Principal Putney spat the mouthful out in disgust. Then watched dismayed as speckled sputum covered his computer monitor. Masticated bits of bread and meat descended, obscuring the spreadsheet.
Wiping the mess off with his jacket sleeve, Putney yelled through the open door that connected his office to the wider world of the school. “Maureen! Get Mrs Putney on the phone!”
“She’s not available.”
“Isn’t she? Why? Why isn’t she available?” he screamed. “Not available? I’ll not available her, what do you mean, not available? Of course she’s available! Ask 50% of the population of Kwatar and they’ll confirm that her fat arse is always available. Come in here.”
Maureen’s face poked, meercat like, at the door frame. “Yes, Principal?”
“She does this on purpose. Bacon! Pork pies! I hate bacon! Fills my bloody lunch box up with the stuff and expects me to eat it.”
Putney pointed a quivering finger at the tupperware in front of him. “Put this in the skip, get to the supermarket and buy me something I actually like for my breakfast!”
“What, the tupperware lunch box?”
“No! Of course not the tupperware lunch box; the contents, the contents. You may bring the box back once it is most thoroughly scraped clean of bacon, gammon and pie.”
“Then get down to Lulu and purchase a turkey sub. You can’t go far wrong with a turkey sub.”
The skip festered in the June heat of Kwatar. Fifty degrees and upwards, although officially fifty degrees it was and would always be. It reeked, it putrified, it swarmed with cockroaches and sat alongside the unattractive sand grey concrete school building.
High above, the sun smacked into the sealed windows of a second floor classroom. A line of male students filed in through the door, silently sixteen and, for the most part dark bearded. They glanced at desks set out equidistantly. Moved efficiently towards them. Sat without fuss.
Mr Bradley Tonkins read from a clipboard. “Asjad, Saji, Tengu, Biggins, Yousef, Alrasheed, Murad, Mubarak, Haitham….” And all answered with quiet dignity. All, that is, except one.
Tonkins frowned, licked a pencil and stabbed the clipboard. “Biggins. Biggins? Gentlemen, has anybody seen Biggins? Where is Biggins? This examination is due to start in ten minutes.”
“I think he was eating lunch, Mr Bradley, sir.”
“Lunch?” Tonkins’ stomach growled, reminding him that it was Ramadan. Everyone was hungry and thirsty by afternoon, either through religion or respect. Everyone, it seemed, except Biggins.
The door thumped back against the plaster and a chubby, fair skinned and thoroughly beardless boy scudded inside. “Sorry, sir.”
“Your late, Biggins. Hurry up. I was just about to call the examinations officer.”
“Yes, sir, I know, sorry sir.”
“You were late because you were tucking in to your gargantuan lunchtime tucker, is that it, boy?”
“Well, yes, sir.”
“Do I have to remind you what time it is, Biggins? Maybe a few less lunches might benefit your health. Try a fast, now and then?”
“But I came as fast as I could, sir.”
“Okay, fine, well try to come into a room more quietly, that’s all.”
Tonkins scowled then consulted the clipboard, ticking off the final name for Physics Paper 2. “Right lads, you know the drill. Anybody got any mobile phones still on them – in the box. All drawing equipment to be in a clear plastic wallet. Black ink for writing and pencil for diagrams. In a minute I’ll ask you to…”
“Oh. Excuse me, Mr Bradley.”
“Ms Annag?” Tonkins flinched and his nape hairs bristled as the door opened a second time. Quietly. Someone had approached from behind and his thumbs pricked. He turned. “I was just settling the lads down. About to read the instructions and regulations, as per.”
“I know what you were just doing. I can see what you were trying to do. My job. But you wouldn’t want that, now would you? Trying to break the exam board codes? I hope not. You weren’t trying that, were you?”
