Don’t Take Me Alive
A short story by The Old Grey Owl
“Take a look at this. This here is what we’re dealing with”
He clicked the mouse and a window burst into life on the screen in front of them. It was a young man, about twenty-five years old, his pasty white face ghostly beneath his pale whiskers and bright red MAGA baseball cap. The background was grainy and poorly lit by an overhead bulb with a dirty yellow shade. It looked like every cheap motel room from New York to LA.
Becker snorted. “Jeez, look at this guy, he’s like a ghost. He ain’t been out in the sun for a while, that’s for sure. These kids need to get offa their computers and get outside and throw some ball.”
“Ssh, listen up. He’s startin’…”
Becker bristled at the rebuke, but mentally filed it away for later. The MAGA cap on the screen loomed large as the young man lent forward to adjust his settings. Satisfied, he leant back and began.
“I ain’t a great one for writing stuff down. I can do it, but why would ya? But this needs to be recorded. I’ll post a link on Parler when it’s done, so everyone knows the truth of what happened. I was gonna just leave it here on the side, but then I figured that the Feds and damn CNN would just pretend like it wasn’t even there. Before you know it, they’ll have told their lies and everyone’ll think I was just another psycho. You know, one of those guys that plans sumpin, and racks up a load of guns and ammo and then sashays into school live on Facebook and blows away all the damn teachers he can find, with a few of the black kids thrown in. That’s not who I am. Even goddamn Fox don’t tell the truth now, but trust me, the truth is spreading and nothing can stop us. Soon enough, everyone’ll know and then the crap really will start to fly. Anyways, I can’t be bothered to write it all up. Those days are long gone.
When I was a kid, I believed every goddamned thing my daddy said to me. I guess it’s the same with the news. One day, you realise that all that stuff you’ve just gone along with is just a pack of lies. It’s like waking up after an operation or sumpin, on your eyes, you know. And when they take the bandages off, it’s like you can really see things the way they are for the first time. It kinda all falls into place. First, I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it, y’know? Then I was angry. And then, in the end, I was kinda thirsty. I wanted to make up for lost time and find out as much of the truth as I could.
Oh boy. You wouldn’t believe the things I found out. 9/11? A complete hoax. The damn CIA did that, baby. You can see the smoke if you watch the video right, down the sides of the towers. Those school shootings and all those bleedin’-heart parents asking for everyone to hand their guns in? Communists and Washington wanting to strip us of our guns. Our guns, man. This is America, these are our rights, the right to bear arms, you know? Freedom, yeah? Those parents? Well, it’s been proved that they were actors. I seen the video. And all the stuff about landing on the moon? Come on. There’s been stuff about that sucker on the internet for years, like Kennedy’s assassination, and yet they still try and get away with it. I love the internet man, I really do. The Fake News guys thought they had it all stitched up but social media. Twitter, facebook, the web, they can’t keep it all secret anymore man. It’s over. And they’re scared. Oh yeah, real scared.
I guess you don’t need me to tell you about COVID. That mother is the biggest load of crap of ‘em all, ‘cos like they are literally using it so that they can inject everyone with a so-called vaccine. How dumb can folks get? What’s in it? How can anyone possibly know? It’s gonna be some kind of a chip, man, that they can use to control everyone and everything. No way am I falling for that shit, man. But everybody else does. You see ‘em in the street and at the Mall, wearing their pussy little masks, staying indoors, creepin’ around to grab their groceries. That ain’t what made America great man. And everyone just literally rolls over and swallows this shit.
My Daddy believed all of this shit too. I’m real angry about that, about what all of these lies made me do. I didn’t want to, but shit happens. I guess they’ve probably found him by now. I’m real sorry about it, but he just wouldn’t stop. He’s an accountant see. Or he was. Well, not really an accountant, that was what he called himself to make him seem like some kind of big shot, when really, he was just some sucker like the rest of us, working his butt off for nothing. He was nothin’ more than a book-keeper. He kinda did the books and some of the chicken shit payments and bills and stuff at the old Quarry back home in Oregon. Kimberley, Oregon. See, I knew there was dynamite there, for the business, and I knew it would be easy enough to drive in there when it was dark, with my daddy’s keys and just kinda help myself.
I woulda gotten away with it as well, but I left my damn laptop up and he saw all the messages, man. I’d been plannin’ it for a long while. Eventually the other guys went along with it. I guess they just had to make sure that I was for real, and not some goddamn nutjob, y’know. Anyways, they and everybody else will soon see I’m serious. Hell, yeah. You’ll all know who the other guys were soon enough too, but I’ll be the one everyone is talking about.
My Daddy lit off down to the quarry as soon as he saw those damn messages. He came flyin’ in, runnin’ his mouth. At first, I tried to reason with him, man. I tried to explain what it was about, tried to open his eyes, y’know, but some folks just don’t wanna see. We’d had these arguments over and over again, and he wouldn’t listen. Just kept talkin’ about democracy, and the Law and all. He’s a goddamn Republican and everything, but those old school guys are the worst, y’know? They’re as big a part of the problem as the damn Antifa Socialist Democrats. And he was gonna ring the Feds. On me, his own son. Not that he ever thought I counted for much, yeah, I knew that alright. A big disappointment, that was me. But, first and foremost, I’m a patriot. So, I guess, I had to do it. And I did.
I drove East that night. That was part of the plan, see. And now, after what we did to The Capitol, everyone knows we’re serious. And they all think that, because of that, the National Guard and all have been warned and that they’ll be ready for us this time, with the heavy-duty body armour and assault rifles and shit. But the thing is, see, they knew about it last time, and half of those guys are bigger patriots than me. When the shit hits the fan, half of those guys will just turn around and point their rifles the other way. It’s gonna be awesome, man. So now it’s time for the big one. Biden is gonna get the inauguration he did not plan for, ‘cos it’s time for another Revolution, man. It’s 1776 all over again. And if it don’t work, its civil war, part 2. The Empire strikes back, man….”
At that point in the video, the speech was interrupted by a hammering on the door and shouting. The red MAGA cap twisted this way and that, but before he could react, the door splintered open and heavily armed riot police burst into the room, guns held high in front of them. In seconds, they wrestled the young man to the ground, sending his baseball cap flying. There was a lot of shouting and the picture span around wildly and then died as the laptop was sent flying in the scuffle. Then the screen went black.
Fagen shook his head and whistled softly.
“This guy is one fruitcake. I guess we had intel on him. Surveillance and shit. Just as well, seein’ as how he was gonna press the button. Where is he now?”
Becker lit a cigarette.
“Interrogation. The whole nine yards.”
“Hey, Walter, I ain’t sure you can smoke in here.”
Becker raised an eyebrow.
“Jeez, dude. Next you’ll be asking me to wear a mask and keep my distance.”
Fagen shrugged. “Yeah. Sorry, bro.”
There was an awkward silence and Fagen felt he had to make up some lost ground.
“So, he’s getting’ the treatment, huh? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was bein’ waterboarded right about now, man. Just like we did with the towel heads in the good old days.”
Becker smiled through the smoke rising from his Marlborough.
“Nah. He ain’t nobody. We knew all about him. They might make it look as if he’s the main guy, but that’s just to keep everyone quiet. He’s another Lee Harvey Oswald, man.”
Fagen looked nervously around him before coming to a decision.
“What do you think about what he said about The National Guard and all? I mean. It was kinda weird that they had no one there defendin’ The Capitol. I was expecting a show of strength, man. Shock and awe, y’know. Like the goddamn BLM marches, with the Antifas.”
Becker though for moment and took another deep draw on his cigarette. “Come on, Don, the guy was a nutjob, you saw the video. There ain’t no conspiracy goin’ on here. Just big-time losers.”
Fagen smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He glanced at his watch.
“Hey, we’d better get going. It’s fifteen after.”
Becker shook his head.
“You go on down there, man. I just got to finish this report. I’ll see you there later.”
When the door closed behind Fagen, he turned back to the laptop and checked his watch again. He switched on the TV set above the desk and found CNN with its usual busy cacophony of text boxes, live film and scrolling updates. Then he turned to his lap top, stubbed out the cigarette and began to hammer away at the key board, his eyes flicking occasionally up to the television. After a couple of minutes there was a ping to signal an incoming alert. The cell phone lay on the desk, still sleeping. He reached into the laptop case, and fiddling with zips, extracted a second cell. He punched in a number, waited for a second or two, and then spoke.
“You watchin’ this?…… All Good………The next phase is about to start.”
He was in a hurry now. He fumbled with the laptop, closed it down and packed it away, along with the hidden cell. Taking a quick last look around the room, he gathered up his phone and keys, hoisted the laptop over his shoulder and left.
The door clicked softly closed and the windowless room gathered dusky gloom in its corners. The television, volume low, cast a blue, flickering pall over the empty desk as the presenter’s voice continued, talking to no-one.
“News is just reaching us of a serious incident at the White House. We hearing reports that the outgoing President, Donald Trump, is barricaded inside The Oval Office and that shots have been fired. Large numbers of unidentified masked intruders, all heavily armed have been seen inside the building. In a separate development, we are receiving reports of gunfire at the inauguration of President elect Joe Biden. Let’s go first, to our correspondent….”
In the growing darkness of the far corners, untouched by the pale blue flicker of the TV, monsters began to stir.
A new short story by The Old Grey Owl
In the summer of 1975, Steve Chapman was feeling very clever and very pleased with himself. In the last nine months he had:
- Secured his first proper girlfriend
- Lost his virginity
- Finished his A levels
- Tried smoking cannabis resin
He made a list of these milestones in the journal he kept. It wasn’t a diary in the conventional sense. He did not record his thoughts and actions every day, but instead made lists of achievements, plans and opinions. He was pleased with the notion of a journal. It lent his thoughts greater weight and added to his sense of himself as someone of finer feelings and ambitions than the common herd.
None of these achievements had been accomplished smoothly, but, he reasoned, out of struggle comes true enlightenment. And nobody else knew he had stumbled across the line in all four spheres of human endeavour. He certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone he was a serial incompetent, when he was so clearly skilled at presenting a serene and untroubled face to the world.
The truth was:
- His first girlfriend secured him, pursuing him relentlessly and overwhelming him one evening after strong drink had been taken.
- Losing his virginity was more a question of temporarily mislaying it. A botched fumble in a spare room was accomplished with relief rather than rampant studdery.
- His results had still not been issued, but he knew that the cavalier approach to his studies he had adopted for the last eighteen months (starting the minute he discovered peers who would go to the pub with him) had seriously jeopardised his chances of success. As the results day drew nearer, he grew ever more queasy about the prospect of ignominious failure.
- Smoking spliffs, while a deliciously naughty marker of someone who was delighted to be outside of the mainstream, made him cough and fall asleep.
His Parents, who thus far had been indulgent of his long hair, late hours and frequent hangovers, mainly on the back of his unprecedented educational achievements, had their limits. It had been made clear to him that now was the time, notwithstanding his impending glittering A level success, to get a job. The very phrase sent a chill down his spine, but he knew that money was tight at home and he couldn’t expect much in the way of subs.
Matters came to a head one Sunday lunchtime in June. He was sitting at the table with his Mother and Father, demolishing a steaming plate of roast beef, thin gravy and industrially blitzed vegetables. It was a rare occasion that all three of them were in the same room together at the same time. His father often worked nights and was either out at work, or as his Mother often used to say, with a combination of warning and relief in her voice, “Your Father’s in bed.”
It was his Father that raised the subject. “So, Steven. Any luck on the jobs front?”
Steve stopped in mid munch, a heavily laden fork of Yorkshire pudding suspended in mid-air between plate and mouth. The surprise was as much generated by the fact that his father had initiated conversation as it was by the subject matter. He was a shy, taciturn man, who inhabited silence as comfortably as a trappist monk.
“Er, no, not yet. There doesn’t seem to be much about.”
He ploughed on with his lunch, piling more steaming forkfuls into his mouth. To his surprise, the conversation was clearly not over as far as his father was concerned. Normally one sentence seemed to require an extended period of silent rest to allow his father to recover from such abandoned social exertions. This was rare stamina and determination on display.
“Where have you tried?”
“I was going to try the Bakery, but Martin told me that there were no vacancies. He went round last week and just missed the last one.”
“Steven,” his mother interjected, “Don’t speak with your mouth full please. We can wait.”
Steve held up his hand in acknowledgement and ground away at his food until normal service could be resumed. With a final hasty swallow, he began again.
