‘Taut’

Nari looked down at the splashback on his beige chinos and wondered how long it would take for the droplets to dry off. He shook his hands limply and another few drops materialised on his thighs. He sighed. No paper towels again. His phone buzzed in his pocket. A fly buzzed too close past his ear. He swatted uselessly. The bell bleeped urgently from the corridor beyond.  First break over. Period three.

With a final glance at his somewhat stern reflection in the mirror, Nari scooped up his pile of A4 photocopies and gripped a wet hand on the now slippery grey handle. He only had twelve copies and he needed about twenty-six for 10F. The machine had jammed mid-run and he’d needed the toilet. There might be time now before the second bell, he thought to himself absently, optimistically.

Nari stepped into the corridor and joined a sea of movement, drifting in seemingly every direction, all heights and angles and acrylic, black blazers. A hundred faces he could recall by name, a thousand voices adding to the static of his day. He looked left in the general direction of his classroom and pinched his temples lightly. He could feel the makings of a migraine closing in, that dull throb ready to explode in eye-closing pressure pain.

“Sorry sir.”

Matthew Fearnley had walked right into him, lost in some conversation of other with Arshaq and Javon.

“You’re alright. Listen, Matt, could you do me a favour and –”

The boys were gone.

Nari clicked his teeth together in a firm bite of the molars and commenced strafing around an out-sized Year 7 rucksack, raising an elbow in an attempt to avoid making unnecessary contact with an outsized Year 7 head. His phone buzzed in his pocket again. His hands were dry now. The second bell went. The corridors thinned.

Nari broke into a useless trot that was essentially the same speed as his usual walk and rounded a corner towards the repographics room. A queue of two and an abandoned machine, doors open like a hatchback on the hard shoulder.

“I’ll leave it,” he said, more to himself than anyone else, and U-turned into the corridor on route to 10F. The lesson had started.

 

Taut

a lesson, by Unseen Flirtations

 

“Sir, you’re late.”

Nari turned to see a mousey-haired, bright faced girl tapping at her wrist where a watch would have been, had she been wearing one.

“So are you,” he replied, keeping stride.

“I was helping Miss,” she declared, grinning. He returned the smile and strode on ahead.

“Why do teachers always walk so fast?”

“Because we’re always busy and –”

His phone buzzed in his pocket. Again. Three texts in five minutes. It must be Lea.

“–and time’s running out. Could you do me a favour and go hand out the books? I’ll get this lot in.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thanks, Emma.”

Nari reached the open door and classroom and glanced inside at the compiled chaos of periods one and two. How did it always get like this? Books on tables, inexplicable pen lids strewn over dragged tufts of carpet, peeling bordette edging curling upwards away from long-obsolete displays, the kids that drew those posters will be paying a student loan soon, chairs untucked from desks askew, a lonely pile of Opal Fruit wrappers, they always manage to eat unseen, a handful of unglued worksheets, spread listlessly over matte grey table tops.

He mused briefly on when and if he might ever get his room in order before turning his attention to the twenty-seven 14 and 15 year-old people stood chatting in front of him, politely awaiting minute by minute instruction on the next 50 minutes of their adolescent lives. A sharp twist in the sinus. He thought back to the breakfast he should have had earlier and squinted one eye closed.

“Right guys, listen up… Guys… Hey, Will, I’m not going to stand here waiting for you to stop talking about– Guys…

 

Oi!”

They quietened.

Thank you. Listen, when we get in, new page, title, date, and have a look on the board. There’s a — boys — there’s a little question to think about. Straight away, yeah? Andrew, lead in.”

The chatter had drifted back.

“Mr Pau-aul…”

Two syllables in sing-song petulance.

“Are we still doing Educating Riii-ta?”

She put the emphasis on the “Ri” in a subtle but effective confirmation of the play’s utter banality in her universe.

“It’s bor-ring…” she continued, drawing out the “ing” in a slow whine of despair. Chancie was a poet.

You’re boring. In.”

A few muffled “oohs”, a “you can’t say that, Sir,” and the rest of 10F shuffled into step, automatons set in motion towards the usual destinations, the usual seats. 11.03am.

 

Nari bundled towards his desk and dumped his twelve crumpled sheets of A4 on the seat of his swivel chair. He swiftly retrieved his phone from his pocket and slid its smudged, dark, screen into life. Two texts, one dropped call. All from Lea. He noticed his heart beat in his chest, just the once, and tried to ignore the pinpricks of light puncturing his peripheral vision. He swallowed, staring intently at the box that had appeared beneath his index finger.

 

I’ve been to the c–

 

“Sir me and Flora need to quickly go to the toilet she needs to go and I need to go with her it’s important can we go.”

Nari bungeed back into B16. He looked up sharply at Izzy, huddled conspiratorially with Flora by the door of the classroom, a lion tamer’s distance from his desk. For a brief moment, he didn’t really see either of them. And it was in this moment that he chose to make his answer.

“Sit down.”

A pause. A stare. A glare. One slow blink.

