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 Vic.
“I’m getting up. I’ve so much to do.”
“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 exactly.”
“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 poster.
“Oh, come on ! Be a bit helpful.”
“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, objectively ?”
“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 facetious.”
“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 and left.
“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 nervous breakdown.”
“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 lashes.
“I think she’s nuts,” he concluded.
“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,” said Anna.
“Don’t worry about me. I’m okay.”
“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 me.”
“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 my flapjack.”
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 multi-millionaire.”
Anna lowered her eyes.
“But you wouldn’t have married Anna.”
“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 wife ?”
“No Ken, I love your wife. She’s a sweetheart.”
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 !” she called
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 said.
“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 baker’.”
“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 weakness.”
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 lunch.”
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 table.
“How did it go ?”
“They didn’t see me.”
“Ah, well. Maybe tomorrow.”
“And that bitch Crawley got an outstanding !”
“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 Maggot.”
“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 lesson.”
“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 me ?”
“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 of fact.”
“Ken’s tearing his hair out.”
“Maybe it’ll improve his appearance.”
“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 baby.”
“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 reflection.
“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 neurotic.”
“I think he’s quite a successful neurotic myself.”
“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 news ?”
“What’s that ?”
“I was inspected today.”
“And you’ve lived to tell the tale.”
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 says.”
“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 !”
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 counter.
“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 woods.”
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 menu, please”
“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 Grammar.”
“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 Westerman accusingly.
“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 opportunities.”
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, arrogant, brusque.
“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 guichet .
“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 back.
“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 advancement.
“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 alligator’s jaws.
“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 mum.”
“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 employ me.”
“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 Bracken.
“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 socialism.”
“You’ve been teaching them George Orwell and introducing Marxism.”
Bracken’s face was twisted into that ugly sneer which appeared whenever he encountered anything which didn’t sit comfortably with his preconceptions.
“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 democracy.”
“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 so misguided?”
“I don’t think we should be afraid of ideas.”
“Do you think I’m afraid of half-baked socialists, Mr Mendel”
“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 perverse.”
“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 like yourself.”
“No school is ideal.”
“Perhaps it’d be better both for you and the school if we parted company.”
“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 over.”
“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 stop-gap.”
“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 seven.”
“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, truly 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 streaked.
"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 finished.
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, you know."
"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 you…"
"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 slowcoaches.
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 Italian wine."
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 on.
"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. Somehow."
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 of excitement.
"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 ageing teacher.
"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 failed instantaneously.
"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 suspicious ?
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 thousand.
"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 mortgage !"
"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 more adventurous."
"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 money!"
"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 would say:
"Mum, can you go to the shops and get me some crisps and a coke ?"
"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 teenagers.
"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 to fade.
"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 partnership."
"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 difficulty.
"Can I take the car on Saturday, then ?" said Ben down the phone.
"I’ll have to negotiate."
"Kyle and Jamie can come up with me. We can go to Manchester."
"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 to cry.
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 cotton trousers.
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 slowly.
"I’ve insured the car for Ben and Kirstin !"
He leapt from the bed , charged for the light switch, stubbed his toe.
"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 with:
"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 window.
"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.
" 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 polyphenols.
"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 indifference."
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 minute."
"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 started."
"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 fuckin’ madhouse."
"’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 lessons."
"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 night."
"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. Cool !"
"Modelling, mate !"
"Just as in the classroom. You need to watch an experienced practitioner."
"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 timetable.
"She’s got PPA last thing on a Tuesday. Bingo! I’m free. Are you ?"
"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 extreme ?"
"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 Mississippi delta."
"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. Italian."
"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 business."
"Too soon, mate !"
"If I wait any longer you’ll be shaggin’ her."
"Patience ! You’ve got to prepare the ground before you sow the seeds."
"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 here."
"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 collect them.
"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 sister-in-law."
"My ex sister-in-law is married to the fucking vicar of St Andrew’s!"
"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 true."
"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 police."
"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 soon."
"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 appeared.
"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 appear insouciant.
"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 him again.
"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 day."
He repeated it.
"Well, that’s great," she said. "I didn’t know you were a runner."
"Say, ‘Oh, nothing fantastic, just ten miles a day before school."
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 business."
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 confusion.
"Are you sure you’re all right ?"
"Say, ‘Just wound up from this job. I need to ease up a bit.’"
"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 that.’"
Oakley choked on the words. He paused. She was looking up at him expectantly.
"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 working’.
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 at him:
"Sit down if you need to. You won’t disturb me."
