A Modern Folk Tale

In the beginning was an idea, which was to give everyone a fairer chance in life. But how to go about it? Times after all were hard and for the rich barons and merchants times weren’t so bad either.You would think they would want people living in their lands to be prosperous?

Not so long ago, everyone was. The children went to school to learn new skills and about the world their parents lived in. How different it would be when they grew up.Their teacher’s name was Felicity, Felicity Hardshaw. Everyone called her Fliss. She had great big flashing, green eyes, wide enough for a river to flow through. She loved the children she taught, often working late each night to prepare the next day’s lesson. The children were happy and contented. They loved their teacher, especially when sometimes in the afternoons , with a howling gale blowing and rattling the windows, she gathered the children close to her to tell them one of her favourite stories.

The very best favourite was the one about the Bouncy Plum, carried off by a dragon and, just as it is ripening, what happens next with the stone inside, ending up in…oh, well, I can hardly bear it but can’t tell you the ending, can I? Ruin it for you. You will have to find Fliss and ask her to tell you.

Meanwhile, things were not looking so good for the economy. ‘Belts must be tightened’, called the Prime Minister to his cabinet. We can’t go on spending what we haven’t got. People are too wasteful. If we carry on like this, it will all end badly. I will send out my inspector to see what can be achieved.’ And he banged his fist on the table.

It was in all the news. The country owed too much money and was sending the Government Inspector, Devling B. Sonorius, to seek out waste. Everyone who worked for a public sector organisation, paid for by taxes, breathed in, sensing the sudden chill coming.

Devling visited hospitals, tax offices, even lifeguard stations. ‘You’re shut, you’re shut, you’ve got five people left, haven’t you. Get on with it then.’ ‘But what will happen to us and the poor people we serve?’ ‘Be glad you’ve got a job…and don’t look at me like that or you won’t. You’ll end up on benefits or, worse still, in the private sector.’

Everybody shuddered and shut it. They knew what that meant.

The very next day, Devling was due at the school where Felicity taught. There were five schools in the town and four of them had to close. Inside, the headteacher, Rheanna, fretted over her papers. She shuffled them across her desk. her eyes skimming over the lines but barely taking anything in. They detailed all the points the school had to do well in to survive. Getting one wrong meant instant closure. Throwing her pen down and pushing her chair back, she walked heavily across to the window. She was desperately hoping for a sign.

Barely a leaf was left on the trees surrounding the play yard. She watched as the children huddled for warmth. Some made faint-hearted efforts to play tick but they were all waiting for the inspector’s visit, expecting the worst. ‘It won’t be long now,’ Rheanna thought to herself.

The inspector was counting off the list of schools. Mole Hill – gone. Dunford Primary – reduced to half-days. Stagford Pond Moss Comp – reprieved for three months , pending further inspection visit, then reduced to rubble. The site was so much better suited for a new coffee house and supermarket. People would learn. Next was Bog Standard Brow CP, Felicity’s school. ‘Surely the name told you everything’, he grumbled, ‘What kind of people allow their children to go to Bog Standard Brow, anyway?’

Felicity led the children back into the building. The heating had been turned off due to gradual reductions in funding. That’s why they let the children play outside more these days. There was more chance of keeping warm. As she came back in, she bumped into Dizzy, the caretaker. ‘I’ve managed to find an old 2-bar and put it in your classroom.’ he told her. ‘Watch the Head doesn’t find out. It’s from her room and I’ll have to come back for it in half an hour.’ ‘Hear that? Year 9s are going wild upstairs!’ Felicity flinched. ‘Thanks, Dizzy.’ she said. He did all he could for her and the children. He was a kind man who often brought sweets in for the children when he could afford them.

The head looked out of the window towards the gate at the end of the drive. Dark clouds were gathering overhead. It was starting to rain. A black mercedes, headlamps blazing, sped up the drive, coming to a stop outside the school entrance. She watched the door open. Out stretched a long, grey leg, followed by a briefcase. The last rays of daylight reflected off its golden clasp. The full figure emerged, filling all of his 5′ 7″ 3/4 height. Before her stood Devling B Sonorius, Government Inspector for the closing down of public services.

