THE BEST FLAPJACK IN THE WORLD
The OFSTED inspection was to
begin on Tuesday and Maggot Dodgelow was filling her trolley in Staples.
She had thrown in a laminator because the school’s was in serious demand. She
needed to laminate everything: posters, flow charts, essays, pictures,
certificates, drawings, paintings, diagrams. If inspectors were impressed by
laminating, she was made. Word had arrived in school on Friday morning. It was
now Sunday afternoon and she had spent the entire weekend preparing. She hadn’t
made a meal, or had a long conversation with her husband or children; she hadn’t
read a book or a newspaper or listened to music;she hadn’t stretched her legs or
watched a film; she hadn’t spoken to a friend on the phone or taken a nap. She
had woken up at three a.m. on Saturday. There was no point trying to get back to
sleep. Her mind was racing.
“What are you doing ?” asked
“I’m getting up. I’ve so much
“It’s an OFSTED inspection,
Victor. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“They can’t sack you, Maggot.
You’ve been teaching twenty-seven years.”
“That makes no difference.”
“Oh, come on ! The thing is
calming down. Woodhead is stuck in some academic post pretending he’s an
intellectual. They’ve moved to these short inspections. The system is failing.
They know it’s failing. Just do what you do and you’ll be fine.”
“I don’t want to be fine, Vic. I
want to be the best.”
“Professional pride makes you
get up at three o’clock on a Saturday morning ? What are you going to do
“I’m going to produce signs in
French for every part of the school ! We’re going to get them produced in
perspex and we’re going into school and you’re going to put them up for me.”
“Have you asked the Head ?”
“Sod the Head. When it’s done
it’ll be too late.”
“Mags, I am not spending my
weekend screwing little perspex signs all around your school.”
“Well thanks very much. You want
me to fail do you?”
She was dressed and standing
defiantly by the bed. They’d been married almost as long as she’d been teaching.
She’d once been slim, chic, quick and attractive. And she had been fun. They
used to have plenty of laughs. But she always had been obedient. Even at
university it used to annoy him. She would get up at eight to attend a nine
o’clock lecture on Baudelaire even though she hadn’t chosen the nineteenth
century poetry option.
“What’s the point ?” he’d say.
“I just feel I ought to.”
He looked at her and felt a
terrible regret. He was fifty-one. His life was on the downward path. He had
always hoped this period would produce a mellow togetherness. Instead, his wife
was a manic slave. She had lost her shape too. She no longer exercised: she
didn’t have the time. Her hair was untended, wispy, a mess. For a horrible
moment he wished he wasn’t married to her.
“I don’t want you to fail.”
“I’m going to get outstanding
for my lessons, Victor. I’ll settle for nothing less.”
He had turned his back.
“Switch the light out will you
“I might need you to help me.”
“My contract is to start work at
nine. Try to make me start at three, I’ll call in the union.”
She turned out the light and
closed the door.
The living-room, dining-room and
kitchen were strewn with paper, card, glue, scissors. The laminating machine was
overheating. There were green and orange laminated A3 posters showing the
national curriculum levels stuck to the walls. She had started making her little
signs: Directeur, Bibliotheque, Gymnase, Salle des
Professeurs. Victor loafed through the mess chewing toast.
“Where can I get these signs
done, Vic ?”
“Beats me,” he said picking up a
“Oh, come on ! Be a bit
“The most helpful thing I can
do, Maggot, is to leave you to it. I’m going fishing.”
“You’re what !”
“My kids are away a university.
This is the time to myself I’ve dreamed of for years. Look at the weather. I’m
going to Ken and Anna’s. The river will be high and it’s wonderfully peaceful in
their garden. The river bank to myself. You can get on without interruption.”
“I don’t need interruption, Vic,
I need help.”
“This is my weekend, Mags. I’m
not devoting it to some stuffed shirt of an OFSTED inspector who doesn’t know
his arse from his elbow and does the bidding of a bunch of mindless twats in
Whitehall who are in their turn doing the bidding of a gaggle of careerist
politicos who don’t have the imagination of a cockroach between them.”
“Victor, soon there will be two
Assistant Head posts going. If I’m to have a chance of one I need to have the
edge over the competition. Do you want me to get promoted ?”
“What do you want promotion for,
Maggot ? So you can wake up at three in the morning panicking about work. For
fuck’s sake! We don’t need the money…..”
“I need the money.”
“Objectively, we don’t
need the money.”
“What’s that supposed to mean,
“Between us we bring in just
short of eighty grand. We aren’t about to be reduced to beans on toast five
nights a week. We’ve got a comfortable income. Let’s enjoy it.”
“Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. That’s you
all over, Vic. You’re always on about enjoying life, as though it’s one
big birthday party.”
“Well, why shouldn’t it be ?”
“Because life is serious, Vic !”
“I agree. It’s too serious not
to be enjoyed.”
“You’ve never understood, Vic.
You write about football for a living so you think everyone’s job is a hobby.”
“Fishing is my hobby. Football
is work. It’s tough sitting in the box for ninety minutes watching twenty-two
blokes sweat their bollocks off and then writing a thousand words about it.
Football reporters are the coal miners of the twenty-first century.”
“That’s all you can do, be
“Most people hate work, Mags.
It’s a fact. Work is a pain in the arse. Don’t you think that’s crazy ? People
get up every day and do something they hate ! That’s why everyone’s buying
lottery tickets. I don’t buy lottery tickets. I get paid for doing something I’d
do anyway. If I wasn’t a sports reporter I’d have to pay to watch matches. But
the buggers pay me ! It isn’t work. It’s fun. I get paid for having fun.
Why shouldn’t work be fun ?”
“Because life isn’t like that,
Vic. Some of us have grown up.”
He drank his tea and watched
her. She was sorting and stapling. It struck him she needed order more and
more. She had always been tidy but now it was as if order was a vital, inner
necessity. He recalled how, a few days earlier, he was about to put a plate in a
cupboard and she had grabbed it from him and put it elsewhere. And the
newspapers, which he liked to strew around his armchair and go back to over a
few days kept disappearing.
He gathered his fishing tackle
“See you later !”
She didn’t reply.
Ken was a fellow journalist. He
wrote about economics, which Victor thought a fraud. His wife, Anna, had given
up teaching because of the bad behaviour. They lived in a converted barn behind
which the broad garden sloped gently to a little river. Vic fished there
whenever he could. He didn’t need to ask. They gave him carte blanche.
He’d set himself up on the bank
and was waiting for a bite when Anna arrived.
“Are they rising ?”
“Not yet. How are you ?”
“Fine. How’s Maggot ?”
“She’s in the middle of a
“That’s teaching for you.”
“That’s OFSTED,” he said.
“Oh god ! Are they coming in ?”
“I’m so glad I’m out of it. The
atmosphere is usually grisly.”
“You know what she’s doing ?”
He looked into Anna’s eyes. He
was suddenly aware that he was betraying his wife. He was about to tear her to
pieces behind her back.
“What ?” said Anna gently.
“She’s making little perspex
signs in French to be put up all over the school. She wants her lessons to be
judged outstanding. She wants to apply for one of the Assistant Head jobs and
she’ll do almost anything to get it.”
He paused. Anna was looking at
him with her customary sympathy. She had lovely blue eyes framed by long black
“I think she’s nuts,” he
“Vic ! She’s your wife.”
“She’s my wife and she’s nuts.”
“Once the inspection’s over,
she’ll calm down.”
“Sure. But not much. She’s
obsessed. I can’t make contact with her anymore. There’s this kind of mad
obedience that keeps her going. If they told her she had to shave her head to
get promotion she’d do it.”
“Well, let her do it, Vic. If it
makes her happy.”
“Happiness isn’t in it, Anna.
She isn’t happy. She’s flipped. She’s lost to herself. She just drives on doing
what she has to do. There’s no ease of happiness in her anymore.”
The float dipped. Vic took hold
of his rod and reeled in a fine perch. He caught it in his right hand and it
wriggled and fought for life. He could see the fear in its eye. It was strong,
energetic and he had difficultly gripping it. “Keep still you bugger while I get
this out of your mouth !” But fear made it writhe madly. He threw it back.
“Come into the house for a bit,”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m
“I know. Just come into the
house for a while.”
They went in and Ken made
coffee. He was one of those men who pride themselves on their competence. He was
very attentive to detail, even in making coffee. He put a little sugar bowl on
the table and lifted its lid.
“Damn ! White !”
“Don’t worry, white’s fine for
“No! No! We must have brown !”
Anna looked at Vic as Ken
searched the cupboard. Her brows were slightly raised, her head tilted to the
right, her lips compressed and pulled into an odd little half smile.
“So, you reporting on a match
today ?” he said as he sat down.
“What a job you have Vic, eh ?
What a life !”
“What about you ? Two thousand
words of economic mumbo-jumbo a week for fifty grand a year. And an inherited
fortune. Some people have to work for a living.”
“Yes, but if it wasn’t for
economists, there wouldn’t be any work.”
“If it wasn’t for the workers
there wouldn’t be any economists.”
“Here,” said Ken, “try some of
He lifted the plate piled with
little oblongs. Vic took one and bit into it.
“Better than you buy in the
shops, eh ?
“Mmm. Not bad. You missed your
way. You should’ve been a baker.”
“I should’ve gone into the City.
That was my mistake. All that money in the eighties and nineties. I’d be a
Anna lowered her eyes.
“But you wouldn’t have married
“No, but I’d’ve married somebody
else,” and he bit into one of his flapjacks, relishing his fine confection.
Anna got up and went to the
sink, busying herself with her little task.
“Well,” said Vic “if you gave me
the choice of a posh job in the City or being married to Anna and skint, I’d
choose the latter.”
Ken looked at him in surprise.
“Are you saying you fancy my
“No Ken, I love your wife. She’s
Ken laughed out loud, throwing
back his head, the chewed biscuit visible .
“Hear that, Anna ? Vic’s in love
with you !”
“You’d better watch out then !”
Vic was quickly back by the
river. He would have to go home soon but he dreaded the thought. What state
would the house be in ? What mood would Mags be in ? He knew she’d snap at him ?
He knew she’d never be on top of what she was doing. She wanted to do everything
to the limit. She could never be satisfied with enough. Her life was her job and
her job knew no bounds. His spirits sank. How had he arrived here ? He had
found his dream job, what every little boy football fan would like to do. He
took life as it came and enjoyed it. Did Mags enjoy her work ? Not any more. It
simply ate her up. She was consumed. She had become an emptiness.
Anna appeared at his side.
“That was very nice of you,” she
“Oh, just winding Ken up.”
“I think he’s nuts,” she said.
“Anna, he’s your husband !.”
“He’s my husband but he’s nuts.”
She looked at the river. The
water was flowing rapidly, gurgling over the rocks, swishing round the curve.
She loved this garden. She had thought she would be happy here. She no longer
had to work. The house was beautiful.
“Will you stay for lunch ?”
“I can’t. I’m eating with some
of the players. Fancy meal.”
He reeled in and cast out again.
“Why do you think he’s nuts ?”
“You know what he’s like. He
can’t make flapjack, he has to make the best flapjack the world has ever known.”
“He lacks confidence.”
“Well, just humour him. ‘Yes
Ken, this is flapjack supreme. You will go down in history as a flapjack
“I always have. I thought it
would work. Boost his confidence and these mad compensations would fade. But it
doesn’t. He takes advantage. I guess he thinks my humouring him is a sign of
He turned to look at her. He had
never realised she was miserable.
“You can’t leave the bugger,
he’d never cope.”
“I’d better go and start
The float dipped again. Vic
reeled as he watched her go.
“Take it easy !” he called
He pulled in another big fish.
“Ah, you beauty !”
He held it tight and began to
wiggle the hook. The tail flipped powerfully. He felt the muscles against his
palm. The hook was sunk deep into the soft flesh. He bent his head to the bloody
mouth but couldn’t see clearly. At last he felt the hook release but in the same
instant the fish jerked and the point sank in his finger. He held the tail and
smashed the head again and again against the grass. When it was limp he threw it
back. He sucked the blood from his stinging finger as he packed away his gear.
On Tuesday Maggot left for work
at five-thirty. When she came home at six she slammed the door. Vic got up from
the computer. She was carrying a big plastic tidy-box which she crashed onto the
“How did it go ?”
“They didn’t see me.”
“Ah, well. Maybe tomorrow.”
“And that bitch Crawley got an
“She isn’t even satisfactory !
She’s useless. She couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.”
Vic turned away. The vulgarity
of her behaviour and the clichéd expression flattened his buoyant mood. She
began storming around the kitchen, banging cupboards, clanking crockery.
“I’d’ve thought you’d be glad
not to be inspected. Every teacher in the country must hope the inspectors will
forget about them.”
“You know what ? She’ll apply
for the fucking job.”
“Well, that’s how it works
“No, that’s not how it works,
Victor ! The way it works is you’ve got to lick a lot of arse. Or in Crawley’s
case, suck John Highchase’s cock.”
“You don’t know that, Mags.”
“Everybody knows that, Vic. That
bitch ! She’ll screw her way into the job. And how did she get an outstanding ?
She must’ve sucked the inspector’s cock too.”
“Maybe she just taught a good
“Maybe she got John Highchase to
plan it for her. I can’t believe it. She can’t even control a class !”
Vic went back to his work. All
evening Maggot banged and stomped around. He made himself an omelette while she
was bent over more preparation.
“Do you want to share this with
“I haven’t time.”
Next morning she was gone before
six. Vic had an interview with a new signing in the afternoon. It would be the
usual inarticulateness. Still, maybe he’d be talking to a future England star.
He checked his mobile as he was about to get into the car. A missed message. Two
words: Anna gone. He tried to ring Ken. Switched off. He drove over. There was
no-one. He walked around, peering in all the windows. He tried the handles. He
lifted the garage door. Anna’s car wasn’t there. Where would she have gone? He
walked down to the river. It was high and fast. He wished he had his tackle,
that he could sit and fish, forget everything. He took hold of a willow branch
that bent low over the water. Their conversation of a few days ago ran through
his mind. Ken was nuts. He had to try to be best at everything. He
remembered when he used to play badminton against him. If he was losing he’d
make some excuse: “Oh, my ankle ! Old injury. I’ll have to stop.” Pillock. But
the world was full of pillocks after all. He was a pillock himself, in some
ways. His easy-going habits must be an irritation to more fussy folk. Maybe that
helped to wind Maggot up. But anything could wind Maggot up !
In the car he turned on the
radio. Where was he going ? Where the hell would Anna be ? He cancelled his
interview, drove into town, parked up and walked to La Belle Vie, his
favourite little café where the walls were decorated with French cinema posters.
Sure enough, she was sitting at the window table.
“You okay ?”
“Yeah. Much better, as a matter
“Ken’s tearing his hair out.”
“Maybe it’ll improve his
“The bugger’ll never come to
terms with it.”
“He’ll have to, Vic. I’ve put up
with him for the sake of Amy. But enough’s enough.
“So, you got somewhere to go ?”
“Don’t look so worried. I feel
fine. I really do.”
“I’m not worried about you,
Anna. You can take care of yourself. It’s Ken who’s going to be crying like a
“He’ll get used to it. He’ll be
able to make flapjack to his heart’s content. The best flapjack in the world.”
“He can’t stand disappointment.
He’ll pursue you.”
“I’ll get an injunction.”
“Christ, Anna !”
She lifted her cup and smiled at
him as she sipped.
“It happens every day, Victor !”
“Yeah, so does mugging but I
hope never to me.”
He was at home making a cup of
tea when the landline rang.
“Ken ! Are you okay ?”
“She’s left me !”
“I know. I’m sorry, mate.”
Ken began to weep. Vic listened
for a moment.
“I’ll come round. I’ll come
round for a bit. Let’s go out for a beer, eh ?”
Maggot arrived home at
six-thirty. She threw her bag down in the hallway and stomped upstairs. He heard
the shower. When she came down he was sitting in his armchair. He looked up at
her wrapped in a white bathsheet. She began to brush her hair in front of the
mirror. She puckered her lips in that odd way she always did when watching her
“I’ve got some bad news.”
“So have I.”
“No, I mean really bad news.”
She turned on him.
“You think mine isn’t really
bad news ?”
“Anna’s left Ken.”
“Is that all ?”
“It’s pretty all as far
as Ken’s concerned.”
“Well, he’s an appalling
“I think he’s quite a successful
“He’s cracking up. All that
false confidence has withered like leaves in a heatwave. He’s weeping like a kid
and he’s no idea why she’s gone.”
“Why has she ?”
“She was miserable. Ken made her
miserable. She thinks he’s nuts.”
“She’ll do well out of the
divorce. All that money.”
“I don’t think money was what
she lacked, Maggot.”
“No ? Do you want to hear my bad
“What’s that ?”
“I was inspected today.”
“And you’ve lived to tell the
She held the brush tight in her
hand like a weapon.
“Well, that’s okay.”
“Like fuck ! Satisfactory isn’t
good enough !”
“That’s not what the dictionary
“What ? Christ, Victor, those
bastards ! All that work!”
She began to cry, aiming the
brush as if it could wipe out all her enemies :
“And that fucking Crawley
walking round like a bitch with two cunts. She knows she’s got it. Outstanding !
My lesson was brilliant ! And that soft git says satisfactory ! What do they
know ? But she’ll get it. It’s got her name on it. She’ll be taking her knickers
off for Highchase right now. It makes me sick. Where’s the fucking justice ?
That job should be mine !”
She stood before him crying like
a child. It struck him how babyish she looked when she cried. She drew the brush
through her hair and then held it out as if she was about to swipe him across
the face. Perhaps he should leave too. Maybe Anna was right. Had she expected
mellow togetherness ? Had she thought by some miracle Ken would change ? Was
that the mistake, expecting change ? Was it arrogance on Anna’s part to think
her kindness could lift Ken from his lack of confidence ? Had he thought he
could change Maggot too ? He remembered their early days. Yes, he had always
been uncomfortable. So why had he married her? Had he wanted to change her ? No,
but he had thought she would change; circumstances would change her. The image
came into his head of her crying over a job she didn’t get shortly after they
were married. He had gone over to her and put his hand on her shoulder but she
had brushed him away. “Leave me alone !” He realised in an instant she had
always wanted to be left alone. All their married life she had been fighting him
off. He was an intruder in his own intimacy. So why had she married him? Out of
the same sense of duty that got her up at three a.m. ? He looked at her. The
brush was gripped tightly in her hand. Her face was set. She was at that limit
of her self he couldn’t reach. There was a hard, protected knot of her he’d
never made contact with.
“After all those years though,
Maggot. To walk out just like that.”
“Mine !” she said gritting her
teeth. “It should be mine !”
BEYOND THE RUBICON
With dread Joe Mendel turned the pages of the Times
Educational Supplement. Those little ads under the English rubric,
might have been invitations to a long prison sentence. Why did the thought of
employment weigh on him This was supposed to be exciting ! The first job, the
beginning of the slow climb up the very greasy pole, the anticipation of long
years of diligent arse-licking to arrive at the magnificent designation of Head
Of Department, or Deputy Head, or Head of Year, or even, if things went really
badly, Headteacher. Why did he feel so cynical about it He couldn’t raise an
ounce of enthusiasm. It felt like the closing in of slow death, as if a
megalith were being lowered millimetre by millimetre until it would make him
bend, crawl and finally crush him into the earth. He looked up. In the public
library was the usual sad assortment of misfits, tragic cases, idlers, scholars
and borderline lunatics. Maybe that was it. Perhaps he was just a borderline
madman. Should he tear off his clothes and run screaming through the library,
his scruffy genitals swinging and making the female staff and the young girls
swotting over their O Level History scream They’d throw him in the looney bin
and give him thee meals a day. Maybe he could find a quiet corner and just read
Chaucer and Cervantes from dawn till midnight. But they’d treat him with
electric shocks and cut out his frontal lobes. No matter what you tried, the
bastards would cut you down to their size. He thought of his contemporaries.
Were they overcome by the same sense of horror or did they really relish the
beginning of this decades long entrapment in employment He brought to mind his
mates from college: Tom Edge, Jill Hudspith, Owen Egger, Sue Beamish, Steve
Szczsciak. Seeing them in his mind’s eye it struck him they had the same
reluctance, the same dread, but they bit their lips because that’s what you had
to do. And then, they hadn’t done what he’d done. They hadn’t pressed on and
changed their mentalities. They’d stayed, sensibly, this side of what was
socially acceptable while he, fool, had taken hold of the ideas that had meant
something to him and had driven them on and on. Somehow, he’d thought that he’d
be able to come back: having crossed the Rubicon he’d wade back and stand on the
shared, solid ground of something like convention. But it wasn’t possible: once
Galileo had looked through his telescope he couldn’t chat with the priests about
how God had put the earth at the centre of the universe. Once you’ve torn to
shreds the fabric of which convention is made, you stand naked and alone. He was
twenty-three and he didn’t believe a word of his society’s official excuses.
Free enterprise was just carte blanche for the rich to screw the rest,
democracy was a scam in which pusillanimous careerists stole the votes of
millions to pump up their egos and line their pockets, peacekeeping was
disinfected war-mongering, schools were exam factories which promoted those born
with brains and ritually humiliated those without, the free press meant the
right of bigoted editors in the service of millionaire owners to distort every
fact, to twist every truth, to withhold inconvenient information and to
hysterically exaggerate whatever served their interests, the church preached
poverty, tolerance and humility and practised greed, arrogance and manipulation,
and the family, bedrock of this great civilization was a petty battleground of
egotism, tyranny, recrimination, control and heartbreak.
Maybe he just needed a drink.
Mendel was no good at daytime drinking. Even a meagre half
made him sleepy, sent him to the sofa for a nap and left him feeling
fuzzy-headed and disoriented. What he did like though was coffee. A good strong
coffee and a hearty piece of carrot cake was just the remedy. Close by the
library, in the corner of the Victorian arcade, someone had just opened a café
called Picasso’s. The blue sign was the flourish of the Spaniard’s
signature. Mendel turned up his collar against the mizzle that had kept going
all morning, trotted across the street and in through the cream-painted door.
Upstairs was a curvaceous counter, as if in homage to the old ram’s appetite for
women and a couple of tables squeezed by the wall.
“Can I go down” said Mendel to the young woman behind the
“Of course !” and her smile dissolved his ruminative gloom
making him think that he’d been taking things too far, again.
The lower floor was much roomier. The tables were
white-painted, florid cast-iron with circular glass tops, the chairs had little
floral-covered cushions and back-rests and on the wall were cheap prints by the
prolific little fanatic of the brush and palette. There was another young woman
on duty down here who came to take Mendel’s order. She was about eighteen, he
thought, very petite and dainty but nicely filled out, with blonde hair pinned
up in a bun from which charming little wisps escaped. Here she was, making a
tiny living from serving in a café. Or maybe she was a student just pulling in a
bit of pocket-money. He would have liked to have asked her. In fact, he’d have
liked to know everything about her. He would have liked to have taken off her
clothes and discovered just what kind of little cries of pleasure she emitted.
It was funny that, how they were all as different as fingerprints, yet, in
essence, all the same, like fingerprints.
“Are you ready to order”
What did she think he was going to have, a five courser and
a bottle of Bollinger, the terrine maison and pain grille, the
consommé de chou-fleur, the steak tartare medium rare with sauté
potatoes and asparagus in butter, the…..
“Can I have a coffee and a piece of carrot cake, please?”
“Fine. Is that everything”
“Yes, that’s all.”
In his pocket was a copy of Revolutionary Road. A
friend who’d spent a year in America had brought it back for him and he was
reading it for the second time. In a café, he had to do one of two things, talk
or read. Conversation and reading were indispensable. Otherwise, a café was
merely a place to eat and drink and they were essentially dull activities. A
café existed to be a public arena , a place to exchange ideas and the eating and
drinking were elevated from simple satisfactions of physical needs, to subtle
cultural activities by the addition of newspapers, books and chat. Mendel opened
the novel and took up where he’d left off the night before. He was horrified by
Frank Wheeler. What was so terrifying was his ordinariness. Was America full of
men like this Was this what it meant to be a man in modern America? Wheeler,
Mendel thought, was a modern Babbitt, dogged by the same heartrending
superficiality. He’d read Sinclair Lewis when he was eighteen or so and the
story of the pathetic little man, his sordid adultery, his lunatic boosterism,
was one of his favourites. But it was truly frightening. Imagine Babbitts and
Wheelers in millions. Imagine they were typical of America. And wasn’t that what
Lewis and Yates were getting at
“Joe ! What are you doing here This isn’t your neck of the
The voice made him wince inwardly and simultaneously
sparked up an aggression he had to work hard to fight down.
“Mind if I join you” said Westerman sitting down.
He spoke as if he were holding a loud-hailer and addressing
a crowd. Mendel cringed but tried to conceal it. His instinct was to return
Westerman’s rudeness, but he pulled back. Somehow, Westerman got away with this
boorishness because everyone compensated for it.
“Not at all.”
“What are you reading”
“Never heard of him !” declared Westerman dismissively.
“Well,” said Mendel, “I’m sure he’ll be dismayed.”
“Yep, bought some new shoes.”
He took the box out of the bag and the shoes out of the
box: a pair of brown suede Hush Puppies.
“Very nice,” said Mendel.
“Guess how much”
“No, guess. Remember, they’re a classy shoe.”
“Fiver,” said Mendel.
“Fiver ! Fifteen quid. Fiver ! Were you tryin’ to be funny”
and Westerman leaned over in his usual over-intimate way.
Thankfully, the waitress arrived.
“Carrot cake and a coffee”
“Yummy,” said Westerman, “that looks nice. Can I see the
“Not found a job yet !” he said, picking up Mendel’s copy
of the TES.
“No,” said Mendel, his mouth full of carrot cake.
“Let me give you a tip,” said Westerman, leaning in close
again, as if he was going to kiss Mendel full on the mouth, “Hurst Park
“What” said Mendel, chewing.
“I’ve heard they’re stuck for an English teacher. Vic
Culshaw has had a heart attack.”
“English teacher. Been there donkey’s years. Writes poetry.
Bit of an arty-farty type.”
“Are they going to advertise”
“They’ll have to, but at this time of the year. Ring ‘em.
You might have a chance.”
“Yeah. Thanks,” and Mendel sipped his coffee feeling his
blood turn to water.
As soon as he’d finished he made his excuses:
“Got to go, dentists in half an hour.”
“You were going to the dentists last time I met you,” said
“Yeah, lot o’work. Terrible teeth. Crowns all that stuff.
See you, anyway.”
He caught the bus back to his mother’s in the sleepy
suburbs and went and lay on his bed. It was really unmanly to be dependent at
the age of twenty-three. Five years ago, he’d’ve been horrified at the thought.
But life, as always, hadn’t turned out as he’d expected. His mother, a widow
whose husband had drunk himself to death, had endured decades of his reckless
passion for alcohol. Standing in the middle of the avenue at two in the morning,
turning to the neighbours woken by his raucuous singing and peeking round the
curtains, he would cry:
“Yes, Mrs Hothersall, it’s me, I’m ‘ere and I’m pissed!
Goodnight to you, Madam. Get back into bed and look after your husband, as I
shall now take care of my wife !”
Mendel knew he couldn’t go on sponging. His mother was very
kind and never muttered a word of complaint. She did her little job typing for
an accountant in town, kept the house neat, made nourishing and delicious meals,
washed his clothes and tidied his room. It was terrible. He was twenty-three !
At his age his father had established the bespoke tailoring business that would
bring in the money even when he was too destroyed by booze to sew a button. But
he, Joe Mendel, was a grown man living like a teenager. It was shameful and
demeaning. He should be married. He should be a father. He should have
responsibilities. Yet the thought of a dull job, and a quarter-century mortgage,
and these sniffy suburbs where life went on between limits so narrow it took the
discipline of a monk to tolerate it, made his mood sink. All the same, he owed
it to his mother to go after the job at Hurst Park. She would be proud if he got
it. He imagined her meeting the neighbours out shopping:
“Joe? Oh yes, he’s doing fine. He’s teaching English at
Hurst Park. Such a good school. He’s very happy there. And there are
It was a gloomy prospect but what else could he do. He went
downstairs and stood by the little telephone table in the hallway. The green
two-tone phone perched like a smug frog and seemed to accuse him of cowardice.
He took hold of the directory, looked up Hurst Park’s number, dropped the book
on the carpet and dialled. When a brisk secretarial voice answered he said:
“Could I speak to the Headmaster, please”
“Who’s calling” the question was sung with a cheery rising
intonation which sapped his confidence. It called to mind the perfunctory “good
morning !” of the workplace, the false bonhomie, the deadly reality of the petty
struggle for money and place and the mean-minded back-biting and sick-making
one-up-manship. He hesitated a second.
“I’m ringing about the English post. I heard you need
someone for September.”
“What’s the name, please”
“One moment Mr Mendel !”
He had a few seconds in which to put down the receiver.
“Hello !” Mendel became aware of the shaky, false
enthusiasm in his intonation. He felt very disappointed in himself. “I was
ringing about the English post.”
“Are you qualified”
“Yes, of course.”
“Where did you get your degree” the voice was moody,
“Can you come for an interview tomorrow”
Mendel wanted to say: “Can I buggery you ignorant bastard.”
“Yes, of course. No problem.”
“Be here at ten. Do you know where we are”
“Yes, I know the school well.”
The line went dead.
Mendel climbed the stairs and lay once more across his bed.
This little bedroom had been his through his happy childhood days and the
terrifying years of adolescence. He’d packed his bags here before leaving for
university, thinking he would never return but for the odd weekend and holiday.
Somehow, he’d never thought much about earning a living. Lawrence’s line about a
man being lovely if he earns his life came back to him. It seemed utterly
out-of-place in the suburbs where everything depended on earning a
living, and a good one. Life itself here revolved around petty distinctions of
salary and status and people would sell their souls for a promotion and a
pension. It made long-term employment too terrible to contemplate. He jumped
up, went out and walked nowhere in particular. Just the act of walking calmed
him. He would have liked to set off walking and never stop. Anything to be free
of this clammy, constricting life of the middle-class suburbs.
The next day, at nine-thirty, in the grey suit he’d worn
only at his sister’s wedding, he set off for Hurst Park. He walked. When he
arrived, he stuck his head in front of the little, glass, louvred, office
“Mr Mendel. I’m here for interview at ten.”
“Yes, Mr Mendel. Can you follow me, please.”
The receptionist, a woman of about forty, very trim and
mincing with the figure of an eighteen year old, led him down a short corridor
and into a room where there was a table, low armchairs tucked neatly side by
side around the walls and a painting of a rural scene with horses and haymaking.
“Can you fill in this form, please. Mr Bracken will be with
you in a few minutes.”
Mendel filled in the details in black pen. His handwriting
was hateful. The letters were small and ill-formed. Looking at his own script
sapped his confidence. It was scruffy and incompetent and tight, not like the
illegible, florid swirl of some of his university teachers. He finished and
stood up to look out of the window. He had his back to the door when Bracken
came in. He turned to see a thick-set man of nearly sixty with dense, wavy,
greying hair brushed steeply back from his forehead. He wore a tweed jacket and
dark trousers and behind his heavy glasses his eyes were fixed and angry. His
head on his short neck was pulled down into his collar and his shoulders pushed
forward a little as if he was about to launch himself at Mendel and tackle him
to the ground. For a few seconds he stood still, glaring, and said nothing.
Mendel, in his limber, slightly insolent way, stood looking back at him unable
to stiffen at the older man’s obvious disapproval.
“Have you filled in the form, Mr Mendel”
“Yes, it’s here.”
Mendel picked it up and offered it. Bracken turned his
“Follow me,” he said.
Bracken’s office was the most comfortable, welcoming place
in the school. It was about half the size of the staff-room where fifty teachers
had to crowd at breaks and lunchtimes. The wooden desk was ancient and heavy and
seemed to occupy its space as permanently as the North Star shines in the
heavens. There were tall bookcases whose upper shelves were filled with lever
arch files occupying an entire wall. The carpet was deep pile and the wallpaper
heavily embossed. Amidst the customary racket of a school of nine hundred boys,
this was a chapel of quiet and calm. Everything was utterly neat. It was hard to
believe a man worked all day in this place. It had the pristine feel of a
consulting-room or an antechamber where no real work gets done. The window
looked out onto a circle of neatly mown grass in the middle of which grew a
slightly crooked flowering cherry.
“Well, Mr Mendel,” said Bracken, settled in his chair,
“what makes you think you want to work at Hurst Park”
Mendel wanted to say, in keeping with the direct nature of
his thinking: “I don’t want to work here, I just need the money.”
“It’s a school with a good reputation….”
“Of course, it has a good reputation. It’s an ex-Grammar
school. You don’t have to explain the reputation of the place to me, you have to
convince me you want to work here.”
“Well, I’m keen to teach A level and I understand you have
good numbers taking English and going on to university…”
“I see you’ve spent two years doing an M.A., Mr Mendel.”
“What was that about, then”
“I’m writing a thesis on American fiction. Sinclair Lewis
as a matter of fact.”
“Don’t you think you’d be better finding a job in academia”
“No,” said Mendel, “I’ve decided against that.”
“I don’t want to retreat to the ivory tower.”
“And you went to Kingsway Secondary Modern.”
“Missed out on the 11 plus, eh”
Bracken looked up from the application form, a distinct,
ugly little sneer on his lips. Mendel sat in the low chair and looked back ,
like a cat at a king. He had a natural insolence about him that came from his
early years in the back streets, before his father had come by the inheritance
which allowed him to establish his business. Mendel was marked by his mean
origins as surely as the child of an aristocrat absorbs a sense of superiority
with its milk. His demeanour had the limber cockiness of a kid who spent his
infancy kicking around the back alleys of a poor, working-class part of the old
industrial town and he displayed the impeccable, egalitarian manners of the
northern working-class. His very way of sitting in the chair lacked deference
and he could see Bracken didn’t like him. But he couldn’t be other than he was.
He saw no reason to adopt the manners of his supposed social superiors, to
adjust his movements or facial expressions. He didn’t want to be become a
ridiculous phoney, trying to be something he wasn’t for the sake of social
“Well, Mr Mendel,” said Bracken, “I suppose I haven’t
anyone else in mind.”
Mendel was inclined to scoff at the insult. He looked at
Bracken whose ugly expression hadn’t changed.
“Does that mean you’re offering me the job”
“I suppose so, unless you’re one of these union chappies.”
Mendel could have laughed out loud.
“Do you accept” said Bracken.
“Yes,” said Mendel.
There were bits of administration to sort out in the office
after which Mendel walked back home and collapsed once more across his bed. At
least he wouldn’t be dependent on his mother any more, but the thought of being
sucked into the petty-minded routines of that stuffy place almost made him get
up and up and run for his life. He comforted himself with the thought he would
stay for only a year. No matter what, he must move on. But he was overcome by
the sense of having been delivered to this outcome. In what way had he chosen it
He’d been lifted by a wave, forming before he was even born, and cast onto this
strange and lonely shore where he had no desire to live.
During the first half-term of his teaching at Hurst Park,
he was persuaded to stand as a Labour candidate in a no-hope ward in the council
elections. He’d joined the party because he favoured socialism, but also with an
eye to its social opportunities: the milieu of the labour movement was where he
might meet fellow-spirits. He hadn’t been disappointed. Susie Spillard was the
neglected wife of one of only four labour members on the council. Frank Spillard
wanted to be mayor. He wanted to wear the chains. He wanted his tiny place in
local history. Susie was dragged along in his egocentric flurry like a rowing
boat that bobs on a liner’s wake. She went to the ward meetings. She stuffed
envelopes. She knocked on doors. She spent nights at home in front of the
television while her teenage children went off to do whatever it was they did
around the avenues with their mates. When Mendel turned up at the ward one
Tuesday night, politics became suddenly attractive to her once more. He had
about him that look of bachelor loneliness that sets a hungry woman’s mind
racing. Within a fortnight, she was in bed with him at home in her dormer
bungalow while Frank made a verbose speech in front of drowsy members in pursuit
of his petty glory. That day, Mendel had taken in a set of fourth year books and
found one of them covered in outraged, reactionary graffiti. It belonged to
Hilton Galgate, a pale, timid boy with a 1950s brilliantined quiff and ideas as
rigid as a poker.
“He was obviously very angry,” he said to Susie who had
kicked off the duvet and had her knees crooked and opening and closing like an
“Really” she said, trying to sound interested.
“Yeah. Down with communism ! Long live the
monarchy ! Michael Foot is a Stalinist ! Tories for freedom !
His book is just covered in the stuff !”
“Oh, teenagers,” she said. “Don’t fret about it.”
“I’m stunned. Doesn’t he understand what democracy means”
“He’s just a child. Never mind him.”
One day, as his fourth years were drifting out of the room
and he was trying to put some order into the chaos of his desk, he became aware
of a boy lingering. He looked up. It was Galgate.
“Everything all right, Hilton”
“Is there something you want”
Mendel pulled himself upright. He was four inches taller
than the pupil and seemed to tower over him. He became aware that it might be
intimidating so he sat down. The boy was very still and quiet, as if he were
about to vomit or breakdown. Mendel smiled.
“I saw you coming out of Mrs Spillard’s house.”
Mendel suddenly felt small and was about to stand up, but
felt it would betray his emotion.
“What” he said, leaning forward.
“You’ve been having an affair with her.”
“That’s a very serious accusation, Hilton.”
“It’s not an accusation, it’s the truth.”
“Even if it were, what business is it of yours”
“Mr Spillard is a governor.”
“Is he” said Mendel, as if it didn’t matter.
“If I tell him, you’ll get sacked.”
Mendel rocked back in his chair and laughed.
“Hilton, you’re just a child. These are adult matters.”
He was aware of his mind working automatically and he was
speaking before he had time to think.
“Anyway, Aaron Spillard told me.”
“He sneaked in one night when you were doing it with his
“This is ridiculous.”
“And you’re a communist.”
“I’m not a communist, I’m a democratic socialist.”
Mendel was appalled at his apology for the radicalism he’d
always been proud of.
“I don’t want to be taught by socialists.”
“You don’t have any choice,” snapped Mendel. “This is
democracy. I’m a qualified teacher and I can teach in any school willing to
“I’m going to get you sacked.”
Mendel looked up at the pale little boy. There was
something of a corpse about him. He didn’t move. His face was a mask. Could it
really be true that this specimen was about to scupper his career?
“Well, go ahead, Hilton. Just go ahead and try.”
Mendel picked up his mark-book and strode out.
The next day Bracken passed him in the corridor without a
glance. In the staff-room at break he imagined he caught two colleagues looking
askance at him. That evening his phone rang and when he picked it up it went
dead. Day by day he grew more and more touchy. Finally he was called in by
“We’ve had a parental complaint.”
Mendel resolved to tell the truth.
“I see,” he said.
“Well, Hilton seems to have taken a dislike to me.”
“His book is covered in graffiti.”
“Of what kind”
“Why do you think that is, Mr Mendel”
“Well, he has very fixed views.”
“So do you, according to his parents.”
“They’re saying you’re indoctrinating your classes with
“You’ve been teaching them George Orwell and introducing
Bracken’s face was twisted into that ugly sneer which
appeared whenever he encountered anything which didn’t sit comfortably with his
“1984 is a set book.”
“Karl Marx isn’t.”
“I haven’t been teaching them Marx.”
“I should hope not, Mr Mendel. This is a Church of England
school. It’s right of centre and always has been.”
“I had to explain totalitarianism.”
“It’s what the book’s about.”
“So what did you explain?”
“About fascism and the Soviet Union and the absence of
“And did you have to teach them Marxism to do that?”
“I had to mention Marx.”
“Because the Bolsheviks hid behind his ideas.”
“So you were negative about them.”
“No. I was neutral.”
“Do you think it’s possible to be neutral about something
“I don’t think we should be afraid of ideas.”
“Do you think I’m afraid of half-baked socialists, Mr
“No. I just mean as teachers we should be free to discuss
ideas without fear.”
“These are fifteen-year-old boys, Mr Mendel. Their minds
are half-formed. We have to be careful about introducing them to perverse views
of human life.”
“I wouldn’t say anything I put in front of them was
“I’d say Karl Marx is perverse, wouldn’t you”
“You’re not a Marxist are you, Mr Mendel”
“My political views are my own business.”
“Not if you start foisting them on my pupils.”
Bracken gave Mendel a written warning. Mendel went to the
union. The union told him to be careful.
That evening, he wrote out his resignation but sitting with
a glass of red thinking of what he would do next, he screwed it up. He didn’t
want to stay at Hurst Park. He’d find another job. At the end of the year he’d
move on. He got up the next morning and dressed in his jacket, trousers, shirt
and tie. Looking at himself in the mirror he wondered why he went through this
charade. Who was that man in the mirror Who were all the other men looking at
themselves dressed for shirt-and-tie jobs? If it had been just the shirt and
tie, he could have accepted it, but it was the whole dumbshow. Was this life Or
was he mad to think there must be some more honest form of existence Didn’t
everyone just have to conform Wasn’t that how life worked Then it struck him
that it was the form of conformity that was at fault. Yes, everyone lived
in the context of their time like fish in water, but the context could be just
or unjust, sane or mad, honest or dishonest. And he realised that this wasn’t a
mere general matter but that he was what he was in and through specific
circumstances. In a different time and place he would have thought, felt and
behaved quite differently. Even in a very slightly different time and place. And
he knew it was the consciousness of this that troubled him. Other people seemed
to live as if they were what they were intrinsically. But that was laughable !
It was King Lear’s mistake. This rush of ideas lifted his mood, but he had to go
to work. He had to carry on with all the empty stupidities of the current
arrangements as if he believed in them. As he strode off, his briefcase
containing nothing but his lunch swinging in his hand, he realised he was in a
trap. This life was a lousy trap and there was truly no way out.
Day by day he lived in expectation of another summons from
Bracken. In the classroom, he checked himself. When they studied Auden he
deliberately didn’t mention he’d been a public-school fellow traveller. The more
he censored himself, the more it seemed someone else was speaking through his
mouth. His own ideas and their articulation had to be put aside and the effort
not to say what he thought made him struggle to express himself. Much of what he
said seemed so circumlocutory as to be incomprehensible. His enthusiasm, which
was all which rendered teaching thrilling, sank.
