I never liked him. Even before I met him, I detested him. I felt a visceral, solid hatred that overwhelmed me when I was first asked to deal with him, which was also the first time I’d heard his name. I hated him before I’d heard of him.
My boss had passed the task on to me, passed him on to me. I just heard the name, first of all. We’d just finished going through the new intake numbers and arranging for the delegation of organising timetables. ‘Do you know what, Danielle? I think we’re actually done for the day. Oh, there’s one more thing: you’ll have to deal with Tom,’ she said. And that was it. It hit me straight away, like a force pushing me back toward the wall behind me, threatening to pin me against it. ‘He’s another new teacher. Tom Difford.’
I’d just started myself. I was the new Deputy Head. And my boss, who I knew from before, was the Head. I’d known Sarah since school days – from afar first of all. But then we’d become friends, in adulthood. I knew her husband, and got on well with him. I didn’t have one of those, not then. I went to their house for barbeques, held in their spacious, pretty garden in Hertfordshire. They lived in a spectacularly pretty village and talked about kids and mortgage payments with their many friends. I listened and laughed. I agreed. I acquiesced. I don’t know if I liked them then. I’m still not certain if I like them. Sarah’s husband, Peter, was a money man. Something in the city. He explained it to me a couple of times, but both times I immediately forgot everything he said.
But we were all much older now. Sarah and Peter even had their longed-for child, a little girl called Millie. And now we were working together. Up until then I had been working as Head of Biology in a tiny school at least thirty miles from where were were now. Sarah had explained to me the way things worked at the school. It was one of those new academies, and things were pretty tight. It was a tight ship. Sarah Whitman was already getting a reputation as a mover and shaker, the sort of leader who inspired and led. And she liked me. She’d got rid of the previous deputy – some old guy who didn’t do enough. He’d grumbled but Sarah reckoned he was pretty happy to go – they’d settled on some sort of voluntary redundancy package. He occasionally popped in, but never talked to Sarah.
Tom – it pains me, irritates me, even now to mention his name – was the new art teacher. Sarah suggested I call him, as he still hadn’t completed his induction. It had to be done. I had another one to do too, for a maths teacher called Jenny. But the details of hers are lost in time. It was just a formality. I couldn’t explain the feeling I had when I called Tom – sort of a mixture, of trepidation, fear and anger. It was all completely absurd really, when you think about it. I still hadn’t met him. Anyway, he didn’t answer. That didn’t surprise me. I knew he’d be that type. Probably only answered the phone if it was to his advantage. Then I heard his voice – his voicemail message. It filled me with disgust, within the first few syllables. Both lackadaisical and faux-friendly, it didn’t fool me for a second. He was just as ambitious as me, I knew it. Probably more so. A fellow killer. Not literally, of course. But a killer, nevertheless.
The next day – it was late August – he called me. We had a conversation. He asked reasonable questions. He responded well to my direction and to my own questions. Everything was rational and balanced. But there was something. I could tell he was disinterested. He didn’t care enough.
We arranged for him to come in the next day. I had a few things to run through with him: the computer system, the pay, the lesson plans and schemes of work. There was also the matter of how things had been left in his department. Art. What is art, anyway? Can it really be considered a proper subject? Sarah had made clear that our school, The Hans Becker Academy, had science as its primary focus. What was Tom here for? As far as I was concerned, he was an add-on, an appendage. And the same went for his entire department. Not that he had one. One of the first things Sarah did on her appointment was to combine the art, media and English departments into one slimline affair. A vast improvement.
It was Friday, and Tom was here. I’d never seen him. I imagined something nebulous, but didn’t really have anything solid to fix on. But when he walked into my office, somehow it all fell into place. He wasn’t too bad looking, and I could see how some might find him attractive. Dark hair, with a scruffy quiff heading it up. Chiselled features – the kind I hate – marking out the face. Dark eyebrows finished off what some might call ‘strong’ features. Those glasses – did he really need them? How strong were they? And there it was – the stubble. Of course. All signs giving the impression of whimsy or accident – but my estimation was of a vain man carefully planning his three-day beard. He smiled at me and sat in front of my desk. His smile continued. His eyes stayed on me, returning my gaze with plastic amiability. He held my gaze for too long, I thought. There it was. Proof of my suspicions. A pervert, maybe. Eventually, it would all come out. And everyone would say to me, ‘You knew, all along.’ Vindication, the sweetest prize.
