Homo Bile Pen
by John Wilks
3rd Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015
A large concrete wrecking ball swings silently across Simon’s classroom. His Year 10 pupils stare at the grey sphere swooping above them rather than at him or his multi-coloured lesson objectives on the whiteboard. The blood-filled eyes of Nelson Mandela and William Shakespeare swivel from side to side on their wall posters. The only eyes that meet Simon’s gaze are those of the new Bengali boy, Jamil. Somewhere there is a red button that will drop the ball. There will be shards of glass, choking dust and crashing masonry. It is just a matter of time. There will be bones projecting from shins and forearms and lots of blood, streams of it sliding under the door and along the corridor, vast crimson spurts of it spoiling white shirts forever. No one will run down the corridor to help; no one will know how to do the washing. He must find out where the red button is. Under a boy’s table? Next to the headteacher’s telephone? For he knows the impending devastation will be his fault. He searches his pockets for his mobile phone to call for help. Every time he ducks below the wrecking ball he mistypes the number.
When Simon wakes up he is sweating and cold. He puts on a bathrobe and goes downstairs. He makes some hot chocolate, finds his notepad and makes a list of action points for the day ahead. It is Monday, early October, and he is not sure how he will survive until Friday, let alone Christmas. He knows the headteacher is out to get him. He has missed too many targets and asked too many challenging questions in staff meetings. Outside, rain beats hard on the dustbin lids and a car slooshes by. He counts eleven urgent actions and fifteen important ones. He prioritises them with circled numbers in the margin and wonders how many he will complete. At the bottom of his list he puts “Mark Year 10 homework (n.b. 7-day deadline policy)” and is pleased when he remembers his wife is going out that evening.
Simon is in his classroom, a prefabricated hut on the far side of the playground. His colleagues commiserate with this isolation but he is grateful to be set apart. Dave, his cynical friend in Art, is forever moaning about the jackboot tactics of senior management, bursting into lessons unannounced “without even a fucking knock on the door!” says Dave, “demanding to see the progress, when everyone knows it’s impossible to actually see progress, even when it’s sitting there right in front of you, naked, like an invisible box of chocolates”. Dave is better at drawing cartoons than using words.
Simon loves his hut. If he keeps an eye out he has about thirty seconds’ notice of managers or inspectors approaching across the basketball lines littered with drifting crisp packets and torn-up worksheets, thirty seconds to remind the class what the main aim of the lesson is and to check they all know their targets. And, at this time of day, thirty seconds to warn the card-playing boys at the back of his room to turn off the music on their phones and put them away.
Simon checks his e-mails. He finds one he knows Dave will enjoy:
Subject: Staff Training
All staff are reminded that virtual staff training on the new mobile phone policy takes place this afternoon 4 – 5 pm in room 101. This is a real event in real time in the real room 101. Those staff who thought last week’s virtual training was an event in cyberspace that could be avoided by claiming they couldn’t logon will be expected to attend a replacement session.
Jamil, the new boy, walks in and comes straight to Simon. “Can you hand my Religious Studies homework in for me, Sir?” he says holding out a red exercise book. He stands very still, looking down at Simon who is still tapping his keyboard. “And actually, Sir, can you tell me what the difference is between ‘concession’ and ‘necessity’? Just in case Mr Wright asks me.”
Jamil has been transferred from another school and Simon suspects he may be a challenge. He has watched Jamil gather boys around him in the playground and noticed how he stares at him in class. He likes him but knows he will one day have to face him down. He remembers last week’s conversation with Jamil about his English homework, a story about a stolen mobile phone. Jamil had said that it was bollocks and just a way of teachers making a point about everyone breaking the new school rule and they’d done stuff about mobile phones in just about every subject that week including RS which was so dumb since everyone knew that mobile phones weren’t invented when the Qu’ran and the Bible were written and was this the new headteacher’s idea, to get all the teachers doing just what he wanted, like some fucking racist boss-man or something, and actually he was going to write anagrams and if Sir didn’t like it he knew what he could do with it. “I did the last anagram specially for you, Sir,” he had added.
Jamil is still standing in front of Simon, waiting for an explanation. There is a sharpness about him, with his bright eyes and his slicked-back hair, that makes him seem well-defined, as if those around him, by contrast, are hazily out of focus.
“Well,” Simon thinks aloud, “I guess a concession is something you are allowed to do even though it might be against the rules. Like, I make a concession that you guys can listen to music on your phones in here before school, if you promise not to use them in lessons. A necessity is something you have to do. It’s necessary, as in one c and two s’s. One collar, two socks.”
Jamil frowns and turns to join the boys at the back of the room who have been watching this interaction.
Simon is collecting in copies of Romeo and Juliet. It has been a good lesson. Two groups of boys have re-enacted the fight between the Capulets and Montagues in slow-motion. He has shown them photographs on the whiteboard of the towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany and they have talked about family honour, power, wealth, bravado, rivalry. He has cut to photographs of the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf with their logos announcing HSBC, Barclays, Citigroup, and Jamil has shouted out, before Simon has even had time to frame a question, that it’s the same thing, big men with lots of money showing off. Simon is still smiling when he glances up to see Jamil texting. His wrists are resting on the edge of his table and his thumbs are working furiously.
“Jamil, you need to put that away. You know it’s against the rules. I’ll pretend I haven’t seen it.” Several boys stop talking and turn to watch.
Chris, a small shaven-headed white boy sitting on his own next to the window, shouts out, “Sir, you have to confiscate it. If you don’t that’s racist”.
Simon walks up to Jamil and holds out his hand.
“What?” says Jamil.
