The Chains He Forged

I’m reposting an old story and podcast so that new followers will get the alert. It’s a Christmas Ghost story

A ghost story for Christmas by The Old Grey Owl

Click the link below to listen to the podcast of this story:

https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/The-Chains-He-Forged—a-Ghost-story-for-Christmas-en747n/a-a3q6q6i

Marley was alive, to begin with, but that’s not how it stayed. After a while, he died. This is how everyone’s story turns out, yours and mine, in the end.

They discovered the body when they finally unlocked the door to the loft, expecting to find a decaying rat or pigeon. The smell, which had steadily grown stronger over the previous weeks, was like a punch in the face when the cold, stale air billowed through the open doorway.

The old building was full of musty smells, creaking floorboards and hidden, disused rooms. They had been promising to refurbish it for years: the addition of a new block here, replacement windows there. There was even talk at one stage of razing it to the ground and replacing it with a plate glass, chromium and cedar-clad cathedral of prize-winning architect design. Staff had joined focus groups to talk to the architects and builders and pastel coloured plans had been drawn up and displayed with much pride in the old library. When the crash pulled the plug on all of the planned public sector investments, the grand schemes were quietly forgotten and the crumbling pile slumbered on undisturbed as the occasional tile or stained piece of plaster flaked and fell to the ground, as if the building was an ancient sleeping behemoth suffering from psoriasis.

It was the thing that Marley was most looking forward to about his new job. A Headship in a new school, in a gleaming new building, fit for the 21st century. Like him, he thought smugly. Fit for the 21st century. A Headteacher who had jettisoned all of those tired, ridiculous practices so common when he had started teaching. Learning styles, group work, discovery learning, thinking skills. What on earth had they all been thinking of? Marley had sniffed the way the wind was blowing early. He’d read the right books, gone on the right courses, networked on Twitter with the right people and had adopted the right poses.

The head he had first worked under, Richard Fitzwig, seemed like an exhibit from a museum now. Yes, it had been a happy place, but it’s easy to be happy when the Head lets you do what you want. Wiggy wouldn’t last five minutes in a school today. How happy would those kids be now, applying for jobs and courses on the back of crap grades? At least now, after three years of relentless focus on results and behaviour, they had something to show for it. And of course, there had been casualties on the way. Collateral damage, as he liked to think of it. Exclusions, “arrangements” for off-rolling, the endless detentions and uniform checks and silent lines and mobile phone battles. Not to mention the set piece assemblies to humiliate the ring leaders. What were they called again? “Flattening the Grass” assemblies, yes that was it. He smiled grimly at the memory.

And if many of the kids and more of the staff resented what he had had to do, then so be it. No-one had said it was a popularity contest. But, in his more reflective moments, usually alone in the small hours, he wondered. Part of him envied the easy camaraderie some of his colleagues seemed to have. And the same part was relieved he was leaving. The headship was just reward for hours of thankless work turning the school round, but more than that it was an opportunity to start afresh as the coming man in a shiny new building.

He looked around his bare flat, magnolia walls hardly troubled with pictures, shelves untouched by photos or books. A kitchen littered with a week’s worth of pizza boxes and foil trays. One Christmas card, from his mother, a bleak accusation of the lack of personal success to match his professional achievements. Not even a jokey card from Bella, for old times sake. Her poetry was for someone else now. Not that he’d ever understood it, mind you. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who chose the minimum number of words to communicate exact meaning, not nuance. She’d tried to explain it to him one day, when he was newly qualified, and it had sort of made sense then, but not any more. Nuance was for losers. Once he’d settled into his new job, the salary would mean he could buy somewhere bigger, somewhere more appropriate to his new status. And maybe then it would be worth investing something of himself in it, so it became his home, rather than an extension of his office. Whether it would be worth investing anything in anyone else was a different question. He had been badly burned last time. People always let you down, he thought, and the only way to guard against that was to keep everyone at arm’s length. Easier that way.

