Walker Zupp is a Bermudian writer. His first novel, Martha, was published in 2020. He is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter. He splits his time between Cornwall and Bermuda.
“I’ll do it when I do it.”
The life of a teacher at a boarding school is an unbroken line. Of all the unbroken lines at St. Peter’s College, Marcus Keeley’s was perhaps the most peculiar. He was a chemistry teacher. It was two in the morning when the knocking started. Marcus opened his eyes. Looking to his right his girlfriend, Grace, was still asleep. She taught Maths at St. Peters. She also drank a lot. In the living room was a lamp, a small dining table. On the ground was constant white tile in every direction. It was easier to clean up the sick. Outside the light was low. Weightless rain wetted the window. Whoever was outside continued to knock. They knocked until it seemed they could knock no more. Then they started knocking at the same pace. Again. More. Louder. Marcus put on pair of boxer shorts and a tattered tee shirt. It had a picture of a panda on it. Grace liked pandas. He stomped over to the front door. “Fuck sake…” He stood in front of it. “Who is it?” “It’s Julius!” the voice on the opposite side replied. Marcus didn’t know if she should let Julius in. He was his boss – the Head of Science. It wasn’t that though. It was something else. Then Marcus opened the door. Julius was a tall man. He wore thin glasses and his hair was neatly cut. He wore a sand-coloured trench-coat. It had been drenched by the rain. It now dripped on the tile. The two men looked at each other. “What do you want?” Marcus asked. Julius looked exhausted. “We need to talk.” “At two in the morning? You couldn’t come last night?” “I tried,” Julius said like a student bearing the apple of mistaken lore, “but I guess you were out.” “What do you think?” Marcus asked defiantly. It was Monday. He and Grace went to the pub on Monday nights. This was a fact. “How’s Grace?” Julius queried. “Drunk.” Julius nodded. “Bull & Hen?” “Yea.” “They’re starting to refurbish The King’s Head, you know—” Marcus had reached the end of his tether. The backs of his eyes were starting to hurt. “Hey, um – what do you want?” He stared his superior down. “So I can go back to bed.” The Head of Science slimed back his hair. “I had to talk to someone.” “About what?” “I…I can’t do it.” He was shaking. “I can’t do another year. Not here. I’ve made a mistake.” Marcus shook his head in disbelief. He sighed heavily. The sighing became a language in itself. “That’s not—” “I had to speak with you.” “I’ve got a nine a.m.” “You’ll manage,” Julius said. “Oh,” Marcus sneered, “thanks mate.” “Look,” Julius said. His tone was pressured. “Just listen to me. Why don’t you sit down?” “I’ll fall asleep. I’m listening.” Julius looked elsewhere briefly. He looked back at Marcus. “Five years ago, you asked me if I could make you an assistant Head of the Department.” Marcus took his time replying. “You told me to get stuffed.” “Yes,” he admitted, “I did tell you to get stuffed. That was a long time ago. I’m sorry I put it that way.” “I don’t care how you word it.” “The point is that you just wanted security like the rest of us,” Julius interjected, “that’s all teachers ever want. But now—” “You finished?” Julius had had two hours of sleep. He narrowed his eyes. He had to concentrate for just a little longer. “What if I told you,” he began, “that you could be the Head of Department by next Monday?” He was desperate. “Would you like that?” Marcus couldn’t believe this. “It doesn’t work like that.” “It will. It has to.” “No it won’t. They can take you to court.” “For what?” Julius asked. “You’re bound by contract Julius. If you go back on it they can sue you. And then they might take you to court for something else.” His tongue had slipped. The word was out. His own home had become a crime scene. “Something else,” Marcus repeated. “You see what I mean? And there’s no way in hell I’m gonna get involved in The Julius Show. Do you see this?” He pointed around the room, his house – the college-owned apartment. “It’s more than enough,” Marcus went on, “you know why? Because it’s fucking difficult.” “What about Grace?” “What about Grace?” Julius swallowed. “Would she be interested?” “She teaches Maths.” “So that’s not to say she wouldn’t be interested?” “Oh yea,” Marcus said, seeing that his superior’s nerves were shot, “it’s really fair for you to put her forward; and no, I’m not gonna go get her.” Julius made a fizzing sound with his lips. “She’s as good as anyone!” “She’s not, she’s really isn’t. And if you tell her I said that—” “Marcus, please, I—” “Keep your bloody voice down! Don’t drag me into this!” Marcus’s guest moved forward. He half-expected him to get on his knees. “I’m asking for help. People go for years in schools like this not helping anyone, but here I—” “Julius what are you talking about? You know Cassie? In B House? She’s got breast cancer, I’m filling in for her twice a week, or is that not helping?” “No but I mean real help, when everything’s on the table.” Marcus had slept for forty-five minutes. Grace had kept him up after they returned from the Bull & Hen. It hadn’t been fun. “Julius,” he asserted, “the woman has cancer.” “It’s not like this,” Julius complained. “Oh, fuck you.” He’d never spoken to a senior teacher like this. This was crazy. He started to wake up. Was it bad that he found this exciting? “You need to go.” “That’s the point,” Julius said. “No, I mean, you need to leave—” “There was more than one.” When Marcus heard that he knew exactly what it meant. But he couldn’t admit it. Some things were too awful to admit. He was selfish, he knew that. He didn’t want to admit that his Head of Department was a monster. “I’m sorry,” Julius added. The apology did not make up for the action. Marcus rubbed his eyes. He had woken up. Now he wanted to sleep. He wanted to get away from all this. He thought for a moment and transported himself elsewhere, mentally. The Head of Science on the other hand was beginning to crack. His face was red. It seemed to boil the rainwater off. He raised his hands. “I know there’ll be another if I stay,” he said, “I can’t help it.” “I don’t want to know,” Marcus said. “The…stuff. It’s all the same to me.” Marcus woke up again. “Why can’t you stick to your own age?” “I’ve tried. I can’t even act like I’m interested.” “What’s wrong with you?” “I don’t know…” He looked at the white tiles briefly. Then back up. “It’s settled then. You have to—” “No no no,” Marcus said, “no – this never happened.” Julius’s nostrils flared. “If I’m caught, I’ll be in court and I’ll look at you—” “No—” “And I won’t know if you’ll tell the truth or try to cover it up or—” “Jesus Christ,” Marcus said. “They won’t believe a word I’ll say, and then Ashley will get involved—” In a whisper, Marcus screamed, “Shut up! Just, shut up!” This upset Julius. He began to whimper. He seemed so small now – not the tall chiseled scholar who had walked in ten minutes ago. “Help me, please.” He scuttled over to Marcus. He put his hands on his shoulders. In a half-hearted way Marcus resisted. He didn’t know what to do. If a child spoke you told it to be quiet. If a townie shouted things you ignored them. If a dog was excited you pushed it away. “Help me!” Julius pleaded. “Oh God,” Marcus said, revolted, “help yourself!” He pushed Julius off. As his colleague stumbled across the living room, Grace appeared in the doorway. She wore a baggy tee shirt which had George Michael’s face on it. Marcus hated George Michael. It dangled above the tops of her thighs. Her hair was swept in one direction. But she was a pretty woman. Had she been sober she would have been strong. She was still waking up. Still drunk. “What’s going on?” she asked. Her eyes drifted towards Julius. She rubbed her eyes and recognized him. Her face immediately soured. “Get out of here,” she said quietly. Both Marcus and Julius were terrified. Grace knew everything about everybody. All their little troubles. To her gossip was a lovely plague – only she could spread it. But she hated Julius because he never played ball. He never intimated anything. He never gave anything away. In reality, Grace knew very little about Marcus. Very little indeed. She knew all his foibles, but foibles could not define a person completely. All Marcus cared about was how they shared the rent. They shared everything. Every atom of their coupled existence was split fifty-fifty. Grace never understood why he subjected himself to it. She could see he didn’t like it. Julius hadn’t moved. Grace screamed at the top of her lungs: “Get out!” The Head of Science ran out of the front door. It slammed shut. Marcus could scarcely believe what had just happened. Grace in the meantime recovered from her exclamation. “Get out,” she whispered to herself. “Why is he…in here?” Marcus sighed. “He wanted to talk to someone.” “Let him talk to himself. He makes me sick.” She winced. “My chest is fucking racing.” “You take your meds?” Marcus asked matter-of-factly. “What time is it?” “It’s two-thirty.” Grace sat at their little dining table. “Why is it two-thirty?” Marcus walked behind her. “You woke up.” He wanted to put his hands on her shoulders, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He had no idea why. To him it felt wrong and opportunistic. “I don’t feel good,” Grace said. “No one does.” “You’re so vague, why are you so vague?” “I’m gonna go to bed,” Marcus replied. He went to move, but Grace held onto his sleeve. “Please stay,” she said. “I’ve got a nine a.m., Grace. I gotta go. And you’ve got that marking to do, you’ve been bitching about it all week – or is that gonna do itself?” “I’ll do it when I do it,” she said. Marcus gave her one final glance. “Tomorrow.” He left his girlfriend at the table. He went back to bed. Meanwhile, Grace held her head with one hand. She tried to imagine a world not so beset by losers.
