The Neighbourhood Watch
I usually like to get in early, especially on the first day of a new term, but this morning -- what with the jet lag and Sherry up and down half the night to the toilet -- we end up sleeping through the alarm. By the time I get to school, it’s nearly eight-thirty and I have to fight my way through corridors clogged with kids to get to Alastair’s office.
He looks up from a mountain of mail as I walk in. “Welcome back. How was Barbados?”
“Fabulous.” Rum cocktails on the terrace. A moonlight swim. Fluffy towels spread out across the sand, strategically positioned between obliging rocks. The pair of us going at it like we were twenty-somethings on honeymoon. “You’ve never seen anything like those beaches.”
Alastair scrunches up a manila envelope and shoots it at the wastepaper basket. “No, I haven’t, actually. But I can always dream, I suppose.”
A bit prickly this morning are we, Alastair? Is it my fault that the highlight of your holiday was squatting behind a windbreak with a bag of fish and chips? Sherry and I have worked hard for our little luxuries, you know. “So how was Margate?”
“At least the kids enjoyed it. I’ll tell you all the gory details later. Right now, you’d better pop next door. Mrs Windsor’s waiting to see you.”
I check my watch. “At this hour? What’s the big deal? Got herself in a tizz about the refreshments for the next Board of Governors meeting?”
“It’s a bit more serious than that,” says Alastair. “She’s brandishing the new Ofsted report.”
I shiver. It’s not anxiety: just that I’ve got used to Caribbean temperatures over the last couple of weeks. “Where’s our copy?”
He gazes hopelessly at the pile of post on the desk before him. “It should be here somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.”
“No worries. It’s not as if there’ll be any surprises.” It’s ridiculous how people get so worked up about Ofsted inspectors. They treat them as if they’ve got two heads, or something, but they’re only human. The way I see it, if you’re doing the job you were appointed to do, you’ve got nothing to worry about. And, if you’ve gone that extra mile to raise standards and turn around a demoralised workforce, as I have; well, who knows what honours they might bestow on you. I can already imagine headline in the Evening Standard: OFSTED CONGRATULATES MILLBANK HEAD. With this in mind, those few steps along the shabby corridor to my office are as pleasant as a stroll along the beach hand-in-hand with my wife to our favourite sea-food restaurant among the palm trees.
Mrs Windsor is seated on an armchair with her back to the door. All I can see of her is a large hat stuck all over with clumps of dressing-up box flowers and feathers that might have earned her the booby prize in a primary school Easter bonnet parade.
“Mrs Windsor! How good to see you.” I stoop down to shake her hand. She jerks her head abruptly, as if startled from a snooze, and the brim of her hat scrapes against my face, just missing my eye.
“At last! I was beginning to think you’d decided to emigrate to Barbados!”
I rub my cheek to check for damage, but it seems okay. “So sorry to keep you waiting.” I treat Mrs Windsor to one of my most sincere smiles. “But I really wasn’t expecting you this morning. I’m afraid we overslept. You know what jet lag does to your body clock.”
Mrs Windsor sniffs. “I don’t actually. I don’t bother with Abroad myself.”
I thrust my hands into my front pockets and stand with my feet apart. I’m told it makes me look cool. “Alastair says you’ve got the Ofsted report already. What’s the verdict? Am I going to have to start looking for another job?”
Mrs Windsor hands me the document she has been cradling, along with her handbag, in her lap. “Not just yet, Mr Blair. After all, it’s only the draft report. But it wouldn’t do you any harm to start perusing the adverts in the Times Educational Supplement.”
I take the report from her and flip through the pages. Words leap out at me, all the words one might expect -- curriculum, community, finance, health and safety, GCSE passes -- but as yet there is no story to them. I need Mrs Windsor to turn to me with a hint of a smile and say, Only pulling your leg, Mr Blair, before I can take any of it in. But Elizabeth Windsor doesn’t do humour. “What are you saying?”
