Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event
Rick checked his watch again, and took a drag from his cigarette. He had slipped out of the house, weary of the thumping bass and flashing lights, and had made his way to the terrace at the back of the mansion. It was strictly out of bounds for the students as part of the licensing agreement, but it was understood that staff could use it for temporary respite throughout the evening.
He sat at a table on the terrace in the darkness, looking out onto manicured lawns, grateful for the cool quiet out there. Kevin had been there when he arrived, enjoying a solitary cigarette on his break, so he took the opportunity to ponce a cigarette from him, a treat all the more delicious for its rarity.
“Jo would kill me if she saw me with this,” he confided to Kevin, savouring the grey blue smoke whisping away into the night sky.
“Well, your secret’s safe with me Rick,” he replied.
“Another half an hour and that’s our lot, I think,” said Rick. “Music off, lights on and the wait for the parents to pick ‘em all up.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kevin, “All over for another year, eh?”
“It’s gone pretty well, actually. Better than I expected.”
“Yeah, it could have been much worse in the circumstances. At one point I thought we’d only have twenty kids here. Nothing like it used to be, in our heyday.”
“No. There’ve been a lot of changes.”
Kevin hesitated for a moment and then plunged in.
“I’m surprised you’ve stuck around, actually Rick. I thought you would have got a Headship somewhere else. It must be soul destroying, working under this regime.”
It was Rick’s turn to hesitate. He was normally very discreet when it came to talking about the leadership of the school, and had an instinctive professional loyalty, regardless of his own opinion. He had resisted the temptation to spend the last year slagging off Camilla and Pugh to anyone who would listen, and he would have had an eager and receptive audience, but it hadn’t seemed right to him to turn into that kind of Senior Leader.
But now, his resolve weakened by a long year of humiliations, and lulled into conspiratorial mood by the shared cigarette in the darkness, he cracked.
“Yeah, it is Kevin. It has been. And who knows? I might jump ship early next year if things don’t change. I’ve just tried to do my best and head off some of the madder innovations she wanted to introduce, but looking back, I’ve failed dismally at that. I might as well have gone to be honest.”
He kept quiet about his pact with the devil that was Alastair Goodall, but he was feeling increasingly tainted by it, and for what? There was no sign he was going to get any benefit from it, apart from his enhanced salary for the last year. It sat uncomfortably with him anyway. Maybe he should knock that on the head as well. The whirl of conflicting thoughts left him unable to say more.
He stood up, looking at his watch once again.
“Come on, no point moping around here. It’s time to wind this down, while we’re still ahead.”
“Yep, we’ll get no thanks for worrying about it. Let’s go, I think we’ve all done enough for one night.”
They walked back in. As they turned the corner, there, framed in the light spilling from the entrance, was one of the teachers peering into the dimly lit terrace.
“Rick? Rick, is that you?”
“Yeah, who’s that? Mary, is that you? What’s up?”
He screwed his eyes up at the figure obscured by the light behind her. He had correctly identified Mary, the Head of Art.
“I think you’d better get in here, quick. We’ve been invaded.”
She disappeared back in to the building. Rick and Kevin looked at each other, baffled.
“Invaded?” said Kevin, “What on earth does she mean?”
When they got back in the building the first thing that told them something might be amiss was the unmistakeable smell of marijuana.
Kevin wrinkled his nose.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
“Who the hell is stupid enough to come to the Prom and smoke weed?”
Then one of the Promgoers burst from the disco room and ran towards them.
It was Jason.
“It’s George, Sir, George Mason. He’s gone mad.”
They ran to the door way and looked in. There in front of them, in the middle of the dance floor amidst a crowd of teenagers, was George, can of lager in one hand and enormous spliff in the other, swaying and dancing to the music.
“What the bloody hell..”
Kevin grabbed Rick’s elbow.
“It’s not just George, look,” he said.
