And I did enjoy Greece, and not solely because I spent every morning waist deep in the Adriatic conversing with naked women.
It was a lot to do with the people, they are chaotic, anarchic, lovers of good food and drink, and this national character cemented my love of the place.
Craig and I were staying at a small village on the western coast of Corfu, called Pelakas.
The man who had picked us up at the ferry port had a lovely little hotel and our stay there was great.
Each day we would sleep till nine or ten, have breakfast on the deck overlooking the ocean, then, with toast and coffee consumed, we would head down to the sea for a swim.
As stated at the end of the last chapter, the beaches across the southern coasts of the the Med are clothing optional.
So just going for a swim was something of an experience.
I was still too prudish to go naked, which may come as a surprise to those who knew me at uni.
Then, it only took three beers after soccer and my daks would be off, and I would be displaying my massive rear end for all to see, those unfortunates who did then racing to the bathrooms to vomit.
However, here in Greece we went swimming at ten in the morning, sober, and so our boardies stayed on.
The water was as clear as glass, and of an even, invigorating temperature.
Also, due to the enervating calmness of the Mediterranean in summer, many didn’t lie on the beach sunbaking, but stood stomach deep in the water and had their conversations there.
There was a range of nationalities there, from Australian through Zambian, with all the continents in between.
So it was a genuine holiday.
On looking back it really comes as no surprise that this was where the holiday began as all we had done previously had been drive on crowded roads and set up tents on stony, gravel-strewn ground, like we were drivers for the army or something.
Anyway in Greece I began to finally relax.
All the tension of London and schools like Eastlea, compounded by weeks on the road, finally began to unknot and I was able to sleep smoothly and enjoy the sun.
We didn’t drink a lot, perhaps surprisingly, my full-blown alcoholism was still in the future (thankfully), and where we were staying wasn’t the full-on party vibe of Benidorm, Mallorca and the others.
Also, our hotel was a little way down the coast from the real partying capital of our area, the Pink Palace.
The Pink Palace is basically a frat house for American college students.
Every summer the place fills up with those who can afford the trip and frat boys and sorority sisters pile in and party like there is no tomorrow.
So the bulk of those who just wish to get on the juice heavily tend to go there, thankfully, so we were spared their intrusion.
Indeed, the second morning there I had an in-Ocean conference with two nice young American guys, who had come over to stay at the Pink Palace, but after a week, couldn’t take it anymore and so had come down the coast a bit for a more relaxed holiday.
When we weren’t in the ocean talking, we rode mopeds around the island.
Mostly I went with a group that included Craig, an English lad, whose name escapes me, a young Australian man, and a young Greek-Australian woman, Anna.
I was navigating and I can tell you getting around in Greece is not as simple as reading the map.
In fact, I’ll digress slightly further.
As usual I had started studying Greek via comic books, and the ones I had to peruse were Tintin comics in Greek.
I had my Greek-English dictionary, but the problem with Greek, unlike German, Spanish and French, is that Greek uses its own letters, so before you can translate a word, you have to first translate any Greek letters in the word.
So the village were staying at Pelekas, is spelled in Greek, πέλεκας, if you look closely you can glean the meaning, ‘P’ is ‘Π’ pronounced ‘pie’, as in the symbol used in your high school maths classes, next is ‘έ’, epsilon, or ‘E’, and so on.
Thus, studying my Tintin comics had a double layer of translation required, and similarly, riding along on our mopeds, we would come to a junction with signposts pointing in various directions and I would have to get out my dictionary, translate the letters, then find the town on the map, then figure out if we wanted to go there.
However, it wasn’t a major hurdle, and we enjoyed our riding.
It did have its hair-raising moments though.
While we were on holidays the locals weren’t, and so tended to get a little impatient with put-putting, two-wheeled tourists filling the road.
Add to this the Greek love of not following rules and you have a recipe for traffic chaos.
I remember us coming around a corner in the highway and finding a truck bearing down on us on our side of the road.
We then all swerved with the precision of the Holden Hell Driving team into the middle of the road to avoid the oncoming truck, when a car that had been behind us chose this moment to overtake us and the oncoming truck.
It shot by, we threaded through between the two vehicles, and then without a formal signal, all pulled over to the side of the road to begin learning how to breathe again and check our shorts for involuntary bowel movements.