“We need to fix this place, make it better.”
Another term had ended unremarkably. While the students at St. Peter’s College returned home for Summer Vacation, the teachers stayed. They could do that trip they’d been meaning to do since Christmas. They could write that book they’d been meaning to write since they left university. They could right that wrong they’d committed. They could sleep. But something had changed. St. Peter’s was a small town. The Bull & Hen had been a small-town pub, one of the most popular. The owner had passed away from cirrhosis of the liver around Christmas. It had been purchased by a large company and rebranded. The Bull & Hen had been refurbished over the course of Summer Term. The old Bull & Hen had plush leather seats. There had been handmade wooden tables with curled leg designs. There had been coat hooks under the bar and stools rickety. Everything had changed. It was bland now. A collection postmodern, semi-deco rooms. The décor was like a man sucked dry by Dracula. There were off-greys and off-whites and off-greens. The tables were pretentiously simple, square and stern like so many Marks & Spencer’s adverts. The main room was faintly lit. Some people might have thought the lighting sexy. For most it was dim however. The atmosphere was apathetic. It had been designed for its patrons. Its official reopening was the last Friday of term. Grace was the first person there. Looking down the long bar, she spotted a young barman. She bought a large glass of sauvignon blanc. Her instructions were to wait for Millie Bentham, a new, very young teacher. Millie appeared finally and joined Grace at the bar. She was dressed tastefully. So was Grace, but in a slightly dirtier way. She ignored the fact that Millie asked for a glass of water. “They’ve really fucked it up in here,” Grace said of the refurbishment. “I remember when Marcus and I first came to St. Peter’s this, all of this was different; like everything was rustic, you know what I mean?” A handsome man leaned on the bar. He was getting a bottle of red wine for he and his girlfriend. He was staring at Millie’s posterior. “You got that chewy stench in the air back then,” Grace went on, “Millie, if you don't want to fuck him, leave the bar. It’s dead simple.” Grace and Millie found a corner with two tables. Grace sat down to finish her glass of wine. Millie looked concerned. The man at bar was smiling. “He keeps looking at me,” she complained. “It’s pissing me off.” “No but if you get pissed off, he’ll get pissed off.” “So?” “So let him be, let him stare if he wants to.” “But I don’t like it,” Millie said. “Then don’t look at him.” Millie remained standing. She held her water with both hands. She looked at the bar. Grace raised her eyebrows dramatically. “Are you gonna stand there all night?” “Are we sitting here?” Millie asked. “What do you think?” Millie sat down. She pressed her legs together. She sipped her water. “I might tell the manager.” Grace was bewildered. “Why would you tell the manager?” “What if he makes a move?” “If he makes a move, great, we’ll be getting free drinks all night.” “Not the manager,” Millie clarified, “the guy at the bar.” “Whack him.” “I don’t want to whack him.” “Yea you do,” Grace said, “show him who’s boss. I do it all the time.” “Won’t that piss him off?” “It’s a message, you might as well stare at him.” “What?” “Doesn’t matter, besides, he knows what he’s doing. If you meet him halfway, it’s legit, as you were.” “I suppose,” Millie stumbled, “I’m sorry – I feel like we should change the topic.” “Well I feel bored,” Grace said. “How’d your last class go?” “Spoke to soon, um, let’s see…” She gathered angry thoughts. “I said good morning to my students and they said, ‘Good morning, Ms. Lewis,’ like a bunch of fucking Tories, then I gave them some equations to work out, which they forgot ten minutes later. Then I sat at my desk and I thought hairy European men, Milan, and this glass of vino.” “That’s—” “In that order.” “That’s nice.” “Well the wine’s okay,” Grace reflected, “I can have that. I can’t get the other two-thirds though, not any more at least.” This was a Grace-like kind of sadness. It ballooned as quickly as it deflated. It was always forgotten. “Sounds like someone has a case of last term blues,” Millie said in her best sarcastic voice which still wasn’t very sarcastic. “It’s called adult life, Millie.” Grace quickly changed the topic. “Do you remember what this place used to be like? It was great, wasn’t it?” “What, the college?” “No the pub you f—” “First time I’ve been here,” Millie said. “You’re joking.” The young Maths teacher shrugged. “I’m not.” How much more Grace could take was unclear. Millie clearly was smart. This was her major flaw. She was also feminine in an irritating way. She was pretty, but she didn’t know—or pretended to not know—she was pretty. “What do you get up to in the evenings, then?” Grace asked, bearing her teeth. “Apart from languorous sex, obviously?” Millie ignored the insult. “I have dinner; get ready for the next day.” “Friday,” Grace pressed on, “what about Friday?” “Friday I just kind of take it easy.” “Is cocaine taking it easy? Because I knew a guy called Graham who took cocaine just to calm down.” “Is she still alive?” Millie asked. “Yea, he works at Homebase, bless him.” Millie clearly didn’t know anybody who worked at Homebase. The thought of doing that job every day filled her with pity for Graham the cokehead. “But what do you think of this,” Grace asked, “this décor?” “I’ve seen worse,” Millie replied unexpectedly, “I mean, it gets the job done. It doesn’t really matter when you’re pissed.” Grace could ignore it no longer. “That won’t affect you though. Why don’t you drink?” “I just don’t.” Grace sipped her wine. “Keeps you young, this stuff.” “Hmm?” “Water of life,” Grace noted, “besides, you don’t wanna be old like me.” The contradiction stumped Millie. “But, I thought drinking kept you young?” “You gotta be young to start with. I was born in my twenties. And I’ll forgive the insult.” “I was just—” “Stating the obvious, yea,” Grace interrupted, “I spent my whole life doing that, and then I met Marcus, vague-as-hell Marcus.” “Well done,” Millie said. Grace scoffed. “You got a boyfriend?” “No.” “Girlfriend?” She finished her wine and held her arms open. “I’m all about equality you know.” “I never had the time,” Millie admitted. “What, for a girlfriend?” “No, in general.” “How so?” “The drinking turns you into someone else,” Millie said. “That person didn’t have time for any kind of relationship.” Grace leant over the table. Her breasts were terrifying. “Everyone wants to be someone else, did that ever cross you mind?” “Yea, it did. So here I am.” “Lucky us,” Grace said. “What are you drinking?” “I’m fine, thanks.” Grace made a silly face. “Suit yourself.” She stood up. “If Marcus shows up, tell him he’s missed.” She left Millie at the table and returned to the bar. In the meantime Millie set to leaning over the table in that really awkward way. Her water looked bored. She agreed with the water – she was bored too. She heard a kafuffle at the bar. When she looked Marcus was headed her way. He held a glass of ginned ice and a bottled tonic. He was handsome. But tired. “There you are,” he said, “you with Grace?” “Sort of,” Millie replied. “Sums up my life,” Marcus said as he sat in Grace’s seat. He poured tonic water into the glass. “You look nice tonight, how are you?” “I’m all right.” “You like this new décor? It’s weird. It’s like – you ever watch Captain Scarlet? It’s like all the rooms in Captain Scarlet. Bit bigger, obviously, but then again we’re all puppets. Up to a point, naturally.” He relaxed a little. “I sense you pulling away from me. We haven’t really met, have we? Let’s try that again, I’m Marcus.” “Millie.” They shook hands. “Millie,” Marcus began, “who convinced you? It sure as hell wasn’t Grace.” “It was Ashley.” Marcus leaned backwards in awe. “Headmaster’s invitation to the pub Christ, when I was your age they wouldn’t even let me near the rugby pitch. Definitely not girl’s hockey. And you, uh, you didn’t answer my question.” Millie raised an eyebrow. “The décor?” “Mmm-hmm.” “It’s actually the first time I’ve been here, I’ve never—” “What’s you local?” Marcus interrupted. “I go to Pizza Express sometimes.” “That’s your local, is it?” Marcus was naturally suspicious. “A lot of students go there.” “Yea, I’ve seen a few.” “Well what are you doing there?” “Getting pizza,” Millie replied curtly. “Yea, I got that far,” Marcus interjected, “but what you’re really going when you go to certain restaurants is experiencing a certain kind of clientele. For example, when I go to Greggs I want to be around builders and single mothers. If on the other hand I go to Enzo’s I want to be around lawyers, dentists, headmasters maybe. So who’s in Pizza Express?” Millie creased her forehead. “I can appreciate the bullshit psychoanalysis, but I’m just getting pizza.” Marcus smiled. He sipped his drink. “You’re smart. That’s good. But one’s boring.” “I am—” “Not even when all the students fly home, leave us scraps to fight over.” “At least they go home.” “Mmm…cheers.” They clinked their glasses. Millie placed her glass on the table. Marcus slurped a healthy tablespoon of gin and tonic. “It’s nice to see you in a more family friendly environment,” he said, “and let me guess, a neat, quadruple gin?” “It’s water.” “Don’t blame you.” Millie smiled. “You should.” At this point in the day Marcus stopped caring about regulations. It was like he was stood on a dive board permanently. The air was clear, the serious decision impending. “I think you can blame shitty upbringings,” Marcus offered, “the boarding school system, but I wouldn’t trust anyone with their own lives. Not really. Blame people, sure – but don’t blame them, you know?” “So you’re an anarchist.” “Nothing wrong with anarchism. Anarchism is doing. It’s totally ethical, down the line. But if it make you feel any better to call me an anarchist, go for it. I’ll just lump you together with Grace.” Millie remembered. “You’re missed by the way. She wanted me to tell you.” Marcus stared right ahead. “Bullshit. Right on