“Fine then…”

The girls began to drift reluctantly to their seats, Izzy fixing one final glare at Nari that he completely failed to notice. He slid his phone back into his pocket. He’d look at it later. He’d think about it later. During lunch, after canteen duty. Maybe. No frees today so it was that or after department meeting after school.

He parked a seat on the emptiest available corner of his desk and, folding his arms, surveyed the room. A familiar scene: Five kids still standing, rummaging through rucksacks, Will, holding court with Ben and Jake, heads back, laughing, books closed, naturally, Chancie turned 180 degrees in full flow conversation with Christy, both books closed, naturally, Matthew in deep conference with Javon and Arshaq, maybe discussing the picture on the whiteboard? Probably not. Yusuf and Dimi, books open minus title and date, reclining, hands in pockets somehow, impossibly casual.  Zila sat staring, Andrew sat staring, another two universes, Asjad and Heba underling in the title and date, A stars in the making, Emma distributing the last book… Izzy at the wrong table again, whispering to Flora, as per, Flora – head down, silent. Both books closed, of course. Et cetera.

Unfolding his arms and resting both palms on either side of his desk, Nari shifted his weight and considered asking Izzy to go to her seat. Probably wasn’t worth the conflict. Almost two years he had been teaching that girl and they still hadn’t really thawed. Which was a shame, because they still had over a year to go. It wasn’t her fault – She was just a bit of an attention-seeking egomaniac with debilitating authority issues most days, that’s all. He should probably do the register, before he forgot, he thought to himself, idly, before allowing himself to realise that all in all, only four students seemed to have made what might be called a decent start to the lesson. He squinted, and rose to his feet.

“So, no-one’s got anything interesting to say about the Simpsons picture then?”

Pause.

“Si-ir, it’s the Simp-sons…”

“Bart’s in a nappy…”

“I’ve seen this one. He gets expelled.”

“He always gets expelled.”

“Don’t you think Emma’s blatantly like Lisa?”

“Simpsons is dead. Family Guy!”

“Innit.”

“What has this got to do with Educating Ri-ta?”

“Whoa… Hang on, guys, hang on… Not all at once!”

Nari was centre stage, gesturing to the frozen whiteboard. A TDA advert.

“Alright, look, I’ll give you ninety seconds. Come up with something interesting you notice. Anything at all. Write it down – and you can talk you your neighbour. Quietly.”

He glanced at Izzy and did a magpie’s flick towards her empty seat next to Heba.

“Go.”

“I’m GOing, GOD!”

Izzy had replied, swept up her belongings, pushed back her seat and made four strides towards the table in question almost before Nari had finished speaking. He inhaled with no intention of exhaling any time soon and looked down at his watch. In teacher-speak, Ninety Seconds could mean anything from ten actual seconds to five and a half minutes. He looked up, scanning the room and wondered if now might be the time to go get those photocopies, before realising, again, with mild irritation, that he still had yet to complete the register. Another wave of dull pain surfed over his right eye. Nurofen would be nice.

“Sir.”

The deep, monotone voice belonged to the sloping, athletic teen now standing, bagless, in the doorway. Face impassive, expression nil. Late, again, without bag, again, and of course, wearing a loosely-laced pair of Nike instead of the regulation black leather lace-ups.

“Marcus.” A statement of fact rather than a greeting. Nari hadn’t realised he hadn’t been there.

“Marcus, where are your shoes?”

He thought back to last Thursday’s whole-staff briefing. Ofsted had highlighted scruffiness and uniform as a whole-school ‘cause for concern’. Therefore all staff (including admin) were to be responsible for making sure these kids were dressed properly. If SLT came through on a learning walk and spotted a tie undone or rogue trainer under a desk, they’d be asking him what went wrong. Another unnecessary headache.

“Note?”

“I haven’t got one Sir.”

Both their tones were bordering apologetic.

“Okay, you know the drill – go and find your form tutor and get one. Then bring it to me. TEN seconds left!” he added, arching back to the now seated class.

“Alright.”

“Be quick.”

Marcus was gone.

Nari stood and felt the weight of his phone shift in its pocket. He’d think about it later. 11.06.

“Right then.”

Pulling himself into the moment, he grabbed a dry wipe marker from his desk and yanked the lid off, before throwing it carelessly back into the  scattered confusion of papers and stationery.

“Who’s got something?”

Nothing.

“Ok, let’s do a train.”

Someone sniggered. Nari continued.

“Let’s get… five -no, six responses. Starting with… Heba.” He caught her blank expression and felt a swinging gate of regret closing in on his thin enthusiasm. “Heba – you choose who’s next. I’ll scribe. Pens in hands, people. BOYS, we’ve started, wake up. Heba? Go.”

Nothing.

“Come on Heba, there’s no right answer here – what did you notice? Izzy do you mind?”

“Sir, I’m talking about the work.”

Nari exhaled, slowly.

“Fine. What did you notice.”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Pause. An audible yawn from a table near the back. Then a volley of syllables.

“It’s just the Simpsons there’s Bart and he’s got a hat on, whatever, it’s stupid. Sir.”

