For whom the bell tolls

28th March 1997 at 00:00
The further adventures of Morris Simpson.

Monday: Mr Pickup has been granted early retirement! He waltzed into the staffroom at morning break, a beatific grin spreading widely across his craggy features - and a letter clenched firmly aloft his right arm.

"GLORY BE!" he bellowed to the assembled company, most of them intent upon elbowing their way to the tea urn before being halted in the face of Pickup's stentorian announcement. A complete silence descended as 36 pairs of eyes swivelled in his direction and Pickup - ever alert to the dramatic moment - lowered his voice to a stage whisper.

"It's come!" his eyes narrowed in delight. "They're letting me go! At long bloody last, and after 26 years of sheer misery, they're letting me go! Yippee!" he shouted in exultation.

A round of desultory clapping broke out, after which most people returned to their endeavours around the tea urn. I felt a keen sense of anti-climax for my old friend, so joined Mr Crumley and Simon Young in a round of hearty back-slapping instead.

"But you never said," I chided Pickup. "When did you apply?" "Last month, " he shrugged. "There was a note in the pigeon hole, but I've sent off so many in the past five years that I didn't bother building my hopes up - but this time I've hit the jackpot. Subject to a final review of staffing provision, they say I can hang up my duster on Friday."

"Gosh!" I exclaimed. "As soon as that?" Pickup snapped his fingers. "As soon as that! And it'll be good riddance to this dump, I can tell you. If I could have a pound for every . . ." he began in ruminative mood, before the bell atop our staffroom door lintel exploded to mark the end of the interval.

"That bloody thing!" Pickup aimed an oath in the direction of the bell, recently re-sited by Mr Tod in an effort to ensure staff would start arriving at classes on time. With a manic gleam in his eye, Pickup clearly decided he had nothing further to lose and - in express disobedience of Tod's latest instructions - decided to reinstate a wad of silencing cardboard betwixt wall and bell.

"There!" he clambered down from the chair, before pondering a further extension to his protest. Whereupon, selecting a large section of coloured cardboard and a black felt marker from the resources cupboard, he commenced a bold inscription which - some 10 minutes later, and with 3F still awaiting his presence for a lesson on religious contemplation - he proceeded to place above the doorway.

It read: "This bell has been silenced by David Pickup. Meddle wha daurs. .."

The quote may have lacked exactitude, but I think everyone would know what he meant. Including Mr Tod.

Tuesday: Great news for my fifth year Higher English class. The Denizens Theatre Company is putting on Hamlet next month, so I'm planning a trip to see it with them, and accordingly put my name down against a booking for the school minibus on the staffroom wall chart.

Pickup raised his eyes above the newspaper he was reading and looked askance. "Are you sure about that, Morris?" he questioned me.

"Sure about what?" "Booking the school minibus. I've not used it for the last 12 months, and neither's anyone else with any sense."

"Why? Has it failed an MOT? Are there any safety problems?" "Dunno," he shrugged his shoulders carelessly. "Probably not. But I've never got that far in arranging an outing to find out."

"How d'you mean?" I wrinkled my nose.

"Well, it's just that once you start - ach, why should I tell you in advance?" he broke off suddenly. "You won't have Uncle David around for much longer, Morris, and I've guided you and cared for you enough over the past 13 years. It's time you learned how to find these things out for yourself, old son. No more mollycoddling, that's what I say."

"Harrumph!" I turned my back on him, carefully inscribed my name on the relevant booking chart - which did look rather empty, now that I came to notice it - and then left the staffroom with as much dignity as I could muster.

Mollycoddling, indeed! If asked, I'd say that an accusation of mollycoddling me would be the last I could reasonably direct at Mr Pickup. Corrupting me, belittling me, leading me into the paths of unrighteousness, yes - but mollycoddling, most certainly not!

Wednesday: I experienced immense difficulty getting into school today because of lengthy traffic diversions necessitated by an enormous day-long protest being mounted around the council offices by some kind of socialist worker group, complaining about council budget cuts. Personally, I'd like to know where some of these people find the time to come and spend a day protesting when they could be doing an honest day's work, but I kept such thoughts to myself as I eventually arrived at school some 10 minutes late - they wouldn't go down terribly well in the staffroom, methinks.

Meanwhile, lunchtime brought the news that George Crumley and Simon Young are starting - for goodness sake - a monthly staff five-a-side football session. Tomorrow. Crumley approached me at afternoon interval and asked whether I wanted to put my name down as first reserve. "We're a bit short of numbers, Morris," he informed me with a certain degree of laconicism.

