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The Portuguese Diaries: The Falling Baby

“We are formed by what we desire”. I dive in and out of John Irving’s latest novel but this one line from its opening page resonates and keeps drawing me back to the initial lines of the book. The truth is, my eyes are failing. Small and constricted, the font is the frontline in a battle to covey the words from the page to my brain.

This was our desire. Throughout the coldest British winter for 60 years we talked of it. Huddled for warmth under sofa throws and sweaters, hoods pulled up over our heads, this was our end game: a big house on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast, baking in the heat, doors flung open, walking from the bedroom to the pool in 10 steps. Ten months of work and toil, rising before dawn and home after sunset in service to children has beaten the path to the great iron gates that mark the entrance to this 6 bedroom house. Personal energies distilled into a week’s occupation- living like the rich we so despise.

Timeless and dragging, the Sun pulls opposite the strong Atlantic breeze that constantly blows through the endless miles of Algarve coastline. The name is Moorish; Al-Gharv, meaning the western lands. In Roman times this was the end of the world, the furthest reaches known to man. Now it is a juxtaposition of package holiday Med and a rich history that gave us the first circumnavigation of the globe. Shops jostle shoulder to shoulder with inflatable rafts shaped like crocodiles and Portuguese linen delicately embroidered with the green of its former North African masters and Sangria red.

Twelve of us- on the whole a blood relation group peppered with a few additional friends occupy the house in the baked valley just inland from Gale Beach. The restaurants are few and crowded. Booking is essential. I am sent out in the noon day sun to secure a table for the same evening. The English like to eat at 7pm, the Portuguese at 9. Ever conscious of being a tourist who likes to be immersed in the local culture, I opt for an 8pm reservation.I stand in the restaurant waiting for the attentions of the bottle blonde Portuguese woman who stands behind the bar doting on her 6 year old daughter’s hair. A second child, a baby just old enough to sit autonomously is perched on the edge of the bar facing its family. Children are respected here, more so than in London. Restaurants welcome them. The very young can be seen chattering exuberantly and peeking their heads out from under the table cloths in most eateries.

The Portuguese mother continues to toy with her daughter’s hair. A brief exchange of smiles are shared between myself and the 6 year old but she mainly keeps her eyes focussed squarely on the baby perched precariously (IMHO) on the counter’s edge. I recognise the mother from the garish photo of her in a wedding dress which fills the great void between the bar and kitchen. Reservations must wait. There are children to attend to. And I approve.

With a twisting shoulder I watch the baby struggling to gain its fledgling balance. Default settings of child protection embedded in the ten months of dark working days bubble to the surface. I glance at the mother and daughter who so attentively had been watching the infant. But their collective gaze is temporarily distracted as a thick, blue elastic band is looped around the young girl’s ponytail.

In that split second, in this land where time is measured by the Sun dragging opposite the Atlantic winds, I shoot a glance back at the baby now extending its other arm in a primitive attempt to steady itself. But the balance has been tipped. The baby is leaning forward and falling irretrievably from the bar. Shouting out a guttural, inactive sound- void of recognisable words, I jump onto the counter top. With a great sweep of my bear-like arm I gather the baby up to my even greater body.

Both mother and daughter stare at me in disbelief. The clocks are standing still. The sun is not dragging but stalled. The mother’s face is contorted and confused, the antithesis of the joyous expression she wears in the wedding photo.

My heart is racing and filled with adrenaline. All my senses (including my failing eyesight, dear readers) are at alarm level. I look again at the young girl, her hands still aloft fussing on her ponytail. Her mother’s puzzled eyes meet mine as (I assume) she is realising the gravity of the situation.

It is only then that I feel the baby’s rubbery texture on my forearm. The hardness pressing into my torso is an electrical box on its back for 2 C-size batteries. I am holding a doll.

Half laughing, half panting from the excitement I hand the doll to the little girl with the ponytail just as the woman’s husband (I recognise him from the wedding photo) enters from the kitchen door.