The condescending addition of pitch-perfect sarcasm. Everyone heard it. Nari felt the atmosphere shift ever so slightly in the direction of a spectator sport. Not today. Why was she being like this? He chewed his lower lip and stared, trying, unsuccessfully, to figure it all out. Looking over the room, his eye caught Ana A’s uncomprehending, quizzically blank expression. With a pang of guilt, he remembered he hadn’t differentiated  any of this for her. His eye darted over to Andrew Baines, social algae, destined weirdo. Equally blank, even less comprehending. Deep breath.

“Ok, so he looks stupid. Pick the next person Heba.”

Heba stirred and looked around slowly, as if seeing most of her classmates for the first time.

“Um… Um… …. Um…”

11.07. Nari grimaced. Often, he found it hard to explain to people what made his job so difficult. Friends of friends would shake their heads in pantomime disbelief and tell him how they “could never work with teenagers,” before asking, in a slow hush, how he kept them under control. But it wasn’t that.  It wasn’t even the emotional abuse the kids sometimes put him through. No, what made his job so unforgiving were moments like this. Moments of sheer, uncompromising reticence in the face of a ticking clock. Reluctance met with incompetence. Dragging an experience out of those unable and forward-slash or unwilling to live it out for themselves. It was painful.

He scanned the room and thought about getting Asjad or Christy or Emma or Jalani to get the discussion moving. The usual suspects. The reliable few. No, that would be cheating. He threw the whiteboard pen, lidless, back into the viney tangles of his desk. Time to earn that Nurofen.

“Ok, scrap that. Hands up who’s ever seen an episode of the Simpsons.”

A zombie raise of arms.

“Ok ok, now keep your hands up if you’ve seen, or read, or actually, if you’ve even  heard of ‘A Clockwork Orange’…

A sea of hands fall leaving only two. Yusuf and Dimi of course. Boys born out of their era, who have seen everything, heard of everything. All the cult classics, all the memes, all the websites. Nari let it play and gestured towards them with a “please, continue” roll of the wrist.

Basically, it’s this crap film? from like, the nineteen sixties or something? that got banned because there’s like a rape scene? or something? It was on youtube.”

Dimi always spoke in a trustafarian drawl.

“No clothes on anybody. Sickening,” added Yusuf. The pair started chuckling, duveted up, as always, in some bemusing private joke. Nari chose to ignore them and started pacing the room.

“Exactly right, Dimi. Give yourself a put on the back.”

He dutifully obeyed and Nari continued, moving the powerpoint presentation on one slide.

“‘A Clockwork Orange’ is originally a book by this guy called Anthony Burgess. British guy. He wrote it in the 60s I think, after his wife was attacked in a burglary. It was horrible – she was, she was beaten and raped. And killed. He was beaten too. He saw it all happen.”

Undivided attention.

“Now, Burgess,” Nari plucked a copy of the novel out from a shelf at the back of room and brandished it like holy water to thirsty vampires. “Burgess was so traumatised by what happened that he had to write about it.”

“Why?”

Nari shrugged.

“Sometimes, when an experience is that traumatic, I guess you have to turn it into art… to… to make sense out of it.”

Jalani nodded, slowly, and wrote something down under her un-underliend date and title.

“So,” Nari resumed pacing, making sure to look every student directly in the eye as he spoke. “Anthony Burgess turned his tragedy into this novel. And it shocked everyone.”  The floor was his.

“What’s it about?”

“It’s about kids like you, Ben. Teenagers. Boys. Who go out, get high on milk laced with these mad drugs and look for people to rape and beat up and stab and stuff. It’s a dystopia. It’s pretty sick.”

There was a slight buzz of chatter as 10F worked to comprehend what Mr Paul was telling them. Nari struggled to suppress a smile. Those that can, he thought to himself.

“Actually, the main character has the same name as one of you lot…”

“Archie!” someone called out, met with a respectful smattering of laughter. Arshaq lolled left to right in his chair, welcoming the notoriety and exchanging an inaudible few words with Javon. Nari carried on, missing their slanted glances towards Flora.

“Nope. Alex!” Nari pointed the thin paperback at Alex, sat whispering next to the ever-silent Jeremy at the back of the class. “And he looks like this.”

The powerpoint skipped forward.

“Yeah, looks like something Alex would wear,” offered Will, to a smattering of laughter. Alex didn’t respond.

Nari made his way back to the front, stopping briefly to retrieve a pen that had rolled off Mandy’s desk. She smiled as he placed it by her exercise book and breathed a silent ‘thank you.’

“So,” he continued, “looks like we’ve started, people. That ‘stupid’ outfit Bart is wearing is an allusion to ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

He threw the paperback down in front of Chancie, for effect, causing her to turn towards Christy and pull the lower half of face back, in mock shock.

“It’s an example of intertextuality.”

Mixed reception. Time to let them go.

“Right guys, three minutes – I want a definition of allusion and a definition of intertextuality. Arshaq, you might need a pen for this one, yeah?”

“It’s Archie, man…”

Nari thought back to his own school days, the years spent avoiding ‘Narinder’ and smiled to himself.

“Let’s go. Three minutes then we work out what we use it for.”

He found his chair, lifted the papers off it and slumped into the plastic-backed green felt. He needed a nap. But he also needed to get those photocopies. 11.09.

