No Fool Like A Young Fool
It had started twenty years ago, when I was a teacher, doing the job I had always wanted, and which I loved. Not that everything was always good: some days it felt as though I was getting nowhere; but then other days I could see a dawning comprehension, and an appreciation by my pupils of the literature they were studying.
There was a lot of preparation and marking involved, and it was hard to have a family life as well. My husband, Tom, was often away from home, travelling to various branches of the company his father had founded, trying to bring some of their outmoded practices into the new (at that time) world of computers. Our two children, Laura and Luke, had had to learn to do a lot for themselves, and to help round the house. Tom and I had long discussions about where the kids should go to secondary school, as I wasn’t keen for them to be at the local comprehensive where I taught. The next nearest school was a few miles away, with no direct bus route. It would be very difficult, particularly initially when Laura changed schools next year, to get her to Vermory High School, Luke to his primary school, and me to work, all at the same time. I couldn’t rely on Tom being available to do some of the ferrying about.
So I had that on my mind, as well as all the other problems a working mother has to deal with.
School was good, however. I’d been given a C.S.E. group this year, and it had in it the most promising pupil I’d ever taught, a boy named Daryl Pettigrew. The more I read his essays, the more excited I became. Why on earth wasn’t he in the top set, doing English O Level? (Though a top C.S.E. grade counted as an O level). The boy had real literary ability, with amazing insight for a fourteen-year old. I really thought that with a bit of a push he might get to a good University, one of the Russell group, even – not something anyone from the school had ever done.
I tried to encourage Daryl. I talked to him after the rest of the class had gone, and told him he should be aiming high. He said he didn’t think his grandparents would let him stay on at school, after he was sixteen. It seemed he had never known his father, and his mother had gone off soon after he was born, leaving him with her parents, who had brought him up. They wanted him working and earning as soon as he was old enough.
I was shocked. I thought those attitudes had gone, and that everyone wanted their children to achieve more than they themselves had done. Looking back, I can see how naïve I was. I’d grown up in a middle-class home, surrounded by books. My brother and I had gone to art galleries, museums, theatres, and concerts from an early age. We’d gone to independent schools in a middle-class area. I was a ‘champagne socialist’, with no idea of the world as it was lived by many others. I lived in my snug little world, comfortably off, and thought I had socialist principles, because my kids went to an ‘ordinary’ school, and I taught in one. I think that is largely what contributed to my downfall. I was clueless.
Daryl was the unwitting catalyst.
With a zeal born of self-righteous indignation, I set out to change his life and prospects. I invited him to my house, where we chatted about what he was reading, and I lent him the books I thought he should be reading. I took him to see a production of ‘Macbeth’ in the city about twenty miles away. At no point did I do what I ought to have done, which was talk to his grandparents – and I didn’t know Daryl had not told them where he was going, or with whom.
When the Headmaster sent for me, I had no premonition. I walked blithely into his office – and my world collapsed.
There was a couple sitting there. The man was in his early fifties, average height, and strongly built. He had an earring in one ear, a leather jacket, and jeans. His shirt was open nearly to the waist, so grey curly hair was visible, with a thick gold chain suspended on his chest. The woman was about the same age, with peroxide-blonde hair in a complicated chignon, a tightly-fitted short dress with a matching jacket, very high heels, and a lot of make-up.
The Head asked me to sit: then he started. This was Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew, Daryl’s grandparents. They were landlord and landlady of the Bricklayers’ Rest public house. They had had to close the pub for the morning to come here to make a serious allegation of misconduct against me. It was about their grandson Daryl, and my relationship with him.
At first I didn’t realise what the complaint was. I waded straight in, waffling about what ability Daryl had, and how it would be a criminal waste, were he not to continue his education beyond sixteen; how he should be aiming for a top university, and how nothing should be put in his way.
The Head interrupted me in full flow. Mr. and Mrs. Pettigrew were not here to talk about Daryl’s academic progress, but about my improper relationship with the boy.
Still the penny didn’t drop. I said I realised it wasn’t altogether conventional for a teacher to single out a pupil, and personally introduce him to theatre and other art forms, but Daryl’s abilities were exceptional, so I’d been doing all I could to stimulate them.
Mr. Pettigrew came out with a furious tirade. He obviously misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘stimulate’.
The Headmaster then said words I can never erase from my memory.
“I am going to have to suspend you, Mrs. Wilson, pending a police investigation into your sexual relationship with Daryl Pettigrew, which his grandparents allege has gone on for some time.”
