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"Mr. Kelly, which football team do you support?"
As I strolled along the edge of the pitch clutching a football underneath each arm, I considered fourteen-year-old Martin Acker and his question carefully. He had been the last of my pupils to leave the pitch and I knew for a fact that he'd lingered with the specific intention of asking me his question, because amongst other things, not only was he genuinely inquisitive as to where my footballing allegiances lay, he also had no friends and had selected me as his companion on that long and lonely walk back to the changing rooms. He was quite literally covered head to foot in Wood Green Comprehensive School football pitch mud, which was a remarkable achievement for someone who hadn't touched the ball all evening. Of his footballing prowess, there was little doubt in my mind that he was the worst player I'd ever witnessed. He knew it, and he knew that I knew it, and yet I didn't have the heart to drop him from the team, because what he lacked in skill, he more than made up for in enthusiasm. This was of great encouragement to me, proving that for some, the futility of an occupation was not in itself a reason to give up.
While Martin was hopeless at playing soccer but excelled in its trivia, I, on the other hand, could neither play, teach nor fake an interest in this most tedious of distractions. Owing to PE staff shortages and the need to impress my superiors, the mob of fourteen-year-olds that made up the year-eight B-team was entirely my responsibility. The headmaster, Mr. Tucker, had been much impressed when I volunteered for the task, but the truth was less than altruistic: It was either football or the school drama club. The thought of spending two dinner times per week, aiding and abetting the kids to butcher My Fair Lady, this term's production, made football the less depressing option, but only marginally so. I was an English teacher--created to read books, drink cups of sugary tea and popularize sarcasm as a higher form of wit. I was not designed to run about in shorts on freezing cold autumnal evenings.
I peered down at Martin, just as he was looking up to see if I'd forgotten his question.
"Manchester United," I lied.
"Oh, sir, everyone supports Man U.
"I don't know, sir."
And that was that. We continued our walk in silence, even failing to disturb the large number of urban seagulls gathered, wading and pecking in the mud, by the corner post. I had the feeling Martin wanted to engage me in more football talk but couldn't think of anything else to ask.
Martin's fellow teammates were bellowing and screaming so loudly that I was alert to their mayhem before I even reached the changing room doors. Inside, chaos reigned--Kevin Rossiter was hanging upside down by his legs from a hot water pipe that spanned the room; Colin Christie was snapping his towel on James Lee's bare buttocks; and Julie Whitcomb, oblivious to the events going on around her, was tucked in a corner of the changing room engrossed in Wuthering Heights, one of the set texts I was teaching my year-eight class this term.
"Are you planning to get changed?" I asked sardonically.
Julie withdrew her amply freckled nose from the novel, squinting as she raised her head to meet my gaze. The look of bewilderment on her face revealed that she had failed to understand the question.
"These are changing rooms, Julie," I stated firmly, shaking my head in disbelief. "Boys' changing rooms, to be exact. As you are neither a boy nor getting changed may I suggest that you leave?"
"I would, Mr. Kelly, but I can't," she explained. "You see, I'm waiting for my boyfriend."
I was intrigued. "Who's your boyfriend?"
"Clive O'Rourke, sir."
I nodded my head. I hadn't the faintest clue who Clive O'Rourke was.
"Is he a year eight, Julie?"
"No, sir, he's in year eleven."
"Julie," I said, trying to break the bad news to her gently, "year elevens don't have football practice today."
"Don't they, sir? Clive said to meet him here after football practice and not to move until he came to get me."
She dropped her book into her rucksack and slowly picked up her jacket, as though her thought processes were draining her of power, like a computer trying to run too many programs at once.
"How long have you been going out with Clive?" I asked, casually.
She examined the worn soles of her scuffed Nike trainers intently before answering. "Since dinnertime, sir," she confessed quietly. "I asked him out while he was in the dinner queue buying pizza, beans and chips in the canteen."
Hearing this tale of devotion which included remembering details of a beloved's lunch was genuinely moving. My eyes flitted down to my watch. It was quarter past six. School had finished nearly three hours ago.
I'm afraid you've been the victim of a practical joke," I said, spelling it out in case the penny hadn't dropped. "Somehow I don't think Clive's going to turn up."
She turned her head toward me briefly before examining her trainers once again. It was clear she was more heartbroken than embarassed, her eyes squinting, desperately trying to hold back the tears, and her lips pressed tightly together, attempting to lock in the sobs trying to escape. Eventually, she allowed herself the luxury of a carefully controlled sigh, rose and picked up her bag.
"Are you going to be all right?" I asked, even though it was obvious that she wasn't.
With tears already forming in her eyes she said, "Yes, sir, I'll be all right."
