by Dave Wakely
[Surrey: 19 December 1978]
REFLECTED IN SMEARED GLASS, I can see a lamp-lit woman surrounded by books and files, her table strewn with questions begging answers. It’s after midnight on a frosty December night and I’ve sat at this window since suppertime, silently spinning the wrong words in my head like plates that I’d sooner let drop. End-of-year means end-of-term reports: ‘summary judgments in wintery weather,’ as Linda calls them. My pencil hovers over bare white pages like Damocles Sword, ready to sever someone’s ambitions from any hope of their achievement.
‘Too quiet. Much too quiet.’
Before I realise I’ve said the words aloud, even noticed she’s in the room, Linda answers.
‘I’ll put the radio on for you, love.’
The words reach my ear moments before the soft scratch of her roll-neck sweater against my neck, their combined surprise snapping me back into the room like a hypnotist’s finger-click. Knowing she’s startled me, her lips plant a gentle kiss in the nape of my neck.
‘I thought it’d be a distraction,’ she says. ‘This late, it’ll only be the news or God. Nothing cheerful.’
‘Well, heaven forfend the BBC should change the mood.’
I feel her soft chuckle as much as hear it.
‘Chin up, Flo. Callaghan survived the no confidence vote, by the way. So we’re spared that bloody woman for a few months yet.’
Her fingers hook round my shoulders as she speaks, thumbs turning soothing pirouettes either side of my spine, but my shoulders stay stiff as granite.
‘So, Flora Robinson, what’s the trouble here exactly?’
The trouble? Where do I start? While the rest of the world hunts in cupboards and attics for tinsel and baubles, the Headmaster’s eagerness leaves me putting finishing touches to university application references. I should be writing Christmas cards, not distilling the dreams of seventeen-year-olds into single paragraph synopses.
They’re my first sixth form tutor group: taller and tougher than the kids I’ve had before, and so much more fragile. I’m supposed to teach them to interpret other people’s histories, not intervene in theirs. But here I am, selling them to my academic peers like some greasy estate agent; sending them out into the world—or at least to the curious microcosm of a campus. It’s like writing to Santa Claus, praying that hope will triumph over expectation.
I feel the gentle weight of Linda’s chin as she bends to read over my shoulder.
‘I don’t know what you’re supposed to be writing about, sweetheart,’ she says, ‘but you seem to be describing a peony.’
‘Linda, have you been drinking?’
‘No, although it’s not such a bad idea. But read it back to yourself, my love. ‘Can take time to get established, especially in new surroundings, but then be so prolific with possibilities as to become top-heavy. With patience and occasional guidance, however…’ Flo, I think you’re channelling Percy Thrower.’
Her thumbs continue their steady circling as I re-read my notes. It’s part of the wonderful conundrum of her that those calloused hands can still be so gentle. Years of lifting fired pots from scalding kilns have implanted scars and lumps, but they’ve left a deeper lesson too: respect the materials, care for what you’re working with. Treat it well, even when it’s brittle.
‘I wish I was their bloody art teacher.’ I can hear the frustration in my voice. ‘Help them build a portfolio, teach them to name drop the right painters and off they go. They’re too young to have much to say, but they get to say it for themselves. But my lot? Someone has to put their best foot forward for them. Say it for them, even—if we can work out what the fuck it is.’
Whether it’s panic or the rising sense of failure rising, I’m almost shouting. I feel her thumbs dig in, searching for pressure points.
‘I know you, sweetheart. It’s not something you’re worried about, is it? It’s someone. So…are you going to tell me?’
She’s right, of course. I’ve been stewing for hours, draping myself with the weight of the world as I try to outstare the pad’s blank sheets. I want to slide into sleep with only her thumbs to remind me of anything beyond my own skin, patiently toiling to mould me back to peace. If only these kids were malleable as raw clay and all we had to do was make sure it left ready to be glazed and fired into adulthood.
But they’re not, and that’s where I’m stuck. Sometimes there’s one who’s not clay but stone. A sheer rockface, implacable and inscrutable. Inside there’s an adult life, waiting to be chipped away and revealed, resisting every chisel stroke. A sculptor’s challenge, not a potter’s. And this one…he’s a jigsaw piece from a different puzzle. Possibly a picture even he can’t see yet. Or that he sees all too well and isn’t rushing to recognise.