cue.” Grace returned to the table with another glass of sauvignon blanc. She swooned over to Marcus. “Mr. Keeley,” she said, “you’ve taken my chair – up you get.” Marcus gave her a look as cold as ice. “No,” he said. Looking as though she had not expected that response, Grace turned. She planted her wine on the table and went about pulling the chairs out on the adjacent table. She then shoved that table onto Marcus and Millie’s. Shoving the chairs under, Grace then sat down next to Marcus. There they were, Millie, Marcus and Grace – all frightened in unique ways. Grace picked up her glass. “It’s bigger now.” “So Millie,” Marcus began, “you got any plans for the Summer?” Grace grunted. “Has Marcus told you how we met?” “That’s a bit of a cliché, Grace,” he said. “You’re right sweetie,” she articulated, “it is a bit of a cliché. Has he told you about the first time we broke up?” Marcus recoiled like footage of a flower played at ten times the normal speed. “Let’s not talk about that.” “Why not?” Grace replied. “It’s a good story.” “Not it’s not. It’s embarrassing.” “You tell people how you lost your virginity all the time, you want to talk about embarrassing!” “No but that’s not raw,” Marcus insisted. “That’s not raw?” “No but what you’re talking about involves both of us.” “Losing your virginity doesn’t,” Grace said. “Not that, you – the first time we broke up!” Grace pointed at her boyfriend. “Smart one, this one.” Millie was nervous. How long would it be until tables were being thrown at people? In her most diplomatic voice, Millie said, “I can leave if you like—” Grace and Marcus simultaneously lurched towards her. “No, no!” Marcus pleaded. “It’s meant to be like this,” Grace interjected. “And talking,” Marcus soothed, “is the key to any healthy sustainable relationship.” “Yes, but is it healthy because it’s sustainable, or sustainable and therefore healthy?” Grace pondered insincerely. “Well, that’s the catch,” Marcus interrupted, “so let’s talk turkey: Grace here likes me to go down on her, but refuses to give me even the lightest of blowjobs.” Each follicle on her head stood on end. “Marcus Keeley you are an abomination.” The headmaster, Ashley Forester, waltzed into the conversation. “Corona’s gone through the bloody roof.” “Thank God,” Millie said. Ashley stood in front of them like a comedian who had suddenly remembered that he hadn’t written any jokes. “The Upper Sixth won’t know what hit them.” Marcus hunched his shoulders. “I doubt they drink Corona, Headmaster.” “Ashley,” Ashley corrected, “there’s always a couple.” “What are you gonna do? Pluck them out? Give them the once over?” “You know me, Marcus, I’ll turn the other cheek.” There was a hint of menace in the diction. Grace did her best to look happy to see him. “Can I ask you something, Ashley?” “I better sit down for this,” Ashley said, and hastily sat next to Millie. Marcus bulged his eyes. “Keep it clean.” “Shut up,” Grace said. “Ashley, where exactly is Liège?” Like Grace, Ashley did his best to give the impression of a disposition that he wasn’t in. This time, it was ‘ genuine interest’. “Far away from here,” he answered cryptically. Grace smiled. “I like the sound of that.” Millie shook her head. “Did I miss something?” “Gracie’s shit-digging that’s all,” Marcus said. “That’s very misleading,” Grace said. “Maybe I want to be misleading.” “But I’m trying to have a conversation, so can you not—?” “That’s misleading,” Marcus argued. “Why don’t you mind your own business and leave quietly?” He poured the surplus tonic into the glass. “I’ll leave when you’re ready.” Grace sighed. “Where’s Liège, Ashley?” “I’m not great with my geography,” Ashley said, “but I assume since you’re asking where Liège is it has something to do with the new Belgian Head of Science we have coming.” “Is Julius leaving?” Millie was genuinely surprised. “How do you know Julius?” Grace said to Millie. “Leaving next year I’m afraid,” Ashley interrupted on purpose, “Burnt out, good for money though. I understand he’s come in to possession of quite a hefty inheritance. Comes in handy when you’re in a tight squeeze.” “How do you know Julius?” Grace quizzed Millie again. “I used to have lunch with him,” Millie said innocently, “he never mentioned the inheritance.” One of Ashley’s jobs as Headmaster was to offer comments that managed simultaneously to be comforting and totally bereft of new information. “I’m not surprised,” he said. “We used to call him Julius Caesar,” Grace recalled condescendingly. Marcus looked upset. “The man hasn’t left yet and you’re already changing your tense.” “You could always picture him in a toga,” Grace said, “but not up front. Stuck in the background with a bowl of fruit. You can see the painter’s hand just lifting up for the day, and there’s Julius in his toga, acting like he doesn’t exist.” “I think he just prefers not to be seen,” Millie said. “He’s always like that when I sit with him.” “Like what?” “Like he doesn’t want to be there, which in hindsight makes sense now.” Marcus pursed his lips. “Pretty recent hindsight, practically present.” “Yes,” Grace said atypically, “he’s an odd duck, our Julius.” Ashley reached his limit for the time being. He stood up. “Would anyone like a drink?” “You got a hot seat?” Grace asked. “I’ve got an empty bottle and money to spend,” Ashley replied, “anyone?” “I’m all right for now,” Marcus said, “cheers.” “Shipshape Headmaster,” Grace chimed in. Millie stood up. She pulled her shirt away from her chest because it was hot. Ashley looked at her. “Save yourself the agony of the journey,” he said. “No, it’s all right,” she countered, “I’ll let the Blairs be.” Millie and Ashley walked away together. The same man was stood at the bar, staring at her. She went up to the man and pushed him. He put his hands up as though he’d been falsely accused of stealing money from the donations basket in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Ashley raised his eyebrows and asked for another Corona. Meanwhile, Marcus swirled the ice in his glass. He looked at Grace. “You can be Tony,” he said. She didn’t say anything. “Every now and then,” he went on, “you pop up and try to explain yourself to the world, but no one wants to hear it. They don’t, Tony.” Grace sighed. Her boyfriend kept talking. “I’ll push you – am I pushing you hard enough? Professionally, I mean?” “Shut up Marcus.” “Because it’s something I worry about you know? Because if you’re not achieving your full potential as a human being, this pub, any pub – it’s not a reward anymore. It’s not something you work for. It’s just another home.” “Do you find her attractive?” Grace asked. “Who?” “The young thing sat next to you.” Marcus blew out his cheeks. “She’s not much young than us, Grace.” “Nice tits, you wanna suck on ‘em?” Marcus didn’t know how to respond. “Why would I,” he stuttered; “I don’t remember sucking your tits. Is there something you want to tell me, or…are you developing a fetish, or…?” “It was a simple question.” “Because I’ll do it if it means I don’t have to argue with you all the goddamn time,” Marcus complained with more than a hint of melancholic frustration. “I mean Millie.” “No,” Marcus said adamantly. “…No I wouldn’t.” He was genuinely upset. “I don’t think you could count the times I looked at you favourably. Do I have to spell it out for you.” – He loved her. “Do you want to get married?” Grace asked blankly. “No.” “Why not?” Marcus swallowed some harsher words. “I’ve got enough to worry about.” “You’ve got enough to worry about?” Grace said in disbelief. “Wow, that’s, that’s really noble. You should write books.” “Books about what?” knowing full well that he taught Chemistry. “Any old books,” Grace replied. “I think your laptop’s just waiting for you to fill it with – with shit.” She observed her partner’s silence. “You think you’re so tough.” “May I remind you that I’m the only reason why we’re still at St. Peter’s?” Marcus thundered privately. “Both of us?” His breathing was heavier. “There’s a line.” “So you don’t want to get married?” Grace asked again. This time the query was meant to serve as an irritant. Ironically, Marcus began to think about the prospect more deeply. “Marriage is for people who like their jobs.” Grace added the following to her list of infallible facts about the world. “You like your job.” “What are you basing that on?” “If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t be here.” “What do you know about me?” Marcus said meanly. “Nothing. That’s what.” Grace’s face was an inch away from her boyfriend’s. “One word,” she said, and wasted time. “Toilet.” She cocked her head and stood up. She strode to the ladies room. Marcus was alone on the table. Ashley arrived with another beer. There was a packet of crisps in the other hand. “All right?” he asked. Marcus wanted Millie at the table. She was different. Unholy. “What happened to Millie?” “Call from the paterfamilias I’m afraid.” Apart from Ashley, there was not a person in the Bull & Hen who knew what that word meant. “Her father called,” he clarified, “be back in a minute.” He sat down. The packet was torn open. Ashley catapulted one into his mouth. Like a person bringing a suitcase onto a plane and declaring it as hand-luggage, the crunching was obnoxious. He targeted his next question at Marcus. “Happy?” Marcus sniggered. “And the Oscar goes to—” “Why don’t you like St. Peter’s? Hmm?” The fact that Ashley had been listening the whole time crossed Marcus’s mind. “What?” “Why don’t you like St. Peter’s? What don’t you like about it?” “I love St. Peter’s,” Marcus answered. Ashley laughed. He had expected that answer. “No, but you don’t, do you? I’m not having a go, Marcus, or anything like that. It’s just important, that’s all.” “What do you want me to say?” Ashley sacrificed another crisp. It died a quick death. “We need to fix this place, make it better. This last year’s been difficult. Very difficult. You’d agree?” The teacher jumped on the band wagon. “Oh yea, no, it’s been – it’s been hard.” “How so?” Ashley quizzed him. “Can I be frank?” “I’m afraid you’ll have to be Marcus.” Both men not only laughed at the joke, but also acknowledged that the joke wasn’t very good.
