After over thirty years in Secondary schools in Greater London and beyond, and with twenty years in Senior Leadership Teams, I retired with grey hair, bruises and tales to tell. But now I’m back. In the classroom for a few days a week, and doing a spot of educational consultancy, with a bit of writing here and there. And it’s wonderful. And I still have tales to tell. So here goes…………….
I had a lot of interviews over the course of my career. There was the one that still makes me go slightly pink and hot, when I think about it. After not getting the job, my car broke down as I was about to drive away from outside the school, tail between my legs. My humiliation was completed by being spotted by the Head of English and the Local Authority English inspector, who had conducted their forensic disection of me a little earlier in a hot, and airless room. I had not performed well. They waved at me and got some kids to give me a push so I could jump start the car. It was difficult to be appropriately grateful while simultaneously wanting the ground to open up and swallow me.
Another one was a three-day marathon for a Deputy Headship. At the end of the second day those who had made the final cut had to have drinks and canapes with the Governors in the evening. They turned out to be most of the Conservative party in Surrey, and it was an awkward hour of showing that I could hold a plate of Marks and Spencer sausage rolls, a glass of Chardonnay and talk convincingly about golf and skiing holidays. I could not.
But in preparing for every interview that I had, the key task that was drummed into me by senior colleagues, was the importance of having questions to ask at the end of the interview. This was not, of course, to actually find anything out. It was more to signal that I had researched the school and had prepared my questions accordingly. The real no-no, the professional crime committed only by rank amateurs was, when asked if there were any questions, to give the answer “No.”
Of course, all the real questions, the ones that demanded answers, could never be asked.
Here’s a short story about one such interview. It’s called “Asking the Questions”
Asking the Questions
“So, David, do you have any questions for us?”
He looked up, uncertain as to what had been said. The Headteacher fixed him with a laser-like stare. He felt like a rabbit caught in a set of particularly unforgiving headlights.
“Err..,” he stammered, looking around each member of the panel in turn. “Well, I ….”
Several hours earlier it had all started so well. He had driven into the school car park, under a huge polythene banner proclaiming it to be a “Good School”, with OFSTED vouching for its “Outstanding Behaviour”. A couple of scrubbed and gleaming older pupils were on duty, ready to direct the candidates to their saved parking spaces, and one waited as he clambered out of the car to escort him to reception. It was impressively smooth. There had been six of them assembled in the room which was their base for the day. One person had dropped out, already appointed to the plum job that had interviewed at the end of the week before. Looking around those that were left, it was obvious that they had all applied for that one as well. One of them he recognised from the circuit – Charlie, who he had met in a series of Deputy Head interviews over the previous couple of years – and that made the awkward small talk over coffee and pastries a little easier to manage.
A glance at the programme for the day revealed the usual menu of activities: teaching a lesson, a student council panel, some in tray exercises and a round of panel interviews. All of this to be achieved by 4pm before being given the dread news about who had made the cut for the grand finals of the next day, and who were officially Not Good Enough. It was at once depressingly formulaic and reassuringly familiar. His heart sank, though, when he saw it. How many times would he have to go through this pantomime to move on up the greasy pole? Was this really the best way of selecting somebody to be a Deputy Head? Most of the time it seemed that it served only to arrive at those who had the stamina put themselves through the process, while weeding out the non-conformists, those who either had not bothered to mug up on the latest educational buzz words, or, even worse, didn’t believe in them. Increasingly, he felt that he was one of the latter.
The conversation on the other side of the muffins ploughed on relentlessly. Two candidates he had not come across before, were vying to be the alpha male in the room, spraying pheromones relentlessly around the room. “Direct Instruction, bah, blah, blah.” “Yes, Knowledge Rich, blah, blah, blah” “Really? Because I……Katherine Birbalsingh…silent corridors…blah, blah, blah” “No! Outrageous! VAK?! Really?”
The braying, trumpeting laughter snapped him out of his reverie, and he noticed that throughout the conversation, the eyes of the two stags flicked continually around the room to see who was listening to their easy tour around the latest educational fads. His eye was caught by Charlie, who if anything, was even more jaundiced than him. Charlie habitually loitered on the fringes of opinionated groups and listened, only just controlling the smirk on his lips. When he saw that David was watching, he rolled his eyes theatrically, and took another massive bite out of his pain au chocolat. They didn’t get a chance, however, to chat about the performance they had just been watching, as the door swung open and a tall white man strode purposefully into the room, followed by a scurrying young woman with an armful of buff card folders.
“Morning everyone,” he boomed, beginning a relentless round of hand shaking, introductions and piercing eye contact. The braying chatter stopped immediately as the alpha males switched their attention to the entrance of this demigod, weighing up the correct blend of deference, intelligence and easy charm to deploy. He was immaculately groomed and trailed a cloud of subtle cologne in his wake. David looked down at his shoes, and thought, not for the last time that day, that he really should have given them a bit more of a polish. Instinctively, he tucked his feet far under his chair, and continued to smile.
David didn’t even catch his name as he leant over and fixed him with a steely glare and a crunching handshake. “Morning. David Marshall,” he said evenly, desperately hoping his winning smile would not crumble under the crippling pain the Head’s handshake was inflicting on him. His interview preparation over the previous three years had told him that, when push came to shove, the research showed that most interviews were decided, informally, in the first couple of minutes. An evidence-based approach to that old chestnut, “did they like the cut of your jib?” presumably. At this rate, his chances of success were hanging by a thread.
After the introductions and wrist pummelling, the Head gave a potted version of the school’s recent history, which seemed designed simply to make everyone in the room aware that it had been single-handedly rescued from degradation and despair by his own determination and genius. The Alpha males in the room, at least two of them women, through supreme self-control and an effort of will, were content to merely nod knowingly. Then, having established his messianic status, the Head went through the programme of activities for the day.
The Head was clearly someone who valued action. His opening pep talk reached its final sentence as he swept out of the room, followed gamely by the young woman, who had not spoken since her entrance a minute earlier. She had simply distributed the folders and melted into the background. In the silence that was left by the Head’s departure, there was only time for a collective exhalation, some raised eyebrows and half smiles of approval and admiration of the performance they had just witnessed. Before anyone had a chance to speak, a student, squeaky clean and scrubbed in immaculate uniform, appeared in the doorway.
“Good morning everyone. My name’s Oscar and we’re here to give you all a tour of the school. If you’d like to follow us, we’ll show you around. And please, don’t hesitate to ask any questions of any of us as we make our way around the school.”
Behind him were two other specimens of the student body, who beamed as all of the candidates made their way into the corridor. They introduced themselves as Uzma and Farha, and they seemed to have graduated from the same finishing school as Oscar, exuding charm and confidence in equal measures. As they progressed around the school, David and Charlie gravitated to the back of the group. When an opportune moment presented itself, Charlie leaned towards David and said quietly, “Well, this is all very impressive, isn’t it?”
David agreed, “Yeah, though I suppose these are the best three kids in the school. Let’s see what the rest of them are like.”
They didn’t have long to wait. The bell interrupted their guides’ explanations and Oscar brought the procession to a halt in the main ground floor corridor.
“This is the start of period 1, so there’ll be a lot of movement in the corridor,” Oscar explained.
The candidates visibly flinched, but were secretly pleased. Kids moving in corridors were harder to stage manage than the rest of the process, and could be relied on to give a more accurate representation of the school. All along the length of the corridor, the classroom doors opened, like flowers blossoming, and at each doorway a teacher positioned themselves, as their class silently filed out into the thoroughfare. Soon, the entire corridor was filled with lines of students, all silent, all observing the one-way system. Occasionally, one of the teachers on guard barked an instruction as the kids passed them.
“Hands to yourself”
“Nothing to discuss.”
Charlie and David exchanged a look. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this before. After a couple of minutes, the corridor was empty again, and the doors closed. It was as if no-one had ever been there.
One of the other candidates, a bristling, serious young woman, could contain herself no longer. She turned to one of the girls escorting them.
“Goodness me, that was very impressive. Is it always like that at change of lessons?”
“Oh yes,” Uzma replied earnestly, “Always.”
“It wasn’t always like this, though,” chipped in Farha. “It used to be really rowdy, before Mr Bennet came.” The three of them exchanged a little look and a smile before moving on with the tour.
While the other candidates engaged the guides in conversation at the front of the crocodile, Charlie and David brought up the rear, conferring in low voices.
“These three guides are doing their job, aren’t they? They’re word perfect,” muttered Charlie.
“I can’t tell whether it’s incredibly impressive, or a little sinister,“ said David. “It all seems a little… unnatural to me.”
“Come on,“ chided Charlie, “No need to be quite so cynical about it. Maybe, they’ve got it right. Maybe they have cracked the ethos of the school.”
“Cynical? No, just human. A silent corridor is a deeply worrying sign, if schools are meant to prepare normal kids to take their place in the outside world.” David shook his head. “A calm corridor, an orderly corridor, yes that’s one thing, but a silent one? No. No, thank you.”
Charlie shrugged and they moved on, past silent rooms of Maths students, English students, French students. They were taken in to some of these rooms at intervals, to be greeted by a smiling teacher who would explain the lesson and invite them to have a look at books and chat to the students. Even David was impressed with the neatness of the books, the volume of writing in them, the attentiveness of the class to the teacher’s instructions. He began to wonder whether he was going to have to revise his initial scepticism.
He checked his watch. The tour would be winding down now and soon they would all be taken back to their base for the real business to begin. Oscar and his two lieutenants hastily conferred, and then picked up the pace, ignoring the remaining classrooms, intently solely, it seemed, on not being late getting them back. The faster pace strung out the gaggle of candidates, like tiring runners in the Grand National, and Charlie and David found themselves adrift at the back of the pack. By the time they walked past the Science labs, they were the only ones in the corridor, the others having established a lengthening lead in the dash towards the finishing line.
“Crikey!” David exclaimed. “Do you think this is part of the selection process? See who has a heart attack running back to base?”
He never found out Charlie’s answer, as the door of the nearest lab suddenly burst open, and a grey-haired man in a stained lab coat popped his head into the corridor.
“Psst!” he whispered hoarsely, looking both ways down the corridor and back again.
“Are you the candidates for Deputy Head?”
He had wild, staring eyes, and his head continually flicked back and forth, surveying both ends of the corridor.
Charlie and David looked at each other, bemused. David turned back to the man in the lab and said, “Well, yes, we’re two of them. The others are up ahead. Who are you?”
“That’s not important. But listen. I really must talk to you. In private. There are things you need to know. Things the staff want you to know.”
“Well, yes, I think there’s a meeting scheduled on the programme for the day.” Charlie fumbled with his sheet of paper and scanned it quickly.
“Yes, here it is. 12.45 a working lunch with some Heads of Faculty. That’s when we get to meet the staff.”
The man looked aghast. “Let me have a look at that,“ he whispered urgently, and grabbed the sheet out of Charlie’s hand. He studied it and laughed.
“Oh, yes. These people. Quislings and Yes men. They’ll give you the correct line alright. Oh yes.” He shook his head fiercely, and then, with another quick look down the corridor, backed into his lab.