“Well, I…I thought, you see, in the
, the head of department usually…” United
“Yes, well, as I have told you before, you are no longer in the
Many times before. As examinations
officer, I am responsible for starting all examinations and if you misquoted a
rule or misread an instruction, the examination board might have every reason
to start an inquiry into the mishandling of public examinations.” Miss Annag
smiled. Her eyes glittered. Her chest heaved. United Kingdom
“Well, how would they know?”
“I would tell them. Now boys have you checked in all your mobile phones or portable electronic devices? All drawing equipment should be in a clear plastic wallet. Black ink is to be used for writing and pencil for diagrams. In a minute I’ll ask you to fill in the front page of your examination with your name, your examination number and the number of this centre. All of this is on the labels stuck to your desk…”
Ms Annag’s voice droned, chest ampling against her top as she smiled like some sort of outsized Stepford Wife and as the minute hand kissed twelve and it was precisely three o clock, the boys began. Well not precisely three - in fact it was two minutes after the hour because Biggins had no black pen and had left his equipment by his tucker box in room 34.
Once the lads had settled, Tonkins made his way towards a teacher’s desk upon which he had previously placed his briefcase, some marking and a folded copy of The Gulf Times. With three hours ahead in the stuffy room he had some comforts prepared. But, like a ghost, Ms Annag reappeared. “Mr Bradley? Please ensure you are monitoring the room at all times. You don’t have any work in that case?”
“No,” he lied. As she departed a second time, Tonkins recalled that, on his arrival in Kwatar, there had been hints of a friendship and more besides. But now he knew she kept a little black book with dates and names in it. He sighed.
So now he began to pointlessly patrol the room which was all of twenty by twenty paces. And the beads of sweat began to form on his forehead and under his armpits as he watched the students struggle with the finer points of Boyle’s Law, he began to boil himself. Hot. Hot enough to start a fire.
The klaxon sounded.
A computer generated female voice spoke something in Arabic, then repeated the same instruction in English: “Please leave the building by the nearest door. Attention. Attention. This is a fire alarm. Please leave the building by the nearest door…” and on and on. Tonkins knew it would be a false one. The heat. But Biggins was already bumbling about noisily, so he gestured for silence. “Now, gentlemen, please put down your pens and stand behind your desks…”
The door was flung open again. “Mr Bradley. There are clear procedures in the event of a fire alarm during an examination. Did you read them?”
Tonkins shuddered. “Of course I did, Ms Annag,” he bluffed, untruthfully, now red and sweating profusely.
Ms Annag snorted. The klaxon bleated. “I’ll take charge, if you don’t mind.”
“Right you are, boss.” It was a sickly attempt at camaraderie under pressure.
“Now, boys, put down your pens and stand behind your desks. Absolutely no talking. We will make our way downstairs, where you will stand, silently until it is safe to return to the building…”
Most of the students did exactly as ordered. But Biggins was panicking. He leapt up and his bulk toppled the desk in front of him. It toppled forwards; papers and equipment clattering all over the hard flooring. “Oh my God, sir, I’m sorry. “
“Shut up, Biggins. You heard Ms Annag. Leave it be. Hurry, lad.”
Single-filing out of the door and down the stairs to the football pitch, Tonkins scowled and looked behind him. Ms Annag was putting a clasp across the exam room and securing it with a combination padlock. “Is that necessary?” he asked. “I mean it’s a false alarm, isn’t it? We’ll be back upstairs in a couple of minutes.”
“Do you want the examination board checking up on us for not following procedure and foul practices? Do you?”
“No, Miss Annag.”
“Then don’t tell me how to do my job. Get downstairs and take a register.”
“Register? There are only nine of them. Surely…”
Outside, the sun continued to batter shadow into submission. Standing at the front of the short alphabetisised line, Biggins was already turning a whiter shade of pale and his gargantuan bulk swaying, swaying; wiping a repugnant piece of cloth across his forehead. “Oh, I say, it’s hot, sir.”
