December 2017 Competition Winners are:-
Norman Kitching of Gosport for
‘Holding Things Together’
Cynthia Mulligan of Dublin for
‘Rescind and Release’
Joint Third Prizes:
Helen Parker-Drabble of Swindon for
‘To Everything there is a Season’
Helen Fielden of Meifod for
‘Can’t be Arsed’
‘Holding Things Together’
“May I see your membership card please, Madam?” I ask politely.
“Don’t be silly,” she replies in a cut glass voice, though it’s rather more local market than Waterford Crystal. “I’m a friend of Lady Truscott.”
“That may be so, Madam, but I still need to see a membership card.”
She looks at me as if I’m a piece of rubbish that the wind has deposited on the doorstep. I don’t mind that. I feel the same way about her.
“Listen, my good man, just let Lady Truscott know I’m here. She is at the club tonight, I believe.”
“I couldn’t possibly say, Madam,” I reply. “But if she is at the club I’m sure she would have shown someone her membership card.”
“Now look here, I’m afraid I don’t like your attitude,” she snaps, though it’s very much a parting shot. She’s already begun to turn round and walk away. “Lady Truscott will hear of this.”
“Very good, Madam,” I call after her. “Her ladyship will be
pleased to know I was doing my duty.”
I smile as I watch her flounce down the street. I can recognise a common tart when I see one. I’ve had plenty of practice. Any number of them try to get into this club but they don’t get past me, not without a membership card.
It’s a rather high class club with a very exclusive membership - a sprinkling of titles, one or two government ministers, that sort of thing. Most of the members are MPs, high-ranking civil servants, judges, lawyers, surgeons - I’ve even heard rumours of a minor royal and a bishop. They’re all very important people, the sort of people who make the country tick. If they weren’t around to hold things together I reckon England would descend into chaos.
In public, these people work hard and behave impeccably and so, to my mind, they deserve somewhere to relax and enjoy themselves. That’s what this club’s all about. Here they can get up to pretty much what they like, with no questions asked. I’ve heard about some of the things that go on but it’s not my place to comment. I simply see it as my duty to protect them from the riff-raff and let them get on with it. My little way of helping to hold things together in the country, you might say.
“Good evening, Sir, good evening Madam.”
A well-known politician and a young lady have just stepped out of a taxi.
“May I see your membership cards, please?”
The gentleman hands me his membership card. I open it and, folded up inside, I find a £50 note. He winks at me.
“The young lady appears to have mislaid her card,” he says.
“That’s not a problem, is it, Baxter?”
“I’m afraid it is, Sir,” I reply. “You know the rules. Only
members who show their cards are allowed through this door.”
The young lady’s veneer of respectability drops and a torrent of abuse is hurled at the politician. She marches off leaving him looking very embarrassed.
“I’m very sorry, Sir,” I say. “Only doing my duty.”
“You haven’t heard the last of this,” he snarls as he walks past me into the club.
He’s a fairly new member and has a lot to learn. The club has a very strict code of conduct and they rely on me to enforce it to the letter, with no exceptions. And that’s exactly what I do. That’s my duty.
The thing is there’s no need for him to try and smuggle the likes of her in. The club has what it calls ‘Escort Members’. These people are carefully selected and vetted and their task is to cater for the ‘various needs’, shall we say, of the main members. In return they’re very well rewarded. Most of them are well brought up young ladies but there are a number of young gentlemen too, and not just for the benefit of the lady
members. I can’t say I hold with it myself. Whatever they want to call themselves I still think of them as high-class prostitutes. On the other hand they may feel that they’re doing their bit to help hold things together, so who am I to pass judgement.
One of these Escort Members, a young man, has just arrived. He shows me his membership card, as he is obliged to do, and I open the door for him. He smiles and thanks me. A pleasant chap. An old Etonian, from one of England’s oldest families. I served under his father when I was in the army. A real gentleman he was. Can’t see him approving of what his son gets up to.
It was through another officer I served under that I got this job.
He called me into his office not long before I left the army.
“You’re a stout sort of fellow, Baxter. Know your place. Know your duty. Good at holding things together. Some chums of mine need a security guard at their club. You’re just the sort they’re looking for.”
