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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Examination Day

Examination Day

“Bloody hell!”

Principal Putney spat the mouthful out in disgust. Then watched dismayed as speckled sputum covered his computer monitor. Masticated bits of bread and meat descended, obscuring the spreadsheet.

Wiping the mess off with his jacket sleeve, Putney yelled through the open door that connected his office to the wider world of the school. “Maureen! Get Mrs Putney on the phone!”

“She’s not available.”

“Isn’t she? Why? Why isn’t she available?” he screamed. “Not available?  I’ll not available her, what do you mean, not available? Of course she’s available! Ask 50% of the population of Kwatar and they’ll confirm that her fat arse is always available. Come in here.”

Maureen’s face poked, meercat like, at the door frame. “Yes, Principal?”

“She does this on purpose. Bacon! Pork pies! I hate bacon! Fills my bloody lunch box up with the stuff and expects me to eat it.”

“Yes, Principal.”

Putney pointed a quivering finger at the tupperware in front of him. “Put this in the skip, get to the supermarket and buy me something I actually like for my breakfast!”

“What, the tupperware lunch box?”

“No! Of course not the tupperware lunch box; the contents, the contents. You may bring the box back once it is most thoroughly scraped clean of bacon, gammon and pie.”

“Certainly, Principal.”

“Then get down to Lulu and purchase a turkey sub. You can’t go far wrong with a turkey sub.”

The skip festered in the June heat of Kwatar. Fifty degrees and upwards, although officially fifty degrees it was and would always be.  It reeked, it putrified, it swarmed with cockroaches and sat alongside the unattractive sand grey concrete school building.

High above, the sun smacked into the sealed windows of a second floor classroom. A line of male students filed in through the door, silently sixteen and, for the most part dark bearded. They glanced at desks set out equidistantly. Moved efficiently towards them. Sat without fuss.

Mr Bradley Tonkins read from a clipboard. “Asjad, Saji, Tengu, Biggins, Yousef, Alrasheed, Murad, Mubarak, Haitham….” And all answered with quiet dignity. All, that is, except one.

Tonkins frowned, licked a pencil and stabbed the clipboard. “Biggins. Biggins? Gentlemen, has anybody seen Biggins? Where is Biggins? This examination is due to start in ten minutes.”

“I think he was eating lunch, Mr Bradley, sir.”

“Lunch?” Tonkins’ stomach growled, reminding him that it was Ramadan. Everyone was hungry and thirsty by afternoon, either through religion or respect. Everyone, it seemed, except Biggins.

The door thumped back against the plaster and a chubby, fair skinned and thoroughly beardless boy scudded inside. “Sorry, sir.”

“Your late, Biggins. Hurry up. I was just about to call the examinations officer.”

“Yes, sir, I know, sorry sir.”

“Lunch, eh?”

“Sorry, sir?”

“You were late because you were tucking in to your gargantuan lunchtime tucker, is that it, boy?”

“Well, yes, sir.”

“Do I have to remind you what time it is, Biggins? Maybe a few less lunches might benefit your health. Try a fast, now and then?”

“But I came as fast as I could, sir.”

“Okay, fine, well try to come into a room more quietly, that’s all.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tonkins scowled then consulted the clipboard, ticking off the final name for Physics Paper 2. “Right lads, you know the drill. Anybody got any mobile phones still on them – in the box. All drawing equipment to be in a clear plastic wallet. Black ink for writing and pencil for diagrams. In a minute I’ll ask you to…”

“Oh. Excuse me, Mr Bradley.”

“Ms Annag?” Tonkins flinched and his nape hairs bristled as the door opened a second time. Quietly. Someone had approached from behind and his thumbs pricked. He turned.  “I was just settling the lads down. About to read the instructions and regulations, as per.”

“I know what you were just doing. I can see what you were trying to do. My job.  But you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Trying to break the exam board codes? I hope not. You weren’t trying that, were you?”

“Well, I…I thought, you see, in the United Kingdom, the head of department usually…”

“Yes, well, as I have told you before, you are no longer in the United Kingdom. Many times before.  As examinations officer, I am responsible for starting all examinations and if you misquoted a rule or misread an instruction, the examination board might have every reason to start an inquiry into the mishandling of public examinations.” Miss Annag smiled. Her eyes glittered. Her chest heaved.

“Well, how would they know?”

“I would tell them. Now boys have you checked in all your mobile phones or portable electronic devices? All drawing equipment should be in a clear plastic wallet. Black ink is to be used for writing and pencil for diagrams. In a minute I’ll ask you to fill in the front page of your examination with your name, your examination number and the number of this centre. All of this is on the labels stuck to your desk…”

Ms Annag’s voice droned, chest ampling against her top as she smiled like some sort of outsized Stepford Wife and as the minute hand kissed twelve and it was precisely three o clock, the boys began. Well not precisely three - in fact it was two minutes after the hour because Biggins had no black pen and had left his equipment by his tucker box in room 34.

Once the lads had settled, Tonkins made his way towards a teacher’s desk upon which he had previously placed his briefcase, some marking and a folded copy of The Gulf Times. With three hours ahead in the stuffy room he had some comforts prepared. But, like a ghost, Ms Annag reappeared. “Mr Bradley? Please ensure you are monitoring the room at all times. You don’t have any work in that case?”

“No,” he lied. As she departed a second time, Tonkins recalled that, on his arrival in Kwatar, there had been hints of a friendship and more besides. But now he knew she kept a little black book with dates and names in it. He sighed.

So now he began to pointlessly patrol the room which was all of twenty by twenty paces. And the beads of sweat began to form on his forehead and under his armpits as he watched the students struggle with the finer points of Boyle’s Law, he began to boil himself. Hot. Hot enough to start a fire.

The klaxon sounded.

A computer generated female voice spoke something in Arabic, then repeated the same instruction in English: “Please leave the building by the nearest door. Attention. Attention. This is a fire alarm. Please leave the building by the nearest door…” and on and on. Tonkins knew it would be a false one. The heat. But Biggins was already bumbling about noisily, so he gestured for silence. “Now, gentlemen, please put down your pens and stand behind your desks…”

The door was flung open again. “Mr Bradley. There are clear procedures in the event of a fire alarm during an examination. Did you read them?”

Tonkins shuddered. “Of course I did, Ms Annag,” he bluffed, untruthfully, now red and sweating profusely.

Ms Annag snorted. The klaxon bleated. “I’ll take charge, if you don’t mind.”

“Right you are, boss.” It was a sickly attempt at camaraderie under pressure.

