After my first weeks’ lessons in maths at Senior School- which I’d found completely incomprehensible, I’d come up with an idea, a master-plan to escape torture by Algebra. My plan was diabolically clever, wonderful yet dangerous, very dangerous in fact. Just the thought of it kept me in nightmares and diarrhea for a week.
I’d come up with it in our pink tiled bathroom during my weekly bath on Sunday evening after choir. It was the only time I had any privacy to think up such great diabolical ideas.
I always got the best ones ideas under the water, looking up blurry eyed at the underside of mums’ bubble bath bubbles floating on the surface.
I’d keep my head under water, holding my breath until I got a good idea that usually arrived in my brain as a result of panic and adrenalin just before my lungs imploded.
The one I got that night really was a work of art, even if I say it myself; the beauty of it being it wasn’t just about getting out of one maths lesson or even two, it was for a whole term! Or even better, the entire year!
But that’s’ only if I managed to carry it off, otherwise I might as well suck in the bubble-bath water and drown myself.
So sat at the back of the mathematics class that Monday morning I primed myself for decisive action. I was absolutely terrified and my little ticker beat like a high-strung budgie’s on steroids.
Meanwhile outside, the blue smoke coming up from the ground-keepers’ first autumnal fire, had made its way over the playing fields and was slipping like ectoplasm through the spiked railings at the bottom of the playing field. It had its’ Freedom, and it was a sign to go for mine.
Mr.English, the maths teacher sat high on a stool at the front of class behind his desk. With his helmet-skull down, steel-edged reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He appeared to be totally immersed in marking the class’s exercise books, but I knew he was looking for idiots. He ticked and crossed out with his fountain pen with the terrible efficiency of an unstoppable marking machine.
I’d been monitoring the steady upward progress of my virginally empty exercise book in the pile on the desk next to him, in which I’d noted only the dates and times of lessons and my name, though I’d considered using a nom de plume.
My exercise book had the same pale blue cover as the other boys’ books, but I’d coloured mine with red-biro along the spine, so I could track it as it proceeded vertically in the pile towards his killer fountain-pen filled with the blood of maths dummies like me.
In those days no one spoke about the left and the right side of a persons’ brain. As for mine, it was as though I’d only the one side, the lobe that had ‘great ideas’, liked drawing, laughed hysterically at Morecambe and Wise even the repeats, and day-dreamed. I did that a lot.
My private eleven-year-old world was a constant daydream, which sometimes unfortunately became a waking nightmare. I was a permanently awkward and sometimes lonely inhabitant of my own fantasy-island. A world I’d created to escape my dad’s violent temper and the suffocating sooty dullness of my home-town of Wakefield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, “The shoddy capital of the West Riding town”, at the time an understatement if there ever was one.
At least on my island I was undisputed King and a benign one at that, especially to myself. But offshore, across the unpredictable waters, out beyond the protective reef were dangerous and mysterious seas which must be navigated with caution, full of hidden rocks and monsters.
In those seas, rocky islands poked up from the relative calm of my dreamy little life, their surrounding waters precipitous, dark and dangerous. I knew the islands very well. There was the bus-station island of fear where the teddy-boys hung out waiting for nerdy victims like me with grammar school satchels and caps to beat up. Then there was the changing-room island of fear, with its’ stinky lockers into which, (along with ‘Smelly’ David Davis), I was sometimes stuffed. And the dinner-queue island, with its’ resident school bully- ‘Killer Cunaine’ who served out kidney punches and mashed potatoes for lunch. Last but not least and the scariest of them all, the dad-home-from-the-pub island.
These islands poked up malignantly on my horizon from the ocean of my life. The trick to survive their terrors, which took some doing constant vigilance and intuitive navigational skills, was to sail around them un-noticed and sea worthy.
Having earlier managed an entry into Queen Elizabeth Grammar School or “QUEGS” as it was locally known, aged ten via a choral scholarship, I’d followed that small and surprising success by coming the absolute bottom of my junior school class of 1960 in the entrance exam which all pupils had to take prior to transferring from Junior school to Senior.
So poor was my result that getting in looked well nigh impossible. The school had standards, in fact there were more intelligent hamsters sitting the exam than I.
Unfortunately, the school exam, which all the boys had to take and pass in order to get into Senior School from the junior school, wasn’t designed to test small boys with only the creative half of a brain. Nowhere on the paper was a test for ‘great ideas’, or drawing castles and dragons, clay-modeling ( granted a bit hard on an exam paper)- or making up stories. All of the above I was much better equipped to do. But somehow I scraped in, possibly because my mum had charmed the Headmaster.
But it wasn’t the first time I’d used the ability to make up stories and act them out. A few years before at a mixed kindergarten school, I’d decided that a ‘music and movement’ class at the start of the year was not for me. The reason being; I’d discovered to my horror, we were supposed to run around the hall pretending to be butterflies or flowers or some other stupid thing (which I wouldn’t have minded) in our underwear- I had my standards too, but unfortunately not in personal hygene!
Chronically embarrassed by what I knew lay beneath my grey short trousers, which that previous week had managed to escape mums’ weekends’ laundry blitz, I decided on a sudden illness as a way to escape, and there in front of teacher collapsed to the floor in a feint, still with my trousers on and my dignity intact.
I was led limply to the staff-room by the flustered new music teacher, who more flushed than me layed me down in the staff-room under a blanket on the cracked leather sofa, covering me with a dog-haired travel blanket. Then she went away after sticking a thermometer under my tongue, saying that she’d be gone, “just for a minute”, to telephone my parents.
A teacher should have known better not to leave a sick child for even a moment with a thermometer under his tongue, especially me, Mr.Junior Con-Artiste.
Whilst she was out, I took it out from beneath my tongue and stuck it in a steaming mug of tea belonging to some other teacher who’d also vacated the staff-room and stuck it back in when I heard her coming back.
It was so hot it burnt my tongue, but Miss almost collapsed when she read it.
The ’hot tea-thermometer gag’ got me three weeks off school with suspected measles- and temporarily out of being a butterfly in my vest and pants!
Alas, however three weeks missed from lessons didn’t help my academic development, neither did the piles of old comics or the pages and pages of crayoned drawings I turned out at home day after boring day waiting for the fake measles to arrive.
So when it came to sitting the entrance exam for Senior School and managing the lowest mark ever recorded by a human child, no-one was in the least surprised when in later weeks I also failed the all important Eleven-Plus exam, which all kids everywhere in the country had to take.
So really I shouldn’t have got into Senior School at all and shouldn’t be sat nervously as I was in Mr. English’s class waiting for the truth to come out.
At Queen Elizabeth Grammar School they only took bright kids in with an aptitude for sports, science, cricket and mathematics- and a budding penchant for the Law, Accountancy or the Army, preferably all three.
Unfortunately my comprehensive grounding in the ‘Adventures of Desperate Dan’ in the Beano, didn’t quite cut the mustard.
But though mum must have thought that she’d brought a moron into the world, she wasn’t the type to give up on her post-war dream that her children would have the benefit of good educations. And then one day she spotted a small advertisement in the local newspaper….
(Copyright John Sunderland 2009)
Installment two of ‘A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN’, The Kingdom of Truant.