Cloakroom Duty

Nobody wanted to do cloakroom duty, but everyone had to at some point.

After collecting the first period’s work from Mrs Bashki and receiving their instructions from the school receptionist (collect toilet passes from pupils during lesson time, clean up any mess, don’t allow any loitering), Helen Threlfall and Paul Church entered to the cloakroom. Paul held the heavy double fire door open and followed Helen inside. Eight rows of benches lined the centre of the room, leaving a thin aisle down each side. In the middle of one of the aisles was a small square desk with a metal-framed plastic chair at either side. A handful of coats and a few sports bags hung from the hooks over the benches. Standing out amongst the drab blacks and greys of the school blazers and plimsoll bags was a red quilted parka jacket hanging limply from its acrylic fur-lined hood.

“Nobody knows when it arrived or who it once belonged to, but that red coat right there,” Paul pointed to the jacket as the pair seated themselves and set their books and papers down “has always been here.” He made a silent woooo shape with his mouth and wiggled his fingers in Helen’s face like an over-compensating stage magician.

She squinted at him across the desk, tilting her head to the left and slapped his hands down. “That can’t be right. Surely the caretaker or one of the cleaners would put it in lost property.”

“Hey, don’t blame me!” Paul held up his hands in mock defence “All I know is that everyone says it, and here the stupid thing is, just like they promised.”

“It’s just some kid’s coat,” Helen said. “Now do your work!” She kicked him under the table, gently enough so as not to hurt, but hard enough to make him yelp. The pair worked on the Geography assignment Mrs Bashki had set them for about twenty minutes before Paul got bored.

“Helen?”

She ignored him.

“Hey, Helen? Earth to Helen Threlfall, come in!” he persisted, tapping his pen on the desk with each syllable.

“What?” she sighed as she raised her eyes from the page and gave him her best can’t you see I’m busy? glare. She carefully placed her fountain pen down beside the exercise book. He’d better not be like this all day.

“This your first time?” He asked. “On cloakroom duty, I mean.”

“Yeah. I was supposed to be on it a few weeks ago with Tim Carter but Claire wanted to swap with me so…”

“I bet she did!” He made a kissing gesture at her.

Ignoring his crudeness she continued “so I said that was fine with me because it meant I got to skip double Games today.”

“Hah! Yeah! Anything to get out of Sergeant Foster’s class! ‘You there, boy!'” he barked, imitating the teacher’s brusque drill-instructor-like manner, “‘Yes, you! Church! Get down there and give me twenty! I’m going to run you until you’re sick, and then I’ll run you until you’re sick again! And when you’ve nothing left in you and you’ve no excuse anymore, I’ll run you some more!’. Can’t stand the man. Who do you have?”

“Miss Baxter. She’s okay I guess, but yeah, I’d rather be here than doing cross country, to be honest! So was Foster really in the army or is that just a nickname.”

“Dunno,” Paul shook his head with a chuckle “but that’s what…”

“Everyone says!” Helen completed his sentence as the door across the room swung open. A small boy, probably a first year, stepped into the cloakroom and headed towards them.

Paul stretched his arm out to block the boy’s passage. “And just where do you think you’re going short stuff?” he demanded.

The kid looks petrified Helen thought. Paul didn’t seem to have noticed though. Or didn’t care. “Don’t worry. He’s just being a moron,” she kicked him again. “So, where are you going?” she said, firmly but kindly.

“Er… j-just the toilet. M-Miss Anderson said it was okay?” stammered the boy. He started to jig from foot to foot, clearly in a hurry to get there.

“Pass please.” Helen held out her hand to the boy. He placed a slip of paper in it which she examined carefully as his hopping became more frantic. He started to grunt and whine involuntarily with the effort of holding it in. After looking him up and down for what felt to the boy like hours, she eventually said “Okay, fine. Robert?” He nodded desperately. “You can go.”

Paul raised his arm to allow passage. Relief flooded the boy’s face. He rushed off muttering “Thank you, thank you!” back at them.

“And no running indoors!” Helen called after him. Without slowing his pace he changed his gait from a run to something more akin to an Olympic speed walker as he vanished through the door of the boys’ bathroom.

