A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan is stand-alone psychological thriller about a real estate agent from a small English village who keeps a set of keys to every house he's ever sold (available January 6, 2014).
Mr. Heming loves the leafy English village where he lives. As a local real estate agent, he knows every square inch of the town and sees himself as its protector, diligent in enforcing its quaint charm. Most people don't pay much attention to Mr. Heming; he is someone who fades easily into the background. But Mr. Heming pays attention to them. You see, he has the keys to their homes. In fact, he has the keys to every home he's ever sold in town. Over the years, he has kept them all so that he can observe his neighbors, not just on the street, but behind locked doors.
Mr. Heming considers himself a connoisseur of the private lives of others. He is witness to the minutiae of their daily lives, the objects they care about, the secrets they keep. As details emerge about a troubled childhood, Mr. Heming's disturbing hobby begins to form a clear pattern, and the reasons behind it come into focus. But when the quiet routine of the village is disrupted by strange occurrences, including a dead body found in the backyard of a client's home, Mr. Heming realizes it may only be a matter of time before his secrets are found out.
IF YOU WERE TO put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then, you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others? All I can say is that the habitual is what I love most and am made for; that the best I can do is hang on, have faith, and hope what has lately blown through our unremarkable but well-ordered town will be forgotten and all will be calm again. Right now I feel lucky to hear myself breathe. The air is dangerously thin. It seems to rush in my ears. And yet the scene is peaceful here in the half-lit, slumbering pre-dawn: a white coverlet glowing in the room, a discarded necklace of beads, a shelf of books, one face down, splayed on the bedside-table, as though it – like the whole town at this hushed time – is dead to the world. I cannot make out the title but the sight of this book with its familiar cover image (the shape of a man in raised gilt) returns me to that day, not too long ago, when the wind changed and the sky blackened and ordinary life – startled by the sudden thunderclap of the unusual – reared, kicked over the lantern and turned the barn into a raging inferno whose leaping, thrilling flames could be seen from a hundred miles away.
It was a day that started as quietly as this one. Another dawn – a dawn suffused with love, I am not afraid to say – though if I pause to mention the girl at the heart of things (or at least her habits) it is only to illustrate the contrast of events, how beauty and ugliness can live so surprisingly cheek by jowl, the one unseen by the other. How one moment you can be lying in the warm, ticking dark, awaiting the return of your special one (and here she was, arriving back from her early run, the rattle of her key in the lock, the sound of water thudding into a fragrant tub), and the next contemplating horror, drama and scandal.
This is the route my memory instantly takes to capture that day, though the truth is I didn’t hear the news until she had pedalled off into the crisp, bright morning, and I had walked to my office. The rest of our leafy, prosperous community will recall it in their own way. The point is that this was the day the Cooksons of Eastfield Lane returned from their annual spring break in the Seychelles to find a week-old dead body ruining the visual flow of their well-stocked garden with its established fruit trees, landscaped lawns and hand-cut limestone patio.
* * * *
Every estate agent has a client like the Cooksons, so don’t judge me too harshly when I say I had to suppress a smile when my third in command, Zoe, her eyes wide with excitement and alarm, broke the news. We’d had the Cooksons’ house – a handsome character property at the very edge of town, surrounded by fields and woods and yet only a ten-minute walk from the tennis and cricket club – on our books for eighteen months or more. In a falling market, my senior consultant Katya, an extremely efficient Lithuanian, had sold the place twice – to buyers desperate to own it but who had pulled out in acrimony and tears to take their depreciating financial packages elsewhere, reduced to an emotional frazzle by the Cooksons’ failure over weeks and months to find a new ideal home for themselves, by their refusal to consider going into temporary rented accommodation to rescue these deals, and not least by their general destructive haggling over trifles. I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour – upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims – hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar – rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming’, which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances – I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as they stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows – I suppose she was right.
‘Do you think the Cooksons actually want to move house?’ Katya said frequently. They probably do now, I thought.