He arranged for me to meet the Managing Committee of the club and before I knew it, the job was mine.
I was sorry to leave the army. I served twenty five years and it was a good life, provided you stuck to the rules and kept your nose clean. I think it was the order and discipline of army life that I liked. We were there to serve Queen and country and I did my best to help the officers in any way I could. Whenever there was the slightest sign of a crack in morale or discipline they relied on me to hold things together. I at that. I knew my duty.
One of the club stewards comes out and stands on the doorstep next to me.
“There’ll be a car along in a minute,” he whispers discretely. “For Lady C. She’s not at all well.”
I smile. In other words she’s rather inebriated, and not for the first time. The car draws up and we practically have to carry Lady C. down the steps. I feel sorry for her. Considering all what’s happened to her in her life, it’s not surprising that she has a bit too much to drink every now and then.
I wish I could say the same for my ex-wife. She’s blind drunk nearly all of the time but she’s got no excuse. She’s always had a decent house to live in - a proper house, not married quarters - and all the latest gadgets. Never went short of a thing but always moaning that I didn’t spend enough time at home.
“For God’s sake, woman, what do you expect?” I used to say to her. “I’m in the Army, doing my duty for Queen and country. I can’t do that stuck at home with you.”
All I asked her to do was hold things together on the home front but she wasn’t capable of that. Things went wrong so she took to drink. The more she drank the worse things got. No wonder the family fell apart.
We’ve got five kids so she can’t say I neglected her completely. I did my best to provide them with a good home, always made sure they had the best of everything. I loved them all in my way but I must admit the eldest girl, Sharon, was my favourite. A real daddy’s girl and a chip off the old block. Liked a bit of order and discipline in her life. That’s probably why she left home as soon as she could. Couldn’t stand the
chaos. I get a card from her at Christmas and birthdays, but that’s it. Haven’t seen her for years.
As for the rest, they must take after their mother. The eldest lad’s in prison because of burglary and the second one’s in another world because of drugs. My other daughter is pregnant at the ripe old age of sixteen and I learnt last week that the youngest lad has been expelled from school for wearing make up. What a shambles and I blame their mother. Let’s face it, you can’t hold things together when you’ve got a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other all the time.
“Good evening, Baxter. Very mild for the time of year,” says a voice behind me.
“Indeed so, M’Lord,” I reply. “Has someone called a car for
“No need, thank you. We can easily walk to my flat.”
His Lordship walks past me with a young lady on his arm. He must be old enough to be her father but good luck to him, I say. He’s well up in the legal profession. Made a big speech in the House the other week about how the country’s going to the dogs. It’s good to know there are people like him trying to hold things together.
Another taxi pulls up and an elderly gentleman gets out followed by a young lady. I’ve seen the gentleman several times before but the young lady is a new one on me. Then I look at her again. It’s been so long since I last saw her I hardly recognise her. It’s my Sharon. She looks me straight in the eye but her face betrays nothing.
“Good evening Sir, good evening Madam,” I say in a voice that
hides the feelings inside me. “May I see your membership cards, please?”
The gentleman shows me his card then looks at the young lady.
“Show Baxter your membership card, Sophie,” he says, then turns towards me and adds, “Sophie’s a new member, this is her first evening.”
She hands me her card and I read the name, Sophie Delaine, Escort Member. I hold the door open for her and she walks straight past me without so much as a glance. It hurts for a while then I console myself with the thought that I’ve seen her card and done my duty. What else should I do?
‘Rescind and Release’
The surrealism that has softened the hard edges of my life for the last year or so has suddenly switched to cold, hard fact. It was the slamming shut of the grey iron door that did it.
I am sitting on a harsh bed in a tiny cell—on twenty four hour suicide watch. Feeling like a child is all I can manage; the tangled briars in the pit of my belly remain, trapped. My sense of clarity is returning. I realise the irony of the fact, the prison guards do not realise that the fatal cocktail I had concocted, could have easily been doubled. I could have taken my half and travelled to oblivion with David.
None of this was ever about me.
