47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair


“THANK you so much for coming in to see me, Mrs Willoughby,” said the headmaster, smiling an almost over-polite smile.

“No problem,” said Katrina. “I mean, I got the impression from your email that it was fairly urgent so I thought I’d better cancel everything and get down here as fast as I could. She is all right, isn’t she?”

“Oh yes, of course, Sonia’s fine, absolutely fine and I do apologise, Mrs Willoughby, if I gave you the impression there was any physical problem confronting us this afternoon. Far from it, ha, ha, ha...”

Mr Crowther laughed an almost over-jolly laugh.

“... in fact, I believe at the moment her whole class are having a fine old time, getting stuck in down at the WOSSU....”

He stopped himself and smiled indulgently at Katrina.

“...that’s the Workplace Simulation Unit, Mrs Willoughby.”

“Yes, I know, thank you,” said Katrina somewhat sharply. “We had one when I was at school.”

“Did you really?” asked the headmaster with slightly more surprise in his tone than strictly necessary.

“Well, I must say Mrs Willoughby, you certainly don’t look... that is to say...”

He had been left floundering by his moment of confusion and opted to start again.

“Yes, I think you certainly should look at what we’re doing down there now, Mrs Willoughby. The range of work experiences we can lay on for them is truly astonishing - everything from sales profiling to hygiene management, from data correction to ethical conformity enforcement. You name it, the kids have had a go at it, ha ha ha...”

Seeing that Katrina was no longer even pretending to smile at his joviality, the head moved on quickly.

“And so, Mrs Willoughby, although the matter before us today involves no physical danger to your daughter and perhaps does not therefore merit the description of ‘urgent’ which led you to respond with such admirable speed to my, errr, invitation, it does, however, involve an issue of great importance to you and your child and of great concern, I am afraid to say, to her teachers, to myself and, indeed, to our educational providers, who have already necessarily become involved in this rather upsetting incident...”

“Wha-...?” began Katrina, but the headmaster held up a hand to silence her, while passing a print-out across his desk.

“It’s easier if I show you this straight away, Mrs Willoughby. Or, rather, show it to you again. You recall this piece of work, I assume?”

Katrina scoured the text.

“Well...” she ventured.

“You see, Mrs Willoughby,” said the headmaster, “you did append your electronic signature to the document to certify that you had witnessed the completion of the homework task and therefore we are legally entitled to assume you have read it.”

His smile was almost too false to qualify as a smile at all.

Katrina took the sheet and started to read it.

It was some kind of account of life in a primitive village.

She remembered Sonia talking about having to write something, but she hadn’t asked her for any help and she had never actually read her daughter’s finished work before signing it away.

“Life was hard for peepel in those Olden Days,” said the sheet. “Everyday they were maid to dig up all the feelds and they didnt have Tellyvissun to enjoy and all they cood wach was the Hard Mud and those ants that 8 there dinner.”

Katrina stopped there. “Well,” she told the headmaster. “I can see that Sonia’s spelling is perhaps not what it should be for her age, but...”

He was shaking his head.

“No, no, no,” he said. “No, Mrs Willoughby...”

He sighed and twisted the paper round to face him, located the section he had in mind and turned it again to face the parent.

“Here,” he said, his finger still glued to the spot. “Read this, please, Mrs Willoughby.”

Katrina read out loud: “The Olden Peepel didnt have any Carrs or Musick or Pods or Chips or Freesors or...”

“Stop!” said the headmaster. “There, you see!”

Katrina looked at him with an expression so blank that his face began to boil pink with frustration. Then he remembered where he was and treated Katrina to one of his obsequious laughs - though it seemed to be intended more for his own benefit than hers.

“Mrs Willoughby, I am sure you will in fact have noticed that your daughter described a period of time in which she claimed that members of the public had, and I quote, ‘no chips’.”

Katrina frowned slightly. She wasn’t quite sure where this was all going but definitely didn’t like it. “I don’t see...” she began, but was interrupted by the headmaster who, to do him justice, had in fact drawn a breath to speak before she had started to say anything.

“And, as you will be aware, Mrs Willoughby, it is a firm part of educational law that children should not be exposed to any material that casts doubt on the acceptability, permanence or universality of chipping, or that promotes negative and anti-social mythologies of periods of time when chipping was not an unchallenged and appreciated element of the civilized social order.

“For a student to actually regurgitate such material in her own work does, of course Mrs Willoughby, represent a still more serious step into illegality and one which can, under no circumstances, be allowed to pass without a serious examination of the possible causes and potential consequences of the infringement.”

“But,” said Katrina, grasping for the right words. “But that’s just ridiculous.”

She sat staring at the headmaster in a state of shocked disbelief, unable for the moment to expand on her objection.

The headmaster, for his part, felt no need to add to his statement and sat, arms folded, with the self-satisfied air of somebody who knows he is indisputably in the right. The slightest raising of his left eyebrow acted as an invitation to Katrina to continue.

“I mean,” said Katrina. “I know we’ve all got a duty to prevent terrorist attitudes and all that, but I hardly think Sonia falls under that sort of heading.

“Firstly,” she continued, lifting one finger as an illustration. “Firstly, she’s only eight years old.

“Secondly, she didn’t say there was anything wrong with having a chip. As a matter of fact, it sounded to me like she felt sorry for them for not having a chip, in the same way as she wouldn’t want to be without a television or a pod - or any of the other stuff she mentioned...”

“Mrs Willoughby...”

“No,” said Katrina and before she could be too taken aback by her own firmness, added: “No, I haven’t finished yet, I’m afraid. I do also have to say that, at the end of the day, she was right, wasn’t she?”

“Errrr... ha!” spluttered the headmaster. “This of course revolves around the crucial issue of whether the idea of being ‘right’, as you put it, is devoid of all moral or ethical considerations and in this...”

“No,” said Katrina. This was becoming a habit.

“What I mean is that she was right to say that in the days before people even had cars or freezers, they certainly weren’t fitted with chips, were they?”

The headmaster had assumed a strained, rather contorted, expression.

“Mrs Willoughby, while I would not be minded in this instance to risk offence by stating you were incorrect per se, you must appreciate that as a servant of the educational authorities, it is my duty to uphold the judgements and...”

Katrina laughed.

“I don’t believe this,” she said. “You can’t say it, can you? You know full well that I’m right, that Sonia was right, but you don’t dare admit it.

“You’ve got your rules and your instructions and you’ve got to stick exactly with what they say, even when it means pretending to believe an absurd version of history that you and I both know for a fact is nothing but a lie, no matter how good the intentions behind it.

“Mr Crowther,” she added, rising from her chair.

“You really should be ashamed of yourself.”

And, with that, she marched towards the door.

The headmaster stood up as if to follow her.

“Mrs Willoughby,” he said. “Wait a minute, I beg you. There are forms to fill in. Regulations. This all has to be sorted out properly, Mrs Willoughby.”

But Katrina didn’t even turn around, just walked right out of his office, shutting the door behind her. The headmaster sprang out from behind his desk, ran over to the door, pulled it open again and saw the back of her head heading down the corridor.

“This isn’t just going to go away, Mrs Willoughby! This will all be going on your daughter’s record, you know! And yours too! There will be repercussions, Mrs Willoughby, serious repercussions!” he shouted after her, with a tone of unassailable authority that was almost a little too convincing.