But who could tell? They’d been in the place sixteen years. Their children had flown. He was a dentist, she owned four pharmacies. Now in their mid-forties, and better off than ever, they seemed to me stranded between possible bad choices: not just between grandstanding and downsizing, but between staying in this marriage for the rest of their lives or breaking free of it. In their terse exchanges about décor or room size you saw a larger sense of purpose draining away. They were looking for something, but a new home together wasn’t it. Rather, they seemed engaged in a passive war of attrition, with house-hunting as their chosen weapon.
I didn’t like the Cooksons one bit, but they did fascinate me. The last time I had seen them – or, in fact, failed to see them – was some months before their trip to the sun. I’d arranged to show them a new architect-built concrete jewel of a place with a gym and pool. I arrived a little early, checked the rooms, the automatic blinds and lighting. I ran through the blurb Katya had put together. Then I waited, pacing the rooms, pacing the drive. After twenty minutes I called Mr Cookson. He was playing golf. ‘Are you sure it was today?’ he said. I told him that, yes, today was the day, and paused to allow him to apologize. He didn’t. ‘To tell you the truth, I think my wife may have lost interest,’ he said.
Normally I wouldn’t have minded too much being stood up. In other circumstances I would have used the time to snoop around the house while the vendors were out. But here there were no vendors, or at least none with real lives to look into. Just the usual developers in the habit of dressing their high-spec rooms in modish finery – a leather-and-chrome Corbusierchaise, a shagpile rug, deluxe drapery and linens. Nothing to suggest living, breathing occupancy or personal taste; no stamp of a human form shaping its nest.
I locked up and walked. The wind was cold but it was dry. When time and weather permit, I walk. From our office – and Heming’s is bang in the middle of the town map, on the north side of the old square – there’s nowhere you can’t get to on foot within half an hour. And what better way to sharpen the focus of everyday blur into readable information? My habit is to take arbitrary diversions. I move like a window-shopper. My antennae are alert to unusual sales clusters, incursions from rival agents. I take the trouble to read the fluttering notices pinned to fences and telegraph poles warning of private building projects or public works. I note what scaffolding is going up, contractors’ vehicles, the contents of skips. The smell of fresh paint puts a spring in my step. I can spot the red dot of a newly installed alarm from a good distance. Occasionally I make use of my opera glasses (an indispensable tool of the equipped agent). But, as I make my rounds, I ask myself: who fits where? In seventeen years in the business, I have sold properties on every street in town, very often more than once. I might forget a face but, I have to tell you, I never forget a house.
So, as I approached town, cutting down Boselle Avenue – broad and well-to-do, its pavements blown with leaves and horse-chestnut flowers at this time of year – it was only natural that my eye would register a figure, some fifty yards ahead, emerging from number 4, one of a pair of thirties suburban villas set back from the road. I had handled both these houses in years past. Number 4 had been extended by way of an office-study-cum-box room over the garage. I knew the house. But I didn’t recall the man. Or did I? He was walking a little dog, or, rather, yanking it along. Even at a distance, I sensed his impatience. He was a tall man, which made the poor dog – a terrier of some kind with white tufted hair – look even smaller than it was. He was wearing walking boots and hooded rainwear and his thinning hair was long and swept back. The dog was trying to sniff at gates and fences, and it yapped in protest as he tugged it away. He had the air of a man easily annoyed by life’s fleeting trifles. As if compelled by the stiff wind, I found myself following him and the dog, across the main road, down the hill at the crossroads, then just past the archway and courtyard that my own modest flat overlooked, in a low-rise, honey-bricked development. And it was here, ahead of the entrance to the green, sparkling Common on the right, that he stopped to let the dog defecate in the middle of the path.
The middle of the path. He barely gave me a glance as I approached. The dog crouched, watchful in mid-strain, then shook its bearded jowls and yawned. I expected the man to produce a bag to scoop up the mess, but he simply waited for the dog to finish, then pulled on the leash and started to walk on.
‘Hello?’ I heard myself call out to him. ‘Excuse me…’
The man – perhaps hewas familiar – turned with a vexed look that seemed to call for the counter-balance of a civic smile and a jocular observation. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I think your dog dropped something?’
We both looked at the turd I was pointing at, a neat steaming coil that struck me as unusually large for a small dog.
And then he stared at me. ‘Well, what do you want to do about it?’
‘What do I want to do? I rather thought you might want to do something about it.’ I smiled again.