“I don’t think they should have children.”
The evening had grown. Marcus wouldn’t be able to analyze at sufficient levels for much longer. “I don’t think it’s easy to fix, like teaching or facilities,” he said, “I think, um – it’s something intrinsic.” “Intrinsic,” Ashley echoed back, “good word. Go on.” “There’s something about boarding, well, not just boarding, but boarding schools in general that doesn’t work.” “In what way?” He sighed. “I think if you put a bunch of people together in one place and make them work all day, every day, even if it’s just going to church, you’re – what you’re doing is you’re making a little world.” “A microcosm.” “Yea, sure,” Marcus went on, “and I think there comes a point when the rules of that world become intrinsic to the people. And the people forget about real rules, like, stuff that normal people do in the real world. Rules adhered to everywhere and not the rules of the microcosm of the a boarding school.” Ashley smiled defensively. “Well, that is very well observed.” “Does that make sense?” “I can’t deny that it does.” He continued smiling. Like a parent with a child that needed to get something off its chest. “I don’t think I can do much about it, though. I want concrete things, like you said, teachers, facilities—” “But that’s my point.” “Ah.” “It’s deeper than that,” Marcus said, “it’s – it’s like Julius.” Ashley liked ignorance. “Mmm.” His response was a nothing. Soon after his nothing Millie returned to the table. “Sorry about that,” she said. “No, no, it’s healthy,” Ashley assured her, “although I use homing pigeons myself.” Millie giggled. She sat down. Grace returned from the ladies room. “Ashley.” “Crisp?” the Headmaster offered. Grace smiled, concealing her rage. “You don’t happen to have a cigarette on you by any chance?” “Cravings,” Ashley said, “pass the time, make it plumb – do you need a lighter?” “Has the Pope shit in the woods?” Grace asked. “I’m afraid I don’t read The Sun.” “Yes,” Grace replied, inspecting the wreckage of her joke, “a lighter would be useful.” “You can start on St. Peter’s,” Marcus said very seriously. Ashley gave a suppressed laugh. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his pocket. Grace pulled a cigarette out of the pack. She took the lighter and walked into the beer garden. Ashley returned the cigarettes to his pocket. “You know, actually, I might join her,” Marcus said. “You don’t mind do you?” Ashley and Millie shook their heads. Marcus stood awkwardly from the table. “Be my guest,” Ashley said, “preferably outside. Do you want one?” He pointed to his pocket. “No, I don’t smoke.” “Neither does she I imagine,” Millie said. “Thanks Luther,” Marcus replied. He took his drink and joined his girlfriend in the beer garden. The Headmaster picked at his crisps like a bird. There was such a thing as crisp discrimination wish Ashley. “Why do you spend time with them?” Millie asked him. “I think a better question is, ‘Why do they spend time with me?’ I can’t imagine why.” “I think you can,” Millie said. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. People always say that like it’s a game plan that works, but they miss the point. You just get lost in it.” Millie could be pragmatic at times. “Why don’t you tell them to fuck off?” Ashley laughed. It was a genuine laugh. Not a fake laugh like the others. “Only the upper class get to dot that,” he said, “I’m not quite – have you ever done that? I’m not saying you’re posh, just, have you ever told someone to bugger off? Apart from that chap at the bar.” Millie was embarrassed. “I’ve been told to bugger off.” “I want all the gruesome details,” Ashley ventured, “who was it?” “It’s not worth it.” “Now, that’s another matter altogether!” “How long have the Blairs been here?” Millie queried. “Who? Keeley and Lewis? About six years. The Science and Maths departments will never be the same.” “In a good way, or…? I suppose it’s hard to judge.” “It’s a bit like economics,” Ashley ventured. “If you can tell me in bullet points what makes a good teacher, I’ll meet you halfway with an honest lawyer.” “So if the students are doing well, you won’t investigate why, you’ll just relax because everything’s fine?” “Equally, if they’re doing badly you can root out the problems, but that’s the thing – I’d say, at this present moment, we’re sort of in between those two areas. I can’t quite hit the nail on the head.” Millie thought briefly. “I think I’ve made progress.” “Ah, now, if you asked me if I made progress when I was teaching politics, I’d be lying if I told you I did.” “With students or yourself?” “Both,” Ashley said, “but young people are stupid.” “What do you mean?” “I mean they’re stupid. You can’t expect a sixteen year old to understand supply and demand at nine in the morning.” This was uncommon psychoanalytic territory for Ashley. “Do you think we should teach it later?” Millie asked. “No, what I’m saying is we shouldn’t teach it at all. We make them think about stuff they shouldn’t think about, nor can they think about it, they can’t picture it in their heads – it’s beyond them. Then we let them fall by the wayside when they go to university. What have we accomplished, what progress have we made then, as a teacher? None.” “Headmaster—” “Ashley, please—” “You couldn’t say things like that,” Millie half-scolded. The Headmaster considered yelling at her. “I suppose not. It comes with the job. What would – what would you do in my position? What do you think matters?” “To students?” “No, in general. What matters? What virtues should we rest in our crowns?” “Well,” Millie said as she dusted off her Marxist hat which was most definitely not a crown, “the first problem is that everyone thinks they have a crown.” “I agree with you,” Ashley said. “But why is that? Why shouldn’t we all have a crown?” “Not all of us deserve one.” Even though her leftist leanings were turning in their grave. Nobody deserved one. Full stop. “So some people are better than other people,” Ashley determined. “I wouldn’t say that—” “Why not?” He saw this as an interrogation. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that.” “No, but that’s not what I’m saying.” “What do you want to say then?” “Ashley, I – I think you’re stringing me along.” There was a moment when both Millie and Ashley thought the wrong thing had happened. Millie thought she was going to get yelled at, and Ashley thought he was going to get lectured on the nature of capitalism. Neither happened. “Am I string you along?” Ashley pondered aloud. “You tell me. You seem to be in control.” The Headmaster sat up. He cocked his head. “Oh. I’m sorry if it seems that way. I just like talking to people, that’s all.” “You like deconstructing people.” “No, that sounds awful. I just enjoy people’s company.” He waited before he said anything else. “I don’t get out much, Millie. I’m like Carol Ann Duffy.” “Sorry.” “No, you’re quite right. I’ll talk your ears off if you’re not careful. But I, uh, I do regret not talking to you sooner.” “Thank you.” Millie was surprised. Something was amiss. She thought about what type of human being Ashley was. He was the kid in your Maths class who pretends to be dumb, even though they score highly on every exam. Everybody knows that. But the smart kid thinks they have to be stupid to fit in. Except they never will. “What are you doing here?” Millie asked. He looked at her strangely. “What do you mean?” “Here. What are you doing here? You should be at a university, or something. A think tank.” The false modesty materialized. “I couldn’t do that. Could you?” “No but we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you.” “I’m a boring topic, really.” He most certainly was not a boring topic. “Where were you before?” Millie went on. “Well, I started out teaching at Oundel, and around the time I got sick of Oundel, I became second master at St. Peter’s. And I’ve been here ever since. I’m better at the, uh, administrative side than I am at teaching.” “Where were you before Oundel?” “I was in the army,” Ashley said flatly. Millie nodded suspiciously. But knowingly and obviously suspiciously. Because she was making light of her own suspiciousness. This was not the best idea. “You were, just in the army?” Millie queried. “Yes,” Ashley returned even flatter. “And around the time I got sick of the army, I took a teaching job at Oundel. Friends, bedfellows get you places. That’s why you’re here, I assume?” “No, I did an interview and I got the job.” Things were not that simple. “That’s good,” Ashley said in a not entirely friendly way. “Rare, but good. You should make your own decisions, but then again, life has a strange way of making sure you get on the right train.” “Or the last one,” Millie offered. “Or the last one,” Ashley echoed, “the only one, maybe. But it’s still a train. You’ll go places, meet people.” This was a very sad man. His face was sad, and his arms were sad. He sat sadly. “Do you regret it?” Millie asked. “Regret what?” “Everything, anything.” “Not really. I’ve tried writing things down, trying to make sense of it all. It is what it is. And it’s all so long ago now.” He looked far away. He stared deep into his past. There was nothing there. Only moldy memories, a sense of blanched time. “So many lost people,” he reflected. Then he looked at Millie. He smiled. He pointed towards the beer garden. “You know, I think that’s the longest cigarette break ever taken.” “Are they married?” “You’d think they were, but they’re not.” “I don’t think they should have children,” Millie said. “That’s the worst thing they could possibly do.” He gave a speculative nod. “That would be unfortunate.”