“Shut up, Biggins.” As the klaxon continued its mournful tune, Ms Annag had arrived and now stood toe to toe with Biggins, daring him to utter a word. But as he was considerably taller, she offered nothing in the way of shade. Biggins gave up the uneven struggle with the sun and toppled gracefully forward, the two of them tumbling, he on top, she beneath, until his body crushed hers in a suffocating embrace. Like two lovers, they bounced on the tarmac and lay in something approaching a post coital blackout.
“What shall we do, sir?” asked somebody in line.
“Well we’re rather stuck. We have strict instructions not to move from this line, or we contravene examination procedure. We can’t risk an inspection, can we?”
“Shall we call the office? Use your phone, sir?”
“Good plan, Haitham, good plan. Except all our phones are in a cardboard box in the examination room, aren’t they. And that’s locked. Only Ms Annag knows the combination.”
Tonkins looked sadly at the mountain of blubber spread out in front of them. It was now streaking slightly red in the harsh desert sun, and beginning to resemble a ghastly nest of fire ants. Or Ayres Rock. Seen from a distance. He cleared his throat. “Desperate times, lads, desperate times. Can anyone think of a plan?”
“Physics, sir. We could rig up a block and tackle from that stanchion and winch Biggins off Ms Annag.”
“Shut up, Yousef, that won’t work. We need a fulcrum and lever to topple him forward and onto the hockey pitch.”
“Maybe we could light a signal fire using the trash in that bin?”
“Jump up and down and shout for help?”
“All stand around Biggins and kick him in the sides until he wakes up?”
Tonkins scratched his chin. “All plans have merit, lads, and show good problem solving skills. But you are forgetting one thing. We must remain standing silently in this line until the fire alarm stops.”
“I vote we kick Biggins, sir.”
“Yes sir. Hang regulations. Kicking Biggins is the only way.”
Tonkins scowled. “Oh, very well then. I don’t like it, but it’s worth a try. Form a circle around Biggins. Wait for my instruction. And if any of you miss Biggins and strike Ms Annag, you’ll have me to answer to.”
“Difficult to miss Biggins actually, sir.”
“Good point. Now, on the count of three I want you to raise your right leg and…”
But, before any blow could be delivered, three things occurred. Firstly, Biggins began to groan and move his hands. Secondly the klaxon cut out. And finally there was a clearing of the throat by a third party, causing all the boys and Tonkins to pause and look behind them.
Tonkins spoke first. “Principal Putney! Thank heavens you’ve arrived.”
“Never mind that. What are all these boys doing out here? And why is Biggins molesting Ms Annag’s chest in that disgraceful fashion? Biggins! Get up and take your hands off her! Ms Annag is a valued member of staff.”
“Biggins fainted, Mr Principal, sir, on top of Ms Annag. We were attempting to remove him from her but they became welded together in the heat.”
“I see. Fainted, eh? Most probably the fasting. A lot of it this time of the year. Best get a bucket of water.”
“Yes, he’s bound to be thirsty.”
“Don’t be obtuse, Mr Bradley. We’ll chuck it at them. That’ll bring the pair of them round and then we can get on with our lives.”
But Biggins, groaning and blinking in confusion, slowly raised himself until he was on his knees staring at the circle of faces in front of him. “What happened?”
“Never mind that, lad, you’ve an examination to finish. You lot too. Get up those stairs.” And so they trooped away, following Principal Putney, leaving the prone body of Ms Annag on the ground to be attended to later.
But now, upon arrival, another problem presented itself. Putney peered at the door of the examination room. “Right Mr Bradley, so what’s the combination?”
“Well I don’t know, Principal.”
“Only Miss Annag knows it. Exam regulations. We can’t risk an inspection, can we?”
“Damn, you’re right, Mr Bradley. Where is that examination officer? Malingering, I call it.”
“We left her unconscious, outside by the hockey pitch.”
“So we, did.” The Principal grunted. “Fat lot of good she is.” One of the boys snorted and The Principal lashed out a hard glare at him. “Quiet! Valuable asset to the school.” Another snort. “Now, lads, we’re wasting precious examination time. We need a hacksaw or some bolt croppers.”