He scoured the TES for jobs. Before he found one he
wanted, Bracken called him in.
“Would you say you’re happy here, Mr Mendel”
“It strikes me this might not be the ideal school for a man
“No school is ideal.”
“Perhaps it’d be better both for you and the school if we
“Well, I’m looking for another job, actually.”
“What if you don’t find one”
“Well, I will. In the long run.”
“The long run is a bit too long, Mr Mendel.”
“I’m sure I’ll……”
“I’d like your resignation.”
“I’d like you to resign and leave at the end of the term.”
“I think that’ll be for the best, don’t you”
“If you say so.”
Mendel went to the union. They said they didn’t interfere
over appointments and promotions. He said he wasn’t being appointed or promoted,
he was effectively being asked to sack himself. They said he should think
carefully before resigning. He said he paid his subs, couldn’t they do better
than that? They said they didn’t intervene over appointments and promotions.
He went for a long walk.
After a few days during which he wrote out his resignation
several times, he decided he would sit tight. If Bracken decided to sack him,
then he could take action, but he wasn’t going to connive in his own ignominious
departure. He expected to be called in and, in preparation, rehearsed his
defiant little speech. But nothing happened. He passed Bracken in the corridor.
He didn’t meet his eyes or speak. The uncertainty unnerved him. He sat down and
began his letter of resignation once more, but after the first line his pride
rebelled. It enraged him that a petty jack-in-office could undermine him and
make doubt and misery his daily companions.
One day after school he drove into town and went into
Picasso’s. He didn’t know why, but something about the place drew him. It
was welcoming. He ordered coffee and carrot cake and opened his book, Tender
Is The Night. The friendly atmosphere, the strong smell of coffee, the
moist cake, whose familiar taste was as reassuring as friendship, and
Fitzgerald’s beautiful prose relaxed him. After five minutes all thought of
school had gone. Then he heard the voice:
“Joe ! You again ! `We always seem to meet in here !”
Mendel looked up at the ugly face that was craning towards
him. Westerman had a habit of forcing himself physically on others. His big nose
and his slightly obscene, flabby lips were so close to Mendel’s face he might
have been about to kiss him. The ugliness of Westerman’s features, which bore
the imprint of his boorish intrusiveness, was intensified by the unpleasantness
of his behaviour. Mendel had to fight down an impulse to insult him or to
physically push him away.
“Why don’t you sit down” he said.
“Eh” said Westerman. “Sit down I’m just saying hello, is
there something wrong with that”
“Not at all. But there’s no need to stand over me.”
“I’m not standing over you. You’re being too sensitive.”
“Why don’t you just sit down”
Westerman lowered his long ungainliness into the chair.
“What are you doing here, anyway” he said. “I heard you got
that job at Hurst Park.”
“That’s right. But it’s half past four. The school day’s
“That was good advice I gave you, eh You’ve me to thank for
that job. Without me you’d still be looking through the TES.”
“No maybe about it. Going well ”
“As a matter of fact, I’m leaving.”
“Yeah. That’s as I intended. I only wanted the job as a
“Where you going?”
“Don’t know. I’ll find something.”
“Eh Find something. That’s no career plan. You should
follow my example. I’m looking for head of department jobs already.”
“You don’t need luck when you’ve got my ability. Eh?”
Mendel had had enough. In one of those moments when the
entire meaning of our life seems to be revealed like a diamond sparkling among
coal and we realise we are held in the grip of circumstances we haven’t chosen
and all our hopes, dreams and choices are mere illusions, his feeling flattened
and like a man alone in a desert, lost and surrounded by limiting horizons he
felt impotent to find his way.
“Got to go,” he said.
“Go You haven’t even finished your cake.”
“No. You have it. I’ve got to dash I’m in a meeting at
“What meeting’s that”
“You wouldn’t want to know.”
Mendel pulled on his coat, trotted up the stairs and out
into the dusk. The town was just at that mongrel moment between its working day
and the desertion of early evening. There were people, cars, buses, activity but
he knew in an hour and a half or so the place would be quiet, the shops shut,
everyone gone to their estates or suburbs and the town would be sad and heavy.
He wanted to relish this time of bustle because the coming and going of the town
heartened him like the autumn wind in the woods or the rush of a stream over
little stones. What was he going to do? He wanted to hand in his notice but he
didn’t. He wanted to leave Hurst Park but he didn’t want to go to another
school. He didn’t want to work in the system as it was. What part had he played
in establishing it? What had it do to with him He felt once more that lack of
freedom which made him stagger. What was all this talk of freedom? He felt
processed. He wanted to be able to choose according to his nature. To live in
keeping with his feelings, so long as he harmed no-one. But what was expected of
him was out of tune with what he wanted to be. It was strange. To be here in the
town. To be amongst the hurry he loved. To be here between the earth and the sky
and to be in love with life yet out of sorts with his own. What could he do He
turned up his collar and walked. He had no idea what he was going to do. There
was nothing for it but to stay true to his feelings and to push on. What he knew
at that moment to be real was the entrapment of circumstance. What then was
freedom except to see the circumstances without illusion and to try to change
his own to suit his nature? Yet he knew he was up against that terrifying public
opinion whose ignorance he’d encountered in his pathetic little foray into
politics. But this was life, in all its difficulty and disappointment and
frustration and confusion. This had to be faced and grappled with or there was
nothing but resignation, nothing but the death of destiny. It was terrible,
He walked on, easily in his limber way to where he had
parked his car.
Cock’s Bar and Bistro nestled at the bottom of a gently
sloping cobbled side-street. On each pavement was a bench for weary shoppers
though the street wasn’t busy during the day. It came alive at night. Jeremy
Pedder had toyed for months with the idea of a visit. Finally, convincing
himself it was far enough from home, he went one Saturday evening, alone, and
quickly fell into conversation with a pair of men fifteen years younger. One of
them was his type. At thirty-five his looks were still boyish. His hips were
slim and he had that taut, trained energy of a man who keeps religiously fit. He
had big, innocent brown eyes and most attractive of all, he was passive. Pedder
liked to be in control.
"What kind of car do you drive ?" he asked .
"I don’t have a car, as it happens."
"Eh, don’t have a car ? Can’t you afford one ?"
The friends looked at one another and Pedder assumed they
must be embarrassed. He’d already told them he drove a Mercedes and hadn’t
forgotten to mention how much it cost. He told them too about his holidays, his
house, his new conservatory, his job.The place was crowded and noisy. Raucous
music with a heavy beat was piped through speakers you couldn’t get away from.
Pedder had to shout to make himself heard but he quite relished being able to
stand too near to his interlocutors and put his mouth close to their ears. By
the time he came to leave he was feeling delighted with himself.
When they stepped outside, he was going to offer them a lift.
His car was in a neighbouring side street where the restrictions ended at seven.
But at once he saw someone looking at him. On the other side of the road, amidst
the crowd of mostly young revellers, were a young couple waiting to cross. The
lad smiled as he saw Pedder who looked away at once.
"Um, sorry, I’ve got to go," and he left his confused
bar-stool pals on the pavement. They watched him hurry away and disappear down
an alley, his flat feet slapping the flagstones in their clumsy fashion, his
rounded shoulders a little stooped.
The couple crossed the road lazily and the lad, who was tall
and well-made, with a slightly unpleasant arrogance in his manner, surveyed the
two men. There was a bustle of folk moving from one pub or bar to another,
little huddles of girls and scrums of men striding a little too confidently and
shouting too loudly.
"Sam, come on !" protested the girl.
Her skin had an orange hue and her long hair was dyed and
"It was ! It was Pedder!"
"So what ! Let’s get a taxi. I’m freezin’ !
The lad turned towards the two older men as his girlfriend
tugged at his arm. People altered their direction to get round him. He stood
firm as a lighthouse in a gale, his chin slightly raised, his chest puffed. The
two men didn’t look at him.
"That was my teacher," he announced. "My maths teacher. Are
you two gay ?"
The couple stood with their hands in their pockets, close to
one another, and said nothing.
"For god’s sake, Sam ! Leave off !"
"Fuckin’ puftas !" the lad cried and cast a glance at the men
before turning his back and striding away, his shoulders rolling with cockiness,
his girl-friend in her short skirt and skimpy top tottering on her high-heeled
red shoes, clinging to his arm .
"Silly little pillock," one of the men said.
Pedder couldn’t sleep. He had been seen all right and it was
Sly. He knew how quickly the virus of rumour spread. In no time everyone would
have heard. But what set his heart racing was the fear that Sly might have used
his mobile and taken a picture. It had happened before: images of him posted on
the Web. Without evidence he would simply deny it. A malicious act on the part
of a disaffected and nasty pupil. And everyone knew what Sam was like. Hadn’t he
been suspended for asking a supply teacher, in front of her class, if she had a
nice cunny ? Nevertheless, this was serious. To be known to be gay, to be
fifty-three, to be unmarried and to be employed in a boys’ Catholic school. Yes,
this was 2005 but the priests thought homosexuality a sin. The parents would
whisper. His more devout colleagues would take their distance. There might be
openly gay cabinet ministers but in a provincial , stiff little place like
All Saints, hypocrisy was indispensable. One malicious accusation and he was
At nine in the morning he was on the phone. He had scoured
his address book. All his old female university acquaintances were married.
Except one. The paper boy shoved the Observer through the tight letter
box. It fell with a thud and Pedder heard the gate being closed. Life was going
on as normal. The ringing was interrupted. A sleepy, female voice answered.
"Hello Glynis. I hope I haven’t woken you up ?"
"Sorry ? Who is this ?"
"Jeremy Pedder. You remember me. You remember my old MG.
Round the lanes of Kent."
"Jeremy ? God ! What are you doing ringing me at nine on a
Sunday morning ?."
"Well, as it happens, I’m in London. Not right now. But I’m
coming down today. I have to see my brother. He’s been ill. Okay now. But I said
I’d visit this weekend and I got a bit caught up with things yesterday. And as
I’m going to be in London I was asking myself what nice lady I could take to
lunch. You know, some nice lady who appreciates a good meal and a fine wine. And
I thought of you because.."
"But I haven’t seen you for years !"
"No. Isn’t that a shame ? Good friends drift apart. Their
lives go in different directions. They miss one another but…"
"So what makes you think I’m….available ?"
"Well, I’d heard….I mean I’m sorry. I know how distressing
these things are. But I heard a while ago…"
"Who from ?"
" George, actually. I went to Prague to stay with George and
his family. You know he’s doing fabulously well out there. The house they have.
You wouldn’t believe it, Glynis…"
"I’ve been there."
"Have you ?"
"Yes, after my divorce. George was quite friendly with Brian,
"Yes. I knew that."
"So you just thought you’d ring me ?"
"I didn’t just think of it. I’ve been meaning to…you know how
busy we all are. But the opportunity arose…"
"And you thought of me. An opportunity."
"No, I don’t mean it like that. But you know, old friends.."
"Are you in some kind of trouble, Jeremy ?"
"Trouble ? You know me, Glynis, Mr Straight-and-Narrow ! No,
as I say I have to visit my brother and I couldn’t think of a nicer lady than
"Do you have a partner just now ?"
"No, footloose and fancy free. I live on my own. I’ve lived
on my own since I left university, actually."
"What happened to…..Jill ? Was it Jill ?"
"Yes. She got married. A merchant banker. That was twenty
years ago now."
"I see. And has there been anyone else since."
"Well, no-one special. No-one to speak of. I’m so busy at
work. You wouldn’t believe the paper chase in teaching these days. And the
marking. Most nights it’s midnight. Honestly, midnight and I’m still at it…"
"So what time are you arriving in London ?"
"Oh, I’ll be there in about three hours. Sunday. If it’s
quietish I’ll put my foot down. Eighty all the way. The Merc cruises at that."
"Okay. I’ll meet you outside the British Museum. One o’clock.
There’s an Italian place nearby I’m fond of. It’s pricey but the food is superb.
Don’t be late."
"Me, late ? You remember me, Glynis. Mr Punctuality !"
"Till one, then. Bye."
He was ready to leave in five minutes. It was early enough
for few people to be around. His alibi should be secure. Leaving the estate, he
passed the old eccentric from number twenty-three walking her dog. A simple
woman who lived alone she could barely remember what day it was and wore
wellingtons in the hottest temperatures of August. A boy went by on his bike.
Pedder looked hard into his face to be sure it wasn’t one of the lads from
All Saints. Surely he was safe !
Glynis arrived a ten past one, emerging from the crowds of
tourists: smiling Japanese hurrying in little groups, or large, lost-looking
ageing American men accompanied by expensively dressed wives who seemed like
extras from Hollywood movies. She was still pretty. Small, slight but
well-proportioned. Pedder remembered how the lads at university had liked to
watch her on the badminton court. He noticed the crows’ feet at the corners of
her eyes as she smiled. She wore a smart, dark blue overcoat which brought out
the blue of her eyes, and purple leather gloves.
"Nippy, isn’t it," she said, huddling.
"It’s colder up north," and he laughed.
She looked up at him. His face had fattened. He had a double
chin and fleshy jowls. His eyebrows had grown thin. His face was still dominated
by his large, ugly nose. When he had made a pass at her, over thirty years ago,
she had laughed; she so pretty she could have the pick of the boys. He had been
very timid and formal. The girls had all laughed about him. The general opinion
had been he didn’t like women.
"This way !" and she set off at a brisk pace, her heels
clicking purposively as she dodged the on-coming pedestrians and the
He began talking loudly and incessantly and she let him. It
was an aspect of him she had always found ludicrous . She recalled how the
students in their department had sent a letter to the Dean complaining about
inconsistencies in marking and he had refused to sign. One part of her wished he
could be quiet, that he could talk only when necessary or say something sweet or
caressing in a manly voice tinged with husky intimacy. But another felt
superior, felt that he was giving himself away badly. She’d been deeply let down
by men. She savoured her sense of superiority.
She led him to a plush new restaurant, very urban chic,
with mirrors to make it look bigger than its substantial size. He was always
keen to show off his class by visiting expensive restaurants or taking five-star
holidays but looking at the clientele he felt a little shudder of doubt. They
obviously thought themselves the beau monde and were on show. He wished
he’d suggested Pizza Express.
"So, what’s been the matter with your brother ?"
"Heart attack. Stressed out. He’s always been a compulsive
worker. He’s big in banking, makes a fortune. Lives in St John’s Wood and has a
second home in Portugal. Lovely place…."
"Do you go there ?"
"Oh, yes. I use it if I like. Amazing property, right on the
beach. Five bedrooms, swimming-pool and…"
"Sounds lovely. I like Portugal."
She ordered Gamberoni olio e limone, Costoletta Milanese and
a bottle of Vintage Tunina . He was about to protest the price of the wine,
which was almost sixty pounds, but he restrained himself.
"I love Tunina, don’t you ? I think it’s just the best
Pedder looked away. At a nearby table a man was eating alone.
He was about Pedder’s age. His hair was grey but thick and brushed back. He wore
a dark jacket and a black polo neck sweater. Aware of Pedder’s stare he turned
to look at him. Pedder was surprised by how handsome he was. He had something of
the mature Richard Burton. Pedder quickly looked down at his plate. He felt
suddenly very out of place. He looked at Glynis and the sight of her made him
angry. He wished he was eating alone like the Richard Burton lookalike. He
wished he was as handsome. He scratched the table with his fork. He excused
himself brusquely and got up to go to the gents.
When the meal was over, he was in a quandary. Should he press
on or was enough enough? But she took the initiative, hailed a taxi because
Pedder had drunk two glasses and didn’t want to risk it, and soon they were
outside her house in Fulham and he was paying the driver. It was a
disappointingly small house but she had tried to make it welcoming and
comfortable. There were framed Jack Vettriano prints in the hallway and art
nouveau posters in the lounge. Everything was very neat, which pleased him.
She had painted the doors pastel green with lemon inlays and the carpets and
sofas matched. As she showed him to the kitchen, she bent to pick a black speck
from the laminate floor. He noticed how pristine the kitchen worktops were.
She took him upstairs, showed him round. The last room was
hers. The double bed took up most of the floor space but the wardrobe and chest
of drawers were carefully placed so it didn’t feel too cramped. He talked and
talked while she nodded and made little sounds of approval. He stood by the
window pretending to be interested in the street. She sat on the end of the bed,
poised. He went on talking. She looked up at him with her head tilted to one
side like an inquisitive dove. She said nothing. His meaningless chatter rattled
"So," she said, interrupting him, "might as well get on with
what we’re here for."
He was flummoxed. She took off her clothes and climbed into
the bed. His worry was that he wouldn’t manage an erection so he began talking
about his brother and how anxious he had been about him and the journey down and
how tired school made him these days and how the stress was really getting to
him and how he no longer had the time to stay fit..
"For god’s sake shut up and get in. I’m sure we’ll manage.
Her remark made him even less confident. When he stood naked,
she almost burst out laughing. She didn’t really know why. She looked at him
expecting to find something attractive in his nakedness. She found every
unclothed body attractive in a certain way, perhaps just because of its
vulnerability. Yet when she looked at Pedder she saw a man who couldn’t
be naked. He was without clothes but he was still dressed. His status still hung
on him like an ill-fitting suit. The simplicity of his nakedness was too much
for him and because he tried to conceal it, or to embellish it, he seemed simply
ludicrous. He was starting to lose his hair whose style hadn’t changed since he
was a teenager. He had combed it forward, Beatle-style, in the sixties. But his
scalp was clearly visible through its thinning and this sign of age clashed
badly with his skinny, unformed, gangly-boy legs . Nor was there the merest sign
"Oh dear," she said , "it looks as if I shall have my work
cut out !"
On the way home, Pedder tried to pull himself round. The
motorway was busier than he expected. He was becoming irritated. It had been an
awful visit. Frankly, he didn’t like women. The sexual side of a woman almost
disgusted him. Like fat people. Or the poor. Still, he had managed it, even if
she had laughed at his kissing her on the lips and if he’d gone limp inside her
twice before being able to finish.
"Mmm. Need a bit of practice, don’t we," she had said.
Nevertheless, he had an alibi. He had been nowhere near
Cock’s ! He had been with Glynis, an old university friend. Or should he say
girlfriend? She had rung him. He’d still got it ! The women still came after him
! He would have to keep up the pretence, of course. He and Glynis would have to
be an item. The thought troubled him. Perhaps the sex would dwindle.
Maybe they would just get together for meals out or to keep one another company
on holidays. After all, she was so unceremonious in bed and he was unable to
arouse her in the slightest.
When he got home he took a shower. It was strange where his
cock had been. He soaped himself, rubbing his balls and frothing the foam in his
pubic hair. Strange to have put it inside Glynis with whom he had so little
connection, whom he barely liked, whose body frightened him. And the thought
came to him of having been in the shower as a sixth-former. There was a younger
boy there, blond, slim and his buttocks white and firm. He’d turned to look at
Pedder and his blue eyes shone in his young, bright, face. Wasn’t that where he
belonged ? Yet how could he ever have dared ? How could he have had a career ?
How could he have been respectable ?
He turned out to be right about school. The rumour spread
like bird flu. He wondered if his colleagues might be starting to connive. He
took Sly to one side. The lad was seventeen, athletic, a soccer player. When he
pulled himself to his full height, he was slightly shorter than Pedder’s six
feet three but he knew himself to be stronger, faster, more energetic than the
"Now young man, I believe there’s a slander about me that
originated with you ?"
"You’ve been spreading rumours about me."
"No I haven’t !"
" Now Sam, stop ! Tell the truth !"
"I don’t know what you’re talking about !"
"Sam ! If I mention Cock’s Bar, does that ring a bell
"That’s not a rumour."
"What isn’t ?"
"I saw you."
"No you didn’t."
"Yes I did. I’ve got a witness !"
"Calm down and don’t take that tone with me."
"I saw you, on Saturday."
"Saw me where ?"
"Coming out of Cock’s, with two blokes." A sly grin
flickered like a subliminal advert on Sly’s lips.
"Now listen, young man. I was in London at the weekend…"
"I’ve got a witness !"
"I was in London at the weekend. Is that clear ? I
stayed with a friend. Now, any more from you and I’m taking you to the Head and
we shall have your parents in. Understand ?"
The boy made a cynical, what-do-I-care face as he looked at
his feet, then the wall, then the ceiling.
"Yeah," his tone was lazy, insolent, recalcitrant.
"Yes, sir !"
"I don’t know what to make of you, Sam. Sometimes I think you
might have the makings of a decent young man in you. Eh ? But at other times
you’re sullen and oppositional. Eh ? Am I right?....."
And Pedder subjected the lad to one of those endless tirades
he had perfected over the years in which insult followed praise and humiliation
was couched in the language of help and professionalism until the boy was
overwhelmed. Carefully judging just how barbed to make each put-down and the
limit to which he should push, Pedder knew exactly the effect of his words. He
wanted to summon up that deep sense of uncertainty , that inability to hit out
even though the temptation was irresistible, that feeling of being trapped and
of having to submit. He wanted to make the boy a coward.
On Wednesday he telephoned Glynis and invited her for the
weekend. She agreed, but he had to pay for her train ticket. On the Saturday
they ate at Wallbanks, the much-talked about new restaurant opened by the
young chef who had worked with Albert Roux and Marco Pierre White. She ordered
pressed terrine of red mullet and young leeks with toasted sourdough, roast
fillet of beef and braised cheek, millefeuille of garden strawberries and lemon
curd, a selection of British cheeses and a bottle of Chateau de Jonquieres. He
ordered the cheapest items but the bill still touched two hundred pounds. On the
way home, he sulked, which she ignored. She behaved as if he didn’t exist. Once
through the front door , she threw off her coat and declared:
"Just time for a brisk fiddle between the sheets, but let’s
be quick, I want to get to sleep."
He had to go through with it. Her body didn’t seem to belong
to her. She took no responsibility for it. Her self seemed to be gathered in
some distant corner of her mind, remote from unseemly physicality. As he entered
her, she released a long fart at which she giggled girlishly and his erection
"Oh, it’s at it again ! What’s the matter with it this time
So she had to stiffen him with her hand and as she worked
away she yawned and chattered:
"You do need to change the curtains in here, Jem. They’re
just awful. I couldn’t live with those."
On and on as his reluctant penis swelled and hardened,
almost, then softened and dwindled.
"Ah well, better call it a day, eh ? Maybe try in the
morning, though I don’t like pre-breakfast sex. I never have."
She turned her back and dragged the duvet round her. The
conversation of a drunken couple drifted in from outside. They were laughing and
teasing one another. Pedder lay for a long time his heart pounding . She
couldn’t live with these curtains ? He would have to end it. But then, he would
be the unattached man again. He needed to wait a while. But finally, he would
have to break with her. A sudden shout from outdoors gave him a start. His heart
raced. He felt his head begin to ache.
He barely slept and got up at six. She lay in bed surveying
the room. Dreadful ! And what was this bungalow, after all, but a two-up,
two-down terrace on one level ? It would have to be sold. She would prefer it if
he moved to London. Her children were there, of course, though Brian would take
care of them. And at seventeen and eighteen weren’t they old enough to take care
of themselves ? But the finances were impossible, if she wanted a house of any
size. Up here though, with what they would get for hers, and the value of this .
Oh yes, they could afford a nice big place in the country. She could give up
work. All day she would amuse herself. She would take the train to Manchester
and lunch at the Palace Hotel. She would buy shoes at Russell and Bromley and
dresses in Kendal Milne. She would have coffee and cake in Albert Roux’s café.
Perhaps she would catch the eye of some rich young lothario. She smiled to
herself at thought of last night’s delicious humiliation and before she went for
a shower, brought herself to a shuddering little climax.
Pedder sulked more and more, and more and more she ignored
it. There had been one or two little incidents. On his way to the corner shop ,
a boy had shouted "Queer !" and skedaddled with his mates before he could
recognise him. "Pedder is a pufta" and "Pedder sucks cocks" had appeared on
desks in the department. The fear of being discovered was so dominating it
checked him from doing what his instinct told him. So the relationship with
Glynis continued. Every time she came to visit for the weekend, she stopped in
front of estate agents’ windows. She would make him drive out to little villages
six or seven miles from town.
"Oh, now that’s lovely ! And it’s for sale. We must find out
how much that is. What’s the number ?
She made him buy things for his bungalow he simply didn’t
want and felt he couldn’t afford. He came home one day to find she had thrown
out all the crockery.
"Come on, let’s get to town and buy some more. I just
couldn’t stand that rubbish any longer."
"But my mother bought most of it !"
"What atrocious taste !"
He was at a loss. He wanted to strangle her. He wanted to
swear at her and kick her out of his door. But he was paralysed. He didn’t
really know why, except he had got himself into a mess. Why didn’t he just end
it ? He couldn’t. His will was locked against him. He went on. It was his cover
after all. He’d told everyone. If it came to a sudden end, wouldn’t it look
In school ,however, he played the old married man. A group of
blokes went out drinking around Manchester once a month, ending up in a curry
house in Rusholme.
"Are you coming on Friday, Jem ?" one of them would call
across the staff-room.
"If I can get a pass-out !" he’d reply, feeling he was
pulling it off brilliantly.
Time rolled on. He was incapable of finding a way out of his
trap. He had been seeing Glynis for ten months. Perhaps it was long enough ?
Perhaps he could safely go back to being single ? But then the graffiti on the
desks, the continuing calls of "Bum bandit !" or "Shirt lifter!" made him panic.
He was speeding down the M1 one Friday. Wasn’t he a success ? Wasn’t he Head of
Department and Head of Year ? Didn’t he earn forty thousand ? Wasn’t he driving
a Mercedes ? Why then couldn’t he hit these boys who tormented him ? The little
shits ! Why couldn’t he just take hold of one of them and punch him in the face?
The vision of doing so made him feel better. If only he could simply use
his power ! When he approached Glynis’s house he was stunned to see the estate
agent’s board in the garden.
"You might have discussed it with me !"
"What’s to discuss ?"
She turned from him and minced to the kitchen. He followed
and remonstrated. He lowered his voice. He tried to sound rational. She hurried
around putting things in cupboards, wiping cutlery, crashing it into the drawer,
stuffing washing in the machine and setting it churning. He realised nothing
penetrated. She didn’t think about his position. When she was in this mood he
felt thoroughly belittled. He didn’t exist.
The house sold in no time and she moved into his bungalow.
Her furniture filled his garage and they had to pay to put some in storage. She
harried him. They must find a house quickly. This depressing bungalow ! Between
the two properties they would raise three hundred and sixty thousand. She found
a house in Newton, a tiny village ten miles from the town, for four hundred
"But we can’t afford it !" he was almost in tears.
"We can borrow forty thousand. It’s nothing these days !"
"I’m fifty-three, I don’t want to burden myself with another
"Don’t be so cautious. Look at how much you earn. And you’ve
got seven years to work yet. You’ll be earning the other side of fifty grand by
the time you retire and you’ll have a nice fat pension and lump sum. Be a little
"I’m not doing it, Glynis."
She ignored him and pressed on. She filled in the forms. He
refused to sign. In bed, with her fingers teasing his balls she said:
"Now, when are you going to sign for that mortgage ?"
He couldn’t reply, but she produced the papers and a biro
from the bedside table. He took them as she gently ran her oiled fingertips over
the head of his cock. In spite of himself, he signed. For days he went around in
a black mood. He stopped talking to her. "Thank god for that !" she said to
herself. In the staff-room, though, he boasted about the move:
"Lovely house. Five bedrooms, though what I want five
bedrooms for at my age I couldn’t say ! Eh ? Eh ?"
And he laughed excessively loudly.
Once they’d moved in, everything had to be perfect. The
removal men broke a handle off a wardrobe and she insisted on compensation. She
bought a chandelier for the hall at two thousand pounds. There were new carpets
throughout. The toilet had a slow descending seat and the bath a
state-of-the-art waste. The neighbours had coach lamps by the door. She had
some fitted. Shortly after they moved in, the people across the road had a block
paving path laid. She ordered one immediately. All the floors had to be stripped
and polished. He came home from school to find the three piece suite replaced by
two long, cream sofas.
"It’s an interest free deal," she declared.
"Look," he said to her, "we should have separate accounts."
"Because you don’t earn anything but you have access to my
money and you spend it willy-nilly !"
"Willy-nilly ! I spend it on what we need. I spend it
on making this house decent. You don’t want to live like a pauper, do you ?"
"I’m going to be a bankrupt the way your’re going on !"
"Don’t exaggerate, Jeremy ! You sound like your mother. I
sometimes think her neurosis must be hereditary."
"Well, at least find a job, then you can spend your own
"Do you think I haven’t tried ?"
It was true. She had applied for a dozen or so jobs without
success. Before the birth of her children she had lectured in Psychology, had
seen herself as a future Professor. Distinguished, published, interviewed on
Radio 4 about child molestation or family breakdown. Standing before her
students in a crowded lecture hall referring to her books and papers. But having
stayed at home for five years, she found herself well behind in the career race
and had made do with odd bits of work in sixth-form and tertiary colleges. She
no longer had the stomach for teaching. So she applied for jobs for which she
was over-qualified or for which she simply didn’t have the appropriate skills
and to her delight she was never even called for interview.
Slowly, Pedder began to understand.
He scoured the local paper; he searched the Web; he wrote
letters of application and filled in forms on her behalf. At length she was
interviewed for a job as a receptionist in a firm of solicitors.
"Oh, god, I couldn’t work there ! Dingy smelly place ! It’s
all Legal Aid, the place was full of chavs !"
He was about to accuse her of not wanting to work when he
realised words were no good. She would gainsay him. She would deny. He had to
defeat her without verbal confrontation. She withdrew from argument or
discussion. She walled herself against him. It was an unspoken battle of wills.
Occasionally, her children came to visit. Ben was the
uncommunicative elder of the pair. Tall, skinny with a curious way of walking
that lifted him onto his toes, he played guitar and believed his future was as a
rock star. He wore nothing but black, and his baggy trousers had chains hanging
from the belt and the pockets. His face had begun to be ravaged by acne and he
picked endlessly at his spots and scabs . He helped himself to whatever was in
the fridge, left his mess in the kitchen, the lounge, the bedroom, the bathroom,
flopped on the sofa and commanded the television all day long and when he spoke
"Mum, can you go to the shops and get me some crisps and a
"Jeremy, nip to the shop for him, will you ?"
"Why can’t he go himself ?"
"Just go and get him what he wants. It’ll keep him quiet."
"It’s ridiculous !" asserted Pedder. "I’m fifty-three, I work
for a living, he’s an eighteen-year-old layabout and I have to go to the
shop for him while he sits watching my television in my house…
"Our house, Jeremy."
Two minutes later he was striding along in a rage. A
neighbour was cutting his hedge but Pedder responded to his greeting with a
short nod and powered ahead.
"Pufta !" came the cry. "Cocksucker !"
He turned just in time to see three or four lads of fourteen
or fifteen ducking round the privet hedge of the corner house. Beside himself
and not thinking straight he gave chase. As he turned the corner , the boys
looked over their shoulders and immediately ran off at full pelt. Seeing them
opening up the distance in front of him, humiliated by his impotence, he pushed
himself to the limit. For a few seconds he believed he was gaining on them. Then
he tripped, crashed to the floor, his glasses split on the pavement, his right
knee hit the tarmac with a crack, he sprawled and slid, his palms flat against
the gritty surface. Flat on his belly, he could hear the mocking laughter of the
"Nancy boy !" rang in his ears as he got up .
His trousers were torn at the knee and there was blood slowly
travelling down his shin. He picked up his twisted, ruined glasses. The taste of
blood was on his tongue and his nose began to sting. He looked at his hands:
little points of black grit were stuck in the flesh like dirt blown on to soft
putty. A girl of five or six rode by on her pink bicycle looking up at him in
wonder. He hobbled home and collapsed on the sofa. Friends was blaring
from the television. Ben looked at him for three seconds and then turned back to
his programme. When Glynis came through the door, she couldn’t suppress a
giggle. She brought her hand up quickly to her mouth.
"What happened to you ?"
"Fuckin’ little shits !"
"What did they do ?"
"Did they beat you up !"
" Beat me up ! I’ll beat them up when I get my hands on them.
Little cunts. Calling after me. Cowards. Shout and run off, little cowards."
"How did you get in this mess ?"
"I tripped over !" His voice cracked with emotion.
Glynis brought her hand up to her mouth once more.
"What about my crisps ?" said Ben, at which Pedder grabbed a
cushion and swung it into his face.
In school, the following week, pupils asked with their
customary cheeky,uppish, faux-naif, you-can’t-touch-me-for-it intonation:
"What happened to your face, sir ?"
"Been in a fight, sir ?"
When Pedder snapped at a podgy, spoilt Year 9 boy whose
parents had sent his siblings to independent school because they were brighter
and whose preening arrogance was matched only by his cavernous vulgarity and
ignorance, the boy replied, holding out his upturned palms like a prima donna
sportsman contesting a decision:
"I’m just concerned for your welfare, sir !"
Pedder’s wounds were slow to heal and the scars even slower
"Jem," Glynis began one Friday evening after a particularly
trying week, "we really must insure the car for Ben and Kirtstin."
"Over my dead body ! Let that irresponsible little twerp of a
son of yours loose in my Merc….!"
"Our Merc, Jem."
"My Merc ! I bought it. I worked for it. I had it before you
came to live with me…"
"I don’t live with you, Jeremy, we live together. This is a
"Maybe. But my car is mine !"
Two days later she rang the insurance company to include Ben
and Kirstin as named drivers. As the policy was in joint names, there was no
"Can I take the car on Saturday, then ?" said Ben down the
"I’ll have to negotiate."
"Kyle and Jamie can come up with me. We can go to
"Yes, bring Kyle and Jamie by all means. I’ll have to work on
Jeremy about the car."
On Friday they went out to eat at the Samarkand an
Indian restaurant recently opened in one of the little villages tucked away in
the hills to the east of the town. It was frequented by Asians, mostly with
money and the car park usually sported several Porches, Mercedes, BMWs. Pedder
was disappointed to notice four or five cars of greater value than his own.
Glynis ordered Malabar Chicken (marinated chicken morsels, char grilled) , Mixed
Seafood Grill (char-grilled lobster, prawn, fish and scallops), an appam and a
bottle of Canard Duchene. The bill came to a hundred and thirty pounds. On the
way home Pedder calculated his finances as he drove. He’d worked for thirty-one
years. He’d never married. He’d invested. He’d bought shares in every
privatisation throughout the eighties. Before he took up with Glynis, he’d
always maintained a tidy buffer of twenty thousand in the building society. Now
it was down to two. The thought of it made him well up. He had to struggle not
Glynis yawned and stretched. She flung herself on the sofa
and let her knees fall apart.
"Fancy it ?" she said, stroking her crutch through her white
Pedder turned away. She yawned on and stretched some more and
eventually went up to bed while he lingered downstairs till two a.m. Being alone
in the silent house was like having his old freedom. He would have it again. He
would confront her. The house would be sold. He would be independent. He would
start to save . He would go out alone. He would go to Cock’s. The thought
made his confidence collapse. He assumed she would be asleep when he went up but
she was propped on her pillow reading a Louise Bagshawe. He slid under the
burgundy duvet and she switched off the red bedside lamp. He turned his back on
her but her hand crept to his cock and balls. He wanted to push her away. He
hated her touch. She smeared her fingertips with lubricant and worked away
"I’ve insured the car for Ben and Kirstin !"
He leapt from the bed , charged for the light switch, stubbed
"What’s the matter ?"
"My toe. Shit ! You’ve done what ! For fuck’s sake, Glynis,
you can’t do that without asking me !"
"Well, I have."
"This is fucking nuts ! This entire situation is mad !"
She judged this the perfect moment.
"He’s bringing Kyle and Jamie with him on Saturday. I’ve said
they can take the car to Manchester."
"No they can’t !"
"It’s too late now."
"No it isn’t. I say no ! End of story."
"Get back into bed ,Jeremy, it’s the middle of the night."
He ranted for an hour but she remained as unmoved as ever,
curled in the duvet, remote.
Saturday was dull and wet. The boys arrived at one. Kyle was
a short, stocky, tattooed mixed race boy with a shaven head. He greeted Pedder
"Cheers mate ! Got a beer ?" before collapsing on the sofa
with the remote.
Within half an hour Jamie, a manic boy who had been diagnosed
with ADHD and made the best of it, had driven a football through the kitchen
"Haven’t I told you not the play football so close to the
house !" bellowed Pedder.
"It’s not my fuckin’ fault," moaned the sullen Jamie as he
and Ben trudged upstairs.
Pedder found Glynis’s car keys and hid them with his own. He
was ready for a battle to the end. If he had to push the issue to the break up
of the arrangement, so much the better. How he wished he were back in his little
bungalow, master of his domain, free of this despised woman! They ate together
around the oval dining-room table. Kyle’s mobile sounded as they began the first
course. The ringtone was a rap song in which Pedder could detect only fuck,
gun and shoot. It was Kyle’s girlfriend.
"Yo babe ! Yeah, we’re just havin’ some nosh then we’re goin’
to Manchester. You’ll have to wait till tomorrow for a shag !"
And he fired off his curious machine-gun laughter as the
other boys giggled and snorted, their mouths full of half-chewed pasta.
At nine o’clock, Pedder was sitting on the sofa flicking
channels when he heard the slam of his car door and the threatening catch and
growl of the engine. He jumped up and went to the window to see his metallic
blue Merc swinging recklessly through the tall, black gates and heard the
uplifting roar as it sped away . His instinct was to tear through the house and
confront Glynis, to ring Ben’s mobile and order him home, even to call the
police and report his car stolen, but he fought all these surging impulses,
ignored the images of himself as Pedder furens and sat down once more. It
was over. All that remained was to explain to Glynis that the house must be sold
and the proceeds divided. His heart raced when he thought she might take half.
All evening she avoided him. She talked on the phone to
Kirstin for an hour. She had a shower. She straightened her hair. She fussed
around in the kitchen. He no longer cared. When he went up to bed the lights
were off and she was tight in an impenetrable curl. He lay on his back running
figures through his mind, wondering where he would buy himself a new place.
Perhaps a flat ? Maybe another bungalow in the well-heeled suburbs ? Finally,
despondent, he rolled over and dozed. Then at three in the morning the phone
rang. Glynis sprang up and ran downstairs. Pedder strained his ears. He could
detect the urgency in her voice, nothing distinct. The call seemed to go on for
hours. Her feet padded quickly up the stairs.
"Ben’s had an accident. We’ve got to go and get him."
"Is my car all right ?"
"Your car ! What about my son ?"
As he pulled on his trousers and a sweater, Pedder was almost
glad. The little bastard had got his comeuppance ! He almost wished he’d been
thrown through the windscreen. Then he thought of his car and nearly cried.
Glynis phoned for a taxi. The two of them sat in the back and
said nothing. Half an hour later they arrived at the roundabout where the police
car was parked with its blue lights flashing. The heavy, red recovery wagon was
being hitched to the front of Pedder’s car. He got out and walked over. They had
hit a lamppost full on. There was a great v-shaped indentation in the car’s
nose; the bonnet rose in a steep hill of pressed steel; the windscreen was a
million little morsels, perilously holding; the headlights were hanging
impotently loose. Pedder stood aside as Glynis hugged her son and his friends.
Kyle shouted :
"Scarey or what !" and gave out his loud, silly laugh.
Glynis spoke to the policeman who towered over her at six
feet five. He spoke quietly, gently and was full of easy reassurance. The boys
piled into the taxi. Glynis was about to climb in. She signalled to Pedder to
hurry. He stood perfectly still.
"Jeremy ! Come on !"
He looked at her, this little woman whom he had met at
university when he thought all the glittering prizes were going to fall into his
lap. He turned as the recovery truck growled its slow way around the roundabout,
his precious car, the symbol of all he had attained, ignominiously hoist onto
its rear wheels. Scrap. The policeman was in his car, filling in documentation,
the blue lights still rotating. He looked at Glynis once more. She was standing
by the taxi, her hand on the door, her face tense with puzzlement. He strode
into the road and over the grassed circle of the roundabout. The taxi appeared
as he reached the far perimeter. The window came down and Glynis shouted:
"Jeremy ! What the hell are you doing ?"
He dodged behind the vehicle and ran across the road. There
was a fence and beyond it, a field. He climbed over awkwardly. In seconds he was
in complete darkness. He turned to his right, the general direction of home, and
he trudged. Was he going home ? Did he have a home ? He couldn’t stand to be for
a minute in the same room as Glynis. The sodden earth sucked down his feet. The
mud clung to his shoes. He was soon out of breath. A branch scratched his face.
He kept going, mindlessly. He tripped and felt his hands sink into the soft
meadow. He pulled himself up and forced his legs to work. He was cold, wet,
muddy, tired, alone. And the tears began to run down his cheeks as his chest
heaved in great sobs and the cries of loneliness and need issued from him, into
the night, into the distance, into the silence.
THE SEDUCER’S TRICKS
" Don’t move too soon, know what I mean ?" said Dorner, narrowing his eyes
slightly, jingling his keys in his pocket and going slowly past his friend, a
glass of Barolo in his hand.
Oakley followed him into the living-room, wondering just what
he meant and sat on the brown leather sofa. Dorner paced in front of the steel
and glass gas fire whose pebbles glowed cheeringly in the November chill.
" When’s too soon ?" he said, lifting his Madiran to his lips and thinking of
"Before she’s fully ripe. Like a pear, you know ? Think of it, on the tree.
When it’s hard you have to tug it free and it resists your bite. Leave it till
it’s soft and it’ll fall into your hand at the slightest shake and it’s juicy
and sweet as you could wish."
"You talk like a bloody greengrocer. What’s a pear got to do with Kate ?"
"Kate is a pear, Oakley. Shapely and appealing but still hard. Out of reach
too. You can stand on your tiptoes and not reach her. Jump and try to grab her
and you’ll just make a fool of yourself, mate."
"It’s too much for me. I’ve not got the…"
"The what ?"
"The whatever it takes."
"What it takes is guile. Believe me. They’re all the same. Every one of them.
You just have to know how to read their identical little minds."
"You’re a cynic, Dorner."
"Cynics make good lovers, Oakley. Women expect it. They pretend to admire
romantics but in truth, a man who dotes on a woman repulses her."
"You think so ?"
"I know so."
