Read an Excerpt
Wednesday, May 25, 1994
Natales grate numeras?
(Do you count your birthdays with gratitude?)
(HORACE, Epistles 11)
On Mondays to Fridays it was fifty-fifty whether the postman called before Julia Stevens left for school.
So, at 8:15 A.M. on May 25 she lingered awhile at the dark blue front door of her two-bedroomed terraced house in East Oxford. No sign of her postman yet; but he’d be bringing something a bit later.
Occasionally she wondered whether she still felt just a little love for the ex-husband she’d sued for divorce eight years previously for reasons of manifold infidelity. Especially had she so wondered when, exactly a year ago now, he’d sent her that card—a large, tasteless, red-rosed affair—which in a sad sort of way had pleased her more than she’d wanted to admit. Particularly those few words he’d written inside: “Don’t forget we had some good times too!”
If anyone, perhaps, shouldn’t she tell him?
Then there was Brenda: dear, precious, indispensable Brenda. So there would certainly be one envelope lying on the “Welcome” doormat when she returned from school that afternoon.
Aged forty-six (today) the Titian-haired Julia Stevens would have been happier with life (though only a little) had she been able to tell herself that after nearly twenty-three years she was still enjoying her chosen profession. But she wasn’t; and she knew that she would soon have packed it all in anyway, even if …
Even if …
But she put that thought to the back of her mind.
It wasn’t so much the pupils—her thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds—though some of them would surely have ruffled the calm of a Mother Teresa. No. It wasn’t that. It was the way the system was going: curriculum development, aims and objectives (whatever the difference between those was supposed to be!), assessment criteria, pastoral care, parent consultation, profiling, testing … God! When was there any time for teaching these days?
She’d made her own views clear, quite bravely so, at one of the staff meetings earlier that year. But the Head had paid little attention. Why should he? After all, he’d been appointed precisely because of his cocky conversance with curriculum development, aims and objectives and the rest.… A young, shining ideas-man, who during his brief spell of teaching (as rumor had it) would have experienced considerable difficulty in maintaining discipline even amongst the glorious company of the angels.
There was a sad little smile on Julia’s pale face as she fished her Freedom Ticket from her handbag and stepped on to the red Oxford City double-decker.
Still, there was one good thing. No one at school knew of her birthday. Certainly, she trusted, none of the pupils did, although she sensed a slight reddening under her high cheekbones as just for a few seconds she contemplated her embarrassment if one of her classes broke out into “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Stevens!” She no longer had much confidence in the powers of the Almighty; but she almost felt herself praying.
But if she were going to target any prayer, she could surely so easily find a better aim (or was it an “objective”?) than averting a cacophonic chorus from 5C, for example. And in any case, 5C weren’t all that bad, really; and she, Julia Stevens, mirabile dictu, was one of the few members of staff who could handle that motley and unruly crowd. No. If she were going to pray for anything, it would be for something that was of far greater importance.
Of far greater importance for herself …
As things turned out, her anxieties proved wholly groundless. She received no birthday greetings from a single soul, either in the staff-room or in any of the six classes she taught that day.
Yet there was, in 5C, just the one pupil who knew Mrs. Stevens’s birthday. Knew it well, for it was the same as his own: the twenty-fifth of May. Was it that strange coincidence that had caused them all the trouble?
Trouble? Oh, yes!
In the previous Sunday Mirror’s horoscope column, Kevin Costyn had scanned his personal “Key to Destiny” with considerable interest:
Now that the lone planet voyages across your next romance chart, you swop false hope for thrilling fact. Maximum mental energy helps you through to a hard-to-reach person who is always close to your heart. Play it cool.
“Maximum mental energy” had never been Kevin’s strong point. But if such mighty exertion were required to win his way through to such a person, well, for once he’d put his mind to things. At the very least, it would be an improvement on the “brute-force-and-ignorance” approach he’d employed on that earlier occasion—when he’d tried to make amorous advances to one of his school-mistresses.
When he’d tried to rape Mrs. Julia Stevens.