The memories of the courtroom flood my mind now. I had sat throughout the whole proceedings with my head bowed, weighted down with shame. The babbling of the barristers became a hum I barely acknowledged. I did break out of my fugue when the Judge sentenced me to fifteen years in prison for the, ‘heinous crime of the premeditated murder of my husband.’ It was only then that my eyes skimmed the audience behind me, seeking the familiar faces of my parents. They sat beside David's parent's. Their stricken, grieving expressions rendered them unfamiliar. They would never understand.
On arrival to the prison , I quietly complied with rote instructions barked out by a guard who seemed utterly bored.
I'm placed in a tiny tomb, depressing grim and lit by flickering florescent bulbs, the peeling walls, adorned by crudely carved odes—filled with expletives—and initials, promising to love forever.
I jump, there it is the again, the opening and shutting of the rectangle peephole in the metal door. The enquiring eyes pierce me. This time a voice accompanied the eyes, ' Lights out in ten minutes.' I lie down on the thin mattress.
I woke from a dreadful slumber this morning to the sound of jangling keys. I had slept in my prison garb, and my sleep held no reward of refreshment. Stepping onto the landing wiping crust from my eyes, unsure and nervous. Meekly I follow the women as they made their way down the steep stairs. They laughed, chatted and generally acted like people who were not incarcerated. They seemed unencumbered as they poked fun at the guards who seemed to be everywhere, arms folded with unreadable faces. The large bunches of keys hanging from their belts told me everything their expressions withheld.
The dining area was huge. An odour I could not put a name to hung in the air. Long benches topped with brown Formica filled the hall, lined up with a kind of Nuremburg rally precision. Tray in hand I joined the bustling queue at the food counter. I was far from hungry. I mimicked the women, held my tray aloft as carelessly plopped food was administered. Scanning the room I spotted a vacant seat and hastily took possession. I was thankful food did not appeal to me as I eyed my rubbery scrambled eggs, cold sodden toast. I sipped my stewed tea, lukewarm and turbid.
The noise of multiple conversations and raucous laughter grated my frayed nerves. The polar opposite of the peaceful life I had shared with David.
A small, stocky guard approached me. ‘ Come with me Catherine, your new abode awaits,’ her kind voice surprised me.
I followed her up steps to the second landing. Stopping at a cell door, she ushered me in. A larger cell this time, a window did not lend any worthwhile light in. Tucked against the wall stood a set of rusted bunk beds. Filthy cracked painted walls were partially covered with photographs and posters. A small toilet stood in a corner beside a small sink. Above it a shelf was filled to capacity with toiletries.
A large presence filled the doorway. She was very fat with greasy dyed yellow hair. Her face held a sneer and she looked me up and down with small hooded eyes. ‘Meet your new room-mate,’ said the guard. A forced smile revealed two rows of rotten teeth as she entered. Wordlessly she flopped down on the bottom bunk and retrieved a magazine from under the bed.
The bulk on the bed kept her eyes on her magazine,‘ I'm Regina, what's your name and more importantly, do you have any cigarettes? She said sounding as posh as the Queen.
‘I'm Catherine, sorry I don't smoke.’
I climbed onto the top bunk. I spent the rest of the day with my scrambled thoughts, fears and memories until lights out.
I woke up in the dark, long before the guard unlocked the door. She informed me I was to visit the prison Chaplin after breakfast. Feeling a tad less intimated I followed the breakfast procedure. while forcing myself to eat, it occurred to me that the same routine for the next fifteen years would come second to the fact—which I know has not fully registered—that I had lost my freedom and my life would be dictated by rules and routine from here on in.
A different guard led the way to the oratory, God I was dreading this. I was in for a lecture or a sermon.
I had always considered myself to be an Agnostic. David had joked that I would eventually end up with an arse full of splinters if I did not come down off the fence.
My trepidation evaporated as calmness enveloped me, the oratory exuded a sense of calm. A bulk of a man was sitting in a pew waiting for me. His priestly appearance was lost on me, the sincerity of his smile was not. A genuine smile was something I had not encountered in a long time. He nodded at the guard — a confident, I have this—she smiled, then left.