‘Green tea’s just fine,’ replied the Inspector. Rheanna poured, trying to keep her hand steady, thinking of her sadly diminishing pension pot with all those years ahead of her.

‘Now, Ms Tackstock, I’m not here to close down your school but waste is waste. Give me three reasons why Bog Standard Brow should continue to exist on the public purse. Believe me, you would be much better off merged with Aviary Academy. Why, only last year, OffPut judged Aviary as ‘Outstanding’ while, let me see, I have the record here…’ He didn’t have to. Rheanna knew what was coming, ‘…your latest inspection report gave you barely adequate.’

Rheanna was thinking of how much work had gone into the school since that dreadful moment three years earlier. She was just about to talk about the staff training that had gone on, the much improved links with the local community, including sponsorship of free Wi-Fi and Copa Dopa vending machines. She herself had been a relatively recent arrival at the school, joining as a teacher and had gained promotion following the exit of the previous senior management team. And, of course, there was Verity, the school governor. Verity, who, it was whispered, had barely slept for three years, spending all that time painting the school, fixing the plumbing, replacing the ariels, holding bring’n’buy sales and writing and directing the Christmas panto. Where would the school have been without Verity? Verity! Where was she? Not like her to be late. Suddenly, the door burst open and in charged Fliss.

She was holding a set of student work books in two piles under her chin, barely able to hold back the tears. She was so angry. ‘This is it, Ms Tackstock, this is it!’ Devling momentarily felt himself withdraw back into his leatherette sofa, holding his breath. ‘Whatever is the matter, dear?’ Rheanna asked . ‘The ink inside the children’s nibs has frozen, headteacher, and the mice have nibbled their mittens up to the wrist. I cannot go on like this anymore. I am so cross, headteacher, I could kick a government minister in the shins!’

Devling sat wide-eyed during this outburst while noticing that something else, something entirely novel, a feeling so unfamiliarly strange was stirring within him.

Dizzy appeared round the door. He was waving a radiator key in the air, trying to speak but unable to catch the Head’s attention while Fliss was in full flow. When she’d finished, he mumbled, ‘Oh, Head, I’ve fixed the heating, well, sort of, two sticks and a bag of coal should keep us going till our next delivery next month sometime.’

The inspector ignored him and the Headteacher. His eyes were fixed on one person, Felicity. With her passionate entrance and striking green eyes, her firm jaw and her curvaceous calves, he was feeling something he had not felt since his early flutterings behind the bike sheds with Wandering Wanda. He had blocked all of that emotional tat out, dismissing it as only ‘fit for fools and storytellers!’ Strange, what was happening here? He really couldn’t take his eyes off her.

When the door had finally closed behind Fliss and Dizzy, taking her back to her classroom, the Head turned to the Inspector and said, ‘I do apologise, Inspector Sonorius. You can see how passionately she cares about the children and how difficult this is for us.’ ‘Yes, yes, quite alright,’ Ms Tackstock, ‘times are hard for all of us. I would quite like to have a quiet chat with that young lady later, if you can arrange it, Headteacher. But, come now, back to business. I’ve not come here to close your school but to save it. We can’t stand still, you know. There is no extra funding. It’s time for all of us to get on the Big Society Bus or hop it! Are you a driver or a rabbit, Ms Tackstock?’

Ms Tackstock was staring bemusedly at the inspector. Before she could find the words to reply, there was a loud tapping on the door. It swung open firmly, allowing first a well heeled foot, then the tweed-clad form of Ms Verity. ‘Sorry, I’m late, Rheanna, bit of a problem at the dual crossng. Axle from the diesil express came loose, backing up traffic all the way back to the bypass. A bit of lick and spittle and a handily placed hair pin soon had it going again. But I’m here now. Tell me, what have I missed?’ ‘I’d like to introduce the inspector,’ started Rheanna but , for the second time that morning, Inspector Sonorius seemed lost for words. ‘Wanda, is that you?’