“They won’t tell you the truth, but I will. And so will the others. Come here at lunchtime. 1.15. Tell no-one else…”
He was interrupted by the appearance of Oscar at the far end of the corridor, who called out
“Ah, there you are! I thought you’d got lost. We do need to get back so we don’t delay the programme.”
The mysterious stranger, tapped the side of his nose, and hissed, “1.15. Tell no-one”.
He backed into his lab and closed the door.
That was the last time David saw Charlie that day. They were hurtled through a series of activities that seemed to have been designed with the sole purpose of removing any chance of the candidates being together unsupervised, or of meeting any free-range members of staff. Their student minders had shown them, with great pride, a large room that was rammed with students, all in individual booths, so that they could not see anyone else. There were about thirty of them writing in silence while four members of staff patrolled, occasionally barking, “Sit up straight. Another day for anyone who with their head down or not writing.”
“This is the Behaviour Correction Centre, sir,“ explained Oscar quietly.
“There’s a lot of people in here, isn’t there? Is it always like this?” David had asked.
“Oh yes, sir,” replied Oscar, “But it’s alright, it’s always the same people.”
He had also been shown, with the same pride, the long queues of students that lined up in the playground at the end of break.
“Is this a fire drill?” he had asked, naively. “I didn’t hear the alarm.”
“No sir,“ Farha replied, “We do this at the end of every break and lunchtime. We have to queue up in register order, and our teacher takes the register, checks equipment and takes us to class.”
David frowned. “Why?” he asked simply.
His three guides looked baffled.
“What do you mean, sir?” Uzma finally asked.
“Well, doesn’t it waste a lot of time? Why don’t you just get straight to class? And what if it’s raining?”
They looked at each other, uncertain how to respond, until Oscar pronounced, “It’s just the way we do things here. It’s good, it’s quieter. But we need to go back to your base now. It’s time for your next activity.”
David bit his tongue and allowed himself to be escorted back.
He had tried to escape at lunchtime, to keep his assignation with the mysterious Mad Scientist, but he was expertly herded this way and that to each new activity so that he had barely a moment to himself. And so, he worked his way through the usual in-tray exercise, did a data analysis of results and underperforming departments, was carouselled through four panel interviews, and had to teach a Year 7 English class a lesson on grammar. The sour expression on the face of the observer when he began the lesson by rearranging the rows of chairs into table groups of four told its own story. She began furiously taking notes, and then gave up after ten minutes. She had clearly already seen enough to make up her mind.
And so had David. The same raised eyebrow and scribbled notes followed his answers about dialogic teaching and collaboration, about restorative justice to accompany strict rules and sanctions, about student voice and student engagement and promoting investigation and experiment, about coaching being non-directive and about empowering staff and students alike. By the end, the interviewers were only just managing to avoid being sarcastic, and he was becoming ever more monosyllabic. What had happened to all the things he believed in? Why had making teaching engaging become such a joke? Why was there this endless emphasis on teachers droning on and checking for retention of facts? When did the ideal English classroom begin to resemble a pub quiz? Why did everyone seem to have such a simplistic attitude to evidence-based practice, a phrase that seemed to be the equivalent of a membership card to the cool kids club? Were there any schools left whose Senior Leadership entertained alternative ideas and were up for the discussion? There were so many questions buzzing around in his head, so much doubt about whether there was any point in staying in this profession that he used to love. So many questions.
“David? Your questions?”
His smile had begun to crack as the pause had grown. The rest of the panel reached for their papers and shifted in their seats.
Questions? Oh yes, there were plenty of questions.
He looked again at the panel. Two of them had already gathered their papers together, one was intent on the last of the thick chocolate biscuits and the man closest to him, a governor of some sort, continued to write. He could just about make out, upside down, the beginnings of a shopping list.
Episode 5 of Telling Stories is available now on Spotify and a variety of other platforms. It’s the first part of my short story, “Don’t Smile before Christmas” and the final section will be available later this week. It has been published on the blog before. If you’d like to read it as well as, or instead of, listening to it, it’s available here:
Forty years ago, on February 23rd 1981, there was an attempted military coup in Spain, and Parliament was invaded by troops led by Colonel Antonio Tejero. A sticky moment for democracy in mainland Europe and I was there. Read my story here.
The first part of the story, Milagritos, part 1, can be found using the link below:
The wreckage in front of us told its own story. We were onto the second pack of Ducados, the first reduced to a crumpled ball on the table, nestled between the ashtray and a variety of empties. A few beer bottles stood guard, holding the line against those of Rioja and Valdepenas and the remnants of a hastily prepared dinner provided by that cave of plenty in the little plaza downstairs, Milagritos.
In the back ground, the radio continued its hysterical drone. My rudimentary Spanish, good for survival in any bar on the Spanish mainland but little else, picked up the occasional snippet, but my growing sense of gloom was provoked more by the overall tone of the announcer rather than any precise understanding. Along with his interviewees, he veered between the sombre and the melodramatic.
Outside, through the window that looked out onto the jumble of washing lines and thin balconies that faced the inner yard of the blocks, it was dark, with a scattering of stars and a half moon. Alan paced the living room, clinging on to his cigarette as if that were the thing that would save him
“I think we should go out,“ he began, “we’ve got to do..”
I never found out what it was we had to do. The drone of the announcer’s voice suddenly changed gear, and the air in the room shifted. Even I could tell something was happening.
“Whoah, what’s that?”
“Shh!“ Alan hissed, “I need to listen to this.”
I took the hint. Wishing I’d paid less attention to my very attractive tutor’s legs and more attention to her Spanish lessons, I simmered in helpless frustration as a new voice cut through the still air of our flat. My only clue was to watch Alan’s face. He frowned and took a distracted drag on his ducados. His frown deepened and he leant closer to the radio as if he could somehow manipulate the news through an effort of will. Finally, just when I was about to burst with frustration, he turned the radio off.
“What?” I demanded. “What’s happening? What did they say? Why have you turned it off?”
Alan looked up, grim-faced. “We’re fucked. They say that martial law has been declared in Valencia and that tanks have been sent onto the streets. There are soldiers and snipers everywhere. Come on, we’ve gotta go.”
He collected up his cigarettes, and an unopened bottle of scotch and headed towards the door. I scrambled after him. He had stopped in the open doorway. He looked back into the flat, taking in the wreckage of the last few hours of political drama, and then at me.
“And they’ve declared a curfew in Valencia. Anyone found on the streets in a group of more than two is liable to be shot, or at the very least, arrested. We’d better be quick.”
“Hold on”, I protested, “I don’t fancy getting shot. Or even arrested. And where are we going anyway?”
“There’s two of us, we’re safe. I reckon we should just check out the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and then head off to Marien’s house. They’ve got a TV.”
I hesitated, a picture of a lifetime spent in a Spanish jail, or worse, flickering across my consciousness.
Alan interrupted, exasperated. “Come on Rob, we’re British. We’re not going to get shot – this is mainland Europe for God’s sake. It’s Marien and Macu and Paco and all of that lot you should be worried about, not us.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?”
“All the Spanish people we know are card-carrying members of the Socialist party. Growing up under Franco and the Catholic church, who can blame them? If they get arrested, they’ll go straight to prison. They’ll be shitting themselves. The least we can do is give them some support. So come on, shift yer arse, or it ‘ll be over before it’s even started.”
He didn’t wait for a response, so convinced was he of his own powers of persuasion, but simply turned on his heels and strode into the corridor towards the stairs. While not exactly convinced, I was sufficiently persuaded to follow. Slamming the door behind me, I ran to catch him up, and we bowled down the staircase and out into the cool midnight air of a February Valencia night. The game was on.
An eery quiet lay heavy on the streets. Normally, at this time of night, every city in Spain was alive and throbbing. In Barrio Carmen, in particular, Midnight usually signalled the beginnings of adventure. In this area, the bohemian heart of the city, artists, musicians, writers and poets, conmen and drug dealers all emerged after dark to cast their spells. But not tonight. We made our way down the deserted streets, a spring in our step. It felt strange to be following our usual tracks in such familiar surroundings. Street lights illuminated some of our landmarks, which emerged from the gloom in pools of amber neon. Normally they would need no such help, as they would scream their existence to all and sundry, with raucous music, shouting and laughter spilling onto the pavement. Warm lighting and delicious smells would also have normally announced their presence, but now all was darkness, save for the pools of amber street lamps, and the only smells in the air were of Spanish drains, without the usual nosegays of garlic, hot olive oil, seafood and marijuana.
The unfamiliarity was compounded by our mood, a strange mixture of fear, excitement and anticipation. This cocktail sharpened our senses. Our eyes flicked nervously at every dash of a stray cat, our ears pricked at sudden, unexpected sounds. What was that? A footstep? A car door? Whispered conversation? A door closing quietly? We slipped through the empty streets in silence, all of our concentration spent on monitoring our immediate surroundings, imagining agents of the military lurking in every shadow, down every alley, in every doorway. Our own footsteps rang out on the cobbles as we turned the corner of Calle de Caballeros on to the wide open spaces of Plaza de la Virgen, only to run straight into two shifty-looking young men who were lurking in the shadows, surveying the plaza as a whole. We froze.
“Hombre! Que haces?” came the irritated cry from the first as he staggered back from the impact of Alan crashing into him. All four of us sprang back, ready for some kind of confrontation, only for the tension to break with mutual recognition.
“Buenas Noches, muchachos! Los Ingleses, bienvenidos a la lucha!”
It was Paco and Jesus, two of the friends we were on our way to see. After much back-slapping and hand shaking, we got down to business.
“Come on, we need to get off the plaza, it’s too open. Let’s get back to the barrio – we can talk more safely there.”
He was right. We were horribly exposed here on the edge of the deserted Plaza, and it was with some relief that we scuttled back into the dark alleys of Carmen. After a couple of minutes, when we were comfortably burrowed into the warren of streets we stopped to take stock. It transpired from Paco that they had just come out to check whether there were, in fact, tanks on the street. They had seen them at a distance, trundling along the main drag in front of the Railway station, along with a lot of troop carriers.
“That’s not all,“ said Jesus. “We met Maria and Lucia down by Ayuntamiento on our way back here. They said they had heard that there were snipers on the roof tops.”
I looked nervously up above. “Snipers! This is getting serious.”
“Tranquillo, hombre. There won’t be any here in little old Carmen. They’ll be in the city centre and by the TV and radio buildings. They’ll come for us low-lifers and communists later.”
“So, what are you gonna do now?” asked Alan “We were just on our way to yours to get some news from your TV.”
“Yeah, good idea. If we head that way, we might get some late-night churros and chocolate. Pepe’s is bound to be open. He probably won’t even know that anything’s happening, he’s just there wondering where all his usual customers are.”
It was a plan, of sorts. It would be the first time in recorded history that chocolate and churros had been part of a popular fightback against a military coup, but that was Spain for you. Nothing would get in the way of a Spaniard and his dinner.
We slipped through the network of alleys, picking our way steadily to their house. We had just reached the Mercado Central, which opened out on to one of the main roads that skirted Barrio Carmen, when we slowed down and took care to survey the empty market place, still and silent in the eerie street lamps. This was the last part of the route that could be dangerous, near to where tanks might go if they were out.