“Now, boys, put down your pens and stand behind your desks. Absolutely no talking. We will make our way downstairs, where you will stand, silently until it is safe to return to the building…”

Most of the students did exactly as ordered. But Biggins was panicking. He leapt up and his bulk toppled the desk in front of him. It toppled forwards; papers and equipment clattering all over the hard flooring. “Oh my God, sir, I’m sorry. “

“Shut up, Biggins. You heard Ms Annag. Leave it be. Hurry, lad.”

Single-filing out of the door and down the stairs to the football pitch, Tonkins scowled and looked behind him. Ms Annag was putting a clasp across the exam room and securing it with a combination padlock. “Is that necessary?” he asked. “I mean it’s a false alarm, isn’t it? We’ll be back upstairs in a couple of minutes.”

“Do you want the examination board checking up on us for not following procedure and foul practices? Do you?”

“No, Miss Annag.”

“Then don’t tell me how to do my job. Get downstairs and take a register.”

“Register? There are only nine of them. Surely…”

“Mr Bradley!”

Outside, the sun continued to batter shadow into submission. Standing at the front of the short alphabetisised line, Biggins was already turning a whiter shade of pale and his gargantuan bulk swaying, swaying; wiping a repugnant piece of cloth across his forehead. “Oh, I say, it’s hot, sir.”

“Shut up, Biggins.” As the klaxon continued its mournful tune, Ms Annag had arrived and now stood toe to toe with Biggins, daring him to utter a word. But as he was considerably taller, she offered nothing in the way of shade. Biggins gave up the uneven struggle with the sun and toppled gracefully forward, the two of them tumbling, he on top, she beneath, until his body crushed hers in a suffocating embrace. Like two lovers, they bounced on the tarmac and lay in something approaching a post coital blackout.

“Oh, dear.”

“What shall we do, sir?” asked somebody in line.

“Well we’re rather stuck. We have strict instructions not to move from this line, or we contravene examination procedure. We can’t risk an inspection, can we?”

“Shall we call the office? Use your phone, sir?”

“Good plan, Haitham, good plan. Except all our phones are in a cardboard box in the examination room, aren’t they. And that’s locked. Only Ms Annag knows the combination.”

Tonkins looked sadly at the mountain of blubber spread out in front of them. It was now streaking slightly red in the harsh desert sun, and beginning to resemble a ghastly nest of fire ants. Or Ayres Rock. Seen from a distance. He cleared his throat. “Desperate times, lads, desperate times. Can anyone think of a plan?”

“Physics, sir. We could rig up a block and tackle from that stanchion and winch Biggins off Ms Annag.”

“Shut up, Yousef, that won’t work. We need a fulcrum and lever to topple him forward and onto the hockey pitch.”

“Maybe we could light a signal fire using the trash in that bin?”

“Jump up and down and shout for help?”

“All stand around Biggins and kick him in the sides until he wakes up?”

Tonkins scratched his chin. “All plans have merit, lads, and show good problem solving skills. But you are forgetting one thing. We must remain standing silently in this line until the fire alarm stops.”

“I vote we kick Biggins, sir.”

“Yes sir. Hang regulations. Kicking Biggins is the only way.”

Tonkins scowled. “Oh, very well then. I don’t like it, but it’s worth a try. Form a circle around Biggins. Wait for my instruction. And if any of you miss Biggins and strike Ms Annag, you’ll have me to answer to.”

“Difficult to miss Biggins actually, sir.”

“Good point. Now, on the count of three I want you to raise your right leg and…”

But, before any blow could be delivered, three things occurred. Firstly, Biggins began to groan and move his hands. Secondly the klaxon cut out. And finally there was a clearing of the throat by a third party, causing all the boys and Tonkins to pause and look behind them.

Tonkins spoke first. “Principal Putney! Thank heavens you’ve arrived.”

“Never mind that. What are all these boys doing out here? And why is Biggins molesting Ms Annag’s chest in that disgraceful fashion? Biggins! Get up and take your hands off her! Ms Annag is a valued member of staff.”

“Biggins fainted, Mr Principal, sir, on top of Ms Annag. We were attempting to remove him from her but they became welded together in the heat.”

“I see. Fainted, eh? Most probably the fasting. A lot of it this time of the year. Best get a bucket of water.”

“Yes, he’s bound to be thirsty.”

“Don’t be obtuse, Mr Bradley. We’ll chuck it at them. That’ll bring the pair of them round and then we can get on with our lives.”

But Biggins, groaning and blinking in confusion, slowly raised himself until he was on his knees staring at the circle of faces in front of him. “What happened?”

“Never mind that, lad, you’ve an examination to finish. You lot too. Get up those stairs.” And so they trooped away, following Principal Putney, leaving the prone body of Ms Annag on the ground to be attended to later.

But now, upon arrival, another problem presented itself. Putney peered at the door of the examination room. “Right Mr Bradley, so what’s the combination?”

“Well I don’t know, Principal.”

“Why not?”

“Only Miss Annag knows it. Exam regulations. We can’t risk an inspection, can we?”

“Damn, you’re right, Mr Bradley. Where is that examination officer? Malingering, I call it.”

“We left her unconscious, outside by the hockey pitch.”

“So we, did.” The Principal grunted. “Fat lot of good she is.” One of the boys snorted and The Principal lashed out a hard glare at him. “Quiet! Valuable asset to the school.” Another snort. “Now, lads, we’re wasting precious examination time. We need a hacksaw or some bolt croppers.”

“Will that bring Ms Annag round, Mr Principal?”

“Shut up Biggins. Since you’re responsible for this mess, you can go and fetch the caretaker. And be quick about it.”

It was some time later that, after watching the cruel teeth of the saw blade bite into the soft metal until it relented with a sigh of surrender, that the door to the examination room finally was pushed open. The boys once more filed into the stuffy room. Sat at their desks and waited obediently, while Putney oversaw Tonkins write a revised finish time on the whiteboard. Satisfied, Principal Putney heel swivelled and left through the entrance.

“Okay lads, off you go. Try to focus and put the events of the past hour behind you,” announced Tonkins. Given that Ms Annag had been trundled off to sick bay to recover, he assumed it was now safe to read the paper and complete his marking and sat, smiling complacently.

But there was no movement in the room. Nobody took up their pens or instruments. Not one of the students was even attempting the next question. Instead they faced the front, silent and motionless.

“What is the meaning of this?” Tonkins rose to his feet, grimly. “Why are you not completing the examination?”

Mubarak answered. “We cannot, Mr Bradley, sir.”

“Can’t? Can’t? Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t, sir. There are no examination papers. They have all been taken away.”

Tonkins stared at each table in disbelief. Then he looked on his desk. Underneath the chairs. In the wastepaper basket. “But that’s impossible! The door was locked. Where can they possibly be?”

