Mr Stock, the headmaster, was in his usual
state of rancid rage. He bared his yellow teeth as he thought again how much he
loathed and detested his job and the great unwashed that it brought him into
contact with like the scrawny, smelly creature before him. He glared
down at the small figure cowering in his deranged office, as the boy flapped
and flexed the hands that had just been caned. His glare was like night.
After several smouldering seconds he returned
the cane to the rack of six under the framed photograph of Lord Kitchener. He
produced a piece of chalk from his pocket, held it in his large hand and
started to shave it with his thumbnail, shooting out ferocious shards in the
boys direction. Then he growled: Stop blubbering, child. And wipe
Bert Evans wiped it on the sleeve of his
jumper, infuriating Stock even more. The headmaster roared: You dirty
little tyke! Use your hankie.
Havent got one, sir.
Havent got one, sir, echoed Stock in a mocking whine.
Well you should have one. Look at you. You look like a guttersnipe. Pull
your socks up!
The boy did so, revealing a hole at the ankle
of the left sock. He rubbed a scuffed toecap on the back of the sock before the
headmaster could see it.
Dont slouch. Stand up straight, boy. Shoulders back, chest out. And
whats that brown stuff in your ears?
Er, dont know, sir. I sometimes get soggy ears. Me mam usually puts
cotton wool in them, but she hasnt got none now.
Disgusting. Carry on like this and youll end up with no job,
standing on a street corner in a pool of spit. From what Mr Cowie tells me,
your reading is atrocious and you dont know your times tables. Ive
seen for myself your appalling handwriting. Looks like a spider fell into an
inkwell, clambered out and staggered across the page. And now you cant
even be bothered to get to school on time.
As Bert reddened, Stock went on:
Youre never going to amount to anything, are you?
Youre all the same, you rabble. For your edification I urge
you to listen to the Third Programme on the wireless, or at least the Home
Service, but Im wasting my breath, pearls before swine
have you got to say for yourself, miladdo? Something profound, no
The boy looked down at the liver-coloured lino
and said nothing. His stomach rumbled. He was hungry. There hadnt been
anything to eat for breakfast.
Cat got your tongue? asked Stock. Then he screamed: Take your
hands out of your pockets!
As Bert flinched, and immediately obeyed, he
demanded: Didnt you hear the whistle go, with all that filthy muck
in your ears?
Er, no, sir, mumbled Bert.
Oh? And where were you when it went?
Dont know, sir.
Dont know, sir, repeated Stock in a singsong. He snorted
disgust, making his nose whistle. How can you not know? Where were you?
Speak up. Why have you been late every single day this week? Im sick and
tired of thrashing you
Erm, Ive got a paper round, sir.
Stock sneered. Have you really? How fascinating. Please accept my
heartiest congratulations. And then be so good as to tell me what that has to
do with the price of eggs.
Its a very long one, sir, and the last house is blummin miles
away. So I cant get here on time.
Oh ye loaves and little fishes. Imbecile! Just get up earlier and start
your round earlier.
I cant start it till the mans sorted out the papers for me,
sir. Ive asked him to do it a bit earlier, but he told me to er,
he told me to shut up, said he only give me the job as a favour to me mam
cause he feels sorry for her.
Well, youll just have to give up the paper round. As simple as
Please, sir, I cant, sir, quavered Bert. Me mamll
kill us. She made me take it on, said we need the money, shes got seven
hungry mouths to feed and she cant manage all on her own.
The headmaster raised his eyes in exasperation
and gazed out of the small, high window at the grey sky. Then he snapped:
What about your father? You do have a father, I suppose?
Bert Evans swallowed. Hes dead,
I dont want to do the paper round, sir, really I dont, the
poshest house has a flippin big Alsatian that lies in wait for me and
goes for me every day, Im dead scared of it, but me mam makes me do
Thats no excuse. Get another paper round. If you must worship
Erm, there isnt another one down our way, sir. Theres nowt
Very well. In that case you will start each day with six of the best. I
will not have pupils coming in late. If I dont punish you, that will be
it, the thin end of the wedge, and discipline in the school will break down,
irrevocably. And Im not having that. I will have discipline, do you
With a miserable nod Bert said: Yes,
Stock grunted. Right. Get out of my
sight, boy. And be sure to be on time tomorrow. Or else.