Oakley immediately plonked himself next to her at which she stiffened.
"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 occupied.
"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 along.
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 school ?”
“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 day.”
“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 drawer.
“No need to put that on,” he said.
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 about Barry.
“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 Tuesday.”
“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 began snoring.
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 parked ?”
“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 another !”
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, Lesley.”
“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 night.”
“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, Lesley.”
“What are you accusing me of ?”
“I’m not accusing you of anything.”
“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 defensive.”
“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 ?” said Vic.
She stood, dismayed, frightened, uncertain, unable to say any more.
“What did he say ?”
“He asked if we’d been in my car together.”
“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 malicious.”
“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 Lesley.
“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 then.”
“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 three !”
“Yes, but I knew you were getting the kids today and I had one or two things to do and time just ebbs away doesn’t it.”
“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 kitchen ?”
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, laughing madly.
“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 younger brother.
“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 notes.”
“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 helpful ?”
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 I’ve had.”
“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 her lesson.
“Theft ? Do you know what theft is ?”
“Yeah. Taking someone’s stuff.”
“Is that your idea of a legal definition ?”
“That’s my book. You can’t take my book.”
“Well, strictly it’s the school’s book.”
“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 school.”
“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 maturity.
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 ?” said Robbie.
“Terrible. Yes, really terrible.”
“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 office.
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 Shylock blush.
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 bed.
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 you like.”
Sourpuss shook her judgemental head.
“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 Alice.
“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 death.
“Nothing doing, then ?” said Mel.
“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 cells.”
“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
“ 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 higher.”
“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 off.”
“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.”
Bukansky 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 ?”
“How interesting ! Do you get to look after any celebrities ?”
“I’ve looked after many kinds of people: politicians, businessmen, trade unionists.”
“I expect you do a marvellous job.”
“Yes, very quick. Very clean.”
“That’s so 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.”
“Have you been widowed long ?”
“Since last Wednesday.”
“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 very sad.”
“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 ?”
“Oh, heaven 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.”
“It’s very nice.”
“Charming of you to say so ! It’s only M&S but it is rather flimsy isn’t it ?”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Such a gentleman, and me displaying my assets to you before lunch. What am I like ?”
“When will your daughter be home ?”
“She 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.”
“What organization was that ?”
“National 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.”
“They were easy.”
“You must have been extraordinarily competent. I like a man who gets on with things without ceremony. Who were the difficult ones?”
“It doesn’t 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 ?”
“Goodness ! It’s rather abrupt but I must say it appeals to me. Where is your business meeting ?”
“Under a railway bridge in Salford.”
“Such innovative uses they make of old industrial Lancashire !”
Hearing the 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.
“Virginia’s here ! I’m sure you won’t be disappointed Mr Bukansky. She’s a young woman with many attributes.”
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 luscious burgundy.
“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.”
“Most pleased 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 as Russia.
As Virginia 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.
“Virginia is very accomplished. She’s got grade eight piano.”
“Five,” uttered the daughter.
“A gold medal for ballet and tap.”
“Five A levels.”
“She could have had a place at Oxford if she’d had a bit more push.”
“I was offered a place at Portsmouth.”
“That’s not far from Oxford,” said Mrs Cherry plaintively.
“So, what’s your line of business Mr Bukansky ?” said Virginia.
“I have a wide portfolio. Security, leisure, publishing, entertainment.”
“Doesn’t sound like you’ll have anything for me. I’m a librarian.”
“Your talents are wasted.”
“Not at all, I’m a good librarian and I enjoy it.”
“She means for the time being,” said her mother.
“You are a very beautiful young woman.”
“What an original mind you have, Mr Bukansky.”
“And you can dance.”
“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.”
“You could start on Friday.”
“But I’d have to give a month’s notice.”
“Don’t worry, my employees will settle things with your boss.”
“No, they 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.”
“Well now,” declared Mrs Cherry, “there’s real money ! She only brings home seven hundred pounds a month from the library.”
“I despise money.”
“She’s talked 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 ?”
“Mother, your guest is a pervert.”
With that 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.
“My daughter is too young to know what’s good for her, Mr Bukansky, but if you’ve got an opening for an older woman….”
She parted her knees slightly and pulled her neck a little further into her shoulders.
“Artistic dancing is a young woman’s job. We have no call for women over thirty.”
“Some people say I still look twenty-five, in a flattering light.”
“When you take your clothes off, people will know the difference.”
“Not if I’m moving around. I’m still agile.”
“We need supple, athletic young women. I run a business not a charity.”
