which should be strenuously aspired after: the great out there, full of promise, progress and untold fulfilment. Sue had no belief in mystical realms nor any truck with progress. Resolutely practical, she adhered to a simple principle: avoid suffering. The myriad doctrines and creeds promising improvement which led to death, exploitation, the prison camp, the asylum and the torture chamber struck her as expressions of the same neurosis: an inability to accept limits. Veronica’s out there was nothing but a bunch of unruly, spoilt teenagers who needed to be told what to do by their elders and suffer consequences if they didn’t. She lowered her legs, rubbed her still fattened ankles and went to join her colleagues.

Wouldhave was patrolling the corridors yelping instructions at boys who, for the most part, ignored him the first time, the second time, the third time, till his voice was as strained as a siren. He was one of those people who compensate for sycophancy by exaggerated confidence. He strode with rather stiff legs, he swung his arms as if in the course of a great accomplishment; sorting out a nest of tired, refractory squabbling teenagers, which should have been as routine as shifting a cat from the bird table, became as great a task as circumnavigating the globe on a raft. When Sue appeared a subtle change come over him. He toned down. He tried to smile, but it was as  an advert. He leaned nonchalantly against the wall. She paid him no attention . He mooched, looked for something to do, shouted at a few boys and strode away as if the fate of the universe itself rested up his immediate actions.

The next days passed in a tedium of sweltering coach rides, visits to dull tourist sights, descents into predictable wine cellars or malodorous cheese –making basements. The evening meal in the Hotel Voltaire was chicken nuggets and chips or beefburger and chips followed by some sickly concoction masquerading as tarte au citron or crème caramel. When, on the afternoon of the third day, they found themselves in a pleasant little café overlooking the pool where the pupils were swishing down plastic tubes like building debris to splash furiously into crowded blue water or lining up like innocents before a firing squad to wait for the wave machine to send simulacra of Atlantic breakers to plash against their chests, Sue lifted the menu, saw at once it was real food and went to the counter.  Nat Penny joined her. They ordered salade nicoise, pitta bread, carrés aux pommes, fresh fruit and coffee. It was the first genuine food Sue had tasted since leaving home and relishing its care, intelligence and humanity she had to restrain herself from launching a tirade against the depressing and neglectful stomach-insulting mal bouffe chucked onto plates at the hotel. When the bill had to be paid, Veronica wriggled her upper body, picked the stray hairs from her shoulders and looked out of the window.

“Don’t worry,” said Sue to Nat as he reached into his pocket.

She paid by Visa. Thirty seven euros eighty. Though it was petty, it rankled. Later, when they stopped in  Montreuil for coffee on the way home, Veronica took the order.

“Oh, I’ll have a litte millefeuille with mine,” said Sue. “I hate to drink coffee without something  sweet.”

“I’m not sure we can run to that.”

“Oh, a little cake.”

“But if everyone had one…”

“Are they ?”

“No, just you.”

“Well then, the exchequer can afford it.”

“But I can’t buy you one and not everyone else.”

“No-one else wants one.”

“That’s not the point.”

“The point is Veronica, I’m in France with forty-three kids. I want a cake with my coffee. Is that so outrageous?”

“Arthur’s told me to be careful with the money.”

“Oh, Arthur’s a neurotic little prig. Forget it, I’ll buy my own bloody millefeuille.”

But she didn’t. She bought a complete tarte aux fraises. When it was brought to their terrace table she sliced it and said:

“Doesn’t that look wonderful ! Tuck in everybody.”

Wouldhave, looking put out, said:

“Who paid for that ?”

“The staff kitty,” declared Sue brightly. “Veronica and I thought it would go down nicely, didn’t we ?”

Before the outflanked Veronica could gainsay her, Sue was holding out a little plate to Arthur.

“Here, it’s on the kids. They can afford it the spoilt little darlings.”

He put the confection in front of him as though it contained Semtex.

“How much was it ?”

“Fifty-five euros,” said Sue.

“Fifty-five euros!” protested Wouldhave, leaping to his feet, his face as distraught as a five-year-old whose ice-cream has fallen in the mud. “We can’t afford that !”

“  ‘Course we can.” said Sue. “Sit down before you have a seizure. Eat your pie, it’s delicious.”

“Don’t eat it !” commanded Wouldhave.

Everybody stopped apart from Sue who spooned a chunk into her mouth and chewed ostentatiously.

“It’ll have to go back !”

“But we’ve sliced it, Arthur,” said Veronica.

“Too bad. They can still sell it.”

“Oh !” said Sue, her mouth full and her spoon nipping off another corner, “orgasmic. A real gastronomic orgy.”

“Anyway, Sue’s nearly finished hers !” declared Veronica compulsively shifting her ribcage.

“They can knock something off for that,” said Wouldhave. “Put all the slices back on the plate.”

“Give them to me,” said Sue reaching for the portions, “I’ll eat the bloody lot.”

“You can’t have any more !” yelled Wouldhave.

“I’ll have as much as I like.”

“Put it back on the plate !” he commanded. “That’s school property !”

Sue sat back in her chair and rocked with laughter.

“What did you say ?”

“That’s school property. It was paid for by the staff fund and I control that.”

“Well good for you, Arthur, and I hope you bloody well enjoy yourself. But I paid for it as a matter of fact. So make the best of it everyone before the coffee goes cold.”

“You paid for it ?”

“Sit down for god’s sake, you look like Adolf Hitler waiting to speak at Nuremburg.”

“Did she, Veronica ?”

Veronica tucked her elbows close to her ribs, shivered as if her backside had just been tickled with a feather and nodded.

“Fifty-five euros ?”

“And worth every penny. I’ll have your slice, Arthur, I wouldn’t want you to choke on it.”

“You must be mad,” said Wouldhave. “Spending that much.”

“We can’t be expected to survive on wartime rations.”

Wouldhave sat down as they all relished the dessert. He looked at Sue in utter confusion. She was beautiful and he couldn’t resist her; but he wanted to hate her for having humiliated him.

 Later, the pupils were divided into groups for different after-meal activities. Sue was allocated eight for darts.

“Do you think she’ll cope ?” Wouldhave asked the others.

“It’s only darts,” said Nat.

“Yes, but you now what she’s like. We saw that this afternoon. She’s no control.”

He went to find her.

“Shall I take this group?” he said. “You take a few girls for a walk on the park.”

“Why?” said Sue.

“Darts can be dangerous.”

She looked at him for a second during which he feared she might  leap at his throat.

“I think I’ll manage,” and she turned her back.

That night there was a kerfuffle: four of the girls claimed the toilet in their room was leaking. Nat Penny investigated, wiped the floor dry and concluded the water was coming from the shower because the girls didn’t close the curtain properly.

“This is a health and safety matter !” declared Wouldhave as if a case of yellow fever had just been confirmed.

“But the toilet isn’t leaking, Arthur,” offered Nat timidly.

“We can’t take any chances. We’ll have to demand a change of rooms.”

He spoke to the patron, M.Pardessus, who bore an uncanny likeness to Stefan Grappelli, was almost bald but such hair as he retained had let grow long and greasy, and chained smoked Gauloise, blowing the smoke diligently towards his interlocutor. Wouldhave talked of maladie sérieuse, santé menacée, poursuites légales, while Pardessus shrugged, turned down the corners of his mouth, spread wide his hands, and puffed. All the same, an alternative room was found, the bedding was shifted and Wouldhave sat in the bar with his demi panaché, waxing about how a serious catastrophe had been avoided.

The following morning he went in his pyjama bottoms into the empty room. The floor was dry as gunpowder. Everything would have to be moved back. He was standing between two beds when Sue entered on her get-them-out-of-bed round.

“Oh, no-one in this room ?” she said.

“No, this was the one we had to evacuate.”

He became suddenly viciously self-conscious. His upper body was bare. Did she notice how trim he was ? He pulled in his stomach. The few black hairs on his chest, which he’d always considered a potent symbol of his masculinity, seemed laughably inadequate. He put his hands on his hips. Sue was a few feet from him, surveying the room. She was wearing a white blouse with a little stiff, raised, winged collar, and her cleavage so full and visible was an invitation to bliss. His cock began to throb and stiffen and with nothing to hold it back but his flimsy pants, bulged ludicrously. Sue turned and looked at him, lowered her eyes to the little boy’s protuberance, fixed him in the eyes and left.

Wouldhave dashed to his room, pulled on his clothes and went briskly along the landings:

“Come on you lot, you’re going to miss breakfast at this rate!”

The return journey was terrible: the coach broke down and the mechanics took three hours to arrive. The problem identified, they shrugged with Gallic insouciance, retired to the local brasserie for oeufs plat jambon and un verre rouge, and an hour later began their slow artistry. The ferry was delayed for bad weather; pupils were sick on all the decks, in the bar, the cafeteria on one another and over Wouldhave’s suede shoes. One of them was mugged by a hoodie in the motorway services, his money, his ipod, his mobile all gone and his tears flowing like the Loire in spate. When Wouldhave arrived home weary, hungry and curiously flat his wife said:

“Well, how did it go ?”

“Fine,” he said, “fine,” dropping his bag in the hallway. “The pupils behaved very well, as they always do if I’m in charge. But the staff…..”

“Really ? What have they been up to ?”

“Not all of them. But Sue Willacy, she’s a very awkward woman.”

“Oh, her. What was it this time ?”

He went slowly to the kitchen, shaking his head.

“Do you know what she did ?”

He was leaning against the work surface his wife facing him, her arms folded across her breast. A painful idea struck him:  though she was almost pretty and in the right light could be mistaken for nearly good-looking, she couldn’t come anywhere near Sue’s overwhelming physical beauty. He was on the verge of tears and wanted to accuse her. But of what ? He had no idea.

“Well ?” she said.

“You won’t believe it,” he uttered. “You won’t believe it.”

He pulled himself to his full height and threw back his shoulders hoping his voice wouldn’t betray him.

“We were in this café and you’ll never guess what she bought…………..”


 

SUBJECTIVE EVIDENCE 

There was no doubt in Jackson Carrick’s mind about the superiority of public school education, but having been through Westminster and Balliol, he knew the kind of unthinking , vulgar Toryism such a background could produce; just as stupid and offensive as the thoughtless, reductive Marxism he considered characteristic of some Trade Unionists. In keeping with what he judged traditional British moderation, he placed himself in the middle. He would never have supported abolition of private schools, but the masses deserve their chance; they must be educated too.  The comprehensive system was a solution, though he hedged his bets by keeping it at arm’s length; he was prepared to work in it, but only in ex-grammar, Church of England, voluntary maintained schools, places with one foot in the later twentieth century and the other in the Middle Ages. He thought himself very liberal. His mentality was almost that of a teenager brought up to believe in god, Anglicanism, the monarchy, the Tory Party and the virtuousness of every middle-class habit, who, reading The Catcher In The Rye and The Road To Wigan Pier at eighteen  thinks he’s revolutionary because he finds Holden Caulfield’s disaffection attractive and Orwell’s style impressive.

The fear which haunted him about his choice of career was stagnation: he knew there were teachers who failed or were denied before they’d hardly begun  and spent twenty or thirty miserable years doing the same thing in the same room before retiring exhausted at sixty and dropping dead two years later, more or less of chagrin. He absolutely must be a Headteacher. The only way to be sure was to make categorical agreement with the system: he would exceed all his colleagues in diligent conformism and he would push. Though he knew his school and alma mater were probably enough to see him through, he wasn’t a man to leave anything to chance. The thought of getting stuck on the Deputy Head rung woke him up in a sweat. On the other hand, the idea a school under his control, funded by the taxpayer, run by the Local Authority but actually controlled by a compliant governing body he’d manipulate to create his own little fiefdom, filled him with ease and delight.

Of course, a Headteacher must have a wife.

The devastating ecstasy of falling in love struck him as unseemly; instead he thought of choosing a wife as akin to choosing a car. Once all the specifications had been checked, however, he permitted himself a little access of wildness ; he went to church without a tie; he kissed her on the cheek in public; he neglected to clean his shoes for two days. Sarah was a vicar’s daughter, gentle, kind and very correct. Her own ambitions to make her way in law would have to be set aside of course. She would make a perfect Headteacher’s wife.

It took him nine years and seventeen applications to achieve his ambition; for a terrible eighteen months after he’d failed at his sixth interview, he thought he wasn’t going to scale the last peak. He became depressed and overwhelmed by a sense of being thwarted and denied; the system was working against him, decisions were being made on eccentric grounds; for all six jobs he’d been convinced he was the best candidate. Especially galling was that people from the State sector and red brick universities were chosen. He began to feel his privileged background was weighing against him as the Labour hegemony after 1964 and the curious open atmosphere of the time, dissolved deference. Were Headteachers and governing bodies, mindful of the new settlement, favouring candidates from less rarefied conditions ? At the thought that his accent, demeanour, all the obvious concomitants of his upper middle class origins were being used against him, a sneer of hurt and opposition appeared on his lips. The idea made him aggressive. He almost wanted to sarcastically insult the next Head who refused him.

Salvation came from a school in the north.

It was a desperately difficult decision.

“But will we feel at home in Yorkshire ?” said Sarah.

“Oh, the school is middle-class, we’ll live in a good area. We may even buy a nice big place in the Dales. You can keep busy in the church. You’ll get to know all the best Anglicans in the West Riding.”

All the same, Sarah lay awake. The school might serve a middle-class area, but it was no more than two miles from the centre of the old, industrial town. When they visited, she found nothing to charm her and the Saturday streets were full of grey-faced people in cheap clothes carrying cut-price shopping in plastic bags and piling onto overcrowded buses. Her terrible fear was of her children mixing with them. And they were still young; would they pick up the vulgar Yorkshire accent ? But to all her worries and protestations Carrick replied they would be in the town but not of the town.

“The middle-classes make their own community wherever they go,” he said. “It’s a community of property. The house prices will keep us out of reach of the riff-raff.”

“I think that’s bit old-fashioned, Jackson. Labour are in power and the gap is closing. Coal miners and all kinds of people can afford houses in the suburbs.”

“We aren’t going to live in a Barratt house made for the masses, dear. We’ll find a commuter village full of professional people.”

 

They bought a five-bedroomed, dark stone ex-rectory with an acre of garden in a pretty little place where some of the houses were thatched and the plaques for the best kept village in England were displayed in the community hall. Jackson soon settled into school, establishing the fixed routine which was his mainstay: up at exactly six-thirty, breakfast ( cereal, bacon, egg, tomato and fried bread, orange juice and Darjeeling) at exactly six forty-five, fifteen minutes with the Guardian (he thought himself very progressive when he gave up the Telegraph), ten minutes in the bathroom, five minutes to put the finishing touches to his appearance ( he styled himself on the typical bank manager which he thought spoke of subdued power and unobtrusive confidence) and departure at seven thirty to arrive at school on the dot of eight; a quick eye at the mail; whole school assembly on Monday and Tuesday; coffee and biscuits prepared by his secretary at exactly eleven; back to work at eleven thirty; in the car at half past midday and home for one to eat the meal Sarah would have steaming on the table a minute before his arrival; leave home at half-past one to be in his study for two ( lunch  was officially one hour and ten minutes but he decided to establish the two-hour break in his first week and to any objection responded that he spent half an hour working at home) ; necessary phone calls and letters in the afternoon with a pause at three fifteen for tea and ginger cake ( his favourite since a boy as his grandmother made it for him and heavy, succulent parcels arrived regularly at school); all serious work finished by four; a little gentle tidying of his study and perhaps a quiet stroll ( once all the pupils had left) around the school; in his car again at four thirty and home for an hour’s regimented play with the children before eating at six. Disruptions such as meetings at County Hall, interviewing, discussions with worried or obstreperous parents, always put him in a tight little temper, as did perceived slights to his authority, untidiness, colleagues who didn’t clean their shoes or press their trousers and any attempt at open discussion of school policy. He quickly learned to keep few records, to say one thing here and another there, but as a matter of principle, to divulge as little as possible and at every chance, to use his access to information, especially figures, to confuse and confound any questioning.

His fiefdom was established. He reigned supreme.

The final appointment of his predecessor was Cal Chorlton, an English teacher who got the post because the previous appointee had given backword, it was July and they were desperate. In the welcoming letter left for him, Carrick read:

Keep an eye on Chorlton. I wouldn’t have appointed him unless I’d had to. He’d probably be more suited to an urban comprehensive where the standards are lower and traditions weaker.

Carrick hadn’t been in the school for three weeks when, on one of his rare excursions from his study, he passed by the staffroom and found a dozen boys milling and Chorlton disappearing through the door. At once, Harry Archer’s warning came to mind and he followed the young man.

“What are these boys doing out here ?” he asked sternly, clenching into a stick of disapproval.

“I don’t know,” replied Chorlton turning to him his hands still in his pockets.

“What do you mean, you don’t know ?”

“They’re nothing to do with me.”

“Aren’t they your class ?”

“No.”

“Well, where should you be teaching ?”

“I’m on a free.”

Knowing he’d made a mistake and should apologise, Carrick fought to maintain his stiffness, turned on his heels and left, saying nothing to the boys who were starting to shift into that giddy, mischief-seeking mood of all bored children. In his study, he rationalised: though he’d been in the wrong, Chorlton was clearly suspect: he’d walked past the boys without speaking to them;  kept his hands in his pockets and, worst of all,  exuded that cockiness, that devil-may-careism of nonchalant youth and disaffected intellectuals which had no place in a right-of-centre, Christian, ex-grammar school.

Over the next two years, Carrick found no significant reason to dislike or find fault with Chorlton. He was perfectly amenable and got on with his job without fuss, but all the same there was something about him. When he’d interviewed him, as he did all the staff, during his first two terms, to get to know them better, he’d asked about his education and the fact he’d been to a secondary modern which he left at sixteen. It turned out he’d joined the merchant navy as a ship’s radio officer travelling the world for two years; given that up and taken a variety of little jobs to keep going while boosting his qualifications at night-school and finally finding his way to university, having discovered during the long hours off shift at sea, the writers who remained his favourites: Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Carson McCullers. This odd trajectory troubled Carrick. He thought teachers should arrive at their careers through the standard route. Shortly after interviewing Chorlton he had a dream: the young man was on the deck of ship tossing in high seas, the waves crashed over him and he laughed; the ship pitched ferociously and he stood with his hands in his pockets; then he was below deck in his bunk swigging rum and reading Crime and Punishment while a dark-skinned, native girl with bare breasts and a grass skirt performed smilingly a sinuous dance in front of him; suddenly he was in an exam room, his feet on the desk smoking and drinking as the invigilator’s shoes squeaked on the polished floor and in no time in a lecture theatre in his naval officer’s uniform, kissing the beautiful girl beside him as the professor spoke about the importance of Pilgrim’s Progress to the English mentality. 

He noticed how Chorlton would slouch in an armchair in the staffroom, how he leant on the wall at the rear of the hall during assembly, his hands in his pockets, and on more than one occasion, passing through, he found him in what seemed intimate or at least over-friendly conversation with one or other female member of staff. Carrick was one of those men, so nervous of women, he interpreted the most passing, insignificant contact as a prelude to inevitable physical relations; but Chorlton talked with women as if the difference between the sexes didn’t exist and this insouciance raised in Carrick’s mind the dreadful suspicion of serial infidelity. Was there any evidence of affairs ? Carrick believed in what he called subjective evidence. In spite of his expensive, exclusive education he thought subjective meant mental or belonging to the mind and its operations, and he considered the evidence of his mind as good as any other. If his thoughts told him Chorlton was sexually flexible, relaxed, untroubled, careless of middle-class niceties, a man who seemed to go his own way and make his own decisions ( a tendency Carrick viewed, in spite of his philosophical belief in the freedom of the individual, as dangerous), what further evidence could be required? Wasn’t that the point, after all, of appointing men like himself ? Wasn’t it the raison d’etre of hierarchy ? The entire significance of having power concentrated in a few hands, was so those who held it could make decisions according to their perceptions. Subjective decisions. The purpose of democracy, of course, was merely to provide the masses with the illusion of influence; the real decisions were made behind closed doors at the end of long, quiet corridors which only people like himself should have access to. In this way, Carrick believed, society mirrored the structure of the universe where god presided and nothing happened without his setting it in train. God, like himself, was a great believer in tidiness and order.

Shortly before the Easter holiday of his second year, Chorlton came to ask for a reference.

“I don’t have time to discuss it now,” said Carrick who was locking his door to leave for lunch.

“Oh, it won’t take a minute,” said Chorlton.

“Come and see me tomorrow,” said Carrick, turning his back.

He was aware, as he headed outside, of the younger man still standing at his door. Annoyed that he’d been pestered a few minutes before the lunch bell, he was also disturbed by the thought of having to write a reference for Chorlton and began to rehearse a little diatribe of rejection:

“You’ve only been teaching two years and that’s far to little to assume responsibility for a department..”

But what if Chorlton was applying for some second-in-department job? He would use exactly the same formula.

“A second-in-department isn’t a sinecure. It’s an important position which requires judgement and poise. With only two years teaching behind you, terrible mistakes are possible which could make you a laughing stock and set back your career..”

He thought this particularly clever: to hold back Chorlton’s advancement by claiming to be concerned for it.

“It’s my responsibility to see only the right people get promoted. To advance people too quickly is as foolish as to hold them back. You deserve your chance, but you haven’t proved yourself. You need to ensure that you advertise your skills to me and that you make clear your willingness to do your duty as a teacher…”

At this point, he was thinking of making some oblique comment about Chorlton’s behaviour towards women. On more than one occasion he’d been seen leaving school in Mrs Tyler’s car at lunchtime. Where did they go ? What did they get up to ? Did they have the time and opportunity ? It infuriated Carrick who liked staff to be running the chess club or taking swimming or netball turnouts during the break. He took it as a personal insult because if Chorlton had been sufficiently deferential, he would have sensed disapprobation. Once again, Carrick thought of god who remained silent and inscrutable while insisting on strict adherence to his will.

But the next day Chorlton didn’t arrive.

When the written request for a reference appeared in the post, Carrick set it aside in a withheld fury. What was Chorlton up to ? Was it a deliberate slight ? Had he refused to come to see him as an insult ? Was he trying to humiliate him ? He knew the fair thing to do was to call him in, tell him the request had arrived and discuss it, but he had no inclination to fairness in the face of insubordination. He sat behind his broad, tidy desk, picked up his fountain pen and in the uneven, rather immature hand which as a teenager he tried to modify in the direction of floridity, wrote on a piece of headed paper:

To whom it may concern: re Mr C.Chorlton.

Mr Chorlton began teaching English with us in September 1978. While his classroom performance has been satisfactory and he passed his probationary year without problems, I feel he is not yet ready for promotion to the position of Second in Department. He has as yet assumed no responsibility within the department, nor has he made an extra-curricular contribution which could be considered consonant with the ambition to lead. His relations with pupils are generally good and he is both respected and liked. He has good classroom discipline and keeps his charges interested and working. Progress in all the classes he teaches has been at least at the expected level. Relations with his colleagues are also positive, though we would sound a note of caution over his occasional over-familiarity with female staff. Mr Chorlton does not always show sufficient sensitivity to the high standards demanded of teachers in their personal lives and we feel this is a significant barrier. He is also sometimes negligent in his personal attire and his demeanour can be less than punctiliously professional. While we feel that with attention to these shortcomings Mr Chorlton may in a few years be a candidate for greater responsibility, at present we believe he is unprepared for the demands of a leading role within a department.

He was very pleased with his style. He felt less than punctiliously professional particularly well-phrased.

“Mrs Jent, can you come and take some dictation, please ?”

The dutiful, demure secretary scribbled her sudden shorthand as he read.

“Type it today please, bring it to me for signing and be sure it goes in the post, first class.”

Mrs Jent, a model of discretion, left the typed letter on the corner of her desk while she and the other ancillary staff had their break and that evening said to her husband:

“You should’ve seen the reference I had to write for Cal Chorlton today !”

Three weeks later, in the morning, five minutes before his coffee, there came an importunate knock on Carrick’s door. He was inclined to push the button and light up his engaged sign, but goaded by the urgency called:

“Come in !”

Chorlton evinced none of the nervous respect Carrick liked to discern on staff coming into the sanctum sanctorum and on his face was the frank, determined resolution of a man who won’t be fobbed off.

“What can I do for you, Cal ? Please sit down.”

Chorlton perched on the edge of the chair, his elbows on his knees, as if, Carrick thought, he were chatting to a friend in the pub.

“Yes.”

“I heard from the school I applied to yesterday.”

“Oh, good.”

“I rang to ask the Head for a debrief.”

“A debrief ?”

“It’s becoming more common. You get told about the shortcomings in your application.”

Carrick made a face of what-do-I-care approval, as if such practices belonged on a distant planet.

“Apparently you told them I’m over-familiar with female colleagues.”

“That’s right.”

“What evidence do you have of that ?”

“The evidence of my eyes.”

“Sorry ?”

“Do you still go out for lunch with Mrs Tyler ?”

“What if I do ?”

“I only ask.”

“Are you suggesting I can’t be promoted because I have a sandwich and a chat with Mrs Tyler now and again ?”

“Not at all, but there’s a propriety which must be observed.”

“Which is ?”

Carrick’s chin rose, the corners of his mouth tugged downwards, he looked towards the window beyond which stretched the playing fields bordered by tall old trees swaying in the breeze, trees that were here long before himself, whose age, stateliness and beauty spoke of the centuries the school had existed. In comparison to them and to the rest of the school grounds, Chorlton seemed insignificant, a vulgarity sprung from the backstreets of the town unable to adjust his common ways.

“Do you think it isn’t noticed by the pupils, married members of staff leaving in a car together ?”

“I’m sure they notice. So what ?”

“Don’t you think it might play on their unformed imaginations ?”

“Mr Carrick, are you telling me you’ve blocked my promotion because you believe married men and women should never be seen in one another’s company?”

“You’re exaggerating Cal. I’m talking only about the context of this school.”

“In this context can’t married men and women socialise without an assumption of adultery ?”

 “I’m not suggesting any such thing.”

“So what do you mean ?”

“I mean there’s a way of behaving that’s expected in an establishment like this. We aren’t a comprehensive serving a council estate. There’s an expectation we’ll uphold a set of standards: smart dress, professional demeanour, care in our choice of social activities and places we visit, avoidance of any behaviour which could give rise to suspicion of….”

“I’m not in the army.”

Carrick stopped short and fixed his interlocutor.

“No, but in a way we’re under the same kind of regime. We’re servants of the State and the Church and this school has always been resolutely on the right of the political spectrum.”

“Why are you introducing politics ?”

“We have to be mindful of the constituency from which our parents are drawn. Many of them are people of property. We must be careful not to offend their sensibilities.”

“And I offend them ?”

“I’m not saying that ?”

“It isn’t very clear to me what you are saying, except you have a vague feeling that I don’t fit or come from the wrong side of the tracks or something…”

“Not at all. It’s a question of your being ready to assume responsibility.”

“What’s that got to do with Mrs Tyler ?”

“Nothing directly, but there’s a certain way of doing things which goes with taking a leading role.”

“A certain way of doing things ? Mr Carrick, I have a contract of employment. I come here to do job. You seem to be saying my contract extends into my private life. Are you going to tell me what I should do with my Saturday nights ?”

“Your private life is entirely your own affair.”

“My lunchtimes are my private life. I’m not paid for them. It’s no different from a Sunday afternoon. It’s my time. Why should you cite that as a reason for putting a brake on my career ?”

“That’s disingenuous. You have to leave the site and it’s accepted that five minutes after the bell is still school time.”

“I’m happy to wait six minutes.”

“Facetiousness isn’t appropriate,Cal”

“Is it appropriate you write a reference which scuppers my chances of a decent promotion?”

“You didn’t come to see me about it.”

“I did, but you were going for lunch.”

“Yes, and I asked you to come back the following day. Did you forget?”

“I knocked on your door. There was no answer.”

Carrick flicked his eyes down to his desk. Was it true ? Had he switched on the engaged sign ?

“Yes,” he said, looking up, “I suspected that might be the case.”

“Are you saying the reference might have been different if I’d spoken to you ?”

“Not at all.”

“Supposing I find another post. Will you support me ?”

Carrick entwined his fingers and looked towards the window, as if for inspiration.

“Come to see me and we’ll  put together a platform.”

Chorlton seemed to hesitate. For a second, he stared back at Carrick as if he were about to get to his feet and attack him; but without a murmur he sprang up and left, swiftly, quietly, decisively. Carrick rocked against the flexible back of his chair ? A little devil of anxiety ran through him. Had he done anything he could be held to account for ? He’d been badly caught out over the business of not being in his office; but was Chorlton telling the truth ? Why did he come back only once ? Obviously he was lying! He’d been right all along: Chorlton was untrustworthy, the wrong type. Carrick began to fill with a sense of his superior judgement. He new how to pick people out and how to spot the subtle signs of unworthiness; he knew where merit lay and how it should be rewarded; and what pleased him most of all, what filled him with pride and justification, what made him pour the dark, aromatic, afternoon coffee from the white, thin-necked, bulbous-bodied pot into his neat china cup with particular relish, was knowing all he needed was subjective evidence.

 


 

A SOUND INVESTMENT

 

The next day she began clearing his room. From the narrow wardrobe which she’d known since childhood, she took the brown and navy, tobacco-reeking suits and the tan shoes whose soles he mended over and over on his iron last. The dark chest of drawers was emptied of shirts and underwear; in the top left-hand drawer she found his papers. His will was in a simple, rectangular, unsealed manilla envelope on which he’d written in his looping hand: Last Will and Testament. Bert Dallas.   What shocked her was the building society book: £10,573 16s and 9d. She sat down in his armchair. How long had it taken? At once she wondered if Alice, Henry and Alf would get their share. She pulled out the will and tried to read without glasses. Getting up hurriedly she brought them from the neighbouring room. Even so, the language defeated her. She read through it once and had to begin again. Finally, she came to the clause: “All accumulated monies….to my daughter, Patience Derwent.” Her excitement was followed quickly by guilt. She ran up to her bedroom, put the documents in her dressing table and continued her work.

When everything was settled, she decorated the living-room. Hanging paper she found too difficult, so she emulsioned. She paid for a fitted green carpet with a beautiful gold and brown floral motif and bought a three piece suite to match;  when she sat in the armchair, alone, with a cup of tea and the evening paper, she had the feeling that at last life had done her a kindness. Her son came home from his hated office job. She heard him in the hallway, hanging up his coat and taking off his shoes. The familiar click and he popped his head inside:

“Our Billy in ?”

“No,” she replied without shifting her eyes from the paper.

He closed the door and she listened to his quick feet on the stairs. Once, the sound of him around the house had been her joy; now he was a stranger. She went to the kitchen to make his meal. He ate in the same room, at a square, dark-stained table pushed against the wall because the back room he used for his music. Sometimes she lay in bed and thought that he had more space in the house and her irritation made her resent him; but she had indulged him and now found it impossible to retreat. He ate the corned beef hash eagerly, pouring brown sauce and mashing with his fork; he lifted little heaps of the stew onto his folded bread and bit into it lavishly. When he’d finished, she took away his plate and brought him his mug of tea, as he liked it, almost black, with the merest  drop of milk and no sugar. He turned on the television and sat on the sofa as she read through the death notices for the third time. After an hour, he went into the back room and began on the guitar; she plumped a cushion, spread out on the sofa and, with the television still on, drifted into sleep.

There were repairs to be carried out and proud of her practicality and providence, she had the rotting window frames replaced and painted brown and cream, the cracked slates removed and the pointing done. In a fit of excess, she bought a new gas cooker, though the old was serviceable, and each time she used it, experienced a little thrill of extravagance. Billy, who at eleven had never had a new bike, she treated to a blue racer with ten gears. Yet when she’d paid for everything , there was still £8,800 . She wondered if she was now rich. She considered putting it in the Post Office because it was responsible and secure. One day she saw an advert for private investments in the paper and her heart skipped; her mind filled with pictures of Stock Exchange dealers, bankers in dark blue Saville Row suits, black Rolls Royces in the Mall and other parts of the capital she had visited only once as a child. She considered giving it to a charity or the church but the parable of the widow’s mite came back to her and she felt ashamed that perhaps she was trying to buy grace. Sometimes she woke in the early hours, her head full of odd, frightening dreams of exorbitant wealth, eternal damnation, speculation and ruin. For months she left it in the building society and tried not to think about it. Nevertheless, when she opened her brown wage packet on a Thursday and saw that for her wearying forty hours in the canteen she’d earned £9 17s 3d, she thought of her little fortune and wondered if she couldn’t give up work.

After tea, when Billy was out on the park with his pals and Paul not yet home from work, she sat down with a pencil and paper. She was fifty-two. At five hundred  a year her windfall wouldn’t be exhausted by pension age. But how much was the pension ? Would she manage ? And what if the roof needing replacing or the gutters collapsed ? Then if she spent it all there would be nothing to leave for the boys; and how long would she live ? If she went on to seventy or seventy-five or even eighty, might she need the money ? She put the paper aside with a sense of defeat. The responsible thing was to go on for another eight years and let the money grow; but the thought of work was barbed wire round her heart. She served meals to the men from the shop floor, wiped the tables, cleaned the floors, filled the salt cellars and  vinegar shakers. She was a dogsbody. Terrified of making a mistake, of being reprimanded or sacked, she was extravagantly conscientious; but no-one noticed. The effort left her weary, the fear drained her, the daily humiliation robbed her of worth.

She’d thought marriage would save her. When the war ended and Stan was demobbed, they lived first of all with her parents in their two-up, two-down. But he had a go-getting spirit and though she disapproved, she was glad when he landed a job as manager of a shoe shop and they could afford to rent. After two years they’d saved enough to buy and the modest self-sufficiency pleased her. The house was decent and big enough for a family. There was even a good-sized yard where they could grow fuchsias and begonias in pots. But Stan pushed ahead, always ingratiating himself with the big-wigs; he moved to a regional position. They bought a three-bedroomed in the suburbs. He got a black Wolsey with the job. She disliked his impatience to climb and his desire for more and better, but all the same, she had a good home for her children. She didn’t need to work. The area was stable, secure, the schools were good and there was a Congregational Church close by.

Then one Monday, putting the clothes in the tub, she found red lipstick on his shirt.

She took it to living-room and sat down with it in her hands. For an hour she reviewed carefully the time they’d spent together over the past week. She hadn’t kissed him and in any case, she didn’t have the shade. She saw the house sold, she and the boys going back to her mother’s, the poverty of her childhood returned. She would have to work. What could she do ? She had no skill or qualification. Her children’s lives would be ruined. Their father was on the side of the devil. She wept and wanted to hide away. When she confronted him he denied it but later, half contrite and half couldn’t-care-less, he confessed. It had happened only once. She was young and had thrown herself at him day after day. Finally, he’d given in. It meant nothing. Her mind filled with images of hordes of young women with neat waists. She responded with the absolutism of her faith. There were moments when she calmed down and it seemed forgivable, but at once she summoned her adherence to the ten commandments; he was expelled; the settlement gave her the house and he was free of further support. She lived in poverty in the affluent suburb and a terrible gloom descended on the home; no visitors ever came; the boys weren’t allowed to let their friends over the threshold; she worked, cooked, cleaned and slept; she had no friends; another husband was out of the question.

When her mother died, her father moved in because he was incapable of keeping house. His little terrace in the mean streets sold for £1,600. He offered it her but she told him to bank it. Though they barely spoke, she was reassured by his presence; the boys loved him because he was quiet and kind, took them to watch football and gave them pocket money.

She had lived without a man since the age of thirty-seven and though at times the lack of intimacy troubled her, what caused her pain was the shame. She was the only woman she knew who had divorced, the only woman therefore, she assumed, whose husband had betrayed her. Frequently before the boys, she let fly:

“If your father had been a proper husband….” or  “If your father hadn’t gone the way of the devil….”

If only her husband had been more like her own.

Her nephew, the son of her elder sister who sent her a card at Christmas, had become successful as a painter. There was to be an exhibition locally and some of his canvases would be on show. She thought of him as a baby, when she’d looked after him so his mother could work; a mischievous, cheeky little boy she’d loved him as her own and in her trance of retrospection she heard his sweet, soft voice: Aunty Patty! Aunty Patty! Though she had no interest in the arts, she went along to show support. She would send Jimmy a card:

Dear Jimmy,

                                 I went to see your paintings at the gallery. I thought they were very good. You always were good at drawing. I hope this finds you well.

                                                                   Love,

                                                                    Aunty Patience.

When she visited the exhibition, however, she was shocked to find the canvases were for sale. There were two by Jimmy, one for £300 and another for £200, but some of the others were £500, £800, £1,000. She went outside and sat on a bench to eat the cheese sandwich she’d made. There was a weak sun which warmed her mildly through her good grey coat. People were coming and going. How nice life was if you didn’t have to work. But she rebelled at the thought of her own laziness until a thought calmed her: working hard she didn’t mind, but being employed brought her pain. She thought of her work in the canteen and of her £9 a week and was stunned to think people could earn so much for a painting. When she went back in, she stood before each work for a long while. Most of them she disdained; she couldn’t understand  a painting which didn’t show a nice scene; but a portrait held her attention because the face was full of kindness and she said to herself that was real painting because you felt you knew the person. She wrote to Jimmy:

Dear Jimmy,

                                 I’ve been to see the exhibition and I think your paintings are very good. I don’t understand them but I suppose they aren’t for simple people like me. I would like to buy them and also the picture of the man with the blue eyes and the white shirt. Can you tell me how I should go about it ? I hope this finds you well.

Love,

Aunty Patience.

Jimmy came to see her. He still had his crooked little smile and the creasing around his eyes before he laughed. She explained she’d been left a little money by his grandfather and the paintings had made her think. Would they be a good investment ? He told her he was a very minor artist and his work would never be worth much, but Patrick Wardman, who did the portrait, was up-and-coming. All the same, a thousand pounds was a lot of money; did she want to risk it ? She clasped her fingers as she asked if it might lose value.

“Oh no,” he said. “It won’t lose value, not in long run. Keep it ten or fifteen years and it’ll be worth a lot more.”

Her mind dissolved at the thought of a lot more, but she felt she’d been sensible: buying Jimmy’s work was an act of kindness, the other she hoped would help her a little in retirement.

The two abstracts hung in the hallway where the light never made them noticeable, but the portrait she put in an alcove of the living-room; when she was alone in the evening she would study the face and attribute a life to the subject. Such a man could have been her husband; she knew from the look in his eyes he would be incapable of cruelty.

She worked on to retirement and they had a collection which raised enough to buy her a pair of candlesticks: she wanted something that would last and candles reminded her of her infant days, before the gaslights. Everyone signed a card, which she thought very kind, and sometimes, grateful for the friendly words and the compliments on how well she’d done her job, she almost missed the menial tasks. Her little horde, though it accumulated interest slowly, was nibbled at: Paul decided to give up his job and go to college to improve himself, so she supported him; there was a school trip to Rome which Billy wouldn’t have been able to go on if she hadn’t dipped into her savings, nor could she deny him his trips to away matches or the records she thought nothing but noise. Nevertheless, on her sixty-fifth birthday she still had six thousand so to the newly-married Billy and the second-time father Paul she gave a thousand each. As for herself, she lived carefully within her pension, never went out except to church, had no holidays, shopped wisely and thought herself perfectly comfortable.

Her one anxiety was the house.

There had been no major expenses, but the little things that went wrong made her worry. Would four thousand pay for a new roof ? Hadn’t Mrs Griffin had to pay five when they found dry rot ? It made her heart beat fast and she dreamed of a tidy bungalow, just big enough for herself and cheap to maintain. But where ? She mentioned it to her sons and they came back with suggestions, but she didn’t want to leave the area: she knew people and church was close at hand. Finally, they found, half a mile away, a two-bedroomed place in a cul-de-sac; the garden was small enough for her to potter in; it had been well-maintained. She knew she must move but leaving her big, old house where she had raised her boys, even though it had been the arena of much unhappiness, saddened her. It was valued at £26,000 and the bungalow was selling for nineteen. Seven thousand added to the four she already had: it seemed a huge fortune. To be done with the matter quickly, she told the estate agent to drop the price to twenty-four, he suggested twenty-four and a half and at that price potential buyers arrived every day. She considered herself very lucky, and when a young couple with a baby looked round, felt mean to be asking so much.

It was in the midst of all this that Jimmy turned up. He was losing his hair but in his face she could still see the little boy who laid his head on her shoulder to sleep and she got out her best teapot and cake-stand. He told her, as he chewed her home-made fruit cake, that the paintings of his she’d bought would now sell at £700 or £800 pounds each. It didn’t seem right to her that simply for hanging on her wall they could have gained so much value.

“Wait till I tell you about the Wardman,” he said.

The artist was now considered one of the best in the country. His big canvases sold for nearly a million. She put down her cup and saucer. The portrait would be worth at least £150,000. She felt as though she’d done something terrible. That night she dreamed the police came to question her. How had she come into so much money?  She pointed to the painting. They put on the handcuffs.

She asked Jimmy to say nothing to Paul and Billy, but she changed her mind about moving.

Every day she put on her glasses and studied the portrait. She’d grown fond of the face. Something in its expression reminded her of her father. She wondered, over and over, how he had managed to save so much. When she thought about selling the painting, which Jimmy had offered to handle for her, the idea of £150,000 in the building society filled her with dread. She would truly then be rich and wasn’t it harder for a rich man, or woman, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle ? She wasn’t sure how it could be that God condemned the rich yet still permitted them to make money, but she didn’t want to gain the world and lose her soul. It occurred to her she could sell it for £10,000 or £15 or £20, and that would be easily enough to keep her going; but she thought of her sons and grandchildren and what might lie in the future for them. The dreadful idea came to her that one of them, like her, might have to earn a living in a shameful way. Not that she was ashamed of the simple tasks. She took pride in them. No-one could wipe down a table as thoroughly, nor ensure the condiments were as quickly replenished; but to be ignored, invisible, to come and go day after day without acknowledgement, to work year after year and to leave no mark. She wished she could have millions. Not for herself, but to protect her children and most of all her grandchildren. How sweet life would be if they could have enough to get by and live simply without suffering the indignity of mean work and poor pay. But she was ashamed of her wish for wealth; it was vulgar and selfish. She looked at the face. If a gentle look like that could have greeted her every day she would have been happy. Wasn’t she happy once? But life had hit her like a sudden storm and she’d run for shelter as best she could. Life wasn’t happiness, it was keeping going in spite of everything.

She put the thought of what to do with the painting at the back of her mind and, now she was no longer working and didn’t need to worry about time, the days, weeks and months passed. She went to church, listened to the radio, watched documentaries, Coronation St and adaptations of Dickens who she’d loved at school. When she thought hard about it, having such a valuable item in the house made her fret terribly. Yet every time she went to stand in front of it, she seemed to see something new. In her dreams, the face appeared and talked to her in her father’s voice. She wished it had no value at all. She’d grown so fond of it, she wanted to keep it till she died. It had become as dear to her as the photographs of her children and grandchildren. She couldn’t reconcile her affection for the face and her admiration for the artist’s skill with the huge sum of money.

Then a terrible realization came to her.

She’d paid £1,000 and now it was worth £150,000, maybe more. When did Jimmy tell her ? She struggled to recall how long ago. She’d had it how many years ? She’d worked for eight, or was it nine ? She couldn’t hold the dates in her mind as she tried to think. In any case, it was a short time. If she lived another ten years, how much might it be worth ? She took up a pencil and paper and divided 150,000 by 1,000 in the way she’d been taught as a girl. The she multiplied 150,000 by 150. The number was so big she couldn’t say it. She flushed with embarrassment. Was it possible ? She decided she should sell it at once before she became too rich. She lay awake wondering by what mysterious process a painting could gain so much value. But just when she’d resolved she would write to Jimmy and ask him to sell the painting for her, she was struck by illness. One evening, after tea, she began to feel sick. She wondered if it was something she’d eaten. Then she began to sweat and a vicious hand gripped her chest. She went to the bathroom and vomited, thinking it would pass when her stomach was empty. She lay on the bed but the pain in her chest grew worse and spread down her arm. Slowly, the notion began to form it might be her heart. She got up and in spite of the horrible agony and sweating and turning cold, she rang Paul. When the ambulance arrived, she was on the floor by the phone.

After three days in intensive care she died.

The  afternoon of the funeral, Paul and Billy began clearing the house. Jimmy advised them to auction the portrait: an original Wardman was really something. It brought £2,500,000. They gave Jimmy £100,000 for his trouble. Patience  bequeathed a third of her estate to her grandchildren so the four of them got nearly £250,000 each. Paul and Billy bought big houses and lived lavishly; they drove Bentleys and Porsches, took long cruises, stayed in the best hotels and ate at the best restaurants. Billy established an estate agency which flourished across the county till he drew on the profits for an ocean-going yacht, his managing director walked out in protest and it collapsed for want of hard work and careful regulation. Paul indulged his habit for the horses, which had once taken him to the bookmakers twice a week, by attending all the major meetings and losing money faster than his investments could produce it. When she passed her test at seventeen, his daughter Lynn bought herself a red Ferrari, took her friends to London to celebrate, and driving back to the hotel on an unfamiliar, wet road in the early hours, lost control at high speed hit a lamppost and, in spite of the seat belt, died of head injuries before reaching hospital.

Patience Derwent was cremated. In the crematorium grounds is a small, insignificant stone on which is carved: Patience Derwent 1920 - 1993. 

 


  

TALKING TO THE DEAD

 

Laura Shelley Whiston had a demeanour which suggested fragility. She would stand with her head tilted, her dark brows slightly raised, her pale mouth pulling down at the corners. She flinched from a burst of laughter or physical closeness as if she was about to explode. You would have thought the air itself was assaulting her. The other students didn’t like her and made no bones about it.

“Well, what’s wrong with her ?” said Terry Shaw , the youngish form tutor when he overhead his charges sniping at her during registration.

“She’s weird !” exclaimed one of the girls.

“So am I,” returned Shaw. “All of us are weird somehow or other.”

“Yeah,” agreed a lad, “ but she’s really weird !”

Shaw found her weird too. She would hang behind after registration and speak to him as if his friend. In the little classroom overlooking the road, at the other side of which lay  fields of  lazily chewing cows, Shaw moved away from her as subtly as possible and stood with his elbow on the high window-ledge. Turning to her he saw her customary beatific expression. There was something of Christ or the Virgin Mary about her stance and the curious little self-satisfied half-smile which resided on her lips. Her voice intoned gently yet with absolute conviction, as if she were not speaking but were spoken through. He turned away. Some of his teaching was carried on in this room: small groups of sixth-formers or difficult sets of slow learners kicking hard against the objective disciplines of foreign languages. He was used to alarming behaviour, but he was relaxed and sympathetic. One of those radicals who had been swept into teaching on the tide of seventies counterculture and had run aground as the wheel of political fortune turned sharply to the right, the contempt for conventional ambition and material possessions which had so inspired him as a thinking teenager, now made him an outsider among the dogged careerists and property-conscious arrivistes.   