Mr Miller, the headmaster, hurried back to the
hall from unblocking one of the girls toilets, breathing deeply to clear
his nose. He was relieved to see the breakfast club monitors thumbs-up to
indicate that there had been no problems while he was gone. He murmured:
Thank you, Gabriela. Another girl had come in while he was away,
and Gabriela gave him the girls pound coin.
He raised his hand to cover a haggard yawn as
he scanned the room, to check that everything really was OK. All the cereal and
milk had gone, and the yoghurt and orange juice; and the poor little sods had
been so hungry that theyd even eaten nearly all of the wizened apples
from his allotment. He must remember to bring in some more tomorrow. The
latecomer was crouched over, inhaling toast and jam, but the rest were on to
the activities. The Snakes and Ladders board was now in two parts (hed
have to Sellotape it back together later), and Mo was still looking for the
missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. But the colouring books and crayons that
Mrs Jones had donated were a big hit. Oprah was being quiet for once, and
seemed to be making a hideous, malformed monster from playdough. Or maybe it
was just an Education Minister. Meera was playing on her phone again.
He snapped his fingers and said:
Gabriela, sorry, could you keep an eye on them again for a bit? He
bustled off to check on the classroom hired last night by "8 2 Much Slimmers".
There he moved the desks back into place, and was intrigued to find several
Mars Bar and Kit Kat wrappers in the wastepaper bin. There was a brown pool on
the floor next to it. Was it just coffee, or had someone got a hell of a shock
when they were weighed and saw how much weight theyd put on? Hed
mop that up before the kids came into class.
When he got back to the hall, he saw that the
latecomer had finished eating and was drawing something, while sucking the end
of her cardie. That put his teeth on edge. He could see her face now and
recognized her Kylie Evans. He hadnt taught her yet, but he did
teach her brother Charlie. He sighed, feeling guilty. Charlie was a decent
enough lad, but not all that bright and not interested in any of his lessons.
Yesterday hed sat at the back of the class just brushing an avalanche of
dandruff from his scalp on to his exercise book. He hadnt had time to
spare on Charlie while trying to stop Jimmy Merrill and his Marauders from
disrupting all the others. Charlie was a boy who needed one-on-one tuition, but
they just didnt have the resources for that. His parents didnt seem
to care, never came to parents evenings at least. So the poor sod would
carry on doing badly and end up on zero hours contracts or universal credit.
Unless when he got to the comprehensive
He pursed his lips, and then started, at a
thud at the far end of the hall. A ceiling tile had fallen down. Thank god none
of the children were near it. When he went to pick it up, he saw a stain on it
like a bloated rat, with whiskers and a tail. Then a drip hit him on the head.
Christ, now the bloody ceiling was leaking. Oh great, that was all he needed on
top of all the other shit. They didnt have the money to fix that. What
the hell was he supposed to do? Hed have to put together yet another
appeal for help to the parents. He moved a wastepaper bin there to catch the
drips and squashed the tile into it. The tile crumbled, leaving him worried
that there might be asbestos in it.
He looked out of the window to see how heavy
the rain was. It was a soaking drizzle from a dingy sky, and had already turned
the wall around the schoolyard a darker grey. He ran a hand through his hair,
hoping the rain wouldnt get worse. Then he caught sight of Charlie Evans
in his stained Messi shirt standing in the drizzle. The moisture had got a
snail-trail of dirt oozing from his head down his neck.
At the second try Mr Miller managed to wrench
the window open. He shouted: Charlie, what are you doing out there in the
rain? Why arent you in the breakfast club? Theres still some toast
and apples left.
Charlie frowned and looked down at the ground.
Then he mumbled: Oh no, youre all right, Mr Miller
Er, me mam
only had one pound, so I brought our Kylie here for the