Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.
It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?
Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.
And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.
If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.
But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.
He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.
The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”
What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.
So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.
This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.
Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.
The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves. Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?
The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.
I had a lot of interviews over the course of my career. There was the one that still makes me go slightly pink and hot, when I think about it. After not getting the job, my car broke down as I was about to drive away from outside the school, tail between my legs. My humiliation was completed by being spotted by the Head of English and the Local Authority English inspector, who had conducted their forensic dissection of me a little earlier in a hot, and airless room. I had not performed well. They waved at me and got some kids to give me a push so I could jump start the car. It was difficult to be appropriately grateful while simultaneously wanting the ground to open up and swallow me.
Another one was a three-day marathon for a Deputy Headship. At the end of the second day those who had made the final cut had to have drinks and canapes with the Governors in the evening. They turned out to be most of the Conservative party in Surrey, and it was an awkward hour of showing that I could hold a plate of Marks and Spencer sausage rolls, a glass of Chardonnay and talk convincingly about golf and skiing holidays. I could not.
But in preparing for every interview that I had, the key task that was drummed into me by senior colleagues, was the importance of having questions to ask at the end of the interview. This was not, of course, to actually find anything out. It was more to signal that I had researched the school and had prepared my questions accordingly. The real no-no, the professional crime committed only by rank amateurs was, when asked if there were any questions, to give the answer “No.”
Of course, all the real questions, the ones that demanded answers, could never be asked.
Here’s a short story about one such interview. It’s called “Asking the Questions”
Asking the Questions
“So, David, do you have any questions for us?”
He looked up, uncertain as to what had been said. The Headteacher fixed him with a laser-like stare. He felt like a rabbit caught in a set of particularly unforgiving headlights.
“Err..,” he stammered, looking around each member of the panel in turn. “Well, I ….”
Several hours earlier it had all started so well. He had driven into the school car park, under a huge polythene banner proclaiming it to be a “Good School”, with OFSTED vouching for its “Outstanding Behaviour”. A couple of scrubbed and gleaming older pupils were on duty, ready to direct the candidates to their saved parking spaces, and one waited as he clambered out of the car to escort him to reception. It was impressively smooth. There had been six of them assembled in the room which was their base for the day. One person had dropped out, already appointed to the plum job that had interviewed at the end of the week before. Looking around those that were left, it was obvious that they had all applied for that one as well. One of them he recognised from the circuit – Charlie, who he had met in a series of Deputy Head interviews over the previous couple of years – and that made the awkward small talk over coffee and pastries a little easier to manage.
A glance at the programme for the day revealed the usual menu of activities: teaching a lesson, a student council panel, some in tray exercises and a round of panel interviews. All of this to be achieved by 4pm before being given the dread news about who had made the cut for the grand finals of the next day, and who were officially Not Good Enough. It was at once depressingly formulaic and reassuringly familiar. His heart sank, though, when he saw it. How many times would he have to go through this pantomime to move on up the greasy pole? Was this really the best way of selecting somebody to be a Deputy Head? Most of the time it seemed that it served only to arrive at those who had the stamina put themselves through the process, while weeding out the non-conformists, those who either had not bothered to mug up on the latest educational buzz words, or, even worse, didn’t believe in them. Increasingly, he felt that he was one of the latter.
The conversation on the other side of the muffins ploughed on relentlessly. Two candidates he had not come across before, were vying to be the alpha male in the room, spraying pheromones relentlessly around the room. “Direct Instruction, bah, blah, blah.” “Yes, Knowledge Rich, blah, blah, blah” “Really? Because I……Katherine Birbalsingh…silent corridors…blah, blah, blah” “No! Outrageous! VAK?! Really?”
