To Kill an Albatross
Today, there was much activity in the headteacher’s office. Two or three blokes sweated at the door, unscrewing a baroque nameplate of lacquered oak. Another was waiting with a sticky backed plastic replacement upon which was scrawled, in felt tipped pen, ‘Sidney James’.
Two men critically scrutinised all this activity. The shorter one scrawled his hand through greying hair whilst his companion screwed a monocle into his right eye, dabbed at his nose with a kerchief and leant on his silver topped cane.
“Careful, careful, Them seats is worth a fortune. Watch the legs, watch the legs. Gor blimey.”
“I believe it’s a cabriole.”
“Not now, I’ve just eaten me lunch. Yak, yak, yak.”
They watched as removal men hefted several mock antique chairs through the doors. The shorter stumped back behind a newly installed and cheap looking MDF desk and slouched onto a blue plastic seat. The taller man followed: angular, sallow and morose in his walk. He remained standing. Angle poised in posture. Observant. The door closed and silence entered the room.
“Lovely. That’s a couple of quid in the kitty, then. We’ll stroll down the auction later and bid them up a bit.”
“Not enough, Sidney, not enough. A drop in the ocean.”
“Yeah, well we’ve got plans, me old china, ain’t we? Plans. Million pounds in debt? Do me a favour.”
“Who are we seeing first?”
Before James could answer, the door was flung open. A portly gentleman barged in, bristling with indignance. He was followed by a taller gentleman, bespectacled, who trod with measured steps. This man glanced at the cheap mock Arabian tussled rug chucked on the floor in front of the desk and quietly parked himself in a seat to one side. The first stood stoutly in front of the desk and belched.
“Gor, blimey, Guvnor,” scowled James, “Can you repeat that? Yak, yak, yak.”
Stout and portly farted in a vulgar fashion and remained unmollified. “Now see, here, James, or whatever you’re called. The unions are not having this. They’re not having it at all.”
“Sidney, Sidney James. And you are?”
James’ angular companion had removed his kerchief from his sleeve and was holding it to his nose with a grimace. His voice was therefore muffled when he replied, “Ah yes. The head of the History Faculty, Sidney.”
“Are we axing History?”
“The case for History is still under review, Sidney. However I now do bethink me that the case should be closed. Quickly.”
“That would make it a brief case. Yak, yak, yak.” Sidney leant forward and eyed Mr Toby affably. “Brief case? Geddit? Oh well, please yourself.”
“Now see here, James. The unions are up in arms. Up in arms, so they are.”
“From what I’ve seen of them, they’re more armless than armed, Mr Toby, Yak, yak, yak.”
“Now look here, James. I won’t be held responsible for the mayhem that your actions will unleash.”
“Do you think, just because you are Headteacher, there shall be no more cakes and ale at meetings?”
James looked puzzled for a minute, then scowled at the man beside him. “Here, what’s he going on about, Jaggers?”
“He is referring to my pronouncement that forthwith there will be no more lavish refreshments provided at staff training or staff meetings. An excellent cost cutting measure. Only biscuits of the plainest kind to be henceforward provided for the consumption of.”
“Biscuits? Plain biscuits?”
“Yes, Sidney. From this day forth only the most basic biscuit selection as purveyed by CostCo Ltd.”
Sidney propped forward across his desk once more. “And what is wrong with that? I like a custard cream, myself. Yak, yak, yak. And them shortcakes are rather…nice. Nice. Geddit?”
Mr Toby farted once more and slammed his fist on the desk. “Biscuits? Biscuits? Go rub your chain with crumbs,” he shrieked. And with that he was gone, leaving nothing behind him but a lingering and unpleasant stench.
Jaggers rested his chin thoughtfully on his cane, shifting his weight as he regarded the departure. He stroked his beard. “In life there are beaters and cringers, Sidney,” he pronounced. “Beaters and cringers.”
Sidney flapped his hand across his nose. “Farters and stinkers, Mr Jaggers. Cor, blimey, what a stench. Yak, yak, yak. Who are you?” The question was addressed to the thoughtful gentleman who had followed Toby in, but had remained seated. Quietly.
“Mr Finch. You wanted to see me.”
Jaggers looked through his scrolled notes, wetting a fingertip with his tongue so that he could riffle through more quickly. Flap, flap, flap. “Finch. Head of Literature and English.” He pronounced.
Sidney did not look impressed. He switched an electric desk fan on. This had the effect of propelling whatever foul air remained in the direction of the seated Finch. “You are the Head of Literature? Books? You look more like a courtroom lawyer.”
Finch leant forward. “I see that you have directed Toby’s flatulence towards me, Mr James,” he said, gravely. “And the odour sure does make the eyes water some. It is a powerful gesture of contempt. Angry? No, I am not angry. I must put myself in your shoes, just for a minute. Blowing that air was the act of a desperate man. And if blowing it in my face and threatening me with asphyxiation saves you from one more beating, why I’ll gladly take that air, sir.”
“Ah, shaddup, Finch. You’re more than capable of some hot air yourself, you hear? Yak, yak, yak. Jaggers? Is there any future in Literature?”
“Apparently not, Sidney. I have consulted the ledger and it says, without ambiguity, that in the current educational climate, literature is a burden that British children can do well without. It clouds the mind. Focus is gone. Results fall. And results, dear Sidney, results are everything.”
“Hear that, Finch? You’re strictly in euthanasia territory here. Yak, yak, yak.”
Finch regarded Sidney placidly, removed his glasses, breathed on them and wiped them with a handkerchief. Now the door to the office opened again and a small girl was frog marched in by a security guard, who held her firmly by the ear and plonked her in front of the desk. At this, Finch rose abruptly from his seat.