Mrs Cherry 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:
“That’s 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.”
“If that’s 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.”
Bukansky, who 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.
“Suppose we 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 ?”
“Not universities. We have programmes of rapid reorientation. Sometimes we need a little medical intervention.”
“If it’ll 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.”
Bukansky 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.”
He began 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.
“Is everything all right in there ?” she said.
The baboon 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.
“It’s 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.”
“Well, I’m 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.”
“She’ll be 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 good babies.”
“Oh, that’s a generous offer, Mr Bukansky. I hope she won’t turn you down.”
“No-one turns me down, Mrs Cherry. Democracy is for cissies.”
Running to 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.
“Security. 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.
Her reverie was disturbed by the doorbell’s tinny rendition of the national anthem.
“Mr Bukansky, I was beginning to think you’d forgotten me!”
She went before him into the lounge where she reclined on the sofa like Mme Recamier.
“Has Virginia proved a willing employee ?”
“Very. A 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.”
“Discipline is my speciality.”
“And when do you want me to start work, Mr Bukansky ? I’m eager to get under way.”
“That’s what I came for. We have the perfect opportunity.”
“Oh, would you like me to audition ?”
“No, thank you. I’ve just eaten.”
“Do I start tonight !”
“That would be fine. We need a receptionist.”
“A receptionist !”
“The job would suit a lady of your years perfectly.”
“Mr Bukansky, how can you expect me to demean myself in such a way. I expect to be admired and well-rewarded.”
“People value an efficient dogsbody. And we pay the minimum wage.”
“Well, I’m 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 limelight.”
“We also need a cleaner.”
“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 socialist.”
“Socialists should be sent to the gulag. I’m a businessman. I do things in the Russian style.”
“This is 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.”
“Don’t you want to see your daughter ?”
Mrs Cherry 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.
“Well,” she 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.”
Virginia’s 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.”
At length, Bukanksy came towards them.
“Ten minutes up. Back on stage.”
“Come for 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.
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 calm.
“Right, that’s enough! I’ve been polite, now comes the nasty stuff. Either you shut up, this instant, or you’re in detention.”
“Is it official, sir?
“When is it, sir?”
“I can’t do Wednesday I’ve got a football match.”
“If I put you in detention, you’re doing detention.”
“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 pencil-case.”
“Where’s me pencil-case?”
“I haven’t got it!” said Gavin emerging from under the table.
“Sit in your chair, Gavin,” said Dransfield.
“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 progress.
“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 was theirs.
“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 the classroom.”
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 sit down.”
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 stuff.”
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 his feet.
“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 enough.”
“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 any ruler?”
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 feet.
“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 work.”
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 called
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 bewildered us.
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.
Daniel came 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?”
“What you just said, Daniel. It’s not really appropriate in a classroom.”
“What did I say?”
“I don’t want to repeat it, Daniel.”
“I didn’t say shit.”
“Can I ask you not to say that either?”
“I think you know what I mean, Daniel.”
“I never said nothin’.”
“Can I ask you to sit down now, Daniel?”
“Can I just go to the toilet?”
“You’ve just had break. We need to get the lesson started.”
Daniel 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.
“Ten seconds and we’ll all be sitting down quietly, please. One. Two….”
And the 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.
“Okay. There and back in one minute, Daniel.”
“Can I go?” asked one of the girls.
“I’d rather you didn’t, we need to make a start.”
“It’s her 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 with her?”
“I don’t 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!”
And she doubled up.
The two girls left the room.
“Can you all sit down now, please? Becky, can I ask you to sit there please?”
“Because there’s no need to share a desk. There’s a desk each. It’s always better to have plenty of room.”
“I’ll be good.”
“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.”
“Miss, he’s 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?
“I haven’t got it.”
“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.”
“I’ve already fucked yours!”
“Now that’s enough! Let go of one another and sit down or I’ll have to bring a senior member of staff.”
A sleek, swift paper aeroplane whose launch she didn’t see, hit her in the face.
“Who threw that?”
A gaggle of boys was sniggering, huddled against the wall.
“Let’s all sit down now. Come on. Ten seconds and we’ll all be sitting down. One, two…
And the mocking roar went up:
“Three, four, five, six….”
Daniel came back, climbed on the radiator and began to open the windows.
“Daniel! Daniel! Come down from there! Daniel! Can you get down, please, Daniel?”
“I’m only opening the windows.”
“Shut them windows! It’s bloody freezin’!” called one of the girls.
The two 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.”
Attacking one another like fighting cocks the lads ignored her.