I watched her all the way to the changing room doors, by which time her grief was audible. Some teachers might have thought no more of her, but not I. Her image remained in my head for some time because in the few brief moments we'd shared, I had realized that Julie Whitcomb was closer in kind to myself than anyone I'd ever met. She was one of us -- one who interpreted every failure, whether small or large, as the outworking of Fate's personal vendetta. Clive O'Rourke's name would never be forgotten, it would be permanently etched on her brain just as my ex-girlfriend's was on mine. And at some point in the future, mostly likely after completing her journey through the education system right up to degree level, she'd realize that a life pining after the Clive O'Rourkes of this world had made her bitter and twisted enough to join the teaching profession.
The sound of a small boy emitting a noise roughly approximating Whhhhhhoooooooorrrrrrrraaaaaahhhh!!! signaled that Keven Rossiter had changed adrenaline sports and was now racing around the far changing room, naked but for his underpants on his head. I couldn't begin to fathom his motivation for such a stunt, let alone find the required energy to tell him off this close to the weekend, and so, sighing heavily, I slipped unnoticed into the PE department's tiny office, closing the door behind me.
Rooting around in my bag, I discovered my fags, slightly crushed under the weight of my year eights' exercise books--I had one left. I mentally totted up those that had fallen: five on the way to work, two in the staff room before registration, three during morning break, ten during lunch break. It was difficult to work out which was the more depressing thought: the fact that I--who had only in the last three years made the jump from social smoker to anti-social smoker--had managed to get through enough cigarettes to give an elephant lung cancer or that I hadn't noticed until now.
As the nicotine took effect, I relaxed and decided that I was going to stay in my small but perfectly formed refuge until the last of the Little People had disappeared. After half an hour, the shouting and screaming died down to a gentle hubbub and then blissful silence. Pulling the door ajar and using my body to block the smoke in, I peered through the crack to make sure the coast was clear. It wasn't. Martin Acker was still there. he was dressed from the top down but was having difficulty putting on his trousers, mainly because he already had his shoes on.
Bewildered, Martin scanned the entire room nervously before locating the source of the bellow.
"Haven't you got a home to go to?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," he said dejectedly.
"Then go home, boy!"
Within seconds he'd kicked off his footwear, pulled on his trousers, pushed his shoes back on, grabbed his things and shuffled out of the changing rooms, shouting "Have a good weekend, sir" as he went through the doors.
The newsagent's en route to the tube was manned by a lone fat Asian woman who was busily attempting to serve three customers at once while keeping an eye on two Wood Green Comprehensive boys, lingering with intent by a copy of Razzle, which is someone far taller than they had thoughtfully left on the middle shelf. When my turn came to be served, without taking her eyes off the boys, she located my Marlboro Lights and placed them on the counter. It was at this point in the transaction that I got stuck; Twix wrappers, torn pieces of silver paper from a pack of Polos and fluff were the nearest items I had to coins of the realm. The shopkeeper, tutting loudly, put my fags back on the shelf and started serving the man behind me a quarter of bonbons before I even had a chance to apologize. As I brushed past the boys, their faces gleefully absorbing the now open pages of Razzle, I berated myself for not having used my lunch hour more wisely with a visit to the cash machine on High Street. Smoking myself senseless in the staff room seemed so important then, but now, penniless and fagless, I wished with my whole heart that I believed in moderation more fervently.
Stepping out into the cold, damp, Wood Green evening, gloomily illuminated by a faculty lamppost flickering like a disco light, three women, approaching from my right, caught my attention, due to the dramatic way they froze--one of them even letting out a tiny yelp of surprise--when they saw me. It took a few seconds but I soon realized why these women were so taken aback: they weren't women--they were girls. Girls to whom I taught English literature.
"Sonya Pritchard, Emma Anderson, Pulavi Khan: come back here now!" I commanded.
In spite of everything their bodies were telling them, which was probably something along the lines of "Run for your lives!" or "Ignore him, he's the teacher that always smells of Polos," they did as they'd always been told, although very much at their own pace. By the time they'd sulkily shuffled into my presence they'd prepared their most disconsolate faces as a sort of visual protest for the hard-of-hearing.
Pulavi opened the case for the defense. "We weren't doing nothin', sir."
"No, sir, we weren't doing nothin', " added Sonya, backing up her friend.
Emma remained silent, hoping that I wouldn't notice the furtive manner in which she held her hands behind her back.
"Turn around, please, Emma," I asked sternly.
"Sir, you can't do anything to us, sir," moaned Sonya miserably. "We're not under your jurisdiction outside of school."