Decision made, Nari, clicked the powerpoint on one slide and started speaking, to no-one in particular, at a volume that everybody could hear.

“When you’re done with your definitions, check in a dictionary and start thinking about why intertextuality is important. It’s on the board, yeah? Christy – you’re in charge.”

She cocked an elbow and raised one finger in response, not bothering to look up from her page. A swell of laughter bubbled from the boys’ table in the middle of the room, presumably about something unconnected to the lesson

“I’ll be checking on what you’ve done, boys – five minutes.”

A few reluctantly picked up pens.

In a single well-practiced motion, Nari rose to his feet, slid his phone out of his pocket and made for the door, making sure to pluck a single sheet from the crumpled dozen on his desk. He felt a quiet throb of the sinus as he did so and wondered if it was worth swinging past the new staffroom to go nick some paracetemol from someone. Probably not. Knowing his luck, SLT would come by on a learning walk as soon as he left. Better not to be out longer than necessary.

The corridors were quiet. Nari strode briskly past classrooms, hearing the acute pitch of teachers wrestling with despondency, or the low buzz of 30 adolescent voices, hard at chat. Register, he remembered with irritation. That’ll be yet another passive aggressive email at the end of the day then, all caps shout in the subject line, Re: REGISTER. He looked at his watch. Probably not enough time to watch the Simpsons and Terminator 2 clips he’d ripped from youtube last night. Hours it had taken him; searching for the right clips, downloading a downloader, downloading the right codec so he could save the files, emailing them to himself ahead of today… and all the while Lea asking if he was coming to bed. He hadn’t in the end, and she had been breathing softly, a furrowed brow even in slumber, back turned from his side of the double, when he eventually crept into the room.

He considered giving her a call, then reached the repographics room. No queue this time – just one machine whirring away, spewing out what looked like maths worksheets while the abandoned hatchback remained abandoned. He hit the cancel button and punched in his copy code, automatically. How many copies? Let’s just call it twenty. Single sided, black and white. No time to cut them in half – Emma would do it. Print.

The machine kicked into life and Nari considered allowing himself to reminisce about that other existence. The coffees in the morning, the lunches, the adhoc, brunchy meetings and idle minutes on Facebook, flexible hours and off-peak holidays, meeting Lea for long lunches and cinema visits… But this was better, surely. Realler people. Making a difference. Better challenges. Daily. Four years and counting. Why not.

The machine spat out its final sheet and Nari took the warm pile, before logging out. Macbeth and Frankenstein. Frank and Rita. They’ll get this, he thought. A few more marks on the coursework, at least.

10F were as he left them when he returned.

“Any trouble, Christy?”

She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips in a perfect dumbshow of “don’t even go there, sir.” Nari echoed her face, subconsciously, which made her smile. 11.14.

“Alright everyone, listen up.  Guys… thank you- guys… In two minutes – yeah – in two minutes we’ll be feeding back on why intertextuality is important. Have a look on the board if you don’t know what to do.” Loud voice. Then, more quietly, to Emma.

“Emma, could you do me a favour and cut these in half, please.”

It was like having an intern.

“Don’t hand them out yet though – just leave them on my desk.”

Or a PA.

“Er, your desk is a mess, Sir?  I’ll leave them at the back. Where you can find them.”

Or a mum.

“Thanks Emma.”

Time to circulate.

Nari started to drift around the room in a slow infinity loop, peering over shoulders, gesturing towards unruled dates and titles, prompting notes, replacing pens, checking paragraphs, et cetera. A mixed bag so far, but everyone had written something, even if it was only the words Allusion and Intertextuality.

“Javon, have you and Matthew checked those definitions yet. Arshaq – you?”

“It’s Archie. Get it right, man.”

They were clever those boys. Nari knew they’d get the work done. He turned his attention elsewhere. Alex in a low whisper with Jeremy, busy scribbling on a tattered page. Mandy in a huddle with Ana, leaning across and pointing at something in Andrew’s book, talking them through what must have seemed like a foreign language. Of course, to Ana, it was, and to Andrew… Algae. Who knew. Meanwhile, Zila sat, half turned away from her desk partner, Christy, a few faint lines traced over her page. Recognisably words, but only just. Will, Ben, Jake, dictionaries open, laughing. Always laughing. But they got the work done. Jal scowling disapprovingly at Yusuf and Dimi, most probably being idiots again. Flora, working, Asjad, working, Chancie, frowning, Heba, working.

Then, Izzy.

“Izzy, you haven’t written anything.”

She  blinked once and turned to face him with a steady glare.

“What?”

He chose to ignore.

“You haven’t written anything. Your page – it’s blank.”

He could feel the headache creeping back into play. Silence from Izzy.

“This too hard for you?”

Baiting her. He couldn’t help it. Deep down, Nari knew there must be something wrong, definitely, but he didn’t have the knowledge, wherewithal or requisite inclination to investigate any further.  Izzy had been quieter than usual today, certainly, but this complete refusal to comply was a sharper stab  of non-compliance than calling out or talking out of turn.  He dropped to a crouch, putting them at eye-level and she instinctively turned away.

