Mr Stringer’s Snow Day

A new short story by The Old Grey Owl

The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of something, that much was obvious to everyone. It wasn’t clear to anyone who came across him  whether it would be  a nervous breakdown or greatness, but it was definitely something.

At first glance he had it all. He was good looking, with a generous covering of hair on his head and he dressed as if he vaguely knew what he was doing. At work he was amicable, witty and warm. Someone who the rest of the staff had an instinctively good feeling about, though they would be hard pressed to say exactly why. He was effortlessly impressive in the classroom. The kids loved his enthusiasm and knowledge and care and lightness of touch. The staff loved his self-deprecating comments, the fact that he was the go-to-guy on SLT who never let anyone down, his ability to switch from seriousness to sarcasm without anyone ever mistaking that as a sign that what they all did, every day, for the kids, didn’t matter.

And yet there was an unmistakeable air of detachment about him, a coldness and a sadness that seemed the essence of him, unreachable and alone. He was not in a relationship and most of the staff could not remember a time when he had been. He had friends, but they were more like acquaintances, like those university groups that allowed for companionship without intimacy, conversation without revealing. No one knew a thing about his family, and in idle conversation in the pub after work, or in the staffroom over lunch, no one would have been able to answer the questions, “So, where is Sam Stringer from? What does he do with himself? What happens to him at Christmas?” The fundamental question that these more trivial queries masked was, of course, “Who is Sam Stringer?” And to that unasked question there was no ready answer.

And so, people stopped asking, stopped wondering. And his life at work went on, in the flurry of frenzied activities that characterised life in a busy, inner city Secondary school, where one reached the shores of the next weekend, the next holiday, in an exhausted daze, never quite being able to remember how, exactly, one had made it through. This unexamined life went on apace, until one day, Sam Stringer found that he had reached the dizzy heights of Deputy Head, almost without realizing it. It had not been the next step in some carefully considered Machiavellian plan, nor the logical outcome of ruthless careerism, it was simply the place and time and position the conveyor belt of his life had taken him to. At the age of thirty-eight he had earned the respect of his colleagues, the affection of his pupils, a significant and welcome pay rise, and a rather nice, spacious office, with his name on an acrylic door sign: Mr Stringer, Deputy Headteacher.

One of his many responsibilities was Snow. It wasn’t mentioned in his job description and it did not figure at his interview, but as far as the staff were concerned, it was, by a country mile, the most important. The closure of the school because of snow was officially his call. This was partly because he lived ten minutes walk away from the school, so he was the only member of Senior Team who could make an informed judgement based on local weather conditions early enough to set in motion the text and telephone tree, announcing the closure. The real, unstated reason was that Elizabeth, the Headteacher, could trust him to make the correct decision, resisting all pressures from the staff to close at the fall of the first snow flake. She knew that Sam had so little else in his life apart from his job, that a day off was something to be avoided at all costs. He had only ever had to do it once, in his first year as a Deputy, and he had resolutely kept the school open, notwithstanding the traffic chaos and misery that staff and students had to endure. This had garnered Elizabeth valuable brownie points with the local authority, and took her to the top of the league for local headteachers’ macho posturing. It had cost Sam some of his popularity, but he did not seem to notice and carried on as before, charming and effective in equal measure.

And so it was, one Tuesday evening early in December, the Senior Leadership meeting closed with a discussion on meteorology.

“So, are we all clear about the procedure?” Elizabeth scanned the members of her team around the table with her familiar, raking glare. “Sam, as usual it’s your call, but the earlier the decision, the better. We don’t want any complaints about people getting stuck in traffic only to find the school is closed after all. When do you think you’ll be able to get it on the website?”

“Definitely before six. The weather forecast seems pretty certain. The beast from the east is back, with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures, or that’s what is said when I looked before we started tonight.”

Elizabeth frowned. “Hmm, whatever you do, any of you that is, don’t give the rest of the staff the impression it’s already decided. Weather forecasts have been wrong before and no doubt they’ll be wrong again. I want everyone going to bed tonight thinking that they are coming to school  tomorrow as normal.”

The assembled team were suitably poker faced, controlling the sense of disappointment they all felt. All except Sam who, deep down, knew he would find a snow day at home rather dull in comparison with a day managing the fall out of a snow day at school.

Hesitantly, a voice broke in.

“Do the staff just have to look at the website then? Sorry, this hasn’t happened since I’ve been here and..” Caroline, the newest member of the team, trailed off, feeling more than a little silly.

Elizabeth forced a smile. “Of course, Caroline, forgive me. I forgot, this is your first time.” She looked over at Sam. “Sam, could you?”

“Yes, of course. It was actually in the email I sent out to everyone. There’s a mobile telephone tree and an automatic text message cascade, with some back up calls to key members of staff, so they can ensure everyone in their section of the tree is informed. I thought that everyone would have read that, but…”

The minute he said it, he felt it had come out wrongly, as if he were annoyed at having to explain something he had already dealt with. As someone who loved getting more emails, and felt a little cheated and out of the loop if there was nothing new to deal with, he was genuinely baffled whenever he came across someone who hadn’t checked their own inbox. The expression on Caroline’s face, a mixture of annoyance, embarrassment and incredulity, just confirmed it.

She glowered at him, her eyes stinging. “Sorry,“ she said, “I haven’t been in my office. Teaching all day.”

An awkward silence spread over the meeting and people were left shuffling their papers and looking down at their notes. Thankfully, it had been the last item and the meeting broke up, the various members of the team drifting off in different directions to offices spread strategically in all four corners of the school. Sam hung back to make sure that he and Caroline were the last to leave.

She sensed that that was what was happening and at the last minute she tried to scuttle ahead. Sam called out to her. “Caroline, sorry, can I have a word?”

She turned and forced a thin smile. “Yes, sure,” she said, “What is it?”

He looked around to check everyone else had left. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound critical at the end there. I was just surprised you hadn’t seen the message. It just came out a bit wrong.”

“You should have said that in the meeting, “ she replied curtly and turned tail and left before he could reply. As she walked down the corridor towards her office she wondered if she had been a bit rude. “At least he apologised,” she thought, “Not many men would have done that.”

Back in the meeting room, Sam was left alone, mouth open. He felt a little crushed. Was it him? He went over what had happened in his mind, knowing that he would do the same thing over and over again before the end of the day. Despite appearances to the contrary, Sam was a worrier. He hated for people not to like him and to give them any reason for doing so. Even worse, he always thought the other person was right, and that he had behaved badly, regardless of the situation. It was made even worse by the fact that it was so unusual. Most people warmed to Sam. But that just served to make Caroline’s obvious dislike of him so grating.  She, a newly appointed Assistant Head, had only been in post since September, and no matter how hard Sam tried, he couldn’t seem to hit it off with her. There had been a series of awkward encounters, of misunderstandings and, at times, open arguments. They always ended with Sam apologising, vowing to himself to be more careful next time. But, apparently, he never was.

In the midst of these repeated bouts of self-recrimination lurked something even more disturbing. A feeling so unfamiliar to him that he struggled to keep it buried and whenever it surfaced, which was far too often for his liking, it left him feeling even worse. From the first moment he had seen her, when she had arrived in the school foyer for her interview in the summer term, he was overwhelmed with the strangest, strongest feeling that he had ever had for anyone. She wasn’t stereotypically attractive, but she had something. A warmth, a spark, something indefinable but definitely there. There was no doubt about that. Short, glossy dark hair, green eyes, lovely golden skin and long, long legs. And she dressed well. He wasn’t sure about that last thing. He didn’t really notice people and certainly not their clothes. He would not have been able to describe anything that anyone at the Senior Team meeting that had just finished had been wearing, but he knew, with a painful and insistent certainty, that Caroline Taylor looked just right in whatever it was she had chosen to wear.

He also knew, with equal certainty, that Caroline thought that he was a bit of a joke. Whatever he had managed to do to fool everybody else, Caroline wasn’t falling for it. She could see right through him and obviously recognised him for what he was. An imposter. A charlatan. A phoney.  And for Sam, that merely served to increase her charm. Judgement as well as Beauty.

 With these thoughts churning around his brain, he collected his stuff, locked up his office, and made his way down to the car park. He sighed as he opened his car door. He knew he couldn’t go on like this and had made a sort of decision to look at Headships in other schools, ready to start applying next Summer. He shivered as the car fired into life, a blast of cold air shaking him from his thoughts back to the here and now. He looked up into the sky through the side window. Dark and cloudless, the stars glittered with an intensity unusual in the city sky. He could feel the gathering hard frost, but as yet there was no sign of snow. Maybe the clouds would roll in later, direct from the Siberian plains, with their gift of plump, feathery snowflakes.