Some nights when I dream I still see the sides of those two vehicles passing us at speed in opposite directions.
Additionally, some of the villages of Corfu predate the motor vehicle by a thousand years, and so the roads are less than accommodating.
One morning I was riding on my own and I came along the ‘highway’, a two-lane affair that was as somewhat pitted with potholes, when I decided to pull into an upcoming village and get some food.
The highway swung wide to avoid the town (I was about to find out why), and I took a small slip road off to the left into the settlement.
At first my road was two lanes and there was a solid yellow line marking the edge of the road, I followed this yellow line on my moped and the road got steadily narrower.
First it dropped down to one lane, then this lane became less than a car width, then less than a motorcycle width, then less than a donkey’s girth.
However the yellow line continued solid on my right and so I knew I was on the ‘main’ road, so kept going.
Then the ‘road’, with its indicating solid yellow line, vanished into a solid wall.
What was really going on was that thee road disappeared through a gap between two houses.
The corners of the houses were offset slightly and so the gap shut out the light of the sun, and so it appeared the road just terminated flat against the wall.
I had an eye-widening moment, fearing a crash coming up, so I frantically braked down to walking pace, saw with relief the gap with the yellow line disappearing through it, and rode through.
If I had extended my elbows a la a flamboyant chicken dancer I would have touched a house on either side.
Then I was through and into the market place of the village, the yellow line continued and I opened the throttle and moved off.
I did want to find some local equivalent of the RTA and ask if they had ever thought of a ‘Road Narrows in Lunatic Fashion’ sign for the entrance to the village, but put it down to Greece and the Greeks.
I bought my food in the market place, got back on my moped and rode on out of town, keeping, now, a careful eye on the yellow lane marking line to see where it disappeared to next.
I might add, I’ve read that many cities founded in antiquity are the same, Rome is a good example.
Romans park anywhere, on, or in anything.
It is famously said that if you are sitting alone at a Roman restaurant, you are well advised not to go to the bathroom, leaving your table unattended, as upon your return you will find a car parked where you had previously been dining.
So Craig and I passed a week on the western shores of Corfu in very pleasant fashion.
Then it was time to move on to stay with Craig’s sister in the southern peninsula region of Kalamata, of olive grove fame.
Craig’s sister had married a Greek man, and they had set up home down there, and so off we went to see them.
I should say, I can’t actually recall being invited, but then I have never been particularly good at picking up social signals, but Craig was leaving, and so I went too.
We caught a bus back to Kerkyra, then the ferry to the mainland, a bus to Athens and then another to Kalamata.
The bus put us off some distance from our destination and so we walked the last few Ks.
Craig’s sister, Anne, had married a Greek man, Paniotti, and he had built the house they lived in on the seashore outside the town of Kalamata.
It was another incredibly beautiful place and we settled in nicely.
Anne spoke fluent Greek, but she did enjoy having the two of us there to converse with in her native language.
Paniotti spoke broken, heavily-accented English, but still joined in.
I showed him my Tintin comics in Greek and he gave me a look of wonder and disbelief that I thought I could learn this way, but I soldiered on.
I should add that Greek, due to the letter difficulty, is a language that is better learnt conversationally, and now I was getting some practise in that area of language learning as well.
Mind you, it is well known that Melbourne is the second largest Grek city by population, so if I had been serious I would have spent a few months down there, but there you go.
I got back into exercise in Kalamata and each morning I would put my swimmers on and walk around the bay, three or four ks, and then swim back in straight line, about 1500 metres.
There is nothing like the Mediterranean for feeling like you have the world’s largest swimming pool at your disposal.
There were no, or very few boats in the bay, and precious few people, no currents and so it was an enjoyable swim.
We ate at home on the deck and conversed over red wine.
I remember one conversation that nearly lead to divorce though, and it stemmed from the ‘Man in the Moon’.
When I was a boy growing up under the clear skies of the Southern hemisphere, I read in my, mostly, Northern hemisphere books of the ‘Man in the Moon’.
Apparently, the crater pattern on the moon’s surface looks different in each hemisphere.
So I had never quite understood what the Man in the Moon was, until that night on the deck in Kalamata.
We ate our meal, and then Craig pushed his plate away, leaned back and stretched.
As he raised his head he stopped, fixed in place, then said, “Hey, I just saw the man in the moon.”
The rest of us looked up, and I, likewise for the first time, saw what he meant.