"Long experience, pal. When I was young, I fawned over girls and they
disdained me. It took me a long time to realize what they wanted was
Dorner looked down at his friend whose long, heavy legs were
stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles, his heavy, ugly brown shoes
resting on the stripped floorboards. It struck him how unprepossessing he was.
"So, if I ignore Kate, she’ll fall for me."
"If you ignore her in the right way, yes."
"How many ways of ignoring a woman are there ?"
"Oh, thousands. But only one that works."
"Which one is that ?"
"The way that drives her mad to know why you don’t pay her any attention."
"But she doesn’t want me to pay her attention !"
"Only because you pay her too much."
"So I should ignore her till she asks me to pay her attention."
"More or less."
"And then I pay her all the attention she wants ?"
"God no ! She’ll run a mile."
"What do I do, then, after I’ve driven her mad through indifference ?"
"Let her ripen and fall !"
"I don’t get it."
"The question is, does she fancy you ?"
Dorner raised his brows and stared hard into Oakley’s eyes.
"Then you’re screwed."
"In that case, I’ll kill myself."
"Do you want burial or cremation ?"
"I’m not joking !"
"Nor am I."
"You’re too much of a cynic, Dorner. Can’t you see my heart is broken ?"
"Oh, balls to your broken heart ! I could introduce you to a hundred women
tomorrow who’d give you a hard-on to make you forget your aching heart in a
"I’m not talking about lust, Dorner !"
"Neither am I. They’re all sweethearts."
"It’s all so easy for you. That’s the thing that gets on my tits."
Dorner cocked his head slightly to the right and smiled.
"What makes you think it’s easy for me ?"
"The women fancy you. You’ve got something they like, I suppose."
Dorner looked away to the window which gave out onto the
narrow little street where he had lived since his marriage broke down. He would
have liked Oakley to say something flattering. It was true. Women fancied him.
He was handsome. He had the eyes. But his intimate life had gone wrong. He was
married a paltry five years, the last three a misery, before his pretty young
wife walked out with the children and he was thrown back into bachelorhood and
out into bedsit land.
"Do you think that makes it easy ?"
"You’ve had one woman after another, I can’t even get
"But it’s hard work. All those pears had to ripen and the
wait can be long and frustrating."
"Did they give you belly ache ?"
" You get all the women and you still complain. It’s a
"’Course it is. It’s meant to drive you mad. Keeps the
breeding going, doesn’t it ?"
"I wish I’d never grown up."
Dorner found himself agreeing. In fact, he felt he hadn’t. He
was thirty-five, his chest was hairy, he’d been promoted to Head of Year, he’d
even almost made it to Assistant Head, he had a son and daughter, but he still
liked to think of himself as a little boy. A little boy with a big hard-on
chasing every half-way attractive or available female.
"You lack experience mate, that’s all. I’ll give you
"I’m not learning fucking maths, Dorner !"
"What’s the difference ? It’s all a matter of rules. Once you
know the rules, it’s easy. Like solving an equation. Look at it without knowing
the formula and your brain seizes up."
"I can do maths."
"Well, maybe you should sit at home solving calculus every
"The point is, you can teach me the theory but I’ve got to
put it into practice. I’m with Kate. I ignore her. She ignores me in return.
"Modelling, mate !"
"Just as in the classroom. You need to watch an experienced
"I’ve seen you in action. It’s like I say, you’ve got
something women like."
"The learning has to be specific."
"I’m not following you into the fucking bedroom ! Watching
your hairy arse bobbing like a float on the canal isn’t my idea of fun."
"No, I mean Kate."
"Piss off !"
"Do you want her or don’t you ?"
"I don’t want you dipping your scraggy wick in her, that’s
for sure !"
"I won’t take it that far. But I’ll show you how it’s done.
We’ve just got to set it up."
"Oh, that’ll be easy !"
"We’ll think of something. Drink up, mate. Come on, let’s get
down the Lion for the match !"
Oakley’s unavailing attempts to seduce Kate Franks took place
mostly in the staff-room. Occasionally, they were at the same social event, the
restraints of the working day fell away, Oakley drank hard and hoped for an
opportunity, but the staff-room required at least a hint of discretion. Often,
his desire got the better of him and he was pressing himself on her in his
enthusiastic puppy fashion when another member of staff would appear. In an odd
way, Oakley liked this. He wanted to emulate Dorner. His friend liked to think
of himself as supreme when it came to women. There was no-one on the staff to
match him, except Culling, and he was weird. Dorner had a strategy for every
woman who might be persuaded. Those beyond the pale, the ageing, the ugly, the
steadfastly faithful, he hardly recognised as people.
It was decided the staff-room would be the arena of action.
"Where the hell am I going to hide ?" said Oakley.
"In the loft space."
"I’ve been up . Look, that little hole in the wall ? You can
drop down behind there. You can see and hear everything. I’ve tried it."
"How do I get up ?"
"Easy, come on I’ll show you."
Oakley was at the top of the step ladder, hitching himself
through the access.
"What if someone comes while I’m doing this ?"
"No-one ever comes this way, except the caretaker. If he
arrives, just make some excuse."
When Oakley was down and dusted off, they studied the
"She’s got PPA last thing on a Tuesday. Bingo! I’m free. Are
"Set them work."
"Every week !"
"Oakley, this is serious. This may be your destiny. Kate may
fall for you and give herself body and soul. And think of that body. You may be
her husband and the father of her children. Are you going to risk that to teach
a bunch of spoilt, middle-class pea-brains about the structure of DNA ?"
"If Dawber finds out I’ll get the sack !"
"Don’t be melodramatic. If he finds out, say your mother’s
dying and you’ve been suffering anxiety attacks."
"My mother’s been dead for years !"
"Does he know that ?"
"I doubt it."
"Then let her die again."
"And what if Kate doesn’t come to the staff-room?"
"We’ll have to find a reason."
"Such as ?"
"Who’s in her form ?"
"How do I know ?"
"Oakley, when you’re trying to seduce a woman, these are
things you must know. This is like running a military campaign. Nothing must be
left to chance. There’s bound to be some little shitbag in her form. Have you
got your school list ?"
Oakley produced a small, stapled, crooked violet booklet from
his inside pocket and handed it to Dorner.
"Let’s see. Ha ! Look at this ! Half the sociopaths in year
8. I can find a reason to speak to her every week."
"She’s going to twig in no time."
"’Course she is. But once she’s hooked and enjoying it,
she’ll play along."
" On the other hand, she might have books to mark."
"No woman is going to attend to duty when she can spend an
hour wallowing in the idea of her desirability."
"But you know how conscientious she is. And ambitious."
"Conscientiousness is just a desire for attention and
ambition a wish to be teacher’s pet. Make her the centre of attention and give
her the feeling she’s the best woman around and you’ll see."
"It all sounds very fine in theory."
"I’m a practical man, Oakley. You know that. I experiment
first and then stick with any hypothesis reality doesn’t disprove. You could
call me the Isaac Newton of seduction."
"Well, I hope your calculus doesn’t let us down."
" Confidence ! I’ve never failed yet. So, next Tuesday. I’ll
set up the encounter. You hide in the loft. The trap is set."
"One thing you haven’t thought of."
"Suppose there are other people in the staff-room."
"Bollocks to ‘em."
"But she’ll be inhibited."
"Not at all. Once she starts to fall, she’ll forget herself.
They all do."
"But if she falls for you…."
"Don’t be so bloody neurotic. I know what I’m doing."
Oakley worried over the plan and at the weekend couldn’t
sleep, waking into a dark blankness, looking at the red digital displaying 4:15,
his mind slowly filling with thoughts of Kate and Dorner. His heart beat with a
pace and heaviness he was constantly aware of. His head began to ache so he got
up and swallowed two painkillers and back in bed, like a child woken by a
nightmare, wrapped the duvet tightly round him and took what comfort he could
from the warmth that began to glow across his shoulders. He got up early and
cleaned and tidied the house, on his hands and knees he polished every mark from
the kitchen floor. He went into town, as if he had things to buy, and wandering
the shops found himself overcome by the sudden surging of his heart as the
thought of Kate and his doubts over the plan sprang into his mind.
"All set ?" said Dorner on Tuesday lunchtime.
"I don’t know."
"What d’you mean you don’t know ?"
"It seems a bit extreme."
"Extreme ? Think of her sucking your cock, mate. Is that
"Do you have to be so crude ?"
"I’m just trying to get you going. You can’t back off now.
You’ll never forgive yourself. You’ve got to go for it, give it your best shot.
If you don’t make it, you can hold your head up and say you tried. But give up
and you’ll curse yourself for the rest of your life."
"But how long is it going to take ?"
"Who can say."
"That’s the problem. I can’t leave my class indefinitely."
"Watch carefully then and you’ll be able to do it for
yourself. Be in the loft by the start of period five."
"Will she be here ?"
"I’ve arranged to talk to her about Danny Carlisle."
"If I get sacked, I’m telling the whole story."
"Stop worrying. Get up that bloody ladder."
Oakley finished his lesson, collected the books and had the
boys and girls standing five minutes before the bell.
"Why have we finished so early, sir ?"
"Is it early ?"
"There’s five minutes yet !"
As soon as the bell sounded he dismissed them, rushed down
the corridor dodging amongst them, sped through the yet empty staff-room and up
the bending ladder. He tucked himself down behind the spy-hole and set his right
eye to it so almost the entire space was visible. There was a little squall of
activity as teachers came and went and finally, Kate and Dorner were sitting
side by side, right in the line of his vision. Two women were away in the corner
where it was hard for him to make them out. He wasn’t even sure who they were.
His fixed his eye on his friend. He was talking, smiling, gesturing and looking
intently into Kate’s eyes. But what was he saying ? Oakley couldn’t make out a
word. When the two of them laughed, the spurt of sound reached him but quickly
ebbed. He focused on their lips. Impossible. Kate was full of animation and
ease. She threw herself back as she laughed exposing her white throat. She
tossed her head so that her heavy, auburn hair fell wantonly by her cheeks and
onto her shoulders. She was returning Dorner’s gaze. He leaned into her. Their
shoulders were touching. She didn’t flinch. Their faces were very close, as if
they were about to kiss. She was limp in her seat. Oakley was overwhelmed by
angry jealously. Weren’t they supposed to be talking about that ignorant little
shit Danny Carlisle ? Hadn’t he got his dick out during an art lesson ? Where
was the professional seriousness ? Why weren’t they shaking their heads and
looking prim ? Where was the teacherish disdain ? These two were behaving like
teenagers tipsy on alcopops taking over the living-room while the parents were
out. He wanted to storm down and berate Dorner but then the terrible happened:
his mate inclined closely towards the woman he loved and desired, put his hand
on her thigh and stroked its high, inner softness. Oakley felt himself go dizzy.
Dorner’s fingers were an inch from her cunt ! And she was smiling. Her head was
tiltled back. She was enjoying it. He withdrew his eye, came backwards down the
ladder and strode off to his classroom. His sixth-formers had taken the work and
disappeared. He shut himself in the science store-room, slumped in a chair and
held his head in his hands.
"You had your hand on her thigh !" he complained to Dorner as
they drove away at the end of the day.
"Of course I did ! And she loved it ?"
"The idea is to get my hands on her thighs."
"Did you watch me ?" said Dorner, turning into the car park
of The Unicorn. "I softened her up by maintaining eye contact, keeping
everything positive. When she was obviously ready, I took my opportunity."
"There was no need to get your hand on her crotch."
"I wasn’t anywhere near her crotch !"
"You were a millimetre from her clitoris. Leave the finessing
to me. Just show me how to do all the preliminary work. I’ll figure out how to
get my hand down her thong."
"But that’s just the point, mate. You won’t. You’ll muff it,
pardon the pun. It’s the kill that’s crucial. The final few seconds have to be
just right. Move too soon and she’ll shrink like a snail before salt."
"You keep on like that and her legs will be as wide as the
"Don’t be so nervous. I’m not going to seduce her, I’m just
playing. And once she’s used to it, you can take over. She’ll come to the
staff-room in the right frame of mind. A little gentle titillation of her female
self-regard, and she’ll be yours."
"Anyway," said Oakley petulantly as they got out, "I couldn’t
hear a word. What are you going to do about that ?"
"Not a thing ?"
"Only the laughter."
"Bugger ! We’ll have to rig up microphones."
"You’re mad,"said Oakley.
"It’s your round, mate !"
Dorner spoke to a friend who ran a business in electronic
equipment and came up with a microphone and ear-pieces.
"How do they work ?" said Oakley.
"No fuckin’ idea, mate. Just stick that in your lug and
you’ll hear everything."
He crouched painfully with his right eye pressed to the
spy-hole. Kate was wearing a white blouse unbuttoned to her cleavage, exposing
the lovely territory of her throat and upper chest and Dorner was leaning over
her, making the best of the view.
"So what did you get up to at the weekend ?"
"Well, on Friday I went out for a meal with my friend.
"Your friend’s Italian ?"
Kate laughed extravagantly.
"No, you fool. We went to Tognarelli’s, you know, that new
place. Very nice. I had the platter of olives and penne with mushrooms. Lovely.
They’re very good. And my friend had the soup, she always has the soup, she’s
one of those people."
"Bit of a soup dragon."
But Kate was unfamiliar with the old t.v. programme and
looked at him quizzically.
"For her main course she had burger and salad. Now I know
that sounds boring, but believe you me they really know how to cook a burger and
the salad ! It’s a meal in itself."
"Did you have a few glasses ?"
"Oh, yes. I favour white. I like a good sauvignon but my
friend prefers red. So we always have a little bicker about that."
"Who won this time ?"
"Me. I usually do. Anyway, afterwards we went to that club on
Orchard St. It was heavin’ !"
Oakley, hearing all this perfectly through the device jammed
into his left ear was stunned by its banality. To see Kate’s lax demeanour, her
wide smiles, the clever little tilts of her head and her eyelashes batting like
a humming bird’s wing, you’d have thought they were swearing deathless love.
Dorner touched her shoulder with his fingers, his knee pressed hers and once
more his hand lay on her thigh and moved up and down so slowly universes could
have been born and died. Oakley yanked out the earpiece. He turned from his
panopticon and sank to the floor. What was he to make of it ? He’d hoped to
learn what to talk about. But they talked about nothing ! As far as he could
tell, Dorner was paying Kate the kind of attention a vulture devotes to its
prey, and yet he’d told him women dislike having attention paid to them. The
plan was hopeless. It must come to an end. Either he’d win Kate on his own or
not at all.
"I’ll do it myself or not at all," he barked at Dorner.
"But it’s going brilliantly, mate. If I wanted her in bed
tomorrow she’d rip her clothes off."
"What good would that be to me ?"
"That’s where you want to be, isn’t it ?"
"Me not you !"
"But if I can get there, so can you. Just do what I do."
"What do you do ?"
"Yeah, I’ve seen. You talk about bugger all and you get your
hands on her quim."
"Next Tuesday, you’re up in the loft and I’m going to do the
"Too soon, mate !"
"If I wait any longer you’ll be shaggin’ her."
"Patience ! You’ve got to prepare the ground before you sow
"I’m not hanging round till you’ve sown your seeds. Next
Tuesday I get my hands on her thighs."
Dorner sighed. His shoulders went limp. He put his hands in
his pockets and looked up to the ceiling as if for inspiration.
"One piece of advice," he said.
"Don’t lay a finger on her."
"You bastard ! You want her for youself."
"No, mate. No, no, no. But if you asked her, she’d say she
didn’t remember me touching her."
"Really. The trick of it is to get her in such a swoon she
barely notices where you’ve put your hand. Then afterwards she forgets it, more
or less. Or at least, she doesn’t remember it as an intrusion."
"Well, I’ll do the same !"
"It takes a lot of practice."
"Don’t flatter yourself. I’ve watched you. There’s nothing
you were doing I can’t do."
"Have it your way," and Dorner sighed again.
The following Tuesday he was in the loft shaking his head and
anticipating disaster. Through the peephole he could see Oakley sitting
nonchalantly reading The Guardian as if public affairs interested him.
First mistake. He hadn’t noticed Dorner always let Kate sit down, remained on
his feet to talk to her for a few minutes, and only sat next to her once she’d
begun to relax.
She came in, sat down some distance from Oakley and set to
marking scripts. Oakley put down the paper and looked in her direction. He
coughed. He stood up and stretched, yawning loudly. He paced about, examined the
notices on the board, declared, "Oh, dear !" in a plaintive way, and sat down
again, facing Kate. She went on marking as if he wasn’t there.
"Busy ?" he said
"Mmm," she answered without looking up.
"Marking eh ? Wouldn’t it be a good job without it !"
The old joke left her unmoved.
"Or the kids. Schools are great places without kids ! Ha!"
She furrowed her brow and wielded the red pen with gusto.
Oakley stretched his legs in front of him.
"Is this your PPA time ?"
"I should be teaching the sixth-form."
She stopped and looked up. She was staring right into his
eyes but her expression was disapproving. All the same, this was eye contact. He
put on a self-satisfied little smile, raised his brows and wiggled his head from
side to side like a boy who has just been told he’s top of the class.
"Then what are you doing here ?"
"What do you think ?" he said, sitting up and leaning
forward, his elbows on his knees.
"Where are the students ?"
"Oh, I’ve set work. They’ll’ve gone off somewhere. But we’re
"Just the two of us."
He jumped up, went and sat beside her, pressed himself close.
"I wanted to talk to you," he blurted.
"What about ?" she said, pulling away.
"Danny Carlisle," and he put his hand on her upper thigh so
his little finger nestled in her crotch.
She leapt aside sending her papers scattering. He bent to
"You dirty little pervert !"
"I’m going to report you to the Head."
"Don’t do that !" he pleaded.
"You put your hand on my thigh !"
"Did you notice ?"
"I thought you were swooning."
"You’re a lunatic."
"No, I’m just mad about you, Kate."
He took a step towards her and she fled.
Within seconds, Dorner was beside him.
"What am I going to do ?" whined Oakley.
"I told you, mate. You shouldn’t have laid a finger on her."
"She called me a pervert."
"Men who touch up women in public places are perverts."
"But you do it."
"No I don’t."
"I only did the same as you."
"Oakley, you didn’t do anything like me. You invaded her
space. You’re about as subtle as George Bush. You want to touch a woman, you’ve
got to make her space expand until it blends with yours."
"No time for that now. I’ll go and find her and calm her down
before she gets to the Head. If she reports you, that’s your career over."
"Oh my god !" cried Oakley collapsing onto a chair.
After school, in the Blue Anchor, the two men sat at
the bar. Dorner was relishing a burger and chips but Oakley had nothing but his
third pint of lager in front of him.
"So she won’t report me ?" he said.
"What did you say to her ?"
"I told her you were on medication."
"For what ?"
Oakley, who’d just filled his mouth with beer, spat it back
into his glass.
"How am I going to crack her if she thinks I’ve got the pox!"
"Women like men with a bit of a record. I told her you’d be
clear in a week or two."
"So now she thinks I’ve been shagging slags."
"Not at all. I told her you’d picked it up from your ex
"My ex sister-in-law is married to the fucking vicar of St
"I know. All adds to the spice."
"This is a disaster."
"Don’t be such a pessimist. Anyway, tomorrow I’ll be able to
tell you if she’s any good in bed."
"What !" Oakley rocked on his stool on the uneven floor,
grabbed the bar to steady himself and sent his glass tumbling.
"Do you think it was easy calming her down ? I had to give
her a hug. She looked up at me. What could I do but kiss her ? I arranged to go
round to her place later to explain to her about your problems."
"What problems ?"
"Oh, for fuck’s sake."
"She’ll take pity on you, pal. Believe me."
"If you shag her I’ll never speak to you again."
"Yes you will, because I’m going to tell you what she likes.
I’m going to give you the low down on how to satisfy her .Then it’s just a
matter of slowly getting you to learn the techniques and your wish will come
"My wish is that you keep your hands off her."
"Don’t let jealousy make a fool of you. Do you think she’s a
virgin ? What’s the odds ? I’m just going to reconnoitre the territory and then
hand it over to you."
"And what am I going to do tonight to stop myself thinking
about you giving her one ?"
"United are the telly, mate. Drink up."
Oakley spent a hellish evening and night tormented by the
idea of his friend’s conquest of the object of his love, resolving henceforth to
have nothing to do with either of them, subsiding into hopelessness and
resignation, rising into brief periods of flatness. In his more lucid moments,
he tried to understand why she had responded so violently to his advance. Didn’t
she realize how genuine was his infatuation ? Didn’t she appreciate he was
willing to devote his life to her ? How cruel to reject someone so besotted !
Dorner, on the other hand, was a phoney. He was all technique and no substance.
Couldn’t she see through him ? It made him sick in every cell. He was awake till
five in the morning and after nodding off roused suddenly to see it was eight
fifteen and he’d be late.
"Amazing, mate," said Dorner at break time.
"Don’t tell me."
"You’re not going to keep it to yourself !"
"Do you want to know or don’t you ?"
"I want to know, but only what will help me. I don’t want to
hear you boasting."
"A bed wrecker."
"You mean she’s responsive."
"Responsive, mate ? She’s nuclear. Bottle that and you could
solve the world’s energy problem overnight."
"So what gets her going ?"
"Anything. It’s like starting a newly serviced Rolls. One
little touch and her hips are rolling like cams."
"One little touch from me and she was ready to call the
"You’ve got to be invited, pal."
"Accept my tuition. You want to play the violin you’ve got to
learn the scales."
"A violin isn’t going to turn me down."
"Think of her as a Stradivarius. She’ll play wonderful music
or she’ll screech like cat with piles. Learn where to put your fingers, how to
draw the bow. Take advice from an expert."
"I’m not going up in that bloody loft."
"Okay. I’ve got a better idea."
"A hidden camera. I watch and listen on my laptop. You have
the earpiece. I tell you what to say."
Oakley experienced a moment of epiphany.
"I’ll rig it up on Sunday. My mate provides these spy
cameras. They’re tiny."
"Fine. One thing though."
"You stay out of her bed."
"I’ll do my best, mate."
"What’s that supposed to mean ?"
"If she asks me…."
"Make an excuse ! Tell her you’ve got the pox or you come too
"She knows me, mate !"
The following Tuesday Dorner was hidden in his departmental
storeroom with his laptop and microphone watching Oakley marking books. Kate
didn’t appear. Nor the following week. Oakley was in despair. Each day he shared
the space she occupied, watched her talking sweetly to other colleagues, noticed
the remarkable thick weight of her gorgeous hair or the lovely slenderness of
her white fingers. He would go to his grave without ever making this his own !
Then, the third week, after he’d sat pretending to work for twenty minutes, she
"Let her sit down !" ordered Dorner.
Oakley almost responded out loud.
Oakley got to his feet.
"Don’t just stand there like a squaddie on a parade ground,
move towards her."
Oakley took two confident strides.
"Not so bloody obvious. Slowly. Edge nearer."
He stopped, looked down at his shoes, took a tiny step in her
direction, stopped again, looked up at the ceiling.
"What the fuck are you looking for ? Lean on the wall by the
door and say ‘How’s things, Kate ?’"
He leant against the wall feeling very awkward. It wasn’t the
kind of thing he did. It was the sort of sloppy way Dorner behaved. He tried to
"How are you, Kate ?" he said
"No!" yelled Dorner. "How’s things !"
"I mean, how’s things. Kate."
"Christ !" said Dorner.
She turned her face to him and though she wasn’t smiling
there was a hint of something benign in her expression.
"Okay, thanks. How are you."
Oakley looked into her eyes, waiting for his instruction. It
took a light year to arrive.
"Say, ‘Oh, keeping going’."
"Oh, keeping going," said Oakley feeling it wasn’t at all
what he wanted to say.
She smiled, turned briefly back to her work and looked up at
"Well, we have to," she said.
"Say, ‘We do, worst luck’," came the instruction.
"We do, worst luck," he said.
She laughed, throwing back her head a little and he noticed
the stunning combination of delicacy and strength in her white neck.
"You’re looking well," she said. "Are you keeping fit ?"
He wanted to sit next to her and blurt out everything that
was making his brain feel it would burst.
"Say, ‘Absolutely, clean bill of health. And I jog every
He repeated it.
"Well, that’s great," she said. "I didn’t know you were a
"Say, ‘Oh, nothing fantastic, just ten miles a day before
She put down her pen and her face was full or real interest.
"Ten miles. Wow. You are fit. I’d never’ve suspected. You’re
a bit of dark horse, aren’t you."
"Say, ‘I don’t like to boast, I just like to do the
He parroted, but he was feeling more and awkward leaning
against the wall. He moved to sit next to her.
"Don’t sit down !" bellowed Dorner.
Oakley quickly but clumsily resumed his previous
street-corner pose. Kate’s expression darkened slightly.
"Are you okay ?"
"Fine, fine," he stammered.
"For fuck’s sake !" said Dorner.
"For fuck’s sake !" repeated Oakley.
"What ?" said Kate, her brows pulling together and her mouth
pulling down at the corners.
"Say, ‘Sorry, I was just thinking about 9W2’."
"Sorry," he said, "I was just thinking about…."
But the class eluded him. He tried desperately to think of
one of his classes. In his fluster he landed on his sixth-form.
"L6E1," he said.
"Aren’t they a good group ?"
"Oh, they’re fine !" he uttered, smiling to cover his
"Are you sure you’re all right ?"
"Say, ‘Just wound up from this job. I need to ease up a
"You know," she said, " not being rude, but that’s what I’ve
always thought. You need to lighten up a bit."
Oakley was outraged. Lighten up ! What sort of superficial
nonsense was that ?
"Say ‘That’s great advice. You know, I’m grateful to you for
Oakley choked on the words. He paused. She was looking up at
"That’s great advice," he said.
"Well go on," insisted Dorner, "say the rest !"
"You know," began Oakley. He paused again. She smiled "I
don’t think I need to lighten up at all."
Kate turned immediately back to her work.
"You bloody idiot !" yelled Dorner.
Oakley shrugged himself away from the wall.
"Don’t sit down !" yapped Dorner.
Oakley paced .
"Stop doing that, it shows you’re nervous. If you’re nervous,
she’ll be nervous. Stand still for fuck’s sake."
Oakley stopped. Kate looked up.
"Is something wrong. ?"
He smiled, waiting for his cue.
"Go and lean on the wall," said Dorner.
"Go and lean on the wall," said Oakley.
"I bag your pardon ?" said Kate.
"Say ‘I mean, I think I need to lean on the wall’."
"I think I need to sit down," said Oakley.
"No, no, no !" bellowed Dorner.
Oakley took up his previous position against the wall.
"Why are you standing up then ?" she said.
"Say, ‘Oh, don’t want to get in the way while you’re
Oakley repeated but with an intonation so flat it
contradicted the words. Kate went on silently with her work . Oakley began to
sense himself as utterly de trop. He couldn’t have felt more awkward had
he been naked in the rush hour on the Tube. At length, Kate said without looking
"Sit down if you need to. You won’t disturb me."
Oakley immediately plonked himself next to her at which she
"Take it easy !" urged Dorner. "You’re trying to make a woman
swoon not commit an armed robbery."
Oakley edged away from her a little and sat playing with his
fingers and adjusting his tie like a school leaver at his first interview.
Dorner, his chin resting in his palm, watched in despair convinced his colleague
was ineducable in the subtleties of unspoken communication, overcome by a sense
of his superiority which, oddly, combined with a conviction of futility. What
should he tell his pupil to do now ? Whatever he suggested, Oakley would
accomplish it with such clumsiness Kate would retreat ever further from his
reach. He decided to simply sit and watch. She worked on without a word. Oakley
tapped his feet, leaned forward, sighed, stretched, pulled his diary from his
pocket, looked in it as if it contained important information, put it away,
extended his legs, withdrew them, drummed his fingers on his thighs, unfastened
and tied both shoe laces.
"You’re very busy," he said eventually.
Dorner took his head in his hands. He got up and went
straight to the staffroom.
"Okay, Kate," he said.
He leant against the wall in exactly the position Oakley had
"Fine, how are you ?"
Oakley was amazed and outraged at the openness of her
demeanour. She was looking up at Dorner with pleading eyes which made him want
to shout, "What about me !"
"Oh, not too bad. Bit sluggish. That end of the day feeling.
I could just do with a brisk walk."
Kate glanced at the clock.
"I know," she said, "I’m marking myself to death !"
"Nice blue sky out there."
"Yes, lovely and bright isn’t it ?"
"I think I’ll just wander down to the shops. Need anything ?"
"Yes. I need some coffee. I’ll just get the money."
She leant forward to drag her handbag from under the chair
and her heavy breasts swung low in her half-cup as her unbuttoned blouse fell
loose letting Dorner see her full cleavage. She rummaged.
"Don’t worry. It’s only a couple of quid at the most."
"No, no, I’ll just find my purse," and she looked up at him
fully aware that his eyes now fixed on hers had been enjoying the revelation.
"Really, don’t worry," and he made to leave.
"Found it !" she called as he went through the door. "I might
as well come with you. The air will clear my head."
And she tripped out after him with the eagerness of a child
setting off for the seaside. Oakley didn’t move. The shock left him blank, like
a man who has just heard of the death of his child. He felt an overwhelming
desire to giggle. He imagined Dorner and Kate chatting warmly and
inconsequentially, saw him slip his arm round her waist and her lovely head
nestle on his shoulder. Why wasn’t he able to make small-talk to her? Why did he
always want to spill out something of the utmost importance ? He was completely
at a loss.
Meanwhile Dorner listened to Kate’s delightful chatter. She
had that ubiquitous female ability to conjure talk out of nowhere which left him
with a sense of inadequacy. And as she talked he noticed how everything about
her exuded warmth and invitation but at the same time he became aware of how he
disliked her. He wasn’t sure why but she seemed to return everything to herself.
She would often say, "Oh, I’m temperamental" or "Have you noticed how unfair I
can be ?", little barbs that would make him wince and freeze. All the same, his
opportunism wouldn’t let him refuse the offer of her bed, but he thought about
Oakley who was utterly in love with this woman and he envied him. "If only I
could feel like that," he reflected and feeling sorry for himself he resolved to
make the best of her physically as often as possible until someone else came
The moment Mrs Richards saw Vic
Nye she knew she must go to bed with him. He was one of those rare men,
handsome, graceful, intelligent and gentle all women hope they will run into.
Lesley Richards had never been close to a man like him. She’d had a few
boyfriends as a teenager, engaged in some inadequate petting and then attached
herself to Barry because he was bright and, like her, addicted to security. Her
disappointment in him as a lover didn’t prevent her marrying him. Who else was
there ? The two children came along. She was an attentive mother. But her
husband didn’t work. He had a job in accountancy and brought in money, but he
was suspicious, neurotically cautious and too tense to satisfy her. Their
love-making became an infrequent, polite but dull routine and because Barry knew
she was unfulfilled, he kept too close an eye on her.
“You were late tonight,” he said
as she stirred the sauce for the pasta.
“Was I ?”
“Did you go somewhere after
“Where would I go ?”
“I don’t know but it was nearly
quarter to five when you got in.”
“I was just late getting out,
that’s all. There’s always some niggling thing to sort out at the end of the
“What was it today ?”
“Oh, Barry, leave off !”
“What d’you mean, leave off ?”
“I mean it gets on my nerves,
being interrogated for arriving a little later than normal.”
“It’s not a little later, it’s
nearly half an hour.”
“Wow ! And what d’you think I’ve
been up to in half a hour ?”
“I’m not saying you’ve been up
to anything, but if you haven’t why shouldn’t you tell me ?”
“Because it’s bloody childish !”
“What’s childish ?”
“Checking up on me all the time.
I’m not your property, Barry.”
“I didn’t say you were but I’m
not having you running round like some men’s wives.”
“Some men’s wives ?”
“It goes on, you know.”
“Well of course it goes on.
We’re only human.”
“I’ve noticed you’ve been late a
few times recently, that’s all.”
“God, do you want me to clock in
For the rest of the evening
Lesley was irritated. Her thoughts were whirring, trying to conjure what was
going on in Barry’s head. What made her really angry was she’d got into the
habit of having a chat with Vic at the end of the day, if she could catch him.
It lifted her spirits and carried her through to the following morning. Now she
was going to have to give it up just because of Barry’s ludicrous paranoia. But
the thought came to her that she was throwing herself at Vic. She made
eyes at him, contrived to show him her tits, even bent over once when he was
standing by her desk so that her buttocks pushed against his crotch.
“Oh, sorry !” she’d said,
pulling herself upright and quickly stealing a look at his zip.
She didn’t know why she was
acting in this way but she couldn’t stop herself. She was overcome by
desperation. She had no defence against the terrible greed for possession which
seized her but at the same time she couldn’t act on it. She merely acted it out
like a child at play, and when Vic slipped his arm round her waist she pulled
away, as from an attack.
Once the children were in bed
she poured herself a glass of Merlot and watched drivel on television. She knew
it was drivel but it was reassuring. For one thing, it wasn’t beyond her. On the
contrary, she could look down on it. That little lift of superiority she gained
from letting popular trash wash over her helped keep her going. Barry was on the
sofa scrutinizing figures on his laptop. He was one of those people who can’t
leave work at work. He always thought preparing at home could put him ahead of
things the following morning. He’d been one of the best since his early days at
school and needed to sense he had the edge over his colleagues. Lesley was
vaguely hoping he’d go to bed because his presence was a thorn in her flesh. She
wanted to drink a couple of glasses alone in front of the rapidly shifting
images and let her mind wander. With a suddenness that startled her he shut his
machine, unplugged and jumped up.
“Off to bed,” he said.
“Okay. I won’t be long.”
When he’d gone she wondered why
he’d been so abrupt. It bothered her for a few minutes and she puzzled, but the
warming effect of the wine made her sink into the cushions and closing her eyes
for a few moments the image of Vic appeared before her and she smiled. She
slipped into her beloved half-waking state and the image of herself chatting
seductively as she made demonstrative use of her charms in front of Vic occupied
the whole of her consciousness. In an indeterminate place at an unspecified time
with no reason for them being there he put his hands on her waist and pulled her
to him. She lifted her face and he kissed her. She probed his mouth with her
tongue. He began to take off her clothes. Lesley unhooked her waistband and
slipped her hand down her knickers to finger her wet cunt. It was amazing how
the thought of Vic could set her juices running. She began working away ,
suppressing her cries. Ten minutes and the little tremor ran through her but she
kept her eyes closed and the picture of Vic before her.
Once her second glass was
finished, she switched off and went to the bathroom to splash her face and clean
her teeth. She assumed Barry would be asleep but when she went naked into the
bedroom, he was lying awake, one arm behind his head.
“What kept you ?”
“Oh, I was just watching rubbish
on the box.”
She took a nightie out of her
“No need to put that on,” he
She felt herself stiffen a
little. She knew that if she weren’t married to Barry she wouldn’t let him so
much as hold her hand. But he was her husband. How was it possible to justify
intimacy with someone you had no desire for ? What kind of justification did it
need ? Was it a moral problem or was it merely a matter of distaste ? Whatever
it was, she found the justification at once: to end the sexual relationship was
to end the marriage to end the marriage was to break up her family and breaking
up her family was a step too far because of what it would do to the children.
She drew back the duvet and climbed in, catching a glimpse of his erection. She
would a thousand times have preferred to see Vic’s cock ready to enter her. She
would have taken it in her mouth and fondled his lovely balls. All the same,
Barry was good and hard, he was going to come inside her and the simple
physicality of it was pleasant enough. As usual he played with her tits and
wriggled down to lick her. She didn’t mind, but what she wanted his cock filling
her up. When at last he climbed on her and she guided him in, the image of Vic
filled her mind and she let out wild helpless cries as Barry pumped away. But,
as always, he was done in two minutes, just as her cunt was warming up. He
rolled off and turned his back. She switched out the lamp.
The following day she
encountered Vic first thing and quickly engaged him in insignificant chatter but
while she rattled away and looked into his eyes she was thinking of the previous
night. She would have loved to tell him how he occupied her mind, how she dreamt
of him, how her husband disappointed her; but in spite of herself she waxed
“Oh, and I was saying to
Barry…………And Barry wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
In this way she established a
flimsy barricade against her abandon knowing nevertheless it was utterly
transparent and would collapse at the first gentle push . She made herself so
sinuously available, her eyes gave away all her secrets and she was such a limp
rag of defencelessness she was sure Vic must come to claim what she offered.
Later in the day he appeared in her room. Her class had just left and she was
clearing away. When he approached her desk she stepped back in a little cowering
movement that made him stop.
“Are you okay ?”
“I was just wondering if you had
that mark scheme,” he said.
The request saved her. She
scurried to her cupboard.
“Here it is !”
She stood holding the paper her
arm at full stretch as if it were contaminated with anthrax. He took it gently
and smiled courteously. She smiled in return and felt herself hopelessly
exposed. What if he seized her now ? What if he grabbed her waist and began
kissing her hard on the mouth ? Her head was tilted slightly backwards. She ran
her hand through her hair.
“Thanks. That’s wonderful.”
And as he turned and left she
wanted to call after him, to say “Yes, it is wonderful. You’re wonderful, Vic !”
, but she watched him go and went back to making her room tidy, calming herself
through the simple task.
At the weekend Barry’s sister
offered to babysit so they went to a local Italian. Barry felt safe with pizza
and pasta and being used to this restaurant, it was where they always ate.
Pulling on her black dress Lesley was disappointed they were going to
Santorini’s again. Where did she want to go ? She didn’t know, but somewhere
different. In the car, the predictable journey lowered her mood. The
middle-class houses she knew so well, the very curves of the road she could have
inscribed from memory, the depressingly familiar service station, the restaurant
itself sitting low and uninspiring next to its gloomy car park. As they walked
in, she almost wished she’d stayed at home. She could have curled up warm on the
sofa with a glass of Casillero del Diabolo and watched the tv. There was a
little effort involved in sitting opposite Barry and making conversation which
aroused a falsity in her feeling. She was doing her duty as a wife but what she
longed to do was to throw it off and fulfil herself as a lover. Vic was in the
back of her mind. From time to time she brought him into full view and imagined
sitting across from him. Just the two of them. She chattered away with all the
inconsequentiality of a woman seriously in love. She became aware of herself as
charming, sensual. She leaned forward so her breasts hung loose in her scooped
dress but he still looked into her eyes. She flicked her hair behind her ears
from which dangled delicate, silver rings. She felt warm, at ease and fully at
one with herself. They left and she took his arm as she picked her way around
the potholes, and in the front seat she reclined , hitched her skirt a little
and swung her right knee back and forth luxuriating in the sense of her own
delightfulness. What a joy to be naked and warm with Vic ! What loveliness to
feel him come inside her ! Everything was right. But Barry spoke and switching
herself back to reality she saw he was staring at her cleavage. There was
something in his expression, a tiny hint of fear or disgust and a slight turning
down of the corners of his mouth which disturbed her. Hadn’t it always been
there ? She thought back to their earliest days and it was true: she’d always
felt he was somehow furtive about sex, that he looked on her nakedness as
forbidden. The thought of going home and to bed with him made her spirits sink.
She searched for something to say.
“We’ve got a staff meeting next
“Anything important ?”
“I think the Head’s going to
talk about record keeping.”
“Is there a problem ?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s one
of those things OFSTED are hot on and he wants to tick all the boxes.”
They went on. She looked around
at the other tables. What were all these people chatting about ? What were their
lives like in their most private corners ? Was she a terrible exception ? Did
all these people have happy marriages, did they all long to be in one another’s
arms, could they all simply melt and be happy talking about nothing ? A cold
dread ran through her that almost made her want to leave and the thought of Vic
came to her, the rightness of him and the injustice that she must be sitting
here with a husband she felt cold about. All that saved her was the idea of her
righteousness. She was doing the right thing, the good thing. But the good thing
was making her painfully unhappy. Would she be unhappy all her life ? And what
if she seized her happiness ? But she would have to do a bad thing to attain it.
Her mind failed her, her shoulders sagged, she felt ugly and slack.
Barry had a sexual habit she
didn’t find all that charming: if she was in bed first, he would come and stand
by her, his cock half erect and she’d reach out and stroke him hard. Then he’d
push himself towards her face and she’d take him in her mouth. As she closed her
eyes, Vic’s image came to life in her head. It was his cock in her mouth and his
lovely balls she was fondling. The flood of warmth through her flesh made her
relax and the idea of Vic belonging to her, she being the only woman to stroke
and arouse him, was a balm to her troubled thoughts. But the spurt of cum broke
the spell. She swallowed. Barry withdrew. He left the room and she heard water
running. When he came back he switched out the light and climbed in beside her.
She waited for his arm to encircle her waist but she was still waiting when he
The following Wednesday she was
called into the Head’s office. He was a smallish, slightly stocky man whose
demeanour betrayed his working-class roots. He liked to think of himself as a
democrat but his ascent of the short and very greasy pole to Headship had taught
him the importance of sycophancy. The first principle of advancement was never
to disagree with your superiors and his allegiance to this had produced a mind
incapable of thinking anything those above him might disapprove of. At
university he had a few brief moments of dissent and had even once taken part in
a demonstration, but the old grammar school obedience, the fear of punishment,
the memory of High Anglican sermons, brought him back to himself. What if he was
being watched ? What if the authorities disapproved ? He returned to his
economics books, strived for a first and got a two-one.
He was complaisant towards
Lesley because he recognized a fellow-spirit. She was obedient to a fault. He
thought of her as one of the small group of staff he could depend on utterly.
“Sit down, Lesley.”
She lowered herself primly into
a chair smiling in her customary how-nice-I-am manner but she was aware of an
unnerving catch in his tone.
“How are the pupils treating you
?” he said.
“Oh, fine. Most of them are
co-operative, aren’t they?”
But she knew this was smalltalk.
“Things okay in the department
She raised her brows and
tightened her lips. There were tensions among the staff in English. The
Subject Leader took an I’m-all-right-Jack attitude and resentments bubbled.
“We’re coping, I think.”
“Get on okay with Vic Nye ?”
She recognised the change in
tone and physical attitude. His eyes looked at her with the hardness of intense
interest. Her heart raced and she flushed.
“Yes, Vic is very helpful, very
kind. We get on well.”
“Only I’ve had a complaint.”
Lesley sat speechless. Her eyes
widened. Her mouth took on the pitiful shape of that of child about to cry.
“From a parent.”
She didn’t speak.