‘Why, hello, Devling, how good to see you again!’ Devling B. Sonorius sat rigid in his chair, mouth agape. The only sound in the room coming from the rattle of his china cup. ‘Here, let me take that off you, Devling, ‘ said Verity, ‘or should I call you “Bad Boy”?’

Rheanna stood wide eyed, looking at the pair of them. ‘So, you two know each other then?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said Wanda, quickly taking control of the situation. She remembered snivelling Devling B. Sonorius in short trousers and snotty nose. She occasionally allowed him to hold her little finger behind the bike sheds, she recalled, in return for carrying out her bidding, running errands, taking messages, that sort of thing. ‘Wanda’s my first name but everyone here calls me Verity. Have done for years now.’ She looked directly at Devling. The head stepped in to rescue the poor inspector who was clearly taken aback by meeting this ‘flame’ from the past. ‘Lunch, Inspector, shall we go?’

‘Erm, sorry, what did you say?’

Would you like some lunch? I’m afraid we can’t offer you anything special, just typical school dinners. Or you may prefer a packed lunch. I know I do.’

‘Oh, yes, that would be good.’

‘Well, then, Ms Verity, or Wanda, as I shall have to get used to calling you, would you like to lead the way? Leave your briefcase here, Inspector. It will be perfectly safe.’ The light from the clasp flashed momentarily in the lamplight. ‘Oh, no, can’t do that. Must keep it with me at all times. Government regulations, you see.’

And so, we see the shaken body of Devling B. Sonorius following the retreating form of Wanda Verity, as the head closed the door behind her. ‘Whatever next?’ she thought.

The Secretary of State pounced backwards and forwards in her office. She’d just been looking at the graphs. Spending was still too high. She would have to go to the Prime Minister to ask for more borrowing. That wasn’t good. She told herself she must stay calm. If only everybody would just stay calm, then in three more years, there would be an election. The party would win praise for its careful handling of the national purse. But how would the country take it now? The cuts had barely begun to bite when already we’ve had summer riots, banking collapses, record numbers of young people on the dole, the Euro on the brink and the possibility of the break-up of the UK, if Scotland goes its own way? Things could hardly get any worse. Front it and stay calm. That was the only way. And what was that fool, Sonorius, doing? He should have been back by now with a full list of unfortunate but inevitable closures, saving millions. I hope I was right to put my trust in him. Still, there’s plenty more where he came from.

There was a knock on the door. Her PPS entered, indicating it was time to see the PM. She took a deep breath, collected her papers and, chin up, shoulders back, pounced out of the room.

Fliss was inconsolable back in the classroom. ‘It’s no good, I will have to resign.’ The kids were hanging about outside during their lunch break. The only other person in the room was Dizzy. He couldn’t bear the thought of Fliss leaving. ‘…and right in front of the inspector. What an idiot!’ ‘You did right, Fliss. You stuck up for your kids and for fair play. More than you can say for him!’

‘Dizzy, you’re right,’ said Fliss, ‘where is he?’ ‘In the canteen with the Head and Verity.’ ‘Right, I’ll go and see him, talk to him, plead, do anything. He can’t close this school. I won’t let him.’ She stood up straight, blew her nose on the tissue Dizzy offered her, cleared her head and focused on the unguarded door. ‘Wish me luck,’ she said.

From his seat in the cubicle of the gents, Devling took out his mobile and dialled the Minister’s number. Things were not going to plan and he needed to talk. It rang three times before diverting to voicemail. ‘The Secretary of State is not available to take your call right now. Please leave a message after the beep and she will get back to you as soon as she can…..beeep!’

“Minister, Sonorius here, everything well, Minister. I’ve arrived at Bog Standard Brow CP and, just as I thought, we’re throwing away good money after bad, keeping it open. I am going to sign the closure notice this afternoon.” He ended the call and replaced his mobile in his case. ‘I will be glad to get away from here,’ he shuddered.