"Thank you very much, George," I replied coolly, and in best Bartleby style, "but I'd rather not . . ."

Thursday: I have begun to realise what Pickup was talking about when he outlined staff reluctance to use the minibus. Having yesterday requested of Mrs David the necessary permission forms in order to initiate a pupil outing with the aforementioned transport, I was horrified to discover a veritable mountain of duplicate forms, triplicate forms and - in some cases - quadruplicate forms in my pigeonhole this morning.

Apparently, health and safety regulations now deem it absolutely essential that any pupil contemplating attendance at an educational function involving transport outwith the immediate environs of the school gate should be fully documented with regard to previous illnesses, current illnesses and any potential future illnesses which might befall during the trip as well. Not only that, but the organiser of the trip (ie, me) has to log an entire case history of competence to drive, competence to organise, as well as provide about 15 character witnesses to affirm that I am a fit and sensible party to be in charge of the, well, party.

It all seemed a long way from shoving four bodies in the back of my Mini-Metro for an impromptu chess match with St Ainsley's all those years ago (though the least remembered about that, the better), but it took me three non-contact periods this morning to fill out most of the relevant documentation, and I even had to conclude it during the lunch hour. So it was just as well that I wasn't taking part in the Greenfield Academy staff five-a-side football session, I suppose.

To be honest, I found the whole thing rather pathetic. Ten grown men, plus Pickup (who had taken my place as first reserve), in a frantic attempt to regain something of their youthful endeavour, went dashing off to the school gymnasium some two minutes after the lunch bell (and some of them before it, having had their classes lined up at the door for the first time in living memory).

Fifty minutes later, they lunged into the staffroom in a corporate sweat, ruddy-hued, and gasping for breath until the (now pleasantly subdued) tones of the staffroom bell sent them classwards again.

"Pweecchhh . . ." coughed George Crumley in phlegmatic style as the bell thwacked above the door. "That certainly sorted the men from the boys, eh Pickup?" Mr Pickup - still clad somewhat incongruously in his usual shirt and bow tie, plus a pair of running shorts beneath - gasped for breath.

"Certainly - harrumph! - did, George. Just sorry I won't be joining you for next month's game." He drew breath. "Y'have to pity me, eh? Sitting at home reading the paper while you poor saps get stuck into organising betting odds for the most likely implementation date for Higher Still. A tricky one to judge, in my opinion. Hee, hee, hee . . ." he squeaked excitedly.

I sighed. Talk about being demob happy . . .

Friday: Mr Pickup has had the rug pulled from under his feet, poor fellow. Having witnessed my friend and mentor in such deliriously happy mood over the past week, it was a source of keen sadness to see him in such bitter - and recriminatory - mood this morning.

"Bastards," he was mouthing quietly as I entered the staffroom to witness him clenching a letter - now firmly screwed into a furious ball - in the palm of his hand. "Bastards . . ."

"Morning, Pickup," I greeted him, initially unawares. "Got the holiday bags packed, then . . .?" I broke off, witnessing his mood. "What's wrong, David?" I queried uncertainly.

Pickup looked dolefully in my direction and then - astonishingly - put his head in his hands and began to cry. Not with any sense of dramatic grandeur, you understand: just a deep, and heartfelt sobbing which seemed to emanate from his very being.

"The bastards . . ." he eventually choked an explanation. "They've told me that . . ." and here he broke off, unable to complete his explanation. Gently, I prised the letter from his hand and quickly scanned it.

In essence, it was a withdrawal of his early retirement offer. In baldly legalistic terms, it explained that the council's final budget had been drawn up in response to an unprecedented demonstration of public opinion (to whit, last Wednesday's vociferous and traffic-calming complaint against education cuts) and that a "further reserve" had been located in order to guard against unnecessary removal of teaching staff.

Seventeen posts, it went on to proudly proclaim, had therefore been protected against the "swingeing cuts imposed by central government against the democratically elected representatives at local level". And Pickup's was one of them.

"Sorry, old chap," I stuttered in sympathetic response. "But, in a way, I'm kind of glad. I think I might've missed you. Ever so slightly. D'you fancy a trip to see Hamlet with the fifth year next month? I've got a couple of spare seats."

Pickup just looked at me and glowered. And I decided not to repeat the offer.

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