“It’s a bit of an anti-climax.”
Grace and Marcus returned. The solitude of the beer garden had tempered their nerves. They carried empty glasses. Grace eyed the Headmaster. “How many left, Ashley?” “Well, two right now,” he said, pointing to Millie and himself. “No, cigarettes, how many?” “Oh, twelve or so.” “Best news I’ve heard all day,” Grace said. “Thank you, again.” Ashley was unmoved. “It’s no problem.” Grace sat next to Millie. The idea was to keep Marcus at bay. “God,” she said, “you wouldn’t think it’s summer.” Marcus, still standing, rung the empty glasses. “What do you want?” “Same as you,” Grace answered. “Any preference, if they have Beefeater?” “What do you mean, ‘If they have Beefeater’? Of course they’ll have Beefeater—” “As usual, sweetie, you miss the point,” Marcus said as calmly as possible. “I say again, any preference?” “Beefeater,” she said. Marcus looked at the others. “She got that from her mother.” “All tastes the same to me,” Grace interjected. “Makes my fucking job easier,” Marcus said as he began to move. Before he got too far away Grace said, “You got money?” It was a stupid question. He just stared at her, and turned around. “Are you a social smoker,” Millie asked Grace. “All smokers are social smokers – do you smoke?” “I would’ve gone out with you.” “You quit?” Grace asked. “No, I’ve never smoked, never crossed my mind.” Grace was intrigued. “No one offered you a cigarette at school?” “No,” Millie said, “but I guess that’s the difference between you and me.” “What do you mean?” “People offer you things, whereas people don’t offer me anything.” “Yikes,” Grace said, “so ungrateful, Headmaster—” “Ashley,” he corrected. Grace ignored him. “What do you mean no one offers you anything?” “Christ,” Millie moaned, “it’s just small talk.” “No, fuck that. It’s big talk. It’s all big talk.” “That doesn’t mean it’s right.” “I agree,” Grace said, “but it’s good to have little chats now and then about nothing much. It’s hard to say what qualifies as nothing much though. Dirty talk’s nothing much. So many verbs, you’d agree with that Ashley, wouldn’t you?” He blushed. “Verbs, yes. Lots of verbs.” “See?” Grace said. “I think all the stuff they say in church is nothing much. No offence to the chaplain.” “No offence taken on her behalf,” Ashley interjected. “Little books and songs and communion wine. Oh yes. You ever confess?” she asked Millie. “I don’t have anything to confess,” she said. “You sure?” Millie’s answer was frozen over. “Yea.” “What about you, Ashley?” “Maybe you can raise that at the next staff meeting,” he said with more than definite hint of menace. With definite menace. Grace chortled. “I might forget by September.” “Maybe it’s not worth asking, then.” “See, that’s big talk,” Grace said of Ashley’s deflection. “If you can’t do that, what else can you do?” “Be nice?” Millie suggested. “No such thing.” “Bloody hell,” Marcus laughed as he returned from the bar. He had two glasses of ginned ice, and two bottles of tonic. “This guy at the bar pissed himself and fell over!” “It’s only nine-thirty,” Millie said. “Quiet,” Grace interrupted, “I want to hear this.” “So he’s there right, big guy—” “This might be your lover, Millie, pay attention.” “Tattoos up and down his fucking arm,” Marcus described. Millie sighed. “Yea, that’s him.” “Tattoos and he’s talking to the barman because his date walked out on him. He pointing at the bar and he’s like—” He put the drinks on the table. Grace mixed hers. She took a long sip, and listened. “He’s point at his finger at the Midori melon, and he’s like, ‘That fucking green shit makes you hallucinate like fuck.’ Millie stand up for a second, will you?” Millie stood up. “You be the barman, right,” Marcus explained, “I’ll be the lad. So he’s standing there pointing at the Midori melon, and he’s like, ‘I drank a whole bottle of that once and I woke up, sat on the edge of my bed with eyes like, FUCKING YES!’” Marcus did his best impression of a speed-freak. Millie had never worked in a bar. “And the barman,” Marcus went on, “comes out round the bar and says, okay, just be like, ‘Sir could you leave the premises’?” Millie frowned. “Sir, could you leave the premises?” “Yea,” Marcus approved, “and the guy points at his crotch and smiles, and there’s piss everywhere, right? And he’s just like, ‘My pipe’s burst me laddo!’ And then he fell over.” Marcus sat down next to Grace. He mixed his drink. Not knowing what to do, Millie sat down. There they all were. Ashley, Millie, Grace and Marcus. It was like nothing had happened. “It’s a bit of an anti-climax,” Ashley said. Marcus shrugged. “What, uh, what were you talking about?” “Kids,” Millie said. “Standard.”
“I’m getting another drink.”
Marcus wheeled round to Grace. “How are you sweetie?” he asked. “Did you miss me?” “I smell Sambuca,” Grace said. “She’s got a good nose this one.” Marcus tapped his. “Why didn’t I get any Sambuca?” “Ooh, I’m in trouble now.” He took a deep breath. “I forgot. So the first time I broke up with Grace was five years ago—” “Marcus—” “No, you asked for it. We were in the same position you’re in now, Millie. You’ve done your first year of work, no academic shit, no placements, nothing Just you and the kids and your four-four-two a week. You got a Headmaster, Head of Department, too many heads to count, really.” He sat up. He folded his arms. “And Grace starts getting angry because I’m not one of them,” he explained. “So I have a meeting with Julius, and I give him a piece of Gracie’s mind, I tell him I deserve more and he, fairly or unfairly, tells me to get stuffed. ‘What are you doing?’ he always says that, doesn’t he? ‘What are you doing?’ Like he can see your whole life on a roadmap.” He looked at Grace. “Except you’re not on it. You don’t know what you’re doing. Do you?” Grace had forgotten how to express herself. “So we broke up,” Marcus said. “But now we’re back together again! And you something, I would not…change…a…thing.” Millie broke the silence. “If you could, would you?” “Huh?” “If you had the ability to change your position, would you?” “That’s kind of the point, squirt.” “No, but you only say that because you know you can’t.” Grace drank and laughed at the same time. The glass made a wet echoed sound. “Are you calling me a loser?” Marcus asked Millie. “No, we’re all weak,” she said. “What the hell is this?” Ashley began to sing: “‘In the summertime, when the weather—’” “But we’re all weak,” Millie tried to make clear, “none of us can actually change how things are, we juts have to make the best with what we have. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Grace was enjoying this. “This isn’t like you, Millie.” Millie looked revolted. “How would you know?” “I know loads of people I’ve never met,” she said. “Whoah whoah whoah,” Marcus interrupted, “you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with that. So what’s the problem?” “Well,” Millie began, “it just sounds like you think you have control.” “But you just said I don’t What the hell are you talking about?” “We’ve all had a bit much to drink,” Ashley said. That was the worst thing he could have said. “Now if you wanna talk about what’s true and what’s not, she’s been drinking water all night and now she’s lecturing me on ethics. You want another beer, Ashley?” “No, I’m fine.” “Great – talking about, ‘We’ve all had a bit much to drink’. Fifty per cent, Headmaster—” “Ashley—” “No, scratch that, twenty-five per cent because I can hold my liquor.” Grace sniggered. “That’s not true.” Marcus was un-phased. “Is this about booze? All this talk about control?” “It can be, if you like,” Millie replied. An unhealthily large laugh exploded out of Grace’s lungs. Her boyfriend meanwhile was experiencing a mixture of annoyance and confusion. This was a bad combo. “So what you’re saying is, I’m locked in my ways and there’s no way out.” Millie nodded. “You could say that.” “No, but are you saying that?” “Yea. But don’t be sad about it.” Marcus got angry. “I’m not sad about anything, and don’t try to deconstruct what I’m saying when I’m saying it, let me ask you something—” “He’s gonna ask you something,” Grace said. Marcus looked at her. “Can you not do that?” Ashley turned to Millie. “What do you think of Wittgenstein, Millie?” “Fuck Wittgenstein,” Marcus said. “I don’t think he fucked anybody,” Grace advanced. “Millie, when you’re all settled in here—” “That’s it though,” Millie interrupted, “you’re settled in.” “I know I’m settled in, I’m talking about you, put yourself in my shoes for one fucking second.” Ashley moved into Headmaster mode. He said, “Marcus…” “Okay, I’m in your shoes,” Millie said “Baby shoes,” Grace interrupted. “Shut up,” Marcus said. “I’m talking to her,” Grace said, pointing to Millie. Millie pointed back. “Why do you have to be so patronizing?” “Don’t be old like me,” she reminded her like the apparition of a rubbish seer, “remember what I said!” Marcus woke up. He became incredibly sober. “You can’t steal my argument!” Millie made a face. “What?” “Stop talking bollocks,” Grace said. “Let me finish,” Marcus demanded. “Shoes,” Millie reminded him. “If you can’t control your life, you have to act your way through it.” Ashley perked up. “If there’s a common goal, you don’t gave to act.” Marcus cringed. “Oh, cheers Liberace—” Grace had time to slap her boyfriend’s arm. Then Ashley emitted a very particular type of teacher-sound. It was the sound that insisted that other sounds end. And they did. Grace stopped laughing for what seemed to be final time before she died. Marcus hardened like an oven-roasted lump of playdough. Millie stared into her lap like a very important book there had been opened to a very important page. It was in the wrong language though. Ashley needed time to break from his Headmastering self. He had made a mistake. “I need a piss,” Grace said, and left the table. After a while, Ashley said, “Sorry.” “No – I – I’m sorry,” Marcus said. The Headmaster was unable to look at his teachers. He inspected his beer. “I like corona.” It was a lead balloon of an anecdote. “What were you, um – what were you saying?” Marcus lifted his head. He didn’t know if he could answer that question. His voice was soft. “Um – I was, uh – I was just thinking – with you, Millie – in six years time, will you be able to admit that you actually know what you’re doing?” Millie’s eyes went between her boss and her colleague. “Probably not.” “Well,” Ashley said, “that’s good to know from my perspective.” “I don’t think I will, though.” “And I agree with you – both of you.” Ashley rediscovered his humanity. “But – if we don’t pretend like we know what we’re doing, for the sake of the entire student body plus their parents, this whole microcosm will fall apart. I know it will.” He breathed in via his nostrils. “So the real question should be: considering that we constantly pretend that we know what we’re doing, is it possible to change the path we’re on at this moment, at any given moment, through a glass darkly?” Marcus formed a semi-smile. “I think you’re taking the piss, Ashley.” “No, your girlfriend’s doing that. I’m getting another drink.” He stood up. “Anyone else?” Marcus shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks.” “I’m watered out,” Millie said. Ashley tried not to look unimpressed, and went to the bar.