‘Well, I do not, so piss off. And just mind your own business, you bourgeois knob.’ He stared at me, lips apart, for a second more, then yanked the leash, and turned on to the path for the Common and park. I stood and watched, the dog once more protesting as they crossed the grass and headed down the steps and along the riverside path. He didn’t look back.
Bourgeois knob? I’ve always thought of myself rather as a concerned citizen – a model citizen. There was a thin piece of card to be found in a nearby refuse bin. I eased it beneath the pyramid of cooling sludge and transferred it into a discarded fast-food carton. This I carried back up the hill to the courtyard where my car was parked outside my flat. OK, I reasoned, this maniac had humiliated me, but so what? You could either burn with fury or you could do the right thing.
I put the carton in the passenger-side footwell of my car, then nipped up to my flat to consult the files I keep there. It didn’t take long. I’m very organized. It turned out we had sold the house to a Judith Bridgens in 2007. Perhaps she had resold to this rude oaf. I called the landline number I had on record. There was no answer. I drove up there and parked some way along Boselle Avenue, then strolled back down to number 4 with an armful of sales literature covering the carton. In the garden behind the high, overgrown privet, only a passer-by glancing over the gate would be likely to see me, and even then only for a second or two. I rang the bell and called the landline again. I heard the phone ringing inside. No one answered. I produced the key now from my waistcoat pocket, unlocked the door, waited, and then stepped over the threshold. Oh yes. I always enjoy the first moment of an empty house before the spell of its silence and stillness is broken by my own breathing and movement. I found my way to the kitchen and contemplated the clean oatmeal tiled floor. Would it do the job? Not quite. Perhaps the sitting room … I pushed open the door on to an airy space with tasteful dining area. French windows overlooked a patio and an uncut lawn and flower borders bedraggled by the weather and neglect. The owner was no gardener. He did, however, have an eye for attractive modern soft furnishings, not least a handsome, chunky, white – you might even say bourgeois – hearth-rug.
There we are, I thought.
I slid the turd, still improbably intact – like a novelty plastic one – into the rug’s luxurious centre, pausing for a moment to appreciate its caramel perfection, its pleasingly vile aroma – freed now to explore this forbidden interior – rising to my nostrils. The dog would almost certainly sniff it out the moment it returned with its owner. ‘Woof, woof, master! Look at this!’
I made my retreat. Not least because of the disappointments of the morning, I would have liked to embark on a full tour of the house while I was there. Mostly, I would have loved to remain, in hiding, and see the shock and bafflement on the man’s face when he returned. But I did have a business to run. I exited carefully, leaving a leaflet stuck in the letterbox. The wind had dropped, and with some satisfaction I retraced my steps up Boselle, posting leaflets also at the houses on the way back to the car, then drove back to my flat where I popped the key safely away. Sweet success.
But, I hear you ask, with some scepticism (and with that gun to my head) … of all the many splendid houses you’ve sold in your seventeen years in the business, you just happened to have the key to that particular one? To which I would answer, of course not – I have the keys to them all.
I AM SIX YEARS OLD, and the things I know to be true are dissolving. The rooms have become quiet. The talking is elsewhere – my mother and father, my aunt. At night my mother kisses me, but says little. The book of rhymes she reads to me lies unfinished. My father comes home from his office. He and my mother eat dinner while I count the coins in my moneybox or watch TV in my pyjamas. Look at me, cross-legged, my ears sticking out, a glass of milk before me. Riley purrs and closes his eyes when I stroke him between the ears. These are many days rolled into one, but sometimes the memory is singular and sharp: the rough of the dark curtain on my cheek as I stand hidden, the smell of my mother’s cigarette. I discover where they speak in low voices. They are wherever they think I am not. I lie squeezed beneath the sofa with a piece of bread, or behind the wicker chair in the garden room. I watch my mother touch her stomach where her baby lives. Here I am an invisible boy. When my mother is lying down, my father will not allow me in the dark room. Riley comes and goes. Sometimes I follow when my mother is asleep and creep beneath the bed.
Another time, Aunt Lillian is speaking in a low voice to my father. Her hand is on his, making my breathing stop.