“Izzy, if you won’t do this, you can’t stay in here today. You know this.”

She looked over the class, through his lecture. Through him.

“Let’s not do this,” he continued, inadvertently borrowing firefight phrases from recent conversations with Lea. “I’m coming back to check in five and I want to see your notes. Okay? Okay?”

Izzy swept her gaze away from the room and down on to her empty page. She mumbled something in response and started writing the title in ballooning red pen.

“Not in red, Izzy,” he stated, unfolding himself to a stand.

She muttered something else in response. Nari was half certain it was a ‘fuck’s sake’, but thought against wading in. He swallowed it and breathed sharply in out, through the nose. Back to the front.

“So,” a clap of the hands. “What have we — Jake, tell us what you wrote down there. Intertextuality is important because–”

Nari’s decidedly sure tone and quiver-straight delivery meant that Jake didn’t, on this occasion, have the chance to make decision on his participation. Sometimes, most times, perhaps every lesson, it was force of personality that got you through. Nari widened his eyes in benevolent invitation.

“Well, it can help you sort of, know a character.”

Nari had retried the lidless marker from his desk and was busy writing INSIGHT on the board.

“Go on.”

“Um, well, like, if Bart’s dressed like this crazy rapist for fancy dress, we know he must be pretty, like, messed up.”

“Exactly.”  INSIGHT INTO CHARACTER. Arrow. SYMBOLIC. “Get this stuff written down guys, I’m not writing this for my own benefit. Good work Jake, pick the next person.”

A few hands started waving, accompanied by the obligatory, urgently whispered ‘Pick Me’s’.

“Ben.”

“Go.”

Ben freestyled.

“It… it kind of makes the Simpson’s… deeper, in a way.”

“What do you mean?” D-E-P

“Well, I mean that, you might not know anything about that book or that film with the gangs in it, but when you do, it’s like, like some kind of secret knowledge.”

“So you’re saying that intertextuality can add depth to a text?” DEPTH. Arrow DEEPER INSIGHT.

“Yeah, it’s deeper.”

“Alright. Next person.”

“Jal,” Ben said with a playful finality. Jalani responded with a sticking out of the tongue and coy squint. They were having fun.

“Jal, you’re on. What else? Feel free to elaborate if you haven’t got anything new.”

Basically, we thought it’s kind of… funny? I mean like, Bart’s just a kid, but he’s dressed up like some violent rapist guy.”

“How’s that funny?” Chancie interrupted.

“Good question,” added Nari, throwing and catching the pen in lazy flick. He glanced towards the door. They never came in when the lesson was in full flow.

“I just mean that its- it’s kind of,” she struggled for the right word. “-extreme. Which is funny.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean…” EXTREME. Arrow. “It can amplify our understanding of a character or situation.” AMPLIFIES CHARACTER. “We know more about Bart if we understand the allusion.” Arrow. ALLUSION. “Hold on.”

Nari slalomed through assorted desks, chairs and bodies towards the back of the class, a dozen pairs of eyes watching him, some in anticipation, some out of habit, a few out of genuine interest. He came to a rest beside Jeremy and looked down at the crumpled sheet of A4 he was writing on. It wasn’t work. Nari scooped it up and pocketed it, gesturing at the whiteboard while sliding Jeremy’s exercise book an inch closer to its mute owner. The entire action was complete in approximately three seconds. Nari knew from experience that, in a classroom,  pregnant pauses soon became drifting chatter, so he had already begun talking even before Jeremy realised his piece of paper had been taken. Those that can.

“Not bad,” he said, nodding with protruding lower lip.

11.18. 10F were listening. For all the bravado and nonchalance and adolescent recalcitrance, they were still just kids, eager to please, desperate to get it right. Looking for approval. They had settled into quiet for now, in that good way. Not the confrontational silence of the class who had collectively opted out (9L, last Wednesday), or the nervous quiet of the new class on the first day of term (7S, September 9th). It wasn’t even that polite, waiting-for-sir-to-shut-up-so-that-we-can-get-back-to-our-lives kind of quiet (10F, most days). It was the curious quiet of a group of people waiting to see what comes next, because they’re interested. Connected. Like a TED talk audience. Nari felt it and enjoyed a modest rush of endorphin in what he read to be appreciation. He was a good teacher.

“Not bad,” he repeated. “See, ‘Educating Rita’ is full of intertextuality…” He started another walking tour of the well-worn room, fixing eye-contact with each and every student along the way.

“Willy Russell,” pause for sniggers, “has deliberately packed his play with references, allusions to other texts.” Zila. Christy. Mandy. “References to all kinds of literature.” Alex. Heba. Javon. “If you don’t know it, you miss it,” Jalani. Dimi. Asjad. “But if you do, the whole play just opens up with deeper insights. “Matthew. Emma. Izzy. Arshaq?

“Izzy! Arshaq!”

Full-blown teacher voice. Three or four kids started in their seats. Nari held his gaze. Lea always berated him for talking to her like she was one of his kids but he couldn’t help it. He didn’t even notice anymore; it was almost entirely reflex.