“I mean, I worked with him, but I didn’t know him.”
Slowly, Millie turned to face Marcus. She had lost sense of time. “You see my point though?” she asked calmly. Her colleague nodded. “Yea. But don’t make it.” He was saying something very serious. “Don’t make it. Because I have to be back here in September. The same goes for you.” “Are you ever gonna leave?” “I don’t – I don’t know. But I’ll tell you something. If it means I’m not getting that four-four-two every week over the summer, I’ll stay put, thank you very much.” He measured what he said. The scales were balanced always in favour of St. Peter’s. He couldn’t help it. “It’s fine,” Marcus said, “this is all – why change it?” “Can I ask you something?” “That’s a stupid question.” Millie smiled. “Why don’t people want to sit with Julius?” Marcus sighed. Something needed to be said. He wasn’t sure if Millie was the right listener. These secrets drove him mad. Secrets of all sizes, magnitudes. Maybe this was what God felt like. “About two years ago,” Marcus said, “Julius had sex with a student. My student. He was old enough – not that that makes anything better.” Millie was flabbergasted. “Jesus.” Her mind traced over the interactions she’d had with Julius. They’d been together at staff dinners. They’d brushed shoulders in hallways. They’d felt sorry for one another. “Oh God,” she said. “We need to call someone.” Marcus turned red. “No.” “No?” Her colleague leaned over to her. “Everyone knows.” He raised his eyebrows. “It happens all the time. Like your man said, if suddenly all of it got out, every school in the country would just collapse. Not just because of people like Julius, but people like us.” He raised his hands. That signified that he didn’t know anything. Even though he knew everything. It was difficult to imagine how such a man could exist without collapsing inwards like a black hole. “Kiddie-fiddlers got a free pass,” he said. “That doesn’t make it right,” Millie argued. “No, it doesn’t. But who’d give you a job?” This was about money. “Loose lips sink ships.” Millie didn’t like conspiracy theories. But that depended on whether it constituted an illusion, or a delusion. “Maybe we could help him,” she ventured. “You can’t help people like Julius. They’re defunct.” “How do you—” She lowered her voice. “How do you work here?” Marcus ignored the question. “What’s he like?” He paused. “I mean, I worked with him, but I didn’t know him.” “He was – normal. But there was…” “What?” Marcus pursued. Millie dug up her past. Information. “There was this one time I had lunch with him. And we were talking about what scared us. And he told me about this one time he went back to his school to talk about universities with the upper sixth. And one of his old teachers took him out for dinner to thank him and Julius said – he said there was a moment when he looked at his teacher’s face, and it was like the light went out of his eyes.” Marcus listened. “And that was when he knew he couldn’t – he couldn’t go back again. There was—” “Evil,” Marcus interjected. “Yea.”
Grace returned from the ladies room. It had never seen so much of one lady. She joined Millie and Marcus at the table. “Has Ashley calmed down?” she asked. “Yea, he apologized,” Marcus replied. “You can stop flirting,” Grace said. “Now, where did you go to school, Millie?” Marcus rolled his eyes. “Here we go again—” “Shut up,” she said, “where’d you school?” They both watched Millie collect herself. “Um, Cheltenham Ladies College.” “Ooh, very chic,” Grace said. “It didn’t feel chic.” “If you think you’re chic when you’re there, you’re an idiot. You appreciate it when your older.” “I don’t think ‘appreciate’ is the right word,” Millie said. There were no fond memories. No positive retention. The strongest memory was of the other girls laughing at her when she bled for the first time. And the nickname, Hairy Bentham. “What’s the right word?” Marcus asked. “‘Like’? Did you like it?” “I went there,” Millie said, “that’s about the best way to describe it.” “Describe what?” Ashley said as he returned from the bar. “Millie went to Cheltenham Ladies College,” Grace explained. “I know. I love a good CV. It was almost as good as yours, Grace.” “You see?” Grace said to Millie. “We’re not that different after all.” Millie seemed to raise her cheekbones. “Where did you go?” “When?” “No, to school.” “Norton Hill,” Grace said, “Somerset – coeducational facility.” She turned to Marcus. “You like coeducational facilities?” “They’re all right,” Marcus replied. “Vague as always, hey—” She swiveled round to Millie. “What do you think the biggest difference is between a rich student and a poor student?” Millie dropped her hands in her lap. “Jesus Christ I wasn’t rich, I was lucky.” “Middle-class though, you’re okay with that? Because I’m not even middle-class. I’m a financial runt.” “You could say I’m middle-class,” Millie settled. “I do. So what’s the difference?” “Well, when I was at college—” “Cheltenham Ladies College,” Grace clarified to those present. “Yea. When I was at college, I thought the students were pretty naïve. But I think that’s young people in general, I don’t think they’re stupid—” Ashley jumped in to refine what he’d said at the beginning of the evening. “It’s just an opinion.” “I think they’re just misguided,” Millie said. Grace bobbed her head back and forth. “Misguided, yea—” “Yea, and I think more privileged kids go through a longer period in their lives being misguided, whereas if you’re less privileged, you just get on with it. But that’s a – that’s a really liberal elite reading on my part. I don’t know—” “Have you ever taught the mongrels?” Grace asked. “The less privileged ones?” The strain on Millie’s face was nauseating. “No.” “Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.” “It’s just—” “What?” “It’s just an opinion,” Millie bleated. “Besides, what the hell are you playing at? You teach at one of the most expensive schools in the country.” “But I am working class,” Grace confirmed, “you can’t deny that.” “No, but you’re sat there with your gin and tonic and your four-four-two a week talking a whole load of garbage that doesn’t mean anything to you. I mean, if you really cared about your background, you’d tell Ashley where to stick his contract and go back to Norton Hill, which is actually a really good school, and teach there. So who the fuck are you trying to fool? Hypocrite, you fucking sell-out!” The bait had worked. Millie had exploded. In a strange way, Grace was satisfied. Her job was done. Marcus blew out his cheeks. “Awesome,” he said comically, “Ashley, can I talk to you in private?” Grace looked at Marcus. “Just, housekeeping,” he promised. “Always nice to know my first cigarette’s been baptized in fire,” the Headmaster said as he stood up, “you fancy one, Grace?” “Ashley,” Marcus said delicately, “it’s private.” “Oh yea, sorry.” The two men walked away together. “I think the chemistry department needs a serious overhaul,” Marcus said. “Really?” Ashley replied. “Yea, well, first of all it’s…” They faded like the teacher in the mind of the pupil. They disappeared completely into the beer garden.
“Don’t let me keep you.”