“It seems you were seen together
outside school. In your car.”
In her flustered state she
searched for the incident. Her car ?
“Is that right ? Have you been
together in your car.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I gave
him a lift. It was raining. He usually walks. After a parents’ evening. I took
him home, that’s all.”
“Did you park up ?”
“I don’t know. Near his house. I
don’t know the area very well. It was near a park. In Kirkwood.”
“What did you do while you were
“How long for ?”
“I don’t know. Ten minutes.
Maybe a bit longer. Not much. We just had a chat.”
“Only a parent saw you and says
you were kissing.”
“The question is Lesley, is it
really appropriate for….”
“That’s outrageous ! Who is this
parent ? I gave him a lift home. Nothing more. We talked. We didn’t touch one
She was soaring on her anger and
her words had that straight, plain, strong character speech always has when
people are talking from real conviction, when there is no dissembling or
hypocrisy. The Head pulled back a little.
“All the same, as I was saying,
is it appropriate for a female member of staff to share a car with a male member
of staff, in the dark…”
“It’s a question of propriety,
“This was after school. It was
half past eight at night. I gave him a lift home. In my own time. What’s that to
do with the school ?”
“You’re a role model, Lesley.”
“Not at half past eight at
“At all times, Lesley.”
“At all times.”
She was bewildered, furious and
livid. She sat and stared at the Head who was leaning back in his chair
swivelling gently from side to side.
“The thing is, I’ve done a
little asking around and one or two people on the staff have said they’ve seen
you and Vic…”
“Oh, for pity’s sake !”
“Don’t lose your temper,
“What are you accusing me of ?”
“I’m not accusing you of
“Then why am I sitting here ?”
“I’m just trying to get to the
bottom of things.”
“I’m not answering any more
questions till I’ve spoken to the union.”
“There’s no need to get
“Tittle-tattle ! I have to sit
here and be humiliated because of loose tongues.”
“Because of our position…..”
“This interview is over. If you
want to speak to me about the matter again I want chapter and verse. I’m going
to speak to the union straight away.”
“Okay, Lesley, okay..”
She went to her empty classroom,
sat at her desk and tried to control her sobbing.
That night, she was in bed
before Barry. The image of the Head wouldn’t dissolve. She heard his words over
and over and her heart beat heavily. Her fears ran on like an undamed torrent
and she saw herself called before the governors, accused of bringing the school
into disrepute, dismissed in short order. Had the Head spoken to Vic ? How would
he respond ? And who were the loose-tongued, low, sneaks who’d run telling tales
to the boss ? It made her so angry and filled her with such impotence that the
tears welled and all she could think of was handing in her notice. Watching
herself type the letter, put it in an envelope and slip it in the Head’s
pigeon-hole raised her confidence. The thought of the humiliation of sacking was
too terrible. But then she saw herself dragging round interview upon interview,
trying hopelessly to explain why she resigned. And would the Head write a
reference ? The power they had over her ! It was vile ! The whole situation was
vile. Then she thought of Vic. She saw him standing by her, smiling, talking in
that low soft way which made her dissolve. Was she guilty because she dreamed of
making love to him ? Was what she’d learned in church true, that to think of the
act was as bad as committing it ? Did she deserve to be sacked ?
Barry came into the room and she
pretended to be asleep. He slipped his arm round her waist and, after routinely
stroking her belly , pushed his finger between her legs. Unresponsive as she
was, he pulled her to him, rolled her over and climbed on. She opened her legs
so his fingers could find their way home but as he fumbled in the dark to pull
on a condom she was overwhelmed by her sense of distance from her own life. The
good thing was that he came as soon as he entered her. She tugged down her
nightie, pulled the duvet round her and pretended once more to be asleep.
“Has the Head spoken to you ?”
She stood, dismayed, frightened,
uncertain, unable to say any more.
“What did he say ?”
“He asked if we’d been in my car
“Is that all ?”
“Well, people have complained.”
“We’ll have to be careful.”
“But we haven’t done anything.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. In
this culture of blame an accusation is enough. They’ll have us up before the GTC
for unprofessional conduct if we’re not careful.”
“They couldn’t do that, could
they ? I just gave you a lift home.”
“Yes, but some prissy Mrs Grundy
of a parent with a grudge against the school says we were groping one another.
Beesley won’t back us. He’s terrified of authority. If the parent says we were
at it in the back seat, we were at it in the back seat.”
“But that’s terrible. We could
end up divorced and without jobs.”
“And whoever told the tale would
be very happy.”
“I can’t believe people are that
“People sit at home inventing
complex viruses to screw up computers. Why ? Just for the vicious fun of messing
up other people’s lives. Someone’s out to get us, Lesley.”
“Have you spoken to Terry ?”
“Yes. The union will back us.
But that won’t mean much if Beesley decides to move.”
Lesley was watching Big
Brother and sipping Madiran. Barry hammered figures into his laptop. She
wanted to tell but something stopped her. She glanced and it struck she might as
well not be there. Why couldn’t she tell ? He was her husband. It ought to have
been easy. But the thought of broaching the fact she’d given Vic a lift home was
too much. She’d kept it quiet because it might have sparked Barry’s suspicions
and if he objected violently she would have had to promise not to do it again.
By saying nothing she kept open this little snicket of freedom. She could sneak
down this narrow alley of secret pleasure now and again without setting off
Barry’s wild ideas.
A few days later, she and Vic
were summoned to see the Head. Lesley arrived first. He was polite and friendly.
“How’s the family ?” he said.
“Fine thank you.”
At once she was overcome by the
idea of her unsatisfactory marriage. Did she have to conceal it ? Was it a
requirement of her employment she shouldn’t be restless in her personal life ? A
terrible, melting confusion came over her mind. The walls themselves seemed to
be closing in on her. Why couldn’t she be rootless if it suited her ? The
corners of her mouth pulled down. She would have liked to walk out. What right
did the Head have to question her about her private life ? She was a role-model.
Well, what was wrong with honesty ? The plain truth was she wanted to abandon
herself to Vic. She was married he was married but it made no difference to her
desire. At this point in her life, that’s what would have fulfilled her. What
was wrong with being honest about that ? If it was too hard a truth for people
to accept, then let them leave her alone and let her get on with it. She
wouldn’t push it in anyone’s face. Let them keep to themselves.
Vic came in and sat beside her.
She wished he was her husband. How simple life would be if her desire fit
society’s requirement. But she hadn’t met him until she was almost thirty. She’d
made do with Barry. Is that what people do ? Do they make do as they wait for
life to arrive?
“I want to keep this informal,”
said the Head.
The two of them nodded.
“It might be a matter of
perception but the fact is I’ve had a complaint from a parent. The essential is
to protect everyone. Yourselves, the school. If you’re happy for it to be kept
at a low level, we can close the door on the issue.”
“What’s the alternative ?” said
“Well, this is a warning. So in
a way it’s formal, but nothing’s going in writing.”
“We accept it and that’s the end
of the affair,” said Vic.
Vic turned to Lesley. As usual,
when she looked into his eyes something clicked in her brain which dissolved all
her resolve. She smiled.
“We’ve no choice really have we
?” said Vic.
“ Keep it low-key, Vic.”
“Sure. That’s the end of it
“Just a precaution. Best thing
is if you don’t share a car in future.”
Lesley went to bed early. Sleep
was an escape. It provided the warmth and relaxation she didn’t find through
Barry. She woke in the early hours and lay with negative thoughts of the
previous day filtering into her mind. No matter how often she thought through
the injustice, it refused to lie down, like a spiked fairground target which
springs back no matter how often it’s hit. This impotence of thought to salve
the injury made her want to move to action. She saw herself stomping into the
Head’s study wagging her finger . But at once, her feelings sank. He had the
power. If she ranted at him he would discipline her. The injustice was a settled
fact. The terrible thought occurred to her that for the rest of her life this
wound would be part of her mental landscape. What had she done to deserve such
an injury ? She’d given Vic a lift home. The thought appeared that perhaps the
Head intuited her desire. Was he trying to prevent something he saw as
inevitable and which might damage the school ? But all the same, she’d done
nothing wrong. No matter how true it might be she wanted to have sex with Vic,
she hadn’t. She’d been punished in spite of her innocence. She might as well
have done it. She imagined a quiet spot. She lay on the back seat. He pulled off
her skirt and knickers. She spread her legs. She might as well have had the
delight if she was to suffer a penalty in any case.
In the days, weeks and months
that followed, Vic remained as charming and pleasant as ever. Far from waning,
her desire for him grew sharper. But when she offered him a lift, he refused.
“We better hadn’t.”
“Oh, it was ages ago. In any
case, it’s broad daylight.”
“I know, but Beesley is a
box-ticker. He watches his own back. We’d better be careful. What King so
strong can till the gall up in a slanderous tongue.”
“I’d like to know who it was.”
“We’ll never know.”
When Lesley arrived home , Barry
was in the kitchen. The children were running up and down the hallway.
“You’re late,” he said.
“No I’m not.”
“It’s half past five.”
“Is it ?”
“Where’ve you been ?”
“I’ve been at bloody work, Barry
“You finish at quarter past
“Yes, but I knew you were
getting the kids today and I had one or two things to do and time just ebbs away
“One or two things ?”
“Yes, one or two bloody things
She poured a glass of red and
went to the living-room. There was nothing but dross on the tv. The children
came and climbed over her and laughed and wriggled as she tickled them, then ran
away again to their game. She flicked from channel to channel. So many, but all
drivel. She switched off. The idea of the evening ahead depressed her. Once the
children were in bed, Barry would turn to his numbers and she’d sit, effectively
alone. She might mark some books. She had lessons to think about. But when her
thoughts pulled away towards Vic, she felt imprisoned. The injury in her mind
rankled. She imagined herself alone with him in some undefined place. She began
to drift into her dream of abandon.
“Are you coming to help in the
She turned. Barry was standing
by the half-opened door.
“Of course I am,” she said.
He went quickly back to his
task. She put down her glass and got up wearily. The children came charging in,
“Come on, come on ! I’ve got to
help daddy make the tea.”
She bundled them out of her way,
went to the kitchen and standing beside her husband who was chopping onions,
quietly and dutifully began peeling potatoes.
Although she tried to keep a
strict division between work and private life, Mel agreed to meet her sixth-from
students in a café during the Easter holiday. The more she thought about it, the
more disappointed she was in herself. Why hadn’t she just said no ? Why hadn’t
she told them to get on with it and meet the deadline ? But the students put
her under impossible pressure. They knew the coursework gave them the chance of
sucking in marks. They knew cheating was rife. They pushed and pushed at the
boundaries. The rule was: once they’d begun their final draft, she couldn’t help
them. So they refused to begin. They produced reams of notes. She
corrected them and handed them back. That was within the rules. But the deadline
was perilously near. She had to mark them all. She had the paperwork to do. If
meeting them made sure it would all be done on time, so be it. All the same, she
drove to town with a heavy heart.
Her sons, who were thirteen and
fifteen, were meeting their mates to play cricket on a makeshift, local-park,
square . She had to drop them first. They lived on the other side of town from
their school and hence from most of their pals.
“Why don’t you go on your bikes
“It’s not our fault we live
miles from school is it ? We didn’t choose to buy a house here !”
She relented, but it got badly
on her nerves. She was starting to feel guilty about using the car so much and
the boys were so lazy, expecting to be ferried everywhere, even half a mile to
the local shop. Time and again her mind flicked back to her own childhood. What
would her dad have said if she’d asked for a lift into town ?
“What’s wrong with the bus ? Not
good enough for you ?”
How often did she get taken
anywhere by car ? But she’d dropped the boys off at school every day since they
were four. She regretted it. They should have bought a house nearer and made
them walk. Ah, but Robbie. He scoffed at her environmental worries. The car was
a great convenience. Why walk when you can ride ?
“Have you get a tenner, mum ?”
“Ten quid ! For goodness sake !”
“Well, I’ve got to buy me dinner
haven’t I ?”
“Yeah, me too,” piped up the
“What are you buyin’, bloody
caviar and Veuve Cliquot ?”
“And I need something to drink,
don’t I ?” pleaded Joe, her eldest lad.
She mined her leather purse,
pulled out two notes and handed them over.
“Bring me the change !”
They slammed the doors and ran
off and once more she felt used. Why did she have that feeling more and more ?
The Tray O’ Cakes was one
of those clean, attractive, broccoli soup and carrot cake places aimed at the
healthy-eating middle classes. It opened two nights a week, served vegetarian
casseroles, crusty bread and world wines at reasonable prices. At
lunchtime, solicitors, office workers and businessmen crowded in for the
within-an-hour lunch. Mel had arranged the rendez-vous for half past ten. When
she bustled through the door, two of the girls were already there.
“Okay, you two ?”
She felt self-conscious sitting
with them, especially as they had their ring binders open. Another five turned
up, four girls and a boy. The idea was to look at the whole of their notes
and to give a clear idea of how to address the final draft. The rules
were clear: once a title was settled and a plan drawn up, the teacher could give
no further help.
“The thing is,” said Emily,
sweeping her peroxide hair from her face, “can you look at my title?”
“ Not before I go through your
“But if you go through my notes
first, I won’t know what’s important for my essay.”
“Well, maybe, but the point is I
can’t help you any more once we’ve decided on a title.”
“I won’t tell anybody.”
“That’s very noble, but I have
to sign a declaration. I have to be honest.”
“Miss?” said Vicky, “can you
underline the bits of my notes I should put into my essay ?
“No, I can’t do that. The essay
has to be your own work.”
“But it will be.”
“Not really because the notes
are mine. You can’t just transfer them wholesale to your essay. You have to
write that yourself.”
“Yes, but if I just use a few
phrases from the notes.”
“I can’t sanction that. The
notes are the notes. The idea is that nothing in the essay should be taken
directly from the notes.”
One by one, she looked at what
they had in their files, corrected the grammar, improved the sentence structure,
and when that was done, began to settle their titles and work out their plans.
Two hours evaporated.
“ I’ve got to go. Has that been
They all concurred positively.
“Good. Enjoy the rest of your
holiday and make sure you meet the deadline.”
She picked the boys up at five,
knocked together kedgeree and apple crumble , tidied the house in a manic swirl,
ran the power mower over the daisy-filled lawn, drove the quibbling lads to
their friends, emptied the steaming dish washer, filled the insatiable washing
machine, vacuumed upstairs and down, ironed yesterday’s Eiffel Tower of washing,
and sat down at eight with a glass of Sainsbury’s Sauvignon Blanc.
Robbie came in at quarter past.
“All right ? Been on the sofa
all day then ?”
“Is there some food ?”
“Boys out ?”
“No, I’ve locked them in the
shed with bread and water for the night.”
He flopped in the armchair.
“You wouldn’t believe the day
“Remember me telling you about
the programme I set up to calculate risk factors for people over thirty-five in
public sector jobs?”
Mel’s mind went as blank as a
bankrupt’s balance sheet.
“Oh, yes,” she said.
“They scrapped it.”
“They didn’t !”
“I can’t believe it. The thing
about Cass, of course, is he can’t stand anyone having better ideas than
himself. Now, if he’d developed the system….”
Mel was used to switching on at
these times the technique of seeming to appear interested, nodding dutifully,
voicing little throaty sounds of agreement while letting her mind wander. Robbie
was one of those people who thought whatever was important to him was important.
He talked about his work and colleagues in minute detail which made her mind
swim. It was curious how he could monologue and expect her to be interested. As
he wittered, she thought about her meeting with her students. Though she’d done
it with the best of intentions, she regretted it. She was disturbed by their
pressure. They were determined to bend every rule in pursuit of the results the
system told them were all that mattered. But weren’t all kids becoming like that
? Didn’t they challenge everything ? Didn’t they stand on their rights like
ignorant barrack-room barristers ? Hadn’t a cheeky little twerp accused her of
theft because she’d taken his maths book from him when he was doing homework in
“Theft ? Do you know what theft
“Yeah. Taking someone’s stuff.”
“Is that your idea of a legal
“That’s my book. You can’t take
“Well, strictly it’s the
“It’s mine. You’ve got to give
it me back.”
“Are you telling me what I’ve
got to do ?”
“I’ll get my mum to ring the
“Good. But I’m passing your
maths book to Mrs Parsons.”
“I’ll come round to you house
and pinch your stuff.”
“Now, that would be theft.”
It was absurd to spend public
money on this charade. Whatever it was, it wasn’t education. The serious
attention to content and the discipline to mastery it had all but disappeared
and the pupils relished their ignorant behaviour. How often did they behave as
if she didn’t exist? Of course, for them she didn’t. She represented the
intellectual values which were under severe attack. The posters of great writers
she’d put up around her room: Woolf, Shakespeare, Heaney, George Eliot, Emily
Dickinson, had been crudely defaced in days. Most of the pupils, the boys
especially, despised anything intellectual. They hated whatever rose above their
own ignorance and sunk-in-the-moment values. When she’d read The Machine
Stops to her form as an end-of-term treat, they’d howled and hooted
till she had to give in and let them descend to their playstations. Amongst the
girls, the decline wasn’t so bad, but most of them were in thrall to popular
culture and the bimbo brigade absorbed and reproduced the most
thoughtless consumer, over-sexualised vulgarity as if it were a badge of
She’d chosen the coursework with
her sixth-form because she thought it more fulfilling , but they saw it as a
means to better grades and though they weren’t openly cheating, they were trying
to squeeze through every loophole. Restating the regulations didn’t hold them
back. After all, what were regulations compared to their rights?
“So what d’you think of that ?”
“Terrible. Yes, really
“Shall we crack a bottle of red
As usual, she drank a glass
while he finished the bottle and fell asleep on the sofa, snoring, belching and
farting like a considerate husband. She ran through her head, over and over, the
meeting with the students. What was it about it she found so unnerving ?
After Easter, the term always
kiltered quickly away. The coursework came in on time. She had to do the
Byzantine paperwork, bundle it up and send it to the board. She was in the midst
of it, the papers spreading themselves across the desk and confusing themselves
as she’d noticed they would. It was the same with electric cables: put two
within a yard of each other and when you weren’t looking they’d have sex and end
up so entangled it’d take a week to unravel. Having to make order out of this
mess of papers irritated her. In essay after essay the students had taken
chunks straight from her notes. It defeated her. In spite of her reiterations,
they’d done what they thought would get them the best marks, rules be screwed.
Why should she be on the receiving end ? Why should she worry ? It was the
government and the exam boards who were behind all this. In a moment of petulant
rebellion, she decided to send everything the students had written, notes, final
drafts, the whole confused and messy lot. Let the bloody board sort it out.
She’d done her job.
It was a great relief, finally,
to put everything in the bulky envelope, seal it with sellotape and take it to
The term, the bloody term, the
irritating term, the mad term, the one-half-baked-initiative-after-another term,
the payment-by-results-jumping-through-hoops term was nearly over.
Mel was one of those rare
teachers who forget the job entirely during the summer holidays. She could wipe
her mind blank of the ludicrous targets, the crazy levels, the barmy standards,
the crackpot chasing after statistics to make the politicians look efficient,
the lunatic testing, the demented belief that reality conforms absolutely to the
figures in which it is expressed. She didn’t look at a syllabus or mark a page.
Not until she got up on the first morning of the September term did she start
adjusting her thinking to timetables, bells, staff-meetings, detentions,
reports, observations, CATS, SATS, ALIS, starters and plenaries, performance
management and, of course, buried barely visible in there somewhere, education.
Waiting for her this time was a
letter from the board.
The Head passed it to her
Subject Leader who passed it to her. It was a stern rap across the knuckles for
having failed to observe the rules: she had, so they said, marked the final
drafts and given them back to the students. She was banned from exam marking for
two years. It brought a curious melting feeling to her innards. She realised it
was the punishment for honesty: if she’d held back the notes they’d’ve had no
means of accusing her. But she sent them to show exactly what the students had
done. Her guilelessness was her downfall and their accusation was tantamount to
a suggestion she’d cheated. The two year ban didn’t trouble her. What rankled
was the accusation itself. What petty-minded little shits they were ! And
weren’t they just watching their own backs ? Weren’t they playing the
pin-the-blame-on-some-other-bugger game which was everywhere ? Everyone knew
cheating was as commonplace as bad breath. The media were giving the boards a
hard time. So the boards needed fall guys and the innocent teachers got it in
the neck. Part of her wanted to throw the letter in the bin and carry on. But
she rebelled. The Head made emollient noises of support and wrote to the board.
They replied negatively, but there was a right of appeal. She would use it. At
least she’d have the chance to put her case.
She contacted the union.
Alice Lancaster, the Regional
Officer, came to talk to her. She was a woman of forty or so, tall and ungainly
with close-cropped once black hair now turning grey. She wore a long, wide, dark
skirt which seemed to swing and sweep of its own accord and a flamboyant black
felt hat with a brim of equatorial diameter. Her face was big and carved and
masculine with a jaw like Abraham Lincoln. Her stretched, uneven nose might
have been sculpted by a careless drunk. Mel was slightly reticent of her
no-nonsense, I’m-in-control manner, but when she began looking at the paperwork,
making notes and asking questions, she was reassured.
“So the book is called…?”
“Quietly Sings The Donkey.”
“And all the students have used
the same text ?”
“So, how did you go about
organising the coursework ?”
Mel explained the details,
feeling strangely guilty. Having to account for herself induced the conviction
she’d done something wrong. In spite of her certainty she hadn’t, time and again
she felt a little devil of anxiety jabbing his wicked pitchfork into her cardiac
sack, and her heart- rate took off like sparrows fleeing a prowling cat. Funny
how having to account for herself made her feel there was something to account
for. What was this about, after all ? She was doing her bloody job ! She’d given
up her own time to meet her students during the holidays. She’d been as honest
as possible. She was being punished for doing her bloody job ! It was true,
teachers had to account for themselves like criminals. In fact, they were
treated like criminals. The assumption of the system was they were feckless,
careless, incompetent; they had to be watched every second; they must have
initiative removed; they must be reduced to the level of operatives; they must
do as they are told. As Lancaster went on questioning and making notes, Mel felt
more and more as if she was living someone else’s life. Her strongest desire was
to get up, walk away and not come back. Only money stopped her. The damn
mortgage ! The credit cards ! Ah, Robbie ! He put his faith in the financial
system and notched up debt like a carcass accumulates flies. What a delightful
trap ! Working in a punitive system to pay off debts owed to billionaires who
offered plastic paradise like a whore offers love only to pull a hammer from
under their Gucci suits and crack your skull with interest rates that would make
As she drove home, she put her
life in review. It stood apart from her like the laws of physics or the rules of
grammar. It was very odd, as if she’d died and was looking back from eternity at
the petty three score years and ten, more than half gone, of insignificant Mel
Corbishley , born in the second half of the twentieth
century, raised in lower-middle-class mediocrity, educated at Greenlands Girls’
Grammar and the University of East Anglia, married at twenty-five to a
disappointing man, and so are they all, all disappointing men, teacher of
English at Roach Bridge High school, mother of two boys whose normality drove
her mad because normality had become merely agreed lunacy. She saw herself as
the plaything of forces over which she had barely any control. She who’d been so
full of life and of herself, who had launched into love and marriage and work
and motherhood as if they were meant for her was suddenly struck by the
hilarious realisation they were no more so meant than the stars for fish. Cod
swam in the North Sea as if the universe had come into existence so they should,
and didn’t she do the same ? Didn’t everyone ? It was a joke ! She laughed out
loud. Was this tragedy ? Could a life as marginal as hers be tragic. Well, it
was the Willy Loman question. But if it was tragedy it was simultaneous farce.
Her life, made consistently unpleasant by the cheap populism of time-serving
politicians and the sycophancy of careerists who’d sell their soul for a UPS 3 !
It was too ridiculous for words !
And now she had to appear before
a little court, a tuppney-‘appeny panel of supposedly objective time-servers who
had no doubt decided on her guilt before they began. Why bother ? Why not lie
down in front of the steam-roller of stupidity and let it crush the spirit out
of her ? Isn’t that what everyone else had done ? Didn’t her colleagues go along
with everything in the most mindless obedience for the sake of some promised
petty advancement ?
When she told Robbie he said :
“When I had to appear before the
Promotions Review Panel I told them….”
Mel switched off and went to
She arrived early at the offices
of QUA and sat in the reception reading the Guardian. There was an item
about the Secretary of State defending standards, praising academies and
extolling the great, democratic, meritocratic virtues of the education system.
She put the paper down and sighed. What had gone wrong ? There was a blank in
her head where her understanding should be. Somehow, the system had lost its
way, substituted a chase after statistics for real quality, stripped out
content, shredded the authority of teachers as mistresses of their subjects and
elevated false notions of democracy and individuality in which doing what you
like however ignorant, vulgar or destructive, takes the place of all discipline
and collective agreement. Was it any wonder gangs of confused teenagers kicked
people to death outside their houses ?
Alice Lancaster blew through the
doors in an infinite, bottle-green, double-breasted overcoat, carrying her
briefcase as if contained Schrodinger’s cat itself. Her huge face, white and
serious as death, confronted the world in challenge. She knew the place well.
“Good morning, Mel.”
She checked her watch, strode to
the receptionist’s window and announced herself.
“They’ll keep us waiting as
usual,” she said coming to sit next to Mel. “Little power games.”
“How do you think it’ll go ?”
“If we’re lucky they’ll withdraw
the ban and give you a written warning.”
She took her notes from her
briefcase and read through them like a QC about to appear before a notorious
judge. Mel looked around at the clean, conventional reception area. It was on
the ground floor of one of those square, functional, anonymous, multi-storey
buildings where, in all modern cities, people sit in front of computer screens
for eight hours a day processing information which may not mean much to them.
What was she doing here ? It was comfortable. It was warm. The light through the
tall glass panels of the entrance illuminated the tiles and the wood delicately.
She could have stretched out and dozed off. There was, almost, a homeliness
about the place. Yet she was here to be tried, in a small way. And she was to be
found guilty. Even Alice didn’t believe there was any hope of a reversal of
decision. The best to be had was a reduction in sentence. Yet she was innocent.
The accusation that she’d marked the students’ final drafts and returned
them was quite false. She’d tried hard to stick strictly to the regulations. But
the students had played fast and loose. Of course, students couldn’t be blamed
for anything these days. A pupil who throws chairs across the room is just
responding to a poorly planned lesson. Good teaching produces good discipline.
This mantra from the shamans of educational orthodoxy, the high-priests of
banality who ignored, like bar-room drunks insisting that ten pints a night does
a man no harm, the geological strata of papers, books, monographs, theses,
articles, lectures, the painstaking research of objective minds determined to
unearth a tiny seam of truth, was as depressing as incessant rain. And it poured
as relentlessly from the sky of self-seeking distortion in which no truths
matter but those of power and success. It struck her all of a sudden, that she
was part of a system burdened with an impossible task, as if postmen were made
responsible for the content of the letters they deliver. How were schools
supposed to heal the wounds of deprivation ? How were teachers ! It was a crass
meritocratic fantasy according to which, given the right schooling, anyone could
put their disadvantages behind them. Well, if this meritocratic stuff was true,
why weren’t fallen aristocrats living on council estates ?
A busy, little woman in a black
skirt and red polo-neck top appeared and called them through.
They went into a room whose
windows looked out onto a quad bounded by buildings of the same curious
anonymity as the one they were in. Tables were set out in the form of a great
oblong with a space in the middle and beyond, in front of the windows, at a
long, single table, sat four men who looked as though they never moved from
their positions. They were all over forty and wearing glasses. Each had a pack
of papers before him. Mel and Alice were directed to the left. Opposite them sat
a tall, solemn woman who kept her eyes lowered and her mouth pursed. She looked
as though a bad smell was about to make her vomit. Next to her was a young man,
about thirty, in a very smart suit and a shirt whose collar looked starched. His
tie was a splash of colour, the kind of thing John Snow might sport to deliver
the news on Channel 4. His hair was brushed back from his forehead and was
seriously thinning. Mel noticed his fixed, alert eyes and the way he seemed to
interrogate her appearance. The woman in the red top introduced everyone,
announced that coffee and tea would be served at a certain time and withdrew
with a polite smile. The chairman began to explain how the hearing would proceed
and Mel was overcome by a desire to laugh. She was astonished and appalled, but
she felt just as she had at school in boring assemblies when the Headmistress’s
tired clichés were set before them once more as if enlightenment. She wanted to
giggle like a teenager. She wanted to blurt out something inappropriate. It was
dreadful. She directed her gaze to the buildings beyond the window to distract
herself and heard nothing the chairman said.
By the time she’d regained her
composure, the well-dressed young man was setting out the board’s case: she’d
marked the final drafts and returned them; this was obvious because some of them
contained corrections in tippex; the rules were clear; she wasn’t being accused
of cheating, but of failing to properly administer the coursework; she’d
ommitted to use treasury tags to hold the papers together; she’d written the
marks in red pen not pencil; these petty failings were indicative of sloppiness;
the board demanded the highest standards. He spoke very clearly and confidently
with something of the junior minister making a statement to the House. As she
watched and listened, Mel began to wonder about his life and hers. He was twenty
and more years younger but he probably earned much heavier. She’d become a
teacher out of easy-going idealism. He was obviously a more calculating
careerist. She was interested in her subject and found bureaucracy a pain in the
arse. He was a bureaucrat to the hairs on his balls. She liked creativity and
didn’t care if administration was a bit sloppy. He obviously despised sloppiness
and would have sneered at James Joyce for the shabbiness of his suits. And here
she was, being accused. What was on trial was her personality. It was no longer
acceptable to love your subject, to teach with enthusiasm and leave bureaucracy
to the bureaucrats. We are all bureaucrats now ! With a terrible feeling of
loneliness and abandonment, she realised she’d been sleeping while the world had
changed and had woken in an unknown territory without a map. There was no place
for her any more. This was a farce. She wanted to stand up and bring it to an
end. She looked at the Four Just Men. What chance ?
When the young man had finished,
it was the turn of the sour-faced woman who made no eye contact. She was the
Chief Examiner. It was her report which had sparked the business. She turned the
papers in front of her with a hanging judge’s slowness. Here was the evidence.
This sentence in the notes had been reproduced in the essay; there was tippex in
two places on this sheet; in her opinion, the regulations had been deliberately
flouted. She droned as she turned one sheet after another citing the
incontrovertible evidence and Mel saw herself in the café with her students. She
heard herself reiterating the regulations. She remembered her frustration the
day she bundled everything and sent it to the board.
Alice gave her reply. She was
thorough, precise and astute. She hoped Mrs Corbishley hadn’t been called before
this body merely for failing to use treasury tags ? She pointed up the
circumstantial nature of the evidence. She showed the regulations to be
ambiguous, vague and open to interpretation.
Mel was given her chance.
“ I took final draft to
mean just that. The regulations seemed to me to permit as much note-making as
Sourpuss shook her judgemental
“Did I correct the notes
? Of course. Did I hand them back ? Of course. But I told the students their
essays mustn’t simply lift from the notes. They must write for themselves. What
could I do once they’d handed in the final drafts ? If I’d refused to take them,
these students would have failed. I did the honest thing and sent everything to
the board. And I ask you, if I’d been deliberately breaking the rules, would I
have sent you the evidence ? I stuck to the rules and I sent you all the
evidence I could.”
All eyes were lowered except for
Mel’s and Alice’s.
The coffee arrived. The woman in
the red top set the pots and the crockery and the plate of ginger nuts and
digestives down on the table, smiled and left.
After the sipping and the polite
conversation, the Chief Examiner sat once more stiff-backed and her lips as
tight as a cat’s arse. She was called on to reply and said she was convinced the
evidence supported her position. Mel was flabbergasted ! She had tried to cheat
and had sent the board the evidence! The Chair summed up. He was sure Mrs
Corbishley hadn’t tried to provide her students with an unfair advantage.
Nevertheless, the regulations had clearly been breached. There was a case to
answer. The board couldn’t sanction slovenliness. The panel would pass judgement
and deliver within the hour.
Mel and Alice had to wait in
reception. She could have gladly smashed the place up.
“What do you think ?” she asked
“Not much hope. They might
reduce the ban to a year but they’d hung you before you arrived.”
“How can this be fair ?”
“Oh, it isn’t fair, it’s just
the way things get done.”
When Alice was called to hear
the judgment, Mel sat alone in the prissy foyer. She went to the ladies and
looking at herself in the mirror said:
“Well, Mel Corbishley, this is
what your working life has come to. Funny bloody joke isn’t it ? You should’ve
been a bloody hairdresser, lass. What crap it all is. What fucking crap.”
She sat again near the glass
doors. People came and went, all well-dressed, all very middle-class and
respectable. On the surface everything appeared rational. The day had
brightened up. There was sweet sunshine on the lawn and flower beds and a
teasing breeze made the shrubs and saplings turn and sway. What was she getting
worked up about ? It was a triviality. But the thought came that many
trivialities, accumulated and pushed far enough, make for something of a
different order. Perhaps when the ghetto Jews were made to wear yellow stars
some of them thought: “Well, why get worked up ? It’s a triviality.” What’s
trivial ? Having your purse pinched ? Getting back to your car and finding the
window smashed and the radio gone ? Kids pushing all the coping stones off your
wall on a Friday night ? Were these trivial or were they nasty violations ? Was
she becoming narrow-minded and condemnatory ? Or was there vicious sentiment
abroad ? Was everybody watching their back and going for everyone else’s jugular
Alice appeared. She held herself
tall so she seemed like a mobile telegraph pole, the mincing movements of her
hidden legs gliding her across the reception dance-floor. Her face, ghastly and
set, could have been the death-mask of a tyrant. Her little green eyes beneath
her thick, black straight brows were hard as cherry stones. She seemed to glare
“Nothing doing, then ?” said
“No. They want the two years.”
“Wasted our time, eh ?”
“At least we put up a fight.”
“I bet that’s what Custer said.”
Mel held out her hand.
“You did a great job, Alice. I
couldn’t be more grateful. It was worth taking the buggers on. But that panel is
about as independent as a firing squad.”
“Yes, they all work for the
board, one way or another.”
“Thanks. I’m going to wander
into the city. Look around the shops. Get myself a gin and tonic.”
“Glad I could be of assistance.”
As she walked towards the busy
centre, Mel fought to cheer herself up: it was silly to let these things get you
down; a few weeks and it’d be forgotten altogether; it made no substantial
difference: what did she care if she couldn’t mark exams for two sessions? But
try as she might, the sick feeling of humiliation rose in her. It was akin to
paying for your sandwich in Marks and Spencer, neglecting to pick up the receipt
and being collared for shoplifting. Had the accusations been true, had she
marked the essays and returned them, had she bent the rules to try to finesse a
few illegitimate marks for her students, how would she feel ? But she was
innocent of everything except guilelessness and minor administrative lapses. If
they wanted to condemn her for treasury tags, fine, call the hangman. She began
to say to herself she needed to be more guarded. She should have shredded the
notes. She should have sent the minimum of evidence. But that was essentially
dishonest ! She would’ve been deliberately concealing the truth to save her own
skin ! What was she thinking ? What was she becoming ? The terrible thought
occurred to her that her honesty, if it was honesty was outmoded. The modish
thing was manipulation. And she who’d always thought her values transcended time
The streets were alive with folk
and activity. To watch, to be outside it, was a delight. Yet weren’t all these
people part of the same mess which had lowered her feeling ? Weren’t they all
required to watch their backs, to shift the blame to someone else ? The blame
for what ? Was everyone guilty ? She bought a gin and tonic in a fancy steel and
glass bar. She spent an hour looking at clothes. But nothing could shift the
sense of guilt. Even explaining it to herself sounded like excuse-making.
She caught the train home. When
she walked into her living-room her son said:
“At last ! I’m starvin’!”
Robbie was on the sofa.
“What kept you ?”
“You’re lucky I’m not in the
“You didn’t swing it then ?”
“Swing it, Robbie ? What d’you
mean, swing it ? I haven’t done anything fuckin’ wrong !”
“What’s the matter with ‘er ?”
said her eldest as she pulled the door closed.
On Twomey’s neat bedside table was an ostentatious
radio-alarm which when he woke always showed horrifying 4 a.m. . The regularity
of his panic amazed him. It almost made the experience worthwhile. He felt his
heart pump madly, like a prizefighter hammering a punchbag. The vagrant images
from his dream fled like pickpockets. He strained to save them from the
blackness of rapid oblivion and managed to hang on to a few disparate,
disturbing pictures and the odd snippet of speech : it won’t do, I’ve told you,
it just won’t do; himself thrashing a prostrate man with a baton. Would he get
back to sleep ? Three hours to getting up. The day ahead. At once, thoughts of
all he had to do rushed in. They occupied his mind no matter what he tried. They
were always there. At the oddest moments he found himself compulsively fretting
about some pending or unfulfilled petty task. In the middle of perfunctory sex
with Pam, the image of stacks of blue exercise books ! They had to be marked !
The modular tests had to be done ! The National Curriculum levels filled in! The
list of things to be done extended until it was impossible to keep it in his
head. He got up, went into his study and began to write. When he’d finished, he
felt there was something missing. He sat for a long time, naked, beginning to
shiver in the winter chill, trying to summon it. He went back to bed. The
digital read 5.a.m.. He knew he wouldn’t get to sleep. Pam was curled under the
duvet, a hibernating hedgehog. He lay like a corpse hoping his feet would warm
He was out of bed five minutes before her. In the shower, he tried to put the
terror of the night behind him. He was tall. There was no doubt about it. He was
well above average. Though at fifty-five he was beginning to shrink, or at least
the progressive rounding of his narrow shoulders made him smaller than he was.
He was strong, relatively. It was true he wasn’t muscular but he wasn’t skinny.
He wasn’t a weakling, was he ? He had a good cock. It was bigger than average,
at least he supposed. The problem was what to do with it. Sex with Pam was such
a chore and afterwards he was tired and irritable. He had a good head of hair.
That was indisputable. Few men of his age had no sign of balding. There was a
little thinning at the front, sure, but it was barely noticeable, wasn’t it ?
No-one, in any case, could criticize his hair. Except perhaps for the style. And
that made him think of Lizzimore. His heart began to thump again. A desire for
violence which began in the pit of his stomach and seeped into all his nerves
overcame him. Lizzimore was stylish. When Pam met him she said: “What a
sophisticated looking man !”
“He’s not sophisticated at all,” said Twomey.
“Well, he looks it.”
“Poseur,” said Twomey.
“I don’t agree. He’s very natural.”
Twomey rinsed his hair and stepped over the side of the bath. His foot missed
the oblong, grey mat, skidded on the wet, black, slate tiles and he banged down
awkwardly, like a cow with a softening brain, onto the enamel and the
“Oh, Christ !”
His hip and his elbow were very sore.
“Can you make sure you put the bathmat in the right place.”
“I haven’t moved it.”
“Well, it was out of place and I slipped.”
“What do you mean, out of place ?”
“I position it precisely so when I step out of the shower my right foot lands on
“Well, you should look before you step out.”
“I did look.”
“You can’t blame me then, can you “
“I’m not blaming you,” he said with a whining note.
“You are. You’re saying I moved the mat.”
“I’m just asking that things should be put in their rightful place.”
“The mat is singular.”
“In this instance, the mat.”
He rushed his Weetabix and gulped his milky tea. Pam was still packing his lunch
when he was ready to leave.
“Is it nearly ready ?”
“It’ll be ready when it’s ready.”
“I don’t want to be late.”
“You’re not going to be late, it’s only five to eight.”
“I like to be early.”
“That’s not late, is it ?”
“Late for me.”
She handed him his plastic lunchbox with his beef and beetroot sandwiches, his
cereal bar, his banana and the yogurt he always ate with obscene relish,
vigorously scraping the teaspoon against the plastic to lift every smear of the
sweet and viscous delicacy, licking the spoon like a child given the chance to
scrape the baking bowl. As he drove the three-quarters of a mile to school, he
cursed his fortune: his partner was beneath him, he hadn’t been promoted far
enough, his colleagues were lazy incompetents. An astute observer seeing him
stride into the staff-room would have suspected he was a man suffering from an
exaggerated sense of self-esteem.
The bad start to the day left him in a temper. When he crossed Lizzimore in the
corridor, he didn’t acknowledge him. He was short with the pupils and when
lunchtime arrived he was determined to let the whole staff-room in on his
“Why is it,” he said loudly as he opened his lunchbox, “people leave this place
in such a mess ? Eh ? Look at this ? There isn’t even room on this table for me
to put my lunch down. Eh?”
His interlocutor was intent on the sports pages of The Guardian and bit into his
spicey chicken wrap.
“You know,” went on Twomey, “I was marking books till eleven last night. Eleven
o’clock. And even then I hadn’t finished.”
His colleague chewed resolutely.
“Thomas Gold, do you teach him ? Eh ? Bob, do you teach him ?”
Turning from the report of his team’s defeat in the cup, the other, his mouth
full, raised his eyebrows in question.
“Thomas Gold. I could strangle him. Do you teach him ?”
The other shook his head and turned back to the paper.
The room was starting to fill. Twomey felt himself do likewise with that need to
show himself a raconteur, a wit, which always overwhelmed him in company.
“I’ve got my queasy stomach ,” he said as his friend Will sat beside him and
carefully examined the specimens his wife had packed.
“Flapjack again !”
“I’ve told her I like shortcake.”
“Women, eh? I was saying I’ve got my queasy stomach today.”
“I bet it’s not as bad as my back.”
“Have you done it in ?”
“ Every month or two.”
“You want to get to the chiropractor.”
“Can’t do anything for it.”
“Well, my stomach. I was on the toilet for two hours last night. Two hours !”
The Guardian reader halted chewing a few seconds.
“Have you seen the doctor ?”
“IBS. Mind you, I’ve been troubled with my bowels all my life.”
“Have you ?”
“Oh, terrible. The tales I could tell you about my guts. I once went on holiday
to Biarritz and I wasn’t off the toilet for a fortnight. Eh? I must’ve visited
every public lavatory in the Basque country. I’d be walking down the street and
it’d come over me. That feeling your insides are melting. I’d run to the nearest
bog and out it’d come. Liquid. I’d be in there for an hour. That was the worst
holiday of my life.”
“Well, my back has been terrible. I can barely fasten my shoes.”
“And flatulence ? Ask me about flatulence. I wrote the book, mate. I got up at
two in the morning because I felt it coming on and you wouldn’t believe it.
