In which Emma B.’s card is marked.
She approved of examinations. They measured attainment and pronounced judgement and their properties could be safely applied to most situations. As she cleared her first anniversary as Assistant Teacher of English at Oaks Haven she could have marked her own score card:
11-14 age group: C+ Sound; lacks imagination
14-16 age group: B Thorough approach
16-18 age group: A Innovative; meticulous – inspirational
Classroom Management: B No difficulties; a little unfriendly towards younger children
Staff and peer interaction: B- Pleasant and cooperative – does not always support staff social events
She was best at what she liked the best – the Sixth Form.
As far as staff relationships went, things were fine during school hours; pub lunches and a shared lift to work with departmental colleagues. They were not fine when Paul entered the equation. He had been rude when she had taken him as her guest to the staff Christmas dinner, deriding her Headmistress as a funny old woman and interrogating Andrew Penn about essays, poetry and teaching styles. When he had suggested that Andrew was insulting the intelligence of his charges by subjecting them to a pedestrian and outmoded examination syllabus (a man’s reach should exceed his grasp: Browning), she had determined to stay at home in future.
Excursions away from school with one or two staff friends had been similarly unfortunate. Paul was quizzical and appeared to be laughing at them. Eddie Furness had joined the department at the beginning of her second term. A blond and bespectacled northerner with a penchant for kipper ties and flared trousers, he encountered the inevitable discipline problems. But he accepted his nickname of Flopsy with good grace and had supported her in the fall out from a disastrous fifth form theatre weekend in which two pupils had been caught smoking cannabis in the Youth Hostel and a further four had been sent to hospital after vomiting in the stalls at the beginning of Coriolanus.
She had invited him for dinner and drinks .He had got on so well with Paul that there had been subsequent trips to The Bear and The Falcon and the burgeoning of a three-way friendship – abruptly terminated after a Bank Holiday excursion to Necker’s Gorge. Necker’s Gorge was a sleepy farming village, about thirty miles from Dorlich in the heart of cider country. During the early years of their marriage Nicola and Paul had rented a period cottage; Paul had commuted to work and Nicola had run a small bed and breakfast concern. When Ursula was three, they had moved into staff accommodation at Chudleigh but Paul had kept up with some old Necker’s friends and returned from time to time. They were mainly farm labourers who had never heard of Basil Bunting, but Paul enjoyed dumbing down; donning an army greatcoat; smoking his pipe and consuming industrial quantities of cider, fresh from the presses in the barns.
On these occasions, he would join the locals for shove halfpenny; bar skittles and cribbage in his old stamping ground The Fleece and Hoof, before returning to Dorlich to sleep off the effects, snoring and farting in the spare room. As wife number two, she was expected to accompany him on these hateful expeditions and was less than enthusiastic when he extended an invitation to Eddie during the course of an early evening drink at The Bear. Paul was at his most persuasive; they would go in Eddie’s car and the rustic treats of Necker’s Gorge would exceed those of Casterbridge. Their excursion would be the stuff of legend.
He was right about that.
The Bank Holiday brought Eddie purring to the doorstep in his trusty Ford Escort, bursting with the prospective joys of Necker’s. She experienced a twinge as he crossed the threshold, resplendent in a Barbour jacket that appeared to have been polished; a pair of army officer laced boots; green elephant cord trousers and a black, red and white checked shirt, buttoned at the neck. He wore a white kipper tie, carried a straw hamper (for the cider) and had brought a sketch book.
She did not look at Paul.
It was a sunny day and they cruised along the side roads (the scenic route), leaving Dorlich and civilisation in their wake. She sat in the back as Paul navigated, whilst treating Eddie to the historic tale of the Christmas duck.
Nicola’s detestable mother, Millicent Diggle, had ruined their first holiday in the Necker’s cottage by arriving uninvited, two weeks before Christmas. Ursula was in the throes of the terrible twos, Nicola was heavily pregnant and Millicent objected to everything. Paul had displayed the patience of a saint; enduring the enforced torture of Some Mothers Do Ave’Em; Whicker’s World; and the click of Millicent’s needles as she knitted a matinee jacket. But when she had failed to enthuse about the prospect of a turkey for Christmas lunch: we had duck at home with Daddy, didn’t we Nicky? his decision to cross the Rubicon was inevitable.
With a cry of Duck, duck, my kingdom for a duck! he had leapt from his chair; grabbed his gun and run from the kitchen – returning two hours later, garlanded by a pair of warm but dead mallards.
Me Tarzan – you Millicent!
Eddie was speechless with admiration. She was also speechless – having heard the story before…
They cruised into Necker’s, passing a row of farm labourers’ cottages.
Paul pointed to the end cottage and its untidy garden: Ursula’s hamster’s buried under that hedge; I gave her the choice of slinging it into the pond or planting it in old George’s garden and she chose the garden. Old George pegged out a few months later, so he’s probably next to it!
Necker’s itself had little to recommend it as a village and if Eddie was hoping to fill his sketchbook with the beauties of the countryside, he had come to the wrong place. The labourers’ ‘cottages’ were charmless 1950s council houses and the grass verges had been visited by fly-tippers.
