Eric surveyed the children in front of him. Troublemakers, delinquents and shitheads the lot of them. On a good day he would have called them troubled, disadvantaged and misunderstood but today was not a good day…”
by callie taylor
Eric wrinkled his nose and sniffed. A sour, milky scent filled his nostrils. Morning breath. It was definitely morning breath. He opened his eyes. Sarah was gazing at him through sleep-encrusted eyes, her nose pressed gently against his. Eric tried for a smile but settled on a grunt instead. Sarah ruffled his hair.
Eric nodded and pulled the duvet over his head. Sarah pulled it back.
“Do you want a nicotine patch, Eric? Should we put the patch on before you get up, do you think? Or after your shower. Probably after your shower. Are the patches still on the dresser? Do you want to get them or should I?”
Sarah was still chattering inanely when Eric stepped out of the shower and wandered back into the bedroom. He select a pair of underpants from the chest of drawers and carefully stepped his left foot into them. Sarah bounded across the room and waved a small, foil wrapper in his face.
“Can I do it? Can I stick it on?”
Eric inhaled, stepped his right foot into the pants and pulled them up. He exhaled slowly.
“Yes, darling. Stick it on.”
He was late when he reached the staffroom. The tube was delayed, again. He’d given up his seat to an old gent and spent the next 25 minutes standing in the carriage, tightly sandwiched between a body odour problem and a sneezing fit. The old man hadn’t acknowledged Eric’s gesture. He hadn’t even made eye contact. Eric sighed, shrugged off his jacket and hung it on a peg. He felt hot and sweaty and the patch was starting to itch.
It was Simon, Head of History.
Eric put his bag on the table, unzipped it and took out his marking. He’d meant to finish it the night before but Sarah had asked him to pick her mum up from the airport and by the time he’d got home it was too late. He put a pen to the first paper, tried to concentrate, tried hard. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face. Simon sauntered over and hovered next to him.
“Can I ask you a favour?”
Eric looked up.
“Could you cover detention for more this afternoon? Something’s come up. Go on, be a mate.”
Eric grimaced. Simon was not his mate. Simon was prat with a post-work drinking habit that was getting out of hand. He shuffled the papers back into a pile.
“What’s come up, Simon?”
“Personal stuff. You know?”
Personal stuff. Eric knew about personal stuff. He knew about questions and answers and discussions and tears. He knew about biological time clocks that ticked so loudly that he’d had to give up smoking, eat healthily and get fit. Before the baby came, before the conception even. It was important for the sperm, Sarah had said. He didn’t even want a baby, not yet. But Sarah did. He looked at Simon. Did Simon have a much-loved study, crammed with albums, books and ashtrays, that had been turned into a home gym by his over-zealous wife? Probably not, he thought.
“Personal stuff, Simon?”
Simon put his hand on Eric’s arm.
“Come on mate. Don’t make me beg. I’d do the same for you.”
No you wouldn’t, thought Eric. And stop calling me mate. He shrugged.
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Diamond. Absolute diamond.”
He watched as Simon swaggered out of the room, hands in pockets, whistling a non-descript tune. He felt tense. He felt angry. He felt like pulling off the patch and lighting a fag, right there in the middle of the staffroom. Then he breathed, reasoned with himself and sat down. It was okay. It was a favour. He did lots of favours, for lots of people. Today was no different. Today was just another day. But he still felt tense.
By the end of school he had lent a pen to a student (not returned), allowed a colleague to use the last of the milk (even though Eric got there first), agreed to join the Year 7 Geography field trip as supervisory backup (even though he taught Art) and collected the staff peer appraisal forms for the Head (her secretary snatched them from his hand without so much as a thank you). Not unusual, he thought as he walked out of the art block. Not an unusual day, nothing different, nothing out of the ordinary. If this was yesterday, he thought as he began to walk towards the main school, I’d be having a fag and none of this would matter. It would be gone, in a puff of smoke.
Eric circumnavigated the school twice (walking seemed to help a little) but he still felt tense and the patch still itched. He still had to take detention before he got to go home. Home. He sighed. He wanted to lock himself in the studio, pull on the headphones, crank up Pink Floyd and spark up a cigarette. He also quite fancied a drink. But he couldn’t. Eric walked purposely into the classroom and banged the door shut. He couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was taking the piss out of his good nature. No more than normal, he acknowledged, and that bothered him more.
Eric surveyed the children in front of him. Troublemakers, delinquents and shitheads the lot of them. On a good day he would have called them troubled, disadvantaged and misunderstood but today was not a good day. He sat down heavily at the desk. The chair scraped on the floor but the children continued to shout, laugh and generally ignore him.