“Sorry Mam, this dinner is too good to wait.” Flattery was one of his most effective weapons in the ongoing battle to avoid parental censure. He had learned long ago that charm would prevent any practical difficulties arising in his life as a result of a potential telling off. He repeated the sentence again, more intelligibly this time, and waited for his Dad to drop the subject.
“I can probably get you a job at the shed you know,” his father said, patently not dropping the subject.
Steve was gripped by a blind panic. His heart started hammering against his chest and he felt himself getting hot. There must be something he could do to prevent this catastrophe from coming true. Racking his brains while taking a little longer than was necessary to finish his mouthful of roast beef, he finally managed a weak, “Really?”
It wasn’t the most brilliant strategy he had ever come up with, but in the absence of an idea, delay was the only option open to him.
“Yes, they’re going to advertise next week in The Gazette I think, but you could get in early. I’ll find out at work tomorrow if you like.”
“Yeah Dad, that would be great. Thanks.”
This news had obviously come as something of a shock to his mother as well. Her face had taken on a disapproving look, and she glared at her husband with a straight, thin lipped mouth.
“Don’t be daft Tom, he’ll be wanting something better than that, won’t he? A lad that’s about to go to University won’t want to be working in your filthy railway shed.”
The glare was returned. “Aye well, beggars can’t be choosers, can they? A job’s a job.”
Steve intervened. “They don’t normally have summer jobs there do they? What’s it doing?”
“No, they’re just taking on some lads temporarily to get rid a lot of the rubbish there and to clean up generally. The fitters and fitters’ mates are up to their eyes in maintenance. We haven’t got time do the clearing. The money ‘ll be alright mind.”
“Brilliant, thanks Dad. And you’ll let me know tomorrow, yeah?”
It was agreed. The rest of Sunday dinner passed as normal. Steve’s mother chattered on, while his Father subsided into his more familiar silence. Steve, occasionally responding to his Mother’s questions, with non-committal grunts, was gripped with a dread feeling of impending doom.
Later that day Steve was gloomily staring into a pint. Sarah broke into his brown study.
“So, explain it to me again. You’re broke, you’d like to enjoy this summer of leisure, and, I assume, you’re very keen to lavish money and attention on me. And you’ve been offered a job.”
“Exactly,” muttered Steve.
“I’m obviously missing something here. To any normal person that sounds like a timely solution to a problem, but you’re behaving as if you’re about to be sent to prison.”
“It’s not just any job, it’s a job working with my Dad. Shift work, in the dead of night, doing unspeakable things with bits of metal. It’ll be noisy and cold and physically exhausting. It might as well be prison, or a chain gang or something.” He sighed and took another sip of his drink.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Dear God Steve, you sound like a Jane Austen heroine. Get a grip. Its only for a few weeks, you can manage that surely?”
“Of course I can manage it, I’m not an invalid. I just don’t want to, that’s all. It’s going to spoil the whole summer. I’ll be too exhausted to see you. The trouble is, I’ve got no way of reasonably turning it down. It’s a done deal. I’m trapped.”
Sarah thought for a moment. She smiled and squeezed his knee. “I’ve got a solution. Leave it all to me.”
Sarah turned the key in the lock and pushed open the front door.
“Hi Mam, Dad, we’re back,” she called into the hall.
“Eeh, you’re early love. Anything the matter?” Her mother bustled into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Any time Steve saw her she seemed to be in the middle of some kind of domestic task. Until he had started going out with Sarah, he had no idea that there were so many domestic tasks to be done. He still wasn’t sure whether this was because the smooth running of the household was a fiendishly complex, time intensive procedure or whether her mother, with time on her hands, had to fill her days with something. Steve’s mother worked and had little energy or inclination left over for cleaning.
“No, no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to ask Dad something.”
“Oh well, he’s in the front room. Hello Steven love, how are you?”
“I’m very well Mrs Young, thanks.”
“Would you like some cheese and biscuits love? Come though to the kitchen while I get you some.”
Her other main mission in life appeared to be rescuing Steve from malnutrition. She took any opportunity to feed him and Steve had learned from experience that resistance was not only futile, but considered rather rude. He meekly followed her into the kitchen while Sarah went to clinch the deal with her father in the front room.
A few minutes later he came into the front room with the obligatory plate of Ritz crackers and mature cheddar. Sarah’s father was ensconced in his usual throne, a leather swivel armchair within blinking distance of a huge colour TV that was almost as deep as it was long. He was wearing a towelling robe, with his bare legs sticking out of the end with his feet, snug in leather slippers, up on a matching leather pouffe. The picture was completed by his equivalent of his wife’s tea towel, a conical glass of golden lager, with a generous head of white creamy foam.
“Well, here he is. We were just talking about you Steven,” he announced.
“Oh. Hello Stan. Were you? Talking about me I mean?” Steve was a little confused by Stan’s opening gambit.
“Yes, we were. I hear you’re wanting a job so that you can take my daughter out to fine restaurants.” He smirked.
“Well, er, I..”
He glanced nervously at Sarah, who was enjoying his discomfort.
“Good, I’m pleased to hear it lad. About time to. You can start on Tuesday. It could probably be tomorrow but I really should clear it with Geoff first. There won’t be a problem, but there are protocols you know.”
Steve gulped. “Great, thanks Stan. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem, son, no problem.”
There was a pause.
Finally, Steve couldn’t hold out any longer. Sarah was clearly not going to rescue him.
“Um, what exactly is the job Stan? And where exactly is it?”
Stan shook his head. “Dear Lord, don’t you two talk about anything? Or are you as simple as you appear? You’ll have to shape up better than this when you start you know. My reputation’s on the line.”
Sarah and her father turned to look at each other and beamed. Steve managed to crack a faint line of a weak smile. He was beginning to wonder whether working nights on the railway might have been the better option after all, but nevertheless, that night he added to the list at the front of his journal:
- Got a job
His mother was delighted, his father silently put out. An office job. For Steven it represented a narrow escape and further proof that this was set to be a golden summer of legend. It had got to be better than the harsh realities of life of shift work in a wind-blown hangar full of rusting metal and heavy tools. He could sit down. He would probably be able to read. He would certainly be able to daydream. And, for the first time in his life, he would get paid.
On Tuesday morning, the horror of dragging himself out of his warm bed tested his resolve to the limit but, gritting his teeth, he persisted, enduring a train journey through the pock-marked wasteland that was much of the landscape of Teesside in the 1970s. On arrival at the Cargo Fleet Drawing Office he was shown to a seat at a desk in one corner of a cavernous open plan office by Sandra, a middle -aged lady from the typing pool who had met him on arrival. As she led the way across the neon-lit arena, Steve felt horribly exposed, like a gladiator striding towards the lions, while the crowd weighed him up and assessed his chances of survival. His progress was punctuated by a series of witty cat-calls, largely generated by the fact that no women worked in this office and the arrival of Sandra produced a rush of testosterone that seemed to temporarily disable all signs of intelligent life. “Oi, Sandra, you’re a right cradle snatcher.” “Have you given him one yet, Sandra?”, “Sandra, fancy a quick one?” were some of the more sensitive contributions she had to endure on the voyage out to the desk in the corner. She left Steve wordlessly at the desk, indicating that he should sit, turned on her heels and embarked immediately on the return trip, oblivious to the repetition of exactly the same abuse as on the outward journey. She glided along, head held high, poker faced.
Just before she reached the end of the office to make good her escape, the sound of approaching shouting cut through the casual banter. The door was flung open, the handle banging violently on the opposite wall. Sandra stopped in her tracks to avoid being steam-rollered by two men who strode purposefully into the room in mid-conversation. Immediately, the sniggering and cat-calling stopped and all of the men in the office, previously so smug and sure of themselves in their casually flung insults, bowed their heads, averted their eyes and with an eagerness that was pathetic to behold, started shuffling the papers on their desks. The boldest of them, those with ambition or more resilient self-confidence, flicked a glance towards the newcomers. One of them even managed to mumble, “Morning Peter, morning Geoff.” They were disregarded and the two men continued their conversation as they progressed through the office.
“…a lovely shot from the seventeenth. Just left me about five yards. He was spitting I’m telling you.”
“I BET HE WAS. I HOPE YOU HAD SOME MONEY ON IT, GEOFF.”
The reply came from the taller of the two men. At first Steve, nervously looking on from the shelter of his corner desk, thought that there was some kind of argument going on, and that the smaller man was in receipt of a regal bollocking from the taller. Then, when it became clear that they were laughing and joking with each other, Steve was enveloped in a cloud of cognitive dissonance. Unlike the others, who resolutely avoided eye contact, Steve continued to stare surreptitiously at the giant with a voice like thunder. He was about six feet six in a dishevelled grey suit with a pink shirt and paisley kipper tie. The enormous knot was an inch or two below the open shirt collar, through which peeked a forest of jet black hairy tufts. The same unruly tangle of black hair framed a shining bald pate, and the matching effect was completed by strong tendrils of wiry growth protruding from ears and nostrils, like mini shaving brushes. Steve’s contemplation of his outfit was interrupted by an outbreak of painfully loud, explosive laughter, as the taller man gave vent to his enjoyment of his own joke. The room shook and a slight breeze stirred up as he made his way to his desk. His outfit was completed by a huge pair of black boots that seemed to be encrusted with steel segs, given the reverberating clatter they made on the linoleum floor.
His desk was at the far end of the office, adjacent to Steve’s but mercifully hidden by a couple of screens and some straggly pot plants. By leaning backwards Steve was able to peer through a gap in the screens, fringed by foliage, and spy unnoticed on the occupant of the desk. The floor shook as he clumped his way to his chair, and the air echoed to the scraped chair legs on the tiles as he prepared to sit down. His every interaction with the world around him seemed to be an assault: he slammed the door, pummelled the floor, barked his conversation, ploughed the chair legs into the floor’s crust, bombed the desk top with the set of box files he casually dropped. Then he crashed down into his seat and let out a sigh like a steam train. It was a miracle that the desk/chair combination had not been reduced to matchwood. This had taken about forty seconds from one end of the office to the other but already Steve could feel the beginnings of a headache developing.
His fascinated musings about this strange creature were interrupted by the approach of the second man, who had continued his fight path across the office and arrived like an arrow from a bow at Steve’s desk. He smiled broadly and reached his hand out to Steve.
“Geoff. Geoff Barton. And you are?”
Steve returned his outstretched hand.
“Er, Steve, Steve Chapman.”
“Yes, that’s right, Steve. And you’re going out with Stan’s daughter, aren’t you? Sarah, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Steve, not quite sure where this was leading and keen to disentangle his hand.
A smirk played across Geoff’s face. “Yes, Stan’s daughter. Stan’s told me all about you lad.” The smirk rippled into a laugh, as if what Stan had told him was in some way ridiculous. Steve’s face dropped.
“No, no”, Geoff hurried to reassure him, “All good, Steve lad, all good, honestly. Got a bit of a soft spot for you, if you ask me Steve. Not like Stan at all, actually.”
Steve softened. Good old Stan had put a word in for him, clearly.
“Anyroad up lad, down to business. See that filing cabinet behind you?”
Steve turned to look in the direction of Geoff’s gaze, and clocking a regulation gun metal grey cabinet, nodded.
“That cabinet is full of blueprints. What your job is, in the first instance, is to calculate the floor area of each building on each drawing. What’s your maths like?”
Before Steve could answer, Geoff ploughed on. “Never mind, never mind. There’s a calculator on your desk. Just work out the floor areas for each plan, record it on a central list and on the plan itself, and keep the completed plans in a pile on that table next to the cabinet. You got that?”
“Yeah, seems quite straightforward. What do I do when I’ve finished?”
“Finished?” snorted Geoff, “Finished? You wont finish lad, not unless you don’t do it properly. Just take it steady and we’ll see where we are after that, eh? Alright? I’ll drop by to check you’re alright later on. Welcome to Chicago Fleet, son. British Steel, land of the brave, eh?”
He turned to go.
“Er, Geoff?” Steve hesitantly called after him.
Geoff stopped, turned and took a few steps back in his direction, a beatific smile of endless patience with fools on his face. “Yes, Steve?”
Steve’s glanced back in the direction of Geoff’s colleague, between the screen and the pot plant. He lowered his voice. “Who’s that guy over there? The one you came in with?”
A cloud passed over Geoff’s face. He bent down and, leaning on the desk, matched his volume to Steve’s. “Don’t concern yourself with him. That’s Peter, the boss of the whole section. He’s way above your paygrade. Keep out his way, don’t draw attention to yourself and you should be alright. Most of the rest of the office are petrified of him and that’s the way he likes it, but his bark is certainly worse than his bite. But don’t give him any excuse to bark, mind. Or bite. If you’re lucky, the summer’ll be over before he even notices you.”