He roused himself, making a deliberate effort to shake off this dangerous introspection. Through the window he could see the blurred grey light of Christmas Eve ebbing away. There was a gust of wind and a flurry of thin snowflakes swirled across the pane. He shivered. Maybe this run was not a good idea after all. He could always leave it until January. But no, he needed to get it out of the way so he could leave the school and that life behind him, and the run would do him some good. Once he got going, he wouldn’t feel the biting wind. He reached for his rucksack, checked his laces and grabbed the keys before heading downstairs to the front door of his block.

There was already a thin dusting of snow on the pavement, and the knifing wind blew it up into dancing clouds and the beginnings of drifts in the corners. He took one final look at his watch underneath the gloves. One o’clock. He should be back in a couple of hours if all went well and the building was empty. He’d unlock and disable the alarm as usual, collect the last of his stuff from his office and most importantly, remove a couple of things from his computer, just in case. He’d intended to do it on his last day, but there had been too many people milling around, so he had resolved to wait until now, Christmas Eve, when he could be sure that he’d be the only human being in the building.

Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner, and saw the familiar turrets and towers of the sprawling, dirty red brick institution where he had worked for the last ten years. When he told people where he worked, they would invariably gush about how amazing it was. Hogwarts they called it. He had tried to explain the first few times it had happened that, close up, it was a dirty, crumbling, inefficient, fire hazard, but gave up when it became clear that people didn’t want their gothic fantasies to be spoiled. After a while he just smiled and nodded and agreed with them. And then, inevitably, they would move on to what a shame it was that the school had gone downhill so far and so fast, and how it was all down to the sorts of children that went there these days. He’d be glad to leave that behind as well.

As he pounded the last few metres, his breath steaming into the darkening sky, he noticed with a start that the gate was open. Turning into the car park, his worst fears were confirmed. There were half a dozen cars parked in front of the school, and the yellow lights blazed out into the gathering gloom. He pulled up, and leaned forward, his hands resting heavily on his knees, his breath coming in laboured pants and gasps.

“Shit,” he thought, “It’s open. Who the hell is in there?”

The poster on the plate glass of the entrance answered the question. The Longdon Players production of “A Christmas Carol”. Damn. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? And, yes there had been an email about it to all staff, but he had been so caught up in his leaving that it hadn’t registered. The local amateur theatre group had a two-week run at the school, before and after Christmas. They must be in doing some last-minute tweaking before they went again on December 30th.

He removed his headphones and pushed tentatively at the main entrance door. There was no-one behind the desk on reception and no signing-in book. Gary, the site manager, must have come to some arrangement with the Theatre group. He’d be hunkered down somewhere watching the football, and he’d re-emerge to switch off the lights and lock up when they had all gone. He looked up. Beyond the harsh neon lights that flooded the foyer, all was in darkness, but he could hear the distant noise of people, from the small theatre space in the far corner of the building. Good, he thought. If he slipped in and up to his office, he could avoid anyone noticing him and get away without any awkward conversations. If it took longer than he thought, he had the keys to be able to lock up again after he had set the alarm.

He switched on the torch on his phone and crept up the main staircase. If he turned on the main lights that would bring someone running, so he followed the eery, silvery light from his phone, occasionally catching his breath at the strange looming shadows it conjured up as he made his way to his office on the second floor. He had been here late at night on his own many times before and there was no doubt about it, it was a creepy place. In the wind, the building emitted the full panoply of creaks and groans and whispers, and with no lights save for the shimmering, unsteady beam from his phone, the shaky pools of darkness would have tested the most determined rationalist.

Still, that had worked to his advantage many times in the past. Being a key holder, and often on call for building and alarm issues, he had had to unlock and have a quick check many times in the past. And once in, on his own, he was free to do a little sneaking around. Hacking in to the passwords of every member of staff was child’s play for someone like him. He had never done anything criminal. He wasn’t stupid after all. But information was very powerful and he had information on everyone. He was conflicted about leaving all of this behind. One the one hand it would be something of a relief to not have that capacity in the future. As a Headteacher, he would have power of a different, more respectable kind, and it would be a triumph of sorts to have got away with some of his deceptions. But then again.