Mrs Windsor tightens her grip on her handbag. “Serious Weaknesses.”
I slump down into the other armchair. “How can they say that?”
“You mean you weren’t expecting it?”
I fan myself with the report, but it doesn’t help much. Cold one minute, hot the next; maybe I’m coming down with something. “Of course I wasn’t expecting it. After all I’ve done for the school. What exactly is their problem?”
“Obviously you’ll have to read the report yourself at your leisure, but I can give you the gist. There’s rather a lot about your leadership style. And the poor state of the buildings. And they’ve picked up on the high rates of teenage pregnancies …”
“I can hardly be held responsible for that.”
Mrs Windsor looks at me with an expression akin to disgust. “Mr Blair, if I had the slightest suspicion that you were directly responsible for any one of those unfortunate incidents I would have personally gone to the police.” As I said, Mrs Windsor doesn’t do humour.
“The budget. But then, I always said you should delegate that side of things to Mr Brown. He’s got such a way with figures.” Mrs Windsor sighs. “Anyway, you’ve got till the end of the month to comment on it. You’ll have a chance to rectify any misconceptions on their part.”
“I can if they send it to us in time. What’s the date today?”
“The twenty-third. St George’s Day.” She extracts a pair of white silk gloves from her bag and rolls them delicately onto her hands.
“So we’ve got … Thirty days hath September, April …”
“You’ve got one week, Mr Blair.” She reaches out and takes her copy of the report from me. “I’d better be off now. I only popped in to check that you knew the draft was out. It’s my day for doing the Meals on Wheels.” She adjusts her hat and gets up. “Good morning to you, Mr Blair. I hope your jet lag doesn’t inconvenience you too much for the rest of the day.”
I get up to open the door. “I’m sure it won’t.”
Mrs Windsor sashays out, looking just a bit too relaxed about how things have turned out. As if the first Ofsted report on Millbank Comprehensive since I was appointed head is everything she might have wished for.
Bugger it, bugger it, bugger it.
There’s a game Sherry and I generally play when we go back to school after a break. Who can hang on to the holiday feeling the longest? The first to crack has to buy the other dinner. Sometimes she manages to go a full week before getting to that awful point where you forget you’ve ever been away. For me, a whole stress-free day at the frontier of secondary education is pretty good going. But Easter 2001 has to be a record: less than half an hour after driving through the school gates I can feel the acid bubbling up in my stomach.
It’s not that we don’t love our jobs. It’s not that we don’t thrive on adrenalin. It’s just that the transition from a time when all you have to worry about is whether to choose lobster or kingfish for dinner to a point where a thousand lives depend on your every decision requires a little longer than the duration of a transatlantic flight.
Now it looks as if the day might not be that far away when we won’t be able to afford any more exotic holidays to come back to earth with a thud from. Serious Weaknesses: heads have lost their jobs for less.
When Alistair walks in I’m standing facing the wall with my forehead resting against the cool glass of my framed degree certificate wishing I was back on that Barbados beach.
“Found it, Toby,” he calls out. I don’t know what he’s got to be so cheerful about.
I turn to face him. Alastair frowns. “You don’t look well. Come and sit down.” He places what looks like a copy of the Ofsted report on the coffee table. “What’s the matter? You haven’t picked up a bug on holiday, have you?”
I flop into the armchair. “Serious Weaknesses. Can you believe it, Alastair?”
Alastair takes the other chair. “You’re joking?”
“If only. And for Elizabeth Windsor to know before me. Surely there’s a protocol for these things. It makes no sense for the chair of the Board of Governors to see it before the headteacher.”
“Oh dear, I’m so sorry, Toby.” Alastair picks up the report and flicks through the pages without really looking at them. “If only I’d known it was due over the holidays. I could have come in and checked the post. I could have dropped it off at home for you.”
I sigh. “Never mind now. What are we going to do about the assessment? I can’t have Millbank Comprehensive on Serious Weaknesses. I’d never live it down.”