My mouth must have gaped open. I couldn’t speak. My heart felt as though it would burst from my body.
At last I recovered a little. “That’s utterly ridiculous!” I said – and began to laugh hysterically. I couldn’t stop.
The Head must have rung his bell for his secretary, Marsha. She came in with a glass of water. It’s a wonder she didn’t pour it over my head. Instead, she squeezed my shoulder sympathetically, and at last I managed to get back some self-control.
“I have had no alternative but to send for the police, and you must remain in this room until they arrive,” said the Head.
My mind had begun to work again. I turned to Marsha. “Please fetch Carl Johnson, my Union rep. I’m entitled to have him present.”
The Head nodded at Marsha. “Very well,” he said; and she went out. The Pettigrews sat in silence.
It was fifteen minutes later when a police sergeant arrived, with a constable in tow. Someone – probably Marsha – must have found another teacher to cover Carl’s class, as he came in just before the police arrived. He and I went to the other side of the room, and I felt utterly humiliated as I told him about the sordid allegations being made against me.
“O.K. Valerie,” he said, “I think I’ll need to get on to the Union’s lawyers about this a.s.a.p. Meanwhile, I’ll stay with you for the police interview. I strongly advise you to say nothing to them, other than that the allegations are completely untrue.”
The next hour was a nightmare. The Pettigrews repeated their accusations, and said Daryl had told them it was all true. Furthermore, he’d told other boys about it as well. It was the parents of one of his friends who’d alerted them initially.
I wanted to deny it all, to say that boys led about their sexual experiences, especially when they haven’t had any, to try to impress their friends, but Carl stopped me.
At the end of it, when I’d repeated none of it was true, I was arrested and taken to the nearest police station, where I was later charged, and released on police bail, ‘pending further enquiries’.
I had thought things could get no worse, but they did. Laura and Luke came home from school tearful, saying that other children were making fun of them, and that it was all my fault. I tried to reach Tom by phone, but the office said they didn’t know where he was, as he’d taken a couple of days off. He’d told me he had business in Plymouth, but when I said this to the firm’s secretary, it was greeted with silence, until she said, “I’m afraid I can’t comment.”
What the hell did that mean? I came off the phone with dread seeping through me. Tom had lied to me. He wasn’t away working – so where was he? And with whom?
I kept the kids at home the following day, and let them watch television and play games. I let them eat whatever they wanted. I just sat, my mind going over and over everything. It appeared my career was over, my marriage was probably over, and my reputation was about to be dragged through the mud. I had never felt such despair.
When Tom eventually breezed in, I said, “How was Plymouth?”
“It was a great success,” he said. “They’ve asked for me to go down there to sort out the fine details with them, to explain how the programme works, so I’ll need to be away for about a week.”
“Right,” I said. “Will you be staying in the same place?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Remind me of where it is. I may need to contact you in an emergency.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t help matters if I were to be disturbed when I’m working, and I’ll have a lot still to do in the evenings. The best thing is if I ring you every day, just to check in.”
“You bloody liar!” I yelled. “You haven’t been working in Plymouth! You aren’t going to be working in Plymouth! How can you do this to me? You were with someone, weren’t you? How can you?” And I burst into tears.
Tom just stood there. He made no move towards me.
“It’s your own fault,” he said at last. “You never have time for me. All you think about is that god-awful school. I’m sick of hearing about it, and I’m sick of this. This house, this life. I’m stifled. I’m glad it’s come out. I’ll pack my stuff and be out of here. I’ll send for everything I can’t carry with me. I’m sure you’ll manage. You’re always so full of your own competence, always so self-sufficient. You’ve got your job, and it’s always been more important to you then me.”
I had stopped crying. I was just quietly furious.
“I don’t have my job,” I said. “I’ve been suspended on some trumped-up charge of sexual activity with a pupil.”
Tom’s jaw dropped. There was a moment’s stunned silence.
“Obviously I don’t believe it,” he said, “But you must admit you’ve only yourself to blame. You get far too personally involved with some of those kids.”
And then he just walked out of the room.
I sat. I waited: what else could I do? He came back carrying a large hold-all.
“What am I supposed to tell Laura and Luke?” I asked.
“Have you thought of them in all of this?”
“I’ll be in touch at the weekend, and I’ll see them then, and explain.”
“You will, will you? Suppose I say you can’t?”
“I don’t think you’re in any position to dictate terms about contact with children, under the circumstances, do you?”
And with that, he just walked out.
Dear God, surely I wouldn’t lose my children, as well as my husband and job? It had only now occurred to me that it was a possibility. I had not realised things could get worse, but it seemed they could.