“You’re going to hurt one another. Get up!”
Another beautifully folded paper dart flew out of the window. Two girls came to get a closer view .
“Sit down you two.”
“We’re only lookin’!”
They jostled 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.”
“I’ve got 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.
Dury found 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 expression.
“Now, go to your seats!” she bellowed. “This is very serious! Get to your seats now!”
Slowly they dispersed and sat down, sniggering, calling across the room:
“She’s gonna get sued.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna get my dad in.”
Daniel was still standing on the radiator.
“Get down now, Daniel.”
“I can’t. I’m scared of heights.”
“Better call the fire brigade, Miss!”
Once more they let fly their harsh, destructive laughter.
“Right. Enough’s enough. I’m going for Mr Cass now.”
She walked to the door. The racket subsided.
“The choice is yours. Do we get on with the lesson or do I bring Mr Cass?”
No-one replied. They were all sitting down and the noise was no more than a petty hum. She came back to her desk.
“We’ve wasted a lot of time. Let’s get on quietly now.”
“Aren’t you 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:
“Is everything fine in here, Ms Dury?”
Then the pupils had begun to taunt:
“Why does Mrs Lightfoot come into these lessons, Miss?”
“Is it because you’re a crap teacher, Miss?”
She had 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 friendly smile.
She sipped 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.
Then Jayne Newman began to hold forth.
“I’m going 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.”
“True,” said one of the other women.
Paula McVee turned to Anna.
“How are you today?”
Anna looked 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.
“Your classes okay?”
“Yes, no trouble at all.”
“That’s good,” said Paula with her usual nice smile of slightly sickly friendliness.
When break 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!
Later that day Cass called her in.
His office 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 nose.
“I’ve read your report, Anna. It seems rather strange to me. You say: The pupils crowded round me and began forcing me against the wall.”
“Why weren’t they sitting down?”
“I think my report makes clear…..”
“I really must insist that you begin your lessons properly, Anna.”
“Well, you say two girls left the room to go to the toilet and didn’t return.”
“Why did you let them go?”
“The girl insisted.”
“No. You’re one who must insist. The rule is they don’t go during lessons.”
“She claimed it was her period…”
“What, both of them?”
“No. The other girl just took it into her head…..”
“I really must insist, Anna, that you tighten up on the way you begin your classes. The rules are quite clear…”
“But they ignore the rules, Dick. You know that.”
“I know. 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.”
Anna lowered 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.
“I really 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?”
Anna looked at him and didn’t speak. He gazed at her over his gold frames.
“I think that’s the best I can do.”
“I started the lesson perfectly well.”
He shook his head slowly.
“Quite frankly, Anna…”
“These kids don’t know how to behave. They’re out of control. Everyone knows that.”
“Some classes 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…”
“Nobody 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’ve said 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.”
Cass looked 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?”
“Fine. I’ll come and have a word with them. Take the heat out of things. Are you happy with that?”
All weekend 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 the night.
Tuesday two, 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.”
They slouched into their seats. The lad on the floor pulled himself to his feet.
“I’ve got fuckin’ concussion!”
“Just get to your seat. You’ll be okay.”
A paper dart came out of nowhere, flew past her and hit the whiteboard.
“Who threw that?”
They sniggered or put on innocent expressions.
“I’m assuming it was you,” she pointed to Daniel.
“You can’t blame me! I haven’t done shit!”
“It came from your direction. I’m telling Mr Cass it was you.”
“You cannot be serious!” Daniel was out of his seat, his chest puffed like a town square pigeon.
“Sit down, Mr McEnroe,” she said.
“Ten seconds and we’ll all be quiet.”
This time they didn’t count.
She was 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 it.”
“What do we have to read this shit for?”
“Just try 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?”
They weren’t 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.
They were twenty minutes into the lesson.
“When’s Mr Cass coming , Miss?”
“He’ll be here.”
She turned on the OHP. There were five questions.
“What do we have to do?”
“Answer the questions in the front of your books.”
“Do we have to answer them questions?”
“Yes. Answer the questions in the front of your book.”
“Do we do ‘em in the back?”
“In the front.”
“What do we have to do?”
“What does it mean, what activity do the two friends share?”
“They’re bum chums!”
“They suck 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.”
“He might enjoy getting up his arse!”
“You enjoy getting up your mum’s arse.”
The joyless, 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 story through.
“It’s too hard. There’s too many words.”
“Try to see the pictures.”
“There aren’t any pictures!”
They were into the last fifteen minutes of the lesson.