Uncle Richard takes me out to the football, with its uproar and smell of fried onions. On the way home, he stops the car and the lady takes us upstairs to her house. It’s strange to go upstairs to a house. The room is small. ‘This is William,’ Uncle Richard says to the lady, ruffling my hair. I am left alone in the room. The television is on, but when I have eaten my biscuit I go into the kitchen. It’s smaller than the kitchen at our house and there are damp clothes hanging to dry. In the drawer I find a blue-and-white spoon. It is made of what cups are made of. One day, the lady will say ‘Who has taken my spoon?’ and the answer will be, Mister Nobody.
Later still, I am a missing child. I hear them call my name – my father, my aunt, my cousin. Soon, even our new neighbours are out looking for me. But I am snuggled down in the marshmallow-coloured velvet ottoman that stands at the foot of the bed my father now shares with Aunt Lillian. From my place among the blankets, I can hear voices in the street. In my mouth is a sweet I have taken from the jar. The house is silent. A long time goes by, though there is still light in the summer sky. Perhaps I have been asleep. When my father returns with the constable and Mr Damato, the Italian man from across the road, I am sitting on the front step reading my book. ‘Where have you been?’ my father demands. I blink in a way my father sometimes calls impertinent. ‘Nowhere.’ I refuse to satisfy them with more. He shakes me by the shoulder and the constable looks stern. Aunt Lillian comes rushing out, as if they have found me dead. Some days later, the newspaper has a picture of my unsmiling face. It says, ‘Joyful William Heming, eight, safe at home after his mystery disappearance.’ My cousin Isobel is thirteen. She is rubbing my nose in the newspaper because of all the trouble I have caused. ‘You are nothing but trouble,’ she hisses.
One afternoon when Isobel is fifteen and I am ten, she finds me standing in her wardrobe and screams the house down. All I am doing is being as quiet as a mouse. What is her problem? But now I am in worse trouble. ‘I wasn’t spying on her,’ I tell Aunt Lillian, when she accuses me of spying on her (even with my eye to the crack, I could hardly see her face as she sang along to the pop tunes and painted her toenails), but she just glares at me with her mouth open. ‘Look, he has my comb!’ cries Isobel, and snatches it out of my hand. My father is furious and he cannot help but deliver me two or three sharp smacks about the head. He puts me in my own wardrobe and locks the door. ‘We’ll see how you like that,’ he says. In fact, I don’t mind at all.
In the dark I take out my moneybox key and dig a line in the wood, and then another above it. This will be my mark and no one else’s, hidden here for ever. The space between the lines is as wide as my finger, which is perfect. I imagine crawling into the space and lying very still.
Isobel will not find me again. But her things are often mysteriously moved around or missing – her cotton-wool sticks and perfumed things. One time she sees me watching her kissing a boy from the lane, his arms around the back of her neck. She is furious. Now, every time she kisses a boy – there is more than one – she thinks I am there. She is always looking out for me, but I am hidden. If I wanted, I could just step out from the shadows in the park, like a spectre.
Across the street from my bedroom window I see Mrs Damato, busy with dinner. The kitchen looks bright and steamed up. How I’d love to be down there, behind the door in her pantry, hedged among the jars and strong-smelling packages and the sausages hanging like stiff arms from the ceiling. I crept in, though she knows nothing of this, during the long holiday, when the weather was hot and the kitchen door had been left open for the breeze. Mrs Damato was vacuuming upstairs. Her little boy, Anthony, was playing in his playpen in the sitting room. Little Anthony saw me and scrambled to his feet when I came in. I waved to him, like an angel just landed. He was still standing at the bars of his cage when I came out. There were cakes still warm on a wire rack, so I took one and gave him half. The drone of the vacuum cleaner stopped abruptly and we both looked at the ceiling. We could hear Mrs Damato up there, warbling on in her high Italian voice.