The crater pattern does indeed lay out like there’s a face on the moon.
It really does look like a man hiding inside the moon, and looking out through the surface at the Earth.
Anne, Craig and I marvelled for a moment, making, “Oh, I see” type noises, but then Paniotti, said, “I can’t see it, what do you mean?”
So Craig then tried to point out to him what we were looking at, but he just couldn’t see it.
So Craig then tried to point out to him what we were looking at, but he just couldn’t see it.
It was something like those computer images, made up of many cross-hatching lines and colours, and if you look through, into or past, you get to see the hidden image.
Well, try as we might, Paniotti just couldn’t see it.
We pointed, we drew diagrams, but it did no good.
We then got up and went to wash up, leaving Paniotti outside staring at the moon, but it seems to be one of those things that you only notice, like Craig did, by accident.
Eventually it was time for bed, but Paniotti had trouble sleeping, worrying about not being able to see the man in the moon.
Thankfully, the moon began to wane the next night and so we were spared further friction-inducing searching for the damn thing, but I was glad I saw it.
And it just goes to show, friction in marriage can occur for a multitude of reasons, but that was the first and only time I saw the Man in the moon causing it.
So a week passed on the dusty, sunlit shores of Kalamata.
My skin was brown again (skin cancer was still ot really taken seriously), I had regained some fitness due to daily swimming of 1500m, and the knots of tension were finally eased.
Then one morning about a week after we had arrived, Craig said “Let me show you the Venetian fort”.
I nodded, though this was a little unusual, but twigged immediately; I was about to get the tap on the shoulder, it was time for me to go.
In my arrogance, I had thought I would just be able to plonk myself on Crag’s relatives and stay there till term began again back in England.
But of course, Craig hadn’t extended such an invite.
I of course, should have known this, and left under my own cognizance in graceful fashion, but even at the age of 28, I still had a lot to learn about behaving.
So we walked along the shores of the bay to the fort.
This was an enormous, stone edifice, from the days when the mighty Venetian empire had ruled the Levant.
Once there and we had looked around a bit, Craig, in very well modulated tones, made it clear that I couldn’t stay for the whole summer, freeloading off his relatives.
To my (minor) credit, I got the point without going off in a huff, my normal practise, when confronted with something I didn’t think fair.
Back home I made much thanks to Anne and Paniotti and the next day got my pack on and headed with Craig into the village to catch the bus to Athens.
We shook hands in the little square and then I boarded, and took the trip up to the capital.
It had been a wonderful stay, all across Greece, and I was thankful for it.
However, now I had to contend with Athens, and boy, is that place frenetic.
I had a few days till my flight and so I checked into a backpackers, fretted over the price, in my usual cheapskate way, and then went out to see the main sights.
It really was something to see, the Parthenon, and Peiraus, names that came back to me from my lessons in Ancient History at high school.
Australia, you see, has a mere two hundred years of white history, so a building that is a hundred and fifty years old, gets us all gooey.
But here in Europe, you would regularly encounter a building that was over a thousand years old, and often still occupied, and this was quite amazing to see.
I might add, for those who are contemplating it, the Parthenon is guarded by Doberman Pinchers, as I discovered when I tried to sneak in at dawn one day, and I repeated my frantic backpedalling leap to safety that I had had to employ at the campground in Barcelona.
At least the Parthenon deserves guarding by attack dogs, I still don’t know why the campground had security that wouldn’t have disgraced Fort Knox.
Eventually my flight day came around, and I left my backpackers and headed to the main park in Ommonia Square to wait for the airport bus.
I had some hours to wait and so tossed my pack down and got out my book.
I was lying there reading in a genuine sylvan glade, when world war three broke out around the corner.
Explosions went off, people were screaming, horns honked, the end of the world was nigher than I had ever felt it.
I sat bolt upright, wondering what on Earth was going on, so I put my book on my pack and then went to have a look.
I walked through the trees cautiously, then emerged from a copse to discover it wasn’t a riot, but a political rally.
Gerald Durrell once wrote during his time in Cameroon in west Africa that “three Africans together can make more noise than an equivalent number of any other race on Earth”.
Well this may be true, but I would happily bet on the Greeks giving the Africans a run for their money.
The Greeks do like to make a bit noise, and here it was writ large.