‘This gives me no pleasure’, announced the Inspector, drawing a termination notice out of his briefcase, ‘but the sub-standard performance of this school leaves me with no alternative. You and your staff will all have the opportunity to apply for postions at Aviary Academy.’ Ms Tackstock’s eyes were downcast as he spoke. Inside, she was filling with rage.

She remained calm, however, when, before the assembled staff and school, she informed them of the Inspector’s decision. ‘We’re to close by the end of the month.’ Her eyes fixed on Fliss. ‘This is all your fault,’ she thought.

Then a voice spoke up. ‘But what about an appeal? Surely, we have the right of appeal?’ ‘Till the end of the month,’ the headteacher’s voice trailed off weakly. She turned to her deputy. ‘Tell Ms Hardshaw to come and see me straight after class finishes today.’ With that, she strode off back to her office.

Fliss tapped at the Head’s door. ‘Come in!’, called Ms Tackstock, ‘and sit down, Ms Hardshaw. I have something to tell you. Your conduct today in front of the inspector was intolerable and has led, in my view, to the direct closure of this school. As a result, take your coat and your pen and leave now. I do not want to see your face back here ever again. Goodbye, Ms Hardshaw, you are dismissed.’

Stunned, Fliss could hardly believe it. Rather than remind the Head that, under fairness and best practice teaching agreements, signed with all the recognised teaching unions, the Head could not sack her there and then. But these were strange, uncertain times. Her mind went blank. Next thing she knew she was out of the building, walking away. Where to? She had no idea. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have anything to get up for in the morning.

Months passed. Under the new government regulations, she no longer qualified for benefits and was made homeless. Her only friend was Dizzy. He had handed in his notice and left the school the very next day and had often visited her at home. His lot was even worse. They had become friends, all that they had. Most of the people Fliss knew had stopped calling. She’d almost forgotten what Facebook was, so long was it since she’d logged on. Sod the notifications, she thought, and started crying.

They were left with no choice but to take to the streets. All they could carry was all they had but it meant damp sleeping bags and soggy cardboard nights. People weren’t friendly either, staring at her, making her feel uncomfortable. ‘Let’s move on.’ Fliss caught sight of herself in a shop window from time to time. ‘Who is that strange person looking back back at me?’ Dizzy grew a beard, partly to help with the cold and, partly, where was he going to shave anyway? Occasionally, they would come across someone, often a complete stranger, who would offer them a shower and a sit down, a chance to feel normal. But not that often.

They sought the quiet, warm, vented places at night behind the restaurants. Trouble was so did everyone else and, as they had seen, it could lead to trouble. So, they learned to avoid people and watch the world go by.

Everyone seemed in a hurry, afraid of missing something. What exactly? Fliss and Dizzy didn’t have much. Dizzy made her laugh. He told her stupid stories and could sing! Funny, she never knew what a nice voice he had before. Right after Christmas, they’d come across a discarded acoustic guitar in a skip. It had half its strings missing. Fliss had asked a kindly guitar shop owner for the other half. To her surprise, he gave her a full set of strings and even tuned it for her. Dizzy wasn’t great at the mechanics. The loss of sensation in some of his fingers at times didn’t help. They were able to make a few bob busking. Their favoured spot was in the underground passageway, leading to the railway station. It was well lit, warmish, with passing fair acoustics and people were generous. Enough to get them a sandwich and a cup of hot tea. Keep them going, anyway, through the winter.

One year on the road gave way to three. They never spoke anymore about returning to Bog Standard Brow. It had gone, anyway, buried beneath a supermarket car park and drive thru-burger place. What little they had, they spent on cheap drink, anything to numb the cold and the pain.

The police moved them on. Sometimes, it was a blessing to be arrested if only to get a night in the cells. One or two of the officers were pleasant, gave them a meal and a cigarette but it was best avoided. They split them up and that felt terrible. Whatever else happened, they could cope as long as they stayed together.

