An excess of black stuff

26th May 2000 at 01:00

Contractors have arrived in the neighbourhood to resurface the appalling roads around the school, causing some delays in getting into our (equally pot-holed) staff car park, but it will be worth it. Anyway, I love the smell of tarmac on summer mornings.

Preparations are in full flow for Friday's joint leaving party - for Mr Tod and Ms Lees, our esteemed headteacher and depute head, respectively. I dropped a few coins into each gift envelope this morning and reflected on how many collections I've given to over the years, without ever experiencing the joys of reciprocity.

"Anyway," I sighed to George Crumley. "Greenfield Academy will be a changed place without the dynamic duo. I'll miss Ruth Lees - she's one of the few who's got things done around here."

"Name me something she's done this month."

I was taken aback. "She's ... uh ... well, she's ... ah, yes! She's got the works department to send someone to unjam all the windows that've been clamped shut with paint for the last umpteen years. In my room it'll be great to have more than one window open at last. In this weather it's been absolutely horrendous."

"Yes, that's very good, Morris," Crumley said, getting up to leave. "She trained for five years, got a DipEd, followed by an MEd, then rose through the ranks for the next 20 years. And the sum total is that she's good at organising workmen to come round. Is that what you're telling me?" He had shut the door before I could think of a suitable answer.


The Higher examination timetable moves into top gear this week, with some awesome parallel timetabling to co-ordinate. An examination diet that used to take five weeks has been telescoped into three and a half days, it seems.

Ms Lees asked me to be on hand during my free period to make sure that all went well as candidates entered the hall for the first session of English Higher. I was happy to oblige.


Things got a little hectic with today's examination diet. I'd assured Ms Lees that I was happy to help out on points duty, directing pupils to the correct venues, but I was unprepared for the tidal wave of humanity that swept in a thousand different directions this morning - not to mention this afternoon.

What with further sections of some Higher English (Intermediate mixed with some Communications, I think) spread across five rooms and the main hall, coupled with candidates for Gaelic, plus some Italian, Spanish and a cohort of Art, I was in a complete state of confusion about which rooms the candidates were supposed to be in.

Mr Tod saw my distress.

"Morris," he said as he laid a hand on my shoulder (he's always at his most dangerous when he does that), "I'll relieve you here."

"But it's almost over," I began to explain before he interrupted.

"I want you to go and speak to those road contractors out there," he said solicitously. "I had a word earlier and they said they might have some tarmac left over to fill the pot-holes in the car park. Gave me a quote for 500 quid."

"Gosh!" I exclaimed. "That's a lot less than the council works department quoted, isn't it?" "Yes. But I want you to get them down to pound;300, then I'll get it out of the DMR petty cash budget."

"But why can't you ...?" I began, but he brooked no contradiction.

Thus it was that I found myself haggling with a ruddy-cheeked foreman about the most cost-effective use of his materials overspill to our mutual interest. And thus it was that within 30 minutes five swarthy navvies began to fill the holes in the staff car park.

If the window contractors turn up tomorrow, this will have been a good week for the school fabric.


My examination direction duties proved less onerous today. We had one candidate for classical studies and it was well within the bounds of my competence to direct her to the correct venue.

This was just as well, because Ms Lees and I had to spend Period 3 with the chief invigilator, who was still enraged about yesterday's disturbance to the exam process occasioned by constructional activities in the car park.

"If I get my hands on the half-wits from the council who sanctioned car park repairs in the midst of the SQA exam period," the Reverend Forbes explained, "I'll wring their bloody necks!" I pursed my lips and kept my own counsel. Besides, I had disappointments of my own, having received a visit from the window contractors at Period 2.

They apologised for interrupting the third year in their folio redrafts and said they would return later.

"No, no," I insisted. "Please come in. I've waited five years to be able to open all my windows, and I'm not letting the opportunity slip now."

The workman shrugged his shoulders and advanced toward the back of the room with his hammer and chisel.

"Hang about!" he said, looking at the open window in the corner. "You've goat a windy oapen."

"Indeed I have," I confirmed. "It's the only one that does, so I'm looking forward to having a breeze running through ... " "Sorry," he said, consulting his job sheet, and informed me that his instructions were to ensure that "one window in every classroom" should be capable of opening. "Fire regulations," he added. "In case ye have a fire. But we're no here tae unstick every windy in the school. We'd be here all day."

And then he departed.

My shoulders sagged in disbelief as the sun beamed through my windows and the chances of atmospheric enhancement in my classroom evaporated almost as quickly as the contractor. I loosened my collar and told the third year to get back to work.


A devastating evening. The farewell function for Mr Tod and Ms Lees was enjoyable enough to begin with, but was eventually memorable for one reason only. And it wasn't the speeches.

It started with a reasonable degree of levity (Mr Tod arrived with a poster stuck on his back by George Crumley: "Best Before 1985") and I was delighted to be seated next to my old friend and mentor, David Pickup.

"I just came to make sure the bastard's really going," he said, as the surly waitress thumped a portion of chicken chasseuse in front of him, "and to have a laugh at you guys still hammering your way through the term.

"Retirement's been the best decision I've ever taken, Morris. What with the holidays and the supply teaching I did until I reached my earnings limit, plus walking in and out of schools without having to prepare a lesson, mark a jotter or get involved in any tedious crap about pupil discipline or parental complaints, it's great! In at ten minutes to nine, out at half past three. And that's it - no hassle, no sweat."

I suggested he was exercising power without responsibility: "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, Pickup," I reminded him grandly, but he seemed to think the analogy fairly apt.

"Well I'm only doing to the education authority what they've been doing to me for 35 years. And like the harlot, I choose when I want to work.

"Like I say, Morris: I'm as happy as I've ever been. If I get 10 more years of retirement like this, then I'll die a happy man."

I conceded a degree of envy, then settled back to listen to the speeches. Councillor Franklin gave a highly selective resume of our headteacher's career, not least in his descriptions of the "towering achievement" that had allowed Mr Tod to "merge three struggling schools into one highly dynamic educational powerhouse over the last eight years".

Pickup went bright red with suffused laughter, as did most of our table. Then Tod and Ms Lees spent the next 15 minutes swapping self-congratulatory comments before sitting down to some distinctly muted applause.

It was then that I noticed Pickup looking distinctly unwell. His colour had changed from the hilarious red of a few minutes previous to an ashen white as he hunched forward over the remains of his black forest gateau. "Bloody hell, Morris," he clenched his teeth.

"What's up? Indigestion?"

He drew breath sharply. "Bit worse than that, old son. Call a bloody ambulance, would you?" At which point he slumped forward on to the table, the obvious victim of a serious heart attack.

I leapt into action and summoned the emergency services, while Miss Tarbet gently put him into a recovery position and attempted resuscitation techniques.

The ambulance seemed to take an age to arrive but was probably extremely swift and the paramedics had him wrapped up within minutes. He was pale, but breathing, and it was with a sense of desperate hope that I clutched his hand and wished him well as they stretchered him away.

I followed the ambulance to Parkland Infirmary, telephoned Gail to tell her I'd be late home and waited for further news. It seemed an age in coming. By the time the doctor arrived, I'd been joined by Pickup's sister and her family. "He's alive," the doctor told us gently, "but he's still in a very critical condition. The next 24 hours will be crucial."

I bit a trembling lower lip, looked down at the floor, and listened as his previous words to me echoed down the hospital corridor: "I'm as happy as I've ever been. If I can just get 10 more years of retirement like this, then I'll die a happy man."

Please God he gets his wish. He deserves it.

John Mitchell

Next month: will Pickup enjoy a happy retirement after all?

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