Before Steve could reply, Pottage barked. The phone on his desk rang and Pottage snatched up the receiver from the cradle. It disappeared into his huge hairy paw, each end only just poking clear of the mammoth fist, like a black balloon, squeezed into deformity
“POTTAGE!” he bellowed into the receiver. There was a pause, filled with tinny, far away squeaking.
“NO!” replied Pottage decisively, and he crunched the phone back down on to the cradle with an almighty crash. The room shook slightly and the ragged leaves of the pot plant continued to quiver, like an earthquake’s after shock. He went back to assaulting the pile of card folders on his desk. Never had a phone call been so comprehensively over.
Geoff smiled back at Steve ruefully, raised his eyebrows and turning on his heels, walked back out of the office. Steve stared back through the gap in the foliage, a mounting feeling of trepidation rising in his stomach. “Just as well his bite isn’t worse than his bark,” thought Steve, turning to remove the first wedge of blueprints from the filing cabinet drawer.
He worked his way through them methodically for the rest of the morning, entirely undisturbed by the other office workers, save for regular booming outbursts from Peter Pottage whenever the phone rang. Occasionally, Pottage would sally forth from his desk, sending a ripple of fear through the rest of the office. The inhabitant of every desk would immediately cease whatever conversation they had been having and give the papers on their desk their fullest attention, eyes down, brows furrowed. The relief in the room when Pottage descended on a particular individual was palpable and grew as Pottage proceeded to bawl out whoever was the lucky recipient. It was still unclear to Steve whether Pottage was giving someone a bollocking or merely checking the progress of work in a paternalistic, polite enquiry.
By the time it got to late afternoon, Steve was feeling positively euphoric about the world of work. He had survived his first day by keeping his head down, occasionally spying on the monster that was Pottage through the gap in the screens, and working his way through the mountain of blueprints on his desk. As the day progressed, the edge had been taken off his fear of Pottage, and consequently he began to feel the first stirrings of boredom.
At about four in the afternoon, Steve’s thoughts had begun to turn to the journey home and some down time. His fantasies about how he would spend his first pay packet were rudely interrupted by a commotion from the desk behind the screen. Pottage had moved away from his desk and stood adjacent to it with a clear view down to the far end. In one hand he had a huge fat cigar that he sporadically puffed on furiously, generating pungent clouds of smoke. In the other he had a fishing rod.
“MIND YER BACKS!” he shouted, though he needn’t have bothered as every other worker in the office was rigidly staring at him with unswerving concentration. Taking a final puff on the cigar he swung the rod over his head and with a snap of his wrist, flicked it back, sending the line and hook whistling through the air to the back of the office. There were murmurs of approval from the watching desks and a panicked jump out of the way by one of the occupants at the back and to the right. Once he had saved himself from having his eye out, he grabbed hold of the hook at the end of the line and affixed it to a sheet of paper about A5 size. No sooner was it attached than Pottage again shouted, “HEADS!” and began to furiously reel the paper in, stopping in mid -reel for a restorative drag on the cigar. As the hooked paper swung past him, he grabbed it and pulled it towards him.
“BROWN TROUT!” he announced, with a beaming smile playing across his lips. He ripped the paper from the hook and displayed it to the office as proof. The sheet had the words “brown trout” scrawled across it in thick black felt tip. There was a general murmur of approval, with a ripple of muted applause and the occasional “Well done Peter”.
From behind the screen, Steve watched aghast as the whole pantomime was repeated several times, with Pottage casting off and then reeling in, from various desks, a Chub, a Tench and, producing a spontaneous ovation, a Salmon. After a while, it was clear that Pottage’s sporting needs had been sated and he spent a good five minutes elaborately putting away his rod and tackle. Then, still puffing on his cigar, he strode down the middle aisle of the office and out, pausing only to bellow, “A GOOD DAY’S WORK THAT. GOOD EVENING GENTLEMEN.”
Every day followed the same pattern, with Steve dividing his time up between daydreaming and continuing his allotted task of working out floor areas. Every day, Pottage assaulted his immediate environment, and all those in it, with his every action. Even his thoughts seemed loud. Every day, Pottage devoted the last forty-five minutes to practising his casting technique as part of his fantasy pursuit of brown trout about five hundred metres away from a river that had not seen a fish of any description since the Industrial Revolution. Every day Geoff would wander over to Steve’s desk and say, “Alright Steven, how’s it going? Good lad,” and then wander away again without waiting for a reply.
Steven took to devoting his daydreams to thoughts of his future life as a University student. By then he would have taken up his rightful place as one the country’s intellectuals, far from the meagre, petty concerns of this nine -to- five drudgery, surrounded by smaller spirits and meaner souls. He began to pity his fellow office slaves for they had no such chance of escape. Probably that was kinder, for what would they do with choice if it were ever on offer? Without the wit to inhabit such liberty fruitfully, it would be shamefully wasted on them.
Similarly, he thought Teesside a provincial backwater, ill-suited to his talents and he envisaged his journey to York in September as emotionally and intellectually, a one-way ticket out of Nowheresville. Probably, he mused, en route to London or Oxford, or some other exotic place he actually had no idea about at all, where he would end up working in some kind of creative profession, whose jobs were routinely advertised in The Guardian on Mondays. He would meet a series of impossibly glamorous and sophisticated beautiful women who would be entranced by his northern charm, towering intellect and dashing good looks. A string of casual yet subtly intense affairs would follow before finding a soulmate in an obscurely published avant-garde poet.
He had begun to think that his relationship with Sarah had run its course anyway and that it was probably best all round if he finished it before he left for York. Sometimes an act of decisive cruelty was, in reality, an act of kindness. It had been great and she was great, but she wasn’t quite up to the mark culturally, when push came to shove.
He was decided. He would give British Steel another three weeks, out of respect for Stan, and to accumulate enough money to fund an appropriate wardrobe and accessories to make a splash on his first entrance into undergraduate life. He reckoned he could probably just about bear another three weeks of idling away behind a screen, observing the ridiculous goings on of the workforce. The only issue was when was he going to break the news to Sarah, who obviously, would be devastated. She had already made a bit of fuss about not seeing him very much and had ruined a “romantic” dinner for two over a bottle of Mateus Rose by continuously carping and complaining about his being “distant”. Distant! Was it his fault his mind was full of finer things, things Sarah couldn’t possible understand or appreciate? The more he thought about it, the more he realised that the only option open to him was to cast off all of the trappings of his old life in preparation for the new.
No matter how hard he tried or how much he steeled himself, he could not bring himself to do the deed. Finally, it came to the week he had planned as his penultimate at the Cargo Fleet office. He had arranged to meet Sarah at The Stockton Arms on Thursday evening. It was the usual drinking venue of their set and he thought it might be kinder to break the news to her in familiar surroundings, surrounded by all of their friends, who would undoubtedly be a source of solace to her afterwards.
They were sitting at a corner table, and a series of friends had come and gone. It had been a great night and Steve positively had to fight back his tendency towards nostalgia. It had to be now, he told himself repeatedly. Just as he was about to launch himself into “the conversation”, they were joined at the table by a couple of people who were outer members of their circle, John and Graham, who were always good value after a few drinks.
“Hey guys,” announced John, “Mind if we join you two young lovers?”
“Hi John, Graham, come and sit down. How are you?” Sarah was genuine in her enthusiastic greeting. Steve felt a mounting sense of irritation. Sarah seemed more comfortable when other people were present.
“So, Steve,” John began cheerily, “How are you feeling about going away in September? York, isn’t it?”
“I’m pretty excited actually John. The university looks great, it has a really good reputation – almost like Oxbridge actually. And, to tell you the truth,” continued Steve, warming to his subject, “It’ll be a relief to get away from Stockton.”
“Oh, why’s that?” enquired Graham, sitting forward in his chair.
“Well, you know, Stockton’s so small and there’s absolutely nothing happening here. It’s such a backwater, I’d go mad if I had to stay here.” He looked from one to the other, a broad smile on his face. He was met with blank looks and the silence grew. It began to get awkward.
“Er.. where is that you two are going again? Nottingham, was it? What’s that like?” Steve was struggling to thaw the sudden freeze that had descended.
“No, It’s Teesside Poly actually,” said John in clipped tones, “I’m not gonna get the grades for Nottingham.”
“Oh. Oh well”, said Steve brightly, “I’m sure that’ll be fine, staying somewhere you used to.”
“Yeah,” agreed Graham, “Somewhere small and not too demanding. Somewhere we could cope with. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed I don’t go mad. Still,” he continued, scooping up his cigarettes and pint, “at least all the tossers like you will have left. Come on John, let’s go and talk to someone who’s not being intellectually stifled by his hometown.”
They both got up and moved away, shaking their heads.
“God, what’s wrong with them? They’re a bit touchy, aren’t they?” protested Steve.
Sarah glared at him. “My God Steve, you really are a bit of wanker, aren’t you? What a snob. Don’t you get it? Not everyone is as clever as you, but they don’t like having their noses rubbed in it. Honestly, I give up with you, I really do.” She drained her glass and got up.
“What…what are you doing?” spluttered Steve.
“I’m leaving. That’s it. And not just the table, I’m leaving you. I was going to tell you tonight anyway, but I can’t bear to spend any more time with you. I’m going to talk to some proper human beings with proper feelings.”
“But, I didn’t mean…”
“No buts. Enough. Finish your drink on your own. You might as well get used to it.” And with that she stalked off.
The next day at work, Steve consoled himself with the fact that he could give his notice in, do one more week and then be free. He had spent half the night tossing and turning, trying to come to terms with what had happened in the pub, but try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. What had he done that was so wrong? Everyone knew that Stockton was the armpit of the universe. Denying it was just romantic nostalgia of the worst kind.
He was able to continue chewing it over in his mind, sitting at his desk protected by the screen and the pot plants, but he made little progress and, giving up the struggle, devoted most of his imaginative energies to speculating about the finer life he would have in York, where his thoughts about the world would not be so cruelly traduced. He even found time to fit in a little floor area calculation, adding the figures to his growing list of tallied numbers.
By the time the clock had ticked around to 4pm he could begin to think about home time. He would go over and find Geoff to let him know that next week would have to be his last. He felt sure that Geoff would be a little gutted to lose such a productive and trouble-free member of staff. He was just about to get up to begin, when he was interrupted by stirrings from the lair of the mighty Pottage behind the screens.
“Oh God,” thought Steve, “We’ve got to go through this angling pantomime again. Jesus wept.”
He shrank back down behind his screen and prepared to watch the daily ritual of Pottage being indulged by the junior members of his office staff, pathetic in their abject fear. At least, thought Steve, he could hide and stay out of the way.
Pottage collected his rod, lit his cigar and strode out into the centre aisle as usual. He stopped, surveyed all corners of the office, sniffed the air and bellowed, “DO YOU KNOW LADS, I THINK I’LL TRY THE OPPOSITE BANK. I’M FISHING DOWN AT GREAT AYTON ON SUNDAY AND THE SUN’LL BE AT ME BACK MOST OF THE TIME.”
There was a general murmuring of approval and nodding of heads as Pottage crunched his way down to the other end of the office, his cigar generating industrial quantities of smoke. From his hidey hole, Steve looked aghast down to the other end where Pottage was taking up his position. He was in full view. He thought of edging sideways, closer to the pot plants, but it was too late. Pottage had him in his sights. He took the cigar from his mouth and opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Instead he half turned to glare at a desk half way down on the left. He flicked the rod back over his head and snapped it forward, casting the line unerringly on to a sheaf of paper in front of the nervous occupant who quickly attached the sheet of paper as part of a well-drilled routine and watched with some relief as it sped away, Pottage furiously puffing on his cigar while working the reel handle.
He squinted at the sheet and a broad smile broke out. “PIKE!” he proclaimed.
“Oooh,” came the servile chorus with a smattering of applause. Pottage held his hand up, still smiling, and as quickly as the applause had broken out, it stopped.
“Now then,” he said quietly, a gleam in his eye. He turned and flicked the line flatter this time. It fizzed like rocket, arrowing straight to Steve’s desk where the hook bounced off his pile of blueprints and hit him on the shoulder. He jumped out of his skin, his trailing arm sending the neat pile up into the air like a cloud of giant confetti.
“WHAT FISH HAVE I CAUGHT YOUNG MAN? EH?”
“Um, I haven’t got a fish actually Peter,” Steve mumbled nervously.
“WHAT’S THAT LAD? SPEAK UP.”