“You see,” Laura was saying, “I was talking to my friend in Americaon the phone last night. She’s a very good friend. I’ve known her since we were little girls. And the funny thing is, she died in a  road accident a year ago.”

“Really ?” replied Shaw.

“Yes. Don’t you think it’s strange but so lovely to talk to the dead ?”

He lowered his eyes.

“It’s not an experience I’ve ever had.”

“Not everybody does. You have to be initiated. I could initiate you if you like.”

Shaw raised his look . He was  handsome enough to cause a bit of excitement among the girls. Perfectly accustomed to their unconscious flirting and quite above it after twelve years, he knew that she was trying to steal a march on her contemporaries He despised her for it a little.

“No, I have enough trouble communicating with the living,” he returned. “Anyway, I’d better go. I’ve a class to teach.”

But she stayed by him. The length of the corridor she walked at his shoulder and talked in her, holy, other-worldly voice about communicating with her dead friend. At the bottom of the stairs he turned to the staff-room and she went straight ahead towards the sixth-form centre. He watched her. She went with small, deliberate steps and her head  held slightly to the left. Her hands must have been clasped in front of her. She moved as if about to be received, as if she were  to ascend  a stage and be presented with a supreme award, as if she were to receive the applause and admiration of all around her.

Shaw chided himself for not having spoken to the Head of Sixth-Form and resolved to see him.

Later that day, Gerry King stopped him in the staff-room. 

“Laura Shelley Whiston,” he declared in his usual gnomic fashion.

King liked to appear inscrutable, he felt it sat well with his authority. Educated at a leading public school, his father having been a diplomat, he had the public schoolboy’s typical blank self-belief, that psychological absence which is produced by being sequestered from the masses, moulded in a rarefied environment at once Spartan and privileged where the unspoken message is one of unquestionable superiority. Essentially unsure, this absolute inner self-confidence was a compensation. It led to insensitivity.  In all his dealings, he sought to make people feel unnerved. So Shaw looked at him, awaiting enlightenment. King merely stared down at him from his greater height.

“What about her ?” asked Shaw at length.

“She’s got a health problem.”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about her.”

“Why?”

“She’s odd.”

“That’s because of her health problem.”

“What exactly is it ?”

“She’s got a weak heart.”

Shaw knew at once this was a story. She had spoken to him about her flimsy hold on life. As a child she had all but died from scarlet fever, but the second time she told him the story, it was pneumonia.

“You’ve been unlucky,” he had said to her, “almost fatal cases of scarlet fever and pneumonia.”

“Why do you think I had scarlet fever ?” she had replied. 

He had looked her in the eyes and seen the curious misting, the distance. She was looking at him but she wasn’t seeing him. Something was disconnected. Her invented reality had taken over . He wondered if he should remind her of her original story, but he felt the instability of her mind might deal with it badly.

“I don’t know,” he had said. “I must have made a mistake.”

She’d smiled at him and gone on looking into his eyes. At that moment, seeing her vulnerability and realising how utterly lost to herself she was, he knew she was on the verge of lunacy.

“No !” he declared as definitely as he could, “that’s a story, Gerry.”

“No it isn’t,” said the superior firmly, “she’s shown me a doctor’s letter.”

“Oh, don’t be fooled by that….”

King raised his eyebrows and drew himself to his full height as he always did when he wanted to put a colleague in his or her place. That little demon of sadistic anger which was revived in him whenever he was challenged had awoken. He liked to think of himself as liberal, even radical; he had a soft spot for Tony Benn, but that was his conscious view of himself. What  really lived in the depths of his feeling, was the  superior, snobbish public schoolboy who had grown up believing the lower orders were innately inferior, to be kept in their place. Though this  had been layered over with intellectual rejection, it had never been transformed. He was  a volcano sealed with cement. The public schoolboy’s assumption of superiority came to the fore in every dispute.

“It’s genuine,” he uttered, as if it were the word of god. “I’ve seen the letter.”

“I think she’s mad,” said Shaw.

King snorted and smirked. 

“I’m serious. I think her mind is utterly fragile. I don’t believe she knows fantasy from reality.”

King held up his hand to indicate that Shaw should cease this nonsense. Shaw felt a shot of anger through his limbs. He hated this military way of doing things, these ridiculous fixed hierarchies and the assumption that whatever a superior said or believed was sure to be wiser than whatever came from below.

“I’m going to talk to the sixth-form in assembly tomorrow. They need to know about her condition so they can treat her with due care.”

Shaw was about to declare: “You’re mad ! She’s fooling you ! You’ll make a complete idiot of yourself !” But he looked into King’s eyes and saw assumption. His whole demeanour announced he was pulling rank. Shaw nodded, looked down at the papers in his hand, and walked away.

The next morning, King came into the hall followed by the sheepish, delicate, Laura. There was a subdued murmur among the students. Shaw was on the front row, his register in its blue cover on his knee. King in his smiling, avuncular manifestation spoke to the girl who lingered by the piano.

“Okay folks !” called King.

Slowly the hum of chatter diminished and silence settled.

“Before I get to the main business this morning I need to tell you something about Laura Shelley Whiston. Here she is, by the paino. You all know her.”

Shaw looked over his shoulder and caught the eye of one of the girls from his form who raised her eyebrows in a look of disbelief.

“Laura has a medical condition which has weakened her heart. This makes her very vulnerable and we must all try to treat her with due care. Basically, any loud noise, any sudden movement could startle Laura and cause her heart to fail.”

Shaw looked  at his feet.

“So I ask you to be very careful when Laura is around. Please try not to be loud or boisterous in her presence. We wouldn’t want anything untoward to happen to her while she’s in school.”

Shaw turned to look at Laura who stood palely by the  Steinway, her head in its usual pathetic leftward pose, her toes pointing inward, the feeble little smile on her mouth. When he registered his form in the afternoon, Laura was absent.

“There’s nothing wrong with her !” said one of the lads loudly.

“She’s a liar ! She gives me the creeps.”

“Well, be careful of her,” said Shaw. “Mr King has asked, so you’ve got to go along with it.”

“She just wants special treatment !”

“Yeah, and she has no friends !”

“Okay. Let’s not insult her in her absence. I have no friends but I’ve made all the right enemies. She’s got problems. Be as sympathetic as you can.”

For the next two weeks, Laura spoke to Shaw every morning;. she’d been on the phone again; her dead friend was telling her what the afterlife was like.

“Would you like to speak to her ?”

“Me ? Why would she want to speak to me ?”

“I’ve told her all about you.”

Shaw looked at the girl and saw the sickly, out-of-touch expression. He felt afraid. He realised it was a mistake ever to be alone with her and hurried into the corridor. It crossed his mind to go back to King but he knew it was a waste of time. He would pull rank. Hewouldn’t listen. Then one morning  Laura was hanging back as usual and he was hurrying to gather his papers and get out of the room.

“Don’t you think it must be wonderful to be dead ?” she said.

“Oh, I’m pretty happy being alive,” he replied without looking at her and  rushed away leaving her on her own.

She came to the staff-room and asked for him. He disappeared into the gents. Leaving school, she came running up to him.

“I’ve missed my bus !”

“That’s a pity. Are you going to walk ?”

“Could you give me a lift ?”

“Not today. I’m on the bus. My wife has the car.”

“Oh, I’ll get the bus with you !”

Sitting next to him she told him about last night’s conversation:

“And she says that being dead isn’t unpleasant at all. As a matter of fact, she’s quite happy. And she can stay in touch with me because I believe. You have to believe to be able to communicate with the dead.”

He read the paper.

“Don’t you think it’s fascinating ? Most people are so boring  they don’t believe. Their minds are closed.”

“Mmm.”

She got off at the same stop. He hurried away.

The next day she was at the staff-room door first thing. He had a free period second lesson. She appeared in his room as he started on a pile of marking. He picked up the books and excused himself. As he was getting into his car at half past three, she bobbed up from nowhere and asked for a lift.

“I’m going the other way, I’m afraid.”

“That’s okay.”

“Sorry ?”

“I don’t mind. I can go either way.”

“Sorry, I’ve got to pick up my kids.”

During the night, Shaw’s wife heard something.

“Go and see.”

“It’s nothing. A cat or the wind.”

“Wind, Terry ? It’s as still as a morgue !”

He got up and pulled on his jeans. Downstairs he heard the letter-box snap closed. He went out. A female figure was running away, hidden by a dark top and hood.

“For Christ’s sake !”

His wife said:

“Well ?”

“Nothing. Like I said. A cat.”

The following day King called him to his office. He was standing behind his desk obviously livid.

“Read this !” he ordered holding out a letter.

It was from Mrs Whiston explaining that word had got back to her that Laura had claimed to have a heart condition. She apologised. Her daughter was prone to fantasy. Her heart was fine. Shaw looked up and handed the note back.

“Well ?” said King.

“Sorry ?”

“Did you know about this ?”

Shaw was speechless.

“Send her to see me,” and King began to tidy his desk.

“So she doesn’t know yet ?”

“Obviously,” said King without raising his eyes.

 Shaw sent her and subsequently she failed to appear for registrations. Days went by.

“Has anyone seen Laura recently,” he looked up from the register. The students were sitting on the desks.

“Nope.”

One or two of them shook their heads. She didn’t appear for two weeks. Shaw wondered if he should mention it to King but he knew the response would be sharp or derisive. Then came the assembly at which King began:

“Some of you may know, Laura Shelley Whiston has had health problems. I’m afraid she’s had to leave.”

It was very unusual for King to make such an announcement. Later that day he sat next to Shaw in the staffroom and opened his register.

“Your register bears no relation to the truth.”

“Why’s that ?” 

“According to you, Robert Fry was here yesterday.”

“Okay. I didn’t see him but the others said he was in school.”

King snorted.

“Why haven’t you marked Ellen Monk present today?”

“Because she wasn’t in registration !”

“I’ve seen her. Tighten up on it.”

He thrust the register at Shaw, got up and strode out.

Next morning, the students were talking about Laura:

“I’m glad she’s gone. She did my head in.”

“She was never going to make it was she ?”

Shaw smiled at his class of fifteen.

“Well,” he said, “she certainly fooled Mr King!”

And he began a little imitation: “Before I get to the main business this morning, I’d like to tell you something about Laura Shelley Whiston…”

To his delight, the students laughed out loud.

“Okay !” he said, picking up the register. “Lesson time!

  


  

THE POSH GIRL AND THE OIK

When she saw handsome Jimmy Chowns lost in his diligent reading, Caroline sat opposite him at the big table by the window. The bustling square was  near. The tempting sound of student voices rang through the clear, warm air.  She wished she was on the lazy steps, doing nothing, smoking, with lovely Jimmy next to her. She set her burdensome bag on the table, took out her file and  textbook, hung her thin,  blue cardigan on the back of the chair and sat down. She thought by now he would have looked up, she could have cast a hard, swift glance and let the corners of her kissable mouth twitch momentarily into the withheld promise of a smile; but he was intent. He lifted his serious book for a second and she flicked her eyes to its  plain cover: Le Neveu de Rameau. She felt her cheeks go warm at the thought she hadn’t read it and swiftly flicked to the page she needed. The passage for translation was long and as she read through it rapidly for the first time, her mood sank at the dread of two hours detailed work and frequent reference to the weighty dictionary. She pretended to apply herself with alacrity and began writing and peeling the thin pages of the Harrap’s but after twenty minutes, she was so suicidally bored and desperate for a friendly cigarette, she could have thrown her heavy books to the wind. She stared into Chowns’s appealing face as she bit the ragged end of her pen, but he didn’t flinch. He had a reputation.  His returned translations had been known to suddenly disappear from the pigeon-holes; he regularly scored 75% or better. In a flurry of troubling petulance she ripped a blank page from her file, scrawled in her small hand a quick message across the middle and pushed it forward. He looked up, glanced at the paper, then back at her. She made her green eyes as iron as she could and smiled widely. With the crooked little finger of his left hand he pulled the vagrant paper towards him. For a few perilous seconds she felt weightless. He lay down his book, reached to pull hers into view and read as intently as before. Waiting, she felt unjustly rejected and thought she’d made a terrible mistake, but when he’d finished, he pulled a mouth and tilted his head as if to say: a cinch. Then he wrote on the paper and passed it back to her. Beneath her message of How do I translate “nous sommes dans de beaux draps”?  he’d written: Looks like you’re in a fine mess. I’m done in. Fancy a coffee ?

All the way down the open, clanking wooden stairs she talked without knowing what she was saying. As they’d never spoken before, she could think of no subject but herself and heard her strained voice, as if coming out of the plaster saying, When I as at Bennenden I was tip-top at translation. I must be out of practice or I just can’t be fagged with all these lectures. And rattling on compulsively, because for some reason silence frightened her, she was already becoming aware that he didn’t mind, that he was happy to let her ramble; he was somehow content with himself which made her all the more conscious of her own anxiety to please and impress. While he went to the little counter she lit a confirming cigarette and before he’d come back with the steaming coffees, she needed to light another.

“D’you want one ?” she said holding out the stiff, gold packet though she knew he didn’t smoke.

“Don’t smoke,” he said with a smile.

“I started when I was thirteen. God, if my father knew what I spend his

money on !”

Her hope had advanced and she thought, though he might be getting irritated by her disconnected chatter, he would’ve noticed how pretty she was as well as the magnificence of her breasts.  She was self-conscious and held her shoulders slightly hunched to offset, but she knew as far as boys were concerned they were a ringing asset.

“What does he do, your dad ?”

Slightly startled by the familiarity, she drew hard on her gentle filter. She dreaded telling him because what she’d learned about him by nonchalantly hanging around on the edge of his easy-going crowd, from astute gossip and  subtle eavesdropping, was that he was northern,  ferociously intelligent, a socialist and spoke with an odd accent she wanted to mock. In her own high circle, her father’s job wasn’t out of the ordinary but what would someone as curious as Jimmy make of it ? She wanted to boast, because so ill-at-ease in this alien place it might bolster her shredded confidence, but she feared astringent judgement.

“He’s a diplomat. He works in the Consulate in Nicosia. Nothing high-flying.”

“ A diplomat is pretty high-flying.”

The response set her at an advantage. She blew a cloud of smoke away to her right.

“His work is pretty routine, mostly. Unless some kind of crisis blows up. He’s hoping for a posting to Spain which would be nice.”

“Very nice. My dad’s hoping the foreman will drop dead,” and he lifted his black eyebrows and laughed.

As he lowered his eyes to his thick, white cup she fixed him hard. It was odd how much he conceded to her. She’d feared he might be sharp and intrusive and obviously disdainful of her displayed pedigree; but it was clear he was sweetly polite and left the space between them gloriously open for her to occupy. His expression showed no legible sign of dislike or discomfiture and she felt an overwhelming desire to deliver a volley of uninhibited confession. Already her whirring mind was working on how she could corner him. They could, of course, go straight back to his room ( as she shared she couldn’t invite him to hers) and she could be louchely seductive. Would he succumb ? She’d have had no doubt about the unceremonious Benoit: the slightest suggestion of willingness and he’d have been pulling off her knickers; but Jimmy was so polite and reserved she wondered if he’d laughingly resist or even be offended. If he invited her, would she go ? They were drinking coffee, so what pretext could there be ? Once she’d been to bed with him, he’d be very easy prey. She’d be able to poke bitter fun at those heavy final plosives. Yet, as a matter of fact, although he was the best looking of all the boys she’d noticed, there were several other things about him which appealed.

“We’re in a real pickle,” he said raising his blue eyes and smiling.

“What ?” she said quietly, her reassuring cigarette giving off a grey plume between her poised fingers.

“Nous sommes dans de beaux draps. That’s what it means. We’re in a right mess, that kind of thing.”

“Oh, thanks,” and she put the dry filter between her pale lips.

“So you live in Nicosia, then ?”

“No, we have a house in Godalming.”

“I don’t know that part of the world. Pretty posh I suppose.”

She shook her head as she stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette.

“Not really. Our house is a box.”

“Is it modern ?”

“Ah, ah. About ten years, something like that. Where are you from ?”

“Manchester, well, Salford actually. Just round the corner from Albert Finney,” and she couldn’t tell from his uneven smile whether it was true or a tease.

When his cup was empty and he’d played the spoon in the remains of froth for a few minutes, he said:

“I’d better go, I’m supposed to be playing tennis at four.”

“I think I’ll go back to my room,  I hope Turnip isn’t there.”

“Turnip ?”

“My room-mate. She’s the most boring person on earth. I can’t stand her.”

Once more, she couldn’t tell from his whimsical smile and his gentle nodding just what he was thinking.

“By the way, you wouldn’t have a clothes brush would you ?”

Her mind, dulled by fear and uncertainty, lit up.

“Yes. Why ?”

“Oh, my jacket got knocked from the back of my chair onto the floor of the bar last night and a few heroes thought it’d be fun to wipe their feet on it.”

“Yes, you can borrow it.”

“That’s kind. Thanks.”

They gathered their petty things from the crowded library (she noticed a girl with blonde, greasy hair reading childishly by holding a ruler under each line ) and walked to her room where he waited outside in the gloomy corridor. When she pulled the door ajar, holding the dark, wooden clothes brush by its handle, her putatively impossibly dull room-mate was standing a few feet behind her, pale and sullen.

“Thanks, I’ll bring it back as soon as I’ve finished.”

“That’s okay,” and she worked hard to make her voice and expression sweet and easy.

He did return it within half an hour then she didn’t get to speak to him for weeks.

What had she expected ? That he’d pester her; be waiting nervously outside lecture theatres; come knocking importunately at eleven p.m.; leave desperate little notes in her pigeon-hole ? She would have liked those things as she would have relished being cool and haughty . That he showed no sign of coming near her, engineered no little accidental encounter, tormented her. She wanted to hammer on his impenetrable door, to enter and occupy his caressive space; it drove her to distraction that he lived no more than a paltry hundred yards from her door but his enticing room was closed to her. Then more than once she saw him with the gorgeous Jane Egger; she would be wearing tattered jeans or a flowing cotton skirt, a top which showed off her cleavage and her dark curls hung tantalisingly at each side of her pale cheeks. Was he taking her to bed?  The thought of it, the image of him on top of her, with a nipple in his mouth, her legs around him, the imagined sound of her pleasure and her whispering Oh, darling ! in the warm, enclosed darkness of the room she’d never been in, drove her to paroxysms of shipwrecked jealousy. She knew she was prettier, she could be just as sexually available and inventive and ten times more cunning.

One day she bumped into a boring boy from Jimmy’s floor who asked her back for coffee, so she agreed and sat in the stark communal kitchen smoking distractedly, talking about herself and feeling ludicrously out of place.  Soon there was a tedious little crowd and she hoped Jimmy would turn up but the eternal minutes lingered and she wished she was in her enclosing room, alone, with a spliff, away from this oppressive reality which made her poor heart beat fast and gave her a headache. For a moment, her  thoughts switched back to school, seeking a time when she’d been happy, when this dreadful heaviness of experience hadn’t been her normality; but the past was a narrow corridor leading to a closed door. She’d been sent away at seven. Her parents stressed how good a school she was going to, what a wonderful opportunity it was and how she would meet some of the best people in England; but during her first days she felt she was being smothered, as if powerful hands were forcing a pillow over her face and her struggles were like those of a fish on a hook;  the silent sobbing before she went to sleep wondering what she’d done which could make her only parents want to be distant from her, never receded to allow ease and happiness to enter. All her hope was focused on what might be once she’d left. She worked hard; her tidy exercise books were filled with her neat small hand and she took great care in underlining obedient titles and dates; she listened devotedly to her conventional teachers as though they offered revealed wisdom; and in the high marks she received she saw the promise of all the sweet fulfilment which evaded her, as if the world would become her father’s shoulder, sure, comfortable and accepting. She swam with the ease of a salmon and in the house competition won the crawl, butterfly and back by lengths so her team-mates gathered round to hug, kiss and congratulate; and this sudden attention seemed almost like love, coming out of nowhere and being overwhelming; but her friends, though she depended on them utterly couldn’t reach that remote part of herself which remained untouched, curled and silent like a hibernating vole .

She’d almost given up hope and felt that flat mood overcoming her when she wanted to disdain everything, when her sense of difference and justification made her feel any selfishness was acceptable, as Jimmy swayed in with a blue mug in his hand. She lit a shielding cigarette and began talking, vainly wishing no-one would notice the pink flush on her cheeks. She’d no idea what she was saying but she hoped her insistent voice would be enough to retain him;  he spooned instant granules, held the cup under the chrome spout of the boiler, grabbed milk from the fridge, poured, stirred and smilingly left.

“Aren’t we interesting enough for you !” called one of the lads.

“I’ve got a translation to finish !” he called from the corridor.

That evening, dreary Turnip went to a concert. Alone in her semi-darkened room Caroline lit a supportive spliff and drank half a bottle of comforting red. The befuddlement of reliable intoxication was so much lighter than the clarity of uncertain sobriety. She recalled a distant line from a play, someone saying they drink to hear the click in their head and nothing matters any more. Her longing for calming oblivion was more powerful even than her troubling desire for Jimmy. She decided to write to Benoit. At her desk she took up a ballpoint and her unused pad. For a moment she hesitated, thinking she’d write in French, but then the idea of her greater nuance in English and of his struggle to grasp it decided the matter:

 

 

Dear Benoit,

                                 I hate it here. The north is a terrible place and my room-mate is brainless. She has no life about her, never goes out except to classical concerts and to church. We have nothing in common and I have to share this little space with her. I wish I could come to you. Why can’t we be together ? You said you wanted us to be but I don’t think you do any more. I don’t have to stay here. My parents would go mad, but I could leave. We could set up together, run away somewhere and not send them our address. I know you said when I do my year in France we’ll be able to live together, but I’ve got two years to get through ! I have no friends. Some of the people are nice, but none are really people I could be friends with. The only thing is, there’s a boy I like. I have to tell you because I’m so lonely and I think about him a lot. I haven’t been with him or anything, we’ve just talked, but I feel I could like him a lot and if he asks me I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to two-time you, Benoit, which is why I’m telling you this, but if you don’t rescue me I can’t stand being alone. This boy is very handsome and intelligent but he’s a red-hot socialist so not really my type from that point of view. My parents would throw a fit if I brought a socialist home. I don’t even know what a socialist is, except my father hates them. You know how much my parents were against us being together and they would stop me seeing you if they knew we’ve slept together. I’m in my room on my own because Turnip (my room-mate) has gone out. I’ve got some good dope. There’s a guy in my block who supplies. He sells it me cheap. I think he fancies me but he’s ugly and not very nice. The dope is  good though. All I want to do here is get stoned and pissed. I’m like Emma Bovary, I’m a bored woman. I wish we could be together and I’d never had to come to this place but if the nice boy asks me I feel I will say yes. What shall we do, Benoit ?

                                                         Grosses bises,

                                                                             Caroline.

She went out furtively to post it straight away and on the sad way back crossed Jimmy with one of his friends. Were they going to the bar ? If she smiled complaisantly would he invite her ? Should she look at him or ignore him ? She glanced towards them and Jimmy smiled and gave that little acknowledging nod which she liked but which was so peculiar; it seemed to be at once a recognition and a setting of distance. Her mouth twitched in the simulacrum of a smile and when she got back she threw herself on the bed and lay staring at the ceiling.

The following Saturday there was to be the usual thumping disco in Harris College bar. Some of the passing girls from her floor were going and she could tag unobtrusively along; but she wanted to know if Jimmy would be there, otherwise she might stay in her concealing room and smoke; so she wittered about it before seminars, after lectures, in the bar, in the kitchen, in the bookshop, on the square, in the café, and asked the girl with the glass eye who she knew from linguistics; the boy from the floor below who ate nothing but Alpen ;the boy who played keepy-uppy in the quad; the girl from her English seminar who’d said Jimmy was gorgeous; the boy with the flat cap and the limp overcoat who asked her if she’d ever been to Burnley, until one of the lads from his floor said they were all rolling into town on the growling bus to buy cheap wine from the bargain-rich co-op and going along once they’d drunk it in their kitchens.

Never had she taken such care in getting herself ready.

She brushed her heavy auburn hair till it shone and the light as she moved her head turned it almost black at its tips and near blonde by her crown; naked before the little mirror over her washbasin while Turnip was out, she plucked the arching, dark eyebrows over which her mother had always taken such care.

“Oh, you’ll break a few hearts with these, my dear,” she would say as she giggled.  

The only make-up she wore was mascara, applied lightly to her long already black lashes, and a little pale pink lipstick because her pallid skin was so lovely and delicate and she knew how beautiful it was, set off by her hair and her bright green eyes. She tried four front-fastening bras, white, black, red and pink before deciding on the lacy pink one which seemed the least provocative and most romantic and after pulling on her light grey cotton, flared jeans whose hugging of her rounded thighs belied their modest shade, she slipped into the ice blue, merino polo neck which clung to her like a child. Putting on her  pink nail varnish, relishing the catching odour of acetate, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and was surprised by her own beauty; but the more she stared, the more poses she assumed, the more the effect faded and she began to see her faults: her cute nose was slightly crooked, her desirable mouth was too big, her high forehead too narrow. All the same, the certainty that in comparison to most of the girls who’d be there: the short, the dumpy, the long-nosed, the grey-skinned, the broom-thin, the blade-lipped, the slack- jawed, the spotty-faced, the greasy-haired, the plain, the plain ugly, she stood out like a raven in the snow, was enough to give her reassurance; she would linger close by; she might cast an insignificant glance; if he smiled she would return his look but retain a sad face and a hard glint in her eyes; if he asked her to dance she would; if he put his arm round her waist she would draw warmly close; if he kissed her she would  tenderly respond.

Turnip came in and disturbed her enchanted mood. She banged around, lit a defensive cigarette, picked up a difficult book and looked at her watch.

Still an interminable hour.

In the blue darkness, broken only by the disco’s flashing lights, and amidst the impenetrable noise from the deafening speakers, it was virtually impossible to hold a conversation or see someone’s face. She was one of those people for whom the fall of a saucepan to the kitchen floor was as loud as the roar of a thousand planes. She put her hands over her ears when a motorbike passed in the street. The rhythmic thump from the speakers was like all the drums of Africa since the start of time playing six inches from her head.  The grubby floor was slippery with drink and the sickly odour of beer and cheap wine which filled her nostrils made her wish she was in her room with an aromatic spliff. People shouted into one another’s proffered ears as vainly as a lunatic baying at the moon. One of the boys from her block yelled a brute invitation to dance, but because she’d already seen Jimmy and wanted to do nothing to deter him, she shook her head. She smoked languidly and sipped sweet white wine which stung her insides as it descended and made her slightly nauseous. She pushed through the crowd to the toilet and passed close to Jimmy who was sitting on the edge of a sticky table with one of his mates; she was careful not to look at him but slowed to what seemed to her an obviously loitering pace and hoped he would touch her arm or slip from his seat to talk to her. Half a dozen boys asked her to dance and she refused . She felt very virtuous and hoped he would notice. Part of her wanted to dance with anyone who asked; she found it funny to see some boy she considered impossibly beneath her jigging and smiling and looking expectantly into her eyes. Discos were great sport and the more ridiculous boys she danced with the greater became her contempt for them. So what was it about Jimmy ?

She’d had two lovers. The first was a prim Godalming boy who was at The Dragon’s School and wanted to be in a rock band . He could play barré chords  and when she heard him imitating Keith Richards or Eric Clapton she dreamt of her life as the wife of a future star. They would live in a mansion in Esher where she would spend her bored days in the blue-green pool, the sauna, or in fine weather, walking in the tended gardens; she would command the chauffeur to take her into town where she would buy in Harrods clothes and furnishings she would tire of in a week and give away to charity; pop stars and film stars would visit daily and in a room as big as a polo field with ceilings fifteen feet high, she would recline on a white sofa smoking dope or would snort in the enormous kitchen while the staff came and went; she would take lovers to assuage her boredom and send her children to Eton or Rodean; they would have houses in California, Melbourne and Morocco and minimalist flats in New York and Paris; when a dull mood overcame her, she would summon the private jet and disappear for a month; her husband’s fortune would fund her chain of boutiques which would soon become the most fashionable on the planet and her own wealth would mount to tens of millions; there would be a scandal when a pop star would be found dead in the swimming pool; she would wear dark glasses and hide from the cameras.

But James’s promising band turned out to be feebly incompetent, even at rock music. His parents bullied him to study Law. He put away his guitar and worked like an engine at his A Levels. By the time the panicky exams were over, she saw him as a commonplace swot who would turn into a workaday solicitor and the splendid relationship dwindled.

Her second lover was Benoit whose  father was a self-consciously successful diplomat. They met in Nicosia, in the summer, so the first time she saw him she was in her tight, blue bikini and he his hugging trunks. Far less good-looking than the pretty James whose delicate face always had something of the choirboy, he had a brute directness which excited and subdued her. His broad shoulders were slightly hunched like her own and her father’s, as if to protect something vulnerable in his breast and they gave off the sense of a terrible, constrained power. He seemed capable of awful destruction. Yet at the same time his eyes were pleading and in them she saw some of the hurt which seemed to linger in her father and which, vaguely, she associated with her mother. From the first, she felt a hint of unspecified threat. He prowled the  empty pool, dived as if for prey, thrashed the water with his ungainly stroke; while she swam with her smooth, long, rangey style, barely causing a splash as her hands sliced the water, her feet kicking rhythmically, he stood on the side his long arms hanging to his thick hairy thighs and when she looked at him she thought she saw an ape. He was a gangling baboon, a gorilla, and that risky animal power seemed to demand to be tamed by her body. Also, he spoke only French to her and made no concessions. He deliberately used lots of argot, refused to repeat, and the struggle to keep up with him alerted her. On their first meeting, he kept looking directly at her breasts and crutch and when she agreed to go with him to his parent’s flat, he closed the door and in the semi-darkness, before he’d even kissed her, pulled off her bikini top. He took her in a frenzied way, as if the world was about to end and without protection. When she accused him, he shrugged and turned away and until her next period she asked him every day what they would do if she was pregnant. In response came the same Gallic, so-what gesture which made her want to dig her nails in his eyes. In fact, she did tear at him. While he thrusted inside her she dug into his back and wrenched at his flesh till it bled. Soon, she suspected he was seeing other girls, but when she asked, he accused her of paranoia. Despite herself she gave in to his demands for sex in the park, in a bus shelter, in the back of the car, in a toilet, under a bridge, in a darkened, unsavoury  alley, in a cinema, in the tennis club pavilion, in his parents’ bed, in the garden at two in the morning and even accepted to hang around on the street wearing nothing but her raincoat so he could come and pick her up; and though she felt bullied, she believed him when he said he loved her. She felt she was destined to be with him, though in a negative way, and the opposition of her parents pushed her into his arms. They smoked dope together; he told her of his plans to open a chic restaurant in Paris. Like her he’d been sent to a private school he hated, but  wasn’t going to university: he would train as a chef. Their diplomatic backgrounds, unhappy schooling and the pressure of the enclosed  ex-pat community combined to make her feel the inevitability of their relationship. When she left to return to Godalming before coming to university, she felt like a child being torn from the embrace of her mother. She wrote him long, passionate letters in which she pledged faithfulness and love, demanding the same in return and never being convinced by his declarations. All the same, she was sure their lives were irrevocably entwined.

It came as a shock, then, when she saw Jimmy and was fiercely attracted by him.

Before she spoke to him, her mind was constantly nagging, like a clock ticking loudly which can’t be ignored. When did she first see him ? She thought it was walking towards his block, but perhaps it was on the way into Williamson lecture theatre;or perhaps in the library or the library café; or maybe the bar, leaning lazily with his pint beside him and his crooked smile on his lips; or perhaps in the Great Hall for the Vice-Chancellor’s welcome; or sitting on the steps in the square with Jane Egger ; or waiting for the bus in the subway in the milling, happy queue; or eating in the refectory with the boys from his floor. There were so many pictures of him in her head she couldn’t sort them into a chronological album and like a confluence of many streams which arrive in one still pool, all these images congealed into the sweet, smiling, beautiful face which always came into focus when she closed her eyes.  Curiously, she felt he belonged to her and this sense of her right over him, made her resentful of his friends. The weeks since she’d lent him her clothes-brush had been interminable. Why didn’t he come to see her ? Why didn’t he sit next to her in a lecture?  Wasn’t he attracted ? But she knew that wasn’t true. Boys were attracted to her like vultures to carrion. She’d never met a boy who wasn’t and she’d seen in his eyes his gentle appreciation of her beauty. Wasn’t she one of the two or three most attractive girls on campus? He would have to be made of stone. But the terrible thought seized her that he didn’t like her ! What had she said when she wittered; had she insulted the north, dismissed his class, scorned the poor, derided the unsuccessful ?  She was so used to being among people from her own class, she didn’t know how to talk to someone from what her mother called the lower orders. At school, boys like Jimmy had been termed undesirable, and her father talked about socialist layabouts and scroungers. To her and her friends the north was an uncivilised place full of uneducated, ignorant people with no taste, culture or discrimination and her prejudices fell from her lips so thoughtlessly she was terrified she might unknowingly have hurt him. But what should she say ? What was the right thing to say to a socialist from the north ? She had no idea.

She looked over to him as she stubbed out her cigarette and turning to her he nodded and smiled. She made her stare as unflinching as she could and stretched her lips over her teeth in an effort to smile which made her heart kick. All at once, he shoved off from the table and walked over to her.

“Nice to see you,” he called into her ear.

The closeness of his face, the mere few inches between their bodies made her want to put her arms around his neck; instead she talked into his ear without knowing what she was saying. What she wanted to say was: Let’s get out of here. Let’s be alone. In an instant, he was touching her left hand, so lifting her face to his she tried to look available, incapable of resistance. He said something to her which she didn’t hear. She twined her fingers with his and after what seemed more time than the universe could contain he was kissing her. What happened in the minutes after that she didn’t know, but she came to herself as they followed the walkway towards their college. He was beside her. When she looked at him, she saw the hint of a smile on his lips and the kindness in his eyes and she wondered how this had happened. She talked and talked as a defence against her feeling and he absorbed what she said; he smiled, he nodded, he said “yeah”, but himself he gave away nothing, or nothing she could interpret. He seemed to provide her so much room she felt limitless. Where were they going ? To his room ? Would she go in ? Would she lie on his bed ? What would happen ?  Suddenly, the image of herself as a child, holding her father’s hand came into her head and the skipping happiness of an untroubled little girl who knows nothing of the world’s corruption spread through her. Then she was on his bed and the kissing was wonderful and when he said:

“Does this bra open at the front ?”

She said:

“Yes, but don’t unfasten it.”

All the same, he did. All the same they were naked between his sheets and only when this first passion was over and she’d been beside him for a few hours, smoking, talking and saying to herself, Jimmy Chowns is my lover, did a cold doubt start to invade her.

“I’ll have to go,” she said.

“Why ?”

“I can’t stay here all night.”

“Why not ?”

“People will know.”

“What people ?”

“Everybody.”

“Everybody ? Who’s interested ?”

She was pulling on her trousers as he lay  in  bed.

“Don’t go.”

It was such a sweet request she wanted to throw off her clothes and get back in beside him but anxiety drove her. He got up and put his clothes on too.

“What are you doing ?”

“I’ll walk you back.”

“No, someone might see us.”

“It’s ten past four in the morning !”

“There are always people around.”

He was leaning against the wardrobe watching her as she pushed her arms into her little brown coat. She looked at him and was delighted at the thought she’d been to bed with him. Slim and handsome, relaxed and curiously stylish in nothing more than dark blue cords and a t-shirt, he seemed, in that instant, the very essence of what she could want in a boy; but she had to remind herself he was a man. She’d discovered he was twenty-one. Shouldn’t a man of that age be thinking about marriage ? Her mother was married at twenty-two and had a baby within a year.

“Why worry about the qu’on-dira-t-on.”

His use of the French amused her and once again she felt a little surge of desire to stay; but her fretting was growing more resolute. She pulled her belt tight and turned up her collar.

“I’ll go through the window.”

“The window ?”

She relished his astonishment and in truth she knew it was an exaggeration: ( who would she meet on the stairs ?); but the eccentricity was meant to strike at his nerves. Avoiding his eyes she drew the curtains and pushed open the big window which swung on horizontal hinges. As she cocked her leg over she expected him to protest again, but he stood silent watching her. She looked back, astride the frame.

“ ‘Bye.”

“See you later.”

It was nice to see him smiling gently at her. As she followed the little winding path between the lawns, she wanted to turn back. It would be lovely to be tight against him in the narrow bed; they could get up and have breakfast together; the day could go by in pleasant idleness; they would go for a walk, find a pub for lunch, wander back and get into bed again. But against this vision arose the fear she was giving herself too easily. Why had she gone to bed with him ? She would have preferred to get to know him. Had she expected he would have restrained himself ? She’d thought he might be very serious; he would sit with his legs one over the other, like her father, and ask her about herself. They would talk all night, he putting the questions and she confessing the details of her life so far. She would sit on his knee and kiss him or they would lie, face to face on the bed; but it would be like the first innocent kissing of young teenagers; she would become a virgin again; the inadequacy of her physical relationship with James, the frightening unceremoniouness of Benoit would evaporate; her little girl’s innocence would once more be waiting like a trembling dove for a pair of caring hands.

She sneaked in. Turnip didn’t wake. She got into bed and in the darkness and silence felt her heart beat furiously.

The next day she tried to get on, but whatever she did left her feeling she was acting. She tried to read Diderot but it made little sense. She began an essay but felt foolish,  trying to write as if she knew what she meant. She tidied her half of the room but felt she was imitating her mother who fussed endlessly and would say: “Oh, I can’t let the cleaner see the house in this state!” She went to the shop but there was nothing she needed. It was Sunday. In the big flat in Nicosia her parents would be relaxing after lunch. Her sister would be playing with a few toys on the floor her absorption punctuated by her mother’s: “Don’t make a mess now, darling. Mummy has to clean it up.” Her father would be reading the Sunday Times. Hidden behind the financial pages he would shift in the chair now and then. She remembered how, one hot day in Calcutta when she was a child, he’d been wearing khaki shorts and as he spread his knees she saw his manhood. There seemed no fit between the euphemism and the thing so she said cock and balls to herself; but that was no better. She could think of Jimmy’s cock and balls, but not her father’s. She lit a cigarette and went to look out of the window. Being on the third floor, she could see Jimmy’s across the quad, tucked in the corner by the door. She watched and saw him sit at his desk; but she could make out only his dim figure. The touching beauty of his face, the slim warmth of the body she’d held, the gentle caress in his blue eyes she had to imagine. She wanted to pull on her coat and go to his room with the same sad look on her face as when she needed comfort from her father. At this moment she wanted exactly that and nothing else; to leave her past behind and to make Jimmy her future; but exactly that and nothing else was just what she couldn’t do.

He’d said he would come and see her at eight. She tried to eat at six but threw most of the spaghetti away. She smoked four or five cigarettes one after another. She would have lit a spliff but Turnip was in the room and she didn’t trust her. Her watch stood still. At five to eight she was on the verge of going out. But where ? Anywhere ! To walk the perimeter of the campus three times. Anything but to have to face him. When the four quiet knocks came at eight o’clock exactly, she opened the door as if to her executioner. Turnip was behind her. Jimmy was wearing his long overcoat with the collar pulled up and one of the black polo necks he loved. He smiled and she glared back. She retreated a step and saw the small alarm on his face. She made her eyes as hard as she could. She willed her face into disdain.

“Hi.”

“Hello.”

“I’m sorry, we haven’t met” he said to Turnip, holding out his hand.

“Janet,” she said.

“Jimmy.”

Now he was in the room, he seemed bigger. His presence was overwhelming as if he was a giant with the strength to subdue her, to carry her away from all that was familiar and to keep her imprisoned. She wanted to push him away. She would have liked to ask him to leave and slam the door. She didn’t move. Her eyes didn’t flinch.

“Shall we go to the bar?” he said and sudden hatred  welled in her chest.

She didn’t reply, but raised her shoulders slightly and let the shadow of a grimace creep over her features. A little eternity followed. They looked at one another. Then in a sudden movement she hadn’t anticipated and which shocked her, without a word he turned and was gone. If Turnip hadn’t been there she would have shouted his name. She grabbed her little coat from behind the door and ran. She thought she’d catch him before he got down the stairs, but when she reached the bottom he was already out of the door. Pushing it, she saw him twenty yards ahead.

“Jimmy !” she pulled on her coat. “Jimmy ! Jimmy!” and because he didn’t stop she began to run. She felt foolish and a bit desperate and when he turned and paused she kept going for a few yards before slowing to a quick walk as she tied the belt round her waist. She was panting.

“Where are you going ?” she said.

“I dunno.”

“I thought we were going to the bar.”

“Sure. If you want to.”

So they went and sat in the gloomy haunt, he with his pint and she her half as if they were established boy and girlfriend; it occurred to her others would see them that way and the idea pleased her. One or two lads nodded at Jimmy and he acknowledged them. Was he comfortable here? Somehow he seemed to fit. She wished one of her old schoolfriends would walk in. Why did she feel out of place almost everywhere ? How did it happen that the world never seemed to be comfortable and she was always hoping that soon she would find a place where she was at home as she’s been when she slept on her father’s chest.

“So what’s the matter ?” he asked.

“I’ve got a problem,” she said.

“What’s that ?”

“I can’t say no.”

“You can’t say no.”

“That’s right.”

“Are you saying you wanted to say no ?”

“No.”

She tried to make herself  as inward, fearful, as much at bay as possible.

“I’m not quite with it.”

“With what ?”

“What you’re getting at.”

“I’m not getting at anything.”

“Are you offended ?”

“No.”

“Okay. Well, look, I haven’t had anything to eat because I was reading and lost track of time so I think I’ll go and grab fish and chips. Do you want me to walk you back ?”

“No. I’ll come with you. I’d like some chips.”

“Haven’t you eaten either ?”

“Not much.”

It was cold on the walkway outside the chip shop and they huddled as they jabbed the wooden forks into the steaming food as if they had nowhere warm to go and this shared, cheap, steaming food in the chill was all they knew of intimacy.

“Shall we go up to my kitchen ?” she said. “I can make some coffee.”

“Good idea. I’m losing sensation in my feet.”

But on the way back she said:

“Let’s go to your room. Turnip may be around on my floor.”

He sat at the desk while she stretched in the armchair at the foot of the bed. He’d turned on the electric heater above the headboard and its single red bar served also as their light. It was frighteningly pleasant to be here again. She was on the verge of a happiness which would rob her of control.

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing to a picture he’d cut from a paper and stuck to his wardrobe door.

“Salvador Allende.”

“Who’s he ?”

“President of Chile.”

“Why have you got him pinned to your wardrobe ?”

“Oh, I find him very sexy. Don’t you ?”

She was  glad of his teasing and looking at him as he lifted a chunk of white fish in crisp brown batter was reassured by his affectionate  eyes and the almost imperceptible smile.

“Is he a socialist ?”

“I’ve got no idea,” he said. “I’m interested purely in his matinee idol looks.”

“My father says only the conservatives can run the economy,” she said and the sense of hiding behind the opinions of someone she thought of as superior made her feel less vulnerable.

“I guess he may be right.”

“But you’re a red-hot socialist,” she said.

“My red-hot socialism has been tempered by being plunged in the cooling water of Harold Wilson’s social-democratic utopia.”

“What’s that supposed to mean ?”

He went on eating for a few moments till his tray was empty.

“Your dad’s opinions are interesting, but what do you think ?”

He was looking at her very seriously but kindly. All she wanted to do was sit on his knee and rest her head on his shoulder.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what any of it means.”

“Most of I’is meaningless.”

“Why are you so keen on it then ?”

“I’m not keen on it at all. I just want to spend my life reading Proust and Diderot but unfortunately I’m forced to be interested.”

“Who’s forcing you ?”

“Circumstances.”

“Why don’t you just read books if that’s what you want to do ?”

“Because I have to read books in a context,” he stood up and put his rubbish in the little, metal bin under the sink, taking hers too as she held it out. “And the context is a problem.”

“Why ?”

“Well, because oiks like me aren’t supposed to read books. We’re supposed to be congenitally dim, that’s why we’re down at the bottom. I should be driving a bus through Crumpsall or crawling under floors to wire factories.”

“But you do read books and you’re not at the bottom. You’re at university.”

And suddenly she thought she should be nice to him.

“And you’re just as intelligent as a lot of the people I was at school with.”

She was taken aback by his uninhibited laughter .

“Very nice of you to say so !”

Had she offended him ? What had she said that was wrong ? She shrank at the thought of her clumsiness, reached for her bag and lit a cigarette. He sat at the desk again and turned away from her for a few seconds.

“Did you like school ?” he asked twisting towards her.

“No, I hated it,” she blew a grey drift of smoke which made her feel reassuringly cynical.

“Why ?”

“I don’t know. I just never felt at home there I suppose.”

“Because you missed your family.”

“Maybe. I just couldn’t be fagged with it all.”

She realised from his expression she’d said something out of place but he sat there so nicely, he seemed so much like home and security might be, she just wanted to be warm beneath the sheets with him. She got up and doused her cigarette under the tap then moving next to him she reached up to his shelf and took down a book.

“Why are you reading this ?”

“Because it’s interesting.”

She was very close to him, her hips level with his face; gently,as she flicked through the pages, she lowered herself onto his knee and after a second, put her arm around him and lay her head against his.

“Kiss me.”

Once they were naked and she had him in her arms, she wondered what had made her so anxious and why she’d wanted to hurt him. She made every touch on his flesh as tender as she could and she hoped the best abandon she could muster would make him fall in love with her. But when she woke at four, entangled, her head against his chest , his arm limp around her, she had the sudden shock of being in bed with a stranger; she pulled her head away and studied his face. Who was he ? What did she know about him ? He came from a city she’d never visited and a culture she couldn’t imagine. What was his family like ? And the idea, which rushed in like a wind in March, of having to meet them filled her with dread.  It was impossibly silly. In the darkness, pulling on her clothes, she hoped he’d wake; she wanted him to see her being brisk and dismissive; but he slept on, like an exhausted child moved from its parents’ bed to its cot. Pulling tight the belt of her coat and picking up her bag she thought of going through the window but pulled the door closed with a click she hoped would be loud enough to disturb him. In her room, she sat at her desk and in spite of the sleeping Turnip, switched on her lamp and began to write:

Dear Benoit,

                     Why haven’t you written to me ? Do you want to finish with me ? If so, tell me straight. I’m desperate to get out of this place. It’s four in the morning and I can’t sleep. I can’t even have a spliff because my room-mate is here. I don’t know what’s happening to me, Benoit, but I’m drifting away from you. I’ve got to know the nice boy only he isn’t a boy he’s twenty-one. He’s called Jimmy and he comes from Manchester. He’s very sweet and I think he’s falling in love with me. Of course, I’m not in love with him. I haven’t slept with him Benoit but I have kissed him. I don’t understand him. He’s a strange person but he’s very easy to be with and I feel good when I’m with him. I’m so lonely I think I might end up going to bed with him if I don’t hear from you. You can imagine how hard this is for me. If I could just be with you, everything would be all right but I can’t get on with my work, go to lectures and write essays and everything and not have any life other than that. I don’t want to be like Turnip who never goes out or talks to a boy and no-one fancies. Jimmy is the only boy I’ve met here who I really like. If he wasn’t here, maybe I could just think of you and wait for your letters but he invites me to his room and makes me coffee and he’s interested and asks me about my life but never talks about himself. That’s a very nice thing when you’re lonely. He’s working-class and talks with a funny accent which makes me laugh like a drain and part of me wants to take the piss out of him. My mother would say he’s common and beneath me and I suppose he is. I don’t know what his kind of life is like. Perhaps they don’t have a bathroom and that kind of thing. But he’s very clever and  reads books like The Ego and the Id because he say’s it’s interesting. I feel I can trust him, Benoit, but what about you ? Have you met another girl ?Are you having casual sex with girls like you did last summer in Nicosia ? I want to be faithful to you Benoit, but I don’t know what to think. Write to me soon.