The braying, trumpeting laughter snapped him out of his reverie, and he noticed that throughout the conversation, the eyes of the two stags flicked continually around the room to see who was listening to their easy tour around the latest educational fads. His eye was caught by Charlie, who if anything, was even more jaundiced than him. Charlie habitually loitered on the fringes of opinionated groups and listened, only just controlling the smirk on his lips. When he saw that David was watching, he rolled his eyes theatrically, and took another massive bite out of his pain au chocolat. They didn’t get a chance, however, to chat about the performance they had just been watching, as the door swung open and a tall white man strode purposefully into the room, followed by a scurrying young woman with an armful of buff card folders.
“Morning everyone,” he boomed, beginning a relentless round of hand shaking, introductions and piercing eye contact. The braying chatter stopped immediately as the alpha males switched their attention to the entrance of this demigod, weighing up the correct blend of deference, intelligence and easy charm to deploy. He was immaculately groomed and trailed a cloud of subtle cologne in his wake. David looked down at his shoes, and thought, not for the last time that day, that he really should have given them a bit more of a polish. Instinctively, he tucked his feet far under his chair, and continued to smile.
David didn’t even catch his name as he leant over and fixed him with a steely glare and a crunching handshake. “Morning. David Marshall,” he said evenly, desperately hoping his winning smile would not crumble under the crippling pain the Head’s handshake was inflicting on him. His interview preparation over the previous three years had told him that, when push came to shove, the research showed that most interviews were decided, informally, in the first couple of minutes. An evidence-based approach to that old chestnut, “did they like the cut of your jib?” presumably. At this rate, his chances of success were hanging by a thread.
After the introductions and wrist pummelling, the Head gave a potted version of the school’s recent history, which seemed designed simply to make everyone in the room aware that it had been single-handedly rescued from degradation and despair by his own determination and genius. The Alpha males in the room, at least two of them women, through supreme self-control and an effort of will, were content to merely nod knowingly. Then, having established his messianic status, the Head went through the programme of activities for the day.
The Head was clearly someone who valued action. His opening pep talk reached its final sentence as he swept out of the room, followed gamely by the young woman, who had not spoken since her entrance a minute earlier. She had simply distributed the folders and melted into the background. In the silence that was left by the Head’s departure, there was only time for a collective exhalation, some raised eyebrows and half smiles of approval and admiration of the performance they had just witnessed. Before anyone had a chance to speak, a student, squeaky clean and scrubbed in immaculate uniform, appeared in the doorway.
“Good morning everyone. My name’s Oscar and we’re here to give you all a tour of the school. If you’d like to follow us, we’ll show you around. And please, don’t hesitate to ask any questions of any of us as we make our way around the school.”
Behind him were two other specimens of the student body, who beamed as all of the candidates made their way into the corridor. They introduced themselves as Uzma and Farha, and they seemed to have graduated from the same finishing school as Oscar, exuding charm and confidence in equal measures. As they progressed around the school, David and Charlie gravitated to the back of the group. When an opportune moment presented itself, Charlie leaned towards David and said quietly, “Well, this is all very impressive, isn’t it?”
David agreed, “Yeah, though I suppose these are the best three kids in the school. Let’s see what the rest of them are like.”
They didn’t have long to wait. The bell interrupted their guides’ explanations and Oscar brought the procession to a halt in the main ground floor corridor.
“This is the start of period 1, so there’ll be a lot of movement in the corridor,” Oscar explained.
The candidates visibly flinched, but were secretly pleased. Kids moving in corridors were harder to stage manage than the rest of the process, and could be relied on to give a more accurate representation of the school. All along the length of the corridor, the classroom doors opened, like flowers blossoming, and at each doorway a teacher positioned themselves, as their class silently filed out into the thoroughfare. Soon, the entire corridor was filled with lines of students, all silent, all observing the one-way system. Occasionally, one of the teachers on guard barked an instruction as the kids passed them.
“Hands to yourself”
“Nothing to discuss.”
Charlie and David exchanged a look. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this before. After a couple of minutes, the corridor was empty again, and the doors closed. It was as if no-one had ever been there.
One of the other candidates, a bristling, serious young woman, could contain herself no longer. She turned to one of the girls escorting them.
“Goodness me, that was very impressive. Is it always like that at change of lessons?”