Steve cleared his throat and raised his voice. “I er, I haven’t got a fish Peter.” He racked his brains to think of a time when he had ever said anything quite so ridiculous.
“PUT THE FIRST SHEET OF PAPER ON THE HOOK LAD. COME ON, CHOP CHOP!”
Like a naughty school boy, humiliated by a sadistic teacher holding him up by his ear, Steve fumbled amongst the sheets of papers, found one and inserted the hook. Pottage, watching him like a hawk whipped it away and began reeling it in. Steve watched it gracefully fly away from him and into Pottage’s waiting hands.
Pottage tore it from the hook and scanned it quickly, his expression clouding over as he did so. He paused to puff again on his cigar. The office held its collective breath, waiting for the judgement of Solomon.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL’S ALL THIS RUBBISH?” He screwed it up into a ball, dropped his rod to the floor and marched back down the aisle towards Steve’s desk. He bent down and scooped up the blueprints and Steve’s laboured calculations that were strewn all over the floor.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON LAD?” He brandished the fan of papers under Steve’s nose.
“Er, yes, that’s right”, gulped Steve.
“AND WE’VE BEEN PAYING YOU FOR THIS CRAP HAVE WE?”
“Er, yes, you have actually.”
“DEAR GOD, NO WONDER THE COUNTRY’S IN SUCH A STATE. CLEAR YOUR DESK LAD, THE GRAVYTRAIN HAS JUST OFFICIALLY HIT THE BUFFERS.”
Pottage’s final act of humiliation was to rip the pile of papers in front of Steve’s nose and to deposit them directly into the bin by the side of his desk. Before the last fragment had fluttered down into the bin, Pottage had turned on his heels, picked up his fishing rod and clattered his way out of the office en route to a weekend’s real fishing.
The stunned silence persisted after he had gone. No-one could bring themselves to look Steve in the face, and one by one, they all began to pack up their own work and prepare themselves to leave, making sure they returned on Monday morning to a clean desk. Eventually, Steve was the last person left in the office. He was just about to get his jacket and leave, when the door at the far end of the office swung open and Geoff came in. He walked up to Steve, an embarrassed expression on his face.
“I suppose you realise that this was your last day Steven?” he asked.
“I sort of got the feeling that was the case, yeah,” replied Steve, his face telling a story of confusion and hurt.
“Don’t look like that lad, you had a good run. You were just unlucky Peter changed his casting position. He’s never done that before.”
Steve looked at Geoff. “There wasn’t ever really a job here was there? Not a proper one, I mean.”
Geoff shook his head. “No, lad, there wasn’t. It was a favour to Stan. We sort of “create” a job every summer for one of the executive’s sons before university, that sort of thing. Sometimes two. In your case, you were the deserving boyfriend, that’s all.”
Steve forced out a hollow laugh. “Deserving boyfriend, that’s a joke. The funny thing is, I was gonna…” He paused.
“You were going to what lad?”
He shook his head.
“Oh nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Later, in the early hours of the morning, in the quiet darkness of his room, he sat at a desk, staring out of his window at the rows of streetlamps illuminating the pebble dash houses of the estate. A confined cone of yellow lit up a small section of the desk top and his journal, opened to the first page. After some thought he turned his attention to the journal, picked up a pen and wrote, adding to the list:
- Lost girlfriend
- Lost job
- Lost reputation and friends.
He stopped for a moment, looking back out of the window at the rows of identical houses, huddled in the darkness. Shaking his head, he turned back to the journal and added
- Lost self -respect
He shivered. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling very clever or very pleased with himself anymore.
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 house 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 twisted and turned in bed, she thought back to earlier in the evening, when Tom had lingered at the doorway of her study, fiddling with his watch. Anna did not look up from her desk.
“Anna, come on. We’ve got to be there in 15 minutes. I’ve been telling you for the past hour.”
She glanced up, distracted.
“What? Oh, sorry Tom. I don’t think I can come, I’ve got to finish all of this off, and I’ve still got hours to go.”
Tom’s face was thunderous.
“You are joking, I presume. I can’t just show up on my own. Just leave it, you need to get out anyway. It’ll be good for you.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry Tom, I’m worried about tomorrow. You go on your own. You’ll have a better time without me.”
“It’s just a job, for God’s sake. The kids you teach are all no-hopers anyway It doesn’t make any difference what you do. You’re wasting your time.”
She looked as if he had slapped her across the face.
He cut across her. “Is it always going to be like this? Christ, Anna, don’t be such a martyr and have some fun, while you still can.”
She tried again. “But..”
“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”
He turned and slammed the door.
She could still feel the vibration echoing through the flat as she recalled the scene, lying in bed unable to sleep. She reached across for her phone. No messages. 2 am. Where was he?
Anthony, on the other side of town, could also not get to sleep. He was not used to sleeping in a proper bed with a duvet that covered him for one thing. And for another, he was excited about going back to school. It was the first time in his life he could remember having new uniform and equipment. Unable to bear it a moment longer, he swung his legs out from underneath the thick covers that were swamping him, and went over to his desk. His desk! Another novelty that made him constantly look over at it, as if to check that it was still there and someone had not discovered a mistake and had come to take it away. He handled his pencil case and calculator, and flicked through his new dictionary, trying out some of the new words for size.
His finger traced down the edge of the page as he sounded the words one at a time.
“ Stab – pierce, wound with pointed weapon. Hmm. Stability – firmly fixed or established. Not easily moved or changed or destroyed. Stamina – endurance, staying power. Status – social position, rank, relation to others.”
He stopped and looked around the room, picking out objects from the deep shadows that cloaked them. Bed. Wardrobe. Computer. Games. Posters on the wall. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe his Dad had really changed and they could all stay together in this flat and everything would be alright. Maybe his Mum would be proud of him and school would ring home with good news for a change. Maybe…
Thirty yellow buds blossomed cream as 9C opened their exercise books to the first page.
“OK Year 9. Can you put today’s date and the title please, and underline both of those things neatly?”
“What’s the title, Miss?” came a shout from the middle of the room, closely followed by, “What date is it today, Miss?”
“Date and title are on the Whiteboard. I’m not expecting you to be mind readers, you know.”
A couple of the sharper kids raised their heads and smiled up at her, a few looked puzzled and looked around, while the silent majority ploughed on, oblivious to the joke that had just sailed over their heads. Anna surveyed the class, judging when to move on.
“Ok, everyone let’s just get the rules clear from day one. If you all know what’s expected, no-one will get into trouble, and your work will improve. Or that’s the intention, at any rate. So, rule number one..”
She clicked the powerpoint and began to talk through the first rule as it appeared on the screen. The class copied it down in silence. The clock ticked and Anna covered the room, her heels clicking on the hard lino floor. A cloud of concentration gathered above their heads. She already felt the first day of term nerves drain away, the minute she had started to project her voice to this first class. It was the same every year and she laughed at herself inwardly over the time she had wasted in the last few days, worrying about the starting the new year.
After twenty minutes the task was done and Anna could move on to her first real task.
“OK, everyone, pens down please and look this way. Now, I’ve never taught this class before so we don’t know each other. The first thing we are going to do is to think about how English and school in general has been for each of us since we started a couple of years ago, and what we would like to achieve this year and by the time we leave school for good..”
She was off. Instructions came easily and the lesson plan, the product of agonised hours, dissolved as instinct took over. A brief explanation and setting up, some questions fielded and a five minute group discussion with feedback to the whole class (that had caused a deep breath before launching in to it) had come and gone, expertly managed, and almost before she knew it, the writing task had been set up and the entire class were back working individually, writing their letters of introduction to her, their new teacher.
Ten minutes in, she stood back and surveyed the room. The concentration was almost painful. She had patrolled the room, reading over shoulders, fielding questions, making suggestions, correcting mistakes, and now she wallowed in the pleasure of watching the class visibly get cleverer in front of her eyes. Where was the performance management observer when you needed them? Or the OFSTED inspector?
She looked in the direction of the question and just controlled her frown in time. Anthony Gordon had his hand up. He had been surprisingly perfect up to that point: immaculate uniform, immediately following instructions without question, responsible participation in the group discussion. It was almost as if he had been taking the piss. But now, the honeymoon was over. He’d done well, but it was too much to expect him to keep this up right to the end of the lesson. She flashed a smile at him as she moved over to his side of the room.
“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.
“Miss, can you read this to see if it’s alright?”
She hesitated, expecting this to be the first line of an elaborate setup, with her as the butt of the joke. Her eyes flicked around the room. No, there were no supressed sniggers, no furtive glances, nothing. The whole class had heads bent to their work, absorbed. She looked back to Anthony who was waiting patiently.
“Sorry Anthony, just coming”
She navigated the tables and reached out to pick up his book. She scanned it quickly, already rehearsing the bland, standard reply of encouragement she would give before moving off, before she stopped, a frown creasing her face. She read it again. She looked again at Anthony, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His face fell.
“It’s crap, innit, Miss?” he mumbled, and reached out to grab the book back from her.
“Anthony, it’s great. This is the best piece of writing you’ve done. You’ve got the tone just right. And some of your expression is just beautiful.”
He looked a little confused. “Really, Miss, it’s alright? You sure?”
“Anthony, it’s more than alright, its excellent. Well done.”
A smile spread across his face and he seemed to blossom in front of her.
“How are you going to carry on?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. I’m a bit stuck.”
“Well, you need to go on to, give some examples of the things you’ve mentioned. Anecdotes. And maybe you could use a few rhetorical questions in the next section.”
She bent down over his table, placing the exercise book back in place and on a separate sheet of paper began to write.
“Something like this,” she said, as she wrote out a few sentences. “Have a go, see how you get on.”
She straightened up. He smiled at her.
“Thanks, Miss” he said before bending back down towards his book.
Anna threaded her way back through the grid of tables to the front of the class, and surveyed the group. Perfect, humming concentration pulsed in the room. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A girl at the front looked up at that moment.
“What’s up, Miss? What’s funny? You look very happy.”
“Nothing, Kirsty. Let’s get back to work please. Another five minutes”
She began to circulate around the tables, looking over shoulders at their writing, scanning the room for issues. She approached Anthony’s table and found herself just behind him when the quiet in the room was disturbed by his hissed exclamation.
All heads looked up and searched the room for the culprit and there was the beginnings of a group giggle rolling across the room.
“Anthony! There’s really no need for that kind of language.”
“Huh? Oh sorry Miss, it just came out. I’ve messed it all up.”
He lifted his book half up and grabbed the corner of the page with his right hand.
Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.
“No, no, no. Don’t tear the page out, Anthony, you’ll ruin all that work.”
“It’s already ruined, Miss. Look at it.”
She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.
“It’s not ruined, Anthony, you just made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”
She laughed. “So does everyone. Mistakes are nothing to be worried about Anthony. Just cross it out with a single line and correct it. Then you can carry on and add to what you’ve already done.”
“But it’ll look crap, Miss. I don’t want crossings out all over it. I always muck it up.”
“I’ll tell you a secret Anthony. Examiners love crossing out. It’s a sign of an intelligent student. Someone who knows they’ve got something wrong and who has tried to do something about it. If you ripped out the page every time you made a mistake, you would never, ever finish.”
He looked puzzled as he tried to process this information. Anna gently laid the book back down on his table. Keeping one hand on it so he couldn’t snatch it again, she pointed at the mistake.
“Look, it’s easy. You just draw a single line through what you got wrong, like this..” She modelled the crossing out, her red pen neatly scoring through a misspelling. “Don’t scribble it, that will look messy. Just a single line and then put your correction next to it. See.”
Anthony’s face moved from puzzled through disgruntled and ended in reluctant acceptance. He bent his head back down to his work and the final minutes of the lesson passed in silent concentration.
“Yeah, it was amazing, he just kept on writing. I was, like, expecting him to kick off all lesson, but there wasn’t a flicker. It was like teaching a different kid, honestly…”
She paused and glanced over at Tom, who was intently scrolling on his phone.
“Are you even listening to me Tom? Jesus, you’re so rude. You don’t take any interest in my work. You could at least pretend.”
There was a delay as he finished and then he looked up.
“I was listening for the first fifteen minutes. And then I wasn’t.”
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“For god’s sake, it’s just a job. Do you even know what I do? When do you have to listen to me going on about my job. You’re so fucking boring these days. You didn’t used to be like this.”
He stood up abruptly.
“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”
He lunged at her and grabbed her throat, pinning her to the high-backed chair.
“Shut up!” he screamed, “Just shut the fuck up.”
He pushed her back against the chair and stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him. Anna slumped back on her chair, her hand to her neck, stunned. And then the tears came.