“You’ve got to think positive, Toby. At least it’s not Special Measures.”
That’s all very well for him to say. A PA isn’t going to be demoted over an Ofsted report. Whereas I, I could be reduced to deputy head or head of department or even, perish the thought, a plain old classroom teacher with kids firing the contents of their pencil cases at me all day long. I’d end up with an ulcer.
“We’ve got to approach this rationally,” says Alastair. “It’s a draft, isn’t it?”
“Yes, apparently we’ve got till next Monday to influence their final verdict.”
“Okay, so first thing I do is cancel all your appointments this week. Mine too. Then we both go through this thing word by word. We’ll deal with every criticism, big or small.”
“That might be easier said than done.” I take the report from him and open it at random. “The buildings are in a pitiful state of repair. How can you challenge that? It’s true.”
Alastair blinks hard. “Did the inspectors ask if you had any plans for refurbishments?”
“No. What’s the point? There’s no money for refurbishments.”
“But did they ask?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Alastair springs up, grabs a stack of paper from the printer on my desk and slaps it down on the coffee table. He takes his fountain pen from his inside jacket pocket and writes on the first sheet in schoolboy italics: 1. Inspectors failed to ask about/were ignorant of plans for headmaster’s office refurbishment.
I shake my head. “But there aren’t any.”
“Not yet there aren’t. But there will be by the time they bother to check.”
I laugh. “Well, it’s worth a try, I suppose. But I’m not sure the state of my office would be top of their list of priorities. Not when there are kids tramping out in the rain to the Portakabins for their geography lessons.”
“First things first, Toby. What you have to understand is that these days a school needs to be run like a business.”
“I know that. Don’t I have to do battle with the budget statement every month?”
Alastair leans back in his chair and eyes me soberly. “Managing the budget is just the tip of the iceberg. Business is much more than that. Business is attitude. Business is risk-taking. Business, above all, is image.”
I gaze around my office, trying to see it as an outsider might. The battered institutional armchairs. The rickety desk with a copy of Educating Tomorrow’s Citizens shoved under one leg to keep it steady. The lavatory-style frosted-glass window that lets in too much noise from the playground and not enough light. I must confess, it does look rather shabby. Quite in keeping with a school on Serious Weaknesses. It’s all quite hopeless. “Where am I going to find the money for a refurbishment? I can hardly balance the books as it is. And don’t tell me to bring in Gordon Brown.”
“Don’t worry. We can sort it without him. What about asking Sherry? I imagine she’d have some good ideas.”
Why do people always think my wife is the one with the brains? “I don’t think so. There aren’t the same demands on the head of a primary school.”
“Well, let’s see what we can cut. How about the school meals budget? You must be able to save something there.”
“We could certainly look at it. The contract’s up for review shortly. We could put it out to tender and see if there are any takers from the private sector.”
Alastair thumps the table. “That’s exactly what I’m on about. You can’t just wait and see in business. It’s that kind of attitude that keeps the contract in-house year after year. And costs you money.”
“At least Mrs Mowlam’s happy. You know she doesn’t like change in her kitchens.”
Alastair shakes his head. “Do you want to stay on Serious Weaknesses?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you’re going to have to learn to play by a different set of rules. You’ve got to be proactive if you want to entice a new contractor. Now, think of all the greasy-spoon cafes you know.”
“Sherry and I prefer to eat cordon bleu now there’s just the two of us,” I say. Although we were slumming it at that burger place last night.
“Then it’s going to be a steep learning curve for you, isn’t it?” The man looks positively smug. As if, like Elizabeth Windsor, he takes a perverse pleasure in my discomfort.
“I know what I could do,” I say, remembering some inserts that came with a Professional Association of Teachers mailing last term. “I could get a mobile phone mast put on the roof. I’ve heard they pay £10,000 a time.”
Alastair grins. “Now you’re talking.”