At first I thought that they must be planning a march on parliament to impeach the PM with extreme prejudice, when it dawned on me that they hundred or so people assembled were SUPPORTING the politician on the podium.
He spoke, the crowd yelled, more fireworks went off, more horns of passing traffic honked.
I breathed sigh of relief that there wasn’t going to be trouble, then went back to my pack, lay down again, and wondered what would be the harvest if I happened across a political rally where the locals were AGAINST the person in question.
Buildings would burn, I was sure.
Then time came and I caught my bus for the airport.
I remember when younger watching some terrorist-hijacking-on-a-plane movie, and it turned out that the terrorists on board had got their weapons on board at Athens airport, and one of the captives on the aircraft said, “Oh, well, no surprises there, you could carry a bazooka on at Athens.”
Well, once I got there I saw what they meant.
Again I was early, having nothing better to do, and so once I checked the flight board and saw that my plane to London wasn’t for some hours yet, I went out the front to a grassy, pine-treed area, to read my book till check-in time.
I was doing so when I looked up from my book and saw that Athens airport consisted of a tin shed on a tarmac area.
It looked for all the world like one of those crop dusting places in outback Australia, or indeed like the working base of Crocodile Dundee in the movie.
From where I sat I could see what the movie character had meant about security.
I could have got up from where I sat, walked around the back of the shed, put a weapon or bomb in the baggage on the little truck that was sitting there waiting and then boarded through the metal detector no questions asked.
It’s all changed now of course, in the lee of the 9/11 attacks, but then, in 1992, Athens airport was about as secure as a sieve.
Subsequently, I checked my watch and saw it was time to check in.
I entered the shed, got in the queue, checked my bags in, then headed back out to the grassy area to wait the next two hours.
That done, I boarded, and once again fell foul of the ludicrous smoking section delineation of the aircraft cabin.
The smoking section was rows one to five, then in a burst of bad planning, sat unaccompanied children, in rows six to eight, and I was behind them in row nine.
So, the smokers lit up with pleasure, then the smoke began to irritate the kiddies and they began to cry and bawl in unison.
And so I sat in row nine for the three hours it took to get to Heathrow with a look of crazed mania covering my face as the kids gave frantic voice against the tobacco smoke.
I eventually emerged from Heathrow, ears ringing, in the September of 1993.
Quicker, rather than gradually, the relaxed demeanour I had gained in Greece faded to be replaced by the classic, tension-knotted face of a Londoner.
I tubed across London to my grim, rabbit-warren converted house in the northern suburbs, stepped sideways into my tiny room, put my pack down and began removing clothing to wash.
As I went about my domestics, I began planning for the upcoming school year, and made a realisation that it was time for somewhere new.
To background that, the previous year I had taught mostly at beastly Eastlea, and lovely Sarah Bonnell, but in the final term leading up to the summer holidays, I had criss-crossed London doing a day here, a day there at various schools around the place.
One of these was Holloway Boys in north London.
Those who know London, know all about Holloway, it is the site of a notoriously grim women’s prison, and the suburb surrounding it, seemed to take on the character of the place.
Thus, I was truly and utterly shocked to discover that there was a school in London, THAT WAS WORSE THAN EASTLEA!!!!!
Holloway was a boys’ school, so I didn’t have even the minor calming effect that girls can have on boys, and so my one day there lasted longer than it had taken to build some of the buildings I had so recently visited in Europe.
Every lesson was a constant, battle to keep a minor semblance of control.
I felt like a lonely lighthouse standing on a rock in the ocean, fighting to keep my light above the raging seas of misbehaviour.
So as I went to the laundrette, that day off the plane, I made a decision.
Enough of London, I would go teach in Birmingham.
I didn’t really know what I expected, but I had heard that Birmingham was a much slower paced place than London, and so hoped that the schools there would be less pressurised.
So I got through to Timeplan, told them of my decision, and got a contact for a teaching agency in Birmingham, and off I went.
And so to digress in my usual meandering way.
Later in life than these events I would finally attend Alcoholic’s Anonymous and Narcotic’s Anonymous, to try and get some control over my substance abuse issues.
Now anyone with a problem like this, particularly alcohol, fights and scratches and claws not to go.
The perversely convoluted logic is that ‘if I don’t go to AA, then I’m not an alcoholic’.
And a common tactic employed by alcoholics is to do a ‘geographic’, change town, go somewhere no one knows you, and where you don’t know anyone else.