At the back of the examination room, a door was pushed open without ceremony. A small man, dressed in coveralls entered, dragging behind him a bucket of water and squeegee mop. Unconcerned he began his task of swabbing. The floor began to glisten in the shafts of sun. “Excuse, please,” he muttered at the nearest student, who moved his feet.

Tonkins slapped his forehead, horrified. “A connecting door! Shit! Excuse me sir? Have you taken the papers from inside this room?”

“Yes, sir. All paper taken. Plenty of rubbish, some on the floor and overturned desk. Students show no respect. None.”

“Never mind that,” screamed Tonkins, then adjusted his tone. “Sorry, sir. Where have you taken the papers? These students were sitting examinations!”

“All paper in skip, of course. Put all in skip. Chuck out window.” The man grinned. “Outside,” he continued, unnecessarily.

Half an hour later, Principal Putney and Tonkins were back in the examination room where the boys still sat with patience. The two men were expertly sifting through crumpled examination papers and calling out students one by one. “Ah. This one is not bad at all, not too filthy. Alrasheed. Here you are. Yes. This one is certainly serviceable. Saji? Come here, lad.”

“Well done, Principal. I think we’ve rescued it.”

“Biggins’ paper is rather mangled.”

“Yes. But with a bit of effort on his part, I think certainly doable. I’ve scraped the worst of it off with this metal ruler.”

“Without doubt. Well done, Mr Bradley.” The Principal cleared his throat and gazed sternly but kindly at the students. “Now gentlemen. I expect nothing but the best. I’m sorry your examination has been disrupted by a series of unforeseen accidents but we’re back on the page now and there is plenty of time before sunset. We want your best efforts. And your guarantee that nothing will be said to anybody about what has happened here today.”

“We don’t want an inspection, after all.”

“No indeed, Mr Bradley.”

“So mum’s the word. Now before we get restarted, are there any questions?” Principal Putney glared at the room, defying any hand to be raised. Nevertheless, one of the students ventured his arm into the air. Putney scowled. “Yes, Murad, what is it, boy?”

“My examination has meat on it.”

“Meat? What do you mean, meat? Of course it hasn’t got meat on it.”

“It has, Mr Principal. I think it’s a slice of pork pie.”

The Principal stiffened, then strode across the room. “Oh yes, so it does. I wonder where that came from?”

Another hand: “And mine’s got a gammon steak stuck to Page 11, sir. I can’t read the question on bats and sound waves, sir.”

“Yes, sir, me too. This chump chop has glued my answer booklet together.”

“I see. It is a bit sticky, isn’t it. Mr Bradley?”

“Well, what do you expect me to do about it? I didn’t deliberately stick choice cuts of meat to the Physics papers, did I?” snapped Tonkins. “I mean, for pity’s sake, where did all this meat come from? It’s Ramadan.”

“We can’t do this Physics paper, sir. It’s haram.”

The Principal nodded. “Yes, fair enough, gentlemen, fair enough. I can see that. Would it help if Mr Bradley and I carefully scraped the meat off your examination papers and back into…no, it wouldn’t, would it. We’ll have to cancel today’s examination and ask to do resits.  There’ll be an inquiry. Let’s hope the press doesn’t find out. It won’t make the school look good. Especially on results day.” Putney sat down resignedly. “I fear for the head of Science when that inspection team arrives.”

Tonkins glowered in fury at Principal Putney. “Now see here. None of this was down to me.”

“Those Kwatari inspectors won’t see it that way, Mr Bradley. Ultimate responsibility lies with the head of Science and the examination officer. That’s the way they roll, here in Kwatar.”

Tonkins felt a very long way from home. He struggled to think of a solution. It was so unfair, wasn’t it? He hadn’t raised the alarm, padlocked the room, crumpled up and chucked the exams or deposited irresponsibly large amounts of half chewed meat in the skip, had he? Then, it hit him. Tonkins leapt to his feet. Triumphant. “What if we said they were ill?”


“Yes, you know, any student feeling ill can defer and rearrange. Heat stroke and weakness caused the involuntary vomiting of meat products all over papers which had to be disposed of. The students can be taken to sick bay now for a check up. Then the examination could be photocopied  and rescheduled for tomorrow.”

“Involuntary vomiting of meat products? But they haven’t eaten anything today.”

“We’ll leave the meat out of it, then. That fire alarm is our perfect excuse.”

“Yes, but all of them? All the students? Sounds unlikely.”

Biggins raised his hand. “Excuse me, sir. My paper only has a bit of meat on it. I think I could just about see it through. That way, it won’t be all students, will it, sir?”

Tonkins grinned with relief. “Excellent, Biggins. If one of you does the examination, the inspection team might just swallow it.”

“Swallow it? What the meat, sir? I don’t think they’d want to do that, sir.”

“ Shut up, Biggins. Get on with your examination. And with luck, they might not even bother to come at all.”

“”What the bollocks is this? Maureen! Maureen! Get Mrs Putney on the phone!” The Principal hurled his tupperware against the office wall where it bounced off a motivational poster about looking after minutes and saving meetings.

“She’s not taking calls.”

“Not taking calls? What do you mean not taking calls? Of course she is. 50% of the population of Kwatar will tell you that all she ever does is take calls. From gentlemen.”

Maureen’s face peeped into the office from behind the doorframe like a chicken scratching for corn. “More meat is it, Principal? Shall I scrape it into the skip and go to the supermarket?”

Putney plumped his frame back in the leather seat behind his desk. “No, no, don’t bother. Have the inspection team gone?”

“Yes, Mr Putney.”

“Good riddance.”

“But it was such a shame about Mr Tonkins. Losing his job like that.”

“Oh, he’ll get over it.”

“Do you really think he was a meat smuggler, Principal?”

“Who can say, Maureen? Who can really know the depths of depravity a man can stoop to?”

“But he seemed such a nice young man. He was a good teacher, too.”

Principal Putney nodded sagely. “Yes. Of that we can be sure. The Physics results were excellent this year. All the students passed with flying colours.”

“Well, except for Biggins.”

“Yes, poor Biggins. Bravely tried his best to carry on. But taken ill at the half way stage. Involuntary vomiting all over his examination. We scraped it into the envelope and  parcelled it up as best we could, but the report said that by the time it arrived in Cambridge, it was so soggy that the marker couldn’t read it.”

“I wonder why, Principal?”

“Stress. Pressure. Weak constitution. And just pig sick of the smell of meat, I suppose.”

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

A Pot of Ale and Safety

A Pot of Ale and Safety

I glared at Bailey in as vicious a manner as I could muster. “You bastard, you’re fucking late.”

“Fuck off.”

I could punch that face, right now. Hangover. Too many session beers. Oh yes, that’s right, I could hear the smug voice behind the raised glass from yesterday afternoon as we’d pitched up at ‘Hooters’, Nottingham: “This, Addison, pal, is a session beer.”