Squelchy bottom. And it stinks that stuff, doesn’t it ? It’s green and it stinks
to high heaven. I was suffering, let me tell you.”
The Guardian reader picked up his lunch and disappeared.
Lizzimore, dark, quick and self-effacing came in and sat at the opposite side of
the room. No sooner had he taken his seat and begun to unwrap his tight, foil
pack of sandwiches than a much younger female teacher, small, blonde and
succulent took the seat next to him. She was one of those women who use their
radiant sexuality shamelessly to win men’s attention. She leant forward so her
lovely, great breasts were visible. She swung her legs provocatively apart. She
shook her hair wantonly loose and all without the least intention of satisfying
the desire she provoked. Lizzimore was her favourite. Because of his big, soft,
slow brown eyes that seemed to look at the world with a kind of interested and
gentle detachment that set her juices running. Because of his low, intimate
voice and his insouciant way of talking of any subject as if the greatest
calamities on earth couldn’t unnerve him. Because of his smile which began at
the corners of his eyes and spread across his face like golden sunshine pouring
from behind a shifting cloud in spring. But above all because she could indulge
in the most flagrant incitement of his desire and Lizzimore remained kind, sweet
and undemanding. In truth she was raging to take his hard cock in her hand, to
caress his gorgeous balls, to drive her maddened tongue into the recesses of his
mouth, to stick her white, shapely rump in the air and have him slide inside her
from behind. But that was all neatly locked away in her fantasy, private, wild,
passionate, lawless, reckless and never to be acted on.
Twomey watched her settle herself beside the man he despised. She looked into
his face and talked in that animated way accompanied by sudden widening of her
eyes, throwing back her head to expose her white, slender young throat, flicking
her thick dark hair suddenly behind her neat, small ears, that incited his ugly
desire to do violence. He was personally affronted. Lizzimore ! What he disliked
about him most was his relaxation. Nothing seemed to overwhelm him. What was
wrong with him ? Twomey was one of those people who see every failing in moral
terms. A cold is not merely a virus which attacks the cells of the nose and
throat, but a sign of inherent weakness of character. An easy-going attitude is
not simply an intrinsic disposition but a sure indicator of lurking turpitude.
In Twomey’s excessively moralised universe the unflinching measure of all
rightness was himself. Whatever deviated, however minutely, from his own
attitudes, inclinations, habits and convictions was to be denigrated, suspected,
disdained and despised in varying measures. In Lizzimore’s case that measure was
Twomey watched them for a few minutes before abruptly getting up and striding
over in his too urgent, ungainly way. He sat opposite in his shirtsleeves, his
thin forearms exposed, his gangly legs akimbo. He leaned forward over the low
table. Little bits of food still stuck to the corners of his mouth.
“Alf,” he began in the exaggeratedly conciliatory voice that couldn’t conceal
his wish to do harm, “you remember we said we’d level Year eight ?”
Lizzimore nodded. Why didn’t he speak ? Why didn’t he show some deference to his
superior ? Whenever he spoke to Lizzimore, Twomey felt a justified need to
attack and denigrate him. It was outrageous he could take life so much in his
stride ! It was despicable he responded to Twomey’s attempts to put him under
pressure with a yawn or a shrug ! Especially, it was beyond all justice that
women fell for him like starlings swoop for bread in a garden. Twomey was
cohabiting. Many years earlier he’d been very close to a woman five years older
who had lost her left arm in a terrible childhood accident. Her disability had
attracted him because it provided a physical confirmation of his superiority. To
take up with a damaged woman chimed with his desire to do damage. But after two
years during which he became convinced she would submit to him and become a
dutiful wife who’d make his sandwiches each morning, iron his shirts and keep
the house spotless, she suddenly veered away with a City banker, married in
Westminster Abbey, set up luxurious home in St John’s Wood. Twomey was not so
much upset as livid. He would have felt quite justified in strangling her.
“Well,” Twomey went on, “I think we need a meeting. Would Thursday after school
be okay ?” and he raised his intonation at the end in sham reasonableness and
to conceal his desire to command.
“Can’t do that,” said Lizzimore.
Twomey looked into his eyes. The calm, handsome face showed no sign of regret or
apology. Twomey’s fleshy, pouting mouth pulled down at the corners. He stared at
his colleague with that utter candour of expression characteristic of babies,
lunatics and idiots. It was mystifying that others couldn’t appreciate his
pre-eminence. It flung him into depression. It upset his bowels. He would be on
the toilet for an age in the small hours.
He wanted to ask why. He felt it his right to know. What was so urgent in
Lizzimore’s life it kept him from an hour’s meeting after school. But he knew
he’d get no explanation.
“I’ll have to talk to the other colleagues then. What about a lunchtime?”
Twomey assumed his long-suffering, thwarted manager’s demeanour, got up and
resumed his seat beside Will.
That night Pam disgusted him by inappropriate amorousness. His flattened feeling
and peristaltic resentment of Lizzimore inclined him to complaint, whingeing and
over-weening self-justification. He would have liked her to sit dutifully and
listen. An occasional nod to indicate she hadn’t passed away would have been
enough. Instead she insisted on laying her legs across his knees and wiggling
her painted toes. Did she imagine her feet were attractive ? It pained him to
look at them. Her stubby toes and wide, low instep seemed signs of mental
defectiveness. She insisted he stroke her soles. It was a penance. The gnarls
and knots where her shoes rubbed made him nauseous. When she bent her legs and
spread her knees to show him the lacy, black number she’d slipped on to excite
him, he could have pushed her onto the floor. She was impervious to his mood,
pulled off her top and unleashed her sagging breasts, slid out of her skirt and
stretching aside the thong twitched open the lips of her cunt so the inviting,
pink and purple, swollen, thick, wavy inner labia were on show. Horrible. His
cock stiffened a little all the same. But when she was kneeling in front of him
with his trousers and underpants pulled down to his ankles, teasing his balls
with the tips of the short, fat fingers he so disliked and playing her tongue
along his shaft, he went almost hard and then soft, taunted up a touch only to
wilt so that she went in search of tingling lubricant and rubbed rhythmically,
stroked sensitively, yanked frantically while Twomey could think of nothing but
Lizzimore and his insubordination. Finally, on the rug with her huge black
vibrator stuck in her like a spade in a vegetable patch she groaned and rocked
her hips and begged him to come inside her. Poor Twomey had to try to force his
reluctant member into her aching cleft, only to give in as complete limpness
overcame him and she rubbed herself to climax next to him on the shagpile.
The following day, he crossed Lizzimore in the corridor first thing. He was
still in his coat, the collar turned up in that backstreet, cocky way which
drove Twomey to distraction. As usual, he oozed the relaxation of a well-fed cat
that has the run of the house.
“Morning, Alf,” said Twomey. “I couldn’t have a word with you later about the
levelling could I ? Two minutes ? If you can spare that.”
“Sure,” and Lizzimore glided away to hang up his coat with the nonchalance of a
schoolboy on the first day of the summer holidays.
Twomey took the mail from his pigeon-hole and went up to his little office at
the back of his classroom. In the old days, it’d been a store, but he’d quickly
annexed it on becoming Subject Leader and had spent hundreds of the department’s
measly capitation to turn it into his sanctuary. When he began teaching he’d
assumed his inevitable rise to seniority. He would be out of the classroom. He
would bear the mystical title of manager. Others would do but he would decide.
Further, he would decide executively. The word excited him. In his imagination
it meant absolute power. It brought alive the image of him commanding an
inferior in as petulant a way as he wished and being met with complete
obedience. Yet this glorious dream had turned to miserable disappointment. He
had watched younger, lesser men and women advance beyond him and now the pupils
refused to do what he asked. Impotently thwarted he was overcome by the desire
to destroy. He couldn’t for a second embrace the idea that others deserved
promotion more. It was all too much to bear. He tore open the envelopes. One of
them contained notification of changes to the A2 specification. Lizzimore’s
group. He’d pass it on. But out of nowhere an idea as bright as justice seized
him. What if he didn’t ? What if he made it disappear ? What if Lizzimore went
on teaching in blithe unawareness. And what if the document was found under that
heap of disorganised papers on Lizzimore’s desk ? He pushed it back in the
envelope which he hid in a file in his desk’s bottom drawer. At once, he felt
“How’s your back ?” he said to Will at lunchtime.
“Terrible. I went to Sainsbury’s last night and I bent over to lift a bag out of
the trolley. Agony. I almost didn’t make it this morning.”
“I had a dreadful night. Tossin’ and turnin’. Pain ? Here. Right in my guts. I
sat on the toilet for an hour but couldn’t I produce anything but wind ? I still
haven’t been, though these sandwiches might move something.”
“Carrot cake !” exclaimed Will.
“Not your cup of tea, eh ?”
“I’ve told her. Shortbread.”
“Women, eh ?”
Before the first class of the afternoon, Twomey met with Lizzimore. His usual
discomfiture evaporated. In fact, he could barely bother going through with what
had seemed so indispensable earlier.
“Well, Alf, just to remind you. You know, we have to have the levels done by the
24th. Not my deadline. The school’s. So if you can put them on the computer.”
“Not on the database,” said Lizzimore.
“That’s effectively transferring data. We don’t do that under the workload
agreement. I’ve got all the levels in my mark book. I’ll photocopy them.”
Twomey felt the old, slow, ugly desire to inflict physical pain rise from his
“Fine, fine,” he said. “Soon as you can.”
As the weeks went by, Twomey began to feel uncomfortable about his lonely
action. He wondered who he could recruit as an accomplice. Finally, he decided
to confide in Nicky Tongue. His second-in-department, she was punctiliously
conformist. All the same, he worried she would object at the withholding.
“Do you remember that document I gave you about changes to the A2 specification
?” he said.
“You didn’t give it me.”
“I did. Do you remember ? We were in here.”
“But I don’t teach A2.”
He made a face of irritated indulgence.
“I know that, Nicky. But I gave it to you as second in department. I asked you
to pass it on to Alf.”
“I think you’re mistaken.”
“I’m not. I’m not.”
He spoke so authoritatively and with such patronising indulgence she doubted
“I’m sure I’ve never seen it.”
“You have, honestly. But anyway, the important thing is, has Alf taken any
“Why shouldn’t he ?”
“You know what he’s like.”
Twomey towered over her. She was a mere five feet four and slight. He had a way
of imposing himself physically which roused anxiety. She didn’t dare cross him
because he was so particular. In the current climate of compulsive box-ticking
he was as comfortable as a drunk on his favourite bar-stool. Nicky, whose
electrician husband earned ten thousand a year below her, feared OFSTED and the
Monitoring and Intervention Team, informal support, formal support,
observations, drop-ins, all the paraphernalia of snooping, blame-shifting and
undermining, like a motorcyclist fears black ice in February. She knew Twomey’s
readiness to betray his colleagues. There’d been a terrible corridor, verbal
dog-fight when he’d reported a physics teacher who’d announced unashamedly in
the staff-room his practice of inventing National Curriculum levels. Served with
a written warning the aggrieved scientist had cornered Twomey and called him an
“arse-licking little shit” and a “sycophantic, brown-tongued, spineless sneak
who could have had a great career in the SS”. She was bemused by Twomey’s
accusation. What was Alf like ? Easy-going, self-effacing, dry, funny,
unruffled, but not deliberately neglectful. Yet the very fact of the attribution
made her wonder ? Was he at fault ? Had she passed the document to him ?
“I don’t think he’d deliberately fail to implement changes.”
“Eh ? I’m not saying deliberately. Not necessarily deliberately. But have you
seen his desk ?”
“Oh, he’s untidy. That’s just his way.”
“Untidy ? Untidy ? Eh? The piles of paper are archaeological. He’s completely
“Yes, but he’s got a good mind….”
“A good mind ? Eh ? He’s demented. He doesn’t know what day it is. The point is,
I was chatting to some sixth-formers and it sounds to me like he hasn’t made the
Nicky blenched at the thought of Twomey’s intrusive ferreting. She wanted to
walk away but he was her boss. She’d always danced to his tunes however
eccentric or unfair. She couldn’t find it in her to argue with him, to refute
his implications or to assert what she thought false.
“Will you speak to him ?”
“If I ask him you know how defensive he gets. But if you do it, you know,
“Just weave it into the conversation.”
“Wouldn’t it be better just to ask him directly ?”
“Would he tell the truth ?”
“I don’t think he’s a liar.”
“But would he tell the truth if his job was at stake ?”
“His job ? It’s not that serious, is it ?”
“If he’s failed to implement the changes, that’ll be very serious for results.”
“But this is speculation.”
“Nicky, I gave you the document.”
She looked up at him. His eyes had that expression composed of anxiety, hatred,
fear and maliciousness which made her shrink. His ugly mouth was pulled into a
“Okay. I’ll speak to him.”
That evening, after pan fried sea bass on a bed of olive oil mash
and green cabbage, accompanied by baby carrots and trimmed beans followed by
pineapple upside down pudding, all prepared by himself in a mood of
accomplishment and delight, when Pam finished her third glass of Merlot and
began to turn tempting, he yanked her knickers off and, hard as treacle toffee,
shoved himself into her and went at it like a traction engine in overdrive, for
two minutes. He felt utterly satisfied with himself.
All the same, the Lizzimore question kept nagging at him. Every day he pestered
Nicky. She reassured him she’d find a way to broach the question. As time went
by, he became more and more nervous. His previous glorious confidence
evaporated. He was sure something was going to go badly wrong. He put more
pressure on Nicky. She had to do it quickly. The well-being of the students was
at stake. It was unprofessional not to make sure he was doing his job properly.
She must ask him at once.
Twomey liked to be the last to leave the premises. There was a curious sense of
power about being in the place when everyone else had gone. And he had the
opportunity to pry. At five thirty one evening, he took the document from his
drawer and went to the departmental office. The sight of Lizzimore’s desk piled
with papers, books, photocopies, leaflets, files, lists, envelopes made him want
to sweep it all away. He was shoving the altered specification under a tottering
pile of assorted papers when it collapsed and he had to get down on his hands
and knees to start gathering. Just at that moment, Lizzimore came in.
“Alf !” exclaimed Twomey, as if his long-lost brother had just appeared. “What
are you doing here ?”
Lizzimore stood still and watched his superior, on the floor, clumsily bringing
together the scattered papers.
“Looking for something on my desk ?”
“Eh ? No, I tripped. There must have been something in the way. Put my hand out
to save myself and sent your pile of papers flying. Anyway,” and he paused in
his effort, “what are you doing here at this time ?”
“I forgot my book.”
He lifted a new-looking hardback from his desk and tucked it under his arm.
Twomey noticed it was called Proust And The Squid and thought it typical of the
pretentious stuff his colleague wasted his time on. He stood up and began
piling the papers in their corner.
“That’s not mine,” said Lizzimore.
Twomey looked at the specification in his hand.
“Not yours ? But it was in the pile.”
“It must’ve been, Alf. How else would I have it in my hand?”
“I don’t know, but it’s not mine.”
“You must have put it on the pile and forgotten it. I mean. It’s not orderly is
“No, but I know exactly what’s there.”
“Eh ? You can’t.”
“I do, and that’s not mine. What is it anyway ?”
“Eh? The changes to the specification for A2. You’ve implemented them, haven’t
“How could I. I’ve never seen them.”
“Nicky passed them to you.”
“No, she didn’t.”
Twomey stared at Lizzimore who returned his gaze impassively. He seemed so sure
of himself Twomey could have cudgelled him. He would have liked to lay him low,
to kick him while he was down. Even though he was telling the truth, Twomey
hated him for his lack of deference.
“She did, Alf. I assure you she did. I gave it to her and told her to pass it on
to you. You must’ve had it for months. You’ve just forgotten about it.”
“I’ve never seen it. Nicky never spoke to me about it. I didn’t know there were
any alterations to the spec. I haven’t changed my teaching. You’d better make
sure I get a copy.”
“This is your copy, Alf !”
Twomey waved it in front of him, the twisting paper clenched fiercely between
his thumb and forefinger. Wild-eyed and enraged his body was tense with
aggression. Lizzimore’s brows had risen imperceptibly. On his face was the
tiniest hint of confident defiance. He stood quite still and unperturbed for a
few seconds before taking the book from under his arm and leaving without a
word. Twomey heard him whistling as he went along the corridor.
In bed he lay worrying about what to do. Would Nicky spill the beans ? She was
so conventional she might blench from a little, necessary manipulation of the
truth. Didn’t she understand that when you’re dealing with the likes of
Lizzimore, the greater truth trumps the lesser ? A few lies were quite
admissible to flush out his relaxed incompetence. Pam, whose sexual appetite was
less predictable than a baby’s wind and who had shown no interest in him for
days, rolled over and began to fiddle with his cock. But he was in one of those
moods when his genitals seemed to belong in a distant universe and the vain
effort of her fingers to raise even the slightest tumescence in his little wick
left him humiliated and angry.
“I confronted him with it and he denied having seen it,” said Twomey to Nicky.
“Maybe he hadn’t.”
“Do we believe that ?”
Her heart gave a nasty skip at his conjoining of their minds.
“Anyway, he’s seen it now so that’s the end of the matter.”
“No, because he hasn’t seen it yet and anyway, the point is he’s been teaching
the old spec for weeks.”
“That’s not the end of the world…..”
“But results, Nicky. We all have to think about results. At the end of the day,
all our jobs depend on them.”
“Why not just give him the spec and tell him to make sure it’s sorted.”
“But will he sort it ?”
“We can only ask.”
“What I’m getting at is he’s had the spec for weeks and he’s done nothing. What
does that say to you ?”
“Yes, but, give it him and let’s move on.”
“But what about the students ? Can they move on ?”
“I’m sure Alf will do his best….”
“I wish I had your confidence, Nicky, I really do.”
“Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve a class waiting.”
“Okay. But let’s go and see the Head.”
“I need you to come with me to confirm to the Head you gave the new spec to
“Right,” she paused a second. “I’ve got to go.”
Twomey went straight away to the Head’s office and explained the matter. It was
simple insubordination and devil-may-careism. With Nicky on his side, he
Some days later, Lizzimore bearded him in his lair, closing the door carefully
“What’s this about me teaching the wrong spec at A2 ?”
“I had to report it to the Head, Alf. My job’s on the line.”
“Your job ?”
“If the results are bad, you know what Gormley’s like.”
“Who says the results will be bad ?”
“Well, if you’ve been teaching the wrong spec.”
“I’ve been teaching the spec I was given.”
Twomey sighed heavily, as if all the conflicts of the world lay on his narrow
shoulders, as if his genius were ignored by the purblind masses.
“Nicky gave you the modifications. It was in the pile on your desk.”
“No it wasn’t. I’m not an idiot or an incompetent. If I’d seen it I’d have made
“I’m sorry, Alf. But that’s the way it is.”
“That’s not what Nicky says.”
“She says you told her you’d given her the spec but she doesn’t remember getting
it. Nor did she pass it to me.”
“She didn’t say that.”
Twomey searched his rival’s eyes but could catch no glint of uncertainty.
“Well, I can’t believe she said that. I’ll have to talk to her.”
“Why go to the Head ?”
“I’ve told you, Alf,” said Twomey with that whining insistence he always used
when he wanted his own way, “my job’s at stake.”
“That’s a ludicrous exaggeration.”
“Anyway, I’ll have to clear things up with Nicky. If you can come back to me…”
“No, I can’t come back to you, Winston. The truth is, I didn’t get the spec. Now
I’ve seen it, the changes will be made. The students won’t suffer. But you’ve
made a cancerous tumour of a pimple. And the fault is yours. You neglected to
give me the spec.”
“I did no such thing !” exploded Twomey. “I gave it to Nicky.”
“Not according to her, Winston.”
Twomey wanted to cry. He crashed the book he was holding down on the table.
“Nobody appreciates me in this place !” he exclaimed, raising his chin like a
second-rate, provincial prima donna. “The work I do. I’m at it till midnight
every night. And what do I get paid for it ? Eh ? Seven thousand. Is that reward
for what I give to this school…”
“What are you talking about ?”
“Eh ? I’m talking about me !”
Lizzimore stood and looked at him. His impassive, untroubled demeanour drove
Twomey to the edge of violence. He would have liked to have whipped him,
thrashed him, bruised and beaten him till he begged for mercy. His face bore all
the pathetic misery of a child who’s dropped his ice-cream in the dust and is
about to wail. He was overwhelmed by the terrible injustice of the prohibition
on violence. He felt so justified in wanting to inflict physical damage he was
at a loss to understand how the world could deny him. Had there been a carpet,
he would have thrown himself on his belly and chewed it.
Lizzimore pulled open the door, left and closed it quietly behind him. Twomey
heard his whistling diminish, slowly.
That evening, Pam made kedgeree which he thought second-rate.
“It’s funny isn’t it,” he said to her as they sat opposite, “how some people
have higher standards than others.”
“What d’you mean ?”
He shovelled the food into his mouth and chewed as he spoke, bits of rice and
fish falling to the tablecloth or occasionally being propelled in Pam’s
direction. He talked loudly and dismissively and whenever Pam made an
observation, turned his head away and made a sullen mouth as if her very words
contained a stench. In bed, when she climbed on top and began to kiss his
pouting mouth, reaching down to fondle his limp cock and drooping balls all he
could think of was his overwhelming desire to smash Lizzimore in the face, to
kick him in the crotch, to hear him groan and see him wince; and when Pam turned
herself, laboriously, awkwardly, like an oil tanker in a small dock so her
spread legs were either side of his head, her cunt pressing on his face and her
mouth around his inert bud, a tear eased from the corner of each eye and he
wanted to hurl her burdensome weight from him, see her sprawl, watch the great,
white ugliness of her squirm, and jump on her flabby belly with both feet until
her innards were pulped and he could stride the rooms of his own house,
untrammelled, incontrovertible, beyond challenge.
BIRTWISTLE & BEETHOVEN JUST
Sycamore Primary served the poorest estate in town, and the town itself was
poor. Once there’d been industry: after the war, trucks were made in a large,
low factory of yellowish brick on whose roof sat proudly a shiny, finished red
lorry, symbol of free enterprise, craftsmanship and progress; a metal
tubing factory was established in a former warehouse with impenetrable windows
and pipes rising high above the slate roof from which smoke and steam drifted
skyward day and night. These two big works gave employment to thousands of men,
trained dozens of apprentices each year and kept the local economy buoyant.
Throughout the sixties the little place flourished, in a small way. It was
provincial and unimaginative, but people found work, some choice housing was
built in the leafier parts, its heart beat steadily and no-one had reason to
think this might not go on forever, or at least long enough. Even then, of
course, there was poverty and a big gap between the thriving and the
make-do-and-menders. But socialism was in the air, the future would see the rich
get poorer and the poor get richer, and the liberalism of the time meant the
children from the council estate went happily to their school each morning,
where their teachers did their best, there was a passing scent of joy in the
air, a bit of grass to run around on and the big question of how to prevent the
poor being failed was dealt with where it should be: by those whose claimed to
have the answers and asked for votes to prove it. But the oil price shocks of
the early seventies applied the brake and little by little, things went into
reverse. Mrs Thatcher’s dislike of industrial workers and fawning complaisance
towards financiers, ensured the closure of the factories. Shops were boarded up.
Drug pushers hung round the bus station. At length two big, downmarket
supermarkets opened. The qualified middle-classes found work in the nearby
cities, but those at the bottom sank into the sludge. Sycamore Estate was a
place people lived only if they couldn’t move elsewhere. When the OFSTED
inspectors arrived they found serious educational weaknesses. The Head put
pressure on the staff and they pulled it round. But a collapsing gable-end can
only be propped for so long. Eventually, the place was put in Special Measures
and the witch hunt began.
Jeanie Isaacs, one of those women from the working-class who made the best of
the educational opportunities that were part of the post-war consensus, and
wanting to get on a little, as society urged, had nevertheless felt a keen
desire to put something back in recompense for all she felt she’d received, and
had chosen teaching because it provided simultaneously a decent income, a sense
of purpose and a sense of staying in tune with the undogmatic, democratic
socialism of her parents, had been Head for eleven years, had done
everything she could think of, was respected by her staff in spite of her abrupt
manners, popular with the parents because of her firm hand on the tiller,
but knew they were coming for her.
“Maybe I should just throw in the towel,” she said to her husband.
“No, remember Clive Jenkins’s old mantra: never resign, always make them sack
you, it’s more lucrative.”
“This isn’t the seventies, Walt.”
She was old style. She didn’t like numbers in boxes, she liked children. The
slick inspectors, trained to find evidence like sniffer dogs to hunt out
cannabis, turned up a miserable catalogue of failures. They even told her
desk was untidy.
“I couldn’t believe it. He stood in front of me in my own office and said “Such
disorder is indicative”. I was speechless.”
“Bloody fascist,” said Walt.
“How can I stop them ?”
“Build an underground resistance.”
There was no doubt, according to the new strictures, the need for every human
relation to be reduced to a number, for every advance in a child’s perilous and
difficult progress to mastery to become a statistic, for teachers to cease to be
imaginative purveyors of their enthusiasms and to be transformed into operatives
mechanistically applying what was decided facelessly elsewhere, she was a
failure. Judged by a different set of criteria, she might have been deemed
brilliant in spite of her third-rate mind, her lack of reading and her tendency
to believe the mere fact of being schooled could correct every perversity,
dissolve every evil inclination and create in society at large the atmosphere of
a Methodist Sunday picnic. But the barbarians had come through the school gates.
They wore power suits and spoke a curious language composed of a series of
assertions expressed in an impenetrable jargon, which admitted no
dialogue. The chief of the invading tribe was Scott Tyebard whose oddly set
expression which modulated hardly at all when he spoke, as if one mood were
enough for a human mind and all the music of his heart were played on a single
string, was enhanced by his prominent, heavy glasses with thick, gold-plated
arms which lodged behind the ears his short cropped hair made sit out from his
bullet head. He had a chunky, rugby player’s build and wore his collars and
suits tight so he looked as if an atomic explosion were about to take place in
his thorax. At once he reminded Jeanie of those thick-necked, swollen-chested
terriers on short, thick leads held by skinny young boys and girls who struggled
to restrain the vicious energy of their pet: animals with a hunting instinct and
a fierce protectiveness of their narrow territory, ill-suited to human
communities, creatures of muscle and tooth whose brains have not been civilised
by long contact with people, whose instinct to fight and kill has never been
layered over with more emollient intentions.
His intervention team, descending on the school like hyenas on a wounded
gazelle, lost no time in tearing out its heart, devouring its liver, strewing
its guts in the playground and dumping the blame on Jeanie like Saudi Arabian
fanatics dumping stone on an adulterous woman. She refused to resign. They sent
her to see the Senior Human Resources Officer at County Hall. The building was
square and squat in spite of its six storeys. Built by the thrifty yet
ostentatious, hard-working Victorians, a monument to their civic pride, the
staircases were wide marble, the banisters polished oak, the corridors as
expansive as football pitches, the Committee Rooms panelled and carved like the
sitting-rooms of country estates; but Ms Bewley’s office was modern. It was
tucked away up three flights of skinny, vinyl-tiled stairs and accessed through
a redundant little staff kitchen. The table was veneered and had metal legs. The
chairs were plastic. The ceiling had been lowered to save on heating. The walls
were bare. Ms Bewley herself was a smart, efficient young woman who wore her
officiousness like a veteran wears his medals. Jeanie who was fifty-five and had
three children older than her, sat opposite with a sense that she was about to
be put in her place by an infant. She stiffened. She’d spent thirty-three years
“Given the position of the school…” the young woman said, looking down at her
“I’m sorry ?”
Ms Bewley looked up, her dark eyes blank.
“Given that the school’s in Special Measures, your position becomes untenable.”
“The school is in Special Measures because it serves the poorest children in the
“I’m afraid I can’t enter into that kind of discussion…”
“Enter into it ? You began it. You’re telling me I have to lose my job because
the school’s in Special Measures. That’s just another way of saying I’m to
blame. If you’re saying that, you should be able to support it.”
“I’m afraid that’s not part of my job.”
“No. Your job is to tell me to resign or I’ll be sacked.”
“I wouldn’t put it as brutally as that, Mrs Isaacs.”
“How would you put it ?”
“Given the circumstances of the school the authority judges that in the
interests of efficiency…”
“Just as I said.”
The young woman stuck to her brief, as she’d been trained, and as she believed
was her right and duty. She’d taken an M.A. in personnel management and had
never found any reason to question what she’d been taught. On the contrary,
dutiful adherence to the letter of instruction had brought her quickly to her
elevated position, her competitive salary, her one-bedroomed flat in the city
centre overlooking a once attractive little square, her two-seater BMW and three
foreign holidays a year. She was a great believer in the power of education to
create opportunity and advance talent. In her eyes, Mrs Isaacs was a dodo. The
struggle for existence, being inherently progressive, must have its victims. Had
a dinosaur sat on the other side of the table, she couldn’t have been more
convinced she was looking at a doomed species. Had she possessed the means to
intuit the anguish in the older woman’s mind, she would have been astonished. It
seemed to her as natural as the rotation of the planets that young people like
herself should rise and the old, and she saw Mrs Isaacs as distinctly old, with
their outdated ways, their reliance on their judgement, their belief that
motivation matters as much or even more than outcomes, must be swept aside. Of
course, she didn’t want them thrown in dustbins and dumped in the nearest
landfill, but that they should retreat from the public scene, tend their
gardens, look after their grandchildren, play dominos, do a little voluntary
work, take advantage of their bus passes, bake, fettle, undertake some light
reading, join a yoga class, research their family history, get to know the tow
paths of the local canals, organise charity coffee mornings and be as
unobtrusive as possible seemed obvious.
Jeanie left the interview impotently seething .
“I have to resign,” she said to Walt over coffee in Starbucks.
“Otherwise they sack me. If I resign, I go without working my notice and I get
three months pay tax free.”
“I wish I could afford to make them sack me and take them to tribunal.”
“We’re not on our uppers.”
“We’re not millionaires either.”
“Principles are always costly.”
“I never thought I’d end my career like this.”
“I believe those were Mussolini’s last words.”
“Stop being facetious, this is serious.”
“Yes, Jeanie, it’s so serious we’ve got to learn to laugh at it. Sooner or later
the tide will turn and these miserable time-servers will be consigned to
oblivion. But for the time being, we’ve got to get by and the best attitude is
to take the piss.”
There was a tearful little ceremony in the school hall where the children
applauded loudly and cheered heartily, in their benign innocence believing they
were sending away the grandmotherly Headteacher to a pleasant land of desired
and blissful ease. Jeanie was gracious and beaming but once at home she
collapsed into weeping and couldn’t stop thinking that her school, her children,
her life’s meaning had been cruelly taken away.
In her place they appointed Ms Milner, a no-nonsense Welsh woman who had always
managed to conceal her mediocre intelligence through extreme effort and
obedience, powered by chronic fear of failure and punishment. She understood her
brief. All her life she’d been a conduit so she slipped easily into the role of
carrying out the bidding of her masters. Cascading from the Department For
Children Schools and Families, affectionately known as Carpets and Soft
Furnishings, descending as irresistibly as a boulder down a mountain came the
conventional wisdom, which like all such stupidity was as empty as it is rigid,
that schools never fail because their intake is impossible; because the odds are
just too great; because the children come from homes without rich conversation
where they hear a reduced vocabulary and numeracy goes no further than the
lottery numbers; where they are read to not nearly enough and from which they
venture out into the wider, enlightening world of society and culture hardly at
all; where the expectations are low , the intelligence defeated; where there are
more televisions than books. No, if schools don’t rise to the required level, if
the statistics don’t please the bureaucrats for whom a child is a set of
results, the only explanation, the sole possible cause, is that the teachers
aren’t up to scratch.
From her first day in the place, Ms Milner was looking for victims,
because without them, how could she convince her superiors she was doing her job
Only child of a pair of teachers who had supervised her homework with the
discipline of diligent Chapel-goers, she had never ventured an inch from the
path laid out for her and thought her success proof of the rightness of her
judgement; but like all such people, whose sense of self rests entirely on the
admonition of authority, she was haunted by the fear of falling. The problem of
walking a tightrope put in place by others is that although it spans a trickling
stream only two feet below, the anxiety attendant on refusing to walk it makes
it appear to stretch over a bottomless abyss of shame, misery and perdition.
Kirsty Milner’s mind was constantly offended by what she saw as shortcomings in
others. And just as our brains are apt to deceive us into conflating beauty and
virtue, in people’s physical defects we often believe we have spotted a
fundamental flaw in character.
It was Mary Birtwistle’s misfortune to be excessively thin.
As soon as Milner saw her, she thought of anorexia. In fact, Mary ate hearty.
She was a happy if somewhat heedless little woman who indulged a taste for
crisps, dark chocolate, especially filled with nuts, Dandelion and Burdock and
red wine and who, to the despair of her slimming friends and relations, never
gained an ounce.
“It’s because she’s never still,” said her boyfriend. “She’s wick. Even in bed
she fidgets like a kid with chickenpox.”
“You exaggerate, Tom,” she admonished, pushing another fist of crisps into her
But it was true. She was one of those people forever on the go. She seemed to
meld with her activity and her leisure might amount to ten minutes in front of
the television, or quarter of an hour with a contentless magazine, before she’d
jump up and tidy the entire house, or hoover every corner, or climb a
step-ladder to clean the windows, or take the hoe to the weedless flower beds or
tackle an Annapurna of marking or spend hours on elaborate preparation. Not that
she was always as effective as busy. It was the sheer joy of being immersed in
something which propelled her and if the windows were a little smeared, her
books not perfectly marked when she’d finished, she merely laughed and shrugged.
She’d enjoyed herself and prevented time weighing heavy.
She’d always wanted to be a teacher because she loved being with children
and there was no idle time. She’d worked away blithely at Three Moons for seven
years without ever having a complaint made against her, taken a small
responsibility and moved through the ludicrous Threshold, never had any
reason to seriously doubt herself and in spite of everything, the sometimes
difficult parents, the children who found learning alien, the mad prescriptions
from on high, the inadequacy of resources, she loved her job. Sometimes she
found herself temporarily confused by what she had to teach. Maths and science
strained her mind and there were moments when she would have to stop, pick up a
pen and paper and laboriously work out what was half of three eights. What came
easily into her head was that it must be one and a half eighths, but then she
had to take a number, sixteen for example, divide by eight and multiply by
three. So if three eighths of sixteen was six, one and a half eighths must be
three and then it struck her that half of three eighths must be three
sixteenths. She was always undermined by having to do this and wondered why she
couldn’t simply remember. At times she would sit with her cup of tea in the
little upstairs staff-room that looked out over the playing fields and her
confidence would seem to fly from her like the birds heading for the woods. But
she always perked up and dismissed her self-doubt. Some of her colleagues
couldn’t spell Mississippi or Mediterranean without a dictionary. She just had a
little quirk with figures. What mattered was her enthusiasm, her commitment, her
love of the job and the children.
Milner was under pressure from the start. The Authority wanted action and that
meant nailing the weak teachers, an essentially savage process much like a pride
of lions’ instinct for the weak or spavined in a herd of wildebeest. As Milner
had to find weak teachers there had to be some. Had all the teachers been
excellent the least excellent would have been brought down. Mary’s skin and bone
build setting in train Milner’s negative responses, her absence of
punctiliousness and preference for enthusiasm over detail, her lack of affinity
for pernickety record keeping and hair-splitting form-filling made her a natural
victim as surely as a hobbled new-born on an African savannah. So, in accordance
with the improvement plan drawn up by the governing body, a document of such
minute, redundant detail and mindlessly restrictive intrusiveness it contained
wisdom such as: raise the standard of teaching and learning by raising
expectations of what children can achieve as if somehow or somewhere teachers
had ever believed it possible to raise standards by lowering expectations of
what children can achieve; or such innovatory and soaringly insightful targets
as: all classroom staff know the progress that children are making and intervene
as necessary, a prescription for teachers as enabling as to say to bricklayers,
all bricklayers know what a brick is and can lay them in straight lines; or
exotic enlightenment such as: pupils are informed of their progress after
assessments have been completed, just to put a stop to that age-old practice
among educators of telling pupils their progress before it’s been assessed; in
short, a document as empty and worthless as a statutory manual for cyclists
dictating that: cyclists shall put one foot on each pedal; they shall make the
wheels turn by exerting pressure on the pedals: they shall steer the bicycle by
use of the handlebars; they shall slow or stop the bicycle by applying the
brakes; they shall change into an appropriate gear for climbing hills; they
shall cycle on the left, Milner began to stalk her prey.
If a woman has decided her marriage is at an end, if in her deepest, hidden
self, that realm where thinking takes place in images whose primitive power
overawes all language and logic, she knows she no longer wants to stay with her
husband, nothing he can do will bring her round. He might be the most devoted
and irreproachable spouse in history but she will see him negatively. The very
way he laces his shoes will drive her mad. Nothing the Jews could have done
would have changed Hitler’s mind. Once an irrational prejudice is unleashed,
trying to resist it with reason is as futile as trying to stop the earth
turning. So it was in schools. For decades the idea had been abroad that the
profession was riddled with incompetence. One Secretary of State after another,
puzzled, bemused and defeated by the stubborn failure to succeed of hundreds of
schools and tens of thousands of pupils, looked for an exculpating explanation,
for none of them was willing to admit they were in charge of a system whose
workings were as mysterious to them as sexual attraction, nor to confess it was
overburdened with expectations and the problems of deprivation and its attendant
evils couldn’t be resolved by learning to order a cup of coffee in French or to
find the area of a sphere. The malicious genius of ambition and careerism which
drove mediocrities into politics, gave rise to the easy notion that the teachers
were hopeless, feckless, left-wing, lazy, chaotic, feather-bedded, unambitious,
trendy, in short were failing the children and must be stopped. The evil genie
released, it wasn’t long before figures were plucked from the air: was it
fifteen thousand teachers who should be sacked or seventeen thousand ? Did it
really matter ? Finally, weren’t they all guilty, even if some were less guilty
than others? The apotheosis of this Salem mentality arrived, as was to be
expected, in a demented and laughable distortion of language according to which
satisfactory is not good enough. The original sin of a teacher was to be a
teacher and that the regime celebrated the good or outstanding few only
condemned more definitively the satisfactory, and therefore unsatisfactory,
Milner had absorbed the precepts of this twisted and destructive culture as
though her life depended on them. Mary Birtwistle had undoubtedly been a
satisfactory teacher for years, and that was proof beyond question of her
incompetence. All that remained was to gather the evidence. Before her first
observation, Milner went through the children’s folders at the end of the day
once the other staff had left. As she leafed through the pages of appropriate
work, all duly marked according to the school’s declared policy, she experienced
a little tension of disappointment and irritation. She might find one or two
incorrect answers given ticks , but that wasn’t enough. Then, like a stranger
lost in an unfamiliar city who unexpectedly emerges from an unrecognised side
street onto the square where her hotel lies, she found an unmarked piece of
writing. Hurriedly she went through file after file and to her delight the same
piece was without red pen in all of them. It was merely one piece of work, but
it was the sin of omission that pointed to damnation. When, a few days later she
observed Mary’s lesson, one no worse than many she had taught herself when her
work was in the classroom, a lesson neither perfectly planned nor executed, but
one which kept the fifteen children working and intent for the greater part of
the time and left them, if not with a precise understanding of the nature of the
way physical forces work on an object, a precision, of course, lacking most of
the time in ninety percent of humanity’s minds, at least the beginning of an
understanding to be subsequently revived, deepened and extended, she picked up
the minor mismatch between the plan and the delivery, inevitably thought the
pace too slow, pace being as much an obsession of inspectors as masturbation or
contraception of the Pope, made a note of a modicum of untidiness on the
teacher’s desk and went away with her clipboard as satisfied as a licentious
husband after a visit to a whore.
The following day she called Mary into her office and handed her the report of
“So, what do you think of that ?”
“Well, not too bad.”
“Do you accept my criticisms?”
“In a way. You might be right that I didn’t deliver the lesson exactly as
planned, but that often happens.”
“But that’s not okay, is it ?”
Mary suffered that little nervous shock we all experience when we discover, like
a child lifting a rock in expectation of some hidden delight only to find a
crawling mass of beetles, leatherbacks, centipedes, ants and the wriggling
bodies of swollen worms, our positive, generous mood isn’t reciprocated by our
interlocutor, friend, colleague, lover or spouse. That sudden expulsion from
what was thought to be a territory of friendliness into a barrenness of
loneliness and alienation can be set off by the smallest harshness, the most
apparently trivial brittle hauteur. She looked into Milner’s eyes in a reaction
more automatic than conscious, hoping, as everyone does in such moments, to find
some small glimmer of tenderness or understanding that might provide an exit
from isolation, but the other woman had raised her chin and slightly narrowed
her eyes in a judgemental demeanour. Mary looked down at the report pretending
to read, too flustered to focus.
“I don’t say the lesson was perfect.”
“No-one expects lessons to be perfect but we do expect them to meet the minimum
This suggestion that, after seven years of happy, untroubled service what
she had been doing day after day, lesson after lesson wasn’t even
minimally adequate couldn’t have undermined Mary more than if the floor had
opened up beneath her chair. At once she saw what was ahead of her. There came
in to her mind the heart-rending image of her leaving the school having been
sacked and at the same time she felt all the means she might have had to defend
herself collapse like an insolvent bank. She knew there was nothing more to say
and in Milner’s look detected that essential cruelty of the time-server who,
finally, will comply with any stupidity, recycle any lie, be minutely
conscientious in unfairness before they will put their own advancement at risk.
In the simplicity of this relation, that Milner would do nothing to jeopardise
her own position and everything to defend it, Mary saw the inexorable working
out of her demise.
“What I’ve decided to do, Mary, is put you on informal support. There’ll be a
meeting with someone from HR and you are entitled to have a friend or union
representative with you.”
“What exactly is informal support ?”