“Oh yes,” Uzma replied earnestly, “Always.”
“It wasn’t always like this, though,” chipped in Farha. “It used to be really rowdy, before Mr Bennet came.” The three of them exchanged a little look and a smile before moving on with the tour.
While the other candidates engaged the guides in conversation at the front of the crocodile, Charlie and David brought up the rear, conferring in low voices.
“These three guides are doing their job, aren’t they? They’re word perfect,” muttered Charlie.
“I can’t tell whether it’s incredibly impressive, or a little sinister,“ said David. “It all seems a little… unnatural to me.”
“Come on,“ chided Charlie, “No need to be quite so cynical about it. Maybe, they’ve got it right. Maybe they have cracked the ethos of the school.”
“Cynical? No, just human. A silent corridor is a deeply worrying sign, if schools are meant to prepare normal kids to take their place in the outside world.” David shook his head. “A calm corridor, an orderly corridor, yes that’s one thing, but a silent one? No. No, thank you.”
Charlie shrugged and they moved on, past silent rooms of Maths students, English students, French students. They were taken in to some of these rooms at intervals, to be greeted by a smiling teacher who would explain the lesson and invite them to have a look at books and chat to the students. Even David was impressed with the neatness of the books, the volume of writing in them, the attentiveness of the class to the teacher’s instructions. He began to wonder whether he was going to have to revise his initial scepticism.
He checked his watch. The tour would be winding down now and soon they would all be taken back to their base for the real business to begin. Oscar and his two lieutenants hastily conferred, and then picked up the pace, ignoring the remaining classrooms, intently solely, it seemed, on not being late getting them back. The faster pace strung out the gaggle of candidates, like tiring runners in the Grand National, and Charlie and David found themselves adrift at the back of the pack. By the time they walked past the Science labs, they were the only ones in the corridor, the others having established a lengthening lead in the dash towards the finishing line.
“Crikey!” David exclaimed. “Do you think this is part of the selection process? See who has a heart attack running back to base?”
He never found out Charlie’s answer, as the door of the nearest lab suddenly burst open, and a grey-haired man in a stained lab coat popped his head into the corridor.
“Psst!” he whispered hoarsely, looking both ways down the corridor and back again.
“Are you the candidates for Deputy Head?”
He had wild, staring eyes, and his head continually flicked back and forth, surveying both ends of the corridor.
Charlie and David looked at each other, bemused. David turned back to the man in the lab and said, “Well, yes, we’re two of them. The others are up ahead. Who are you?”
“That’s not important. But listen. I really must talk to you. In private. There are things you need to know. Things the staff want you to know.”
“Well, yes, I think there’s a meeting scheduled on the programme for the day.” Charlie fumbled with his sheet of paper and scanned it quickly.
“Yes, here it is. 12.45 a working lunch with some Heads of Faculty. That’s when we get to meet the staff.”
The man looked aghast. “Let me have a look at that,“ he whispered urgently, and grabbed the sheet out of Charlie’s hand. He studied it and laughed.
“Oh, yes. These people. Quislings and Yes men. They’ll give you the correct line alright. Oh yes.” He shook his head fiercely, and then, with another quick look down the corridor, backed into his lab.
“They won’t tell you the truth, but I will. And so will the others. Come here at lunchtime. 1.15. Tell no-one else…”
He was interrupted by the appearance of Oscar at the far end of the corridor, who called out
“Ah, there you are! I thought you’d got lost. We do need to get back so we don’t delay the programme.”
The mysterious stranger, tapped the side of his nose, and hissed, “1.15. Tell no-one”.
He backed into his lab and closed the door.
That was the last time David saw Charlie that day. They were hurtled through a series of activities that seemed to have been designed with the sole purpose of removing any chance of the candidates being together unsupervised, or of meeting any free-range members of staff. Their student minders had shown them, with great pride, a large room that was rammed with students, all in individual booths, so that they could not see anyone else. There were about thirty of them writing in silence while four members of staff patrolled, occasionally barking, “Sit up straight. Another day for anyone who with their head down or not writing.”
