All gas and no gaiters

5th August 2005 at 01:00
My secretary had been off for six weeks, suffering from the after-effects of a divorce, a hysterectomy and a wedding - but not necessarily in that order. The council hasn't an agreement with any agencies, so we made do with Simon's former au pair, the lovely Maria.

Maria had filled several roles and, indeed rolls, for Simon, but that is not our concern here. Maria wasn't the greatest at balancing the books, completing forms or registers, but I will concede that her keyboard skills were impressive. Her dress sense was impressive, especially to Jannie Jim.

It was August again, and the beach at Hvar was a distant memory, fading as quickly as my tan and my enthusiasm for another term at St Pat's. I was knee-deep in letters, most of which would be classed as irrelevant, when Maria burst in.

"Senora, Senora McElroy he-ees-comming! He ees comming! Heemself!" Maria was crossing herself in rapid fire and obviously having a religious experience of sorts. She was waving her hands in the air and praising the Lord, re-crossing herself and genuflecting - almost a dead ringer for an early 1970s Pan's People disco routine. I sat her down and poured her a cup of reassuring Kenyan coffee (Fair Trade, of course).

She was trembling with excitement, as she recounted her telephone message.

The Archbishop himself was coming to St Pat's to conduct a special service.

He knew it was in the summer holidays, and that this could be inconvenient.

Three words came to mind - Oh, my and God! She was sure that was what was happening. Even after five cross-interrogations, she was sure. The Archbishop - himself!

In my entire career, I have never seen such widespread panic spread throughout the school and the community. I phoned Simon to tell him the news. He was delighted. I phoned the Director's PA - he was on holiday. I phoned Father McGregor - he was in Madeira. I quickly phoned round the staff to tell them the good news. Most were back home after holidays, therapies and, in Susan's case, a "retreat". Or was it a rare treat?

A new outfit was definitely called for. Was it a floppy hat and white gloves job? I phoned Joan. She thought I should alert media at the council offices. It was a quiet time for news, and the gobbledegook gang went into overdrive.

Before you could say scoop, the assembled guest list grew arms and legs.

Marjory, the area officer, would be there, as would the former RE adviser, now masquerading as a DO, and offering advice to us mere mortals trying to manage primary schools. Father McGregor's locum would be there, providing the visit didn't clash with his duties to the poor and needy of the parish - or a visit to the big Celtic pre-season match.

All the local papers would try to send a photographer, and the local radio newshounds would be there to do a live "piece".

The Great Man was due to arrive on the Thursday at 10am. I needed an audience of scrubbed, disinfected, pious infants and obedient children.

Rehearsals would be essential - and a hand-picked cast. I decided to trawl the registers and call up all the tried and trusted families to ascertain availability. Music was specially chosen for a summer occasion, and the weather forecast looked good.

I had managed to construct a staff, a guard of honour, a welcoming committee and an audience - no mean feat for the first few days of August and while the children were still on holiday.

My beloved would never find the till receipt which revealed that the cost of my new outfit exceeded the cost of the Croatian holiday. Aren't shredders wonderful?

It was a glorious day. The sun shone. The children looked almost angelic, even if we had a few "ringers" from some families. They were, however, good Catholic "ringers".

The place was crawling with reporters, radio people and television crews.

Marjory reeked of cheap scent, courtesy of Luton airport, and the REDO looked suitably serene.

The hour arrived and nothing happened. The first of the infants fainted.

Simon flapped. Maria blessed herself - again.

Then a stupid van pulled up in front of the school gates. I raced out to usher the driver away. "You can't park here. Clear off! We're expecting a VIP - any minute now!"

What stupid prat would park here? It was obvious something big was about to happen.

I looked at the identity card round his neck. I looked. I saw. I nearly fainted.

It said - Archie Bishop, Gas Services.

Archie Bishop, himself, was indeed visiting the school. He was conducting a service of the boilers. He had phoned the school and spoken to what he described as a "nice wee Italian-sounding lassie".

I looked at the crowd in front of the school. Archie said a bad word. A very bad word.

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