“It’s a programme of monitoring and help to try to eliminate the weaknesses from
The benign definition did nothing to allay Mary’s sense of unfairness, on the
contrary, the apparently bland formulation only reinforced her appreciation of
the nastiness behind it, just as the neat brevity and uncluttered clarity of the
final solution could only bring dread into a sensitive mind. She left Milner’s
office a changed woman and in some quiet corner of her mind whose workings she
never put into words, knew the life she had been living was over, just as a
bereaved relative knows that though grieving will alleviate the anguish, life is
forever, irrevocably changed. All day she went about her tasks in a way that
wouldn’t have alerted a casual observer to the transformation within; she sat in
the little staff-room at lunchtime eating her sandwiches and chatting about
nothing in the way that had once brought her such pleasure but which now seemed
empty and false because as she talked she could eliminate neither the
consciousness of the insult she’d suffered nor the expectation that an
inexorable process set in train by people in power, backed by law and undertaken
to justify the rackety ideas of politicians, would, like a Stalinist show-trial
or some Kafkaesque fantasy, prove her unworthiness and leave her bereft.
“She’s putting me on informal support,” she said to Tom.
“What does that mean ?”
She heard the quake in his voice which meant he feared what was to come, didn’t
know what to do about it and wondered whether it was, in some arcane way he knew
nothing about, justified.
“It means I get observed every week, my planning is checked, my marking is
checked, the MIT team come and see me and if everything isn’t perfect I’m going
to be working in Tesco.”
“They can’t sack you, surely !”
“They can do it in no time. It’s a rapid process, Tom. There’s no gentleness
about these things any more, no recognition of past service. If they need
victims to make it look as though they’re doing something, they find ‘em.”
“Have you contacted the union ?”
“I’ve left a message.”
“Well, they’ll know how to deal with it.”
“We’re up against a juggernaut.”
“But they can’t sack you if you do everything they ask.”
“I’m already working till eleven every night. You see how impossible it is. It’s
a good trick isn’t it, burden people till they can’t cope then come after them
for not coping.”
“I thought the union had a policy on workload.”
“Oh yeah, don’t do bulk photocopying or collect money. That’s going to help me
when they come looking for every speck of dust in my classroom.”
She heard from the union’s District Secretary who arranged to meet, so late one
afternoon they got together in Starbucks, two women who might have met for an
anodyne chat after shopping, sitting at a table in the corner by the window,
trying to keep their voices down. June Egger was in her late fifties, a former
P.E. teacher who now filled her timetable with R.E. and humanities and had taken
over the union role because no-one else wanted it, even though it gave a full
day a week away from teaching, and though she did her best in this as in
everything else, hers was a finger-in-the-dyke role, first aid for the bullied,
the worn-out, the weary, the earmarked, and once matters became really serious
she passed them up to the Regional Officer who understood the recondite
provisions of compromise agreements and severance deals. She listened
sympathetically, read through the paperwork and said she would do all she could
to help, but Mary was left with the sense of a woman almost at the end of her
career, well-meaningly fulfilling a union role but without any real bite or
potency. Two weeks later they met with Milner and the Senior HR Officer to be
presented with a detailed programme laid out A4 and landscape with the pages
divided into five columns headed: Problem area, Current performance,
Expectations, How to achieve, How/who monitors. The first column contained
formulations like: Numeracy unit plans lack personalisation and in response the
second column had: Personalisation of planning meets the needs of the class. It
was one of those bureaucratic documents, devoid of simple, direct expressions
and swollen with pomposity as if a parent were to say to a teenager: Your
bedroom shows little evidence of preoccupation with personal hygiene. Mary was
hoping June would know how to pull it apart but she simply sat and listened,
nodded and afterwards stressed to her how important it was now to meet all the
expectations before the next review.
The more Mary read the plan, the more her head swam. It was an
are-you-still-beating-your wife document, her guilt and inadequacy seeped from
it like the stench from a bin of rotting food.
“It reminds me of the days I used to knock around the pubs and clubs as a
teenager,” said Tom, “ and some kid would come over and say: ‘Are you lookin’ at
my girlfriend ?’ And you’d say: ‘No.” And he’d say: ‘Why not ?”
“That’s exactly how I feel, except in your case you could always have asked the
“Oh yeah, but he had his mates waitin’. Thirty of ‘em with knuckle dusters and
studded belts. When people are lookin’ for trouble, they’re lookin’ for trouble,
and these buggers are lookin’ for trouble.”
“I don’t think I can go through with it,” said Mary.
“You have to. Think on your feet. Use your wits. Be cleverer than they are.
They’re only a bunch of arse-licking bureaucrats after all.”
“But like your bully, they twist your arm up your back and push you into a
corner. Whatever you do won’t be good enough.”
“There must be a way round it.”
They’ve got their mates with ‘em, Tom. Knuckle dusters, studded belts. The
politicians behind this are the ones who brought barbarism to Iraq. What do they
care about a few teachers put through the mill ?”
“There’ll be no teachers left if they don’t back off.”
“Maybe that’s their plan. Staff the schools with teaching assistants and save a
Tom sat back in his armchair with the air of a man thinking about
something for the first time, like a child told gravity is a phenomenon of
universal attraction which conforms to a very strict law of distance and whose
simple view of things falling to the ground just because the earth attracts them
is dispelled forever and replaced by something much more abstract, difficult and
less comfortable. Was it true things had gone so far the politicians were
seeking to reduce teachers to the level of operatives ? There came into his
head, with all the unnerving, exaggerated clarity of a dream, the vision of a
school in which a core of qualified specialists plan and provide lessons for a
body of para-teachers who deliver them to the letter. Mary, looking at his
distracted expression, felt terribly alone, in spite of his good natured
support, for she knew she was part of something essentially evil which had found
a way of passing itself of as good and improving, as all forms of evil must,
even the very worst, in fact, it occurred to her, the more vicious an evil, the
more elevated, pure and liberating must be its excuses, which was why the
educational rhetoric was otiose with excessively sincere promises of betterment,
of improving the lives of children, why it offered an unattainable educational
never-never-land while daily the system ground on in its rusty, inadequate way
serving the needs of politicians more than those of pupils. Painfully aware of
the gulf between this dishonesty and her own essentially pragmatic view: a
generous desire to educate every child and to see each one blossom and flourish
tempered by a realistic appreciation of the imponderables, difficulties and
perversities which hobble every system, she realised she’d become an outsider,
her way of thinking and feeling was despised, there was in the air a manic
belief in absolute success and permanent improvement and an attendant faith that
any putative knowledge or accomplishment can be turned into a crude numerical
measure, and what had been lost was the recognition that though a factory might
turn out nuts and bolts of regulation identity, a school turns out nothing,
produces nothing. Learning is a process and only the process matters for it
gives rise to minds and minds resolutely resist reduction to measurement.
For six weeks she worked from seven till close to midnight in an effort to make
sure everything demanded was fulfilled, but at the next review, although Milner
admitted she’d improved significantly, they renewed informal support for a
further eight weeks and imposed a new set of targets. She wept the following
weekend away, then buckled down and spent a further eight weeks with virtually
no life beyond school, two months of days so long and weary she knew she was
working to little avail, nodding over marking at eleven a night, days without
joy and worst of all, days when she began to resent the children she taught.
Though she could reason they were in no way to blame, she found herself facing
them and filling with tension. There were three pupils in particular, two boys
and a girl, children she’d always liked and striven hard to help, statemented
children so slow at every task that it was virtually certain they would fail
any lesson objective set before them. She began to see this trio as the certain
cause of her downfall.
“You know, Tom,” she said, “I’m starting to hate the children.”
“No, you’re just overwrought.”
“Seriously, I am. I hate them because they’ve become the source of my
humiliation. I used to like them, even the little tykes, but now I can’t see
them as kids. They’re grades, targets, levels, numbers in boxes, and somebody’s
coming for me if they’re not up to scratch.”
“You’ll get over it. This stuff will pass. It’s doomed. Try to get it in
perspective. You’ll be back to your old self before long.”
“I don’t think so. It’s gone. The old relationships have been destroyed. Once,
the school was a roof over your head where you got on with teaching. Now it
represents a system. Schools are exam factories and we’re having productivity
deals imposed on us. When you’re looking at children in that way, it’s
impossible to like them anymore. You don’t have the freedom to like them.”
“Take the freedom. Forget the targets and numbers in boxes and see the kids as
“I think that’s the point, Tom, they’re only children in context. We’re
obliterating their childhoods. Everything they do is measured. I’ve suddenly
realised how much I’m being changed by this.”
“It’s a stressful time, but you’ll get through it. Once you’ve wound down a bit
you’ll see the children through different eyes.”
“I wish I could believe that.”
As the second review approached, a sense of dread came over her. She knew what
she’d done wouldn’t be good enough, as surely as a Calvinist knows her good
works make no difference to god’s a priori condemnation. She laughed to herself
at the thought that she was caught in a warmed-over Calvinism, as if dormant in
the collective mind for decades that vicious doctrine had been sparked alive by
some social virus, everyone now fearful of condemnation, chasing their tails to
prove an impossible worth, and she, who considered gradations of worth stupid
and malicious, fighting for her survival.
There were four at the meeting. It was a bright day and the Head’s office was
full of light, as if to offset the tension, and it struck Mary how apparently
normal the most extraordinary situations can be: the young Human Resources
officer smart in a dark jacket and trousers with a crisp white blouse,
diligently making notes, Milner’s neat, little burgundy suit, her
reddish hair beautifully brushed, the clever cut showing off her white throat
and the expanse of her upper chest, for she was one of those women who like to
show off their cleavage, especially if there are men around, and Mary had
noticed how part of her repertoire of tricks to get the male staff to do as they
were told, was to stand in front of them with a bold, little look of defiance on
her face and the dark valley between her big, snowy breasts clearly visible; at
times, she would even, in a small, unconscious but devastatingly effective
gesture, run her fingers from her throat down to the swoop of her neckline which
she’d adjust while looking her interlocutor in the eyes; June Egger, reading
through the support plan from the previous meeting as if she had some real idea
of how to be effective. An unwitting observer might have concluded this was an
entirely rational and fair procedure, but for Mary it was a ritual humiliation
and a demonstration of her impotence; the impotence of those who are subjected
to rules they have no hand in making, judged by those against whom they have no
redress, condemned for putative failings they have no means of disproving,
though it seemed she did: her union representative was beside her, as if her
objections wouldn’t be politely listened to and swept aside, as if her pleas for
more time wouldn’t be received with stony faces.
They discussed progress. Milner raised her anxieties. They called for an
adjournment. Mary and June withdrew to a little classroom and sat on the tiny
“So what do you think ?” said June.
“I think they’ll go for formal support.”
“I think you’re right.”
“I’m not going through with it,” said Mary.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You’re not in my position.”
“We’ll fight it for you.”
“I know you will, June. You’ve been wonderful, but it’s a juggernaut. You can’t
stop them. Not if they’ve made up their minds and I’m convinced they have. You
know what, I believe if this school wasn’t in Special Measures and facing
falling rolls, this wouldn’t be happening.”
“I think you’re right.”
“I’m not going through with it.”
“I’m not allowed to say this to you in my union role, but if I were you I’d go
to your doctor. Look up the symptoms of stress. Get yourself some time off .
Take it easy for a few weeks. Being more relaxed you’ll think straight.”
“I’d thought of that.”
“Well, it’s a way of buying time. The last thing you want is to be dragged in
front of the GTC and have your licence to teach taken away.”
Mary almost laughed, seeing in a sudden little flash of insight, the kind of
little flash she’d had many more of since this process began, the emptiness of
the pretence that the GTC was equivalent to the BMA or the Law Society, genuine
professional closed-shops whose interest was to defend their profession against
corruption or erosion and which were truly independent, founded and run by the
professions themselves, while the GTC was a government sponsored sham whose
essential function was, on the one hand, to help convince the public the
teaching profession was being enhanced, on the other, to punish teachers.
“No, I wouldn’t want that.”
Summoned back, they faced the inevitable and as Mary looked through the new
targets, laid out in exactly the same way as the first set, very neat and
official, conscientiously produced, she almost began to believe she was in the
wrong, that her planning and teaching were poor, that this nailing her down was
“You know, you’re right ?” said Tom, “ it’s a productivity deal.”
“ It’s just like the things they imposed in factories back in the sixties. It’s
simply old-fashioned management, screwing all it can out the workers. Look at
the sickness policy she foisted on you and the nonsense about a code of conduct
that means if you’re drinking in the pub on a Friday and some parents come in
you should leave !”
“In the early years of the twentieth century in America, the Ford Motor Co sent
its inspectors into workers’ homes. That’s the mentality. They don’t even
understand their own system, Mary. They don’t even get that all they’re buying
is your work.”
“ I suppose they think they’re doing the best for the children.”
“I don’t think so. The best for the children would be to stop testing them and
let them learn.”
The formal meeting was more stringent, with Milner, her deputy acting as scribe,
Scott Tyebard scrubbed like a rugby player straight from the bath, groomed like
a teenager on her first date, sporting an expensive suit and watch and giving
off the intermittently detectable odour of superior after-shave; Hilary
Mitchell, school advisor who had never recovered from the severe bout of
excessive egotism which accompanied her promotion and whose prim demeanour and
marginally intrusive attitude were the outward signs of a moderately unhinged
sense of self-esteem, on one side of the desk, Mary and June on the other.
Milner began by reading aloud the review, an account of Mary’s failures and
studied refusal to mention even the slightest of her successes, after which June
was permitted to put her case: she apologised for the unmarked work, she pointed
up the eight satisfactory observations, she pleaded for more time, but it was as
worthless as asking Stalin for tolerance; the meeting was a necessary show.
There would be eight weeks of formal support.
Two days later Mary went to her doctor and complained of being unable to sleep
or eat, suffering palpitations, being overcome by negative thoughts and in
response to the young G.P.’s questions said no, she didn’t smoke, drank no more
than a few glasses of wine a week, got plenty of exercise, and finally, she was
“Ah !” said the astute young practitioner, looking up from her notes, for she
read the papers, “everything all right at work ?”
“Hardly, I’m under a cloud and in danger of getting the sack.”
She signed her off for two weeks and told her to come back if the symptoms
persisted; two weeks became four and four six, enough time for Mary to begin to
feel the grip of school release, so that one morning, taking an early walk
through the park beneath a fine blue sky with the silver light filling the great
open expanse, she experienced herself as unconnected, not responsible, and it
occurred to her that Sycamore Primary and even the system it was part of, was a
relatively small arena, that she’d allowed it to expand in her mind and assume a
significance it didn’t deserve, a negative significance which was oppressing
her, setting her at odds with herself, making her question herself in
destructive ways. The cynical thought occurred to her that, finally, it was just
a job, a means to the end of an income, and recoiling from the brutality of such
reduction and calculation she revived the idealism that had taken her into
teaching, immediately falling into confusion which almost made her dizzy till
she increased her pace, focusing on her stride rather than her moral conflict
until she found her way back to the saving cynicism. Wasn’t it the reverse of
the banknote of her idealism ? Weren’t they both, the concrete cynicism and the
soft soil idealism, ways of arriving at ends beyond question ? Wasn’t she
lurching from one rigid certainty to another? All the same, her cynical
calculation rescued her and like a shipwrecked sailor who, clinging to
driftwood, washes up on the shore of a barren rock of an island without an
edible plant or attractive flower and must live for years alone on a diet
of fish and insects, hiding in his cave from the fierce winds of winter and the
relentless sun of summer, regretting the civilisation he will never see again,
his soft bed, the sweet flesh of his lover, the timid storms of the worst months
and the caressive warmth of summer, she found this unattractive asylum, in all
its ugliness and unwelcoming harshness, a relief, a place of safety, and she
understood the conditions that had given rise to her idealism were gone and
though she might regret them, they could never be retrieved.
Once begun, she pushed this way of thinking to its conclusion: she had to think
selfishly, to calculate her advantage in all things; she’d already had herself
signed off on the basis of exaggerated symptoms though she’d not had a day off
ill in years, why not then continue and get all she could from the mess she’d
found herself in ? This way of thinking taking over, she began to feel better:
she was no longer facing insuperable forces, she regained a bit of control, and
most of all, she wanted her revenge and took pleasure in the idea of the school
finding it difficult to cope in her absence, word having come that the supply
teacher looking after her class wasn’t doing well, a revelation which gave her
satisfaction and simultaneously made her reflect on the stupidity of a system
which browbeats a teacher into taking time off with stress, on the grounds that
she’s inadequate, only to employ an inadequate teacher to temporarily take her
place, an absurdity which, however, was perfectly in keeping with the current
management of the system, whose engagement with reality seemed as shaky as
“I’m going to stay on the sick as long as I can,” she said to Tom.
“Don’t you get six months on full pay ?”
“Only if you’re half dead. They’ll come after me quickly and want to know if and
“Will you go back ?”
“Oh, I might. I was reading something interesting in the paper today about a
woman who had depression and her employer didn’t make reasonable adjustments so
she went for constructive unfair dismissal and won.”
“Not your situation though.”
“Well, it could be. If I got an independent psychological report, all it would
need to say is I’m suffering a mental health problem, then they’d have to
make adjustments and if they didn’t, I’d resign and go to tribunal.”
“You crafty bugger !”
“Why should the devil have all the good ruses ?”
Tom laughed in that unleashed way people do when humour has undermined some
fixed idea or established convention and, though he was shocked at the
straightforward cynicism of his wife’s attitude, having always relied on her to
put her principles first, it was a welcome cynicism because it lifted the pall
of self-accusation, defeat and depression which had oppressed her since the
business began and brought back the hopeful, positive, easy-going woman of the
early days of their marriage. How strange that a negative sentiment could
produce such positive results !
“Tess Turley’s husband, isn’t he something big in psychology ?”
“Yeah, he has some position in the British Psychological Association, or
whatever it’s called.”
“Invite them round,” said Tom, “ply ‘em with drink and get the bugger to write
you a report.”
So they did, and the eminent psychologist was delighted to be asked to help,
convinced as he was of something close to a witch hunt of teachers. He waxed
about the foolishness of punishment as a means of motivation and elaborated his
version of the theory of positive reinforcement, arguing that no matter how poor
a teacher’s, or anyone else’s work, the only sensible place to begin in helping
them to improve is with what they’re getting right.
“After all,” he said, “isn’t that what they say about the pupils, and quite
rightly? Who would learn or improve if they were condemned for every mistake and
never praised for what they do well? No, the government has a not-very-hidden
agenda to blame teachers for every ill in the system so the politicians are off
the hook. I fear for the future of education if this goes on. Only parents who
can afford to pay will get a decent schooling for the children.”
The irony of his remark wasn’t lost on Mary and Tom as his own children had been
educated privately, gone to prestigious universities and were earning heavily in
their fine careers. All the same, armed with the report, for which their guest
would take no fee, Mary returned to work and requested the reasonable
adjustments to which she was entitled.
“What adjustments do you think you’ll need, Mary ?” said Milner who combined the
soft-spoken, friendly, personal manner of a beneficent doctor with the
ruthlessness requisite in headteachers when she was a little unsure of her
“Oh, the support will have to be withdrawn, at least. That’s the source of the
stress and anxiety.”
“But the support is there to help you.”
“Yes, rather like apartheid was supposed to help the blacks.”
“That’s an inappropriate remark, Mary.”
“I must say, I’ve somewhat lost my sense of what is and isn’t appropriate
“We can help you, but we can’t withdraw support. The authority wouldn’t allow
Mary, heartened by those words, knew Milner could have no idea how glad she was
to hear them just as she could hardly have been aware of how Mary felt, at last,
that she had swung things to her advantage sufficiently so she couldn’t lose: if
they agreed and withdrew support she would get on with her job, if they refused,
she’d resign and go to tribunal.
“She played right into my hands,” she said to Tom.
“Now I get the union to put on pressure and if they still won’t move, I bang in
The NUT’s Regional Officer took up the cause, but fearing a withdrawal would
signal an easy means of wriggling out of support, the authority stuck to its
position and Mary sat down to write her letter of resignation. If she’d thought
about it six months earlier, had worked through the humiliation of having to
leave the job she loved, she would have been crushed and tearful, but now she
took her pen with a sense of freedom and delight: skulking behind the flimsy
excuse of doing the best for the children, they’d tried to destroy her ; their
motivation was vicious because, even if it were true there were failings in her
work, and she admitted to herself her planning wasn’t always all it could be,
her room was sometimes untidy, she didn’t always stick to the success criteria,
it would have been easy for them to bolster her confidence with praise for her
qualities while at the same time giving her little digs in the ribs over her
shortcomings. It could all have been done pleasantly and with a sense of humour,
but behind it was a stiff, nasty, preening, narcissistic bureaucratic mentality,
a narrow-minded conformism, lack of imagination and want of simple joie de
vivre; the mentality of the prissy careerist for whom the world is a mirror and
who is constantly inwardly assessing herself, taking her temperature, measuring
her success by comparison to others and for whom the slightest deviation from
the externally imposed norms to which she is chained as irrevocably as an addict
to his fix, sparks a fierce anxiety which makes her all the more obedient,
dutiful, mentally myopic and blindly conscientious. She realised, as she paused
in her writing, that she too had nearly embraced that mentality. Had she been
promoted, had she been a little more bullet-headed and uncompromising, might she
too have participated in the cruel, stupid and self-defeating obsession with
standards and targets and league tables, all the wicked paraphernalia of
measurement purporting to scientific objectivity but which was truly nothing
more than a creeps’ charter, a paradise for arse-lickers ? But if she was one of
those far-gone time-servers, lacking in autonomy, timid of resistance,
complaisant to all authority however misguided, she wouldn’t have fallen foul of
their pusillanimity, she would have followed the strictures to the letter,
always been looking over her shoulder; her fault, in the system’s eyes, was her
virtue: she used her intelligence and her judgement and behaved independently
and what she considered senseless, she ignored.
She kept the letter beautifully brief and to the point.
The legal process was long and slow, but at every step the employment lawyer she
and Tony decided to hire reassured her: the employer was required to make
reasonable adjustments; in the view of the psychologist, the support was
inducing depression and anxiety; the only reasonable course, in the short term,
was to suspend it. All the same, when the day of the tribunal arrived, her
confidence drained away like oil from an opened sump and all she could imagine
was that officialdom, that deadly and sly combination of jack-in-office
interests, would close ranks against her, the isolated individual, would see
through her ruse, dismiss her out of hand and leave her jobless, shamed,
diminished and possibly facing costs if, as the solicitor put it, the claim was
judged to be wholly without merit.
“I submit this document as evidence in chief,” said Mary’s solicitor.
She was called first to the box, to be cross-examined by the authority’s
barrister, a young woman with a slightly squeaky voice and a very precise manner
who reminded her of a nervous vicar delivering a sermon in which he believed but
with no confidence he had any right to persuade anyone else to have faith in it.
“Ms Birtwistle, it seems your attack of anxiety and depression has arrived quite
conveniently. Have you ever suffered from such symptoms before.”
“ Isn’t it a little suspicious that you began to complain of these things only
when you were asked to improve professionally ?”
“I wasn’t asked to improve professionally, I was browbeaten, given an impossible
workload, pursued for trivialities and undermined. As you know, Mr Abingdon’s
report is clear in identifying the so-called support as the source of my
problems. That’s why they came out of nowhere and disappeared once I was no
longer working. Context is everything.”
“Would you say you’re a strong person, Ms Birtwistle ?”
“Excuse me. Emotionally, psychologically. Teaching is demanding in these
respects isn’t it ?”
“I never had any difficulty until I was put on support.”
“Perhaps that’s because you weren’t doing your job properly.”
“Then why were there no complaints ?”
“Well, there were complaints, once your Headteacher caught up with you.”
“Which happened to coincide with Special Measures and falling rolls.”
“ Did Ms Milner offer to make reasonable adjustments when you returned to work
“Then why did you resign ?”
“Because the only adjustment I needed was to be allowed to get on with my job.”
“But your employer has a right to ensure you’re doing your job properly,
“Of course, but this isn’t about teachers doing their jobs properly. You have to
do your job properly but I bet you make mistakes and have bad days. Teachers are
the whipping boys in an attempt to lift all responsibility for failure from the
politicians. I have eight Special Needs pupils in my class, out of fifteen
children. Why are they Special Needs ? Essentially because they’re poor.”
“We’re not here to discuss those matters, Ms Birtwistle. The question is, did
the school offer to make appropriate reasonable adjustments. Tell the tribunal,
what adjustments would you have accepted?”
“The only one which would have made any difference would have been the
suspension of support.”
Mary refused to soften before the insistent questions, standing solidly on her
little island of withdrawal of support being the only reasonable action, and
when her lawyer got the chance to cross-examine, he hammered away at the fact
that the psychologist’s report was plain, that a temporary suspension would have
been easily feasible, but the authority insisted, over and over, on its right to
intervene to ensure competence, and behind this defence, a droit de seigneur of
the employer, was concealed that urge to power and control which infests the
human mind like maggots a dead bird, an urge born of weakness, of the
indefeasibly temporary, shifting nature of identity, of fear of life itself
whose forces work through us, granting us as individuals and as a species a
brief span of wonder on the tiny, teeming oasis that is the earth. Sure the
tribunal would find against her, casting glances at the expressionless chair who
peered over her glasses, made sudden notes and seemed so razor-blade efficient
Mary couldn’t imagine any sympathy coming from her, she was as stunned as
relieved when, after the adjournment, the panel found in her favour.
It was when she was alone, after the celebratory meal and drinks with Walt,
walking to the corner shop for a an evening paper that the sense of victory came
over her: they hadn’t driven her out, they hadn’t found her incompetent, they
couldn’t drag her before the GTC and take away her licence to teach. They’d been
found to be in the wrong. She was vindicated. She could apply for other jobs, if
she felt like it. And she would, she’d start again, but this time she’d be
careful. She wouldn’t take a job in a school serving poor children, she’d be
picky, wouldn’t go anywhere that didn’t having a glowing OFSTED report, would
find out how the staff got along with the Head. That’s what she’d do. She’d look
after herself. And though she felt a tug of regret at having to make such
cynical calculations, at the loss of that generous and open feeling she’d had
when she started, that idealistic impulse of wanting to help children at the
bottom end, she felt much, much better knowing she’d never again allow herself
to fall into a trap. At the same time, she doubted herself. Was she less than
competent ? Now she was safe, she could admit her failings to herself. It was
true she didn’t plan tightly enough and her marking wasn’t always up to date.
But she rebelled against her own self-accusation. This system would find
Beethoven incompetent to teach music ! It was too rigid, too prescriptive, too
lacking in imagination. It truly was a paradise for sycophants, time-servers and
arse-lickers. In such a jungle, she concluded, what could she do but look out
for herself ?
LAPDANCING IN THE GULAG
“ I hope it isn’t too warm for you in
here,” said Mrs Cherry, “being used to Russian winters as you are.”
“Not at all,” replied Bukansky wiping
his brow, “I like your warm climate. Everything is easier when the temperature’s
“Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know
how you go on in Moscow in February. It must be dangerous to take your clothes
“It’s always dangerous to take your
clothes off in Moscow.”
“It can be perilous in Hale Barnes, I
assure you. I’ve had one or two close calls in my time. Do feel free to loosen
your attire if you’re uncomfortable though.”
pulled awry his maroon, silk tie and unfastened his top button, shifting
uneasily on the pale cream sofa Mrs Cherry had bought only that week in DFS and
which she thought set off her newly-decorated lounge beautifully, cast a shifty
glance towards the net-curtained bay windows, not long since renewed in hardwood
and laid his great, hairy, bears-paw hands on his weightlifter thighs, as if he
was waiting for the KGB itself to ring the bell, which played three bars of
God Save The Queen, and had been fitted the previous afternoon.
“What line of
business was it you said you were in, Mr Bukansky ?”
interesting ! Do you get to look after any celebrities ?”
after many kinds of people: politicians, businessmen, trade unionists.”
“I expect you
do a marvellous job.”
quick. Very clean.”
important. I’m a stickler for cleanliness. If I see a spot of grime I have to
leap up and clean it at once. My deceased couldn’t understand it. He was a messy
man. It drove me out of my wits. I took to cutting up the socks he left on the
bedroom floor and putting them in the bin.”
been widowed long ?”
“How did your
husband meet his end ?”
“He fell off
a ladder. He was cleaning the gutters. I insisted. He wanted to pay a tradesman
but I said, “Merrick, the exercise will do you good. You’re always on the sofa
with your nose in a foreign book.” I was steadying with my foot on the bottom
rung but I noticed a weed in the rockery. I only turned away for a minute. I
heard the cry and the thud before I could take action. He landed on his back on
the recently-laid patio and broke his neck instantly.”
“You must be
“Yes. It was
an awful blow. But we mustn’t dwell on these things. Thankfully, he was well
insured. Would you like a cup of tea ?”
“I’d rather a
glass of vodka.”
“At eleven in
the morning ! Mr Bukansky, I’d almost believe you’re trying to get me drunk.”
“Why would I
want to do that ?”
knows ! But it’s often said I’m trim for my years. I hope this blouse isn’t too
revealing. I just slipped it on without thinking.”
you to say so ! It’s only M&S but it is rather flimsy isn’t it ?”
gentleman, and me displaying my assets to you before lunch. What am I like ?”
your daughter be home ?”
shouldn’t be long. It’s her day off. She only works part-time. I don’t
understand it. We paid for her to get the best education in the county but she’s
no ambition. And with the opportunities available these days.”
“Yes, as we
used to say in my organisation in Russia, a man who doesn’t seize his
opportunities will have his opportunities cut off.”
organization was that ?”
security. We had to keep a close eye on people who threatened the State.”
“Oh, what a
fine job ! We’re too soft on criminals in this country. I suppose you had to
deal with all kinds, murderers, terrorists, drug-dealers, rapists.”
have been extraordinarily competent. I like a man who gets on with things
without ceremony. Who were the difficult ones?”
surprise me. The trash they publish these days. My daughter reads it. I picked a
book off the floor of her room only this week. It was called Nietzsche’s
Birthday. The stories were set in factories. Can you imagine ? I like a good
Jackie Collins myself.”
“I have an
important appointment with a man from the council at one. If your daughter isn’t
back soon we’ll have to rearrange.”
“ Oh, she’ll
be here. I told her you’ve got a business proposition for her. It’s so good of
you to consider offering her a job in one of your establishments. Her work in
the library is very poorly paid. What’s the name of the business where you have
an opening ?”
It’s rather abrupt but I must say it appeals to me. Where is your business
railway bridge in Salford.”
innovative uses they make of old industrial Lancashire !”
click of the gate-latch, Mrs Cherry skipped to the window and pulled aside the
net, as she always did when seeing who the divorcee at number seventeen was
bringing home or whether Mr Doris, the county court judge, was falling legless
from a taxi again at three in the morning.
here ! I’m sure you won’t be disappointed Mr Bukansky. She’s a young woman with
When she came
in, Bukansky, who in truth had feared he was about to be introduced to a frump
or a girl of such overwhelming plainness he would have to turn away in disdain,
visibly stiffened at Virginia Cherry’s remarkable beauty, the kind of perfect
proportion which excites Hollywood directors, billionaire film producers,
pornographers, advertising executives, the entire tribe of clever manipulators
who know how to home in on any fine or noble human impulse and turn it into a
vulgar pursuit of money, for she was tall, slender, strong, with a complexion as
clear as the light in St Ives, eyes as big as Jupiter, chestnut hair that shone
like polished prose, brows arched like the back of a spitting cat, fingers as
long as piano keys with nails shaped as carefully as drill bits and painted in a
“This is Mr
Bukansky, dear, the businessman I was telling you about. He’s got interests in
many areas and is willing to make you an offer.”
to meet you,” said Bukansky, hauling himself from the sofa as if an invisible
crane were winching him millimetre by millimetre and holding out a hand as big
shook it, the look of distaste which appeared on her face made her mother fear
she would engage her usual outspokenness with people she disapproved of and made
her mind race to find a way to head off an insult.
very accomplished. She’s got grade eight piano.”
uttered the daughter.
“A gold medal
for ballet and tap.”
have had a place at Oxford if she’d had a bit more push.”
offered a place at Portsmouth.”
far from Oxford,” said Mrs Cherry plaintively.
your line of business Mr Bukansky ?” said Virginia.
“I have a
wide portfolio. Security, leisure, publishing, entertainment.”
sound like you’ll have anything for me. I’m a librarian.”
“Not at all,
I’m a good librarian and I enjoy it.”
for the time being,” said her mother.
“You are a
very beautiful young woman.”
original mind you have, Mr Bukansky.”
“And you can
“I gave up
dancing classes when I was eight.”
“We can soon
train you. The moves are easy.”
“You see, my
dear, Mr Bukansky is even prepared to further your education.”
start on Friday.”
“But I’d have
to give a month’s notice.”
my employees will settle things with your boss.”
won’t because I’m not leaving. I’ve no desire on earth to be a dancer.”
“I’ll pay you
a thousand pounds a week.”
declared Mrs Cherry, “there’s real money ! She only brings home seven hundred
pounds a month from the library.”
like this for years. Ever since she began reading Jane Austen. Do you think I
should have her sectioned ?”
“You will get
to know many rich and famous gentlemen.”
“I prefer my
gentleman poor and obscure. Excuse me, I need to have a shower.”
“Can I be of
any assistance ?”
guest is a pervert.”
Virginia left the room, Bukansky sank back into the sofa and eased his head into
a steep recline so his thick, darkly-shaven throat was on view, sighed deeply
and closed his eyes. Mrs Cherry quickly sat herself at the opposite end, kicked
off her high heels and, twitching her skirt a little higher, brought her feet up
onto the cushion. When Bukansky opened his eyes and looked at her she cocked
her head to the right like an inquisitive sparrow and smiled with all the
girlish coquettishness she could muster.
is too young to know what’s good for her, Mr Bukansky, but if you’ve got an
opening for an older woman….”
her knees slightly and pulled her neck a little further into her shoulders.
dancing is a young woman’s job. We have no call for women over thirty.”
say I still look twenty-five, in a flattering light.”
take your clothes off, people will know the difference.”
“Not if I’m
moving around. I’m still agile.”
supple, athletic young women. I run a business not a charity.”
closed her knees, her expression turning sullen, and with a hint of a serrated
edge in her voice, her chin rising a little and her body taking on a stiffness
as if ready to repel an attack she said:
ungentlemanly of you, Mr Bukansky. I’ve no need of charity in any sense. I’ve
always stood on my own two feet and I can make my way on my initiative in every
respect. It may come as a surprise to you but I get offers from younger men
almost every week. I could have a stream of male visitors to this house if I
wasn’t a good Christian.”
the kind of work you’re interested in, I may be able to offer you a contract.”
She jumped up
and stood before him, her eyes wide and her mouth as tight as plumber’s blank.
“ Do you
think I’m common ! I was offering my talents as a dancer. I’m a graceful mover
and I’d love to entertain with my sinuous delights. But if you can think of me
merely as meat I suggest we terminate our acquaintance at once.”
was now leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, stroked his chin and
stared hard at the little woman standing, like Joan of Arc awaiting the English,
on her sheepskin rug in front of her marble fireplace.
strike a deal,” he said. “I’ll find you a job dancing in one of my
establishments if you agree to help me employ your daughter.”
“I’ll do my
best, but as you’ve seen, she takes after her father. She insists on having a
mind of her own.”
“We can deal
with that. We are experts in reeducation.”
“Do you run
universities into the bargain ?”
universities. We have programmes of rapid reorientation. Sometimes we need a
little medical intervention.”
change her foolish ideas I’m all for it. Her disdain for money is very hurtful
to me. I’ve been a good mother, I’ve always encouraged her to get on in life.”
stood up with a rapidity his massive frame appeared incapable of and pulled his
mobile from his pocket.
“I need to
bring some of my associates to help me. One moment please.”
speaking Russian into the device. Mrs Cherry, reassured that her talents were to
be appreciated and glowing with pride at her anticipation of involvement with a
man of property whose Rolls was parked outside her above average but still
relatively modest, extended four bedroomed semi with conservatory, and dreaming
already of the mansion in Pendlebury if, as her hope was, she could ensnare the
lugubrious Cossack, sat on the sofa once more, lying back luxuriantly, one leg
on the cushions, the other on the floor. She was still in this pose when the
bell rang, Bukanksy opened it, barked orders in Russian, heavy feet drummed up
her thirty pounds a square metre runner with the brass rods, Virginia screamed
and there followed the unmistakable, rhythmic bouncing of the bed above her
which inspired her to gingerly venture up to find a six foot six, Muscovite
wrestler whose face exhibited all the fine intelligence of a baboon, standing
guard by Virginia’s bedroom, the unceremonious pounding continuing and the
muffled cries of her daughter reaching her ears intermittently.
everything all right in there ?” she said.
didn’t flinch. His dull eyes stared at her.
“Would any of
you like a cup of tea ?”
She went back
down and, crouched anxiously on the edge of her beloved sofa, listened to the
thumping upstairs. It seemed to continue an inordinately long time and was still
in full flood when she heard a slow, weighty tread descending and Bukansky,
red-faced, wiping the sweat from his brow, his black over coat unbuttoned, his
waistcoat loose, came in and stood, legs apart in front of the inset, living
flame gas fire she’d had fitted only a month before.
terribly noisy up there. Is everything all right ?”
“My men work
very hard. They’ll soon be finished. We’ll need to take your daughter away for a
few days. She must get used to our methods.”
sure you know what you’re doing. You will take good care of her won’t you. She
may be lacking in ambition but she is my daughter.”
fine. Next time you see her she’ll be working in one of my clubs earning a
thousand pounds a week. If she behaves herself, she’ll make you a millionairess.
I like her. She’s a very juicy girl. Maybe I’ll marry her. She could produce
“Oh, that’s a
generous offer, Mr Bukansky. I hope she won’t turn you down.”
me down, Mrs Cherry. Democracy is for cissies.”
the window as multiple clumping on the stairs announced the departure of
Bukansky’s staff, she was just in time to see her daughter being bundled into
the boot of a Mercedes.
“Why are they
putting her in there !” she asked.
She’ll be safe from prying eyes.”
It was three
weeks before Mrs Cherry saw her daughter again, an interval during which she
wondered, at moments, if she shouldn’t alert the police, but thinking better of
annoying a rich and powerful man who she was depending on for elevation into the
stratosphere of luxurious idleness and wastefulness, she permitted her dreams to
nudge aside her anxieties, imagining herself on Bukanksy’s ocean-going yacht,
for a man of such means would look silly if he didn’t own one, a long, sleek,
white beauty berthed at St Tropez with a swimming pool on deck, twenty-five
bedrooms, a ballroom, a cinema, music provided by the greatest exponents in
Europe, food prepared by the world’s most sought-after chefs (about which, of
course, she would complain and have the poor cook sacked and put off at the
nearest port), a gym, a sauna, a Jacuzzi and anything else her wandering
fantasies might summon up; lying on a recliner in her skimpy white bikini she
would be joined by Brad who had left Angelina in the gym attending to her abs;
he would offer to rub on the Puiz Buin, lavishing it on the insides of
her thighs, running his hands up to her salivating crutch and whispering in her
ear how gorgeous she was, much more desirable than Angelina, they would sneak to
his cabin, demolish a bottle of gin and beguile an ecstatic two hours working on
one another’s genitalia after which he would declare his intention to separate
from the over-rated star and make her his wife.
was disturbed by the doorbell’s tinny rendition of the national anthem.
I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me!”
before him into the lounge where she reclined on the sofa like Mme Recamier.
proved a willing employee ?”
little difficult at first but one of our doctor’s prescribed something to cam
her down. Now she does exactly what she’s told.”
“Oh, I’m so
glad. I wish I’d had you around during her adolescence. She was such a difficult
girl and her father refused to discipline her.”
is my speciality.”
“And when do
you want me to start work, Mr Bukansky ? I’m eager to get under way.”
I came for. We have the perfect opportunity.”
you like me to audition ?”
you. I’ve just eaten.”
“Do I start
be fine. We need a receptionist.”
would suit a lady of your years perfectly.”
how can you expect me to demean myself in such a way. I expect to be admired and
an efficient dogsbody. And we pay the minimum wage.”
disappointed. I can’t possibly accept such an offer, especially seeing you’re
paying my daughter a thousand pounds a week and letting her have all the
“We also need
“Oh, you go
from bad to worse. When I was introduced to you at the golf club I thought you
were a real businessman. Someone with an eye for talent and a desire to see
people fulfil their potential but you behave no better than a municipal
should be sent to the gulag. I’m a businessman. I do things in the Russian
Cheshire, Mr Bukansky. We do things in a proper conservative, Christian way.
You’ve hurt my feelings. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
want to see your daughter ?”
reluctantly sat beside Bukansky in his Rolls as it glided through the leafy
suburbs towards Manchester. She was sick at heart to think this luxury she
considered fitting wouldn’t come her way and as passers-by cast intrigued
glances towards her she felt her spirits rise, that little leap of pride
weak-minded people sense about their precious possessions, and immediately
afterwards a horrible sinking as she reflected that the great beast of a man
beside her could have behaved so insensitively. In the club, situated in a dingy
back street north of Piccadilly, Virginia, clad in only a glittering thong, was
twisting around a pole, yanking herself upside, crawling on all fours, pushing
her backside towards the faces of the gleeful men who shoved notes beneath her
elastic, spreading her legs inches from their strained, unhappy, drooling faces.
Mrs Cherry thought it was rather tasteless and down-market and felt she could
have been just as alluring.
said to her daughter when she appeared clothed during her ten minute break, “I’m
glad to see you’re making something of yourself at last. I hope you won’t forget
who brought you up and provided for you now you’re earning well.”
glazed eyes stared back at her.
“I think you
can do better than this,” said her mother, “ but it’s a start. You never know,
you might get a millionaire footballer in here one night who takes a shine to
you and your troubles will be over.”
Bukanksy came towards them.
up. Back on stage.”
Sunday lunch,” said Mrs Cherry. “I’ll make Queen of Puddings, your favourite.
One o’clock. Don’t be late.”
And all the
way home she could only muse miserably on how unfair it was that such
opportunities hadn’t been easy to come by when she was a girl.