“This is the Behaviour Correction Centre, sir,“ explained Oscar quietly.
“There’s a lot of people in here, isn’t there? Is it always like this?” David had asked.
“Oh yes, sir,” replied Oscar, “But it’s alright, it’s always the same people.”
He had also been shown, with the same pride, the long queues of students that lined up in the playground at the end of break.
“Is this a fire drill?” he had asked, naively. “I didn’t hear the alarm.”
“No sir,“ Farha replied, “We do this at the end of every break and lunchtime. We have to queue up in register order, and our teacher takes the register, checks equipment and takes us to class.”
David frowned. “Why?” he asked simply.
His three guides looked baffled.
“What do you mean, sir?” Uzma finally asked.
“Well, doesn’t it waste a lot of time? Why don’t you just get straight to class? And what if it’s raining?”
They looked at each other, uncertain how to respond, until Oscar pronounced, “It’s just the way we do things here. It’s good, it’s quieter. But we need to go back to your base now. It’s time for your next activity.”
David bit his tongue and allowed himself to be escorted back.
He had tried to escape at lunchtime, to keep his assignation with the mysterious Mad Scientist, but he was expertly herded this way and that to each new activity so that he had barely a moment to himself. And so, he worked his way through the usual in-tray exercise, did a data analysis of results and underperforming departments, was carouselled through four panel interviews, and had to teach a Year 7 English class a lesson on grammar. The sour expression on the face of the observer when he began the lesson by rearranging the rows of chairs into table groups of four told its own story. She began furiously taking notes, and then gave up after ten minutes. She had clearly already seen enough to make up her mind.
And so had David. The same raised eyebrow and scribbled notes followed his answers about dialogic teaching and collaboration, about restorative justice to accompany strict rules and sanctions, about student voice and student engagement and promoting investigation and experiment, about coaching being non-directive and about empowering staff and students alike. By the end, the interviewers were only just managing to avoid being sarcastic, and he was becoming ever more monosyllabic. What had happened to all the things he believed in? Why had making teaching engaging become such a joke? Why was there this endless emphasis on teachers droning on and checking for retention of facts? When did the ideal English classroom begin to resemble a pub quiz? Why did everyone seem to have such a simplistic attitude to evidence-based practice, a phrase that seemed to be the equivalent of a membership card to the cool kids club? Were there any schools left whose Senior Leadership entertained alternative ideas and were up for the discussion? There were so many questions buzzing around in his head, so much doubt about whether there was any point in staying in this profession that he used to love. So many questions.
“David? Your questions?”
His smile had begun to crack as the pause had grown. The rest of the panel reached for their papers and shifted in their seats.
Questions? Oh yes, there were plenty of questions.
He looked again at the panel. Two of them had already gathered their papers together, one was intent on the last of the thick chocolate biscuits and the man closest to him, a governor of some sort, continued to write. He could just about make out, upside down, the beginnings of a shopping list.
Lockdown is the mother of invention, or so it seems. In the long, idle hours generated by Covid and Retirement, there has been ample opportunity to hone a new set of skills. The main insight I have gained after being out of the English classroom for the first time since 1982, is that the thing that I miss the most, the essence of English teaching is reading a great book or a poem aloud to a classroom full of kids. And so, I present the results, via my two new ventures, The View from the Great North Wood Youtube channel, and the Telling Stories Podcast. Indulge me, and think of this as therapy for someone still grieving.
Both ventures are straight out of the “Sniffin’ Glue” school of publishing, that is, rough and ready, with an unmistakeable aroma of punk. In those days, we were all just encouraged to get it down while it was hot. To pick up a guitar and learn two chords (who needed more? Patti Smith famously used just one, brilliantly) and start to thrash. To type, cut and paste (with scissors!) and xerox it.
So with that in mind, dive in. But be kind. And, don’t hold back from subscribing and spreading the word.