The children continued to talk, screech and sing. A ball of damp chewing gum flew through the air and missed his ear by a couple of inches. He stood up again, head throbbing.
The classroom went quiet. Eight pairs of eyes looked at him. Several of the boys grinned. Eric glared.
“Sit down, all of you.”
The children slipped into their chairs. They took their time, glancing at each other and smiling but they all sat. One of the girls giggled. She hadn’t heard Eric shout before. None of them had.
“Take out your work and get on with it.”
An arm reached into the air. It was Charlie Hughes, Year 10, a A grade student that he had once thrown out of pottery class for starting a clay fight. Charlie was from a good family, privileged even, but he was a self-proclaimed nihilist and a compulsive attention seeker with a penchant for disrupting Eric’s classes.
“What is it Charlie?”
“I don’t have any work to do, Sir.”
“Then sit in silence for the hour.”
“And do what?”
“Think about your future.”
“What future, Sir?”
“Quite. Now shut up and get on with it.”
The children worked quietly for about fifteen minutes, save the occasion whisper or quiet giggle. Eric stared out of the window. He wanted a cigarette. He felt raw and nervy. He really wanted a cigarette. Charlie coughed loudly. Eric didn’t look round.
Eric looked. Charlie was sitting on the back of his chair, his feet on the desk.
There was a pause. All eyes were on Charlie and Charlie knew it. He grinned and looked his teacher in the eye.
“Why are you such a tosser, Sir?”
Eric was out of his chair and across the room before he even had chance to think. His hand was inches from the boy’s throat when he stopped, suddenly and lowered his arm.
“Get out Hughes. Get out of my sight.”
His voice was no more than a whisper. His whole body was shaking.
He asked the kids to leave, all of them. They gathered their papers and their books and filed out slowly, in complete silence. He slumped back into his chair and put his head in his hands. He wasn’t a violent person. He wasn’t.
Eric let himself into the flat and went into the kitchen. Sarah was cooking up a revolting looking concoction of vegetables, fish and herbs. Eric eyed it warily. Some kind of new age fertility slop, he imagined. Sarah stopped stirring and launched herself at him. Her fingers rubbed the top of his arm, fingering the thin cotton of his shirt, feeling for the nicotine patch. She looked up at her husband and smiled.
“Still there. Well done. Well done, darling. How was it? How was your day?”
Eric tried for a smile but frowned instead. Sarah’s face fell.
“Oh. That bad?”
Eric felt for the words, tried to coax them from his throat, but there weren’t any there. He looked down at his wife. She was so soft, so small, so clueless. It wasn’t her fault. Not really. It was his fault. He could never hurt Sarah. But they would talk, they would have to.
“Just give me a few minutes, love. I’ll be back in a sec.”
Sarah frowned, turned back to her cooking and continued to stir. Eric took a step towards the door. His fingers rubbed at the patch. It was still itching. So was his brain. Hughes’ words scratched at his brain. “Tosser, tosser, tosser.”
“Why are you such a tosser?”
Sarah was still stirring and salting when Eric walked out of the kitchen, into the hallway and across to the study. Sarah’s voice followed him.
“Oh, Eric Mother rang. Her car’s broken down again. She wondered if you could run her to the supermarket tonight? I’d take her but I’ve got the dinner on. You couldn’t be a sweetie and take her, could you?”
Eric put his hand on the door handle and looked back towards the kitchen. The words were out of his mouth before they’d formed in his mind.
“No, Sarah. No, I couldn’t.”
Sarah’s voice rang out from the kitchen, cheery and bright.
“Sorry, darling. What was that?”
Eric stepped into the study, opened the window and removed his shirt. He picked up the album that lay on the desk. It was the last one, the only one that had managed to escape relegation to the attic. He smiled. Pink Floyd, his favourite. He gently pulled the record from the sleeve and ran his fingers over the dark grooves. He placed the record on the player, lifted the arm from its cradle, switched the lever and pulled the headphones onto his head. As the music began to crackle and play, he pulled the nicotine patch from his arm. He reached into the desk drawer and removed a packet of cigarettes and disposable lighter. He flipped the lid of the packet. There was one left. He placed it in his mouth and sparked the lighter. Then, ever so slowly, ever so deliberately, he inhaled.
Cally Taylor lives in Brighton and works in London. Her stories have appeared in BBC Get Writing and SmokeLong Quarterly and she is currently working on a novel for teenagers.