Grace and Millie were alone together. Who knew what might happen. There was a chance that one of them wouldn’t leave alive. Grace swirled her gin and tonic. Her eyes penetrated Millie’s soul. “Answer the question,” Grace demanded. “Did you like Cheltenham?” Millie scowled. “I hated it.” Her brain remembered malice. “Did you like Norton Hill?” There were no fond memories of Norton Hill for Grace. It was astounding how mean women could be to one another. Your boobs were too small. Then they were too big. Your legs were too hairy. Then they were too smooth. You were too nice. Then nobody gave you trouble ever again. It’s amazing how scared Grace was. Everything frightened her. Her life was darkness within a darkness. It was awful. Grace didn’t have to think about her answer. “I hated it.” She took a swig from her glass. “I know I talk a lot of shit. It’s nice to have someone to talk shit to. I don’t really like women. Never did. I never trusted them, you know? My mother, sister, they weren’t really model citizens. But you – you’re tough, aren’t you?” Millie ran her finger up the sides of her moist glass. “I don’t think so.” “You are,” her colleague interjected. “You just don’t know it.” Some kind of heartbreaking solidarity thronged the air for less than a second. It dispersed and burnt up. “What was the best sex you ever had?” Grace asked. “What?” “You’re a good listener. I’m not saying it again.” “Do you want a description, or—?” “Jesus Christ.” Grace threw up her hands. “You don’t have to analyze it, just – what was your best time?” “Um, I did it – lying down with this guy.” “Nice one. Did you like it?” “Yea, I liked him. He was a pharmacist.” Grace narrowed her eyes. “Does that matter?” “No, it was just what he did.” “Were you dating?” Millie’s nose jettisoned a block of happy warm air. “It was a one-off thing, but we stayed in touch. He actually got married last year. I thought that was good. For him, I mean.” The sex had been explosive. But this didn’t matter. “What about you?” Millie echoed back to Grace. “Eh, I don’t know.” An oddly benign grin formed on Grace’s face. Her eyes traced Millie’s shape for a long time. Then they traced her drink. “I was in Milan,” Grace began, “I was twenty-eight, and the World Cup was on. It was Germany against the Netherlands. And most of the people watching the match – I was in a bar – most of the Dutch people watch the match were women. But there was one day – Dutch guy – I started talking to. He was pretty good looking, and he liked me, so I went back to his – he had an apartment. And all these guys are fluent in English, speak it better than we do so the language barrier wasn’t even a thing. So that was good.” Her mind went backwards. The air was real. And the sun was real. There was the sun back then – back where she belonged in the light. It grew brighter. Like every good thing it vanished however. Grace was alone in the history of the world. “We talked a lot afterwards,” she said, “four hours, we talked.” Millie was hypnotized. “What about?” “Everything. Name it. But I’d already met Marcus. And he had a big dick, so – sun came up and that was that. Done.” The nice Grace was dead. The new Grace reappeared. “Now, if Julius was here, and we asked him that question, I’d have to put cotton in my ears.” Millie went pale. There were things that Grace didn’t know. It would stay that way. “I need to use the toilet,” she said. “Don’t let me keep you,” Grace said. Millie stood up. She walked briskly to the ladies room. Grace was alone. The barman was cleaning the bar. Soon they would be asked to leave. Grace finished her gin and tonic. She set the glass down on the table. The last song on the pub’s playlist was ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ by Bobby Womack. Grace was transported back to Milan. This one here is dedicated to all the lovers here tonight. She put Milan out of her thoughts. She began to concentrate on the image of Marcus in his boxer shorts. She stroked the side of her face. Because everybody needs something, or someone to love. For the last moments of her life she truly did love Marcus. She truly was grateful. She truly wanted no other man in her life. It came too late though. Her chest tightened. It felt as though a concrete block were being lowered onto her back. “Marcus!” she shouted in pain.
The barman looked up from his work. “Oh shit,” he said. He gestured to the barmaid to help Grace. She ran over to the corner where she was sat, convulsing. The barman dialed 999. “What the hell’s wrong with her?” the barmaid yelled from across the room. “She having a bloody seizure,” the barman said. “Yes, hello? Yes, I can hold.”
“I’ve been busy.”
It was late. Grace was dead. For the parties concerned neither items were difficult to grasp. The lamp in Marcus and Grace’s apartment was on. It cast the living room in an orange hue. It would welcome only one of those people home. Ashley, Millie and Marcus walked in. They had returned from the hospital. Marcus slammed the door behind them. He removed his jacket. He tossed it on the ground. “Put them where you like.” Marcus walked around the living room. Had he forgotten something? He felt he’d misplaced his girlfriend. He would never find her again however. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, and went up the stairs. Millie and Ashley removed their coats. They hung them on the backs of chairs around the dining table. There was bottle of scotch. There were two tumblers. “You shouldn’t have to see him like this,” Ashley said. “It’s so awful.” “He’ll – he’ll pull through, eventually.” “I can’t believe she’s gone,” Millie said. “He’ll be all right.” “I feel so bad about everything.” Ashley looked at the young Maths teacher. “What do you mean?” “The way I – I shut her down, I was just – I didn’t mean to—” “You didn’t kill her, Millie.” “What if I did?” “You didn’t,” Ashley replied slightly more assertively. “I shut her down.” “She shut herself down,” Ashley concluded, “she always did.” She was frantic. “But I didn’t—” Ashley tried his hardest to be sympathetic. He put his hands on Millie’s shoulders. “Millie,” he stated, “she shut herself down. Years from now, when you’re older, that’ll be the truth because it always will have been the truth.” “Okay.” He moved away from her. “I’ll miss her.” He turned around. “her mother—” “We should call her sister.” “Her mother died, maybe, six years ago,” Ashley said. “Same thing. As for the sister, well – I keep out of it.” “You keep out of it?” Millie said. “How do you know about her mother?” “She told me. She told me when she applied, when I interviewed her. Maybe it was—” “Do you think she used work to,” Millie wiped her eyes, “to distract herself?” “I don’t know. Maybe.” “Ashley, you can tell me.” The Headmaster grunted. “She was a workaholic. The drinking was kind of secondary, like she wanted a ‘real’ addiction to make up for the first because, well – you can’t treat workaholics. I think it was hard for her to accept that. Burnt out.” “I still feel like something’s not right,” Millie admitted. Ashley told her to be quiet. Marcus reappeared. He looked at his colleagues the same way he looked at the bottom of an empty tumbler. “I’m gonna have a drink,” he said. Ashley stepped forward, almost ceremonially. “I’ll stay. But—” “You’re done,” Marcus said. “You could say that.” “I do.” He un-tucked his shirt. He picked up the scotch, and studied it. “I do. I can’t tempt you?” “I’m beyond it, I’m afraid. Well past my bedtime.” Marcus scoffed. “You’ll stay, though?” “I’ll stay. Like I said.” “When did you say that?” Marcus asked. Ashley stared at the Chemistry teacher. “I said that a few moments ago.” Marcus motioned the bottle towards Millie. “Millie? The future?” “I’m okay, thanks.” “In vino veritas.” He filled a tumbler with scotch. He lowered the bottle onto the table, and picked up the glass. “Truth in wine. I think I’ll manage with scotch.” He had a healthy slurp. He slammed the tumbler on the table. Then he pulled out a chair, and sat. Ashley hands were in his pockets. “Do you want me to say anything in particular?” “Right now?” Marcus asked. “No, for the email to faculty and parents, everyone involved.” “Who’s involved?” Ashley tried to be accommodating. He tried to be everything. “People.” Marcus raised an eyebrow. “People? Grace hated people. Got what she deserved, I guess.” “How can you say that about your girlfriend?” Millie said. Marcus winced. “She wasn’t my friend. I hate that word. You know what I was to her? I was necessary.” He pronounced the ‘y’ on the end with severity. “A necessary evil?” Ashley interjected irresponsibly. Marcus laughed dryly through his nose. “Fuck you, mate.” “You bring it on yourself ‘mate’.” “You want to talk about evil, Ashley?” What about that freak in my department? The one who’s been there for years – good old Julius Caesar?” The Headmaster was exasperated. His mouth opened moistly. “I’m not going to say you’ve had too much to drink—” “You can,” Marcus offered. “Because we’ll be here all night.” “I’m not saying anything.” “No one asked you anything, it’s fine.” “And there’s the problem,” Marcus said, pointing at his superior, “no one’s saying anything because no one’s asking questions.” “You can always talk,” Millie said. “It’s easy.” “Then why haven’t you?” Marcus grumbled. “Because I only found out my colleague was a paedophile a few hour ago. I’m sorry, Marcus.” “Are you gonna talk?” He drove his chin into his neck. “It’s funny, you have all these opinions but when I ask you a simple question you can’t give me a straight answer.” Ashley defended her. “It doesn’t matter what either of us say to you; not when you’re like this.” “That’s the point,” Marcus replied, “you’re part of the problem.” Millie folded her arms. “What about you? Why haven’t you squeaked about Julius?” “I’ve been busy,” Marcus said. “With what?” “With Grace!” he shouted. “God damn it!” He hunched over his glass. He swirled it on the table. “That’s three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a years – day in, day out – what do you know about that? Nothing, because you were too busy getting your P.G.C.E., living off your parents—” “We’re in this together,” Millie said. “Oh, are we? What about Julius, is he in the same boat?” “Yes, he is,” Ashley said. Marcus pointed at him. “You’re useless too, then.” “It’s how things are. You can’t deny that—” “You’re a Headmaster,” Marcus interrupted condescendingly, “you want people to hate you – I get it. Nobody’s ever loved you.” Ashley breathed in. He jingled keys in his pocket. He walked towards the door, then back again. Marcus topped up his tumbler. Ashley’s eyes left the table. They landed accidently on Millie’s chest. He looked into the distance. “Why am I in this fucking flat?”