Anna had always looked forward to September. Even as a child, the prospect of the new school year, with its pristine uniform, books and equipment, promised the chance of a new start, when anything was possible. The same feeling still buoyed her now as a teacher, even though the new start always turned sour all too quickly, and she knew that disappointment was never too far away.
This year, it felt to her that the promise of a clean page was even more important than usual. As she busied herself with her new pens and stationery, and began to lay out her clothes for the first day back the next day, she struggled to hold down her rising feelings of anxiety. Although the return to class was daunting after six weeks away, it did at least mean that she would get out of the flat and away from Tom for a time. He needed some time and space and six weeks cooped up together in a small flat had pushed him towards the edge. She knew it was her fault and she needed to loosen up a little, but she was sure work would help.
Her anxiety was divided equally between Tom and Anthony Gordon. She had heard the horror stories in the staffroom about Anthony’s attitude and behaviour. Seemingly continually on the verge of furious, violent eruptions, he was particularly bad, apparently, with female members of staff. Ever since she had discovered that he was going to be in her Year 9 class, back in July, a seed of worry had lodged itself in her mind. By the time she arrived at the night before the first teaching day of the Autumn term, it had grown to the size of a Giant Redwood. She had managed the two evenings before the first INSET days, but now before the first real day with children and timetables and teaching lessons and duties, its branches twisted everywhere in her head and she could not get to sleep for worry. Tom hadn’t helped. As she tossed and turned in bed, she thought back to earlier in the evening, when Tom had lingered at the doorway of her study, fiddling with his watch. Anna did not look up from her desk.
“Anna, come on. We’ve got to be there in 15 minutes. I’ve been telling you for the past hour.”
She glanced up, distracted.
“What? Oh, sorry Tom. I don’t think I can come, I’ve got to finish all of this off, and I’ve still got hours to go.”
Tom’s face was thunderous.
“You are joking, I presume. I can’t just show up on my own. Just leave it, you need to get out anyway. It’ll be good for you.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry Tom, I’m worried about tomorrow. You go on your own. You’ll have a better time without me.”
“It’s just a job, for God’s sake. The kids you teach are all no-hopers anyway It doesn’t make any difference what you do. You’re wasting your time.”
She looked as if he had slapped her across the face.
He cut across her. “Is it always going to be like this? Christ Anna, don’t be such a martyr and have some fun, while you still can.”
She tried again. “But..”
“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”
He turned and slammed the door.
She could still feel the vibration echoing through the flat as she recalled the scene, lying in bed unable to sleep. She reached across for her phone. No messages. 2 am. Where was he?
Anthony, on the other side of town, could also not get to sleep. He was not used to sleeping in a proper bed with a duvet that covered him for one thing. And for another, he was excited about going back to school. It was the first time in his life he could remember having new uniform and equipment. Unable to bear it a moment longer, he swung his legs out from underneath the thick covers that were swamping him, and went over to his desk. His desk! Another novelty that made him constantly look over at it, as if to check that it was still there and someone had not discovered a mistake and had come to take it away. He handled his pencil case and calculator, and flicked through his new dictionary, trying out some of the new words for size.
His finger traced down the edge of the page as he sounded the words one at a time.
“ Stab – pierce, wound with pointed weapon. Hmm. Stability – firmly fixed or established. Not easily moved or changed or destroyed. Stamina – endurance, staying power. Status – social position, rank, relation to others.”
He stopped and looked around the room, picking out objects from the deep shadows that cloaked them. Bed. Wardrobe. Computer. Games. Posters on the wall. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe his Dad had really changed and they could all stay together in this flat and everything would be alright. Maybe his Mum would be proud of him and school would ring home with good news for a change. Maybe…
Thirty yellow buds blossomed cream as 9C opened their exercise books to the first page.
“OK Year 9. Can you put today’s date and the title please, and underline both of those things neatly?”
“What’s the title, Miss?” came a shout from the middle of the room, closely followed by, “What date is it today, Miss?”
“Date and title are on the Whiteboard. I’m not expecting you to be mind readers, you know.”