Patting my heart with the palm of my hand I relay to the groom, in slow and simple English, my misconception and my reason for being on top of the bar. He translates the story into Portuguese to his wife and daughter who burst out laughing.

I am not asked to leave a name for my 8pm reservation for a table for 12 people. They will remember me. I am the crazy English man who rescued the doll. The man made the fool in an attempt to keep a child safe- albeit a rubbery one motorised by 2 C-size batteries.

We are formed by what we desire.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The East German Accident

It has been said, dear readers, that one can go years without seeing a true friend but at that moment of reunion time melts away and we slip into the never-forgotten banter like an old t-shirt.

As the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Britain looms, I was pleased to meet up with the oldest friend I have in this country. I met him in 1984, when I was more than half the age I am now. He was Best Man at my wedding and godfather to one of my daughters. Sadly, our lives now run on different tracks and it is difficult to get together.

We sat in our front room, drinking bourbon and coke as my son listened in to the re-telling of stories that formed our friendship.

One story remained untold. We never speak of it much. When we do it is in cursory terms, each of us looking down and not making eye contact. It causes us uneasiness. It is held in solemn reverence deep in the recesses of our memories. But for both us, my dear old English friend and I, it is vivid. The images are strong, deeply personal and horrific. To retell the story resurrects the ghost from their casket which has been sealed for the sake of moving on with our lives.

It was 1986 and Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain. Germany was physically split in two by political ideology; the capitalist west from the communist east. It was in this climate we decided to drive from London to East Berlin and sample the communist experience for ourselves.

The trip would be difficult. West Berlin was an isolated enclave deep in the heart of the former East Germany. To reach it we would have to take the international highway set aside for foreigners; a straight line of aging concrete that ran for many miles through the East German countryside. It was a heavily policed route, spotted with signs in English reminding motorist that cars were not permitted to stop under any circumstances and must make the journey unbroken into West Berlin. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment. A steady patrol of soldiers with Kalashnikovs made certain the rules were observed to the letter.

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The trip east was uneventful. It was the return trip that is silently summonsed on an almost daily basis in both our minds. It was the return trip that wasn’t shared as we sipped Jim Beam in the warmth of a British summer.

The snow had started as we departed Berlin and started out on the international highway towards West Germany. The signs on the side of the road were just as had seen on the trip in; DO NOT STOP YOUR CAR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

The snowfall quickly deteriorated into a blizzard and we focussed hard trying to keep the 70s model Saab on the icy road. Maybe twenty miles into the trip, we watched the car in front of us spin out of control and disappear over the small bank of earth that lined the length of the asphalt.

In a moment it was gone, but in my mind, years later, it happens in slow motion; the gray car against the gray industrial sky vanishing over the untouched white of the snow. The sharp intake of air from both of us in the Saab’s front seat gave way immediately to a moral debate as to whether we observed the signs warning us to travel straight through, or stop to help the vanished car’s occupants. We chose the latter.

Pulling over to the side of the road we jumped out and onto the icy bank at the shoulder. The drop off on the other side was much steeper than we had anticipated. The vanished gray car sat at the bottom of the 40 foot ravine, engine still running blowing great cloud of exhaust into the scene.

Sliding down the hill on our backsides we reached the crash scene in seconds. A woman jumped from the passenger side door, screaming something in German. We tried to reassure her in English as we peeked inside the car to see a child of about 5 years old in the back seat and a man at the wheel.

My old and trusted friend pried open the back door and began to get the child out. I raced around the car to attend to the driver. The woman followed me, beating me on the back to get my attention. “Hertz, hertz!” she cried.

I had taken two years of German at school, enough to understand that she was saying “heart” and I immediately made the assumption that the driver was her husband and he had driven the car into the ravine as the result of a heart attack.

Pulling open the dented driver side door, I found myself face to face with the driver. His skin was the colour of the industrial sky and he gazed at me as I tried to remove his seatbelt and reassure him in pigeon German.