The pair looked at each other for a second until the door swung shut and then burst out laughing.

“I thought I was going to be the bad cop today, but blimey Helen, you’re stone cold!” said Paul, wiping laughter tears from the corner of his eye with the back of his hand. “You did that effortlessly! I thought he was going to pee himself right in front of us!”

“Well, if you’ve got it, you’ve got it, and you, my friend, have not! You’ve gotta be subtle, make them think you’re on their side and then, when they trust you, WHAM!” she slapped a hand down on the table. “That’s when you hit them.”

“I bow to the master,” replied Paul as he slid his seat back. He stood up and theatrically genuflected at her before taking his seat again, sliding himself back into the desk with a loud goose-like honk of the chair feet on the hard tiles. The muffled sound of a hand dryer signalled that Robert would be leaving the bathroom shortly so Paul signed the permission slip in anticipation. The dryer stopped and a second or two after, Robert came walking back towards them. Paul held up the slip as he walked past. He took it with muted thanks and left the cloakroom without looking back.

“Do you think he made it in time?” Helen asked, stifling a laugh. Paul grinned back at her.

Feeling more relaxed in each other’s company, the pair settled down to work on more of their Geography work. They had been writing for another quarter of an hour when a gentle rustling noise pulled Helen out of the world of glacial erosion and drumlins.

“What was that?” She whispered, glancing around the cloakroom for the source of the noise.

“What was what?” Paul asked.

“Just now, a noise, like something falling.”

Paul stood up and walked down the aisle examining each row for the mystery noise. From her seat, Helen saw him step between one of the rows of coats and stoop down out of site. She craned her neck to see what he was doing.

“That’s’ weird,” he said, straightening up with the red coat in his hand. He looked for a loop to hang it by but, finding none, placed it back on the hook by its hood. Helen stared at the coat as Paul returned to his seat. “Must have been slowly slipping off all morning, finally went just now.”

The bell sounded, signalling the end of the first period, causing both of them to jump in their chairs. Helen let out a little squeak of fright and clutched her right hand to her chest. They exchanged a nervous laugh.

“So what’s next?” Paul asked scratching his chin for a moment. “English right?”

Helen nodded. “Want me to take this back to Mrs Bashki, get the next load of stuff from Mr Drummond while you man the fort?” What she really wanted was a break from that room. They’d been there less than an hour but the place was already starting to make her feel claustrophobic. She collected up the papers from the desk. “Watch my stuff, yeah?” she said as she stood to leave, nodding to her bag under the desk.

“No problem” Paul replied. Helen turned and left just as the first students started to enter the cloakroom from the other end, making their way to their next class. Paul took his Walkman and a compilation tape of the latest chart hits from his bag. He inserted the cassette into the device, placed the earphones on his head and pressed play. Putting his arms behind his head and stretching his legs out beneath the desk he watched the students stream through on the way to their next class, keeping one eye on Helen’s bag while Yazz reminded him that the only way was indeed up.

The cloakroom was beginning to clear as the song came to an end. A couple of extra coats and bags had been added to the hooks in the rush, and others had gone. Among those taken, Paul was interested to notice, was the red coat. He stopped his cassette and stood up to tidy up some litter that had been dropped in the interval. As the last few stragglers left the cloakroom he wandered up and down the rows picking up a few scraps of paper and sweet wrappers. Everyone was gone now, except for someone at the far end of the room. It was darker over there, away from the window, and Paul struggled to see more than just a vague shape.

“Come on, get moving!” There was no response. He stepped closer, tightening his eyes to see through the gloom. “You’ve got about thirty seconds before next period.” After a few more steps the shadow came into focus. Paul was unable to tell if the tall figure was a boy or a girl as they wore baggy trousers and stood facing into the corner. A fur-lined hood pulled up covering their face. A hood belonging to a red quilted parka coat.