Caroline had lingered in her tiny office for longer than usual, just to make sure she didn’t encounter Sam in the car park. She couldn’t bear another awkward conversation. God, what was wrong with her? Why did she always snap at him? He was perfectly OK as a Deputy Head. Better than most actually. He didn’t pull rank and didn’t mansplain. He was sensitive and respectful, without seeming horribly pleased with himself for being so right-on, so PC. It was just that everyone liked him. He was so popular with the staff, foot soldiers and the powers that be, that there must be something wrong with him. No-one could be that perfect. And, even worse, he was breathtakingly good looking. Men like that are always insufferable bastards in the end, she told herself, remembering an unfortunate dalliance with an equally chiselled and toned master of the universe type who had been big in the city. His sensitivity, worn like an Armani suit at the beginning of their fling, was soon cast aside to reveal the sixteen carat bastard lurking underneath, as she was unceremoniously dumped for someone creative at the BBC at the beginning of the summer holidays. Six weeks of self-pity had not repaired the damage caused by her innate suspicion of handsome men.

The worst occasion with Sam, the one that made her feel hot and uncomfortable whenever she recalled it, was back in September, just a couple of weeks after she had started work. She had popped to the local shop on Sunday morning, looking an absolute fright in tracksuit bottoms and no makeup. When she could make herself face the truth of it, she remembered that she had been in such a rush that there was a breakfast stain on her top. Oh God, how embarrassing. Because out of the blue, Sam saw her across the road and waved at her. Mortified, she had turned away hurriedly, and had blanked him. She had marched away down the road, not stopping until she had shut the door of her flat firmly behind her. Blanked him. Oh My God, she thought. How uncool is that?

It had never been referred to since, and Caroline had discovered in conversation in the ladies’ staff toilet, that Sam had a flat round the corner from her, in Mountcastle road.

“Do you know Mountcastle road?” Samira had asked her. “You know that big posh road with all of those massive Victorian villas in them. The ones that back on to the woods. He’s got a lovely flat there. Got a massive garden.” She lowered her voice. “Beautifully decorated, actually”

Like many of the conversations she had so far had in the staff toilet, this one was not making her feel any better about the worst social gaffe she had ever committed. She had put two and two together and had come up with a number nearer infinity than four. “So,” she thought, “Mr Stringer is a bit of player as far as the female members of staff are concerned. Well not me, oh no.”

She looked at the pile of marking on her desk.  She had dug it out purposely so that she could work through it on her snow day at home. It was an ideal opportunity to catch up, from the depths of her duvet, but, somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to put it in her bag. At the doorway, as she turned to switch the light off, it stared back at her, until it disappeared as the darkness flooded the room and she closed the door, relieved, with a click. Tomorrow, the duvet would be enough to sustain her.

*

The alarm jolted him awake. He scrambled in the heavy darkness, pawing at the table for his phone, and finally managed to turn it off, jabbing frantically at the illuminated screen. Five forty-five am. A thick silence flooded the room and he lay back, enjoying the quiet stillness. After a minute or so, the silence began to weigh heavily on him and he swung his feet around and out of the bed. Jesus, it was cold. He inched his way over to the radiator to check and was puzzled to find that it was on full blast, pulsing heat into the air, yet it seemed to have made little impression on the room. There was a strange silence, as if he had cotton wool stuffed in his ears. He continued to the window and opened the curtains a crack. The window looked out onto the back garden, and beyond the fence at the back, the beginning of the woods. He gave a sharp intake of breath. The sky in front of him was full of swirling heavy flakes of snow and the garden was blanketed in a thick covering, blurring all of the familiar shapes. Already, the perfect layer was marked with animal tracks, criss-crossing the lawn.

His heart leaped. Even at this hour, in this cold, with his breath steaming in front of him, it was a beautiful, strange, otherworldly sight. Clearly, this was one occasion when the snow closure would not be controversial. Nobody would be making much progress in the world in that, not, by the look of it, for a couple of days at least.

Fifteen minutes later it was all done: notice of closure on the website, texts sent via the telephone tree, a message left for the Head, local media contacted and the Local Authority alerts system triggered. He spent the next hour on a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the film of snow Armageddon on breakfast news, before rousing himself to get dressed and ready to brave the world outside. The woolly hat, thick scarf, gloves and padded coat seemed to dissolve into gossamer threads as he made his first tentative footsteps down the path from his front door. The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.

The road was eerily deserted, and the yellow cones of light from the street lamps bathed everything in a mysterious wash of amber. He passed a couple of abandoned cars, left at crazy angles to the kerb, buried and undetectable under the volume of settled snow. There were just a few other people out and about, their breath steaming into the dark skies as they laboured through the snow, preparing for their stories of heroic attempts to get to work that would dominate the news for the next few days.

It took him an hour to do what normally would have been a twenty minute walk. The school was suffocated under a thick blanket of snow, and as he struggled with the lock to the car park entrance, he could see the thickly mufflered figure of Ray, the site manager, his breath steaming outside the main entrance. Sam crunched his way towards him through the untouched snow.

Ray looked up and flashed a broad smile, enjoying the camaraderie of pioneers. “Mornin’,” he called from a distance, “Nice day for it.”

“Good morning, Raymond. What’s it like inside?”

“Boiler’s buggered. It’s freezing in there.”

“What do you reckon?”

“A couple of days at least. Maybe more. Weather forecast after that is a bit hazy. And even when the snow clears, there’s no guarantee of when the boiler’ll be fixed. If ours has gone, you can bet your life they’ll be swamped with callouts from loads of others.”

“Oh well, at least it’s a clear call. I’ll put it on the website after I’ve spoken to Elizabeth.”

“She’ll be tucked up warm in deepest Surrey somewhere no doubt.”

“The privileges of high office, Raymond, my good man. The privileges of high office. Not for the likes of you and me.”

Ray snorted. “You’ll be there soon, sunshine, you’re not fooling me. Another couple of years and you’ll be El Presidente, ordering everyone around from under the duvet.”

Sam was momentarily taken aback. Was that what everyone thought, that he’d be a Head somewhere? And soon, from Ray’s tone. He roused himself and the flicker was gone.

“Listen Ray, I wouldn’t bother with clearing the grounds, not yet anyway. Give it a day or so and keep an eye on the forecast. There’s no point shovelling it all up if there’s a ton more snow on the way. If we keep in touch, then we can manage it from this end. You concentrate on the boiler. I’m just going to do a bit of work while I’m here. I can lock up if you want.”

Ray didn’t need telling twice and strolled away whistling. His snow day had just started to look up.

It was about ten o’clock when Sam finally called it a day. He locked the gates behind him and leant into the knifing wind that had sprung up, whipping thick, fat snowflakes into his face. He gasped in pain and shock. The journey back was clearly going to be harder than the voyage out in the quiet darkness of early morning.

An hour later when he finally turned the corner onto the home straight, he had lost all feeling in his feet, his cheeks were red and numb, and all thoughts of the charm, beauty and romance of the snowy landscape had disappeared. For the previous fifteen minutes he had sustained his spirits by fantasising about the bacon sandwich he had promised himself, with coffee and the paper. This was the thought in his head, as he peered through the swirling snow over the road to the blocks of flats on the other side. He did it every time he walked past, and the extreme conditions of the morning made no difference. Caroline’s flat.

He was about to press on, head down into the wind, when his eye was caught by a huddled figure in the entrance hammering on the door. Defeated, the figure slumped to the ground and sat, head in hands and began weeping. He stopped and stared, shielding his eyes from the driving snow. He took a step towards the kerb, almost indistinguishable now from the road surface and kept on going, picking his way gingerly over the compacted snow on the road surface. Halfway across he called out.

“Caroline? Is that you, Caroline?”

The figure leaped up as if stung, or caught guiltily in the middle of some heinous act. She wiped her hand across her face. When she recognised who had called out to her, her face fell.

“Caroline, what the hell are you doing out here? Are you alright?”

“Sam, er ..Hi, yes, yes , I’m fine. I’m just…”

She hesitated, as if deciding what to say next. Her face was red and blotchy and streaked with tears.

“No, you’re not,” Sam insisted, “You’ve been crying. What’s the matter? You look terrible.”

A wry smile creased her features and she started again.