His eyes were glazed over. Instinctively, I knew he was dying. My friend, holding the small child was trying to calm the woman, his frau I imagine, who by now was hysterical.

The driver looked at me, his head slightly tilted towards the open car door. I told him to stay with me, I would get him out. He coughed and blood spouted from his mouth as he breathed his final breath.

I think I must have gone into shock. I remained in the same position, leaning in through the car door, my hands on his shoulders telling him he would be alright. The blood he had brought up from the deepest recesses of his circulatory system covered the front of my jacket and gave off steam that entwined with the exhaust form the car.

A few moments of silence were punctured by the screech of the woman as she realised the man was dead. I stared at her, unable to move, to speak, with my hands still on his shoulders and my jacket dripping with the blood of his final earthly act.

I recall German voices tumbling down the steep embankment at the side of the road. Someone pulled me out of the car and in broken English told us to get out of there before the police came. We clawed our way up the snowy hill and got back in the car.

We drove on in silence, in shock, in disbelief of what we had just experienced. The blood, still wet on my jacket was slowly drying to a deep brown. We drove on to a lifelong friendship, peppered with stories of drunken debauchery and football or cricket matches. But the story of the East German accident is never spoken, never summoned to the clink of a bourbon glass.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Frozen Fox

ImageBy the time I reached the classroom the rumour had evolved from gossip into gospel. Summonsed from my morning constitutional of greeting the children and their families at the main playground gate, I made my way as quickly as possible down the long, airport-like corridor that connects the four wings of my school. A child had passed the message to me, (in strangled English heavily laced with a Bengali lilt), that a fox was sleeping outside the window of class 6 Yellow.

The thought of a fox in the urban side streets of the city’s poorest district may seem farfetched. In reality, there is probably not a single Londoner who has not spotted one at some point in the past year or so. Steadily, the population of the much maligned mammal has risen as the environment provides plenty of shelter and food scraps.

What started as a group of three living in the thick undergrowth along the edge of the staff car park has risen to a skulk of 10 or more. As their numbers have increased, so has their bravado. They can be spotted several times a day, plodding along the car park, peeking into windows on their way to the neighbouring park. It is possible to spot individuals; the one with a damaged leg that limps along on three paws, the spindly and mange-ridden mother, the sleek and quick male who I remember as a cub last April.

I doubted the sleeping story immediately. The foxes don’t sleep in the open. The path between their car park den and the local park was a motorway to them; a means of getting from A to B. It was familiar to them but equally it was a place of danger. They seldom loitered let alone slept in the open, other than to boldly peek in a window or two as they padded down the cobblestones. No, the fox was surely dead I thought.

And sure enough dear readers, upon reaching the classroom window, I could see it was too still to be sleeping. By now Big Bert, the school caretaker had joined me with a makeshift array of equipment soon to be a fox-disposal kit. “Sleeping, eh?” he winked at me as we opened the classroom door and approached the lifeless body. Our collective breaths froze in the mid January air, as we circled the remains.

Big Bert poked the torso with a litter picker. It was hard, frozen both from rigor mortis and the blast of Scandinavian cold currently blanketing Britain. He lifted the animal up and the body did not change shape. Gravity has no providence in such matters.

I held open the rubbish sack but the weight of the body was too much for the litter pickers; they bent and strained. Bert’s baseball-mit-sized hands draped in thick industrial gloves grabbed the animal by its sleek tail and stuffed it into the bag. A chorus of disgust arose from 6 Yellow and I turned to see 30 faces pressed against the glass; processing the collective realisation that the fox was not actually sleeping at all.

Hello again, dear readers. I offer no apologies for my sporadic efforts in updating this blog. The blog has always and remains driven by catharsis and life has been quieter in the post-inspection era. The school is thriving. Just like the skulk behind the car park.

It was in that moment; the stiff and frozen carcass being lifted by its tail that my thoughts turned to this blog for the first time in months. Something so full of life, now dead to this world and frozen in an un-natural pose, how could one not have drawn parallels with the journey of this blog?