“I’ll see you in September.”
The situation was fragile. Millie was determined to hold it together. “I think,” she said, “we should meet again in the morning.” “We could meet over the summer,” Marcus said. “Share notes.” “We should get some sleep, all of us.” “You can sleep here, if you like,” Marcus offered, “I don’t give a shit.” “Yes,” Ashley said, “you’ve made that abundantly clear since the beginning.” “Beginning of what?” “Early days, early days – at this point, now, though, why don’t you turn your attention to the monster in your department?” “Who’d believe me?” Marcus queried quite seriously. Ashley squinted. “I would.” “No you wouldn’t.” “Says who?” “Me,” Marcus said. “Well, if that’s your approach, how can you ever get anything done? It’s a cop out.” “Yea, flip it back on me, Ashley.” “You can’t blame him,” Millie said. Marcus sniffed. “Okay, if you want to blame something, blame the system. I know you do.” He looked at Ashley. “I can’t blame you for feeling that way. But in your position—” The Headmaster flared up. He wasn’t prepared to bring his sexuality to the table. “What do you mean by that?” “I mean your job,” Marcus said, soothing the situation, “with your job you’re in a position to change things – for the better.” He took another slurp from the tumbler. “Or are you just a chameleon?” he went on. “You pass through doors hoping someone else picks up the tab – is that what you do?” “It’s none of your business what I do.” “Is it not?” “No, it’s not,” Ashley said in the most restrained of bellows. Millie moved to the table. She pulled out a chair, and sat. Ashley was baffled. “What are you doing?” he said. “My legs are tired,” she replied. “That’s the truth if I ever heard it, squirt,” Marcus chimed in. “Can you not call me ‘squirt’?” “Try to humour them, fail every time – they call you ‘squirt’ at school?” “Yea they did,” Millie said. “What did they call you, apart from ‘arsehole’?” Marcus smiled. He was beyond tired. He had stopped caring. Perhaps he was mad after all. “‘Boy’,” he said, “they called me ‘boy’.” “I’m sorry,” Ashley interrupted as though the group of monkeys he had told to write Hamlet had written Titus Andronicus instead, “did I miss a memo or something?” He put his knuckles on the table. “Grace is dead, Marcus. She’s dead.” Marcus looked up. In the distance was a prize. He would never win it. “It’s funny – for a few moments it was like I was under those birch trees on campus. On the rugger pitch. It’s eight a.m. on the seventeenth of October. I’ve already got marking up to here.” He gestured above his knee. “And I don’t have a worry in the world. Apart from the parking ticket I haven’t paid.” He sighed. “I almost forgot.” “Where’s Grace in that?” Millie asked. “Oh she’s everywhere,” Marcus whispered, “she came with everything. Like these flats. Do you know why they’re fully furnished?” “I don’t see what—” “It’s so you don’t fly too far from the nest. Isn’t that right, Ashley? It was your idea, wasn’t it?” Ashley stiffened. “Teachers need leaches. They go too far, they get into trouble.” Millie narrowed her eyes. “What did you base that on?” “Experience,” Ashley said. Marcus pointed. “That’s the Headmaster, Millie.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” Ashley interjected. “Like I said, it’s how things are. It’s the same with people.” He walked around the table. He collected his coat. “When I first started at St. Peter’s,” he began, “it was accepted that teachers furnish their own flats – owned by the college, like this one – with lamps and things. There was a man called Mr. Trask who taught geography. He wanted a new couch. This was a bit before Amazon took off. You can’t buy one in St. Peter’s, well, you can’t get what he wanted so he went to Somerset to shop for couches. And Mr. Trask being Mr. Trask, he turned it into a weekend, the last portion of bliss before term started. The second night, he had a bit much to drink. That’s putting it lightly. But the next morning he found himself in jail, and for some reason, everyone around him, including some rather angry parents it must be said, thought he was responsible for the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl. He couldn’t remember anything, so how could he defend himself?” “Did he do it?” Millie asked. “Doesn’t matter. An accusation like that destroys the material, changes it from one thing to another. So Mr. Trask went from being employed by one of the best schools in the country, to being unemployable. And that’s why in every college flat, you will find a very agreeable couch, and a lamp, and a table with four chairs – a décor that Mr. Trask would have approved of himself—” He leaned down to Millie. “—were he here to tell the tale.” “So if Julius went shopping for white vans in Somerset,” Marcus said, “and he was accused there of doing what he does, you’d fire him.” “Yes.” “Even if it wasn’t true,” Millie quizzed. “Even if it wasn’t true,” Ashley said. Marcus raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty vacant.” “Look in the mirror,” Ashley said, looking at his watch. “I’ll see you two in September.” “Maybe,” Marcus said. “No.” Ashley stared him down. “I’ll see you in September. Don't fuck with me, Marcus.” Like a man leaving a garage after a heated argument with the mechanic, Ashley slammed the door behind him. Millie was beginning to feel like she should leave. The bottle of scotch was dwindling. “I think you’ve had enough,” she said. Marcus smiled, recalling something terribly important. “Grace’s mean.” “I don’t think she was mean—” “No,” Marcus interrupted, “mean as in mean average. If you have three numbers, like twelve, thirteen and fourteen, you add up the three numbers and divide between the number of values. It would be thirty-nine divided by three. The mean average for twelve, thirteen and fourteen being thirteen. Smack in the middle.” He coughed. “We used to do that with drinking. At least Grace did. What’s your poison? How many drinks does it take to send you to space? Because then you know how to reach that level where’s everything’s golden with pinpoint accuracy. I called it Grace’s Mean, because that’s when she was happy.” His eyes welled up. “Even if it wasn’t real. Even if it was made up, it’s better than nothing.” He looked at Millie for reassurance. “Isn’t it?” “I need to go home.” “Don’t go.” She stood up and put on her coat. She was going, most definitely. “I gotta be up for nine a.m.” “Why ?” “I’m going down to Swindon, see my parents.” Marcus inhaled half the room, and sighed. “Fine,” he said. “Okay.” “I’ll see you in September. It was nice meeting you.” “It was nice meeting you, Millie. Sorry about this.” “It’s fine,” she said, moving for the door, “take care.” She very gently shut the door. Millie Bentham was gone. Marcus was alone in his college-owned apartment. He would have his four-four-two a week over the summer. Not that that was the type of company he had in mind.
“I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?”
There was a knock at the door. It didn’t register. Another knock. Marcus turned his head. He got up and opened the door. “I figured you’d be up,” Julius said. “Is Grace up? I won’t come in if she’s about. If you don’t want me to.” Marcus ran out of words. He walked back to the table, and sat. Julius wore the same trench-coat. Hands in pockets. “Marcus?” His colleague re-filled the tumbler. There wasn’t much left. “Is everything okay?” Julius asked. “No.” “I brought some, uh…” Julius produced a small bottle of scotch from his pocket. It went on the table. “…To say sorry – for the other night.” It didn’t appease Marcus, unfortunately. “I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?” Julius asked, twisting off the cheap cap of his bottle. He filled a tumbler, and lifted it to his mouth. “It’s all right if you haven’t. I think it was a case of last term blues. I—” He interrupted himself. “With the whole problem, uh – I think I’m stuck with it. I don’t think there’s any cure. There was a man who…he used to…I thought it was normal. And that I was normal.” He thought his explanation through. He was determined to make sense. “But then I grew up,” he went on, “I grew up, Marcus, and everyone was dating or married, and it looked great, you know? But I – I just couldn’t hack it.” He put the tumbler down. “It’s really horrible when you don’t fit in. Anywhere.” Marcus was totally at ease with this man. He had handed the reigns of his life to Julius. All that was required was commitment of the highest order. Marcus listened to what Julius said. He nodded. “I know.” Julius moved behind Marcus. He pulled a club-sized piece of thick cable from his trench-coat. He raised it above his head, and brought it down on Marcus. The widower fell onto the floor. Julius was hyperventilating. He had to be sure. He struck Marcus’s head three times. He struck again for insurance. He went to the kitchen to wash his hands. Spots of blood covered the trench coat. The evidence this time would be sentient. Everyone had committed.
Grace did not meet Marcus in Heaven. Julius did not complete his final year as Head of Science. Millie was not entirely happy for the next three years. Ashley did not live to see another year as Headmaster. The world was not the same.