“Yes, terrible, I can imagine. It’s just that my boiler’s broken down, and I came down to go to the shop and I…er..well, I got locked out. And I haven’t got my phone with me, or my keys and there’s no-one else in the building and I, er.. I didn’t know what to do and I..”

The sentence collapsed into a further outbreak of sobbing. Sam reached out instinctively and took her hand.

“God, Caroline, you’re freezing. How long have you been out here? You need to get inside.”

“Oh, I dunno, half an hour maybe. It’s just that I don’t know what to do and why did you have to come along again and I’m looking a state and being pathetic and, oh, I don’t know, I..”

The words tumbled out in an incoherent torrent until the heaving sobs came again and she wrenched her hand away.

“Look, come on, come round to mine. It’s only five minutes away. You can get warmed up and sort yourself out and we’ll work out a way through this.”

She hesitated. The use of the word “We” was suddenly hypnotically alluring, the idea that someone could help her manage this. But not him. Of all people, not him.

He reached out and took her hand again.

“You can’t stay out her, you’ll freeze to death. Come on.”

Gently, he pulled her hand and she took her first step, and annoyance was gradually replaced by relief as she allowed herself to be led towards a solution. The two figures, hunched against the wind, melted into the blizzard as they made their way slowly down the road.

*

By the time she woke up, the grey light outside had begun to fade. After they had arrived at Sam’s flat, he had made her eat and drink and then insisted she get some sleep in the spare room. Her blank, red-eyed silence, as she methodically chewed her toast and drank the coffee he had handed to her, had convinced him that she had been exhausted and had been outside for longer than she had said.

She got dressed and tentatively made her way out of the room and into the hall way.

“Hello?” she called out, “Anyone here?”

The nearest door opened.

“Aha, Caroline. You feeling any better? That was one hell of a sleep. You obviously needed it.”

Sam smiled at her and ushered her into the room.

“Come in, come in. Come and have a seat.”

The room was not what she had been expecting. It was beautifully proportioned. Elegant, with high ceilings, polished floor boards and Persian rugs. She almost gasped when she walked in, her eyes wide and bright. There were three sofas arranged around an open fireplace, which had a gently flickering log fire. She stopped herself from telling him what an amazing place it was. She suspected that many people had told him that over the years.

“No, I won’t thanks. I really had better be getting back. Thanks, though, you’ve been very kind.”

“Getting back? Getting back where? Have you found your keys then? Or your mobile?”

“Well, no obviously, but..” She trailed off unconvincingly.

“Come on Caroline, I know you don’t really like me and you feel a bit uncomfortable here, but  there’s not much else you can do, is there?  Just give in to it and stay. You’ve already sampled the spare room. You can spend most of the time in there if you prefer. I’ve got loads of work to be getting on with anyway and so have you, I imagine. I’ll even lend you my laptop, how’s that?”

He couldn’t work out whether he was more annoyed or disappointed at her evident eagerness to leave, so he straddled the two. He thought himself rather bold for naming the fact that he clearly made her feel a little awkward, but there was little point in being overly polite. At least it was out in the open now. And she couldn’t go anywhere else, that was undoubtedly true. The weather was getting worse, if anything. Even if there were hordes of friends or family in the area, it would be impossible to get to them, unless they lived next door. Public transport, as is the custom in Britain in the bad winter weather, had closed down, and the country had returned to somewhere in the nineteenth century. Like it or lump it, they were stuck together for the foreseeable future.

Caroline submitted to the inevitable and perched on the end of the sofa furthest from Sam. She felt that she had to make some kind of attempt at conversation, at least for a while before she could take up his offer and retreat to a separate room with a laptop. She looked again around the grand living room, and took the least line of resistance.

“This is an amazing flat. It’s like a stately home.”

Sam gave an embarrassed laugh.

“Hardly. It’s the ground floor of the building.”

He saw the expression in her face and admitted, “It is very nice obviously. I’m very lucky.”

“Are you rich then? People who say that they are very lucky usually mean they were privately educated and daddy is something in the city”

“Rich? God, no. I, ..er.. we bought it a long time ago when it was a dump and we did it up, a bit at a time. So, yeah, lucky.”

“’We’? Are you divorced then? Didn’t you have to divvy it up after you split up?”

A pained look flashed across Sam’s face and he stumbled over his words.

“Well, no, not exactly. Umm, I , er..”

Caroline immediately interjected. “Sorry, none of my business. Just putting my foot in it as usual. Ignore me.”

“No, no. It’s me. It’s just that…” He stopped, as if uncertain about how to go on.

“What? What’s the matter? Can’t be that terrible, can it?”

“I was married, but I’m not divorced. My wife died. Yes. She died.” He pronounced the words, awkwardly,  as if it were the first time he had ever said them out loud.

Caroline looked horror-struck.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I would never have asked if I’d known. Sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.”

Sam’s blank face shivered into a near smile. “It’s alright. It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. So, yes, not rich, just lucky.”

A silence hovered and settled on the room. The thick snow had dampened down what little noise there was in the streets outside. There was virtually no traffic, just the occasional gust of wind that whined through the window frames and rattled the panes. Caroline looked up in the direction of the noise, grateful for any distraction. At the far end of the room, a pair of French windows looked out onto a long back garden that disappeared from view in the gathering darkness. The garden melted into the thick trees of the adjoining woodland.

“Goodness!” she exclaimed, a little too eagerly, “What a great garden.”

She sprang up, went over to the windows and peered outside. Sam followed her and looked over her shoulder. There were a few flakes of snow drifting down form the grey skies. This was probably the mildest the weather had been all day. Soon, when the sun completely sank beneath the horizon and darkness settled, the temperatures would plummet again. Outside the blanket of snow across the lawn was untouched, thick and even. Only a few lines of bird and animal tracks criss-crossed the canvas.

“Look at that,“ she breathed, “It’s perfect. When I was a kid and our garden was like this, we’d spend hours in it building snowmen.”

She looked back at him, over her shoulder, and smiled. The memory was real and alive for her. Their eyes met. And then Sam, gestured out into the garden with his eyes and back again.

“Well, shall we?” he asked, grateful for the distraction.

“What, go outside? Really?”

She stopped and thought for a moment. “Yeah, come on. Why not?”

The next hour and a half flew by, as they constructed a family of snow people with accessories, stopping occasionally to discuss tactics and take part in an ongoing snowball fight. When they finally came back inside, it was it was velvet black in the garden, the icy darkness shrouding the mysterious group of snow people who were huddled together as if posing for a family photograph at the back by the woods. Their fingers were numb and wet, their cheeks red, their breath steaming into the night air.

He thought of that moment, many times later over the years that followed, as the moment his second life began again. By what a slender thread our lives hang. Choices made, corners turned, things unsaid. Even in the later contemplation of it, its randomness, its chance, its serendipity, brought fear as much as joy. For who knew when similar happenstance would unravel all that had been tightly woven?

Much later that evening, in front of the dying embers of the fire, when two bottles of wine had softened their defences, they sat on the floor side by side wrapped in a filmy gauze of wonder and disbelief. They had talked for hours, discovering on the way, a shared love of The Strokes, The Arctic Monkeys, The Wire, The Sopranos (with a guilty pleasure of The Gilmore Girls admitted under pressure), William Blake, Patti Smith, lower league football, The World Cup, roses and clematis. At one point in the evening, when it seemed to both of them that this had all been supernaturally prearranged, they discovered that they had both taught English as a Foreign Language in Spain at the same time, Sam in Madrid and Caroline in Barcelona.

Before they knew it, it was 1.30am, the last bottle was empty and the embers had ceased to glow in the grate. A sudden awkwardness descended from nowhere.

“Well,” said Sam finally springing up to gather the glasses and bottles, “That was nice, but it’s probably way past bed time.”

“Oh“, stammered Caroline, taken aback, “Yes, of course. Will you have to do the snow thing again tomorrow?”

“No, thank God. The message this morning made it clear that we’d be shut for at least two days, so at least I’m spared a 5 am start. Might be different the day after though. Forecast is for a big thaw.”

“Nothing good ever lasts, does it?” she asked, looking directly at him.

He looked away. “No. No, it doesn’t.” he muttered and busied himself with clearing up. When Caroline followed him into the kitchen with some token clearing, he said, “Oh thanks for that. I’ll do the rest. You know where everything is, don’t you?”

She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know, toilet and bathroom. You can use the room you were in this morning.” He stole a glance at her. “It was alright, was it?”

“What was?”

“The room. This morning,“ he explained patiently. “The room was alright?”