And so, another omen. I poke at these words with a cheap litter-picker to see if I can coax life back into the body. Perhaps I shall try again, when and if needs dictate. Perhaps the rumour was correct: it was sleeping, not dead. 

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Homeland Diaries

Bone cells last the longest. Regenerating every 30 years, they are the oldest cells in our body. Our stomach lining is renewed every couple of days, red blood cells 3 times a year.  So there is nothing of this place left in me. None of this dust or thick, humid, mosquito-plagued air permeates my being. I have London skin, English blood, British bones forged from 30 years of wet brick and the breeze off the Thames. My building blocks are of fish and chips and strong beer and the breath of passing tourists from around the world.

But I am acutely aware that this is home. This is the land and community into which I was born. My fetal cells, child cells, teen, were all collected on an isthmus of land sandwiched between swamplands and the Delaware River. That child was built of maple trees and flying cut grass. He was forged in summer sunlight, bright enough to turn the highway white.

ImageFrom the height of the great green steel bridges that straddle the river I gain my first view of the town.  The canopy has thickened in the 30 years since I left. Lush, green, inviting, the leafy clumps are enriched by the slow flowing marsh.

But it is cancerous, toxic and silent.  I swivel my head across the landscape left to right from the chemical plant at the north end of town to the south where it disappears into the swamp amidst charismatic churches and bait shops.

My maternal grandparent’s house was a copy of every other one on their street. A functional box design, it nested between a toxic, foul smelling canal that poured perpendicular from the sprawling chemical factory that employed half the men in town.

We lived down the street until I was 3; the house behind the fire house. Tacked to the wall above my bed, a large map of the world was the last thing I saw as I fell asleep.

ImageAt the other end of the street a copse of 100 maple trees hides the chemical factory gates. The trees are not so close together as to provide cover. There was tokenism in mind when they were planted. Like the canal, they draw their lifeblood from the chemical tainted waters deep underground. They are contaminated and poisonous.

It is one of my first memories- the great maple trees towering overhead, their trunks far too wide to embrace. Their paper bark peeling away perhaps blistered and burned by the chemical water table.

My grandparents would hide Easter eggs there in the hollow and knotted feet of their roots. Pastel colours of a hot water and vinegar dye, they would dot the copse like phosphorus mushrooms fed on the noxious emit of the chemical plant.

I expect the maple trees in the copse to be 500 feet tall by now. Nearly half a century has passed. But they are not. They are the same height I remember them as a child.

My grandparents house has been rebuilt and is unrecognisable.

I look to the white hot highway. It is the fierce summer sunlight that turns the world the colour of faded Polaroid photographs. It is the sunlight that awoke the child behind the firehouse, illuminating the global view above his bed.

We would sit on the curb in that white summer heat watching the parade of veterans and marching bands some pageant queen perched on the back of a convertible.

John ran the shop across the street. He was old and sold soda from a fountain that was antique even then. After church we would go in for a pretzel rod or a banana popsicle. John was kind, quiet sort of man.

I heard the adults talking. John had gone to Greece and died.

I asked where Greece was. The explanation was far across the sea. I was thrilled. Thrilled to learn there was another land beyond the seashore.

I associate this place with boredom and that association has not left me 30 years on.

It is not real. It is a snap shot. I measure myself against it and make a notch on the doorframe.

My mother tells the story. I have no recollection of the event at all. The facts are diluted and shaken in the space of a generation. I ran with a branch around that maple tree. My aunt tried to take it from me but I eluded her chase, falling and somehow ramming the stick down my throat. The hospital extracted it and the distance by which it missed my larynx shortens with each re-telling.

I do not recall one dot of the event. It is folk lore to me. But the paper thin bark peeling from the maples, the pastel coloured eggs, my grandparents’ house built by Russian tradesmen are all clear.

At two years old I could have lost my voice.

But I have not lost my voice. I have a voice.

-Southern New Jersey

Summer 2012

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Condemnation

Condemned to Hell by a five year old: strike that one off the Bucket List, dear friends.

