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Kinky Norm

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It’s not often I’ll go down that way these days, especially not since they built the bypass.  But whenever I pass my old school, squeezed in between Saint Augustine’s Church and the new 24-hour Tesco’s, the nostalgia grabs my arm and twists it like a Chinese burn.  I glance across at those three storeys as if I still expect to see the flat-chested eleven-year-olds metamorphosing into high-heeled young women. As if I’m still scanning the classrooms for the teachers who ushered all those Catherines, Bernadettes and Marys through the messy process of adolescence.  Searching for poor Mrs Surtees, who never stood a chance in the popularity stakes.  Never stood a chance when Mr Crawford was around; Mr Norman Crawford, Kinky Norm.

Kinky Norm!  Where did those nicknames come from?  We didn’t worry much about their provenance back then; as long as they were derogatory was all that mattered.

Did he know?  There’s not a lot that schoolgirls can keep from their teachers.  But he never said anything.  It wouldn’t have been out of character for him to have picked us up on it: first congratulating us on our rebellious creativity, then challenging us to defend our choice of adjective.  He could have had us squirming just like in class, when, called upon to critique a verse from An Anthology of English Poetry, we struggled to please him with an analysis he would judge both spontaneously artless and The Right Answer.

We called the other English teacher Gypsy Surtees, although, with her pale skin, straight skirts and woolly jumpers, she might have been mistaken for an off-duty nun.  Ironic, then, that it was she who, much later, let drop about the extra restrictions on teachers in Catholic schools.  Such as that they weren’t supposed to mention sex; at least, not before the sixth form.  (Which was hard, I suppose, for the English department, with Romeo and Juliet and Sons and Lovers on the O-level syllabus.)  Her unsolicited disclosure during A-level Chaucer had the air of the confessional about it.  As if, in capitulating to a regime that would confine our carnal knowledge to innuendoes in the Carry On films, she’d let us down.  But really, what business was it of hers?  It was Kinky Norm, with his jazzy shirts and ties, who had charge of the development of our literacy skills throughout our first four years at that school.

Kinky Norm was the department head.  This we deduced as much from the fact that he was a man and Gypsy Surtees was a woman, as from the splendour of his top-floor classroom with walk-in cupboard attached.  There, squeezed in along with the shelves housing the thirty-odd copies of the set texts, as well as the special books that weren’t for general distribution, he had a desk to do his paperwork, and a kettle.  Even we could appreciate the prestige of a private place that did not have to be shared with children or other teachers.

Kinky Norm courted the precocious kids, girls who were ahead of the rest in either our intellectual or psychosexual development.  We were the oddballs who would find ourselves, a few years later, either winning prizes at university or cooped up in a tiny flat in a tower block with too many screaming babies.  In other lessons we’d be sitting rows apart, like unrelated species.  But in the English class we were pushed up against each other and incited to write poetry.  Poetry that didn’t rhyme; poetry ostensibly exploring the vagaries of adolescent angst, which the swots were too busy studying to feel and the slags too busy experiencing to articulate.

Kinky Norm would let us linger in the classroom after the lesson was over.  While he did his business in his cupboard-cum-office, we’d sit on the desks with our feet on the chairs discussing last night’s telly.  When Kinky Norm popped out with his mug of instant coffee, instead of chastising us for squandering our sacred privileges on idle chatter, he’d offer one of us a book.  On the cover there might be a picture of a couple of teenagers on a motorbike, or half undressed kissing in a shop doorway, and he’d say, “Catherine” (or Bernadette or Mary), “this is just the book for you.”  And we’d blush and say, “Aw, thanks, Mr Crawford.”  Thanks for thinking of me (and not Bernadette or Mary) when you were making your coffee in your cupboard-cum-office.