“Yes,“ she said finally, “The room was just right. Like the three bears.”

She turned to go, so he couldn’t see the look of absolute humiliation on her face. The three bears? What was she like?  “Ok, good night then,” she said to the wall and carried on walking. Sam stacked the dishwasher.

Later, in the strange snow -dampened silence of his room, Sam lay rigid under the duvet, eyes wide open, mind racing. There was a full moon outside, and it silvered the far end of the room through a crack in the curtains. Why had he mentioned Donna? Why hadn’t he made a move or done anything about it? Anything at all. She was wonderful, there was no doubt about that. And she quite liked him, or was she just a great actress? Liked him? Not any more, he thought bitterly. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just reach out to someone? Will it always be like this, for years and years and years? The questions raced through his mind, over and over again, and not for the first time, his eyes were wet when he finally slipped into sleep.

When the knock came at his door, gently, he woke up, instantly alert. The door opened a crack and there was a rustle, as a soft breath of wind passed through. The kiss, when it finally came, was everything he had been waiting for, for such a very long time.

The next day, whenever it started, was centred on that room. It was for hours and moments the centre of their universe, with the outside world a memory or a distant rumour, a story told by children but not believed. Occasionally throughout the day, noises came from the other world: a distant train, children playing a few doors down, and when the sun fell, the hoot of an owl and the bark of a fox, but they paid little attention to anything other than the adventure of discovery in front of their eyes.

In the silvery moonlight of the next night she turned to him. “Will we have to go in to school tomorrow?“

It felt warmer and the noises outside their window had included a steady dripping of the promised thaw.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “I think maybe it’s going to freeze over again before morning. Sleep now. I’ll sort it out.”

They both knew he was lying.

*

He lay back under the plump clouds of duvet, her arm across his chest, and looked at the clock. 5am.

He thought of marking 11C’s Mock exams.

He thought of planning the INSET day for the first day back in January

He thought of how he could link performance management with teaching repertoire.

He thought of her arm, its downy golden hairs individually picked out against her warm brown skin.

He thought of how he could encourage teachers to observe each other

He thought of the end of term reports he had to write for the trainee teachers and how he could make them sound a little more positive.

He thought of her smell, like vanilla and caramel.

He thought of the paper he had to finish, to present to SLT, on coaching for development.

He thought of her eyes, strangely green with little grey flecks. And white, white, white, like her sparkling teeth.

He thought of the way she wiped away the crumbs of her toast from the sides of her mouth, moist with tea.

He thought of her lips…..

He swung his legs out from under the duvet, perched on the edge of the bed and reached for his phone.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of something. It was not a nervous breakdown. It was not greatness. He stood on the edge and peered over the sides, dizzy and breathless. Finally, he scrolled down, hit the send button, and slipped back under the creamy warmth of the duvet.  The school would be closed again that day.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of falling in Love.

If you liked this story, try my first novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the following links:

www.growl.blog

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/

#FoldingPaperProject: Cal and Felix: Part XVII

The following text is part of the #FoldingPaperProject. The project, set up by Molly (www.mimmerr.co.uk) aims to spread productivity, creativity and fun amongst the world’s current bleak state. 

It works like the folding paper game we played at school, where one person draws the head of a character, the next person the body and so on. Whereas, we’ll be continuing a story. 

You don’t need to be an accomplished writer. You don’t even need to be any good! You just need to be able to continue the story in four- five hundred words and post it on your site. If you don’t have a site, I’ll put it on mine for you. 

If you would like to get involved, contact Molly @mimmerr or at molly@mimmerr.co.uk If not, read on and share the story via the #FoldingPaperProject hashtag. Happy reading and writing! 

Previous sections:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

Part Eight

Part Nine

Part Ten

Part Eleven

Part Twelve

Part Thirteen

Part Fourteen

Part Fifteen 

The stimulus given (by https://writingexercises.co.uk/): 

Part XVII

By The Old Grey Owl

Oliver slammed his fist down on the desk top, rattling the stained coffee cups, the fruit bowl and the corporate pastries.

“Look, how many times do you need to be told? The whole economy is in free fall. Everywhere. Now is not the time to be thinking of expansion. It’s probably the time to be thinking of cutting our losses and closing.”

There was a pause. Everyone around the table found something to do with their hands, somewhere to direct their gaze, shuffling papers, spreadsheets and projections, while the fan of the projector hummed in the back ground. Anything but look at Felix, his mouth open in disbelief, his brow furrowed.

“Close?” he finally managed to splutter. “You can’t be serious Oliver, we can’t close, not after everything we’ve done. We’re so close to making the breakthrough. If we can just get through this temporary cashflow problem, pay the suppliers and salaries, we can make this thing work. Trust me, I know we can.”

Oliver, smiled as if talking to a difficult but charming child, his tanned face crinkling around the eyes. When he spoke his tone was calmer, a singsong of patient explanation.

“And who is going to pay the suppliers and the salaries, Felix? It’s not going to be you is it?”

“Well, no, but..”

“Exactly. And there is no “but”. That is everything. The bottom line. And as usual, it’s me that has to be the adult in the room and deal with the reality of the situation. The money.”

“But Oliver, there’s always money to be made in a financial crisis. You just have to keep your nerve. If you make the case to the bank, they will lend us the money. The business plan is sound Oliver, you know that. This will be a top end, luxury destination for the A listers and it has the backing of some of the world’s leading conservationists. It’s a winner, Oliver.”

Oliver sighed and shook his head. He turned to the woman sitting on his left, a tall, elegant black woman with braids and a flawless complexion. “Connie, do you mind?”

She leaned forward in her chair, tapped the keyboard and the next slide in her presentation came up. It was a graph with all of the coloured lines heading south.

“We’ve been to the bank, Felix. Several banks, actually. Not to mention some rather more dubious sources of capital. They don’t want to know. I’m sorry” she said.

“But the business plan..”

Connie cut across him. “The business case was strong, before the world economy tanked. Now, cash is king. And we haven’t got any. Look at the graph.”

Felix had heard enough. It was his turn to bang his fist down on to the table.

“Fuck the graph. All you ever want to talk about is graphs. What about the animals? What about the bats?”

Oliver smiled a smooth, thin smile.

“You’re the clever zoologist, Felix. We’re just simple business people. I suggest we move to a vote.”

Fifteen minutes later, after the vote had been taken and lost, by five votes to one, Felix was left alone in the room, surveying the debris still in place across the table, his dreams in tatters. The expression on his face hardened and his knuckles whitened as he clenched and unclenched his fists repeatedly. Finally, he came to a decision. Reaching for his mobile, he jabbed in a number and waited.

“Gareth, it’s Felix. We need to talk about Dad. And money.”

There was a pause, while he listened.

“Yeah,” he answered, “It’s time.”

My Books of the Year, part 2

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley.

This squeaks into the last days of 2019 as one of my Christmas presents. It’s been riding high in the best seller lists for a few weeks now, and I wanted to recreate Christmases of my youth when I would always treat myself to an Agatha Christie or an Alastair Maclean. They were the perfect books to bridge the wasteland years between 12 and 15 – short, immaculate lessons in plotting and manipulating an ensemble of characters. Foley was a Literary agent who has clearly learned the lessons of what makes a best seller. I was unsure when I started: there was a repeated phrase on the same page and I couldn’t think of a reason for that to have been done stylistically for effect, so I assumed it was a sign of a formulaic, crappy pot-boiler. The other black mark was the first person narrative, beloved of literary agents and consultants as being more intimate and immediate. So boring, so cliched , so wrong. But actually, in the end, that was me. Boring , cliched, wrong. And probably a little jealous that an agent can knock off a book and make such a success of it. Yes, they actually can walk the walk as well as talk it. I finished it in a day and a half and it’s an enjoyable read. It’s a variant on the houseparty detective novel. There’s a small group of characters thrown together for a few days, snowed in to their exclusive Scottish Highland holiday mansion, when one of them is murdered. It can only be one of the others whodunnit. The first person narrative extends over named chapters that cycle around the main six or seven characters and there’s a clever timeslip element to the structure. A snowy, scenic setting and some ghasty middle class yuppie type characters and a murder. I can see the ITV miniseries now. And, I imagine, so could Lucy when she was planning it. A nice festive palate cleanser.

