Countdown to ecstasy
Our last precious day of holiday was spoiled somewhat by the tearful arrival of Dawn Sherratt at the front door. The wretched girl - a pupil in Gail's primary school - has been inconsolable since her return from holiday last week and the consequent discovery that the class guinea-pig had died while in the care of the Simpson household.
Gail had concocted a wondrous tale about a mysterious illness that had struck down the creature with astonishing rapidity and very little pain, but she has still to forgive me over the true facts behind Kweek-Kweek's unfortunate demise. Alas, the stupid ball of fur crossed my unseeing path during a free-roaming session in the kitchen, and ended up as a projectile missile against our freezer door. It took a long time to remove the stains.
Anyway, I've had just about enough of the ensuing lamentations and will be glad to put the unfortunate episode behind me. Wednesday's funeral should see to that: Dawn has been round at the house most days, preparing a coffin from an appropriately decorated chocolate box in which to send Kweek-Kweek to his final burrow. Lined with several different shades of soft-touch tissue paper, and tied around with a wide assortment of colourful bows, it should certainly create a memorable spectacle for the class funeral service that Gail has prepared. By all accounts, it looks likely to be a memorial event that will resemble that of the late Princess Diana just 12 short months ago, though I doubt whether Elton John will turn up.
Our first in-service day of the academic session lived down to all my expectations. Mr Tod's annual request for the tea-urn to be switched off between intervals was once again deemed a necessary part of the liturgical proceedings, and the morning session also featured a stern admonition to all staff who persisted in describing our employers as "the region".
"We're all employees of the council now," Mr Tod frowned severely, "and I've been asked to make it plain that written or verbal enquiries or comments about, or to, 'the region' will be deemed inaccurate and unwelcome.
"The council's education committee is committed to ensuring that any negative associations that parents - and even teachers - might have with the word 'region' are erased from our minds so that we can all look ahead to a continuing partnership that will allow schools, parents, councils, pupils and - um - everyone else to be, er, really good partners," he concluded somewhat lamely.
"Good God," muttered Pickup from the side of his mouth. "And I thought the Nazis were good at rewriting history."
I took him to task for such a tasteless reference and - Mr Tod's monologue having continued in similar dreary vein - started to tell him sotto voce about my summer regrets over Kweek-Kweek's death. Unfortunately, this guinea-pig recollection started him off on a very long and complicated rodent joke that I can't really remember except for the fact that its punch-line mentioned something about getting tulips from hamster jam.
And the upshot of all that was a very angry Mr Tod, who eventually stopped speaking for 30 whole seconds (an event in itself, I can tell you), stared silently and angrily towards Pickup and myself at the back of the lecture theatre as we continued our whisperings, and then said, with sweeping grandeur: "There are two male members in the back row -" Pickup stopped himself short, raised an eyebrow and looked out over the serried range of faces turned towards us. Raising a friendly hand in acknowledgement of his rudeness, he accepted the admonition with cheerier humour than I'd have expected.
"Sorry, Mr Tod," he conceded. "You've called me a few things in your time, " he grinned, "but it's the first time you've ever called me that to my face!" Tod blushed angrily, frowned at the floor, and returned to his talk. Pickup leaned back, stared into space and smiled. He certainly seems cheerier than I'd have expected for the first day back at school.
Gail tells me that Primary 7's funeral service for Kweek-Kweek was a very moving occasion. Apparently, they sang Kweek-Kweek Was Our Special Friend, and then had a special interlude of prayer and devotion dedicated to the entire animal kingdom and Rolf Harris. The coffin was placed on a small trolley made out of Lego ("useful integration of technology into the curriculum," I commented stoically) and wheeled out of the classroom to the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful.
"I explained to them that Mr McLeod would bury Kweek-Kweek in a secret field," Gail went on. She had reckoned that if only the janitor knew where the grave-site was, it would stop it becoming a place of pilgrimage - or even a source of vandalism or desecration for the sicker members of Primary 7B.
I commended her on such thoughtfulness and wondered whether Kweek-Kweek was in a particularly Elysian meadow or the more urban setting of Mr McLeod's own janitorial gardens?
"Neither," Gail shrugged. "I gave him the box at lunchtime and he threw it in the big bin behind the kitchens. Said they were due for uplift this afternoon. "
Mr McLeod is obviously a realist. Farewell, then, Kweek-Kweek, as Private Eye might say.
Pickup still seems unbearably cheerful for the start of a new session. He was remarkably sanguine, for example, over this morning's unpleasant incident in the first year boys' toilet and dismissed it as "childish high spirits and excitement about their new school". I was taken aback and made the counter-suggestion that it was a disgraceful example of recalcitrant behaviour and bode ill for the rest of the year.
And I must say, this new first year looks like being a bumper crop. I know I've said it many times before, but the standard of pupils really does seem to get worse with every passing session. This morning, I made the acquaintance of Michael Willis, Peter O'Farrell, Joanna Grieves and Kylie Paterson. They are awful, truly awful. Michael Willis can hardly write, Peter O'Farrell can barely read, and Joanna and Kylie seem to spend most of their time looking vacant and chewing gum - a classroom habit I'll put a stop to very quickly.
Of course, I might be judging the whole year-group on the basis of my own class, and that would be unfair. After last year's experiment with broad-banding the junior school in English, my principal teacher, Simon Young, has decided to go the whole hog and turn the wheel of educational reform full circle by streaming the first year for the first time in nearly two decades.
And guess who's got 1W?
The reason behind Mr Pickup's recent exuberance has been revealed. He's got a retirement package at last!
"It's not as early as I'd have liked, Morris," he could hardly contain his excitement as he imparted the news, "but I've got a definite agreement with the region that I can . . ."
He noticed my corrective eyebrow.
"Sorry, you're right. I've got a definite agreement with the council that I can hang up my duster next June. And you're the first to know. So come and help me pin this up, would you?" "This" turned out to be an enormously framed "Countdown Calendar", on which Pickup had enlarged a month-by-month date-list to a 5ft by 3ft checklist of days remaining until his departure from the hallowed portals of Greenfield Academy. Pickup wanted it on the staffroom wall, just opposite his favourite chair.
"There!" he smacked his lips as we stood back and admired his handiwork. "Now, every time I get some snotty little toerag who annoys me in class, or every time I have to listen to Ruth Lees or old Toddy going on about a whole-school discipline policy, or achievement policy, or regeneration policy - I'll just walk in here, sit myself down with a cup of coffee, and look at the 'days remaining' column - and I'll smile."
"I suppose it explains why you've been so relaxed all week," I admitted.
"Dead right, Morris," said Pickup, clapping a hand on my shoulder. "But it's a while away yet. We've got a whole academic year ahead of us. And a whole new generation of young children to teach and inspire."
I was amazed by the tenor of his remarks - he almost sounded like an enthusiastic educationist. Sadly, he spoiled the effect by placing two fingers in his mouth and making a retching sound. After which, he set off through the staffroom door to take 3F, singing quietly to himself:
"In 11 more months and 10 more days I'll be out of the calaboose, "In 11 more months and 10 more days, they're going to turn me loose . . ."
I think I'm going to miss him when the time comes.
Next month: Mr Pickup starts planning for retirement, and 1W proves to be educationally challenged - and challenging.