A Short Story by Nasir Ali Hussain.
Warning: Contains bad language and depictions of sexual violence.
Mr. Rafferty was my Science Teacher in High School and I believe that he was a genius. Microbes, corpuscles, enzymes and neutrons held few mysteries for him. He had pretty much mastered the complexities of the atom, neutron and Proton too. But, what he hadn’t mastered in 1986 was how to stamp his authority on a classroom full of 14 year old boys.
We used to treat his class almost like it was a free period. And poor old Rafferty would be relegated to the status of some background noise. This was a shame really, as even though science was never my strong point in school, he was the most earnest, committed and approachable member of staff at Gayton High School. You could tell that he wanted his students to not just understand physics, chemistry and biology, but to develop some sort of lifelong interest, if not passion for the sciences. In a school where most of the teachers would be in there motors and off school premises by four o’clock, Rafferty held an after hours science club where tubes would bubble and microscopes would be laid on tables. And this was on a Friday! He was always more than happy to patiently answer questions, no matter how obvious the answer. He encouraged even the dimmest students in class who were destined for years on the dole; followed by, if they were lucky, a nice little career as a cleaner or overall wearing janitor somewhere. In return, we took advantage of his meek, easy going nature like hungry fatties at a Sunday bargain buffet down at the local tandoori.
He was Irish and somewhere in his thirties. He spoke in a wonderfully, lyrical Dublin accent. His voice was a prominent part of the school choir and, in my opinion, was the one thing that elevated the choir from sounding like a cats’ chorus. His appearance though did him no favours. He was thin in a way that made his clothes sort of hang off of him. His orange coloured, Brillo pad hair and pale skin and freckles were the subject of many a cruel barb or out of place jibe.
“Look out here comes Ronald Mcdonald, The Hamburglar went that way!” Titters all around.
He took it all with good grace, but that’s not to say that his eyes did not sometimes betray a momentary jarred anger from the sting of such humiliations. He sometimes came into class with his hair slicked down in a neat parting with not a single hair out of place. That made him look even worse.
“Wha’ ‘ave you done sir? You look like a toy soldier!” Cue the hooting laughter.
Mr Rafferty wore thick, rimmed 1980’s glasses with a colourful rim. They were the same type that Dennis Taylor was wearing on BBC2 when he shook his fist and wagged a finger at someone in the crowd after beating Steve Davis for his one and only World Snooker Championship in 1985. Mr Rafferty had an old world sartorial sense that also added fuel to an already brightly burning fire. He often wore a bow tie rather than a straight tie or had a timepiece hanging from the corner pocket of his tweed jacket. Everything he tried seemed to work against him.
Anyway, for all his patience and efforts he deserved better. I know that much. He should have been teaching at the historic Harrow School on the Hill ten minutes away from us. Those boys with their slicked, patted down hair and thick NHS glasses would have listened to him there. He would have been paid better too. I don’t know, maybe he taught at our comprehensive as some sort of penance?
At first, he did his best to first ignore us. Then, when that didn’t work, he tried, in a desperate bid to keep order, by treating us like adults. When that failed he reacted by going hardline and started handing out detentions like lollipops. Fat lot of good it did him. We remained as unchanged as the Rock of Gibraltar. We were always determined to get the better of him.
“Hey don’t use that kind of language boy!”
“What language sir, I didn’t do nothing!”
“I didn’t do anything boy, not nothing. And yes you did do something, you used the F word.”
“Na, na na, you got it wrong there sir. I didn’t swear. I said kinhell, not effing hell- ‘Kinhell.”
Shenanigans like that would leave Rafferty shaking his head and muttering unintelligibly to himself.
Another time he left out five bottles of phosphorus for some experiment and left us unattended for a couple of minutes. Big mistake. By the time he’d got back someone had already been at them and they had burst into flames. One of us had tried putting them out with water, while Rafferty screamed:
“No! No! Don’t do dat! Jayzus! Dat’ll only make tings worse!”
He was right too. By the time he had run off to get a bucket of sand to douse the thing out the fire had burnt right through the solid wood lab table. We thought it was hilarious, as he sat there with his head in his hands mumbling unintelligibly to himself. The episode became a school legend and could have lost him his job. It was our finest hour for sure, but also our final hour as the school’s premier hooligans.
One Monday after half-term break, he came back to school with a goatee, a perm that verged on being a mullet and a new attitude. His dress sense had changed too. it was more suave and expensive, like those iconic 80’s clothes worn by Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice.