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Another whodunnit, but of a very different kind this time. This is a bit of a cheek because I’m only three quarters of the way through it (another Christmas present), but it was too good to leave out. This book is delicious. From the cover which is brilliantly, brutally Stalinist in its stark functionality, to the first person narrative (see above) which is an authentic insight into the mind of a genuinely interesting, unusual character, to the evocation of the freezing snow-bound wilderness on the Czech/Polish border, via the unravelling of a series of bizarre murders, everything about this book is a treat. The main character’s musings, as the story unrolls, reveal her thoughts on the poetry of Blake, astrology, militant animal rights, illness (Her “Ailments”), nature, children versus adults and much more besides. A short, lovely book.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This was my favourite book of the year. If you want something that will wrap you in a warm embrace for several weeks, so that you eventually deliberately slow down to delay the awful prospect of it not being part of your life, then this is the book. It’s engaging, affective, moving, clever, thought provoking and entertaining. Its got a clever time slip element between the civil rights movement of the sixties to contemporary America, romance, and social commentary. It’s a straight 9 out of 10. Lucky you if you haven’t read it yet.

There were some Turkeys as well as Crackers…..

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

I got this out of the library on spec, after having spent much of the previous year seeing its distinctive yellow cover in bookshops prominently displayed. It’s a chunky hardback with some hardcore recommendations on the front and back from the great and the good. About  third of the way in I thought I had discovered a  major new talent. The prose was extraordinary: sinuous, inventive, poetic, but unlike some of the more experimental writers around, Tallent seemed able to combine those figurative qualities with clear communication of meaning. He is particularly impressive conveying a sense of the rural location in woodlands by the California coast. But the last two thirds were dreadful, as it slipped into being a horribly exploitative book about male violence, power, child abuse riddled with cliches, improbable plot twists and action sequences. Avoid at all costs.

Lanny by Max Porter

I haven’t read Grief is a Thing with Feathers but was aware of Porter’s reputation. I started this and couldn’t manage more than about 35 pages. I’m a big fan of experimental, inventive prose, so don’t get me wrong and think I’m dismissing this because it didn’t tell a straight linear narrative. It just seemed to me to be willfully obscure and difficult for its own sake. Thankfully, I’m old enough now not to make the mistake of thinking that if  I don’t like a book then it means that the book is bad. The act of writing a novel is a labour of love, involving long hours of sweat and brain ache and self-doubt, followed by an agonising period of public exposure to possible humiliation. The book is not bad – there are far too many distinguished people who loved it for that to be true. It just didn’t speak to me. You might be luckier.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

I’ve loved many of Faulks’ books in the past (Birdsong and Charlotte Gray are two of my all-time favourites), so this was a particular disappointment. This was a novel that was phoned in. It is one big nothing, that exists because of what he has done before. It would never have made it past any Literary agent had it been a debut novel. A complete waste of everybody’s time. Sorry Sebastian.

Mentioned in despatches

Honourable mentions must go to, in no particular order:

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

How to be Right – James O’Brien

The Overstory –  Rchard Powers. (although there were too many trees for my liking. I know you can never have too many trees these days. Except in a book)

So, what a year it was. And I’m already looking forward to the treats in store in the year to come. I’m depending on them, actually. The horror of the election result can only be managed by retreat into culture and pleasure. I’ll emerge sometime later in 2020, hopefully refreshed, re-energised and ready for the struggle. But not just yet.

Don’t Smile Before Christmas

A new short story by The Old Grey Owl.

Read on, or download here

When he woke again in the middle of the night, he could still see them in the dim light that leaked into his room from the street lights outside. An irregular line of three separate piles on his desk, like a model of a row of tower blocks in shadows. All of the reading and handbooks and schemes of work he had immersed himself in during the summer holidays, ready for this moment.  Normally the light didn’t trouble him at all and he had the ability to sleep through earthquakes. The sleep of the just, as he always described it. The sleep of the unimaginative, Emma had always countered.

On a station platform in Naples, in a dubious Airbnb in Valencia, sticky with August heat, with a cock crowing outside the window, in a tent at Glastonbury, next to a couple he vaguely knew, having careful, but noisy sex, he had proved this ability many times in the years since A levels. But now, just when he really needed it, it had deserted him and he tossed and turned fitfully through the night, his mind churning with anxiety.

It had been made worse, the first time he had turned to see his books piled on the desk, when he caught, with a start, the figure of a man maintaining a still, brooding watch at the end of the bed. He froze, silently staring at the man, wondering whether he in turn could see his eyes watching back. His own breathing surged in his ears and his heart raced. He did not know how long this imagined staring match went on for, but for days afterwards he could taste the relief he experienced the second he realised the man was the clothes stand draped with his new suit, shirt and tie.

His mother had been insistent that this piece of kit from Ikea was essential to a successful working life. His flat was fully furnished and so the trip to Purley Way yielded only slim pickings. A few more additions to the extensive kitchen essentials she had overseen before his departure for University, a couple of prints, and a desk. The kitchen equipment was an indulgence, a fantasy. They both knew that Just Eat and Deliveroo furnished most of Ed’s diet, but she wanted to believe that at some point her son would turn into that kind of young man who cooked vegetarian food for the entire house of artistic and creative friends. Ed was happy enough to go along with the fantasy for a quiet life and his mother didn’t have the heart to challenge him, but secretly, she worried. How could young people afford takeaways four times a week? And why couldn’t they see that it was horribly bad for them and the planet?

In the dusky warm September air in his room, wide awake now, he faced the prospect of morning, now only two hours away, with dread. He could probably manage the vegetarian food at some point. It was the friends bit that he would struggle with. He had accumulated a small group of close friends and a smattering, an outer circle of acquaintances, by the end of University. That had furnished him with a passable social life, people to bump into at the endless round of parties, to make trivial witty conversation with before the next equally meaningless event. A few brief encounters with women that added a frisson of excitement, but nothing that mattered. No spark, no connection, no engagement. Apart from Emma.

He had once tried to talk about these ideas, convinced that other people must surely feel them too, at the end of one drunken night sprawled in his shabby room, but the look on Gareth’s face, a mixture of scorn and fear, told him not to go there, or anywhere near there, again. And so, most of his third year had been poisoned by a steadily growing sense of dread about what would happen when University was all over. If he couldn’t make satisfactory connections in that setting, surrounded by hordes of attractive, intelligent, liberal people, what chance would he have in what was always strangely referred to as the real world? What would he do for a living? Where would he live? Who would he be?

It was that last question that troubled him the most. Who would he be? Everyone else seemed so certain. They knew who they were and what their place in the world was and would be in the future. That was clearly the reason that Gareth had given him that look. He was still no nearer to having the answer when, as his friends moved away to start their brilliant new lives, he found himself starting a teacher training course. He had toyed with the MA in film studies, which seemed to be the default position of everyone he knew, a way of extending the holiday from real life for another year. He had thought about a post- university gap year, travelling in the Far East, with a bit of worthy volunteering thrown in. They were all rejected as possibilities.

Well, not so much rejected, as that would suggest a positive decision of some sort. He didn’t get round to doing anything about them and then the chance drifted away, thankfully, so yet again, a decision was avoided. And the year had flown by, with some sense of pleasure that not only had he passed his training course with flying colours, but that he was pretty good at it. And he enjoyed it. And, most curious of all, everyone seemed to be delighted that he was joining the school full time. He had the sense that he was regarded as something of a star. People stopped him on the corridor to chat with him. The endless reports that the training year had generated were full of glowing praise.

But still, at the back of his mind, a nagging doubt lurked. Sooner or later, he knew, he would get found out. There’d be embarrassment and apologies, anger and recriminations, regret and disappointment. And worse, until that happened, there was the inevitability of knuckling down to the grinding day-to-dayness of a proper job. All through the previous year of training he was able to pretend to himself that it wasn’t really a proper job at all, just the latest in a long line of pretend jobs. But now he couldn’t pretend any longer. It was a proper job, a career for God’s sake, and, what’s more,  a career that was starting tomorrow. He stole a glance over the top of his duvet. The man and the mountain range were both still there, silently accusing him. He rolled over and tried once again to snatch some sleep.

*

By the end of his first week as a Newly Qualified Teacher, he grabbed at the weekend like a drowning swimmer in sight of the shore who clings on to a piece of driftwood. His brain was boiling with the million names, and rules and procedures he was expected to know. He couldn’t keep anything in his head for more than five minutes. He wrote down everything and then forgot what it was he had written down. He felt crushed under the weight of it.