Anthony crouched at his desk, rigid, his pen gripped tightly above his exercise book. Another shout, another crash of something heavy against the wall, another strangled whimper from his mother. He flinched at each sound, slumping lower towards the desk top beaten down by every noise. He remained frozen, breath caught in fear, waiting for the noise he knew was coming next. The sound that always signalled respite, a brief passage of calm before the next time. The door duly slammed, after a final volley of abuse, and as the vibration settled slowly into stillness, his shoulders came down and a weary peace descended on the room.
He sat frozen, not daring to go out of his room for fear of what he might find. His ears strained for some sign to cut through the noise of distant traffic and an intermittent gusting wind. And then he heard his mother moving around and the sound of cupboards opening and closing. She was alright and he could stay where he was, safe and quiet.
He looked down at his book, at the sentence he had stared at for the previous fifteen minutes while mayhem had swirled around in the room outside.
“In the future, I’d like to work as a professional gamer, and have a nice house and family, where my mum and dad can come and visit.”
He thought for a second and was just about to add a last sentence when the door burst open and his mother stared him, wild-eyed. The bruise around her eye and cheek bone was ripening as she spoke
“Anthony. Come on. Pack up what you need. We’ve got to leave.”
She tossed a battered blue IKEA bag onto the floor in front of him.
“Back to the Refuge. Come on, we need to be quick.”
She went back out to collect her stuff. Anthony automatically began to bundle his clothes and a few books into the bag. He had done it several times before and it barely registered with him, thinking he would probably have to do it again some time in the future. He took a final look around his room, grabbed his exercise book from the desk, stuffed it into the bag, and turned out the light.
Anna sat in the darkness of her flat, scrolling through the messages on her phone. The dim blue glare sparkled in the tear tracks on her cheeks and softened the red rims and smudged mascara. He wasn’t coming back, that much was clear. He wasn’t picking up and had left no indication where he might be staying. Another woman, obviously, she thought bitterly. Someone who had the dinner on the table and didn’t have the audacity to talk about her own life and feelings and worries.
When she had got back from school that Monday she knew as soon as she walked through the door that he had gone. The gaps on their shelves confirmed it. He had come back when she had been at work, gathered up his stuff and removed it all, so no trace was left, without even telling her.
She slumped down at the kitchen table, and swung her school bag, stuffed with marking, with a heave on top of the table in front of her. It thudded down and spilled the first few books, spreading like a hand of cards. She looked fondly at them, so new, so clean, so full of hope. She had been convinced that this September everything was going to be different. A new start, a new her. She would manage everything and be the woman that she knew she could be. Having it all. Juggling competing demands. In control. But it only takes one ball to veer slightly off course and a chain reaction starts, that no matter how frantically you tried to keep it going, inevitably ends with everything crashing.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, collecting her resolve to keep on going. Reaching out to the books that had fanned out in front of her, she chose the one that was a little grubbier than the rest. Dog-eared and stained, the name on the front provoked a ghost of a smile. Anthony Gordon. At least he had made a fresh start, if only until the end of the first week. He hadn’t been seen since then and rumours had flown around the staffroom about the police and social services being involved. But now his book had magically appeared in her pile.
She switched on the side lamp, and opened the book, illuminated in a warm, yellow cone of light. As she read, flicking through the pages, her smile froze and then disappeared altogether. He had written three pages, the most he had ever achieved. There were careful crossings out and corrections made but the pages had all been crossed out, each line like an angry slash, almost penetrating the surface of the paper. The last page hung where it had been partially ripped out. Anthony had scrawled a new title, “My Future”, complete with a parody of underlining, free hand, red and jagged. Underneath, in capital letters, he had scratched simply, “I AINT GOT ONE”.
A cold wind moaned outside her kitchen window. She shivered. September was already halfway through and soon October would be here. Winter was coming.
Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
Or even saw a production or two
At The Globe.
That, and maybe listening to a bit of Mozart and a trip to a gallery
To worship at the temple of Art,
Would make all the difference. Even Tate Modern would do, at a pinch.
They deserve it, really.
Culture, that is. It’s just not fair to abandon them to their parents, who were
Abandoned in their turn.
So we cannot blame them. Not really.
Others, well meaning, no doubt,
Talk of Stormzy and Assassin’s Creed
Of Mice and Men and Game of Thrones
As if they had the same worth.
But everybody knows that proper culture must be
Old and Hard, otherwise it does not count.
It’s common sense.
It’s alright for them. They’ve got their exams already.
Missionaries in Darkest Africa did not agonise about their task to civilize,
But set to work to bring light to the darkness.
Not for them the liberal guilt that stalks us today
Or the righteous anger of The Woke
Now that Black Lives Matter.
But in between, where people live, culture is imbibed
Without thinking, like breathing in.
Like air, we need it to survive.
The air we breathe nurtures and sustains, whether its breeze stirs lush, clipped roses
Or scatters crisp packets in a grimy dance.
It is the same air.
It is the same culture.
It is ours, not theirs.
I have loved casting spells
In the gathering gloom of wet November Friday afternoons
As yellow lights held us all in a web of careful, bold words.
Thirty pairs of eyes wide and gleaming in the dusky, chalk-dusted corners.
Thirty breaths held in a cloud of concentration above our heads.
Yes, that was worth the whole shebang.
But I did not like
The Marking, that squatted on my life like a Toad.
There will come a time, on a wet November afternoon, when a pile of bruised and scribbled purple books might be the object of my wildest dreams.
But not yet.
Not for a long, long time.
And come September, when Summer’s warmth begins to fail and blistered leaves turn yellow,
I will watch the lines of scrubbed children laden with heavy bags,
Proceed to school with first day nerves, and think, with sadness and relief, that no bell summons me,
To cast the old spells
Afresh for them.
Mr Stringer’s Snow Day
A short story by The Old Grey Owl
Sam Stringer was on the verge of something, that much was obvious to everyone. It wasn’t clear to anyone who came across him whether it would be a nervous breakdown or greatness, but it was definitely something.
At first glance he had it all. He was good looking, with a generous covering of hair on his head and he dressed as if he vaguely knew what he was doing. At work he was amicable, witty and warm. Someone who the rest of the staff had an instinctively good feeling about, though they would be hard pressed to say exactly why. He was effortlessly impressive in the classroom. The kids loved his enthusiasm and knowledge and care and lightness of touch. The staff loved his self-deprecating comments, the fact that he was the go-to-guy on SLT who never let anyone down, his ability to switch from seriousness to sarcasm without anyone ever mistaking that as a sign that what they all did, every day, for the kids, didn’t matter.
And yet there was an unmistakeable air of detachment about him, a coldness and a sadness that seemed the essence of him, unreachable and alone. He was not in a relationship and most of the staff could not remember a time when he had been. He had friends, but they were more like acquaintances, like those university groups that allowed for companionship without intimacy, conversation without revealing. No one knew a thing about his family, and in idle conversation in the pub after work, or in the staffroom over lunch, no one would have been able to answer the questions, “So, where is Sam Stringer from? What does he do with himself? What happens to him at Christmas?” The fundamental question that these more trivial queries masked was, of course, “Who is Sam Stringer?” And to that unasked question there was no ready answer.
And so, people stopped asking, stopped wondering. And his life at work went on, in the flurry of frenzied activities that characterised life in a busy, inner city Secondary school, where one reached the shores of the next weekend, the next holiday, in an exhausted daze, never quite being able to remember how, exactly, one had made it through. This unexamined life went on apace, until one day, Sam Stringer found that he had reached the dizzy heights of Deputy Head, almost without realizing it. It had not been the next step in some carefully considered Machiavellian plan, nor the logical outcome of ruthless careerism, it was simply the place and time and position the conveyor belt of his life had taken him to. At the age of thirty-eight he had earned the respect of his colleagues, the affection of his pupils, a significant and welcome pay rise, and a rather nice, spacious office, with his name on an acrylic door sign: Mr Stringer, Deputy Headteacher.
One of his many responsibilities was Snow. It wasn’t mentioned in his job description and it did not figure at his interview, but as far as the staff were concerned, it was, by a country mile, the most important. The closure of the school because of snow was officially his call. This was partly because he lived ten minutes walk away from the school, so he was the only member of Senior Team who could make an informed judgement based on local weather conditions early enough to set in motion the text and telephone tree, announcing the closure. The real, unstated reason was that Elizabeth, the Headteacher, could trust him to make the correct decision, resisting all pressures from the staff to close at the fall of the first snow flake. She knew that Sam had so little else in his life apart from his job, that a day off was something to be avoided at all costs. He had only ever had to do it once, in his first year as a Deputy, and he had resolutely kept the school open, notwithstanding the traffic chaos and misery that staff and students had to endure. This had garnered Elizabeth valuable brownie points with the local authority, and took her to the top of the league for local headteachers’ macho posturing. It had cost Sam some of his popularity, but he did not seem to notice and carried on as before, charming and effective in equal measure.
And so it was, one Tuesday evening early in December, the Senior Leadership meeting closed with a discussion on meteorology.
“So, are we all clear about the procedure?” Elizabeth scanned the members of her team around the table with her familiar, raking glare. “Sam, as usual it’s your call, but the earlier the decision, the better. We don’t want any complaints about people getting stuck in traffic only to find the school is closed after all. When do you think you’ll be able to get it on the website?”
“Definitely before six. The weather forecast seems pretty certain. The beast from the east is back, with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures, or that’s what is said when I looked before we started tonight.”
Elizabeth frowned. “Hmm, whatever you do, any of you that is, don’t give the rest of the staff the impression it’s already decided. Weather forecasts have been wrong before and no doubt they’ll be wrong again. I want everyone going to bed tonight thinking that they are coming to school tomorrow as normal.”
The assembled team were suitably poker faced, controlling the sense of disappointment they all felt. All except Sam who, deep down, knew he would find a snow day at home rather dull in comparison with a day managing the fall out of a snow day at school.
Hesitantly, a voice broke in.
“Do the staff just have to look at the website then? Sorry, this hasn’t happened since I’ve been here and..” Caroline, the newest member of the team, trailed off, feeling more than a little silly.
Elizabeth forced a smile. “Of course, Caroline, forgive me. I forgot, this is your first time.” She looked over at Sam. “Sam, could you?”
“Yes, of course. It was actually in the email I sent out to everyone. There’s a mobile telephone tree and an automatic text message cascade, with some back up calls to key members of staff, so they can ensure everyone in their section of the tree is informed. I thought that everyone would have read that, but…”
The minute he said it, he felt it had come out wrongly, as if he were annoyed at having to explain something he had already dealt with. As someone who loved getting more emails, and felt a little cheated and out of the loop if there was nothing new to deal with, he was genuinely baffled whenever he came across someone who hadn’t checked their own inbox. The expression on Caroline’s face, a mixture of annoyance, embarrassment and incredulity, just confirmed it.
She glowered at him, her eyes stinging. “Sorry,“ she said, “I haven’t been in my office. Teaching all day.”
An awkward silence spread over the meeting and people were left shuffling their papers and looking down at their notes. Thankfully, it had been the last item and the meeting broke up, the various members of the team drifting off in different directions to offices spread strategically in all four corners of the school. Sam hung back to make sure that he and Caroline were the last to leave.
She sensed that that was what was happening and at the last minute she tried to scuttle ahead. Sam called out to her. “Caroline, sorry, can I have a word?”
She turned and forced a thin smile. “Yes, sure,” she said, “What is it?”
He looked around to check everyone else had left. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound critical at the end there. I was just surprised you hadn’t seen the message. It just came out a bit wrong.”
“You should have said that in the meeting, “ she replied curtly and turned tail and left before he could reply. As she walked down the corridor towards her office she wondered if she had been a bit rude. “At least he apologised,” she thought, “Not many men would have done that.”
Back in the meeting room, Sam was left alone, mouth open. He felt a little crushed. Was it him? He went over what had happened in his mind, knowing that he would do the same thing over and over again before the end of the day. Despite appearances to the contrary, Sam was a worrier. He hated for people not to like him and to give them any reason for doing so. Even worse, he always thought the other person was right, and that he had behaved badly, regardless of the situation. It was made even worse by the fact that it was so unusual. Most people warmed to Sam. But that just served to make Caroline’s obvious dislike of him so grating. She, a newly appointed Assistant Head, had only been in post since September, and no matter how hard Sam tried, he couldn’t seem to hit it off with her. There had been a series of awkward encounters, of misunderstandings and, at times, open arguments. They always ended with Sam apologising, vowing to himself to be more careful next time. But, apparently, he never was.
