Fiction (April 2018)

The Lesson by M.J. Allen

Blake felt a tap at his shoulder. For a second he saw a fingernail – thick, old – that its owner withdrew.

Yours… are they?’ came a voice from behind him.

‘I’m… sorry?’ said Blake, turning. He looked at his fellow passenger, who leaned back in his seat, smirking, in a tweed flat-cap.

‘Well, that’s a start,’ the man continued. He was ancient, but trim, neat… alert. Over the collar of the man’s raincoat Blake noted the knot of a tie. The man’s coal-black eyes gleamed.

‘What is?’ said Blake.

‘Being ‘sorry’,’ said the man. He nodded to the fracas at the front of the bus. The disorder in which Blake had reluctantly intervened minutes earlier had resumed: a gang of lads – in school uniform of varying degrees of dishevelment – were scuffling, swearing, shouting. A phone was snatched, hurled.

‘Your… products,’ continued the man, his last word managing – to Blake’s ears – to both ring with relish and drip with disdain. ‘Chris, isn’t it?’ he added, folding his arms, crossing his legs at the knee.

‘Yes,’ said Blake.

‘Thought I heard them call you that.’

Blake avoided his eyes, glanced through the window at the passing shops. He tried for a moment to calculate whether, in the morning, he could make it to the garage before school… get the car back then. That would make this the last trip. And he’d be back to his radio, his heater, his… space. No More Bus.

The boys in the front were no longer scuffling. They were fighting now. One – was it Kyle Pritchard? – was being pinned down, punched.

‘Been there long?’ The chirp at Blake’s back resumed. Blake again turned.

‘King Edward’s?’ the man continued. ‘Have you been teaching there long? You’re new on here… the 44.’

Before Blake could answer a bell began dinging. Not the orderly single ding made by a passenger requesting the driver to stop, but a dinging for the hell of it, over and over, that came from where the boys were. The driver responded with a barrage of muffled threats from his post at the wheel downstairs.

‘Oh I’m sorry, it’s not called that now, is it?’ the man behind Blake continued. ‘Mount Pleasant Community,’ he said, elongating the ‘u’. ‘Yes: that’s its name now.’

The bus stopped heavily. The boys at the front swung forward, gripped bars, as if rocked by a blast. They kept their feet… beat the driver as his game. They yelled, laughed.

‘Ah!’ announced the man. ‘I’m here: my stop. Nearly missed it, talking to you. Saved, though, by the bell… thanks to the actions of your lads.’

Blake turned from him, looked through the window at the houses in the road. They were large-ish, older places. He knew the area a little from his boyhood: he’d never gone there as such. It was the far side of the shops at the parade. He knew of it, that was all. The route was one that, with the car, he never used. Quicker to get home on the link road. His house was on an estate on the other side of the by-pass. New-builds, cut-off: he had to drive to get anywhere, but it was okay, it was quiet, there was never any trouble.

Suddenly Blake sensed himself in the trajectory of something falling… plummeting. Beside Blake’s seat – collapsing, crumpling, crashing from a height – came the figure of the old man. His shape – in his raincoat he had the vague look of something winged – fell towards Blake as if he were something avian that had been shot in mid-air.

Blake thrust out a hand, half-caught the man under his elbow, slid over the seat, helped him stand.

‘Thank you,’ said the man. He swayed, took hold of a strap. ‘I’m—’

‘Come on. I’ll help you off,’ said Blake. The boys at the front watched as he assisted the man down the steps.

Outside, in the bus stop, the man leaned heavily on a panel sprayed with graffiti. ‘I shall be all right now,’ he said. In the fumed backwash of the departing bus he drew short, shallow breaths. ‘My home is…  around… the corner. No dis… tance… at… all.’

‘I’ll see you there. Take your time,’ said Blake. After some moments he put the man’s arm across his shoulders. ‘Right. Let’s go and get you in.’

***

The house was covered with a creeper. Its twisting stems (the leaves shed) clung to the place like a scruffy beard. One end had something like a battlement. The wooden gate was green and soft. On a path between tangled patches of weeds and wet, matted grass Blake and the man encountered a condom – used, wrinkled – on the mossed, clay tiles. The man prodded it with the toe of his brogue shoe. He turned, looked Blake in the face. ‘The baboons do it here. In my garden. Can you believe it? I’ll have them one night, though, I tell you.’

Blake changed the subject. ‘Do you live here with anyone?’

With?’ the man came back at him. ‘With? Oh no. Independent. That’s me.’ He straightened now, took himself from Blake’s shoulders. At the front door he dug out a key.   Blake waited on the porch steps. The man beckoned him, had him push open the door, which was warped and chafed the frame. The man pulled out the key, put his hand in his coat pocket.

