The Last Train North on Christmas Eve.

Since the time of writing, Johnson has finally cancelled Christmas and we are left with the choice of criminalisation, infection or isolation. Thanks, pal.

As I write, the UK is on the edge of being submerged in the biggest crisis of my lifetime, as the most tumultuous year any of us has ever experienced limps to an end. No, I don’t mean Brexit. Liarman Johnson will, with a straight face, pull a supposed rabbit from a virtual hat and proclaim that he has heroically faced down the forces of evil at the eleventh hour and achieved a stunning deal that is brilliant for Britain. Anyone with functioning synapses knows that this is nonsense, and that he has, just as he did with Northern Ireland, rolled over in front of Michel Barnier and capitulated. Fishermen? Let them eat cake. Level playing field? We can manage being at the bottom of a steep cliff because we are English, are we not? ECJ ajudication? Bring it on, as long as we can call it something different. Maybe The Johnson Universal Deal Agreement System, or JUDAS for short.

All of that was always going to result in a stage-managed last-minute escape. No, the real crisis we face, is the terrible possibility (terrible to The Daily Mail, that is) that Christmas, as we know it, will not take place. And what makes it worse is that we can’t even blame it on Johnny Foreigner. So appalling is it to Johnson, with his psychopath’s need to be loved, that he is willing to contemplate millions of people travelling across the country, trailing infection in their wake, so that they can congregate around a groaning table, having spent an obscene amount of money they don’t have, on stuff that their nearest and dearest don’t want. Ah, Boris. Bless ‘im! Yes, just step over the bodies, dear, that’s right. Don’t distress yourself, it’s not important. It’s no-one’s fault – they had underlying health issues, you see.

When it comes to historical re-enactments, Boris is always going to want to play Charles II, (Nell Gwynne in tow), rather than Oliver Cromwell, who let’s face it, was a bit of pinko killjoy.

But let me, for a moment at least, step out my customary jaundiced mind set and acknowledge the joint humanity of this. Yes, even Tories (or Johnson’s English Nationalists) get some things right. And even Lefties value family and Christmas, and desperately want to end the year with some semblance of normality. So one can understand the reluctance to impose travel and mixing restrictions on a weary population, not least because it would be almost impossible to police. Allowing people to do something (ie removing the threat of legal enforcement) while advising them not to do it, in the light of the most up to date evidence, seems a reasonable course of action. It allows people to make sensible decisions based on their own personal circumstances. There will be people who know this will be their last ever Christmas. There will be those whose mental health would be severely tested by the prospect and the reality of a Christmas on their own. And, not least, there will be those ( the majority I believe) for whom cancelling Christmas as usual is by far the best solution. We can put up with more inconvenience for a while longer to play our part in not spreading this accursed virus any further. All of those groups can make defendable decisions.

My own Christmas arrangements have been completely disrupted. And the changes take me back down Memory Lane, to a time when the late December trip back up North, was a regular feature of my festive schedule. This tale takes place in the distant time of December 1982. Not quite Dickensian times, but near enough. I had just completed my first term as a trainee teacher, back in the days when trainees had the course paid for as their fourth year of Higher Education. (Yes, youngsters, Fees and maintenance all taken care of by the State. Don’t believe all you read about the Seventies and early eighties, before The Thatcher Ascendancy.)

I had to cycle twenty miles a day to get to my College and back during this term. Given the fact that I can’t get up two flights of stairs at home without groaning these days, this seems barely believable to me now. Although I really enjoyed the course and was amazed to find that I was quite good at teaching, it was with some relief that I greeted the Christmas holidays, with a break from the bike and the South Circular. But money, not leisure, was the main driver, despite the generosity of the state, and I was delighted to get a job for the Christmas holidays. I began to calculate the largesse I would demonstrate on my return to the land of my fathers, to check in with all of my Sixth Form chums again. Yes, the drinks would be on me.

I lived in a shared house at the top of Brixton Hill, just opposite the prison. One of the guys who I shared with, a friend from Teesside, was also training to be an English teacher, and we both got the same holiday job – seasonal shop assistant in Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”). We did it for about two weeks. I was on the stationery counter and spent a very depressing fortnight selling a whole range of Christmas tat to people who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families. They would shuffle up to the counter,  hands digging deep into their pockets for their last few coins, and begin the process of mentally calculating which things they would have to put back. I say “people”, but the reality was that they were almost exclusively women, often with small snotty kids in tow, looking harassed and malnourished. My mate was assigned to the fragrance counter, where he worked under the watchful eye of a very glamorous supervisor, who apparently found his jokes hilarious. He had to serve an endless queue of young women, with the occasional dutiful male partner thrown in, looking for the perfect Christmas perfume, while the supervisor stood behind him intermittently squeezing his bottom. When we exchanged notes every evening in the pub, it didn’t take long for me to feel that perhaps I was getting the worst end of the deal. Cheshire -cat- grinning mate sympathised with my plight, but not enough apparently, to offer to swap counters.