We stopped at the very edge of the market place, and listened, eyes all the while scanning the far shadowy corners for anyone else lurking there secretly.
“Its OK, I think,“ Jesus whispered, “Come on, lets……”
A low, mechanical rumbling interrupted. We froze and shrank back against the wall, listening intently. The noise, industrial and grinding, got louder as it got nearer. Then there were shouts – a couple of voices, as far as we could make out. The noise of the engines and the clanking and rumbling sound made it impossible to hear exactly what they had said, but it was unlikely to be friendly. We all looked at each other in our huddle, the tension growing to an almost unbearable pitch. There was fear in everyone’s eyes.
Alan said it first. “Shit. Must be tanks. And soldiers by the sound of it. We’ve had it.”
“Let’s make a run for it.” This was my contribution to the Great Escape.
Paco grabbed my arm. “No, no, no, hombre. We must stay. If we run they will shoot.”
And it as at that point when we all realised the key fact we had somehow forgotten. As our eyes looked around the group it dawned on us for the first time. We really were in big trouble. Jesus hissed, “Somos quatro”.
There were four of us, and the curfew applied to all groups of more than two.
We clung to each other, backs against the wall, as the rumbling, grinding, clanking sound grew to a crescendo, with assorted bangs and clashes adding to the cacophony. A street light cast a shadow, grotesquely distorted, of the tank turning the corner. Maybe they wouldn’t see us, maybe they would just go straight on, maybe……
Round the corner it came. A battered, regulation City of Valencia refuse lorry, complete with raucous crew, in hi vis jackets, laughing and joking and dragging binliners behind them. It was the Spanish bin men. They caught sight of us cowering in the shadows and burst out laughing, screwing their fingers to their temples and then miming machine gunning us with a strafe of imaginary fire. I suspect that the international code of conduct for binmen, in every culture, requires them to display no sign of sensitivity at all to the distress of another. The pathetic spectacle we had created had made their night, making their usual after midnight shift a little more bearable than normal.
We didn’t care. We weren’t going to die, and everything was bathed in blessed relief.
Sweet freedom was celebrated by a monster purchase in Pepe’s all-night Bagel bar, with bagels, chocolate and churros, and we almost skipped to Paco’s flat as if we were going to a party. The night passed off with food and drink and cigarettes and political arguments and television updates. The crisis dragged on a for a couple more days before drab normality reasserted itself. Back to business as usual, as I settled own once again to teach IBM business men some version of English, all the while thinking, with a half smile, about the time when I was nearly shot in the noble struggle against a military fascist dictatorship by a crew of Valencian dustbin men.
“Take a look at this. This here is what we’re dealing with”
He clicked the mouse and a window burst into life on the screen in front of them. It was a young man, about twenty-five years old, his pasty white face ghostly beneath his pale whiskers and bright red MAGA baseball cap. The background was grainy and poorly lit by an overhead bulb with a dirty yellow shade. It looked like every cheap motel room from New York to LA.
Becker snorted. “Jeez, look at this guy, he’s like a ghost. He ain’t been out in the sun for a while, that’s for sure. These kids need to get offa their computers and get outside and throw some ball.”
“Ssh, listen up. He’s startin’…”
Becker bristled at the rebuke, but mentally filed it away for later. The MAGA cap on the screen loomed large as the young man lent forward to adjust his settings. Satisfied, he leant back and began.
“I ain’t a great one for writing stuff down. I can do it, but why would ya? But this needs to be recorded. I’ll post a link on Parler when it’s done, so everyone knows the truth of what happened. I was gonna just leave it here on the side, but then I figured that the Feds and damn CNN would just pretend like it wasn’t even there. Before you know it, they’ll have told their lies and everyone’ll think I was just another psycho. You know, one of those guys that plans sumpin, and racks up a load of guns and ammo and then sashays into school live on Facebook and blows away all the damn teachers he can find, with a few of the black kids thrown in. That’s not who I am. Even goddamn Fox don’t tell the truth now, but trust me, the truth is spreading and nothing can stop us. Soon enough, everyone’ll know and then the crap really will start to fly. Anyways, I can’t be bothered to write it all up. Those days are long gone.
When I was a kid, I believed every goddamned thing my daddy said to me. I guess it’s the same with the news. One day, you realise that all that stuff you’ve just gone along with is just a pack of lies. It’s like waking up after an operation or sumpin, on your eyes, you know. And when they take the bandages off, it’s like you can really see things the way they are for the first time. It kinda all falls into place. First, I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it, y’know? Then I was angry. And then, in the end, I was kinda thirsty. I wanted to make up for lost time and find out as much of the truth as I could.
Oh boy. You wouldn’t believe the things I found out. 9/11? A complete hoax. The damn CIA did that, baby. You can see the smoke if you watch the video right, down the sides of the towers. Those school shootings and all those bleedin’-heart parents asking for everyone to hand their guns in? Communists and Washington wanting to strip us of our guns. Our guns, man. This is America, these are our rights, the right to bear arms, you know? Freedom, yeah? Those parents? Well, it’s been proved that they were actors. I seen the video. And all the stuff about landing on the moon? Come on. There’s been stuff about that sucker on the internet for years, like Kennedy’s assassination, and yet they still try and get away with it. I love the internet man, I really do. The Fake News guys thought they had it all stitched up but social media. Twitter, facebook, the web, they can’t keep it all secret anymore man. It’s over. And they’re scared. Oh yeah, real scared.
I guess you don’t need me to tell you about COVID. That mother is the biggest load of crap of ‘em all, ‘cos like they are literally using it so that they can inject everyone with a so-called vaccine. How dumb can folks get? What’s in it? How can anyone possibly know? It’s gonna be some kind of a chip, man, that they can use to control everyone and everything. No way am I falling for that shit, man. But everybody else does. You see ‘em in the street and at the Mall, wearing their pussy little masks, staying indoors, creepin’ around to grab their groceries. That ain’t what made America great man. And everyone just literally rolls over and swallows this shit.
My Daddy believed all of this shit too. I’m real angry about that, about what all of these lies made me do. I didn’t want to, but shit happens. I guess they’ve probably found him by now. I’m real sorry about it, but he just wouldn’t stop. He’s an accountant see. Or he was. Well, not really an accountant, that was what he called himself to make him seem like some kind of big shot, when really, he was just some sucker like the rest of us, working his butt off for nothing. He was nothin’ more than a book-keeper. He kinda did the books and some of the chicken shit payments and bills and stuff at the old Quarry back home in Oregon. Kimberley, Oregon. See, I knew there was dynamite there, for the business, and I knew it would be easy enough to drive in there when it was dark, with my daddy’s keys and just kinda help myself.
I woulda gotten away with it as well, but I left my damn laptop up and he saw all the messages, man. I’d been plannin’ it for a long while. Eventually the other guys went along with it. I guess they just had to make sure that I was for real, and not some goddamn nutjob, y’know. Anyways, they and everybody else will soon see I’m serious. Hell, yeah. You’ll all know who the other guys were soon enough too, but I’ll be the one everyone is talking about.
My Daddy lit off down to the quarry as soon as he saw those damn messages. He came flyin’ in, runnin’ his mouth. At first, I tried to reason with him, man. I tried to explain what it was about, tried to open his eyes, y’know, but some folks just don’t wanna see. We’d had these arguments over and over again, and he wouldn’t listen. Just kept talkin’ about democracy, and the Law and all. He’s a goddamn Republican and everything, but those old school guys are the worst, y’know? They’re as big a part of the problem as the damn Antifa Socialist Democrats. And he was gonna ring the Feds. On me, his own son. Not that he ever thought I counted for much, yeah, I knew that alright. A big disappointment, that was me. But, first and foremost, I’m a patriot. So, I guess, I had to do it. And I did.
I drove East that night. That was part of the plan, see. And now, after what we did to The Capitol, everyone knows we’re serious. And they all think that, because of that, the National Guard and all have been warned and that they’ll be ready for us this time, with the heavy-duty body armour and assault rifles and shit. But the thing is, see, they knew about it last time, and half of those guys are bigger patriots than me. When the shit hits the fan, half of those guys will just turn around and point their rifles the other way. It’s gonna be awesome, man. So now it’s time for the big one. Biden is gonna get the inauguration he did not plan for, ‘cos it’s time for another Revolution, man. It’s 1776 all over again. And if it don’t work, its civil war, part 2. The Empire strikes back, man….”
At that point in the video, the speech was interrupted by a hammering on the door and shouting. The red MAGA cap twisted this way and that, but before he could react, the door splintered open and heavily armed riot police burst into the room, guns held high in front of them. In seconds, they wrestled the young man to the ground, sending his baseball cap flying. There was a lot of shouting and the picture span around wildly and then died as the laptop was sent flying in the scuffle. Then the screen went black.
Fagen shook his head and whistled softly.
“This guy is one fruitcake. I guess we had intel on him. Surveillance and shit. Just as well, seein’ as how he was gonna press the button. Where is he now?”
Becker lit a cigarette.
“Interrogation. The whole nine yards.”
“Hey, Walter, I ain’t sure you can smoke in here.”
Becker raised an eyebrow.
“Jeez, dude. Next you’ll be asking me to wear a mask and keep my distance.”
Fagen shrugged. “Yeah. Sorry, bro.”
There was an awkward silence and Fagen felt he had to make up some lost ground.
“So, he’s getting’ the treatment, huh? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was bein’ waterboarded right about now, man. Just like we did with the towel heads in the good old days.”
Becker smiled through the smoke rising from his Marlborough.
“Nah. He ain’t nobody. We knew all about him. They might make it look as if he’s the main guy, but that’s just to keep everyone quiet. He’s another Lee Harvey Oswald, man.”
Fagen looked nervously around him before coming to a decision.
“What do you think about what he said about The National Guard and all? I mean. It was kinda weird that they had no one there defendin’ The Capitol. I was expecting a show of strength, man. Shock and awe, y’know. Like the goddamn BLM marches, with the Antifas.”
Becker though for moment and took another deep draw on his cigarette. “Come on, Don, the guy was a nutjob, you saw the video. There ain’t no conspiracy goin’ on here. Just big-time losers.”
Fagen smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He glanced at his watch.
“Hey, we’d better get going. It’s fifteen after.”
Becker shook his head.
“You go on down there, man. I just got to finish this report. I’ll see you there later.”
When the door closed behind Fagen, he turned back to the laptop and checked his watch again. He switched on the TV set above the desk and found CNN with its usual busy cacophony of text boxes, live film and scrolling updates. Then he turned to his lap top, stubbed out the cigarette and began to hammer away at the key board, his eyes flicking occasionally up to the television. After a couple of minutes there was a ping to signal an incoming alert. The cell phone lay on the desk, still sleeping. He reached into the laptop case, and fiddling with zips, extracted a second cell. He punched in a number, waited for a second or two, and then spoke.
“You watchin’ this?…… All Good………The next phase is about to start.”
He was in a hurry now. He fumbled with the laptop, closed it down and packed it away, along with the hidden cell. Taking a quick last look around the room, he gathered up his phone and keys, hoisted the laptop over his shoulder and left.