It was a Thursday and we were having our second science lesson of the week. Our first integrated science lesson was on Tuesday mornings. It was the same old routine again, with us acting up like some youth club for wayward boys. He had asked us to stop mucking about and to pay attention to what he was telling us at least three times already. We just went on casually ignoring his pleas to pay attention like he was some ghost. Somebody, I think Collis Gransby, threw a bottle of Tippex at his head, while his back was turned and he was writing on the whiteboard. It landed with a thud at the nape of his neck and dropped to the floor. He turned around and we all laughed out loud at the comedy show. Something inside him must have snapped in that moment and he stood there staring stiffly ahead into the middle distance. It made me think of Windsor Davis, in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, glaring at his rag-tag soldiers on inspection parade. Our two o’clock integrated science came to a standstill. There was this long pin-drop silence, against which you could hear the hands of the clock on the wall behind him tick away as the right side of his face did this odd twitch. His pale forehead had turned crimson too. All our eyes were suddenly trained on him, wondering what was going on. He finally spoke up and said, very reasonably.
“Do you think some of you might be tempted to become criminals in the future? Hard nuts that you are.”
“We might. What’s it to you?’ Said Clyde, one of the toughest and biggest, black kids at the school.”
“Now that is interesting.” He said, rubbing his hands.
“Why is that then, Mr Rafferty?” Clyde said.
“Well you see committing a crime can mean becoming a criminal. Becoming a criminal usually means going to prison at some point. And going to prison means taking it up the arse! So, when you cut to the chase, what all this really means is that if you want to commit crimes what you’re really saying to everybody is that you want to take it up the jacksie.”
“Come again, sir?”
“Oh, he will, no fear of dat,” Rafferty scoffed. “You want to get bummed up? Then just keep doing what your doing lads. You’ll be the terrified recipients of some jailhouse romance within six months o’ leaving dis fine institution. You won’t wear a tie again in your lives some of you.”
He then put his hands against his butt cheeks and proceeded to do a macabre mime of the act of jailhouse romance; making this sound with his puckered lips that sounded like someone unblocking a sink hole again and again.
“Pa pa pa… Do you wanna get fucked in the butty and have an arse looking like a leaky jam doughnut?”
He must have looked funny to someone looking in from outside, but none of us were laughing now. His eyes had this faraway, yet at the same time maniacal look locked into them. Something had certainly taken hold of him. He stood there rhythmically nodding his head up and down with this angry pride in his eyes. All the while hoarsely repeating the same horrifying mantra till his words sounded like a scratched record.
“Yeah, yeah, getting the shit pushed in. Getting the shit pushed in. Dat’s what’s gointa be happening to youse, hee hee!” He accent had magically morphed into an Irish brogue. I heard the boy to the left of me take in a sharp, involuntary breath; like someone had just slipped an ice cube down his back. The boy to the right was munching on his lip, presumably in a bid to stop it from quivering. I looked over at Clyde, the class hard nut. He was still trying to look mean, staring ahead like a boxer listening to the referee’s instructions. But I noticed that the fingers on both his hands were nervously fidgeting away at the table top, like someone desperately scratching at a locked door. Mr Rafferty wasn’t done yet though.
“I’m not gay!” Shouted Collis Gransby with a defiant look on his face.
“Well needer are dey boy! Besides, most gay people are too nice to ever behave like dat. Prison life is all about hierarchies and the push and pull games of dominance and survival. There won’t be any love! No sir! None-o- dat. These guys aren’t homosexuals,” he added in an almost kindly, conciliatory tone. “It’s a situational thing, see. They want power and control and of course they’ll be wanting their prison rubs. Pretty, young lads like you end up being some big, straight con’s missus. You want to go through all dat? Because that’s what I see in my crystal ball for a lot of youse, if you keep going the way your going.”
There was a petrified pause as he stood back with his arms folded across his chest to survey the empty wasteland of our faces with glistening eyes. There was this expression on his face; comprised of triumph, anger and disgust. I’ll never forget it because that was the first and last time any of us saw such a look on his face. Gasps of shock, awe and alarm began to spring up like barrels bobbing up and down in the water.
“What about me?” Said someone.
“Yeah, sure. You’ll be wearing nappies before you finish your first year in remand.”
“Can that happen to me?” Said another.
“Oh without question. You got pretty big eyes and the melody of the damsel in yer voice. Oh I fancy you’ll be very popular with the bulls behind bars!” He said as if he was giving glad tidings.
“And what about someone like me?”
“Definitely someone like you,” he said with a pointed finger. “Not even a question of if, just a question of when,” he added with a chuckle and a hand on his hip as he relaxed seemingly in direct proportion to our anxious bewilderment.
