An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl
Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event
The disco was in full swing and under the strobe lights, Rick could just about make out the identities of the gyrating bodies. Occasionally, the pursuit of teenage kicks led to Rick and some of the other senior members of staff in attendance having to remind a few people that snogging should be restrained and controlled. The air inside was thick with pheromones, Lynx and Babe Power. It was at moments like these that Rick was most glad that there was a no alcohol policy. Add that to the mix and there would have been carnage.
The familiar and comforting tropes of the Year 11 Prom were being replayed in front of him. He had been asked several times to “Show us some moves” and had dutifully provided appropriate dad dancing to keep the students amused. He had chatted to staff about their summer holidays. He had taken a thousand photos and had photobombed a thousand selfies. Ties and jackets had long been removed, to be replaced by sweat stains and flapping shirts. Expensive gelled and sprayed hairstyles had started to wilt, mascara to run, and regular missions to the toilets were undertaken for running repairs.
Even better, O’Malley was about to go. Rick had had the delicious experience of walking in to the main dance area with him, to be met with a subtle but unmistakeable outbreak of hissing. To his credit though, O’Malley had stuck it out, even though he was snubbed by both staff and students alike, so that he ended up drinking orange juice on the door with the Security guard. Eventually, after braving several laps of the venue, hissed at wherever he went, he finally came up to Rick and said, straining to be heard above the music, “I think I’ll make a move now.”
“Ok,” Rick replied, “See you on Monday”.
He watched as O’Malley picked his way through knots of people chatting and taking photos, inching his way to the exit. He was about to go and have a sit down in the quiet room when Jason came over to him and shouted, “Eh Sir, come on, it’s the conga.”
He hauled himself to his feet. “Alright Jase, if I absolutely have to,” he said and followed him back into the dance room.
On the main road by the entrance, a red double decker bus stopped and about fifteen raucous youths got off, George in the vanguard of the battalion. Twenty minutes earlier they had mooched around in the street outside the Trafalgar, George still smarting at his humiliation in the pub and the ruination of his Friday night.
“This is fucking rubbish man,” George had pronounced, “What are we gonna do now?”
“There’s always the Prom,” ventured one of the others, “Why don’t we go up there and try and get in? It’d be a laugh.”
“Come on George man, they shouldn’t’ve banned me in the first place, and you never went last year. They’d shit themselves if we all turned up there mob -handed. They’d have to let us in.”
“Yeah come on,” George agreed, “Let’s go shop and buy some more cans and then get on the 165. We’ll be there in fifteen.”
Their spirits rose with the advent of this new plan and by the time they boarded the bus they were loud, aggressive and objectionable in equal measures. It was an uncomfortable journey for those passengers who had made the innocent mistake of getting that particular bus at that particular time.
The driver was relieved to see the back of them as they all piled off at the stop. Although it was only fifteen minutes away from the Trafalgar they found themselves on a lushly wooded fast road with detached houses set back behind long, mature gardens. It was golf course territory. They stared at the houses and breathed in the fragrance of money.
“Fucking hell, look at those houses, fam. Why do they have the Prom here? Talk about fucking rubbing our noses in it.”
They all stared, each of them lost in a vision of their own. Some were consumed with jealousy, some anger, some inferiority, some acceptance, of a world that existed and that they couldn’t change. Eventually they roused themselves. They started off down the road towards the entrance to the mansion when George, out in front, stopped dead.
“Shit. There’s security. We’ll never get past him without a bit of trouble.”
Illuminated by a solitary street light up ahead was the unmistakeable figure of a bouncer. Shaven headed, with sunglasses and a walkie talkie. They all ducked tightly into the trees by the side of the road and began talking quietly.
“Listen,” said George, “I aint going back after all this. If we go over the fence here, we can get in that way, go through the woods and end up on the drive way that leads to the big house.”
After a prodigious session in the Trafalgar, topped up on the bus with a few cans, this seemed to them the most reasonable plan ever devised. Without any hesitation, the rabble began to shin up the fence and over. Two minutes later, with a few barked shins and bruised arms and legs, they were all over the top and in the woods. Clutching their carrier bags full of lager, they tracked the path while staying in the woods until it turned a bend, so that they would be invisible from the road.
Under the canopy of the trees, the warm night air was soupy with pollen and earthy scents and there was a strange quiet, with only the distant hum of the traffic leaking into the undergrowth. They were an unlikely crew, with baseball caps, trainers and carrier bags, crashing through brambles and whiplash sappy branches. Occasionally, they stopped to get their bearings and they listened to the eerie sounds of snuffling, scurrying wildlife yards away from them.
“Fucking hell, man, what was that?” exclaimed one of them after a particularly piteous set of cries came from a thick clump of rhododendron bushes up ahead. Something was meeting a brutal end in this lush Surrey woodland. They all pulled up and looked around, peering through the swirling blackness. Suddenly, the Trafalgar, with its comforting brash lights and noise, seemed many miles away.
“I hate the fucking countryside,” George pronounced, “Come on, let’s get on the path.”
They didn’t need telling twice. They spotted a light in the distance, winking intermittently through the branches, and they set their sights on that, pushing aside branches and thorns that whipped back in their faces when released by the person immediately in front. When they emerged from the trees onto tarmac they presented a sorry sight: faces and arms scratched, out of breath and sweating, they resembled the apocryphal lost soldiers emerging from far eastern jungles unaware the war was over. They were thirsty, tired, disorientated and in dire need of something resembling entertainment to make this great trek worthwhile. Recriminations were beginning to bubble to the surface.