“Will that bring Ms Annag round, Mr Principal?”
“Shut up Biggins. Since you’re responsible for this mess, you can go and fetch the caretaker. And be quick about it.”
It was some time later that, after watching the cruel teeth of the saw blade bite into the soft metal until it relented with a sigh of surrender, that the door to the examination room finally was pushed open. The boys once more filed into the stuffy room. Sat at their desks and waited obediently, while Putney oversaw Tonkins write a revised finish time on the whiteboard. Satisfied, Principal Putney heel swivelled and left through the entrance.
“Okay lads, off you go. Try to focus and put the events of the past hour behind you,” announced Tonkins. Given that Ms Annag had been trundled off to sick bay to recover, he assumed it was now safe to read the paper and complete his marking and sat, smiling complacently.
But there was no movement in the room. Nobody took up their pens or instruments. Not one of the students was even attempting the next question. Instead they faced the front, silent and motionless.
“What is the meaning of this?” Tonkins rose to his feet, grimly. “Why are you not completing the examination?”
Mubarak answered. “We cannot, Mr Bradley, sir.”
“Can’t? Can’t? Can’t or won’t?”
“Can’t, sir. There are no examination papers. They have all been taken away.”
Tonkins stared at each table in disbelief. Then he looked on his desk. Underneath the chairs. In the wastepaper basket. “But that’s impossible! The door was locked. Where can they possibly be?”
At the back of the examination room, a door was pushed open without ceremony. A small man, dressed in coveralls entered, dragging behind him a bucket of water and squeegee mop. Unconcerned he began his task of swabbing. The floor began to glisten in the shafts of sun. “Excuse, please,” he muttered at the nearest student, who moved his feet.
Tonkins slapped his forehead, horrified. “A connecting door! Shit! Excuse me sir? Have you taken the papers from inside this room?”
“Yes, sir. All paper taken. Plenty of rubbish, some on the floor and overturned desk. Students show no respect. None.”
“Never mind that,” screamed Tonkins, then adjusted his tone. “Sorry, sir. Where have you taken the papers? These students were sitting examinations!”
“All paper in skip, of course. Put all in skip. Chuck out window.” The man grinned. “Outside,” he continued, unnecessarily.
Half an hour later, Principal Putney and Tonkins were back in the examination room where the boys still sat with patience. The two men were expertly sifting through crumpled examination papers and calling out students one by one. “Ah. This one is not bad at all, not too filthy. Alrasheed. Here you are. Yes. This one is certainly serviceable. Saji? Come here, lad.”
“Well done, Principal. I think we’ve rescued it.”
“Biggins’ paper is rather mangled.”
“Yes. But with a bit of effort on his part, I think certainly doable. I’ve scraped the worst of it off with this metal ruler.”
“Without doubt. Well done, Mr Bradley.” The Principal cleared his throat and gazed sternly but kindly at the students. “Now gentlemen. I expect nothing but the best. I’m sorry your examination has been disrupted by a series of unforeseen accidents but we’re back on the page now and there is plenty of time before sunset. We want your best efforts. And your guarantee that nothing will be said to anybody about what has happened here today.”
“We don’t want an inspection, after all.”
“No indeed, Mr Bradley.”
“So mum’s the word. Now before we get restarted, are there any questions?” Principal Putney glared at the room, defying any hand to be raised. Nevertheless, one of the students ventured his arm into the air. Putney scowled. “Yes, Murad, what is it, boy?”
“My examination has meat on it.”
“Meat? What do you mean, meat? Of course it hasn’t got meat on it.”
“It has, Mr Principal. I think it’s a slice of pork pie.”
The Principal stiffened, then strode across the room. “Oh yes, so it does. I wonder where that came from?”
Another hand: “And mine’s got a gammon steak stuck to Page 11, sir. I can’t read the question on bats and sound waves, sir.”
“Yes, sir, me too. This chump chop has glued my answer booklet together.”