Arshaq cut his eyes away from Izzy and looked slowly over to Nari with a cool, deliberate disinterest. He hadn’t flinched. Izzy snapped her attention to Nari and half opened her mouth to say something, before looking diagonally downwards into a forgotten corner of carpet. There were pen scrawls halfway up her left forearm. The pause held. Nari squinted and accepted his victory with an imperceptible raise of the chin.

“What we’re gonna do,” Heba. Yusuf. Will.  “…is focus on two of the biggest allusions in ‘Educating Rita’ – ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Frankenstein’.” He moved the slides forward. “Some of you might remember doing Frankenstein in Year 8 and we did Macbeth at the start of this year. Now, in pairs, you’ll be–”

“Mr Paul?”

Three quiet syllables in lieu of a knock.

“A word?”

Nari turned his attention towards the voice’s owner, Brandon Davenport. Assistant Headteacher, one of three, complete with clipboard, forgettable suit and walkie talkie. In a hurry, career-wise. Nari could remember when he was a deputy Head of Year. Now he’s interrupting lessons, uninvited. Future leader. Absentee pub-goer. Standing officiously, disapproving look on his face, Marcus Walcott in tow.

“A word?”

Nari had heard him the first time.

“Uh, yeah, sure…” He turned to the class. “Um,” quick scan for a reliable stand-in. “Will. Could you quickly explain what the next task is and move the next slide on? Emma, you can hand out the slips. Two minutes.”

He stepped out into the corridor and briefly caught Marcus’ eye, before the lanky teen looked away. Marcus somehow looked even taller than the last time Nari had seen him, 20 minutes ago.

“Did you tell Marcus he could go to the toilet in the middle of your lesson?” The question came off as accusatory. Not for the first time, Nari marvelled at how ready SLT could be to believe in fictional hierarchies.

“I told him to go and get a note, for his trainers, from his form tutor.” Nari spoke slowly and evenly, directing his response at Marcus, who drew his lips in before clenching his jaw.

“I see. Mister Walcott…” began Davenport. It was a crap affectation, calling the students Mister and Miss like that. “It looks like you’ve lied-” he looked down at the tangle of mobile phone and headphone cables clutched in the same had as the clipboard. “Again.”

“I didn’t lie.”

“No-one said ‘speak’.” Nari detected an unmistakable hint of disdain in Davenport’s swift retort. “We’ll continue this later. For now, English.”

He pointed the antenna of his walkie talkie at the door.

“Keep him in the lesson until the end, Mister Paul. Until the bell.”

Until the bell? Nari wondered if he was in as much trouble as Marcus. He resisted the urge to submit to a sarcastic response.

“In you go mate. Take a seat over there – Asjad can catch you up.”

With a jab of satisfaction, Nari saw Davenport bristle at the word ‘mate’. No doubt it would have been taken as an instance of insubordination. 11.21.

Nari followed Marcus back into B16 and was met with a generous, and confusing,  volley of applause, Will returning to his seat, grinning.

“… Guys?”

Laughter, even more applause, and this time a few whoops. Nari shook his head and shrugged at the class. There really was no telling what went on in the adolescent mind.

“Alright, guys, settle down, settle down… Lemme put you in your pairs.”

A selection of arms shot into the air.

“No, you can’t choose your partners.”

He ignored the collective groans and leaned over his desk to scrutinise a hand-written scrunch of paper blu-tacked to the wall. Ability cohorts for each of his classes, based on their last assessment and a large glass of red wine, if he remembered correctly. Better than random.

“Marcus, you’re with Asjad… Heba – Arshaq, Emma, you’re with Jake, Christy… you’re with Matthew, Zila, go with Will, Jal, you’re with Dimitri, Jeremy – Javon… Um… Chancie, go with Flora… Izzy… you’re with Ben… Mandy, could you go with Jake, Jalani – with Alex… and Ana – you’re a three… Andrew, you’re with me.”

“Si-ir, I haven’t got a part-ner….” Yusuf in a drone bore life’s a drag monotone.

“Oh. Okay. Go with Ana.”

The class started shuffling into new configurations, reintroducing themselves to one another with a weary cooperation. Nari fell into his chair. The morning was starting to hit. He closed his eyes and gifted himself two seconds of darkness.

“Sir.”

Chancie, standing defiantly by his desk, a guillotined slip in one hand, the battered copy of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in the other.

“I don’t get it.”

She chewed on a piece of gum so naturally that it didn’t even occur to Nari to ask her to get rid of it. He leaned forward.

“What don’t you get?”

“Any of it. I don’t get the word, inter-textingality or whatever.”

He tried to work out if she was appealing for help or just stating her incompetence.

“Alright. Forget this,” he plucked the paperback from her hand and chucked it on his desk. “Tell me three things you remember about Rita. Anything at all. And give me a chewing gum or I’ll put you in detention.”

She smiled and pulled a packet out of a pocket. He took one and popped it in his mouth.

“Go. Three things.”

“Ok. She’s…” chew “at school, college… she’s old, well, like, older than us… she…” chew chew chew “-she doesn’t want a baby… and she changed her name innit? Rita’s a fake name.”