The door clicked softly closed and the windowless room gathered dusky gloom in its corners. The television, volume low, cast a blue, flickering pall over the empty desk as the presenter’s voice continued, talking to no-one.
“News is just reaching us of a serious incident at the White House. We hearing reports that the outgoing President, Donald Trump, is barricaded inside The Oval Office and that shots have been fired. Large numbers of unidentified masked intruders, all heavily armed have been seen inside the building. In a separate development, we are receiving reports of gunfire at the inauguration of President elect Joe Biden. Let’s go first, to our correspondent….”
In the growing darkness of the far corners, untouched by the pale blue flicker of the TV, monsters began to stir.
In the summer of 1975, Steve Chapman was feeling very clever and very pleased with himself. In the last nine months he had:
Secured his first proper girlfriend
Lost his virginity
Finished his A levels
Tried smoking cannabis resin
He made a list of these milestones in the journal he kept. It wasn’t a diary in the conventional sense. He did not record his thoughts and actions every day, but instead made lists of achievements, plans and opinions. He was pleased with the notion of a journal. It lent his thoughts greater weight and added to his sense of himself as someone of finer feelings and ambitions than the common herd.
None of these achievements had been accomplished smoothly, but, he reasoned, out of struggle comes true enlightenment. And nobody else knew he had stumbled across the line in all four spheres of human endeavour. He certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone he was a serial incompetent, when he was so clearly skilled at presenting a serene and untroubled face to the world.
The truth was:
His first girlfriend secured him, pursuing him relentlessly and overwhelming him one evening after strong drink had been taken.
Losing his virginity was more a question of temporarily mislaying it. A botched fumble in a spare room was accomplished with relief rather than rampant studdery.
His results had still not been issued, but he knew that the cavalier approach to his studies he had adopted for the last eighteen months (starting the minute he discovered peers who would go to the pub with him) had seriously jeopardised his chances of success. As the results day drew nearer, he grew ever more queasy about the prospect of ignominious failure.
Smoking spliffs, while a deliciously naughty marker of someone who was delighted to be outside of the mainstream, made him cough and fall asleep.
His Parents, who thus far had been indulgent of his long hair, late hours and frequent hangovers, mainly on the back of his unprecedented educational achievements, had their limits. It had been made clear to him that now was the time, notwithstanding his impending glittering A level success, to get a job. The very phrase sent a chill down his spine, but he knew that money was tight at home and he couldn’t expect much in the way of subs.
Matters came to a head one Sunday lunchtime in June. He was sitting at the table with his Mother and Father, demolishing a steaming plate of roast beef, thin gravy and industrially blitzed vegetables. It was a rare occasion that all three of them were in the same room together at the same time. His father often worked nights and was either out at work, or as his Mother often used to say, with a combination of warning and relief in her voice, “Your Father’s in bed.”
It was his Father that raised the subject. “So, Steven. Any luck on the jobs front?”
Steve stopped in mid munch, a heavily laden fork of Yorkshire pudding suspended in mid-air between plate and mouth. The surprise was as much generated by the fact that his father had initiated conversation as it was by the subject matter. He was a shy, taciturn man, who inhabited silence as comfortably as a trappist monk.
“Er, no, not yet. There doesn’t seem to be much about.”
He ploughed on with his lunch, piling more steaming forkfuls into his mouth. To his surprise, the conversation was clearly not over as far as his father was concerned. Normally one sentence seemed to require an extended period of silent rest to allow his father to recover from such abandoned social exertions. This was rare stamina and determination on display.
“Where have you tried?”
“I was going to try the Bakery, but Martin told me that there were no vacancies. He went round last week and just missed the last one.”
“Steven,” his mother interjected, “Don’t speak with your mouth full please. We can wait.”
Steve held up his hand in acknowledgement and ground away at his food until normal service could be resumed. With a final hasty swallow, he began again.
“Sorry Mam, this dinner is too good to wait.” Flattery was one of his most effective weapons in the ongoing battle to avoid parental censure. He had learned long ago that charm would prevent any practical difficulties arising in his life as a result of a potential telling off. He repeated the sentence again, more intelligibly this time, and waited for his Dad to drop the subject.
“I can probably get you a job at the shed you know,” his father said, patently not dropping the subject.
Steve was gripped by a blind panic. His heart started hammering against his chest and he felt himself getting hot. There must be something he could do to prevent this catastrophe from coming true. Racking his brains while taking a little longer than was necessary to finish his mouthful of roast beef, he finally managed a weak, “Really?”
It wasn’t the most brilliant strategy he had ever come up with, but in the absence of an idea, delay was the only option open to him.
“Yes, they’re going to advertise next week in The Gazette I think, but you could get in early. I’ll find out at work tomorrow if you like.”
“Yeah Dad, that would be great. Thanks.”
This news had obviously come as something of a shock to his mother as well. Her face had taken on a disapproving look, and she glared at her husband with a straight, thin lipped mouth.
“Don’t be daft Tom, he’ll be wanting something better than that, won’t he? A lad that’s about to go to University won’t want to be working in your filthy railway shed.”
The glare was returned. “Aye well, beggars can’t be choosers, can they? A job’s a job.”
Steve intervened. “They don’t normally have summer jobs there do they? What’s it doing?”
“No, they’re just taking on some lads temporarily to get rid a lot of the rubbish there and to clean up generally. The fitters and fitters’ mates are up to their eyes in maintenance. We haven’t got time do the clearing. The money ‘ll be alright mind.”
“Brilliant, thanks Dad. And you’ll let me know tomorrow, yeah?”
It was agreed. The rest of Sunday dinner passed as normal. Steve’s mother chattered on, while his Father subsided into his more familiar silence. Steve, occasionally responding to his Mother’s questions, with non-committal grunts, was gripped with a dread feeling of impending doom.
Later that day Steve was gloomily staring into a pint. Sarah broke into his brown study.
“So, explain it to me again. You’re broke, you’d like to enjoy this summer of leisure, and, I assume, you’re very keen to lavish money and attention on me. And you’ve been offered a job.”
“Exactly,” muttered Steve.
“I’m obviously missing something here. To any normal person that sounds like a timely solution to a problem, but you’re behaving as if you’re about to be sent to prison.”
“It’s not just any job, it’s a job working with my Dad. Shift work, in the dead of night, doing unspeakable things with bits of metal. It’ll be noisy and cold and physically exhausting. It might as well be prison, or a chain gang or something.” He sighed and took another sip of his drink.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Dear God Steve, you sound like a Jane Austen heroine. Get a grip. Its only for a few weeks, you can manage that surely?”
“Of course I can manage it, I’m not an invalid. I just don’t want to, that’s all. It’s going to spoil the whole summer. I’ll be too exhausted to see you. The trouble is, I’ve got no way of reasonably turning it down. It’s a done deal. I’m trapped.”
Sarah thought for a moment. She smiled and squeezed his knee. “I’ve got a solution. Leave it all to me.”
Sarah turned the key in the lock and pushed open the front door.
“Hi Mam, Dad, we’re back,” she called into the hall.
“Eeh, you’re early love. Anything the matter?” Her mother bustled into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Any time Steve saw her she seemed to be in the middle of some kind of domestic task. Until he had started going out with Sarah, he had no idea that there were so many domestic tasks to be done. He still wasn’t sure whether this was because the smooth running of the household was a fiendishly complex, time intensive procedure or whether her mother, with time on her hands, had to fill her days with something. Steve’s mother worked and had little energy or inclination left over for cleaning.
“No, no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to ask Dad something.”
“Oh well, he’s in the front room. Hello Steven love, how are you?”
“I’m very well Mrs Young, thanks.”
“Would you like some cheese and biscuits love? Come though to the kitchen while I get you some.”
Her other main mission in life appeared to be rescuing Steve from malnutrition. She took any opportunity to feed him and Steve had learned from experience that resistance was not only futile, but considered rather rude. He meekly followed her into the kitchen while Sarah went to clinch the deal with her father in the front room.
A few minutes later he came into the front room with the obligatory plate of Ritz crackers and mature cheddar. Sarah’s father was ensconced in his usual throne, a leather swivel armchair within blinking distance of a huge colour TV that was almost as deep as it was long. He was wearing a towelling robe, with his bare legs sticking out of the end with his feet, snug in leather slippers, up on a matching leather pouffe. The picture was completed by his equivalent of his wife’s tea towel, a conical glass of golden lager, with a generous head of white creamy foam.
“Well, here he is. We were just talking about you Steven,” he announced.
“Oh. Hello Stan. Were you? Talking about me I mean?” Steve was a little confused by Stan’s opening gambit.
“Yes, we were. I hear you’re wanting a job so that you can take my daughter out to fine restaurants.” He smirked.
“Well, er, I..”
He glanced nervously at Sarah, who was enjoying his discomfort.
“Good, I’m pleased to hear it lad. About time to. You can start on Tuesday. It could probably be tomorrow but I really should clear it with Geoff first. There won’t be a problem, but there are protocols you know.”
Steve gulped. “Great, thanks Stan. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem, son, no problem.”
There was a pause.
Finally, Steve couldn’t hold out any longer. Sarah was clearly not going to rescue him.
“Um, what exactly is the job Stan? And where exactly is it?”
Stan shook his head. “Dear Lord, don’t you two talk about anything? Or are you as simple as you appear? You’ll have to shape up better than this when you start you know. My reputation’s on the line.”
Sarah and her father turned to look at each other and beamed. Steve managed to crack a faint line of a weak smile. He was beginning to wonder whether working nights on the railway might have been the better option after all, but nevertheless, that night he added to the list at the front of his journal:
Got a job
His mother was delighted, his father silently put out. An office job. For Steven it represented a narrow escape and further proof that this was set to be a golden summer of legend. It had got to be better than the harsh realities of life of shift work in a wind-blown hangar full of rusting metal and heavy tools. He could sit down. He would probably be able to read. He would certainly be able to daydream. And, for the first time in his life, he would get paid.
On Tuesday morning, the horror of dragging himself out of his warm bed tested his resolve to the limit but, gritting his teeth, he persisted, enduring a train journey through the pock-marked wasteland that was much of the landscape of Teesside in the 1970s. On arrival at the Cargo Fleet Drawing Office he was shown to a seat at a desk in one corner of a cavernous open plan office by Sandra, a middle -aged lady from the typing pool who had met him on arrival. As she led the way across the neon-lit arena, Steve felt horribly exposed, like a gladiator striding towards the lions, while the crowd weighed him up and assessed his chances of survival. His progress was punctuated by a series of witty cat-calls, largely generated by the fact that no women worked in this office and the arrival of Sandra produced a rush of testosterone that seemed to temporarily disable all signs of intelligent life. “Oi, Sandra, you’re a right cradle snatcher.” “Have you given him one yet, Sandra?”, “Sandra, fancy a quick one?” were some of the more sensitive contributions she had to endure on the voyage out to the desk in the corner. She left Steve wordlessly at the desk, indicating that he should sit, turned on her heels and embarked immediately on the return trip, oblivious to the repetition of exactly the same abuse as on the outward journey. She glided along, head held high, poker faced.