“A what?”

“That’s right. ‘Banks’ Mild’. Drink as many of these as you like, pal. Have no effect on you, I tell you. Slow and steady. Down the hatch, pal.”

“Right. Two more of those then.”

“And then two more after the other two more.”

Our host was a cheery fellow. To start with. “Call me barkeep,” he’d said, waving the roller skating girls in our direction with plenty of jugs – and Banks’ Mild, too. He stopped being quite so friendly when Bailey started singing Charlton Athletic tunes in a provocative fashion, three or four jugs down the road. “Tell your mate to shut it. There are Forest fans in here. Or you’re leaving.”

“Sorry. Not even a Charlton fan, either.” And I’d looked at Bailey with alarm. “Supports Wolves. We’re off there early doors tomorrow.”

I wondered how we’d get through the game.

Needn’t have, though. Worried about the game, I mean. Neither of us could remember any of it, except, inevitably, Charlton had lost. Well, Charlton always lose. They should replace Athletic with Nil to save time when the scores are read out on Sports Report.

I changed up to fifth and put my foot down. We’d made the A50. It was 11 o clock and we had to get cross country - make The Wheatsheaf in Wolverhampton by 12, so we could check in, get beered up and arrive at Molineux by two thirty, latest. Bastard Bailey. Bastard session beers.

“Slow down.” Bailey rolled the window down and puked up a Full English in the direction of the hard shoulder. Most of it was flung against the car by the force of the apparent wind velocity and speed. Some made it back inside. It began to reek.

“Stinking bastard. You’re cleaning that when we get there, don’t think you’re not.”

The girl serving in the Wheatsheaf passed Bailey a cloth and bucket without comment. As the scrubbing proceeded outside, I sat, feeling ill but glad we’d survived the drive, pushing my fork around a plate of luke warm spaghetti bolognese previously slopped onto a plastic plate in front of me. Seventy five pence poorly spent. “Any parmesan?” I asked.

Bailey scoffed outside. “Parmesan? This is Wolverhampton, pal.”

“Fuck off.”

“I’ll see if I can get some in Low Cost,” answered the girl. And she left, taking the opportunity to spark up a fag.

I downed the second pint of lager as Bailey returned with the bucket of rancid water, thoughtlessly placed by my feet. “Tip it away,” I scowled. Looked at the clock. Two pm. And Molineux a good walk from here, in biting winter winds.

We seized our scarves and hats and I buttoned my coat across the Charlton top I was wearing. We walked to the ground in sulking silence.

Wolves won, of course. Bailey was delighted. Gloating. But on the way back there’d been a scuffle in the underpass. I hadn’t wanted to get involved but we’d had a couple of rum punches in The Feathers, opposite the Steve Bull. Jamaican. Samantha makes them.

They can cloud your judgement.
The policeman wasn’t very understanding, but she trousered her truncheon. Eventually. “Teachers? You’re both teachers?” she asked. “Well you should be setting a better example. There are families here. Children. What would they think if the knew?” She sighed. “I advise you to get out of Wolverhampton. But sober up first.”

The M6 was packed with Sunday drivers. My head was pounding and the traffic was shimmering in the freezing fog. Bailey wasn’t much better and we had another 300 miles to go to make home. School tomorrow.

Bailey was fidgeting in the passenger seat. I spoke. Well slurred, probably. “I can’t go on. The car smells of sick. My head is completely shot. My hands are trembling. Take over.”

“No fucking chance.” Bailey’s eyes kept closing involuntarily.

I looked at the sign coming up on the left. Coventry 29 miles. We’d have to stop. As we neared the exit for Corby Services, it read: ‘Welcome Break’.

Welcome break, welcome break, welcome break…the words pirouetted through my brain. I was going to be sick. I indicated left.

“No!” snapped Bailey. “Push on to Coventry. I’ve a plan.”


“Yeah. Remember? The school senior rugby team is playing against Coventry today. In the final.”


“We’ll bowl up there, watch the game from the bar, get some snooze. Wait for your head to clear. Hide in the crowd. Push on after the match. If nothing else, we can say we’re true to our school. Or I’ll get on the coach and go home with the lads. Can’t stand this car. It smells of vomit.”


“And you.”

The plan had merit, so we found the place. I pulled in and got out unsteadily. The winter breeze made my head somersault, but I steadied myself. Bailey was puking into the verge again. But I felt a sense of relief. A good hour’s break. Possibly two if it went to extra time. And anonymity in the crowd. Nobody would notice our filthy hangovers.

Someone approached as Bailey straightened up.

“Shit! The Headteacher!”

She smiled wanly as she approached us, looking us up and down and clocking the car and the adjacent verge.

“Hello girls,” she said. “Come to watch the match? How sporting of you. You can sit with me.”

Friday, 16 June 2017

Tara and The Abyss


From beneath her belle of hair, what can I say?
Olive green eyes from Maltese groves
curtained behind her fringe, they can see right in.
Not deflected by some bashful, faked and winning grin,
she knows just how I want to sin,
and, hell, why not, sailor?
Well, you hope she’d had a smashing day as you fall asleep
and when you stroke yourself awake, it’s her you first remember.
Play up, play down and kiss away that hurt frown
and it kills you that she’s feeling down,
when, you think of arms entwined around your neck:
her body could be thrust against your chest
and how the love would be just somehow blessed.
You know it’s your job to jump right in,
swim beneath her, palming and chesting her chin.
To fight the abyss with a shrug, because you know the place
of old, and you have to caress the tear from her face.
Because you want to show her that you care
but she’s slipped away to be not never there.
She can see I’m acting like a fool,
three in the morning, tossing and yawing.
Reaching for the phone in case she’s calling,
and you need a drink to get the courage to say: I’m falling.

Saturday, 27 May 2017



Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry

It was a truly feeble list of two.

It really was, you know, I’m not lying. I’ve seen some poor picks before. Lots of them, but this one was downright depressing. I kept looking and thinking, thinking and looking: I drove all the way from Barnstaple for this?

‘My Way’. Frank Sinatra. Well that’ll be the old bloke in the crumpled suit with the wine stain down the left breast, trying to look as though he’s not pushing 80 by wearing a pork pie hat.

‘It’s Raining Men’. The hen party by the pool table? Could be. They’ve got that desperate look about them – not quite hitting the heights yet. Couple more cocktails and they’ll forming a circle and massacring a can-can.

And, oh God. What’s this? Yes, you. You with the national health walking stick in one hand, lager in the other, making your way to my booth? That determined expression?

“Oy,” He said, upon reaching his destination. “This is karaoke, right?” Well you had to give him ten out of ten for deduction, anyway. “Give us the book, I’ll soon get this place jiving.”