A chill ran up Paul’s spine and into his arms, making the hairs tingle and stand on end. He stopped his approach. He was now close enough to hear that the person was humming a tune that he recognised from somewhere. It was an old Irish song by one of those folk groups his mum loved so much, Foster & Allen or The Fureys or someone like that. But that song he was thinking of was sugary sweet and the melody coming from the hood was far from it. Slightly out-of-tune, or in a minor key perhaps? Paul couldn’t quite tell what was wrong with it, but it was making him feel very uneasy.

“Er. Hello?” No reply, just more of that creepy humming. “Hey, Stop that!” Gathering up his courage, and recognising when someone was just trying to scare him (hadn’t he tried that himself with Helen earlier?), he gathered together the scraps he’d collected, screwed them into a ball and tossed it. The paper glanced off the child’s shoulder and the humming stopped instantly. The figure began to turn around. Paul suddenly felt as though he’d done something very, very foolish, and wished for the time when he was being ignored and hummed at. The feet shuffled painfully slowly in a clockwise direction and soon the hooded head followed. Ever-so-slowly, the fur-lined head rotated. Paul gazed on, unable to look away when something gripped his shoulder firmly.

“Hey!” said Helen. “I thought I told you to watch my bag.”

Paul spun around with a loud cry, involuntarily grasping the sides of his head with both hands and raising one knee up as he turned, making Helen stifle a laugh with her hand. She nodded to the desk.

“You’re lucky it’s still there, or I’d be kicking your butt right now, and you know I could!” She grinned.

“You scared the hell out of me!” Laughing with relief, Paul placed his hands on his knees and began to take in deep breaths between chuckles. I didn’t hear you come in because I was just talking to…”

“Talking to who, Paul?” She raised an eyebrow as she looked past him into the corner of the room.

“This guy, here.” Still half-crouched and breathing deeply he pointed, his gaze following his finger. There was nobody there. “Oh. That’s funny. They’ve gone.” Paul was now feeling awfully silly for being so scared. “Anyway, they took the red coat so it turns out ‘everyone’ was wrong”. Paul picked up and binned the paper ball he had thrown and they returned to their chairs. “What did that old haggis Drummond give us?”

“Oh, he gave us a new book, said there’s no need to go back to him later, just make sure we’re up to the end of chapter six for next lesson.” She held out a copy of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front in Paul’s general direction but she was looking past him into the coat racks. “I thought you said it was gone.”

“What?” He turned in his chair to see what Helen was looking at. The red parka was dangling by its hood from the hook it had been hanging from when they first arrived. Paul felt that cold prickle again in his arms and back.

“What on earth?” he gasped. “I could have sworn…”

“Does it really matter?” Helen said, thrusting the book at Paul again. “There’s more than one red coat in the world.”

“S’pose so.” He replied, taking the book, giving the coat one more look over his shoulder before settling into his reading. For the next fifty minutes, Helen and Paul hardly made a sound apart from the rustling of page-turns. They had both become engrossed in their books, fascinated by the thought that German soldiers were ordinary people too with families, friends, hopes and dreams. Aside from two kids making bathroom trips, nothing disturbed their reading until the next bell rang at ten past eleven.

“That’s morning break. So what do we do now?” Paul asked, closing his book.

Helen rolled her eyes. “You weren’t listening in the office this morning were you?” He raised his eyebrows and pressed his thumbs into his chest in a Who me? gesture. She tutted, shaking her head. “You’re such a boy, Paul. If you must know, we’re free to go hang out with our mates, and that, my friend,” she stood up and collected her coat, bag and book “is what I am doing now, so I’ll see you back here at half past.” Helen strode away, turning as she reached the door. “And Paul?” He looked up. “It’s your turn to get our work. History, right?” He nodded. She turned around and was gone, merging into the stream of uniforms making their way to the yard. Remembering the last time he’d been in the cloakroom on his own, Paul quickly gathered his things up and walked to the exit, never taking his gaze from the red coat until the door closed.

###

Twenty minutes later, with a pair of exercise books under his arm, Paul entered the cloakroom as the last of the stragglers held the door open for him. It swung shut silently behind him. He was relieved to see the red coat still on its hook, and Helen already seated with her back to him, legs crossed under the table, waiting for him. As he approached her he could hear her singing quietly to herself.