Je t’aime,

Caroline.

 

At dawn she was sitting at the window, smoking and watching the white light slowly spread through the milky clouds. When Turnip got up and went for a shower, she didn’t speak to her. At ten she had a lecture on Charles Péguy. She knew nothing about him and hadn’t read the set book. When she arrived, Jimmy was already sitting next to his friend Bill Wilmer in the half-full theatre, so she went down the steps and sat a few rows in front next to one of the girls she spoke to from time to time. The lecturer was a squat, bald, pot-bellied man in his late fifties who wore an open-necked white shirt and a pair of shapeless black trousers. A proselytising communist, he tried to dress like a working man but his loud voice betrayed an accent half educated German, half Home Counties and his fluent speech, confident demeanour and articulate gestures were those of an intellectual who had never had to do hard physical work nor worry about how to pay the rent. Vladimir Herbig was the son of a Russian mother and German father. He’d spent his early years in Freiburg before his father came to London to take up a post as Professor of Physiology. His mother, a concert pianist whose career foundered once her children were born, was a frustrated intellectual whose life became a round of empty social visits and trivial, time-killing. From her he learnt his discontent and his fierce opposition to injustice. Deeply influenced by Marx’s relativism, convinced that precise conditions give rise to precise ideas and emotions, she railed against the Soviet Union, the stupidity of Stalin, Lenin’s authoritarianism and the crassness of trying to impose advanced social ideas on a backward economy. When Vladimir was a child, she wrote him a version of the Krondstat story in which the anarchist sailors were shining heroes and the authorities in Moscow, dark villains. All his life this distinction had remained in his mind.

Caroline liked him because he was colourful, controversial, a rule-breaker. His lecture was supposed to be at nine but he had announced:

“Nine o’clock is too early for anyone to start work. I refuse to get up so early when there is no need. We shall start at ten.”

This rebellious act was looked on indulgently by his colleagues who thought of him affectionately as a charming, amusing, harmless peddler of ideas which were more received than thought through and liked him more than  respected him, though they acknowledged the excellence of his work in his field.

All through the lecture, Caroline was tempted to turn and meet Jimmy’s eyes. She would get out of her seat quickly at the end and be at the door before him; when he came out she would find something to say which would make him put his arm round her. Should she say she’d been ill ?  Or  she couldn’t sleep ? The hour was interminable. She tried to concentrate, but the words made no sense. All the same, she scribbled notes, but the certainty he would be watching made her feel as though she was merely acting. When Herbig took off his glasses, she closed her folder and stood up, but the people on her row were slow to move and by the time she got up the steps Jimmy had disappeared. She went straight to his room. She would be unceremonious. Dropping her file on his chair she would go to him and kiss him on the lips, then without a word she would take off her coat and begin to unbutton her top. He would turn and close the curtains. She would look him in the eyes when he came back to her and would take off her clothes quickly, with serious intention. Naked, she would kiss him swiftly again then get into bed. Once he was undressed she would throw back the covers and show herself. She would let her knees fall apart. When he kissed her and held her she would respond furiously. She would let him know how unlimited was her passion. At the height of his pleasure she would tell him she loved him and afterwards she would be very cool : the experienced woman, secure in the love of a desirable man, sensuously fulfilled, committed. Later, they would go to the bar together and from the simple way they behaved with each other, everyone would know they were in love. They would be an enviable couple, beautiful, intelligent, relaxed, passionate, effortlessly stylish, destined to spend a lifetime together.

She knocked on his door. There was no answer.

Bill appeared from the kitchen.

“Do you know where my Jimmy is ?” and she was astonished at herself for the my.

“I think he went to the library but he might have nipped for a coffee in the library café. He was meeting someone or something.”

“Oh, thanks.”

Meeting someone ? She imagined him sitting opposite Jane Egger. She would have that silly smile on her face which revealed her lovely white teeth. Her blouse would be unbuttoned low enough for her cleavage to be obvious. She would brush her dark curls away from her pale forehead with her long fingers whose nails were painted red. She would flatter him about his intellect and ask him questions about the course books and he would answer fluently. Back in her room she lit a cigarette and collapsed into her armchair. She moved to her desk, picked up her pen and wrote:

Dear Jimmy,

                    I came to your room but you weren’t there. Bill told me you were meeting someone. Have you had enough of me already ? With what lies and smuts have you stained me ? What have you told Jane Egger ? If you want to go to bed with her I can’t stop you, but you aren’t giving our relationship a chance. Why didn’t you wait for me after the lecture.

                                All my love,

                                            Caroline.

She went hurriedly to the pigeon holes with the envelope in her hand but just as she was about to slip it in Jimmy’s, Gareth McKillop spoke to her:

“Hi, Caroline. How are you ?”

“Okay,” she stuffed the letter in her pocket.

“I’ve just been to the recreation centre, I’m playing squash with Galliers later. He always leaves it to me to book the court. Lazy git. Got a lecture on George Eliot  with Prof Hann too, boring ! Have you ever been to one of her lectures. God, about half the people walked out when she came in for the last one….”

He talked and talked and she wondered when he would stop so she could get away. She was thinking of the crumpled letter in her pocket, of Jimmy drinking coffee with Jane, or by now drawing the curtains as she undressed in his room. She lit a cigarette. Then at some point she heard Gareth say:

“Fancy it ?”

“What ?” she said.

“They’re supposed to be pretty good. We could go for something to eat first.”

“No,” she said.

“You don’t fancy it ?”

“I’m busy. Sorry.”

And she walked away without knowing where she was going. She found herself in the bookshop and wandered across the square to the newsagent where she bought a packet of Silk Cut. Where was Jimmy ? Was he in the café right now with Jane Egger ? If so, he was going to get a piece of her mind. How did he think this worked ? That he went to bed with her and then talked to other girls in cafes ? She passed among the students milling on the square as if she belonged to a different species. The little café was tucked in the corner just by the library entrance and she pushed the door with the resolution she had seen wronged women display in films. At the little round table in the middle, Jimmy was talking to a tall, balding academic. He wore a thick-knit sweater and had his hair combed back and long behind. His big hands were splayed as he made a point to Jimmy who looked straight at her. She smiled, went to the counter, bought a cheese sandwich, left without acknowledging him again and hurried back to her room.

Turnip was out. She threw the sandwich and her crumpled envelope in the bin, rolled and lit a spliff, drew the curtains, put Leonard Cohen on the turntable and sank into the armchair. She had no idea how long had gone by when the gentle knock came. He was leaning against the doorframe, smiling in that way which was hardly a smile.

“You okay ?”

“I’m fine.”

She grabbed her little brown coat from behind the door, pulled on and laced the neat brown walking shoes she’d bought in Paris, and closed the door behind her.

“Let’s go to your room.”

“You could have joined us for a coffee this afternoon,” he said.

“Oh, I just wanted a sandwich. I couldn’t be fagged making anything. Who were you talking to ?”

“Tom Halstead, he lectures in English.”

“What were you talking about ?”

“Trivial stuff. How to seize the power stations and the town halls come the revolution. The kind of thing people chat about everywhere.”

“Is he a red-hot socialist too ?”

“He’s in the CP.”

“What’s that ?”

“A branch of the Boy Scouts.”

“Isn’t he too old ?”

“No, no, Baden-Powell was all for older men having access to young boys.”

As soon as they went through the door, she threw herself on his bed, as if it was where she’d always belonged.

“Close the curtains,” she said and she noticed the amazement on his face.

She couldn’t believe her convictions of a few hours earlier: he was with another girl, had gone off her, she’d never go to bed with him again, she’d have to pretend she didn’t care.

“If this moment could last forever,” she said.

He sat on the edge of the bed.

“You’re happy then.”

“I like you sitting there,” she said, “as if you’re protecting me.”

“What do you need protecting from ?”

“I don’t know. The world.”

“The world isn’t out to harm you, most of the time. Not you personally anyway.”

“But the world does harm me,” she said.

She was looking intently at the ceiling as if her fate were written there. She flicked her eyes to his face and saw how kindly he was looking at her. It made her feel like a child again and she wanted to tell him everything. She could trust him. He was discretion itself. The secret of their intimacy was sacrosanct. She wanted to rely on him as she’d relied on her father before she was sent away to school. She rocked her bent leg from the hip.

“How does it harm you ?” he said.

“I’ll tell you one day.”

She reached out her hand and he bent to kiss her. When he pulled away she took off her rings and put them on the bedside table and sat up to pull off her sweater. She made a point of never smoking in bed which she thought  vulgar so when she was dressed again and in the armchair with a filter and a cup of coffee she said:

“You’re a good lover though aren’t you ?”

“I got a prize for it at school.”

“No, but you are. You’re not just, you know, routine.”

“Well, I’m glad you like it but it isn’t a competition.”

“I mean, I couldn’t imagine Colin Watts being any good.”

She’d thought of him, one of the boys on Jimmy’s floor, because he was the kind of boy her mother might have liked her to bring home: ambitious, talkative, unimaginative and good at sport.

“Couldn’t you ?”

“No, he’d be rough and thoughtless.”

She drew hard on her cigarette and looked at him askance.

“Did you get prizes at school ?”

“Yeah, it was a secondary modern in Salford so they gave prizes for spitting, swearing and fighting. I got one for swearing as I’m too pernickety to spit and too much of a cissy to fight. Language is my thing.”

“I was swimming champion.”

“Is that what the silver cups are for ?”

“Yes, but I’m neglecting my swimming. My mother is very disappointed.”

“Mothers are supposed to be.”

“God, if my mother could see me now !”

“If mine could have seen you ten minutes ago.”

“I’ve told her you’re a red-hot socialist.”

“Really ? I bet that’s cheered her up.”

“My father is the one with the opinions, she just goes along with him.”

“Obviously a woman in the forefront of the feminist struggle.”

“I don’t know what feminism means,” she said getting up to put out her cigarette.

“Well, you have that in common with Germaine Greer.”

“Do you understand it,” and she sat down and sipped her coffee from the anti-apartheid campaign mug.

“Oh, a bit of theory is a doddle, it’s understanding people that’s hard.”

“Is Jane Egger a feminist ?”

“She’d probably say so, but when the wind’s southerly she doesn’t know a heron from a hacksaw.”

“She’s very pretty.”

“It’s not a qualification for feminism.”

“God !” she said with a toss of her head which shook her shining auburn hair, “I was so jealous of her !”

She deliberately didn’t glance at him. The coffee was warming and she imagined how it might be to rest in an armchair in a living-room in a house she shared with Jimmy, sipping coffee into middle-age. There’d be a big open fire and a rug they could lie on together late at night. In the alcoves would be his books and everyone who visited would ask if he’d read them all. They’d have a baby grand where she could play the pieces by Chopin she learned as a girl. It would be a spacious friendly house with a huge hallway and from the front door you’d be able to look right through to the Aga against the kitchen wall. There’d be high ceilings, embossed wallpaper and deep carpets. The furniture would be from the most expensive shops. On Saturdays they’d entertain and invitations to their dinner parties would be sought after. He said nothing. She was aware of him sitting at his desk, looking her way and then out of the window. She had a sudden impulse to throw her clothes off again but she stood up, took her brush from her bag and began pulling it through her luxuriant hair in front of the mirror.

“My mother wasted her time on my eyebrows,” she said.

“What’s wrong with them ?”

“I don’t pluck them. Look.”

She came over  and thrust her face close. He put his hands on her waist and the contact made her aware of how slim and shapely she was.

“They look like perfectly good, pretty eyebrows to me.”

“But see how thick they are here. They’re supposed to thin out into a tiny line you can hardly see.”

“Is it the law ?”

“It changes the whole shape of your face, the way they arch.”

“ Ah, it’s a science.”

She kissed him briefly knowing he wanted her to stay and in a little flurry of that feminine fussing with her bag and belongings she knew left him apart, made herself ready.

“I’ll see you later,” and clicking the door was glad she’d been unspecific and he’d have to wonder when he would see her.

The unusual sensation of happiness made her at once slightly reckless and restless so she took a diversion through the college foyer, in a half-conscious hope she might run into someone, ending up at her pigeon-hole which she’d forgotten to visit earlier. There was a letter from Benoit. She stared at the envelope as if its contents would be apparent, then she dropped it in her bag and went quickly to her room. Turnip was in so she didn’t open it. She made a coffee, smoked three cigarettes and sat at her desk as if she was working. There was a huge amount to read, two essays she hadn’t thought about, a translation she dreaded. The demands of this degree, if she did it properly, were way beyond the time and effort she was able to devote. This week she was supposed to read Apollinaire’s Alcools, Proust’s Du Cote de chez Swann, Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie N’Aura Pas Lieu, the third volume of Alfred Cobban’s History of Modern France, Sartre’s L’Existentialisme est un Humanisme, Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar, translate a passage of Russian and learn the perfective and imperfective of twenty new verbs, complete an essay on Malraux and write two hundred and fifty words in French on L’egalite complete des sexes, est-elle possible ? Yet her mind couldn’t turn from thoughts of Benoit and Jimmy and when she sat down to read, after an hour in which she’d got through twenty pages the sense of which she could hardly work out, she was restless and had to break off to smoke two cigarettes. Surely she was going to fail ? But what about the other students ? Were they all putting in twelve hour days to get the work out of the way ? She couldn’t make the serious exertions implied in the course fit with the holiday camp atmosphere. People were always in the bar, congregated in kitchens, lounging in their rooms listening to Jimi Hendrix or Deep Purple. A sense of quiet intense work just seemed absent. Was everybody going to fail ? The terrible anxiety in the face of her inadequacy made it impossible for her to do the simplest work. She tried a few sentences of the translation but tenses and verb forms swam in her head and she couldn’t be bothered looking them up.

Finally, she pulled on her little coat, tugged tight the belt, shoved the letter in her pocket and went out. She walked quickly to the library café, bought a black coffee and sat where Jimmy had been. The letter was defensive and angry. He asked her why she was drifting away from him for un con d’étudiant . When she read the line a shock went through her that almost made her cry out. Was it true ? Benoit was of her own kind.  His parents were like hers. They were an elite. Was Jimmy nothing but un con d’étudiant ? But what did it mean ? She wished there was someone she could ask but she was entirely alone. She had to judge what Benoit said and what kind of person Jimmy was without help. Perhaps it was true: Jimmy was just a nobody, a low-level sort of person. She should stick with her own. How could she possibly ever take Jimmy home. Her mother had never heard of Salford. She smoked three cigarettes one after the other and read the letter ten or a dozen times. When she left, she thought she was going to faint. She wanted to run to Jimmy and show him the letter; she wanted to pack her bags and flee to Benoit.

Turnip was at her desk intent on a fat novel. She put the letter in the drawer of her desk, quickly undressed and climbed into bed; but it was the early hours before her tension subsided enough for her to fall into a brief relieving sleep and as she woke she heard Benoit’s voice saying: Un con d’étudiant ! Un con d’étudiant !

                                                * 

                                              2

 

It wasn’t the first time she’d heard unexpected voices. Crossing the square one bright morning, feeling particularly aggrieved  she’d washed up in the unholy north, she turned at the call of her name, sure the voice belonged to her old school-friend Flick. A small, dark-haired girl with a pony tail was waving and running. Lying on the bed beneath the red light of the radiator, secure and glad of his company, she told Jimmy:

“I was sure I heard Flick calling to me this morning. I was crossing the square. I heard her voice as clear as anything.”

“Flick ?”

“She was my best friend at school. God, we got into some scrapes !”

“But it wasn’t her, eh ?”

“The voice sounded just like her. Isn’t that strange ?”

“Our brains conjure up what we long for.”

“You think so ?”

“Sure. Lost in the desert you hallucinate an oasis. When it pisses down in Salford, you hallucinate umbrellas.”

“Why do I long for her ?”

“Because she’s your mate and you’re a long way from home.”

“Yes, I am aren’t I ?”

They went to the early evening bar where a few lads, one or two couples and the odd solitary drinker left the place feeling empty. It reminded her of a railway station and she felt she was a traveller. There was no reason for her to be here except to complete the remainder of a journey others had planned. Her lager was cold and tasteless. She looked at the clear, light brown beer in Jimmy’s plastic glass.

“Is the beer good ?”

Jimmy turned and met her eyes. He had that smiling glint in his look which terrified her.

“Want a taste ?”

“No. But do you like it ?”

He twisted in his seat so he didn’t have to turn his head and lay his hand on her shoulder with a gentle familiarity which made her tremble.

“It’s not the best beer in the world, but it’s twelve pence a pint, it goes down easily and it lifts my mood for an hour or two. But it isn’t beautiful. Or lucious. I wouldn’t climb over brick walls to get to it. I don’t think myself lucky to have it front of me and I could readily swop it for many different pints. I don’t dream about it, I wouldn’t be unhappy if someone took it away and when all’s said and done, I’ll be pissing it down the toilet before I go to bed. And luckily, that’ll be with you.”

She reached for her bag and lit a cigarette. She wished the first cloud of smoke could turn to iron, become a barrier between them he could never break through. She felt if she didn’t put a great distance between them, she would come to depend on those soft, caressive words and like a remedy for a persistent ailment, he would become indispensable. As she drew the hot smoke into her lungs, a small, somewhat rat-like lad came and sat near them and began to stare hard at Jimmy; his shoulder-length hair was ginger and crinkled and on his thin face with the pointed nose was an expression half-disdain, half-amusement. She glanced at Jimmy who was deliberately ignoring the stare. The little bloke picked up his pint, took a parsimonious swig, smacked lips and shook his mane.

“Hey, Chowns !” he called and slapped his hands on his thighs.

Jimmy looked at him.

“Think you’re a bit of a lad for the girls, eh Chowns?”

Jimmy ignored him and began to talk to her but she couldn’t listen to what he saying. The odd little rat-man was jigging restlessly as if tormented by an intimate itch or an inner pain.

“Chowns ! This is where you come then is it ? Thought you’d have a quiet drink did you ? Well, you didn’t reckon on me, eh ?”

And he laughed, a juddering, high-pitched, half-mad kind of cackle and rocked like a child in need of comfort. Jimmy ignored him and Caroline smoked hard.

“I’ve been watching you Chowns. Chownsy, Chownsy. Think you’ve got a pretty girl there, eh ? Wait till she gets to know me, Chownsy. You don’t have a bloody chance, mate.”

He shifted his stare to Caroline.

“Do you know him ?” she said quietly to Jimmy.

“I know who he is.”

“What’s his name ?”

“Nigel Wakefield. He’s doing engineering.”

“What does he want ?”

“Probably a scrap.”

“Are you going to fight him.”

“It’d be a waste of my time and his energy.”

The little, chetif boy was staring at her and half-smiling as he rocked back and forth. She looked away and pushed herself against Jimmy’s arm. The hard, intrusive, unflinching stare was like a cat’s when it comes close to you on the street and circles before arching its back and rubbing its fur against your legs; a look in which you search in vain for a mind, its hypnotic fixity being nothing more than the sign of minimal brain activity; and he kept up a chorus of abuse: “Chownsy, thinks he’s one for the girls. I’ve seen him. I’m watching you Chowns. Pretty girl. Eh ? Want to get to know me ? Ha,ha ! Seen him walking round holding her hand. Twat. Hey, Chownsy, you’re a twat. Know that, Chownsy boy ?”

“Let’s go,” she said.

“No. I’m not leaving because of him, and Bill’ll be here soon.”

She blenched inwardly at the thought he’d arranged to meet Bill while he was with her; as if it was a terrible betrayal. Then the thought came to her that she was betraying Jimmy with Benoit, but she couldn’t summon up any sense of guilt, shame or even doubt. Her immediate feeling of outrage welled like vomit. She wanted Jimmy to herself. But her own behaviour seemed utterly justified. “Why shouldn’t I if I want to ?” she said to herself. “Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Hey, Chownsy ! Not talking to me ?”

“What d’you want ?” said Jimmy.

“Are you shaggin’ her ? Good shag ?”

“Just drink your beer,” said Jimmy.

“I’ll ‘ave you, Chownsy. I can ‘ave you any time I like. You wanna watch it, boy. You never know where I’ll be. Ha, ha! Good shag, eh, Chownsy boy ?”

  Bill Wilmer came to join them. He was a tall lad with long, frizzy blonde hair which hid his face and he wore heavy black glasses without which he could barely see. He was one of those people who smile almost permanently, partly out of nervousness partly to defuse all hostility; if he was determined to avoid conflict it was because he knew the impulse to violence which could arise in himself and which Jimmy frequently ignited. Recently he’d started seeing Jane Egger who like Caroline came from the south and the middle-class. Her father was a Headteacher in a private school and her mother a dark beauty who stayed at home and had cultivated over the years, through a life of triviality, a giddy, frivolousness her daughter had picked up. She had a cleaner, a gardener, sent the washing to a laundry and cooked as little as possible. Her one consistent interest was tennis and at the club, in her pristine whites with her little skirt dancing over her still slim hips, she was admired for her forceful backhand and her graceful serve. Her son had read Law at Oxford, which she thought appropriate, but for Jane, university was a luxury, a brief spell of fun before she married and spent the rest of her life pretending to be happy as the wife of a successful man; and her daughter, attentive to this attitude in both her mother and father, treated university  as a long birthday party, and since getting to know him, relied on Bill to get her work done.

Bill set down his pint and lit a cigarette, holding the packet out to Caroline.

“Thanks.”

“Where’s Jane ?” said Jimmy.

“Having a shower or something. She’s coming along. You going to that Iranian twenty-one meeting tomorrow ?”

“Didn’t know about it. Where is it ?”

“Rutherford lecture theatre. Two o’clock.”

“Who are the Iranian twenty-one anyway ?”

“They’re going to be sent back. The Shah will have them arrested.”

“Sure, I’ll come along.”

“What about you, Caroline ?”

“I don’t understand politics.”

“Nor do I, much,” said Bill, “but these blokes will be in real trouble if they get sent back. That’s easy to understand. That and the fact the Shah is a bastard.”

“Down with the bastards who run the world,” said Jimmy raising his pint.

“Yeah,” said Bill clinking his glass. “Here’s to bastards like us taking over.”

The two of them laughed and drank and Caroline drew hard on her cigarette.

“See yer, Chownsy ! Watch yer back.”

The wiry, bent little irritant got up and moved away.

“Who’s that ?” said Bill.

“Lunatic,” said Jimmy.

“Seems to like you !”

A few minutes later, Jane arrived, brushing her hair from her eyes and smiling apologetically. She was dressed down in jeans and a long, black, hand-knitted jumper, but her lipstick and nail varnish had been meticulously applied and she gave off the delicate scent of expensive perfume. She loitered nervously by the table, pushing her unruly curls away and tugging at the straps of the ethnic cotton bag over her shoulder.

“What are you having ?” said Bill getting to his feet.

“Oh,” she turned her head away, batted her long eyelashes, shifted from foot to foot, “I think I might have a little G and T,” and she giggled and shifted a little more before settling on the stool next to Jimmy as if its three legs had been sawn through.

“I think you know Caroline,” said Jimmy.

“Yes,” said Jane leaning back and smiling widely as the little giggle erupted again, “I’ve seen you in lectures, haven’t I ?”

Caroline drew long on her cigarette again and nodded.

“Bill was just asking me if I was going to the Iranian twenty-one meeting tomorrow,” said Jimmy.

“That sounds fun !” said Jane with a little shrug of her shoulders before she brought the fingers of her right hand to her lips.

“Not much fun for them,” said Jimmy.

“No,” said Jane with a giggle. “I suppose it’s baaad for them.”

Bill came back with the drink and Jane said to him.

“What have they done, anyway, the Iranian twenty-one?”

“Nowt. They’re just blokes. They just do what we do. Give out leaflets, speak in meetings, join demos. For that they’ll torture the poor bastards.”

Caroline hurried her drink and said to Jimmy:

“I think I’ll go back.”

“Have another.”

“No, I’ve had enough.”

She was packing her cigarettes into her bag and pulling on her jacket.

“I’ll come with you.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“No, I can’t let you walk back on your own.”

He glugged his pint.

“See you tomorrow, Bill. Night, Jane.”

Outside, walking quickly, Caroline was stiff and untouchable.

“There was no need to leave your friends.”

“It’s okay, I’ve got plenty more.”

“I could see the way you were looking at Jane Egger.”

“What ?”

“You obviously fancy her.”

“Damn, I thought you hadn’t noticed.”

“She’s mad about you.”

“I think her madness is calmed down by going to bed with Bill.”

“I can’t stand everybody knowing everything.”

“What ?”

“Some things should be kept private.”

“Caroline, What do you think I’ve told them ?” and he gently took her upper arm in his hand but she pulled away and lifted her elbow quickly so he pulled away and stood still.

She was glad to see the shock on his face and walked on briskly. He caught up with her and walked beside her in silence for fifty yards.

“Hey, this is crazy. What are you accusing me of ?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Do you mean that ?”

She stopped and faced him.

“Of course I mean it. Go back to your friends.”

“I’d rather go to bed with you.”

“Well, you’ll have to have a little wank won’t you.”

She walked on, aware of him standing watching her. Turnip was in bed which added to her rage. She turned on her lamp, lit a cigarette and began to write:

Dear Benoit,

                    You’re right. I don’t know what came over me. I suppose it’s being so far from you and feeling lonely. But the boy is un con d’etudiant. I hate him. His friends are all from the north, apart from a girl who is incredibly silly and boring. They talk politics all the time and go on demonstrations and to meetings about Iranians or God knows what. Who cares about Iran anyway? I don’t even know where it is. Anyway, I’m not going to see the boy any more but that leaves me here on my own. How can I escape? Do you have any ideas ? I will come to you straight away if you can find a way for us to be together. I’ve just got back from the bar and Turnip is in bed. I’m going to have spliff anyway. Why shouldn’t I if I want to ? I went out for a drink with the boy and his friends but it was horrible. He asked me to go to bed with him and I said no. I wish I was in bed with you. When will we be in bed together again? Can I come and see you at Christmas ? Or can you come to Godalming ? I know you don’t like my father and he makes things difficult but we could have some time together and there’d a chance to have the house to ourselves sometimes. I have so much work to do I don’t know how to begin. We’re supposed to read three or four books a week ! I wish I knew what I was doing here. Write to me soon and tell me what you’re doing.I hope you miss me as much as I miss you.

                                        Je t’aime,

                                                    Caroline.

But she didn’t roll a spliff. She was too afraid Turnip would report her. She smoked three cigarettes before pulling aside the curtain. Jimmy’s light was on. Was Jane Egger with him ? She knew the idea was ridiculous. She was with Bill. What was Jimmy doing ? She had an urge to knock on his door and say: “Well, you said you wanted to go to bed with me.” She could let herself go and be very importunate. She permitted the idea of her abandon to play though her mind for a few minutes then she closed the curtain and sat in her chair. Jimmy was the only person she’d really started to know. It was true he was kind and easy to be with. All the same she hated him. She cursed herself for having sex with him but at the same time she knew if she hadn’t gone after him he would have left her alone. Didn’t she want him to leave her alone ? The idea he would reject her suddenly filled her with fear. Though she hated him, she felt she had rights. She wanted to reject him and the idea came to her of his grief and the power it gave her. If she could hurt him enough, he would be held in her orbit. That he could never escape her brought her a sense of ease. She moved the curtain aside once more and seeing his light was out, pulled on her jacket and went down the stairs. Outside his door she hesitated. Why did she want to see him ? It would be fun to mock him. She would sit in his armchair and smoke. She would be very provocative but when he touched her she would push him away. The idea of doing him physical harm pleased her. He was too soft to fight back. Benoit, she knew, would hit her; but Jimmy would be against it on principle. How vulnerable this made him ! She thought all his fine political high-mindedness just weak and silly. She knocked. There was no answer. She knocked again and a female head poked out from the room next door.

“Are you looking for Jimmy ?”

“Yes,” she said, startled by this strange face.

“He’s gone away for the night.”

“Where ?” and she was surprised by the urgency in her voice.

“I don’t know.” The head turned to look inside. “Do you know where Jimmy’s gone, Pete ?” Then looking at her again and smiling apologetically: “I’m sorry. We don’t know. Some friend’s I guess.”

“Thanks.”

Back in her room she smoked four languorous cigarettes as she imagined Jimmy in bed with voluptuous Jane Egger or some besotted ex-girlfriend from home. Did he have such a girl friend ? He’d never said anything but she hadn’t asked. Maybe he’d gone back to her and was telling her right now about the strange girl he’d met at university and how badly she treated him. Perhaps she was willingly naked beside him and his warm hand was on her flat belly. Was she very beautiful ? Was she in love with him ? She leapt up and wrote a quick letter:

 

Dear Jimmy,

                     Where are you ? This isn’t fair. You go away without saying anything to me. I came to your room. Why have you gone away ? Have you got another girl ?Do you have a girlfriend at home ? I just needed to be on my own for a few hours. Is that so bad? Now I’m worried about you. Come and see me as soon as you get back.

                                         Love, Caroline.

Turnip rolled over and made a small groaning sound. Caroline yanked on her jacket, pushed the letter in the pocket and went quickly to the pigeon-holes. Jimmy’s was empty and she slipped the letter in carefully so it protruded a little. It was late and no-one was around. In the quiet foyer she could hear the porter moving about in his little office. She went and asked him if he had a light, though she had matches in her bag. He produced a lighter and she set the little blue and yellow flame to her cigarette. He was an old man, perhaps nearly sixty and she wondered about his life. What was it like to do such a job and get by on the petty wage ? She looked hard at him as he tidied a few papers on his desk.

“Do you like working here ?” she said.

“You what, love ?”

 He was looking at her through his thick glasses which distorted his eyes and it was almost physically painful for her to see his ugliness. The thought suddenly appeared in her head of him having sex with his wife. How could a woman stand intimacy with someone so ugly ?

“Do you like doing this job ?” and the repetition made her over-stress the question so she was aware of sounding slightly intrusive and defensive.

“Who does like doin’ their job, sweetheart ? It pays the bills and keeps me out o’ trouble.”

“Have you been doing it a long time ?”

“Since I was made redundant. Good job they opened this place. Godsend to me.”

“What did you do before ?”

“Cabinet maker. I made furniture for Wignalls. Lovely stuff. Skilled work, you see. But they went bust in 1962. I was out o’ work for eighteen months, then I had a spell as a window cleaner for a mate o’ mine and when this place opened, I got this.”

“I see,” she said, drawing the warm smoke into her lungs and feeling her pulse accelerate.

“What d’you study, love ?”

“French.”

“Aye ? And d’you understand all that jargon they come out wi’?”

“Oh yes, I’m fluent.”

“Well, it’s a grand thing, I suppose.”

“I’m just so bored here.”

The man looked up in mild surprise. She could see the bewilderment on his face and was pleased at the effect. She stared hard into his eyes with that effort to rob her look of all mutuality, to make it the gaze of a baby who looks out at the world from pure egotism.

“Don’t y’ave work to do ?” he said with a hint of rebuke.

“I’ve got masses. I’m so behind. I can’t understand most of it.”

“But you’re fluent, like.”

“I can hold a conversation with anyone, but this is all novels and poetry and philosophy and I sit trying to write essays and have no idea what to say.”

“Tha’ wants to get thisel’ some ‘elp, lass,” and she sensed his lapse into his vernacular was a defence.

“I shouldn’t be ‘ere.”

“Aye ?”

“It’s not the right place for me. All my friends are in the south, or Durham.”

He was putting a few things in his drawer and in his sideways look, she could see concern and disturbance.

“I suppose you think I’m neurotic or something.”

“I don’t think anythin’ o’t sort.”

“Thanks for the light, anyway. I’d better get to bed.”

She was glad he’d responded with signs of anxiety and knew she would go to him regularly with her complaints. She might even be a little seductive and if one night she was in his lodge and it was late and no-one around, and she’d been telling him about her time at school and the horrible events with Mr Spicer and he was subdued by her revelations, she might just sit in his swivel chair and open her thighs and twist from side to side and smile at him and wait for the look of pain and confusion on his face.

As soon as she woke the following morning, she drew back the curtains to look for signs of Jimmy but as there was nothing,  she  dressed in a hurry, dragged the heavy brush through her shining hair and went to his door. He appeared sleepily in a little navy-blue cotton dressing-gown which reached to his knees. The piping matched the white belt  tied in a loose bow leaving a v-shaped area of his white exposed. It struck her how boyish he was and she wanted to cry out or dance on the spot. He had the charm of a heedless little child running in the garden or playing with his toys, and in his half-awake state with his long hair still ruffled, she thought he might be a film star. Once through the door she took in every detail and the familiarity, the order she knew, the absence of any cruel surprise lifted her mood all the more. She was at one of those moments when everything might be possible, when no barrier stood between her and the fulfilment of her desire, when even any achievement might be within her grasp, and the heavy reality of the work she hadn’t done, the books she didn’t understand, the essays she struggled to bring to a flimsy fifteen hundred words, the intellectual disputes which seemed to her so flat and insignificant, melted like butter  in the hot effervescence of her limitless delight.

“I came straight out of bed. I didn’t even change my knickers. Isn’t that terrible of me ? How do I look ? I bet I look terrible. Is that what you think ? You look nice. Ha !”

And she yanked at the belt’s bow so the gown fell open.

“I missed you so last night. Oh, Jimmy, where did you go ? You shouldn’t go away without telling me. I could hardly sleep. I need a shower. I haven’t even washed my hands and face this morning. Shall we get in the shower. I’ll give you a shampoo.”

 

She came to him and ran her fingers upwards through his heavy, dark hair.

“Such lovely hair you have. It’s thick, isn’t it. But why don’t you have any hair on your chest ?”

He shook his head.

 “Perhaps god wanted me to be an Olympic swimmer.”

“Would it slow you down, hair on your chest ?”

“Ask a physicist.”

“I love your hair, don’t have it cut will you. I like it nice and long. It makes you look very romantic and…..”

“Bohemian ?”

“What’s that mean ? No, don’t explain. Let’s get in the shower. I want to kiss you all over. Quickly before the others get up. Have you got clean towels ? Come on. It’ll be lovely and warm.”

And before he could object she was dropping her clothes on the floor. He handed her a worn towel and grabbed his cheap, green shampoo. The shower was directly opposite so it was simple to step from one to the other and once in, the door locked and the steaming water splashing obligingly on the ridged, pale brown tiles she wrapped her arms round his neck and kissed him violently.

“Let me do my hair first !” she called, and standing beside her under the pressured water he watched as she threw back her head so her strong white throat was revealed and she swept her chestnut hair away from her face.

“Do you like me ?” she called. “Do I look beautiful with my hair wet ? I’ve been told that. Do you think so ? Give me the shampoo. Jimmy! What’s this ? It looks like washing-up liquid. But it’ll have to do. We’ve nothing else have we ? I don’t suppose you’ve got conditioner. God, what will my hair be like ! Rub it in for me. Oh, that’s nice ! Is it lathering? Stop ! Let me rinse it.”

She stood under the cascade her head cocked back and the suds sliding gently down her body.

“Oh, it’s lovely isn’t it Jimmy ? The hot water and to be clean and the two of us together. Have you ever done this before ? I haven’t. You’re the first. Shampoo my hair again. Rub it well so it foams and foams. That’s good. Is it getting soapy. Oh, I love to feel clean, don’t you, Jimmy. Clean all over !”

She made him sit down so she could wash his hair, her fingers rubbing his scalp and her palms stroking back from his forehead.

“What a handsome thing you are. Look at you ! Do you think anyone can hear us? Do you mind, if they know we’ve been in here together? I don’t care. I don’t give a fig if the whole world knows. Let me shampoo again. Where did you get such gorgeous thick hair ! It’d grow down to your knees, I swear it.”

When his hair was rinsed through, she pulled him to her and ran her fingers through it over and over.

“Where did you go last night, Jimmy ? I was so jealous and so lonely. I thought you’d gone away for ever. What would I do then? Eh? What would I do without you ? You wouldn’t go away, would you ? Did you do it to get back at me ? No, don’t answer that. Don’t say anything. Was I a bitch ? I am sometimes aren’t I ? Do you think so ? I didn’t mean to be. Oh, look at you! Do you think you’ll always be this slim? Shall we meet up again in ten years? What will we be doing then ? I can’t imagine it, can you ? Oh, this water is lovely. I feel so much better now. What can I do for you ? Shall we get dry and go to bed? Come on ! It’s so nice to get into bed feeling clean. And you’re really warm. I want to pull you close to me. Quick. Let’s get back in your room. I’ll dry you. Turn the shower off.”

They made wet footprints on the grey tiles. In his room she took the towel and rubbed his hair, his shoulders, his chest, his legs.

“Lie down so I can dry your feet. There, now get into bed. Oh, your hair. Let me brush it.”

He got into bed and she dried herself.

“God, this towel’s threadbare ! I’ll buy you some. Nice big, thick comfortable bath towels. I will. Then we can shower together all the time and get dry and warm together before we get into bed. What do you think of me ? Am I lovely ? Do you think my breasts are too big ? I must brush my hair. God, it’ll be such a mess if I don’t. You don’t mind do you ? You don’t mind waiting a few minutes. It’ll be worth it. I promise. Have we any lectures today ? I can’t be fagged with them. Let’s stay in bed all day. Can you make love to me all day long, Jimmy. I bet you can. You’re so slim and full of life. I won’t be long. You can tell me where you went last night. I’ve got so much work to do, Jimmy. I wish I was like you and could understand it all and get on with it. What’s Charles Péguy all about ? It makes no sense to me. Oh, I’m dying for a fag. Do you mind ? No, I won’t. We’ll make love first. Have you got plenty of petals in your drawer ? Did you by them for me ? Were you thinking of me when you bought them, Jimmy ? I haven’t even had breakfast. I’m starving. Are you ? We’ll eat together when we’ve made love won’t we. I can make you a nice breakfast. What would you like ?”

She climbed in beside him and pulled the covers round her.

“God, you’re so warm ! Mmm. It’s nice isn’t it, Jimmy?  We should’ve been together last night. Where did you go ? No, don’t tell me. Am I a possessive woman ? Do you think I am, Jimmy. Perhaps I am. Maybe it’s just you. Do you think you make me possessive, Jimmy. Oh, I like to feel my body next to yours. How nice you are. Aren’t you ? I bet you’ve been told that before. You weren’t a virgin were you, Jimmy ? Did you have a girl-friend at home ? I bet you did. I bet she was pretty. I bet all the pretty girls were after you. Were they, Jimmy ? Was she prettier than me ? I wish I’d been the first. Was I the first ? I wish you’d been the first. Do you want me to tell you, Jimmy? Oh, I’ve had boyfriends but none as nice as you. It’s strange, isn’t it ? You and me. I know nothing about your life. Tell me about your life. Not now, not now. We’re so different, aren’t we ? What’s going to happen to us ? What do you think will happen, Jimmy ? God, what a scrape ! In bed with a red-hot socialist ! You’re undesirable. That’s what they used to say to us at school. To keep away from the town boys because they were undesirable. Well, some of them were eminently desirable, let me tell you. My mother would go mad ! But she’d like you. She’d fancy you. Does that sound terrible ? But she would. She’d flirt with you. She flirts with any handsome male. Age has nothing to do with it. She’s quite pretty and she knows it. My father was a bit of a catch, she says. He’s grey now but he was dark when he was young. Tall and broad and dark. But I can’t imagine them making love. Is that a funny thought, Jimmy ? Can you imagine your parents making love ? I don’t know anything about them do I ? What would they think of me ? A fallen woman I suppose. A fallen woman dragging down their handsome, intelligent son. You are intelligent aren’t you, Jimmy. James was quite clever. He was my first boyfriend. Funny, isn’t it ?  James and Jimmy. Does no-one ever call you James ? But you suit Jimmy. He played guitar. He was really good but his parents made him give it up. He went to Oxford to study Law. He was quite pretty. Not handsome like you. You’re boyish but manly. Does that sound odd? Oh, your back is strong isn’t it ? How did you get those muscles ? Playing tennis ? They were talking about you. They said you were good to watch. Liz Lewis and Sally Cobourg and that crowd. They said they watched you at the team practice and you sway your hips when you serve. That’s what they said. Is that how you got those muscles ? Where did you go last night ? No. Don’t speak. I like it when you’re quiet. You can tell me over breakfast. I bet you never thought you’d meet someone like me at university did you ? Do you think I’m eccentric ? Perhaps I’m mad. Do you think so ? Maybe a little bit mad. My mother is mad I think. “Don’t touch that, there’s a good chap,” she would say to my brother if he touched his penis. Why shouldn’t he touch his penis ? She won’t kiss anyone. She never kissed me as a child. I think she sees a kiss as sexual. I wonder what they do in bed ? I wonder if she’s frigid. What is a frigid woman ? Do you know, Jimmy ? I like this room, Jimmy. I’ll never forget this room. What do you think we’ll become ? I can’t imagine the future, can you ? Oh, it’s so warm ! You’re sweating. Your back’s wet with sweat. Jimmy ! The sheets will be soaking. You’re so nice, Jimmy. I never thought I’d meet anyone like you when I came up north. You can’t imagine how devastated I was when I knew I was coming here. It’s another world to me. I’d no idea where Lancashire or Yorkshire were. Just places in the north. I didn’t think people like you lived up here. You know, intelligent, sophisticated, sensitive people. You are sophisticated and sensitive aren’t you, Jimmy ? My mother would like you, but she’d hate your ideas. My father says you have to let people who know how to make money run the country. You can’t have men who fit doors on cars running things. I’m so confused. I’ve got no idea really. Jimmy ? I don’t know what’s going on. You do, don’t you ? It all seems distant to me. Sometimes I’m so lost and the world seems very far away. I’m happy this morning aren’t I ? Do you think I’m happy ? I’m so happy I can’t stop talking ! Shall we get in the shower again, Jimmy ? I’d like to. Look at you ! How lovely you are !”

The meeting was to start at two.

“But I don’t know anything about it !”

“Just sit and listen. When we come back we’ll go to bed.”

He pushed her arm into her little brown jacket, as if he were dressing a child, pulled it gently into place and fastened the thin belt.

“There. How pretty you look.”

There was a knock on the door and Bill was standing outside, a cigarette between his fingers and the inevitable cheering smile on his lips.

“Iranian twenty-one here we come !”

“Where’s Jane ?” said Jimmy.

“Washing her hair. It takes about six hours. Hi, Caroline.”

She looked at the young man, tall, slightly stooped, friendly, charming and warm and wondered why she was suspicious of him. She didn’t want to share Jimmy and she was overwhelmed with fear that he would tell Bill about their morning. Why shouldn’t he ? But she couldn’t bear the thought that their experience was anything but their own. It had to be secret and the very possibility of him speaking about it destroyed its magic. She felt out-of-place again and utterly alone and when she took Jimmy’s arm as they went down the cold, concrete steps, she wished she didn’t feel as if it was the arm of someone she could never know.

There was a motley dozen in the chilly lecture theatre. Three young Iranians were behind the table; in the middle, a dark, wavy-haired man with an effortful smile and at either side two more nervous looking blokes who spoke no English at all. Sean Kavanagh the energetic little activist from the International Socialists introduced them. He wore, as always, his uniform of well-washed, freshly ironed denims and the little jacket with its turned up collar, the open shirt beneath and his hair combed back from his high pale forehead, gave him the look of a pop star or a radical journalist in the mode of Ray Gosling; a sixties child who had taken its surface subversion seriously and believed a new world was to be born any day.

“What’s he talking about ?” Caroline whispered to Jimmy.

“I’ll explain it in bed.”

The dark man who spoke fairly good English began to explain what was happening in Iran. Caroline thought he was remarkably ugly, with his heavy features, his dark, closely shaven beard dominating his face, his thick moustache and his red, fleshy lips. She was mystified as to why Jimmy could find this interesting and felt slighted.

“His English isn’t very good is it ?” she said into his ear.

“Better than my Iranian.”

“Why does he keep smiling ?”

“Because the Shah of Iran is a joke.”

He spoke for twenty minutes. After two, Caroline stopped listening. She felt insulted that she should have to listen to a foreigner with bad English talking about horrible things.

“Where is Iran anyway ?”

“Turn left at Turkey.”

“It’s the other side of the world. What’s it to do with me ?”

“If you were going to be put in prison for your beliefs wouldn’t you want the other side of the world to take notice ?”

She was about to speak but he put his finger to her lips. For a second she was infuriated and would have got up and walked out but she looked into his eyes and saw those little creases that arrived before his smile. The bliss of the previous hours came back to her. She snuggled in her seat and tried to listen; but it was too remote and boring. And what could twelve people do anyway ? If people were being put in prison, there must be some reason for it. And her father said socialists deserved to be put in prison. Not Jimmy, of course. Not for the time being at least. People were invited to ask questions and someone said:

“What will happen to you if you’re sent back to Iran ?”

The man who smiled like a child about to cry said he would be arrested at the airport, tortured and executed. It struck her at once that he was just a chap, just a bloke like Jimmy who went on about the State and repression and worker’s rights and democracy; who gave out flyers and went on demonstrations and was going to be murdered for it. She saw the vile instruments of torture and heard his screams.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“Hang on. It’s nearly finished.”

“Let’s go, Jimmy. I need to go.”

She got up and he followed her.

“Shall we have a coffee and wait for Bill ?”

“No, we’re going to your room.”

She dropped her clothes on the chair and climbed into bed.

“Oh, these sheets are chilly ! Come and warm me up.”