This stems from the idea that ‘I can’t give up drinking here, I’ve got all my drinking mates, and my favoured local pub. I’ll never give up here, it would be too embarrassing, all too hard’.
And so the geographic is done.
The tactic rarely works, for now the alcoholic is in a new town where they don’t know anyone, and now they are bone-crunchingly lonely, so what do they do?
They go down to the pub to meet some people in their new town.
I mention this, because what I did therefore in the autumn of my second year in Britain, was the worst geographic one can do.
Holidays in beautiful, anarchic, sunlit Greece to Birmingham, the worst city in western Europe.
Birmingham is not even a city really, it is a large conurbation scattered around the midlands, and as such, doesn’t have a genuine geographic centre, as London does with Piccadilly, or Sydney does with the harbour.
So it is a characterless place.
I think it is best described by an author I like, David Lodge.
Lodge was an academic at Birmingham Uni, and wrote many successful books, most centred on Birmingham.
In one, one of his Birmingham characters, Phillip Swallow, goes on sabbatical to California and while there is talking with a Californian at a party.
The Californian says, “I hear that Birmingham is really crap, is that right.”
Stung to defend his home town, Swallow replies, “No, no, it just a large city, with all the usual advantages and disadvantages.”
”Oh”, says the Californian, “what are the advantages?”
”Oh”, says the Californian, “what are the advantages?”
And Swallow can’t think of any.
He stumbles around for a moment or two, searching inside his head, and eventually says, “Well, it easy to get to the New forest to go hiking.”
Then he stops and realises that if the biggest advantage of the town is that it’s easy to get out of, then that’s not a saying much for the town itself.
Then he stops and realises that if the biggest advantage of the town is that it’s easy to get out of, then that’s not a saying much for the town itself.
So you get the picture about Birmingham.
So a week or so later I gathered my belongings and caught the train up there and almost immediately found that it was the right decision, despite what I have written above about the place.
Firstly, I found somewhere nice to live, and here my friendship with Neil once again came to my aid.
In my time in the UK I stayed with each and all of his relatives, now it became clear that not even his out-laws were safe.
Neil’s cousin Jane lived in Birmingham, where also lived her on-again, off-again boyfriend , Paul.
Jane saw me coming and subtly got across to me that I couldn’t stay with her, but inferred I might stay with Paul.
So I rang him and asked that classic backpacker question, “do you mind if I doss with you till I find somewhere to live?”
Paul, foolishly, said “yes”, and so I took my meagre belongings around to his house in King’s Heath, Birmingham.
As always, my question had been heard by Paul as ‘I will only be there for a week or so’, but the meaning for me was, ‘once I am rusted onto your couch, you will need dynamite to get me out.’
However, I’d like to think it wasn’t that bad, we were still friends once I moved out (three months later), so it can’t have been all bad.
Paul is a wonderful guy, and was very patient with me.
He was currently “off-again” with Jane, and so his front room was free for me to sleep in on the fold out couch.
Paul had that dry sense of humour that I like, and was also a big soccer fan, so most evenings we would convene on his couch and watch a soccer match.
And I’ll put this story in to demonstrate his wit, and just hope, as so often an author has to do, that it comes across in print.
We were watching a pre-season trial match one evening between the, at the time, two biggest soccer teams on Earth, A.C Milan, of Italy, and Barcelona, of Spain.
The Italian team were very dominant pumped in four goals before half time.
Just after the fourth goal was scored the TV showed the assistant manager of Barcelona whispering something in the ear of the manager.
Paul turned to me and said, “Do you think he just said ‘we better tighten up at the back?’”
And I’ll add one further incident to show that though Birmingham may have been known as a pretty rotten place, the people there couldn’t have been more helpful.
I lost my wallet one afternoon.
It had fallen from my pocket as I walked down to Paul’s place from the bus stop.
Later that night when I noticed it, I began a frantic search through the house and my belongings, but couldn’t find it.
I asked Paul for advice, and he said, “Try the cops. Sometimes people hand wallets in.”
I looked at him sceptically, there was fifty quid in there, so I didn’t think it likely, but I had nothing to lose.
So I called up the local nick and asked, and to my surprise the WPC who answered said, “Yes, we have had one wallet handed in, can you describe it?”
I did so, and it turned out it was indeed my wallet.
