The Teacher’s Car – a short story
A confession stirs long-dead memories
Paul had been sent to see me by one of the deputies. He told me what he had been able to learn about the incident. It was very difficult to accept the boy’s version, but he was consistent in his account of the matter and would not budge.
My secretary knocked on the door and showed Paul in. He walked towards the chair that I had placed in front of my desk. Unsure whether to sit or not, he stumbled against the chair and then attempted to stand up straight and still. He was thin and gangling, about average height – he had shot up since his first year when he had arrived looking like what was once known as a weedy specimen.
“Sit down please Paul.”
He sat and looked vaguely in my direction.
“I want you to pay attention, Paul. I have to see you now because Mr Grover has complained that his car was badly scratched while it was parked in school last Tuesday afternoon. You were seen in the teachers’ car park which is out of bounds. You were seen in between Mr Grover’s car and another car. You were holding something in your hand, something that could have been a key, or a coin, or some other sharp object that was used to scratch his car’s paintwork. And it was very badly scratched.”
An outraged Mr Grover had shown me the offending marks. There was something odd about the damage, something controlled and deliberate, almost intimidating, like a particularly neat piece of graffiti. It had not been done in the usual style – long scratches made as you walk briskly by, hoping not to be noticed. No. Whoever had done this had stood or crouched by the car for a few moments while writing in what, given the circumstances, was quite a neat hand.
Mr Grover was of the stocky variety of PE teacher, and beyond his prime. It was not difficult to see how the perpetrator might have angered him almost beyond control. There were two words: You bastard.
Did he suspect anyone; had he punished anyone earlier?
“No, no, headmaster. Just a normal morning – usual thing. Hurry them into their kit, get them warmed up, explain what we were going to do – you know the score.”
“Did you get cross with any of them?
“No more than usual – you know what an idle bunch that class is.”
“Did you have to deal with any individuals?” He paused, looked at me, then thought for a moment.
“Young Blake – no kit again. Gave him a bit of earache over that.” He thought again for a second. “No, nothing really.”
“So, you’ve no idea who might have done this then?”
“No. I just want the little sod caught and hammered, otherwise they’ll all be at it. Sam’s going to help me with me claim form.” Sam was his union rep.
The boy was waiting for me.
“Paul, you told Mr Golding that you only made one of the marks. Is that right? You only made one mark on the car?”
The boy nodded. His eyes were fixed on a spot on the carpet, somewhere near his left trainer.
“Paul, you were the only student seen anywhere near the cars that afternoon. It’s not very easy to believe that anyone else was involved.” He sat there and said nothing and I sat there and watched him.
His hands were busy with each other and his gaze remained fixed on the floor. Then he adjusted his position on the chair and for a moment I wondered whether a less comfortable chair would have hastened this part of the proceedings.
“It was Charlie.”
“Do you mean Charlie Blake?” Paul nodded.
“What did he have to do with it?” Before I had finished my question he was shaking his head vehemently.
“No, he didn’t do it sir, it was just that old Grover, er, Mr Grover got onto him again.”
“Everything – no kit, he’s no good at PE – never tries, scives off when he can. You know sir.” Did he really believe that I knew? He continued.
“He’s always like that with Charlie, and one or two others as well as me.”
There was another pause; Paul’s preparation required a moment or two.
“Got so mad sir. Some other kid bullying your mate, you can stand up for them a bit. But not when it’s a teacher.”
“So you’re saying that Mr Grover bullies you and some of the other boys.”
I was wary, a sort of professional wariness. Teachers have all heard this kind of thing before.
“What happens when he bullies you?”
“He shouts at yer, eyeballs you and you can’t get away. Makes sarky remarks about the way you look and yer performance and if you chicken out, like over the box, he stamps his foot or pretends to cry. Sometimes he gets the others to watch you when you’re nervous.”
I made a mental note to include the PE Department on my next round of visits to lessons.
“I can understand this, Paul, but it doesn’t justify damaging Mr Grover’s car, does it?”
The boy looked up at me and shook his head.
“Tell me Paul, was there any one else involved in scratching Mr Grover’s car?”
This time Paul did not look up but he shook his head again. I took a deep breath.
“Have you said anything to your parents, or other teachers about Mr Grover?”
The boy shook his head with sudden energy. I continued.
“I’m probably going to have to present your parents with a bill for repairs. It won’t be a small bill either. What do you think they are going to say?”