She clung to him fiercely and pushed her mouth against his as a gag. Not a word passed between them as they warmed in one another’s heat and after she slept and woke she looked at her watch and realised they’d been there two hours or more. He was still asleep next to her and in the cramp of the single bed they were as if conjoined. The dreadful cold and difficulty of the meeting came back to her. She could have hated him for taking her along. He might be a socialist, whatever that was, but it was nothing to do with her. She felt degraded. When she tried to bring her ideas together she was miserable and confused. All she could rely on was her sense that the events in Iran had nothing to do with her. To make her feel responsible was to dissolve her very being. She was Caroline Wickham from Godalming. She’d been educated at Bennenden. Her father was a diplomat. If there were people in the world in poverty, if States tottered and fell, if people were shot in the streets, it wasn’t her fault. She wanted all thoughts of such ugly things out of her head. What did they have to do either with this beautiful young man ? It was very strange that his head was full of ideas she couldn’t relate to. In all her eighteen years she’d never met a socialist and people like Jimmy, who seemed to have these notions of equality and justice buzzing endlessly in their heads, were as remote as dinosaurs. She stroked his sleeping face and it made her smile how peaceful he was. Yet all her feminine desire, the entangled complexity of love and sex and marriage and family, all the soft tenderness which she wanted to come to life, was mingled with this disturbing world of ideas and action which collided disastrously and left her hurt and shaken. She got out of bed and as soon as she began to dress, she felt as if she was another person. Who was that girl who had been in bed with Jimmy ? She wished she had some refuge where all the established certainties of her childhood could be assembled around her, but there was only her room and the painful thought of Turnip’s presence.

Luckily, she wasn’t there. She lit a spliff and closed the curtains. In the befuddled half-darkness she could close her eyes and imagine she was no longer in the north, Jimmy wasn’t a few hundred yards away, socialism still existed in another universe and the truths that fell readily from her parents’ mouths were the limit of her safe world. She drifted into a half sleep in which vivid images of her father in his grey suit, his shoulders slightly stooped; in his khaki shorts riding the chugging mower over the square lawn; at the beautifully laid table cutting into his beloved prime steak, his face serious and anxious, drifted and melded into pictures of her mother in a low cut dress, a champagne flute in her hand laughing in the unhinged way which always troubled her; of Jimmy standing in front of an audience producing a fluid stream of words about poverty, war, racism, the media, big business and then of him in his armchair, in his room, a cup in his hand smiling at her as she lay on the bed wishing he would come and cuddle her; of James in front of thousands of screaming fans; of Benoit naked, his chubby cock erect advancing on her with a fierce look in his eyes and his fists clenched.

When she came to she was hungry and not quite knowing what she was doing, she went out to find something to eat. The campus seemed threatening, its yellowish bricks unfriendly and round every corner she expected to find a hostile face glaring at her. She made her way to the refectory without looking at anyone, deliberately refusing to notice what was around her. The plate of chicken chasseur and rice was unappetizing but her hunger made her fork it into her mouth. She was thinking how weird it was she was here in this unlikely place, eating on her own, far from what she knew when a voice said:

“Hi Caroline. Can I join you ?”

Looking up she saw the handsome face and long hair of Liam O’Toole. He was tanned and his sleeves were pushed up to the crook of his elbow. He exuded a sense of fitness, like many people who dedicate themselves to exercise and pay too much attention to their own body. His dark eyes fixed her and she felt at a loss.

“Yes, of course.”

He sat down opposite her and began to talk but she couldn’t listen. She was temporarily stunned by his presence. He had a very masculine face and his expression seemed to convey strength and a desire for domination. Well-proportioned and instantly attractive, it was his eyes which were irresistible. But why had he come to join her ? She hardly knew him. She’d spoken to him no more than twice. He was in her group for Russian and ingratiated himself with the tutor, Jock Wallace, a hard-bitten Glaswegian intellectual who imposed strict discipline and made uncompromising demands. Caroline thought him somewhat cheap in his attempts to be Wallace’s mate, the way he asked apparently naïve questions and fulsomely thanked the teacher for his explanations. He tried to be the leading student and to appear intellectual like the spare, dour, Scot, but it came across as an empty pose. Now she heard a strange, persuasive catch in his voice which seemed to return to interest in himself. At once it made her think of Jimmy and his caressive, funny way of talking. She could hear the rhythm of his voice and sense the shape of his sentences and the reassurance made her want to run to him. Yet she recalled how she’d left him and how alien he had felt. She tried hard to summon Benoit as the boyfriend she loved and trusted but her feeling wouldn’t follow her ideas. And Liam was talking and talking.

She found herself with her empty plate in front of her.

“Fancy a drink ?”

“What ?”

“We could go to the bar. I’m thirsty after that.”

“Okay.”

Why was she going ? Supposing Jimmy appeared ? Or Bill ? They were about to enter the bar when she said:

“I don’t fancy a drink. I mean in the bar. What about a coffee?”

“Sure. Where ?”

“We can’t go to my room, Turnip might be back.”

“Who ?”

“My room-mate.”

“Well,” he said with exaggerated nonchalance, “my room’s just round the corner.”

“Okay.”

In her swimming head the notion formed that she’d seemed to engineer the venue. Did he think she was inviting seduction ? She turned to look at him as they walked. He had his head slightly bowed as if in serious thought and he was talking about Camus and his ethic of quantity. What was she doing beside him ? His handsome face and his taut, neat body seemed monstrous. She wanted to turn on her heels.

“Here we are.”

His room was very neat. Beside his bed was a pair of running shoes. On the bedside cupboard was a framed photo of him in swimming trunks on a beach, the wind snatching his hair, his white teeth exposed in a broad smile. There was a little grey, portable typewriter, a blank sheet inserted in its roller on his otherwise empty desk and on the shelf above, a short, tight row of set- books at the end of which was squeezed a copy of Penthouse. The curtains were closed. He turned on a small lamp with a purple shade so a bright circle of light hit the corner of the desk at the angle where the walls met but the rest of the room was gloomy. 

“Sit down.”

He had his own kettle, coffee, milk and sugar and began to make a drink.

“I’ve got some vodka if you fancy a glass.”

She was so uncomfortable and anxious to leave she thought a strong drink might relax her; at the very least it would nullify her confusion and numb her hurt. But what was she hurt by ? She had no idea. There was no specific injury, not in the immediate present, perhaps not in her life, except that nasty business with Mr Spicer, or perhaps her mother, and how terrible was it to face the thought of being constantly hurt by your mother ?

“Yes, please.”

“Would you like some orange juice with it ?”

“Yes.”

He filled the tumbler and when she sipped, the sudden flavour of the vodka, its customary promise of oblivion, combined with the lingering effects of the cannabis made her want to sink into complete intoxication and she took a heavy gulp as he sat on the black leather chair before his desk.

“What music would you like ?”

“Do you have any Leonard Cohen ?”

“No, he’s too depressing. What about The Beatles ?”

“Can’t stand them.”

“But they’re the greatest band in the world !”

“I don’t like them.”

The Small Faces ?”

“Yuk.”

“You come and choose.”

His records were in a sturdy black carrier one of whose sides fell open a few inches so you could get your fingers between the covers. She knelt down and began to flick through the three-dozen collection and when she was halfway done, he put his hands on her shoulders. It was intrusive and she didn’t like it but she told herself it wasn’t a real sexual advance; it could be no more than a friendly gesture after all, bit then he ran them down her sides to her waist so she stood up abruptly and went back to the chair.

“Oh, I don’t know, put anything on.”

He fastened the case and pushed it back under his desk. She could see from the precision of his movements he was angry. She poured the stinging alcohol down her throat, put down her glass and reached for a cigarette. He was talking but she heard only the rhythm of his voice, as if the higher functions of interpretation had been switched off, like a woman blinded in an accident who retains the old pathway from the eye to the brain and though she can see nothing, can still locate objects in space; and it was sweet not to attend to him because she knew his chatter was insignificant and it was his tone of voice which mattered and to that she was perfectly alert. She could hear the catch of petulance and bitterness and it played on her imagination; why should he touch her ? Because she agreed to come back to his room ? Was she being naïve ? Did such an acceptance now mean inevitable sex ? She cast a glance at him as she drew on her filter and the hot smoke hurting her throat and lungs was exquisite. It was a longed-for pain as it awoke some sense of being alive which dozed like a snake in the afternoon sun, coiled and inert, belying it’s venomous speed and lethal bite. His face was very serious but she could see the hurt he was trying to conceal and he sat so regally she wanted to laugh; she would have liked to insult him. Who did he think he was ? Then the idea came to her that though he was good-looking, he had nothing of Jimmy’s attractiveness and this disturbing idea troubled her and made her get out of her seat. She looked at herself in the mirror over the basin.

“Just got to go to the loo,” she said and went out.

Wasn’t that strange ? She’d thought Jimmy’s handsome features were what had attracted her, but Liam was just as good-looking, if in a different way, but not at all attractive. He might have been a doll. His good-looks weren’t alive. She locked herself in the cubicle and drew on the cigarette. Her head was swimming. She was drunk and still a little stoned. She wished she was with Jimmy but it infuriated her that she couldn’t understand why she wanted him so. Why didn’t Liam set her desire running in the same way ? It was a mystery. So why had she agreed to come back with him ? She didn’t know that either. And why had she wanted to get to know him as soon as she’d noticed him ? Because he was handsome ? But why hadn’t she known at once that his good looks were those of a statue ? It seemed her poor mind was assailed by too many mysteries, by impulses which turned out to be deceptions, by longings which led only to disappointment, by certainties that evaporated like a drop of water in the desert. Her life was no more secure than a wooden boat tossed on the storms of a violent ocean whose apparent sturdiness cracks and whose hammered boards are torn apart with the ease of a boy pulling the legs off a fly; and the cold waves of loneliness and regret threatened to engulf her, dragging her to black depths where her chest would be crushed and her pitiable life become no more significant than a minnow.

When she went back in, Liam was lying on the bed with his hands behind his head. An LP by The Kinks was playing. She thought it a horrible racket.

“You were a long time,” he said.

“Was I ?”

“I thought you’d passed out in there or something.”

“Me ? I’m fine,” she said.

“I’m glad you agreed to come back with me.”

“Just for a drink,” she said, looking at him sidelong.

“I was surprised to see you eating on your own, a pretty girl like you.”

“Why shouldn’t pretty girls eat on their own ?”

“I’ve seen you with Jimmy Chowns. Is he your boyfriend ?”

The question flustered her. To say yes was a public declaration and that was beyond her. Jimmy her boyfriend ? No, Benoit was. So what was Jimmy ? Oh, a boy she toyed with. But she couldn’t convince herself. She wished her relationship with him was entirely secret. It was awful people knew she was seeing him. But why ? Because he was northern, socialist, because there could be no future in it. They came from different universes and though she loved him…….Her heart raced furiously.

“No,” she said, shaking her head and reaching for a cigarette. “I hardly know him. He’s not my type.”

“What is your type ?”

Laim got up and stretched. She felt he was deliberately trying to show off his physique, but the very display of it made her wince. He came over to her.

“I’d’ve thought you’d go for the athletes. You look like you’d be pretty quick yourself.”

“Swimming,” she said.

“I can imagine that. You’d look good in a swimsuit.”

Couldn’t he think of anything less corny ? She tried to think what Jimmy would say. Something funny. Was it because he made her laugh she found his good looks so appealing ? She was about to get her cigarettes from her bag when he bent down and kissed her on the mouth. She put her palms on his shoulders and pushed gently but he didn’t respond; then when she tried to pull her mouth away he pressed himself harder so she let him without responding until his hand landed on her breast and she squealed and struggled free.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“I just came for a drink.”

“Oh, come on !” he said

She stood up and took her jacket in her hands. Looking at him she was reminded sharply of Mr Spicer. He was surprised, angry, denied.

“What do you mean ?”

“Well, everyone knows what it means ! Fancy coming back to my place for a coffee. Everyone knows.”

“I’ve got to go.”

“Okay.”

But his agreement was grudging and accusatory, as if she should feel guilty for leaving him alone. She went quickly down the cold stairs and out into air which cut into her lungs. She wanted to go to Jimmy. He was the person in the world she most wanted to be with but then it came back to her that she’d said to herself she loved him and she rebelled against her own feelings. She hardly knew him and his background was all darkness and doubt. How could she ever meet his family ? If he met hers, they would humiliate him and she would have to join in. It was all too ridiculous. She forced herself to think of Benoit but when she passed Jimmy’s block and saw his light, she almost sobbed at not being able to knock on his door. Turnip was in the room working on an essay; bent over her desk her thin back and straggly hair were disgusting and restricted the space Caroline could inhabit. She took off her coat, hung it behind the door, went to the kitchen to make herself a coffee and once back, sat decisively in her armchair, lit a cigarette and tried to read Le Mariage de Figaro but the words swam and the thought of Jimmy came again and again to disrupt her. She sat till Turnip had gone to bed and was asleep, then she rolled a spliff and smoked in the dark till her mind lost much sense of where she was, what time it might be, what needed to be done. Finally, she threw off her clothes, pulled on a cotton nightdress and curled beneath her covers hoping the night would magically remove her confusion and pain. 

 


 

ADIOS ZAPATA 

S. Kadison 

Every morning for the past five years Dave Zapata had walked the two and a half miles to school and every evening he had walked home; sometimes at three-thirty, sometimes at four, sometimes at five or six if he had marking or there was a meeting.  He retraced his steps to the dormer bungalow where he’d lived with Angela for thirty-two years. Their children were grown: Melanie a GP in Suffolk where she shared a thatch-roofed, gentrified cottage with William. He took the train to his London chambers most mornings; Andrew site manager for a merchant bank, supervising a staff of forty and married to Kerrie whose research into muscle ageing kept her busy three days a week. The others she spent with their ten-month old daughter, Jade. Tonight, Dave Zapata had to write a letter of application for the position of Temporary Director of Sixth Form. He’d been Assistant Head for twenty-seven years, before they changed his title to Assistant Director. Now the Headteacher had left under a cloud after a collective complaint from the staff, the Director of Sixth Form was to take charge of the school till an appointment was made and the request for applications had been pinned to the notice board.

It was one of those April afternoons when the sky clears, the sun threatens to warm everything but a pleasant nip remains and you have to pull on your coat to walk down the street. Angela wasn’t yet home from her Indian head massage class: she ran three sessions a week which brought in a bit of pocket money and he indulged her, though it was pitiful compared to his salary. He put a chair on the patio which he’d laid himself when they’d had the conservatory built and poured a glass of Beaujolais. On his A4 pad, he began to draft his letter but it seemed barely worth the trouble. Who else could they give the post to? As far as he knew, the only other applicant was Aaron Beard. It was true, he was earmarked for progression. Roy Sail, the existing Director, had taken him under his wing. They shared a passion for motorbikes, rode out together along the open roads of the Yorkshire Dales most weekends, were constantly in one another’s homes and, most importantly, Sail’s vainglory was flattered by the sycophantic attentions of the younger man. Beard was one of those people, intelligent but lacking in social subtlety, who rising from the working-class and finding the mores of the middle-classes baffling, make an unconditional agreement with them as they surest means of survival. Sail, scion of a an upper-middle class, Home Counties family, educated at a minor public school, recognised an acolyte and made clear, without ever saying so, that submissive complaisance would see doors open. Zapata smiled to himself thinking of this. Beard was sure to rise. His day would dawn. He would be an Assistant Head or maybe Headteacher if things fell right, but twenty-seven years experience was unarguable. The job was in the bag. It was almost an embarrassment to apply.

It was chillier than he thought. He took the chair inside, slid closed the patio door, poured another glass and sat at the kitchen table. He had so much experience, it was difficult to condense . Into his head came the thought of playing tennis against a weak opponent. He always restrained his shots. He would win, two and two, or one and two, something comfortable; but it was unseemly to turn on all his power and athleticism against someone who struggled to return even a moderately fast serve. This wasn’t like applying for his first job when he had to brim with enthusiasm and willingness to please. It was more akin to being presented with an award and having to make a speech marinated in modesty, to smile, to nod, to thank fulsomely, and yet to know it could have been given to no-one else.

When he’d filled one side, he replenished his glass. He wondered if he should end it there or add some simple line like: I feel anything additional should wait till the interview. He had nothing to prove and writing paragraph after paragraph about his work in the sixth form, the sporting achievements, the hundreds of references written, the thousands of interviews with potential students, his diplomacy over staff disputes, his instigation of the Community Involvement Scheme, struck him as telling the school what they already knew. He was one of the five most senior pastoral staff. His record was exemplary. He hadn’t had a day off in fifteen years. The staff and students alike respected him. He played a key role in the PTA. It was like enumerating your attractions to a woman who was besotted with you.

Angela arrived as he was filling his fourth glass.

“What shall I make for tea?” she said before he’d looked up.

“Anything will do .”

“Give us a clue, Dave,” and she was already on her knees grabbing at packets in the freezer. “What about salmon fish-cakes, new potatoes and a nice salad?”

“Fine.”

She paused for a few seconds looking intently at the two frozen rounds, covered in breadcrumbs in the blue polystyrene tray.

“No, I don’t fancy that at all. What about pepperoni pizza? I could add some spring onions, mushrooms…….Mmm? What do you think?”

“Yeah, great.”

She put the ice-covered box on the work-surface and shut the freezer door with her knee.

“What should we have with it?”

“Bit of salad would do me.”

“Baked potato?”

“If you fancy.”

Holding the box gingerly she slipped on her glasses and read the ingredients and cooking time.

“No, I’ve gone off that idea.”

“What about lamb curry? I froze this two weeks ago.”

“Perfect.”

“No, I don’t fancy lamb at all. I could eat a nice prawn curry. Yes. We don’t have any prawns do we?”

She was rooting in the fridge trying to remember if she bought any on her Sunday visit to Sainsbury’s.

“Did I buy any, Dave? I was sure I did.”

“Beats me.”

“What about a take-away? They do a lovely prawn dhansak at the Little India. Shall I ring?”

“If you like.”

“What do you want?”

“I’ll share whatever you have.”

So she rang and he heard her poshing up her voice on the phone, then she was tripping up the stairs and calling:

“I’m going to get in the shower before the food arrives. We’ve got half an hour. You can come and scrub my back if you like.”

He put down the pad and waited till he heard the water running. He almost couldn’t be bothered. The soporific effect of the wine together with the cockiness about his application made him sink into the lethargic pleasure of the moment, like a constrictor digesting its prey. Wasn’t he a man whose life had everything? A still trim and obliging little wife; a nice home in the suburbs worth a hundred grand more than the national average; two successful children; a senior position in one of the most prestigious schools in the county; the respect and admiration of the local community; an inheritance of quarter of a million or more to come on his father’s death ( and at eighty-three and two heart attacks behind him it couldn’t be long), and even more when Angela’s parents popped their clogs. The only dark cloud was his sister who married young, divorced early and turned to drink. He stayed away from her. Failure gave him the creeps. The last time he visited her cramped and smelly terrace he came home feeling sick. The rotting frames, the front door patched with odd strips of unpainted timber, the bare stairs, the dirty bath, the sink piled with unwashed pots, the clutter of accumulated debris in the yard, all spoke of decline, of that want of desire for persistent betterment which was the abiding tenor of his life. He felt contaminated and wanted to burn his clothes and scrub himself. But she was expelled from his consciousness. His horizons ended with the unmeritorious The clear sun of success shone on his existence, and if he wasn’t a millionaire, if they hadn’t been able to afford to send their children to private schools as they would have liked, if he didn’t drive a Mercedes or have shares in merchant banks, there were many below him. He’d read in the Sunday Times that people on his salary were in the top ten percent of the workforce. Ten percent.  Pretty good. Of course, the top one percent had the private jets and more wealth between them than entire nations, but his position was secure. Good luck to them, he thought. They’d made it by their own efforts. Like him. He’d risen into the top ten percent and that was something. Yes, not everyone could say that and it was something.

He finished what was in his glass and went upstairs listening to the music of the splashing water. Outside the bathroom he called “I’m here!” and began to unbutton his shirt.

They opened another bottle with the meal and when it was done, he was too far gone to finish his letter.

“You write it,” he said to Angela.

“Don’t be daft!”

“Wouldn’t make any difference.”

He needed two paracetamol before he set off in the morning. It went through his head during his brisk walk that his headaches were more frequent and he’d had a persistent ache, of the kind he got if he’d slept with his head in an awkward position, for months. Young, he’d been able to drink with virtually no detriment. He assumed age was the problem.

During his free two hours, he shut himself away in his cubby-hole office and worked on the letter. The school dated back to the mid sixteenth century, though none of the original buildings still existed, and he was up in the rafters in the old block where the ceiling sloped precipitately and a tiny window of four square panes looked out over the Headmaster’s garden and the playing fields which stretched away to the woods and the farm before the steep decline to the river. The flowering cherries were full of light, pink blossom and the thin branches swayed like the arms of an entranced dancer in the breeze. How lucky he had been. In three years time he’d turn sixty and take his pension. Part of him wanted to stay on. He could see himself still walking in each day at the age of seventy and as he taught almost exclusively sixth-form, he could cope in the classroom for years yet. But Angela insisted and he knew she was right. Thirty-six years was long enough. For the thousandth time he ran through the quick pension calculation in his head: twenty-three thousand a year plus a lump sum of sixty-nine. With his savings that’d come to more than two hundred grand and in a long-term bond he’d get six or seven percent. Then it couldn’t be long before…..Yes, he was a lucky man and now, when he might have expected nothing more, he was going to get this small promotion and in retirement when people asked him what he’d done he’d be able to say: “Teacher. Director of Sixth Form at Larkgate School.” He added another sentence and lifted his head. Aaron Beard was following the path between the rugby fields dressed in his tracksuit, a thunderer round his neck and a ball under his arm. He was brisk and moved as if he was being watched or filmed, a hint of self-consciousness never leaving him. Zapata recalled when he’d started in the school and come in for some ribbing from the old stagers for his naivety. He tried too hard to behave as if Larkgate was in his blood and it came across as empty and made them chuckle. But his exorbitant effort to adjust had been rewarded. He was one of those people who lean on institutions and sensing form his first day that the staff thought themselves a cut above, that an urbane disdain informed their attitude to the neighbouring comprehensives which had been upgraded from secondary moderns while they were the ancient, revered, quasi-public-school grammar forced to take a downward step, he began to introduce a note of snobbery into his conversation which clashed with his working-class accent and demeanour.  Zapata smiled at the memory of it. He was fond of Beard. He was clubbable, enjoyed a drink and a dirty joke. He’d even toyed with asking him if he wanted to join the Masons. Out of nowhere, Roy Sail was on the path. The two of them stopped. Sail was holding a paper in front of Beard and pointing things out. For a few seconds, Zapata read nothing into it, then all at once the idea came to him they were talking about the job. Was Sail coaching him? Was he giving him tips? Did he favour him? But why? Because they were mates? He watched them intently. Sail was nodding as Beard spoke into his face. Zapata got up and went down the stairs but when he got to path, they’d gone. He went back to his room, read through his draft , tore it up and began to scribble fiercely.

By the time Angela arrived home that evening, he’d finished the first bottle.

“There was probably nothing in it, Dave. It’s just the application playing on your mind. More salad?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He put another forkful of salmon frittata in his mouth and picked up his glass.

“They wouldn’t pass you over after all these years.”

“Things have changed,” he said and she noticed a sad, faraway cast in his look.

“How? There’s plenty of salad left.”

“They like to promote the young folk. Roy’s very keen on it. It’s everywhere. You know, the old idea that you have to win your spurs and experience counts; it’s gone. They made Katie Inkster Director of Learning for Key Stage 4 when she was still an NQT.”

“Oh, but there was no-one with your record going after it! Was there?”

“Tony Burton.”

“He’s not as senior as you.”

“He’s a Subject Leader. He’s fifty-four. She’s twenty-two.”

“Are you going to finish the salad. Be a shame to waste it.”

“I’ve had enough.”

“Why not talk to Roy. You’re old friends.”

“What would he say?”

“He’d tell you straight I hope.”

“How could he, if that’s what they’re thinking of?”

“Well exactly, they can’t decide it beforehand. You’re bound to do better than him in interview.”

He emptied his glass.

“Is there another bottle of that Sauvignon?”

He woke at four o’clock. Angela was curled in her usual way with her chin raised and the duvet gripped in her right fist. It was true Roy was an old friend. They’d been on holiday together four or five times. Their children used to go to one another’s birthday parties. How many evenings had he and Pauline been for dinner? He was William’s godfather after all! All that counted for nothing.  What would he do in Roy’s place? Favour an old mate? But was it so bad? He was well-respected. They’d give him a good send-off when he retired. How much did they collect for Len Spillman? £350? He’d do better than that. Maybe £500. Deputy Director of sixth-form at Larkgate was good going. Back in bed his heart pounded unpleasantly. His headache was getting worse. He got up again and took two paracetamol. When he closed his eyes and pulled the duvet up he saw himself being told by Roy that unfortunately……

“What the fuck do you mean, unfortunately…..”

He tried to picture himself being gracious and accepting; the elder statesman, magnanimous in defeat, smiling, relaxed, too successful, wise and experienced to pay attention to pettiness.   But thoughts of violence kept appearing. His last glance at the clock showed five fifty-seven.

The walk to school was twice as long. He spent his free hours working on his letter and at lunch-time noticed Beard wasn’t in the staff-room. He usually sat in the sportsman’s corner. The P.E. staff and blokes who ran teams liked to get together over the sports pages. They made a loud little group who occupied the far end near the noticed board and read avidly the reports of their favourite teams’ matches, shaking their heads over managers and referees and becoming morose when their confident predictions came to nothing. Beard was always amongst them and his bray could be heard in the corridor. His absence made Zapata fret and though he told himself there was no reason to believe he was with Roy Sail, he couldn’t put the thought of conspiracy out of his mind. He was sitting next to Vic Addison, an unfortunate music teacher who’d been passed over for five or six promotions. There were only two staff in his department and when Harry Harmonica, as the pupils called him, retired after thirty-eight years, Addison imagined he’d have a good chance. But they refused him an interview and everyone gave him a wide berth. Larkgate wasn’t the sort of place where anyone wanted to be too close to failure.  Though Addison was reputed to be intellectually sharp (he’d published a book on Stravinsky and composed pieces that had been performed by professional orchestras), the word went round that he wasn’t up to the job. He applied for pastoral roles to raise his status but was never taken seriously and soon became a marginal figure who people spoke about as a waste of space and someone the school would be better off without. But Zapata’s daughter had taken music at A Level and thought he was terrific. Listening to her tell him how inspired the lessons were, how he made them laugh and work hard at the same time and how he could clearly explain the most complex parts of musical theory so they suddenly seemed obvious, he’d slowly come to view him as a wronged figure. But that was life. As his father had always said: “Life isn’t fair, son. Never forget that.” He’d never thought Addison was the victim of any concerted campaign, he was just a bit of an odd character: his suits were scruffy, he never polished his shoes, his wife was known to drink like a Pole, and he’d once said to Zapata: “I’ll never be accepted by the middle-classes no matter how hard I try.” He just wasn’t a Larkgate person. Zapata had always treated him with a little condescending kindness and tolerance. Melanie had got an A after all and her clarinet playing became confident and mature under Addison’s tuition. But today he thought of him differently.

“When are the interviews?” Addison asked between mouthfuls of lamb samosa.

“Twenty fifth.”

“Just you and Aaron I believe.”

“Yeah.”

Zapata experienced a moment of dread, as if death itself had spoken to him. Did Addison assume the job was his? Or did he know something? Was the whole school aware? Were the rumours circulating and was he the lonely fool who didn’t know what everyone else had twigged? Was he now a sad figure like Addison? But the idea was ridiculous! Addison has worked for twenty-seven years and achieved no promotion at all. He was a reject. There was no comparison. All the same, the heavy thought that he was about to be turned down, that a younger, much less experienced man was about to get the job he’d thought was his by right brought the edifice of his status crashing like a house long secretly undermined in its foundations whose gable end suddenly falls in a chaos of bricks and dust. Still, he felt closer to Beard. He began to realize the heavy burden of failure. He’d always gone along with the idea that the higher you rose, the greater your stress, and like the rest of the management had exaggerated, without knowing it, how much he had to do and how burdensome it was. Yet now he understood that no amount of responsibility can bear down on you with the inexorable force of being slighted. It hadn’t yet happened but he felt impotent, empty and angry. How must Addison feel? All those years of hard work. All those lessons none of his colleagues knew about. They knew the visible repudiation and no-one was willing to believe the hierarchy was irrational; not if they had or might have a place in it; the only conclusion was he was hopeless. It was true: in spite of knowing how good his lessons could be, Zapata had always thought of him as a slightly pathetic figure. Now he was filled with the horrible anticipation that in his last years he was going to become a nobody, a kind of vagrant, someone who had over-stayed his welcome, a man who reached for elevation everyone knew he wouldn’t attain and in failing fell flat on his face in the mud.

“You should be pretty safe,” said Addison.

“Think so?”

At the end of the afternoon he finished his application and put it in Roy Sail’s pigeon-hole.  He had included every achievement, every team he’d run, every extra-curricular contribution, every course he’d been on, every trip organized; but above all he had underlined his long contribution to the sixth-form, his innovations in the curriculum, his supervision of the prefect system and his outstanding record of exam results. He hoped Roy would read between the lines: he was going to fight every inch of the way in interview. He wouldn’t let them shoulder him aside. He would insist on a de-briefing. How could Beard possibly compare?

Angela was late home. She’d told him she was going for a drink with her sister but he’d forgotten. He didn’t bother making any food and by the time she arrived had finished two bottles.

“Where’ve you been?”

“For a drink with Debbie. I told you.”

“Did you?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“No.”

“Is there any food?”

“I was waiting for you.”

“Oh, David!”

She was on her knees, yanking packets from the freezer. They opened another bottle of white and Dave drank three glasses then sprawled on the sofa in front of the plasma tv watching football. She sat beside him with a copy of Cosmopolitan. He was in one of those moods when the drink took over making him uncommunicative and oddly self-satisfied. She went to make herself a coffee and tried to find something to clean or tidy in the immaculate kitchen. That was one of the drawbacks of having a cleaner. The two chocolate topped oat biscuits she ate didn’t satisfy her. The rich sweet butteriness in her mouth made her want more, but she told herself it was a foolish indulgence and at eleven o’clock sure to give her indigestion. By the time she’d drunk her coffee Dave was snoring so she switched off the set and enjoyed the quiet. Oh, it was so nice to live in a place like this! Behind the bungalow were fields which half a mile further nudged a little wood and beyond that more rough fields with little hillocks and petty dales then the copse with the stream and the rickety little bridge. Being at the end of the lane there was no traffic. The town was five miles away. They’d worked hard and spent money to get the bungalow just so and the gardener kept things neat and pretty all year round. She would have liked to move out to the country, right out to where each house had acres of its own and neighbours nipped round to one another in their four by fours. But Dave wouldn’t put up with a long drive to work. As she sat alone, her husband lost to the booze, she ran each detail of each room of the house through her mind. A jolt hit her when she realised she’d left a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor in the small bedroom. She jumped up and went to put them away in the wardrobe. For a second she regretted her children moving away. There had been such pleasure when they were here, when this had been William’s room. Her sudden collapse of feeling brought the thought of nothing but decline for them now. She closed the door, went briskly to the kitchen and wiped down all the surfaces.

“Dave!” she shook him till he roused. “Come on, it’s midnight.”

When his head fell into the pillow he said:

“Got the application in. Fuckin’ good I tell you. Fuckin’ good.”

“Well, will you stop fretting now?”

“I’ll stop fretting when I’ve got the job.”

The interview panel was Roy and the two Assistant Heads, who sat at either side of him like bodyguards attending a President. He’d always thought of them as like-minded colleagues, conscientious and ambitious, but now they seemed ludicrously sycophantic. Were they going to display any independence? Why were they here if only to nod in agreement? He found himself thinking of Addison and the uncomfortable idea made him wriggle in his chair. Roy asked him how he envisaged the future of the sixth-form, how he would attract more students, what he would do to compete with the local colleges, how he would change the culture of the place to fit the assumptions of today’s youngsters, what new qualifications could be offered, how the school could overcome the public perception of old-fashionedness. They gave him no chance to plead his record. When they asked him if he had any questions he couldn’t think of anything.

He went straight to his room. The desperate thought of writing his letter of resignation came to him but pacing around he realised it would make him appear more ridiculous than ever. The only thing to do was be cool, to appear as if he was batting away this disappointment like a wasp in summer. Yet the thought of locking himself away was overwhelming. He wanted to walk out and never return, but how could he not return to a place which had been his life for so long? Then a countervailing voice said to him that maybe they were right: he was the old guard, he’d had his day, it needed a younger mind to take the place forward. The generosity of the idea calmed him, but as he sat by the window hoping he’d found a simple answer to his torment, anger surged in him as he overthrew the pusillanimous excuse: they’d done him over, they’d screwed him, they’d humiliated him in a way he could never repair. It was a temporary post, for fuck’s sake! He was the obvious candidate. Six months, twelve months at the outside and a new Head would be in post and Sail restored to his role. They were getting Beard ready for senior responsibility and he was the fall guy. They’d dumped on him. They’d pissed all over him. Try as he might, the thought of all his years of success couldn’t ease the profound sense of injury.

And his headache was becoming unbearable.

At ten past three Sail called him in. The announcement was posted on the notice-board. He avoided the staff-room, went home on the bell, took two paracetamol and opened a bottle of Sauvignon.

“It’s disgraceful!” said Angela pulling a trout from the freezer.

“The old ways of doing things are gone,” said Dave. “I was a fool to apply.”

“Oh no! You had to apply. They’ll look silly if he messes up. Do you want sauté potatoes with this?”

“No, applying was my mistake. I should’ve seen it coming. I was acting according to the old rules. But the gentlemanly culture is no more. It’s cut-throat now. They promote them younger and younger because they’re cheap and compliant.”

“Bur Aaron isn’t that young, is he? And he won’t be cheap.”

“Cheaper than me. And when they give him a permanent position in the SLT, he’ll be earning about what I get now. But the point is the message it sends.”

“Shall I do salad or veg?”

“Salad.”

“What message.”

“Experience counts for nothing. The young need show no respect for their elders. Anyone who’ll do what they’re told will get promotion even if they’re wet behind the ears.”

“Have you eaten the spring onions?”

“No.”

“It’ll backfire on them. All those youngsters running things. There’ll be some terrible mistakes. Are you sure you haven’t eaten them?”

“But they’ll save a lot of money,” he scoffed. “If I hadn’t applied I’d be sitting pretty . I could say I didn’t want it. I’ve done my bit. I’m winding down. I could’ve risen above it all. But I’m a laughing stock. The pillock who applied for a tiny temporary promotion after twenty-seven years. I should’ve been the natural successor. I thought I was. Now I’m like Vic Addison and every day I’ll have to go in and be reminded of my humiliation.”

“It’s not a humiliation. With your record. He’ll be Director for six months and then what? You’ve all those years behind you. They can’t take that away from you, Dave.”

“They just have.”

No-one said a word. Beard went at everything with extra zest: his stride was stronger, his laugh louder, his shoulders straighter, his chin higher. Zapata carried on as if nothing had happened. He tried to wear a complaisant expression. But he was like a man bereaved making small-talk to strangers and the churning in his organs, the heavy pounding of his heart and the overwhelming desire to hide away, sapped his energy and dragged him down. The only relief was wine. After two bottles, he began not to care and after the third he dismissed Sail as a sly cunt, Beard was a worthless little arsehole and the school itself a cross between a gulag and Bedlam. When the drink had done all it could, he staggered around the house cursing and laughing while Angela sat on the white leather sofa daintily sipping her second glass. Then he fell into bed, groaning and farting, got up in the early hours to swig water and take painkillers, and every morning woke with a worse headache than the morning before.

Six months later he walked to school one morning, hung his coat in the gents, went into the staffroom and collapsed. Eileen Westmorland, the busy little bursar and first-aider buzzed around him like a bee after pollen, took his pulse, loosened his collar and was convinced it was a heart attack. The ambulancemen lifted him into a wheelchair and the ambulance drew slowly out of the playground as dozens of eager young faces pressed against the windows to savour the best of this moment of high excitement. The rumours went round amongst them that Mr Zapata was dead, he’d had a heart attack, there been a fight in the staffroom, one of the toughs from Year 11 had headbutted him. But the next day he was there, early as ever, determined not to be kept off school by a minor bit of dizziness. A week later he collapsed in the middle of a lesson and two frantic Year 9s came running to the school office shouting that Mr Zapata was cold stone dead on the floor of room 52. Another ambulance arrived and this time he was stretchered down the stairs while a dozen staff tried to disperse the kids who pressed around hoping to see something gruesome, to catch their first glimpse of a corpse, to be able to tell all their mates of the gallons of blood that poured from his ears or how his brains were dripping from his wide open skull.

Zapata was off school for two days and came back with a monitor wired to his chest and a discernible tremor in his hands. He made a joke of it, saying he felt like the bionic man but he had to go to the hospital for blood tests, to be wired up to machines which beeped and buzzed and whose screens showed jagged peaks in response to his pulse; but the weeks went by and they were no nearer understanding what was wrong with him. Then Angela read a piece in a Sunday supplement about how to spot the signs of an impending or minor stroke and one of the things to look for was facial distortion. Her heart raced and she jumped up from the sofa. For two years and more she’d noticed that Dave’s right eyelid was badly tugged downwards, especially first thing in the morning. She’d assumed it was a just age.

“You should have a brain scan,” she said.

“If they think I need a brain scan they’ll give me one.”

“Perhaps they just haven’t thought of it.”

“Why shouldn’t they? They’re doctors. Let them make the decisions.”

“Are you sure you should have another glass, Dave?”

“It’s only my third.”

“I know, but till they’ve worked out what’s wrong….”

“They haven’t told me not to drink.”

“You should ask about a brain scan though. It said in this article..”

“That’s just women’s magazine stuff.”

“Well ask!”

“Okay. I’ll ask.”

But the cardiac specialist didn’t feel there was any need. He was convinced there was an underlying heart problem and in due course he’d be able to tease it out. So Zapata stayed wired up, his blood pressure was checked, he was put on a treadmill, his headaches made him take painkillers every four hours, and he collapsed in the living-room, the bedroom, the kitchen, the garden, the street and a restaurant. Finally Angela went with him to see his GP who said they could get a brain scan but there’d be a long wait.

“We’ll pay,” said Angela.

“It’s expensive.”

“How much?”

“Perhaps a thousand maybe fifteen hundred.”

“We can manage that. How quickly can it be done?”

“Oh, probably within a week.”

In the car, Zapata was sullen.

“It’s probably money down the drain.”

“Well, at least we’ll know.”

“It’s  a lot of money  to find nothing.”

“Let’s hope they do find nothing. It’ll be the best thousand quid I’ve ever spent.”

What was a thousand quid after all? In the long run, they’d be worth more than a million. It was something for a lad who’d started out in a two-up, two-down terrace. What a great country he lived in? Of course, it wasn’t quite America. He sometimes wished they’d moved over there. He would’ve had a fair chance of finding teaching work and Angela could have run a nice business in yoga, massage, reflexology; they might’ve bought a ranch and lived the great, free life of Americans. He might even have left teaching himself and tried educational publishing or consultancy. Yes, consultancy! That was the thing to bring in the money. All the same, they’d done well. It was a great system which allowed people to get on and make something of themselves. So what was a thousand quid when they had seventy grand in the bank and two big inheritances coming their way? All the same, it bothered him. Spending money bothered him, unless it was on a new car which everyone would see, or an exotic holiday beyond the pocket of most people. But to spend money on a brain scan that would probably reveal nothing went against the grain. Why couldn’t the NHS provide? He paid his taxes like the next man. Wasn’t that the idea: you pay your taxes and when you’re ill the system looks after you? He’d paid into a private scheme too, but when they looked at the small print, it turned out brain scans weren’t covered; and though he resented that, he felt the private way was right. If he’d lived in America he would have paid into a proper scheme and his scan would have been provided in a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility open only to those with money. He wouldn’t have to mix with the riff-raff. That was the problem with this country: those who worked hard and did the right thing were dragged down by the feckless, the chavs, the council estate crew living on generous benefits provided by folk who got up in the morning. He’d read somewhere about gated developments and he thought it was a great idea; maybe they’d move to one when he was better. A place where you drive up to huge, black, iron gates which open as slowly as a canal lock when you swipe your card and close behind you as you roll over the private tarmac to your exclusive house in an enclave where the lower classes never come. That was the way forward, so that people like them could enjoy the benefits of their hard work away from the unpleasantness of those types you see in town; pale, harassed looking characters in cheap clothes, the women with orange skins, dyed hair and eyelashes like tarantula’s legs, the brats screaming in their flimsy pushchairs and the blokes swigging Carling from cans, strutting like they own the place. So the thousand quid could be spent to please Angela. It was a small percentage of the fortune they’d ultimately have and invested it’d bring in good dividends. Yes, this truly was a great country where people like him, starting out very modestly in life could end up millionaires! He laughed to himself: if anyone had told him as a kid he’d ever be a millionaire, he’d’ve scoffed. These days of course it was the billionaires who mattered. He’d never make that.  Too late. But maybe the kids? You never know, work hard and get a lucky break….They were turning into the drive and his headache was becoming fierce. When he got out of the car, he staggered over the flower bed and fell on his face on the manicured lawn.

The brain scan discovered a tumour as big as an orange.

It turned out to be a brain stem glioma. Ms Rasaratnam, the young, beautiful and softly-spoken consultant, explained they were more common in children, this one was almost certainly inoperable. They would do a needle biopsy to get a proper diagnosis but the treatment would very likely be radiation and chemotherapy. When Angela asked what the prognosis might be, she knew at once from Ms Rasaratnam’s face  it was gloomy.

“Let’s do the biopsy and then I’ll be able to give you a better answer.”

“Will he live?”

“It’s too early to say.”

“But you must know. If it’s inoperable, that’s much worse isn’t it? If you were a gambling woman, would you put money on him surviving?”

Ms Rasaratnam was one of those people whose high-mindedness is as clear from their features as viciousness on the face of a snarling dog; as she turned and looked straight at Angela, in her big, brown eyes and the set of her mouth the pleading distraught wife saw something that calmed and lifted her.

“I wouldn’t,” said the doctor.

“How long?”

“I could only guess.”

“Give me your best.”

“A few weeks.”

All the way home, trying to hold back her tears in the traffic, those words rang through her consciousness. That was it. A few weeks and his life would be wiped out and with it all she relied on and their shared plans for a happy retirement. Like everyone who has suffered a terrible, fundamental shock, whose life has just been knocked sideways, she was amazed and bewildered by the way existence went on as if nothing had changed. That was life. The great wrecking boulder of death came cascading down on some poor soul, and everyone else went about their affairs as if their routines were eternal. She wanted to wind down the window and shout at passers-by:

“You’re going to die, you know! You might only have a few weeks!”

Within a month he was moved to the beautiful, clean hospice whose grounds were full of old oaks and horse chestnuts. From his window he could see huge rhododendrons in bloom and the purple flowers swaying in the least breeze reminded him of the uncontrollable tremor in his hands. Visitors arrived every day and while he was grateful, he found having to talk about something other than his impending death a strain. It was all he could think of and there was nothing to feel but grief. Most people would begin by saying: “How are you, Dave?” and he always wanted to reply: “Dying. How are you?” But politeness made him put on a brave face. People talked about football or what was in the news and everyone said what a lovely place the hospice was and how wonderful the staff. He wanted to say: “Yes, I couldn’t wish for a nicer place to die but I’d rather be in a hovel and have twenty years ahead of me.” When he was alone, he kept running the facts of his life through his mind and it was true what they said: they flashed before him, his whole life resumed in a few images which scuttled through his mind in seconds. He began to think that life was impossibly cruel. He realised he’d believed that such things didn’t happen to people like him. He was fit. He walked every day. He’d always been sporty. He didn’t smoke. The statistics were in his favour. He wasn’t yet sixty. He was going to die before his own father, before Angela’s mother. And he would never be a millionaire. The thought that kept him from the despair which stalked all his hours, was that his life amounted to something: he’d brought up two children; he’d been married for more than thirty years; and he’d worked at Larkgate. His contribution couldn’t be forgotten. Surely his name would live on? He’d taught thousands who would remember him. But then the dark recollection of his humiliation returned. Would he be remembered as a failure? Would history judge him as the man who leapt and missed the ledge, falling into the bottomless pit of shame? His agitation made him want to get up and do something, but he was confined. He could no longer even get out of his chair without help.

One afternoon, Aaron Beard arrived. He strode in with that strong gait which gave the impression of a man who meant business and his broad smile had a slightly strained look, as if it never came from what was most essential in him, as if it was hard work and had to cover a grimmer, more clenched disposition.

“Hello Dave, how are you, mate? Good to see you!”

Zapata held out his frail hand to be shaken and the younger, powerful grip  man almost brought him to tears. Beard bent from the waist to look out of the window.

“What a fantastic view, eh? This is a lovely room , Dave. Smashing place.”

“Yeah, it is. Very nice.”

He wanted to say: “You can have it if you want. Take my place, we’ll get the coffin lengthened.” It was impossible to make small talk in the face of death and yet impossible to do anything else. It struck him how strange it was that no-one who came to visit said: “Well, I’m sorry you’re dying mate and I hope you don’t suffer.” But no-one dared go anywhere near death. As for himself, he wanted to say: “I’m dying. I’m bloody well dying and it’s terrible. I had so much life left to live. It’s terrible, terrible, terrible!”

“I brought you some grapes,” said Beard. “Red. Do you prefer red. They’re seedless so you won’t have to spit the pips all over the carpet.”

He rocked back and guffawed at his own levity.

“How’s the treatment going then, Dave?”

“Treatment?”

“Chemo is it?”

“They’ve stopped the treatment.”

“Well that might be a good sign, eh?”

Zapata looked him in the eyes. He despised him. Hate would have been ridiculous, but he looked down on him for behaving shabbily. Yet had he really done anything wrong? An opportunity had arisen and he’d gone after it. Was there anything to object to in that?  All his life Zapata had believed in opportunity. He’d thought it marvellous that society was organised around it and people could work and fight and push to get on; but now the alien thought seized his mind that opportunity was a form of cruelty. It was a trick. It had humiliated him after half a lifetime of loyalty. He’d never imagined it could be used against him, that a quiet conspiracy could unseat him and install a much younger, less experienced colleague. He despised Beard like he despised his old friend Sail and in his moment’s anguish as he looked into his rival’s healthy face he sensed the world had turned against him; what he had put his trust in had turned out to be a corruption, a mockery. He was rejected, demeaned, cast off and now death was taking him; his hands shook; he began to sob and his features contorted like those of a frightened child.

“Eh, what’s up? You okay, Dave? Hang on mate I’ll get someone. Hang on.”

The nurse thought it best if Beard left. As she tended to Zapata she heard him mumble: “Bastard! Slimy little bastard!”

Angela came as usual in the evening. He ate a little grilled fish and new potatoes. When she left he was sleeping. At six in the morning the nurse found him dead.

Two hundred packed St Mary’s On The Hill for his funeral. Sail suggested to the governors naming the new library  after the dead man and three months later an opening ceremony for the Dave Zapata Library was held at which the chair of governors unveiled a plaque and a portrait of Zapata painted by an ex-pupil, now an RA. Because he died in service, Angela got £90,000. She donated half of it to the school; the place, she said, he’d always loved.