“I see. It is a bit sticky, isn’t it. Mr Bradley?”
“Well, what do you expect me to do about it? I didn’t deliberately stick choice cuts of meat to the Physics papers, did I?” snapped Tonkins. “I mean, for pity’s sake, where did all this meat come from? It’s Ramadan.”
“We can’t do this Physics paper, sir. It’s haram.”
The Principal nodded. “Yes, fair enough, gentlemen, fair enough. I can see that. Would it help if Mr Bradley and I carefully scraped the meat off your examination papers and back into…no, it wouldn’t, would it. We’ll have to cancel today’s examination and ask to do resits. There’ll be an inquiry. Let’s hope the press doesn’t find out. It won’t make the school look good. Especially on results day.” Putney sat down resignedly. “I fear for the head of Science when that inspection team arrives.”
Tonkins glowered in fury at Principal Putney. “Now see here. None of this was down to me.”
“Those Kwatari inspectors won’t see it that way, Mr Bradley. Ultimate responsibility lies with the head of Science and the examination officer. That’s the way they roll, here in Kwatar.”
Tonkins felt a very long way from home. He struggled to think of a solution. It was so unfair, wasn’t it? He hadn’t raised the alarm, padlocked the room, crumpled up and chucked the exams or deposited irresponsibly large amounts of half chewed meat in the skip, had he? Then, it hit him. Tonkins leapt to his feet. Triumphant. “What if we said they were ill?”
“Yes, you know, any student feeling ill can defer and rearrange. Heat stroke and weakness caused the involuntary vomiting of meat products all over papers which had to be disposed of. The students can be taken to sick bay now for a check up. Then the examination could be photocopied and rescheduled for tomorrow.”
“Involuntary vomiting of meat products? But they haven’t eaten anything today.”
“We’ll leave the meat out of it, then. That fire alarm is our perfect excuse.”
“Yes, but all of them? All the students? Sounds unlikely.”
Biggins raised his hand. “Excuse me, sir. My paper only has a bit of meat on it. I think I could just about see it through. That way, it won’t be all students, will it, sir?”
Tonkins grinned with relief. “Excellent, Biggins. If one of you does the examination, the inspection team might just swallow it.”
“Swallow it? What the meat, sir? I don’t think they’d want to do that, sir.”
“ Shut up, Biggins. Get on with your examination. And with luck, they might not even bother to come at all.”
“”What the bollocks is this? Maureen! Maureen! Get Mrs Putney on the phone!” The Principal hurled his tupperware against the office wall where it bounced off a motivational poster about looking after minutes and saving meetings.
“She’s not taking calls.”
“Not taking calls? What do you mean not taking calls? Of course she is. 50% of the population of Kwatar will tell you that all she ever does is take calls. From gentlemen.”
Maureen’s face peeped into the office from behind the doorframe like a chicken scratching for corn. “More meat is it, Principal? Shall I scrape it into the skip and go to the supermarket?”
Putney plumped his frame back in the leather seat behind his desk. “No, no, don’t bother. Have the inspection team gone?”
“Yes, Mr Putney.”
“But it was such a shame about Mr Tonkins. Losing his job like that.”
“Oh, he’ll get over it.”
“Do you really think he was a meat smuggler, Principal?”
“Who can say, Maureen? Who can really know the depths of depravity a man can stoop to?”
“But he seemed such a nice young man. He was a good teacher, too.”
Principal Putney nodded sagely. “Yes. Of that we can be sure. The Physics results were excellent this year. All the students passed with flying colours.”
“Well, except for Biggins.”
“Yes, poor Biggins. Bravely tried his best to carry on. But taken ill at the half way stage. Involuntary vomiting all over his examination. We scraped it into the envelope and parcelled it up as best we could, but the report said that by the time it arrived in
, it was so soggy that the marker
couldn’t read it.” Cambridge
“I wonder why, Principal?”
“Stress. Pressure. Weak constitution. And just pig sick of the smell of meat, I suppose.”