He rose, a large hand outstretched, ‘ My name is Philip, how are you coping Catherine?’ I shook his hand. We sat down. Philip cleared his throat. ‘ I want you to know Catherine, that I'm a good listener. 'His voice was gentle.
The weight in my body and jammed packed mind, needed release. I would tell Philip about the thief. A gate inside me opened. I took a deep breath.
As the first words tumbled out in cahoots with tears that streamed down my face, I knew it would be the last time I spoke about the thief.
David and I had married when we were both eighteen years old. It was love at first sight. We saved hard and subsequently got our own home. We loved our home, each other and our life together.
I began to explain the beginning of the end. The arrival of the thief.
At the age of just twenty four, David was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, primary progressive multiple sclerosis. On the spectrum of MS, there is little or no recovery. The treatments available don't work well. In hindsight it was a fucking thief.
David's doctors told us the connotations of his illness. The painful sad truth was that the complications would be fatal, and David's imminent death would be tortuously slow and painful. Nothing could have prepared us for the reality of what lay ahead.
We crossed every bridge as it came to us. The thief was stealing at a slow steady pace, slow but sure. The endless infections. Double incontinence. The theft of his healthy muscles. David's ravaged body confined to a wheelchair. The thief left signs of its stealing in the form of a tattoo of fear in David's eyes and of a mask of on David's sunken face. Depression and mood swings isolated David, took him from me. When David lost his sight, the cocoon that he resided in was penetrable for very short periods.
One day, David broke down. He told me he cried, not because he was blind, but because he could not see my face anymore. I was grateful that he could not see the familiar flow of my own tears.
The thief stole from us both. No future with my soul mate. My dreams of children and grandchildren stolen from me. I raged at this invisible, insidious robbing bastard. But it was pointless. Anyway, it drained my energy—energy I needed to care for husband. My mission was to look after him, every single day that he had left. Nothing was a burden—the medical profession called it, full time care. Just the three of us. David, me and the thief.
The raw fear in David's and eyes became unbearable to lend my eyes to. Stronger doses of morphine dulled his pain, dulled not eliminated.
David was not an ascetically gorgeous looking man, but to me he was beautiful. Mask or no mask, a thin frail body, a premature ageing of his now gaunt features.
I took another deep breath.
One night, as usual I had been reading to David. David had stopped me mid-sentence.
He asked me to help him go to sleep forever.
David told me his plan. I wondered if he was lucid. He told me what dose of drug to mix with another to form a cocktail that would end his life. I was afraid and disbelief consumed me.
I went to the spare room to sleep. Sleep did not release me for a full three days. I felt like I was losing my mind, my thoughts were jumbled and torturous. He wanted to leave me was my first selfish thought. Eventually it hit me that he was terrified. He had never voiced that but his face voiced it for him. So much had been stolen from him, his future, children, and living his life with by me by his side. He was in pain both physically and mentally.
I finally concluded, I would be ending the life of someone I loved more than life itself. I reasoned that if I did what David asked I would end his pain and misery.
I told David I would do it. I pulled the curtains, took the phone off the hook and did as David instructed with the drugs.
I lay down beside David and held him in my arms as he slowly sipped the liquid through a straw. I whispered how happy he made me, how I would love him forever.
As his eyes became heavy, I held him tight as he slipped away from me. I stroked his face, his hair and placed my hand over his still heart. He looked like he was merely sleeping. He looked so peaceful. The mask had disappeared.
Early the next morning, reluctantly I left him. Like a robot I made my way downstairs to phone the police.
Time seemed to freeze in the oratory. The silence was palpable. I looked at Philip and his eyes were brimming with tears. He took out his phone and asked the guard to come and get me.
We sit and wait in silence.
The guard arrived.
The calmness I feel is peace—I see that now. Today I had made peace with myself and a deity of sorts. A deity who belonged in a realm that was home to David. David had believed such a place existed. The fear that lived in his eyes had been the fear of his illness, the thief. He had feared living, not his death.
I have question that can never be answered. Who's crime is worse? The thief, with the premeditated intention to murder my husband. It's modus operandi was to murder slowly but surely, day by day, stealing a mind and body with cruelty and pain. Malevolent, unremitting in its intent to steal the final breath. Or is it mine? A murderess with intent fuelled by love, compassion and a grotesque request. A request I fulfilled with a gift. My parting gift to the man who gave me his precious gift of love.