 


  

BIOLOGICAL RIGHTS 

 Mrs Snell and Mrs Orrick took up their jobs on the same day and found at once they had bad marriages in common.

They were subject leaders: Philosophy and Religious Education. Terri Snell taught only sixth-form, but Flick Orrick had to labour away at Hinduism and Buddhism and plain old Christianity with lower school boys and girls. Some worked hard but others kicked against learning like a man in a fever flailing his legs at his bedclothes. At the end of the week she was worn out. And then there was Darren. It was a relief to have Terri who felt more or less the same about Colin. Their status as disappointed women, badly let down by men, wasn’t something they expressed, but they understood it was what they shared above all and their conversations came back time and again to their burdensome spouses and what might be done about them. After no more than two weeks they’d established a league of the most desirable men in the school and were beginning to assess the likelihood of affairs. They met excitedly at break and lunchtime, went to the pub together at the end of the day on Friday, sent eternal texts, visited one another’s homes, and planned weekends away from domestic misery.

But Terri had children.

Of all the disaffections Darren had brought Flick, the greatest was his refusal to make her pregnant.

“You’re denying me my biological rights !” she said to him on the verge of tears or violence.

“Biological rights ?” he replied ,as if it was a seminar, “there’s no such thing.” 

Like many middle-class women of her generation she’d delayed marriage. In her bright days at Oxford, to marry in your twenties had seemed desperate and common. Shop girls and hairdressers did it because their lives were limited. For those brief years when life seemed to lay before her like an endless sunny vista whose by-ways and charming corners she would explore forever, she’d dreaded the thought of nappies and bottles and broken nights and all the irritating, draining paraphernalia of motherhood. She floated round the city in long, flowing skirts, wrote mellifluous essays on William James and Ghandi, stayed up till the early hours tossing around ideas with a roomful of the brightest and best who were destined to run the country and the world, had love affairs with strong young men she couldn’t have married in a thousand years and pushed the idea of the trials of parenthood far into the future. But when she hit thirty she panicked.  Would she end up a spinster ? The word made her shudder. It belonged in nineteenth century novels. Would she never have children ? She began to notice babies and it seemed to her they were everywhere; there was always some mother pushing a leg-swinging toddler in a pram, a grandmother dropping infants off at school, a father hoisting his cute daughter onto his shoulders, a newborn sleeping blissfully in its pram as its mother paused for a hurried sandwich in a café. Why hadn’t she noticed them before ? The world was full of babies and she’d never seen them ! They were someone else’s business. They had nothing to do with her ambitions. They disrupted the pleasant flow of her days and her smooth rise to subject leader at the age of twenty-seven, leaving her well-placed to move on to a Headship. There wasn’t room for one in her Alfa Romeo convertible.

She’d known Darren since she was twelve. Had anyone told her she’d marry him, she’d have laughed out loud. Darren Bishop, that unprepossessing specimen ! Darren who got up at unearthly hours to go and fish on the banks of a smelly canal and who thought tales of catching prize carp might interest a pretty young woman ! Darren who none of the girls fancied, who would be lucky if he found anyone to go to bed with him. Darren who struggled through his A levels and went to study Chemistry at Bolton. Bolton of all places ! Darren who got a 2:2 and became a teacher because he couldn’t  think of anything else ! But when she bumped into him in the Ring O’ Bells and he smiled and chatted nicely, it struck her that though by no means handsome, he wasn’t unattractive. He was tall enough and his eyes did light up now and again. His teeth were even. And if he did turn the conversation to fishing, perhaps it was no worse than football which bored her to a pulp. She didn’t know why she made herself so seductive. His love-making was a bit mechanical and perfunctory, but he had sperm like the next man. She rushed things along.

“Shouldn’t we be thinking about marriage at our age ?” she said.

“I suppose so.”

A week later the date was set and she and her mother went to book a hotel for the reception.

Darren the Dim, Darren the Dogged, Darren the Drab, Darren the Dull; all the names she’d had for him were belied when he was appointed Assistant Head. She read in the paper that families with an income of over £75,000 were in the top five percent. Between them they earned £83,000 ! It was something to think that ninety-five percent of people who got up and went to work in the morning were worse off than them ! Darren bought a new BMW. They went on  Safari in The Gambia. Then they went to Malaysia. Then to Mexico. But she had no baby and time was moving on.

“Look !” she cried. “Look ! There it is ! Take that off ! Take it off !” and she grabbed the teat of the condom he’d just unrolled, yanked it free and flung it across the bedroom. “There it is look ! There’s the little split your sperm comes out of right there, right at the end there. Stick it in me, Darren. Come on, put it in me !”

But he wouldn’t. He tore open another packet, unrolled and entered her. She lay inert, her legs flat on the mattress. He was polite enough not to carry on. He rescued the discarded rubber from the dressing-table and they didn’t exchange a word for three days.

“I’m not having sex with you anymore, can you guess why ?” she declared.

 

There followed a grisly period when they didn’t touch one another for weeks, then desperation would make him try and she’d consent but stiffen like a child about to be inoculated and in the middle of his lonely thrusting would pronounce, in the most detached tones she could muster:

“Are you enjoying it, Darren ?”

She resented him with a passion and her resentment became her companion. She made a game of going straight for his nervous system and the more unhappy he appeared the greater her victory. Still it was terrible.

“Why do we need children ?” he’d say. “Do you think they make you happy ? They’re an expensive headache. We’re both committed to our jobs. We don’t have time to look after a child.”

“We’ll pay someone else to do that.”

“Have you any idea how much it costs ?”

“Darren, we earn over eighty grand a year . Do you know that puts us in the top five per cent ? We can easily afford the best nursery.”

“But can I afford the BMW too ?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we can. I’ve got nearly forty grand saved. How much have you got ?”

“Not that much.”

“Money isn’t an issue.”

“But we’d have to cut back if you were on maternity leave.”

“Cut back on what ?”

“Exactly. And look how you work. You come home, have a bite and then mark and prepare till midnight.”

“Don’t exaggerate.”

“What did you do last Sunday ?”

“What did I do ?”

“ You marked all afternoon, we went to the pub for tea and you came back and prepared lessons till bedtime.”

“I’ve got to prepare lessons, Darren. It’s a contractual obligation.” 

“So what are you going to do with the baby while you’re working every evening ?”

“You’ll look after it,” and she laughed that devilish, selfish, raucous laugh which shrivelled his insides.

“You might have noticed I have responsibilities too.”

Never resolved, the arguments hung between them like black clouds heading for a crowded beach; Flick didn’t believe Darren had any right to say no; if she wanted a baby she should have a baby. How would it be looked after ? That was a detail she didn’t care to run through her mind; but it was true she wasn’t prepared to compromise an inch over her job; why should she ? That was just sexism. Women had a right to work and to get on and a right to babies too.

She told none of this directly to Terri. Darren’s refusal to impregnate her was only hinted at. But the intensity of her disappointment in marriage was heavily conveyed. Terri received it willingly because it allowed her to express her own weighing blankness. She had two sons aged seven and five, good-looking, energetic, loving little boys. Time and again she tried to convince herself she was lucky. They adored her in that unleashed way children have and she wallowed in it. But Colin dragged her down. Why had she married beneath her ? She’d been brought up a snob,  educated at a minor private school, taught to stay away from the roughnecks, yobs, the working-class from the terraced streets of the little, old industrial town. So as a girl she’d been shy of the cocky lads she saw at the bus station on her way home from school; their careless swagger and that look so many of them seemed to have of happiness in their own skins were signs of moral waywardness. Her own clenched need to do well, her hunched dedication to her books every day before dinner, that steady note of anxiety which hummed in the background of her life, were badges of superiority.  Then at sixteen, when she started to go to parties and pubs and to meet some of these aliens, when her friends started to have sex with them, she swung violently away from her parents’ strictures and threw herself at lads from the rough back-streets and the hated failing schools.  The first was a good-looking local football star who had trials for Leeds United and Aston Villa and who said to her:

“ I read a book once.”

She imagined she was being seduced by a future Beckham, relished his blunt physicality and impressive performance, loved being seen with him, tall, handsome and smiling as he was, in the trendy pubs and clubs, but was shocked to her marrow when she found herself with herpes.

“It must’ve been my cold sore,” he said, trying to look sympathetic.

She took the medication, cried herself into regret and in her winter of unattachment having dismissed the irresponsible sportsman, cleaved to Colin who was learning his trade as a shop-fitter, always wore a condom and awoke no dreams of glamour and fame. All the same, he got very much on her mother’s nerves because he talked scruffy and was unashamed of earning his living with his hands. That was enough to keep her by his side, though his conversation bored her, his love-making became as routine as breakfast and she noticed often his absence of the lower-class chutzpah she’d found so appealing. It was one of those romances which keep going, like a dripping tap, through the separation of university and which end in marriage like words exchanged in a bar end in a brawl. She went through with it. Somehow, she thought it would even out. Her uneasy feeling would melt.  Colin would become part of herself. But the longer they were together and the closer their intimacy, the more she began to feel alone.

“I live alone,” she would say to herself, “with a husband and two children.”

Even on their honeymoon in Egypt she’d noticed handsome men. As the years went by, she longed more and more for a lover who would open her up to that possibility of excitement and glamour which had seemed so close when she was seventeen.

In the first weeks at Clough Bank High, they put Jules Belleville at the top of their lists. A good-looking, moody historian he was rumoured to have turned the heads of several married members of staff and Year 11 girls swooned and flirted. He was married to a jobbing actress who was said to have a drink problem and the strain of caring more or less single-handedly for three children showed in his demeanour and short temper. They discussed him and decided he would be their first victim. It was a question of who would be quickest to get him into bed. But the rush of school days didn’t provide much opportunity, especially with a man who absorbed himself in The Independent, The Journal of Contemporary History or The London Review of Books as soon as he sat down at break or lunchtime. They tried to engage him in conversation at the pigeon-holes or the notice-board and as soon as Flick had his attention, she shook her heavy main, adopted a sinuous pose, bent to scratch an non-existent itch on her ankle; but they got no more than a gentle smile, a glance from his shining brown eyes and he was away.

“You know what would be a good idea?” said Terri in that urgent, excited way she could employ to talk about the price of bacon. “We should organise a weekend away for staff. No partners allowed !”

“Yes,” replied Flick, elongating the vowel and sipping her gin and tonic. “Though no partners allowed might give the game away. Perhaps we should just subtly discourage.”

So it was thrown onto the table during the Friday after-school drinks session and all the hungry fish swallowed the bait; the slim, unanchored NQTs, the young women with fiancés looking for a bit of a fling, the odd bachelor or divorcee who had his kids every other weekend and trawled the internet for lovers. It was agreed they’d go for a city because there’d be lots to do but Flick and Terri had previously reviewed the advantages of city anonymity. They lighted on Manchester because it wasn’t too far, the night-life was good and Flick had spent a night in the Midland Hotel with Darren.

An attractive little notice, decorated with internet images of slick bars and credit-card busting restaurants, was pinned up and in no time twenty-seven names had appeared. But not Belleville’s.

“Perhaps he’s shy,” declared Terri raising her pint of Krombacher. “Maybe we should make a…” and here she gave a little wriggle, inclined her head and assumed a suggestive tone, “…personal invitation.”

“Yes, but I don’t know if I dare. It might put him off. You know how private he is.”

“Oh, I’ll do it !” announced Terri. “I’ll bump into him in the corridor and find some reason to invite him.”

“He’s keen on film, isn’t he ? See if there’s anything showing.”

Terri did her homework and found that something called Man With A Movie Camera was playing at the Cornerhouse during the appointed weekend: the kind of arty, intellectual thing he might like. She determined to ambush her prey: to approach him formally in the staff-room would be too embarrassing and would give him too much time. She needed to pounce. The element of surprise would knock him off-balance and he might agree in haste. She studied his timetable. She watched his movements. She judged that the narrow corridor from the staff-room to the odd little annexe of history rooms was the ideal place. She’d be able to crowd him. She’d overwhelm him with enthusiasm and excitement. She’s wear something low-cut and a subtle perfume.

“Mr Belleville !” she called. “Mr Belleville !”

He turned and she came running towards him with widest smile she could muster. Her hair and breasts were bouncing.

“Oh!” she declared as she stopped too close for it to be accidental. “Sorry to pursue you down the corridor !” and she lay the fingers of her right hand on his forearm and craned her head towards his face. “I just wanted to ask you, you know, there’s a film on at the Cornerhouse, Manchester. Man With A Movie Camera…”

“Oh yeah,”

“I knew you’d know it !” she exclaimed. “I bet it’s brilliant, isn’t it ?”

“It’s a good film.”

“Well, it’s on the weekend we’re going on the staff trip so I wondered if you’d like to put your name down…”

“When is it ?”

“The seventeenth.”

“Can’t do it. I’m busy.”

“Oh, well,” and she drew back, her body taking on the limpness of a thirsty plant, “maybe next time.

“Sure,” he smiled and was gone.

It was difficult to delete Belleville from their list. A demotion would have been more palatable but it was clear he wasn’t game. They nurtured a little marinating resentment against him but all the same, if Flick got the chance, she looked into his eyes and assumed that expression of serious openness which was tantamount to pulling back the duvet in invitation.

“In any case,” said Flick, “he doesn’t have any power.”

“No,” relied Terri surprised at her collaborator’s frank cynicism.

“If only the Head was remotely attractive !”

“Or willing !” cried Terri. “Can you imagine it ?”

“I suppose his wife has to put up with it.”

“Yes, but have you seen her ! I bet they have sex every third Saturday and he’s ordered not to mess up her coiffure !”

The understanding between them that they’d like to bring low some of the men with power in the place was never stated. Terri felt thwarted. Oh, she was Subject Leader but how would she ever get further ? It irritated her badly and her lingering bewilderment at the way some of the Senior Leadership Team had got their positions, together with her constant rumination over the discrepancy in pay between them and herself engendered a barely acknowledged viciousness which festered and occasionally broke through in strange dreams or odd waking thoughts of unfortunate fates. Flick, denied motherhood, thought she would devote herself to work and imagined herself Head of a big school which would be highly praised by OFSTED. Yet like Terri, she felt the opportunities were too few and the competition too fierce. When she thought of the Head with his salary of £80,000 and his wife a barrister; they might have £200,000, maybe more ! What would they take home a month ? She tried to calculate the tax and  National Insurance but the numbers began to dance in her mind and she ended up with some heavy approximation. £13,000, something of the sort. £13,000 a month! Why didn’t she have that money ! At least his wife had children. The injustice of it stung her heart till she could have committed murder. And Darren who still expected sex ! She asked herself why she didn’t walk out and though the thought of the upheaval was unpleasant, worse was the loss of income and status. Alone, she wouldn’t be able to afford the big house, the fast car and the holidays abroad. £39,000. What sort of salary was that these days ? What kind of mortgage could she get ? Nothing like the £160,000 they’d borrowed to buy a £375,000 four-bedroomed Victorian  edifice in the best suburb. She’d have to live in shouting distance of chavs. Imagine the shame ! It was a decline she couldn’t face so she put up with Darren sticking his fingers in her twice a week and rubbing himself off inside her while she lay as flat as an ironing board and as silent as dust. As soon as he’d finished she’d say:

“Go and get me something to clean myself with.”

And he’d come back from the bathroom with feminine wipes and a flaccid dick.

Then she’d taunt him.

“Do you think you can do it again ?”

“Not immediately.”

“You’re such a disappointment, Darren. I’ll just have to masturbate. You don’t mind, do you ?”

The only member of the Senior Leadership Team who might be seduced was Luke Bush but not even the thought of wrecking his marriage and career got her excited. He was a man’s man: a sportman’s dinner was his idea of bliss; football, cricket, rugby and beer were the staples of his mind, as curry and pizza of his digestion. He lacked that sliver of sensitivity she could detect in a man which made him susceptible to her needs and demands and being a Design Technology specialist was all practicality and no idealism. All the same, he signed up for the weekend away.

As did Johnny Boswell.

She’d never fixed on him before because he was young and without influence, but when she noticed him walking the corridor in the Midland in his shorts and bare-chested the power of his youth stung her like a barb. She was already feeling old and what had seemed the wisdom of delay at twenty-one now felt like perilous folly. Forty was approaching like a train about to rattle through a small station and the very thought of it shook her confidence and made her heart flutter. And here was Johnny, twenty-four, athletic, not an ounce of fat on him, strutting with that little hint of lack of confidence which encouraged her. Darren already had a swelling paunch, was starting to lose his hair and had a nuance of slowness in his movements which spoke of middle-age. But Johnny was right for breeding. That quick energy, the still boyish face, the full head of black hair. Oh, to open her legs and have him shoot his sperm inside her ! She fantasised a delicious confrontation with Darren:

“I’m pregnant.”

“You can’t be !”

“Well I am.”

“What are you saying ?”

“I’m saying I’m pregnant.”

“Are you telling me you’ve had an affair ?”

“No, I’m telling you I’m pregnant.”

“Who’s the father ?”

“Do you think you’re the only man on earth with spunk in your balls, Darren ?”

Boswell taught Geography and was one of those people who struggle through a degree and calculate that standing in front of thirteen year-olds explaining wave formation or urban development will be within their range; but his command of his subject was tested in A level teaching and he compensated by imposing himself heavily on the younger pupils. Flick, like the rest of the staff, knew his intellectual weakness but curiously she found it a spur to her desire. She drifted into a throw-caution-to-the-wind mood. When they went for a meal in Chinatown she made sure she was next to him. She let her knee fall nonchalantly against his. She invited him into the room she was sharing with Terri and lay on the bed in her dressing-gown. She looked longingly into his eyes.

“My husband doesn’t work,” she said.

A fortnight later they were in her car parked behind The Cock And Bottle at eight in the evening. They felt there was dusk enough for cover. He kissed her and put his hand up her skirt and down her thong. When they heard voices they quickly parted and made as if they were simply chatting. A group of young lads with sticks in their hands had climbed over the wall from the field. They were braying and laughing, swishing the sticks at the long grass and nettles at the edge of the car park.

“Christ !” said Boswell, “It’s Jamie Shepherd.”

“Who’s with him ?”

“Can’t tell.”

“Let’s go !”

“If I start the car it’ll attract their attention.”

“Bugger that ! Start the bloody thing !”

“Be quiet and they’ll go on their way. Keep your head down.”

Shepherd was a notorious bad lad, a big, gangly fourteen-year-old with long, curly black hair he constantly pushed from his eyes, a mouth that fell stupidly open and a loud unconvincingly confident voice. He called staff by their first names, phoned them at home in the early hours, came to school every day without books or a pen, and had been given a string of final warnings. Born of a teenage mother he lived in his grandmother’s house where she ruled as the matriarch, marched into school whenever he was in trouble accusing staff of bullying, assault, verbal abuse, insisting on her rights. Every year he was taken on holiday to Fuerteventura or Mallorca for two weeks during term time and every year the Assistant Head had the same futile conversation with Mrs Salthouse about the importance of not missing school. Holidays were too expensive outside term-time. Her daughter lived on benefits. Why shouldn’t they have a holiday abroad like everyone else ? And she went home and told the assembled family how she’d put those teachers in their place and how Jamie should take no nonsense from them.

He came towards the car, whirling his branch like the leader of a marching band. The teachers lowered their heads but the cry went up.

“It’s Boswell ! Hey ! It’s fuckin’Boswell. What ya doin’, sir ?”

Within seconds Shepherd’s face was pushed against the window next to Boswell.

“Hey ! Fuckin’ Orrick’s with him ! Are ya shaggin’ her, sir ? Give ‘er a good shag for me, sir !”

The boy began lashing the car with his branch as the others ran over and did the same, all the while the cries getting louder and more manic:

“Does she suck your cock, sir !”

“Do you like his dick, miss ?”

“Give it her up the arse,sir !”

“Up the dirt track !”

Flick started the engine and backed out of the space, but the boys crowded ever closer.

“Yer gonna fuckin’ run me over ! I’ll get the fuckin’ police !”

She had to edge away until in desperation she revved the engine so they drew back a little and she raced off, her rear wheels spinning on the tarmac as the insults rang in their ears. There was nothing they could do but avoid one another and keep mum. Shepherd strode into Boswell’s classroom at the start of break.

“Is Mrs Orrick a good shag, sir ?”

There were three hangers-on.

“You three clear off.”

“Fuckin’ stay ‘ere !” said Shepherd.

“You heard what I said,” and Boswell lowered over them, an ugly expression on his face. “Out of here now or it’s detention.”

They mooched reluctantly towards the door. One of them turned his head and said:

“Has she got a nice cunt ?”

“I’m going to count to five and if you’re not gone…”

He took Shepherd into the little office at the back of his classroom and made him sit down.

“So, what have you got to say ?”

“I don’t wanna say shit.”

“Don’t use that language.”

“Fuckin’ stop me !”

“I’ll stop you, Jamie. Now what is it you want to talk to me about.”

“Nothin’”

“What are you saying about Mrs Orrick ?”

“I dunno.”

“Well I do. Let me tell you something, not a member of staff in this school would be surprised to know Mrs Orrick and I had been for a drink together. Do you know why ?”

“Nope.”

“Because her husband is my cousin.”

Shepherd shot a glance at the teacher’s eyes. Boswell didn’t flinch.

“Now you listen to me, Jamie. You’ve made a bad mistake. You’re going to apologise to Mrs Orrick. Today. If you don’t, I’m going to take you to Mr Rainford and tell him the entire story.”

“Dunt bother me.”

“We’ll see. Today. I’ll speak to Mrs Orrick tomorrow. Now get on your way.”

 

Flick was alarmed by Boswell’s story.

“His cousin !”

“Don’t worry. It’ll never come to anything.”

They decided they should cool off, avoided one another in the staff-room, didn’t meet outside school and though she pined and was irritated she hadn’t got into bed with him, little by little her interest in him declined. He had a girlfriend. In her sober moments she realised getting pregnant and confronting Darren was a hopeless strategy, but hopelessness pressing in on all sides, she felt wild, uncompromising actions might be her only possibility.

However, there was a kerfuffle after the weekend in Manchester.

On the Saturday night, most of them were drunk. There was much flitting from room to room in the Midland and people wearing next to nothing ran quickly down landings to disappear into rooms not their own. One of the women  complained to the Head: she’d gone for a city break, she’d expected relaxation and fun not debauchery. The Head interviewed them one by one. When Terri’s turn came he said:

“I’ve had a complaint about you and Mr Bush.”

“Mr Bush ?”

“Apparently your behaviour together was disturbing for other members of staff.”

“I think that’s ridiculous ! We had a few drinks and a bit of laugh on Saturday night but no more than that.”

“The problem is, it was a school trip. Whatever’s done in the name of the school, I’m responsible for. I’ve had a complaint, frankly, that you and Mr Bush were becoming romantically involved.”

“That’s not true ! Nothing like that happened !”

When she spoke to Flick they were outraged that the Head could intervene.

“God,” said Flick, “is he trying to control my sex life ?”

“I know !” replied Terri. “Anyway I denied it all !”

“Was there much to deny ?” and Flick turned her head to look into her friends eyes.

“Enough.”

“You’d better be careful.”

She was intensely jealous, not of Luke Bush, who she couldn’t have seduced if he were Prime Minister, but of the fact that Terri had fallen easily into an affair through which she could influence the Senior Leadership Team. Day by day the accounts of progress were recounted. It was like being fifteen again and listening to girls tell of the first snog, the first clumsy unfastening of a bra, the first finger, the first sight of an erection; and she wanted to be fifteen again, to be at school, full of promise and nervous anticipation of life, her heart not beating with the dread rhythm of disappointment, the future more than a deadly blank, the music of her life a gay calypso instead of the dirge which oppressed her like the grey northern sky, the long days of rain and Darren’s leaden presence in her lounge, her kitchen, her bathroom, her bed. She was happy then. Always top of the class in English, she feigned a casual approach, but at night, in her room, her heart raced at the thought of getting the school’s best results at GCSE. Even at chemistry, which she loathed, she beavered away until she’d mastered every detail. And though it was true she wasn’t the prettiest of girls, though there were stunningly good-looking contemporaries the boys made fools of themselves over, when she brushed her hair at the dressing-table or looked at herself naked in the full-length mirror, she saw an attractive, desirable young woman, sure to rouse the passion in some handsome boy, sure to fall impossibly in love, sure to be half of a glamorous, envied couple.

“He says he’ll leave his wife !” declared Terri, picking up her pina colada.

“Really !” said Flick.

An affair was one thing, but marriage-wrecking another. And Bush had three young children. It was exactly the kind of coup she’d have loved: a married man with a family and a high position drooling over her, losing his silly head and throwing everything aside for her kisses and her cunt. It humiliated her terribly to think she was stuck with the pusillanimous Darren who pulled on his condom in hatred and fear of reproduction like the Pope delivered bulls in hatred and fear of sex. The thought of a man abandoning himself, slipping his raw cock into her and emptying his load; the idea of her swelling belly in place of her flat, unproductive innards, drove her to the point of madness. She could have killed Darren

On her way home she decided to go shopping, though there was nothing she needed. She wandered into Debenhams and came out with a kitchen knife with a ten inch blade. When she got to the house, she hid it in her knicker drawer.

The progress of Terri’s affair became a source of ever greater distress. She’d lost interest altogether in Boswell and was now flirting daily with Hugo West and Adrian Francis; West was a huge, ex-rugby-playing man whose great bulk moved quickly on his nimble legs and whose cheeky, young-boy’s smile and ready laugh charmed her. He was in one of those marriages that have dried up like a shallow pond in a heatwave but keeps going for the sake of the children. Not only the impressive bulk of him, the power of his massive shoulders and chest, but also the thought he was denying his wife more children made her go after him. Given the chance, she wouldn’t let him off the hook. She’d take his cock in her hand as he pressed his tonnage down on her and she’d slip it in unsheathed whether he liked it or not. The she’d present him with the fact and watch him crumble. Francis was very different; a handsome little man, very brisk with an accelerated way of speaking, he was spruce and preciously proud of his looks and his neat physique. His marriage had recently collapsed, his wife had taken the children to her parents in Dundee, the house had been sold and he was floundering in bed-sit city and trying to put a brave face on it. Rumour had it he was becoming addicted to sex contact websites and had met up with all kinds of wild and desperate women caught up themselves in the atrocious lonely chaos of contemporary relations and who sank to the lowest level of sexual competitiveness by offering the satisfaction of every whim to any willing man. He was easy prey and she toyed with him. She sensed the frantic need in him and whenever he cornered her and offered a rendezvous, she turned her head away with a grimace and extricated herself. But she liked the thought of his torment. She imagined him caressing his sad erection and thinking of her. She saw herself with her legs wide and Francis pulling on a condom and she’d yank it away and grab his cock.

“Put it in me. Put it in me like a man !” she’d say.

And the poor desperate fool wouldn’t be able to resist.

But in cold consideration, she wanted neither West nor Francis as the father of her children ? Who did she want ? Where was a man worth having ? Oh, she could have all the sex she wanted, like any woman after all. Men were such feeble, hopeless creatures, led blindly by their erections like a bull by the nose. Sex as just sex, sex for the fun of it had been so pleasant when she was at Oxford. But now it bored and almost disgusted her. Where was the man she’d always dreamed of ? The man who would be her best friend, her lover, an adoring husband, a doting father.

“His wife’s moving out !” said Terri jabbing her fork into a thick chip.

“God ! Does she know ?”

“She found out we’d had sex in her bed. That was that. Straight to her parents.”

“What about Colin ?”

“He’s going absolutely ape-shit !”

“Are you staying together ?”

“No, I’m moving in with Luke.”

“What about the kids ?”

“They’ll come with me.”

“What about his kids ?”

“They’ll go with their mother.”

“Wow ! So this is it !”

“This is it !” barked Terri and her face broke into an oddly gleeful smile. “A whole new beginning.”

“Lucky you.” Flick paused. “Will you be better off ?”

“Oh yeah ! D’you know what Luke earns ? Forty-eight .”

“That’s great.”

“ I’m on thirty-eight and a bit, then with what I get from private tuition and exam marking it’s about forty-two, forty-three. Colin only gets about thirty so it’ll be much better.”

“Super,” said Flick.

Then there was the house. Mrs Bush’s parents were market gardeners who’d made a fortune from daffodils, tulips and roses and had bought their daughter a detached, four-bedroomed place as a wedding present. It must be worth four hundred grand. Her heart clenched at the thought. Not only was Terri escaping her horror-marriage, she was going to be better off. Better off than her ! She needed a man with money. A man with money and spunk. She needed to be rid of the atrocious Darren and to get pregnant by a rolling-in-it barrister or a businessman with a private jet. Yet here was dreadful reality: recalcitrant classes, modest pay, lovelessness and a barren womb.

Terri moved in with Luke, the children were thrown into confusion and distress, the grandparents, who had tolerated marriage like they tolerated jobs, shook their heads; then little by little things settled down. Yet as her intimacy with Luke progressed, she found more and more that the hoped-for liberation hadn’t arrived. She lived in the big house and their nearest neighbours were millionaire builders. He’d started as a bricklayer and by luck and ruthlessness made his fortune in twenty years. They invited them round often and it was nice for the children to swim in their pool, the food and wine were plentiful, but the conversation bored her; the endless discussion of football or the problem of immigrants; and at times she found herself looking around at the plush, ultra-modern, high-tech place and becoming overcome by a sense of emptiness. It made her want to smash her  Terence Conran wine glass on the Moorish mosaic patio and one Saturday when they’d wobbled back tipsy and the children were in bed she told Luke she wasn’t going round there any more.

`“Why not ?”

“They bore me to a paste.”

“They’re our neighbours, Terri.”

“He talks about nothing but football !”

“What’s wrong with that ?”

“It’s boring, Luke ! And he says the same thing twenty times. It drives me mad.”

“That’s ungrateful. They lay on a good spread for us.”

“They do it to show off.”

“What ?”

“They do. It’s vulgar. He’s always trying to impress people with his money.”

“He’s done well for himself. And anyway, you like money as much as anyone.”

“I don’t flaunt it like they do.”

“But you’d like to have as much though.”

“I’d like to be filthy but I couldn’t do what she’s done.”

“What’s that ?”

“She married him for his money.”

“How d’you know ?”

“It’s obvious.”

“Well, would you have got into bed with me if I didn’t earn nearly fifty grand ?”

 She let fly the shoe she’d just taken off. Its stiletto hit him on the temple and the blood began to trickle.

“You fuckin’ bitch !”

He ran to the mirror and began to dab himself with a tissue. She came up behind him with the other shoe in her hand and struck three sharp blows to the back of his head with the heel’s steel tip so he crouched in defence. The blood oozing into his hair satisfied her.

“I’m sleeping in the spare room. Don’t come near me.”

It gave Flick an odd, sweet satisfaction to hear the story. She noticed the scar on Bush’s temple. She reflected on how much she’d like to do the same to Darren. To whack him fiercely over the head, to see him cower and to watch the blood. It made her think of menstruation and the waste of her productivity. Her time was running out. Why hadn’t she had children when she was young ? She had a sense of being cheated, but who’d done the cheating ? It perplexed her. Surely she’d behaved as she was supposed to. Yet everything had gone terribly wrong. She tried hard not to compare herself to other women, but she couldn’t stop her mind. The one thing she could cling to was her position. She was Subject Leader. That was something. But when she saw some young chav pushing a brat in a cheap pram her anger almost overwhelmed her and she found herself at the centre of a life she hated.  It was a relief to think of the unhappiness of Terri and Bush. Though she chastised herself for enjoying her friend’s difficulties, she couldn’t help feeling better.

Little by little the stories assembled into a picture of a relationship collapsing before it had begun. Didn’t Terri realize it wasn’t going to work ? Was she keeping it going to save face ? There were little eddies: a weekend away without the kids or a party where she’d got completely pickled, and when she spoke of the good times she exaggerated, not so much in what she said, but in her tone of voice and demeanour. It almost made Flick glad she’d never walked out on Darren and lying beneath him, tensing herself against any response, she wondered if it was possible to find happiness with a man.

Then came the cataclysm.

Terri came into school in a state one Tuesday morning and the two of them locked themselves in her departmental office.

“I hate him !” she said. “I hate him.”

To hear those words was a delight to Flick.

“Why ? What’s happened ?”

“I bought a few clothes on my debit card and the account’s gone a bit overdrawn so the bank’s imposing charges. He went mad and said I had to cut up the debit card ! The bastard !”

“The bastard.”

“I said, no way ! It’s only seventeen hundred quid….”

“How much ?”

“Seventeen hundred.”

“That’s what you spent on clothes ?”

“No, that’s the overdraft.”

“I see. How much did you spend ?”

“About six thousand.”

“Six thousand on clothes ?”

“I haven’t bought any for months and I’ve got absolutely nothing to wear !”

“Sure, sure.”

“So we had this massive row and he said I was going to drive us into ruin and I said he was loaded and shouldn’t be such a tight arse. It was only a few dresses and skirts. And he said the bank would charge us for every transaction and take hundreds a month. And I said we could afford it. I mean, there’s at least five grand a month goes into the account and he’s got savings. And then I want a new car. I mean, I’ve left my husband for a man who earns well. Why should I drive around in a five-year-old Nissan ? And he said I’d got the wrong idea if I thought he was a soft touch for money. So I threw my coffee over him and it scalded his face. He grabbed me by the wrists. I kicked his shins and kneed him in the balls and when he let go I picked up a fork and jabbed it in his ribs and the blood spurted all over my top. Anyway, I ran out of the house and phoned his wife and told her the kids were in bed and their father was going loopy and she phoned the police and I had to go back to Colin….”

“Oh no !”

The pleasing thought of Terri enduring the torments of a loveless bed threatened to bring a smile to Flick’s face so she strained to look aggrieved.

“The police came round and I made a statement saying he’d attacked me so god knows what will happen now…”

The hapless Bush was interviewed by the police but refused to make an official complaint. He thought the matter would blow over. Unable to sleep he sat alone with a bottle of whiskey and at six in the morning found he’d finished it. His wife was bringing the children back a seven as she had to be on a train early. He had his own job to go to. He turned the cold shower on himself in the vain hope it would dispel his drunkenness. When the kids arrived he was in his suit, smiling, but unsteady and slurring. His wife took one look and phoned a taxi. She forbade him to take the children to school but when she’d gone he rang to cancel the cab, made toast and coffee, tried to appear normal to his embarrassed youngsters and at eight put them in the car and drove them to the school gates. It was a short three miles. He was satisfied with himself when he got home without mishap. He brushed his teeth, swilled with minty mouthwash and went into school. Terri was absent. Once in his office he was so agitated and fearful someone might notice he was incapable, he  signed out on the pretext of a meeting in a nearby school. He went home ? What was he to do ? Should he go to bed ? He wouldn’t be able to sleep. He needed to speak to Terri. They could straighten this out. She should withdraw her complaint.

He drove to her house. When he knocked on the door, her husband appeared and punched him in the chest. He went home, sat in the armchair and began to cry.  

“So what does Colin make of it all ?” said Flick.

“He thinks he’s a bastard.”

“Well, at least it’s worked out okay for you ,” and she could see from Terri’s expression it wasn’t right at all.

Because the police were involved, the Head had to investigate. Long unhappy with Bush who was perfectly competent but insufficiently sycophantic, he saw his opportunity. Terri and her husband made statements. Bush was immediately suspended. As soon as the Head discovered he’d signed out on false pretences and was to be prosecuted for drunken driving, he knew all he had to do was sit it out. Bush descended into nervous breakdown, became reclusive, turned to the union for help but found himself told to face the inevitable. Eighteen months later he was given a pay-off.

Terri applied for his position. The Head had relied on her so much in his campaign to be rid of Bush he had to appoint her.

She and Flick went out to celebrate.

“Fifty grand ! Not bad, eh !” said Terri.

“You’ve done well.”

“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get to Assistant Head so fast. I’m in a good position now to apply for Headships.”

Flick almost choked on her Pussyfoot. A Head ! She’d always thought of Terri as essentially a scatterbrain. Her cascading confidence made her slightly sick and dizzy. Was this the way the world worked ? Now, even her status as Subject Leader couldn’t keep a sense of defeat at bay. Terri was her friend, but friendship had limits. She wanted to tell her the ambition was ludicrous, but then Terri had found her way to Assistant Head, which Flick would have said was definitely beyond her. How was she going to do that ? The sudden thought struck her that Terri had engineered the affair with Bush, it’s decline, it’s breakdown, his demise. Surely she couldn’t be so coldly calculating ? Then there rushed in the alternative idea that she’d fooled herself: she believed she was in love but in fact was merely manipulative. The second at least saved her from meretriciousness. And could she use her charms to make her way ? Could she seduce a man with influence ? Might the Head, after all, be susceptible ? The idea was disgusting. Yet so was the thought of staying with Darren, of having to sit opposite him at the dismal dinner table, of him jabbing his useless cock in her every weekend. It was all too awful. Her sense of isolation was complete. Her marriage, her job, her friendships were just so many motions she went through. Her feeling were buffeted like a rose bush in a gale and the petals of her identity fell one by one into the muddy puddles of confounding reality and were trodden underfoot by unknown passers-by.   

“And I’ve more good news !” exclaimed Terri.

“Really ?” said Flick in dread.

“Yes. I’m pregnant !”

 


GINGER SNAP 

When Mortimer Beeston was appointed Head of Newton Grammar School he was instantly suspicious of Bill Lithman.

It had taken him just twelve years since his first post at twenty-five to fulfil his ambition but he thought himself a model of modesty because being public-school and Oxford he could have gone into the diplomatic service or the City, law or banking and made a big fortune. But Beeston was a Christian. He wanted his life to be marked by the modesty of Christ himself, though naturally he wanted a big house, a Land Rover, a runabout, foreign holidays and an investment portfolio for his retirement. The Church of England, after all, was very good with money. So he was pleased with himself because along with the job came School House for which he paid nothing; six bedrooms, a lounge half the size of a rugby field, a wide, impressive staircase, stained glass windows, a beautifully modernised kitchen, a dining-room that could accommodate thirty, two bathrooms, a private garden. He transferred the £35,000 mortgage from the house he sold in Wiltshire to a cottage in the Dales: a retreat for the weekends and half-terms. He knew the argument that people like him buying up these things made it impossible for the locals to stay, but that was life. A Christian should be charitable not sentimental.

Newton was tantamount to a private school. In the old days, before reality encroached and the comprehensive system arrived ( Beeston believed the first comprehensives were created by Shirley Williams and were therefore intrinsically social democratic until he read with a little shock that it was a Tory authority which began the change) they had boarders and a matron and the inevitable couple of paedophiles who got promoted for their willingness to supervise the dorms. Beeston was in the public sector, in what was now a comprehensive, but he still had one foot in the private sector which was where his heart lay and which he knew to be superior. He was slumming. Like all people who think they are doing others a de haut en bas favour, he felt he should be shown gratitude. Even the tiny descent he’d made to this school in a semi-rural setting where the BMWs and Mercedes arrived to drop off the pupils every morning seemed to him a gesture of extraordinary magnanimity. A truly Christian act.

But he was nervous.

This was the public sector where people were touchy about how money was spent. He was employed by the governing body as it was a church school, but all the same, the Local Authority was the overseeing influence. He was acutely conscious of how different this was from the private sector: there parents paid through the nose for privilege but accepted all sorts of eccentricity so long as the best opportunities fell into their children’s paths like windfalls in autumn. He recalled Wilfred Weiss his mad old Spanish teacher who arrived at every lesson by climbing through the window and then lay on the floor and read from Cervantes before disappearing the same way. There was no doubt that was how life should be. But he’d decided to work in the public sector out of Christian charity and he had to watch his back. No sherry in his study with the senior staff on a Friday afternoon. No turning a blind eye to the Physics master’s predilection for blond first formers. Yet as far as possible he would run the place along the lines of his old school, which meant intervening little , letting his staff get on with it, turning the governing body into a rubber stamp and keeping the authority at arm’s length.

Bill Lithman was one of those northern, working-class types who’d benefitted from the post-war settlement, scrambled his way to university, and being the only person from his family ever to enter a profession, felt teaching was a significant rise in the social scale. Beeston viewed him and his kind with a mixture of derision and sympathy: he didn’t underestimate how hard it was for people to climb from the mean streets, but all the same, to have attained the modest status of teacher was hardly something to be proud of! There were a few of Lithman’s kind on the staff, but no-one like him, for he had a hidden edge to him; a touch of the street kid’s devil-may-care attitude, a subversive glint in his eye, a peculiar, caressive sensuality in his voice, a willingness to say what he thought and an absolute lack of respect for tradition and position. He walked round with his hands in his pockets. He whistled. He arrived on a battered old bike with his socks tucked into his trousers. He wore the same tie every day. He refused to say prayers or sing hymns. He lived in a flat in an insalubrious part of town. He shared it with a woman.

It soon got back to Beeston that he was an activist. He spoke at local CND meetings, joined marches, was active in the union, campaigned for the boycott of South African goods and the release of Nelson Mandela. Beeston was torn over the latter. He recognised the viciousness of apartheid and considered it at odds with Christianity, but Mandela had been a terrorist. He led an organisation that used violence. He was a Marxist. He wanted not only the end of the racist regime, but also to sweep away capitalism. He spoke the language of equality which set Beeston’s nerves on edge. He was a political prisoner and that was wrong, but he was a criminal and for that he deserved to be in prison. The fact that Lithman was unequivocal in his support for Mandela, that he saw no distinction between his political beliefs and the criminal acts h supported to realise them, made Beeston see him as naïve and dangerous. The right way was the Christian way. The British way. Intelligent diplomacy and slow, single steps to change. Mandela was undoubtedly a revolutionary and they were foolish hotheads. Beeston’s view was that Mandela should stay in prison till he renounced violence and that a gradual process of persuasion should be allowed to remove apartheid. Walking through the staffroom at break he noticed Lithman drinking from a mug marked Free Nelson Mandela. It was unseemly. It might be acceptable in a comprehensive in Liverpool but not at Newton. Beeston’s was an upper middle class view of democracy: it had been granted by gentlemen to King Mob and they should be grateful. It sometimes struck him just how extraordinary it was to live in a society where men who emptied bins or fitted seats into cars on production lines, and even women who cleaned lavatories or wiped tables could be allowed to vote! This was truly Christian generosity and tolerance. Yet there came the disappointment that hoi-polloi abused the virtue of their betters. He accepted workers should have the right to strike. The alternative was totalitarianism. But the sight of a picket line, of banners and braziers, of donkey jackets and men shouting made him shudder. He liked the idea of a gentlemanly strike and simply couldn’t put up with the thought of a mass meeting.

Lithman, an obvious enthusiast, had quickly displaced the school’s NUT rep, one of the old guard who’d once been the only member of the union and become responsible by default. The new man inherited a membership of four including himself. Having been a Grammar with public school pretentions, most staff were members of the NASUWT which had always advertised itself as The Career Teacher’s Union and had disdained to represent primary school teachers. Lithman would have no truck with such snobbery or occult sexism. The NAS rep who like Beeston had been to public school and thought of his union membership as a daring act of near bolshevism, considered Lithman a draggletail anarchist. All the same, when the Burnham committee broke up without agreement and the government was determined to hold down teachers’ pay, both unions took strike action.

“Could you let me have a list of your members, please,” said Beeston to Lithman. “I don’t know who they are.”

“I’m not required to give you that,” said Lithman.

Beeston looked up from his papers.

“You may not be required to but I’m asking you. I’ve had a list from the NAS.”

“That’s their business. There are four of us and we’ll all be out on the 25th. That’s all I need to tell you.”

Beeston was livid. This wasn’t gentlemanly or Christian . After all, it wasn’t him who was holding down wages and he was quite sympathetic to the staff’s case. Lithman pushed things too far and was fighting some silly class war which existed nowhere but in his own head.

Not long after the strike, Beeston received a complaint that Lithman had missed his lunchtime duty in the dining-hall. He called him in. It was against his public school instincts to be authoritarian: he relished that liberal idea, picked up from his Latin master, that once you’ve learnt the rules you have the right to break them. This was how power worked: the doggery was sold the idea of democracy but in the corridors and behind the doors that mattered, the men (almost exclusively men) who made the decisions, did more or less what they liked. That was how he preferred to run the school. He closed his study door and made up his own mind. He told people only what they had to know. He perfected the art of concealment.

“Sit down, Bill,” he said with a smile and a welcoming gesture. “I’ve had a little complaint about you missing your dining-room duty last Monday….”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” said Lithman. “I completely forgot.” 

Beeston laughed in his slightly giggly, adolescent way.

“No need to worry. I don’t get in a lather about these things. I assumed you might have been busy with something or delayed.”

“No, just clean forgot,” said Lithman. “I did apologise to Malcolm who I should have been on duty with. Was it him who complained?”

“No,” said Beeston with a hint of closure in his tone.

“Aye, well. I’ll tie a knot in my tie or something to remind me.”

Beeston giggled again in that curious way which was an absence of laughter and rocked in his chair.

He felt he’d handled the interview well. He’d have demeaned himself had he been stiff and admonishing. All the same, he was astonished at Lishman’s lack of guile: he could easily have invented some excuse. To admit he’d merely forgotten was a black mark. Didn’t he understand that with people in authority it was necessary to be cagey? Who could rise if they didn’t master the art of finessing? It was strange how Lithman had none of that about him, how he behaved as if honesty was enough. He even seemed to be less cunning with his superiors than his inferiors! It was as if as a matter of principle he held those below him in social rank in greater regard.  Beeston thought this a perversity from the streets.

One morning Beeston was on his way through the staff-room just before break when he found Lithman in intimate conversation with Angela Muirhead. She was an exceptionally pretty little woman, very dapper and much aware of which clothes and colours showed her face and hair and figure to best effect. Beeston had a high opinion of her because of her punctilious conscientiousness, her briskness and her complaisance. He had her categorised as a duteous conformist, someone who would never give him any trouble or set a foot wrong and he’d made a mental note that he must think of her for promotion. He was disturbed to see her sitting close to the questionable art teacher, her knees primly touching and pointing towards him, her head slightly bowed, a sweet, childlike smile betraying unmistakable delight and her eyes meeting his. As for him, his elbows were on his knees, he was inclined towards her and was talking in that low, slow voice that seemed to put a brake on the turning of the world itself.

Were they having an affair!

Beeston hurried on to his study where his secretary was setting his tray of coffee and biscuits on his desk. He couldn’t believe it of Mrs Muirhead! Yet he’d seen it with his own eyes. She had all the appearance of a woman in love! The image of them naked, the unceremonious street-easy northerner thrusting into the charming little woman made him get out of his swivel chair. He forced it out of consciousness. His heart was pounding. He restrained himself from believing they were lovers. But all the same, to sit together like that, to talk like that, to be so obviously enamoured of one another, and both of them married! And in his staff-room! He couldn’t think negatively of Angela Muirhead. She must have been led astray by the perilous Lithman. He tried to get on with his correspondence but it disturbed him all day.