“Or me?” Said Jason Belgrave, who with his Jackson 5 afro, was more mischievous than criminally minded.
“Oh yeah, no question you’re going to get porked in prison. Nice Pretty Boy Nelson like you, you’ll be very popular I suspect.’’ He scratched his head as he contemplated his next verbal body blow, and then smiled.
“You know that grunty noise men make when they’re lifting weights?” He said.
“Yeah.” We said.
“Well dat’s de kind of sounds youse going to be making, ‘cept you won’t be lifting no weights.” There was a ripping fart from the back bench. This was an almost regular feature in that class, presaging much hooting and howling. But there was no laughter this time. Except from Mr. Rafferty.
“Yeah, that’ll be happening too; but that’s bound to when you got an arse crying out for cold cream and a nappy after your new friends have properly introduced demselves to you.” His voice became sweetly mockingjay. The sweetness of his voice contrasted vividly with the horrific images his words were casting on the cinema screen of our minds.
He then spread his hands across the seat of his pants and sang out like Juliet cooing to her Romeo in a crestfallen whimper.
“My ass is broken and I can’t keep the coal in the coalmine. Oh woe is me. If only I had tried harder in school and listened to that Mr. Rafferty and got good grades. I would have had meself a nice job and a pretty wife now, instead of chasing a criminal lifestyle and ending up behind bars being forced to address some sick, twisted scoundrel as daddy! You’ll be thinkin’ back to this school then and how you should have put some serious effort into Mr Rafferty’s class because the man went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure you didn’t end up on the scrapheap of life. Oh, but it’ll be too late then you’ll say to yourselves as you wipe away at your eyes so that you can see beyond the blur of your salty, wet tears!”
He raised his voice to a dramatic crescendo as he hit the back of the net with those last eight words outlining his discomforting vision of our futures. There were no sounds from any of us; nothing but a deep, cathedral hush in the classroom. All you could hear was the sound of birdsong outside the window for what I now am sure were only ten hot seconds, but felt at the time like a full loaded minute.
“Got nuttin to say fer yer selves now, lads? Well, dat’s a real shame dat is, a real shame!” He said doing that nodding thing with his head again. At that moment someone let out a sad sounding fart, but we all understood that it had been a thing done out of fear than jest. It was ignored and instantly forgotten. Instead our collective heads either hung in defeat or shook in mute horror. Every boy’s eyes were agog and mouths agape like choir boys about to receive the holy wafer at communion. “Is dat what you want to happen to ya when you leave dis school?” There was a morose “no” from some of us. He held a hand up to one of his ears like Hulk Hogan teasing a crowd.
“I didn’t hear you girls!” He sneered.
“No Sir!” We chorused back like a battalion of soldiers standing at drill parade.
“You want to be livin’ healthy, happy and law abiding lives ten years from now?….. And retain yer masculinity to boot?” He said.
“Yes sir!” We said like kids shouting the words ‘yes please’ to the offer of a trip to the funfair..
“Well alright.” he said after taking a few deep breaths that looked almost like some kind of breathing exercise. He grabbed at his belt and pulled his pants up at the belly with both hands as if they were loose on him. “Then start behaving yerselves!” He added with a parting grin of sickened triumph. “Now! open those textbooks to page 42. Molecular structures of enzymes…” He said with a loud, resounding clap of his hands. And just just like that, as if some button had been pressed, he had become himself again, and as sane and sober as a village vicar.
We behaved ourselves for the rest of the lesson after that. And the one after that. No more sassing back or giving shit to Mr Rafferty. No more playing cards in class. No more setting off mini bushfires. No more loudly breaking wind against bunsen burners and no more listening to our walkmans. No more anything, really. In fact, we were under manners for every lesson we ever had with him till we left school in June 1988. There was no going back after the stinging slap of those words that day, words that offered up a sickening cinema screen of images. You might even have been forgiven for thinking that we were a bunch of earnest youths training to be Jesuit Priests at the seminary. The collective grades of our class went up. A curious side development from all this was that we all started to speak correctly, for the duration of his lessons at least. He hated glottal stops and words like ‘bother’ changed to ‘bovver’ or ‘think’ spoken as ‘fink’. Well, he got no more of that sort of thing from us. For his part Mr. Rafferty acted like that little outburst never happened. And so did we. Nobody failed that class.
Later on Rafferty was in all the papers for receiving some prize in furthing Cancer research, but to my mind his greatest achievement was turning us ruffians into a group of disciplined students. Like I said, Mr Rafferty was a genius.
Copyright March 2021
By Nasir Ali Hussain