It was a place of frustrated ambitions, low aspirations and barely suppressed cruelty. It was a despondent place. The urinals were old and cracked, heavy with the smell of ammonia and urinal cakes. Tiles were dirty; soaked paper towels had been compacted and thrown at the ceiling. The stalls had doors with large gaps underneath. Sometimes when you were squatting in there, hovering above the seat, some grinning, ruddy faced person would grasp the metal frame above the door and pull himself up to leer and jibe.
Crumbling buildings. Outbuildings with chains across the doors. Pebble dashed houses, literally a stone’s throw over the metal gate. Muddy, threadbare goal mouths.
Dark, narrow corridors packed full of students all moving like eels in one direction.
Arrival at school was always the same old routine: walking through the front entrance and making our way around the sports hall to our year group’s door. Each day, members of staff would take turns to be on duty. Some of the kinder teachers might have a friendly word of welcome. Others were impassive. Some would bark comments in each and every direction.
Mr Carlisle; barking comments in each and every direction like a mastiff tied to a drainpipe on a short lead. Tall. Moustache. Broad-shouldered. He would usually wear a track-suit. He had a large bunch of keys with a whistle. On parents’ evenings, he would wear grey flannels with a sports jacket and a rugby club tie. Mr Carlisle was a man who believed attack was the best form of defence.
That morning, in my role as chair-person of the student council, I had been invited to hear the headteacher speak about the school’s aspirations for its students.
Above the school, smelling of fresh paint and beyond the bounds of students, was the Visitors’ Suite. There were clean carpets and a large oval table with comfortable chairs, glossy prospectuses with photographs of the headteacher posing with students.
‘The real strength of the school,’ said the headteacher, ‘is our unrelenting pastoral care. Each and every student is an individual.’
I looked at the smiling, passive faces of the visitors. I saw Iris the dinner lady, now in an immaculate uniform, preparing coffee and biscuits at the side of the room.
Elsewhere, the constant, tight-shouldered, heart-pounding sense of stress pervaded the buildings.
I made my way back to my lesson. That was when I saw him lying on the ground in the stairwell. His name was David Solomon. An ironic name, considering the weight of intellect and expectation it conferred on him. I remembered him from primary school. His mother used to collect him at the end of each day, their Alsatian dog led by a rope tied around his neck.
A group of three boys surrounded him. I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying to him but I heard the savage, mocking tone. I stood, watching from my vantage point, knowing I could see them but they couldn’t see me.
I wanted to do something, to intervene, but I stood still, terrified. I knew my own cowardice prevented me from helping him and I was ashamed.
I heard the door be flung open. I saw Mr Carlisle’s massive figure emerge and felt myself flinch involuntarily. The three boys didn’t even have time to make a run for it. Instead they backed off. There he was, David Soloman, the wounded pupil like a small roe deer, frightened and sobbing. My own lack of courage was pathetic. But Mr Carlisle surely should have known better.
He stood over him and looked down cruelly.
‘Get up lad.’ That was all he said. That was all he needed to say. ‘You three back to lessons. And don’t forget training after school tonight.’
‘No sir,’ in unison.
I watched David Soloman pull himself up. I saw blood on the side of his face and tears in his eyes. He looked pathetic in his scruffy trousers and blazer.
Get up lad.
That was all he needed to say.