That night he dreamed of Angela. She came into his study and sat beside him. That way she had of withdrawing her head slightly into her shoulders and smiling was so seductive he was overwhelmed. She flicked her fine short hair behind her ears. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, tugging down the hem of her skirt in that way women have when they want to remind a man of what it conceals. She giggled and leaned towards him . The short sleeves of her navy-blue jacket left bare her shapely slightly tanned arms. He noticed how long and slender her fingers were. He woke up with an erection and in confusion. His wife was out of bed, pulling on her dressing-gown. He could hear his children quarrelling over the bathroom.

More and more he recognised how odd a character Lithman was. He had the demeanour of an animal. Beeston, sent away to boarding school at seven, had learnt early the necessity of subterfuge and dissembling. His body and his gestures spoke of obedience. He would never have left the house without highly polished shoes. But Lithman was a creature who went straight for his satisfactions. How could Angela Muirhead like such a man? His shoes were never polished. His trousers lost their creases a few weeks after the start of term. He seemed to live as if he had a right to his fulfilments. He seemed to have no fear of disapprobation. The more he thought about it, the more it seemed to Beeston it could only be because he was louche. He was an artist after all! Did he think he could play at being an easy-going bohemian at Newton Grammar School? Of course, he was a perfectly good teacher, very much in command of his skills and able to motivate the pupils. But Beeston didn’t like it. His own children would soon be starting here. Would he want them to think of Lithman as a model? He was aware of the effect the other man’s presence had on him. He only had to see him walking across the quad to feel defensive. Yet who was he? A back-street northerner, a man with no position or influence. How could he seem then to carry so much potency? Was it merely a compensation for weakness?

One morning Lithman came to see him.

“I’ve found a job I’m going to apply for,” he said.

Beeston didn’t like the assumption. He should ask permission.

“Oh really! That’s exciting,” he said. “Where is it?”

“St Ted’s.”

The Headteacher giggled and rocked but in truth was appalled at Lithman’s lack of respect.

“There’ll be a strong field there. Is it second in department?”

“No, Head.”

Beeston kept his eyes lowered and became suddenly serious.  

“That’s a big step when you’ve been teaching for less than two years.”

“Might as well throw my hat into the ring,” said the other nonchalantly. “If I look good on paper they’ll give me an interview.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“So you’ll support me then?”

“As far as I can.”

“Sorry?”

“It is a big step. Head of Department isn’t a sinecure. It…”

“A sinecure?”

“Yes, it involves a great deal of responsibility.”

“I’m not afraid of a bit of responsibility,” said Lithman.

“I’m not suggesting you’re afraid. It’s a question of whether you’re ready for it.”

“Well, St Ted’s can decide that, eh?”

“That’s not quite how it works. I have a responsibility to let them know how ready you are.”

“Well how would you know?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re not an artist. You’ve never seen me teach. You never come into my room. How would you know if I’m ready?”

“I make my decisions on subjective grounds.”

“What?”

“That’s what I’m paid for. My judgement.”

“You can’t make judgements about me from behind the door of this room. You have to base them on my work.”

“I’m perfectly capable of making judgements about all my staff and I don’t need to spy on them to do it.” 

“I’m not talking about spying, just knowing what’s going on.”

“Are you saying I don’t know what’s going on in my own school?”

“Talk to Jim Vickers. He knows my work. He’s supporting me.”

“Of course I’ll talk to your Head of Department, but the decision will be made by me.”

“Decision?”

“I mean the reference. I’ll write it.”

“Aye, but if you don’t support me I’m wasting my time.”

“I’m not saying I won’t support you, but I have to tell the truth.”

“The subjective truth.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Subjective means one thing and one thing only. Personal.”

Beeston pulled down the corners of his mouth.

“Well, headteachers have to make personal judgements.”

“Maybe so. But you’re a public figure. It’s taxpayers who fund your salary. You’re supposed to be objective.”

“Oh,” said Beeston laughing as best he could and squirming a little, “not objective. We’re not turning out nuts and bolts.”

The request for a reference arrived. St Edwards was one of those middle-class schools well-heeled parents elbowed to get their kids in. It got some of the best results in the county. Beeston didn’t like the idea of Lithman getting a promotion in such a place. After all, parents didn’t expect easy-going leftists, even teaching art. It was true he was qualified and posts were open to competition, but there was an old way of doing things which he knew was right. Power needed to claim to be democratic while keeping its cards close. Suppose people like Lithman were judged objectively. If nothing but his qualifications and experience and professionalism were in question, he might end up as a headteacher! There had to be something else. Lithman wasn’t the right kind of person for St Edwards. Why didn’t he go and work in Bootle or Brixton? It was right that middle-class parents should get what they pay for through taxation. As for those at the bottom, Beeston believed they should get an education too, but the rise of people like Lithman couldn’t be allowed to threaten places like St Edward’s. Opportunity was available to anyone, but they must conform. Meritocracy set no limits to advancement, but merit wasn’t just about talent or effort, it was about a set of values, a way of doing things. Anyone could rise into the middle-class if they accepted middle-class standards. But people like Lithman put themselves beyond the pale. He was unapologetic about his back-street origins. As a matter of fact, he was almost proud of them. Wasn’t this just perversity? Who could be proud of poverty, of mean streets, of failure? Lithman needed to get the chip off his shoulder and learn compliance. He couldn’t expect to teach the middle-classes if he was known as a vigorous agitator for radical causes. Democracy couldn’t go that far!

He wrote the reference:

Mr Lithman joined the staff of Newton Grammar in September 1980. He successfully completed his probationary year though the County Advisor had doubts about record keeping and asked for supplementary evidence. Mr Lithman is a competent classroom practitioner who establishes good relationships with his classes. The pupils in his charge produce work of an appropriate standard and the results for the two classes entered for exams last year were above the national average. He is a well-qualified graduate whose command of his subject is excellent. His classroom management is good and he has had few problems with pupil discipline. He has taken part in extra-curricular activities, running a football team and accompanying pupils to cross-country competitions. He has fulfilled his pastoral duties as form tutor satisfactorily and in general has been reliable. However, I had cause to reprimand him on one occasion when he failed to carry out a lunchtime duty. Given time, Mr Lithman may be capable of assuming departmental responsibility. However, he is at present unsuited to such a role. He does not always make sufficient distinction between his personal and professional life. I feel his lack of propriety may become a problem in a church school serving a largely middle-class intake.

Beeston was very satisfied with his work. If Lithman wanted to get on, he would have to learn to play the game. Two days later, he came and asked to see his reference.

“I’m afraid that’s not my policy,” said Beeston.

“Why not?”

“A reference is private. It’s between the headteachers concerned. It would be ridiculous if everyone could see their reference. It would deter heads from telling the truth.”

“And maybe also from distorting it.”

“Yes, though that’s a bit of an obvious point.”

“But it’s my career, Mr Beeston. You’re making a decision which could change my life fundamentally. Why can’t I know what you’re saying about me?”

“Because that’s not the way I do things. That may be acceptable in trendy schools but not here.”

“I assume I’m not going to get an interview then.”

“That’s entirely up to St Edward’s.” 

“Is my reference entirely positive?”

“Not entirely, no.”

“Can you tell me what’s negative?”

“As I say, that’s not my policy.”

That evening, his kids in bed, he cleared away the dinner plates for his wife. He was one of those men who think they’re doing women a great favour if they plug in the Hoover once a week or wash up at the weekends. It was part of Beeston’s Christian view of things. He was glad to give a hand. It made him feel virtuous. And as he was getting on with the small task he fell into that mood of self-congratulation which so was so common. Though it had taken five applications and the failures had stung him with the humiliating thought he might not make it to the modest rank of headmaster, he’d come through. The school more or less ran itself. His office was a hundred yards from his front door. If he felt like it, he told his secretary he was “working at home”. He took the dog for a good long walk on friendly mornings. He began to think of Lithman. How wrong it would be for someone like that to have the same. He’d held him back and that was just as it should be. Of course, he had a right to earn a living. But his place was at the bottom. Let him grub along as an art teacher for the rest of his days. He’d earn enough to pay for a modest house. He couldn’t imagine he’d ever change. He’d always be a foolish radical, thinking he was special because he could challenge all orthodoxies! Tush! What was that but adolescent rebellion? He deserved his chance, like anyone; but that chance, once offered, was quickly withdrawn if compliance wasn’t categorical. Lithman lacked respect for the church, for Newton’s traditions, for property, for the achievements of middle-class life. Beeston felt it was big of him even to employ him. But such people were easy to manage. Such were the benefits of a public-school, Oxbridge background.

He wiped and put away the dishes then went through to the lounge with a pot of tea and cups and saucers. His wife was reading The Guardian.

“It seems there’s been a steep rise in unemployment,” she said as he poured.

“Well, yes. I’m afraid it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

“It must be terrible for those people and their families.”

“Yes, it must,” said Beeston. “But that’s not our worry just now.”

He was always pleased and slightly amused by his wife’s concern for the unfortunate. It was her Christian consciousness, but also just part of her nature. She was of course too sympathetic. She didn’t make sufficient distinction between those who were unemployed through no fault of their own and the simply feckless. He handed her the tea. 

“Shall we watch the news?”

“Yes,” said taking a ginger snap from the plate, “if it’s not too depressing.”

 


 STANDARDS

 

Brian Gormley was never allowed to play with the common boys. His father ran his own business selling electrical appliances from his shop near the market and it paid for the big house in a little village seven miles out of town. All the same, half a mile away was a tight cluster of council houses.

“I don’t know what they’re doin’ building council houses in a place like this,” said Arthur Gormley who thought people who couldn’t afford their own house had no business living a snail’s trail from the middle-classes.

Like many councils in the years after 1945, the Labour controlled borough had decided to build, in addition to the huge estates that became feared by the well-to-do as breeding grounds of crime, depravity and socialism, a few council homes here and there in rural spots. The folk who got them thought themselves lucky. They sent their kids to a little friendly primary with the sons and daughters of doctors, solicitors and farmers. They could leave their doors unlocked when they went out. But they were never really accepted. The people in the big houses, the families who made plenty from livestock and the land, the professionals who earned well in the town and retreated to the open spaces, thought it a form of cheating. So Brian didn’t go to the village school two hundred yards from his front door. He was taken by car every morning to the prepatory school attached to the private grammar he was destined for.

All his life he’d harboured the suspicion the poor were criminals and along with it went the sense that socialists, who sided with the poor after all, must have criminal inclinations too. But he was educated. He had a second class degree in Economics from Durham. He couldn’t really believe the poor should be imprisoned. It was more a question of standards. They just didn’t have any. And what could be done with people who had no standards ?

When he took a job as Head of Economics in Alston Grammar in 1980, he knew he was safe from the lower orders. The place had been founded in the sixteenth century to educate the sons of gentlemen and had slowly transmogrified into a standard 11-plus enclave of middle-class drive only to be forced to become a comprehensive by the despicable egalitarianism of Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. But being Church of England it controlled its own admissions and in an arcane process, more secret than the appointment of popes, managed to secure an intake of bright, well-motivated, clean-behind-the-ears boys from the suburbs and villages and only here and there an obviously lower-class lad. Brian could spot them at once.

“Have you no standards, lad ?” he would bray. “Look at the state of that shirt ! Haven’t you got an iron in your house ?”

It was the aspect of the job he loved most. From the punctiliously conscientious fulfilment of his duties he derived the sense of superiority which was the guiding tenor of his life: he prepared and ticked till late into the night; he kept his mark-book scrupulously up-to-date; he insisted on absolute order in his classroom which was as neat as a nun’s sex life. But what he loved most was the power to insult, to demean. The incontrovertible right to trespass on other people’s sensitivities as he  felt his own had been trampled. He’d dreamed of great wealth. He’d imagined himself a captain of industry, but the thought of having to deal with adults, to try to impose his will on people who might fight back, made him nervous. Teaching, however, granted more or less absolute power over children. If a boy failed to do his homework the entire force of the State was behind Brian in browbeating him. The security that offered was wonderful ! He’d watched in horror after all when the miners had brought down a government in the early seventies, he’d seen Jimmy Reid lead the Clyde shipbuilders to victory. It had looked as though the workers were going to face the employers as equals and the thought of being a Managing Director in a dark suit, expecting to lay down the law to everyone in his company only to be faced across the table by a rough and ready lout from the back streets of Glasgow who had somehow got an education he didn’t deserve and could fight his corner without flinching, shook his confidence to the foundations. That’s when he decided to become a teacher. By the time he’d got his promotion, Mrs Thatcher was in power and things looked much better. But he felt it was too late to switch track. What were the chances now of becoming MD of ICI or Unilever ? If he did everything according to the book, however, he could easily make it to Headmaster. Late at night he sat on his lonely sofa with an indulgent glass of red and saw himself in assembly commanding the attention of a thousand upturned, frightened faces, or in a staff meeting giving it to them straight He patrolled the corridors. He was a formidable character. True, he would never be a millionaire but he would be able to afford a big house well out of the town.

It was a shock when he discovered the junior member of his department, appointed to start on the same date, was a socialist from Rotherham. He found out his father had been a lorry driver but had died of a heart attack in his early forties. His mother was a school cleaner and he had an older brother who was a bus driver. He was one of those freaks from the bottom of the pile who shouldn’t be intelligent but is. He had a first from the LSE. But that didn’t alter the fact that his family was poor,  so he probably had criminal tendencies.

Brian was determined to catch him out.

From the first, he was alarmed by Rainford’s easy-going ways: he went out almost every night, he marked books during lessons, he read the paper during free periods, he wore the same tie five days a week, he didn’t even know exactly what his salary was ! Brian, on the other hand, knew his take-home pay was exactly £778.64 per month. He was already buying added years because he’d started teaching at twenty-two and if he retired at sixty would have only thirty-eight years contributions to his pension rather than the maximum forty. He knew his mortgage payment was £84.36 per month, his gas £9.54 and his electricity £6.21.

“What do you pay for your water rates ?” he asked Rainford over a pint after work on Friday.

“Water rates ?” said Rainford. “I don’t know. A few quid.”

 

A few quid ! Wasn’t that typical of a person without standards ? How could he be so blasé about money ? Then there was the fact that he’d had a chequered past. He left school at sixteen with two O Levels, worked in factories, drove vans, got married at twenty and separated a year later and only then turned his thoughts to a proper education.  

“Have you noticed,” said Brian to a group of his colleagues gathered in the staff-room after the end of school, “how laid-back Den Rainford is ? Eh ? If he were any more laid-back he’d be flat-out !”

And he laughed at his recycled witticism, his arm slung in assumed nonchalance over the back of the chair, his skinny ankle across his knee. As usual, his slightly embarrassed acquaintances smiled, nodded and made noises of faint agreement which he took as a signal to plough ahead.

“I mean, I asked him how much he pays for his water rates and he didn’t know ! Eh ? Sloppy. Eh ? No self-esteem. Am I right ?”

Brian was one of those intrusive characters people don’t like to offend. His own behaviour was so often offensive, if people had responded genuinely they would have dismissed and berated and argued with him. But as no-one wants to be at odds with someone all the time, he got away with it. Yet it never occurred to him this was thanks to the politeness and tolerance of others. He assumed no-one dared disagree. That was the power of his personality. And should someone take issue, he would turn away like a child losing interest and at the first opportunity go and report the insult in exaggerated terms  to all and sundry.

The annoying thing about Rainford was that he did his job. He didn’t do it as Brian did. He didn’t do it to the extreme of conscientiousness. He didn’t do it as if on Judgement Day St Peter would say:

“And how many hours a week did you spend marking books?”

He flirted with perdition. Yet, whenever Brian tried to find something he could go to the Head to complain about, he didn’t quite have a case: his desk was untidy; he didn’t clean his blackboard at the end of the day; he left his box of chalk where the boys could pinch from it. There was nothing that could get him sacked. Watching Newsnight was a small glass of Beaujolais, Brian’s mind was drifting. It was quite right to try to get Rainford dismissed. It was his duty. Nay, it was his right. He hadn’t come to work at Alston to have an anarchist as the only member of his department ! A group had gone to the local pub for lunch one Friday and Brian, trying to flush Rainford out in front of his fellow professionals had said:

“The Labour Party eh ? What a mess ! I suppose you’re a Michael Foot supporter. Eh ?”

“Nothing wrong with old Footie,” Rainford had replied. “But he’s a bit right-wing for an anarchist like me.”

 

No-one had laughed, for like Brian they found the reference to a political creed of terror no joking matter. Did he mean it ? Was he a closet anarchist ? Did he make bombs in his kitchen ? Did he intend to shoot policemen ? Even if it was nothing but a self-deprecatory jest, it was in very bad taste among the staff of one of the most prestigious schools in the county. And every day Brian had to meet him, to share a little office with him, to try to impose his strict rules on him with all the success of a bank manager lecturing a bohemian; and every day the pain of it tore at his heart, for Rainford reminded him of those untethered boys who roamed the woods and fields and played raucous games of summer football while he was sent to bed at seven and lay wide awake envious of the light and the sound of parent-free fun which reached him from the dangerous outdoors.

Rainford also had an easy way with women.

Brian could never find a way to be natural in the company of a woman he viewed as a romantic possibility. There was too much at stake. He felt he should behave towards them as he would towards his mother, but with the extra, troubling sexual element.

“What d’you think of Vicki Catchpole, eh ? Bit of a goer, I’d say. Eh? Barn door in a gale job. Am I right ?” he said to Rainford one day a propos of nothing. They were in their cubby-hole office, Rainford ferreting for a book on the messy shelf above his desk. He turned and looked frankly at Brian. His face was quite serious.

“I don’t think about her in that way,” he said.

“Eh ? Bet she’s a good shag though,” said Rainford.

“She’s an attractive woman,” said Rainford, “and I like her. I’m sure she’s as sexually responsive as the next woman, but that’s something other men will find out.”

He took the book and left. Other men find out ? What was the matter with him? Brian had tried for months to engage the attention of Vicki Catchpole, but though she was polite, she gave him no signal. Yet it was known she had a soft spot for Rainford and when they chatted at lunchtime would assume sinuous poses and throw back her head in unbridled laughter exposing her strong, white throat. It puzzled Brian that women could prefer Rainford to him. Shouldn’t a woman recognize and be attracted by his standards ? What kind of woman would want a devil-may-care bloke like Rainford ? But then women remained a bafflement to Brian and he sometimes wondered if he didn’t prefer men. He remembered that time in the showers at school when a slim younger boy had appeared, very white skinned and with neat little buttocks and he’d had to hide his erection and grab his towel. He’d passed it off as a fleeting teenage quirk, but he often found himself sneaking glances at the pretty boys in his class. Yet how could he act on it ? A single man in a boys’ school. And a C of E school at that ! So he persevered in his hopeless attempts to ingratiate himself with women and during the rare periods twhen he did have a girlfriend for a month or two, went through the tolerably pleasant rigmarole of sex and wondered what the fuss was about.  

The months and terms went by. Was Rainford never going to find a job elsewhere ? Did he have no ambition ? Brian was looking for Deputy Head posts but wouldn’t work in a low-class school. Was he a missionary ? He scanned the TES every Friday for suitable opportunities, applied for two but failed at interview.

“I was the best candidate there ! Eh ?” he said to Rainford. “How could they turn me down ? Fickle. I tell you, it’s fickle.”

His disappointments made him all the more intent on imposing himself at Alston and his irritation with Rainford who refused to be his lap-dog, who insisted on doing things his own way, who thought through every question for himself, whose independence marred Brian’s sense of control, grew to the point that he could have done him physical violence. He began to withhold things from him. He stockpiled chalk in the cupboard at the back of his room to which he had the only key, and when Rainford asked for some would say:

“Run out.”

“There must be some in the school.”

“You find it if you can.”

Yet Rainford always came up with some. Was he buying it ? The idea of him spending his own money on classroom supplies greatly pleased Brian but then he discovered that Babs Hudspith, the pert and flirtatious Head of Geography was handing boxes to him.

“Babs,” Brian said, “ I don’t want to be…” and he gave a little self-exculpating laugh “…cheeky. But do you think it’s right to share your supply of chalk with Den Rainford ?”

“He told me you’d run out,” she said and smiled in that girlish way   which showed her even white teeth and made her crows’ feet scrunch at the corners of her blue eyes.

“Run out ! Run out ! Ridiculous ! We’ve got stacks of the stuff.”

“Oh, I’ll tell him.”

“No, leave it to me. I’m his superior.”

He waited for Rainford to ask for chalk but he didn’t. One afternoon, when the cleaners had done their work and gone, he went into Rainford’s room and searched  his drawers. He found four unopened boxes and on top an envelope with Rainford’s first name across it in a female hand. He opened it and took out the little card which bore a picture of spring blossoms. Inside was an inscription:

 

To my favourite economist. Though these sticks are dry, I’m nice and wet !

                                                                 love, Babs   xxx

 

He held the card and read over and over. He wanted to shout out loud. He wanted to show it to the world.

“Eh ! Look at this ! Eh ! I’m nice and wet ! Look at that, eh! He’s shagging her ! Eh ! He’s shagging her and she’s giving him chalk !”

He wondered if he should go straight to the Head’s office and show him. But reason steadied his tottering mind. He put the card back, closed the drawer and went to his room. What an outrage ! He was having an affair and he hadn’t told him ! Who did he think he was to go about doing what he liked without telling his superiors ? That’s what you get by appointing people from the working-class. No standards. Not to be trusted an inch. Dishonest, underhand people.

Henceforth Brian felt justified in keeping more and more from Rainford. When the A Level syllabus was altered, he locked the documents in his cupboard.

“The students tell me there are some changes to the syllabus,” said Rainford.

“Shouldn’t you be telling them ?”

“Have we had something from the board ?”

“I showed it you.”

“I don’t  think so.”

“Den, with all due respect, don’t tell me my job. You’d better get up to speed.”

He ordered new textbooks for all his classes and none for Rainford. He bought himself new classroom furniture including a state of the art overhead projector. Rainford refused  to use one claiming he’d been put off for life at university by teachers who used them in every lecture and seminar. Brian, who had all his transparencies neatly filed thought it the most absurd Luddism. If he swore by the OHP then his department should too ! And his department was Rainford ! What a fate to have to work with a man who had no desire to be at the cutting edge ! A laggard ! A dinosaur !

Yet, in spite of Brian’s efforts, Rainford’s classes did well. Here and there was a disappointing result, but overall the pupils came through. There was nothing for it but to use the affair with Babs. He spoke to his neighbour. Mrs Edmondson was a devout Catholic and fervent Daily Mail reader, a fan of Melanie Phillips and therefore constantly on the verge of hysteria over commonplace human failings. Brian consoled his lonely bachelorhood by drinking tea and chatting to her, finding a welcoming ear for his endless tales of the shortcomings of his colleagues. He invented wild stories about Rainford: he’d seen him kissing Mrs Hudspith in the street in Skipton; it was known they frequented The Greyhound in Barnoldswick and more than once had been spotted falling into a late-night taxi; they’d booked a room in a hotel in Leeds under the name of Churchill; they’d even been discovered canoodling in a tea-shop in Hawes. The scandalised old lady, who assumed Alston was a school for gentlemen and that gentleman had well-disciplined sexual desires, thought something should be done.

“You’re right, you’re right,” said Brian. “What it needs is a complaint from a parent or……a member of the public.”

“Couldn’t you complain ?” said the old woman.

“Well, in my position. Very difficult. An independent third party, that’s what we need. Someone with values, with standards. That’s the issue, people have no standards these days. And between you and me, Mr Rainford comes from a questionable background.”

“Really ?”

“Yes, I suspect criminal tendencies.”

“Well, somebody should complain.”

Over the weeks he worked on her. His stories became more elaborate and racy. The old moralist who was eighty-nine and glided into periods of blankness and confusion, began to believe she had witnessed what he told her.

“You remember when you saw them kissing at the bus stop ?” he said.

“Did I ?”

“Yes, you told me.”

“Did I ?

Eventually, her moral outrage pushed to limit of sanity, she suggested she should write.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want you to bother. At your age.”

“It’s no trouble,” she said. “I enjoy writing letters. I write to the paper every week though they never publish them.”

The complaints procedure brought into the open the affair which by strenuous discretion Rainford and Mrs Hudspith had kept secret. Rainford, who was deemed the guilty party was given a warning and ordered to behave appropriately. Mrs Hudspith took two weeks off with stress.

“How did they find out ?” said Brian to Rainford, leaning back in his swivel chair and swinging from side to side.

“Some busybody.”

“Did they tell you who ?”

“No. A member of the public.”

Brian was safe.

He went on finding ways of making life difficult for Rainford but the means to have him sacked evaded him. Every day he had to go to school and face this man he despised. He was dragging down the department. At open evenings when Brian went home at five to put on his best suit and came back looking like he was a guest at a royal wedding, Rainford was still in the jacket and trousers he wore day in day out. Brian would have liked to bray at him:

“Look at the state of you ! Have you no standards ? Haven’t you got a decent suit in your wardrobe”

Periodically, he went through Rainford’s drawers when the other man had gone home. It was his right. He was Head of Department. It was his duty to see things were being done properly. One evening he found a book called The Society of the Spectacle. Typical left-wing rubbish ! He flicked the pages. An envelope fell out. Like the previous one it had Rainford’s name across it. Was it Babs Hudspith again ! He couldn’t believe they’d be so defiant. He pulled out the folded paper and read:

Den,

Can’t get away this weekend but Wednesday night will be okay. Usual place and time.

                                                              love, Julie xxx

Julie Ralston ! He paced the room with the letter in his hands. But she was no more than twenty-two ! And engaged ! Slipping the letter back in the envelope, the envelope inside the book, the book in the drawer was like turning the key to let a guilty man out of prison. The next day he watched her at break time. She came in to the staff-room with her coffee, sat and talked to her friends and didn’t acknowledge Rainford. Brian would have liked to call out:

“They’re having it off, you know ! These two ! They’re at it like rabbits.”

Rainford’s ability to think and act for himself drove Brian to hysteria. He was like those rough-and-ready lads from the council houses, out playing football or cricket till the light disappeared, careless of their homework or making their way in the world, lads who had girlfriends at thirteen; nubile, cheeky girls who blew bubble gum and wore their skirts too short. They weren’t really part of society. They were wild. They invented their own rules. They had to be put in their place.

Finally, Brian’s salvation arrived: the government created OFSTED. The moment he read about the idea in the Telegraph, he was excited. Surely this was the way to spot people with standards ? Surely he would be praised to the skies ? Surely Rainford would be uncovered as an easy-going rule-breaker, a dangerous free-thinker, an outsider, an untamed wild kid from the back streets who had no business teaching the middle-classes. Brian began to prepare. Every evening he dreamed up a new requirement and every day he went to Rainford and demanded he comply:

“OFSTED will want to see it.”

He insisted on checking marking. It wasn’t good enough. OFSTED would want it standardised. He produced a bank of comments which could be used on pupil’s books. Rainford ignored them and continued to use his own. Brian went to the Head. The Head spoke to Rainford. He was forced to accept. Yet what really annoyed Brian was Rainford’s nonchalance. He just didn’t seem to care. He glided through life like a quiet submarine beneath the ice. He refused anxiety and surely that was the sign of a degenerate nature !

When the inspectors arrived, Brian wore his best suit; he’d had his hair cut; he came in on Sunday afternoon to tidy and dust his classroom; he printed his lesson plans on the best quality paper. His hope was that he would be indentified as outstanding. His colleagues were competitors. He wanted to outshine all of them.  But especially he wanted Rainford to be found wanting. He’d starved him of resources, withheld crucial snippets, his room was down-at-heel. Surely the inspectors would get the message. But the inspection came and went, the school was deemed good, the report found some weaknesses, but individual members of staff weren’t picked out. Rainford had survived and he, after all his work, hadn’t been singled out for praise ! Was there no justice under heaven !

The academic year came to an end and Brian went off on his usual exotic holiday; this time to Botswana. It was a sine qua non that he must go far and to places few visited. In truth, travelling alone, he didn’t always enjoy himself but he could always compensate for the dull days by thinking of all those lesser folk who had to take a week in Cornwall or Scotland or even France. One thing was for sure, no-one would have a more expensive or unusual holiday to talk about. He would be the cock of the staff-room. On the flight out he thought about Rainford who was spending two weeks in Rye. Rye ! Was that all he could afford !

On 1st September he was shocked to find Rainford wasn’t in school: he’d gone for an interview. An interview ! And without asking permission ! Brian thought it the height of insubordination.

“You know,” he said in the staff-room, his mouth full of Wensleydale and Branston sandwich, “he didn’t say a thing to me. I’m his Head of Department. You’d think he’d tell me. Eh ?”

 

The following day he appeared and handed in his notice. He’d seen a job advertised at a local college in the last days of August, thrown his hat into the ring and been successful.

“Did you cite me as a referee ?” asked Brian

“No. Just the Head and a mate of mine who lectures in Economics.”

“I would’ve written one you know. A good one.”

“Well, thanks.”

They appointed a bright young woman in Rainford’s place, very on-the-ball, power-suited and in command of the latest educational jargon.

“Oh, she’ll be good,” said Brian. “Very good.”

He began to improve Rainford’s room in anticipation. A whiteboard was installed, carpet laid, blinds put up at the windows, and in the last week of term a new, large, wide desk brought in to replace the forty-year-old rickety, stained and scratched item Rainford had sat behind every day for years.

“You don’t mind, do you Den ? I just thought it’d be nice to have it here for when she arrives. I hope you don’t feel I’m pushing you out or anything ?”

“Not in the least,” said Rainford leaning against the filing cabinet.

Brian wanted to bawl at him:

“Stand up straight when I’m talking to you ! Have you no standards ?”

But when the new term began and Rainford wasn’t there anymore; when the new, keen, compliant young woman jumped at his every command; when he could even tell her to wear her best suit for the open evening and she would; he found himself unable to forget his former colleague, to put him behind him; he was like a ghost which haunted the classrooms and the little office; a phantom of low-level unworthiness which should be eliminated but which persisted as a permanent challenge to the standards which kept Brian afloat.

 


 

 

CORNED BEEF HASH

 

Every morning a packet of six tomato sandwiches sat on the corner of the table wrapped in greaseproof paper waiting for Tony to grab them . This morning it was cold so he stuffed them into the pocket of his navy blue overcoat, pulled up the collar and called:

“I’m off, mum ! See you later.”

She coughed and shouted from the kitchen:

“Ta-ta !”

Usually she’d left the house before him to do her job as a school cleaner. She was back by half past eight to take his younger sister to school. His elder sister left later as she worked in town and caught only one bus. But today his mother had stayed at home because she was ill and was going to the doctor. He wished she didn’t have to work. He wished somehow he could make enough money to say to her:

“Here, look. I’ll pay for everything. Put your feet up. Enjoy life.”

But his mother was one of those women for whom life was more suffering than enjoyment. It troubled him. Since he was a little boy he’d done all he could to help her. For her birthday he always went to great trouble, looking round the gift shops, carefully choosing something that might make her happy. But it never did. He couldn’t give her anything that would make her happy, not even love, and the thought of it made his heart beat unpleasantly.

The morning walk to the bus stop was the best part of his day. At seven thirty things were beginning to stir but there remained some of the quiet of the night. When he was at school, he did a morning paper round during the holidays and Sundays all year. To be out of the house at six and scooting round the avenues and groves on his bike while all the curtains were closed, the garage doors locked, the roads silent and the odour of breaking day in the air was a great pleasure. Now he had this little walk each day, past the big houses, down little Princes Road where there was no tarmac and only residents could take their cars, out by Priory Lane onto Liverpool Rd, where the traffic was beginning to hum, to join the queue opposite the little library where he’d first failed to get a taste for books. As he passed St Teresa’s, he dragged the parcel of white bread, margarine and tomatoes from his pocket and launched it over the high hedge into the lilacs. Today he would be going to the pub with the lads but to tell his mother her sandwiches weren’t wanted would have been too offensive.

He walked quickly but without hurry. Walking was ease. The two miles into town he did on foot often. Walking was time for thinking and even this short five minutes to the bus, his left hand in the now empty pocket his right tight against the copy of Sons and Lovers, was a welcome respite. The queue was all people he recognised. John Kennington was rolling a cigarette.

“All right, John ?”

“Hi. Nippy.”

“What’s new ?”

They knew one another from the pubs, clubs and dances. They’d both left school at sixteen and were doing stupid jobs and they both had a passion. Kennington was an artist who vaguely hoped he’d find a way to make a living from painting. Every April he left the northern town and went to St Ives where he would spend the summer sleeping on people’s floors and drawing portraits on the beach at two and six a time. During the winter he took what work he could and enjoyed himself with the other would-be bohemians of Brucciani’s, The Exchange and The Warehouse. So the two of them met on the morning bus or in the crush of the Friday night pub. They were alike in their easy-going ways. Neither had sharp elbows. Both preferred a good time to the big time. As they were talking, an articulated lorry slowed and pulled into the bus-stop. On its towering side was an advert for Blue Band margarine.

“See you, John.”

Tony reached for high handle of the passenger door, tugged and hauled himself up the steps into the elevated cab.

“Thanks !”

“All right, lad.”

The driver was a neat, slim, dark-haired little Liverpudlian in his mid-forties. Like Tony he didn’t have much small-talk so the journey passed mostly in silence. He was a stately, careful driver, as gentle in his braking and accelerating as a royal chauffeur so they glided through the town and out past the big council estates of Ribbleton onto the Longridge Rd heading for the open spaces to the north. The depot lay on the corner of an industrial estate, an uninspiring little semi-circle of functional buildings in a no-man’s-land five miles out of town. They drew into the half-darkened warehouse and the meticulous driver backed onto the loading bay. When he heard the unceremonious clang of the bridge being laid he switched off the engine.

“Thanks,” said Tony. “Very kind of you.”

“Any time, lad,” said the little man with a nod.

Upstairs the stock-clerks were settling into their desks.  Neville Myers, the office manager was standing behind his in a crisp white shirt, his hair beautifully brushed, his heavy beard closely shaven, singing as he opened the mail and surveying the girls wondering which one he would go to bed with next. Facing the opposite way, already seated, the smoke from his cigarette curling over the black hair of his big, round head, Martin Birley was rolling up the sleeves of his crumpled, grubby, also white shirt. Tony sat beside him on the swivel chair.

“Right, Martin ?”

“Mornin’ Tone.”

Birley was five years older and had taken the youngster under his wing, intending to initiate him into the ways of smoking, drinking, gambling and chasing women. But he was a poor pupil. He didn’t smoke, drank moderately, had a flutter on the National and fell in love like blackbirds peck for worms. Birley wore an engagement ring. Being  Catholic, his fiancé was a virgin, but he liked to pursue the office girls, to grope drunkenly at the Christmas party, to be constantly on the qui vive for a furtive encounter though he too was uninitiated. The two of them were the Traffic Department. Mornings were a rush of dockets, arithmetic and thick wads bulldog clipped and balanced on the desk’s edge for the girls to collect. Tony enjoyed the activity and sociability but the serious business, the money-making, the efficient pursuit of greater profit meant nothing to him. Nor did thoughts of advancement. He was one of those young men so happy in their skins they can’t be constrained to the ugly struggle for place and reward. He was lucky enough to find the world interesting, so he didn’t think of his lowly position, his modest pay and the need to improve his prospects . He was delighted by the mundane and infuriated his managers.

Since the age of eleven he’d lived with his mother, two sisters and grandfather. His father was kicked out for what Tony later found Shakespeare called the rebellion of a codpiece. There was none of that relaxed acceptance of the facts of human desire in his mother’s household and after his father went, once she’d come through her hysteric breakdown when she lived on tranquillisers and wandered the house like a revenant, she occupied all the space. While they’d been together, Tony lived under their resentment and recriminations like an earwig under a stone. Only when the light of their break-up flooded in did the sheltering dark of his ignorance and innocence disperse and leave him blinded and scurrying for cover. Now his mother talked endlessly of his father:

“Your dad was no use. I had it all to do. Cleared the table he thought he’d done summat….

And when she was in her vilest mood and wanted to undermine what she saw as tendencies in her son which she’d hated in her husband:

“You’re just like your father !”

There was nothing he could say. He went out on his bike, or called for his mates, took off to the woods to light fires and carve the bark of oaks, played cricket or football on the park and came home to her sullen silence and his tea put before him on the table as if she was performing a corvée.

Then there were the moods when she became loose and silly, laughing exaggeratedly at some jejune sitcom or comedy show and repeating over and over the mindless joke that made her limp with unconvincing amusement. Perhaps worst of all was her fierce hatred of learning. Raised in strict Methodism, she took the Bible literally, believed the Devil a roaring lion and all truth revealed.

“You can’t get it from books !” she would say whenever Tony read and her disapproval of his intelligence was expressed most poignantly when she put aside the good reports he brought home term after term and never offered a word of praise. 

In this unhealthy atmosphere he’d had to find a way to get by. Luckily, in the years before the separation he’d lived blissfully, doted on by his elder sister, an untroubled little boy free to enjoy the unending charming newness of childhood. So he had established resources to call on and tending to his little sister, only two when his father disappeared, turned him away from his mother’s bitter spite and destructive hatred. All the same, he was shy and unformed, expected the world to respond to his innocence and had little sense of how vicious in both public and personal life is the struggle for power. So he came every day to work in excited anticipation of a laugh with Martin, chats with the stock clerks, a pleasant hour in the afternoon in the cold store office at the far end of the depot where the manager seldom arrived, listening to the tales of Winston Browne, the mixed-race supervisor, who leaned back in his chair, puffed on his cigar and explained why the pakis should be sent home. Tony thought Winston’s ideas nonsense, but all the same he liked him and for the prize of his company was willing simply to laugh at his loopy schemes for repatriation.

Then there was reception.

Two girls worked here: Bernadette Milne and Marie Singleton, both Catholics. Bernadette was the manager’s secretary and after her affair with Neville Myers which she hoped would get her a pay rise but didn’t, she’d moved on to the boss, earned well and did what she liked. She was brisk and pert, full of cheery good mornings and equally upbeat goodnights, wore impossibly short mini-skirts and expressed opinions culled from the Daily Express as if they were hard-won intellectual truths. Marie at sixteen was three years younger, small, well-formed, a good athlete, with blonde hair down to her thighs, teeth as big as a horse and a cold superior manner until you got to know her when she revealed herself giddy, flippant and conformist. Where she differed from Bernie, who she liked well enough, was in saving herself for the right man. Bernie was having sex in the back of Neville’s car before her seventeenth birthday and from her Catholic upbringing had derived an instrumental                         attitude to sex: the Church taught, after all, that it should be used only for reproduction. What was the difference then in using in to get on a bit in life ? The point, it seemed to her, was that god had given women sex precisely so they could use it. Women had it and men wanted it. Well then, let them pay. And in that way she felt curiously guiltless, as if her sex didn’t really belong to her at all. Of course, there was respectability to think of. She didn’t want to be known as the local bike. She knew the vulgar things men said: more pricks than a second-hand dartboard or a revolving door on her bedroom. So she had a fiancé and they were saving for a house. She liked to believe her affairs were secret, though the whole depot and beyond knew about them. She could keep up appearances like the next woman, but she was doing well: two men to make love to her and her boss in her pocket. And not yet twenty.

Marie and Tony knew one another outside work. They lived in the same suburb and turned up in the same pubs and at the same youth club where teenagers crammed into a semi-darkened room filled with deafening pop music to shout in one another’s ears and sip coca-cola from plastic cups; and many years earlier they’d met as little children at the socials held by the Commerical Travellers’ Association because Tony’s dad sold motor oil and Marie’s beer and spirits. He remembered her from those few occasions. Even then she’d seemed unreachable.  Little by little Tony had become fascinated by her; that stiff superiority seemed to conceal something worth discovering, and in the curious process by which we project our most fervent desires and hopes onto others on the flimsiest of grounds, he found in her complexion, her large, pale lips, the high curve of her dark brows, the sudden opening of her smile, the perfect formation of her thighs, the press of her round breasts against her tight dress, the careful shaping and painting of her fingernails, a promise of happiness, togetherness, of a shared life which is what all men dream of while they imagine what they want is sex. Having become this promise, she was as fragile as its basis and his attitude to her as careful as that of a man handling precious porcelain which the slightest shock might shatter.  He was unable to talk to her naturally. All the stored disappointment of his failed love for his mother and the long tiptoeing of a tightrope between erotic idealism and cynicism made him taut with expectation and the slightest sign of interest from her set his imagination running full tilt till negotiating the territory between them became impossible.

“He fancies you like mad !” said Bernie.

“Not my type.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the older girl slipping more notepaper into her typewriter, “he’s good-looking and he has something about him. I bet he’s good in bed.”

Marie typed a little faster and wriggled on her chair.

“Too quiet,” she said.

“Oh, the quiet ones are the best. The blokes who brag about sex all the time are usually a disappointment.”

Marie hammered away at the keys. She almost wanted to turn and say:

“Have you been to bed with every man in the county !”

She finished the letter, whipped it from the roller, tossed it into the tray and loaded another two sheets divided by carbon paper.

“You might as well make the best of it while he’s completely besotted…”

“Got to nip to the loo,” said Marie sliding from her chair.

She clunked up the open-tread stairs in her Scholl’s sandals and at the top as she headed off right to the ladies, encountered Tony coming from the main office. He gave her a nice smile so she forced her lips over her big white teeth and quickly turned away. For the rest of the day Tony wondered if he’d done something to offend her. But that was just girls: they could be as affectionate as a Labrador one minute and aloof as a cat the next. Then the idea came to him that her abruptness might be the reverse side of her interest. He’d seen it before: girls who feigned complete indifference as a defence against seeming too keen. Perhaps this was the moment to make his play.

By ten past twelve he and Martin had finished their work. Martin slipped the paper under his jacket and went to study form for twenty minutes in the gents. At half past they piled into Jack Glynn’s Volvo estate and drove the mile to the Wheatsheaf. Jack Glynn was a dapper sales rep, a florid, smiling man of forty who treated everyone as if they were about to set up an account with him. Neville Myers and two other blokes from accounts came along, one a surly, bulldog of a man Tony had surprised on top of Nadia Wasilewski in the filing room at the Christmas party. His trousers were round his knees and as Tony pushed open the door the first thing he saw was a hairy backside, then the angry face as he twisted his neck and called “Fuck off out of here!” Tony just had time to glimpse the reddened cheeks of the girl, her fringe stuck to her sweaty forehead, her knees in the air. He couldn’t resist laughing as he pulled the door closed, but at the same time he was shocked: Nadia was so sweet and pleasant. What was she doing having sordid sex with that fat, ugly fool ?

The landlord of the Wheatsheaf was a pot-bellied local Tory councillor and magistrate. Seeing Martin come first through the door he said:

“Pint of the best as usual ?” and eased the black handle of the pump.

“You’ve a memory like an elephant, Wilf,” said Martin.

“Aye, but I need a hide like a rhino to put up with you lot.”

Spotting Tony he said:

“Lemonade for the kiddie ?”

The men laughed in a collective roar which made Tony shrink and blush.

“He’ll have a pint,” said Martin.

“You’ll have me up before the beak !” replied Wilf.

“Well, if you appear before yourself you can excuse yourself on the grounds that you’re just an honest bloke trying to make a simple living in a hard world,” said the ugly character from accounts.

They ordered sandwiches and went through to the side room where there was a dartboard.

 

“Twice round and two tops ?” said Martin who already had the arrows in his hand and whose father was a reputed pub player, taking money from gullible drunkards who overestimated their skill and underestimated their intoxication.

It was a great male moment, the clear, brown beer in the straight glasses on the little round tables with their planished copper tops and the bullseye the centre of attention as Martin launched the fleet darts which landed with a clean thud in their appropriate cheeses: one, two, three.

“Good arrows !”

They picked up their pints as Neville Myers stepped forward. He was one of those men who laugh easily at their own shortcomings as a way of drawing attention to their strengths and as his shots went drunkenly awry, his high, tight , near-giggle excused him. He plucked the darts from the dry board and passed them to Tony. One Friday a gaggle of the office girls had come with them and joined in the game. The men treated them with condescending indulgence until Marie won the first round.

“Best of three !” Martin had called

But when she won the next, hurt and anxiety could be discerned beneath their laughter and banter.

“Do you practise in your bedroom ?”

“Can I practice with you ?”

“Best of five then.”

She won the third. Tony thought of her as he stepped up to the line. He recalled her poise and slow preparation, the absolute concentration on her features and the sureness of the missile leaving her fingers. He tried to imitate her. By thinking of her it seemed to him something of her skill passed into him. His first and second darts hit their targets and the third bounced off the wire.

“Not bad arrows, Tone.”

Martin won of course. The sandwiches arrived and the men sat to eat. As usual the conversation turned to women.

“The boss still shaggin’ Bernadette Milne ?” asked the accounts clerk.

“Shaggin’ the arse off her,” said Martin.

“I’d go after the other one myself,” replied accounts.

“Yes, I’m working on it,” said Myers, at which they all laughed. “Didn’t you get anywhere with her at Christmas, Martin ?”

 

Tony concentrated on his beef sandwich.

“Snoggin’ session. Wouldn’t let me get my hand up her skirt.”

“Maybe the lad should initiate her,” said accounts.

“Aye,” said Martin, “I believe she favours virgins.”

And the men roared again as Tony blushed and chewed and tried to look as if he didn’t care.

“Nice little arse she has though,” said Myers.

“Get your dick up there,” said accounts, “you wouldn’t pull it out for a fortnight.”

In the afternoon, Tony wandered to the cold-store office. The planning was all done in the hectic morning and the afternoons were reserved for whatever cropped up: a lorry breakdown or an urgent delivery, and the compilation of depot statistics, filing and other bits of housekeeping. But the management hadn’t worked out how the time was used and had little idea of what Martin and Tony did after lunch, so when there was nothing pressing to attend to, they made the best of it. Winston had his feet on his desk and a cigar in his mouth.

“All right skids ?” he said.

“All right, Winston.”

Tony sat opposite him. Though he considered his ideas wayward, he found Winston personally kind and thoughtful. He wanted someone to talk to. He needed to relieve a horrible sense of loneliness.

“You’re a bright lad,” said Winston picking up his paper, “what do you think this is ?” He slipped his glasses on. “Fond of company, ten letters, g something, something g, a,r,something, something, something, s.”

“Gregarious,” said Tony.

“Greg what ?”

Tony spelled it out.

“Now how would you know a word like that ?” said Winston taking off his glasses.

“I read it in a poem: Fleeing the herd he came to a graveyard on a hill, and felt the mound proclaim the bone gregarious still.”

The older man cast a hard glance at the lad.

“And you read that sort of thing, do you ?”

“Yeah.”

“Why,” and he puffed hard on his cigar.

“Because it’s interesting.”

Winston stroked his chin, and looked out of the office window to where the refrigerated vans were waiting to be loaded with fish fingers, arctic roll and beefburgers.

“If I was a bright lad like you,” he said, “I wouldn’t waste my time in this place.”

Tony looked at him and could see a fatherly concern in his eyes. The supervisor turned away and stubbed his cigar in a little, green metal ashtray.