The smell from the hall made Blake think of an uncle’s house – an elderly relative they called ‘uncle’ but, in fact, some distant cousin – to which his mother had taken him as a boy. He remembered flytraps of yellow-brown tape hanging from ceilings, like tongues.  

‘Come in,’ said the man.

‘I’d like to,’ said Blake, ‘but, if you’re feeling better, I really need to—’

‘No, come in,’ said the man. ‘You must.’ He was looking him in the face, smiling.

Blake felt something against the front of his jacket, to one side of the zip, above his waist. He looked down and saw a blade that was long, pointed.

‘I’ve asked you nicely,’ said the man. ‘Now… Get in!’

***

Blake heard the door slam behind him. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he said. The man removed his raincoat – swift, dextrous now – swapping the blade from one hand to the other, the gleam of his eyes restored. ‘This is kidnap,’ said Blake. ‘Are you mad?’

‘Mind your lip!’ said the man. He tossed his cap to the hook of a stand, waved the blade at Blake’s chest.

Blake stepped back. ‘What the hell is that thing? Put it away!’

‘This thing,’ said the man, ‘is a British Army bayonet. Infantry issue. World War One. It’s seen service, and, if need be, it shall do so again.’

The two of them paused. From a passage off the hall came the heavy ticking of a clock.

‘Look,’ Blake began, ‘let me go – right now – and, as far the police are concerned I might just forget this.’

‘Police?’ said the man, cocking his head. ‘What’s this to do with them? This is a school matter.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ asked Blake.

The man gestured to a door. ‘In there!’

***

He threw a switch. The room’s darkness gave way to a sickly, yellow light. ‘Sit! he barked. Blake complied. ‘Good,’ the said the man. ‘That’s good.’ Blake began to look around him. What he took to be the room’s windows were curtained with heavy crimson drapes. In the middle of the room stood a large desk, behind which was a chair. Blake noticed how they were on something like a podium, a rectangle that had a patterned carpet over it, where the floor had somehow been raised. To one side of the desk, on an easel, was something he’d seen in films… photographs, but had never encountered physically: a blackboard.  The man glanced at it, looked back at Blake.

‘Tea?’ his captor enquired.

‘I’m sorry?’ said Blake.

‘So you keep saying,’ said the man. ‘Your tea, though… how do you take it? Milk? Sugar?’

‘Milk, two sugars, please,’ said Blake.

‘Right,’ said the man. ‘Coming up!’ He spun away, spun back. ‘Oh, before that I just need to do… this.’

The handcuffs issued a faint snap as the man, with pickpocket speed, shackled Blake where he sat. And where he sat, Blake now realised, was at a chair and a table arranged very much like a school desk. He yanked at the cuff that now joined his left wrist to the leg of the desk, which he saw had been bolted to the room’s parquet floor.

‘You won’t get out of those,’ said the man, as he watched Blake struggle. ‘Made in the days of proper coppers. Built to last.’

‘I advise you to let me go. Now!’ Blake said. ‘You could get ten years for this.’

‘Oh not that again,’ said the man. ‘Who’d believe you? Think! An old fella like me? Doing a thing like this? Anyway, the world and his wife saw you helping me off the bus. You volunteered.’

‘You planned this, didn’t you? Your… fall. There was nothing wrong with you. Why me?’

‘Oh stop grizzling man. Do you think that’s what they whinged at Waterloo? Do you think that’s what they said at The Somme?’

‘Some of them.’

‘Just stay there, and hold your tongue. No one can hear you. We’re back from the road, the walls are thick. It’s just you and me. Now… I’ll get the tea.’

‘Who are you?’ Blake asked.

In the doorway the man turned. ‘My name is Clist,’ he said. ‘But, you can call me Mr Clist, or, if you prefer it, Sir.’

***

Clist returned with a tray, on it crockery and a teapot in a lime-green cosy. He poured a cup , which Blake took. Blake sipped, stopped, threw the cup across the room. ‘For Christ’s sake, what the hell am I doing here?’ he demanded. ‘What the hell are you doing with me?’

Clist drew back. ‘That… Chris,’ he said, ‘is no way to conduct yourself. Any repetition of language of that kind in this class and—’

‘And what?’ shouted Blake.

‘I advise you to keep your cool, young man… or you might very well find out. Any more of that behaviour, and you’ll be here after hours.’

After hours? What the hell do you mean?’