Just before she reached the end of the office to make good her escape, the sound of approaching shouting cut through the casual banter. The door was flung open, the handle banging violently on the opposite wall. Sandra stopped in her tracks to avoid being steam-rollered by two men who strode purposefully into the room in mid-conversation. Immediately, the sniggering and cat-calling stopped and all of the men in the office, previously so smug and sure of themselves in their casually flung insults, bowed their heads, averted their eyes and with an eagerness that was pathetic to behold, started shuffling the papers on their desks. The boldest of them, those with ambition or more resilient self-confidence, flicked a glance towards the newcomers. One of them even managed to mumble, “Morning Peter, morning Geoff.” They were disregarded and the two men continued their conversation as they progressed through the office.
“…a lovely shot from the seventeenth. Just left me about five yards. He was spitting I’m telling you.”
“I BET HE WAS. I HOPE YOU HAD SOME MONEY ON IT, GEOFF.”
The reply came from the taller of the two men. At first Steve, nervously looking on from the shelter of his corner desk, thought that there was some kind of argument going on, and that the smaller man was in receipt of a regal bollocking from the taller. Then, when it became clear that they were laughing and joking with each other, Steve was enveloped in a cloud of cognitive dissonance. Unlike the others, who resolutely avoided eye contact, Steve continued to stare surreptitiously at the giant with a voice like thunder. He was about six feet six in a dishevelled grey suit with a pink shirt and paisley kipper tie. The enormous knot was an inch or two below the open shirt collar, through which peeked a forest of jet black hairy tufts. The same unruly tangle of black hair framed a shining bald pate, and the matching effect was completed by strong tendrils of wiry growth protruding from ears and nostrils, like mini shaving brushes. Steve’s contemplation of his outfit was interrupted by an outbreak of painfully loud, explosive laughter, as the taller man gave vent to his enjoyment of his own joke. The room shook and a slight breeze stirred up as he made his way to his desk. His outfit was completed by a huge pair of black boots that seemed to be encrusted with steel segs, given the reverberating clatter they made on the linoleum floor.
His desk was at the far end of the office, adjacent to Steve’s but mercifully hidden by a couple of screens and some straggly pot plants. By leaning backwards Steve was able to peer through a gap in the screens, fringed by foliage, and spy unnoticed on the occupant of the desk. The floor shook as he clumped his way to his chair, and the air echoed to the scraped chair legs on the tiles as he prepared to sit down. His every interaction with the world around him seemed to be an assault: he slammed the door, pummelled the floor, barked his conversation, ploughed the chair legs into the floor’s crust, bombed the desk top with the set of box files he casually dropped. Then he crashed down into his seat and let out a sigh like a steam train. It was a miracle that the desk/chair combination had not been reduced to matchwood. This had taken about forty seconds from one end of the office to the other but already Steve could feel the beginnings of a headache developing.
His fascinated musings about this strange creature were interrupted by the approach of the second man, who had continued his fight path across the office and arrived like an arrow from a bow at Steve’s desk. He smiled broadly and reached his hand out to Steve.
“Geoff. Geoff Barton. And you are?”
Steve returned his outstretched hand.
“Er, Steve, Steve Chapman.”
“Yes, that’s right, Steve. And you’re going out with Stan’s daughter, aren’t you? Sarah, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Steve, not quite sure where this was leading and keen to disentangle his hand.
A smirk played across Geoff’s face. “Yes, Stan’s daughter. Stan’s told me all about you lad.” The smirk rippled into a laugh, as if what Stan had told him was in some way ridiculous. Steve’s face dropped.
“No, no”, Geoff hurried to reassure him, “All good, Steve lad, all good, honestly. Got a bit of a soft spot for you, if you ask me Steve. Not like Stan at all, actually.”
Steve softened. Good old Stan had put a word in for him, clearly.
“Anyroad up lad, down to business. See that filing cabinet behind you?”
Steve turned to look in the direction of Geoff’s gaze, and clocking a regulation gun metal grey cabinet, nodded.
“That cabinet is full of blueprints. What your job is, in the first instance, is to calculate the floor area of each building on each drawing. What’s your maths like?”
Before Steve could answer, Geoff ploughed on. “Never mind, never mind. There’s a calculator on your desk. Just work out the floor areas for each plan, record it on a central list and on the plan itself, and keep the completed plans in a pile on that table next to the cabinet. You got that?”
“Yeah, seems quite straightforward. What do I do when I’ve finished?”
“Finished?” snorted Geoff, “Finished? You wont finish lad, not unless you don’t do it properly. Just take it steady and we’ll see where we are after that, eh? Alright? I’ll drop by to check you’re alright later on. Welcome to Chicago Fleet, son. British Steel, land of the brave, eh?”
He turned to go.
“Er, Geoff?” Steve hesitantly called after him.
Geoff stopped, turned and took a few steps back in his direction, a beatific smile of endless patience with fools on his face. “Yes, Steve?”
Steve’s glanced back in the direction of Geoff’s colleague, between the screen and the pot plant. He lowered his voice. “Who’s that guy over there? The one you came in with?”
A cloud passed over Geoff’s face. He bent down and, leaning on the desk, matched his volume to Steve’s. “Don’t concern yourself with him. That’s Peter, the boss of the whole section. He’s way above your paygrade. Keep out his way, don’t draw attention to yourself and you should be alright. Most of the rest of the office are petrified of him and that’s the way he likes it, but his bark is certainly worse than his bite. But don’t give him any excuse to bark, mind. Or bite. If you’re lucky, the summer’ll be over before he even notices you.”
Before Steve could reply, Pottage barked. The phone on his desk rang and Pottage snatched up the receiver from the cradle. It disappeared into his huge hairy paw, each end only just poking clear of the mammoth fist, like a black balloon, squeezed into deformity
“POTTAGE!” he bellowed into the receiver. There was a pause, filled with tinny, far away squeaking.
“NO!” replied Pottage decisively, and he crunched the phone back down on to the cradle with an almighty crash. The room shook slightly and the ragged leaves of the pot plant continued to quiver, like an earthquake’s after shock. He went back to assaulting the pile of card folders on his desk. Never had a phone call been so comprehensively over.
Geoff smiled back at Steve ruefully, raised his eyebrows and turning on his heels, walked back out of the office. Steve stared back through the gap in the foliage, a mounting feeling of trepidation rising in his stomach. “Just as well his bite isn’t worse than his bark,” thought Steve, turning to remove the first wedge of blueprints from the filing cabinet drawer.
He worked his way through them methodically for the rest of the morning, entirely undisturbed by the other office workers, save for regular booming outbursts from Peter Pottage whenever the phone rang. Occasionally, Pottage would sally forth from his desk, sending a ripple of fear through the rest of the office. The inhabitant of every desk would immediately cease whatever conversation they had been having and give the papers on their desk their fullest attention, eyes down, brows furrowed. The relief in the room when Pottage descended on a particular individual was palpable and grew as Pottage proceeded to bawl out whoever was the lucky recipient. It was still unclear to Steve whether Pottage was giving someone a bollocking or merely checking the progress of work in a paternalistic, polite enquiry.
By the time it got to late afternoon, Steve was feeling positively euphoric about the world of work. He had survived his first day by keeping his head down, occasionally spying on the monster that was Pottage through the gap in the screens, and working his way through the mountain of blueprints on his desk. As the day progressed, the edge had been taken off his fear of Pottage, and consequently he began to feel the first stirrings of boredom.
At about four in the afternoon, Steve’s thoughts had begun to turn to the journey home and some down time. His fantasies about how he would spend his first pay packet were rudely interrupted by a commotion from the desk behind the screen. Pottage had moved away from his desk and stood adjacent to it with a clear view down to the far end. In one hand he had a huge fat cigar that he sporadically puffed on furiously, generating pungent clouds of smoke. In the other he had a fishing rod.
“MIND YER BACKS!” he shouted, though he needn’t have bothered as every other worker in the office was rigidly staring at him with unswerving concentration. Taking a final puff on the cigar he swung the rod over his head and with a snap of his wrist, flicked it back, sending the line and hook whistling through the air to the back of the office. There were murmurs of approval from the watching desks and a panicked jump out of the way by one of the occupants at the back and to the right. Once he had saved himself from having his eye out, he grabbed hold of the hook at the end of the line and affixed it to a sheet of paper about A5 size. No sooner was it attached than Pottage again shouted, “HEADS!” and began to furiously reel the paper in, stopping in mid -reel for a restorative drag on the cigar. As the hooked paper swung past him, he grabbed it and pulled it towards him.
“BROWN TROUT!” he announced, with a beaming smile playing across his lips. He ripped the paper from the hook and displayed it to the office as proof. The sheet had the words “brown trout” scrawled across it in thick black felt tip. There was a general murmur of approval, with a ripple of muted applause and the occasional “Well done Peter”.
From behind the screen, Steve watched aghast as the whole pantomime was repeated several times, with Pottage casting off and then reeling in, from various desks, a Chub, a Tench and, producing a spontaneous ovation, a Salmon. After a while, it was clear that Pottage’s sporting needs had been sated and he spent a good five minutes elaborately putting away his rod and tackle. Then, still puffing on his cigar, he strode down the middle aisle of the office and out, pausing only to bellow, “A GOOD DAY’S WORK THAT. GOOD EVENING GENTLEMEN.”
Every day followed the same pattern, with Steve dividing his time up between daydreaming and continuing his allotted task of working out floor areas. Every day, Pottage assaulted his immediate environment, and all those in it, with his every action. Even his thoughts seemed loud. Every day, Pottage devoted the last forty-five minutes to practising his casting technique as part of his fantasy pursuit of brown trout about five hundred metres away from a river that had not seen a fish of any description since the Industrial Revolution. Every day Geoff would wander over to Steve’s desk and say, “Alright Steven, how’s it going? Good lad,” and then wander away again without waiting for a reply.
Steven took to devoting his daydreams to thoughts of his future life as a University student. By then he would have taken up his rightful place as one the country’s intellectuals, far from the meagre, petty concerns of this nine -to- five drudgery, surrounded by smaller spirits and meaner souls. He began to pity his fellow office slaves for they had no such chance of escape. Probably that was kinder, for what would they do with choice if it were ever on offer? Without the wit to inhabit such liberty fruitfully, it would be shamefully wasted on them.
Similarly, he thought Teesside a provincial backwater, ill-suited to his talents and he envisaged his journey to York in September as emotionally and intellectually, a one-way ticket out of Nowheresville. Probably, he mused, en route to London or Oxford, or some other exotic place he actually had no idea about at all, where he would end up working in some kind of creative profession, whose jobs were routinely advertised in The Guardian on Mondays. He would meet a series of impossibly glamorous and sophisticated beautiful women who would be entranced by his northern charm, towering intellect and dashing good looks. A string of casual yet subtly intense affairs would follow before finding a soulmate in an obscurely published avant-garde poet.
He had begun to think that his relationship with Sarah had run its course anyway and that it was probably best all round if he finished it before he left for York. Sometimes an act of decisive cruelty was, in reality, an act of kindness. It had been great and she was great, but she wasn’t quite up to the mark culturally, when push came to shove.
