3pm: “Your office smells like cat sick”.
Thus said my Deputy Head (never liked that term- reminds me of the Wild West) as we started a late meeting today aimed at salvaging and cannibalising as much as we could from the former development plan/road map of the school.
6am: I played a trick on my son today. Somewhere in cyber-land he was moaning about people who update their social-networking statuses every hour of the day. Happy to oblige (and always the fish to take the bait)I have been bombarding him all day with the mundane minutia of my working day. Every hour on the hour.
I updated my status as I supervised lunchtime detention. I updated my status as I met with a mentally ill parent who struggled to explain that her marriage was in crisis. I updated my status when I went to the toilet, had a cigarette, monitored the maths books and waited for the Deputy to polish his tin star.
What started off as a laugh, a joke aimed at my son; evolved into a microcosm of my working day, highlighting the various components that can be crammed into 10 hours.
Last Saturday I made dinner. Biryani. For the uninitiated it is a rice dish from the Indian sub-continent, heavily spiced with chilli, garlic, coriander, ginger, cumin, garam masala, turmeric, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, onion and meat/veg. It is one of my favourites, if it is prepared correctly.
I like spicy food; the spicier the better. My taste buds were torched from my tongue sometime late last century by an ever-present Benson and Hedges. I need strong flavours just to taste ANYTHING.
The biryani was received by the family with like warm praise. Everyone had at least a small portion before the plentiful left-overs were plopped into a Tupperware square and left in the fridge. There it marinated (some might say festered) over the weekend, congealing to the consistency of cat vomit. It was obvious that the dish would either become today’s packed lunch or today’s kitchen bin contents. I rescued it just after updating my 6am status; warning my son that he would be hearing from me on the hour.
The financial officer at our school is a great cook. When she makes biryani she always brings me a small tub to sample. Hers is light, fluffy and fragrant. Mine is heavy, sticky and smells vaguely of parmesan. Each time I make it I bring some in for the FO to try. She politely tastes it and gives me tips on how to improve next time. “Did you rinse the rice before cooking? Did you mix dried and prepared spices? That doesn’t work. “
In fact there are several excellent cooks in our school community. It is good working amongst a predominantly Asian community when I love Asian food. I can play the system by telling one mother that so and so said she makes better bhajis than you do. The mother will bring in a plate the next day for me to try and as a result most mornings I can enjoy a plate of pakora or bhajis as a 11 o’clock snack.
I will nibble away and say to another parent,” Mmmm! Mrs Bhuto’s broccoli pakoras are nice She is certainly a good cook”. The other parent will raise her eyebrows,
“Yes but have you tried my pakoras?”
” Are they better than these? “
“I will bring you some tomorrow and show you what good pakoras taste like.”
It is so easy.
But no one requests my biryani. It sits on the counter in my office in the same Tupperware square it has called home since Saturday night. I imagine it is pondering its fate, wondering if the FO will approve or if it is destined for an East London school refuse bin; to spend the rest of its days amongst discarded worksheets and origami chatter-boxes that somehow went wrong.
10am: I am working on the obligatory termly report to governors. I have procrastinated to the extreme on this one. I console myself with the fact I have been busy with other things but the report is due. I manage to crank out the 12 page report in record time and update my status simultaneously. Who says men can’t multi-task?
11am: I am double checking the budget figures for the report when a 10 year old blows into my office. He is very distressed. His face is a sea of tears and snot and he can’t get his words out through waves of hyper-ventilating breaths. Someone, I make out through the heaves, has disrespected his phone and said it was shit. I distract him by kicking a ball against the wall of my glassbox, my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home on the football pitch or consoling a hyper-ventilating 10 year old with a shit phone) awkwardly and comically mashing the small ball. Eventually he is calm enough to tell me the tale. THE PHONE I SHIT BY THE WAY: I text my son.
NOON: Detention duty and I am sat across from five boys and three girls who have surrendered their rights to a playtime due to various infringements on school policy. I do not recognise the faces and therefore I know these children are not the types who usually make poor choices. It is clear this is their maiden trip to my detention room when they start to whisper and laugh. I give them the rigid icy stare over the top of my glasses. My own children know it well. It works. It is discipline without a word. The whispering stops as the five tuck their chins to their chest and wait for playtime to finish. I text my son the scene.
1pm: Hurrah! The biryani is to be eaten. I take it along to the main office and the Financial Officer politely coos but I see her nose wrinkle in revulsion. She takes the smallest sample of sticky rice and chews for a long time to receive the full olfactory sensation. I wait for a verdict. “You mixed dried and fresh herbs and spices again didn’t you?” I look woefully into the tub. “It looks like cat sick,” I observe. “Keep trying,” comforts the FO.
I sit in my glass box eating straight from the Tupperware square. Outside my window, great building machines are dismantling the dregs of the Charismatic Church of Jesus Christ Built on the Rock. I am careful not to spill any turmeric on the maths books I am checking as I eat. A cigarette is needed to take the taste off my tongue. I walk outside to watch the demolition and text my son.
2pm: The parent I didn’t want to see appears at my window. She is mentally ill and although I would like to help, her paranoia stops me from being able to direct her to appropriate intervention. Instead she demands long swathes of time, drawing me into her dark, sullen and nonsensical world. Rambling, she sits in my office. Through her cocktail accent of broken English and Urdu I think her husband has left her. Random clauses and threads of speech erupt and subside from her volcanic psyche. She asks for her child’s attendance records. By the time I return from fetching the file from the office she has disappeared. I text my son.
4.30pm: I want to go home now. I have hit some mental wall and despite trying, my meeting with The Deputy is now nearly two hours in and my brain is turning to mush. I have new CDs for the car.I want to listen and forget. I don’t want to even text my son. But I do.
On the drive home I think of my day as a biryani: a mishmash of cultures and flavours, a recipe that requires patience and practice. The sticky rice reminds me that my brain has turned to sludge, harkening this departure. Floral and fragrant, the saffron is the sweetness of the joke I have played out during the day. Smokey cinnamon immerses me in this exotic culture in my own city. The bitterness of the cardamom reminds me of the child with the shit phone, the mother crying in Urdu for a problem I cannot solve.
PJ Harvey’s new album is on the car stereo. Her voice is sweet yet bitter.
I live and die through England
It leaves a sadness
Remedies never were within my reach
I cannot go on as I am
Withered vine reaching from the country
That I love
You leave a taste
A bitter one
I have searched for your springs
But people, they stagnate with time
Like water, like air
To you, England, I cling
Undaunted, never failing love for you
Keep the Faith,