* * * *
These are the days I remember. After the troubles with cousin Isobel, my father sent me to a school far from Norfolk. It was an opportunity, he said. My mother had left money when she died, and he said that I had to try hard for her. Even then I knew a line when I heard one. In fact I had more brains than I needed to succeed, but never quite the heart. Instead, I worked at my camouflage. I took care to avoid the extremes of triumph and failure, kept my head down in class, endured enough knocks in play to escape the casual torments of the large-thighed sporty boys, who ruled the house under the neglectful myopic gaze of our house-parent, Mrs Luckham. I shunned cliques, laughed when the others laughed, shrank from the scrutiny of masters. Neither in nor out, I cultivated a middling, willing sociability, waiting my turn, playing my part. But when, once or twice a term, I feigned mild illness or injury, it was not (as with other boys) with a view to skipping afternoon games or PE, but to secure a half-hour of freedom in which to walk the creaky, waxed corridors of Winter House or Bentham or Wood, drawn by the odour of unattended, unlocked dorms – familiar as my own in basic décor, layout and dimensions but redolent with the aura of their legitimate, absent residents. Now that was what I called an opportunity.
I hadn’t much of significance to say to my fellow pupils, and vice versa, but I came to know them, or a good sum of them, through their comic books and collectables and playthings, and the letters and cards from mothers and siblings and generous godparents whose gifts of money and sweets were accompanied by witty, affectionate greetings and exhortations to prosper and enjoy life. I winkled out their secrets – their family nicknames, who among them had had an appendix or tonsils out, who was going skiing that winter, which family had a Jack Russell (picture enclosed) called Dobb, who had a new baby sister, who needed to be reminded to use their asthma inhaler. Occasionally there would be an unimaginative diary to pore over; the same tattered November issue of Penthouse turned up in several locations during the spring term of Year 10. I filled a spiral notebook with my findings and conjectures (Tomerton was gay, I surmised; Faulkes’s stammer was the product of torture as a child), spilling into two notebooks, which became three, four, five and more as my enterprise gathered weight. I kept their lives, all of them – the weaklings, the bullies, the dolts, the young Mozarts and Einsteins – locked in my chest.
Was it too wild to think of it as a hobby? An obsessive sport? Even accounting for the allure of Penthouse, it was as exhilarating a thing as a boy could experience to be given a few moments alone in a cave of forbidden treasures. A sharp eye might have noticed me leaving the table before pudding, or slipping out of the library during free study. I wasn’t complacent. My impulses were supported by risk assessment. I planned. I made exit strategies. I could trot out a well-rehearsed line to explain – to a cleaner or half-interested passing master – why I was where I oughtn’t to be. But, of course, danger was part of the appeal. What is life without the unexpected crash of something to remind us of how the rug can be pulled from under you in an instant? At assembly Mr Williams read out a mesmerizing report in the Yorkshire Post of a local young man who had plunged to his death from a mountain in the Lake District. The whole town, he said, was in mourning for a lost son. My fellow pupils fell into an uncomfortable, shuffling silence, but I thought immediately of my own heedless self, walking my own ledge, beset by bracing winds above the abyss of sudden discovery – a kindred, fearless presence in the shadow of the glorious, remembered lost son. We did it – the lost son and I – because it was there, and because we both knew it felt like nothing else on earth.
* * * *
In the lower sixth, and very nearly grown-up, some of us had our own room and a lockable study, though it was the work of a moment to lift a key – sometimes a small bunch on a novelty ring, with their promise of a secret something squirrelled away in a tin or wooden box – from the pocket of a blazer hanging in a changing room or on the back of a chair, or lying on the playing fields at lunch break, its contents half spilt on the grass. Hurrying to the victim’s quarters, I could then safely give myself up to ten minutes’ judicious foraging or just spend the time absorbing the rays of an alien atmosphere. There was often something to eat. Only on two occasions was I interrupted by the occupant returning unexpectedly – the rattle of the door handle, a muttered ‘Shit…’ as the boy searched again for his key, then the echo of his footsteps as he retreated to the school office to face the wrath of Mrs Blake, the senior housekeeper. These were moments to test the nerve, though Mrs Blake was slow to acknowledge a careless adolescent’s sense of urgency, and by the time she had followed him grimly back to his room with a master key, his own was safely in her lost-property basket, miraculously restored by an unknown hand. I carved my mark everywhere you couldn’t see, everywhere I shouldn’t be.
Quick though my heart beat in these moments, my mind beat quicker. But I still had a lesson to learn.