The playground at lunchtime is a market place. Children of varying ages compete for the attention of staff. Children, each in their own world, dragging their own personal baggage and level of need. Some hold tightly onto my arms. Others side step my gait, eager to get face to face in order to pass on the details of every injustice bestowed upon them by other children. Others want confirmation that I am, in fact human, asking questions that seem obvious but shows they cannot separate the Head Teacher from the person: “Do you have children? What are their names? Do you tell them off?”

The games I play with them are designed to include as many as possible in a short amount of time. The aim is for dozens rather than a few being able to make contact before the playground bell marks the return to classes. Even then, they trip over my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home defying the diagnosis of the Diabetic clinic or exiting the playground) as they squeeze any remaining attention from the sponge. “How old are you? My gran is older than you.”

One little girl and one little boy are the first to approach me every afternoon. Both are five and keen to take part in the game of Monster Chase or Sticky Toffee we will play each day. The girl is quieter.

The boy is inquisitive. He is stocky and thickly built. His halting Urdu accent reflects he is second generation Pakistani British. He smiles incessantly, obviously loved and nurtured at home and safe enough in his school persona to ensure he will flourish in the next 6 years with us.

Today he danced alongside me as the children funnelled from their classrooms onto the playground. It was not my daughter’s ages or the name of our cat that he wanted answers to. “What religion are you?” he asked.

The suddenness and bluntness of his question caught me off guard. I stopped and stooped so to look him in face. I had an innate sense that this was an encounter he might remember when he was 20, 40 60 years old and I wanted to handle it correctly.

“I’m a Christian,” I said.

“You will go to Hell,” he blinked back.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you don’t have my God,” he offered. “You are not Muslim so you will go to Hell.”

To witness someone so young indoctrinated and intolerant drew a sigh from deep inside my lungs as I said, “I think God loves everyone.”

The child, a five year old, shook his head to confirm my damnation.

By now the quiet girl had joined us. I knew her story well as I had been briefed before she had even started her first day at our school. Born in Kabul the young girl knew only war. The same was true of her parents before her and her grandparents before them. She joined us 8 months ago with no English, no writing. The Taliban had banned all girls from education so she spent her days holed up in her Kabul house playing games with her mother.

Eight months on; she speaks fluent English. She writes beautifully and frequently brings her work to my office to admire and discuss. She writes about life in London and how much better it is. She is joyful at the idea of going to school, of being free to walk down the street and feel her hair in the unseasonably cool July breeze.

She is my personal battle with the Taliban. She is one who got away from Afghanistan. She is the one we will save and teach to read and write and think freely without fear of judgement in the name of God. She is proof I will not go to Hell. 

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head 

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The Boy with the John Lennon Glasses

Last week, my youngest daughter struggling with an essay she was writing for school asked me, “What is irony?”

I struggled to define the notion but was able to provide her with several examples: namely the lyrics to the Alanis Morrisette  song.

“Imagine an old man had worked his whole life to keep his head above water,” I offered like some great mountaintop guru, “He buys a lottery ticket and wins £100 million. The next day- boom- he drops dead. That’s irony.”

I know, I know. The pedagogists out there are screaming upon reading this: “An example is not a definition- schoolboy error!” In reality the best definition of irony is using an opposite to covey the truth.  But equally one could apply that to sarcasm and sarcasm is something that percolates deep into the British sense of humour.

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. In fact I was a teacher in the school we now live next door to. At the time (mid 1980s) I was living in the East End and commuting to the six-storey Edwardian school building now adjacent. A quarter of a century later I am living here in the heart of theatre land, in the shadow of the six storey Edwardian school and commuting to a school in the East End. Ironic.

Memory affords me the comfort of thinking I was a very good teacher. I was well liked by parents, colleagues and most importantly, the children I taught. I had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian but with a cheeky sense of humour. My love for sport permeated my work and my pupils would frequently find themselves with me on the rooftop playground; six storey above the streets of Theatre Land.  There we would play football or cricket in the confines of the school’s zenith. There we would have to be perpetually carefully not to let the ball rise above the twelve foot high iron railed fence that ran around the perimeter of the roof; lest it carried over the edge of the school and came crashing down on passers-by.