“I’d get myself an education.”

“I’d rather get myself a girlfriend,” said Tony without knowing where the words came from.

Winston threw back his head, laughed and ran his hand through his sparse hair.

“You don’t want to worry about that, lad. You’ll be fine. I’ve been married twenty-three years and I’m an ugly old bugger.”

Tony laughed to show his appreciation.

“It’s the one thing I regret,” said the other, “that I didn’t get an education. I’m ignorant. That’s the truth. All I know is how to do this bloody job. I left school at fifteen. Education, that’s the thing. If I’d had an education I might have made something of myself. Engineering. That’s what I’d like to have done. Something that uses the brain. A monkey could do this job.” He put his hands under his armpits and made monkey noises.

He got up and switched on the kettle.

“Taken a fancy to one of the girls here, have you ?” he asked, his back to the  youngster.

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“Tarts. Most of ‘em. No better than tarts. Take that Bernadette. You know what’s going on with her and the boss ?”

“Yeah.”

 

“No better than a tart. Find a lass with something about her. You’re together a long time if you marry.”

“Yes,” said Tony accepting the mug of tea.

“You could have a good future, lad, if you got an education. There’s nothing worth having in this place. And the boss is a bastard. You could go abroad. They’ve ruined this country, and you know how ? Socialism and immigration….”

That evening Tony had to work late. The dockets for frozen food deliveries were printed off during the afternoon and quickly sorted into loads, but if the flexi-room had a breakdown, they had to wait for the machines to be repaired. Tonight was Tony’s turn.

“Hope it’s not too late,” said Martin as he grabbed his coat and left at five.

Tony hung around in the empty office as the technician traced wires and checked diagrams, but by twenty past five the ribbon of perforated paper was curling on the floor and the machines printing the little square, grey, carbonated dockets. At ten to six he’d finished. The bundled dockets were in the cold store office. He headed for the door, the bus and home. But passing reception, found Marie still typing. He closed the door quietly behind him.

“Still at it ?”

He saw her bridle a little.

“Yeah.”

“Not like you.”

“No. The boss wants some letters done and Bernie had to go.”

“Ah. Much to do ?”

He saw her twitch slightly again. Her looked at her thighs in her light tan tights. Her short skirt left them visible. His heart thumped.

“Naw. Nearly finished.”

“Fancy a drink ?”

The words were out before he could think

“No, can’t. I’m busy.” There was a tiny pause. “I have to wash my hair.”

 

On the bus which followed the darkened road towards the town he kept thinking of Martin and the Christmas snogging session. Was Winston right ? Was she just another tart ? But he couldn’t believe that. Over and over he heard the tone of her rejection: the cold closure of the most trite of excuses delivered with that superciliousness which shrank his heart. The little bus station was quiet. He decided to go for a drink alone and enjoying the warmth of the little pub and the gentle comfort of the beer, finished three pints. He had no idea what time it was when he left.

In front of his mother’s house was a low privet and at the other side a little lawn in the shape of a capital D, it’s straight side parallel to the hedge. As usual he scissor jumped it landing on the bald patch. As he was hanging up his coat she came from the living-room.

“Where’ve you been till this time ?”

“Working.”

She paused and stared at him.

“You stink of beer.”

She went to the kitchen and he knew he had to sit at the table. His younger sister was already in bed and his elder out with her fiancé. The minutes till she appeared seemed a year. Finally, he heard the slap of her slippers. She banged the plate down in front of him and slammed the door.

It was Wednesday, so corned beef hash.

 


 PURE POETRY

 

The one thing Chantelle was really good at was language. At the age of seven she wrote her first little song and showed it to her teacher who read it to the class and pinned it on the wall. She’d done something which brought her praise and put her ahead of her classmates. For a girl who began her life in the back streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and suffered the commonplace humiliation of straitened circumstances, it was something. She liked to read and she began to read more. The status of author became almost mystical. Who were they, these people, and how did they live ? It seemed to her they must inhabit a different realm. They couldn’t possibly be of the same disheartening world as her parents who showed little interest in books and submitted to their lives as low level workers like cattle accepted the prod. An author must be a strange and wonderful person. You couldn’t imagine someone who wrote books down on their hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor like her mother or snoring in the armchair with the Daily Herald slipping off their knee like her father. To be an author would be to escape ordinary life and writing, even if so far it was only one little rhyme, was the only thing she’d ever done which had brought special attention.

Writing blended in her mind with religion. The hypnotising rituals of the Catholic Church, the incanting in Latin which she didn’t understand, the priest swinging the incense burner, the congregation responding obediently to his chants; all this attached itself to the idea of author, as if to write and publish books was to have the same power over an audience as a priest over his flock; as if an author mediated between a reader and reality in the way a priest mediated between a believer and God. Such power ! It wasn’t possible for her to become a priest, but might she be an author? What else did life offer ? It seemed to her child’s mind the future was a flat, undifferentiated landscape but far in the distance was a great mountain, a peak so demanding hardly anyone had managed to climb it, and somehow she had to find her way to the top.

She went on writing. Little rhymes and now and again a long poem in imitation of something she’d read. But what to do with them ? Writing seemed a very lonely business. She couldn’t show everything she wrote to Mrs Bracken and her parents weren’t interested. When she thrust one of her little verses under her dad’s nose, he put the paper aside for a few seconds, scanned it and said:

“Good lass. Very nice.”

But she knew it didn’t interest him anything like the football results. The lonelier she became in her secret activity, because it was secret apart from those solitary few lines that had been up on the classroom wall for three weeks, the more it seemed to her she had to fight the world. Who was on her side ? Who could understand her ? Yet how strange it was the world was full of books. When her mother took her on a rare visit to the town library, she was overawed by the thousands of volumes. All of them written by an author. But where were they ? Her father was a mechanic, her uncle a joiner, her best friend’s father  a bank manager, the man who lived in the big house by the school  a dentist, she knew teachers, she went to the doctors, her next door neighbour was a taxi driver; but where were the authors ? It was very strange. Teachers said books were important. There were three bookshops in the town. Yet not an author in sight. At least the priest was in church for Mass, but an author ! They were like spirits, ghosts, they worked their magic but were never seen. How mysterious ! How wonderful ! The power of being an author !

Soon after her poem was displayed, her father got a new job and they moved south. She missed her friends and the school and a horrible thought came to her. No-one would know she was an author ! She would have to start all over again and supposing the teacher didn’t like what she wrote and wouldn’t put it on the wall ? The bigger, better house, what her mother called a posher area, the little car they were now able to afford, the holiday in Skegness; nothing compensated for the loss of her status. She watched Miss Nicol carefully. When she read to them, she listened intently to her voice. When she talked about poetry and authors she could almost have leapt from her seat and called, “I’m an author, Miss !” When finally they were asked to write a poem her heart pumped like a piston. What if someone else’s poem went up on the wall ! What if there was another author in the class ? The idea was too distressing. To share the definition author would have been crushing. That was a space she must have to herself. To say the word was to close a door. The world was excluded. She was alone. Solitude and secrecy were her companions. She wrote and wrote and wrote. Would anyone else try so hard ? Elizabeth Gibson read a lot and liked to write. Would she work and work ? The more she thought she might have a rival the more she slaved. They’d been asked to write about autumn. She made the trees sad at the loss of the leaves and the earth glad of their arrival. The wind was a mischievous boy laughing at the inside-out umbrellas and the fly-away hats.

“Chantelle, would you like to read your poem to the class ?”

After that, she knew Ms Nicol was an ally even if she did put several poems on the wall. All the same, she was never asked to read a poem aloud again and Elizabeth Gibson won the prize for the best poem about Christmas . Chantelle had no doubt her poem was better. Why couldn’t Ms Nicol see ? What a funny thing it was, poetry. How peculiar she could see how good her poem was but Ms Nicol thought Elizabeth’s better. Chantelle had a dream: she was climbing the mountain but Elizabeth was ahead of her. She was strong and climbed easily while she, Chantelle, was sliding on the scree and missing her hand holds. Then looking up she saw Ms Nicol pulling Elizabeth up by a rope ! She fell, sliding painfully to the bottom, bruised and crying. It was so unfair ! Why should Ms Nicol help Elizabeth and not her ?

At everything but writing Chantelle was just another girl. She couldn’t do arithmetic any better than most, her paintings were ordinary, she wasn’t good at games, at craft she was fingers and thumbs. She didn’t like being just another girl. She didn’t enjoy joining in skipping or skittleball. She wanted to be special and only the idea of rising above her classmates made her happy. She made friends with girls who shone at nothing. Elizabeth Gibson, who could do everything, she stayed away from. She liked games where she could be in charge and tried always to arrange it so they played in her garden or house. And most of all she liked to play at authors

“I’m the author,” she would say. “I’m writing a very important book and you have to do what I say.”

It was when she transferred from primary school to St Mary’s that an idea came to her: if she was asked her name she said Chantelle Jane. She insisted everyone, even the teachers, shouldn’t call her Chantelle. Mr Feneck, the young, insouciant French teacher laughed:

“What a mouthful ! If I have to use everyone’s middle name I’ll never get any teaching done !”

She hated him. All her friends and the rest of the teachers went along with it. She was Chantelle Jane Griffin. Didn’t that sound like the right name for an author ! In the second year she got a poem in the school magazine. There were five others, which disappointed her. But her name was there in bold type, slightly offset at the foot of the twelve lines: Chantelle Jane Griffin. She enforced the new nomenclature on her younger brothers.

“Why ?” whined Tom

“Because I say so and I’m older than you and I’m an author. Respect your elders and do as you’re told.”

Even her parents submitted and within a few weeks her mother was calling:

“Chantelle Jane, come and get your tea !”

But Chantelle Jane the author got a shock in the Third Year when she studied Julius Caesar in English. She didn’t understand it. To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels ? The words swam in her head. She couldn’t make them fit any picture of reality. Even when Mrs Bressanelli explained that grace meant to honour and captive bonds implied being bound, as in slavery, she still found it hard to make the world of the play come to life. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious, If it were so,it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answered it..A fault to be ambitious ? Mrs Bressanelli explained how clever Mark Antony’s speech was; a politician’s speech; a speech to move people while not letting them know why they were moved. Antony made Caesar seem modest, compassionate, a man uninterested in power: a good man. Chantelle Jane left the lesson in an ill mood. To be good was to be unambitious ? The idea troubled her. Modest ? What would become of her if she was modest and unambitious ? And then the murder of Caesar gave her nightmares. She dreamed of herself as one of the conspirators sinking her knife into Elizabeth Gibson. She began to hate the play. Was Shakespeare a great writer ? Something which had seemed very simple to her, which had been confirmed by her parents and her teachers, that it was right to use your talents to get on; that pushing ahead of the rest was good; that ambition ( and what did that mean except the drive for more power, more  money) was to be praised,  abruptly seemed in question. Of course, the Church had always preached the compassion, poverty and modesty of Jesus, but she could see straight through that. Didn’t the priest have a house with five bedrooms, a huge garden and an orchard ? Religion was easy to deal with as were her father’s rants against the Tories. He campaigned for Labour, but what did that mean but putting politician’s in power ? He talked about standing for the Council or Parliament himself. Then he would have power. The question raised by Shakespeare was different: was ambition a fault ? Did it drive people to murder ? Were good people unambitious ? Religion and politics might preach goodness but Shakespeare exposed evil. It troubled her badly until an idea saved her: wasn’t Shakespeare ambitious ? Didn’t he want to be the best writer of his time ? And hadn’t Mrs Bressanelli told them in her introductory lesson that he was a rich man with one of the biggest houses in Stratford ? Of course ! Shakespeare didn’t really mean it ! He wasn’t really attacking ambition ! He was just writing a play ! It was just a trick to interest the audience ! And he wanted to interest the audience because he wanted to be a successful author ! He wanted to be famous and make money and that’s why he wrote plays !

Her world, which had temporarily trembled to its core was re-established. She warmed to Shakespeare. He was an author, like her. She wrote confident essays and received superb marks. But she wasn’t inevitably top of the class in English Literature. Diane Treasure, a plain girl with glasses and frizzy hair who always had a cold, often beat her. Then Chantelle Jane would comfort herself with the thought of how unattractive, mousey and nervous her rival was. She’d reached the age when boys started to be interesting. Would any boy ever find Diane Treasure attractive ? In any case, Diane could write could essays but she couldn’t write poetry. She’d never had a poem in Hirondelle, as the school’s annual publication was called. She’d never be an author.

She was in her O Level year when two miraculous things happened: Mrs Bressanelli sent three of her poems to Dunes, a little magazine whose editor she met on a weekend course entitled Catholicism and Literature and they were accepted. The crudely printed, staple-spined publication duly arrived. Chantelle Jane was an author. A real author with real readers in the big world of books. ThenVictor George, the famous member of the Riverside Poets, the trio from London who met in Hammersmith, were friendly with The Dynamos and other super-bands of the time, came to read in Basingstoke. This was her first chance to meet a real author. She put on a tight t-shirt without a bra, carefully applied mascara and lipstick, zipped a skirt short enough to make it easy to flash her knickers, put a little wad of poems and the copy of Dunes in her bag and got on the bus. There were fifty or sixty in the audience; men as old as her granddad and girls as young as her. Why would she be noticed ? She knew it was hopeless to expect him to pick her out. She wasn’t one of those stunningly good-looking girls a man like William would approach. She had to force herself on his attention. All through the first half she was a bundle of tension. She couldn’t pay attention to the poems. She had to work out her strategy. She was seated one in from the aisle. As soon as the interval was announced, she would push past her neighbour, stride to the front and say:

“Hello. I wondered if you’d like to look at some of my poems?”

Naturally, it wasn’t her poems she hoped he’d notice. She would stick out her chest. She would give a little enticing tilt of the head. She would bat her eyelids and smile with seductive innocence. But what was the right thing to say ?

“Hi. I’m an author too !”

She’d been published after all. She could pull the magazine from her bag to impress him. She blushed at the thought. Impressed ? He was famous. He had money. His friends were millionaire pop stars known across the globe. She wouldn’t impress him by three little adolescent poems in an obscure magazine. A sudden anxiety come over her: could she impress him with her breasts, her youth, her willingness. No doubt he’d been to bed with dozens of women and she hadn’t even kissed a boy ! He was almost as old as her father. The terrible thought came to her that he might disdain sex with young girls ! But she’d read his poems. She’d read about him. He was a hippy. He wrote of free love. Surely the offer of a young girl without strings would be too much to resist ? All the same, the terrible strain of waiting with the dread of humiliating failure at the back of her mind started to make her feel distant from her own body. When the interval was announced and she strode forward, smiled, stuck out her breasts and said:

“Hello Mr William. I write poetry. I wondered if you’d like to have a look.”

it was as if someone else were doing it. She was no longer herself. She was a new creature, offering herself. She seemed to be a spectator at her own actions. Some frozen part of her mind was watching her do this odd thing. She had split off her sexuality from the rest of her. It was a thing to be used for advantage. Curiously, the feeling was like being in church. As if her spirit and her body were two different things.

He was looking straight at her tits ! He fixed her in the eye with a hard glance and lisped:

“Fancy a drink ?”

She’d never had alcohol and wasn’t confident about what to ask for. When she hesitated he said:

“Vodka ?”

She nodded and smiled.

They sat in the corner of the bar. She was aware of people looking at him. She was with a famous author ! He looked at her poems.

“Very nice,” he said and swigged his beer. “How old are you ?”

“Sixteen.”

It was true, she turned sixteen three weeks earlier but she knew if he’d come a month ago she would have lied. Perhaps he would have gone to bed with her even if she was under age, but it would have been safer to remove the obstacle. He asked her all about herself, kept looking at her boobs and just before he got up to go to the gents, put his hand on her thigh. She sipped the vodka and orange. The little dizziness of incipient intoxication came over her. Back in the hall, she felt very special. She was the one who’d sat with the author during the break. She was the he’d bought a drink for. She was the one whose tits he’d ogled. She was the one whose thigh he’d fondled. She was the one. The poems passed her by.

When the reading was over she hung around. He asked  if she’d like to go for something to eat so she went with him to a curry house where he demolished a vindaloo and a bottle of red.

“My hotel’s just round the corner,” he said.

The room was small and unattractive. His overnight bag was on the floor with a pair of underpants creeping over the side. On the bedside table was a half-finished bottle of red. There was a cracked and stained wash-basin but the toilet was down the corridor. On the single bed was a worn orange counterpane. The window looked out onto the street and the sound of passing traffic filled the cramped space. The place smelt musty.

“Just got to go and shake hands with the Pope,” he said.

She sat on the edge of the bed. She was no longer Chantelle Jane Griffin, schoolgirl. She was about to become the mistress of a famous author ! Other girls had boyfriends and kissed in the woods or at the bus-stop. Some let them touch their tits or put their hand down their knickers. One or two had already done it. But what was that ? Where was that going to get them ? They would stay in Basingstoke, get jobs in shops or hairdresser’s, get married, have babies and live and die in obscurity. But she would be famous. All she had to do was let him get on with it and she had her place in literary history. His was already assured and as his mistress her name would be remembered as long as men may breathe….

He came back.

“Let’s finish this wine !”

He grabbed the little tumblers from the shelf below the mirror and filled them, quaffed his own, ran his fingers through his hair and his big beard, stretched and said:

“I wonder what the bed’s like ?”

It was all pretty unceremonious. He threw his arms round her and began kissing her passionately, letting out ridiculous little grunts. Then his hands pulled and fiddled with her clothing till she was half dressed on the bed with him on top of her. When he stood up and stripped she saw how fat he was, how feeble his legs looked, how hairy he was, and her first sight of an erection was hardly in the context of the sweet, puppy love which attenuates the coarse physicality of the revelation. He was sweaty and out of breath. He grunted and groaned. She lay beneath him and let it all go on with a vague sense of pleasure which she fought down coming from between her legs. When he’d finished he stood up, pulled off the condom, wrapped it in a tissue and dropped it in the bin. How strange ! The cleaning woman would empty the bin and take away the remnants of her first seduction !

“What time do you have to be home ?”

He ordered her a taxi and gave her the money to pay. They exchanged addresses and phone numbers. He promised to stay in touch and help her with her poetry.

He was as good as his word.

From her part-time job she saved money for the train and spent weekends in his flat in Islington. She told her parents she was staying in bed and breakfast. At first, she’d thought she was going to become his girl-friend, but he soon disillusioned her:

“Faithfulness is middle-class !” he declared, walking round the bedroom post coitus, his flaccid penis swinging beneath his hairy pot-belly. “We’re poets. It’s our duty to scandalise the bourgeoisie. We are unfaithful as a matter of principle !”

He didn’t bother to reflect on the anti-bourgeois compulsive unfaithfulness of that most bourgeois of figures, the commercial traveller. That respectably married, church-going Tories who never read a poem from one year’s end to the next were engaging in exactly the same behaviour, didn’t trouble his radical assumptions. He needed an excuse for bedding as many women as possible, and he’d found one.

At first she was slightly troubled, but what did it matter ? This wasn’t love ! This wasn’t a soppy attachment ! This was ambition ! What a small price to pay for the possibility of becoming a great poet ! At last she’d entered the world of authors. William’s flat was full of books. They filled the shelves that lined every room,  tottered in unruly piles on the stairs, grew damp on the bathroom window-ledge, shared the kitchen cupboards with packets of spaghetti and tins of rice pudding. She’d escaped the mentally cramped world of her parents and was in the expansive territory of the unbridled imagination. There were names on the spines she’d never heard of and inside the covers strange riches from all corners of the earth and long-gone centuries. While he thrusted inside she would ask:

“Who’s Paul Fort or what do you think of Nekrasov ?”

She pestered him endlessly and he patiently passed on what he knew and helped her with her writing. Every line she wrote she showed to him and his advice brought her on in leaps and bounds. Was she a fool ? Was she going to sit at home writing day in day out, sending her efforts to little magazines and having them turned down year after year ? Was she going to suffer the long humiliation of rejection that is the usual poet’s apprenticeship ? Oh, she knew there were hundreds of poets at it. She knew how small was the circle of success of any kind and impossibly tiny the nucleus of renown. She wasn’t so stupid as to play by the rules. Not only did she have the advice of a well-thought-of poet, she had introductions: she went with him to readings. She met the Poet Laureate. She was introduced to editors, publishers, reviewers. Her entrance to the narrow world of poetry was generously lubricated.

All the same, success didn’t come quickly. She applied to London universities and moved in with him when she began her degree in Anthropology. Sometimes she would come home and find him in bed with a woman. One day, the novelist Andrea Nightingale wandered from the bedroom in a barely concealing towel. She was fifty-three, flabby, wrinkled and slow. Chantelle Jane found it slightly disgusting. She wondered why he needed to bed over-the-hill women like her when he had free use of her body every night. All the same, it was exciting to sit in the kitchen with the author of The Wolf’s Confessions as she smoked and drank and exuded fashionable, nonchalant ennui. The worrying thing was the rejection slips kept coming.

The Farting Cow has sent my poems back,” she said to William over breakfast.

“Forget them,” he said. “It’s a dog’s breakfast.”

“But you said Rhys Jenkinson was an astute editor !”

“He is, or he can be, or he was. It’s the drink. He’s let the magazine decline.”

He encouraged her to keep trying even when months went by and she didn’t place a thing.

“Can’t you have a word with someone for me ?” she pleaded.

“I have ! You know I have. But editors are awkward, independent buggers. They don’t have space to spare and they’re quirky. You just have to keep going.”

“I’m going to be thirty before I get a book published at this rate!” she cried.

He looked at her over his glasses as he scratched his crotch.

“Thirty is okay. Believe me. It’s okay.”

She resented him for the remark. She was twenty. Ten years seemed an eternity. And thirty ! She’d be almost old ! She wanted success today, while she was young. She wanted to be feted as the stunning young talent of British poetry. Was that what she’d let him shag her for when she was barely sixteen ? To have to wait nearly twenty years to get a book published ! The worst thing was the absence of feedback. Her precious poems into which she’d poured the whole of her being came back with a scribbled Sorry or Not for us. Then it dawned on her: she needed to win competitions. She gathered the entry forms. She made William pore over the poems. She sent to every competition she could. Dozens and dozens produced nothing. Then at last, after nearly three years of effort, she won third prize in the South Lincolnshire Poetry Competition and was invited to read at the awards ceremony. William went with her. Everyone wanted to talk to him. He told people she was “ a real talent in the making”. To her amazement, when she submitted poems along with a covering letter telling of her success, she started to place them. Little by little she was getting known. She kept close track of her work. In a tiny notebook she would write: 22nd October 1978, Green Apples, My Father’s Flat Cap and The Nest In The Hedge sent to Annulus. She made a neat list of her acceptances. Sixteen poems. Seventeen. Soon she would have enough published pieces for a volume!

She twigged that the knack of winning prizes was to find out who the judges were, to study their work, to look at the previous winners and to subtly mould a poem which flattered the judges’ practice and judgement. She was proven right when her poem Fat Man With A Hairy Belly won the National Poetry Competition.

William had never done that.

Soon afterwards, Duncan Heron, editor of Entresol asked her for some poems. She began to sense she no longer needed William but she hung onto him for the time being. A curious idea came to her: she was making her way along with Mrs Thatcher. The world was changing for women and it was changing per se. She thought of herself as a socialist, but the new culture was vicious. She recalled what her father had said about the elections of 1974 and Labour’s commitment to a fundamental shift of wealth and power to working people and their families: “If they do it, Britain will be a new society.” But she knew that was old hat. What was coming was a free for all. Henceforth, helping your neighbour was weakness, thinking of others delusion. Secretly, she knew she shared something with Mrs Thatcher: you had to get on any way you could. That was the first rule of life. Mrs Thatcher had made things easy for herself by marrying a rich man. A wise move. She had done the same by having sex with William. He’d been kind enough, after all, and helped her enormously. But once she was really successful, what would be the point of staying with him ? That was where she differed from Thatcher: she was a new woman, a feminist. And then a lovely thought came to her: she could be free not only of William but of the ugly rigmarole of sex with men altogether. She could become a lesbian !

She was twenty-nine when her first collection The Ventriloquist’s Dummy appeared. It was well-received. She began to get invitations to read. She was asked to judge competitions. She was offered a residency and moved out of William’s flat unceremoniously. She knew she was writing with the mood of the times. There was no point pushing water uphill. The world was corrupt, that was for sure, and innocence got you nowhere. There was still a long way to go, but she’d made a good beginning and she knew how to push on. She started a relationship with a young female novelist. But what about children, or at least a child ? She didn’t want to miss out on motherhood. She began to weigh up the men she knew. Who would do her the favour ? And who stick around to be a part-time father ?

There was much to think about. Much to be done. And up ahead, who could say ? Poet Laureate ? The Nobel Prize ?

 


 

NYE BEVAN IS DEAD, DAD.

 

When Pam’s elder brother was elected President of the Student’s Union in 1972 as an International Socialist, his parents laughed about it at the table.

“Enjoy it while you can, he’ll probably end up a Liberal,” said her father.

“Give him some credit. He’ll fall into the Labour Party,” her mother retorted

“Yeah, he’ll probably be a junior minister talking crap on the telly.”

Pam wasn’t sure what to make of it. She followed her parents’ political line: they voted Labour, belonged to unions, boycotted Barclays and wouldn’t buy South African oranges. Tom, her brother, was much more steeped in politics than her. She wanted to do well. He wanted to change the world. Tom had breezed through school; a bright scientist he was reading Physics which she found impossibly hard. She had to struggle to get through; but she was top in English and determined to make something of it. She was a little bit disturbed by his election. She felt something of an outsider in her family because they were all so politically attuned. Still, her mother was very attentive and praised her for her good marks and encouraged her to do well, and her dad put his arm round her as he read her reports and said, “I’m proud of you, lass. I’m proud of you.”

When she went to university in 1979, there were no International Socialists on the executive. The mood was much more to her liking; students were less concerned with the state of the world and more interested in their career prospects. She harboured a secret admiration for Mrs Thatcher, though her parents despised her. She would never have voted Tory but the sense that life was a struggle for scarce rewards, everyone against everyone and the spoils to the winner was something she liked. She quickly found herself outclassed by some of her fellow students, especially James Kirkwood who was one of those fearsome intellectuals who could ruthlessly tear ideas apart or examine a text in the most minute detail and produce interpretation as easily as breathing. She made it her business to get to know him.

“Jim,” he said.

“Sorry ?”

“Don’t call me James. Only my mother calls me that.”

“Oh, okay.”

She sat in the armchair at the foot of his bed while he sat on the chair by the alcove desk. He’d made her a coffee, a real coffee, not the Nescafe her dad drank all the time. It was an aromatic, lovely drink. She was delighted to sit in his room on a cold Wednesday afternoon sipping and chatting.

“Well,” he said, “he’s rehearsing the same conflicts over and over. His real subject, and his only subject, is his parents’ marriage. He was ruined. They destroyed him. His mother especially. She bound him to her when her love for her husband collapsed. Think how that must have felt for him as a kid. He was taking his father’s place. But it’s not the classic oedipal thing. I don’t take Freud at face value anyway. No, it’s power. His mother was a bitterly disappointed woman. She married a man to complement her but she found his easy-going ways, his drinking and his unabashed pleasures vulgar. She was, in fact, a snob. Lawrence was trapped. His mother exploited him but Lawrence loved his father. I’d say he loved him more than her. But she stopped him. That’s a horrible thing, to stop your child loving his father. Her emotional greed was almost boundless. This was the great tragedy of Lawrence’s life, that his parents’ marriage failed. It hurt him inordinately. He wanted to mend it. He wanted men and women to love one another so little Bert Lawrence wouldn’t be hurt anymore. And the truth is he never understood. He never grasped why his mother and father couldn’t get on. So he brought it all down to sex. If only they could have had orgasms together everything would have been right. But it wasn’t that. His mother married the wrong man. She was too prissy. She should have married someone middle-class. A Methodist. Someone stern who loved a Sunday sermon. Lawrence’s father loved the flowers of Nottinghamshire. He had a real feel for life. That’s where Lawrence got it from. He was like his father in lots of ways and his mother hated his father. You see how bad that would make you feel ?”

“But surely he wrote about other things,” she said.

“Such as ?”

She was unnerved by the way he looked directly at her when he said these things.

“Well, all that stuff about industrial civilisation and how it’s anti-life. He’s always using the word life in a special way. It doesn’t just mean biology. But I think there’s a big part of his work that’s about rejecting modern industry and society and looking for a simpler way of life that’s in touch with nature.”

“Ruskin.”

“What ?” she sipped her coffee looked askance at him with wide eyes.

“He inherited all that from Ruskin. And Thoreau. Probably Thoreau more than Ruskin. If I do a Phd I’m going to write about Thoreau’s influence on Lawrence. HDT and DHL. Lawrence was deeply influenced by Walden Pond, all that return to nature stuff. Building your own little cabin and living frugally. And Thoreau had this amazing capacity to just contemplate nature. His mother complained about him being impractical and spending hours gazing at flowers or something. Yeah. Lawrence just grabbed that wholesale. It reminded him of his dad. But it’s not his real theme. It’s an addition. His theme was his parents’ marriage and how it cut him to pieces emotionally as a boy.”

Pam didn’t really take to Lawrence. She thought he was unfair to women and she found his work always on the side of men. Her favourite writer was Wilkie Collins. She liked a good story and a ghost or detective story above all. She had to hang on  by her fingernails as she climbed the cliff face of Middlemarch or Under The Volcano. She wished she was like Kirkwood: immersed in literary and intellectual life. He read Proust for fun. But then she thought she wouldn’t want to be like him because he was obviously going to spend his life writing books about Lawrence or Chaucer or Zola. She didn’t want to do that. It was a life apart. Who would read such books ? He was going to be part of an intellectual world hardly anyone paid attention to. She wanted to be in the middle of the crowd on the pavement. She wanted to move with the mass. That would give her the chance to push her way to the front. James might become a big intellectual. He’d probably be a professor by the time he was thirty, but who cares about professors ? He’d deliver his lectures, teach his seminars, publish his books, attend conferences and be highly thought of among a few hundred people who take all that stuff seriously. The thought of it made her almost nauseous. She saw herself as a Headteacher or Advisor. Someone who could be busy and efficient and tell other people how to get on with their jobs. James was all questions. Everything he said was a kind of question. Even when he produced some clever ideas about Lawrence it was as if he was asking if they might be right. He was always thinking at that point at which certainty dissolved. Talking to him was like walking on the deck of a ten-foot pleasure boat in a storm round Cape Horn. She always felt as if everything reliable was being put in question.  She wanted something solid. Above all she wanted to feel she was important and in control. In truth, she’d rather read Ngaio Marsh than Mrs Gaskell. A good thriller was just the kind of thing she liked to go to bed with. It put reading in its proper place: a leisure activity, something to pass the time. But she worked hard because she wanted a good degree and to get on.

For a short time she thought she might entice James into a relationship. She liked the idea of a man who wouldn’t be a competitor. He was so lost in his books he wouldn’t fight her for dominance. A go-getting man might want her to stay at home, or work part-time. But she could imagine imposing the domestic  burdens on James without him having the guile to see what was happening. And in any case, what would it matter to him ? He could stay at home and read and write. No. She was the one who needed a career. And wasn’t that the way the world was going ? Women were taking their place. She wanted hers. James had no ambition in the common way: he didn’t want to be in charge or to have money. His ambition was to write good books and to get his interpretation of literature right. She thought it was touchingly naïve. But though she flirted and provoked, swaying her knees apart as she sat in his armchair or wearing a tantalizingly short skirt with black stocking and knee-length boots, he never so much as touched her. When he took up with Pauline Redman, who was dumpy, dowdy, wore glasses and chain smoked, she realized it was because, like him, she had a mind permanently on the edge of doubt. She was articulate and brimmed with ideas in seminars. All the same, Pam couldn’t but feel slighted that James could prefer Pauline’s unprepossessing body to hers.

Her friendship with him dwindled. She started going out with Colin Niven. Like her he was keen to get on.

“There are some great jobs in the Labour Party,” he would say.

When she took him home one weekend and he expressed that very idea while they were having Nescafe in the kitchen, her dad said:

“The Labour Party is supposed to be about changing the world, not getting on in it.”

“It’s an old-fashioned view,” she said to Colin. “He’s sentimental about Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan. He thinks it’s still 1945.”

“No reason you can’t be a socialist and be rich,” said Colin.

“Of course not,” said Pam.

“We want a society where people can get on.”

“Of course we do.”

They both got upper seconds and went on to do PGCEs. They got along pleasantly but there was always a little grit in the gears: Colin had his career mapped out – a Scale One post, move on after a year, two at the most, a Scale Two to get some experience then leap to Scale Three and Head of Department; keep your nose clean, get on all the right courses, keep well in with the Head and Advisors and go for Deputy Headships as soon as possible; he would be a Head by thirty-five at the latest, and after that, well who could say. Pam listened and shifted in her chair.

“What if I get promoted before you ?” she said.

“That’s fine. No problem with that.”

“Whoever earns more gets to follow their career.”

“We both can.”

“But if we get married, Colin…..”

“Let’s not dig the grave before the coffin’s ordered.”

“I’m talking about marriage !”

“I was being metaphorical.”

“Someone will have to look after the children.”

“There are nurseries.”

“I know. But someone has to do the chores. Drop them off. Pick them up.”

“We can share.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Colin. If I’m too busy in my career, I won’t have time. We’ll have to decide whose career comes first.”

“We can both have careers. It’ll work out.”

But it didn’t. The matter of careers and precedence became the fishbone in their throats. It was the sandpaper on the tips of their fingers when they touched one another. The thought Colin might overtake her began to obsess Pam. When he found his first teaching post before her, she was furious.

“Rotherham ?”

“It’s a good school. And remember, I’ll only be there for a year or two.”

“I’m looking for jobs all over the country.”

“Fine.”

 

She got an interview in Cambridge. It was a big primary in a very middle-class area.

“It’s an excellent place to start,” she said.

“I’ll enjoy coming down. And we can nip to London for shows and stuff.”

She was appointed, found herself a tiny flat on the third floor of a big house, worked till ten every night, all Sunday afternoon and did everything she could think of to make a good impression. When Colin suggested visiting for the weekend she found she resented his presumption and the idea of him being in her flat irritated her. She told him she was far too busy. She liked to close the door and sit marking books or preparing wall displays. Always in her mind was the idea of the advancement it would bring. She knew Mr Marchant, the Headteacher, was pleased with her. She was determined to be his favourite. She found herself flirting with him. She noticed him once casting a glance at her cleavage so when she had to go and speak to him about her idea for an Innovations Day, she wore a low-cut blouse and made sure she leant forward to pull some papers from her bag. Not that she would have dreamed of any kind of relationship. Had he made a move towards her she would have protested and reported him to the governors; but every weapon was useful in the fight to get on. It was a little bit of innocent flirting after all and if it unnerved him somewhat and put him on the defensive, all the better for her. Women couldn’t be too scrupulous about their methods. They had a lot of catching up to do. Men were in charge and women faced the glass ceiling. Wasn’t it true that if your path to success was strewn with nails, if you were blindfolded and left to stumble in the dark, you could be forgiven a little rule-breaking ? Nobody ever got anywhere by being modest, honest and fair. That was obvious. Of course, it was important always to proclaim the value of modesty, honesty and fairness. Appearances must be maintained.

“I’ve got funding from the Institute for Innovations in Arts and Sciences,” she said, handing him a file.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s good. Very good.”

She could see he was merely looking over the papers and wouldn’t read them.

“The idea would be to have a whole school assembly to start the day where I’d give a presentation and explain to the children….”

She’d thought of everything. She wasn’t going to leave any corner of curtain awry where a light she disapproved of might filter in. She wanted her plan accepted as a fait accompli without possibility of the slightest revision. She would be in charge for the day. The Head himself would have to comply. She would carry out an evaluation and ensure the event was classed an extraordinary success. She would use it to bid for promotion.

“There’s one thing,” said the Head.

“Yes.”

“Don’t you think this is perhaps stepping on Janet Michelson’s toes ?”

“I don’t think so,” and she leaned forward to scratch her ankle looking him in the eyes all the while.

He looked away and fiddled with the papers.

“It’s just that she does have a remit for curricular innovation and she might see this as encroaching.”

“Has she complained ?”

“Complained ? No. She’s mentioned the programme but not complained as such.”

The next day Pam caught Mrs Michelson alone in the staffroom.

“Janet. Oh, I’m glad you’re here. I just wanted to ask you about the Innovations Day. The Head is very keen, of course. And the governors think it’s excellent. Do you think it fits in well with what you’re doing for curriculum innovation ?”

“I think it’s fine, Pam. Only curriculum is my responsibility so I think you should stay away from that.”

“Of course. Though it’s too late to change the programme now, isn’t it?”

She smiled, turned and walked away before Janet could reply, and later in the day, knocked on the Head’s door, went in and told him she’d spoken to Mrs Michelson and she was quite happy with what was planned.

Pam’s dislike of Mrs Michelson was visceral. She was one of those women who’d made her way in the sixties and seventies and was now settled into her position as Deputy Head. Pam saw her as a blockage, a barrier to be swept away. The old idea of working for twenty years, proving your worth, being promoted because of your experience was anathema to her. Why should she wait ? There was nothing Janet could do she couldn’t. She belonged to a disappearing world. People waited politely for promotion in those days. But Pam was too impatient to be polite. Thinking about other people’s feelings was silly. You had to look after yourself and get ahead. If you didn’t understand that, you were lost.  The government was talking about city technology colleges and breaking up the old, paternalistic State provision; you had to be where the action was; you couldn’t live in the 1980s as if they were the 1960s. That would be like her dad who imagined the world stopped in 1945, or maybe 1964, or perhaps 1974 when Labour won twice on the promise of the fundamental shift of wealth and power to working people he was always banging on about. She had a vague sense of betrayal: she would never actually vote Tory, but this was the way the world was going; what would happen to you if you resisted ? When she went home for a visit, her dad ranted against the government and her mother said Mrs Thatcher understood nothing about the women’s movement. It was all well and good for them, they didn’t have to make their way in the new order. Her dad was in his mid-fifties. He’d soon be retiring. He could sit in his chair by the fire, read the New Internationalist and elaborate his theories of a world based on the best in human nature; but she had to contend, every day, with the worst. People weren’t nice. Not when it came to money and status. Oh, she could go to the pub with her colleagues on a Friday evening and everyone got along like a rocket. They could arrange a Christmas meal, put on silly hats, get tipsy and be the best of friends. But friendship was as weak as twice brewed tea compared to the force of ambition. She valued her friends, but not one of them was worth sacrificing her career for. Come to that, she couldn’t think of toning down her ambition for the sake of a man she loved. No, her desire to get on came first. That’s what she sensed in Mrs Thatcher: an unflinching willingness to dismiss whatever stood in the way of success. And what was success ? It was money, status, power. It was the admiring gaze of others. It was being able to read in the paper that you were among the top ten percent of earners in the country. What was love compared to that ? Yet love had to be important. The last thing she wanted was to be left on the shelf. It was a question of having it all, as she’d heard someone say on the radio. Why shouldn’t women have it all ? The idea inspired her and made her stride more purposeful. It struck her that the kind of relationship her parents had was a thing of the past: it contained a kind of resistance; it was a way of fending off the harshness of the realm of career and ambition. Hadn’t her dad always said work finishes at five and doesn’t come over my doorstep ? Her mother and father had a gentle, tender way of being in each others’ company; they were always making jokes about money and the rich and politicians and laughing till their ribs rattled. It was odd. No-one could be like that any more, not if they were going to get on; and if they didn’t, they’d be so crushed by failure they’d never sustain a relationship. No, this was a new world and she had to get along in it. A job wasn’t something you started in the morning and finished in the evening and went home and forgot; it was the way you defined yourself. You couldn’t take the risk that someone else would work harder and gain a centimetre. No, a career was vital for a woman. She must take her place in the world, she must shine, she must be a superwoman. That’s what her mother didn’t understand; she was just a woman who’d done a job to make a bit of money, pin money. How demeaning. Pam didn’t want pin money she wanted to be among the best paid women in the country; she wanted a big house and a nice car and the self-esteem that went with them. That was how things were. Without money and status you were nobody, despite all her parents’ talk of equality.

The Innovations Day was a great success. The Head loved it. The Chair of Governors loved it. The children enjoyed themselves and learned a lot. All the same, whispers filtered to Pam about staff dissatisfaction: they felt it was a box-ticking exercise; she was promoting herself more than looking after the children. No-one said anything to her face but it made her aware of how important it was to have the right people on your side.

It was at this time she met John Dudley. Like her he was from the north. He was a journalist who made much of his hard-bitten attitude: the media was a tough world to survive in; you got nowhere without using your claws. He should know. He came from the back streets of a small northern town and now he wrote a column for  an important daily, but more interestingly, was getting to know the right people in the Labour Party.

“It’s all about manipulation,” he said pouring another glass of Pinot Grigio. “Honesty, principle. All that stuff. Forget it. They trample you in the mud. Where are the votes ? That’s my question. Sniff out the votes that win elections and do what you have to do to get them. That’s how you get power and it’s the only way.”

She liked this because it bolstered her sense that her parents no longer understood, but at the same time allowed to her to stay true to what she’d been brought up with. This was Labour, but it wasn’t the romantic, left-wing Labour of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot. It chimed with her own need to get on. It was cynical, aggressive and it required never quite telling the truth to anyone, including yourself. Dudley had a big flat in London, ate at The Ivy, knew the politicians on the rise, was friendly with important people at the BBC. Lifted into this atmosphere of power and plentiful money (Dudley jumped into taxis without a thought for the fare, bought at least two bottles of wine a day, paid for expensive seats at the theatre or the opera, notched up debt on his credit card as if it would never need to paid off and constantly complained that you couldn’t live in London on less that five hundred thousand a year) Pam felt the future opening up for her. She found a job in the capital. She took on more responsibility. It was a big school in a poor borough and the children shocked her. On the first day she asked a boy to move desks:

“Fuck off. I’m not sitting there.”

She had to adjust her thinking, her teaching, her way of dealing with the pupils and she had to work much harder. She’d thought she was pushing herself as far as she could in Cambridge, but here the exhaustion was terrible. At first she thought she’d get used to it and it would fade, but soon she realized it was going to be her life. It was a matter of keeping going. There was no space for ease. Nothing was a joy. It was a test. Either you kept up or you were a failure. When, in passing she mentioned to John how it felt he said:

“That’s how things are when you start to get near the top. No release. You want to get anywhere you’ve got to take the pressure. Imagine what it’s like being PM. That’s a bone-crusher of a job. Keeps the wrong people out. To get to the top you’ve got to have all the qualities. You’ve got to be clever but you’ve got to be ruthless. And you’ve got to fuck off everything in your life except work. What keeps you going is ambition. You see, I can say to myself I’m John Dudley. I have a column in a national paper. People read me. I change people’s minds. I make a difference. I am somebody. You know what that is ? It’s a drug.”

He took and other swig of Bordeaux.

“It’s better than sex. It’s better than anything. Nothing in the world can compare to the thrill of power. That’s what life is about. Think. Isn’t that what Darwin was saying ? You’ve got to pass on your genes. Your genes. No other fucker’s genes. They’re competition. Your genes. And what’s the best way to do that ? Power. Simple. Biology impels us to have power. That’s why it’s such a drug.”

“But I’m exhausted,” she said, “and I don’t have any power.”

“You will. Keep pushing. Keep alert. Fuck off the opposition. You’ll get your position. What’s the alternative, not being tired and having no control ? Just being some fuckwit in the system ? Who wants to live like that ? Might as well be dead.”

“Isn’t this supposed to be democracy?” she said. “Aren’t those people supposed to matter.”

But this last effort to hang onto the lifebelt of principle was as hopeless as her attempts to get John to drink less.

“Know what democracy is ? Like herding sheep. What do people know? The economy is complex. Most people don’t know what a gilt is. How do markets work ?Most people have no idea. Democracy is a way of persuading the majority to hand over power to those of us who understand.”

John knew what he was talking about. People who mattered in the Labour Party wanted to listen to him. He was making the right contacts, positioning himself for an important post. The more time she spent with him and the more politicians she met, the more she realised how naïve her parents were. They genuinely put their faith in democracy. They believed the votes of millions like them could change the world; but she met those who had power and their view of the people oscillated between indifference and contempt. The electorate was an inconvenience. At first she was shocked, but little by little their views became hers and their contempt began to seem natural. There was no connection between the world of power in which John moved and the world of her parents. All the politicians she got to know wanted to be important on the world stage. They wanted a place in history and would do almost anything to get it. Whenever they talked about what they wanted to enact, the final finesse was how they could sell it. They were no better than double glazing salesmen in their mentality. One thing they all agreed on was the importance of ambiguity, of holding back, of never saying clearly what you meant. They discussed endlessly how a message could be framed to put together a majority but they never talked like her parents: they never discussed what was right. She realised that somehow she’d accepted her parents’ perspective, even as she’d embraced the go-getting they reviled. But they were on the other side of a barrier few would ever cross. There was a power divide much more potent than the class divide her dad railed against. Crossing the class divide was getting easier; more people were going to university; you could start life in the back streets, qualify as a barrister and earn a hundred thousand a year; but the power divide was much harder to cross because the opportunities were far fewer. It wasn’t a matter of being Head of some quango or executive of some public body or other; that was mere influence. Power lay with a palmful of people. As John said, most people elected to parliament weren’t bright enough to run a bike shop. Their purpose was to go into the lobbies when they were told . Of course, they had to look after their constituents, but that was easy. There was so much advice available, and in any case, most MPs simply referred people on to some expert agency. No, the real power was with no more than a dozen ministers and civil servants. They could get their own way over anything. It shocked and excited her. She wanted to turn away from it but she was fascinated. Imagine being within that tiny ring. People like her parents just didn’t matter. However they voted the same kind of people would end up in power. It wasn’t possible anymore for a self-educated Nye Bevan to come from the valleys to establish a National Health Service. He would be stopped. The press would crucify him. His own party would turn against him. He would wail impotently from the backbenches. What a fool her dad was ? All that stuff about her granddad coming back from the war and voting for a new world. All gone. The new world was a fight for money and power and few would come through. She felt as though she’d been initiated into a secret society. She’d been handed special knowledge, and though part of her wanted to tell everyone what they believed was illusory, there was a stronger impulse to take advantage, to stick close to John and spend her life among the only people who mattered.

By the time Ofsted was established she was married with two young children, was Headteacher of a school where most of the pupils were poor, many didn’t have English as their first language and where the outcomes were disappointing.

“How am I supposed to look good in an inspection ?” she said to John. “Look at our intake. That’s the problem.”

“No,” said John filling his glass with chianti, “that’s old thinking. Poverty is no excuse. If the school lets the kids down, it must be punished.”

“We don’t let them down, we’re facing impossible odds.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Well, you’re wrong, John. I do the job.”

“No I’m not. What you’ve got to focus on is results. See those kids as results machines. Everything that can’t be measured, kick it out. Focus and measure. Focus and measure. Then you can turn it round.”