In the midst of these repeated bouts of self-recrimination lurked something even more disturbing. A feeling so unfamiliar to him that he struggled to keep it buried and whenever it surfaced, which was far too often for his liking, it left him feeling even worse. From the first moment he had seen her, when she had arrived in the school foyer for her interview in the summer term, he was overwhelmed with the strangest, strongest feeling that he had ever had for anyone. She wasn’t stereotypically attractive, but she had something. A warmth, a spark, something indefinable but definitely there. There was no doubt about that. Short, glossy dark hair, green eyes, lovely golden skin and long, long legs. And she dressed well. He wasn’t sure about that last thing. He didn’t really notice people and certainly not their clothes. He would not have been able to describe anything that anyone at the Senior Team meeting that had just finished had been wearing, but he knew, with a painful and insistent certainty, that Caroline Taylor looked just right in whatever it was she had chosen to wear.
He also knew, with equal certainty, that Caroline thought that he was a bit of a joke. Whatever he had managed to do to fool everybody else, Caroline wasn’t falling for it. She could see right through him and obviously recognised him for what he was. An imposter. A charlatan. A phoney. And for Sam, that merely served to increase her charm. Judgement as well as Beauty.
With these thoughts churning around his brain, he collected his stuff, locked up his office, and made his way down to the car park. He sighed as he opened his car door. He knew he couldn’t go on like this and had made a sort of decision to look at Headships in other schools, ready to start applying next Summer. He shivered as the car fired into life, a blast of cold air shaking him from his thoughts back to the here and now. He looked up into the sky through the side window. Dark and cloudless, the stars glittered with an intensity unusual in the city sky. He could feel the gathering hard frost, but as yet there was no sign of snow. Maybe the clouds would roll in later, direct from the Siberian plains, with their gift of plump, feathery snowflakes.
Caroline had lingered in her tiny office for longer than usual, just to make sure she didn’t encounter Sam in the car park. She couldn’t bear another awkward conversation. God, what was wrong with her? Why did she always snap at him? He was perfectly OK as a Deputy Head. Better than most actually. He didn’t pull rank and didn’t mansplain. He was sensitive and respectful, without seeming horribly pleased with himself for being so right-on, so PC. It was just that everyone liked him. He was so popular with the staff, foot soldiers and the powers that be, that there must be something wrong with him. No-one could be that perfect. And, even worse, he was breathtakingly good looking. Men like that are always insufferable bastards in the end, she told herself, remembering an unfortunate dalliance with an equally chiselled and toned master of the universe type who had been big in the city. His sensitivity, worn like an Armani suit at the beginning of their fling, was soon cast aside to reveal the sixteen carat bastard lurking underneath, as she was unceremoniously dumped for someone creative at the BBC at the beginning of the summer holidays. Six weeks of self-pity had not repaired the damage caused by her innate suspicion of handsome men.
The worst occasion with Sam, the one that made her feel hot and uncomfortable whenever she recalled it, was back in September, just a couple of weeks after she had started work. She had popped to the local shop on Sunday morning, looking an absolute fright in tracksuit bottoms and no makeup. When she could make herself face the truth of it, she remembered that she had been in such a rush that there was a breakfast stain on her top. Oh God, how embarrassing. Because out of the blue, Sam saw her across the road and waved at her. Mortified, she had turned away hurriedly, and had blanked him. She had marched away down the road, not stopping until she had shut the door of her flat firmly behind her. Blanked him. Oh My God, she thought. How uncool is that?
It had never been referred to since, and Caroline had discovered in conversation in the ladies’ staff toilet, that Sam had a flat round the corner from her, in Mountcastle road.
“Do you know Mountcastle road?” Samira had asked her. “You know that big posh road with all of those massive Victorian villas in them. The ones that back on to the woods. He’s got a lovely flat there. Got a massive garden.” She lowered her voice. “Beautifully decorated, actually”
Like many of the conversations she had so far had in the staff toilet, this one was not making her feel any better about the worst social gaffe she had ever committed. She had put two and two together and had come up with a number nearer infinity than four. “So,” she thought, “Mr Stringer is a bit of player as far as the female members of staff are concerned. Well not me, oh no.”
She looked at the pile of marking on her desk. She had dug it out purposely so that she could work through it on her snow day at home. It was an ideal opportunity to catch up, from the depths of her duvet, but, somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to put it in her bag. At the doorway, as she turned to switch the light off, it stared back at her, until it disappeared as the darkness flooded the room and she closed the door, relieved, with a click. Tomorrow, the duvet would be enough to sustain her.
The alarm jolted him awake. He scrambled in the heavy darkness, pawing at the table for his phone, and finally managed to turn it off, jabbing frantically at the illuminated screen. Five forty-five am. A thick silence flooded the room and he lay back, enjoying the quiet stillness. After a minute or so, the silence began to weigh heavily on him and he swung his feet around and out of the bed. Jesus, it was cold. He inched his way over to the radiator to check and was puzzled to find that it was on full blast, pulsing heat into the air, yet it seemed to have made little impression on the room. There was a strange silence, as if he had cotton wool stuffed in his ears. He continued to the window and opened the curtains a crack. The window looked out onto the back garden, and beyond the fence at the back, the beginning of the woods. He gave a sharp intake of breath. The sky in front of him was full of swirling heavy flakes of snow and the garden was blanketed in a thick covering, blurring all of the familiar shapes. Already, the perfect layer was marked with animal tracks, criss-crossing the lawn.
His heart leaped. Even at this hour, in this cold, with his breath steaming in front of him, it was a beautiful, strange, otherworldly sight. Clearly, this was one occasion when the snow closure would not be controversial. Nobody would be making much progress in the world in that, not, by the look of it, for a couple of days at least.
Fifteen minutes later it was all done: notice of closure on the website, texts sent via the telephone tree, a message left for the Head, local media contacted and the Local Authority alerts system triggered. He spent the next hour on a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the film of snow Armageddon on breakfast news, before rousing himself to get dressed and ready to brave the world outside. The woolly hat, thick scarf, gloves and padded coat seemed to dissolve into gossamer threads as he made his first tentative footsteps down the path from his front door. The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.
The road was eerily deserted, and the yellow cones of light from the street lamps bathed everything in a mysterious wash of amber. He passed a couple of abandoned cars, left at crazy angles to the kerb, buried and undetectable under the volume of settled snow. There were just a few other people out and about, their breath steaming into the dark skies as they laboured through the snow, preparing for their stories of heroic attempts to get to work that would dominate the news for the next few days.
It took him an hour to do what normally would have been a twenty minute walk. The school was suffocated under a thick blanket of snow, and as he struggled with the lock to the car park entrance, he could see the thickly mufflered figure of Ray, the site manager, his breath steaming outside the main entrance. Sam crunched his way towards him through the untouched snow.
Ray looked up and flashed a broad smile, enjoying the camaraderie of pioneers. “Mornin’,” he called from a distance, “Nice day for it.”
“Good morning, Raymond. What’s it like inside?”
“Boiler’s buggered. It’s freezing in there.”
“What do you reckon?”
“A couple of days at least. Maybe more. Weather forecast after that is a bit hazy. And even when the snow clears, there’s no guarantee of when the boiler’ll be fixed. If ours has gone, you can bet your life they’ll be swamped with callouts from loads of others.”
“Oh well, at least it’s a clear call. I’ll put it on the website after I’ve spoken to Elizabeth.”
“She’ll be tucked up warm in deepest Surrey somewhere no doubt.”
“The privileges of high office, Raymond, my good man. The privileges of high office. Not for the likes of you and me.”
Ray snorted. “You’ll be there soon, sunshine, you’re not fooling me. Another couple of years and you’ll be El Presidente, ordering everyone around from under the duvet.”
Sam was momentarily taken aback. Was that what everyone thought, that he’d be a Head somewhere? And soon, from Ray’s tone. He roused himself and the flicker was gone.
“Listen Ray, I wouldn’t bother with clearing the grounds, not yet anyway. Give it a day or so and keep an eye on the forecast. There’s no point shovelling it all up if there’s a ton more snow on the way. If we keep in touch, then we can manage it from this end. You concentrate on the boiler. I’m just going to do a bit of work while I’m here. I can lock up if you want.”
Ray didn’t need telling twice and strolled away whistling. His snow day had just started to look up.
It was about ten o’clock when Sam finally called it a day. He locked the gates behind him and leant into the knifing wind that had sprung up, whipping thick, fat snowflakes into his face. He gasped in pain and shock. The journey back was clearly going to be harder than the voyage out in the quiet darkness of early morning.
An hour later when he finally turned the corner onto the home straight, he had lost all feeling in his feet, his cheeks were red and numb, and all thoughts of the charm, beauty and romance of the snowy landscape had disappeared. For the previous fifteen minutes he had sustained his spirits by fantasising about the bacon sandwich he had promised himself, with coffee and the paper. This was the thought in his head, as he peered through the swirling snow over the road to the blocks of flats on the other side. He did it every time he walked past, and the extreme conditions of the morning made no difference. Caroline’s flat.
He was about to press on, head down into the wind, when his eye was caught by a huddled figure in the entrance hammering on the door. Defeated, the figure slumped to the ground and sat, head in hands and began weeping. He stopped and stared, shielding his eyes from the driving snow. He took a step towards the kerb, almost indistinguishable now from the road surface and kept on going, picking his way gingerly over the compacted snow on the road surface. Halfway across he called out.
“Caroline? Is that you, Caroline?”
The figure leaped up as if stung, or caught guiltily in the middle of some heinous act. She wiped her hand across her face. When she recognised who had called out to her, her face fell.
“Caroline, what the hell are you doing out here? Are you alright?”
“Sam, er ..Hi, yes, yes , I’m fine. I’m just…”
She hesitated, as if deciding what to say next. Her face was red and blotchy and streaked with tears.
“No, you’re not,” Sam insisted, “You’ve been crying. What’s the matter? You look terrible.”
A wry smile creased her features and she started again.
“Yes, terrible, I can imagine. It’s just that my boiler’s broken down, and I came down to go to the shop and I…er..well, I got locked out. And I haven’t got my phone with me, or my keys and there’s no-one else in the building and I, er.. I didn’t know what to do and I..”
The sentence collapsed into a further outbreak of sobbing. Sam reached out instinctively and took her hand.
“God, Caroline, you’re freezing. How long have you been out here? You need to get inside.”
“Oh, I dunno, half an hour maybe. It’s just that I don’t know what to do and why did you have to come along again and I’m looking a state and being pathetic and, oh, I don’t know, I..”
The words tumbled out in an incoherent torrent until the heaving sobs came again and she wrenched her hand away.
“Look, come on, come round to mine. It’s only five minutes away. You can get warmed up and sort yourself out and we’ll work out a way through this.”
She hesitated. The use of the word “We” was suddenly hypnotically alluring, the idea that someone could help her manage this. But not him. Of all people, not him.
He reached out and took her hand again.
“You can’t stay out her, you’ll freeze to death. Come on.”
Gently, he pulled her hand and she took her first step, and annoyance was gradually replaced by relief as she allowed herself to be led towards a solution. The two figures, hunched against the wind, melted into the blizzard as they made their way slowly down the road.
By the time she woke up, the grey light outside had begun to fade. After they had arrived at Sam’s flat, he had made her eat and drink and then insisted she get some sleep in the spare room. Her blank, red-eyed silence, as she methodically chewed her toast and drank the coffee he had handed to her, had convinced him that she had been exhausted and had been outside for longer than she had said.
She got dressed and tentatively made her way out of the room and into the hall way.
“Hello?” she called out, “Anyone here?”
The nearest door opened.
“Aha, Caroline. You feeling any better? That was one hell of a sleep. You obviously needed it.”
Sam smiled at her and ushered her into the room.
“Come in, come in. Come and have a seat.”
The room was not what she had been expecting. It was beautifully proportioned. Elegant, with high ceilings, polished floor boards and Persian rugs. She almost gasped when she walked in, her eyes wide and bright. There were three sofas arranged around an open fireplace, which had a gently flickering log fire. She stopped herself from telling him what an amazing place it was. She suspected that many people had told him that over the years.
“No, I won’t thanks. I really had better be getting back. Thanks, though, you’ve been very kind.”
“Getting back? Getting back where? Have you found your keys then? Or your mobile?”
“Well, no obviously, but..” She trailed off unconvincingly.
“Come on Caroline, I know you don’t really like me and you feel a bit uncomfortable here, but there’s not much else you can do, is there? Just give in to it and stay. You’ve already sampled the spare room. You can spend most of the time in there if you prefer. I’ve got loads of work to be getting on with anyway and so have you, I imagine. I’ll even lend you my laptop, how’s that?”