‘I think you know him, actually,’ I tell her. ‘Or your nephew Alan does. You know—Mark? The clever one? The musical one.’
She will get the reference, my choice of adjective as arched as a drag queen’s eyebrow. The thumbs lighten their pressure and she breaks off, heading to the sideboard for gin and glasses, and answering over her shoulder.
‘The sax player? Well, violin player to you, probably—you weren’t at the Easter concert. God yes, very musical. Know him? Flo, my sweet, he’s practically family.’
She’s still behind me, but for a double entendre, ears are enough. I can hear the salacious wink.
‘You think? That kind of ‘family’?’
‘Well, maybe I’m over-reading it. Or just trying to claim one for the team…’
‘He wouldn’t be the first…’
Not ready to the jibing, she carries on.
‘Mark’s not…furtive, exactly. Elusive, perhaps: evasive. You know how some of them write with one arm round their exercise books, keeping prying eyes out? He’s like with his whole life. Allows you occasional peeks, mostly to show how smart he is. But there’s something he’s keeping to himself, not revealing.’ In the pause, I hear the welcome rattle of ice cubes in glass. ‘Anyway, Al’s folks think so. And my sister’s a pretty sharp judge.’
It’s my turn to try to shed a little joviality into a cold, dimly lit room.
‘Oh. You don’t think we have a budding romance on our hands, do you?’
‘What, with Alan? Heavens, darling, no.’ I recognise a teacher’s scolding voice when I hear one: I am being ridiculous. ‘Al’s a Roman road, dear: dead straight. Useful, bless him, but not designed for excitement. And whatever it is Mark’s not quite telling us, what he’s looking for right now is a way out of here.’
‘Oh God, I know that. I remember writing his report last term. Saying Mark continues to make exceptional progress, and sitting here thinking what utter balls that was. He’s not going anywhere right now and that’s his problem.’
I try to picture him, but he’s like lens flare on a photograph: no detail, just pale vague shapes. A straight-A student and a complete enigma. He’s slight and good-looking in an underfed way; somehow, I’m surprised every time that he’s taller than I remember. Trying to shrink from view, maybe. Mostly, he’s as silent as the paper I’ve been waving a pencil at all evening. Daring us to attach words to him, and ready to rub them out if we do.
I can’t think of him as vulnerable. Clever, certainly. Intelligent, even. Not many of them would ask their Politics teacher about the long-term implications of embourgeoisement theory for the positioning of major parties across the political spectrum. That flummoxed poor old Ben. The boy’s sharp, but he’s all blade and no handle: nothing to hold on to. He’s not looking to be grasped. He’s looking to cut free.
Linda waits for me to speak again, and I take a second to breathe.
‘So, what’s he running from? And what’s he going to run to?’
‘Oh Flo, you’ve done Parents’ Evenings. You’ve met the mother.’
My snort echoes off the window as I picture her. He’ll bash his head against her for years or take a swimmer’s turn, kicking off against something immovable and making for clear water. If he has the courage. I remember she gave me a piece of her mind about careers advice, crossing her arms and jiggling her bosom at me as if I should feel threatened. Telling me eighteen was too young to leave home, how she wanted to know about Civil Service exams. A giant’s energy and a little woman’s ambition.
I remember thinking she had no sense of being in public, no eyes or ears to read a situation. We’ve grown too comfortable with each other to police ourselves when we’re alone, but we recognise the wisdom of closed doors. Two spinster teachers sharing a house is frugal; two radical dykes that still march for causes is something else entirely. Before we have visitors, we spend hours tucking magazines under the sofa or taking down Greenpeace posters and the more revealing photographs. Linda doesn’t even have an ex-husband lingering on the edges of life like a shadow on a sunny lawn, or a daughter who grew up with a stepmother. It’s not easy, stopping being a mother and starting to be a friend, but you fail them if you don’t try. What else are you a mother for, anyway?
The words in my head would sound angry if I said them, and I let Linda carry on.
‘I’ve no idea what he’s running to. Someone, no doubt: somebody he’s not met yet. But where’s he running to? University? He’s not getting those grades to please her, is he? And it doesn’t really matter where, does it, as long as it’s far enough away? Let him make the decision. The poor bugger needs the practise.’