My fascination with a boy called Marrineau was hardly unique. Captain of all sports, aloof in his physical prowess and cool air of threat, everyone admired him. Our paths never crossed. I was just one of the many lower creatures who knew to keep a respectful distance from him and the entourage of bullies and jeerers – like him, rugger men and cricketers and rowers – that tumbled in his wake. On Saturday mornings we cheered as he led his team to triumphs on the sports field. I saw him in Joy’s coffee bar in town with girls. There was talk that he owned a motorcycle that he kept in a secret lock-up outside the school. Whatever he had, everyone wanted it. He was untouchable.
But in the lower sixth, Marrineau and I shared a history set and a teacher, the diminutive Mr Stamp, who in the first class of spring term paired us up as ‘study buddies’. That didn’t happen. Marrineau only ever spoke to me twice: once, after that class, to warn me to stay out of his face; and again, a week or so later, when he pushed me up against the wall of the gym changing room with my tie and collar in his fist and said in a low voice full of meaning that if I kept following him I was dead.
Which was a pity, because this simply made me even more resolved to breach the Marrineau defences and enter his golden sanctum, a room and study beneath the south-facing gable of Hooke House. Unfortunately there seemed no way in. I knew Marrineau’s timetable as intimately as my own and I pored over sporting lists and fixtures and practice schedules. There was little overlap in our movements, few chances even to bump along in his slipstream without running into his personal guard, whom Marrineau would unleash whenever he saw me hovering. Two of them sent me sprawling in the science block one afternoon, prompting laughter from the outer chorus line of sycophants. Everyone was starting to sniff blood. I retreated again to the periphery. I was in danger of exposing myself, of losing my hard-won powers of invisibility. And yet the more impossible it was to get close to Marrineau – the more hostile his demeanour – the more he became my Holy Grail.
And then I saw a way. All boys were encouraged to develop extracurricular interests. I myself had joined the film society (I grew to like westerns: nothing moved me more at this time than a languid stranger with a gun coming to the aid of respectable townsfolk beset by whooping, lawless rowdies). Also the chess club. Chess allowed sport-resistant boys to embrace the school’s competitive ethos without getting hurt, but for me it was also a way to be seen to be sociable without giving anything away. As usual, I tried not to win too often, though needless to say I was three moves ahead of the class. One afternoon I spied Marrineau, square-shouldered and erect and proprietorial, moving along the main corridor like a swiftly rowed boat. I ducked into a niche to watch him. He was carrying something, though it seemed he was trying to conceal it. It was a portable chess set – not an expensive one but a plastic set in a chequered tin of the kind sold in town. I had no idea he played chess. Was he ashamed of being thought uncool? It was inconceivable that he would join the chess club, so who did he play against? Maybe he was new to the game – had caught the bug from a cleverer younger brother over the holidays and dare not yet reveal himself to the club players.
Then I knew what I had to do, and found myself running, my heart giddy with excitement. I caught up with him just as he reached one of the side doors to his block. ‘Marrineau…’
He turned and stared at me.
‘I saw you with your chess set. I thought we might have a game.’
The stare remained. ‘Are you kidding me?’
‘Or, if you’re just getting the hang of it – I’m not saying you are, but I could teach you some openings, if you like. I’m in the chess club. People say I’m pretty good. What do you say?’
Marrineau didn’t say anything. He pushed me away firmly and closed the door in my face. Had I embarrassed him? It was a good sign that he hadn’t said no, I thought. There was still hope.
As things turned out, a less obvious opportunity arose in the history class we took together. Marrineau was no great scholar, contributing little and usually to be found gazing out over the quad while Mr Stamp talked about Oliver Cromwell’s unfair war on the Irish. But on the day in question Marrineau was reading something beneath his desk – a letter written on pale-yellow stationery, though the envelope was white and had the look of a greetings card. Was it his birthday? He was so engrossed with the letter, and I with watching him from the row behind, that neither of us saw the diminutive Mr Stamp (or heard the sudden quiet that heralded his approach) until he tapped Marrineau’s desk with the rolled-up map he used to point at illustrations and troop movements on the whiteboard. Now he was using it to point at the letter, and held out his hand for it. Marrineau handed it over.