LET’S KILL THE TEACHER
We were sitting in the staff-room
towards the end of break when Dransfield sighed heavily, closed the Times
whose international pages he’d been scanning, got up with his usual
refusal-to-be-hurried slowness, took his mug into the kitchen and hurried off to
his class. We knew things were tough for him, being of the old school,
nearing retirement, one of those teachers who grew up in the fifties, took
learning seriously, knew his subject inside out, had read a thousand books to
get his degree, and was dismayed that pupils in his classes replied “Whatever!”
when he told them they’d missed off an accent or got a tense wrong. His mind and
those of the young he tried to teach had been formed in contrary circumstances
and the almost physical distaste he experienced at mental slovenliness was
unknown to them. Every lesson drove him a little nearer despair. He’d become
convinced our culture was declining so quickly, heading so gleefully towards
suicide, the future would be dominated by minds capable of no more than
three-minute concentration, bereft of a sense of posterity, locked into instant
gratification. For those of us who were young, these seemed the musings of a sad
old man who had chosen a career well below his capacities.
The first two lessons had gone badly. At
nine, the year eights came into his room with their usual raucousness,
showing-off and lax, indifference to his presence. The previous evening, whole
his wife slouched in front of some mindlessly glamorous American movie on Film
4, he’d produced six separate tasks which were now laid out on the six tables in
piles of thirty. He’d been pleased with his work and had gone to bed hoping,
like some naïve rookie, this time they would rise, appreciate his effort and
respond to it with their own.
“Is it a test?” called Ashley Brimley.
“Test!” shouted Sam Hothersall. “I’m not
doin’ a test!”
“Why are we doin’ a test?” screeched
Jake Sturrock in a voice not yet broken.
“It isn’t a test,” said Dransfield, but
no-one seemed to hear him.
As usual, he stood behind his desk
waiting vainly for a reduction in noise that wasn’t going to happen, and when,
all the boys finally in the room, at last seated but no more attentive to him
than a monarch to his flunkeys, he raised his voice and called for quiet with
one of his customary polite formulations:
“Can we settle down now, please?” or
“Shall we make a start, gentlemen?”
there was a momentary dip in the racket,
one or two pairs of eyes shot a glance at him as though he might be more than
someone who had wandered in off the street and who was worthy of neither respect
nor silence, but quickly the collective need to be lost in chaos, to be able to
justify ignorance by claiming it as the class’s norm, reasserted itself and only
by shouting like a drunken football fan after a bad defeat could he bring some
“Right, that’s enough! I’ve been polite,
now comes the nasty stuff. Either you shut up, this instant, or you’re in
“Is it official, sir?
“When is it, sir?”
“I can’t do Wednesday I’ve got a
“If I put you in detention, you’re doing
“I can’t do Wednesday either, sir. I’ve
got to go the Mosque.”
“You’ll have to bring a note.”
“Can I bring a note, sir?”
“Can we all bring a note, sir!”
“I’ve got to go to the Mosque, sir.”
“You’re not a Muslim, Hooper.”
“I’ve had a conversion, sir.”
The noise, which had diminished for
thirty seconds to a level which would have allowed him to deliver his lesson in
a normal voice, had risen again to a birthday party hubbub, Ashley Griffin, a
big, blond lad convinced he was going to be elevated into the stratosphere of
super-rich celebrity if only he behaved in every context with the
self-conscious, before-the-camera, false exaggerations of Big Brother ,
was on his feet in the middle of the room, and Gavin Barton, a wick, skinny
little boy with a mop of curly hair which he shook compulsively as he practised
the drumming which he was sure was going to turn him into a super-star, teenage
rock sensation, was on all fours under the desk.
“Sit down, Ashley!”
“But he’s got me pencil-case!”
“Sit down even though he’s got your
“Where’s me pencil-case?”
“I haven’t got it!” said Gavin emerging
from under the table.
“Sit in your chair, Gavin,” said
“I was just getting’ me pen lid.”
“Sit in your chair.”
“Where’s me pencil-case!” called Gavin
as he scanned his place.
“Well you took mine!” called Ashley.
“Sit down, both of you`!”
“But I don’t know where my pencil-case
is!” called Ashley with the pathetic intonation of crisis.
“What do you want me to do,” retorted
Dransfield, “call the FBI?”
The class, which apparently hadn’t been
listening, erupted in an orgy of jeering as they always did if a teacher dared
make a joke or employ a witticism which raised him or her above their level.
There was nothing Dransfield could do but wait for the bedlam to subside and in
those few seconds it came to him how sunk they were in this culture which would
admit nothing better than itself, a distortion of the ideal of democracy and
even of equality, it was a vicious dismissal of all values which existed beyond
their narrow horizon, a reduction to immersion in the moment, rejection of
transcendence, a mental return to the cradle where nothing could exceed their
immediate needs; yet it wasn’t their needs these boys were attending to, on the
contrary, they ignored them with all the studied cynicism of their wilful
refusal to pay heed to him, it was their desires that overwhelmed them, desires
engendered by a slick commercialism for which there was no distinction to be
made between a child and an adult - they were both consumers, and in fact, the
child was a superior consumer because of its inability to see long-term
advantage - and without such a distinction why should they acknowledge him,
believe he might have something to offer, recognize his experience, respect his
learning? These boys’ heroes were tv stars, young, rich, loud-mouthed, overnight
sensations, or multi-millionaire footballers flaunting their lavish lifestyles,
or even criminals, if criminality had made them rich and notorious. Everything
Dransfield represented they despised: the slow accumulation of skill and
knowledge, the struggle to master content, the high value attributed to
objectivity, steady, honest work for modest reward, a hierarchy of values and
priorities, the recognition that our desires can trick us into folly, an
unassuming demeanour, a high-minded striving against vulgarity; they were
willing to get on with something, but only on their own terms and they feared
whatever surpassed them, like savages whose animistic understanding makes them
respond violently to whatever is different and therefore incomprehensible. They
behaved as they had to, for their context controlled them; they had been sold
i-pods and mobiles and PSPs and the virtual world these represented was more
real to them than the flesh-and-blood world which was lurid and slow and
demanded attention; they were middle-class boys whose homes made the school,
even in its newest extensions, look shabby and cheap; their parents had lived
the whole of their teenage and adult lives under the illusion that there is
no such thing as society and had worshipped at the altar of property as a
proof of worth so their children, required to prove themselves at every moment
of their lives, lacked any secure sense of esteem and acted out like performing
seals or trained dolphins; the political culture which had once provided a
rough-and ready guide to the choices available in modern life was now so
confused, most of them wouldn’t have known whether conservatives stood for
reforming capitalism out of existence or socialists for the supremacy of the
Stock Exchange; some of them came from homes where there were more televisions
than books and hardly any of them ever visited a library; many of them had never
played a street game and certainly never invented their own rules or composed
their own rhymes; all of them had televisions in their rooms and watched late
night pornimagery of some kind; few improvised their own games of cricket or
football on the local park because their parents worried about the danger,
taking them instead to organised practises where they were driven to perform
by ambitious, sideline would-be managers and coaches; they bought chocolate
bars, sweets and crisps on the way to school and ate them before the first
lesson; they thought the MacDonalds big, red M the symbol of freedom; from the
American series they watched they derived the idea that there is one mode of
behaviour, one tone, one demeanour which is suitable for every place and time,
for that is the expression of you and any deliberate, conscious restraint
would be a denial of your very existence; they believed they had a right to
whatever they desired to do or have and anything which curtailed that right,
even for an instant, was unjust.
“Sit down, Ashley.”
“But where’s me pencil-case?”
“I’m going to count to five and if you
aren’t in your seat I’m taking you to Mr Dyet.”
The boy sank reluctantly into his chair,
resting his head on his folded arms.
“Sit up properly.”
“Where’s me pencil-case!” he exclaimed,
raising his head, as affronted as John McEnroe on bad day.
“Gavin! Gavin! You sit down too.”
Apparently compliant, the boy moved to
his seat but just before sitting grabbed a pencil-case from the desk and hurled
it across the room at which its owner, Jordan Batty jumped up:
“Watch your tongue, Jordan!”
But the boy was away after his
belongings, the noise was becoming painful, Gavin grabbed another pencil-case,
Ashley got briskly to his feet again and Dransfield, knowing there was nothing
else for it, bellowed:
“Si’down at once! Count of five if
you’re on your feet you get an official!”
The spectacle of a man as old as some of
their grandfathers having to bawl like a commodity trader in the midst of market
meltdown made them smirk and quieten and watch him. He was their prey and they
had him in their talons because, although they obeyed, they’d won by making him
look ridiculous as they did to all teachers, if not by forcing them into this
kind of howling, then by making them teach against their noise and
unwillingness, forcing them to strain to entertain them, refusing to allow them
their simple status as adult professionals which should have been enough to
command their cooperation.
“Your behaviour is disgraceful…”
Dransfield heard himself begin, launching into one of those petty homilies, full
of anguished disbelief and stressing their inability to behave socially, to
adapt to the context, to uphold their responsibility to take education
seriously; and though this chastened them enough to permit him to explain what
they had to do, within two minutes of them starting the work the noise was
filling the space as inexorably as the waters of a burst river fill the cellars
of the bankside houses. He went from table to table, urging each quartet to make
“Come on, you’ve six minutes only to get
this done then you move to the next table.”
The noise was awful but he decided to do
no more than urge them to quiet as they were at least launched on some work and
as he went around the room, verbally prodding them as a farmer prods cattle, he
reflected that what he’d said wasn’t true: they were behaving socially,
they were simply adhering to a set of social rules which contradicted absolutely
the ones he was trying to teach by; on the one hand, the system worked by
coercion: they were required to be educated and that meant, for almost all
parents, school, so the inordinate power of the State compelled them to be here
and to follow the National Curriculum, to stick to the school’s timetable, to
wear a uniform, to do homework, to run the cross-country; on the other hand, the
air was thick with the boomerang rhetoric of choice, diversity and
personalisation, the glib falsehoods of politicians cynically making use of the
system to keep themselves in power. Yet the falsehoods became policy and the
ambitious had to follow it just as the parents, naively, imagined that there was
no dislocation between the high-flown words of a Minister desperate for
advantage and the daily reality of classrooms where teachers battled for enough
order to get something done or gave up on education and sank to the level of
entertainers, putting pupils in front of computer screens where they could play
games with a little added, putatively educational content, showing them endless
videos, or turning every aspect of learning into a game that flattered their
childishness and never brought them up short against the hard demands of
disinterested mental effort.
The chatter got badly in the way of
their attention, but all the same, most of them were getting along with the work
because he’d reduced it to the candy-floss simplicity the system demanded and as
he went round seeing them selecting items of vocabulary and slotting them into
passages of nursery-rhyme redundancy or asking one another the way to the
railway station or the town hall in phrase-book French, he felt for the ten
thousandth time that dreadful collapsing sense of playing his small part in the
demolition of intelligence.
“Sir, what’s the French for street?”
“Well, it’s there, look.”
“Look,” and he pointed to the helpful
list of vocabulary at the side of the worksheet.
There came the usual noise of a
kerfuffle behind him and turning he found Jack Cronshaw sprawled across the
desk, the worksheets on the floor like discarded bus tickets. A great jeer arose
from the class and Cronshaw, relishing his fifteen seconds of limelight, kicked
his legs and flailed his arms like a non-swimmer in a wild sea.
“Get back in your seat, Jack!”
The three boys at the table were
giggling like giddy four-year-olds high on E numbers.
“He’s swimming the channel!”
And Cronshaw agitated his limbs more
ferociously, rocking the table and raising another loud jeer.
“Jack, get back in your seat!”
But the boy was enjoying himself, the
class had broken down, no work was being done, what they were there for was
forgotten, they’d tilted the little vessel of education in which they were used
to being pandered to till it had capsized and were now frolicking in the waves,
excited as six-year-olds on an August holiday; why should they pay any attention
to Dransfield, what did he represent? He belonged to a past they were ignorant
of and disdained because everything in the past denied the bright future that
“Jack! I’m going to count to ten then
I’m going to take you off the desk. You’re risking injury behaving this way in
At this provocation the boy behaved as
if a sudden surge of electricity had passed through his body, the two desks,
pushed together to make one, came apart, books, pens and pencil-cases cascaded
to the floor and at the end of his very short tether, Dransfield grabbed the boy
by the collar and yanked him to his feet.
“You hit me!” Cronshaw exclaimed.
“No I didn’t.”
“I’ve got witnesses. That’s assault.”
“I wish you luck in your career as a
barrister, lad. Now sit down.”
“I’ll get my dad.”
Around the room were cries of “Sue him,
Jack!”, “Get him sacked!”, but Dransfield remained as calm as a man
contemplating the roses in his garden.
“Good. I’ll be glad to talk to him. Now
He pushed the tables together, picked up
the belongings and went once more around the room.
“That’s six minutes. Change tables,
Clockwise round the room, please.”
They stood up and grabbed their bags.
“Listen, there’s no need to take your
bags. Leave them where they are. You’ll come back to where you started from.
Leave your bags.”
“I’m not leavn’ mine, someone’ll nick me
And that collective high-minded opinion
meant thirty boys hoisted their bulging rucksacks onto their shoulders, began
shoving and jostling like bumper cars on a bank holiday, moved in various
directions, pushed the desks and chairs aside and, enjoying the low-key melee,
refused to listen when Dransfield called:
“No, no! Clockwise. Go clockwise to the
next desk. Come on! This is simple. Just go clockwise.”
They relished their sullen, defiance
like a tired two-year-old in the supermarket, milled and shoved in their bovine
progress to their next task and when, finally, they were all seated again,
Dransfield found they’d deliberately muddled the worksheets.
“Who’s done this?” he said holding up a
sheaf, and though he was on the verge of letting fly, he restrained himself,
forced his voice away from stridency and his demeanour from tension. “Pathetic.
It really is pathetic.”
Patiently, he went round the room
resorting the papers till each table had its correct pile.
“Okay. Six minutes from now.”
“Sir, he’s got me ruler!” Ashley was on
“But he’s got me ruler!”
“Fine, but sit down.”
He went to the table knowing that he’d
ask Gavin to give back the ruler and he’d say he didn’t have it.
“Give him his ruler, Gavin.”
“What?” said the boy, spreading his
arms, his fingers splayed, his mouth gaping like the Mersey Tunnel.
“Just give him the ruler, enough’s
“I haven’t got it!”
“Either give him the ruler or you’ll
have to leave the room.”
“But I haven’t got it! Look! Can you see
Ashley lurched across the desk and
grabbed Gavin’s pen which he sent skidding across the floor.
“See that! Get it!” and Gavin was on his
“Sit down, Gavin!”
Ashley jumped up and grabbed Gavin round
the neck, the two of them toppling like an over-stacked pile of books, at which
another great jeer soared at the boys wrestling on the floor.
“Get up the pair of you!”
As calmly as if he were lifting a baby
from its cot, Dransfield separated the fighters who were now red-faced,
over-excited, dishevelled and delighted at being the stars of the moment.
“You aren’t being filmed,” said
Dransfield, “this isn’t Big Brother. Now sit down and calm down.”
“But where’s me ruler!” cried Ashley his
arms spread like Christ on the cross.
Dransfield put his face close to
Ashley’s and spoke very low:
“At the end of the lesson we’ll conduct
a search and investigation and if your ruler doesn’t turn up, I’ll call for
International Rescue immediately. Okay.”
In response to the teacher’s proximity
to their classmate, hoping he might have been pushed far enough to make a
mistake which could allow them to disperse through the school exaggerating
grossly the story of Dransfield attacking a pupil, and listening intently, for
the first time in the year, in case he might say something they could report to
their parents, thrilling at the possibility of getting a teacher in serious
trouble and possibly sacked, they had become utterly quiet and as attentive as
infants in front of their first Punch and Judy. Dransfield stood back smiling
and surveyed them.
“That’s very good. Now get on with the
At once the racket exploded, they turned
to one another and began chatting about their inconsequential obsessions paying
flitting attention to the work and Dransfield, walking amongst them, wishing he
could simply go out of the door and never return was struck by how precisely he
could locate the time at which the behaviour of the pupils turned and from
being mischievous but essentially biddable, they became malicious, conscious of
their power, keen to assert their rights, and ready, at the slightest
opportunity, to make accusations. The ancient recognition that children, being
immature, can’t share adult rights nor assume adult responsibilities had been
discarded and now, in schools, the absolute equality of the generations was
asserted as a law. As his mind had done thousands of times, it quickly ran
through the demented logic that had made this happen: visceral and irrational
hatred of the public sector, fear of educated masses, a wayward belief that
individual freedom isn’t socially guaranteed, a terror of organised labour, a
compulsive need to control and manage every detail, the need to open up new
markets by turning children into vigorous consumers, the emergence of a
political elite detached from the population and determined to manipulate its
way to power and stay there, the superstitious conviction that any putative
knowledge or skill can be reduced to the numbers by which it’s measured, and
hovering above it all the preening egotism of the very rich who wanted the world
made safe for themselves, whatever the cost in accumulating despair and misery.
He recalled the precision of the change: September 1992, the introduction of
OFSTED, a message to pupils and parents that it was open season on incompetent,
feckless, left-wing, lazy, teachers.
“Six minutes! Move to the next task.
Clockwise and don’t take your bags.”
But it was hopeless, the more they
ignored and defied him, the more they loved themselves, like a child who
discovers for the first time that its parents can be controverted without the
sky falling in. His well-planned lesson descended into the chaos of
paddling-pool time on the lawn in summer as these heedless, self-centred boys
chatted, messed and frittered the hour away. He wrote some perfunctory homework
on the board, told them to take their completed sheets with them and dismissed
them on the bell. When they’d left, the room was littered like a nursery after
paper pattern making and as he hurried to clear up, bending and reaching for the
discarded work, some of it bearing crude emblems of male genitalia, his next
class began to arrive. They slobbed in and threw down their bags. Dion Clovelly
spread his arms and buzzed around the room:
“ What are we doing today, sir!” he
Miles Blashaw stood pouring coca-cola
down his throat from a two-litre bottle like a kid taking a break from a
playground football game.
“Put the bottle away, Miles.”
“But I’m thirsty!”
“So am I but you don’t see me getting a
bottle of brown ale out of the cupboard, do you?”
“Have you got brown ale in there?”
shouted Clovelly, spitfiring between the desks.
“Put the bottle away.”
“I’m thirsty,” said the boy, “it’s my
human right to drink.”
“Not here and now it isn’t.”
“If he dies of thirst you’ve had it,”
called Thomas Gold.
“If he dies of thirst they’ll bury him
in a coca-cola bottle shaped coffin.”
“Did you hear that?” called Ryan
Stanford. “He said he wants you to die of thirst!”
“Sue him, Miles!” called Gold.
Dransfield stood behind his desk and
surveyed the noisy, disunified group, each boy in his own little bubble
confirming that there is no such thing as society, and though he knew they
weren’t to blame, were merely the unwitting victims of a debased culture, he
despised them because finally they did have a choice, young as they were; they
needed to choose against their culture. Raised in a time which proposed that the
individual is made against society they exhibited a hypomanic sense of
self-esteem, thrusting themselves into every situation as though they could
define themselves from within. The irony was that this radical individuality was
socially imposed and the originality they attached to their behaviour was in
fact the most reduced conformism. Unable to address them as a class because of
their noise, he went from table to table:
“Do you have your exercise book? Can you
get it out, please? The date and title are on the board.”
It was as effective as herding lemmings
from the cliff face. Reluctant, slow, uncooperative, loud, fiercely determined
to do as little as possible and to sabotage the lesson, they refused to work as
a group, wouldn’t raise any pace, relished Dransfield’s discomfiture. They were
doing, he knew, the work of the politicians, the leader writers, the
bureaucrats, the target-setters, the self-appointed experts, the glib
commentators, systematically destroying intellectualism, debasing the value of
learning, asserting the rights of reduced consumerism; they were customers and
they couldn’t be wrong. He battled through the lesson. Clovelly threw a
text-book through the open window.
“Come with me, please Dion.”
“Where’m I goin’?”
“I’ll have to put you in another room.”
“Just come with me and I’ll show you.”
“Do I need to bring my stuff?”
Agonisingly slowly, the boy gathered his
things, calling comments to his mates all the while as Dransfield stood by the
door. Once his bag was packed, he deliberately picked it up awkwardly so its
contents spilled on the floor. Another great jeer filled the room. Dransfield
waited, his heart beginning to pound with anger and humiliation. Daily he was
put through this and though he knew his sensibility was partly to blame,
intellectual, liberal, thoughtful, questioning, these boys hooked on celebrity
and electronic gizmos found him impossible to fathom, he despised the system
that left him facing such classes and which told him their behaviour was the
result of his uninteresting teaching. One of those liberals who had come into
teaching out of idealism, convinced that voluntary compliance could replace
coercion, he had witnessed the invasion of supermarket ideology, the arrival of
the idiocy that outcome is all and process meaningless, the virus of blame
according to which a Secretary of State bears no responsibility for failure and
can even declare publicly that she wouldn’t touch some schools with a bargepole,
the wretched notion that there is one kind of effective lesson only and if it
doesn’t begin with a starter and end with a plenary, it’s a
failure, the mind-destroying concept that boys do well at Eton and badly in
Brixton because in so-called failing schools the teachers are no good,
and above all the time-serving cynicism of self-exculpating politicians for whom
the education system was nothing but a means to garner votes, to hang on to
power for a little longer, to line their pockets, to win a place in the history
books at any price, and of course, who did the bidding of the rich who saw the
school system as an expensive white elephant and wanted it reduced to a training
scheme to turn out obedient and mindless employees.
Two lessons done and Dransfield was
already weary, frustrated, at the end of his tether. At half past three a group
of us were in the staff-room chatting and laughing before going to the pub. We
were young. We had grown up with the cynicism Dransfield hadn’t adjusted to,
viewed idealism as a folly and didn’t care too much about the future, except our
own. We saw him come in with his briefcase, sit down and scan the paper as he
ate a sandwich left over from his lunch. He cut a lonely figure and in a way we
felt sorry for him, but at the same time we knew he belonged to the past: things
had changed and he hadn’t, he was out of step with his culture and secretly we
despised him for his high-mindedness, his belief in principle. We had been
trained to use our elbows, to look to the main chance. There may be such a thing
as society, but we knew it was a jungle and we relished its cut-throatism. What
did we have to do to get on, to have the big house, the fast car, the
good-looking spouse? Just tell us and we’ll do it. But Dransfield wouldn’t. He
insisted on values and principles and that was his downfall. He sat for a few
minutes, dropped his crust in the bin, stood up and pulled on his coat and with
his briefcase seeming to weigh inordinately went out to his car without speaking
to anybody. We were glad to see him go. His presence disturbed us. He was out of
place. We were the new world. Like the kids, we were consumers, we asserted
ourselves, we wanted our place and Dransfield’s resistance to the present
Soon after that he took the reduced
pension, made a down-beat speech when his cheque was presented and disappeared.
No-one has heard of him since.
into the classroom, as usual, as into a boxing ring. He was shortish, strong,
and had the broad, straight shoulders that came from dedicated swimming. He
thrust himself forward as if his head were a battering ram. His demeanour
always declared: “Get out of my fucking way!”
“Get out of
my fucking way!” he said.
“Can I ask
you not to talk like that please, Daniel?”
just said, Daniel. It’s not really appropriate in a classroom.”
“What did I
“I don’t want
to repeat it, Daniel.”
“I didn’t say
“Can I ask
you not to say that either?”
“I think you
know what I mean, Daniel.”
“I never said
“Can I ask
you to sit down now, Daniel?”
“Can I just
go to the toilet?”
had break. We need to get the lesson started.”
grabbed his crotch and doubled up. The girls, who were drifting in, standing at
the back looking out of the shoulder-high windows, getting out their mirrors to
adjust their hair, laughed with artificial glee.
and we’ll all be sitting down quietly, please. One. Two….”
chorus went up from all of them: “Three, four, five…”
Ms Dury stood
at her desk waiting for the racket to die down.
“Shall we all
sit for a start, please?”
“I need to go
for a piss!” shouted Daniel.
and back in one minute, Daniel.”
“Can I go?”
asked one of the girls.
you didn’t, we need to make a start.”
time of the month,” called her pal, “she could bleed to death!”
Once more the
false laughter filled the room.
“Can I ask
you to be back as soon as you can please, Kirsty?”
“You can ask
me but I’ll take as long as I need.”
“Can I go
think that’s necessary.”
“It is. She’s
not feeling well. If she collapses in the toilets she’d sue you.”
“Yeah, I need
her to come with me. I’ve got terrible cramps!”
The two girls
left the room.
“Can you all
sit down now, please? Becky, can I ask you to sit there please?”
there’s no need to share a desk. There’s a desk each. It’s always better to have
plenty of room.”
“I’m sure you
will, but it’d be better if you could sit on your own.”
“No. I want
to sit here. I don’t like sittin’ on my own. I get lonely.”
got me pencil case!”
“Shall we all
sit down, then we’ll have a chance of getting some work done?”
“Give us it!
Miss, he’s got me fuckin’ pencil case!”
“Can I ask
you to restrain your language, Philip?”
“But he has!”
“Can you give
him his pencil case back, please?
“He has! He
taxed it off my desk!”
The boy whose
pencil case had gone missing lunged at the other who grabbed him by the tie.
“Get off my
fuckin’ tie! Miss, he’s got my tie.”
“Can you two
let go of one another, please!”
“It’s not me,
it’s him. Get off me you twat or I’ll fuck your mum.”
enough! Let go of one another and sit down or I’ll have to bring a senior member
swift paper aeroplane whose launch she didn’t see, hit her in the face.
A gaggle of
boys was sniggering, huddled against the wall.
sit down now. Come on. Ten seconds and we’ll all be sitting down. One, two…
mocking roar went up:
back, climbed on the radiator and began to open the windows.
Daniel! Come down from there! Daniel! Can you get down, please, Daniel?”
opening the windows.”
windows! It’s bloody freezin’!” called one of the girls.
pencil case boys were now rolling on the floor. Dury went over to them.
“If you don’t
get up and get to your desks immediately I’m going for Mr Cass.”
another like fighting cocks the lads ignored her.
to hurt one another. Get up!”
beautifully folded paper dart flew out of the window. Two girls came to get a
closer view .
“Sit down you
one another and bumped into Dury. She turned and put her hand on the upper arm
of the nearest.
“Get off me!”
the child shrieked. “See that? She hit me! I’ll press charges.”
“I didn’t hit
you. I was simply encouraging you to get out of the way.”
witnesses. She hit me, didn’t she?”
And a great
howling jeer arose from the girls and boys who were now pressing round
menacingly. Their faces were alive with the idea of their own malicious power.
They were untouchable. Their eyes were wide with the thrill of irresponsibility.
They were in love with their own mindlessness. They celebrated ignorance and
they were intent on bringing low anyone who tried to lift them out of it. They
had great forces on their side after all. Television. Pop music. The whole ugly
parade of empty vulgarity justified them. And here was a woman who tried to make
them take Shakespeare seriously! What could she do? What could she do against
their collective howling, their falling into the mindlessness that exempted them
from all responsibility, that allowed them the excuse of everyone was doing
it. So they revelled and triumphed in what, as individuals, they knew was
wrong. But oh, the vicious pleasure of doing evil without the possibility of
consequence. And they would do evil. Yes, in their collective nastiness they
would relish being able to push Dury down the stairs, to see her fall, helpless.
To see her body go tumbling, undiginified and to watch her land in a crumpled
heap. And if she were dead? Well, it wasn’t me. I wasn’t doing anything.
Everyone was doing it. How they longed to be able to drive their infantile
desires to the limit, to have the sense of absolute power. For they were weak.
They were immature and largely ignorant children. They understood virtually
nothing, but they were afraid. Why did they so love their collective
maliciousness? They had no inkling. They were lost to themselves. They howled
and weren’t responsible.
herself surrounded and being pressed back towards the wall. She seized a boy who
was small and light and pushed him aside. He turned with an ugly, aggrieved
“Now, go to
your seats!” she bellowed. “This is very serious! Get to your seats now!”
dispersed and sat down, sniggering, calling across the room:
gonna get my dad in.”
still standing on the radiator.
“I can’t. I’m
scared of heights.”
the fire brigade, Miss!”
they let fly their harsh, destructive laughter.
Enough’s enough. I’m going for Mr Cass now.”
to the door. The racket subsided.
is yours. Do we get on with the lesson or do I bring Mr Cass?”
replied. They were all sitting down and the noise was no more than a petty hum.
She came back to her desk.
a lot of time. Let’s get on quietly now.”
going for Mr Cass, Miss?”
They did very
little but at least they stayed in their seats. She’d already been told by Cass
that if she kept them all in the room for the entire lesson, that was success.
When they’d gone, she went to the staff-room for a Serious Incident Report form.
The tale was sure to go around. The lad she’d laid hands on might take action.
Her heart sank at the thought of the nastiness. She completed the form making
sure she included every detail. She put it in Cass’s pigeon-hole and went to
make herself a drink.
There was a
corner of the staff-room where the women congregated. There was now an equal
number of male and female teachers, but a mere twenty years earlier there’d been
only three women. The masculinity of the place lingered and it made the women
pull together. This little corner was theirs, just as the men colonized the
seats around the big, circular table by the window which admitted the most
light. Anna sat down with her herbal tea, feeling awful. At these times, she
always wanted to tell someone, but the telling brought humiliation. It had taken
her a few years to realize that telling other teachers about your problem
classes made them feel superior. She’d told Gwen Lightfoot, for example, when
Year 11 had put a plastic bottle full of urine in her handbag and the result had
been Gwen coming into her lessons almost every day announcing:
everything fine in here, Ms Dury?”
pupils had begun to taunt:
“Why does Mrs
Lightfoot come into these lessons, Miss?”
because you’re a crap teacher, Miss?”
thought teachers would support one another but the system made everyone fearful.
They were fighting one another for promotion, after all. They were competing for
money and status. Luke Hale, for example, who strutted through the staffroom
like a little General and always spoke more loudly than was necessary had put
her down in front of a class by shouting at her for not having completed her
reports correctly. It was true, as everyone knew, he was a weak-minded man who
had kept in with the right people to get his advancement, but he could throw his
weight around and get away with it. He was expert in humiliation followed by the
her tea and wished she could walk out. What bizarre idealism had made her become
a teacher? She had imagined productive relationships with classes of children
glad of her efforts. What a fool! This was a system of coercion and when people
are coerced, they kick against the pricks. She could have lapsed into tears very
easily but had to hold them back, toughen up, as her boyfriend said. She
let herself disappear in the hum of chatter.
Newman began to hold forth.
for it!” she declared. “Why not? I don’t have any discipline problems. Teachers
who can’t control classes aren’t delivering properly. That’s my view. I have no
trouble at all. When I talk, the little buggers listen!”
There was an
Assistant Head post available and Newman, with a mere three years teaching
behind her, believed she was perfect for it.
“If you don’t
push yourself forward,” she said, “you don’t get anywhere in this life.”
one of the other women.
turned to Anna.
“How are you
into her eyes. She was one of those women who use excessive sympathy as a form
of power. Anna had trusted her and confided in her and Paula had said all the
right things about the difficulties she was having. But when a school production
had been arranged and Paula had been a moving force, she’d left Anna out,
obviously thinking she wasn’t worthy of responsibility.
trouble at all.”
good,” said Paula with her usual nice smile of slightly sickly
was over, Anna stayed in her seat nursing her empty cup. She had books to mark
and a dozen silly bits of useless administration to attend to, but she didn’t
move. People came and went, rushing about their urgent business. At length she
got up, put her cup back in the kitchen and walked out of the back door, across
the fields and into the woods she’d never visited. She followed the little path
between the rhododendrons with the ash and sycamores and oaks towering above.
Once lost in the quiet, the school no longer visible, alone, she felt she could
relax. She went slowly, pulling leaves and tearing them. Then she heard a voice,
young and female. She stopped. Noiselessly she went forward again, being careful
not to brush the bushes and when she came to the edge of a clearing, there was a
young couple, on the ground, the girl sunny blonde, the boy dark and broad. He
was lying half across her and they were kissing violently. Anna watched them for
a few minutes and felt herself on the verge of laughter. She knew she should
pull back quickly. This was someone else’s intimacy after all. But she stayed.
And the more she watched, the more hilarious it seemed. Finally, she turned away
and went quickly back to the staffroom. But how odd, in the middle of the
morning, while her emotions were churned up and she was feeling so trapped and
wretched, these two, snogging away heedlessly and letting the world go to hell!
day Cass called her in.
was big, airy and light. It was well away from the classrooms and play areas, on
a corridor forbidden to pupils so was relaxingly calm and quiet. He sat behind
his heavy wooden desk, a relic of the grammar school days. He was a tall, blond
man who had spent some years in the army and retained his military bearing. His
back was always so straight you’d have sworn his spine was inflexible. He wore a
grey suit, the jacket always buttoned. He put on his glasses, half-way down his
your report, Anna. It seems rather strange to me. You say: The pupils crowded
round me and began forcing me against the wall.”
they sitting down?”
“I think my
report makes clear…..”
must insist that you begin your lessons properly, Anna.”
say two girls left the room to go to the toilet and didn’t return.”
“Why did you
let them go?”
one who must insist. The rule is they don’t go during lessons.”
it was her period…”
other girl just took it into her head…..”
must insist, Anna, that you tighten up on the way you begin your classes. The
rules are quite clear…”
ignore the rules, Dick. You know that.”
They’ll try it on all the time. But it’s your responsibility to start your
lessons in a way which calms them down and gets them working quickly. I really
can’t sanction the kind of mayhem you describe here.”
her eyes a second. When she looked up, she saw the little smirk on Cass’s lips.
Seeing she’d noticed, he quickly corrected himself.
must insist…..” he began.
Anna sat and
stared at him. The corners of his mouth drew down when he lifted his chin to
squint through his lenses. He had a habit of tightening his lips and of smacking
them like a man about to tuck in, which was his way of expressing disdain. He
scanned the report again moving his head from side to side like someone watching
a miniature tennis match.
“I’ll have a
word with Daniel Bylinski. Would you like me to do that?”
at him and didn’t speak. He gazed at her over his gold frames.
that’s the best I can do.”
the lesson perfectly well.”
He shook his
don’t know how to behave. They’re out of control. Everyone knows that.”
are difficult. I don’t deny it. But your responsibility…”
“It’s not my
responsibility to be surrounded by an ugly mob .”
“But you must
begin your classes in an orderly way and insist…”
insists with these kids. They’ve got us on the run. Put the little sweethearts
in detention and you’ll get an angry letter from a psychopathic parent banging
on about human rights. You’re in charge of discipline. You speak to them.”
I’ll speak to Daniel. From what you’ve written….”
“They need to
be spoken to as a class. They act as one. They play on the fact that collective
guilt means everyone’s innocent.”
over his glasses once more. He took them off and rubbed his eyes. He pulled
himself up very straight in his seat.
“When do you
next teach them?”
come and have a word with them. Take the heat out of things. Are you happy with
she was tense. She kept thinking of Cass’s words and that horrible little smirk.
The humiliation of that smirk! She went swimming. She and her boyfriend ate out
and saw a film. She tidied the house. But all the time the disturbing thoughts
worked away at her consciousness, like rats gnawing through skirting boards in
Daniel came in as usual. He climbed on the radiator. The rest drifted in, sat on
the desks, knocked chairs over, stood looking out of the windows. One of the
boys threw his bag across the room. It hit another lad on the back of the head.
He went down and lay on his stomach.
“Mr Cass is
coming to talk to you so I’d sort yourselves out if I were you!” she bellowed.
I’ve submitted a Serious Incident Report about last lesson. Mr Cass is coming
today. Sit down and shut up if you don’t want trouble.”
into their seats. The lad on the floor pulled himself to his feet.
“Just get to
your seat. You’ll be okay.”
A paper dart
came out of nowhere, flew past her and hit the whiteboard.
sniggered or put on innocent expressions.
it was you,” she pointed to Daniel.
blame me! I haven’t done shit!”
“It came from
your direction. I’m telling Mr Cass it was you.”
be serious!” Daniel was out of his seat, his chest puffed like a town square
“Sit down, Mr
McEnroe,” she said.
and we’ll all be quiet.”
they didn’t count.
embarrassed at her own voice as she set them their task. The simple act of
taking intellectual effort seriously was humiliating in this atmosphere of
wilful resistance and entrenched stupidity. If she’d turned on the telly and let
them watch Big Brother they’d’ve been delighted. But she was getting them
to read a little story by Maupassant which she’d translated herself: Two
Friends. She hoped the violence at least might appeal to them. She wanted
them to read it to themselves so her voice didn’t do the work of interpretation
but every few seconds someone called out:
“I don’t get
“What do we
have to read this shit for?”
reading quietly. Make a bit of effort. It’s only a few pages. If you try, you’ll
see it’s worth it.”
“Why can’t we
watch a DVD?”
making an effort, but there was relative peace. The Big Man was coming. The
school, like all schools, ran on fear. Its model was the army. Ultimately, only
fear of the Big Man kept these kids from throwing the desks out of the window.
He had the power of exclusion, suspension, bringing in parents. Enough to make
them take a step back. Anyone without power was fair game.
twenty minutes into the lesson.
Cass coming , Miss?”
She turned on
the OHP. There were five questions.
“What do we
have to do?”
questions in the front of your books.”
“Do we have
to answer them questions?”
the questions in the front of your book.”
“Do we do ‘em
in the back?”
“What do we
have to do?”
“What does it
mean, what activity do the two friends share?”
each other’s dicks!”
“Can I just
remind you Mr Cass will be here in a minute! It means what do they like doing
together. Like you might enjoy going to the cinema with a friend.”
enjoy getting up his arse!”
getting up your mum’s arse.”
sad laughter flared again like a sudden flame from a dying bonfire. The minutes
went by. They were doing hardly anything. Not one of them had read the little
hard. There’s too many words.”
“Try to see
into the last fifteen minutes of the lesson.
Cass coming, Miss?”
he’ll be here.”
“What if he
doesn’t come, Miss?”
She knew the
last five minutes would be awful.
coming is he, Miss?”
climbed onto the radiator. Two boys overturned a desk and began fighting between
its upturned legs. A pair of girls ran out before the bell. She went and stood
at the door to keep the rest of them.
and stay at your desks, please!”
round her. The boys at the back got their shoulders down and pushed hard so the
ruck pinned her to the door. She couldn’t move. The bell rang.
Two big lads
seized the handle and started pulling. She was thrust out of the way. She flung
herself forward, grabbed a boy and shoved him as hard as she could.
She fuckin’ hit me!”
The door was
ajar and pupils were squeezing through.
extricated herself from the melee someone called:
gone. The corridor filled with their fighting-upwards mania.
She was too
angry to go to see Cass but later that day she bumped into him.
to Daniel Bylinski and his mother. She says he’s very anti-school.”
come to my lesson.”
think it was appropriate.”
“Yes. But I
changed my mind.”
She stared at
him. He pressed his lips together, parted them and closed them with that curious
little slap. Turning from her he pulled himself to his full height, straightened
his back, looked at the papers in his hands and walked away.
the class was wild. They taunted her:
Cass coming, Miss?”
“Does he not
And when the
OFSTED inspectors arrived, this was the group they chose to see.
The coach that had coughed intermittent small clouds of black smoke on its
journey from the rural outposts where imposing houses and converted barns had
nudged out poor cottage dwellers, through the swelling suburbs and into the
run-down corners of the town, then out through the centre where the shops and
offices where rousing, to green and comfortable Littleham, picking up a few boys
at each stop, disgorged an over-excited swarm in front of the newsagent, two
hundred yards from the school gate, the crowd, mostly white but dotted with
Asian faces, hustling and elbowing to form a disorderly queue for Twix,
Minstrels, cola bottles and Walkers crisps. Pushing, thumping and threatening
his way to the front was Awais Pali, small, scrawny, thin-voiced and heedless.
He shoved in front of a boy a foot taller and three stone heavier who jostled
him roughly aside.
"Fuck you, motherfucker !" spat the little Asian, stretching his face into an
ugly sneer, throwing back his shoulders in a show of fierceness like a fox
terrier in front of a rottweiler.
"You’re a twat, Pali," scoffed the older the boy with a laugh.
"I’ll get you ! I’ll bring my gang on you !"
The big lad and his companions jeered and shook their heads.
"You’re nuts, Pali."
"You won’t fuckin’ say that when I bring my gang. They’ll fuckin’ knife you."
The older boy turned away and talked to his mates. Everyone was accustomed to
Pali, who threatened five pupils with death every break-time, had tried to raise
a gang to terrorise the quad and had succeeded in mustering four timid fellow
Asians who hung a metre back as their leader insisted they were about to inflict
terrible damage. In his first year he was dutiful to a fault, excessively
obedient, fierce in his attempt to win teachers’ approval and virulently eager
to excel, but by the beginning of year nine he had switched to his thug persona,
disrupted lessons with loud and violent interjections, talked endlessly of gangs
and knives. What saved him from beatings was the mildness of his compatriots.
Middle-class for the most part, remote from the rough tongues and ready fists of
the back streets, the worst of them might strut and brag but physical violence
was alien to the culture. Pali, aware of this, provoked his classmates
remorselessly and swaggered like a drunken sailor as they turned away or
scoffed. He came from a poor area the Asians had made their own: uniform lines
of terrace houses with little back yards, corner shops packed high with cheap
spices, vegetables and ten kilogram bags of rice and close by, two high rise
blocks, a legacy of the misplaced optimism of the 1960s. Prostitutes offered
their services behind the take-aways and lock-ups. Drug dealers cruised in
Mercedes and BMWs. Along the streets passed trios or quartets of girls in Muslim
dress, hurrying to the mosque or home from school. On the corners, in the
evenings, loitered the teenagers who school couldn’t engage, who saw little
future, whose raucous voices and exaggerated gestures were meant to frighten.
Once he was allowed out for a few hours before bedtime, Pali hung around with
the big lads.
"Hey, wanna hear what I did in school today ? Yeah? This fuckin’ teacher says
"Do that work !" so I pulls me knife and goes "Fuckin’ make me, punk !"
One of the older boys swung round laughing and grabbed Pali’s ear.
"You talk shit, man ! You didn’t pull no fuckin’ knife. You ain’t got no
fuckin’ knife. You should be in bed, little boy."
The gang gathered around the skinny victim, pushed and kicked him, laughing.
"Yeah, how old are you, seven !"
A vicious laughter arose. They knocked the younger boy to the ground and
regrouped, excluding him.
"I’ve got a fuckin’ knife ! You think I don’t ‘ave a fuckin’ knife ? I’ve got
knives this long."
"I’ve got a dick this long and I fucked your mum with it !"
"Yeah, up the arse !"
