‘Forty-six is a bit old to be wearing a tracksuit for work.’
Mr Hartshorne smiled, gave a little I’ve heard them all before raise of his eyebrows. Indi paused in wedging milk cartons into the fridge to flash a cheeky grin. Mr Hartshorne didn’t mind. Indi was a wind-up merchant and you got used to that being a teacher.
‘Better than being buttoned up in a pinstripe suit,’ he said.
‘Who’s buttoned up in a suit?’ Indi said. ‘The shop’s in Well Street, not Wall Street.’
It was a line Indi used on reps maybe ten times a week. Mrs Patel rolled her eyes at her eldest and folded Mr Hartshorne’s Guardian for him. A little brass bell tinkled above his head as he stepped out into the frost. The pavement was slick and sparkled in the winter sun. He sucked in the sharp air.
He was parked where the fairground set up. A thin film of ice crackled beneath his trainers. Horses chewed thistles, tight against the fence posts, steam rising from their backs. The wind brought shards of hale. Mr Hartshorne shivered and got into his car, gunning the heater, while he waited for the windscreen to clear. It was a job he was always tempted to rush with his sleeves. He wriggled in the seat in search of warmth. His gloves, in the dash, were frigid to the touch. He took a battered tin of travel sweets from the door, popped the lid and rummaged about in the lumpy sherbet for a lemon sweet. Mr Hartshorne always kept travel sweets. They reminded him of the long car journeys to Wales as a child. He used to ask Mum why the sweets were covered in talc.
Hot air began to fill the car. It smelt of singed dust and tallow – a legacy of the previous owner. Despite employing pine fresheners and lavender tabs Mr Hartshorne could never quite rid the car of chip fat. The thought of greasy polystyrene cartons in the foot-well made him cringe.
‘Yellow River’ by Christie came on the radio. He found himself humming the tune, remembering it the first time, when he’d run in the summer sprint trials. He closed his eyes and smelt the new-mown grass, the Persil in his laundered vest, the drift of petrol from the mower’s engines. He saw the white lines converge, crowded out by ochre track in the distance. He heard the murmur of the crowd and saw children waving placards they’d painted in primary colours. His feet were clammy, his armpits greasy with nervous, onion sweat. The starter held his arm aloft, the sleeve of his blazer taut in the breeze. Brian Hartshorne adjusted his shorts, swallowed. The gun cracked.
A truck loaded with aggregate rumbled past, rocking Mr Hartshorne’s Ford Escort, startling him. He opened the driver’s window with a squeal, cursing where a parking ticket had caught in the mechanism and slowed it. He snapped the wing mirror back into place, swung out into the traffic and crawled along the Eastern Bypass – a lack of imagination from the Council meant it had never been named – indicating left. He got his usual space, facing the tennis courts and weeping willows. No one wanted to park here as the bottom end of the car park flooded from time to time and mossy silt crept into the spaces.
Mr Hartshorne was gathering his papers when a can rattled against the kerb. Scott Boon shaped his instep and kicked it hard along the gutter, punching the air with his fists, dreaming he was at Old Trafford.
‘Don’t just kick it, pick it up,’ Mr Hartshorne called out.
‘It’s not mine.’
‘Well pick it up, anyway. I’ll have your guts for garters.’
Scott stooped, picked the can between thumb and forefinger, as if gripping a dog turd, and dropped it in the bin.
‘That didn’t hurt, did it Scott?’
Scott rolled his eyes. He wore his satchel slung low like a bass guitar, the strap tugging at his fringe like a headband.
Mr Spooner was sick, claiming depression, so Mr Hartshorne took his double geography. A giant wall map of the world was stuck to the plaster with brittle, aging sticky tape. A globe with a buckled axis was being used as a bookend. Painted strips of card had been mounted on black sugar paper to demonstrate crop rotation.
This field is where they grow Big Macs. You may have noticed the golden field next to it where French Fries come from.
Mr Hartshorne, Sir, which breed of cow gives strawberry milkshake?
Mr Hartshorne smirked. He made a steeple of his fingers, and waited for silence.
‘It’s your time you’re wasting, not mine,’ he said.
There were murmurs from 3C.
A film of white chalk lay on Mr Spooner’s desk. Broken pencils, dried-up pens and shavings were crammed into a tumbler. A furry bug urging people to visit Dudley Zoo clung to the side of a retractable pencil.