“He’ll belt me sir, I know he will. Look.” He rolled his sleeve up above his skinny arm and there, right across his upper arm there emerged a long, black and yellow bruise.
Later that day Charlie Blake found himself in the chair. He confirmed the impressions of Mr Grover given by Paul. I made the usual adjustments for schoolboy exaggeration and cooperative memory.
On my desk next Tuesday morning I found an estimate for repairs to Mr Grover’s car. Fortunately, Paul’s handiwork had occupied only the driver’s door, but it still amounted to a sum that most of our parents would not want to fork out unexpectedly.
I recalled three incidents, way back, from my own school days.
At eleven, I had listened to his invitation to us newcomers to learn to play a musical instrument. For eighteen months I had returned each week to the staff room, at his bidding, to see whether he had been able to have one of the school’s trombones repaired. Somewhere, I had been impressed with the instrument’s sound and the energetic jerking in and out of the slide. Halfway through my second year I gave up waiting for the trombone and rejected all things musical emanating from the school. This was a pity because, for those prepared to involve themselves, the school provided excellent opportunities, not least in the choir and the orchestra. Those of us who were not “musical” came to resent his disregard for us, and his displays of self-importance.
At thirteen we had a music lesson with this teacher, once a week, immediately after lunch. Soon, we realised that he would rarely arrive before the halfway point and a builder left a pile of soft red bricks outside, bricks that were to become new science laboratories. The devil, or some one, had certainly left work for our idle hands. How many bricks we wondered one afternoon, could be fitted into an upright piano? We had no sooner found out – there was space for twenty – when the master returned, sat immediately at the piano and played to us, seemingly unaware of any changes, subtle or otherwise, that our ingenuity had effected.
The next summer, he swept into a woodwork lesson. It was a very hot afternoon in the middle of June. The brass latch on the door snapped shut and there was a weary silence.
“Mr Adnams, Doctor Tanner, the new headmaster, wants you to build me an organ in the hall.”
Those of us who had not already stopped work, stopped then. Mr Adnams stood there in his brown warehouse coat, next to the music master who was wearing his academic gown, despite the heat. From the warehouse coat a pencil was produced and some rapidly muttered details were transferred to the back of an envelope. Music, apparently, was going to transform the school. Satisfied, the music master took his leave. Again the brass latch clacked into place. Not one of us moved. To his eternal credit, Mr Adnams happily acknowledged our involvement in the exchange. He stood there, still and unmoving, looking over at us, his charges.
“Eeh,” he said. “I’ll build ‘im a bloody coffin first.”
On our last day at school – we had not long finished our O-levels – there was little organised for us so we had time to socialize and amuse ourselves. About mid-morning we came across the music master’s old car. It was a pre-war wreck, dumped among the A 40s, the Zodiacs and at least one mini. It had taken up a permanent residence when MOT testing of cars had been introduced a year or so before. We opened the boot and were disappointed not to find more empty bottles. Around us were younger children, still in school uniform. Soon they were recruited to the cause and the dirty black car had been turned and was being guided down the gentle slope of the playground to the top of the steps that led to the lower field. No one actually drove the car – it was manhandled front and rear by an overwhelming hoard of gleeful children whose presence was enough to control its progress. When the need arose to steer the beast, it was easy enough to insert an arm through the driver’s window.
It was all very foolish and very irresponsible, but we were able to do it and it was a last gesture from the limited repertoire that is the lot of adolescence. No one was hurt, and I think we made sure that younger children were cleared out of the way, but there came a point when the car was launched down the steps and then nothing on earth would have stopped it.
Except for the wooden hut at the bottom of the steps where the hockey equipment was stored; one corner was knocked clean away and the hut adopted a raffish, drunken posture. The car bounced to a halt and parked itself a few yards off as if nothing had happened.
At afternoon registration, we were summoned to the hall, all eight hundred of us. The headmaster stood there, up on the stage, shaking with anger.
“I am going to find out who pushed a teacher’s car down the steps to the lower field this lunchtime?”
The headmaster was less popular than his predecessor. I calculated that he would have trouble finding people to confess, so keeping quiet was going to be the best ploy. A friend, standing next to me on this very quiet occasion, agreed.
And that was the last we heard of it until, years later at a school reunion, a well-regarded contemporary told me that he and a few others who had owned up had been caned for their trouble.
There was a knock at the office door. It was my secretary.
“Paul Jordan’s parents are here to see you headmaster.”