Around the room, the rest of George’s crew were similarly engaged, smoking, drinking and dancing. Their dancing was not quite as hypnotic and dreamy as George’s. Instead, they were taking great pleasure in bumping into each other and anyone else who came within range. As Kevin and Rick watched in horror, this transformed itself into synchronised barging of other innocent dancers, who were sent flying across the dance floor, crashing into other. At the far side of the dance floor, the DJ, who ten minutes earlier had been looking forward to winding it down with couple of slow numbers, looked on at first bemused and then increasingly concerned. A series of teachers who had been supervising the dance floor had tried to intervene with the interlopers. They were at first ignored and then threatened by their former pupils, who were emboldened by their success so far.
Rick had seen enough.
“You stay here on the door, Kevin, I’ll only be a minute.”
He dashed out of the room and spoke first to the security man on the main entrance who had returned from his fag break and was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss.
“Hey, where the hell have you been? We’ve been invaded and you didn’t see a thing.”
“What? What do you mean, ‘invaded’? No-one has got past me without a ticket.”
“Never mind,” said Rick, “radio your mate on the front gate and get him up here, pronto and then both of you get yourselves to the dance floor. We need you to earn your money.”
“What about the police? Shall we ring for them?”
Rick thought for a moment.
“No, not yet. We don’t need them yet. Go on, man, hurry.”
Back on the dance floor the carnage continued. Then, like a bucket of cold water thrown over rutting dogs, the mood was broken. The music stopped immediately at the same time that the flashing strobe lights were replaced by the harsh overhead neon strips. The dancers stumbled and stood still, blinking in the unforgiving glare of the illumination.
A strange silence filled the room and the dancers and teachers looked round at the newly exposed hooligans, left like flopping fish gasping for breath out of the water. It was filled by a commanding voice from the doorway. All eyes were drawn in that direction.
“Alright everyone, listen up. The party’s over, I’m afraid. A little bit early, but I’m sure you’ll understand why? All students here with Prom tickets, you need to head next door with all of your stuff and get yourself ready. Parents and cars will be arriving in the next five minutes. Let’s make sure we don’t give them anything to worry about, especially on a night like this.”
There was an outbreak of grumbling abut the turn the evening had taken.
Rick held up his hands and started again.
“Yes, yes, we all know you’re disappointed, but we were nearly at the end anyway. There might even be a few keen parents already here waiting outside. So, let’s start to make our way through, please. And if I could ask a couple of members of staff to go through as well, just to make sure all is well?”
Three or four of the staff stepped forward and began to usher students out of the room. As they went, the invaders, looking round at each other began to put up their hoodies and fiddle with their bandanas.
“Oi, you lot. There’s no point hiding your faces, we’ve all seen you and we all know who you are. “
They stopped, embarrassed.
“Now listen. You’ve made a big mistake coming here tonight. You really shouldn’t have done it.”
One boy was bold enough to air his simmering sense of grievance.
“We should have been here anyway Sir. That old cow shouldn’t have banned us, she’s mental, you know she is Sir.”
“Eh, that’s enough of that. Whether you think you should have been banned or not, you were, and that’s all that matters.”
Two or three others joined in, adding their voices to the argument.
“It’s not fair, we get the blame for everything. Fucking teachers always think they’re right. We’ve had enough”
Rick hesitated. He had counted them. There were fifteen of them and about eight members of staff. They were drunk and stoned and very angry. He knew that it wouldn’t take much for this to turn ugly. Soon the two security guards would arrive, and they as a rule, did not do subtlety or negotiation. He knew that he would have to arrive at an agreed resolution in the next couple of minutes or risk disaster. He started again, hoping that his anxiety about the gravity of the situation did not bleed into his voice.
“No, no. no. that’s not going to get you anywhere. You need to start thinking sensibly about this, so that you don’t get yourself into any more trouble. The police are on their way. The security guards will be along in a moment. If I were you, I’d want to be leaving here as quickly as I could, without drawing attention to yourself.”
A familiar voice broke in, interrupting him. It was George.
“What’s the point of doing that, ‘cos you’ll just give all of our names to the police anyway? You’ve already said you know who we are. You must think we’re fucking stupid.”
