Augustus Snodbury, Senior Master at St Birinus’ Middle School, opened
the ring box in his filing cabinet and looked long and hard at the heart-
shaped diamond ring that had lain snugly in its hiding place for over thirty
years. He placed it on the tip of his little finger. Its white gold band was
obviously for a digit much slimmer than his own- as slender as the chance
of it ever finding a female finger to ornament.
He sighed, put it back in place, covering it with a pile of obsolete worksheets
and locked the drawers, rattling his key-ring which contained
as wide a selection of redundant keys as the chatelaine of Bluebeard’s
Castle had carried about her waist on a- well- chatelaine.
The bell was late. Post-prandial indigestion had struck. He opened his
Teachers’ Planner wearily. Gone were the days when one simply scribbled a
vague lesson plan on the back of an envelope. Then spiral-bound aide-
memoires had been unnecessary and the lack thereof led to spontaneous
combustions, Krakatoa-like performances on the apron stage of the classroom
crucible of learning. These were fervent, tangential and memorable
expositions on (say) the metaphor:
What’s a metaphor for, Boothroyd-Smythe?.
How do you spell ‘simile’? (covering orthography as well as figurative language)
What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?
Such probing, intellectual dissection was eternally branded on impressionable
minds, on students– daft word (at their age they were pupils)- such as
Boothroyd-Smythe, who would thereafter reflect on such ingested material for
the rest of his proverbial. Such acolytes would ever after be able to decline
Latin verbs and translate useful phrases such as ‘the farmers will have prepared
tables for the soldiers’. Such was the efficacy of the time-worn, but
time-tested approach and the analogies were more time-resistant than the
concepts they were endeavouring to illustrate.
But now tailoring the module content to individual needs and ticking off
assessment objectives was the order of the day.
No longer were masters to be found puffing away in faded chintzy staff rooms
with saggy seating- and that not restricted to their shiny trousers. No longer
did they exchange information on crossword clues, cricket scores, nor barter
seedlings for their allotments.
No longer was a knock at the staffroom door considered a vile intrusion
and an impertinent interruption worthy of some kind of suspension from
school, not literal, one hoped.
Shakespeare summed it up as usual:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world..
Snod looked at the planner again. Five hours to go- in theory. Monday.
Another four whole days-28 hours for the sake of argument. Saturday morning
coaching: three at least. Sunday- supervising the junior forms on their way to
Mattins. Call it another three. Was that 41 hours? Multiply by how many
weeks in the term? How many sessions till pensionable retirement? I didn’t
factor in marking and preparation. Not that I do much of the latter
Red pen or not? Out of ten, or A-C? Add stars, pluses and minuses or not?
Give bribes, or not? Take bribes, or not? Efficacy of lines? A learning
experience? Well, they learn that if they waste my time, I will waste
theirs. Corporal punishment? ‘Best not to go there’, as the wet-behind-
the-ears brigade would say.
Classroom management? Tables of six, pairs, rows? Have the blighters run
all over open plan space with clipboards? No fear. Blow that for a game of
tin soldiers! Free expression? Hold your tongue, you scallywag!
So, retrospectively-speaking, had he wasted his life?
He had counted out his days in coffee spoons. He was as good as
anaesthetised upon a table. And what about the mermaids? Yes,
what about them? He hadn’t heard so much as a police siren for
Here he hummed a few bars from Rusalka’s Song to the Moon. No time
even for his beloved opera.
As for a peach! It wasn’t that he didn’t dare to eat one; it was just that
the staffroom bowl never contained anything other than blackening bananas
and tasteless Granny Smiths. (The latter also being the moniker of an elderly
French teacher, coincidentally.)
How was it all going to end? Not with a bang, that was for sure. More with
O Lord, send my roots rain! he implored.
What did you say, Sir? A member of staff passed the open door and stuck his
head into the room.