‘To Everything there is a Season’
You were dying, Lizzie-love – and there we were, posing for the camera, not knowing how we would go on without you.
“Henry”, you said, your hand lightly on my arm, “I will see the photograph every time I wake. The children’s new outfits can be used for the funeral, and I want to see them in their finery. Besides, it will give us something to think about.”
You, Chloris and Martha talked for weeks, comparing the merits of this shade and style and that piece of cloth or button.
“Their bonnets must stand out,” you said, “for that will be most on show in the motor-car. I hope the fittings for John’s new clothes will coax him into my room.” You looked at me fondly and said, “And I want you to wear your wedding suit, and a new cap.” She pointed at the one I was wearing. “That one has seen better days!”
It was hard to be cheerful for you, but we did our best. You wanted us to keep living, even as your body betrayed your love of life. The motor car was your idea. I would never have thought of such an extravagance. Horse-power is what’s best to get my clay and firebricks to the steel works, and for me to get around.
When I saw the advertisement for the motor-car in the second-hand section of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, I saw a way of making your trips to the Royal Infirmary more comfortable.
Carcinoma of the uterus. We didn’t know it was in your family. Such illnesses are only whispered about.
As the photographer set up his tripod, I turned to look behind me at Chloris and Martha. I gave them as much of a smile as I could muster. They looked so grown-up in their new outfits.
My heart broke when John told the camera-man he couldn’t take his mother’s place in the car. Instead he leaned on the mud-cap, apparently care-free, as if he had had his photograph taken before.
The man said, “Ready.”
My eyes filled with tears as I stared at the camera, trying to convey my love and thanks for you in one still-shot.
Back home, the children spilled into the parlour. What had been your special room now had a bed squeezed in by the piano. The girls described the occasion to you, and John’s eyes shone as he told you of the motor’s soft leather, its smell of oil, and how I’d promised him the job of keeping the car spotless.
When the children left the room, you told me you had been trying to picture their future. You showed me letters of motherly advice, one written to each of them for when you were gone. My heart splintered. I couldn’t help believing it was your dying that would most shape their lives.
I watched sixteen-year-old Chloris bustle about attending to you. She pored over Castell’s Family Doctor, and had a knack for anticipating what you needed. Martha hurried home from school to sit with you so Chloris could make supper. After they’d carefully washed you with lavender soap, I read aloud. We’d got on to The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – as different as I could get from our lives.
Later, when the children were in bed, I stroked your hair. Believing you asleep, I murmured, “You are so precious, Lizzie-love.”
You smiled up at me. “You will dwell on things after I’ve gone, Henry…but I want you to remember my going is part of the Lord’s plan.”
Lizzie, I’ve loved you since I was eight-years-old and you twelve. How can God take you from me now?
You slipped from me faster after the photograph had been taken, but we still managed some golden moments. You asked for a special meal to celebrate the first time we stepped-out after Chapel. When breath left you, I selfishly wished you back.
I tried hard to be grateful for what we had, and to tell the children tales of our youth. About how I made fun of you the way that confused lads do, especially when they like an older lass. I told them Chapel was a grand time with you in it. I’d sat behind you, eyes drawn to the curve of your neck, berating myself for noticing such a thing in God’s house. Remembering is an icicle piercing my breast, but better than not treasuring you.
I can still hear you telling me in the dark of our wedding night, “I waited for you to catch up with me. I always knew you were my one.” Are you waiting for me again?
The world made sense with you in it. Now I shatter more with each dawn. How can God be so cruel and force me to live on?
I didn’t want to open it. As long as your last words went unread, I could pretend you would again tuck yourself around my back in bed, your cold feet under mine.
Still awake near dawn, I lit the lamp to read.
First know this: I am at home with the Lord, united with Christ for Eternity.
Second, my love for you continues, even in death.
Third, your duty to me, our children and our Lord is to find a future, to use your God-given gifts, not look to your grave.
I know this feels unimaginable but, with the Lord’s help and your resolve, you will live again.