He was still slim. I knew his age, from his records – he was nearly forty. It annoyed me that he looked younger. I had perfectly nice male friends who didn’t have that advantage.
‘So, what is my actual start date?’ he asked, irritatingly. Actually, he asked in what seemed a reasonable manner, but this itself drove me mad. Did he have to be so tolerable? Why not show his true colours?
I heard myself prattling on, spending too many words on what were essentially basic matters. And then he was gone. He didn’t seem to want to stay any longer than he needed to.
I didn’t know too much about him. Just his previous employment, age, address. He was married, I knew that. It would have been on his application form. It was one of the questions in the equal opps section. What sort of woman…? I wanted to meet her. I would, eventually, and she was impossibly pleasant and pretty. Had her own views on things, too. Somehow, he must have had something on her.
After a few weeks I began to hear things. Other staff members liked him. Someone or other had made advances, and he had quickly nipped it in the bud, in such a way as to keep everyone happy. Even told his wife about it all. She understood and trusted him, apparently, although I doubted the veracity of that.
On the fourth week, I sent him an email. I needed him to come and see me. We needed to discuss formal observation – the curse of the teaching profession. It was, of course, a useful tool for someone in my position. But there was a problem – more of a challenge, really. I was hearing more things about him. The worst sort of things for me. I was hearing that he was good at his job. I was hearing that the pupils liked him. I was hearing that he was something rare and most difficult to deal with: a great teacher.
This issue perplexed me for a few days. One day, during a staff meeting, he caught me staring. I had been watching him secretly for at least five minutes, while Sarah gave a presentation on quality assurance in teaching. I found myself studying him. I considered the details of his face. I tried to work out the source of my horror, of my revulsion. It was difficult. His eyes were not to far apart, nor were they too close. His jaw, retaining a youthful angularity that assisted in the concealment of his true age was surely not his concoction. He could not be held to blame. But as I continued to observe, to analyse, I found my abhorrence returning. Anyone looking at me would have seen it at that moment. I was transfixed, fascinated. Then, inevitably, he felt my gaze – I’ve never known how humans achieve this. He seemed to jump slightly and turn. I averted my look, checked my expression and looked quickly down at my notes. I picked up a pen. I waited for a few seconds before hazarding a quick look. He was back on Sarah.
Later that day my thoughts returned to my challenge. And these thoughts stayed with me, clinging to my waking consciousness as insecure toddlers would to my knees. The challenge consumed me. I felt hatred for it, but also appreciation. It kept me company. But I actually lost sleep from it. What could I do? I couldn’t observe him and lie about him. I couldn’t make it all up – the risk was too great. He could complain. He could receive a second observation from someone else, which might prove me wrong. Of course, the school hierarchy may prefer to back me up, to save face. But I couldn’t take that risk. It could go the other way, which might even threaten my own career. Round and round it went, in my head, with no way out in sight. Then I was suddenly struck: the perfect solution. Rashida, the English teacher, was off sick at the moment. She’d been off for a few days now, with no let up in sight. What had started looking like flu was now beginning to look more serious. Test results were pending, looming. She wouldn’t be back for a couple of weeks, at least. Classes had been cancelled. I would ask Tom to cover for her. It was in the same department, after all. Teachers did it all the time, doing favours. I knew he wouldn’t be able to say no, it wasn’t in his nature. Then I would observe him. He’d never taught English before.
The day came, and it went better than expected. Where was Tom’s renowned rapport with the ‘kids’? Where was his known love of organisation and planning? Where was his ‘inspirational’ teaching? I, of course, could find little evidence of any of it. He faltered as he spoke. His lesson was confusing. He clearly didn’t understand the fundamentals of the English language. I detected a noticeable lack of engagement among the pupils. As I wrote the conclusion in the report, while relaxing on my sofa at home, I took my time. I took a slow, sensual sip of wine, before writing in the damning final word: poor. He wouldn’t survive this. I relished what was to come: extra support, regular supervision, his eye wouldn’t reach mine as he held his head in shame, trapped in my office at least once a week. Delicious.
The first of these meetings was less enjoyable than I expected. He seemed genuinely depressed. Was I supposed to feel sorry for him now? I watched him. He didn’t seem to know where to look. It was now October, and we were nearing half-term. I wanted to give the impression of magnanimity.