George leaned forward his hands on his knees, wheezing, red faced, slicked with sweat. This was the furthest he had walked since he was seven years old, and his head was spinning.
“Jesus,” he gasped, “whose fucking idea was this? This better be worth it fam, or there’ll be trouble, I’m telling you.”
As they filled their lungs with the night air and wiped the sweat from their eyes, they surveyed their surroundings. They were a little confused to see, not the imposing splendour of eighteenth century architecture, but a car park, and a few out buildings.
“Shit,” said Adam, “we’ve come the wrong way. This aint it.”
“Fuck, that’s all we need. I’ve had enough of this, man. This fucking sucks.”
There was a general murmuring of agreement when George said, “Hey, look over there. Who’s that geezer?”
The car park was flooded with lighting and they squinted their eyes to adjust. It was Adam who said, “I don’t believe it. It’s that cunt O’Malley. He was the fucker that had me excluded and banned.”
They all looked at each other, each of them thinking the same thing, but waiting for permission to act. George, still bubbling with resentment from earlier slights gave it to them.
“Come on, let’s get the fucker.”
O’Malley looked up at the sound of running and a shout. On the far side of the car park was a group of about twenty youths, all with hoodies up and bandanas on, charging towards him, shouting. He froze.
“What the ..” he exclaimed, but before he could do anything they had surrounded him, shouting and taunting him.
He was petrified. There was nothing he could do, so thinking as quickly as his terrified brain could, he played for time. Surely, someone else would come to the car park soon. He wondered whether the security guard would hear him if he took a chance and started to scream, and he concluded that no, they probably wouldn’t above the insistent thumping of the disco. His only option was to talk.
He held his hands up, outstretched in supplication. “Lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down, and talk this through.”
George, his voice muffled by his bandana, walked towards imitating his voice, as if it were that of a little girl. “Oooh, lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down because I am shitting myself here.”
The circle of his accomplices laughed and joined in. George took a few steps towards him and began poking him in the chest.
“I hear that you banned some of my mates from the Prom, Is that right?”
“Look, you need to think about what you’re doing. You’re on CCTV and the house is full of people who can identify you. I think you should just turn around and let me go before you do something you’ll regret.”
O’Malley had mustered as much calm gravitas as he could. He hoped that they couldn’t see he was panic stricken. He was mistaken.
“Nice try, but for once, it’s the kids who are gonna tell you what to do, bruv.”
The circle tightened around him and his cries were muffled by the press of bodies. A few minutes later he had been bound and gagged with some of the bandanas and locked in his own car.
“That’ll do for now ,” said George through the open window. “We’ll be back, so don’t go away. Oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t.”
This provoked a chorus of laughter and jeering. George wound the window back up and locked the car.
“Come on,” he announced to the triumphant group, “It’s round two.”
They followed him, hoodies and bandanas still in place, carrier bags stuffed with cans swinging in their hands, as he skirted the car park in the direction of the thumping bass of the sound system. They rounded a corner and saw the mansion. In the light that spilled from the open doorway, a second bouncer was clearly visible.
“Shit,” cursed Adam, “another one. Now what?”
They huddled together hard up against the wall of the building, out of his eye line, waiting for inspiration to strike. Just as they were beginning to lose hope, they saw the familiar flare of a match, followed by the glowing tip of a cigarette. The bouncer, taking a drag from the cigarette, stretched and began to walk away from the entrance, away from them and around the corner.
George looked in, a smile spreading across his face. “Yes! He’s on a fag break. Come on lads, we’re in.”
He sprinted to the door, keeping as close to the wall as he could, weaving in and out of the bushes, in case the bouncer returned early. The others followed and they all piled through the entrance into the warm yellow light of the foyer. One or two students, taking refuge from the dance floor, or en-route to the toilets, looked up in alarm as the rag tag army burst in, euphoric after their successful kidnapping of O’Malley, and the ease with which they had gained entry. It seemed to them that there was nothing they could not achieve.
And then, reality dawned on them. They looked at each other with their carriers of lager, hoodies and trainers, and then at the Prom goers, who gaped at them open-mouthed, in their shiny suits and tight dresses.
“Look at the state of us, man,” whined Adam, “we stand out like a sore thumb. What are we gonna do now?”
George considered for a moment and then pronounced his judgement.
“We’re gonna blend in, bruv, blend in. And, we’re gonna have a little drink, and a little dance, and a bit of a laugh, for as long as we can get away with it.”
Adam’s face registered disappointment and the rest of the crew looked sheepish.
George felt like a lion leading donkeys.
“Or, you can bottle it and all just fuck off home. You’re on your own.”
He took a can from his carrier, cracked it open and, and took a long, deep draught. Then he placed the bag behind the reception desk, the open can in his pocket, and he sauntered towards the dance hall. The others watched him go. When he had disappeared into the flashing lights and pulsing shadows, the others looked around at each other, leaderless and unsure.
It was Adam that was the first to crack.
“Oh, fuck it,” he said, “might as well.”
He went through the same series of actions as George, and followed his route towards the promised land. One by one the others all followed.
The two prom goers, who had observed the whole scene with a growing sense of fascination from the corner, watched them go. They turned to each other.
“We’ve got to see this, come on.”
“First things first,” said the other, reaching for his phone.
He opened Instagram and, in a blur of texter’s fingers and thumbs, he messaged, “Prom just been invaded by George M and his gang!”
The news spread like wildfire.