“How?” I hear you say. By putting your hands back in the earth and growing for the table or The Shows. I still believe that working the land is an Instrument of Grace. Trust me, you will find comfort in the life cycle.
For tonight, feel my loving arms around you as you weep. Tomorrow, you have work to do.
Goodnight, my beloved husband. Rest easy when you are spent.
Mindful of you watching over me, I threw myself into growing food. Your summer house became a place where we sat with a cup of tea and planned the evening’s jobs. It was a little late in the season, but John helped me dig the earth over as the girls planned the plot. We talked of you and the kitchen garden at the farm.
When the ground was prepared I built cloches to warm up the earth. Soon we were sowing your favourite vegetables. Between the rows, I planted nasturtiums and marigolds because, Chloris scolded, “We’re living in a Villa now, Pa, not on the farm.” Chloris took on the gentle jobs, staking and tying the beans and peas to their wigwams. Being old-fashioned, l edged the vegetable plot with box.
Martha took after you, Lizzie-love, and tended your heavenly scented pleasure-garden full of roses, honeysuckle, and lavender. She became passionate about your geraniums and brought them out for the summer. She said she felt closest to you among the plants you had nurtured.
I found myself back in the slow circle of nature. You were right, Lizzie-love: the smell of sweet earth, the crunch of fresh picked vegetables between my teeth, and the sound of the bees all helped sooth the raw edges of the gaping hole inside me.
The minute I stepped outside, took up a trowel, turned a clod and cursed the snails, you were right beside me, laughing in my ear, asking me to pick something for dinner.
It had been ten months since I’d last held you in my arms, and I still glimpsed you in the town and heard your call. I felt adrift without your light touch and words of encouragement.
Many times, as I went about the garden I wrestled with the eternal question of, “Why you?” I remembered your gentle reminder, “His purpose cannot be fathomed by man,” when our angel Eleanor died after only two precious months of life. How did you get to be so wise, Lizzie-love?
It was seeing a packet of red cabbage seed that started it. I remembered your letter and thought to enter a Show. I called to the children and it was settled that John and I would grow vegetables while Chloris and Martha would look to sweet pea, dahlia and geraniums for their classes.
We set to, and, as long as we were in the garden, we felt you with us. The work gave us purpose. Despite the weather, we mostly succeeded. Our rhubarb would have done Wakefield proud, so we donated most of it to the produce stall at the church fete in June.
As the Show grew closer, John and I settled on entering our red cabbage, a tray of five vegetables, and a dish of six coloured round potatoes. Chloris and Martha prepared a dozen of their sweet peas, their Ma’s favourite geranium for the window plant class, and six cut dahlia blooms.
As we headed to the Show at The Royal, I was jolted into understanding that I had no forward plan. We had come to the end of the season.
When the second-place rosette was pinned to my breast I thought of you, Lizzie-love – but also of how I was to manage on my own. I had dismissed your last instruction to me, to re-marry, but now I appreciated how much you had done to make our way of life possible. I realised I couldn’t keep distracting myself by doing both my work and yours. I knew if I kept it up, I would run myself into the ground.
We went to the tea-tent to wait for the girls’ classes. It was warm, stuffy and smelt of sweet grass, but I was grateful to wet my whistle. I glanced around the other tables and heard your voice: “The lady at the next table, sitting alone with two tea-cups, wearing a grey-and-black-trimmed dress, lost her husband nearly two years ago. She’s here with a sister or perhaps a friend.”
“Congratulations, Mr….?” a voice startled me. It was the lady I had been staring at. Caught out I turned a shade of beetroot.
I lifted my cap and answered, “Drabble.” There was kindness in her eyes. “Thank you. And you are Mrs….?”
Her voice was soft. “Dent. For what did you receive your rosette?”
“Red cabbage…entered in memory of my wife.” I gestured. “These are our children, Chloris, John and Martha.”
Mrs Dent nodded and smiled at each. Her “pleased to meet you” was said with such an honest, open face that the children answered enthusiastically.
“Have you entered the Show, Mrs Dent?” I asked.
“No, I’m visiting a friend, but tomorrow I have to return to the shop in Scarborough.”