But the Fleece and Hoof with its stone floor, rotting wooden beams and individualised tankards had a certain authenticity akin to the interior of Hardy’s The Flower de Luce - after a few drinks. Paul commandeered the bar, ordering cider for himself and Eddie whilst she stuck to lager. She had always disliked cider and this was especially nasty; warm and slightly sour. A couple of regular customers sauntered in – including Young George, a grey haired man in his sixties, the son of Old George. Paul was now preening amidst his familiars; elderly men and some younger labourers. He trounced Eddie at cribbage; then shove halfpenny, charging their glasses with astonishing rapidity. She noticed with irritation that, as usual, her husband had modulated his accent to match the burr of the locals; an unsettling and vaguely threatening set who worked sparingly, drank a lot and kicked the dog.
Their faces bore the marks of alcohol abuse – and their wives bore the marks of – abuse.
They were not Drummer Hodge, nor were meant to be….
Straw Dogs was a better analogy.
How on earth had Nicola borne two years in this God-forsaken hole? The answer was that she had not. The story of the Christmas duck had been judiciously edited - omitting an incident on 29th December when Millicent had upbraided Paul at breakfast for spending the last three days in the pub – returning only for foraging expeditions. She had no wish to interfere, but had discovered a distraught Nicola in the downstairs toilet, next to a seat which had become detached from the bowl. There had been an accident following a late night visit from some of Paul’s friends; the mess was unspeakable and Nicola had been forced to clear it up.
Paul had continued with his porridge in silence – before shying the empty milk bottle at Millicent’s head. It missed – but Nicola issued her ultimatum and they took up school accommodation in Dorlich.
Eddie’s behaviour became irritating. He was new to Dorlich and glad of a male friend. But he fawned on Paul like one of the Oxbridge set and failed to notice the sneers at his accent – or the fact that he was financing multiple rounds of drinks for everybody in the Fleece. They ordered cheese sandwiches with chips and pickled eggs, and she avoided the contents of the mustard pot because it contained a green foreign body. Eddie praised the cider:
Now this is a real drink!
Paul, who had been swapping poaching tales with the locals, seized his moment: Of course, cider from The Fleece was nothing compared to the real thing - fresh from the press in the Nag’s Farm Barn. They must visit forthwith – good old Reuben would show them round and you can drink as much as you want! Remonstrance was pointless; Paul was determined and Eddie was drunk. They walked to the farm with a couple of the younger men.
Nag’s Farm, like Necker’s village, was characterised by a total absence of felicity. The buildings were shapeless and the barn lurked malevolently amidst a sea of mud. Reuben was about the same age as Young George. He was not surprised to see them and distributed plastic cups in dour style, filling each with a cloudy liquid, swimming with bits from a plastic container. Reuben described the cider-making process in meticulous detail; including the crucial presence of live rats on the press and the old country custom of the labourer urinating in the finished product: To ripen the taste.
She chose her moment and then deftly tipped her cup into the straw – a skill later utilised during a vodka tasting session on a Select Committee trip to Ukraine. Her hands were sticky and she could not dismiss the persistent image of the urinating labourer.
It’s like Talbothay’s Dairy, said Eddie.
It was not – but what was inescapable, was that he had become the butt of unkind jokes for the rest of the party. There were mutterings of Little Lord FauntleROYAL and she caught the words Prince Andrew and Gladys… She whispered to Paul that they should leave; to no avail. Eddie had acquired an echo; they were mimicking his accent. Paul goaded him on, gesticulating wildly as Eddie jumped onto a straw bale, declaiming Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom friend of the maturing sun……..
At the mention of bosom, all whooped as one and broke into a raucous chorus of On Ilkley Moor bah’ tat…
Eddie paused and then pushed his face towards the most insolent of the group: Are you mocking me? This produced an uncontrollable gust of laughter. Eddie adopted a boxing stance; limbering on his toes. He threw a punch at Reuben; tripped on a shoelace and shot into a bale, knocking himself out on the corner of his hamper. I think he’s embarrassed hisself …. said someone as the elephant cords were suffused by a darkening patch. Quick – catch it – it’ll ripen the cider………….. Jollities were now replaced by practicalities, namely the removal of trousers and replacement of the same with somebody’s old blue overalls. Eddie was stripped, changed and hosed with water. The sketchbook was ruined – and there was a temporary panic over his keys – fortuitously retrieved by Paul from a pocket in the sodden cords. The trousers and their owner were deposited on the back seat of the Ford Escort by Reuben and Young George and they departed for Dorlich via the scenic route. The car swooped and swerved and Eddie whimpered and moaned; rendering conversation impossible as well as undesirable. She expected to encounter a police officer at every junction but Paul, as usual, enjoyed the benison of the gods and Eddie was eventually dumped, plus trousers, on the doormat of his own apartment.
Paul parked the car and posted the keys through the letterbox.
The hamper and sketchbook remained in the farm barn.
Eddie was off work for four days, citing an attack of gastroenteritis. She found herself incapable of referring to the incident and prayed for the ameliorating effects of alcoholic amnesia. Eddie was polite but did not join her at break time and avoided her eye at departmental pub lunches. Paul, by contrast, had acquired a new story with which to regale the Truscotts, the Chases and anyone in earshot at The Falcon, The Bear or a Chudleigh dinner.
Such an oaf – and such a drunk- one of my wife’s funny little friends!
She started to remonstrate:
Oh really darling – he pissed his pants! Probably par for the course in Division Two – but next time, don’t bring them out unless they’re house-trained! And did I tell you about the Christmas duck……….
Eddie left Oaks Haven at the end of the summer term, opting for a post on the same pay grade, closer to home. She signed his card but was not invited to his leaving party.
They did not meet again.