“That’s about five things…”

She smiled. He smiled back.

“Who teaches her?”

Pause. Chew. Pause. Chew chew.

“What’s he called again? That guy, the one from Batman… Frank.”

Nari shook his head playfully. He knew he shouldn’t have shown them the movie so soon.

“Yes. Frank. And how does Rita feel about him?”

“She… likes him?”

“Don’t guess. What does she think of him? Remember the last bit we read? When he was drunk?”

“Oh YEAH….” the flash of recognition lit up her entire face. “She was all, ‘I don’t need you’ and that…”

“Right.” Chew chew. “And how does Frank feel about that?”

Chew chew stop. Too much.

“Alright,” he back-tracked. “Is Frank happy about the new Rita?” chew chew chew “Remember, after she comes back from summer school and she’s got all these new friends?” chew chew “What does he think?” chew.

Chancie swung a nearby chair towards her and dumped herself into it, chewing furiously.

“He’s not happy,” she answered, finally. “Cos, like, Rita’s different from how, from how he first knew her. When she was all new and nervous and that.”

“Is that fair? Who changed her?”

“What d’you mean?”

“I mean,” Nari took a biro and tapped his temple with it, “Who taught her to use this?”

He offered the pen to Chancie. She took it, hesitantly, chewing slower now.

“Frank, at first, but… she doesn’t need him now. She’s gone, like, past him, innit.”

“Exactly. And the exact same thing happens in ‘Frankenstein’.” Nari reclined in his chair. “Think back to year 8. Remember, the mad scientist who tries to make a perfect human being…”

Chancie stared at him.

“…but ends up making a monster. Remember? What happened to them? Come on… it wasn’t that long ago…”

Chancie rubbed one eye and squinted the other.

“Didn’t Frankenstein go mad and kill that kid or something?”

“The monster,” he corrected. “Yeah, pretty much.” Nari wondered if there was a penny to drop. “The monster gets stronger than its creator, Dr Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein can’t control it. Just like…” he raised and lowered both eyebrows and rolled both hands in a frantic invitation for her to complete the thought. Come on Chancie, you can do this… Maybe… Chew chew chew chew.

Just like…

“Just like…”

She stopped chewing.

“…Rita…”

Nari reclined. For years to come, he would sporadically recall the toddleresque look of comprehension that blossomed on Chancie’s open, serene face. She held the pen absently for a moment before suddenly jolting into volume.

“Oh my days!”

Nari jumped.

“Frank! He’s got the same name as Frankenstein innit? Like, he’s like the, the um, the man, innit? The scientist. And Rita’s the Frankenstein – the, the monster. That’s sick, Sir.”

Nari half shrugged and removed his chewing gum from his mouth, dropping it into the waste paper basket by his feet. He then picked it up and held it towards Chancie, who obligingly removed her gum, and followed suit.

“Thanks Mr Paul.”

Appreciation shone through the layers of clumsily applied make-up. He smiled.

“See? You do get it. Now go explain that all to Flora.”

She trotted back to her desk and Nari raised both arms in a stretch, closing both eyes and indulging in a slow yawn. He remembered he’d forgotten about the register again, which prompted him to think about texting Lea. Just to say he’d call later. He reached a hand into his trouser pocket, allowing himself the decadence of another slow yawn. 11.27.

“You fucking prick.”

Nari eyes snapped open. The words were acid on raw meat, hissing the class into an automatic hush. He didn’t have to say anything for Izzy Metcalfe to know what to do. He shot her a look and she threw closed her exercise book, swept up her belongings in a gracefully off-kilter whirl and sailed out of the room with a complete avoidance of all eye-contact with all people. Incident over, attentions turned back to slips in hands and pens on pages. Nari rose to his feet, pausing to weigh up his options. He clicked the next slide forward.

“Back to your seats,” he sighed.

Compliance.

“I want half a half page paragraph on this question.” He motioned to the whiteboard. “Anyone who doesn’t get it done will be coming back.”

He levelled a glare at Arshaq.

“I’ll be checking,” he added, before exiting the classroom and entering the unlined arena of the corridor. Softly, he closed the door behind him.

11.37. Not for the first time, Nari found himself scrabbling for purchase on the confrontation ahead, blindly groping for a foothold, somewhere to begin the rocky climb ahead. The girl before him was an enigma, as delicate and dangerous, in her own way, as a cornered wasp. He mentally circled her. Something was wrong, that much was obvious, but she wasn’t yet ready to let the guiding hand steer her to an open window. She’d sting first.

What.

Izzy turned away from her aimless staring to throw the word at Nari, off guard.

“What?” he echoed helplessly. Small tumble of rocks slipping under foot. Bad start. Another pause, then, for the briefest of moments, he saw her eyes flicker as though she might be ready to pour it all out; tell him what and why and who. But as quickly as she had stirred, she had frozen over again and turned back to staring ahead, granite faced.