“When’s Mr Cass coming, Miss?”
“Don’t worry he’ll be here.”
“What if he doesn’t come, Miss?”
She knew the last five minutes would be awful.
“He’s not coming is he, Miss?”
Daniel 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.
“Pack away and stay at your desks, please!”
They crowded 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.
“Open the door!”
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.
“See that! She fuckin’ hit me!”
The door was ajar and pupils were squeezing through.
“Where’s Mr Cass, Miss?”
As she extricated herself from the melee someone called:
They were 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.
“I’ve spoken to Daniel Bylinski and his mother. She says he’s very anti-school.”
“You didn’t come to my lesson.”
“I didn’t 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.
Henceforth, the class was wild. They taunted her:
“When’s Mr Cass coming, Miss?”
“Does he not like ya?”
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 boys."
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 chair.
"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 female teacher."
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 bad."
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 flexible blade.
"’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 shit themselves.
"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 cocks off."
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.
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 decline.
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, curving drive.
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, leaning back.
"I suppose so."
"Didn’t you do O Levels ?"
"Yeah, three. Well, I passed three. I couldn’t take school seriously."
"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 outrageous.
"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 his bottle.
"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 Nipper.
"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 what ?
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.
Kevin 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.
He’d always 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.
“Everything in its time,” the Head would say.
Charnley and 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 English !
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.
Charnley only 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.
Finally, at 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 kiss her.
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 ?
“Shall we kiss ?”
Yes! That 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:
“Are you interested in a threesome ?”
The first 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 ?
Finally, they 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.
“Two fifty ps, please.”
They sat in silence.
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.
Judith became 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 difference.
The sexual 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.
But Judith was literal-minded.
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.”
“What disappointment ?”
“Well, if things don’t work out.”
“What things ?”
“You know. Sex, and that.”
“How could it not work out ?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But you hear about people not being, you know, satisfied.”
“I think that’s a very selfish attitude,” she said. “The Bible doesn’t say anything about people being satisfied.”
“There is the Song of Songs.”
“Yes, but that’s poetry.”
He was somewhat baffled.
“God gave us sex,” he said.
“So we could reproduce,” she replied.
His 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 through it.
“I’m not going to bed with you and that’s that !”
The kissing 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 !
But Judith would stick.
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.”
“Oh yes. Think of Judith herself.”
He wasn’t sure she’d got the story right, but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“Yes,” he said.
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.
The kissing 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.
“Have you finished ?” she said.
“Yes. Are you okay.”
She got out of bed and put on her clothes.
“I’d better be going now.”
The kissing 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.
But Judith wasn’t ready to let him go.
“You can’t use me for sex like that !” she cried.
“I haven’t !”
“We were doing it for God !”
“I know. But God must be telling me to stop. It doesn’t feel right.”
“What doesn’t ?”
“Oh, the way things are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean ?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you love me, Kevin ?”
That pleading question was the end.
He avoided 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.
After Judith 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.
“You really should be more careful. This just makes work for me. As if I haven’t enough to do !”
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 chamber choir.
He hand 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 .
“You sang well today, Thomas. There was real happiness in your voice.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Knoblock 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 said:
“They shouldn’t be here !”
Just where 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 a pen:
“While you’re 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.
This once 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.
Knoblock had 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.
“Are you married, sir ?”
“Don’t be impertinent.”
“What’s that mean ?”
“Are you gay, sir ?”
He suffered 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 English.
“Do you want another drink?”
“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.
“Would you 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 !
“So, you’re doing research ?”
“What is it exactly ?”
“Transmission of pain.”
“Isn’t that 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 most pain.”
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.
“If we’re going to stay together, we should formalise things,” said Yu while they were eating by the pool one evening.
Knoblock choked on his coquille St Jacques.
“In Hong Kong. It’s legal now.”
“But I can’t do that !”
“Why not ?”
“I’m a Christian !”
“What does that matter ?”
“The Anglican Church doesn’t share your easy-going view of these matters.”
“Well then, go and ask the Archbishop of Canterbury to suck your cock.”
“Why can’t we just continue as we are. Keep things quiet.”
“Why should we keep it quiet ? Is it a crime ?”
“In about three quarters of the world.”
“I’m not being furtive for the rest of my life.”
“Oh, furtiveness has its attractions.”
“Are you ashamed of me ?
“Of course not.”
“Of yourself, then.”
“I’m respectable ! Can you imagine what my mother would say ?”
“Your mother’s ninety.”
“Precisely. She might drop dead on the spot.”
“You could 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.