‘We have work, Christopher. Work. Or, rather, you do. Papers. Papers to sit – and pass. And when you have passed them you may go. No further action required. Easy as that,’ Clist smiled. ‘Now tell me, what is it you teach?’

‘Media,’ said Blake, ‘… and international relations.’

‘International relations! Heavens!’ said Clist, who was holding the bayonet again, tapping it against a palm. ‘At Mount Pleasant Community! And ‘media’, too. Well, that must make you very busy: all of those newspapers to read, all of that… telly… to watch.’

Clist walked to the desk in the centre of the room, set down the bayonet, pulled out a drawer. ‘Very different in my day, Chris.’

‘Your day?’

‘Oh, I taught there… when it was King Edward’s, of course… English… thirty years… language and lit.’

‘Is that what this is about?’ asked Blake.

‘In part, I suppose, yes.’

‘Well, for Christ’s— I’m sorry. I mean, for goodness sake, schools are schools – they’re nothing to do with me.’

‘Oh come now,’ said Clist, looking up. ‘That’s hardly the attitude.’

‘I helped you get home,’ said Blake.

Clist went back to looking through the drawer. He pulled out two small pamphlets. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘Your behaviour was honourable. Pass these and you may go. No more protests from me.’

‘What are they?’

‘Relics from my day.’ said Clist, putting on spectacles. ‘Matriculation papers at Ordinary Level for English language and mathematics. The Metropolitan Board, 1953. Originally set for boys of sixteen. We were – what do they call it – single-sex back then. Should be within your ambit, Chris,’ Clist peered at Blake over his half-moon glasses, ‘even if, admittedly, outside your particular fields. Shall we say ninety minutes for each?’

Clist placed the papers on Blake’s desk. Blake looked at the covers.

‘This is ridiculous,’ said Blake. ‘What if I refuse?’

‘There are two ways in which we can deal with this,’ said Clist. ‘This way, which is the easier way, or another, which I promise you will be much harder.’ He glanced back at the bayonet on his desk. ‘Which would you prefer? Now, if you’ve any means of assistance,’ Clist continued, ‘I shall need to relieve you of them. Phones, calculators – I wasn’t born yesterday, young man. Let’s have them.’ 

With his free hand Blake reached into his jacket, drew out his phone, cursed himself for not having the wit to use it. That was how people died, he told himself. Worrying about clutches in cars, spoons of sugar in tea. Blake’s hands shook. What did the old monster want? 

Clist saw the tremoring paper, smiled. ‘Exam nerves? Oh, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You’re in good hands.’ He placed a pencil and sharpener on Blake’s desk. ‘Three hours, then. Hand in sooner, if you want to. Good luck.’ As he walked back to his desk he studied Blake’s phone. ‘My! This really is quite a… thing.’

Blake looked at the English paper, picked up the maths paper, went back to the English one. Christ, he thought, what sort of language were they even speaking in – when was it? – 1953? Adverbial adjectives, collective nouns, prepositions? Oh do piss off!  Subordinate clauses? Subordinates! Since when had anyone used words like that?

Blake looked up, told Clist: ‘None of this makes any sense.’

‘I’m sure the instructions for that paper are perfectly clear. They were written in a time when people knew how to use the Queen’s English. I suggest you get on with it.’

‘I’m not talking about the paper,’ said Blake. ‘I’m talking about this. Me being here, chained to this fucking desk!’ He set down his pencil, leaned back in his chair. ‘You answer my question… and I might answer these.’

‘And if I don’t?’

‘Simple. Kill me. And get on with it!’

The words seemed to startle Clist. ‘Very well,’ said Clist after a pause. ‘Three nights ago I was the victim of a robbery… on my way home from the shops at the parade… what few businesses remain there. A lad pulled a knife in the underpass. High on something, I suspect. Had my wallet and my watch – the one my father left me. The fact that I didn’t have a phone seemed to annoy him. I received a mouthful for my pains.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Blake.

‘When I was that age, something like that, in this neighbourhood, to a man of my years, would have been unthinkable. Not only that but the… copulations… in my garden – you saw the evidence – my parents’ garden, where, in summer, they took their tea, the graffiti on the bus shelter, the vomit on the pavements, the litter in the hedges… don’t tell me that you didn’t see it. Where has all of this come from? How did it happen? Who has allowed it? Not me… Chris. Not me!’ Clist slammed a palm to the desk. His face was puce.

‘Times have changed,’ said Blake. ‘Jobs have gone. Things aren’t what they were here.’

‘You’re damned right they aren’t!’

‘The outcomes at the school – they won’t be the same.’