A couple of the sharper kids raised their heads and smiled up at her, a few looked puzzled and looked around, while the silent majority ploughed on, oblivious to the joke that had just sailed over their heads. Anna surveyed the class, judging when to move on.
“Ok, everyone let’s just get the rules clear from day one. If you all know what’s expected, no-one will get into trouble, and your work will improve. Or that’s the intention, at any rate. So, rule number one..”
She clicked the powerpoint and began to talk through the first rule as it appeared on the screen. The class copied it down in silence. The clock ticked and Anna covered the room, her heels clicking on the hard lino floor. A cloud of concentration gathered above their heads. She already felt the first day of term nerves drain away, the minute she had started to project her voice to this first class. It was the same every year and she laughed at herself inwardly over the time she had wasted in the last few days, worrying about the starting the new year.
After twenty minutes the task was done and Anna could move on to her first real task.
“OK, everyone, pens down please and look this way. Now, I’ve never taught this class before so we don’t know each other. The first thing we are going to do is to think about how English and school in general has been for each of us since we started a couple of years ago, and what we would like to achieve this year and by the time we leave school for good..”
She was off. Instructions came easily and the lesson plan, the product of agonised hours, dissolved as instinct took over. A brief explanation and setting up, some questions fielded and a five minute group discussion with feedback to the whole class (that had caused a deep breath before launching in to it) had come and gone, expertly managed, and almost before she knew it, the writing task had been set up and the entire class were back working individually, writing their letters of introduction to her, their new teacher.
Ten minutes in, she stood back and surveyed the room. The concentration was almost painful. She had patrolled the room, reading over shoulders, fielding questions, making suggestions, correcting mistakes, and now she wallowed in the pleasure of watching the class visibly get cleverer in front of her eyes. Where was the performance management observer when you needed them? Or the OFSTED inspector?
She looked in the direction of the question and just controlled her frown in time. Anthony Gordon had his hand up. He had been surprisingly perfect up to that point: immaculate uniform, immediately following instructions without question, responsible participation in the group discussion. It was almost as if he had been taking the piss. But now, the honeymoon was over. He’d done well, but it was too much to expect him to keep this up right to the end of the lesson. She flashed a smile at him as she moved over to his side of the room.
“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.
“Miss, can you read this to see if it’s alright?”
She hesitated, expecting this to be the first line of an elaborate setup, with her as the butt of the joke. Her eyes flicked around the room. No, there were no supressed sniggers, no furtive glances, nothing. The whole class had heads bent to their work, absorbed. She looked back to Anthony who was waiting patiently.
“Sorry Anthony, just coming”
She navigated the tables and reached out to pick up his book. She scanned it quickly, already rehearsing the bland, standard reply of encouragement she would give before moving off, before she stopped, a frown creasing her face. She read it again. She looked again at Anthony, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His face fell.
“It’s crap, innit, Miss?” he mumbled, and reached out to grab the book back from her.
“Anthony, it’s great. This is the best piece of writing you’ve done. You’ve got the tone just right. And some of your expression is just beautiful.”
He looked a little confused. “Really, Miss, it’s alright? You sure?”
“Anthony, it’s more than alright, its excellent. Well done.”
A smile spread across his face and he seemed to blossom in front of her.
“How are you going to carry on?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. I’m a bit stuck.”
“Well, you need to go on to, give some examples of the things you’ve mentioned. Anecdotes. And maybe you could use a few rhetorical questions in the next section.”
She bent down over his table, placing the exercise book back in place and on a separate sheet of paper began to write.
“Something like this,” she said, as she wrote out a few sentences. “Have a go, see how you get on.”
She straightened up. He smiled at her.
“Thanks, Miss” he said before bending back down towards his book.
Anna threaded her way back through the grid of tables to the front of the class, and surveyed the group. Perfect, humming concentration pulsed in the room. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A girl at the front looked up at that moment.
“What’s up, Miss? What’s funny? You look very happy.”