“I continue my late husband’s Grocery and Provisions Store on North Marine Road. Do you know Scarborough, Mr Drabble?”
“No, though I hear it’s a right good place.”
“Yes, the air braces people up, I think.”
I felt Chloris nudge me with her elbow.
I turned. “We must be off to our next class, Mrs Dent. It was good to meet you. Goodbye.”
As I left the tent I felt a pang of disappointment, for I missed gentle company. For the rest of the Show, my mind returned to the quality of Mrs Dent’s gaze.
On the way home I realised I’d come to accept the wisdom of the Old Testament: “To everything there is a season”.
Martha interrupted my thoughts. “What are we to do now, Pa?”
I could feel you nudging me, Lizzie-Love, as Chloris had come to do.
I turned to Martha and shocked myself. “We’re going to holiday in Scarborough,” I said.
‘Can’t be arsed’
“Can’t be arsed Miss….”
The oft spoken words of Set 4, Year 11 English GCSE class. Who can blame them? Endless ‘going over’ old exam papers, with the occasional clip from a film to motivate them to get to the end of the lesson without some sort of mini riot rising to the surface.
It’s Friday, lesson 4. Not a great lesson to teach or be taught. Both teacher and pupils are starting to get hungry or craving a nicotine fix. This particular Friday, the teacher is only going to be there until 12.30. She’s asked the Head if she can leave early as she has a funeral to attend. It’s a particularly tragic one, the husband of a friend has died very unexpectedly and was only in his 30s.
She watches the group of disinterested pupils as they trail in (she’s given up trying to make them wait in an orderly line outside the classroom; at least by allowing them in, they don’t intimidate the Year 7s trying to get past them). She would normally have a chat with some of the more biddable ones as they entered the room: “I like your bag Naomi.”
“Aw, thanks Miss, got it in Primark, Saturday.”
The bag in question had been a pretty one, completely inappropriate as a school bag. It was just big enough to house Naomi’s cigarette packet, lighter, phone, body spray and chewing gum (‘chud’ to the uninitiated).
Today however, the teacher’s not in the mood for chat. In fact, she’s wondering how she’s going to get through the next half hour before leaving for what will undoubtedly be a hugely emotive funeral. They finally all take their allotted seats – well – all except Kieran who always tries to sit next to Carrie even though the seating plan set by the teacher clearly had him sat next to Gareth.
“But Miss, you said last time, if I was good, I could sit here on Friday.”
“You know… and I know... that that is completely untrue. Come on Kieran, I’m not in the mood for this today.”
Maybe he senses something is different, maybe he just ‘can’t be arsed’ to argue, but anyway, he hauls himself reluctantly over to his rightful seat next to the long-suffering Gareth. Kieran doesn’t have a bag at all, just pockets in the trousers that are almost school uniform, pockets that contain his cigarettes, lighter, phone, chewing gum and body spray.
The teacher gazes around the classroom. Danny’s leaning back in his chair, swinging on it gently with one hand already delving down the front of his trousers. The teacher makes a mental note to spray his book before marking it. He’s one of the ‘naughty boy’ crew (oops – not supposed to label kids – ah well….), bright enough to get a ‘C’ grade but far more interested in girls and winding up teachers. Then there’s Natalie, she’s one of the ‘nice but a bit dim’ crew (oops - not supposed to label kids – ah well…), whose exercise books are always beautifully presented and smell gorgeous too. She’s got herself into a set 4 rather than 5 or 6 by convincing teachers she’s better than she is from the beautiful, neat handwriting (complete with heart shaped circles for dots over ‘i’s) and from always handing in homework.
The teacher comes out of her temporary reverie “Right, Year 11, quiet please…. quiet please…. QUIET!” she ends up yelling. She doesn’t normally yell and there is a sudden cessation of gossip and scraping of chairs.
“What’s up with ‘er?” mutters Liam in a voice audible enough for ‘er’ to hear.
“’er’ has a name Liam,” the teacher growls in the cynical tone that, interestingly, many of 11C do actually understand. Actually, she can’t be bothered to take Liam to task today. She now has the class attentive so explains, briefly and without emotion, that she will be leaving at 12.30 to go to a funeral and that a cover teacher will take over for the remaining 25 minutes. There’s a little flutter of acknowledgement from the pupils, but the teacher knows that, what the likes of Danny are thinking is, yay, great, we can mess around when she’s gone then it’s dinner – fish and chips on a Friday.