Her thumbs have returned to my shoulders, smoothing away like a carpenter’s plane shaving knots from an old plank. I’m enjoying the feeling too much to stop and speak.
‘They make five choices,’ she reminds me, ‘like buying tickets on a bottle stall. It might be champagne, it might be carpet cleaner: who knows what they’ll wind up with. We can try to talk to them—the ones that’ll listen. Tell them where we think they’ll thrive, where they’ll be happy. But be honest, Flo. We’re only two more adults they secretly can’t wait to get away from.’
I let the pause grow until fresh anxiety rises like a hiccup.
‘You’re right. But I…I don’t know what to write, love. Forget being the ferrymen to a new life. We’re not even a steady hand on the tiller, are we? I wouldn’t mind if it was like a seesaw, and if we sat down hard enough on our end we could just launch them all into space. But it’s a bloody roundabout. Eighteen comes along and a sodding great hand gives it an almighty spin and off they all hurtle. Some land on their feet and some break their bloody noses. Ok, so most of them dust themselves down eventually, but it seems so…’
‘One day, my love—when the rest of the world comes round to being as caring and compassionate as us soppy old lefties—one day it might be different. Till then, we just do whatever we can.’
I nod and roll my head to loosen my neck as I feel it tighten again. As her hands pause momentarily in response, I rest my elbows on the table, forehead pressed into my palms. Her fingers unhook, but the thumbs continue their patient work.
‘Do you really feel cruel, Flo?’
She asks softly, but she can’t hide her concern.
‘Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just sounding off. But remember us, when we were their age? We never had it so good, remember? Okay, I no more believed that crap than you did, but we were optimistic. Everything was getting better—coming to life. Before us, they didn’t even have teenagers. It was like they’d invented them just in time for us.’
‘Ah yes, 1955. Skiffle, nuclear power, Bill Haley, fish fingers…I remember it well.’
‘I’m being serious, Linda. I can’t help feeling maternal. I might have walked away, but I’m still a mother.’ I can feel myself gulp and my audacity, but I keep talking. ‘I know I don’t teach British bloody Constitution or whatever we’re call it now, but it’s hardly the garden of sodding Eden out there, is it? When I hear them talk about going up town at the weekend, I want to stop them because I can’t help thinking about all the bombs and marches and fights. And the National Front putting razorblades under fly-posters so kids cut themselves tearing them down? On Surbiton sodding station? Did you know about that? Land of milk and honey? It’s not going to be that on many tables, is it? More like a fucking war.’
I can feel her breath on my neck, smell the juniper and sliced lemon from her gin as she puts her lips to my ear and whispers, ‘Shh.’ Not to shut me up, but to calm me.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, my love. It’s late and I’m tired. But I’m scared for their futures, all of them. I don’t want them to just get spun off out of here randomly. I want them to get to the best place. Some of them no more belong here than I belonged in Weston-super-bloody-Mare, but that doesn’t mean sending them all to fucking Durham or Bristol’s going to work, does it? Do their parents know that? Or do they just care about the reputation? I mean, what earthly good is a reputable source of three years’ bloody misery?’
The room waits silently for one of us to speak, its bookshelves’ accumulated wisdom of no use to us.
‘Don’t hit me, but…’
‘Why would I want…’
But it’s not my turn to speak.
‘Flo, I love you. And you’re reminding me why. It might be a load of old crap about mothers and nourishing, but that’s you and that’s what you do. It’s why I love you. Without you around, I don’t know if I’d care as much. I don’t know what you’re like at teaching History, but you do a fabulous job of teaching us to be human.’
I feel her hands reach down to hug me, pulling me back towards her.
‘And your lot’ – I see one finger lift from my waist to gesture at my notes – ‘they’re going to turn out fine. Or not. Either way, it won’t be your fault. You’ll have been one of the good things. Trust me. Now come to bed, my love. We can try to change the world again tomorrow.’
Raised in south London, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor in locations across Europe. His short stories and poetry have been shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction and Bath Short Story awards, and appeared in a number of literary journals and anthologies. One of the organisers of Milton Keynes Literature Festival, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and too many books, CDs and guitars. He tweets as @theverbalist.