Then I remember what we’re dealing with at Millbank Comprehensive. “Except that we’d never get it past the Board of Governors. They're a load of Luddites who want to take us back to the dark ages.”
“Good point,” says Alastair. “We’ve got to sort out the board. Get more business people involved.”
“That would help.” I can hardly be expected to push through a new regime on my own. “There’s a vacancy for a parent-governor coming up in September.”
“And in the meantime you could co-opt the people you need. Save the bother of having an election. Who did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know yet. I suppose I could ask around. But we haven’t much to choose from, have we? The type of parents we need don’t send their kids to Millbank Comprehensive.”
Alastair gives this some consideration. “It doesn’t have to be a parent. Anyone who has shown some interest in the school would do. How about someone who has been to speak to the Young Enterprise club?”
“We could try dropping them a line.”
“It will have to be more direct than that. Let’s think. What was the name of that chap who came last month?”
“George Deblue? He certainly seemed to know a thing or two about making money.”
“Didn’t you say he was a neighbour of yours?”
“Yes, his house is actually on Presidential Parade but our gardens back onto each other.”
“He’s our man! Get him on the blower right now!”
“But I hardly know him. He’s not been in the neighbourhood long.”
“What a great opportunity to get to know him.”
“It would take time, though. I can’t ring him up cold and demand he join our board.”
“Well, let’s think about your other neighbours. Any business moguls among them? Those grand houses certainly weren’t paid for on a public servant’s salary.”
“Which is why I don’t know any of them well enough to pull in any favours.” It pains me to admit as much to Alastair, but those fat cats from Presidential Parade don’t like to slum it with us lot from Parliament Street.
“Okay,” says Alastair, “let’s restrict ourselves to your own street. People there may not be in the same league as George Deblue but there must be someone with a bit of business know-how. Who do you want to try first?”
“I haven’t a clue. I don’t know any of my neighbours that much.” I picture our row of anonymous semi-detacheds, ex-council houses with the front gardens paved over to accommodate our cars. Our house at number 10 with the Rover 620 parked in front, flanked by the Sierra on one side and the little Renault Clio next door. Up beyond number 8 we have the scruffy motorhome; the camouflage-green Land Rover; the ancient grey mini. Down past number 12 there’s the blue Audi; the now-fashionable Skoda; the well-cared-for Toyota. I could do a Mastermind on the cars of Parliament Street before I could tell you much about their owners. “There’s Lionel and Jacqueline next door. We hear them arguing through the walls but we rarely see them.” I think I’ve done pretty well to remember their names. “I’ve no idea what kind of work they do.”
“How long have you lived there?”
“Four years. But we’re not around enough to get matey with the neighbours. We’re either at work or off on holiday.”
Alastair puts his pen away in his jacket pocket. “Excuse me if you think I’m speaking out of turn, but it looks like it’s time you got to know your neighbours. Your career depends on it.”
* * *
After assembly, I take a tour around the classrooms, checking everyone is settling in after the break. I stop off in the lobby to do an emergency repair job on the Easter Bunny display where several of the fluffy tails have become unstuck over the holiday. When the stomach cramps get me again, I retreat to the girls’ toilets and plug my mouth with paper towels until I don’t feel the need to scream any more. Afterwards, I dab my eyes and touch up my lipstick, crouching down to catch my reflection in the waist-level mirror.
Up in Carole’s office, the air is thick with patchouli. She looks up from her computer as the door slams behind me. “Are you all right? You don’t look your usual self.”
“Just a touch of indigestion.”
“Dodgy meal last night?”
“Just a cheeseburger.” I notice Carole reach out to reposition her lunchbox of macrobiotic mush on the corner of her desk. “We wouldn’t normally, only we were so tired after we got back from Gatwick, neither of us could be bothered to cook. There’s a new takeaway opened just around the corner. We thought we’d give it a try.” I grimace as the wave of pain comes over me again.
Carole gets up and pushes her chair out from under the desk. “Here, sit down. You don’t look well at all.”