At that time, we didn’t carry our schoolbooks in a brown leather satchel, nor in a nylon backpack, but in a wicker basket like those our grannies used to take shopping.  A floral plastic budgerigar-cage cover in lurid fruit-gum colours with elasticated edging that held it snug around the rim, served to protect the contents from prying eyes and inclement weather.  When accepting Kinky Norm’s books, we wouldn’t stop to browse through the pages, but would bury them in our baskets among the rubble of pencil cases, geometry sets, and slide rules.  Our delight at being among the chosen ones was not something to be making a song and dance about.  These books were to be consumed with a torch under the bedclothes, not downstairs on the sofa with our parents watching Z-Cars.

Kinky Norm watched over the hurried interment of the books with a wry smile but whether at the act of concealment or the hiding-place itself, I couldn’t say.  But we knew he disapproved of those baskets that took up too much space under our desks, and in the huddle outside the classroom when we were waiting for him to open up for our lesson.  “Put that stupid thing on your head,” he snapped once at Patricia Maloney, who was unlucky enough to be at the front of the throng when he opened the door.

Patricia Maloney did as she was instructed, of course.  She lifted up her basket and walked into the classroom bearing her load on her head like an African woman bringing a pitcher of water home from the well.  Had her desk been at the front, she might have managed to get away with it.  But it wasn’t and she didn’t.  Half-way to the back she lost her balance and the basket fell to the floor, only just missing Christine MacBride’s shoulder.  That’s when we all learnt how impractical those budgerigar-cage covers were.  As the basket fell, the weight of the contents forced off the cover and everything spilled out onto the floor.  Everything!  Not only the paraphernalia of school work, but her personal things as well: girl things, woman things, things a man should never see.  Half the class gasped while the other half giggled, and Kinky Norm said, “Christine MacBride, give me a definition of imbroglio.  Quickly girl!  Come on, now!”

Poor Patricia Maloney!  She wasn’t to know that her basket would be performing somersaults in Mr Crawford’s English class when she’d secreted a packet of sanitary towels among her exercise books that morning before setting off for school.  The rest of us might attempt to distance ourselves from the spectacle but, even as we laughed, we all shared in the shame of those girl-things woman-things lying exposed on Kinky Norm’s classroom floor.

Was it Patricia Maloney’s basket that triggered the demise of those innocent break-times with Kinky Norm?  Hard to say for sure.  At first, it seemed that nothing had changed.  The supply of specially-selected paperbacks continued as before.  There may have been a greater urgency to hide them in our baskets, a deeper blush to our cheeks as we avoided our teacher’s gaze, but not enough to cause alarm.

We didn’t sit down together and discuss what we were going to do.  There was no plan.  No ringleader.  It just happened: one of those spontaneous eruptions of adolescent exuberance that our schoolmaster had dedicated his career to nurturing.  If you put raging hormones in a test-tube together with overexcited brain cells and shake them up, sooner or later, something’s got to happen.  With or without unreliable basket covers to act as a catalyst.

Kinky Norm knew all about schoolgirls and what we needed.  He knew that, despite the attempts of the priestly authorities to keep us down, girls will become, well, young women.  Even so, he seemed as surprised as we were when we leapt at him that day.  He didn’t make us stop and analyse, list all the different synonyms of passion.  He ran.

And we followed, our platform soles beating out a tattoo down the four flights of stairs.  Aroused.  Urged on by the look of fear on his face.  Thrilled.  Transported far beyond the accounts of teenaged fumblings in the books he lent us.

When we reached the ground floor, the carpet must have slowed our pace somewhat.  Perhaps it was friction -- we had learnt about it in Physics a couple of years before -- that enabled Kinky Norm to get to the staffroom before we could catch him.

As the door slammed behind him, we looked at each other and laughed.  Panting, straightening our ties, we walked back up the corridor and out into the playground, one group for a fag behind the bike sheds, the rest to check on our homework.  It wasn’t long before the bell rang to signal the end of break and we piled back into school for our next lesson.

Needlework, I think it was, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

End

Anne Goodwin's debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017. A former clinical psychologist, she is also the author of over 60 published short stories, a book blogger and speaker on fictional therapists and on transfiction. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.

 



 

 

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