Clist shook his head, waved a dismissive hand. ‘Oh, don’t give me that.. crap. There are children in Africa, attending lessons right now, not a shilling between them, who are doing better than ours. Do you know how many boys I, personally, got into Oxbridge? Nineteen! Never mind Durham, Exeter, Birmingham and the rest. Ordinary lads, for the most part. Sons of gas-fitters, plumbers, postmen. Did great things, many of them: wrote books, taught, entered the professions. Tell me, what’s the tally for Mount Pleasant Community now… Chris? Hey? Second thoughts, don’t! I don’t think I could bear it. And, you see, in my judgment, something… someone… needs to be examined, and fate has selected you, Chris. Just get on with it now. The clock’s ticking.’

***

In the weak light of the musty room Blake struggled with the papers. Stopping amid an essay to sharpen his pencil he saw that Clist now wore a black gown. Its sleeves spilled over Clist’s desk as Clist went through books from the pile beneath the bayonet, pursing his lips, puckering his brow. During the maths paper they argued over a note – Blake read it aloud – that said the candidate might use a slide rule. Blake said that since he didn’t have a slide rule and didn’t know what a slide rule was he was entitled – Clist winced – for this to be taken into consideration during the marking.

‘Well that’s your bally fault!’ said Clist. ‘Don’t lecture me, boy! Where did you go to school anyway?’

‘Mount Pleasant Community,’ said Blake, ‘when it was still King Edward’s… just.’ Blake smiled.

‘That’s enough!’ snapped Clist. ‘From now on there will be silence in this examination room!’

Blake went back to the paper: a question about an equation and the value of x. He began his answer earnestly, but by its end it had become a kind of hieroglyphic, the final characters forming a scaffold and a hanging man.

A rat-tat-tat broke the quiet. Clist was writing with chalk on the blackboard. Blake couldn’t make out the words because of the board’s angle on the easel and the dimming arc of the ceiling light. Clist struck it, finally, with the tip of the chalk, as if administering, thought Blake, a particularly savage full stop.

‘Time!’ Clist called suddenly. ‘Stop writing! Put down your pencils and pens!’ He was speaking, thought Blake, as if not addressing merely him, but an entire hall of pupils. ‘Make sure your names are written clearly at the top of each paper. We don’t want  any mix-ups.’

 Clist picked up Blake’s sheets. ‘Thank you…’ he looked at the top of the first page ‘… Mr Blake.’ Clist walked towards his desk, turned. A smile – puzzled, faintly polite – came over his face. He continued to his chair, took a pen from his jacket pocket, removed the cap, glanced at Blake, and began.

Blake watched as Clist’s lips whispered, his head shifted, his eyes narrowed and their brows arched… and sank. He thought him like some marsh-dwelling bird, stalking its way through a bleak, echoing wetland. And then it started… the evisceration… the sharp nib of Clist’s pen jabbing, stabbing, sticking, scraping, at Blake’s work, as if its precise, golden point were in fact some blood-soaked bill, gutting a fish or some other hapless creature, innards unspooling, on a fallen, water-logged trunk… spearing and ripping, tutting with his tongue, sucking at his teeth, as he skewered them, impaled them, those schoolboy errors, one after the other, held them up to the ridicule of an entourage of circling smaller birds, flies and wasps till, finally, he devoured them in his oh-so-neat-and-necktied gullet under the red setting sun in that desolate swamp where he, Clist, was king.

Suddenly, aided by the way Clist had turned… by the way the old monster seemed to know his name… a memory, a realisation, parted the pink mists of the dank estuarial vista that Blake had seen.

‘I know who you are,’ said Blake.

Clist looked up from his desk. ‘Penny dropped, has it?’

‘You taught my father, Bob—’

‘Robert Blake, yes,’ Clist cut in. ‘I can see the resemblance.’

‘You beat him.’

‘A not unable student, when he put his mind to it.’ Clist took off his glasses, put them on the desk.

‘He hated you,’ Blake continued. ‘He spoke of you with contempt.’

‘Wouldn’t apply himself. Not really. That was his problem.’

‘He was clever.’

‘Could have made it, but wouldn’t knuckle down.’

‘He had a mind of his own.’

‘Ended up driving a cab. Picked me up once. Didn’t say anything. Never saw him again. Shame. I put a lot into that boy.’

 ‘Into him?’ said Blake.

 ‘You helped a sick old man off the bus, didn’t you?’

 ‘So?’

 ‘Well where do you think you got that from?’

 ‘My mum and dad.’

 ‘And where do you think he got that from?’ Clist paused. ‘Me! For goodness sake! Still alive, is he?’