He unlocked his office and switched on the light, blinking as it pinked into life. There was a chill in the air as the seasonal shut down of the boiler had begun to take its toll. Those people down in the theatre must be freezing, he thought. He could just about hear the strains of one of the songs from the show, floating up from the rehearsal.  The office was stripped down to the bare bones, with just a few reminders of the previous five years. He went over to his computer and switched it on. There, on the key board, was a Christmas card. It was sealed and addressed to “Ben Marley”.

He sat down and shook his head. What a waste of money. People were so stupid. Why on earth didn’t they just send a group email to everyone? The virtue-signallers could link it to some charity thing if they really felt the need. And the Greens could feel smug about cutting down on waste. He just didn’t want to spend money and he didn’t feel the need to dress that up in any finer motive. Christmas was just one big con.

Still, he could take it home with him and it could join the one from his mother. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. A bog-standard holly and robin snow scene. At least he was spared the sanctimonious Christian nonsense. He opened it up.

“Dear Ben. Thanks for all of your hard work and support over the years. Enjoy your well-deserved promotion. Now you will really find out what it’s all about! Here’s some advice from someone who knows. Take some time and trouble nurturing relationships with your colleagues. It will help in the long run. Regards, Margaret.”

His pleasure at getting a hand-written card from the Head, who normally got her PA to do all of that for her, was soured by his annoyance at the thinly veiled criticism of her advice. Relationships indeed. She should mind her own bloody business. Maybe he wouldn’t take it home after all. He picked it up and looked at it closely again. With a flourish, he ripped it into pieces and dropped them into his bin. He’d like to think of her finding it on her return in the New Year. That would show her.

And then he saw it, just to the side of the monitor. A neatly stacked pile of what looked like more cards, all identical in white envelopes. There must have been about twenty-five of them all in the same pile. Who the hell were these from? He took the top one from the pile and examined it. In black biro in capital letters on the front of the envelope was a single word: MARLEY. The card inside had a simple message: “Fuck off and Die, you miserable bastard.” It was signed “Jack, 10B4”.

He grabbed at the second card in the pile and ripped it open. It had exactly the same message, this time signed, “Sophie, 10B4”. He didn’t bother with the others. His heart sank. All of them, every single one, hated him with a passion. Yes, he had been very harsh with them since September, but that was necessary to knock them into shape for their GCSEs. Yes, the exam specification and the league tables demanded that everyone be drilled to within an inch of their lives, and he wasn’t paid to be an entertainer or a social worker. It would be him that would get it in the neck if they didn’t get the results that the school needed. People got the sack for that kind of poor performance. There were no second chances these days.

The first flush of pain he had felt converted steadily into anger. How dare they? What cowards, to wait until he was leaving the school before they were brave enough to put their names to this outrage, after months of lessons with sullen faces brought on by screaming and shouting and eventual compliant silence. In a fit of rage, he swept the pile of cards from his desk onto the floor, before turning his attention to his computer and memory stick.

He worked steadily for a couple of hours, deleting files, copying them, and getting rid of emails. Finally, he stretched and yawned and looked away from his computer for the first time. The window was a dark square now and to his surprise it framed a blizzard of thick snowflakes. It was time to go. He rubbed away at the condensation on the window and looked outside. The show had settled and there was a couple of inches laying in the car park. There were no cars there now and, strangely, no tracks. They must have all gone before the snow had really got going. Now he came to think of it, he hadn’t heard anything from the theatricals downstairs for some time. He shivered at the sight of the snow swirling in the darkness outside. His run back home was going to be a lot more challenging than the one earlier.

He took one last look around the office, the cards still strewn across the floor, and locked the door, fumbling with his keys in the darkness. The corridor was heavy with darkness, but right at the far end, a thin yellow light leaked from the doorframe of the last classroom. This high up he could hear the wind moan and the walls creak, as if the old bones of the building were flexing in the aches and pains of accumulated years. And then, just as he was about to feel his way to the staircase, there was another noise.

He stopped and listened. There it was again. But it couldn’t be, surely? He narrowed his eyes and bent his head down towards the far end of the corridor. Yes, again. The sound of a distant child softly crying. Using the torch on his phone again, he navigated his way to the end of the corridor and flung open the door of the lighted classroom. A small boy, sitting at a table at the back of the room, jumped out of his seat in fright, shocked by the violent entrance.