On occasion the zeal of the game would supersede the twelve foot rule. At those times the ball would indeed fly high in the air and we would all stop and stare as the moment slipped into slow-motion action. It would curl outwards, hanging in the wind with just a hint that it might safely return to the rooftop pitch before disappearing over the side of the building. The unrelenting background noise of the city would never afford us the chance to hear the ball as it hit the street below. Indeed the Twelve Feet Rule specified that whichever child had last touched the ball- sending it on its fateful journey onto the street below, had to accompany me downstairs on the retrieving trip.

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I cannot begin to count the number of times I made that long journey down and then back up the six flights of stairs between the rooftop playground and the street below. Each time I envisaged reaching the street below and finding a passerby bleeding and dazed, holding the tennis ball that had plummeted unannounced from sixty feet above. Each time, thankfully, I would reach the street with the offending pupils and we would find the ball laying harmlessly in the gutter.

Twenty five years have passed. Those ten year olds of the day are now in their mid-30s and have children of their own. I see them as I walk the streets of my neighbourhood and I am heartened by the fact that they take the time to stop and chat and share their memories of primary school.

Last week, I walked out the street door of our block of flats and immediately sought to negotiate my way across the street. I paused outside the neighbouring building; the same six storey Edwardian school where I had started my teaching career all those years ago. A young man with a child stopped me, calling across the pavement, “Sir, sir.” I stopped and immediately recognised a former pupil. He was twenty years older than when I had known him but the facial characteristics allowed me to immediately place him. If further proof of his identity was necessary, the young boy at his side was a carbon copy of his father in his youth. He even had the same small, John Lennon style glasses. I stared at the child as I exchanged small talk with his father, eventually having to offer the observation, “Your boy looks exactly like you did at that age.”

At this point the father employed his son into the conversation, explaining who I was and how we knew each other. The child’s face changed, he became genuinely enthusiastic about our exchange now as I began to replay stories of his father when he was a child. The father embellished by sharing his memories of me and the great games of football, rounders or cricket we would enjoy. “This man was MY teacher, “he explained to his son, “And he was a bully.”

Bully. I am certain that is what he said. It was that single word in the flow of conversation that is half heard. That single word only partially digested but repeated in the sinus and windpipe, foul and lingering on the palate.

The child heard it too. I saw it in his face which melted from enthusiastic to forlorn. He looked up at me disapprovingly. Reflected in the lens of his John Lennon style glasses I saw where we were. Glinting in the refracted, disappointing, weak, London summer sun I saw the rooftop playground in the child’s lens. We were standing in the spot where the ball would come bounding down as it met the street side pavement.

So it was. My warm and comfortable images of a beloved teacher deeply seeded in the minds of hundreds of ex-pupils evaporated. I was startled. The image was one I trusted to keep me warm in the cold nights of old age.

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I looked back into the face of the father. He winked and smirked simultaneously. The Brits say they take great delight in playing the fact Americans can not read the sarcasm in their humour, the irony in their daily existence. For the most part I can. But as the pair tottered off into the swarming London pavements I wanted, but couldn’t, call after to ask if the bully tag was serious.

I stared up at the rooftop playground wondering what had hit me; just as the passers-by must have done in those mid 1980s days. The word bully had dropped on me from high, glancing off that part of my brain that holds memories, or at least holds the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane. It hurt. I touched my head and looked at fingers checking for blood. Six storey up someone had broken the Twelve Feet Rule; the one that keeps things contained and safe and controllable.

Oh the irony that the conversation happened in that very spot.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Skull

The smell of the breakfast cereal called Fruit Loops immediately takes me to my childhood home. We all know the power of the olfactory and its innate ability to forge a link in some cranial abyss: a link that we instantly associate with a time or a place, or both. For me, nearly 30 years removed from the land of my birth, it is Fruit Loops. The faux fruit aroma from the brightly coloured rings instantly transports me to my mother’s kitchen.