The swelling on Dizzy’s finger grew bigger and bigger. He avoided looking at it but when the pain became too much, Fliss made him go to the Walk-In centre. That was the last time she saw him. Whisked away in an ambulance, she had no idea where they’d taken him and was left all on her own.

Soft drugs offered one outlet. A couple of people she’d got to know were also on the game. It was easy money, they said. You just had to keep your wits about you. She missed Dizzy, her job, her previous life. Where had it all disappeared? Her friends persuaded her to go with them one evening. She noticed a dark, expensive car pull up to the kerb. A man stepped out and walked towards a group of women. He was bent over, stooped somewhat. As he turned, with one of the women in tow, she noticed he was carrying a briefcase. Its clasp flashed briefly under the streetlight. For a moment, she saw his face. ‘Devling!’ He gave no sign of recognising her but limped as fast as he could back to his car, armed with a girl.

She started going down there with the other girls for something to do. Waiting under the bridge one evening, she caught sight of a single white feather in the arc light floating gently down to earth. ‘Where on earth did that come from?’ she mused, looking around her. Then, along came a bustling woman in a baggy overcoat. She pushed a trolley on which were laden flasks and sandwiches. ‘Cup of tea anyone?’ she cried out. Fliss thought she looked vaguely familiar but too much had happened. She struggled to keep it all together. A few nights later, the woman came over to her. ‘You don’t know me but I remember you’ she started, ‘You used to be a teacher at Bog Standard Brow, didn’t you? Fliss, isn’t it, yes, Fliss, that’s right, isn’t it?’ Fliss flinched at the sound of her name. ‘My name’s Verity. I used to be a school governor.’

Verity took Fliss to a nearby greasy spoon. Four mugs of tea, two helpings of egg, chips and beans later and she at last started to feel warmth flowing inside her. Verity explained she’d given up being a governor in disgust and gone to work for a local charity, helping people get back on their feet. So many people were losing their jobs these days, no-one seemed to care. It was frightening. She said it was her idea to do the trolley run. If it helped her get to know the girls and perhaps offer them a way out, if they wanted it, then it was worth it. She’d noticed Flliss early on but hadn’t said anything, afraid she would drive her away.

Verity worked part-time at a local community centre, where people would drop in for warmth and company. There were activities too. Nothing complicated and she needn’t join in, if she didn’t want to. ‘Well, what d’you reckon?, Verity asked, ‘fancy coming along one afternoon?’

Verity encouraged her to help out with ordinary volunteering tasks at first – making the tea, setting up the room – small things but necessary. People were depending on Fliss being there and this slowly brought her confidence back. Verity had contacts too with a local adult education provider and had asked them to put on some courses: painting, creative writing, even sewing skills and there was a need for online bill paying classes too. All proved popular. Above all, Fliss looked forward to the creative writing class. It helped her connect with something deep down inside.

At break time one day, Fliss sat opposite Verity over a cup of coffee. ‘Sometimes, you know, I wish that miserable what’s his name…Devling B. whatever had never come near our school!’ Fliss said. ‘If not him then, would have been someone else with the same result. All these cuts, not enough in the coffers to carry on as before. Something had to give and we were one of the somethings, sadly.’ ‘But do you think they know what they’re doing?’, Fliss asked. ‘Sometimes, I think they’re like kids, given the key to the toy shop. It’s just a game to them. They don’t seem to realise what they’re doing to people…’, she trailed off. What did she know about economics and politics? ‘I can’t remember anyone from the government ever coming up here, staying long enough to get to know real people and find out about our lives, what makes us tick, that sort of thing.’ ‘In those old fairy tales, at least the emperor or the sultan puts on a disguise to go about their lands to see what really goes on.’