His face was tear stained and he was wide-eyed and staring. He was about ten or eleven years old, and he was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned looking uniform. He held a cap in his hands.

“What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?” Marley demanded.

“Please Sir,“ stammered the boy, “I’m Ignorance. Or was it Want? I can never remember which I am. Maybe I’m both.”

He wrung the cap between his hands and wiped his runny nose on one of his wrists.

Marley looked utterly baffled. “Ignorance? Want? What are you talking about lad? And what the hell are you doing here? Who else is here?”

He scanned the four corners of the room, as if a gang of the young boy’s accomplices were about to spring out and attack him.

“No-one Sir. I am quite alone. Quite alone in the world.”

Marley looked more closely at him. He was filthy. His hands and finger nails were black with accumulated grime, and his clothes were threadbare. Marley’s frown deepened and then suddenly broke into a smile.

“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The production. You’re from the Theatre thing, aren’t you? Do they know you’re up here on your own? They’ve all gone, I think.”

The boy wiped the tears from his face. “Beggin’ your pardon Sir, but I dunno. I dunno nuffink about no theatre group.”

“What are you talking about? You must be from the production. Don’t play games with me lad. Otherwise, where’ve you sprung from? Who are you?  What are you doing here?”

The boy looked up at him, his eyelashes jewelled with tears. “But I’m always ‘ere Sir.  Always ‘ave been. Always will be.”

“What do you mean, ‘Always here’?  I’ve never seen you before.”

“No, Sir, you ain’t. I’m always ‘ere, but you never seem to see me. No-one sees me. I sees you and I hears yer shout at the kids. Always shoutin’, never listenin’, that’s you. Not that you’re the only one, Sir, oh no. There’s plenty like you. More in the last few years, if anyfing. But you’re the worst.”

The boy pointed a bony finger at him and fixed him with his beady eye.

“You’re the worst,” he repeated.

Marley stared at him, mouth open. The chill in the room had started to bite and he shivered involuntarily.

“Is some kind of a joke?” he demanded. “Did someone in 10B4 put you up to this? “

The boy’s eyes flicked to the back of the room. There was a set of rickety stairs leading to a tiny landing in front of a door. Marley’s eyes followed the boy’s. The door led to the loft, a kind of attic space under the eaves. It had been used for storage before Health and Safety regulations prevented it. Nobody went in there now.

“They’re in the loft, aren’t they?” he demanded, a triumphant smirk on his face. “Aren’t they?”

The boy simply smiled without answering. In the silence that filled the gap came the moaning of the wind outside. It was really starting to blow hard now, and the rafters creaked and groaned as the gusts of wind battered them. Marley stared again at the door. Slowly, the handle started to turn.

“I knew it!” Marley exclaimed. “We’ll soon settle this nonsense.”

He strode up to the staircase, leaped up the five or six steps to the landing and grabbed the handle. The door would not open.

“Locked in, are you?“ he shouted through the door. “Shall I leave you in there? Wouldn’t be so brave spending the night in darkness locked in the loft, would you? You know what they say about it don’t you? Haunted it is. Haunted.”

As he was shouting these threats through the door, he fumbled with his keys. He found the right one, unlocked the door and opened it. It was pitch black inside.

“Come on out,“ he called into the room, “ You’re caught. You might as well give up now before you make things worse for yourself.”

He reached for the light switch which was outside the loft on the balcony and pressed it. The loft space was suddenly flooded with white-bright lighting, revealing the cobwebbed beams and dusty floorboards inside. There was a sound of scuffling, as if a rat had scuttled away into a distant corner. Marley stepped inside.

“I know you’re in here,” he said in a raised voice. “Just come out from where you’re hiding so we can get this thing over with.”

There was a sharp chill to the air inside and the wind in the darkness beyond was howling steadily now. He took another step inside. There was a sudden noise behind him. He whirled round to see the boy, still holding his cap, out of his seat and standing just outside the doorway on the landing.