Nari attempted to gather his thoughts. He ran a hand through his hair. Concern started to mix with guilt started to mix with weariness. How many more of these confrontations would he have to face until they let him retire? He pictured himself as a generically grey 68 year-old man, granddad whiskers and stoop, attempting to coerce the latest crop of 21st century teens into something resembling cooperation. Scary thought. He’d read somewhere that stress levels in teaching were second only to those endured by air traffic controllers, due principally to the constant, wearing, human interactions. Always coaching and coaxing and questioning and second-guessing…

Izzy’s face remained fixed on some faraway spot of corridor. Wasn’t she tired of it too? The thought of interrogating her on her motives made him feel physically weak. He swallowed sharply and tried his best to ignore the slow returning throb in his temples. He rifled through his deck of options and drew the sympathy card.

“What did he say, Izzy?”

She stared on. He waited.

Elsewhere, the shrill, ironically loud voice of a teacher asking for quiet bled into the air. Izzy’s eyelids fluttered accompanied by a barely perceptible shake of the head.

“Nothing sir.”

The words were strangled and almost lost in a build up at the back of her throat, which she cleared, before repeating.

“Nothing.”

Conversation over.

 

***

 

11.41. Nari re-entered the classroom and started another walking tour. Izzy had been sent to the focus room, accompanied by the duty officer. Nari tried to decide if he had played it well or not. Impossible to say. They hadn’t shouted, at least.  As he walked, turning the odd page, it became apparent that a few kids were calling him out on his ‘back at lunchtime’ threat. They were right to as well: he hated detentions as much as they did.

“Sir, how d’you spell ‘relevant’?” Ben. Wearing his laziness like a tiara again.

“What does it start with?”

“Ah, come on sir, don’t do this again… Can’t you just tell me?” He threw his arms up in a genuinely funny mock tantrum.

“Ben, do I look like a walking dictionary?”

“Yes.”

Nari shook his head and walked on. “R-E-L…” he called back. At Arshaq’s table he was surprised to see that Arshaq and Javon both had completed a decent-ish amount. Good news. For Javon in particular, it reset the mistrust counter back to zero zero zero. He had the kind of face that was way too easy to distrust. The kind of face you had to meet his mum to see a soft resemblance before you accepted he could be anything other than delinquent. Positive thoughts in mind, Nari issued them both a quick thumbs up they barely responded to before stalking onwards towards another area of classroom.

“Don’t forget.. to use connective phrases… to develop… your ideas” he said absently, peering at the two and a half lines of argument sketched in fairy-thin scrapings in Zila’s book. He looked at her, curiously. She was clever – he’d known that from Year 7 – but she was vacant as hell. Probably found half of this too eas-

With a pang of guilt, Nari remembered that Zila was supposed to be doing the gifted and talented extension worksheet, along with Emma, Matthew, Jake, Christy and Dimi. Another jolt of guilt – he had forgotten to photocopy the extension sheets. He only had the one that he’d printed with the lesson plan. Mini boulders slipping underfoot again, this time threatening a full-scale landslide.

“Emma, Matt, Jake, Christy, Dimi? Over here please.”

He rushed to his desk to find the worksheet. It was there. He rushed back.

“Alright guys,” he began, “you’re now working on this.”

He waved the page.

“I only have the one copy so you’re gonna have to share. Head out to the breakout area and start by reading and discussing. I want links and allusions ready to explain for next lesson, yeah?”

“Wait, sir, I don’t get–”

“Emma will explain.”

“Will I?”

“Go.”

He ushered them all out of the room and sat once more at his desk, exhaling. As was the case in moments like this, the usual thoughts began to dance around the edge of his mind as he clicked idly on the mouse. How he’d found himself teaching as the sensiblest way of securing a steady wage, his seemingly defunct English Language with Sociology degree edging him neatly onto the course. How he’d marvelled, arrogantly, at the earnestness with which all those girls on the course (always girls) seemed to approach what his then workmates had called extreme babysitting. This job that felt part pathos part penance, thirty people in a room and I’m the oldest one here. How Lea came into his life just at that time when her wants and needs dovetailed with his expected responsibilities. Two years older, four shades paler, how his mother had taken all that time to thaw towards her and there were still a few sharp crystals of ice to do damage. Hybrid wedding and 9 to 5. 8 to 3. 7.45 to 6. Now, a flat and a stagnant wage. He was no Davenport. He was no Arshaq, all assured badboy, destined for fast money and cat landings. He had mates like Arshaq, traders now, estate agents, doing alright. Always a reader, mystified by the world of money, no way of knowing what he didn’t know he needed to know, so this was it – 7 to 7, but no mat leave career break on the cards. Hanif Kureshi changed my life. He couldn’t do it without the holidays. Lea wanted a baby. He already had kids. Hundreds of them. Was it brave nobility or blind stupidity to devote your life to… Peeling bordette edging curling upwards away from long-obsolete displays. The kids that drew those posters will be paying a student loan soon.  He clicked open his email. Re: PLEASE COMPLETE YOUR REGISTER. He needed food. Martyrdom wasn’t easy. Click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click – present, click…

“Sir?”

He looked up.

“I’m finished. What do I do now?”

Nari scanned the room. A few finished, visibly. More drifting.

“Good question,” he answered. 11.45.

End

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