“I love you as I never loved before,
Since first I met you on the village green.
Come to me or my dream of love is o’er.
I love you as I loved you…”

“Why are you singing that!?” he snapped, instantly regretting the tone in his voice. Helen jumped a little in her chair and stopped singing. “Sorry. That came out much ruder than I meant it to.”

She slapped him hard on the right arm as he dropped the history books down on the table. Rubbing his stinging limb, he sat opposite her. “You scared me, sneaking up and shouting like that! Idiot!”

“I, I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s just that, and this may seem a bit weird, but it’s the second time I’ve heard that song today and it freaked me out a bit.”

“That’s okay, just don’t do it again,” she said. “Your arm alright?”

“I’ll live,” Paul said with a sheepish smile, still clutching it.

Helen gave him a sympathetic smile. “Someone was humming it in here before everyone cleared out. Didn’t see who. They left with the rest of the crowd. Funny thing though…”

“What’s that?” Paul cocked his head.

“Well, that stupid coat was on the floor again. I tried to find out whose it was when this place was still packed, but everyone said it wasn’t theirs. So I hung it back up there again.” She pointed at the garment and then leaned in across the desk. Paul instinctively leaned in towards her. “I hate to admit it,” Helen lowered her voice to little more than a whisper “but that coat is starting to give me the creeps.”

Paul nodded. “I agree. Although I can’t help thinking that someone is messing with us. I’m having a look.” He stood up, walked over to the coat and lifted it from the hook, turning the garment over roughly in his hands as he examined it.

“What are you doing?” Helen objected as he started to unfasten and investigate the pockets. “Put it back.” She leapt from her chair and raced towards him, yanking the coat from his hands. A heavily creased slip of paper fluttered gently to the ground between their feet. Helen set the coat down on the bench and crouched to pick it up. She sat beside the coat and turned the paper over in her hands. Paul leaned in to read over her shoulder.

“Dark one under C5? What the hell does that mean?”

Helen stuffed the paper back into the pocket it had fallen from. “Never mind” she stood and hung the coat back on its hook. “This is stupid. It obviously just belongs to someone. It’s got no loop, and with this slippery material, that’s why it keeps falling down. Just forget about it.” She returned to her seat. “What did Miss Green give us?”

Paul followed her and slumped into his chair. “Oh, World War Two” he sighed. “Page twenty-eight. There are questions to do or something.” Helen opened her exercise book and flipped the textbook to the appropriate page, picking up a pen. Paul reluctantly did the same, resting his chin in his left hand as he pondered the mysterious words.

“Just do your work,” said Helen. Paul obeyed.

After over forty minutes of answering questions about how it might have felt to have lived through the Blitz Paul’s mind started to wander back towards the slip of paper.

“Dark one under C5. Dark one under C5” he repeated under his breath, tapping his cheek with the end of his pen.

“Paul! Please!” Helen slammed her open hand down on the table with a loud crack, but Paul continued rolling the words over his tongue.

“Dark one under C5. Dark one under…” he stopped “Under. Under C5!” he leapt from his chair and ran back to the red coat, plucking it from its resting place once more to reveal the hook. “I knew it!” he cried, pointing at the figures C5 engraved in the ironwork. Helen shook her head at him as he clambered down onto his hands and knees, pressing his face to the floor. “I think I can see something…”

The lunchtime bell rang as Paul was trying to squeeze his hand into the tiny space. He pulled it back with a start. He could already hear seats scraping on the floor of the classroom above and chatter in the corridor getting louder. Soon this place would be full of noisy kids eating sandwiches. “Damn” he uttered to himself.

“Hey, Helen. There’s definitely something down there.” He turned to the desk, pointing at the floor, but her seat was empty. He saw her skirt fan out behind her as the door swung shut. She had left a note on the desk.

Stop trying to scare me. I’ve taken the books back so you can get next session’s work. See you at half-one.

H

As Paul stood between the rows and hung the coat back in its place the door burst open and his friend Chris entered, with a worn leather football under one arm.

“Kick around on the field?” Chris asked. Paul nodded and followed him out, grabbing his bag and coat on the way.