He couldn’t work out whether he was more annoyed or disappointed at her evident eagerness to leave, so he straddled the two. He thought himself rather bold for naming the fact that he clearly made her feel a little awkward, but there was little point in being overly polite. At least it was out in the open now. And she couldn’t go anywhere else, that was undoubtedly true. The weather was getting worse, if anything. Even if there were hordes of friends or family in the area, it would be impossible to get to them, unless they lived next door. Public transport, as is the custom in Britain in the bad winter weather, had closed down, and the country had returned to somewhere in the nineteenth century. Like it or lump it, they were stuck together for the foreseeable future.
Caroline submitted to the inevitable and perched on the end of the sofa furthest from Sam. She felt that she had to make some kind of attempt at conversation, at least for a while before she could take up his offer and retreat to a separate room with a laptop. She looked again around the grand living room, and took the least line of resistance.
“This is an amazing flat. It’s like a stately home.”
Sam gave an embarrassed laugh.
“Hardly. It’s the ground floor of the building.”
He saw the expression in her face and admitted, “It is very nice obviously. I’m very lucky.”
“Are you rich then? People who say that they are very lucky usually mean they were privately educated and daddy is something in the city”
“Rich? God, no. I, ..er.. we bought it a long time ago when it was a dump and we did it up, a bit at a time. So, yeah, lucky.”
“’We’? Are you divorced then? Didn’t you have to divvy it up after you split up?”
A pained look flashed across Sam’s face and he stumbled over his words.
“Well, no, not exactly. Umm, I , er..”
Caroline immediately interjected. “Sorry, none of my business. Just putting my foot in it as usual. Ignore me.”
“No, no. It’s me. It’s just that…” He stopped, as if uncertain about how to go on.
“What? What’s the matter? Can’t be that terrible, can it?”
“I was married, but I’m not divorced. My wife died. Yes. She died.” He pronounced the words, awkwardly, as if it were the first time he had ever said them out loud.
Caroline looked horror-struck.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I would never have asked if I’d known. Sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.”
Sam’s blank face shivered into a near smile. “It’s alright. It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. So, yes, not rich, just lucky.”
A silence hovered and settled on the room. The thick snow had dampened down what little noise there was in the streets outside. There was virtually no traffic, just the occasional gust of wind that whined through the window frames and rattled the panes. Caroline looked up in the direction of the noise, grateful for any distraction. At the far end of the room, a pair of French windows looked out onto a long back garden that disappeared from view in the gathering darkness. The garden melted into the thick trees of the adjoining woodland.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, a little too eagerly, “What a great garden.”
She sprang up, went over to the windows and peered outside. Sam followed her and looked over her shoulder. There were a few flakes of snow drifting down form the grey skies. This was probably the mildest the weather had been all day. Soon, when the sun completely sank beneath the horizon and darkness settled, the temperatures would plummet again. Outside the blanket of snow across the lawn was untouched, thick and even. Only a few lines of bird and animal tracks criss-crossed the canvas.
“Look at that,“ she breathed, “It’s perfect. When I was a kid and our garden was like this, we’d spend hours in it building snowmen.”
She looked back at him, over her shoulder, and smiled. The memory was real and alive for her. Their eyes met. And then Sam, gestured out into the garden with his eyes and back again.
“Well, shall we?” he asked, grateful for the distraction.
“What, go outside? Really?”
She stopped and thought for a moment. “Yeah, come on. Why not?”
The next hour and a half flew by, as they constructed a family of snow people with accessories, stopping occasionally to discuss tactics and take part in an ongoing snowball fight. When they finally came back inside, it was it was velvet black in the garden, the icy darkness shrouding the mysterious group of snow people who were huddled together as if posing for a family photograph at the back by the woods. Their fingers were numb and wet, their cheeks red, their breath steaming into the night air.
He thought of that moment, many times later over the years that followed, as the moment his second life began again. By what a slender thread our lives hang. Choices made, corners turned, things unsaid. Even in the later contemplation of it, its randomness, its chance, its serendipity, brought fear as much as joy. For who knew when similar happenstance would unravel all that had been tightly woven?
Much later that evening, in front of the dying embers of the fire, when two bottles of wine had softened their defences, they sat on the floor side by side wrapped in a filmy gauze of wonder and disbelief. They had talked for hours, discovering on the way, a shared love of The Strokes, The Arctic Monkeys, The Wire, The Sopranos (with a guilty pleasure of The Gilmore Girls admitted under pressure), William Blake, Patti Smith, lower league football, The World Cup, roses and clematis. At one point in the evening, when it seemed to both of them that this had all been supernaturally prearranged, they discovered that they had both taught English as a Foreign Language in Spain at the same time, Sam in Madrid and Caroline in Barcelona.
Before they knew it, it was 1.30am, the last bottle was empty and the embers had ceased to glow in the grate. A sudden awkwardness descended from nowhere.
“Well,” said Sam finally springing up to gather the glasses and bottles, “That was nice, but it’s probably way past bed time.”
“Oh“, stammered Caroline, taken aback, “Yes, of course. Will you have to do the snow thing again tomorrow?”
“No, thank God. The message this morning made it clear that we’d be shut for at least two days, so at least I’m spared a 5 am start. Might be different the day after though. Forecast is for a big thaw.”
“Nothing good ever lasts, does it?” she asked, looking directly at him.
He looked away. “No. No, it doesn’t.” he muttered and busied himself with clearing up. When Caroline followed him into the kitchen with some token clearing, he said, “Oh thanks for that. I’ll do the rest. You know where everything is, don’t you?”
She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, toilet and bathroom. You can use the room you were in this morning.” He stole a glance at her. “It was alright, was it?”
“The room. This morning,“ he explained patiently. “The room was alright?”
“Yes,“ she said finally, “The room was just right. Like the three bears.”
She turned to go, so he couldn’t see the look of absolute humiliation on her face. The three bears? What was she like? “Ok, good night then,” she said to the wall and carried on walking. Sam stacked the dishwasher.
Later, in the strange snow -dampened silence of his room, Sam lay rigid under the duvet, eyes wide open, mind racing. There was a full moon outside, and it silvered the far end of the room through a crack in the curtains. Why had he mentioned Donna? Why hadn’t he made a move or done anything about it? Anything at all. She was wonderful, there was no doubt about that. And she quite liked him, or was she just a great actress? Liked him? Not any more, he thought bitterly. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just reach out to someone? Will it always be like this, for years and years and years? The questions raced through his mind, over and over again, and not for the first time, his eyes were wet when he finally slipped into sleep.
When the knock came at his door, gently, he woke up, instantly alert. The door opened a crack and there was a rustle, as a soft breath of wind passed through. The kiss, when it finally came, was everything he had been waiting for, for such a very long time.
The next day, whenever it started, was centred on that room. It was for hours and moments the centre of their universe, with the outside world a memory or a distant rumour, a story told by children but not believed. Occasionally throughout the day, noises came from the other world: a distant train, children playing a few doors down, and when the sun fell, the hoot of an owl and the bark of a fox, but they paid little attention to anything other than the adventure of discovery in front of their eyes.
In the silvery moonlight of the next night she turned to him. “Will we have to go in to school tomorrow?“
It felt warmer and the noises outside their window had included a steady dripping of the promised thaw.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “I think maybe it’s going to freeze over again before morning. Sleep now. I’ll sort it out.”
He lay back under the plump clouds of duvet, her arm across his chest, and looked at the clock. 5am.
They both knew he was lying.
He thought of marking 11C’s Mock exams.
He thought of planning the INSET day for the first day back in January
He thought of how he could link performance management with teaching repertoire.
He thought of her arm, its downy golden hairs individually picked out against her warm brown skin.
He thought of how he could encourage teachers to observe each other
He thought of the end of term reports he had to write for the trainee teachers and how he could make them sound a little more positive.
He thought of her smell, like vanilla and caramel.
He thought of the paper he had to finish, to present to SLT, on coaching for development.
He thought of her eyes, strangely green with little grey flecks. And white, white, white, like her sparkling teeth.
He thought of the way she wiped away the crumbs of her toast from the sides of her mouth, moist with tea.
He thought of her lips…..
He swung his legs out from under the duvet, perched on the edge of the bed and reached for his phone.
Sam Stringer was on the verge of something. It was not a nervous breakdown. It was not greatness. He stood on the edge and peered over the sides, dizzy and breathless. Finally, he scrolled down, hit the send button, and slipped back under the creamy warmth of the duvet. The school would be closed again that day.
Sam Stringer was on the verge of falling in Love.
If you liked this story, try my first novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the following links:
In this extract from “Sky Jump”, Steve, the Teesside native, is taking his new mate Rob, a Londoner who he has recently met in his first year at the University of York, on a cultural exchange trip, to see his beloved Middlesbrough FC play in a midweek First Division game against Leicester City. It is sometime in the Spring in 1975.
The Beautiful Game
They made their way through the crowded back streets, the sound of the growing crowd in the ground pulling them in the right direction. The light was beginning to fade and above the tops of the squat terraced houses the floodlights stood tall, dazzling the eye with their white light. The air was thick with frying onions and the cries of the assorted vendors on the route: programme sellers, stalls of scarves and badges, Golden Goal tickets. There was a smattering of Leicester supporters clad in royal blue and sticking together for safety in groups, eyed from street corners by the Boro boot boys, shaven headed youths, with scarves tied around one wrist, ankle flapping jeans or sta-prest above Doctor Martin boots.
Their route took them straight to the end of the ground they were aiming for. Steve had experimented in the last year occasionally with the lower enclosure along the far side of the pitch, particularly when he went to a game on his own, but he had returned to his first love, the end behind the goal, The Holgate. The overriding characteristic of the crowd on the side of the pitch as distinct from that behind the goal, was their all -consuming, corrosive cynicism and criticism. They lambasted the players for the full ninety minutes and seemed only content when the ball was lumped forward aimlessly. Any attempt to put a foot on the ball and instigate a passing move was derided as “fannying about” and woe betide the player who decided that rather than lose the ball it would be more sensible to pass it backwards to keep possession. This was considered in the same bracket as a war crime or voting Conservative. This was by far the most successful Middlesbrough side in the modern history of the club. Promotion from the second division by a record margin, with a niggardly defence and a hatful of goals, Steve could not understand this continual moaning and carping. At least in the Holgate you got a bit of passion, a sense of belonging, and a fierce devotion to a collective cause.
Ayresome Park was a crumbling Victorian wreck of a ground that had not had any money spent on it for years. It stood surrounded by two up, two down terraced houses and cobbled streets. Rob, who stuck close to Steve as they made their way through these streets, was visibly nervous and shocked by his surroundings. “Bloody Hell, Steve, what a shithole,” he said quietly. “This is fucking Dickensian. Where’s the work house?”
“I’d keep your mouth shut now for a while. You may as well run in to the traffic with your eyes closed if you’re going to slag off the town in a loud cockney accent.”
Rob controlled his normally irrepressible smart- arse instincts. Discretion was definitely the better part of valour here. He followed Steve, his eyes flicking left and right, checking for peripheral attack. Suddenly, they swerved at a right angle down an alley way and went through a corrugated metal and brick opening covered in graffiti. Here queues of the home supporters had formed to get through the turnstiles and into the ground. It was about fifteen minutes to kick off and the chanting and singing grew in volume. They passed through the turnstile, paying cash as they went and then found themselves in the gap between the main body of the Holgate and the corner where younger lads often congregated with Dads to escape the crush behind the goal.
As soon as they entered the arena proper here, they were met with an uninterrupted vista of the floodlit ground stretched out before them. A shiver went down Steve’s spine. The sight never failed to move him. In the midst of this crumbling pile of concrete, brick and rusting, corrugated, twisted metal lay this vision of pristine beauty. A smooth, emerald green, table cloth of a pitch, the freshly whitewashed lines glowing in the shimmering white lights from the pylons. There were players dotted around the pitch from both sides, going through a few training routines, stretching and doing ball work. The keepers were being tested by the coaching staff, coming to claim crosses and handling balls fired straight at them from six yards. The PA system blasted out chart hits, interspersed with announcements that were always indecipherable. Steve gestured to Rob and they made their way to the back row of the terrace directly behind the goal and then plunged into the crowd, going down to be just above the line of the cross bar. There were a few of Steve’s usual fellow football goers, including Martin, who waved hello at both of them. They made their way down to join them and there was a brief exchange of greetings, hugs and slaps on the back. It was too loud for sustained conversation, a fact that both Rob and Martin seemed to take grateful refuge in. There was the usual all-pervasive smell of Bovril and pipe smoke. Ever since he had first gone to see a game, Steve was convinced that there was always the same man standing somewhere behind him smoking a pipe, even though he could never ever see anyone with a pipe anywhere near him.