He was decided. He would give British Steel another three weeks, out of respect for Stan, and to accumulate enough money to fund an appropriate wardrobe and accessories to make a splash on his first entrance into undergraduate life. He reckoned he could probably just about bear another three weeks of idling away behind a screen, observing the ridiculous goings on of the workforce. The only issue was when was he going to break the news to Sarah, who obviously, would be devastated. She had already made a bit of fuss about not seeing him very much and had ruined a “romantic” dinner for two over a bottle of Mateus Rose by continuously carping and complaining about his being “distant”. Distant! Was it his fault his mind was full of finer things, things Sarah couldn’t possible understand or appreciate? The more he thought about it, the more he realised that the only option open to him was to cast off all of the trappings of his old life in preparation for the new.
No matter how hard he tried or how much he steeled himself, he could not bring himself to do the deed. Finally, it came to the week he had planned as his penultimate at the Cargo Fleet office. He had arranged to meet Sarah at The Stockton Arms on Thursday evening. It was the usual drinking venue of their set and he thought it might be kinder to break the news to her in familiar surroundings, surrounded by all of their friends, who would undoubtedly be a source of solace to her afterwards.
They were sitting at a corner table, and a series of friends had come and gone. It had been a great night and Steve positively had to fight back his tendency towards nostalgia. It had to be now, he told himself repeatedly. Just as he was about to launch himself into “the conversation”, they were joined at the table by a couple of people who were outer members of their circle, John and Graham, who were always good value after a few drinks.
“Hey guys,” announced John, “Mind if we join you two young lovers?”
“Hi John, Graham, come and sit down. How are you?” Sarah was genuine in her enthusiastic greeting. Steve felt a mounting sense of irritation. Sarah seemed more comfortable when other people were present.
“So, Steve,” John began cheerily, “How are you feeling about going away in September? York, isn’t it?”
“I’m pretty excited actually John. The university looks great, it has a really good reputation – almost like Oxbridge actually. And, to tell you the truth,” continued Steve, warming to his subject, “It’ll be a relief to get away from Stockton.”
“Oh, why’s that?” enquired Graham, sitting forward in his chair.
“Well, you know, Stockton’s so small and there’s absolutely nothing happening here. It’s such a backwater, I’d go mad if I had to stay here.” He looked from one to the other, a broad smile on his face. He was met with blank looks and the silence grew. It began to get awkward.
“Er.. where is that you two are going again? Nottingham, was it? What’s that like?” Steve was struggling to thaw the sudden freeze that had descended.
“No, It’s Teesside Poly actually,” said John in clipped tones, “I’m not gonna get the grades for Nottingham.”
“Oh. Oh well”, said Steve brightly, “I’m sure that’ll be fine, staying somewhere you used to.”
“Yeah,” agreed Graham, “Somewhere small and not too demanding. Somewhere we could cope with. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed I don’t go mad. Still,” he continued, scooping up his cigarettes and pint, “at least all the tossers like you will have left. Come on John, let’s go and talk to someone who’s not being intellectually stifled by his hometown.”
They both got up and moved away, shaking their heads.
“God, what’s wrong with them? They’re a bit touchy, aren’t they?” protested Steve.
Sarah glared at him. “My God Steve, you really are a bit of wanker, aren’t you? What a snob. Don’t you get it? Not everyone is as clever as you, but they don’t like having their noses rubbed in it. Honestly, I give up with you, I really do.” She drained her glass and got up.
“What…what are you doing?” spluttered Steve.
“I’m leaving. That’s it. And not just the table, I’m leaving you. I was going to tell you tonight anyway, but I can’t bear to spend any more time with you. I’m going to talk to some proper human beings with proper feelings.”
“But, I didn’t mean…”
“No buts. Enough. Finish your drink on your own. You might as well get used to it.” And with that she stalked off.
The next day at work, Steve consoled himself with the fact that he could give his notice in, do one more week and then be free. He had spent half the night tossing and turning, trying to come to terms with what had happened in the pub, but try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. What had he done that was so wrong? Everyone knew that Stockton was the armpit of the universe. Denying it was just romantic nostalgia of the worst kind.
He was able to continue chewing it over in his mind, sitting at his desk protected by the screen and the pot plants, but he made little progress and, giving up the struggle, devoted most of his imaginative energies to speculating about the finer life he would have in York, where his thoughts about the world would not be so cruelly traduced. He even found time to fit in a little floor area calculation, adding the figures to his growing list of tallied numbers.
By the time the clock had ticked around to 4pm he could begin to think about home time. He would go over and find Geoff to let him know that next week would have to be his last. He felt sure that Geoff would be a little gutted to lose such a productive and trouble-free member of staff. He was just about to get up to begin, when he was interrupted by stirrings from the lair of the mighty Pottage behind the screens.
“Oh God,” thought Steve, “We’ve got to go through this angling pantomime again. Jesus wept.”
He shrank back down behind his screen and prepared to watch the daily ritual of Pottage being indulged by the junior members of his office staff, pathetic in their abject fear. At least, thought Steve, he could hide and stay out of the way.
Pottage collected his rod, lit his cigar and strode out into the centre aisle as usual. He stopped, surveyed all corners of the office, sniffed the air and bellowed, “DO YOU KNOW LADS, I THINK I’LL TRY THE OPPOSITE BANK. I’M FISHING DOWN AT GREAT AYTON ON SUNDAY AND THE SUN’LL BE AT ME BACK MOST OF THE TIME.”
There was a general murmuring of approval and nodding of heads as Pottage crunched his way down to the other end of the office, his cigar generating industrial quantities of smoke. From his hidey hole, Steve looked aghast down to the other end where Pottage was taking up his position. He was in full view. He thought of edging sideways, closer to the pot plants, but it was too late. Pottage had him in his sights. He took the cigar from his mouth and opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Instead he half turned to glare at a desk half way down on the left. He flicked the rod back over his head and snapped it forward, casting the line unerringly on to a sheaf of paper in front of the nervous occupant who quickly attached the sheet of paper as part of a well-drilled routine and watched with some relief as it sped away, Pottage furiously puffing on his cigar while working the reel handle.
He squinted at the sheet and a broad smile broke out. “PIKE!” he proclaimed.
“Oooh,” came the servile chorus with a smattering of applause. Pottage held his hand up, still smiling, and as quickly as the applause had broken out, it stopped.
“Now then,” he said quietly, a gleam in his eye. He turned and flicked the line flatter this time. It fizzed like rocket, arrowing straight to Steve’s desk where the hook bounced off his pile of blueprints and hit him on the shoulder. He jumped out of his skin, his trailing arm sending the neat pile up into the air like a cloud of giant confetti.
“WHAT FISH HAVE I CAUGHT YOUNG MAN? EH?”
“Um, I haven’t got a fish actually Peter,” Steve mumbled nervously.
“WHAT’S THAT LAD? SPEAK UP.”
Steve cleared his throat and raised his voice. “I er, I haven’t got a fish Peter.” He racked his brains to think of a time when he had ever said anything quite so ridiculous.
“PUT THE FIRST SHEET OF PAPER ON THE HOOK LAD. COME ON, CHOP CHOP!”
Like a naughty school boy, humiliated by a sadistic teacher holding him up by his ear, Steve fumbled amongst the sheets of papers, found one and inserted the hook. Pottage, watching him like a hawk whipped it away and began reeling it in. Steve watched it gracefully fly away from him and into Pottage’s waiting hands.
Pottage tore it from the hook and scanned it quickly, his expression clouding over as he did so. He paused to puff again on his cigar. The office held its collective breath, waiting for the judgement of Solomon.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL’S ALL THIS RUBBISH?” He screwed it up into a ball, dropped his rod to the floor and marched back down the aisle towards Steve’s desk. He bent down and scooped up the blueprints and Steve’s laboured calculations that were strewn all over the floor.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON LAD?” He brandished the fan of papers under Steve’s nose.
“Er, yes, that’s right”, gulped Steve.
“AND WE’VE BEEN PAYING YOU FOR THIS CRAP HAVE WE?”
“Er, yes, you have actually.”
“DEAR GOD, NO WONDER THE COUNTRY’S IN SUCH A STATE. CLEAR YOUR DESK LAD, THE GRAVYTRAIN HAS JUST OFFICIALLY HIT THE BUFFERS.”
Pottage’s final act of humiliation was to rip the pile of papers in front of Steve’s nose and to deposit them directly into the bin by the side of his desk. Before the last fragment had fluttered down into the bin, Pottage had turned on his heels, picked up his fishing rod and clattered his way out of the office en route to a weekend’s real fishing.
The stunned silence persisted after he had gone. No-one could bring themselves to look Steve in the face, and one by one, they all began to pack up their own work and prepare themselves to leave, making sure they returned on Monday morning to a clean desk. Eventually, Steve was the last person left in the office. He was just about to get his jacket and leave, when the door at the far end of the office swung open and Geoff came in. He walked up to Steve, an embarrassed expression on his face.
“I suppose you realise that this was your last day Steven?” he asked.
“I sort of got the feeling that was the case, yeah,” replied Steve, his face telling a story of confusion and hurt.
“Don’t look like that lad, you had a good run. You were just unlucky Peter changed his casting position. He’s never done that before.”
Steve looked at Geoff. “There wasn’t ever really a job here was there? Not a proper one, I mean.”
Geoff shook his head. “No, lad, there wasn’t. It was a favour to Stan. We sort of “create” a job every summer for one of the executive’s sons before university, that sort of thing. Sometimes two. In your case, you were the deserving boyfriend, that’s all.”
Steve forced out a hollow laugh. “Deserving boyfriend, that’s a joke. The funny thing is, I was gonna…” He paused.
“You were going to what lad?”
He shook his head.
“Oh nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Later, in the early hours of the morning, in the quiet darkness of his room, he sat at a desk, staring out of his window at the rows of streetlamps illuminating the pebble dash houses of the estate. A confined cone of yellow lit up a small section of the desk top and his journal, opened to the first page. After some thought he turned his attention to the journal, picked up a pen and wrote, adding to the list:
Lost reputation and friends.
He stopped for a moment, looking back out of the window at the rows of identical houses, huddled in the darkness. Shaking his head, he turned back to the journal and added
Lost self -respect
He shivered. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling very clever or very pleased with himself anymore.
Since the time of writing, Johnson has finally cancelled Christmas and we are left with the choice of criminalisation, infection or isolation. Thanks, pal.
As I write, the UK is on the edge of being submerged in the biggest crisis of my lifetime, as the most tumultuous year any of us has ever experienced limps to an end. No, I don’t mean Brexit. Liarman Johnson will, with a straight face, pull a supposed rabbit from a virtual hat and proclaim that he has heroically faced down the forces of evil at the eleventh hour and achieved a stunning deal that is brilliant for Britain. Anyone with functioning synapses knows that this is nonsense, and that he has, just as he did with Northern Ireland, rolled over in front of Michel Barnier and capitulated. Fishermen? Let them eat cake. Level playing field? We can manage being at the bottom of a steep cliff because we are English, are we not? ECJ ajudication? Bring it on, as long as we can call it something different. Maybe The Johnson Universal Deal Agreement System, or JUDAS for short.
