Adam Wolstenholme worked for ten years in newspaper journalism and now teaches English and Government and Politics. His journalism has appeared in The Times, the Times Educational Supplement and the Manchester Review. His short stories have been published in the anthology Eating My Words and on websites including Brilliant Flash Fiction and Flash Frontier. This is an extract from the third chapter of his novel, Pandemonium, a comic drama inspired in part by his teaching experiences. Jonathan is about to meet Olivia Coyle, the wife of his friend and colleague, Tim. Olivia has recently become a Tory MP.
Extract from the novel Pandemonium
‘Guys, we have a problem,’ said Nelson, pushing his laptop aside.
Since finishing the day’s teaching Jonathan had been planning for Monday, glancing up occasionally at Eleanor as she fidgeted and sighed in the seat opposite. She’d seemed stressed since the Ofsted inspection. Maybe she’d fared worse than she was letting on. Now she ran a hand through her hair and said, ‘What fresh hell is this?’
‘We’ve had the feedback on the exercise books,’ said Nelson. ‘Our marking has Met Standards, but there were concerns over Presentation. Stephanie says “all worksheets must be glued securely into exercise books”. The deadline’s Tuesday. So unless you want to spend your weekend going through every single kid’s book, the kids will have to do the bulk of it themselves.’
‘So?’ said Jonathan.
‘So: Where’s our bloody glue gone? I’ve been round your classrooms and this is all I can find.’ With irritated vigour, Nelson rattled a box that contained about ten glue sticks. ‘We had a hundred-and-fifty from the last delivery. We can’t have got through them all.’
‘The kids break them,’ said Eleanor.
‘They’d better not have broken a hundred-and-fifty. Anyway, I can’t ask for more. You know how bad the finances are.’
‘Science have got loads, by the way,’ said Jonathan. ‘I saw them in the stock cupboard.’
Eleanor looked at him sharply. ‘What were you doing in there?’
‘Stealing A3 paper?’ said Jonathan.
‘I didn’t hear that,’ said Nelson. Then, ‘How did you get in there?’
‘The lock’s broken,’ said Jonathan.
Nelson stood and paced the room. He removed his cufflinks and rolled his sleeves up over his muscular forearms. ‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘If Science stole some glue from us.’
‘Bastards!’ said Jonathan. ‘Who would do such a thing?’
‘Scientists,’ said Eleanor, shaking her head. ‘No morals.’
‘Right,’ said Nelson, placing his fists on the desk. ‘We’re going to have to steal them back. It’s Friday, so they’ll be in a faculty meeting for the next – fifteen minutes. Perfect. So. I nominate you, Jonathan. You’re the sneakiest.’
‘Am I?’ said Jonathan, regretting his confession about the A3 paper.
‘Oh, he’s very sneaky,’ said Eleanor. ‘He’s always scampering out of Pizza Express without paying the bill.’
‘That was one time!’ said Jonathan. ‘By accident!’
‘Hmm. Off you go, Jonathan,’ said Eleanor.
‘Don’t get caught,’ said Nelson.
Jonathan set off on his mission. As he approached reception he became aware of a woman standing with her back to him: thick, wavy brown hair, a sharp blue suit and high heels. She turned round. She was older than her back view had suggested, early forties maybe. Her large brown eyes had a feline upward tilt at the corners. She seemed vaguely familiar in the way that attractive strangers sometimes did.
‘Are you being seen to?’ he asked her.
‘Well. They know I’m here. I’m not sure what they’re doing about it.’ A deep, slightly slurred, posh voice. ‘But thank you for asking.’
The receptionist bustled in from the office and looked at the woman, annoyed. ‘Just take a seat, madam.’
‘I’d rather stand, thanks.’ She widened her stance, her skirt tightening over strong-looking thighs. The receptionist sighed and disappeared into her office.
The woman was smiling at Jonathan. ‘I’m Olivia Coyle. Tim’s wife.’
Ah, so he did recognise her.
‘I thought you looked familiar. Tim’s shown me pictures of you.’
She arched an eyebrow. ‘Pictures?’
‘Well, you know. Family snaps. We’re friends. I’m Jonathan Sefton.’
‘Ah, you’re Jonathan. We meet at last.’