Rob shouted in his ear, struggling to make himself heard above the singing and roaring of the crowd, “So, this is going to be good according to you?”
“Watch and learn, Rob, my friend, watch and learn.”
The game kicked off to a roar of encouragement from the crowd, which Steve estimated was about 20 – 21,000 people. Not bad for a midweek game against an ordinary Leicester City team. Steve perused the team sheet. One of the great things about getting promoted was being able to see all of those famous players that he had spent the last seven years or so watching on Match of the Day. Although Leicester were struggling, they were First division regulars and to Steve many of their players were household names. Players such as Keith Weller and Frank Worthington were famous and exotic and seemed a different species of human being to the gritty competitors he was used to watching in a Boro shirt. Weller and Worthington were typical of these creatures, extravagantly skilful, permanently tanned and disdainful of the tackle as being far beneath them, something that grafters did, not real footballers.
For the first twenty minutes, Boro tore into Leicester who seemed frozen, paralyzed by the speed of thought and movement of their opponents. They were kicking towards the Holgate in the first half. Every time they got the ball, players in red shirts poured forward to support, with overlaps, diagonal runs, feints and flicks yielding chance after chance. It was only a matter of time before they scored. Rob, the disdainful Chelsea supporter, watched the first half with growing disbelief. This was not at all what he had been expecting. He was sure it would be a dour, attritional struggle of titanic, reverberating, crunching tackles with perhaps a set piece header to separate the teams by the end. If this carried on, Boro would surely win by a cricket score.
Finally, the deadlock was broken. The mighty Souness, having the game of his life, picked up a loose ball in the middle of the park and surged forward with it. Twenty five yards out from goal, he let fly with his right foot and the ball arrowed into the top corner. The crowd erupted. Rob felt himself lifted off his feet and transported by the heaving mass about ten yards further forward. Grown men were embracing and hugging each other abandoned in their joy of the moment. Rob found himself in Martin’s arms and they jumped up and down together, punching their arms in the air and then awkwardly untangled themselves and did not look at each other again. The crowd slopped backwards and forwards like a disturbed bath full of water and then settled back for the inevitable deluge of goals. Panic spread amongst the entire Leicester team who were being overrun.
To their credit, or maybe because Boro took their foot off the gas a little, Leicester dug in and started to play better, denying them the same amount of time and space. Weller picked up the ball on the left and began to run at pace with it down the wing. Steve and the rest of the crowd in the Holgate were gripped with tension, screaming for someone to get a tackle in. Suddenly, without warning, all of the players disappeared! Inky blackness enveloped the bright green playing surface. There was silence for a nanosecond and then uproar from the crowd as it began to sink in. The floodlights had failed! The usual array of witty chants sprang up, most of them revolving around putting money in the electricity meter. A tannoy announcement informed the crowd that the floodlights had failed, much to everyone’s amusement. They were all asked to stay where they were while they tried to fix the problem.
It was a surreal experience for the next twenty minutes or so. They were stood, with several thousand people all around them, in near total darkness with just a few safety lights above their heads, chatting about the game, the floodlight failure, and the prospects for a restart. Conspiracy theories began to spread like a forest fire. It was an insurance fraud. It was to do with unpaid bills. It was about a betting syndicate. Mechanical failure in an ancient, ramshackle stadium barely fit for purpose hardly figured as a possible explanation, even though it was the most likely reason.
Eventually, a final tannoy announcement informed them that the game had been abandoned. A chorus of boos greeted this, drowning out the rest of the announcement about refunds of entrance money. Neither Steve, nor Rob, were remotely interested in a refund. It was just one of those things as far as they were concerned and nothing could be done about it. The crowd filed out, grumbling and laughing about the absurdity of the situation in equal measure.
“Well, at least we’ve got time for a drink before we pitch up at the Electric Onion and have to pay club prices.”
“Good thinking Steven my boy. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh?” said Martin.
“So, where are we going to go?” asked Rob. He wanted to get off the streets and into a quiet pub where he could talk at a normal volume without fearing he was about to be beaten up.
“Probably a good idea to get back to Stockton and to find a pub in the High Street.”
“Come on, we need to beat the crowds and jump on a bus quick, otherwise we’ll be stuck in the crush for half an hour.”
Steve beckoned them to follow him and dived down a side street and navigated a tortuous short cut to a bus stop. As they emerged and saw the stop ahead of them, the bus appeared behind them and they had to sprint to get to the stop before the bus driver could speed away with a clear conscience. They piled on to the top deck and the bus pulled off just as the main body of exiting fans appeared over the brow of the hill. They had got separated from the other lads they had been with in the Holgate, but Steve was unconcerned. They all knew what they were doing and they’d meet up again shortly, either in the pub or the club for the party.
It was about nine o’clock when the bus pulled into the high street. Much earlier than their original plan they had plenty of time for a few beers before going on to the club. Nobody else would get there before eleven.
“What do you think Martin?” asked Steve, “Green Trees?”
“Yeah, that’ll do. At least its close and we’ll get a seat.”
Five minutes later they were sitting down with their pints. There were a few faces Martin recognised, other college students who had had the same idea of a cheap drink in town somewhere within striking distance of the club. A nod of recognition between them was sufficient for protocol to have been observed, and then they turned their attention to the craic.
“I’ve never seen that happen at a game before, it was amazing.” said Steve.
“Bloody poverty-stricken northerners, can’t even pay the electricity bill.” Rob had been waiting to get in that dig since it happened.
“What did you think of the game Rob?” Martin changed the subject. He had learned not to rise to Rob’s barbed anti-Northern comments. They were just done to be provocative and awkward, but they had the potential to grow into an irritation. Knowing when to stop was not one of Rob’s virtues.
“I was surprised how good Boro were actually. They seemed to be able to slice open Leicester at will. I hadn’t really been expecting that.”
“We’re full of surprises in the North, it’s part of our charm,” replied Martin.
What were they like?
1) Did the people of Albion hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds? 2) Did they honour the written word or tell stories when darkness fell? 3) Did they shake hands and kiss in greeting? 4) Were they inclined to quiet welcome and fellowship? 5) Were their temples made of stone? 6) Did they cherish all, equally, or did rank hold sway? 7) Did they use paper to carry their dreams? 8) Did they have the use of the wheel? 9) Were they people of the land, with dirt on boot or hand? 1) Long ago they exchanged sweetmeats and feasted to excess. Now they cultivate their gardens and remember and are healed. 2) In darkened rooms, illuminated by blue tinged light, they drifted in stories of pictures and words. The stories helped them to forget, help them to remember. 3) Once, yes. Now, they do not touch, except in vibration carried on the wind. They kiss only the mask they wear. 4) They were an exuberant race, of bluster and boastfulness, long ago. Now they take refuge in quiet connectivity and contemplation. 5) The temples were of brick and glass and plastic to pacify powerful gods. Worship was done two metres apart. Chevrons pointed to the altars. Why? We no longer know. 6) Madam, it is not known. A fragment discovered suggests they were lost in a dream of trust. Their Leaders fell prey to greed and vanity. Many died alone, of all ranks. 7) Paper was venerated and coveted in equal measure. Even those without it survived. Frantic accumulation could not save all. 8) When the fall came, they travelled but once a day and returned to walking, as a memorial. Who can say? The car parks are empty now. The Old Grey Owl (with apologies to Denise Levertov)
The Chains He Forged
A Ghost Story for Christmas by The Old Grey Owl
Download the story here: https://growl.blog/2019/12/29/the-chains-he-forged/
Thought for the Day
Download my short story, “Thought for the Day” here.
White Sofa, Red wine.
He tightened his grip on both wrists, leaned forward and smiled at her.
“Sorry Darling, you can shout at me all you like, the next door neighbours are Leavers.”
Zero Tolerance by The Old Grey Owl
My new novel, “Zero Tolerance”, is set in a fictional London Secondary school. It’s a tragi-comedy and tells the story of what happens when the school is taken over by a Multi-Academy Trust. To whet your appetite, and to give you a flavour of the book, I’m publishing the blurb and Chapter one below.
Rick Westfield, Deputy Head of Fairfield High School, ignores the bullying, corruption and cheating of the new Academy Trust regime , but the brutal racist attack on Karim, a newly arrived Syrian refugee, leaves him having to make the biggest decision of his career. Rick prepares to deliver a make or break speech at the conference of POCSE, an organisation dedicated to “doing whatever it takes” to improve schools’ exam results. The conference is also attended by the key players: Marcus Grovelle, cynically ambitious Secretary of State for Education, Camilla Everson, Poster Girl Superhead, Barry Pugh, hapless OSTED Inspector, Alastair Goodall, super smooth MAT Chief Executive and Andrew Harrison, old school Local Authority Supremo, reduced to counting the paper clips in the shell of his once mighty empire. When the police arrive at the conference, one of them is arrested as the chickens well and truly come home to roost.
The boy poked his head around the flap of the tent. Amidst the jumble of carrier bags, bin liners and sleeping bags, in the shady gloom, another figure could be seen, lying propped up against a rucksack.
“Hey, you wanna play football? We’re all playing.”
The figure on the ground said nothing and stared ahead of him.
The question was repeated, this time in Arabic. The boy looked up at him and slowly shook his head. From outside the tent other voices could be heard.
“Leave him. Come on let’s play.”
He withdrew his head and closed the flap. Outside a group of boys had gathered.
“But, what about him?”
“You tried. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t do anything.”
The speaker, a scrawny thirteen year old in a stained Ronaldo T shirt that was too big for him, made a gesture with his finger, tapping his temple with it and turning it around.
They ran off towards the scrubby patch of land they had found behind the latrines. The first boy looked back at the tent, shrugged his shoulders, and then ran to join the others.
Inside the tent, the boy lay back down on his sleeping bag, and closed his eyes.
That afternoon, after he had eaten some rice and vegetables doled out to those that had stood in the midday sun to queue, he did his regular walk around the camp. He had nearly covered every inch of it and soon he would start again at the beginning. He walked slowly and methodically, not making eye contact with anyone, listening out for the sound of young girls’ voices. He passed the remains of burnt out fires, passed terrifying groups of older men, sitting around whittling wood with knives and smoking, shouting out blood curdling curses about what they would do to anyone they got hold of.
Some days he caught a glimpse of a girl and his heart would begin to pound and his breath would come in shallow gasps. He would follow them until he could get a better view and then, always, when they turned, his face would fall and he would walk the other way to try a different trail. Once, he had been so convinced that he ran up to the girl in a crowd, shouting “Evana! Evana!” He grabbed her by the shoulder and the girl turned around, her face a picture of fear. It wasn’t her, of course.
He had put his hands up in apology but had to flee from the snarling of a suspicious mob. It had been the only time he had spoken since arriving. He ran straight back to his tent, and waited, his heart racing, listening to the sounds outside. When he had thought the danger had passed, he carefully pulled out the photograph from the pocket of his rucksack, and lay back on the ground, studying it. He would find her, wherever she was.
The next day he found himself in a queue at the main administrative tent in the Jungle. When he got to the front, a tired looking man asked, “Name?” without looking up.
He was silent.
The man stopped writing on his form and looked up at him.
“What’s your name?”
Again, there was silence. The man repeated the question, but this time as if he were talking to a simpleton.
He gave up and moved on to his next standard question.
“Your passport, please.”
It was handed over in silence. The official pored over it, filling in details on his form
Later, in a smaller, more private room, the Syrian translator went through the whole story. Several times he left the room to talk to other officials. The final time, he came back, a broad smile on his face.
“I have good news for you, my friend. You are eligible for Asylum in the United Kingdom. You are very lucky. A change of policy, you see. You will be transferred to a holding centre and then over the channel.”
“When? When will this be?”
“Oh, probably in about three days’ time. It’s all over for you my friend, you’ve made it.”
The boy stared at him.
“No, I can’t go.”
The official stared back, his face quizzical.
“What do you mean, you can’t go? That is why you are here, surely? Everyone out there,” he jabbed a finger in the direction of the wall of the tent, “would give anything to be in your position. They risk their lives every night trying to get across illegally.”
He shook his head again.
“I can’t go. I can’t leave my sister.”
His mouth began to tremble and he crumbled, the months of fear and exhaustion and grief that he had suppressed to enable him to survive, could not be held back any longer. He wept uncontrollably, his wiry body shaking and heaving.