The classroom was warm, not in an uncomfortable way, more in the way that made one desire to be outside, rather than confined inside, no rough winds were shaking the darling buds of May, merely caressing them, and I wanted to feel the gentle breeze on my skin. It was late afternoon in the school day and Mr. Harris was leaning forward in his chair, looking aged beyond his forty-five years, making him look contrary to as I saw him, a homo superior, rather than someone approaching dotage, both concern and irritation clouded his features, concern possibly that he should have to be tied up on such a lovely early summer’s day and irritation with me, the object in his crosshairs. Mr. Harris’s usual appearance reminded me very much of one of the pilots portrayed in the film The Battle of Britain I’d seen recently at The Plaza in Borough Road with my brothers and sister that unfortunately, but rather pleasantly, I thought for me, ended with my older brother being beaten up by some skinheads for giving me and my siblings a hard time, although my sister did see them off before it got out of hand.
Mr. Harris was very distinguished looking in a way no one else in my life was. He was tall, slim with very dark, almost black hair with just a few more grey hairs than when he took our year group, that was swept back in a way that revealed a very patrician profile. He was wearing a well-cut two-piece dark wool suit with a rather fetching dogtooth check waistcoat. His shoes, as always, were a pair of highly polished brogues. I knew that Mr. Harris was rather ‘liked’ by the mothers of the children from my junior school, judging from the salacious comments I overheard from them at the gates when he sped out of the entrance at end of the school day.
As if on by cue the early warning siren on the community centre near my school started to sound. The noise was stomach churning to one like me, who believed incineration might possibly follow the wailing rise-and-fall sirens in a few minutes from a Soviet ICBM.
Mr. Harris, noticing my attention was diverted elsewhere, struck the desk with his blackboard duster which as well as making a very loud noise, brought my attention back into the classroom. The chalk cloud that erupted from the duster, to my nuclear war obsessed mind, made a passable representation of a rising mushroom cloud.
“I have high ambitions for you but this morning’s antics could likely lead to a sharp downgrading of those ambitions.”
Now it was Mr. Harris’s turn to look distracted, like the words he was saying and his face didn’t match up with his inner thoughts. He got up and loped over to the opposite side of the classroom. He looked out of the grimy dust smeared window with a look, that seemed to express the hope, that many of the teachers in Our Lady’s Primary School seemed to develop around this time of year, that soon the holidays would be parachuted into their lives and give them six glorious weeks from teaching the lumpenproletariat children under their tutelage.
Mr. Harris however was different in that he seemed to sincerely want those children under his care to avoid a future of dead-end jobs, in which our schooling would give us more than just enough education to perform in the factories and docks nearby as soft machines, he often talked of us ‘realising our potential, that our future was not ordained.’
His gaze was drawn across the wasteland, beyond Gags Hill, to the dock cranes which were slowly and noisily unloading a bulk cargo of iron ore pellets into trains on the quayside, their movements had a dreamy hypnotic quality, like birds dipping in and out of a pool with savage beaks.
He stopped talking for what seemed like minutes whilst looking into the distance beyond, all the way to North America I dreamed, more prosaically towards his allotment he often mentioned in which he told us took him back to the ‘Digging for Britain’ campaign during the war where he found a particular peace amongst the neat rows of vegetables he tended whenever he got the chance whilst on home leave from the RAF.
I detested this England, as it seemed so small and parochial, where car names were reminiscence of wet dreary Sundays that stank of incense, when nothing ever seemed to happen, with names like the Morris Oxford, as opposed to the majestically named Dodge Challenger or Thunderbird. I had dreamed of being a ‘yank’ as far back as I can remember influenced by my father’s tales of life in New York in port during the war, where everything was big and brash and anything seemed possible, rather than making do and knowing one’s place. When playing his records, he brought back from America during the war, he would have a similar expression that Mr. Harris had, dreaming of life beyond Birkenhead, this failed boom town. He was always threatening to ‘bail out’ and go back to sea, and we as a family prayed he would.
My father’s particular sanctuary was amongst men, like him who had been young during the war, with a purpose they had no more, many who never made it back alive or intact either physically or mentally, this refuge was the ‘The Victoria Vaults’ or the ‘Piggy’ as it was commonly called, where no children were allowed and very few ‘nice’ women were present.
Eventually Mr. Harris turned away and looking at me said, “Martin had to be admitted to hospital for observation.”
I thought that this was rather an overreaction, however Mr. Harris continued. “What were you thinking of?”
I replied, “I thought it would teach him a lesson.”
“What lesson would that be?”
“When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”
I had a good retention of the lesson at Mass on Sunday.
“What injustice was it that deserved Martin ending in hospital?”
“I thought that he got off lightly all things considered.”
Mr. Harris said no more until he returned to his seat at his desk.
“Well please explain why you think that and what led to Dean Martin fracturing his skull!”
“I will explain myself and you can be my judge.”