I guessed he was down from London; holiday, maybe. I passed him the book which listed the thousands of tunes. Sometimes, in this job, you try and guess which it will be. Match the tune to the punter. More often than not you get it right. There are only so many tunes the British public are comfortable with, anyway. You know how it is. They have to be slow or mid-tempo at best. Easy words. No key changes. Nothing challenging. Anything to disguise a lack of ability but everything to raise a half-hearted cheer.

“Sweet Caroline,” I shuddered, to myself, not sure if it had come out loud.

Outside the pub, it was a dull afternoon and it was raining. Climate change meant that the summer season in Bideford was often unpleasant. Poor sods. I knew it was raining because I’d had to hump the stuff in by myself.

No mean feat for a man of my age, neither. The speakers, stands, mixing desk, all of it: and I’d hurried because I hadn’t wanted the kit to get wet. My back was killing me.

Something people never realise, when you’re a one man show, is just how much work it takes. I’d had a partner once, but he’d died of cancer.  God he was a moaner, though: ‘The public turn up pissed, pay you for a couple of hours, never think of helping us erect the stuff, do they?’ Try not to think about him now, of course. Makes me cry. I’d had pills and everything; had to stay off the booze for months. But look, if you see me, or one of my kind, have a heart and hump a speaker.

Blokie was taking his time, though, thumbing through the damp pages, leaning on his crutch. As he did this, the doors to the pub opened and in walked a grey beard. Well I say walked. He had that gait of someone clearly pissed but determined to make it to the bar in a straight line as if to prove he’d had nothing to drink. He needn’t have worried, though, they were desperate for business in here. Bideford was like a ghost town today, no public, no tourists, not even any police around, ready to truncheon the inebriated. Nope, they be glad of that four quid across the bar.

Now suddenly I felt guilty. I was scarcely drumming up trade, was I? It is part of the karaoke code to sing if nobody else is. To fill dead air. So, as Blokie continued to scan his way through the book, I hit a couple of keys on the laptop, took up a microphone and sang one of my favourites. “This thing, called love, I just can’t handle it…” Well, you know.

So I’m singing. I haven’t got much of a range, but I can carry a tune. Well you have to in this game. When I was younger, I might have cut a few shapes, a la Mercury, but that’s a young man’s hobby. My hips and back are not getting any suppler and, since himself had died I’d been thinking of quitting, to be honest. But, what else could I do? How would I make a living?

You start to look for a new partner.

Anyway, Blokie’s finally decided, as I’m singing ‘Ready, Freddie’, and he thrust the bit of paper in my hand in a rude fashion, briefly forgetting his walking stick. I looked down at it. ‘Hold Me Close’, the old David Essex tune. Actually, I was surprised. Not often someone sings that. It’s got quite a high register in bits of it and it swings nicely along, too.

As I’m cueing it up, I noticed that Greybeard has plonked himself on a stool, clutching a lager shakily, and has swivelled round to watch. A tad unsteady. I noticed a pantomime of flap-doodle as he patted through his jacket pockets and then, relief, as he found an envelope. This he opened and pulled out the contents which he scrutinised carefully. He was using the autozoom function of the drunk; moving it slowly towards and then away from his eyes, until it was just so.

He squinted at the paper, then, I think, he began to cry.

I was snapped back to now by a quite appalling cockney drawl. “Hold me close, don’t let me go, oh no,” Blokie was screaming, fretting his arms like a flapping gull about to steal your chips, “cos I, I think I love you, and I think that you know, do you know?” Jesus Christ, the whole of Bideford knew by now: “Wiv your love lights shining,” he turned towards me and I was covered in spit, “every clahd’s got a sil-ver lin-ing,” no, no it hasn’t, really, it hasn’t, mate, “so hold me close, don’t let me go.”

To my horror, the hen party was looking interested. Encouraged, he flung his stick across the floor and managed a knee slide towards them, windmilling his arms. I looked at the door. The police were bound to be here anytime now, but, no, nothing.

“What a twat,” a voice hissed in my ear, making me jump. Greybeard had joined me from his stool, behind the booth, fixated by the horror show.

But, I’m a professional, so I’m not about to criticise a performance to a stranger. In karaoke, you need all the twats you can get. “Think you can do better?”

“Nice kit,” he ignored, “I’ve got a similar mixing desk at home. Not as good as this, though, to be fair.” He slurred the word kit so it sounded like shit.


“Bet you had to hump the whole lot in yourself. That’s the trouble with the public. Turn up pissed. Never think of helping. They don’t see the extra hours you put in, do they? Christ, it drives me spare. All you get is fifty quid at the end of it. That pays your petrol. Dunno why we do it, do you? Load of bollocks.”

“Two hundred quid. I’m getting two hundred,” I lied.

“No you’re not. I bet you’re not,” he returned, accurately. “What time is it? Two thirty. How long are you on for? Midnight?” He looked back at Blokie, now, thankfully, coming to the end, “Christ, he’s pissed for this early, isn’t he?”

There was a little applause, mainly from the chief hen, although Pork Pie hat hadn’t been impressed. Neither party came forward for their turn – probably waiting until they were too drunk to remember. Instead, confidence pulsing through his veins, Blokie sauntered back. “I’ll do another one, pass me the book.”

Before he could take it, Greybeard picked it up and flicked through, scanning the titles quickly. “This one,” he suggested, pointing.

I looked and groaned. Pink Floyd. That’d empty the pub, no problem, wouldn’t it? The rain continued to cascade down outside. The town looked cold, empty and grim. I shrugged and cued it up, anyway, much to the disappointment of Blokie. He took the book; retrieved his stick. Sat. Sulked and watched.

What a dirge: “There is no pain, you are receding, a distant ship on the horizon…the child is grown, the dream is gone…” Greybeard mumbled, incomprehensibly, into the microphone, swaying unsteadily. Hen party moved back to their corner. Pork Pie supped up and left. Blokie sat impatiently, waiting for the horrid six minutes to pass and the distant ship on the horizon to get bombed into oblivion.

I think Greybeard was crying again. At least he was having fun. Of sorts.

The lack of applause was tangible. He passed the microphone back and tacked back to the bar. As he did so, I could see Blokie returning for a second bite of the cherry; a fistful of slips clenched grubbily. I took them, but cued another up for myself, to compensate for the funereal atmosphere left in Greybeard’s wake. 10CC. Say what you like about them, but ‘I’m Not in Love’ is a lustrous song. Great bass line, too. Terrific tune. And within my range without embarrassing myself. I waved Blokie away and off we go.