“Fighting again, Mr Sidney,” said the guard. He turned and marched out.
“What the hell is this?” snarled Sidney.
“Appears to be a small girl. I should hazard a guess,” mused Jaggers, “one of our pupils, perhaps from the lower school? I shall consult the ledger. It is possible, indeed likely, that she is on the – ah – special list and is, as such, surplus to our needs, holding back, as she would, our march towards better results. She would appear, at first glance, to require improvement.”
“Require improvement? We are not in the business of improvement!”
“No, indeed. But she presents something of a quandary. To get rid of this one would reduce our income by some three thousand sovereigns and yet, and yet, she could, contrarily, be a drain on our resources.”
Finch coughed. He rose from his seat towards the desk and ruffled the child’s hair in an avuncular fashion. “Now, then. What have I told you about fighting, young lady?”
“But he poured molasses all over his mashed potato!” she blinked, either in fury or regret.
“Now see here. If you can try this little trick, you’ll get along better with all sorts of folks. Try standing in his shoes for a minute, walk around in them and see things from his point of view,” smiled Finch, “now, no more fighting, you hear? Off you go and wait outside for me. Mr Sidney has lots of important business today.”
The girl smiled. She looked at Sidney and Jaggers. Then back at Finch. “Mr Finch? Is this school poor?”
“It surely is, young lady. It surely is.”
Satisfied, the little girl glanced once more at the Headteacher, turned and ambled out the way she had been marched in. Finch returned to his seat and reclined patiently. He wiped his glasses once more and listened.
Now, although it was strictly against the rules, Sidney opened a draw and produced an ashtray. Without a word, Jaggers reached for a lighter, passed a cigar from his pocket then lit one himself. The two men sucked and puffed; the office filled. “Smoke?” Sidney asked Finch, affably.
“No, thank you, Mr Sidney.”
Jaggers consulted his notes again, then spoke: “You see, Finch, debt is like an albatross. An albatross around our necks.”
Finch smiled. “There was a ship, quoth he?”
“Exactly,” considered Jaggers, riffling in agitation, “exactly, and…ah…there have to be cut backs. Our plan is quite simple. Cut the expense and hire the cheapest, reduce the deficit, Mr Finch, reduce the deficit. Literature is an expense that we simply cannot countenance in the – ah – present fiscal climate. In the kingdom of the blind banker, the deficit is king.”
“Buy the fake and sell what’s real?”
“Damn right!” snapped Sidney. “What can we learn from literature anyway? How can it upskill our learners for the needs of the modern work force in any case? Hell’s teeth, what is it now?”
There was a soft knock at the door and it opened for a third time. A one armed man with a broom entered and coughed. “Them new workers is here, Boss, just come,” he muttered and two men followed him in. One was small with sharp, raw-boned features. The other was a giant. Both whipped off their hats as they surveyed the office and approached the desk.
Sidney looked unimpressed and blew cigar smoke in a hiss of distaste. “I wrote the cover teacher agency I wanted two men this morning. You got your work slips?” The smaller man looked at his feet but reached in his pocket and handed them over. The giant giggled. “Says here,” continued Sidney, “it weren’t the agency’s fault. Says here you was due to teach this morning.”
“The school bus driver gave us the bum steer,” explained the smaller man, “we had to walk the last ten miles.”
“I don’t give a damn about that. Don’t you try to put nothing over on me,” snarled Sidney. And he pointed at the giant. “He ain’t much of a talker, is he? What’s your stake in this man?”
“Oh, he got kicked in the head by a horse. I ain’t saying he’s bright. I ain’t saying that. But he can mark more books in an hour than any teacher you ever seen. He’s a helluva good worker.”
Jaggers moved towards Sidney and hissed in his ear: “These sound ideal, Sidney. Ideal.”
“OK,” glowered Sidney, stubbing out his smoke. “We’ll put you on trial. Fifty quid a month. But don’t you try to put nothing over on me, boy. Go and join our English department this afternoon. Now get out.” The two men nodded respectfully and shambled towards the door. The small one opened it and simultaneously socked the giant in the jaw as they walked through.
As the door closed, Finch stood up. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “As I see it, an albatross doesn’t do anything more harmful than follow our lost sailors at sea and bring them safely into harbour. They may take a long time to do it, but they do it anyway. They don’t steal your chips, they don’t foul your sidewalks and they only exist to make your hearts soar with hope. Shoot all the herring gulls you like, but you know something? It’s a sin to kill an albatross.”
Jaggers screwed his monocle in more firmly and looked short sightedly at Finch. “Yes, indeed, Mr Finch. Now, about your redundancy. We are prepared, on account of your service, which, in my ledger, amounts to 25 years, to – ah – offer you the sum of twenty thousand pounds.”
“And a record voucher,” added Sidney, “don’t forget the record voucher. You can buy a vinyl record. As it is, after all, your vinyl day. Yak, yak, yak.”
“Thank you, gentlemen. Very decent of you. Would you like me to leave my library for the children?”
“No, no, we have – ah – plans to turn that into office space for our new intake of administrative staff.”
Finch smiled. “Very well, then. I wish you all the luck in the world.” He stood, shook Jaggers and then Sidney firmly by the hand, turned and walked quietly towards the door. The two men watched his departing back and the door as it closed behind him. Silence entered the room once again.
“He took that well.”
“Yes – ah – indeed, Sidney.”
Once more the two men listened through the heavy silence. Tense. As if waiting for something to happen. Anything. A gun shot? An old stinking dog laid to rest in the darkness? But no.
Then, muffled, but clear enough to hear, two voices:
“Are you leaving, Mr Finch?”
“I surely am, young lady.”
“But, Mr Finch. That’d be sort of like shooting an albatross, wouldn’t it?”