I noted Sonya's use of the word "jurisdiction." Normally I would've been impressed by any of my pupils using a word containing more than two syllables, but "jurisdiction" was the type of word only ever employed by characters on shows like Baywatch Nights--which was more than likely where she'd gotten it from. "Jurisdicature," however, was the sort of word shunned by TV private eyes, tabloid newspapers and teenagers alike, and definitly would've earned my deepest admiration.
"Okay," I said, feigning acute boredom, "if that's how you want it. But I wouldn't want to be you on Monday, though."
It occurred to me that perhaps I was being a bit of a bastard, after all; they were right, this wasn't school time and this wasn't any of my business. The only answer I could think of to defend myself was that being fagless had turned me into a grumpy old sod who enjoyed annoying teenagers.
"That's not fair, sir," moaned Pulavi rather aptly.
"Welcome to the real world," I chided, rocking back on my heels smugly. "Life isn't fair--never has been and never will be." I turned my attention to Emma. "Now, are you going to show me what you're hiding or not?"
Reluctantly she held out her hands in front of me, revealing three cigarettes sandwiched between her fingers, their amber tips glowing wantonly.
I tutted loudly, employing a carbon-copy "tut" of the kind my mother had used on me for some twenty-five years. All week I'd found myself doing impressions of people in authority: my mother, teachers from Grange Hill, Margaret Thatcher--in a vain attempt to stop them from running idiot.
"You know that you shouldn't be smoking, don't you?" I scolded.
"Yes, Mr. Kelly," they replied in sullen unison.
"You know these things will kill you, don't you?"
"Yes, Mr. Kelly."
"Well, put them out right now, please."
Emma dropped the cigarettes--Benson & Hedges, if I wasn't mistaken--on the pavement, and extinguished them with a twisting of her heel.
I'm going to let you off this time," I said, eyeing Emma's shoes sadly. "Just don't let me see you at it again."
"Yes, Mr. Kelly," they replied.
I picked up my bag and began to walk off, momentarily feeling like a Rooster Cogburn-John Wayne single-handedly sorting out the baddest gang of desperadoes this side of Turnpike Lane, but after two steps I turned around and surrendered.
"Er, girls..." I called out. "I don't suppose you've got a spare ciggy, have you?"
My good work went up in smoke. I'd balanced my job's requirement for discipline against my desire for a nicotine rush, and the Cigarette had won. As smokers, my pupils understood my dilemma; that is, once they stopped laughing. Pulavi delved into her moc-croc handbag and offered me one of her Benson & Hedges.
"You smoke Benson & Hedges?" I asked needlessly, taking one from her outstretched hand.
"Yeah, since I was twelve," she replied, her face half hidden by her handbag as she searched for a lighter. "What do you smoke, sir?"
"Sir probably smokes Woodbines," joked Sonya.
"Marlboro Lights, actually," I replied tersely.
Pulavi discovered her lighter and lit my cigarette.
"I had a Marlboro Light once," chipped in Emma. "It was like sucking on air. You wanna smoke proper fags, sir. Only poofs smoke Marlboro Lights."
Once again they all dissolved into fits of laughter. I thanked them and attempted to leave their company but they insisted they were going in my direction. Linking arms, they trailed by my side. I felt like a dog owner taking three poodles for a walk.
"We're going up to the West End, sir," said Emma, bustling with energy.
"Yeah, we're off on the pull," added Pulavi, smiling the kind of filthy grin that would have put Sid James to shame.
"Yeah, we're going to the Hippodrome, sir," said Sonya. "D'you fancy coming with us?"
Their question made me think of going out, not with them of course--that would've been unthinkable--but going out in general. I didn't know a single soul in London, and had nothing planned for the weekend, so it was still some wonder to me why, when a few of the younger teachers in the staff room had asked me if I was free for a drink after work, I'd told them I was busy.
"You've got no chance of getting in there," I said, shaking my head knowingly, partly for their benefit but mostly because I was still reflecting on the sorry excuse of a weekend I had in store for myself."
"You're joking, aren't you?" squealed Sonya. "We go there every weekend."
"Don't you think we look eighteen, sir? asked Emma.
For the first time during the conversation I recalled what had alarmed me so much in the first moments of our encounter. I knew them to be fourteen-year-olds, but the girls trailing after me were far more worldly than their biological years indicated. Emma had squeezed her frankly overdeveloped chest into a bra top, barely large enough to cover her modesty, matched with a short silver skirt. Sonya wore a lime green velvet covered top, combined with an incredibly short blue satin skirt that, whenever she moved her upper body, raised itself an inch higher, instantly revealing more thigh than was strictly necessary. Pulavi had opted for a pair of leopar-print hot pants and a sheer orange blouse, through which was black. Wonderbra was clearly visible to the world at large. I was truly mortified.