I did so, and it turned out it was indeed my wallet.
Additionally, the fifty was still in it.
I had thought it a long shot, but even then Paul and I had discussed that the best I could hope for was for someone to find it, take the money out, then give it to the cops.
But no, the whole lot was there.
So I went around to the police station, got my wallet, with enormous relief, and also got the name of the person who had handed it in.
Turned out it was a neighbour about ten doors up from Paul, and he had gone out of his way to walk around to the police and hand it in.
Man, I was thankful.
So I went around to thank him, he wasn’t home, but his wife was there, she told me his favourite tipple, when asked, and I went around to the bottlo and bought him some John Smith’s Bitter with the fifty I still owned in thanks.
However if the adults on Birmingham were helpfulness personified, the kids at the school I was placed at were less so.
With my lodgings sorted I had made contact with the teaching agency and they sent me down to Ninestiles School in south east Birmingham.
I thought I was going in to start teaching, but up here things were done differently.
I went up to the desk and fished the scrap of paper from my pocket with the details given me by the agency on it.
“Hi”, I said to the woman at the counter, “I’d like to see Allan Hollins, please.”
Hollins was the deputy in charge of casual teachers and recruitment genereally.
She nodded and went to her phone, she spoke for a moment and then turned back to me and said, “he can see you now”, and so then gave me directions to his office.
I went down there, trying to put aside uncomfortable memories of my own childhood, when I was sent on the long march to the deputy’s office.
I knocked and the door was opened by the man himself.
He asked me to take a seat, then sat himself down at his desk and then said, “So Lachlan, tell me about your best and worst lesson.”
I was stunned.
I was being interviewed!
In London interviews didn’t exist, or if they did, they consisted of, “Are you prepared to go in there and teach those monsters?”
And if you misguidedly said “yes”, then you got the job.
And if you misguidedly said “yes”, then you got the job.
Here in Birmingham they had time to interview for jobs.
I must have acquitted myself reasonably well during the interview though, because later that afternoon the teaching agency called and said Ninestiles wanted me to start on Monday.
Great, I even had the weekend to enjoy myself.
And for the record, my best lesson was the spaghetti tower, in which you give the students a pack of spaghetti and some non-toxic glue or blue tack, and they make a building out of it.
The winner is the model that uses the least spaghetti and holds the most weight.
My worst lesson was every single one I taught at Eastlea.
My original premise that Birmingham students were less of a problem than London, was generally true, but there were certainly some fire crackers amongst them.
But overarching all of that was that I was already finished as a teacher.
I had been teaching for less than two years and was already unable to find the energy reserves that this most demanding of jobs requires.
My personal energy, depleted by the trip across Asia, had been reduced, drastically, tyrannically, by Eastlea School.
Those same energy levels had been increased minorly by teaching at Sarah Bonnell with its well-behaved girls, and further, on a personal level, by my two weeks in sunlit Greece, but really, only ten years sitting in a wheelchair looking at the ducks on a pond could hope to restore the damage done by teaching in east London.
I no longer prepared good lessons, I simply found some problems on a worksheet, photocopied them and handed them out and then stood at the back of the room making sure no one misbehaved.
It is a terrible attitude for a teacher to take and in its way, not providing stimulating lessons creates the misbehaviour that I was always complaining about.
So I did the least worst teaching that I could get away with and once again mainly was satisfied if the roof was still on the classroom when I went home in the evening.
So therefore The Note, when it came, caught me by surprise.
My year nine science class at Ninestiles was as out of control as every year nine in the history of education and I had a lot of trouble with them.
I was constantly fighting for control, a process not helped by my less than enthusiastic teaching, and so had sent one kid, Kevin, to the authorities on more than one occasion.
I mention this because one morning I herded them into the lab as usual and the only well-behaved kid in the class, possibly in all of year nine, Brian, came up and gave me a note.
It was from their home room teacher, Ms. Pounder.
The note said, “Mr Barker, could I see you at recess, please. EP” (Elizabeth Pounder)
“Fucking bollocks”, I said internally, “what have I done now?”
You see I was sure I had done something wrong in my attempts to get this class under control and so this note no doubt presaged some carpeting from the aforementioned Ms Pounder.
So I grumped my way through morning school, wondering what I was in trouble for, and building myself up into a state of righteous indignation.