So began a time I didn’t think I’d survive. It was only because of Laura and Luke I was able to keep going. No-one took them away, though the threat was there, had I been convicted. Eventually the police dropped the case, because of lack of corroborative evidence, but they kept it on file. I could not return to the school, and with the accusations neither proved nor disproved, I had no chance of finding another post. Carl, my Union rep., could not have been more helpful, and my Union had provided me with their solicitor. (If you aren’t in a Union, but are able to join one, DO!)
Rumours and gossip circulated round the area. Some people who’d been on friendly terms no longer spoke. Tom having left didn’t help matters. It was all too easy for people to think he believed the allegations, and that was why he’d gone.
He moved in with Liz, his paramour, and just about all our friends fawned over them. My social life, such as it was, had collapsed.
I was glad our surname was so commonplace. The children and I moved to a village near a pretty market town a couple of hundred miles away, just in time for Laura to begin at the local Comprehensive at the start of the Autumn term. I had got half the proceeds from the sale of our house, and as prices were a lot lower here, I’d bought a pleasant small house without needing a mortgage. No-one knew us, and no-one knew my sorry tale. Luke’s Junior School was very welcoming, and both children soon made friends.
I was fortunate to be accepted as a volunteer guide at a nearby ‘stately home’, and not too long afterwards the management offered me a salaried post. It was part-time, which fitted in well.
And so time went on. I made a few friends locally. When they asked me about my husband, I just said he’d gone off with a younger woman. As the children got older, they saw less and less of him. He made excuses not to make the journey north to see them; and they didn’t want to go to his home, where a second family received all the attention.
Laura studied Modern Languages at Durham, and Luke Chemistry at Sheffield. Neither of them shared my love of books, and of reading. It was a disappointment, but there are worse things, as I knew only too well. I had holidays abroad with my friend Jane, whom I’d met at an evening class in ‘Spanish for the holidays’, which we’d both joined. Laura married a jolly young man, Simon, and they bought a small house just a twenty-minute drive away, so I was on hand for baby-sitting and child-minding, in due course. Luke and his partner Philip had a very swish modern apartment in a converted warehouse in Leeds, overlooking the Aire, and I saw them regularly too. My little cottage was just the right size for me, and I acquired a rescue dog, Jinty, a mixture of indeterminate breed, who was a very loving companion.
I rarely thought of the past, so it was with a shock I read the name Daryl Pettigrew in the Book Review section of ‘The Guardian’. It’s an unusual name, though I don’t suppose unique, and at first I thought it was just a co-incidence. Then I read the article, which was part review, part interview.
First was a rave review of his novel, which was on the Booker shortlist. After that was the interview. I’ll just give you the gist.
Daryl stressed that all the characters and incidents in the novel were entirely fictional. It was the story of a lonely boy, a bookworm, who had felt out of place in the life he’d had, but whose horizons had been broadened by his English teacher at school. When some of the other children made fun of him, he had told lies about her, to make himself seem interesting, but it had misfired. He’d been a fool, and had compounded matters by sticking to the lies he’d told. The teacher had been dismissed from the school, and the police were involved. He’d felt he couldn’t retract what he’d said, or he’d be in awful trouble himself. He’d left school as soon as he was sixteen, but continued to study in his spare time.
The second part of the ‘novel’ was about subsequent events. The teacher involved had killed herself, and her husband had had a breakdown. Their children had been taken into care, and had become drug addicts. The boy who’d told lies had been consumed by guilt, and had given up everything to work amongst the poor in India. There were descriptions of life in India, and of his gradual redemption by saving the life of a poor child, who was about to be eaten by a tiger.
Well! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at such nonsense.
The interviewer asked him if any small part of the book was autobiographical.
“Certainly not!” Daryl had replied.
I hoped people would believe that, and not start to pry into Daryl’s own school life. I hoped there’d be no snooping journalists. Then I thought, ‘So what if they do?’ The account by Daryl was a vindication of a sort for me. At the time of the events in the ‘true’ part of the book, my life had seemed ruined, but there has been a turn-around, and I truly believe it has been better than it would have been, had none of this happened. I loved where I now lived, and the pace of life in a village. I’d had time with my children, who had grown up into happy adults, living the lives they wanted, with people they loved, and who loved them.
I sat and thought about Daryl, and his own progress through life. What thrills me is knowing that with this one pupil at least I’d achieved something . I just hope Daryl does win the Booker Prize. I’ll feel it’s for me, too.