There are others, dear readers. The smell of soft whipped vanilla ice cream, of pickles fermenting in good quality olive oil, of cut grass and barbecue smoke, of the ocean: all remind me of home.

England is the smell of damp brick, of mud centuries old. It is the smell of rain and frosted breath. England smells of thick, cold air and blankets.

My daughter returned from a trip around the world last week. In less than a month she had seen sights I can never hope to in my next 50 years: the steamy streets of Kuala Lumpur, the neon deserts of Vegas, the slick shine of dolphins in Australia. On her return she eagerly distributed gifts from her suitcase. The colourful cartoon toucan on the box was unmistakable; she had brought us Fruit Loops from the golden hills of California.

And when I ate a bowl for breakfast, dear readers, it was not some industrial chemist’s interpretation of 5 fruit flavours that I savoured. No. Drawing the smell deep into my lungs (drawn slightly more efficiently having been a non smoker for 3 months now) I shut my eyes and was transported to my mother’s orange and oaken kitchen. My reminiscence was disturbed only by my youngest daughter’s observation, “These remind me of nanny’s house.”

And so the story might have ended there. Lacking conflict or resolution, it might not have been a story at all. Instead, it might have merely been an observation; a moment of illustration to be relayed in passing.

The great glass box will soon be no more. The school is being redeveloped and with it the administrative block and office that surrounds me will be transformed into something quite different in the coming months. Today we met to consider the immediate implications; where items will be stored, where office staff will be re-located during the building work. One of the Assistant Heads pointed to his jumble of teaching resources and wondered where they could be housed. I scanned the shelf and the treasures it held; a wooden marionette, a replica Eiffel Tower, a skull. A skull.

Not smell this time, dear readers; it was not the aroma or lingering odour that transported me back to my youth but the sight, the view the image of the skull on the shelf.

The summers of my youth were spent camping with my family. It was one of those purpose-built camp sites which while set in a pine forest clearing, still had electrical access and showers.  Each evening my father would build a bonfire and we would toast bread smeared with peanut butter and jam while he turned the portable black and white television to the local baseball game.

Afterwards, as darkness settled on the summer heat, the game would finish and Doctor Shock would come on the tv. He was my hero. Dr Shock’s Scream In: a cheaply made studio dungeon hosted by a local magician dressed like a corpse. Zombie make-up and hammish magic tricks would fill the gaps as he introduced the next segment of some B movie horror offering. The Crawling Hand, The Slime People, The Screaming Skull; they were titles to enthral an 8 year old.

The show would start, at least in my remembrance dictates that it started with a close up a stage skull and organ music. This was followed by a piercing scream as the show’s title would overlay the scene. The Dr Shock would be summoned from his coffin (bizarrely) by his toddler daughter Bubbles.

We would huddle around the flickering black and white telly burning our tongues on the pine smoked jam sandwiches and watch as Dr Shock stroked a live rat or pulled a rubber chicken from a hat whilst encouraging us to watch the commercial break. Then each of us would dare the other to walk to the toilet block and brave the macabre shadows that lie there in-between.

And there it was, in the Assistant Head’s office; a skull. A skull reminding me of those treasured summer nights around the campfire; a  rickety black and white portable television flicking in the dark of the forest. The sound of baseball cheers and beer jingles echoing amongst the pine trees, giving way to Dr Shock and Bubbles’ screaming skull. The warming envelope of my childhood was there on the shelf.

I pull the skull down and hold it , looking into its vacant eyes like Poor Yorick. “We will have to keep this safe,” I mutter out loud. The Assistant Head looks puzzled as he scans my face for some clue as to why the prop is any more important than the rest. “You know it is not real, don’t you?” he offers.

But I know better.

I sniff the air for a hint of burning peanut butter and jam, or pine, or even the waft of the toilet block across the campground. There is none. I hold the skull’s jaws open and make a screaming noise.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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