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The Class


Harry O’Donnell stared through the condensation on the classroom window at the turbid river below. Its cobalt meandering was a constant pleasure and an arresting meditation. Harry liked his classroom – its magnificent view across the Foyle Valley to the verdant fields of the Waterside contrasted with the verdure wits of the thirty three boys in front of him. The endless emerald patchwork stretched beyond the city – the road to the north towards the town of Limavady and to the south towards New Buildings. A road he had taken many times to visit his relatives in Strabane and Lifford. The ashen clouds tickled the roofs on the hill opposite, light emanating from the breaks in the cloud – shades of red and purple from the bilious shapes, spreading its luminosity. Their changing wind-driven formations were an agreeable distraction from the mundane bell-driven routine of the school day. The swooping birds, envied by Harry: floating in midstream, their courtships, their freedom, their jostling squeals like the boys in his school yard. Sometimes, on cloudless days, unyielding brightness flooded the room through the massive windows. Often during January, the gloomiest of all gloomy months, winter storms added to the post Christmas depression – a glacial mood settled in the class too. Often, to distract them, Harry focused their immature minds on imagining a world inside their heads, away for the gloom outside. He nevertheless rugged up despite the room heating blasting for all its worth, it was insufficient for the single glazed corner classroom, the butt of the wind and the rain. He savoured the changing illumination, the shadowing light, as if a curtain was slowly drawn. The city below darkened in its own existence and his thoughts of his own fireside were all the more rewarding. Everyone was relieved, staff inwardly, students outwardly, when the last gong of the day singled the finale.

Some activity at the permanent army checkpoint on the Craigavon Bridge caught his eye. Lines of cars queued for their inspection. It seemed another January day in a city engulfed in battened–down homes, combat fatigues, ashen skies and stony countenances. On the street below the school a group of women clustered around a pram, heads nodding in agreement, coats pulled tight against the unforgiving wind, another pushing a pram, the children skipping along in procession. Above the grassy bank opposite, two men, strolling, their dogs scampering ahead sniffing at lamp posts and corners, oblivious to the winter rawness, unlike their owners in the crisp winter wrapped in puffed anoraks. A Christmas wreath hung forlornly on a front door, an insult to the festivities gone, still colourful unlike the gaunt and forgotten garden.

Winter, at the beginning of the New Year, was a dark season, the cool damp penetrating to all that ventured out beyond their car or home. The money spent on Christmas celebrations and the reality of future months in payback. Some fortunate inhabitants escaped to warmer climes for a week or two, but for the majority it was the routine of their work, fireside and television. He felt like taking his binoculars from his desk drawer, but that wasn’t possible. The school for some local boys was a refuge from the Troubles on the streets and from their own troubles in their homes. Sometimes, for a distraction from school work, Harry let the students ask questions about anything. The topic usually focused on the latest football match or news item.

The Troubles affected most of Northern Ireland, in one way or another. Yet, in many places, it seemed as if it never existed, people went about their lives. Even in troubled cities like Derry, people led normal lives, well, as normal as bombs and soldiers would allow. What else could anyone have done? The schools were refuges. People took refuge by their firesides too. A different matter outside the school gates, where Harry spotted an army patrol walking into view.

Suddenly his mind spun on the overheard conversation outside his home between his neighbour, Dermot and someone else – what did it mean? Was there to be a major escalation of violence? Some spoke of a civil war. The Troubles. What a feeble idiom! His mother, like many, referred to someone who had their ‘troubles’. It usually meant some health problem or an errant child – a serious matter for the individual or family, enough to deal with. They had enough of their own troubles without worrying about the Troubles.

As if to remind Harry of the nature of the Troubles, a red Ford Cortina drove past the school and down Southway, the road running past the school, with three young men inside. It stopped. It was the Boys. It was the same red Cortina that had blocked his return from lunch. Except this time one of the lads that had stopped him was sitting staring into the corner of the ceiling in Harry’s class. A youngster dressed in a combat jacket, a black scarf over his face, a hand gun by his side, got out, shot several times at the patrol. He threw himself into the car and was out of sight in a matter of seconds. The car was gone before the army realised it was in the firing line. Some pupils stood up shouting ‘that was gun shots’ and moved to look out the windows. Harry stopped them, saying it was a car back firing, but they disagreed with their teacher and they were right. They had grown up familiar with the sound.