I flop onto the seat and let out an involuntary groan. It’s like your worst ever period pain to the power of ten.
“That’s more than indigestion,” says Carole. “More like food poisoning. Salmonella or e.coli or something.”
I take a deep breath. “It’s easing off now. I reckon I’ll be okay.”
“Maybe you should go to the doctor’s.” She scrutinises my face intensely, as if trying to make a diagnosis from the depth of my holiday tan. “It might even be appendicitis. Maybe I should cancel your eleven o’clock.”
“Who is it? A parent?” I haven’t had time to check my diary yet.
“No, it’s that woman from the Evening Standard.”
“She’s coming to interview you for that series on Women Who Have It All.”
I feel my cheeks go hot. “Oh yes, I remember.” The promise of something pleasant, like triple chocolate cream mousse on the dessert menu. “Though why anyone should nominate me …”
Carole holds herself taller, proud, as if she is the subject of the article as much as me. “Because of all you’ve achieved. Without ever compromising your femininity.”
“Isn’t that what we all do? I’m no different to any other woman, am I?”
“Where do you want me to start? Soaring to the top of the career ladder as if there’s no such thing as the glass ceiling. Then, instead of swanning off to some top job where you can shuffle papers all day, you decide to stay close to the coalface, using your skills and talents where they are most needed. Helping to give deprived children a decent start in life.”
“I’m only doing what I was trained to do, Carole. There’s nothing spectacular about that …”
Carole is on a roll now. She cuts across me: “Looking good, no matter how you feel, no matter what you’re doing.”
“It’s only being professional.” Maybe Carole hasn’t noticed that I’m wearing my fat suit today. I’m feeling rather bloated with all the good food we had on holiday and none of my usual clothes seem to fit. Still, set against Carole’s hippy drapery, even my most slobbish outfits look like an advert for power dressing.
“Bringing up those four orphan boys …”
“Only three.” I’m not one for discussing my personal life with my secretary, but I can’t tolerate misinformation, wherever I find it. “And they weren’t technically orphans. That’s why they had to be fostered rather than adopted.”
“… Those three abandoned boys. Now that’s what I call public spirited.”
“Fostering isn’t so difficult. You should try it.”
Carole scowls. “I haven’t the patience.”
“There’s nothing to it. Someone else has already done the hard bit: getting them out into the world and to the almost-human-being stage.”
“That’s just you being modest. You always talk as if things are easy but I know the work you put in behind the scenes.”
“Life’s certainly a lot easier since the last one moved on, I must admit.”
Carole comes closer, resting her backside against the edge of the desk. “You never wanted children of your own?”
“And you’re not planning on fostering any more?”
Is this the dry run for the Evening Standard interview, I wonder. I don’t want to offend Carole but I’d better lighten the tone or she’ll end up psychoanalysing me. “I think I’ve got quite enough on my hands with Toby.”
“That’s another point to add to your have-it-all list: your good-looking husband.” Carole reddens.
My good-looking husband! I don’t recall Carole ever meeting him; her blush must be for the photo on my desk. I would never have credited Carole with such good taste.
“And all your community work.” Carole hurries on to a less intimate topic. “As if you hadn’t enough on your plate already.”
But she’s lost me. “Oh my God!” I wince, catch my breath and clutch the arms of the chair for support. I can’t enjoy Carole’s eulogising any more; the pain is back with a vengeance.
“Focus on the Ying Yang symbol,” Carole suggests, indicating her poster on the wall in the space where previous secretaries have stuck pictures of boy bands or grandchildren in matching hand-knitted cardigans. “It’s supposed to have a calming effect.”
“I reckon I’m past that stage, Carole.” I feel like the old woman who swallowed a fly and ended up with a horse trying to hoof its way out of her. I can’t be distracted by talk of good works and clothes and children and husbands admired from afar by unmarried secretaries. There’s something not right with my insides and I’m terrified. “Call an ambulance! I think I’m going to die.”