Chaos ruled OK in the classroom as bravely the teacher walked in the havocwreakers ignored him his voice was lost in the din
(ROGER MCGOUGH, The Lesson)
At the age of seventeen (today) Kevin Costyn was the dominant personality amongst the twenty-four pupils, of both sexes, comprising Form 5C at the Proctor Memorial School in East Oxford. He was fourteen months or so above the average age of his class because he was significantly below the average Intelligence Quotient for his year, as measured by orthodox psychometric criteria.
In earlier years, Kevin’s end-of-term reports had semi-optimistically suggested a possible capacity for improvement, should he ever begin to activate his dormant brain. But any realistic hopes of academic achievement had been abandoned many terms ago.
In spite of—or was it because of?—such intellectual shortcomings, Kevin was an individual of considerable menace and power, and if any pupil was likely to drive his teacher to retirement, to resignation, even to suicide, that pupil was Kevin Costyn. Both inside and outside school, this young man could be described only as crude and vicious; and during the current summer term his sole interest in class activities had focused upon his candidature for the British National Party in the school’s annual mock-elections.
Teachers were fearful of his presence in the classroom, and blessed their good fortune whenever he was (allegedly) ill or playing hookey or appearing before the courts or cautioned (again!) by the police or being interviewed by probation officers, social workers, or psychiatrists. Only rarely was his conduct less than positively disruptive; and that when some overnight dissipation had sapped his wonted enthusiasm for selective subversion.
Always he sat in the front row, immediately to the right of the central gangway. This for three reasons. First, because he was thus enabled to turn around and thereby the more easily to orchestrate whatever disruption he had in mind. Second, because (without ever admitting it) he was slightly deaf; and although he had little wish to listen to his teachers’ lessons, his talent for verbal repartee was always going to be diminished by any slight mis-hearing. Third, because Eloise Dring, the sexiest girl in the Fifth Year, was so very short-sighted that she was compelled (refusing spectacles) to take a ring-side view of each day’s proceedings. And Kevin wanted to sit next to Eloise Dring.
So there he sat, his long legs sticking way out beneath his undersized desk; his feet shod in a scuffed, cracked, decrepit pair of winkle-pickers, two pairs of which had been bequeathed by some erstwhile lover to his mother—the latter a blowsy, frowsy single parent who had casually conceived her only son (as far as she could recall the occasion) in a lay-by just off the Cowley Ring Road, and who now lived in one of a string of council properties known to the largely unsympathetic locals as Prostitutes Row.
Kevin was a lankily built, gangly-boned youth, with long, dark, unwashed hair, and a less than virile sprouting on upper lip and chin, dressed that day in a gaudily floral T-shirt and tattered jeans. His sullen, dolichocephalic face could have been designed by some dyspeptic El Greco, and on his left forearm—covered this slightly chilly day by the sleeve of an off-white sweatshirt—was a tattoo. This tattoo was known to everyone of any status in the school, including the Head; and indeed the latter, in a rare moment of comparative courage, had called Costyn into his study the previous term and demanded to know exactly what the epidermal epigram might signify. And Kevin had been happy to tell him: to tell him how the fairly unequivocal slogan (“Fuck ’em All”) would normally be interpreted by anyone; even by someone with the benefit of a university education.
Anyway, that was how Kevin reported the interview.
Whatever the truth of the matter though, his reputation was now approaching its apogee. And with two sentences in a young offenders’ unit behind him, how could it have been otherwise? At the same time, his influence, both within the circle of his immediate contemporaries and within the wider confines of the whole school, was significantly increased by two further factors. First, he even managed in some curious manner to exude a crude yet apparently irresistible sexuality, which drew many a girl into his magnetic field. Second, he was—had been since the age of twelve—a devotee of the Martial Arts; and under the tutelage of a diminutive Chinaman who (rumor had it) had once singlehandedly left a gang of street-muggers lying pleading for mercy on the pavement, Kevin could appear, often did appear, an intimidating figure.
“KC.” That was what was written in red capital letters in the girls’ loo: Kevin Costyn; Karate Champion; King of the Condoms; or whatever.