And yet…. He was exhilarated by it all. The classroom felt like a crucible of creativity. He shut the door and then it was down to him to enthuse about language and literature. And after the bureaucratic horror of his training year, when it seemed that he was required to record every single moment of the endeavour and, reflect upon it, evaluate its success, and adapt accordingly, he felt liberated by the light touch of accountability this induction year seemed to have. Yes, there were regular observations, but they never really bothered him. Perhaps he had been lucky and had found himself working in a school led by people who had a little bit more about them than some he had heard about. He had certainly heard horror stories from some of the other NQTs he met occasionally at the local network meetings. NQTs reduced to tears by bullying “mentors”. NQTS asked to cover for absent colleagues with classes that made the old lags in the staff room visibly blanch. NQTs sacked by the infamous Academy chain for failing two consecutive lesson observations.

And there were some quite nice people working in the school. Even the older ones. He found himself getting drawn into passionate discussions in the staffroom about the kids he taught. About the way he taught them and how, possibly, there were better ways of doing it. And these arguments led imperceptibly to discussions about politics and culture and football and music. It was – he hardly dared voice the thought – a little like the best of University, but without the drugs. Or, he thought ruefully, the capacity to miss that nine o’clock lecture on Marxist and feminist readings of Dickens. And, in some ways, it was better than University. They were paying him for his services. He wondered whether he was just experiencing a honeymoon period and if he was, when it would be over.

It didn’t take long for him to have his answer to that question.

8Y4.

When he thought about them, a cold wave of dread spread over his body and settled in his stomach like a dead weight. They had the capacity to ruin a weekend, to disrupt sleep, to make him fantasise about running away to stack shelves in Sainsbury’s for the rest of his life.

8Y4

In the beginning, in the first couple of weeks, they were one of his biggest success stories. They laughed at his jokes and responded well to the unit of work on genre, particularly the Sci-Fi horror stuff he started with. He was quite relaxed with them, a bit risque at times, which set him apart from the experienced members of staff and that, plus his enthusiasm for the texts they were covering, was quite infectious. The class were doing things because they were interested in the work and because they liked him.

And then they stopped. A few lessons with a raised voice, a few sendings out, a lot of missed homeworks,  and a poor set of grades and comments on the first substantial piece of written work, and everything drained away. They were like a jilted lover, withering in their scorn and implacable in their thirst for revenge. As the Indian summer gave its first hints of the impending Autumn, with flurries of brown leaves falling in the winds, and darker nights gathering around him like a shroud, his lessons with 8Y4 became ever more stressful.

Pathetic Fallacy, that’s what it was. He could make a little link in the lesson with that.

“Pathetic what, Sir?” This was the response from Gabriel Rimmon, a slight, wiry boy who had just begun to emerge from the mass in Ed’s mind. Increasingly, he had taken on the role of ring leader, but a subtle and sly ring leader who was hard to pin down and even harder to catch out. He had a distinctive pudding basin of white blond hair and piercing, sky blue eyes. He continued, his whining singsong voice cutting through the background chatter.

“You just made that up Sir, didn’t you? That’s not a thing, pathetic whatsit, is it?”

“Are you a real teacher, Sir?”

And then, in a lower voice, “I know what is pathetic, actually.”

Not one of his more successful ideas, that one. Perhaps not try anything new for a while.

His last lesson before the half term holiday was with 8Y4. Friday period 5 that week presented a heady cocktail, brimming with possibilities: He was virtually sleepwalking with exhaustion. They had the whiff of freedom in their nostrils. He had promised a DVD, if they finished their writing assessment practice. They sensed weakness and dashed off their written work in five minutes before setting up a continuous barrage of wheedling, outraged reminders of the promise. Ed’s attempts to regain control moved through reason, compromise, threat and bargaining, ending in unhinged, purple- faced, spittle- spraying ranting.

The class jeered at his loss of control and then they chanted, “DVD, DVD”, banging their tables in accompaniment. He looked around the room at this baying mob, his utter powerlessness growing with every sweep of the classroom, when his gaze rested on the classroom door. Just as he shifted his weight to make a move towards it, the door burst open and into the room strode Mr Chapman, the Deputy Head. He held the door open and glared around the room, his eyes raking across the mob. The class sprang to their feet, their scraping chairs heralding a silence almost painful in comparison to what had gone before.

Both the class and Ed had to endure a dressing down that was all the more frightening for being delivered in an icy, quiet voice that everyone had to strain to hear. It dripped sarcasm and intent. For all of its repeated phrases in praise of “Sir” (Did he even know his name?), Ed felt every line was a dagger to his self-esteem, and to his standing with the class. Proper teachers didn’t need this nannying. They didn’t need a baby-sitter. He longed for it to be over, but he knew that the minute Chapman had swept out of the room and Ed was left alone with them, their relief at his departure would completely trump their fear of his return, and the torment would begin again, but even worse this time. It had baffled him for some time now that senior staff, no matter how helpful and genuine they appeared to be in their efforts to help new teachers out, seemed to have no idea what they left behind them, having successfully “sorted out” an out of control classroom.

Chapman, however, was well aware of this possibility. He stayed and stalked the aisles of the classroom while the class duly completed their piece of writing. “Properly this time, gentlemen,” he intoned threateningly, as his leather brogues creaked their way up and down the rows of tables. Ed was left like a spare part at his desk at the front, a frozen expression on his face that he tried his best to make a complete amalgam of professional surveillance, moral outrage, and academic rigour, all leavened with a hint of pastoral concern. Occasionally, when a member the class looked up from their labours to surreptitiously check the clock on the classroom wall, they were struck by Ed’s face, which appeared to them to be of someone suffering from a terminal illness, or at the very least constipation.

At the back of the class, a picture of contrite obedience, was Gabriel Rimmon, hunched over his writing, seemingly desperate to make amends for his errant behaviour. Every time Chapman turned on his peregrinations around the room to stroll back to the front, turning his back to Gabriel, Rimmon looked up from his work and stared at Ed. The expression on his face was one of cold, amused contempt and his ice blue eyes seemed to glow in their intensity. Once, Ed caught his stare and returned it, expecting the boy to put his head back down to his work and avoid further trouble, but instead he held Ed’s stare and narrowed his eyes. Ed, lost in his own thoughts about the humiliation of having to have the Deputy Head as a minder, had just registered this strange, challenging staring contest when Chapman turned again and Gabriel went back to his work.

Later in the pub, having endured a pep talk from Mr Chapman, he was deep into his second pint, wondering whether to call it a day, or to gird his loins for the traditional end of term jolly.  This always moved the participants from the pub, to the restaurant and for the hardy few,  clubbing and the prospect of the mother of all hangovers. He had experienced a couple of these events during his training year, and had been struck by how different groups of staff fell by the wayside as the evening progressed, a process akin to refining oil. By the end, only the purest party animals were left, most single, some fantasists, all heroically drunk. Maybe he’d give it a miss this time.

“So, did Chappers give you a bollocking then?”

He looked up from his calculations. It was Jim Stevens, the elder statesman of the English Department. Before Ed could reply, Jim deposited his pint on the spare beer mat next to Ed, and swung himself round into the vacant seat. Ed braced himself for what was clearly going to follow – some homespun wisdom from the Sage of South London. He looked up and saw Pratik and Holly coming back from the bar with their drinks, and as they realised that Jim had slipped into their seats they rolled their eyes at Ed, and sniggering to each other, hung a sharp left to find another table.

“Sorry, what was that, Jim?”

“Chappers. Did he give you a bollocking? Y’know, after that car crash, period 5 with Year 8?”

“Oh God, does everybody know about that? That’s all I need.”

“Course they do lad, you could hear it all the way down the corridor. Well, did he?”

“Wasn’t too bad I suppose. He was quite encouraging in a way.”

“Aye, he’s not bad as far as Senior Management go.”

This was high praise from Jim, who reserved his bitterest scorn for “Leadership”. He had been teaching for centuries, all at the same school and had seen many initiatives come and go, some more than once. There were rumours, though Ed could scarcely believe them, that Jim had started as an English teacher before The National Curriculum. This seemed to Ed to be as far distant as the Jurassic era, and about as relevant. As well as being a professional cynic and curmudgeon, he was also a professional northerner, his flat Yorkshire vowels seemingly untouched by thirty five years  as a self- professed missionary to the heathens in the soft underbelly of the South East. This too was all part of the act. Underneath his well-crafted facade of cynicism, however, was someone who loved being an English teacher, and who, many geological eras later, was still inspirational. When he closed the classroom door, the hardest, the most damaged kids in the school lapped up his lessons and flourished in the fertile soil of language and literature he provided.