Harry remembered the tiny brown eyes of the youth now settling back to his classroom work. After lunch time on his return to school, Harry was stopped at an IRA check point, not far from the school. The same tiny brown eyes stared at his teacher, his rigid stance, the clipped pronunciation asking: ‘Licence, Sir?’

He handed his license over, the boy made theatrical gestures flipping through the pages, probably looking for his date of birth, thought Harry.

The machine gun resting on his hip bone, ‘Could you open your bonnet and boot, Sir?’ trying to sound as officious as possible. Harry bit his lip to prevent himself laughing but held his composure and said nothing.

The aim of getting through any security checkpoint, lawful or otherwise was to get through it as hassle free and as speedily as possible – it required subdued composure, subservient compliance and minimum conversation.

Harry got out of his car and let out a resigned sigh. The boy rebel said ‘Sorry, Mister O’Donnell’ in a moment of confused sympathy. Harry opened his bonnet and boot and stood back looking at the school gates a couple of hundred metres away. The boy was enjoying himself. He said half heartedly:

Thanks Mister O’Donnell. Sorry for your troubles.’

There it was again, that word, ‘troubles’, inconsequential yet deadly for Northern Ireland.

He heard the murmurs gathering apace, as the boys realised their teacher was absorbed elsewhere and they lessened their interest in their written task. Having one eye out the window and another on the class was Harry’s usual escape, but he got lost in his thoughts and the class knew it. Looking at the river for a final time, he took a mental snap of the view before going back to his duty. It suddenly occurred to Harry it was his turn to make dinner. Did he leave the mince out of the freezer this morning, he pondered?

As he faced the class he caught a glimpse of Davy O’Carolan, his hand down his pants massaging its contents. Unwillingly, Harry drew himself back to the reality. Most heads looked at him. Davy was otherwise pre-occupied. Summoning up as much enthusiasm as he could:

Stop writing, pants down, sorry, pens down, everyone, hands on the desk. Everyone, that includes you too, Davy.’

Harry tried to distract them and pressed on as the class roared with laughter at his pants mistake. He ignored the laughter as best he could, and attempted to re-direct the student’s attention.

Right, quiet please. You should have finished the paragraph on the Old Man and The Sea. For your homework, and you can start it in class: what was he thinking about, out alone, on the boat? Imagine, someone on a boat fishing on the Foyle, on a nice summer’s day. Maybe further up the river, away from the city. Using the same thoughts and words written on the board, imagine your father, your uncle or older brother out there for hours sitting, waiting for a catch. What thoughts would be going through their head? What contemporary issues would be going through their head? A list is on the board. Family problems, how much they lost on the horses and they have to tell their wife? Look at board for some ideas.. You add your own. Imagine looking at the boat on the river down below!’

To add to further mayhem, desks and chairs scraped on the floor, the classroom filled with noise as they all stood up, and half of them clamoured towards the windows.

Sit down everyone, you have seen the view of the river many times, and if you haven’t, imagine it.’

Harry bellowed at if talking to a dog half a field away and thought himself a fool for daydreaming and not keeping an eye to the class.

Sit! Start the paragraph now and finish it off for homework.’

The boys sat down disappointed. Their opportunity for silliness dashed. All heads slowly glanced from the board to their jotters; pens glided unwillingly across the page. Peace again reigned and Harry drew a deep breath and relaxed. He wandered down towards Davy, the student at the back of the class – the page in his exercise book was mostly blank.

Okay, Davy?’

Aye, no bother, Sir.’

Harry picked up the exercise book and flicked through its pages. Not a lot of evidence of written expression within. On his current page Davy had written – And the dour granite sky wept.

I see you managed to copy my sentence from the board.’

It’s very good, Sir. You should be proud, thinking up a line like that. Isn’t it good hand writing? I took my time, Sir.’

What about some self-expression?’

Some what, Sir?’

The exercise book’s cover was a piece of abstract colours and swirling line doodles. Harry showed the cover to Davy:

What is that?

That, Sir, is art.’

Maybe. Who am I to judge art, Davy? There is no must in art, art is free, as some Russian artist said. But your time in my class is not free. I suggest you get started.’

Yes Sir. Ah damn, my pencil lead just broke. Sir, did you know broken pencils are pointless?’

