“School’s Out” by David Murray

Adam had misjudged it. The bell went before he had time to set them homework. A cheer went up, chairs were slid noisily back and the first two or three flew at the door as if it were a race. They had been waiting, tense, bags packed. Maybe there was money riding on it, Adam thought – who could be out of Britney’s class first?
The nickname was unfortunate but his surname was Spears so maybe it was inevitable although his curly fair hair can’t have helped. He liked his hair long, though. His friend, Kevin, had told him once that he looked like a skinny Greek god or a wood nymph but then Kevin was gay. Not getting his hair cut before he started working had been a conscious decision. He had decided that, if he were going to be a teacher, he would have to be himself or, at least, a recognizable version of himself.
At this moment any possibility of his being a successful teacher seemed remote. The rest of the boys jeered each other loudly and pushed desks against each other as they left. Their boisterousness, he knew, was partly due to the release of animal spirits natural to a Friday evening but it was also intended to demonstrate that he couldn’t control them.
Michael Harrington, a slight wan child with an unbroken voice, was the last to leave as usual. “Thank you, sir” he said. Adam noticed the penis drawn on the back of the boy’s shirt collar.
“Thank you, sir,” echoed in falsetto from the corridor outside.
“For nothing,” followed in a different voice.
With no homework for them to do he would have no way of putting them on the defensive on Monday. They would be waiting for him, relishing his arrival. But Monday was a whole weekend away.
“Are you coming down to Burke’s, Adam?” Sinéad asked as he entered the staffroom, “there’s a gang of us going.” Sinéad‘s black hair was tied back, as always, and she wore a short black waistcoat and tight black trousers that, with her sallow skin, gave her the appearance of a moodily handsome, if slightly effeminate, matador. To the boys, Adam knew, she was demanding and unyielding. She treated them and their explanations with loud and witty contempt. They seemed to like it and he could understand why. Her style worked for her but he could never do it.
When Adam arrived in the pub he saw that the gang included Sarah with her permanently parted lips, androgynous figure and vaguely Pre-Raphaelite looks. She taught French and this was her first year of full-time teaching. She and Adam were the only newcomers in the staffroom. He had told her that she reminded him of Millais’ Ophelia when they had gone for coffee after the Deputy Principal had shown them around the school the day before term started but, unfortunately, the reference meant nothing to her.
They had shared sketchy life stories and their anxieties. She had been friendly and unaffected and seemed interested when Adam spoke of wanting to write. She’d had a short story published in her school magazine when she had been in sixth year about a girl with anorexia. Adam felt that they had more than just their shared newness in common and in the early weeks of term he had gravitated towards her at break time but she had been quickly absorbed into a group of relatively young and unintellectual female teachers who occupied the same corner table every day and chattered loudly about fashions and soap operas. When he met her in the corridor she had been distant and had seemed preoccupied.
He himself had found no real niche in the staffroom whose geography with its piles of copy books, handbags hanging from chairs, CD players and half-completed crosswords embodied years of rights and privileges which he couldn’t read. The only other youngish males who taught in the school coached football teams and seemed to discuss nothing else. He spent quite a lot of time in the company of two bearded men in their fifties who were witty and knowledgeable but whose response to any situation could be encompassed by a Latin saying of some kind or a quote from Shakespeare. Sometimes he spoke to Martin who was at the bar in Burke’s when Adam went up to get a drink.
“Good man yourself, Adam, what’ll it be?”
Martin was his usual engaging, vaguely bohemian self. He wore a black cord jacket and the thin lines on his boyish face deepened when he smiled but the smile was contagious.
“We’ll make a teacher out of you yet,” he said as he handed Adam the pint.
Martin was married with children as were most of the other teachers in the pub but Adam sensed that such things were less central to Martin’s existence than to the rest of them. Within an hour, after one token drink, these others had all drifted away leaving only Martin, Sinéad, Sarah and himself. Adam imagined the others sitting into their sensible little cars and driving home to their petit-bourgeois, suburban weekends which, he was sure, would contain much mindless hedge-cutting or wall painting and narrow little emotions stirred by hordes of hopeless children chasing a football about a muddy field. It was not a vision of his future.
By the time Adam bought his round, the third of the evening, Martin, who taught Geography, and Sarah were talking about Croatia where she had worked as a holiday rep during the summer. Martin seemed interested in her stories and sympathetic but Adam’s mind drifted to a vision of Sarah, tanned and smiling in khaki shorts and a white tee shirt, standing in a marble hotel lobby surrounded by grunting overweight tattooed English holidaymakers with their whining lumpish children.
“It must have been a bit like what we do in Saint Joseph’s,” he interrupted. He knew it sounded lame. “I mean being a teacher and being a rep must be sort of the same.”
“Sort of,” Sarah said.
“Working in Camp Joey’s,” Sinéad laughed.