Greybeard was back, though. Just as I was getting in my stride, there he was like a nasty stain just lying there. But, undaunted he takes a second microphone. Sat down. Waiting. During the instrumental break, he grinned and mutters, “I’ll do the ‘big boys don’t cry’ bit.”

And he did: “Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry…” whispering almost perfectly. Well it sent a shiver down the spine, the hen party were back; I almost forgot the cue. More people poured into the pub, out of the rain and the applause was modest but acceptable.

“We should do another one, a proper duet,” I suggested.

“One with a good bass line. I like a good bass line.”

Well, there was this old Dusty Springfield tune I was very fond of. But you never get a chance to do it, do you? It’s not in the public’s consciousness or range. Way out of the average punter’s comfort zone. Well, after all, you never know what sins we actually do commit to deserve this, but, there again, I was grinning a bit. Greybeard did OK, I thought, he knew the rap bit fairly well – the bit where Tennant murmurs: ‘I bought you drinks, I bought you flowers, I read you books, we talked for hours…’ so it was easy to sing the stuff about since you went away, I’ve been hanging around.

The song slipped out as easy as you like.

Now, though, I heard a grunt at my elbow and the sharp jab of a national health walking stick in my spine.  “Call this music? It’s gay, that’s what. When’s my turn? I’ve been waiting bloody ages.”

Well, he hadn’t, but the song was over, and I looked at his paper with a sigh. So did Greybeard, irritated at Blokie’s demeanor and poor manners. He snatched the paper out of my hand. Flourished it in front of his eyes. Then shredded it. “Piss off.”

“He ripped up my request,” squawked Blokie. Forgetting he was an invalid convalescing, he raised his stick and poked me in the forehead. Sharply. Painfully, too, because it cut the bridge of my nose. I yanked it from my now bleeding nose and twisted it from his grip, thrusting it squarely into his chest. He was shoved back. “Bastards!” Blokie raised his fist and it was an impressive one, too. “Give me my stick.”

“Here!” I said, throwing it back at him, so it bounced of his skull. This enraged him further and he swung at me. I first felt a fist, then a kick. I now could smell his breath. A casket of CD discs was tipped from the booth and scattered across the floor. A table upturned and I heard the sound of breaking glass.

Greybeard was quicker, though. He seized a jacket lapel and I seized the other, avoiding Blokie’s flailing knuckles and we both, simultaneously, socked him in the face as hard as we could. Blokie blinked. A look of puzzlement crossed his face. Then he sank to his knees, momentarily stunned.

But it wasn’t over. Oh, by no means was it over. Somehow, during the short skirmish, debris had scattered itself all over the place and two of the hens were clucking in the corner. Over at the bar, Julie was talking frantically into her telephone. The door to the pub smollocked open and the only policeman to be found in Bideford was skittering across the floor and rounding us up.

Protests were in vain. I scowled at Greybeard as the doors to the police van were shut in our faces, the three of us now driven away in disgrace.

So it was a little time later, perhaps an hour, that we were gazing at the metal studded door of a cell, me on a horizontal concrete plinth, my companion on the shut seat of the toilet. Next door we could hear Blokie. He was smacking the door with his stick and complaining. “You can’t do this to me. I’m disabled. Signed off, long term sick. This is discrimination.” Every so often a pause. Then he was setting-to again. Clang, smack, thump, complaint.

All I could think about was my unguarded kit in the pub and the bad luck of being towed away by the one policeman who had happened to be available.

My grey bearded companion - Justin, as I’d now found out - was looking at the envelope from earlier. He would remove the tatty content, look at it, then replace it. Perhaps he was sobering up, now. I didn’t feel any bitterness towards him, to be fair.

“So, what is it?” I asked.

“Been made redundant. Twenty two years of teaching. No longer needed. Surplus to the mission. Too expensive.”


“It was my last day yesterday. Thought I’d get away from it all. Weekend in Bideford.”

I thought there must be better places to go. Barnstaple for starters. But each to their own. “What’s that? Your redundancy letter?”

“No. It’s a fifty quid record voucher. My leaving present from the Headteacher.”


“Yeah. Well, my partner and I used to DJ for them over the years – parties, leaving bashes, weddings – watched them all grow up. I suppose they thought, after two decades, it was an appropriate gift.”

“Record voucher? Is that it? Twenty two years and a record voucher? Tight bastards.”

“Well, that and twenty thousand pounds.”


Justin looked up from his toilet and grinned. “Silly, really. Me getting pissed and upset. It was a good innings. It’s just the leaving them all behind, I suppose. The kids. They deserved better. But what can you do? It’s the way this country’s going. They can’t afford teachers anymore. Easier to pay us to piss off; reduces the bill overall. Everyone’s a winner.”

“I suppose so. A bit of a kick in the teeth, though.”


I really liked Justin. I mean, I suddenly really loved him. You could tell he cared. I cared too and I thought back to my dead friend. It was crazy, but I had to say it. Passing ships. Distant ship smoke on the horizon - all that. Seize the moment. “Hook up with me, why not?” I blurted it out, and my voice squeaked. “I mean it. I’d like it.”

Justin grinned and got off the toilet. He came over. Clapped me on the shoulder. Affectionate. “I can’t. I mean, I just can’t.”

“Course you can. You can do anything you want. In life.”

“No.” He sighs. “It’s too late. I’ve got a job. The Middle East. A place called Kwatar. I fly out at the end of the month. Teaching. That’s the strange thing, really,” he continues, frowning, “Almost as soon as they sagged me off, Kwatar rang up and gave me a job. The very next day. How does that happen, eh? They told me. They want British teachers. They say we have a lot to offer. It’s a good deal, too. Accommodation, insurance, tax free salary – the works. So, you see, there’s the thing.”

I felt stupid, but there was no need to. In any case, before I could answer, there was a horrible scream from the next cell.

“No! I shit myself, I shit myself!” Judging from the smell, he had, too. “I blame you for this,” he wailed, presumably at his door, “Police state, that’s what we are. I’ll sue, you bastards.”

I shuddered, thinking of the truncheoning he was likely to get. But now our door opened and two of Her Majesty’s plod are gazing in at us. To be fair, one of them was fingering his truncheon with an unpleasant leer, but the other looked more biddable. “Hello,” I said, “that is a big one, isn’t it?”

Truncheon molester ignored me but the other spoke up. “You are free to go, on one condition,” he says, evenly.

“What’s that, then?” growled Justin, “we’re not cleaning up that twat next door, if that’s what you think. He’s nothing to do with us.”

“No, no, it’s not that.” Cough, cough. “No, nothing like that. Thing is, it’s the Chief Superintendent’s leaving do. Most of the force are upstairs, enjoying the punch…” I’ll bet they are, too. “…but, the thing is, the DJ cancelled on us. Last minute. We was hoping…hoping…you could see your way to doing your karaoke upstairs. Save a bit of embarrassment, you see? In return for no charges.”