‘Look, Tom. I know this must be difficult for you,’ I said with what was an amazingly authentic sympathetic tone. ‘Let’s find a way through together. Help me to help you.’
He shuffled in his seat. ‘I want… I would like that. It’s just…’
‘Just what, Tom. Talk to me.’
‘It’s just that, I’m starting to… I’m not sure if I’m in the right profession. I’m no longer sure if I’m cut out for all this.’ He looked at me, pleading, beckoning.
‘I’m sure that’s not true, Tom. And if it turns out that it is, then we’ll work on a solution that will benefit all of us, not least you.’
‘Oh, thank you, Danielle. You’ve been very kind and understanding.’
I was shocked – I hoped it didn’t show. Did he mean that? He actually looked as though he meant it, as if he was unaware of the game we were playing, the one that had only one winner. Impressive. So, inevitably I paused for a second or two, before replying. ‘That’s ok, Tom. It’s what I’m here for, after all.’
It was just a few days after that, that I received Tom’s resignation email, copied to Sarah. Before she had time to try to talk him out of it, I replied with condolences, reassurances and generous best wishes for the future. Copying Sarah in. Then I waited. No reply that day, the next, or indeed ever. He was gone. That was it – game over. He’d lost. But I couldn’t help feeling that I’d lost too, in a sense. I felt sort of cheated. He hadn’t played fair and square. I’d expected more. More of a fight. More carefully selected moves, more deliberation. More of the game. But Tom wasn’t playing any more. He’d decided not to, anyway. I worried about his possible motives for a few days, then less so. The school carried on as normal. We got a replacement fairly quickly – a flakey, long-haired, flowery dress-sporting young woman called Heather. Of course I had to deal with the whole recruitment process, which was what I’d expected. Except that… I’d probably, truth be told, expected Tom to hold on. I’d expected the battle to go on until summer, with me trying to end it before then. Now I had no battle. After a while I stopped wondering why Tom gave up so easily. He began to slip from my mind, leaving a ghostly space.
About a year later, I was back in the office with Sarah, again going through the new intake figures and attendant information. This time we were in the open plan office, with all the others. Around two-ish, Susan, one of the admin staff, approached us, offering tea – she was just about to get one for herself. We both said the same thing at the same time – coffee. Please. Black, no sugar. Sarah and I both liked it that way. Susan turned to leave for the kitchen, when she paused. She seemed to hold that pause for a few seconds, her back to us like an extra in a horror movie. I half expected her to turn suddenly and face us with a demonic grimace, or half-dead, half eaten visage. And turn she did, her youthful face unblemished. ‘Oh, by the way,’ she said, shooting me a sudden glance. ‘Dave said he saw Tom the other day.’ She waited for our possible responses.
‘Tom?’ I asked, rather pathetically, my tone inexplicably shifting up in pitch.
‘Tom Difford?’ said Sarah.
‘Yes, Tom,’ reaffirmed Susan. ‘Dave saw him at the supermarket. He was pushing trolleys.’ Again, a quick glance towards me. ‘He works there now.’
‘At the supermarket?’ said Sarah. I kept quiet.
‘He looked really terrible, Dave said,’ continued Susan. ‘Really bad. Put on a lot of weight, apparently. Living on his own, too.’
‘Yes. His wife left him. Took the kids. Now he hardly ever sees them. Half his money goes to them, though, and he was forced to move to a tiny bedsit.’
‘Oh, that’s not a nice story,’ said Sarah. ‘Isn’t there anything we can do? Danielle?’
I felt myself squirm. ‘Er, I’ll have a look into… I mean, I don’t think there’s…’
‘Well, let’s see if there’s something.’
Susan looked at me, waiting for something. Waiting for a solution, absolution or remorse. I straightened in my seat. I looked back at Susan. She was a good-looking young lady – I’d never really noticed before. Long, straight black hair. She was tall and slender. She would have no trouble with the boys. Or maybe too much trouble. She gave me one last defiant look before turning to head for the kitchen. I don’t think she’s ever liked me.
Richard John Davis is a writer who has just completed a novel and is working on a collection of short stories and has started work on his second novel, which is likely to be (at least partly) serialised.
© 2016, Richard John Davis