A little short story from Ian Robertson, especially for all of you with children on half-term.
‘Come on. We haven’t got all night.’
The exasperation was all too evident in Keith Ballantine’s voice. It was always the same. Whenever he and his wife, Anne, had to be somewhere at a specific time he had to wait for her. There was always, without fail, some little detail, often to do with what she was going to wear which had to be attended to just as they were due to leave.
It had been the same last October and, of course, why should it be any different this October?
The fuss she made about what to wear. It was all about making a good impression. It was only a Parents’ Evening at their daughter’s school for goodness sake. It wasn’t about them.
They did consider themselves fortunate that there was this opportunity to meet with Julia’s form teacher what with the pandemic and all. Thank goodness the schools had reopened and her education could get back on course.
All these new rules about who was allowed to go where. Being told how many people could meet up as a group in public and even in other people’s houses. And then there was this thing about working from home. Alright if you had that sort of job but pity the poor souls who didn’t.
Bit of a strain on the old relationship front at times though. This must be what it was like to be retired. Under each other’s feet all day long. Staking claims to parts of the house as ‘yours’ or ‘mine’.
There had been one major upside to all this lockdown and social isolation business though. There had been no annual ritual visit to Anne’s parents in Whitby. Whitby wasn’t so bad in itself. Quite okay for a short stay with the glorious ruins of Whitby Abbey in its prominent position on the cliff top overlooking the town and the harbour. But it was her parents. Nothing he could really put his finger on. It was just their way of looking at him as though he was, in some way, inferior and not party to all their secrets. What they did not know was that his wife had confided rather more to him than they might have wished. Perhaps he was too sensitive, but they did seem to grin a lot and in his more uncharitable moments Keith wondered if their dentist paid them to advertise his wonderful cosmetic work. Their teeth were so white they literally gleamed.
Her parents were both respectable and respected. They ran the biggest Undertakers or Funeral Directors firm in the county. Never sure of the right title: Funeral Director has a certain ring to it. The way they seemed to almost share the mourning process with the distraught, bereaved families and the way they cared for the bodies themselves. If there was such a thing as professional love then that was what they bestowed on them.
What a change in less than a year. Most people being so careful about not getting too close to others.
Having all their groceries delivered to avoid contact with strangers in the supermarket. Didn’t seem possible somehow but you adapted, didn’t you?
Going out wearing masks as a matter of course. It wasn’t that long ago that he used to look askance at the Japanese walking around the tourist sites all masked up, thinking how silly they looked.
Then there was the other image. That of the stereotypical terrorist. The chequered scarf concealing the lower part of the face. That had all changed. He wore one himself. Had it on now in fact, since it had been approved as an acceptable form of masking. Looked rather good as well he thought.
‘Just coming dear’ called Anne from the top of the stairs. ‘Couldn’t decide which mask was the most appropriate. Which do you think?’
She held out one which was adorned with seagulls eating chips which they’d obviously stolen from a holidaymaker at the beach and another, plain, almost flesh coloured light pink one.
‘I think the plain would be best, don’t you?’ Replied her husband as patiently as he could, thinking to himself that it really didn’t matter one way or the other.
The school was new. Well, it might as well have been. Only completed a few months ago. Just in time for the students to move in before the easter break Easter break! Lockdown was what happened then so it was teaching online for everyone with the parents supposed to act as Teaching Assistants (unpaid) to support their children’s learning. That was a joke wasn’t it. With a daughter aged fifteen she was way in advance of her parents’ in practically all her subjects so really it was her educating them!
The Ballantines followed the signs inside the main school building and obeyed the order to use the hand sanitiser at every opportunity. Probably very necessary since, despite the notices saying how well the cleaning staff had been attending to their increased duties, you just never knew whose hands had been where, especially in an environment populated predominately by volatile adolescents.
‘Here we are then’ said Keith.
The sign said: Room 9. Miss Harris. Please take a seat and wait to be called.
‘At last’ responded Anne. ‘Feels like we’ve been walking for ages. What happened to the good old days when schools were so much smaller?’
‘I know what you mean’ said Keith. ‘They used to smell different as well. You could be blindfolded and still know you were in a school. There was that lingering background smell which you couldn’t quite identify.’