“No charges?” snapped Justin.

Truncheon spoke up, raising his instrument just slightly. “Drunk. Disorderly. Causing an affray. Public nuisance. And we would hate it if you, er, attacked one of us in an inebriated state, wouldn’t we?”

“Heaven knows what might happen,” continued the other.

“Well, OK,” I grumbled. Well you know when it’s a fit up. “I’ll collect the stuff.”

“No need, we thought it would be quicker if we assumed you’d say yes. It’s already upstairs. Get a move on, the Chief Super is in a mood to sing ‘My Way’.”

And so that is how, some two hours later or so, I was hunched over the laptop upstairs in Bideford bridewell, somewhat melancholy, I admit, watching thirty or so policemen – and women – up and dancing, stumbling around an office and waving truncheons in a most suspect fashion.

Now, as I look across the room, I see Justin and it looks like he’s about to do a disappearing act. Not even a goodbye? Well I thought I knew why, so I hurried across and stopped him. A waste. Such a waste. I don’t want him to go.

“I thought I’d slip away. While the going’s good.”

“Yep. I’ll think of you half way across the world,” I said, and I meant it. “I’ll worry. Let me know you’re okay?”

“Course I will. Look,” he grinned, “this time next year, I’ll come to Bideford and find you.”

“I might not be in Bideford.” Because you know how way leads on to way, and ages from now I’ll be telling this to someone with a sigh.

Justin reaches in his pockets and passes me the dog eared record voucher. “You have this. Something to remember our adventure by.”

“I can’t take this.” I wanted to hug him. I wanted to stop him going.

“Course you can. No good to me where I’m going, is it? Buy a good one.”

“Yep. Something by The Police.” We laughed at the pathetic joke and he shook my hand. Opened the door.

“Write to me. Stay in touch.”

“Sure. I’ll send a message in a bottle.”

Friday, 12 May 2017

To Kill an Albatross

To Kill an Albatross

Today, there was much activity in the headteacher’s office. Two or three blokes sweated at the door, unscrewing a baroque nameplate of lacquered oak. Another was waiting with a sticky backed plastic replacement upon which was scrawled, in felt tipped pen, ‘Sidney James’.

Two men critically scrutinised all this activity. The shorter one scrawled his hand through greying hair whilst his companion screwed a monocle into his right eye, dabbed at his nose with a kerchief and leant on his silver topped cane.

“Careful, careful, Them seats is worth a fortune. Watch the legs, watch the legs. Gor blimey.”

“I believe it’s a cabriole.”

“Not now, I’ve just eaten me lunch. Yak, yak, yak.”

They watched as removal men hefted several mock antique chairs through the doors. The shorter stumped back behind a newly installed and cheap looking MDF desk and slouched onto a blue plastic seat. The taller man followed: angular, sallow and morose in his walk. He remained standing. Angle poised in posture. Observant. The door closed and silence entered the room.

“Lovely. That’s a couple of quid in the kitty, then. We’ll stroll down the auction later and bid them up a bit.”

“Not enough, Sidney, not enough. A drop in the ocean.”

“Yeah, well we’ve got plans, me old china, ain’t we? Plans. Million pounds in debt? Do me a favour.”

“Who are we seeing first?”

Before James could answer, the door was flung open. A portly gentleman barged in, bristling with indignance. He was followed by a taller gentleman, bespectacled, who trod with measured steps. This man glanced at the cheap mock Arabian tussled rug chucked on the floor in front of the desk and quietly parked himself in a seat to one side. The first stood stoutly in front of the desk and belched.

“Gor, blimey, Guvnor,” scowled James, “Can you repeat that? Yak, yak, yak.”

Stout and portly farted in a vulgar fashion and remained unmollified. “Now see, here, James, or whatever you’re called. The unions are not having this. They’re not having it at all.”

“Sidney, Sidney James. And you are?”

“Mr Toby.”

James’ angular companion had removed his kerchief from his sleeve and was holding it to his nose with a grimace. His voice was therefore muffled when he replied, “Ah yes. The head of the History Faculty, Sidney.”

“Are we axing History?”

“The case for History is still under review, Sidney. However I now do bethink me that the case should be closed. Quickly.”

“That would make it a brief case. Yak, yak, yak.” Sidney leant forward and eyed Mr Toby affably. “Brief case? Geddit? Oh well, please yourself.”

“Now see here, James. The unions are up in arms. Up in arms, so they are.”

“From what I’ve seen of them, they’re more armless than armed, Mr Toby, Yak, yak, yak.”

“Now look here, James. I won’t be held responsible for the mayhem that your actions will unleash.”

“What actions?”

“Do you think, just because you are Headteacher, there shall be no more cakes and ale at meetings?”

James looked puzzled for a minute, then scowled at the man beside him. “Here, what’s he going on about, Jaggers?”

“He is referring to my pronouncement that forthwith there will be no more lavish refreshments provided at staff training or staff meetings. An excellent cost cutting measure. Only biscuits of the plainest kind to be henceforward provided for the consumption of.”

“Biscuits? Plain biscuits?”

“Yes, Sidney. From this day forth only the most basic biscuit selection as purveyed by CostCo Ltd.”

Sidney propped forward across his desk once more. “And what is wrong with that? I like a custard cream, myself. Yak, yak, yak. And them shortcakes are rather…nice. Nice. Geddit?”

Mr Toby farted once more and slammed his fist on the desk. “Biscuits? Biscuits? Go rub your chain with crumbs,” he shrieked.  And with that he was gone, leaving nothing behind him but a lingering and unpleasant stench.

Jaggers rested his chin thoughtfully on his cane, shifting his weight as he regarded the departure. He stroked his beard. “In life there are beaters and cringers, Sidney,” he pronounced. “Beaters and cringers.”

Sidney flapped his hand across his nose. “Farters and stinkers, Mr Jaggers. Cor, blimey, what a stench. Yak, yak, yak. Who are you?” The question was addressed to the thoughtful gentleman who had followed Toby in, but had remained seated. Quietly.

“Mr Finch. You wanted to see me.”


Jaggers looked through his scrolled notes, wetting a fingertip with his tongue so that he could riffle through more quickly. Flap, flap, flap. “Finch. Head of Literature and English.” He pronounced.

Sidney did not look impressed. He switched an electric desk fan on. This had the effect of propelling whatever foul air remained in the direction of the seated Finch. “You are the Head of Literature? Books? You look more like a courtroom lawyer.”

