If you’re a regular bleader then you won’t be fazed by the randomness of this blog. Mainly satirical, sometimes just cross and occasionally spinning together some personal experiences with contemporary (and prehistoric [blog 4]) observations. Well – this week it’s a blog flog / free extract from my second novel. 2013 opened with a blaunch but there hasn’t been a blog flog since ‘Concretized’ – blog 8. So here is a short extract from Eating the Vinyl. Set against the wasteland of an 80s comprehensive, the book explores issues of contemporary masculinity and dysfunctional love. Through misplaced hero worship, John Ardle, a hardened disinterested teacher, becomes the idol of a vulnerable mixed-race teenaged pupil. The boy's disastrous life is about to become inextricably and dangerously involved with his own. The section below is from the chapter that snapshots their first exchange.
The boy’s attitude entered the classroom before he did. It saturated the previously benign space with simmering, skulking anger.
“Oh right, you. Who are you?”
said the teacher; in the deeply disinterested, slightly bored tone, which was kept especially for detentions. Too late, John realised that he did not have the detention list, which would have told him which pupils were on detention, why and what their respective captors wanted them to do for penance.
drawled the boy in a voice, which matched the teacher’s tone for tone. Again John was reluctantly impressed.
John said, now moving up a notch to the, ‘this is a disappointment / we’ve all been here before / we’re wasting your time and mine’ intonation, which was reserved for the harder cases. This was obviously one such. The boy dragged in looking casually at the empty seats. He sauntered up and down the aisles as if making up his mind where to sit. John knew this was calculated to aggravate but it was too late in the week and too early in the day to let it rile. Let him take his time and John’s for that matter, there was plenty to go round. John Ardle studiously ignored Alex Simmonds until the detainee settled on a seat right in the centre of the room as if to allow his bad vibes to circle freely about him like harpies. The boy scraped the chair back, knocked the desk, banged his bag down, burped loudly. John remained carefully impervious, looking in his bag between folders for the elusive paper, blind to actions calculated to irritate, deaf to noises intended to shock. But then John Ardle made his first mistake. It was a small one, but it was a mistake nevertheless and unforgivable in one as adept at maintaining distance as he thought he was. Afterwards he’d no idea how the miscalculation occurred.
Peering expectantly into the gap of the still open doorway, John Ardle enquired,
“Where is the other lad?”
It was a mistake because it showed that he had made a judgement about the disruption he’d witnessed in the corridor. It showed that he might not think Alex Simmonds was entirely to blame. It showed that the teacher had, from a clear vantage point, taken note of the situation and believed that someone else might be culpable. It could have been six and two threes or even four and two… anyway it was a mistake. You’d have to be experienced in these subtle complexities to realise just how much of a blunder it was. John knew. Unfortunately the moment was not lost on Alex Simmonds.
said Alex, leaning his chin on his bag and looking round the room as if he’d never seen a classroom before. Over the boy’s studied expression of sullen disinterest there flickered the merest trace of… something… John could not have told you what it was. It took some control not to loudly curse his own lack of caution.
John was flustered - momentarily. Not good. He was angry with himself and unaccountably nettled with the boy for wasting time. Not that time was a commodity he was short of, he reminded himself, in an attempt to stabilise his position. Trying to revive his best I-can’t-be-bothered air to neutralise the error John said brusquely,
“Get a book out lad”.
It didn’t quite work. John must have been tired he concluded. The boy countered by asking what he should read.
“Whatever you’ve got with you,”
John said evenly, without looking at his captive. He had found yesterday’s paper in the desk drawer amongst the rest of the incredible amount of rubbish that had already accumulated. That would have to do. But the boy wasn’t letting the matter drop.
“I’ve only got work books in my bag Sir.”
He said the word ‘Sir’ as if it was an afterthought or he was just about to spit. It was easy to see why the likes of Len Barrow could not cope with Alex Simmonds. John plunged into the bag again and pulled out the first thing that came to hand. He had been grinding through English that day for a stand-in class. Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. John Ardle threw the book expertly.
Chucking texts accurately is something a smart teacher learns early on. There is a particular art to it so that it saves your shoe leather, doesn’t cause too much damage to the book and shows disdain for the receiver. You have to flick the wrist so that the book spins slightly on the flat rather than tumbling through the air. The former will lead to a satisfying slap as the book comes to rest, still closed, on the front or back cover, the latter can result in the book landing splayed and possibly on the floor. The text landed with a healthy thump on the desk next to the one the boy was sitting at. With a curled lip and poking the book with the tip of a long slim finger, Alex looked at the cover and then, without opening it, said in mock-dramatic,
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times-”
John cut him off,
and threw a slimmer volume, George Elliot, ‘Silas Marner’.
“Mmm,” said Alex, “Golden haired girl in surprise love shock”
and tossed the book back, yawning extravagantly. The book landed on the very edge of John Ardle’s wide desk, threatening to tip off. John had to lean quickly to retrieve it. The boy had reduced him to playing catch with his own books. Perhaps Barlow had a point. The only other book in the bag was John’s own copy of Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’. He drew it out, walked over to the boy’s desk, placed it down deliberately, pinning it with one finger for a moment while the boy rocked back on his seat, looking anywhere but at the teacher. Then he walked slowly back to the teacher’s chair. As John re-seated himself he enunciated sharply,
“I don’t care if you’ve read it before, open the cover and look at the text as if you are reading it. Do that for the next…” he checked his watch, “forty seven minutes.”
Then John Ardle focused down at the tattered paper, determined not to take any notice of the boy again until the session was over.
Bill, the caretaker, went past but as the new teacher did not respond to the extended brushing of the particular piece of corridor just outside the detention room, he moved off to try to find distraction elsewhere. The Head of Year looked in as she went by, just to be polite but as neither of the room’s occupants noticed, she went back to her classroom. John expected she was glad not to have to make small talk when she would rather be tidying up and completing lesson plans.
John Ardle had no idea what he read in that time. The printed word fed through eye sockets and went directly to yet another handy brain compartment, this one marked dross – do-not-register. It was the nearest he got to sleep. With time still to run, John drifted back to full consciousness and noted that the boy was in fact reading the book. They didn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the forty-seven minutes.
“Alright lad; off you go.”
The boy stood up without speaking, his air of challenge muted perhaps. The atoms in the room were not vibrating at quite the pitch they had been when the session started. As Alex was passing by the teacher’s desk to exit, John Ardle committed the second stupid error. He noticed that the boy had a bruise below his right eye, the surrounding puffy flesh indicating that it was newer than the detention-related injuries. He blurted out,
“You didn’t do that on Monday?”
It came out as a question rather than a statement. It should not have come out at all. The boy looked at the teacher with that startled-by-headlights expression but replied as if he were commenting on the weather,
“No, my step dad gave me that for getting beaten up on the first day of term,” and he smiled briefly, awkwardly. It was as if he were as taken aback at answering frankly as John was at inviting the response in the first place. The boy bit his bottom lip and frowned. His eyes darted over John’s face, searching. The teacher was over exposed, the boy suddenly more childlike. Then Alex shrugged his shoulders, resumed his piss-off attitude and slung his school bag over his back.
Eating the Vinyl is available in traditional format and also now as an e-book on Amazon. For a quick link go to the side column headed ‘Amanda’s Books’.