"And your sister."
"She gives good head your sister, man."
"We gang-banged her."
"She’s got Aids, man !"
They barked with unhappy laughter and slunk away going slowly up the hill
towards town, waving as a sleek Merc glided by, the music of its tyres on the
tarmac sweet to their ears.
Pali found his father doing the washing-up. He was thin, restive and eager.
"You done your homework, innit ?"
"Ain’t got none."
"I ain’t got none !" snapped the boy.
"You get homework every night, innit ?"
"I done it !"
"You said you got none now you say you done it !"
The boy stamped up the stairs and slammed his door. His mother, coming
through from the living-room where her three daughters were watching Big
Brother, raised her brows and stared at her husband.
"Somethin’ bad in that boy," said the father.
"Keep him in," said the mother. "No good on the streets with those naughty
The father hurried in his task, dipping his thin wrists in the hot, soapy
water, his brows furrowing.
"Somethin’ bad got in that boy," he said, shaking his head.
The next day, Pali was isolated for calling out "I fucked your mum up the
arse !" in an R.E. lesson. He sat at a desk next to the Head’s study and when
boys passed with messages for the office or returning registers, he looked up at
them with a smile that was half a sneer as he stretched his legs beneath the
small, square desk, shoved his hands in both pockets and rocked back on his
"You appreciate such comments are taken very seriously, don’t you ?" said Mr
Wrennall, Learning Co-ordinator.
"Yeah," said the boy dismissively.
"We won’t have sexual remarks of any kind made in the classroom."
Pali sneered and his head wobbled lightly from side to side.
"Don’t pull that face at me !" bellowed the young teacher getting to his
feet. "This isn’t funny. You’re in serious trouble, boy. You could face
exclusion for this kind of behaviour."
"Am I bovvered ?" said the boy.
"You will be bothered, lad. I’m bringing your parents in."
Mr Pali had to take time off from his call-centre job. He and his wife
arrived in their seven-year-old Honda Civic which they parked next to a
gleaming, black, four-wheel drive sitting high on its suspension. Looking around
the car park at the many new, expensive vehicles, Mr Pali felt his shame and
anxiety increase. He straightened his tie. They had to sit in reception for five
minutes. Teachers passed and Mrs Pali lowered her eyes while Mr Pali nodded and
smiled politely. The headteacher, Mr Hesletine, was very courteous. They were
served tea and engaged in small talk.
"We’ve had to ask you to come in, Mr and Mrs Pali, because of Awais’s
behaviour. There have been several incidents that have caused us concern and Mr
Wrennall has had to speak to him and discipline him more than once. The most
recent event involved a rather nasty sexual comment in a class being taken by a
Mrs Pali looked at her feet and her husband did his best to retain his
dignified posture. Behind Mr Hesletine’s politeness he heard the cold language
of office and it was made clear to him the school would begin the process to
exclude his son permanently if his behaviour didn’t improve.
"It’s also of great concern to us that Awais is frequently heard to speak of
knives and gangs. He makes a habit of threatening other boys."
Aware of the paucity of his English, Mr Pali did his best to assure the Head
that his son would change, but he was so overcome by confusion, dismay and shame
that he hardly knew what he was saying. Mr Hesletine and Mr Wrennall shook the
parents’ hands, smiled generously and thanked them for coming. In the car park,
Mrs Pali began crying. Her spouse put his arm round her and bustled her into the
car. His heart was beating furiously, he felt the sweat trickle down his sides.
"Somethin’ bad got in that boy," he said, shaking his head. "Somethin’ very
They took their worry to the Imam who listened gravely, comforted the
distressed mother and agreed to speak to the boy. In front of the elder, Pali
was more subdued, but he turned away his face, refused to look him in the eye.
The priest spoke in Urdu but the boy answered in English. For the most part, he
uttered only a word or two. The weeks went by. Mr Pali kept him in the house and
when he walked past the youths congregated on the corner or in front of the
shops, big, gangling lads with eyes full of readiness, whose joyless barks and
yelps filled the air with menace and who showed no deference so he had to step
into the road to go by, he wished he had the courage to turn on the them, to
face down their bravado and tell them to leave his son alone. He recalled
reading in the paper of a man kicked to death outside his house after
confronting a gang and he bowed his head and hurried on.
One Sunday afternoon, Pali took a carving knife from the kitchen drawer,
slipped it under his jacket and headed for the park where the most feared gang
of the area met to drive the young kids off the swings, smoke dope and steal
bikes. As he approached, seeing the older lads hoisting the seats of the swings
over the upper bar or doing wheelies on a BMX taken from some terrified
youngster, the fear of rejection made him pull himself upright and swagger. He
took out the knife and gripped its handle so the point of the tapering blade
pointed directly before him. When he went through the little gate into the
play-area, no-one noticed.
"Hey !" he called "Look what I got !"
"He’s got a knife."
"What’s that for, Pali ? Gonna slice some bread ?"
A pair of them came over to him.
"Give it us."
The lad took the knife, ran his finger along its blade, twisted it between
his thumb and middle-finger.
"It isn’t even sharp, Pali. You wanna stick somebody, you need a sharp knife,
go right between the ribs," and he swiftly jabbed the point into Pali’s flank.
His mate laughed as the chetif lad grabbed his side with both hands.
"That ‘urt, you cunt !"
"Call me a cunt, Pali," said the other grabbing him, pulling him close and
setting the long blade against his throat, "I’ll cut your fuckin’ ‘ead off, see
The rest gathered round. Pali was always good sport.
"Slit ‘is throat !"
"He’s brought his mummy’s kitchen knife !"
"You should be choppin’ vegetables, Pali !"
Afraid to struggle or protest because of the press of the sharp steel against
his flesh, Pali waited to be released. At length, his assailant took the knife
by its blade and flicked it so it penetrated the soft grass and rocked on the
"’Sonly good for playin’ splits. This is a real knife."
From his pocket he pulled a palm size bone handle, snapped his thumb against
its chrome button so a three-inch, curving blade flicked out instantaneously.
"That’s sharp, Pali. I already stuck three guys with it."
"Yeah, how many you stuck with your mum’s carving knife, Pali ?"
"Show ‘im what a real knife can do."
They grabbed his feet and arms and swung him violently from side to side. He
kicked and struggled and called out that they were cunts and if they didn’t let
go he’d bring his cousins who were drug dealers and carried guns and then they’d
"You ain’t got no fuckin’ cousin drug dealers, Pali !"
While four of them held him by the limbs, a fifth unfastened and yanked down
his jeans. They dropped him and pinned him to the ground as the lad with the
knife tugged on his sparse pubic hair and sawed the blade through it.
"You’re getting’ a haircut, Pali !"
"Yeah, you can go ‘ome and show your mum !"
"Cut his balls off, he’ll never need ‘em !"
Pali began to cry with distress.
"What you cryin’ for, gangster ? Go get your cousins, Pali. I’ll cut their
Bored, now their victim no longer struggled, they left him and trotted down
the steps towards the river calling insults that he heard becoming less and less
distinct as he ran his fingers over his sore groin and pulled up his trousers.
At home, he sneaked the knife back into its drawer, went up to his room and
sobbed on the bed until he fell asleep. When he woke, his mind was blank for a
few seconds and he was aware of an odd contentment till the memory of his
humiliation rushed in like sewage through an opened sluice.
The next day he was isolated for hitting a younger boy across the head with a
steel ruler, but when he was allowed back into classes on Tuesday morning, tore
up his exercise book and scattered the pieces on the floor telling the teacher
who asked him to pick them up that the cleaners were paid to do that. At
lunchtime, he kicked a year seven in the groin and was isolated for the rest of
the week. During this time, as he sat alone by the Head’s room making little
effort at the work set for him, he let his musings run free and, in the best of
them, saw himself at the head of a big gang of older boys chasing some cry-baby
little kid who he cornered and knifed in the ribs so he fell in a pitiful,
bloody heap, calling out for his mum, while he, admired, elevated, beyond
consequence, led his troops in search of more victims and greater glory. This
fancy calmed his anxiety, brought to life the old feeling of belonging which, he
didn’t know how, he’d lost. He was happy.
On the coach home he sat in the corner of the back seat. He was quiet amidst
the usual din and ignored the bullies and loudmouths; only when the chance came
to boast about his isolation did he stir:
"Yeah, I’m gonna get Wrennall outside school. I’m gonna fuckin’ knife ‘im."
The other boys looked at him obliquely, meditated a few seconds and laughed.
In the evening, while his parents were watching How Clean Is Your House ?
with his sisters, he searched out the key to the padlock which secured the shed
in the yard. He wasn’t allowed in because of dangerous tools and chemicals.
Quietly he opened the back-door lock, stepped out in stockinged feet, clicked
free the padlock, swung carefully the creaking door and stepped into the
half-light. His father’s neatness was everywhere. His chisels and screwdrivers
in ascending order of length were slotted through a horizontal beam. He knew he
kept a Stanley knife of exorbitant sharpness. Beneath the bench he found a
small, red, metal toolbox, also cautiously padlocked. His brain swam at the
impossibility of access but all at once he remembered his father cutting and
laying carpet, the toolbox open beside him, and a little, jangling fob which he
slipped into the pocket of his overall. Paint-smeared and unwashed it hung on a
nail on the back of the door. He curved his tiny hand into the pocket and his
heart raced as his fingers felt the small, cold trove nestling in the pit. The
diminutive bit of silver flicked the lock adrift and opening the lid he saw the
knife, its blade fitted, lying as if in anticipation. It felt friendly in his
palm, heavy and appropriate. He tried the edge along the bench and it shaved a
curling strip from the timber with no effort. He manipulated it carefully into
his pocket, set the toolbox as he’d found it and went back indoors. In his
bedroom he lay running his fingers over the cool metal. It was so beautifully
keen, so perfectly honed for damage, no-one dare say he was ill-equipped, no-one
could mock him when he flashed this before them.
The next day he went to school in a mood of supreme confidence. When the big
lads jostled him in the queue he told them he’d got a blade in his pocket and
he’d slash their faces if they didn’t fuck off. But when they challenged and
mocked him, something held him back. He wanted to choose his victim. The
temptation to show his weapon to his mates was intense, but he feared a teacher
finding out and confiscation.
"I’ve ‘ad enough o’ this shitty place," he said to one of his pals, "I’m
gonna knife someone today."
His friend looked at him with wide, innocent eyes and tried to smile.
"Nobody fuckin’ messes with me!"
Everything seemed to shrink. The teachers became weak and insignificant. The
buildings themselves appeared small. As he sat at the back of the maths lesson,
paying no attention to Mr Pickup’s words, he felt himself grow bigger, as if
nothing in the world were outside him, as if all being began and ended with the
limits of himself. His relaxation was complete. There was nothing to fear,
nothing to accomplish. He could do anything. There could be no consequence as
there was no reality beyond his body, his thoughts, his feelings, his desires.
In this mood he went into the quad at break. A self-satisfied little smile
played on his lips. Between himself and the rest of the world there was an
infinite distance yet he and the universe were coterminous. He spotted little
Wolstonecroft playing football. He was chasing the small, red, plastic
perforated ball for all he was worth. He was a swat and Pali hated him. He hung
around on the edge of the game. The ball came his way and he picked it up.
Wolstonecroft, panting, was in front of him:
"Give us the ball."
"Fuck off, punk."
"Just give us the ball," said the younger lad, holding out his hand, a hint
of weariness in his voice.
"Make my day, cunt !" said Pali.
Wolstonecroft drew back a little in surprise, then laughed, his face opening
in a sunny smile. Pali had a sudden sensation of shrinkage, whipped the knife
from his pocket and shaping an arc with his arm, flicking his wrist at the same
time, drew it across the boy’s cheek which opened like a ripe fig, the blood
hesitating an instant before streaming. Wolstonecroft put his hand to his face,
pulled it away and in horror at the warm, red liquid running between his
fingers, screamed and dropped to the floor. Boys swarmed like drones after their
queen. Teachers came running. Pali stood with the knife in his hand, still,
quiet, smiling, feeling that at last he had attained fame, glory and power.
LINDA ROSEWALL IS DEAD
Mr Larner seldom read the local paper, but on a whim, once in
a while, or if he needed to buy something second-hand, would take it from one of
the street vendors and flick through it quickly, as if to avoid contagion, in a
café or at home on the sofa. His eye was caught by the surname. He turned back.
Suddenly, at home, Linda Rosewall, mother of Julie and Daniel. There was one of
those pious, italicised sentimentalised expressions characteristic of the
heartbroken. He folded the pages and laid it on the table, taking up his coffee
whose taste he found suddenly less comforting. Hurriedly, he got up, left a two
pound coin by the saucer and went out into the busy street and the early-evening
dark. He wasn’t sure which direction to take. He headed left not thinking of his
destination. The shops were closing, people were hurrying home. The thought of
arriving at his house filled him with dread. He walked on, his heart beating
heavily until, passing The Brown Cow, he ducked in through its alleyway
door and leant against the bar. He was a stranger here, which reassured him. The
landlord, tall, heavy, young and unshaven asked him politely what he’d like and
he replied he’d have a pint of the Speckled Hen please. He let the creamy
head separate from the clear light brown body before he sipped. There was no
denying the big lad kept a good pint. He looked around: the oak bar, mosaic
floor and stained glass had hardly changed in decades. It would have been like
this, almost, when he met her. When he knew her. But he didn’t know her. It was
a passing acquaintance. Is that what they say ? Or nodding. Apart from that time
at the party, he’d hardly spoken to her.
It was Nipper Quainton who had the car. They nicknamed him
for his size and his speed on the wing. His father owned a string of butcher’s
shops, bought a big Victorian house with seven bedrooms set in its own two
acres, installed a swimming pool and parked his Rolls in the garage. They sat
around the blue water in summer, diving to impress the girls, who ignored them.
Nipper was down-to-earth. His mates came from modest or partly threadbare
backgrounds, but he was too eager for friendship to bother. His father had
bought him a Mini Cooper in which he buzzed round the avenues, revving so the
twin exhaust’s roar attracted attention. A few giddy girls in tiny skirts had
sat on the back seat as they sped out of town to The Lodestar or The
Plough at Treales , their clean knickers visible in a little triangle as he
glanced in the adjusted mirror. Tonight they were going to a party and Nipper
turned up promptly at seven thirty before Larner’s down-at-heel little semi. The
pebble-dash was falling from the front wall and the patterns it left held the
driver’s attention for a few seconds. The window frames showed bare wood through
the paint thinned by the seasons. At the end of the drive, the wooden garage
tilted drunkenly to the right. Larner’s father had been briefly successful as a
dance teacher; they’d lived well until his affair with his assistant, a breasty,
boss-eyed nineteen year-old whose conversation excelled in platitude as her
dancing in panache. The reprobate was kicked out. The injured party made wild
declarations of abandonment and sank into depression. Everything went into slow
On the way they picked up Tubs Brewer, a tall, painfully thin
lad who had to arch his neck to fit, and Dusty Challoner, named for his
resemblance to the dark-eyed, female singer. The weighted little car, screeched
round every corner and broke every speed limit till they pulled up in a
crescendo of squealing rubber and manic revs outside a large house
protected by tall privet hedges and whose six-foot wooden gates were open.
"Posh !" observed Larner.
"Her dad’s a big knob in the railways," said Nipper.
"I’m a big knob in the bedroom," retorted Dusty, at which
they broke into mad laughter, clutched their bottles and headed up the long,
It was a typical teenage party where everyone sticks to the
clique they know. Tubs met an old school mate in the kitchen who, like him, was
a football fan. They drank and talked teams, tactics and league positions which
relieved them of the terrifying task of approaching girls. Dusty, Nipper and
Larner hung together and were joined by Nipper’s catering college mate and his
girlfriend, an art student. She was one of those girls, at ease with herself,
who made those her around her relax. Her auburn hair was cut close to her head
but left long at the sides and back which gave her a curious, impish,
boy-girlish appearance. She had great brown eyes and a subtle smile which curled
as she tilted her head. Intelligent and articulate with a batch of impressive O
and A Levels , she wore her success as lightly as the long, orange, brown, blue
and yellow intricately-patterned, calf-length cotton dress which clung to her
svelte body and revealed her neat, unsupported breasts. Her boyfriend, tall and
stiff with dark hair to his shoulders, made a point of paying her little
attention, talking to Nipper about cam-shafts, wheelbases, compression ratios
and wide tyres.
She sat on the little table in the hall, dangling her slender
legs, letting her shoes hang from her toes and Larner was puzzled as to why she
never looked at her boyfriend and he never spoke to her.
"What do you do ?" she asked.
"I work in an insurance office."
"Oh, is that exciting ?"
"Exciting ? No, it’s as boring as hell."
She laughed in a pleasant, warm way and her face opened in
delight so Larner was a little put out and stared stupidly into her liquid eyes.
"Why do you do it ?"
"Why does anybody work ?"
"You should get yourself some qualifications," she said,
"I suppose so."
"Didn’t you do O Levels ?"
"Yeah, three. Well, I passed three. I couldn’t take school
"Why not ?"
"I don’t know. Because the teachers were funny, I think.
"Why were they funny ?"
Larner, discomfit, felt himself under a demand to answer
cleverly. It went against the grain of his taciturn nature. Usually, he spoke
when he felt like it.
"Well, there was Whiplash Watson."
She laughed again and brought her hands up to her mouth. He
looked into her eyes and his blood lit up. He didn’t want to speak.
"He kept a leather belt in his desk. If you talked he’d
unleash it, buckle first, right at your head."
"Oh god ! Did he ever get you ?"
"No, I kept an eye on him and ducked under the desk."
"That’s amazing !"
"Didn’t you have any crazy teachers ?"
"Oh, not really. I went to a Catholic girls’ school. Very
straight-laced. And we were all goody-goodies."
She tilted back her head and smiled as if he would understand
her goody-goody days were long gone. He drank from the bottle he’d picked up in
the kitchen but the beer was tasteless.
"Tell me about your other teachers," she said.
He looked at his feet, struggling to think of something
"Our P.E. teacher used to hit us with a tennis racket."
"He didn’t !"
"He’d line us up, a dozen of us, and give us three each.
‘I’ve never hit so many aces in one day in my life !’ he’d say."
"He was mad !"
"Yeah, lots of them were."
"How come you went to a school with so many lunatic teachers
"All they could get. Grosvenor Sec. Do you know it ?"
"Sure, I’ve met a few girls who went there."
"All the farmer lads and lasses did, from the market
gardening and dairy cattle families. Picking time, half of them didn’t turn in.
They never wore uniform. The teachers couldn’t do much with ‘em. Lots of ‘em had
agricultural labourers as parents. They didn’t care much for education."
"Did your parents ?"
His mind felt sluggish and weak. To explain about his family,
the misery and tragedy and shame of it, was like being spoken to in an unknown
language. The sorry arrestation of his thinking made him want to turn away and
be alone. To talk about his background was to prey on other people’s tolerance.
It was impossible to speak of without seeming to beg for sympathy.
"Oh," he said, not knowing where the words came from, "my
parents were as mad as my teachers."
"Mine are too,"she said.
He sipped the unpleasant beer and looking at her was struck
in an instant by a promise of happiness which seemed to reside in everything
about her person. He was disturbed by the suddenness and the transformation of a
girl who had been, moments before, attractive and sweet but a stranger, into a
possible future. His confidence escaped him like steam. He felt unable to speak
because so much depended on his words. He was sure to say something foolish and
the spell would be broken. She sat on the table swinging her feet and looking
down at them. He noticed the unusual roundness of her bowed head. When she
looked up and smiled, her brown eyes seemed too huge to be real and their
invitation made his heart scurry like a frightened vole.
"Just got to nip to the loo," she said.
She slid from the table, picked up her handbag and going down
the hallway looked over her shoulder, smiling. Half way up the stairs she
paused, her slender too-white hand on the dark banister and looking down, tilted
her head almost imperceptibly to the left. Her smile, which didn’t part her pink
lips was gentle and tender. When she was gone, an image of the upstairs filled
his mind: spacious, neat, bedrooms, beautifully made beds, thick carpets,
embossed wallpaper, a scented bathroom big enough for a family. He swigged from
"Where’s Linda gone ?" asked Nipper’s mate.
"Bathroom," said Larner and at once saw her straightening her
skirt, touching up her make-up, forming a little moue before the mirror,
ruffling her cropped hair with her fingertips.
He looked into her boyfriend’s eyes which were dark and
bright. He was handsome enough.
"What kind of car do you drive ?"
"Me ?" said Larner. "I don’t have a car. Can’t afford it.
Anyway, I prefer the bus. I can read."
The other looked at him with suspicion before turning to
"Have you had a spin in John Winthrop’s frog-eyed Sprite ?"
An impossibly long time passed and Linda didn’t appear.
Larner drained his bottle. It occurred to him he should circulate but at every
intention to move into the lounge or kitchen, the thought she might come down
and sit again on the table held him back. Nipper and his pal were close by,
talking busily about cars. He listened as if interested, nodded and smiled when
Nipper tried to crack a joke. Occasionally he looked towards the stairs. A
terrible sense of disappointment came over him. He should go upstairs. But at
once the thought of the presumptuousness shocked him. He could claim he needed
the bathroom. He would wait quietly till she emerged. What could be more
ordinary ? But she’d suspect. She’d see through him. What kind of behaviour is
it to hang around outside a toilet waiting for a girl ? But maybe she wasn’t in
the bathroom. Perhaps she’d gone into a bedroom. Perhaps she was waiting.
When eventually she reappeared, Larner thought he detected
weariness in her movements and the smile she gave him as she went into the
kitchen was perfunctory. It raised in his mind the idea of going after her to
apologise. For what ? He loitered restlessly by the little table. At length she
came back with a glass of Bordeaux, sat down and began to swing her legs. Her
boyfriend spoke to her and Nipper, conscious of having neglected his friend,
struck up idle talk. Larner, overcome by confusion tried to listen to Linda’s
voice while responding. He wished Nipper would engage his college friend in
discussion of carburettors or brake pads. But it was too late. The evening
seemed endless, waiting for the perfection of the two of them left alone to talk
of nothing in the hallway. Larner felt it chaotic. The meaningless chatter
grated on his nerves. What were people here for ? There was no-one he wanted to
talk to. Finally, he found himself on an armchair in the empty living-room.
Through the leaded bay he could see the orange glow of a streetlamp and he heard
the steady buzz of chatter broken by the occasional raucous laugh or loud
interjection. What was he thinking of ? His thoughts wouldn’t settle. He seemed
to be waiting for some crucial idea or image to arise but it kept circling like
a moth round a lamp. When Nipper appeared, his keys in his hand and the others
behind him, Larner got up quickly and smiled.
"I fell asleep in the chair !" he said.
They left. As he walked down the drive he wondered if Linda
was still in the house. Should he go back ? But how ridiculous ! Go back for
He lifted his empty glass and asked the hefty barman for a
refill. He’d been joined by a tall, slender, shapely young woman who busied
herself with movements he noticed as neat and efficient. His wife ? Or partner
as the commonplace has it ? He imagined their happiness, the comfortable way
they had of being together and the vigorous response of her body. The emptiness
of his own married life swept over him once more. He drank his pint quickly and
nodding a farewell to the landlord went out as if there were somewhere he needed
or wanted to be. The town was quiet, a few stragglers were going from pub to
pub, a quorum of noisy, tipsy, barely dressed young women came clicking and
careering towards him. Their young legs and arms, their bouncing breasts filled
him with desire and sadness. He crossed the street. The loneliness of the bus
shelter chimed with his condition and he was glad to sit undisturbed on the
rocking, juddering little vehicle as it carried him home.
The light was on in the living-room. He slipped his key in
the lock as he’d done for thirty years, when his three children were young and
now they were grown but only one gone. His wife was dozing on the sofa in front
of the television which glowed with vivid idiocy.
"Anyone in ?" he said.
He hung his coat behind the front door, went into the kitchen
were the sinks were jammed with dishes and pans, flicked the switch on the
kettle and ran the water from the hot tap. All he could think to do was make the
place clean and nice then in the morning he would look around as he prepared his
breakfast and not be disappointed. The folded newspaper he’d put on the work
surface stared up at him. He dropped it in the bin and rolled up his sleeves.
THE FAR END OF
THE EAST LANCS ROAD
Knoblock trained as a physicist. He was one of those pupils who are good at
everything and excellent at nothing. He began teaching physics but it didn’t
suit. It left out a whole side of his personality. So he did a degree in music
and found a teaching post. It was much more to his taste. He established a
chamber choir. Being an all boys school, they were young sopranos. Sweet,
unshaven, scrubbed and brushed; dressed in their maroon cassocks and white
ruffs. They were the elite. He didn’t believe in offering culture to the
riff-raff. They sang their hymns and carols in churches and cathedrals across
the country. They made tapes and CDs. He built up a little fund. They toured
France and the U.S.A. where they were received as if they were the second
coming. Knoblock was in his element. He was Head of Music in no time. He wore a
dark suit and a dark frown and he clicked around the corridors on his
steel-tipped heels. Everything was fine, except he didn’t feel right about
things. Something was missing.
He assumed it
must be love. Or a woman. Or both.
been so busy doing what he was supposed to do, he hadn’t thought much about
those things you have to work out for yourself. Girls had never appealed to him.
They were a distraction. At school, there had been Tony Charnley. He was a
good-looking lad who had a girlfriend at twelve. She was a pretty, blonde, shy
thing and Knoblock couldn’t understand why Charnley found her more interesting
than trigonometry. The thing about trig or Latin verbs or physics, was that
teachers rewarded you ! You got praise ! You got good reports ! You got prizes !
But if you went off with girls, they sneered, they lectured, they warned of
disaster. To have girlfriends meant putting up with disapproval.
in its time,” the Head would say.
the blonde fell apart and a brunette appeared. She had a loud, vulgar laugh and
red lipstick and was in a Secondary Modern. Knoblock was in awe of Charnley. A
girl from a Secondary Modern ! Did he want to catch a disease ! He admired him
and despised him. It was something to have that cheek. It was something to kiss
a girl who had failed the 11-plus and who laughed as if she was about to take
her clothes off. But he would never get good exam results going on like that !
Out every night ! Spending his paper round money on taking her to the cinema.
Knoblock worked harder. He was going to show Charnley what life was all about.
The annoying thing though, was that Charnley was clever. He was especially
clever at English and no matter how hard Knoblock tried, he couldn’t beat him.
The unfairness of it ! Kissing Secondary Modern girls and being top in
By the time
he was sixteen, Charnley had kissed more girls than Knoblock thought healthy. In
his O Level year he took up with a girl three years older. She was a secretary
and the rumour soon went round that Charnley had done the unspeakable. Knoblock
had a good mind to report him to the Bishop.
But the O
Level results did the trick.
passed five. Knoblock felt exonerated. Who wants to kiss girls and only get five
O Levels? Knoblock’s eight were his pride. It carried him high for years. But
still, there was that nagging. Knoblock passed all his A Levels and carried off
the prizes and stood on the stage. He went to Oxford where lots of people were
doing unspeakable things. Knoblock felt less tense about it. They weren’t people
he knew. He stayed with the Christian Union crowd. He sang in the choir, played
the organ and conducted. Every week he wrote home to his mother.
“Say a prayer
for me,” he would end.
the age of twenty-one, he got a girlfriend. She was a musician and a Christian
from a good family and a good school. Just the right kind of girl. She wasn’t
pretty but she was young and half-way attractive youth is a beauty of its own.
There were moments when he began to understand the charm of a woman. Her smile,
for example, which just came out of nowhere and struck him like a warm breeze in
July. Or the way she crossed her legs and adjusted her skirt as if there was a
cheque for a million quid between her legs. But the truth was he didn’t like
her. Being with her didn’t feel right. It seemed like a waste of time.
Shouldn’t he be doing something ? He puzzled over why he was restless in
her presence and why so many men seemed to enjoy just being with women. Perhaps
it was because he hadn’t kissed her? Maybe kissing was the secret. If he kissed
her he might get to know the mystery of why being with a woman is something men
crave as much as football. Though he didn’t like football. So he resolved to
Just how to
go about this was more difficult than Relativity. They’d been going out together
for six weeks and there’d been no suggestion of kissing. When ? How ? Was he
supposed to just grab her and start. Or was he supposed to say something ? What
seemed reasonable. And polite. But what if she said no? Wouldn’t he appear
ridiculous ? Imagine standing there having said: “Shall we kiss ?” and her
having said: “No !” Wouldn’t that be too humiliating for words ? He thought
about Charnley. Had he ever seen him kiss a girl ? How had he done it ? He
couldn’t remember. He needed to engage in some research. He sat in cafés and
bars watching couples, waiting for a kiss to happen. One day, a young, slim girl
with black hair and piercing dark eyes who had noticed him glancing her way came
over and said:
interested in a threesome ?”
kiss he saw happened as if prescribed. The boy and girl simply turned to one
another, like actors on cue, and pressed their lips together. But how did they
know when ? Why that moment ? He was baffled. Every second he spent with
Judith was a torment. Was this the moment ? He expected to feel something, some
sudden change which would say: “Right ! Into action !” He watched her intently,
listened carefully to her tone of voice. Was she inviting him ?
were at the bus stop coming back from church when he threw his arms round her
and pressed his mouth hard against hers. Her lips were warmish but inert. She
didn’t move. She didn’t put her arms round him. He held his position for a
minute then pulled away. She looked at him blankly. Fortunately the bus arrived.
They sat in
If that was
kissing, they could keep it. Was that supposed to be more interesting than
electromagnetism ? But Judith must have liked it because a few days later as he
was saying goodnight to her at her room, she lifted her face in invitation. He
planted his lips on hers again. This time she put her hands on his arms. But her
mouth didn’t respond. Her head didn’t move. As he walked home he reflected that
it wasn’t really an unpleasant experience, but given the choice, he’d desist.
an irritation. If the kissing had revealed what made females so interesting, he
might have developed some enthusiasm. But he didn’t get it. She came round to
his room while he was in the middle of a long equation. Couldn’t she see he was
busy ? He could think of nothing to talk about except the equation and she
didn’t understand. She was a musician, after all. He began to feel he’d made a
mistake. Judith was the wrong girlfriend. But maybe any girl was wrong. Could
people really prefer kissing to a beautiful mathematical solution ? Then it
struck him that perhaps it was what came after the kissing that made all the
revolution had happened, at least superficially. Lady Chatterley had been
published while he was in the second form. Class barriers no longer kept the
erections of oiks from middle-class pudenda. Homosexuals didn’t need to meet in
public lavatories, unless they liked to. People no longer waited for marriage to
find out what its physical side was like. Of course, they still had to wait to
find out the rest. Only twenty years of daily familiarity with its
routines and irritations can provide true knowledge. But the physical side ?
That was easy! Everyone was getting into bed with someone. Even devout
Christians. Even Catholics ! The Pope was powerless. Sexual curiosity had proven
more potent than the Bible. St Paul himself couldn’t have stopped these
students doing what came naturally, more or less.
If the Bible
said it was wrong, it was wrong. Not that Knoblock went directly to the
question. He skirted.
“Do you think
the Church should take a sterner line on pre-marital sex ?” he asked her, as if
starting a seminar.
“I think the
Church should take a very firm line !” she said. “It’s disgraceful.”
“Yes, it is.
But perhaps it’s better than disappointment in marriage.”
things don’t work out.”
Sex, and that.”
“How could it
not work out ?”
“Oh, I don’t
know. But you hear about people not being, you know, satisfied.”
that’s a very selfish attitude,” she said. “The Bible doesn’t say anything about
people being satisfied.”
“There is the
Song of Songs.”
“God gave us
sex,” he said.
“So we could
reproduce,” she replied.
scientific mind couldn’t help registering the disproportion between the number
of possible copulations in a modern marriage and 2.4 children. There had to be
something more to it than mere reproduction. It came to him in a flash: God had
made sex pleasurable so that men and women would stay together and that would be
good for the offspring ! Sex was God’s way of binding a man and a woman ! Well
then, wasn’t it admissible to be bound before marriage if marriage was
your intention ? He put it before Judith in a cool, academic way. She saw
going to bed with you and that’s that !”
stopped and Knoblock solved some really tough equations. He found being with
Judith distasteful. It troubled him but he discovered a way out: women and sex
were for lesser minds. Men of high endowment such as himself were bound to find
the rigmarole of romance and love-making demeaning. He strode around college
with his books under his arm. What did it matter to him if at that very moment
Charnley was bringing his latest to screaming climax ? He couldn’t do hard
equations to save his life !
She must have
picked up on something in his attitude because one day she said:
“Of course, a
Christian can have sex before marriage if it’s for the greater good of God.”
Think of Judith herself.”
sure she’d got the story right, but he wasn’t going to admit it.
They came to
the conclusion after long hours of discussion that, given their abstinence was
making the relationship impossible, and given they were intending to stay
together, and given that staying together would lead to marriage and marriage
would lead to children and children would be fulfilling the will of God, then
putting the relationship in jeopardy was acting against the will of God.
was as static as before. Judith let Knoblock get on with the business. He felt
he was acting alone. It didn’t seem right but as he wasn’t sure what right was,
he rationalised that this might be normal. She lay perfectly still and silent
through the entire operation.
finished ?” she said.
“Yes. Are you
She got out
of bed and put on her clothes.
be going now.”
was bad but this was atrocious. Was this what people got married for ? He never
wanted to see Judith again. At least, he never wanted to have to go to bed with
her again, and without that, everything he’d thought the future with her might
hold withered. Judith, however, seemed to have different ideas. Her visits
became more frequent. She liked taking her clothes off. He had to get on with
it. She was still and silent, but she came back for more. It became hateful to
Knoblock. It was almost like work. Eventually, he decided on a clean break.
wasn’t ready to let him go.
use me for sex like that !” she cried.
“I haven’t !”
doing it for God !”
“I know. But
God must be telling me to stop. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Oh, the way
supposed to mean ?”
love me, Kevin ?”
question was the end.
her and little by little she left off pestering him. Had he behaved badly ? He
dismissed the idea. He was only glad that he hadn’t been inveigled into
engagement and marriage.
there were no more women. He took up his post as a music teacher. Did he have a
spare hour ? Could he have done his job properly if he’d had a woman to think
about ? He felt a bit above his married colleagues, especially those with
children. They couldn’t really give themselves to their careers. When a young
teacher whose wife had left him with two young children made a mistake on a
report, Knoblock waved it under his nose.
should be more careful. This just makes work for me. As if I haven’t enough to
He loved to
be in work early and to leave late. He prided himself on taking more work home
than anyone else. His weekends were devoted to marking. And there was his
picked the boys. They rehearsed four times a week, at least. The parents were
delighted. Their sons were part of an elite. Knoblock had special power over
them. When they toured, he would walk in and out of their rooms. Once a boy was
drying himself. His white buttocks were on display. Knoblock was struck by how
beautiful and inviting they were. The following day, he noticed what a pretty
face this boy had .
well today, Thomas. There was real happiness in your voice.”
strutted on his quick, thin legs. He was utterly delighted with himself. He
began to think about Thomas’s buttocks and he stroked his erection in bed. But
all his sexual interest in the boys had to be sublimated and disguised. He was
full of puppy Labrador eagerness to get them singing well. And he took their
spiritual well-being seriously. He wanted them all to be good Christians. His
standing with the school and the parents grew and grew. He was ideal. He tried
to keep the old Grammar school way alive in spite of the comprehensive intake.
He looked at some of the dull, dragging lads who couldn’t master a melody and he
shouldn’t be here !”
they should be, he didn’t know. So long as they were out of sight. He was
devout. The Bishop admired him. The governors thought him wonderful. He retained
his elite chamber choir. He went away with the boys. He loved their fresh faces.
He liked to catch them in the shower or getting out of the bath. He closed his
eyes and saw their sweet mouths, their lovely cocks, their neat buttocks.
So the years
went by. But it was hard to hold the line. To comprehensivisation was added the
vulgarity of Thatcherism. The old respect for teachers and learning was swept
aside as the Parents’s Charter arrived and pupils became customers. Those who
had once felt privileged to have their children in the school were now uppity,
demanding and standing on their rights. And the children, keen as children are
to pick up on an atmosphere, sensed the teachers were at bay. Wasn’t OFSTED
coming after them ? Weren’t they going to be paid by results ? Whooppee! If we
misbehave and our results are bad, they won’t get a pay increase ! Maybe we can
get them sacked ! If they touch you, you can sue ‘em ! So they went for the
jugular. They provoked at every occasion, they adopted a condescending tone.
They talked to their teachers as if they were skivvies. They threw out sexual
innuendos and sometimes simple grossness: a female teacher bent down to pick up
down there !”
The class was
in uproar. The Head was called for. The boy was suspended for three days. The
parents complained. After all, he’d only been joking !
The morale of
the staff sank like a failed soufflé.
toffee-nosed school, able to keep out the riff-raff, educating the bright
middle-classes, full of confident staff who reached sixty and were sorry to have
to retire and so kept on for another year or two, was now full of tense, unhappy
teachers longing for a way out; taking early retirement as soon as they could;
going down with depression, stress, heart attacks and cancer; completely at a
loss to understand how the world had changed and they become its victims.
hoped he might get promoted. It was the classroom teachers who took the strain.
Management was the buzzword. No longer were there Heads of Department: teachers
with a bit of experience who did the extras. Now there were line-managers.
Everything was moving in the direction of control by elites. He thought if he
could jump up to Assistant Head or Headteacher he could hide himself in an
office, no longer have to teach so much, play the overworked manager and sigh
with relief. But his applications got nowhere. He was too old. He was in front
of classes twenty-one hours a week.
married, sir ?”
“Are you gay,
terrible rages at the bad behaviour and insolence. But he was impotent. Teachers
had been robbed of their means of fighting back. He called a boy an “ignorant
squirt”. The parents threatened to go to a solicitor. He was forced to
apologise. He hated going to school. He despised the pupils. Even his chamber
choir wasn’t enough to keep him going.
As he was
single and frugal he’d accumulated a tidy sum. He decided to make a break : he
handed in his notice, sold his house and bought a place in the Loire. Inevitably
it needed work. While the workmen renovated he flew off to the Far East to earn
money. There were astonishing numbers of parents in Tokyo and Hong Kong driving
their children like Beethoven père the young Ludwig. But Ludwig had real
talent. Some of these kids scraped at a violin for five years and still couldn’t
get the C major scale right. But the parents were willing to pay and Knoblock
was willing to graft. He took on examining and the work poured in the windows.
Why hadn’t he done this years ago !
The work was
easy, the money plentiful but even better were the boys.
He picked up
Sei in a Hong Kong bar. He was sixteen, slim, smiling , naïve and spoke terrible
“Do you want
“Why don’t we
go to my hotel. It’s more comfortable there.”
He liked to
drink vodka shots and was quickly tipsy and giddy.
like to have a shower?” said Knoblock.
He showed him
the large, luxurious bathroom. Sei took off his clothes. He was wiry and
slender. Knoblock stared in wonder at his flat, taut belly. As the lad’s neat
little arse disappeared behind the curtain he wrenched off his clothes. When he
stepped into the shower with his erection pointing up to his pouting belly with
its thin line of black hair, Sei giggled. It was the first time a boy had sucked
his cock, but once begun he let his appetite lead him and when he couldn’t find
a voluntary partner, he paid.
It was bliss.
But he was brought up sharp when he read of an English tourist sentenced for sex
with underage boys. How old had they been ? He’d never cared. Anxiety took hold
of him and he decided he’d have to be careful. He went for three weeks without
sex then he found a young Hong Kong Chinese advertising for a lover on a
website. Twenty-five. A graduate. A scientist !
doing research ?”
“What is it
well understood ?”
“Not at all.
We know how to cure a headache, but that’s easy. What about phantom pain ?
That’s what I’m working on. I want to be able to stop phantom pain. That’s my
Holy Grail. I believe if we can crack that we can probably learn how to stop
Yu was short,
stocky, muscular, almost devoid of body hair and had a tiny, little lad’s cock.
He wasn’t a boy who Knoblock could push around. He regretted those compliant
youngsters. But this was safer. And little by little the relationship grew. They
rented a flat together. They flew back to the beautiful house in the Loire in
its acre of garden. Knoblock had a swimming pool built where the two of them
swam naked. In the local village they were discrete. There was a bar where a
coterie of far-right France profonde thugs hung out. They steered clear.
going to stay together, we should formalise things,” said Yu while they were
eating by the pool one evening.
choked on his coquille St Jacques.
Kong. It’s legal now.”
“But I can’t
do that !”
“Why not ?”
that matter ?”
Church doesn’t share your easy-going view of these matters.”
go and ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to suck your cock.”
“Why can’t we
just continue as we are. Keep things quiet.”
we keep it quiet ? Is it a crime ?”
three quarters of the world.”
being furtive for the rest of my life.”
furtiveness has its attractions.”
ashamed of me ?
respectable ! Can you imagine what my mother would say ?”
She might drop dead on the spot.”
always go back and live with her.”
So it was
decided and Knoblock began to like the idea. He invited one or two of his old
colleagues. A woman who had helped him with the Chamber Choir accepted, but her
husband wouldn’t be with her. There was no-one else he dare invite. On the other
side of the world, on the outskirts of a once dirty, northern industrial town,
in a once prestigious grammar school, the news went round the staff. It was
quickly hushed, partly out of respect: it was a personal matter; he must be
allowed to get on with his life as he wished. But alongside this noble and warm
motivation, was the shabbier one of saving the school’s face. Knoblock wondered
how the news would be received. He knew he could never go back. That chapter of
his life was closed. This was a new beginning. And on his wedding night, when
all the guests were away and the champagne was still fizzing in his veins making
him dizzy and foolish, as Yu sucked his cock and played with his balls, the
vision of a choirboy came into his mind. He was thirteen, clean, combed, sweet
and naked. He stood facing the congregation, the great vaulted roof above him
and the elongated golden cross high up behind. He was singing Once In Royal
David’s City, his clean blade soprano rising like a flight of swifts.
Knoblock was standing behind him admiring his white, neat buttocks. He too was
naked and his erection was throbbing in anticipation. He approached him and put
his hands on his shoulders. He kissed his lovely neck. He pressed his cock
between the warm cheeks and just as the voice hit And he leads his
children on he spurted into Yu’s mouth and knew he was home at last.