He was one of those teachers who made newly qualified staff despair. He was so far ahead of them in his teaching that they couldn’t conceive of ever being good enough. Ed, however, had a bit of a soft spot for him. Jim had been very kind to him since September and his occasional, easy words of encouragement made a big difference when a day was going badly.

“The thing is, Jim, is that 8Y4 have really got me over a barrel. All my other classes are going pretty well, but I start to worry about teaching 8Y4 the day before my lessons with them. It’s starting to affect my confidence. To be honest, I’m not sure whether I’m cut out for this job, you know.”

Jim put his pint down.

“Eh, none of that, none of that. Listen to me Edward, lad. Listen. If people like you stop being a teacher then we’re all stuffed, because you’re a natural, lad, a natural. You’ve just made the classic mistake, that’s all.”

“What mistake?”

“That 8Y4 are bloody difficult. Everyone says so. There’s summat not quite right about them. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a coldness and a sourness about them. And you were too bloody nice to ’em at the beginning. They think you’re a soft touch. When you start, you’ve got to be a right hard-faced so -and -so with your classes.”

“But that’s not me Jim, I couldn’t possibly do that.”

“Course it’s not you, you muppet. If it was really you, you’d have no future in teaching. Apart from ending up being some bastard, zero tolerance Headteacher. Yer acting lad, acting. And you need a bloody Oscar winning performance to get them back. This is what you do. When we come back, after half term, you don’t smile at all. Don’t smile before Christmas, that’s the rule. Don’t give ‘em an inch. Bring everybody in to back you up and use the systems relentlessly. Detentions, letters home, reports, all of it. And then, in the Spring, gradually, very gradually, when they’re doing what you want, you ease off a little. And then, when the light nights come round again in April and May, that’s when you can start to smile. Then they’ll realise that you love ‘em, and they’ll love yer back.”

Ed looked doubtful.

“Are you sure about this Jim? Don’t smile before Christmas?”

“Trust me lad. It’s a bloody war out there. A man must walk down these mean streets and survive, eh, Edward? Gloria Gaynor had it about right. ‘I will survive.’ Except she never had to take bloody 8Y4 last lesson on a wet Friday afternoon at Longdon High School.”

Ed took another swig of his beer and shook his head. He wanted to believe, he really did, but at that precise moment it just seemed a little unlikely. Jim got to his feet, patted him on the shoulder and reached for his glass.

“Cheer up lad, for God’s sake. You’ve got a week off and they’re even paying you for the pleasure. And remember what I said, it’s a war out there. Think on.”

And then he was gone, slipping through the crowded bar to the door.

*

By and large, it worked. He carried on in the same vein with the rest of his classes, while slipping into his new stony-faced persona with 8Y4. In the very first lesson after the half term holiday, there was a flicker of resistance, led of course by the hateful Gabriel Rimmon, but when the full might of Senior Leadership was rolled on to their lawns, he and the rest of the class appeared to recognise that resistance was futile. With an unspoken sign to the others, a look, a raised eyebrow, they knuckled under and submitted to Ed’s harsh regime.

But what should have heralded relief and self-congratulation instead provoked a new kind of anxiety. His lessons with 8Y4 immediately settled into a pattern of sullen silence. No questions were ever asked. No answers to Ed’s questions were ever given, save, “I don’t know Sir” or “I’m sorry, I’m not sure, Sir.” He felt like the brutal overseer on a slave plantation, faced with forced compliance and averted eyes. And in every lesson, at some point, he would look up and see Gabriel staring at him from the back row, his face fixed and expressionless. He’d wait until he caught Ed’s eye, hold the stare for thirty seconds and then look back down at his work.

He didn’t tell anyone about this new turn of events. The silence that seeped into the corridor outside his room confirmed for everyone the success of Ed’s new approach and he received congratulations and quiet words of encouragement from his colleagues. Jim winked at him and patted him on the back as they passed. “Told you, didn’t I? Well done lad, well done,” he said quietly.

He didn’t have the heart to tell anyone about his worries. And what was he worried about exactly? What would he actually say to anyone?  “My lessons with 8Y4 are a nightmare. They’re just too quiet.” Everyone would think he was just showing off. He came close after one particularly disturbing incident in early December. It was the same lesson again, last period on Friday afternoon, cold and raw, with the yellow classroom lights blazing out into the dark winter sky.

The class were queueing outside the room when Ed arrived. Normally, this would require at least thirty seconds of imposing order before letting them in, their wait for the teacher having generated scuffles and shouts, but on this occasion, Ed was astonished to turn the corner and find them queueing in a perfect straight line in silence. At the head of the line was Gabriel, smirking.

He unlocked the classroom door and ushered them in with some words of praise. “Come in quietly please Year 8. Excellent, orderly queueing by the way. Well done.”

He stood in the doorway and the students passed him one at a time. Gabriel, the first to enter, looked up at him as he passed and his face broke into a radiant smile that lasted for a fraction of a second before his features reassembled themselves into their customary blank mask of passive aggression. Every other student did exactly the same thing, beaming a brief flicker of a smile before taking up their position standing behind their chairs.

“Ok, good afternoon Year 8. Sit down please and get your equipment out.”

No-one moved. Ed’s eyes flicked around the room.

“Can you sit down please? Books, pens and planners out as usual.”

Again, they did not stir. Then Gabriel, on the back row by the aisle, stepped sideways so that he was alone at the back between the two ranks of tables, staring out to the front. Ed licked his lips nervously and twiddled his board pen. Everyone else remained in their positions staring impassively forward. The silence in the room grew oppressive. Ed shook himself and was about to raise his voice and demand that that they sit down when Gabriel suddenly smiled a broad, open smile, the overhead strip lighting flashing on the enamel of his teeth. The lighting suddenly dimmed as if there had been a power surge and his eyes seemed to go blank. In the gloom, they appeared to glow an icy blue. All of the other students, still standing like statues in their ranks, all broke into the same smile in unison, and their eyes too took on an awful, blue blankness.

Ed’s legs begin to tremble, and he felt a wave of pressure in the air, the silence and the smiles all pressing down on him. He felt for the edge of his desk and managed to lower himself into his seat before his legs gave way. Immediately, all of the children sat down in silence and began to fumble in their bags for their equipment. And almost as soon as it began, it was over. Ed carried on with his lesson as normal and could not remember anything that had happened, save for a non-specific sense of foreboding and a nagging worry that something strange had just occurred, but the needs of the lesson overtook him and he put it to the back of his mind.

And that would have been the end of it, except that when everyone had left, whooping down the corridor ready for the weekend, Ed, as always, scoured the classroom clearing books and sheets of paper that had been abandoned on tables. When he got to the back of the room, he stopped at Gabriel’s table. There, in black biro on the desk, was a scrawled message that read simply, “Don’t smile until Christmas”. He stared at it, open mouthed.

The next week, when he challenged Gabriel about it, he simply said, “Oh, yes Sir, that was there at the beginning of the lesson. I told you about it but you never answered.”

Ed mumbled something in reply and swiftly moved the conversation on, but the doubts remained, eating away at him. By the time they had got to the penultimate week before Christmas, he had managed to almost forget his unease. 8Y4 had continued their campaign of grumpy resistance but without giving any concrete reason to complain. His thoughts turned to the Christmas holiday, an unbearably delicious prospect of sleeping in, and time to himself. His flatmates, annoyingly well-paid corporate lawyers,  had already left for two weeks of sun in Barbados and his mother, after much reassurance from Ed, was going to spend Christmas in Singapore with Frank, a man she had met on a Saga cruise back in March.

“The thing is Edward, Frank is very nice. I really rather like him, but I don’t like to think of you being on your own at Christmas,” she had said during one of his weekend trips back home.

Ed had rolled his eyes. “Mum, I’ll be fine, honestly. You go and enjoy yourself. I’m planning to spend Christmas with Emma.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Emma? I didn’t know all that was back on. Are you sure Edward, after what happened last time?”

“Nothing’s back on Mum, it’s not even fully sorted out yet. I’ll be fine whatever happens with Emma.”

But he hadn’t quite sorted it with Emma. His first few attempts at meeting up again over Christmas were received coolly, so he filed it away in the back of his mind as something to deal with as soon as this mad, exhausting first term was over. There was just one final ordeal to get through before he could begin to relax. His last proper lesson with 8Y4 was that Friday afternoon and he had warned them repeatedly that they were going to do another exam conditions assessment. They received this news with the same blank insolence as they did everything else, having maintained their campaign of icy silence right to the death.

He had thought of caving in for a quiet life, but when he sought out Jim for some advice, he was unequivocal.