“What are you doing? You’re not helping, you know” Marley said. “You kids, you’re your own worst enemies sometimes.”

The boy smiled at him, his tear-tracked, dirty face lit up like a beacon.

“Sometimes,” he repeated.

There was a sudden gust of wind and the timbers of the loft screeched and shifted. The door, caught in the blast, slammed with a tremendous bang. The boy turned the key in the door, reached for the light switch and the loft was plunged into inky darkness.

*

In the darkness outside, all was still and the sky was full of fat snowflakes gently floating down. The wind of earlier had subsided completely and the thick layer of snow on the ground muffled all the sounds of traffic. Gary drew the entrance gates shut, pulled off his gloves and fiddled with the padlock and key, cursing against the cold.

“Bloody theatre company. A no show on Christmas Eve. That administrator bloke must think I was born yesterday, saying he hadn’t sent any email booking a rehearsal.”

He paused, struggling to get his gloves back on over his frozen fingers. “Still,” he smiled, “It’s not all bad. Double time is double time, whether anyone showed up or not.”

*

Several weeks later, Gary was in his office taking the detectives through the CCTV footage of the holidays. They finally located Christmas Eve, and there, in grainy black and white, was film of Marley walking across the car park. Walking next to him was what appeared to be a young boy, from the theatre group, dressed as a Dickensian urchin. From the moment the camera picked him up until he entered the building, Marley didn’t turn or appear to talk to the boy. It was almost as if he did not know he was there.

They ran the film on, hoping to see someone, anyone, leave the school later. There was nothing. “That kid must still be in the building, “ said the senior detective on the case, a balding, corpulent man who gave the impression that he’d really rather be back in his warm office tidying up paperwork.

“But who is he?” asked Gary. “I’ve never seen him here before.”

The detective raised an eyebrow. “I think the question is, ‘Where is he?’”

In the months that followed, there were several TV appeals, posters all over the neighbourhood, and an extensive search of the school. The boy, whose blurred image stared out accusingly at anyone who chose to look, was never identified, nor found. Eventually, they were all discreetly taken down, discoloured and tatty by this time, as if people did not want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world for which, somehow, they felt they were unfairly being made responsible. More comfortable to take them down, rather than look away.

When the police left, with cursory thanks and platitudes, Gary was left alone in front of the screen. He scrolled back to the point when Marley and the boy entered the school, and, on a whim, switched to one of the other cameras on the feed, pointing out from the main entrance, towards the front gate. There they were again, together but entirely separate, walking through the steadily mounting snow. And then he stopped. He froze the final shot. There on the screen, stretching back from the entrance to the main gate, like a line of punctuation marks, was a track of footprints.

One line for two people.

He stared, and shivered, as the wind rattled the panes of his window and the bones of the building creaked and groaned.

The Old Grey Owl

@OldGreyOwl1

https://growl.blog/

oldgreyowl.57@gmail.com

The Interview

We do hope you haven’t got anything original to say..

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

The Peter Principle in action…..

“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.

“Eyes front.”

“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.

“No”, he said wearily, “no questions.”

If you prefer, you can listen to a podcast of this story here: https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/Asking-the-Questions-eve5cf

New Podcast

Don’t Smile before Christmas, part 1

Episode 5 of Telling Stories is available now on Spotify and a variety of other platforms. It’s the first part of my short story, “Don’t Smile before Christmas” and the final section will be available later this week. It has been published on the blog before. If you’d like to read it as well as, or instead of, listening to it, it’s available here:

https://growl.blog/2019/08/31/dont-smile-before-christmas/

The podcast is available here: https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/Episode-5-Dont-Smile-Before-Christmas–part-1-er9bcq

Telling Stories Podcast : Dont Smile before Christmas, part 1

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.

The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1 Telling Stories

This is the first chapter of a new novel for children by R J Barron, The Watcher and The Friend, published by Burton Mayers Books on June 11th 2021
  1. The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1
  2. Asking the Questions
  3. Episode 6 Don't Smile before Christmas, part 2
  4. Episode 5 Don't Smile Before Christmas, part 1
  5. The Chains He Forged – a Ghost story for Christmas

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.