“Nothing, Kirsty. Let’s get back to work please. Another five minutes”
She began to circulate around the tables, looking over shoulders at their writing, scanning the room for issues. She approached Anthony’s table and found herself just behind him when the quiet in the room was disturbed by his hissed exclamation.
All heads looked up and searched the room for the culprit and there was the beginnings of a group giggle rolling across the room.
“Anthony! There’s really no need for that kind of language.”
“Huh? Oh sorry Miss, it just came out. I’ve messed it all up.”
He lifted his book half up and grabbed the corner of the page with his right hand.
Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.
“No, no, no. Don’t tear the page out, Anthony, you’ll ruin all that work.”
“It’s already ruined, Miss. Look at it.”
She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.
“It’s not ruined, Anthony, you just made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”
She laughed. “So does everyone. Mistakes are nothing to be worried about Anthony. Just cross it out with a single line and correct it. Then you can carry on and add to what you’ve already done.”
“But it’ll look crap, Miss. I don’t want crossings out all over it. I always muck it up.”
“I’ll tell you a secret Anthony. Examiners love crossing out. It’s a sign of an intelligent student. Someone who knows they’ve got something wrong and who has tried to do something about it. If you ripped out the page every time you made a mistake, you would never, ever finish.”
He looked puzzled as he tried to process this information. Anna gently laid the book back down on his table. Keeping one hand on it so he couldn’t snatch it again, she pointed at the mistake.
“Look, it’s easy. You just draw a single line through what you got wrong, like this..” She modelled the crossing out, her red pen neatly scoring through a misspelling. “Don’t scribble it, that will look messy. Just a single line and then put your correction next to it. See.”
Anthony’s face moved from puzzled through disgruntled and ended in reluctant acceptance. He bent his head back down to his work and the final minutes of the lesson passed in silent concentration.
“Yeah, it was amazing, he just kept on writing. I was, like, expecting him to kick off all lesson, but there wasn’t a flicker. It was like teaching a different kid, honestly…”
She paused and glanced over at Tom, who was intently scrolling on his phone.
“Are you even listening to me Tom? Jesus, you’re so rude. You don’t take any interest in my work. You could at least pretend.”
There was a delay as he finished and then he looked up.
“I was listening for the first fifteen minutes. And then I wasn’t.”
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“For god’s sake, it’s just a job. Do you even know what I do? When do you have to listen to me going on about my job. You’re so fucking boring these days. You didn’t used to be like this.”
He stood up abruptly.
“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”
He lunged at her and grabbed her throat, pinning her to the high-backed chair.
“Shut up!” he screamed, “Just shut the fuck up.”
He pushed her back against the chair and stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him. Anna slumped back on her chair, her hand to her neck, stunned. And then the tears came.
Anthony crouched at his desk, rigid, his pen gripped tightly above his exercise book. Another shout, another crash of something heavy against the wall, another strangled whimper from his mother. He flinched at each sound, slumping lower towards the desk top beaten down by every noise. He remained frozen, breath caught in fear, waiting for the noise he knew was coming next. The sound that always signalled respite, a brief passage of calm before the next time. The door duly slammed, after a final volley of abuse, and as the vibration settled slowly into stillness, his shoulders came down and a weary peace descended on the room.
He sat frozen, not daring to go out of his room for fear of what he might find. His ears strained for some sign to cut through the noise of distant traffic and an intermittent gusting wind. And then he heard his mother moving around and the sound of cupboards opening and closing. She was alright and he could stay where he was, safe and quiet.
He looked down at his book, at the sentence he had stared at for the previous fifteen minutes while mayhem had swirled around in the room outside.
“In the future, I’d like to work as a professional gamer, and have a nice house and family, where my mum and dad can come and visit.”
He thought for a second and was just about to add a last sentence when the door burst open and his mother stared him, wild-eyed. The bruise around her eye and cheek bone was ripening as she spoke
“Anthony. Come on. Pack up what you need. We’ve got to leave.”
She tossed a battered blue IKEA bag onto the floor in front of him.
