Collaborative Short Story by Angela Caldin and Friends

I belong to a writing group composed of five friends who met 10 years ago on a week’s holiday on the island of Zakynthos where we took part in a creative writing course. (Actually, that’s not strictly accurate as one of the friends is my husband whom I met more than 40 years ago and he didn’t do creative writing, he did sailing, but we let him join the group nonetheless.) One of our activities over the years has been to write stories where one of us starts off and then the next person carries on, then the next, until all five of us have made a contribution. We always choose a short phrase to start us off and in this case the phrase was ‘the apostrophe is dead’ (chosen by me, as you might guess). We each wrote 250 words. Here’s the story:

Signs of the time

‘The apostrophe,’ announced Mrs Peartree, head of lower school English, as she heaved an enormous sigh, ‘is dead. I gave them my best lesson yesterday; we did possessives, plurals and contractions and today it’s the same as ever: they’re putting them in where they should leave them out and leaving them out where they should put them in.’

‘I think there’s a possible metaphor for life there, unless I mean simile – I always muddle those two up,’ chortled Mr Blueberry, head of middle school Geography. ‘Honestly, I don’t know why you bother trying to teach them such refinements – starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending with a full stop would make my day.’

‘You’re both far too restrictive’ interposed Ms Cherry, head of Art throughout the school. ‘This obsession with punctuation is stunting the children’s creativity. They must be allowed to express themselves freely and fully and not be trammelled by petty rules and regulations.’

The first bell rang and Mr Blueberry began collecting the coffee cups and stacking them in the sink. He passed close to Ms Cherry’s chair, brushing against her legs which were leaning jauntily on the table. The shortness of her leather skirt afforded him a tantalising glimpse of her creamy thighs.

His manoeuvre did not escape the notice of Mr Appleton, probationary Science teacher who found Ms Cherry’s wild disdain for convention extremely arousing.

He tore his eyes away from the object of his desire and looked out fiercely into the seething playground. ‘Hells’ teeth,’ he murmured. ‘Is that a fight kicking off?’ Through the opaque staff-room windows, he could see the mêlée of baying adolescence surrounding two bobbing figures circling round each other.

Johnny Appleton made a dash for the door, clumsily – but to his great satisfaction – banging into Blueberry on his way out. Johnny was a well-built, athletic young man and took the stairs three at a time down to the swing doors on the ground floor. He sprinted over to the serried circle of yelling boys, and started grabbing them by the scruff of their necks, bellowing ‘Out of the way!’

He quickly reached the centre of the ring, where he found two of his second-year Physics class staring fixedly into each other’s eyes, one figure frozen into a crouch, clutching each end of a taut cord of string as if it were a catapult, and the other casually erect, one hand dangling another cord, on which there hung a magnificent, burnished conker. They made no sign of recognition of Mr Appleton, who immediately realised that, after all, this was not a situation in which his duty required him to intervene.

He turned to stride back over the playground, when his eye was caught by a rotund figure beside the bicycle sheds. Doreen Orchard was motioning him over and he changed course obediently.

‘Can I help you, Madam Principal?’ he asked.

She was the school’s ‘super head’, and an OBE, and he was still rather in awe of her.

Doreen Orchard sniffed disdainfully. She had little regard for any of the teachers at this benighted school: she had been parachuted in at the express request of the PM in whose constituency it was inexplicably sited.

‘The sign,’ she said, pointing at the board by the gate. It read: ‘Bishops’ Haven Academy’, a flamboyant apostrophe after the’s’.   Johnny noted the blobs of chewing gum liberally decorating the borders and the assorted stickers that Colin Colon, the dim-witted caretaker, had half-heartedly tried – and failed – to scrape off. Confused, Johnny read the sign out loud.

‘I can see perfectly well what the sign says, Mr Appleton,’ she barked. ‘I am not testing your reading skills!’ Not, she thought darkly, that some of the staff’s linguistic skills were not woefully inadequate. Only last week she had had occasion to tear down a poster in the vestibule asking for ‘Pupils what like expressive painting’ to contact Ms Cherry.

‘Move it,’ she ordered her bemused subordinate. ‘Today.’

‘The sign?’ said Johnny, thinking: what am I? A bloody workman?

‘The APOSTROPHE!’ roared the redoubtable Mrs Orchard. Various heads in the playground turned in their direction. ‘It is in the wrong place.’

‘No, no …’ began Johnny, realising too late that no-one – and certainly not a probationary Science teacher – should ever challenge the battle-axe. ‘You see, there were loads of …’

‘Today!’ she hissed, striding off, leaving behind what Johnny fancied was a tang of brimstone.

Mrs Peartree would go ballistic.

He returned to the staffroom where he found Blueberry had persuaded Ms Cherry that she’d like nothing better than to accompany his class on their weekend field-trip to the Lakes.  He cursed sotto voce before he remembered that the weather forecast for Saturday was dire.

‘Er…who would I get to make an …adjustment to a school sign…?’  he asked tentatively.

‘Well, I could paint you something.’ Ms Cherry volunteered.

‘What kind of sign?’ Mrs Peartree asked peremptorily, barely looking up as she viciously red-penned Form 2’s essays.

‘Um…well the…sign at the main gate.’ He made heavy work of searching for a bourbon in the biscuit tin.  Mrs Peartree put down her pen.

‘And what exactly is wrong with the sign Mr Appleton?’ she asked in her assembly voice.  Perspiration gathered in Johnny’s armpits. He could feel his chest tighten in the old familiar way.  Crossing swords with a senior staff member did not bode well for one on probation.

‘Something to do with… um…the punctuation.’ His failing voice sank towards his new Nike trainers.

The atmosphere in the staff-room, previously a pleasant low key buzz was now taut with anticipation. The inevitable stabbing pain started up behind his left eye.  All heads were turned in his direction, even Blueberry had abandoned his attempt to get Ms Cherry to finalise field-trip details over dinner at his flat. Mrs Peartree removed her glasses, put the cap on her red pen and placed it carefully on top of the pile of essays.

‘According to whom?’ Mrs Peartree managed to inject each syllable with a tincture of acid.

Mr Appleton told all. So engrossed was he in exonerating himself that the shift of mood in the staffroom entirely escaped him. He thought afterwards that there had been something in the air, the kind of feeling people talk about just before an electrical storm – a crackling expectation.

‘By all means – if Mrs Orchard so decrees, let us minimise the Bishops.’ Mrs Peartree had resumed her marking. ‘Ask Mr Colon in Facilities to remove the offending item – I’m sure he will oblige.’

Which Mr Colon duly did later that afternoon. It was just extraordinary happenstance and plain bad luck for Mrs Orchard that for the first time in his daughter’s four year sojourn at Bishops Haven, Miles Regarde from the Morning Record turned up for a parents’ evening the following day. And seemed to think the school’s inability to display its name correctly on its own signage was cause for an article attacking the unregulated standards of academies in general and Bishops’ Haven in particular.

Poor Mrs Orchard couldn’t withstand the barrage of media attention. Not when parents complained about snapping paparazzi at the gates and messages to call the papers in their children’s rucksacks. There were questions in the House. What else could the governors do?

After half term, a serene Mrs Peartree returned as Acting Interim Head. Next day, a confused Colin Colon, brush in hand, solemnly rectified the Bishops.

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