By the end of the two weeks, we had both had enough of South London’s West End Store. Even good-humoured sexual harassment (though it wouldn’t have been called that back then) can pall after a while and for me, the guilt of fleecing the poorest members of the community where I lived had become too much. We decided, without telling management, that we would not return after the holiday. That turned Christmas Eve into our last day and we become a little demob happy. We were due to finish early, and we had booked tickets on the last train North out of Kings Cross. We took our bags into work with us that morning, so we could get off to a flyer. The plan was to take the tube up west from Brixton, have something to eat and start our Christmas celebrations before boarding the train with a few cans of beer. You have to remember that we were much younger, we were Northerners, and we drank like fishes with little discernible impact on our bodies or brains. Oh happy day! What we didn’t know then was how much that would change as age began to take its toll as it inevitably did, but that’s another story or three.

In the last couple of hours of the shift, I had a Robin Hood type transformation, and began to assuage my guilt by handing over vast handfuls of excess change. At first, some customers, eyes wide, frowning, tried to give it back, but a subtle combination of non-verbal gestures made it clear that, yes, this was their lucky day.  A wink. A raised eyebrow. Even, for the less quick on the uptake, a tapping of the side of the nose. Word obviously got round and soon I had the longest queue in the store, much to the amazement of the supervisors who had pigeonholed me as a rather miserable presence on the shop floor. someone without any natural gifts for sales (ie capacity to lie with a straight face). This was in direct contrast to their attitude to my mate, who they had their eyes on for the fast-track management training course, because of his smiling charm. They didn’t seem to realise that it’s much easier to be happy and charming, when you are the object of the customers’ (and colleagues) sexual fantasies rather than the butt of their resentment of their own oppression. “Q: Why can’t I have a nice Christmas and get things that my children and my partner will really enjoy?” A: “Because of that miserable northern git behind the counter.” The lack of a Marxist analysis amongst the client base was deeply disappointing.

Eventually, the shift was over and we were free. I dread to think what the totting up of the till revealed at the end of the day, but no-one ever mentioned it, and the knock on the door from The Old Bill never came. Perhaps everyone else was on the take from the till, who knows? By the time we clambered on to the train at Kings Cross, we were firmly in holiday mode. An early dinner/late lunch with a few drinks had got things off the ground, and we looked forward to a jolly couple of hours to Darlington, aided and abetted by the train buffet. We had tried to get into the spirit of the occasion by attaching some modest bits of tinsel to our outfits, but a quick look at the queue of people boarding the train with us was the first indication that we had perhaps misjudged the situation. Everyone getting on the train appeared to be part of a larger group. They were dressed like extras from Brideshead Revisited, in tuxedos and formal evening wear, with the few women in attendance in posh frocks and they were all decorated with superior Christmas adornments, including liberal quantities of mistletoe. Each little knot of people had their own wicker hamper, and many of them already had champagne flutes in hand and were quaffing (because what else does one do with Champagne in this situation?) as they waited to board.

We both exchanged shifty, bemused glances, and our self-consciousness sky-rocketed. Never had one’s northern oikishness been so publicly exposed. The entire cohort of the passenger list appeared to be old alumni of the country’s finest public schools and Oxbridge, borne out by their braying self-congratulatory conversations. A little bit of shell-shocked earwigging confirmed that this was The City of London heading home to the parental pile in the North for the holidays. They had clearly, like us, come straight from work, but unlike us, their work wasn’t selling cheap cards and scent in Sarf London. The only response to this severe case of Class Alienation was to drink. So we did.

On the first trip to the toilet, it became clear that this was the Longest Party in the World. It was wild. Staggering down the rolling train aisle, I passed table after table of Champagne parties. Crackers were pulled, canapes and all manner of posh food, some of which I had never heard of back in the eighties, never mind tasted, were shovelled in, streamers streamed, music was played and eventually as the drink took hold, dances were danced. As the train pressed on to the frozen north, there was some thawing of the unspoken class war that had been bubbling under the surface of the  bonhomie. Alcohol can do that. We shared drinks and stories and had a laugh. It was a reminder of our common humanity and when we finally arrived at Darlington, shrouded in freezing fog, the doors opened and we literally poured out on to the platform in an hysterical tumble of giggles and spilled luggage. Had we continued on to Edinburgh, alcohol might well have worked its way inexorably into the mindless aggression phase, and we may well have attempted to start the revolution on British Rail, but thankfully we didn’t and we had, instead, a Stave-5-Scrooge like warm glow of love towards our fellow human beings. It’s a memory that has stayed with me ever since. A perfect, almost mythical Christmas Eve journey back home. I’ve often thought that Chris Rea should have left the car at home and let the train take the strain, but it all worked out pretty well for him in the car.

However you are spending Christmas, and whatever your movements (or lack of) across the country, I hope you have a restful holiday after what has been a miserable year. When we all get to New Year’s Eve, we need a collective resolution to hasten the vaccine, and never to forget the fiasco of incompetence we’ve endured, led by the charlatan in chief, Mr Johnson. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and most importantly, Stay Safe!

New Podcast -The Chains he Forged – a Ghost Story for Christmas

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.

Episode 5 Don't Smile Before Christmas, part 1 Telling Stories

A short story. When Ed starts his teacher training year he is excited and just a little worried. He was right to be….
  1. Episode 5 Don't Smile Before Christmas, part 1
  2. The Chains He Forged – a Ghost story for Christmas
  3. Episode 2 Three Poems
  4. Episode 3 September
  5. Episode 1 Mr Stringer's Snow Day

September

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.

“Tom, I..”

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?

“Miss?”

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.

“Miss?”

“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.

“Oh, shit..”

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.”

“But..”

He stood up abruptly.

“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”

“Tom, ..”

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.

“Where?”

“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.