All of that was always going to result in a stage-managed last-minute escape. No, the real crisis we face, is the terrible possibility (terrible to The Daily Mail, that is) that Christmas, as we know it, will not take place. And what makes it worse is that we can’t even blame it on Johnny Foreigner. So appalling is it to Johnson, with his psychopath’s need to be loved, that he is willing to contemplate millions of people travelling across the country, trailing infection in their wake, so that they can congregate around a groaning table, having spent an obscene amount of money they don’t have, on stuff that their nearest and dearest don’t want. Ah, Boris. Bless ‘im! Yes, just step over the bodies, dear, that’s right. Don’t distress yourself, it’s not important. It’s no-one’s fault – they had underlying health issues, you see.
When it comes to historical re-enactments, Boris is always going to want to play Charles II, (Nell Gwynne in tow), rather than Oliver Cromwell, who let’s face it, was a bit of pinko killjoy.
But let me, for a moment at least, step out my customary jaundiced mind set and acknowledge the joint humanity of this. Yes, even Tories (or Johnson’s English Nationalists) get some things right. And even Lefties value family and Christmas, and desperately want to end the year with some semblance of normality. So one can understand the reluctance to impose travel and mixing restrictions on a weary population, not least because it would be almost impossible to police. Allowing people to do something (ie removing the threat of legal enforcement) while advising them not to do it, in the light of the most up to date evidence, seems a reasonable course of action. It allows people to make sensible decisions based on their own personal circumstances. There will be people who know this will be their last ever Christmas. There will be those whose mental health would be severely tested by the prospect and the reality of a Christmas on their own. And, not least, there will be those ( the majority I believe) for whom cancelling Christmas as usual is by far the best solution. We can put up with more inconvenience for a while longer to play our part in not spreading this accursed virus any further. All of those groups can make defendable decisions.
My own Christmas arrangements have been completely disrupted. And the changes take me back down Memory Lane, to a time when the late December trip back up North, was a regular feature of my festive schedule. This tale takes place in the distant time of December 1982. Not quite Dickensian times, but near enough. I had just completed my first term as a trainee teacher, back in the days when trainees had the course paid for as their fourth year of Higher Education. (Yes, youngsters, Fees and maintenance all taken care of by the State. Don’t believe all you read about the Seventies and early eighties, before The Thatcher Ascendancy.)
I had to cycle twenty miles a day to get to my College and back during this term. Given the fact that I can’t get up two flights of stairs at home without groaning these days, this seems barely believable to me now. Although I really enjoyed the course and was amazed to find that I was quite good at teaching, it was with some relief that I greeted the Christmas holidays, with a break from the bike and the South Circular. But money, not leisure, was the main driver, despite the generosity of the state, and I was delighted to get a job for the Christmas holidays. I began to calculate the largesse I would demonstrate on my return to the land of my fathers, to check in with all of my Sixth Form chums again. Yes, the drinks would be on me.
I lived in a shared house at the top of Brixton Hill, just opposite the prison. One of the guys who I shared with, a friend from Teesside, was also training to be an English teacher, and we both got the same holiday job – seasonal shop assistant in Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”). We did it for about two weeks. I was on the stationery counter and spent a very depressing fortnight selling a whole range of Christmas tat to people who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families. They would shuffle up to the counter, hands digging deep into their pockets for their last few coins, and begin the process of mentally calculating which things they would have to put back. I say “people”, but the reality was that they were almost exclusively women, often with small snotty kids in tow, looking harassed and malnourished. My mate was assigned to the fragrance counter, where he worked under the watchful eye of a very glamorous supervisor, who apparently found his jokes hilarious. He had to serve an endless queue of young women, with the occasional dutiful male partner thrown in, looking for the perfect Christmas perfume, while the supervisor stood behind him intermittently squeezing his bottom. When we exchanged notes every evening in the pub, it didn’t take long for me to feel that perhaps I was getting the worst end of the deal. Cheshire -cat- grinning mate sympathised with my plight, but not enough apparently, to offer to swap counters.
By the end of the two weeks, we had both had enough of South London’s West End Store. Even good-humoured sexual harassment (though it wouldn’t have been called that back then) can pall after a while and for me, the guilt of fleecing the poorest members of the community where I lived had become too much. We decided, without telling management, that we would not return after the holiday. That turned Christmas Eve into our last day and we become a little demob happy. We were due to finish early, and we had booked tickets on the last train North out of Kings Cross. We took our bags into work with us that morning, so we could get off to a flyer. The plan was to take the tube up west from Brixton, have something to eat and start our Christmas celebrations before boarding the train with a few cans of beer. You have to remember that we were much younger, we were Northerners, and we drank like fishes with little discernible impact on our bodies or brains. Oh happy day! What we didn’t know then was how much that would change as age began to take its toll as it inevitably did, but that’s another story or three.
In the last couple of hours of the shift, I had a Robin Hood type transformation, and began to assuage my guilt by handing over vast handfuls of excess change. At first, some customers, eyes wide, frowning, tried to give it back, but a subtle combination of non-verbal gestures made it clear that, yes, this was their lucky day. A wink. A raised eyebrow. Even, for the less quick on the uptake, a tapping of the side of the nose. Word obviously got round and soon I had the longest queue in the store, much to the amazement of the supervisors who had pigeonholed me as a rather miserable presence on the shop floor. someone without any natural gifts for sales (ie capacity to lie with a straight face). This was in direct contrast to their attitude to my mate, who they had their eyes on for the fast-track management training course, because of his smiling charm. They didn’t seem to realise that it’s much easier to be happy and charming, when you are the object of the customers’ (and colleagues) sexual fantasies rather than the butt of their resentment of their own oppression. “Q: Why can’t I have a nice Christmas and get things that my children and my partner will really enjoy?” A: “Because of that miserable northern git behind the counter.” The lack of a Marxist analysis amongst the client base was deeply disappointing.
Eventually, the shift was over and we were free. I dread to think what the totting up of the till revealed at the end of the day, but no-one ever mentioned it, and the knock on the door from The Old Bill never came. Perhaps everyone else was on the take from the till, who knows? By the time we clambered on to the train at Kings Cross, we were firmly in holiday mode. An early dinner/late lunch with a few drinks had got things off the ground, and we looked forward to a jolly couple of hours to Darlington, aided and abetted by the train buffet. We had tried to get into the spirit of the occasion by attaching some modest bits of tinsel to our outfits, but a quick look at the queue of people boarding the train with us was the first indication that we had perhaps misjudged the situation. Everyone getting on the train appeared to be part of a larger group. They were dressed like extras from Brideshead Revisited, in tuxedos and formal evening wear, with the few women in attendance in posh frocks and they were all decorated with superior Christmas adornments, including liberal quantities of mistletoe. Each little knot of people had their own wicker hamper, and many of them already had champagne flutes in hand and were quaffing (because what else does one do with Champagne in this situation?) as they waited to board.
We both exchanged shifty, bemused glances, and our self-consciousness sky-rocketed. Never had one’s northern oikishness been so publicly exposed. The entire cohort of the passenger list appeared to be old alumni of the country’s finest public schools and Oxbridge, borne out by their braying self-congratulatory conversations. A little bit of shell-shocked earwigging confirmed that this was The City of London heading home to the parental pile in the North for the holidays. They had clearly, like us, come straight from work, but unlike us, their work wasn’t selling cheap cards and scent in Sarf London. The only response to this severe case of Class Alienation was to drink. So we did.
On the first trip to the toilet, it became clear that this was the Longest Party in the World. It was wild. Staggering down the rolling train aisle, I passed table after table of Champagne parties. Crackers were pulled, canapes and all manner of posh food, some of which I had never heard of back in the eighties, never mind tasted, were shovelled in, streamers streamed, music was played and eventually as the drink took hold, dances were danced. As the train pressed on to the frozen north, there was some thawing of the unspoken class war that had been bubbling under the surface of the bonhomie. Alcohol can do that. We shared drinks and stories and had a laugh. It was a reminder of our common humanity and when we finally arrived at Darlington, shrouded in freezing fog, the doors opened and we literally poured out on to the platform in an hysterical tumble of giggles and spilled luggage. Had we continued on to Edinburgh, alcohol might well have worked its way inexorably into the mindless aggression phase, and we may well have attempted to start the revolution on British Rail, but thankfully we didn’t and we had, instead, a Stave-5-Scrooge like warm glow of love towards our fellow human beings. It’s a memory that has stayed with me ever since. A perfect, almost mythical Christmas Eve journey back home. I’ve often thought that Chris Rea should have left the car at home and let the train take the strain, but it all worked out pretty well for him in the car.
However you are spending Christmas, and whatever your movements (or lack of) across the country, I hope you have a restful holiday after what has been a miserable year. When we all get to New Year’s Eve, we need a collective resolution to hasten the vaccine, and never to forget the fiasco of incompetence we’ve endured, led by the charlatan in chief, Mr Johnson. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and most importantly, Stay Safe!
Now social distancing is ingrained in the psyche of all teachers, it seems impossible to remember what “fun” the end of the Christmas term used to be. Last Day non-uniform hysteria, form parties, the final assembly, comedy socks and jumpers and manically excited kids being supervised by terminally exhausted teachers. A recipe for a major disaster if ever there was one. But wouldn’t it be nice if those days could come back? To remind yourself of more innocent times, have a look at this extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance. It’s the last day before the Christmas holidays at Fairfield High School, in the London Borough of Longon. Ho!Ho! Ho!
Remember, don’t try this at home kids……alcohol’s not big and it’s not clever.
Zero Tolerance, Chapter 14
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 7.30am. 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 shop keeper 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, the head of English, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame the Head of Maths.
“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 sisters 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 harpie 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.
“Ok 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 in to 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 pigeon hole. 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 alright. 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, and 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 on to 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.
If you liked that chapter, why not try the rest of the novel? It’s available at the links below:
Lockdown is the mother of invention, or so it seems. In the long, idle hours generated by Covid and Retirement, there has been ample opportunity to hone a new set of skills. The main insight I have gained after being out of the English classroom for the first time since 1982, is that the thing that I miss the most, the essence of English teaching is reading a great book or a poem aloud to a classroom full of kids. And so, I present the results, via my two new ventures, The View from the Great North Wood Youtube channel, and the Telling Stories Podcast. Indulge me, and think of this as therapy for someone still grieving.
Both ventures are straight out of the “Sniffin’ Glue” school of publishing, that is, rough and ready, with an unmistakeable aroma of punk. In those days, we were all just encouraged to get it down while it was hot. To pick up a guitar and learn two chords (who needed more? Patti Smith famously used just one, brilliantly) and start to thrash. To type, cut and paste (with scissors!) and xerox it.
So with that in mind, dive in. But be kind. And, don’t hold back from subscribing and spreading the word.
Zero Tolerance – the perfect gift for the special teacher in your life….
Since it was published at the end of February this year, my first novel, Zero Tolerance has had some brilliant reviews. At this festive time of giving, what better way is there to celebrate the end of a truly ghastly year, by giving a copy of the book to that special teacher in your life.
Still not convinced? Read some extracts from the reviews below:
Peter Thomas, Chair of NATE
Be warned: this is a very offensive book. It will cause great offence to true believers of some of the current orthodoxies prevailing in UK education.
Sceptics, agnostics and heretics will love the book. It is very funny and it is rooted in a very realistic school setting.