Mr Stamp glanced through the contents and smiled sadly. ‘Love letters will not help you in your English Civil War paper,’ he said.
Marrineau, his eyes fixed on the letter, could not speak.
‘Well?’ Mr Stamp waited for an answer, though technically he had not asked a question. ‘Mr Marrineau?’
‘No, sir,’ said Marrineau.
‘No, sir,’ Mr Stamp repeated. ‘Seven days.’ He made a show of folding the letter into the envelope and slipping it into the pocket of his shabby jacket, its cuffs rimmed with leather.
Something dawned in Marrineau’s grey eyes that was more despair than defeat. What was in the letter that was so important? A love letter, Mr Stamp had said. A girl from the town, for sure. Was he afraid Mr Stamp would read it, and reveal those sweet nothings to the staff room or, worse, the headmaster, with who knew what repercussions? Perhaps Marrineau planned to elope! My imagination raced with possibilities.
You might only wonder what satisfaction I took from Marrineau’s unexpected fall, I who had so recently been the victim of his harsh words and manhandling. And yet, for all Marrineau’s imperious disdain for his inferiors – perhaps because of it – this humiliation at the hands of Mr Stamp now cast him in a tragic light: a broken, blinded Samson; or a lion in chains, dispossessed of its roar. A tense, nerve-tingling silence hung over the room for the rest of the period, as if with one last superhuman effort our adored and feared captain of everything might suddenly burst the powerful bonds of his ingrained respect for authority, hurdle the line of desks and devour Mr Stamp whole. Who could not have wished it?
In fact, Marrineau sat motionless except for an angry pulse, visible in the outline of his clamped jaws, his ears red with shame. When the tea bell rang, he hung back to speak with Mr Stamp. Loitering outside the door, I couldn’t hear his mumbled plea, but Mr Stamp, in a high barking tone that indicated little respect for Marrineau’s obvious wish to keep things hushed, said, ‘And shouldn’t you have thought of that before you decided to read it in my history class?’ He looked up with a long, pained expression at the towering Marrineau, waiting for him to yield to the logic of this unarguable position – as if the punishment was now nothing and only submission would fully satisfy. But Marrineau said nothing and Mr Stamp dismissed him, his face angry and stiff but his eyes full of sadness.
Marrineau scowled at me as he passed in the corridor, though he could hardly blame me for his ignominy – or rather, he could hardly guess that if I hadn’t been watching his clumsy subterfuge with such rapt curiosity it was quite possible that Mr Stamp would never have noticed what he was up to at all.
Poor Marrineau. Where were his large-thighed, laughing cronies now who daily insulated him from the buffetings of mortal inconvenience? Who were they against the might of the diminutive Mr Stamp?
The truth was, only I had what it took to save this day. Was it in the hope of winning Marrineau’s gratitude at last, of creeping into his affections, that I loitered outside while Mr Stamp closed his briefcase and switched off his audio-visual equipment and vacated the history room, the letter still peeping out of his jacket pocket? I cannot deny it. I had invested more than I ought in trying to get my nostrils closer to the elusive Marrineau essence to be indifferent now to this turn in his fortunes. But there was more. Think of the philatelist’s sudden, gut-quivering glimpse of a rare Treskilling Yellow in a bundle of nineteenth-century Swedish correspondence; or the birdwatcher’s sighting of a nesting corncrake; or the climber who discovers a harder way up the mountain. Here, in the very opportunity to close in on the grande bouffe of Marrineau, was an unexpected appetizer, another beckoning of the never-had experience, the never-before-encountered quarry, and it was at least partly this that drew me after Mr Stamp, who was already quickening his step along the corridor, thinking perhaps of jam and toasted crumpets, but unwittingly trailing an altogether sweeter scent.
But I might as well tell you right now that things didn’t go well; that I let myself down with a moment of what I can only call inattention; and that before the week was done I had bidden farewell to Mr Stamp and Marrineau and his fools and indeed the whole place for ever. I was out.
Copyright © 2015 Phil Hogan.
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Phil Hogan was born in a small town in northern England, and now lives in a small town in southern England. A journalist for twenty-five years, he has written for The Observer and The Guardian. He is married with four children.