###

Helen returned to the cloakroom a little early. Kids were still sat on the benches under the hooks chatting and laughing. Some were finishing off their lunch, others were playing cards or trading football stickers. She sat down at the desk and got out her English book, keen for anything to take her mind off the last hour. She’d walked to the shops with Claire for some lunch and they’d chatted about all kinds of things, although Helen had tried hard to keep the subject away from her stint in the cloakroom. But of course, Claire had forced the issue, trying to find out if there had been a spark of romance between her and Paul. Helen had stormed off, insulted by this line of questioning, not least because it was none of Claire’s business, but even if she had fancied Paul (which she absolutely did not), his obsession with that red coat would have put an end to that.

That stupid red coat. She looked up from her book. There it was, hanging behind two girls flicking through a pop music magazine. Helen buried her head in her book again but found herself re-reading the same paragraph over and over again without taking the words in. She couldn’t concentrate because she felt like she was being watched. She scanned the room. Everyone was engrossed in their own activity. She was angered to see, through the window, Paul and his friends kicking a football about, laughing and joking like there was nothing wrong. She went back to her book and looked at the words again, but once more she found herself at the bottom of the page with no idea what she had read.

“STOP LOOKING AT ME!” she screamed at the coat, making the two girls look up from their magazine in shock. Before anyone could say anything, the bell for the next lesson rang. The two girls gathered up their things and walked towards the cloakroom door, knocking the coat to the floor as they went, giggling and looking over their shoulder at Helen as they exited. Once everyone had left she walked over to the coat and knelt down to pick it up once more. But she stopped as she crouched. The arm of the coat was pointing under the bench, at the exact area that Paul had been investigating before the lunch break started.

Getting down on her hands and knees Helen tried to see under the bench, but there was nothing there, just a load of polished wooden boards exactly like the rest of the cloakroom floor. Except, something was different. As she craned her neck to see, the door opened behind her.

“Foster just said ‘Learn the rules of rugby’ and I said ‘Which ones?’ and he said ‘All of them’ so I said ‘You’re kidding right?’ and he said ‘Of course I am, idiot boy. Just read the English book Mr Drummond gave you’ so I went…” Paul stopped to look at Helen on her hands and knees, face pressed into the wooden tiles. “Helen?”

“Paul, come and look at this,” she gestured for him to come closer with her hand. “I think you were right.” Paul crouched down beside her. “Look, can you see?”

He squinted into the darkness beneath the bench. “No. What am I looking for?”

“See the floor tiles?” Helen asked. He nodded. “They’re all like a piney colour, except,” she pointed into the gloom “that one there.” As Paul’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see it too. One tile was a rich walnut colour, and a good deal darker than the rest.

“Dark one under C5!” Paul repeated once more. “Okay. So what about it?”

Helen stretched under the bench and started to feel around the brown tile. With a rattle, the tile came loose revealing a void beneath it. She gasped. “There’s a hidden area here under the floor!” She reached in and started to feel around.

“Be careful,” Paul said “You don’t know what’s down there. Could be rats or anything.” Helen gave him an incredulous look and continued to rummage.

“Oh! I’ve got something. There’s a bag. Hang on.” With the crackling of old plastic, Helen pulled out a faded supermarket shopping bag with the handles knotted together. It was laden with something hard inside it. She stood up, cradling the bag in her hands and returned to her seat at the table. Paul followed her.

“Are you sure we should be doing this?” he whispered as he sat opposite her. “There could be drugs or anything in there. Someone might come looking for them and when they find them gone it won’t take two minutes to work out what happened.”

“Aren’t you even a tiny bit curious?” Helen grinned. “I’m opening it.” She began to tug at the knot. The bag began to disintegrate at her rough treatment, aged plastic flaking in her hands. She tipped the contents of the bag onto the desk. There was a small box covered in gift wrap, an unsealed envelope with a card in it and an exercise book, which Paul grabbed and started to flick through.

While Paul was reading, Helen looked inside the envelope. It was a birthday card, with a cartoon bear holding a bunch of flowers beneath the slogan ‘Happy Birthday to the World’s Best Mum’. There was nothing written inside the card. She put it down and picked up the small gift-wrapped box, turning it around in her hands.