At first it struck Pam these were wild ideas generated by people far from classrooms with no real understanding. She put up a little, fleeting resistance; but then the defeating thought came to her that John was right: power was in the hands of people like him and however remote from reality their ideas, they would carry the day. Little by little she found herself thinking like him and changing what went on in school to fit his ideas. It was true: if you put the required outcomes first, it was possible to make things look much better. She’d always begun with the child, with his or her inclinations, strengths, weaknesses and needs; how the child fitted the system was another matter. Now she realised how the child fitted the system was all that mattered. The children had to be trained to provide the results the system needed. The thought of doing badly in an OFSTED filled her with such rank fear she would have shaved the pupils’ heads and put them in straightjackets if the inspectors had demanded it. The old days were gone. The pretence that the children came first had to be maintained, but the truth was the system was expected to make the politicians look good. She listened to John. She understood how it worked: results must improve so the Party could go to the country and say it was turning things round. There was too much failure in the system, too many schools where children left with few or no qualifications. That’s how the system was measured. That was the meaning of success. The clue was to push up the results, to batter the public with outcomes. John viewed the comprehensive system as a failure. Pam knew this was unfair, but the need to pull in votes overcame everything. They had to be seen to be doing something. They were like pregnant fathers pacing before the birthing room. They had to look busy and purposeful. Elections were won from the middle-ground. It was vital to appeal to the middle-classes and they didn’t believe in socialised provision; they wanted choice; they wanted public services to be like supermarkets; they wanted to choose a school like they chose a car. That was what mattered: the system must be broken up, opened out and made to look like a market. Then the middle-classes could be persuaded to vote Labour and John could have a job in government.

Pam found it all extraordinarily confusing and deeply troubling but one thing sustained her: the idea of her own success. If she could come through in this new world, if she could make money, be congratulated by OFSTED, if she could be one of the few who made it to the top, she could put all her doubts, anxieties and principles aside. What, after all, was the alternative ? To stand up against the system. To tell the truth when power was on the march ? That was to face being crushed. She would be sidelined, she would be demoted. She would be a no-one. She would earn a poor salary and face pressure from those above her. She would be sacked. No. She would be the one to put on pressure. She would say yes to whatever those with power asked. Wasn’t she doing the best for the pupils ? Wasn’t she working to ensure they got the best results ? Weren’t good results the way to good jobs and a better life ? She was conscientious to a fault. She did everything required of her. She could hold her head high. The first task was to come through the inspection with flying colours. She told her staff things would have to change.

There was a little revolt. Teachers said they didn’t want to spend their time putting numbers in boxes. It didn’t help the children. They complained music and drama were being sacrificed. They said making children jump through hoops to get the results OFSTED wanted wasn’t educating them. They argued that the standard lesson Pam insist they deliver was constraining, dull and diminished variety. Pam listened, thanked them for their contribution then made it clear that anyone who didn’t conform would face competency procedures. The few weeks before the inspectors arrived were ghastly. The atmosphere in the school was frozen with fear and cloddish conformism. The children became anxious. Pam told them in assembly the school was on trial. If they let themselves down it might be closed. They must be on their best behaviour and work very hard.

The inspectors weren’t without criticisms, but they liked what they saw: diligent children, standard lessons, punctilious paperwork, an obvious strenuous attempt to please. There was a long way to go but they judged the school good and improving. In particular they praised Pam and their description of her as a very able Headteacher who sets exacting standards for her staff and pupils lodged in her brain. She ensured it was one of the quotations she had printed, framed and displayed in the foyer. She could almost have had it carved in stone. All her doubts disappeared. She was right. She was on her way. Henceforth she was ever more conformist and compliant. She had come to believe whatever she was told to do must be right.

In 2010, Pam was asked to take over a failing school. She knew what she had to do. She made it clear she would accept the post only if money was available to improve the place physically. It had been left to decline for years. The roof leaked. The windows were draughty. Rats roamed the bins at night. It was one of those schools which serve the very poor. The parents had no idea how to fight for improvements. They had no contacts. They couldn’t write letters to the paper. The authority wasn’t afraid of them. With difficult decisions to make, Nelson Rd had been overlooked. The children were ashamed of their school. They knew no more than a mile away , was Portland Primary, a beautiful school in sweet grounds, full of pupils whose parents were doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors, bank managers. They knew the Portland kids called their school smelly Nelson. So over the summer holiday the builders moved in and when the term began it was in a bright, fresh, clean school which smelt of paint and new furniture.

But that was cosmetic.

From the first, she imposed herself on the staff. They had to hand over their lesson plans for the week by eight o’clock on Monday morning. They had to mark to her scheme. They had to teach in the way she told them. She was frequently in school till midnight and she expected them to stay late. When they complained they had lives outside school, she told them they must conform or get on the bus. Slowly and reluctantly they began to bend to her will but one held out. Anna Pollitt had worked in the school for nearly thirty years and was a year from retirement. Pam thought she would simply ignore her for a year and she would go on her way, but when it became clear she didn’t intend to retire her mind changed.

“I don’t have your lessons plans, Anna.”

“I’m not spending my weekend doing lessons plans I don’t need.”

“We all need to do lesson plans.”

“I’ve been teaching nearly three decades. A detailed plan of every lesson ? I can make a Christmas cake without a recipe.”

“That’s facetious, Anna.”

“I apologise.”

“Can you let me have your plans by eight every Monday, please ?”

“No.”

“I have to warn you that if you refuse I will be forced to invoke the school’s disciplinary procedures.”

“Why can’t we have a debate ?”

“There’s no need for debate. I’m the Headteacher.”

“We can still discuss how useful and necessary lesson plans are. The staff would like to have their say.”

“There’s no point. Whatever the staff think I’m in charge. I have to do what OFSTED require. If you teach in this school you’ll produce lesson plans. That’s that.”

“Yes. It’s about control.”

“I beg your pardon ?”

“Whether I need to do plans or not, you want control. It’s power. I’m not submitting to that. I can teach without plans and putting numbers in boxes. I’ll use my time and energy to do what’s best for the children. And I don’t see why I shouldn’t decide that.”

Pam suddenly felt as if her dad was sitting before her. It was just the kind of thing he’d say. He believed in the right of the people at the bottom to make their own decisions. He thought democracy was about power resting with the majority. But she knew that was silly. The world had to be run by experts. What did the majority know? What did the people at the bottom understand? How could they make decisions? John was right: democracy was a way of manipulating the many so they fell in line with the ideas of the few. As for equality, that was a mere abstraction. Yes, we were all equals in so far as racism had been driven out of public life and homophobia was becoming unacceptable; yes, women must not be discriminated against and the disabled must have access to supermarkets and theatres; but equality of wealth or power ? That was a sick idea. There had to be a few people making the important decisions. That was how the world worked. Her dad might laugh at hierarchy and claim it was founded on the belief in god, but it was true: you couldn’t trust people to make decisions for themselves. And if a few had to make the decisions, they must have the rewards. That’s why she earned sixty thousand and Anna thirty-five. In that monetary difference lay the symbol of important distinction. It was outrageous Anna could question her authority. She was doing what was demanded by the government and the government was elected by the people. She was entirely justified in telling Anna what to do. The system had to be run from the top and everyone in it must do what they were asked. She had a small duty. A petty authority. But it must be obeyed just as she must obey those above her. She had taken over this school to prove herself. She was going to succeed. She had to please her superiors. What did people like Anna matter ? She would force her agree. She would make her comply or she would sack her.

But when she invoked the disciplinary procedures, Anna submitted spatchcock plans. Pam accused her of not doing them properly, Anna replied she had done them; there were no grounds for disciplinary action; if the plans weren’t up to scratch, that wasn’t a disciplinary matter. Pam began competency procedures. She observed Anna’s lessons and judged them wanting. She checked her marking and claimed it didn’t follow the school’s format. A compromise agreement was settled and Anna disappeared. Her victory made Pam intent on finding more shortcomings. It became almost an obsession. She was sure the staff were against her. They were plotting. They were lazy and would bring her and the school down. She needed a younger, more compliant staff. She needed people she’d appointed who would understand from the first they must follow her instructions to the letter. One by one she picked off her staff. It was as easy as buttering toast to go into a classroom and find a teacher unsatisfactory. She began to relish it. When she had first done it she felt awkward and a little guilty. But now she felt justified. She agreed with the view that teachers were not up to scratch. She and a few like her were the saviours of the system. There was a need to squeeze out all the second-rate staff. Little by little she began to see almost everyone as second-rate. It was only the odd teacher who was like herself in attitude, demeanour and practice she could believe in. Even when she had cleaned out all the pre-existing staff but one, she felt the new appointees were letting her down. She had to watch them more closely, impose tighter rules. It was a simple fact: too many teachers were feckless shirkers and it was the task of people like her to save the children from them.

She spent more and more time at work. Her children got used to communicating with her by text message and e-mail. They were lucky if they saw her for two hours a week.

“I have an important job to do,” she told them. “You’re teenagers now. You must take responsibility for yourselves.”

John reinforced the message. He was hardly at home. Even though his exciting time at the heart of government had come to an end in May 2010, he was catching trains and planes from city to city, town to town and country to country making speeches and attending meetings in a manic flurry of activity and booze-fuddled nights in hotels. His drinking was diligent. If they were in the house together at the weekend, he would start with a glass of wine in the early afternoon. By five the first bottle was empty. By eight the third was opened and by midnight he was finishing the scotch. Being in the house was a torment to him. He went out whenever he could. An evening at home made him as jumpy as a hungry flea. Pam turned from her disappointment in her marriage to her success in her job. She took a week during the summer holidays. At Christmas she was back in school on the 27th. She worked every half-term holiday. If her staff left before six she would ask them why they needed to go early. She told them six weeks was far too long to be away from school and they should make an effort to come in during the summer.

The first inspection declared the school outstanding. She was awarded Primary Headteacher of the year. The government invited her to join a working party on school improvement. She was recruited to train future Heads. A long article about her appeared in the national press. There was a photo of her surrounded by smiling children. They loved her. She had given them a school to be proud of. They were getting good results. She was a success. The governors admired and supported her. The parents thought she was wonderful.

A few weeks after the newspaper article, her mother died.  It was a horrible shock. Though she’d often thought of her parents’ demise once they’d become slow and weak, the fact of death was still hard. She and John went to stay with her father so they could arrange the funeral but Pam wouldn’t miss work. She drove two hundred miles back and forth.  Her father was shrunken and grey and the loss had shattered his usual cheerfulness. Once the burial was over, her brother had flown back to America, and things were becoming quiet, John went off to a conference in Paris and Pam stayed on her own for the weekend. She realised it was the first time in her life she’d been alone with her father in his house. It was strange. She felt no real connection to him any more. He was her father. She had to do her duty as a daughter. But she had no desire to be with him. His presence spoke of a past she had rejected and his future was death. He was a stranger. This man who had loved her, who had cuddled and comforted her as a child, who had done all the trite and wonderful things fathers do for their children-carried her on his shoulders, fished for shrimps and crabs in rock pools on holiday-was now someone she found it hard to talk to. It upset her and to clam herself she went about cleaning the house, pulling on rubber gloves and scrubbing the skirting boards or climbing a step-ladder to wipe the light shades. When they sat opposite one another at the table on Sunday evening she felt almost like an intruder.

“Your mother was very proud of you when she read that article,” he said.

“Good. ”

“So am I.”

“Thanks, dad.”

“Don’t thank me. You did it yourself.”

“I’m glad it makes you happy.”

He looked up from his plate. In his blue eyes she saw the old sparkle of defiance and mischief.

“It doesn’t make me happy. In fact it pisses me off.”

She laughed.

“I thought you were proud of me.”

“I am. It’s a common fault in parents. I’m proud that you’ve achieved something and I’m glad you live well materially. But all the same.”

She was determined not to argue with him. He was an old man. He reminded her of the Michael Foot he so admired, living beyond ninety, frail but still trying to burn with the old fire.

“All thee same ?”

“You’re going to convert your school to an Academy ?”

“We are.”

“Why ?”

“Because it’s best for the children.”

“Which children ?”

“The children in the school.”

“You know what’s best for those children ?” he said, pointing his fork at her.

“What ?”

“What’s best for all children.”

“But I run one school, dad. I have to do what’s best for my pupils.”

“God bless me and my wife, my son John and his wife, us four, no more.”

“It’s not like that. All schools should become Academies.”

“What’s the point of that ?”

“Equality.”

He rocked back in his chair and laughed like in the old days. For a second she saw him as he was when she was young. Always laughing, always full of vim, always raging against the latest injustice, always with a kind word and gentle hand.

“Pam, you can’t see what’s on the end of your nose. What’s the point of a Rolls-Royce if everyone has one ? To want to own a Rolls-Royce is an ugly impulse. So ugly a strenuous propaganda has to work night and day to convince people of the opposite. We are egotists by nature but our egotism is vile. It’s what we must fight against.”

Pam had heard this kind of thing so often it was as unmoving as the arrival of the milkman. It had always been a little bit beyond her.  Tom understood it and her mother and father lived within the caressive circle of their shared radicalism; but she had always felt a little left out. If she tried to imitate her parents’ socialism, it came out wrong. Her sincere feeling was that she had to get on with life in the existing circumstances.

“Are you saying I’m an egotist, dad ?”

She saw a flicker of pain in his face.

“I’m not insulting you personally, Pam. But an Academy. Why ?”

“It’s the way things are moving. It gets money for the school.”

“And for you.”

“Of course.”

He put down his knife and fork.

“Is that your motivation ?”

“It’s part of it. What’s wrong with that ? What’s wrong with doing well and getting on ?”

“Purely this.” He curled the thumb and forefinger of his right hand into a little circle. “What matters is not that you get on but how. There are right and wrong ways of making money, right and wrong ways of being successful. And you have to choose.”

“I can’t choose, dad. I’m part of a system. There isn’t enough flexibility to choose. Either you do what the system requires or you fail.”

“Maybe failing is the right thing to do.”

“And be at the bottom ? Earn poor money ? Live in a crappy place ? What’s the good of that ?”

“Of course,” he began eating again, “there is no good in that.”

She hoped the discussion was over and that too old and tired to revive his customary Herculean mental fight against the forces of injustice and reaction he would accept times had changed. She hoped especially he would congratulate her, then she could treat him kindly, in a way that befits a man for whom life is a few rooms, a walk to the corner shop for the paper, a snooze in the chair, an hour listening to the radio; a man already nursed in the arms of death. There was silence for a minute.

“You know what the problem is, Pam ?” he raised his head and his eyes were wide. She saw in them an energy and passion a man of his age shouldn’t be capable of. She shook her head.

“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“You’re right. Being at the bottom is bad. Poor pay is bad. Poor living conditions are bad. Everybody tries to look after themselves in the system. I did that. No-one can be expected not to. But it’s not the answer. The point isn’t to lift yourself out of what is bad, but to lift society. To lift everybody. The point is not to be full of ambition for yourself but for the society that makes you. Everything we are is social. Everything. Outside society we are mindless. We evolved to be social. We have to make the best in the human mind define the way we live. The Tories do the opposite. They raise greed and mean-spiritedness to the level of principle. That’s what Academies are for. To set people against one another. To break up the education system and let private interests in. To make education a business. And that’s a lie, Pam. It’s a big lie. They have to use public money because the free market won’t provide education. The drive for personal gain is mean and selfish. Adam Smith himself says the pursuit of private wealth is a delusion. In every way it’s the wealth we share that make us. Don’t do it, Pam. Walk away. Keep your school in the public sector.”

“It’s too late, dad.”

“You have one life. I tell you posterity sees with different eyes and its judgements are harsh. All these attacks on the public sector will be seen for what they are: cheap, mendacious, bullying, destructive. Does the thought of that make you happy ?”

“The future is the future. I have to live in the present. What does it matter to me what people think when I’m dead ?”

“ It matters enormously.  More than anything.”

She was astonished. What could he mean ? She stared at him as if he were a madman. He was looking at her in that way she recalled from the days when she was a teenager and he would provoke her with ideas and when she floundered, laugh, put his arm around her and kiss her cheek. She almost believed he was going to get up and do exactly that. She almost believed he was forty again. There was something indestructible about him. In spite of his frailty, his stiff, slow movements, there was a quick shrew still alive in his mind, scurrying, collecting, nibbling. It disappointed her because she felt in spite of her age and achievements, he was still ahead of her. It was as if she would never surpass him.  But what could he mean ? How could posterity matter more than anything ? What did she care for what the world thought once she was eaten by worms ? It threw her into confusion and anger.

“That’s a silly idea.”

“No. We belong to the future. To know the future will judge us well is a present pleasure and to know it will judge us badly is a present misery. Do you think people like Hitler or Stalin could be happy ? They were miserable. People like that live with the misery of knowing how they will be judged. It’s what drives their need for control. The present is defined by the future. If you don’t understand that, you’re lost.”

“The future is defined by the present,” she said feeling at once that her ideas were running away with her, that it was not really her speaking. Was the future defined by the present ? She’d just said so. Was it true. It seemed to her it must be though it was an idea she’d never formulated.

“You’re right. What sort of future do Academies point to ?”

She felt unable and threatened. It was unfair of him to expect to have thought it through. She wasn’t like him. She didn’t spend her life thinking about everything. She wanted to be able to accept. She wanted someone else to do the thinking.

“Better schools for everyone,” she said.

“Then why not improve the ones we’ve got ?”

“Academies are free to make their own choices. There’ll be more variety. That can’t be a bad thing.”

“Variety is disastrous unless it’s real. Five hundred different toothpastes all with the same ingredients isn’t variety, it’s marketing. False choice. That’s what commercialism is about because real choice is hard. It means thinking and being responsible. And how will you be free in your Academy ?”

“I’ll no longer be told what to do by the local authority.”

“You’ll be told what to do by the secretary of State.”

“I don’t think so.”

“How can it be otherwise ? That’s where responsibility lies.”

She was confused and disappointed. Was it true she was a dupe ? Was she falling for a nasty, political trick ? It all seemed so clear and easy in her own mind: she did what she had to, she did it well, she pleased the inspectors and she was rewarded. It seemed as natural as sleeping. It was true, she would be told what to do. She would have to follow the rules or she’d be in trouble. But how could she stand against the fierce wind of conformity ? What was the point ? He could see it but she couldn’t. To her it was a blank. It was defeat and difficulty. The world that might be wasn’t enough to motivate her. It was the world that was she needed. The future was the future’s business. Trying to follow her dad’s thinking was like trying to find her way in the fog in an unknown landscape.

He was eating in his slow, slightly obscene old man’s way. She was saddened  by the memory of him as young and vigorous. It almost made her glad that he argued with her because it meant he was still strongly in touch with life although everything about him looked weak and withdrawn. She’d cleaned her plate and was waiting for him.

“Want some apple pie ?” she said.

He shook his head.

“Gives me indigestion.”

“Cup of tea.”

He finished his last mouthful.

“Cup of tea. I’ll go and sit on the sofa. I hate these straight-backed chairs.”

She laughed.

“You know what, Pam,” he said smiling at her in the way he always used to. “I’m proud of you. You’ve done well.”

The following week she was in her office when she spotted Sally Hyde driving out of the car park at three thirty. She made one of her stern mental notes to keep an eye on her. She noticed her leaving at the same time almost every day then one Friday she heard an engine start, took off her reading glasses went to the window and looking through the blinds, saw Sally’s car reversing. She looked at the clock: three eighteen. Before going home at nine, early because it was the weekend, she put a note in her colleague’s pigeon-hole and on Monday morning Sally was in her office. Pam liked her. She would have been happy to have a friendship with her; but this was a different context. Whether you liked your staff as people was irrelevant. Whether a member of staff was a good person made no difference. What mattered was whether they obeyed the rules. Pam found she enjoyed the little thrill it gave her to set aside her liking for someone in order to deal with them as an employee. It was strange, the little lift of power; being able to set aside the normal subtleties of human conversation, to simplify the unfathomable complexity of reading and responding to another person’s inner life and to merely impose and insist. It gave her a queer sense of security. It was not at all like the shifting, uncertain waters of personal relationships. Nothing like the troubled connection between her and John. It was more like controlling a puppet. She enjoyed making small insistences her staff had to conform to. It was intensely exciting to feel another human being forced to act according to her command. It left her with a sense of peace, an illusion of invulnerability.

“Did you leave school premises early on Friday ?”

“No, three twenty.”

“Three eighteen.”

“Eighteen ?”

“I checked the clock.”

“My phone said three twenty.”

“You must use the school clocks.”

“I thought it was three twenty.”

“It wasn’t. The best thing is to stay well after the end of the school day then you can’t make the mistake.”

“I had to get away.”

“Why ?”

“Personal reasons.”

“We all have personal lives.”

“I’m sorry. I thought it was three twenty.”

“I’ve noticed you leave early most days.”

“No, I leave after three twenty.”

“Yes, but when I say early I mean three thirty or four o’clock.”

“That’s not early.”

“What I mean, Sally, is early compared to other staff.”

“The school day ends at three twenty.”

“But our work doesn’t end with the school day.”

“I do plenty of work at home.”

“We have to do what’s best for the children. That’s not negotiable.”

“I do.”

“Leaving early gives the wrong impression.”

“I’m not trying to create an impression.”

Pam felt a short stab of insult.

 

“ You know I’m often here till eleven or midnight…”

“That’s your choice.”

“It’s what has to be done.”

Sally said nothing. Perhaps this was the time to stop the interview; but Pam didn’t want her to go away thinking it was fine to leave at three thirty every day. She couldn’t get out of her head the picture of Sally enjoying herself. Maybe she was shopping or meeting a friend for coffee or sitting on the sofa at home with a magazine or a book. She could be sure she wasn’t enjoying herself only if she kept her in school. It was true the school day ended at three twenty and she was free to leave, except on Mondays and Thursdays when there were meetings; but Pam despised the idea of staff being able to stick to their contract. It was a minimum. Everyone was expected to exceed it by far, by a hundred per cent. What would happen if people worked to their contract ? It was a legal agreement but beyond that was the demand to prove yourself. It was the real demand. A moral demand. The insight struck her with the force of an epoch-changing scientific discovery; Sally wasn’t simply a lax employee, she was morally reprehensible.

She took off her reading glasses.

“You are, of course, free to leave at three twenty.”

“I know.”

“But it’s not fair to the other staff, let alone the children.”

“Not fair ?”

“Everyone stays late.”

“Because you force them to.”

Pam was outraged and could have lost her temper but she pushed her anger behind her coldly professional demeanour.

“I don’t force anyone, Sally.”

“People are frightened to leave at the end of the day.”

“Frightened ?”

“Yes.”

“I’m astonished you can say that. It’s ridiculous.”

“It’s the truth.”

“No-one is frightened of me. People want to do the best for the children.”

“That’s not what they say in the staff-room.”

Staff-room whingeing was something Pam joked about when she met other Heads. It was one of those aspects of school life which gave her a sense of superiority and security. Of course staff moaned. That was something management took for granted. Staff were supposed to moan; they didn’t come to work to be happy. It had become part of her Weltanschauung that if staff didn’t complain, she wasn’t doing her job properly. A good manager kept staff on their toes and as there was a natural tendency for staff to be lazy, to cut corners, to make life pleasant for themselves, a good manager expected staff to be disgruntled; but she’d always flattered herself with the thought her school was harmonious because the staff respected her, because she knew how to deal with them.

“Are you saying I’m a bully.”

“People are frightened of what will happen if they don’t do what you want and they know you want them to stay late.”

“I want them to work hard for the children.”

“A lot of time after school is wasted.”

“Wasted.”

“People clock watch. They stay late to please you but they don’t always get much done. Sometimes people just have a chat in the staff-room for most of the time.”

“This is ridiculous, Sally.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You know my position. I’ve always made it plain. If you work here you do the best for the children or you can get on the bus.”

“Is there anything wrong with my work ?”

Pam put her reading glasses on and pretended to be intent on something in front of her. She knew if she accepted that Sally’s work was good, she was undermining her own argument. On the other hand, she knew there was no criticism she could make off the top of her head. She felt she was being challenged; her regime was under threat. What puzzled her was why this previously obedient teacher had changed.

“Everyone can  improve.”

“I’m improving all the time.”

What Sally had said niggled away at Pam for days. She wasn’t having anything to do with the accusation she was a bully; she did her job well; it was necessary to keep staff in line. But she wanted to find out why Sally’s attitude had changed. A few discreet conversations and she discovered her marriage had broken down and she was alone with the children. At first it softened her feeling, but immediately there came a reaction: was she using personal difficulties as an excuse ?; did she imagine it was legitimate to leave school at three thirty every day just because she had two children to look after ?; didn’t she know everyone had personal difficulties of some kind ? The thought of her vulnerability made Pam think she would be easy to defeat. The way to do it was obvious.

She announced a new round of observations: she would be visiting everyone’s class two or three times over the next fortnight; everyone would get a grade for their lesson in line with OFSTED criteria.

Sally was one of those quick, neat, highly organised teachers children find it easy to follow. From the moment she entered the classroom she was talking and her energy drove the lessons forward; the children launched into activity and she went  from table to table correcting and encouraging. She had the ability to keep going at the same high level of positive input and the absence of slackening in her lessons kept the children interested and keen. But she had two very troublesome boys to deal with: Callum was the child of a heroin-addict mother and a drug dealer father serving a long prison sentence and Josh’s single-parent mother had been sectioned as a schizophrenic. Both were very difficult to settle. They liked one another’s company because they shared a wild refusal of norms; they lived in the isolation of their grief and disappointment and it made them impulsive and oppositional. Sally didn’t punish them but admonished, brought them back to their work again and again, talked gently and patiently and felt if she’d kept them in the room all day and they hadn’t thrown chairs, she’d done well.

When Pam called her in to discuss the lessons, she began by saying Callum and Josh were off-task sixty per cent of the time.

“They’re statemented,” said Sally.

“We can’t allow our standards to drop for statemented children.”

“I’m not dropping standards. No-one could keep those two focused for an entire lesson.”

“We have to keep them focused.”

“I do my best for them.”

“You were trying hard, but they’re not getting what they deserve.”

“I really need an assistant.”

“I can’t afford to provide an assistant for only two pupils.”

“Then those boys are bound to be difficult.”

“We can’t blame the pupils.”

“I’m not blaming them. They’re troubled.”

“We educate everybody. Our standards are the same for all pupils.”

“Callum and Josh are disturbed boys. You just can’t expect them to behave like well-balanced children.”

“Teachers have to be competent whatever the circumstances.”

Sally was looking hard at her.

“Are you saying I’m not competent ?”

“Those lessons were unsatisfactory, Sally.”

“Why ?”

“Nearly ten per cent of the pupils were off-task for more than half the lesson.”

“Ten per cent ?”

“Two out of twenty-nine is nearly ten per cent.”

“It’s nearer five.”

“I’m not quibbling.”

“Those lessons were perfectly satisfactory, apart from those two boys.”

“Exactly. We can’t have lessons which are satisfactory apart from this or that. And as you know, I don’t accept lessons which are satisfactory. In my school all lessons must be good.”

“Take Josh and Callum out and my lessons will be outstanding.”

“That’s for me to judge.”

“I don’t accept what you’re saying.”

“I’ll be making another visit.”

“What for ?”

“I think it may be best to put you on informal support.”

 

The “support” began at the start of the next term. Pam observed Sally eight times over six weeks and found half of the lessons unsatisfactory. She moved her onto formal support and did the same thing. Before the competency meeting, the union asked for a compromise agreement and for a mere £8,000 Sally was out of the door.

When she chatted to John about it as they prepared dinner he said:

“Single parent. Fuck. That was a bit tough.”

“It’s a tough world,” she said.

“Sure is.”

“People have to be competent in their jobs. Single parent or otherwise.”

“They do.”

“She wasn’t cut out for teaching.”

“Too many teachers aren’t.”

“I won’t have anything but the best in my school. The children deserve it.”

“’Course they fucking do,” said John. “Is there another bottle of Sauvignon in the fridge ?”

 


 

RIDING LIKE LANCE ARMSTRONG

 

The new power-shower delivered just the right torrent of hot, pounding water after a long run. Max Paston did ten miles a day and two marathons a year. For a man of fifty-seven, he was in good shape. He knew he couldn’t call himself “fit”; as he’d said irritably to his colleagues a few days earlier during a lunchtime, staff-room conversation: “I haven’t been fit since I was twenty.” All the same, he’d lost the weight that started to accumulate round his belly when he was drinking heavily and eating whatever he fancied. That was a decade ago. The problem of his marriage had been caged thanks to his affairs with Martha Rogerson and Sylvia Norfolk; he was still aggrieved that Liz Francis hadn’t given way, in spite of his plotting to get her promotions, but there was time. It puzzled him somewhat that she could resist; after all, he was the third most powerful figure in the school, and few men of his age could boast a body that was muscular, well-proportioned and carried barely an ounce of fat. The thought of Liz started to make his cock fatten and twitch. When did he last have sex ? It must have been three or four days ago. It had to be done. He had to rub off the tension between Mary’s thin legs, though he no longer found her attractive or charming. His mouth tugged down at the corners at the thought. He would press his advantages with Liz a little more powerfully. He rubbed himself dry and went with the towel over his shoulders into the bedroom. Mary was still under the duvet. He stood facing her, drying his already dry back by pulling the ends back and forth. Perhaps his exposed, half-erect cock would do the trick; but she yawned, stretched, turned to look at the alarm on the bedside cabinet  and murmured: “What time is it ?” He could simply pull back the duvet, lift up her nightie and get on with it. She wouldn’t stop him, of course. Yet her refusal of interest, the absence of a conniving smile or a little raising of her brows and widening of her eyes, the impossibility of that coy willingness she was so adept at when she was nineteen, made him angry and though he often had sex with her in spite of his ugly feelings, today he couldn’t be bothered.

He got dressed quickly, pulling on trousers and one of the expensive shirts he’d bought last time they visited Felicity in London. It was a shirt he wore for work: sensible, superior and unpretentious. He didn’t like to dress too casually as he found it dragged his mood in the wrong direction; but he didn’t put on a tie, which was concession enough to the weekend.

The kitchen was immaculate. Mary had spent an hour cleaning and tidying after last night’s meal. All the same, he was annoyed she’d left a frying pan on the hob. How many times had he told her to put it in the cupboard under the sink ? He made himself a bowl of cornflakes, wholemeal toast and tea. When he sat down in the conservatory with his book he felt strong and healthy from his run. Perhaps he should go upstairs. Maybe she’d be getting dressed. He could come up behind her, get his hands on her small tits, bend her over with her palms on the dressing-table and come in from behind. The problem was he’d need lubricant. That always got in the way of an unceremonious entry; he had to get the tube from the bedside table, smear it on himself and her. It made the operation seem almost medical. He opened the book. Felicity had given it him for Christmas. She knew he admired Lance Armstrong. He cycled himself. He liked to think he was a typical all-rounder. He may not be good at all sports, but there wasn’t one he couldn’t have a go at. In his twenties he’d done Land’s End to John O’Groats; but his problem was his weight. Not that he was over-weight, but he was big-framed and even at nineteen weighed fourteen stone. He’d been dismayed to see skinny Bill Paget disappear up one-in-fours while he panted and felt his thigh muscles start to refuse. He’d even had the bonk and Bill had produced glucose tablets from his jersey pocket. It was humiliating, sitting by the side of the road waiting for enough ready energy to return so he could do the last ten miles of the day at the pace of an old man. Bill was a mere ten stone, their bikes were comparable; it was a big advantage having four stone less to move up tough hills. All the same, when he looked at Bill’s sapling legs, his mouth curved into the beginning of a snarl.

He was flicking through the pages, studying the pictures of Armstrong, trying to penetrate to the essence of the man through his appearance when Mary came down. He ignored her. He heard her in the kitchen. Perhaps he should go through ? Three minutes later she came and sat opposite him on the floral sofa her mother had given them and which he hated. She was wearing her dressing gown and in that infuriating way she had, let it fall away so her white, undeveloped thighs were visible. He glanced without letting her notice. She was biting into her toast and looking at the garden. She had a thing about birds. She was forever hanging bags of nuts for the tits, or inane plastic tubes full of seeds the sparrows were supposed to cling to and peck; she was always hoping some exotic bird would arrive in the garden.

 “What’s that ?” she would say.

“What ?”

“There, in the apple tree. Can you see it ? It’s got a touch of gold in its feathers. How lovely.”

“Finch.”

“Are they rare ?”

He would snort and leave her to it.

Once, a raptor swooped onto the lawn with a chick in its claws, tore out its feathers, ripped off its meat and left a pitiful heap of bones which she went and stood over, contemplating it as if it was her father’s grave.

“That was amazing, Max.”

“What was amazing about it ?”

“You don’t expect to see a bird like that in a suburban garden.”

“Why not ?”

“They’re wild. I wonder why it chose our lawn ?”

He scoffed.

He was trying to concentrate on the words. He hadn’t known Armstrong was born in Texas. It was a place he associated with rednecks. He would have been happier to discover the athlete had been born in New York or Concord. Still, this slight disturbance didn’t put him too much off his stride. He expected his admiration of Armstrong to be confirmed and enhanced by the biography and was eager to get beyond the chapters dealing with his childhood and onto to the red meat of his victories in triathlons and road races. He glanced again. Mary was leaning towards the window for a better view; her right foot was planted flat on the tiles but her left leg was askew, the inside of her thigh against the cushion, her big toe pivoting against the floor; her gown was wide open and her nightie ridden up to her thin belly so her sparse, light brown pubic hair and her lips were visible. He stared at the page. Was she doing it deliberately? After twenty-eight years of marriage he still didn’t know. Perhaps he should just get up and climb on top of her. Once it was done, he’d be able to focus properly on the book. He became aware of a change in her position. He lifted his chin and looked straight at her. Now her left foot was on the edge of the sofa, her knee swung away; she was scratching her pubic hair in that annoying way she had. She yawned and at the same time sank her finger between her lips, withdrew it and sniffed at it. He could have launched the biography at her head.

“Better run a bath,” she said.

The thought that she was now going to take herself out of his presence and he’d sit, unable to settle, the sentences failing to register on his brain infuriated him. He got up and went to the sofa, reaching down between her legs, but before he could touch her she closed her thighs.

“What do you think you’re doing,” she said with a provocative little laugh.

He tried to move his hand against her genitals but she squeezed her thighs tighter and laughed so he pulled free, unfastened his trousers, yanked them down with his boxers and stood still in front of her.

“What would you like me to do with that ?” she said and yawned again.

“Whatever you like,” he said.

She toyed with the tip for a few seconds, ran her fingers up and down the shaft, gave a bored little laugh and then began vigorously tugging as she watched a pair of blackbirds searching for worms on the lawn.

“Been a bit dry for worms,” she said.

He ignored the remark, tilted back his head and set his hands on his hips.

“The blackbirds don’t seem to bother with the nuts. Don’t they like nuts ?”

He didn’t answer.

“Don’t you know ?” she said.

“No,” he said.

“Is that a male blackbird ?”

He took no notice.

The unenthusiastic rhythm continued and though the dry rub of her hand was slightly uncomfortable, the pleasure began to mount.

“Let me know when you’re going to come, won’t you ? This dressing-gown has just been washed.”

At the obvious moment she swerved away so the viscous, grey fluid plopped on the sofa.

“Oh, God,” she said, “what would my mother say ?”

He pulled up his trousers and went dutifully to the kitchen for absorbent roll but when he came back she’d gone so he had to wipe the mess himself. Dropping the tissue in the bin, he resolved to force Liz to a decision.

At least when he picked up the book again, he could concentrate. He had that pleasant feeling of relief which follows even the least unsatisfactory ejaculation and the thought passed through his head that his cock didn’t care how the effect was achieved; it was humiliating, of course, to be treated by Mary with all the affection and attention of a jaded courtesan, but then she knew of his affairs so he had to put up with it. He quickly ran through and dismissed the possibility of leaving Mary. If he could take up with a younger woman with a good salary like Liz, he’d do it tomorrow; but to sell up and split the proceeds, to have two hundred grand to buy a house and live on his own, the upset for Felicity and Brian and the problems for the grandchildren, if any came along – no, it wasn’t worth it. As for Mary, she wasn’t going to leave him, not while he was pulling in fifty-five grand a year and looking forward to a handsome pension and lump sum. There it was. He had to stomach it and so did she. The pain and inadequacy of his marriage broke up  like clouds on a summer’s day as he made himself attend to the book, so the blue sky of his interest in Armstrong dominated and lifted his mood. He hurried through the paragraphs and even skipped a page or two till he was reading about the stunning performances of the sixteen-year-old triathlete. He was anticipating the chapters about the cancer Armstrong had suffered two years earlier.  This was the substance of the story: coming through against all the odds, never giving up, fighting even a life threatening disease and returning to top form. Mary appeared, dressed and brisk.

“Can you take me to Ealham’s ?”

“What for ?”

“We need new curtains for the bedroom.”

“Again ?”

“We’ve had them years, Max.”

“Eighteen months.”

“No. It’s much longer than that,” she was rubbing make up into her pallid cheeks to give them a sunburnt hue, pursing her lips and watching herself in the mirror with that what-an-attractive-thing-I-am expression which made him nauseous.

“Eighteen months. We bought them just before we went to Mexico.”

“Did we ?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, well, they’ve faded in any case, and I never did like them that much.”

He put down the book with a little thud.

“You were in raptures about them. They cost me a thousand quid.”

“Us.”

“Well, us a thousand quid.”

“We can afford it.”

“That’s no reason to fritter money away.”

“Keeping the house decent isn’t frittering. Come on. I’m meeting my mother at two.”

The announcement darkened Paston’s mood. It would be yet another Sunday when he was expected to go to his mother-in-law’s for tea; the table would be crowded with beef sandwiches, ham sandwiches, pork sandwiches, egg sandwiches, smoked salmon sandwiches, cucumber,  sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, duck pate, chicken liver pate, pickled onions, beetroot, piccalilli, mini pork pies, mini sausages on sticks, buttered brown bread, buttered white bread, black olives, green olives, dips, grissini; the three of them would sit and eat and exchange talk of nothing for two hours; but that wasn’t the worst of it: the collapse onto the sofa, his slim wife and fat mother-in-law as full as cows’udders, to watch inane television till eleven would drive him to the verge of murder, which was exactly what Mary intended. He wouldn’t go.

“Don’t forget your  credit card, “ she called as she went through to the garage.

She was in the passenger seat. The keys were in the ignition.

“Why don’t you drive yourself ?” he said.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Get in.”

“You’re the one who wants to buy curtains. Why should I have to go ?”

“I haven’t finished putting on my make-up. Get in and drive.”

Paston despised Ealham’s. It was one of those huge, warehouse-like places where you could buy everything for the home from a bath-plug to a fitted bedroom. Once Mary was in there she would inevitably find fifteen things they absolutely couldn’t do without, though they’d done without them for more than two decades. If he was lucky, she’d fill a basket with relatively cheap items; if not, she’d want to talk to them about a new bedroom and he’d have to grit his teeth and shake his head. After two hours of inspecting fabrics and agonising over a choice of doormat, they’d end up in the café where he’d have to queue for weak coffee served by one of his spotty ex-sixth-formers and Mary would insist on a piece of chocolate cake which she’d eat a third of and push across the table, as if he went running at eight in the morning only to stuff himself with calories and cholesterol at lunchtime. Yet no sooner had they passed the automatic doors then he found himself fact to face with Liz Francis and her husband. His face brightened. His body relaxed. He took on the demeanour of a little boy hoping for a treat from a favourite aunty. Mary smiled at Liz as she might have smiled at a neighbour known to be on the sex offenders’ register. Liz, like Mary,was tall and slim. They were both blonde. They both had a way of holding their heads as if an unpleasant odour lingered under their noses. They both dressed demurely. But Liz filled her blouse, while Mary was unappealingly flat-chested. Liz’s husband noticed Mary casting a sly look at his wife’s breasts. He smiled at her and asked her how she was. She smiled in return but he noticed here eyes didn’t join in. She said she was just fine and asked if he was okay. He nodded and jigged in the odd way he had, as if the ground was burning and he must lift his feet alternately to prevent his soles catching fire. Max was standing tall with a fixed smile as if waiting for a photo to be taken.

“We’re looking for curtains, aren’t we Max ?” said Mary.

“That’s funny, so are we, “ said Liz and her mouth stretched in the smile which showed not just her horsey teeth but also her pink gums and the gold crown she’d had when she broke her tooth on a black peppercorn.

Mary found the sight of her mouth slightly obscene. She might have been a dentist, seeing all that exposed gum, and if there was one thing she found disgusting, it was the thought of having to fiddle with other people’s molars. The idea of touching other people’s bodies made her cringe. She didn’t know how chiropodists or midwives could do it. Even with her own children she’d found changing nappies and wiping bottoms almost made her sick and had carefully heaped the responsibility onto Max.

“Just had the lounge decorated, “ said Cameron, “mind you, long overdue. Must be, what, five years ?” he said, turning to Liz.

“At least,” she said, as if she was boasting.

“I make Max do ours every year. But I’ve never been able to put up with grubbiness,” said Mary.

Liz smiled and nodded but Mary noticed the shifty glance she cast as Max. Cameron bounced from foot to foot as if he was about to perform a high jump.

“I was thinking we might get blinds this time,” said Liz.

“Yes,” said Mary, “they can be convenient, but we prefer good quality, lined, floor length curtains, don’t we Max.”

Her husband was still standing as rigid as a lamppost  ( as if to emphasise the eight inches in height he had over Cameron) smiling like an imbecile actor at a Hollywood premiere. There was one of those awkward silences of no more than two seconds which seem to endure for centuries and in which everyone knows there’s nothing more to be said. Cameron broke the embarrassment by wondering aloud where the blinds might be found. Mary confidently informed him they were on the second floor, by the lift. He thanked her, nodded, took Liz’s hand as if they were teenagers about to kiss for the first time and the couples separated. Max followed Mary down the narrow aisles. Watching her thin back, seeing her long fingers reach to touch some material or her head suddenly dip to inspect fitted sheets packed into a neat oblong emblazoned in one corner with claims of other-worldly comfort and endurance, he could gladly have strangled her. It was terrible but true: his wife was one of the few people he could have murdered. Long ago, he had doted on her. She was nineteen and the fresh beauty of her youth negated the intrinsic ugliness of her long, ungainly frame, her elongated face, prominent chin and unimpressive breast; she was the future; ahead were children and the cachet of family life; to be a  married man, a man with responsibilities; to be a father, to be fully part of that suburban, middle-class, post-war ideal of two cars on the drive of a three-bedroom house with a garden back and front, a secure, public sector job with a good pension at the end of it, fine local schools free of the disruptive hoi-polloi of the poor estates and terrace streets; to be mortgaged, insured, double-glazed and certified monogamous, was the most elevated vision of life mind could form during the swirling, deliquescent sixties. By 1980 his ideal was rotting in the compost bin behind the shed and twice a week he was slinking in through the back yard of Martha’s house in one of those terrace streets he’d wanted to stay away from to kill a rampant forty-five minutes in her bed while her three-year-old daughter slept in the next room, her husband got through another shift in the light bulb factory and Mary sat at the kitchen table marking books and watching the news of rising unemployment and failing Michal Foot.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, holding up a corner of striped cloth.

He couldn’t have cared less.

By the time they sat down in the café, she’d filled two big plastic bags with cushion covers, glasses, place mats, tablecloths, napkins, tea towels, candles, room spray, pot pourri, pillow cases, duvet covers and had ordered full-length, thermal lined curtains with tie-backs to be fitted in the following fortnight.

“Thank God that’s done,” she said.

He slurped his insipid coffee as she pushed the chocolate cake in his direction. He shook his head.

“Don’t waste it,” she said, “that cost two pounds fifty.”

What did two pounds fifty matter ? What if it had cost two thousand five hundred? He was utterly miserable. What kind of life was this ? What did a man, a real man have to do with shopping for curtains on a Sunday afternoon ? His mind switched to thoughts of Lance Armstrong. Would he waste his time deciding between burgundy or deep cherry pillow cases? Max longed to be using his muscles. He wished he was sweating and panting up Birdie Brow or doing the same on top of Liz, Sylvia or Martha. He would have liked to push over the table, smash his cup and walk out. He would have liked to walk out on his life.  He almost thought he would, but he didn’t know he was too much of a coward; he hadn’t even a remote consciousness of his inability to stray just a centimetre from the path laid out by his society’s conventions. He could no more have abandoned the security of his job and his family than he could have won the Tour de France, but that didn’t stop the idea festering in some small corner of his consciousness in the same way that, knowing he could never match his athleticism, he identified with Lance Armstrong and imagined he could be like him.

Out of sheer boredom and frustration he dug into the cake with his fork and put a chunk into his mouth. The magic of fat and sugar playing on his taste-buds overcame his belief in his discipline. He would have just one more forkful; but after he’d swallowed the seductive confection and laid the fork on the table, the sight of the bitten wedge, sitting like an invitation to a few moments of fleeting but delightful pleasure made him want more. This would be the last. He hacked away a good portion and filled his mouth.

“Max,” said Mary, “don’t eat so greedily.”

The shorn slice now looked so diminished, so unlikely to push up his cholesterol or thicken his waistline, he severed one half from the other with a decisive attack, made his cheeks bulge like any heedless four-year-old at a birthday party, and even scraped the smeared chocolate off the plate and licked it from the stainless steel prongs with the relish of  a gourmet tasting his own exquisite recipe.

“Liz’s husband is a funny little man, isn’t he ?” said Mary.

“Is he ?”

“I’m surprised,” she said.

“At what ?”

“Well, she’s an attractive woman. I’d’ve thought she’d have found someone more…..”

“More what ?”

“Well, desirable.”

Max agreed with her. He’d often thought Cameron Francis a poor husband for the woman he lusted after. He was sure he didn’t satisfy her. She’d married him for security. He was one of those uxorious men that women treat as appendages. He imagined their polite, antiseptic love-making and it made him seethe.

“How do you know she doesn’t desire him ?”

“I’m sure she does, but he’s the kind of husband that would make a woman take a lover.”

She looked him straight in the eyes. He felt his heart kick. He made a horse-like noise of derision to cover his discomfort.

“She’s too conventional.”

“They’re the ones to watch,” she said, and turned away.

The idea she was taunting him with the threat of unfaithfulness made him want to laugh out loud. She wouldn’t dare. Yet when he let the idea permeate, he found himself curiously jealous and possessive. Like a man who has only a flea-ridden bed to sleep in and dreams of clean sheets, he clung to what he had in spite of his itch.

As they made their way to the car, Max resolved he’d go out on his bike when he got home. Perhaps it was exaggerating a bit given his morning run, but he felt the need to conquer a big hill.

“You can’t just drop me off,” said Mary.

“Why not ?”

“It’s churlish.”

“Your mother doesn’t want to see me.”

“Of course she does.”

“Why ?”

“She enjoys cooking for people. The least you can do is have