Daveee!’

Davy’s left arm covered his book and with slack jawed concentration he made demonstrative movement with his writing hand. Harry was sure little was happening in Davy’s book.

Harry thought Davy was in jaunty form, not his usual querulous self. The numerous years Harry had spent in the classroom, teaching every day. The same stuff, just new faces. He felt he was getting tired of the whole experience. What else could he do? The children seem to be getting more cantankerous and vigorous, more assertive. They needed more hand-holding, more spoon-feeding. As Harry told new teachers – spoon-feeding taught nothing, but the shape of the spoon. They needed explicit instructions, control of their physical movements, and awareness of their shortened activity time. They were less willing to give things a go or were they simply behaving stupidly with boredom and anxiety? The days when they sat and listened to him or listened to each other with surly respect were gone. At least they had the good manners to fall asleep or daydream, instead of confrontation, thought Harry.

The bell tolled the end of the school day, the final joyous day before the weekend. Harry delivered a few final words on homework, then a short prayer. He used prayer to focus the boys – it settled them. The chairs were placed on the desks before the final orderly scramble for the door.

Harry stared out the window once again, breathed deeply, another day, another dollar as his thoughts turned homeward. The brightening murkiness lit the cars on the Craigavon Bridge. The grammar school on top of a hill, tree entrenched, the ancient Round Tower just edging above them. Harry’s old school, just behind. The late afternoon mist drifted over the city. Smoke staggered from many of the chimneys and dissipated into the mist. The houses outside the school ran down the hill towards Lone Moor Road, flowing to the riverside, and lines of terraced streets rose again on the hill opposite. Harry opened the window a crack, wafts of moist fresh air roused his weary eyes, the window’s security feature preventing it opening wide so no one could fall out, intentionally or otherwise. After a few moments he closed it, creating a plume of dust as he wiped the blackboard and gathered his stuff from the desk, closing the door behind him.

In the French store room, Seamas, the Head of French and Irish sat reading Friday’s Derry Journal, the local newspaper. A few colleagues gathered to have coffee there, sometimes for lunch or just for some collegiality. Seamas had a frown permanently etched on his face, hard to see sometimes in his abundant facial hair. He sat with his back to the window, the view of the Foyle winding towards the city behind him, and he kept reading the paper, without lifting his head.

Any news? Are you calling into the Castle tonight?’

Naw. We’re having Elma’s sister and hubby round for drinkies tonight.’

Seamas answered, the usual mild irritation in his tone.

How is Elma, Seamas? Did she survive the fall?’

My wife, Harry, is the great survivor. Within days she was back to work, organising my life and the kids.’

Good on her, you need someone to sort you out, I’ll see you Monday. Have a great weekend.’

Same to you.’

Harry left and on the ground floor stepped into the staff room, a palpable mood of sociable relief pervaded the remnants of staff. Friday afternoon was usually devoid of good company, but he saw Eamon hanging about the foyer, looking for a possible drinking partner. Eamon was set for an after-school drink any day of the week, but Harry decided to skip Eamon’s company and slipped out to the car park. A few teachers were already driving out and with a meek salute to them he plopped into his car, and as he eased his aching back into the driver’s seat, he thought about getting into his car more mindfully in the future. The slick wet hill for home lay ahead, he pushed the Horslips tape into the slot. ‘Dearg Doon’ blasted his ears as he cranked up the volume. What would his wife and himself do on the Friday night? Perhaps catch up with some friends after he made dinner; there was usually a party, somewhere. He wondered if sex was on the agenda. He was mulling over his possible sexual encounter as blood started to pump into his crotch; Friday night deserved sex, drugs and rock and roll as soon as possible. Totally absorbed in Celtic rock music and the thoughts of sex and booze, he drove home to start his weekend.

He made slow progress along Park Avenue – always a delay, one of Derry’s traffic jams. Lorries were pulling in and out; two were double parked, unloading onto the pavement. It was simply too narrow for cars travelling in both directions with many parked cars. Harry lived at the end of the avenue – a row of terrace houses on either side, many with little walled gardens. He sat behind a white van with a shamrock on its rear door. Horslips pumped out its electro music and Harry was oblivious to the world and its troubles, tapping his fingers to the Celtic beat on the steering wheel.