This intervention stirred the pot again, and there was more rumbling from the mob.
“Language George, please. And, no, I don’t think you’re stupid and I never have done. For a start, I have no idea why you’re here anyway. This is not even your year group and not even your Prom. But let’s not go into that now. The point is this. I give you my word that if you all leave quietly now, taking all of your stuff with you, and there is no trouble with the parents or on your way home, then we’ll say no more about it.”
“See,” snorted George, looking round at the others, “He obviously does think we’re stupid. Don’t fall for this lads, he’s obviously gonna grass us up.”
“George, as far as I know, all you’ve done so far is gate crash a party and smoke a bit of weed and drink too much lager. You shouldn’t have done any of those things, but they’re not hanging offences. Or are you worried about something you’re not telling me?”
“No, course not,” George snapped back.
He turned his frustration on his colleagues. “See what he’s doing? Typical bloody teacher, he’s twisting everything. He’ll dob us in it alright, you see if he don’t.”
It hung on a knife edge. One voice from the mob piped up, “Nah, I don’t think so George. Mr Westfield aint like that, he aint like the others. He always does what he says.”
There was silence as they considered this idea and in that silence it was over. The first of them walked towards the door, followed by a couple more. Then, the rest of them followed. As they passed him to get through the doorway Rick said, “You could probably get a lift home with some of your mates, if you ask nicely.”
Finally, only George remained, standing in the middle of the dance floor. Rick said to the last few members of staff, “Do you guys want to go and help outside, while George and I have a chat?”
They slipped quietly out of the open door through to the hubbub beyond.
George clutched his lager and stared with a set face at Rick.
“So, George” Rick began “Are you going to go along with this and leave quietly? I meant what I said about not taking it any further.”
“Nah man,” George sneered, “don’t come it with the concerned, caring chat routine. Why should I listen to you? You’re the one that got me excluded. You and that Syrian cunt.”
“No, George, you got yourself excluded, you know that as well as anyone.”
“You got an answer for everything, aint you? If my Dad were here, he’d batter you for what you did.”
“Yes George, you’re right, he would. And he’d do a pretty good job of it as well. He’s good at battering people. But who would he go on to batter after he’d finished with me George, eh? And then what would happen? Because there comes a point where using your fists just isn’t enough. But you already know that, don’t you?”
George’s grip on his can of lager had been steadily increasing as he had listened to Rick, his knuckles whitening as he squeezed in rising anger. Without warning, hurled the half empty can with all his strength at Rick’s head with a roar of rage. Rick ducked and the can thudded into the wall behind him, spray spuming everywhere with an angry fizzing. George started forward and grabbed Rick by the lapels.
One of the qualities that had served Rick well as a teacher in a tough urban school was his unflappability. He had ice running through his veins and the capacity to exude calm when all around him were panicking. He knew that George was a very big, powerful lad who didn’t need the amount of alcohol he had consumed to make him dangerous and unpredictable. But Rick himself was tall and well-built. Years of sport and the gym had left him with a confidence that he could look after himself.
He put his arms through George’s and laid his hands on his chest, firmly exerting pressure on him.
“George, man, calm down. Don’t make things any worse than they are.”
George, still incensed, tried to wrench Rick towards him by the lapels, but found that Rick was too strong for him.
Rick’s voice was quiet and even and he looked George directly in the eyes
“George, come on. You’re your own worst enemy. Give yourself a break. Let go and calm down.”
There was one final attempt to overpower him. When that failed, with Rick looking steadily at him throughout, he gave up and with a howl of frustration and despair he pushed Rick to one side and stormed out of the room, barging past students and teachers alike, some sent flying like skittles as he turned the air blue with an extended volley of industrial language. He snatched up his carrier bag of lager from behind the desk and charged through the ground floor until he found the doorway to the terrace. He crashed past the two security guards who were skulking around, desperately trying to avoid being called into action, and disappeared into the cool darkness of the gardens.