Now anyone who knew Dean Martin, paraphrasing Terry Thomas, thought him to be a complete and utter bounder, or as I thought, ‘a complete bastard’.
“Roberts,” he said.
“You must learn that what you do or don’t do now could have immense consequences for your future.”
At the time I didn’t know anyone who spoke of any future, only the present and a dusty past. I didn’t think anyone had a future, unless it involved nuclear annihilation in a fireball.
He existed in order to heap misery on those of us who were smaller and weaker than him, which was everyone else at Our Lady’s Primary School. He resembled to my eyes one of the Morlocks and we in his, I expect, the Eloi. Our school, like many then as now, was very Darwinian in that only the fittest survived. Not in a literal sense, merely that the beatings one endured both physically and mentally either toughened one up, or broke you. It wasn’t just Dean Martin that stalked the corridors and playgrounds inducing fear. Many of our teachers had a barely concealed, and in some an open, loathing of the working classes, which could be very physical in its manifestation.
Martin was quite awesome in his bearing, he was nearly a foot taller than anyone else in our year and had begun to grow a beard, and as my father often said, ‘if you don’t shave don’t argue with someone who does.’ Martin was known to drool if he saw someone he wanted to pummel or something he wanted to eat. He smelt of the badness that lived in your bellybutton, that if you so wished you could get a sense of how rank that was by putting a finger in your own bellybutton after a few days without washing and then place that digit under your nose and sniff hard and long. He had a shock of greasy blonde hair that was always mussed up and teeth like broken tombstones, smeared with green moss.
On the morning of this fine May Day I had hatched a cunning plan. One of Martin favourite beverages was the bottled orange juice that the school sold in its tuck shop, it had a luminescence in its colour, and looking back I don’t think there was much of real orange in it. However if Martin saw anyone drinking it he would invariably grab it off the hapless child it belonged to, swig what he wanted, then pour the rest away in front of his victim, then saunter away laughing.
I bought a bottle of the ‘juice’, which I then I took it to a secluded corner of the playground and I took a deep swig after carefully peeling back the foil top as carefully as possible until only about a fifth was left at the bottom of the glass bottle. I then placed it on the ground and pissed in it until it was overflowing. It now looked a lot less unhealthy in colour and appearance. I carefully placed the foil lid so it looked undisturbed, then I ventured out into the amphitheatre to lure the beast. It didn’t take long for Martin to react, loping over and grabbing the bottle off me holding it aloft and saying, said rather theatrically, “mine I think Roberts and being free, even better!”
With that he ripped off the foil lid and proceeded to guzzle it down as quickly as possible, so fast as to let some of the noxious concoction spill down the corner of his mouth onto his shirt which made a colourful addition to the stains on the said garment. When he finished there wasn’t a drop left in the bottle. “A fine drink, thank you very much!”
“Yes, it was probably my piss that you enjoyed the taste of you gobshite.”
Whatever was going to happen to me was worth the look on Dean Martin’s face as the triumphant look on his countenance turned from anger to disgust and back to anger and finally the look of pure hatred.
“What did you say?”
“It was mostly my piss you enjoyed, perhaps I can get you more later for a small fee.”
Almost immediately his angry face metamorphosed into a very unattractive puce colour then into an ashen green, not so fetching, before he projectile vomited, which by a nimble piece of footwork I avoided. It was as I recall reminiscent of Godzilla spewing out his flames of death.
Now I’m not a fighter but a flighter, so I instinctively knew that I was in for a good kicking if I did not get out of Dodge quickly. By the time he stopped vomming I was in Billy Whizz mode and was already halfway across the playground towards the relative refuge of the school. It wasn’t long before Martin had begun his pursuit. Now Martin was fast but like the gazelle trying to outrun the hyena I was fully loaded with adrenalin and was ducking and diving towards the main entrance. Martin rather than running around anyone in his way knocked them aside like they were skittles scattering the poor unfortunates in his wake.
Within seconds I was in the school and about to enact the final part of my plan. I was at the top of the stairs that led into my classroom. I took out a small panda pop bottle I had in my inside jacket pocket and poured the contents, vegetable oil, liberally over the stairs. I heard the baying of Martin as he careered into the stairwell below.
“I going to smash your fucking head in!” he bellowed.
He bounded up the stairs, however within seconds his feet seemed to spin as they lost grip on the oil. Martin almost made it to within inches of me before his anger turned to disbelief, his outstretched hands touching my shirt, before he toppled backwards similar to a villain from a cartoon and he tumbled for what felt like forever. Inevitably, gravity being what it is, Martin soon connected with the unyielding concrete stairs with a satisfying crunch and then there was silence.
As a postscript I was suspended for two weeks, a bargain I thought, and when I returned Martin was still absent. Martin came back a chastened character, his reign of terror was broken and he changed schools shortly after. He joined the army and was killed in the troubles in 1973. Mr Harris died on his allotment amongst the cabbages and peas shortly after his fiftieth birthday hopefully content.