With a rattling of bracelets, she extended a hand. It felt smooth and slender. Allowing himself to hold it for a second longer than he should have done, Jonathan repressed the disloyal thought that Tim had punched above his weight when he’d pulled this woman.
‘You teach Cordelia, don’t you? You’re the one who’s finally moved her beyond Harry Potter. You should see the stuff she reads at home now.’ Olivia glanced over her shoulder, leaned towards him and stage-whispered, ‘Tim doesn’t know, but I’m here to see the headteacher.’
She looked disappointed. ‘Come on, Jonathan. About Tim. They’re all over him since Ofsted, as I’m sure you’re aware. He’s teaching an extra lesson right now, I believe.’
‘Yeah. Bottom set Year Ten intervention,’ said Jonathan. ‘A tough gig.’
‘And on a Friday night! Ah, here we go.’
Janet, the headteacher’s assistant approached, shaking her head. ‘I’m very sorry. She’s going to be tied up in this meeting until late.’
‘Is she now,’ said Olivia Coyle.
‘If you send me an email I’ll make an appointment.’
‘I’m afraid that doesn’t work for me.’
The two women stared at each other. Then, in a politician’s gesture that seemed both theatrical and genuine, Olivia stepped forward and placed a hand on Janet’s shoulder.
‘Look. I know you’re just doing your job. But I’m going to see her now anyway, okay?’
Janet went pale. ‘You can’t! You’ll have to leave or …’ She looked to Jonathan as if appealing for help. But he discovered himself to be on the other side.
‘Or what?’ said Olivia. ‘You’ll call the police?’ She winced. ‘I don’t think any of us need that sort of publicity right now, do we? Mr Sefton, if he’s got a minute, will show me to her office. He can ensure I don’t molest any children on the way.’
Jonathan shrugged at Janet and walked with his new friend down the corridor. Olivia walked at a leisurely pace on clopping heels. At one point she looked up and gave him a deliciously conspiratorial glance. He stopped before Stephanie Hackett’s door, keeping clear of its window.
Olivia peered in. ‘In a meeting, my arse,’ she hissed. ‘She’s playing with her phone. She’s probably on fucking Angry Birds!’
Jonathan shook his head.
‘Okay, thanks, Jonathan. Lovely to meet you.’
Dismissed, he turned away, but stole a look over his shoulder and caught Olivia in a private moment, adjusting her hair as if preparing to step into character.
Jonathan walked down the corridor until he reached the Science stock cupboard. Glancing left and right, he tried the door and found it unlocked. He stepped in. Any guilt was diminished by the sheer profusion of gluesticks he discovered in a plastic box on the bottom shelf. Maybe they had stolen them. And anyway, wasn’t he committing an act that would benefit not just the English Department but also, ultimately, the children? He filled his pockets with gluesticks and, since he was here, helped himself to a rather cute, pocket-sized stapler. And some highlighters. One could never have too many highlighters.
He lingered in the corridor until he heard Olivia Coyle’s clopping heels. He turned the corner in time to see her walking past the still-scowling Janet and out of the main entrance. He followed. She was tottering down the steps when she lost her footing and fell sideways. There was an involuntary gasp – ‘Fuck!’ – and a cracking sound. Olivia sat down on the step and dipped her head.
Jonathan hurried to her side. ‘Are you alright?’
She looked up. ‘Jonathan. Just broke my bloody heel. Look at that. I should have splashed out on some Jimmy Choos and put them on expenses.’
‘Along with your new duck house?’
‘Ha! Maybe not.’
She took his hand for the second time that afternoon and pulled herself to her feet, glancing about. ‘Did I get away with that?’
‘No-one saw it but me. Good recovery.’
‘Ah. I knew you’d be a gentleman.’ She took her phone from her bag. ‘I’m calling a cab. Tim won’t be released from the Iron Maiden for another hour.’
‘Yeah, they’re really letting him have it, aren’t they?’
‘Bastards,’ said Olivia. ‘Sorry, do you mind -?’
Tapping at her phone, she lay a hand on his shoulder, standing precariously on one high-heeled shoe and one bare foot. It was a small, shapely foot, he noticed, with bright red nails. A soft breeze blew from across the playing fields. He caught a whiff of her perfume and her hair.
‘Put your phone away,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a lift.’
End of extract.
You can reach Adam at email@example.com