‘Yes, love. Stale cabbage. Socks. Yes, socks. And a hint of polish on wooden floors.’
‘Anyway. Might as well sit while we can.’ Said Keith lowering himself gingerly on to one of the orange plastic chairs which creaked, possibly in warning or even as a form of greeting.
‘I don’t really know why we come to these meetings every October. And it’s always at the end of October just when it’s getting cold and dark early.’ Said Anne eyeing one of a series of hand drawn posters advertising an upcoming Halloween Party.
‘They never had these at my school. What about yours? Queried Anne.
‘Nah. Wouldn’t have been allowed in mine. It was a Church school. No time for ghosts and witches. And even if did it’d be a disco I should think. So, I don’t know why we always turn up. Not all the parents do, but that’s not so surprising when you see some of the kids. We come because we want to be seen to care about Julia’s education. We do anyway. It’s just a chance for Miss Harris to tell us what a good student Julia is. We know that from the reports. No trouble and rather good at all her subjects. Reflects well on Miss Harris as her Form Teacher.’
‘Keith’ interrupted Anne. ‘Why do you think Julia wasn’t invited?’
‘Probably thought Julia had sufficient compliments paid to her for her work and there was no need to keep repeating it to her. That’s all.’
He stopped talking as the door to Room 9 opened and a quite short, rather dumpy woman emerged wearing a see-through visor.
‘Quick love’ said Keith nudging Anne and manoeuvring his Arab scarf over his nose and mouth. ‘Mask on.’
‘Good evening. You are Mr and Mrs Ballantine, Julia’s parents. We’ve only met once before and that was quite a while ago. I’m Miss Harris, her Form Teacher. How are you? Come in. Take a seat.’
‘Thank you. We’re well.’ Said Mr Ballantine.
‘Before we start can I ask you a question?’ Interjected Mrs Ballantine.
‘Of course,’ Responded Miss Harris, thinking it a little odd because she was used to setting the agenda and had what she considered a tried and tested method of conducting these interviews. Besides that, there was only a very limited amount of time available for each set of parents and there was a certain issue she needed to raise with Julia’s parents.
‘All this business of having to keep a certain distance from other people and wearing something over your face?’ Mrs Ballantine seemed to hesitate and then continued. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m being rude or nosey but wearing that see-through face covering…Mmm….Doesn’t that affect your teaching? I mean, the relationships with your students?’
‘Julia likes you. Says you’re the best teacher she has.’ Said Mr Ballantine, following on from his wife.
‘That’s nice to hear, but this does bring it very nicely to what I wanted to talk to you about regarding your daughter. Julia is a very bright girl indeed, and a pleasure to teach with her enquiring mind.’
‘There is a “but” in there Miss Harris’ Interrupted Julia’s father wondering what on earth it could be about.
‘Let me put it this way’ continued Miss Harris. ‘Even before the pandemic I always social distanced myself from your daughter.’
‘What on earth do you mean? Social distancing from Julia before the pandemic. Why would you do that?’ Queried Mrs Ballantine, visibly bristling.
‘Well’ replied Miss Harris. ‘I began doing it last year.’
‘Yes, but why?’ Demanded Mr Ballantine aggressively.
Miss Harris looked from one parent to the other and managed to avoid any direct eye contact and focused on a point at eye level but somewhere between them. ‘Well, and I’ll be perfectly frank with you…And there’s no other way to put this…Your daughter is a biter.’ Miss Harris’s voice trailed off and she waited for the parents’ response with some trepidation.
Mr and Mrs Ballantine looked at each other and exchanged a knowing look. Julia’s father nodded at his wife and she leaned toward Miss Harris and spoke in a confiding tone, smiling all the while through her mask which rather than hiding gave the appearance of exposing her gleaming, perfectly white teeth.
‘Ah. We wondered if that might be it. You see it often skips a generation or two.’
Miss Harris interrupted wondering what on earth this girl’s parents were talking about. ‘I don’t understand. What often skips a generation or two?’
Mr Ballantine explained. ‘Well, you see Julia gets that, shall we say, her little habit of biting from her mother’s side of the family. From her great grandfather. They were from Romania. Well, to be precise, Transylvania.’
© Ian Robertson October 2020.