‘Not much chance of that happening, I’m afraid. By the way, I fixed our Mr Devling B. Sonorius, you know.’ ‘Did you? How?’, asked Fliss. ‘Well, you know he was quite sweet on me at school. Wandering Wanda, he used to call me. Well, when we went for school dinner that time, remember, the day he closed the school down…oh, you never got there, did you? The head saw to you first.’

‘What happened?’, asked Fliss. ‘Accident, like, but only poured the whole bowl of piping hot bouillon all over his canonicles, if you know what I mean. You should have seen him, hopping and squealing, jumping around. No-one could find a cold compress to give to him, oh, for ages, less still to apply it. It brought tears to the eyes, it did. Some said he walked with a limp afterwards.’ ‘He does,’ murmured Fliss, ‘I’ve seen him. And the head, you mentioned the head. What happened to her?’

‘Oh, she got a job at Aviary Academy alright. Acting Head of Geography and Head of Year 9s for Pastoral Care she is. Bloody well, serve her right. But what about you, Fliss? What are you going to do? Do you fancy going on this teaching course or not?’

‘I don’t know, Verity, teaching adults, well, it’s not me, is it? I’m just not sure…’ ‘Look,’, said Verity, ‘adults are just like big kids, half of them, anyway. Believe me, I’ve met lots of them! You just have to suss ’em out, find out what makes them tick and you’re good at that.’

‘I don’t know, you’ve done so much for me already. I don’t know where I’d be without your help, what with helping me find a place to live and sorting out my benefits. I had no idea how complicated it is nowadays. Just having faith in me again that I can do something. That’s meant a lot to me. It’s a lot of money as well…I can’t afford it’.

‘That’s just the kind of person I am. And I’ve told you, in your circumstances, you would get the course free and the centre can help with the exam fee. You’ve paid taxes all your life, Fliss. Take something back for once. You’re entitled…’. Verity paused, looking at Fliss. Her once young face showed the pain and hardknocks of the last few years. Did she have it in her? Maybe, she was asking too much of her? She leant across the table, ‘You still want to do it, Fliss?’

Fliss paused for a moment. What if she couldn’t do it? Adults! Yes, but she’d been through so much these past few years and learned a lot. Besides, she was a qualified teacher already. How hard could it be? She looked back across the table at Verity and nodded. ‘Right then, great, I’ll go and ring the Tutor Organiser right now and get you booked on before you change your mind. He’s a good bloke, bit of a dreamer but he does what I tell him!’ She winked at Fliss and picked up her mobile.

Fliss proved to be an inspirational tutor. Within six months of completing her teaching course with a distinction, she was running her own creative writing and drama group. She loved the moment when people realised they had learned something important, helping them to see what they could do with encouragement and fun. She was so happy she’d had a second chance herself.

One day during a particularly hectic session, reading out part of a script the group had written, the door sprang open and in came Verity, followed by a stranger. ‘Room for one more?’ she chirrupped. ‘Oh, no,’ moaned Fliss to herself. She looked around the already bulging class. Some weeks, she would have twenty or more people and was just about to remind her about the waiting list when Verity said, ‘I know, I know but you’ll find room for this one. In you come, me duck.’

In came a clean shaven man with bags under his eyes. He walked in, looking sheepishly around him, trying not to bang into the furniture. ‘Hello, Fliss, how are you?’, his voice nervous and unsteady. She gazed at the man before her in wonder. ‘Dizzy, my Dizzy, oh, Dizzy, come here!’ She ran to him and they held each other in a big hug. ‘Where have you been? How are you? What happened to you? How come you never got in touch?’ The class just stopped what they were doing, looking on at the scene unfolding before them. I believe one or two had to wipe a tear away and I’m fairly sure there was one person in the corner, taking notes.

Postscript

As for the election, that happened too. Who won, you ask? Well, that’s the subject of a whole new story. One thing I can tell you though. Rumour has it Verity stood for election and got in…as a member of the Green Party! Would you believe it? Fliss and Dizzy, Dizzy and Fliss took up right where they left off and were fine.

And what about you? How are you getting on? Go on, tell me that story…

The End is the Beginning…

.

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