“Whoah! Look at this!” Paul laid the book open on the table and poked his finger at the back page which had a small section torn away. Once again, there was that handwriting. “I knew you’d forget mum’s birthday again little brother,” he read aloud “so I bought and wrapped something for you to give her. I’ve got football practice tonight so I’ll be late. I’ve put it in a secret hiding place so you can pick it up on your way home. There’s a space beneath a loose floorboard in the cloakroom, in the main block. It’s the…” Paul walked back over to the coat and retrieved the scrap of paper from the pocket and hung the garment back on its hook. Returning to the desk, he held it against the torn page. It was a perfect fit. “It’s the dark on under C5” he whispered. He held his hand to his mouth.

As Helen fingered at the parcel, the aged sticky tape, which had lost its adhesion, came loose and the gift wrap unravelled. “What are you doing?” Paul cried.

“I. I didn’t mean to,” Helen replied. “It just popped off.” She laid it on the table and the paper sprang open, revealing the contents. It was a cassette tape with a photograph of bright blue sky behind rolling green hills on the cover. “Fields of Green: Sixteen of Ireland’s Most Romantic Ballads” Helen read. She walked around to Paul. “Can I borrow this?” She gently took his headphones from around his neck and unclipped the Walkman from his belt. She sat back down, placing the earphones over her head and flipped it open, removing the tape Paul had been listening to, put Fields of Green in and pressed play. After maybe twenty seconds she smiled and looked at Paul.

“What?” he said.

She held the pause button and handed the earphones to him. “Just listen.” Once he had put the earphones on she released the button. He nodded as he listened, the corner of his mouth raising slightly. He took the Walkman back, stopped the tape and rewound it. As he ejected the tape and pressed it back into its box he repeated the lyrics to Helen

“I love you as I loved you, when you were sweet, when you were sweet sixteen. That’s the song! But what does all this mean? Someone hid a present and forgot it?” He closed the book and flipped it over. On the front, a name was printed in handwriting much neater than the note in the back. “James Trent. Never heard of him. You?” Helen shook her head.

As they stared in silence at the various items laid out in front of them, the door opened. Both of them turned to see the tall, imposing figure of Mr Drummond enter. He strode past them on his way to the exit.

“Hello, you two. Hope you’re a fair way into that wee book.” He said as he passed.

“Excuse me, sir. Mr Drummond?” He stopped when Helen called his name.

He turned to face them. “Miss Threlfall?”

“Er. Sorry, sir. This might seem like an odd question but have you ever heard of a student called James Trent?”

The colour drained from Mr Drummond’s face. His stern expression froze in place and his brow formed deep furrows. He walked back to them, perching on the edge of the bench nearest their desk.

“Oh, aye. I know that name well. I cannae say I expected to hear it again though, certainly not from the lips of a student.” He bowed his head and sighed. “Why do you ask?”

“Well sir,” Paul slid the book towards the English teacher. “While we were clearing up after lunch we found this under a bench.”

Mr Drummond took the book and flipped through it. He stopped at one page and read in silence, a smile forming.

“Well, well, well. That’s quite a find! Aye, I remember him. I even recall this piece he wrote. That’s my handwriting right there in this book.” He pointed at the red ink.

“So who is he?” asked Helen.

“Who was he, is more tae the point,” said Mr Drummond. “He died right outside the school, must be seven or eight years back now, long before you started here. Got run over by a car. Funny thing is, the driver said he was running back towards the school well after home time. He was in a hurry, wasnae looking where he was going and ran straight out.”

The two students looked on at the teacher in horror. “Oh, that’s horrible!” said Helen.

“Aye lassie, so it is. But the most tragic thing of all is that it was on the day of his mother’s birthday.”

“Mr Drummond?” Paul said. The teacher looked at the boy and nodded. “Do you think you could get these to Mrs Trent?” he held out the birthday card and cassette. “I think James was coming back here because he’d forgotten this birthday card and present, which he’d hidden under a floorboard. I’m sorry, the tape lost its stickiness and the paper came off when we touched it.”