Finch leant forward. “I see that you have directed Toby’s flatulence towards me, Mr James,” he said, gravely. “And the odour sure does make the eyes water some. It is a powerful gesture of contempt. Angry? No, I am not angry. I must put myself in your shoes, just for a minute. Blowing that air was the act of a desperate man. And if blowing it in my face and threatening me with asphyxiation saves you from one more beating, why I’ll gladly take that air, sir.”

“Ah, shaddup, Finch. You’re more than capable of some hot air yourself, you hear? Yak, yak, yak. Jaggers? Is there any future in Literature?”

“Apparently not, Sidney. I have consulted the ledger and it says, without ambiguity, that in the current educational climate, literature is a burden that British children can do well without. It clouds the mind. Focus is gone. Results fall. And results, dear Sidney, results are everything.”

“Hear that, Finch? You’re strictly in euthanasia territory here. Yak, yak, yak.”

Finch regarded Sidney placidly, removed his glasses, breathed on them and wiped them with a handkerchief. Now the door to the office opened again and a small girl was frog marched in by a security guard, who held her firmly by the ear and plonked her in front of the desk. At this, Finch rose abruptly from his seat.

“Fighting again, Mr Sidney,” said the guard. He turned and marched out.

“What the hell is this?” snarled Sidney.

“Appears to be a small girl. I should hazard a guess,” mused Jaggers, “one of our pupils, perhaps from the lower school? I shall consult the ledger. It is possible, indeed likely, that she is on the – ah – special list and is, as such, surplus to our needs, holding back, as she would, our march towards better results. She would appear, at first glance, to require improvement.”

“Require improvement? We are not in the business of improvement!”

“No, indeed. But she presents something of a quandary. To get rid of this one would reduce our income by some three thousand sovereigns and yet, and yet, she could, contrarily, be a drain on our resources.”

Finch coughed. He rose from his seat towards the desk and ruffled the child’s hair in an avuncular fashion. “Now, then. What have I told you about fighting, young lady?”

“But he poured molasses all over his mashed potato!” she blinked, either in fury or regret.

“Now see here. If you can try this little trick, you’ll get along better with all sorts of folks. Try standing in his shoes for a minute, walk around in them and see things from his point of view,” smiled Finch, “now, no more fighting, you hear? Off you go and wait outside for me. Mr Sidney has lots of important business today.”

The girl smiled. She looked at Sidney and Jaggers. Then back at Finch. “Mr Finch? Is this school poor?”

“It surely is, young lady. It surely is.”

Satisfied, the little girl glanced once more at the Headteacher, turned and ambled out the way she had been marched in. Finch returned to his seat and reclined patiently. He wiped his glasses once more and listened.

Now, although it was strictly against the rules, Sidney opened a draw and produced an ashtray. Without a word, Jaggers reached for a lighter, passed a cigar from his pocket then lit one himself. The two men sucked and puffed; the office filled. “Smoke?” Sidney asked Finch, affably.

“No, thank you, Mr Sidney.”

Jaggers consulted his notes again, then spoke: “You see, Finch, debt is like an albatross. An albatross around our necks.”

Finch smiled. “There was a ship, quoth he?”

“Exactly,” considered Jaggers, riffling in agitation, “exactly, and…ah…there have to be cut backs. Our plan is quite simple. Cut the expense and hire the cheapest, reduce the deficit, Mr Finch, reduce the deficit. Literature is an expense that we simply cannot countenance in the – ah – present fiscal climate. In the kingdom of the blind banker, the deficit is king.”

“Buy the fake and sell what’s real?”

“Damn right!” snapped Sidney. “What can we learn from literature anyway? How can it upskill our learners for the needs of the modern work force in any case? Hell’s teeth, what is it now?”

There was a soft knock at the door and it opened for a third time. A one armed man with a broom entered and coughed. “Them new workers is here, Boss, just come,” he muttered and two men followed him in. One was small with sharp, raw-boned features. The other was a giant. Both whipped off their hats as they surveyed the office and approached the desk.

Sidney looked unimpressed and blew cigar smoke in a hiss of distaste. “I wrote the cover teacher agency I wanted two men this morning. You got your work slips?” The smaller man looked at his feet but reached in his pocket and handed them over. The giant giggled. “Says here,” continued Sidney, “it weren’t the agency’s fault. Says here you was due to teach this morning.”

“The school bus driver gave us the bum steer,” explained the smaller man, “we had to walk the last ten miles.”

“I don’t give a damn about that. Don’t you try to put nothing over on me,” snarled Sidney. And he pointed at the giant. “He ain’t much of a talker, is he? What’s your stake in this man?”

“Oh, he got kicked in the head by a horse. I ain’t saying he’s bright. I ain’t saying that. But he can mark more books in an hour than any teacher you ever seen. He’s a helluva good worker.”

Jaggers moved towards Sidney and hissed in his ear: “These sound ideal, Sidney. Ideal.”

“OK,” glowered Sidney, stubbing out his smoke. “We’ll put you on trial. Fifty quid a month. But don’t you try to put nothing over on me, boy. Go and join our English department this afternoon. Now get out.” The two men nodded respectfully and shambled towards the door. The small one opened it and simultaneously socked the giant in the jaw as they walked through.

As the door closed, Finch stood up. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “As I see it, an albatross doesn’t do anything more harmful than follow our lost sailors at sea and bring them safely into harbour. They may take a long time to do it, but they do it anyway. They don’t steal your chips, they don’t foul your sidewalks and they only exist to make your hearts soar with hope.  Shoot all the herring gulls you like, but you know something? It’s a sin to kill an albatross.”

Jaggers screwed his monocle in more firmly and looked short sightedly at Finch. “Yes, indeed, Mr Finch. Now, about your redundancy. We are prepared, on account of your service, which, in my ledger, amounts to 25 years, to – ah – offer you the sum of twenty thousand pounds.”

“And a record voucher,” added Sidney, “don’t forget the record voucher. You can buy a vinyl record. As it is, after all, your vinyl day. Yak, yak, yak.”

“Thank you, gentlemen. Very decent of you. Would you like me to leave my library for the children?”

“No, no, we have – ah – plans to turn that into office space for our new intake of administrative staff.”

Finch smiled. “Very well, then. I wish you all the luck in the world.” He stood, shook Jaggers and then Sidney firmly by the hand, turned and walked quietly towards the door. The two men watched his departing back and the door as it closed behind him. Silence entered the room once again.

“He took that well.”

“Yes – ah – indeed, Sidney.”

Once more the two men listened through the heavy silence. Tense. As if waiting for something to happen. Anything. A gun shot? An old stinking dog laid to rest in the darkness? But no.

Then, muffled, but clear enough to hear, two voices:

“Are you leaving, Mr Finch?”

“I surely am, young lady.”

“But, Mr Finch. That’d be sort of like shooting an albatross, wouldn’t it?”