Here’s an extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance, a satire on toxic schools and Government policy on refugees, published by Matador books. It’s the last day of the Autumn term and an exhausted group of staff gather in the staffroom for farewell drinks. Sound familiar? See how many characters and scenarios you can recognise. If you enjoy this chapter, you can buy the book from the following link:
It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30 am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (Miss has got pizza for everyone!), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.
Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shopkeeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.
There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.
As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame.
“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?” she asked.
“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin. “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”
“What about you, Kwame?”
“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sister’s in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook, my sister, and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”
“Lucky you,” said Kevin. “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you, Charlotte?”
“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back-breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”
“Difficult, is she?”
“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career-obsessed harpy who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”
“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”
She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”
“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine.
“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said? Definitely snow before and after Christmas. I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”
“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”
Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?”
“Just a couple,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long-term supply in science.”
“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”
“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte, as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.
Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.
“Okay, colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”
The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.
Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.
“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”
Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.
“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming into their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”
Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.
“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give…”
What? Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.
“…in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”
They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.
“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the Trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”
She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”
She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the Trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience, who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas.”
While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeonhole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.
By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.
“You as well?” said Avril, as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.
“I just wanted to check she was all right. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”
“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”
“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”
“Listen, it’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”
“You too. See you in January.”
By four-thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.
“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”
Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last-minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.
He stared at the screen, an expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”
Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.
Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.
“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”
“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.
Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance onto the road, the air was thick with flakes.
Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.