“No, don’t do that Ed. It’s absolutely essential that you see this through to the bitter end. You can’t afford to show any weakness now, not after you’ve held out for so long. Believe me, it would be disastrous. In January, that’s when you can lighten up a bit.”

And so, he girded his loins for another sixty minutes of the waves of personal hatred that would emanate from the rows in front of him. At one point in the lesson, the door opened and Mr Chapman slid into the room. He stood in the doorway and noted with quiet approval the immaculate working atmosphere of the class. So engaged in their work were they that no-one looked up from their writing to see who the new arrival was. Chapman looked across at Ed, smiled and put his thumbs up, before backing out of the door and closing it carefully with a soft click. Gabriel looked up at the door at that moment and smiled his blank, ice blue smile. On cue, everyone else in the room did exactly the same and for a split second all thirty students were beaming at the closed door. There was a sudden flicker of the lighting and then they all turned back to their work, as the lights reasserted themselves. A shiver went down Ed’s spine.

A couple of minutes from the end, Ed announced to the class, his voice sounding unfamiliar as it broke the blanket of silence that lay over them all, “Ok, Year 8, stop writing now please. Make sure you have put your name, the title and today’s date and underlined all three of those things. Have your papers on the side of the table ready to collect. Gabriel, can you go round and collect them in please?”

Gabriel stared at him, unblinking. Ed, tired of all of this now, irritated that even now in this final minute, this ridiculous charade of a challenge was still present in the room, raised his voice, his anger and impatience finally breaking through.

“Gabriel, for God’s sake , will you just do as you’re told straight away without these unpleasant theatrics. Collect the papers in please, quick as you can.”

Gabriel stood up and moved into the aisle, his face as blank as a September exercise book. He began to walk down the aisle towards Ed. With every step he took, the rest of the class gently, but in perfect unison, banged their tables. Ed looked around, furious. He screamed at them, “Now that’s enough. Stop that at once. Silence!”

The banging stopped immediately. They all stood up from their seats in perfect unison and began to file out from the rows, filling in the aisle behind Gabriel, all walking in step, each one with a terrifying, fixed smile on his face. The lights dimmed and thirty pairs of blue glowing eyes stared unblinking at him. Ed stuttered, dry-mouthed, “What.. what are you doing?…..” He looked at the door and took a step towards it reaching for the handle. He turned it, but to his surprise it was locked. He rattled at it, in a panic. Letting go of the handle, he stepped back into the centre of the room, where he was confronted by the steadily advancing army of silent, staring, smiling students. His next step was backwards as they continued, pace by pace, until he had backed against the wall and could go no further and they pressed against him. Suddenly, from the corridor he heard the familiar click of a pair shoes striding down the corridor. He tried to call out but no voice came.

Outside the room, walking down the corridor, infused with Christmas cheer and goodwill to all men was Jim. Just another couple of days to survive next week and then came the blessed relief of the holiday. Even after thirty -five years he hadn’t tired of the rush that that prospect brought with it. He thought he’d look in on Ed and just check all was well. His strategy for 8Y4 seemed to have worked pretty well. Certainly there was never any shouting or disturbance  from his classroom when they were in there with him these days and Ed seemed to think there had been some improvement. But still Jim worried about him. He often seemed tense and distracted and it had been a long while since Jim had seen him laugh. He stopped outside the classroom door and shook his head. “Stop worrying over nothing. The lad just needs a holiday, like the rest of us. He’ll be right as rain when he comes back in January,” he thought, a wry smile on his face.

He opened the door and popped his head inside. The room was empty.

“Blimey, he got away quickly. Must have something on tonight, the young rascal.”

He stepped inside and saw that on the teacher’s desk was a neat pile of exam papers, and on top of that was a pale blue business card. He reached over and picked it up. It was Ed’s, his hesitant, half smile was flanked by all of his details: email address, mobile number and school details. This had been a recent initiative from the school, a fake business model accessory that drew withering scorn from Jim when it had been first introduced. He popped it in his pocket for safe keeping.

“He doesn’t want to leave this lying around so some kid can ruin his Christmas for a laugh, “ he thought, closing the door behind him.

Inside the room, there was a flicker of the lights and a creaking of the walls in the December wind that moaned outside.

*

It was the end of January when they finally managed to find Ed’s replacement. A newly qualified teacher who hadn’t found a job last September happened to be available. Both she and the school were delighted, although there were some concerns. Mr Chapman, who had interviewed her thought her a little timid and was worried that she would find it all a bit too much, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and they would just have to do their best.

Anna started on a Friday and found herself sitting in the English Department office with Jim just before her last lesson of the day. It had been a bit of a whirlwind, but everything had gone pretty well, and she was feeling that she might be able to settle down here. At least everyone seemed friendly, even Senior Management, and that had not been her experience in the schools she had done teaching practice in.

“So, I still haven’t quite worked out why there was this sudden vacancy. There’s nothing I should know is there? I’m not walking into to some horrible situation.”

Jim sipped his coffee. ”No, nothing like that, er , Anna, was it? No, a bit of a sad story actually.”

Anna looked concerned.

“Oh yes, why was that then?”

“Oh, Ed, the lad was teaching here before you, he was an NQT as well. He was very good, a bit of a natural actually. We all thought everything was fine. And then, out of the blue, in the last week before Christmas he didn’t come in. He sent an email saying he’d decided that teaching wasn’t for him, that he wanted to go travelling or whatever it is you young people do these days. He was very apologetic and grateful and all of that but that was that, we never saw him again.”

“Oh no, that’s terrible.” She was a little more concerned to hear that her predecessor had been a “natural” and “very good”. Suddenly, all of the old doubts crowded in on her again.

“Aye, it was terrible. And that wasn’t the only thing. We heard later that his mother died in the holidays. Run over by a cab in the street. In Singapore. Tragic, really.”

Jim subsided into a gloomy silence while Anna awkwardly drank her coffee. Finally, he roused himself from his thoughts.

“Any way, that’s enough of that. Now then, you’ve got 8Y4 next lesson. They’re a little bit awkward, but nothing to worry about. I’ll give you the same advice that I gave Ed. Go in hard and whatever you do, don’t smile before Christmas. Or in your case, July.”

A look of terror flashed across her face.

“Now then Anna don’t worry yourself. Chappers will take you in and give ‘em the evil eye and I can pop in and check everything is ok. You’ll be fine, trust me”

And so, Anna eventually found herself at the front of the room facing 8Y4. Mr Chapman had indeed introduced her as their new teacher and had somehow put the fear of god into them with a raised eyebrow and an icy voice. The class sat in silence, blond and angelic, with perfect uniform and equipment, staring up at her in expectation. They stayed like that even after Chapman had closed the door behind him.

Anna started to explain her expectations and what they were going to cover that term. Her voice, faltering at first, grew stronger and clearer as her confidence increased. This was the longest time she had been able to speak to a class without interruption. She reached a pause and moved on her PowerPoint slide. A hand went up from a student on the back row. She looked up.

“Yes? I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“It’s Gabriel, Miss.”

“Well, Gabriel, what can I do for you?”

“Sorry Miss, what was your name again?”

“Miss Kowalski.”

She turned to the board and wrote out her name.

“And, are you going to be our teacher for the rest of the year?”

“Yes, I am Gabriel. We’re going to be learning such a lot this year.”

“Wicked. I’m sure you’re going to be better than the last one. He was hopeless.”

Anna frowned. She felt uncomfortable about being drawn into this kind of criticism.

“Well,” she began, “I’m not sure that…”

Gabriel suddenly broke into a dazzling smile and, all around him, the rest of the class looked up at Anna and their faces too were wreathed in beaming smiles. All except the boy sitting next to Gabriel, his white blond head bowed. The smiles stopped and the boy, his face now raised, pale as raw sausages, put his hand up.

Gabriel shouted out by way of explanation, “He’s new, Miss.”

“Don’t shout out, Gabriel, please. Now, young man, what’s your name?”

He blinked and looked puzzled, as if he wasn’t sure.

“Your name?” Anna repeated, patiently.

“Edward, Miss. My name is Edward,“ he croaked, his voice seeming to come free from some invisible moorings somewhere.

He opened his mouth again to speak. There was silence and everyone waited. A bead of sweat appeared on Anna’s forehead. The silence pressed down on them all until his words were finally formed and released.

“I’m so pleased you’re here. We’re going to have so much fun, now.”

And he smiled.

The Old Grey Owl

@OldGreyOwl1

https://growl.blog/

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