“Yeah, well”, I prepared in my head, “they were completely out of control when I took them over, so don’t complain now when I have to ride them like a rodeo bronc” I said to myself many times as the morning wore on.
I wasn’t going to be told by this Ms Pounder, no way.
Then recess came (finally) and wanting to get it over with I dismissed my class and headed around to Ms Pounder’s maths room.
I stepped though the door and saw she was helping a student with their work after class, something I should have done occasionally I might add, and so walked up and rudely interrupted.
I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it was along the lines of “yeah, whadda want?” in a rude tone of voice.
She looked up from her work, and said, “Oh, Mr Barker, um, look, er, sorry, I’m held up a bit here, could we do this at lunch time?”
I sighed rudely, and said, “yeah, whatever”, and left.
Then I had to get through middle school with this still hanging over my head, but did so with my customary bad grace and then returned to the maths department for round two.
This time she had been able to get rid of her students on time and so I walked up to where she was sitting at her desk, marking some work.
Once again with terrible rudeness, I got started without preamble, “OK, I’m here, whaddaya want?”
I mention my rudeness because it added further to her stress, she put down the book she was marking and then with a stammering tone, haltingly said, “Oh, er, Mr Barker, er, um, I was wondering, um, I, er, that is, er, I” and here she finished in a blurting rush, “I think you’re quite attractive, and I wondered if you would like to go out to dinner tonight?”
Poor Liz, she was asking me on a date and I had been the epitomy of rudeness.
Now I have taken some hits in my time, on the rugby field I have had entire opposing forward packs slam me down and ruck over me.
On the soccer pitch I have broken both ankles, my right foot, both wrists, the ring fingers of each hand and had my right ankle telescoped out of its socket by a heavy tackle leading, ultimately to the need for a reconstruction.
In the surf I had been javelined into the sand bar by five foot waves bearing hundreds of tonnes of water down upon me, but none of those hit me as hard as Liz’s question that lunchtime.
Firstly, I couldn’t believe anyone could find me attractive, a product of eternal low self-esteem, and secondly, Liz should really have been on the runway at Milan, not teaching maths in Birmingham, and so this was a double shock.
However, one thing teaching does teach the teacher is to think on your feet, and so I, as quickly as I could, backpedalled, remodulated my tone, and then answered in as halting fashion as she had spoken before.
“OH, er, uh”, I paused to finger my brow, “Uh, yeah, uh, er, uh, sure, um, yeah, er, that would be good.”
Then like all running backs, I handed off the ball and got the hell out of there before I blew the whole deal.
We made arrangements to meet in my local in King’s Heath that evening, and I went on my way.
Darkness into light, I had not only escaped a telling off for treating my year nine’s badly I had got a date as well.
Things were looking up.
So I got though the afternoon’s school in a mentally opposite fashion to how I had spent the morning and then headed home to Paul’s.
I then went around to the local to meet Liz and discovered that I had been unaware that I had nearly got involved in ticklishly difficult romantic situation of a completely other nature.
The science department at Ninestiles had two laboratory attendants, Hazel and a young Indian woman, Indira.
Indira had asked me out once for lunch, and we had gone across to a little restaurant near the school.
As we ate, she told me that she was engaged to me married to an Indian engineer who lived on the other side of Birmingham.
It was mostly an arranged marriage, said Indira, and she wasn’t overly happy about it, she was more or less seeing how it went.
She then asked me about myself, and seemed to dwell on it when I told her I was recently divorced.
Then lunch over we returned to school and I didn’t think too much more about it.
However, that night in the King’s Head, as my local was called, Liz informed me what was really going on that day at lunch.
Turns out that Indira had told her family she wasn’t to happy with the arranged marriage, and ‘was there a way out?’
Her parents had said that if she found a suitable man, a professional man, with a working visa for the UK, she could dump the engineer and sign up with him.
And hard on the heels of that conversation yours truly dropped out of the travelsphere into her orbit.
‘Just the job’, thought Indira.
Indira had been a shade too diffident to come out and ask me, and I, in my usual obtuse manner, had been completely unable to read the signals.
Had we had a single extra glass of red that day at lunch I could be living in Birmingham or Mumbai as part of an extended Indian family now.
But we didn’t and I’m not, so instead I began a relationship with Ms Pounder of the maths department.
This was complex, as she was currently breaking up with her de facto partner, also called Paul.