And so, the teacher begins. “OK Year 11, we’re going to read the poems you will be doing your controlled assessments on.” Audible groan from the class which the teacher ignores – after all – why wouldn’t you groan? “…then we’ll have a think about what poetry actually is. How many of you here listen to music?” A few hands go up and the lesson progresses in a reasonably settled manner.
12.20 . The teacher glances at the dusty clock on the wall above the yellowing and wilting display that desperately needs updating. Oh heck – she’s actually lost herself in the lesson and time is vanishing. It’s good really, 15 and 16 year old kids soon take your mind off other matters. However, she really needs to get on and get that second poem read before she leaves so the cover teacher can hand out the pre-prepared questionnaire.
She begins to read out the poem she’s read dozens of times before to other classes and a communal sigh of presumed boredom ripples around the sweaty classroom:
I love to rise in a summer
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
Oh what sweet company!
“Miss!” shouts out Danny, “we don’t get this, it’s crap….”
“Yeah, Danny’s right..” adds Kieran. The rest of the class start mumbling agreement (even Natalie is nodding her head). The teacher doesn’t bother responding, she knows they ‘don’t get it’. She continues reading and the class sink back into their seats, resigned to the perseverance of ‘Miss’.
But to go to school in a summer
O it drives all joy away!
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
Without warning, the teacher’s voice suddenly starts to wobble and she hesitates. Oh no, no, no ….. she can feel tears welling up. The words are so poignant they’re commanding her emotions. She’s read these words endless times before in front of classes and never felt anything. She can’t cry in front of Year 11. It’s the funeral, no, not the funeral, the intense sadness of the people feeling such raw grief, that is taking its toll on her and potentially demonstrating weakness in front of a ruthless audience.
But wait…. Danny has put his hand up (Danny never puts his hand up – he shouts out). She can barely speak but manages a “Yes Danny?”
“Miss, d’youwan’ me to read it for you?” She doesn’t reply, merely holds the book out for him. The room is silent and so very still. This is unprecedented. Danny is the class clown, the one who knows how to wind up both teacher and pupils in order to avoid doing any work, the one who abides by his own set of rules.
Danny walks quietly to the front and gently takes the book from ‘Miss’. She sits down, numb, keeping the tears at bay. Danny reads
Ah then at times I drooping
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning's bower,
Worn through with dreary shower.
He can’t pronounce all the words but does his best, faltering over some, though earning none of the usual tittering from 11C.
How can the bird that is born for
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring!
A knock at the door. The deputy head and a cover teacher step into a hushed classroom. Danny hands the book back to ‘Miss’ and, slowly and respectfully, returns to his seat. The deputy head looks visibly shocked, this is not the behaviour he’s come to associate with 11C. The teacher has composed herself again. “Thank you Danny … and thank you 11C.”
She hands over to the deputy head and cover teacher and leaves the room.
August the following year –results day
The teacher looks over the results of 11C. The usual mixed bag of results from a set 4. Some had done better than expected, some worse and some just as she’d predicted. But Danny, what had he got? ‘D’ for English Language (very much as expected) but what’s this? ‘C’ for English Literature!! Wow! The teacher has to stop herself from shouting out.
Later, as she leaves the school, Danny is just coming out of the hall having got his results. “Didn’t get a ‘C’ for my Language Miss, I messed around too much, I know that now. But look Miss, I got a ‘C’ for the other one, the one with all them poems in! You taught us good Miss.” She smiles, “for a boy who ‘can’t be arsed’, you did well Danny! Good luck with life.” He grins and walks over to his mates. “Oh, and by the way Danny, the ‘one with poems in’ is the Literature exam…” she calls across to him with a little, private smile breaking out on her face. She will never see him again, but she will, forever, remember that moment when, the boy who’d caused her many a sleepless night, had seen her need for help and responded with a pure and beautiful understanding.
Lines from poem: ‘The Schoolboy’ by William Blake