“Back to the Refuge. Come on, we need to be quick.”
She went back out to collect her stuff. Anthony automatically began to bundle his clothes and a few books into the bag. He had done it several times before and it barely registered with him, thinking he would probably have to do it again some time in the future. He took a final look around his room, grabbed his exercise book from the desk, stuffed it into the bag, and turned out the light.
Anna sat in the darkness of her flat, scrolling through the messages on her phone. The dim blue glare sparkled in the tear tracks on her cheeks and softened the red rims and smudged mascara. He wasn’t coming back, that much was clear. He wasn’t picking up and had left no indication where he might be staying. Another woman, obviously, she thought bitterly. Someone who had the dinner on the table and didn’t have the audacity to talk about her own life and feelings and worries.
When she had got back from school that Monday she knew as soon as she walked through the door that he had gone. The gaps on their shelves confirmed it. He had come back when she had been at work, gathered up his stuff and removed it all, so no trace was left, without even telling her.
She slumped down at the kitchen table, and swung her school bag, stuffed with marking, with a heave on top of the table in front of her. It thudded down and spilled the first few books, spreading like a hand of cards. She looked fondly at them, so new, so clean, so full of hope. She had been convinced that this September everything was going to be different. A new start, a new her. She would manage everything and be the woman that she knew she could be. Having it all. Juggling competing demands. In control. But it only takes one ball to veer slightly off course and a chain reaction starts, that no matter how frantically you tried to keep it going, inevitably ends with everything crashing.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, collecting her resolve to keep on going. Reaching out to the books that had fanned out in front of her, she chose the one that was a little grubbier than the rest. Dog-eared and stained, the name on the front provoked a ghost of a smile. Anthony Gordon. At least he had made a fresh start, if only until the end of the first week. He hadn’t been seen since then and rumours had flown around the staffroom about the police and social services being involved. But now his book had magically appeared in her pile.
She switched on the side lamp, and opened the book, illuminated in a warm, yellow cone of light. As she read, flicking through the pages, her smile froze and then disappeared altogether. He had written three pages, the most he had ever achieved. There were careful crossings out and corrections made but the pages had all been crossed out, each line like an angry slash, almost penetrating the surface of the paper. The last page hung where it had been partially ripped out. Anthony had scrawled a new title, “My Future”, complete with a parody of underlining, free hand, red and jagged. Underneath, in capital letters, he had scratched simply, “I AINT GOT ONE”.
A cold wind moaned outside her kitchen window. She shivered. September was already halfway through and soon October would be here. Winter was coming.
This is for all those teachers, of whatever stripe, that have ever held a class spellbound, and more particularly, for those English teachers who have ever read fiction aloud to a class of students. My very last thoughts on retirement, honest.
I have loved casting spells
In the gathering gloom of wet November Friday afternoons
As yellow lights held us all in a web of careful, bold words.
Thirty pairs of eyes wide and gleaming in the dusky, chalk-dusted corners.
Thirty breaths held in a cloud of concentration above our heads.
Yes, that was worth the whole shebang.
But I did not like
The Marking, that squatted on my life like a Toad.
There will come a time, on a wet November afternoon, when a pile of bruised and scribbled purple books might be the object of my wildest dreams.
But not yet.
Not for a long, long time.
And come September, when Summer’s warmth begins to fail and blistered leaves turn yellow,
I will watch the lines of scrubbed children laden with heavy bags,
Proceed to school with first day nerves, and think, with sadness and relief, that no bell summons me,
To cast the old spells
Afresh for them.
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?”
“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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org If not, read on and share the story via the #FoldingPaperProject hashtag. Happy reading and writing!
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“Ok, good afternoon Year 8. Sit down please and get your
No-one moved. Ed’s eyes flicked around the room.
“Can you sit down please? Books, pens and planners out as
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
“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
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
“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
“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?”
She turned to the board and wrote out her name.
“And, are you going to be our teacher for the rest of the
“Yes, I am Gabriel. We’re going to be learning such a lot
“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
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