Their breakup was amicable, genuinely so, but it did complicate things a little, as we couldn’t go round to Liz’s place, because she didn’t want to rub Paul’s nose in it by bringing her new boyfriend around while he was home, and I was still dossing on the couch at ‘my’ Paul’s place.
How things may have gone who knows, but ‘my’ Paul then solved the problem by telling me it was time to move on.
I should have realised, but then, as now, was ill-equipped to notice depression in others.
I said earlier that Paul was ‘off again’ at the time with Jane, and what I hadn’t known was that she had dumped him, (this time), and so he had really wanted the house to himself to lick his wounds in private.
Thus, after three months in the place he finally lowered the boom, and asked me in as gentle a fashion as possible, to find my own place.
So I looked at the little posters on the rack in the corner store and found a residence around the corner with a room going.
I went and had a talk with the leasee, and was offered the room.
I went back to Paul’s, folded up his couch for the last time, then he drove me and my increasingly threadbare belongings round to the new place, and I moved in.
The place I moved into would never be photographed in the ‘fine living’ section of Vogue, but for twenty quid a week it was a dry room, and in Birmingham, that’s as much as a share houser can ask for..
I moved in with a nice young woman from Newcastle (Newcastle England that is), Kristi, and for the first time in my life I watched soap operas.
I mention this because it became our, Kristi and my’s, thing.
We would watch those ridiculous shows and take the piss out of it unmercifully.
For instance, Eastenders, is a soap set in the east of London where I had been teaching, and details the lives of those who live there in grinding poverty.
Yet, and here Kristi and I would yell at the TV, the characters in the show were always in the pub drinking Heineken.
“Where do they get the money?” Kristi would say.
“God only knows, but none of them have a job”, I would rejoinder.
And so our evenings were spent happily in the company of those most appalling of shows.
I might add, Birmingham has an almost celestial ability to sink the mood and fortunes of those who live there, and this was evidenced by the soap operas of the day.
Britain at the time had four major soaps.
Eastenders from London, Coronation Street from Manchester, Brookside Close from Liverpool and Crossroads from Birmingham.
They were all as bad as each other, but Crossroads was the only one cancelled due to lack of interest.
However, now with my own room, I could see Liz somewhere apart from in the pub, and this allowed us to have a relatively normal time.
And so for the rest of that winter I continued to teach (badly) at Ninestiles and go out with the statuesque Ms Pounder.
In retrospect I had once again found happiness in a most unlooked for place, in this case, Birmingham.
But as ever in my life, I had not been able to recognise that I had everything I needed, and took to the road again.
It was the writing bug that caused this upheaval.
Not satisfied with staying with each of Neil’s relatives, and then his in-laws, I was now going to presume upon the friendship by using a friend-of-a-friend, twice removed, to further my writing career.
I had got wind of a possible contact with BBC radio in Scotland, and as I already knew teaching wasn’t for me, or perhaps the idea of still being a teacher in twenty years gave me the cold heaves, I headed north to once again “Try To Be A Writer”.
So I’ll close the Birmingham chapter with this anecdote.
I seem to exert an entropic force upon everything I use and own.
My clothes become dilapidated and are regularly refused by the op shop when I try to donate, my car is invariably patched up with duct tape and I am constantly redrilling bits of my residence to repair damage done.
Well my room in Kristi’s house was nice, upstairs, and looked over the ‘view’, the alleys and backyards of King’s Heath.
However, the door was less than robust.
When I moved in only the lower hinge was still functional, and after a mere week, it came away as well.
So from then on I couldn’t close the door in a regulation fashion, but had to pick it up by the handle and upper edge and kind of place it in the jamb, leaning slightly outward at the base to stop it falling inward.
One afternoon I was in my room marking some work from school.
I had “put” the door closed to keep the noise of the tele in the living room out, when unbeknownst to me, Liz came around to surprise me.
She said ‘hello’ to Kristi at the front door and Kristi directed her upstairs to my room.
She arrived at my door, knocked twice and upon the second tap the door fell inward across my bed, knocked over my little bed side table and smashed my little clock radio.
For a few seconds Liz and I regarded each other, she at the door, me at my little desk, with mirrored looks of astonishment, then I said the only thing I could say, “Come in”.
She entered and we fixed things up.
I mention this because it is the first and only time that a woman has smashed down a door to get into my bedroom, though I have hoped for it far more often in my life.