here’s a piece I wrote a while back for a competition. I didn’t finish it in time, but having tidied up a few elements I thought I would post it here.
A year ago, I thought this piece was actually unfinished, but I like where it ends now. Something about these fragments of my life are just itching to be told, so I am reconciling myself with the fact that I should probably tell them and let them be free.
He didn’t often smile – it was one of those things about him. Never in photos, not when he was laughing, and only occasionally to me.
But he smiled when he told this story, and I couldn’t tell you how many times he’d told it to me.
“… and when he left,” he paused a little too long like he always did, making you feel like you needed to ask him to go on. I have never been sure if he intended to make people feel off-balance when they spoke to him, or if I was reading into it too much. He tapped his cigarette on the half-full ashtray, just as I drew breath to ask him to go on, falling for his trick again, “we put an alarm clock in the space behind the chalkboard.”
“Behind the chalkboard?” I had asked, the first time he told me the story. My father went on to tell me that in the ‘50s and ‘60s you could bump the chalkboards up and find a little cavity behind them, where you could hide things if you were a troublemaker.
“And, of course, the fuckwit never knew that we could do that,” he said though a smirk – he was coming up to the good bit.
He always told me that he was the one who rewired the clock to go off every ten minutes, for ten seconds, and I always believed him. Even if I couldn’t if I’m honest, I still do.
“So when he came back, we just waited while he said dictation, and we quietly copied our notes into our books, until-“
I don’t think he’d ever made the noise when telling me the story, but in my mind I could hear the sound of this old-fashioned alarm clock going off – the kind they would strap to bombs in cartoons.
“The clock went off, and then,” he said, drawing from his Dunhill Red, and spoke the next line with smoke filling the air, “he just stopped, mid-sentence, before saying: ‘Who did that?’, and we just sat there, looking confused, and not reacting.”
Another smirk, and another pause. Another puff of smoke into my eight-, ten-, fifteen-, eighteen-year-old face. Maybe a sip of scotch or wine, or morning coffee.
So, my father’s history teacher went on with his lesson for ten minutes before it went off again, for another ten seconds. Another question more aggressive this time, followed by bewilderment from the class, as if nothing had happened, and then another ten minutes of class. It happened twice more before-
“The fifth time he just stormed out, and ran off to get the headmaster – the principal – and in the few minutes he was gone the alarm clock came out of the wall, was turned off, and was safely hidden in someone’s bag.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“They’ve done something to the chalkboard,” the teacher had said, storming into the classroom, “every ten minutes. Just listen! They are pretending not to hear it!”
The teacher had gone red, and was sweating like a pig.
They all sat in silence for the next five minutes, waiting to see what happened. And then it did.
“There! Did you hear it? They’ve done-“
“Hear what, John?” the Headmaster was confused – he hadn’t heard anything. The clock was off and packed away.
“The alarm clock! Didn’t you hear it?” John was desperate now, because he knew he had.
“Boys,” said the Headmaster, “is there anything you should be telling me.”
“No, Sir,” they replied in unison.
It was then that my father, fifteen at the time, spoke up and gestured towards the flustered teacher, “But he has been going on about a ringing sound for an hour.”
The other boys nodded in agreement.
As their teacher was led out of the room he was almost yelling at the Headmaster, telling him that he’d been set up, framed by the students.
Once they were out of earshot, and the door had been carefully closed, a quiet cheer erupted from the boys in the class, and they shut their books for the day.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“He never came back after that. I think that was the last straw for him,” he said, and chuckled at the thought. I always laughed too, it was one of my favourite stories. He took another long pause before, in almost every telling, he continued.
“He was close to going nuts anyway, but this time I really think he went mad.”
The first few times I asked my father how he could have kept hearing the sound, and he told me that if something is repeated often enough, and if you are sure it is there, you will hear it. And that’s what happened to my father’s teacher – another had been found wanting, and had paid the price.
Sometimes Dad would tell me that if his teacher had gone mad then, he may have heard that same clock for the rest of his life.
In the last few years, I always imagined my father saying, with the same glee, that he hoped he had.