Sinéad was leaving. She had to meet someone at seven.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she said to Adam and Sarah. “Just because you’re young and free doesn’t mean you have to enjoy yourselves. See you, Martin.”
“Sinéad,” Martin called after her from the bar and loped across the floor to where she had stopped. There was something animal about the way he moved, Adam thought. Lupine was the first word that came to his mind.
“Do you think they’ll go off together?” Sarah asked as Martin and Sinéad sat down together just inside the door.
“What? I thought Sinéad had some stockbroker boyfriend.”
“What’s that got to do with it, Adam? And from what the girls say about him …” She seemed lost in thought for a second. “You know the way he has of making all his conversations really intimate?”
“Never noticed.”
“If he doesn’t go off with Sinéad he could easily try it on with me and I don’t know if I’d mind. It’d be interesting.”
“He must be at least forty.”
“Who cares?” Sarah laughed under her breath as if she had lost something.

Sinéad left without Martin and, shortly after, Sarah’s flatmate, Ellie, joined them. She worked in the Bank of Ireland. She was red-haired and livelier than Sarah but then she hadn’t been teaching all week or failing to teach. Adam tried to look at her with his writer’s eyes. He noticed the freckles on her face and the lines of Hopkins came into his head – ‘whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)’ – like ‘rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim’. There was a glittering brittle quality to her, though, that Hopkins probably never saw in a girl.
Was this their fifth pint? Adam still hadn’t got used to having money and not needing to worry about whether he could afford to keep pace.
Behind Adam ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was starting up with chants of ‘Sinn Féin’ and ‘IRA’ punctuating the chorus.
Adam was telling Ellie about his stories and poems but she kept being distracted by Martin and Sarah’s conversation about films until she was reminded of a poem she had written when her dog had died. Adam wanted to know all about it. She had been seventeen when the dog had died but she still remembered how the poem began – ‘No more your bark will greet me home/ No more you will the wild fields roam’.
She laughed hysterically when Adam confessed that the boys called him Britney. Martin and Sarah made a pretence of being surprised but they were bound to have heard the snatches of ‘Oops! … I did it again’ or ‘I’m a slave 4 u’ that filled the air whenever he walked down a crowded corridor. He always acted as if he hadn’t heard it.
Pretending he hadn’t heard was turning out to be Adam’s main weapon and he realised how hopeless it was. That morning when a particularly moronic Third Year, a boy who could hardly spell his own name, had announced that Shakespeare was ‘crap’ Adam had responded pointedly and, he hoped, cuttingly, ‘It’s not Shakespeare who’s crap, I’m afraid’. One of the ringleaders at the back had echoed loudly but obviously insincerely, ‘No, Shakespeare’s not crap’ before turning to his cronies and muttering, ‘It’s Britney’ who’s crap at teaching him’. Over the laughter Adam had demanded ‘What did you say?’ though he had heard the boy clearly enough. ‘Nothing, sir’ he had simpered in reply, to the further amusement of the class. Adam knew that he should force the issue but he hadn’t the will. The problem with pretending not to hear was that if they knew he had actually heard it made him seem weaker than ever.
Somebody shoved Adam in the back. “Bit of respect for the singer,” he heard.
In the group behind a young man in a Glasgow Celtic jersey was singing ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ – ‘when our school played ball by the gasyard wall’.
“Uh, oh, the lads are out in force tonight,” Martin said, but not so loudly that the lads would hear him.
As the singer finished to the raucous congratulations of his friends the most senior of the barmen approached them.
“I’ll have to ask yous to keep it down, lads. This isn’t a singing pub now, I’m sorry.”
A young Dublin accent answered, “What’s wrong with the fucking song? Don’t like Irish music, do you not?” but was overruled by an older northern voice, “We understand you rightly. There’ll be no more singing.”

Ellie had gone to the bathroom. Sarah was telling Martin about her family in Waterford with its ancient senile aunts and an eccentric uncle who collected First World War memorabilia. He seemed particularly amused by this latter character. “Back in a minute,” Adam said. He wasn’t sure they heard him. When he stood up he realised that he was quite drunk. The Ladies and the Gents were both off a corridor that led to the outside smoking yard at one end and the side entrance to the pub at the other. He thought he might meet Ellie on her way back but the corridor was empty. He waited until the door of the Ladies began to open and then began to move so as to appear to bump into Ellie accidentally.
“Hi Adam,” she said and might have walked past him if he hadn’t put out an arm and pulled her to him. “Hi,” he said, “how are you?”
“Adam, I think you’re drunk,” she said but she didn’t pull away from him. She pulled a strand of hair back out of his eyes as if to see him better.
“Of course, I’m drunk,” he said, “but you are fucking beautiful.” He didn’t normally talk like this but Ellie wasn’t straining to get away.
“You’re funny, Adam, but I better get back to Sarah. I don’t think she wants to be alone with Martin too long.”
“She told me she’d love to fuck him.” He felt excited saying this.
He kissed Ellie and she responded. He kissed her eagerly again, letting his hands slip down and pulling her to him. This time she broke off.
“Sorry, Adam,” she said, “but no.”