It was that effervescent and intensely annoying Milford-Haven, the Junior
Master. A stirrer of the pool, if ever there was one. And not necessarily an
angelic one at that. What he failed to recognise was that Senior Masters,
such as Snod, who had paralytically lain for years by the Bethesda pool of the
staff study, had no desire to be moved out of their comfort zones, by helpful
jejeunes into a maelstrom of extra-curricular activity.
Cricket was one thing, but wading out of one’s depth and abandoning the gentle
eddies and zephyrs of poolside life for the spas, jacuzzis and whirlpools of
‘extras‘ would be merely a revelation of one’s misunderstanding of the
etymology of the abstract noun: ‘revolution.‘ It only required a cursory
knowledge of Orwell- ‘George’? they would ask- to enlighten them to
the ultimate futility of trying to successfully introduce anything, novel,
or to channel anything educationally on trend.
Ghastly phrase! He hadn’t out-lived Munn and Dunning to get on that
creaking theoretical treadmill.
No, let them slip over the edge of their infinity pools of educational
He was no believer in a Flat Earth; he did acknowledge far horizons and
boundaries, but, more often than not, what went around had an unerring
habit of veering back and slamming you on the back of the head when you
were least expecting it.
That’s why he had never, in his entire career, fully turned his back on a class,
having mastered the art of writing on a blackboard in a somewhat oblique
But, just look at Milford-Haven! He walks the walk and wears the Harris tweed,
but he will never fit in. He is a Neanderthal among Cro-Magnons. The hand
may be Esau’s, but the voice is Jacob’s, he inwardly articulated. (Snod had
been teaching RS before lunch.)
Personally, he felt that he, himself, was Cro-Magnon, mitrochondrially.
He had a nice, solid body and wasn’t a chinless wonder like that
nincompoop of a Junior Master. He had what Miriam Gonzalez Durantez,
Clegg’s other half, called cojones. He enjoyed learning new vocabulary,
especially from the Romance languages, as he was sure Nick did too.
He felt himself smarter than your average bear. More like Yogi than
squeaky clean Boo-Boo.
It would explain why he liked I Pagliacci. Cro-Magnons were associated with
the Paglicci Caves and he assumed there was a link. He knew some of the
staff thought he was a bit of a clown, but they recognised his talents in
renditions of opera buffa patter songs in the school concerts, so there!
He really must ‘go‘ before the bell. His prostate was not what it used to be.
Vesti la giubba was ringing in his ears, as he reached for his academic gown
from the hook on the door.
But, if the previous anthropological metaphor could be extended without mixing,
or diversified without confusion, he considered that he might be a woolly
mammoth, frozen for aeons in permafrost, but only recently thawing out, owing
to that debatable global warming the kids were all obsessed with, or with which
they were all obsessed. (The pedant in him was still very much alive.)
No, the Chicxulub impact that killed off the dinosaurs had somehow passed over
him, like an Angel of Death and, as in some unusual space collisions, his biological
components had been miraculously preserved, as had his cojones.
He could predict that those at the forefront of research would be mesmerised by
his exotic vulnerability and rarity.
By Jove! Scientists would probably stuff him and analyse the contents of
his stomach. And what would they find?
His digestive processes reminded him. Faggots and Spotted Dick.
No lunchtime coaching was going to deprive him of those. That was why he
had substituted an after-school detention for Boothroyd-Smythe. He would
waste his time.
And if he, personally, was a woolly mammoth, what was Milford-Haven?
A Synapsid. The answer came easily. He had read something even that
day about juvenile transitions from carnivore to herbivore, and, judging by
the tong-fuls of greenery Milford-Haven heaped on his plate, Snod could
easily slot the Junior Master into the taxonomy.
He hated self-service. Oh, for the days of yore when Mrs Stevens served
you and remembered that you liked seconds. There was a song about it:
And they called it cupboard love..
Even the music has degenerated, he thought. Those were the days, my
friend, lalalalalala. But have I lived the life I chose?
Can this be Love that’s calling?
No, it was Milford-Haven.
Sir, the bell’s not went. It’s Period Seven.
‘Gone’, you imbecile, he muttered to himself.
And through the door he took his solitary way.