‘I’m waiting,’ Mr Hartshorne said.
He tapped his Casio wristwatch. It wasn’t his lesson. There was a time when he’d have had a shower and changed into his cord jacket, but these days he stuck with the Fred Perry two-tone. He doled out sheets of tracing paper, licking his fingertip as he did, and colouring pencils. Most of the pencils were blunt. When they were sharpened chunks slid out where the lead had been broken.
He wrote ‘corries’ ‘cwms’ and ‘cirques’ on the blackboard and attempted to draw one in crumbling purple chalk. He took a dusty cloth from the window ledge and ran it under the tap. He wiped the board clean leaving a shiny S. Steven Norris was meticulously sharpening a 4H pencil. Steven concentrating made Mr Hartshorne nervous. It wasn’t usual behaviour. He’d make a few turns, hold it up and squint at the point one-eyed like a crack marksman, then blow before sharpening again. Mr Hartshorne’s second attempt at a corrie looked like a bomb crater, but that was good enough.
‘Now you try,’ he said.
He picked up a book, left 3C to it, and crept along the corridor to the staff kitchen. He watched, wary all the time, like a dormouse foraging in the open, for the silent approach of Mr Slade. Breaks weren’t permitted during lessons. The headmaster had a habit of clasping coffee mugs, guessing expertly how long ago the drink was made.
‘Lattes in your own time,’ he’d snap, making ‘latte’ rhyme with ‘catty’.
Mr Hartshorne’s sole squeaked as he passed Miss Kelly’s home economics class. He froze, glaring at the guilty party – his new tan loafers. Cornish pasties, the boys called them.
Sir wears Ginsters!
He shuffled into the kitchen, made a strong cup of instant, heaping three spoons of into his mug and a dash of UHT. White globs like gloss paint refused to dissolve, spinning on the surface. He slurped the coffee and headed back to class as fast as he dared.
His knee caught the desk as he slumped into his chair, sloshing coffee across the book. It was called New Towns and filled with optimistic 1960s visions of roundabouts, underpasses and shopping precincts. Mr Hartshorne flicked through the images. There wasn’t a single person, just skeletal saplings and empty swings and slides. Wire bins and railings were unused and sterile. 3C was starting to mutter. Mr Hartshorne shuffled in his chair, causing the legs to squeal on the dirty grey lino. Steven Norris and Gary Sims pointed and laughed at Mr Hartshorne’s clumsy drawings. This upset Mr Hartshorne, who didn’t mind being ignored but drew the line at being laughed at.
‘It’s a UFO,’ Gary said.
‘UFS more like,’ Steven said.
Mr Hartshorne’s toenails dug into his soles. He gripped the page showing a windswept playground, unaware the paper was tearing from the spine.
‘Unidentified effing sketch,’ Steven Norris said.
Mr Hartshorne sprang from the chair, cracking his fist down on the desk. His tracksuit bottoms gathered exposing his white cotton sports socks. He’d forgotten to tuck the little stirrups under his feet. A purple vein pulsed in his throat.
‘I only said effing. That’s not a bad word.’
The buzz of static filled Mr Hartshorne’s ears. His lobes burned the way they did in the ice and the sleet. He stared out of the window, watching the trucks on the distant M6. He spread his palms on the cool, damp windowsill. Norris was hunched over his desk, head sunk in his sports bag, which acted as a makeshift pillow. Mr Hartshorne sighed, waved a chalky hand of resignation and slumped back into his chair. He sipped cold coffee and stared at empty playgrounds till the bell rang.
Mercifully, Mr Hartshorne wasn’t on dinner roster. School dinners were an assault on his senses. He hated the clank and scrape of cutlery, the scratched tumblers, the endless rows of custard and sky-blue Formica tables, the scramble and screech to put the chairs out, the sulphurous mist of overcooked cabbage and starchy whiff of powdery oven chips. Most of all he despised the weak orange squash that tasted of the metal jugs it was served in.
‘Dining alone again?’ Allan Moffatt said.
The staff room was a fug of cigarette smoke. No one was prepared to open a window and let in the icy wind. Moffatt was stirring a cup-a-soup with a fork.
‘We don’t bite, Brian,’ he said.
‘Things to do,’ Mr Hartshorne said.