Back in the bar the singing had started again – ‘come out you black and tans, come out and fight me like a man’. There were five of them – all, Adam guessed, in their early twenties. There was no sign of a sensible northern presence.
The barman with the shiny veined face came out from behind the counter again. “Come on now, lads. That’ll do. We can’t have that.”
“We’ll have what we fucking want,” one of the singers said. Adam was standing in the middle of the floor. He could see this as a scene in a story. One of his recent ideas had been to write about seedy, violent or unglamorous things in a lyrical, poetic style. The words ‘feral’ and ‘camel-spit’ swam into his mind followed by the phrase ‘like a child’s palm crisping on a live cable’.
“We’ll have to ask yous to leave, lads, if yous can’t be quiet.”
There was silence for a second. It was broken by one of the patriots, a blocky unshaven character with dark gypsy looks – ‘I was born on a Dublin street where the loyal drums did beat’. His friends joined in. The barman gave up.

Four guards arrived, two or three of them no older than Adam himself. They didn’t want any trouble but the lead singer wasn’t going anywhere just because “some fucking free state paratrooper” told him to. Two of the guards drew their batons.
Most of the other customers were making sure to avoid eye contact with the men who were now slowly and reluctantly leaving.
Adam was surprised to see Martin stand up.
“Thank you,” he said to the nearest guard, “we really appreciate that.”
“What fucking business is it of yours?” shouted the singer who looked like a gypsy. The guards ushered him towards the door.
“Why’s he sticking his fucking nose in?”
Martin shook his head and smiled.
“Wanker,” the singer said.
Martin turned back to the table and winked at Sarah.

They were going to eat in the Italian across the road. They had been talking about teaching and as Martin and Adam headed to the gents on the way out Martin said, ‘You just have to be a bit tougher on the lads, Adam. I started out with all sorts of liberal ideas, too, but the job turned me into a fascist. It’s us or them.’
Adam needed to piss but nothing was happening. He concentrated on relaxing. He slowed his breathing and watched the yellow stream of Martin’s piss as it flowed past his feet from the next urinal.
“Would you look who it is? The fucking big man.”
Adam looked over his shoulder and recognized the singer. There were two others, both dressed in track suits. Martin had finished.
“Nothing personal, lads. The singing was great, it was just a bit loud. You can sing all you like as far as I’m concerned.”
“You don’t fucking tell me what I can do.”
Now Adam’s piss started to flow.
“Do you hear me?” It was the same voice again.
“We don’t want any trouble, lads. And the guards know you.”
The man’s companions hadn’t spoken. Adam still hadn’t finished when he heard the crack of bone on bone. As he turned he saw Martin fall backwards and his bouncing head squelched tan fibres from a piss-soaked, self-rolled butt and bright splats of blood painted the urinal.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
A rat-like creature with rings in his ears and nose pushed Adam aside and kicked Martin in the balls. He turned towards Adam.
“Leave his little bum chum alone,” said the singer and they were gone.

Adam sat at his desk. Saturday afternoon was ticking past. His hangover was fading now but words and images from the night before kept recurring. He could hear Martin’s words – “A lot of fucking good you were” and he saw the way Sarah looked at him accusingly. He felt sure that he would not be going back to St. Joseph’s. He imagined the classroom and the corridors and the staffroom sailing on into the future without him and he was filled with nothing stronger than a slight contempt for the smallness and the futility of what took place there.
He began to type. ‘Why does the world have to be full of boneheaded Calibans who seem to have the freedom of opposition and violence but are really like programmed laboratory rats gnawing at each other as well as conceited middle-aged men peddling some fading flattering image of themselves to all comers and beautiful girls whose charm ebbs away with each word they speak, unable to hide the fact that they have only two settings in their minds – the calculatingly practical and the inanely sentimental – and below these, nameless masses of children perfecting the cruelty that will be in their hearts for ever but which they will rarely have the courage to openly express, all surrounded by the totally undifferentiated, even more undistinguished brain dead suburbanites with their half-witted sub-urbanities? O Brave New fucking World that hath such creatures in it!’
He exhaled quickly and loudly. Feeling exhilarated, he got to his feet and strolled across the room to the window that overlooked his parents’ back garden. Sodden leaves littered the lawn in the grey stillness of twilight and he noticed the tiny neglected flowerbed which his parents had entrusted to him when they had re-designed the garden and as his eyes returned to the room and the set of third year essays on his desk he was conscious of a weak smile lingering on his face.

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