Swift’s Modest Proposal….Pope’s Rape of the Lock…Rushdie’s Satanic Verses…The life of Brian….Charlie Hebdo cartoons…(were all) a cause of offence.
Rattling the bars of an institution can be done from outside or inside, but, either way, rattling them turns the apparatus of repression into an instrument of communication. And this novel rattles quite a few bars, with offence intended.
Debra Kidd – Trainer, writer, founder of National Teacher learning Day, author of “A Curriculum of Hope”
Love, loved, loved this book by The Old Grey Owl. If you’re a fan of silent corridors, zero tolerance etc etc it may not be for you. For the rest of us …..bloody brilliant!
Mark Aston – Schools Week
This is the Edu-Dickens that we have been crying out for since Hard Times. Not since watching A Very Peculiar Practice – an equally caustic satire of encroaching privatisation of the NHS in the late 1980s – have I felt so politically energised by a cultural product. If the malpractices engaged in in this novel are anywhere near truth, then we have streamlined and simplified the English education system into nothing less than a Victorian workhouse, with all its attendant, oft-ignored rules and regulations and lack of meaningful (because often corrupt) oversight.
Those who already experience schools in the way described by the anonymous author will lap up the almost burlesque caricature of the Cruella de Ville that is Everson (she is described as such during a pleasingly terrifying learning walk of the school).
London Headteacher (name changed to protect the innocent)
Loved the book! The plot rang very true for a leader of one of those rare beasts, an LA maintained proper comprehensive school in London. Lots of sadness, but lots of hope too and lovely characters. Highly recommended!
Toxic Policies Poison
Toxic workplace practices have been in place in the private sector for decades, but now they have infiltrated schools. The academisation of Fairfield High has a catastrophic impact on the teachers, pupils and local community. Amid all this turmoil lie two boys, a Syrian refugee and a pending class boy fed a diet of violence and racism. Can anyone survive Zero Tolerance?
A Great read: both enjoyable and disturbing
A great narrative expose of a zero tolerance approach to school management – believable, scathing, with a sensitive human touch and engaging characters. I thoroughly recommend this read, particularly for educators …
A satirical, yet hopeful, look at 21st century schools and the dark forces attempting to transform them.
Warmth, wit and wisdom!
This is a must-read for any teacher that will make you think about what it’s really all for. The novel deftly blends wit and wisdom throughout and The Old Grey Owl writes unsavoury characters so well that you’ll be recoiling at every mention of the pathetic ‘Barry Pugh’!
I loved this novel, it took me on an emotional roller coaster. The characters with all their own doubts and foibles, are drawn brilliantly, We’ve all met these characters during our own school lives or as teachers and we can all picture a face that fits. Then there’s Karim, we may not have met him, but we all know the terrible plight of the refugee. A wonderfully spun tale, I highly recommend this book.
A great satirical work
The British education system has been slowly languishing for many years, suffering from defunding and having attention grabbing, but ultimately useless ideas forced on it. The cries of experienced educators have been drowned out and it seems empathy is at an all time low… or so I believe from what I’ve read in Zero Tolerance. This was a great, satirical work which weaves in astute thoughts on politics, refugees and the general ridiculousness of 21st century life. The Old Grey Owl really breathes life into teachers, a career which has been disrespected by the government for a while now.
Lifting the lid on educational chicanery
This novel is both an engaging page-turner and an important indictment of the direction being taken in state education at the moment. The characters are expertly drawn and the narrative takes you through the travails of teachers trying to do a good job against a back drop of crazy initiatives and unscrupulous school leaders. Added to this is the poignant story of a Syrian refugee who has escaped from one sort of nightmare only to be engulfed by another. Ultimately it has a redemptive finale. We can but hope that, like Rick and his fellow travellers at Fairfield school, this country finally sees the light and we move forward to an education system which aspires to give young people a fully rounded education rather than one narrowly focused on league table supremacy.
First of all this book is a great read. The characters, while they clearly represent a type, are drawn in depth and detail. The plot is wonderfully controlled to keep the reader engrossed and although the story is serious and often tragic, it is fundamentally kind-hearted. This is plainly a book on a mission which may be too apparent, but anyone with experience of children, teaching or teachers can fill in the shades of grey between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. I mustn’t give a way the ending, this book must be read.
A well-paced, intelligent and humorous expose of life in a newly acadamised London school. The anonymous author has written an excoriating account of school life under the awful ‘Superhead’ Camilla, a Gradgrind of the C21st. The novel is an engaging story, full of interesting, empathetic characters and despicably horrible villains. There is genuine emotional engagement with the wellbeing of the oppressed teachers in the book and delightful vignettes of their home lives. The quality of the writing improves throughout the book and there is delightful language and metaphor mixed with political astuteness. Interwoven with the school story of the bastardisation of education, is the story of Syrian refugee Karim, a modern day Oliver Twist who overcomes every adversity to find a new life in England. The denouement is full of dramatic tension. All teachers should read this book and all fans of Dickens, Morpurgo, Pullman, Tressell and Rowling will not be disappointed. Ten out of ten and a gold star.
If you’ve been convinced by those fab reviews, or you’re either curious or desperate, why not see for yourself? Click one of the links below to find the book
Phil Beadle’s latest book is a must-read for anyone serious about going beyond OFSTED’s hopeless misunderstanding of cultural capital and its place in the curriculum
Phil Beadle’s latest book is a timely contribution to the current debate about cultural capital and its place in UK schools. It’s not a wishy-washy dispassionate overview of the terrain, with practical suggestions for how overworked school leaders can get that OFSTED box ticked, thank goodness. I was amused when reading it at the thought that some people may have bought it expecting just that, scrolling through edu-books on Twitter and Amazon, desperately looking for inspiration in advance of writing the proposal for SLT the next day. Anyone who does mistakenly buy it thinking they were about to get a how-to guide to cultural capital is in for a shock. It’s too much to hope, I suppose, that anyone in that situation would actually pause to consider whether the pursuit of cultural capital provision in school was worth a candle, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless. I’ve been there myself. You are charged with rolling out an initiative that you have real misgivings about, but your half-hearted, timorously voiced objections are steamrollered, and the institutional imperative takes over. Careers are built on championing the new, fashioning current buzzwords into practical and procedural systems. And jobs are lost, or opportunities missed, for anyone who is lukewarm. The only show in town these days is evangelical zeal, so reluctant turd polishing is not enough. The turd must be buffed with pride and passion.
If you are an agnostic, or you are a fully paid up member of the non-believer wing of the profession (sometimes referred to as “Progs”) you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this book. It comprehensively demolishes the nonsense that is OFSTED’s understanding of cultural capital, and along the way many of the other sacred cows of The New Brutalists (I particularly enjoyed the withering critique of Doug Lemov’s ideas in general and SLANT in particular. This will almost immediately cause sceptical readers devoted to “Teach Like a Champion” to harrumph, stop reading and unfollow, but woah there! Take a breath. As Educationalists, let’s at least give ideas we don’t like an airing and disagree politely. No need for no-platforming here)
In OFSTED’s view, cultural capital is what working class kids lack. Familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” becomes an inspectable thread in schools’ provision and so schools are scrambling around trying to design a crash course in high culture. Beadle, with his scalpel- like analysis, shows that the adoption of the ideas of Matthew Arnold, are simply yet another incarnation of the rubbishing of working class culture as second class and inauthentic. It is an unquestioning espousal of ideas rooted in a racist, violent, homophobic and upper class superiority, all transmitted from generation to generation via model public schools, right down to Mr Michael Gove. These are the views, courtesy of Mr Gove (assisted by the lovely Dominic) and the last ten years of Tory Government, that have left teachers and students with a barren educational wasteland to inhabit, a world where students are subjected to a coercive and joyless trudge through a slurry of facts. It would be a disservice to Beadle to leave the impression that all it amounts to is Dave Spart class warrior polemics. That’s the tone of my review, but not of the book.
First and foremost, this is a scholarly work, built on a rock solid foundation of sociological theory and analysis. Beadle is a clever guy and a very good writer who has bothered to do the work. He’s read Phillipe Bourdieu extensively and it shows. Each chapter is shored up with a mountain of foot notes. But interestingly, the foot notes reveal the dichotomy at the heart of the book ( and the author, I suspect) Because as well as showing the scholarly heft of the work, they are also very funny. Beadle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is self-deprecating, sarcastic and barbed by turns. But every time you think the book is going to descend into a political piss-take (welcome and justified though that would be) he then veers back into serious academic and pedagogic considerations.
In that sense, the book takes no prisoners. It makes a lot of demands on the reader. Some of the sociological stuff is heavy duty Marxism and can be like wading through treacle at times, but it’s worth persisting with that, because it’s always leavened by an anecdote or a well-chosen, apposite cultural comparison. My take on this was that, whenever the book got to be hard going, well, that was my fault not Beadle’s. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to read a book where the author pays you the respect of treating you seriously as a sentient, intelligent adult. The idea of persistence is important in the context of resilience, another fashionable shibboleth that Beadle examines. He is at his best when skewering the idea that a teenager from a single parent family in temporary accommodation, using food banks and with no access to IT, a quiet space or books might benefit from “Resilience Lessons”. Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The same thought comes to mind when thinking about giving the same kid a dollop of High Culture at discrete weekly sessions (the whole year group in the hall in front of a powerpoint and a harassed member of SLT, no doubt). It’s like a teaspoon of cod liver oil on your bowl of thin gruel doled out by do-gooder in the workhouse. This is another strength of Beadle’s analysis – his reclamation of the idea that working class culture is real and vibrant and powerful. It’s not second class, a pale substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. These children do not need to know about Mozart or Shakespeare or the latest Stoppard so that they can hold an intelligent conversation at a posh dinner in the West End with rich clients (I think that was the gist of a recent tweet on cultural capital from Ms Birbalsingh). They need to know about Mozart and Shakespeare and Stoppard because they are good and interesting and make life a little bit more worth living. Just like the other cultural products that they consume.
And this is where Beadle’s book turns from being interesting and thought provoking into being useful and inspiring. At the end, he addresses the notion of what schools could usefully do in terms of promoting culture. He affirms the positive value to individuals of experiencing all forms of truth and beauty, and puts forward the idea of a programme of cultural experience woven into the everyday life of schools. Culture, in this programme, is all forms of culture not just the upper class approved versions of high culture. Teaching high and low together in a dialectical comparison would produce a synergy of deeper understanding. Integral to his approach would be the explicit teaching of the provenance of cultural artefacts. Where are they from? Who are they produced by, how and why? How are they perceived? All of these are powerful questions that illuminate and empower. So far from rejecting high culture as belonging to the rich and powerful and privileged, he reasserts its value and leaves the reader with a genuinely exciting idea of a curriculum entirely designed around culture. So, duh, of course it’s not Stormzy or Mozart, it’s Stormzy and Mozart, and much , much more.
No doubt the defenders of traditional approaches to culture will be up in arms at this pinko threat to standards, but that is the ultimate proof that Beadle is genuinely on to something here. Whether you agree with its thesis or not, this is a great book that deserves to be widely read, and you may enjoy being outraged. Give it a go – all you have to lose is your prejudices. You can buy it using the link below.