 ‘He had a rhyme for you,’ said Blake.  ‘All the boys did. Want to hear it?’

‘Not particularly.’

‘Thrasher Clist, Never know to miss, Blub and bawl, And he’ll—’

‘… Give you six more… Yes, I’m well aware of that. Better times. Seldom a day passes when I don’t wish that I could turn back the clock. Still, that’s not the matter before us now. The matter before us now is your examin—’

‘You went too far, didn’t you? They forced you out. You were beating boys black and blue… till their arses bled. Get something out of it, did you?’

‘That’s enough! Be quiet!’

 ‘You clung on. But they had you out in the end.’

‘I said, ‘Be quiet’!’ Clist rose behind his desk.

‘That or the police, wasn’t it?’ Blake continued. ‘Did they let you keep your pension?’

Clist seized the bayonet, slammed the blade on the desk. ‘I said, ‘That’s enough’!’ He shook. Blake stopped.

Clist re-took his seat, replaced his spectacles. He shuffled Blake’s papers. ‘The issue here, my boy,’ he began, ‘is your work, which is, to use a lame but in your case accurate phrase… not good enough.’

‘I passed, though, didn’t I?’ said Blake. ‘That was the deal. That’s all I had to do.’

‘Forty percent in mathematics,’ said Clist.

‘Forty percent? That’s a pass then,’ said Blake.

‘What do you mean ‘That’s a pass’. Since when has forty percent ever been a pass for anything?’

‘Tis now, old man. That’s official. And achieved without the log rule… or whatever it was. I’m entitled to an upgrade, in fact. Let’s call it fifty. What about the English?’

Clist glanced at what he’d written, looked up. ‘Forty-one percent.’

Blake went to raise his hands in triumph. The cuff pulled his left wrist back. He grimaced. ‘Now get here and take this thing off,’ he said.

Clist remained seated. In his gown, behind his desk, an air of solemnity fell over him, in the drab light of the room. He pulled open a drawer, took from it a tasselled mortarboard and placed it on his head.

 ‘Mr Blake, I have to tell you,’ Clist began at last, ‘that, in terms of my standards and the standards of this classroom, you have fallen far short.’

 ‘What do you mean?’ Blake demanded, jerking at the cuff.            

 Clist rose from his seat, swept to the door. He turned out the light as he left.

***

For some long minutes Blake heard the sounds of rummaging, shunting, doors being opened and shut, first downstairs, then up. Blake called out more than once, but received no answer. Eventually the disturbances ceased, and the house fell silent. Then the footsteps began.

With each creak and crack of the staircase came a whisper – ‘Thrasher Clist’ – that rose to a murmur – ‘Never known to… desist’. The sibilants snaked through the gloom and the keyhole in the door to the parlour where Blake sat. ‘Blubber and bawl…’ It was no longer a whisper, nor a murmur, but an angry incantation now. ‘… And he’ll give you six more!’

The door of the room swung open. The tall, gowned, hatted figure of Clist loomed, silhouetted against the yellow light of the hall. In the capacious drapes of his gown an arm lifted, like a wing. Shackled at his desk in the darkness, Blake’s body tautened at the sound of a cruel, scything swish.           

***

Summoned from the dock to the witness stand at his trial, Clist held forth, for an entire day, on the merits of corporal punishment. His own sentence was a suspended one, the judge stating that he was bearing in mind the defendant’s age, public service and previous good character.

To some, Clist became a folk hero, appearing on radio and television shows to answer questions about what the programme hosts called his ‘One-Man War’. After a while, though, the chauffeured cars to the studios disappeared, and he resumed his seat on the upper deck of the 44.

Blake’s kidnap, detention and, above all, his caning, were reported in the media at length. He moved away, feeling the need to be somewhere that he might never be found. One night, in the pub of a rural village where he’d taken a job on a poultry farm, he saw Clist’s face on the television screen. A brief news report said that he’d been found dead, apparently after disturbing intruders in his garden: stabbed repeatedly, with an unspecified weapon that had been recovered nearby.

Later, as Blake walked home to his caravan, he thought about those things that he had not told the police… that he had not told anyone. How, when he had finished with his cane and before he released him, Clist had held him, hugged him, kissed him on his forehead, tears streaming down the old man’s cheeks.

A stinging wind pulled at the telegraph wires alongside the empty lane. They curved and straightened – whipped – with a whoosh.

 My product. That’s what Clist had called him.

 ‘My product,’ Blake said to himself as he walked on into the dark. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

M.J. Allen is a British writer with interests in modern history, literature and the environment. 

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