Mr Drummond smiled. “Aye, I’ll make sure she gets these. And I’m sure she’ll no mind about the paper, lad.” As the teacher took the items the final bell of the day rang. He stood up. “Well, I suppose you two had better get going. Dinnae forget, get up to the end of chapter six before Monday’s lesson. Off you go now.”

The pair stood up and shovelled their books into their bags. Before Mr Drummond turned around to leave Helen asked him one last question. “Sir? What was he like? James I mean.”

“Oh, he was a good lad really, although a wee bit scatterbrained. Very forgetful.” Mr Drummond gave a little chuckle. “He was always running back into classes to collect his books and things. I’ll never forget that bright red coat he used to leave on the back of his chair after almost every single one of my lessons.”

Paul and Helen turned their heads in unison towards peg C5. It was empty.

###

This story is dedicated to Lodge Park’s Class of 1991 who all had to endure cloakroom duty at one point throughout the school year 1988/89.

 

Notes On This Story

 

Although the characters and situations are largely fictional, this story is partially based on a day I spent with Helen Theobald doing cloakroom duty at my own secondary school in the autumn of 1988. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, nobody else had this at their school. Basically, we had to sit there all day, one boy and one girl, and watch the coats, keep the cloakroom clean and tidy, and challenge anyone out of lessons when they shouldn’t be. Although our day was more mundane than the one Paul and Helen of the story spent together, we did come away from it feeling that we’d got to know each other better.

This story was written after a discussion with the real Helen on Facebook, where our stint in the cloakroom was briefly touched upon. I had hoped to finish it in time for my school reunion (Lodge Park Class of 1991) but sadly, the story was not behaving itself and refused to be written until a few weeks after the gathering. I wrote about it in a blog post a few weeks ago.

The song I originally wanted to use was Whispering Grass (by The Inkspots and Don Estelle & Windsor Davies), which scares the hell out of me for some reason. But it’s still under copyright, so after reading a list of public domain songs “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” leapt out from the page at me. Davey Arthur & The Fureys version had been a song my mum liked listening to.

I remember it being on LP of Irish love songs called Green Velvet which she got for Christmas the same year my brothers and I got Masters of the Universe toys! Acts like Daniel O’Donnell, The Dubliners, The Fureys and Foster & Allen were very popular in the 80s when this story is set, so something like that seemed a good fit.

Here’s a video of the song in question. It was originally, written in 1898 by an Irish American immigrant called James Thornton, who worked out of the New York songwriting collective known as Tin Pan Alley.

The story is set on Thursday 24th November 1988. It would have been around the same time, when Helen and I were in the early part of our third year (now called Year Nine), that we did our cloakroom duty. The tape Paul is listening to on his Walkman is Now That’s What I Call Music 13. The Only Way Is Up by Yazz & The Plastic Population is the opening track on that album. It was released on the Monday of the same week the story is set.

The full timetable for third years on a Thursday in form 3FW in 1988/89 is as follows:

08:50 – Registration: Mr Barrett
09:10 – Geography: Mrs Bashki
10:10 – English: Mr Drummond
11:10 – Break
11:30 – History: Miss Green
12:30 – Lunch
13:30 – Double Games: Mr Foster (Boys) and Miss Baxter (Girls)
15:30 – Home

For some reason I did an entire week’s timetable, which if anyone is interested in seeing, I’ll post it up here.

Mr Drummond is based on my real life third-year English teacher Mr Douglas (who was also Scottish). It’s Mr Douglas who first got me interested in the ins and outs of the English language – particularly the use of the apostrophe. Mr Foster is based on the real PE teacher Mr Walker (who really did deliver the two speeches about running you until you were sick and learning the rules of rugby).

I wrote this story using my own Writer’s Guide and utilised the pre-existing location of Barrow Wood Secondary School as the setting. Mrs Bashki, a newly qualified geography teacher in 1988 is the head of the school in 2018.

It was quite a task keeping track of who was sitting and who was standing, and whether the coat was on the hook, on the floor or in someone’s hand!

Eagle-eyed Badger Fans might recognise Tim and Claire from my other story The Grey Path.