“Please can you give me the phone, Jamil!”
“What phone?” Jamil’s left hand has reached for a pencil; his right hand has slipped below the table.
“The phone you’re holding under the table.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sir.”
“Come on, Jamil, I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Allow it, Sir, make it a concession.”
Simon looks up at the wall clock. It is 10.13. When the bell goes everyone will just rush out unless he stands at the door. He suddenly reaches down, grabs Jamil’s right wrist and snatches the phone. Jamil looks him in the eye and snaps the pencil he is holding in his other hand. Simon walks back to the classroom door and dismisses the boys row by row.
Simon scurries across the wet playground to the staffroom, eager for caffeine. He sits down and looks at his tutor group’s RS books. He sips his coffee and picks up Jamil’s book from the top of the pile. He has been copying fatwas from the internet for his RS homework:
Question: Is it permissible to use verses from the Qu’ran as ringtones?
Answer: It is forbidden as people answer their calls midway through, leaving the verse incomplete. It is also a sin to use a mobile phone in the toilet.
Question: What is the ruling concerning taking pictures using a mobile phone considering some people say that it is just capturing a shadow and there is no prohibition in that, so what is the ruling concerning that?
Answer: As for picture taking as a hobby or as a form of art by the use of the camera or by hand or by any object then it is Haraam and it is not allowed except in case of necessity only. In accordance to the necessity it is a concession. It is a concession due to a necessity only.
After break Simon drops by the General Office and hands Jamil’s phone to the deputy headteacher, explaining that he confiscated it during the lesson.
“He’s the new boy in my class. You might want to treat him leniently. He’s still settling in.”
It is lunchtime. Simon is outside the General Office waiting for his pupils’ latest data sheets. Further down the corridor Jamil is standing in front of the deputy headteacher. Simon does not want to make eye contact with either of them.
“Did your parents not get my letter expressly forbidding the possession of mobile phones on school premises?” asks the deputy headteacher. It is not really a genuine question, more like a punch on the nose from a large red-faced man in an ill-fitting suit whose enormous beard signals Old Testament outrage.
“Yes, Sir,” Jamil replies.
“And did that letter not explain that the school took no responsibility whatsoever for any damage caused to mobile phones on the school premises?” The deputy takes a phone from his jacket pocket and holds it up high.
“So if I were to drop your phone now on the floor by accident,” he pauses, “or even deliberately, nobody would be to blame except the stupid boy who thought it would be clever to break yet another school rule so that he could look ‘cool’ with his friends.” And he signs the speech marks round the word ‘cool’ with the first two fingers of his left hand and a jiggle of the phone in his right hand.
“And then if I were to step forward on to your phone and crush it – ”
Jamil looks down at the deputy’s size 13 black shiny leather shoes.
“ – then I would be entirely innocent because the damage to your phone could not possibly have happened if you had not attempted to smuggle it into school. For all I know this could be drug-dealing equipment. Did you come fully equipped to school today?”
“Well there you are then. Tua culpa. Don’t do it again. You can collect your phone from me at the end of the week. Unless I change my mind.”
The headteacher’s secretary sees Simon through the bulletproof reception window and rushes out to give him a piece of paper. She smiles like someone who has won the lottery but not yet told anyone. It is a message from Jamil’s uncle demanding to know why he is teaching his nephew about homosexuals. “I tried phoning you, Mr Hopkins, on your mobile during period 3 to warn you but you weren’t available,” she says. She does the double speech mark thing with her fingers when she says “weren’t available” then goes back into the office, still grinning.
Simon has been called to a meeting with Roger, his headteacher. As he approaches Roger’s office the door opens and Jamil walks briskly out. He smiles at Simon who goes into the room and sits down. Outside, grey drizzle obscures the view of the surrounding flats. Roger sits facing Simon across a large empty desk. He is wearing a well-fitting grey suit and a pink tie that matches the lilies in a tall vase on the bookcase next to them.
“Simon, I’m very concerned to have received a complaint from a pupil that you assaulted him. You know I can’t allow that. I may have to suspend you.”
“That’s ridiculous, Roger,” says Simon. “All I did was confiscate Jamil’s phone – I’m assuming that is what this is all about?”
“Have there been other incidents when you have touched a pupil that I don’t know about?”
“No, absolutely not! What did you expect me to do? The boy had a mobile phone out in my lesson. I confiscated it straight away. Zero tolerance. I thought that was what you wanted us to do. I didn’t hurt him. I just took the phone out of his hand. I didn’t have time to wait for him to come round to the idea that he might eventually comply with my enforcement of the new rule. Your new rule.”
“Well, you’ll be pleased to know that I convinced him that it’s not in his interest to make a fuss. But I will leave his complaint on record.” He pauses. “I could easily manage without you.”
Roger smiles awkwardly as Simon rises to leave. “I tried phoning you on your mobile during period 3 to warn you about these serious allegations but you weren’t available. I will leave it for now but you have been warned, Simon. You have been warned.”
At home Simon is coming to the end of his marking. He is sipping from a large glass of red wine. The last book is Jamil’s.
1. Hipbone mole
2. One limb hope
3. Boil phoneme
4. Me boil phone
5. Help boil mine
6. Hobo men pile
7. Lime hoop ben
8. Hop bile omen
9. No eel hip mob
10. Homo bile pen
Simon lets these random phrases work their mental magic. He imagines talking to Jamil about the beauty of serendipity, how his anagrams have evoked memories and fantasies. Kissing a mole on a girlfriend’s hipbone the size of a 5p piece. The sadness in the eyes of a diabetic friend whose leg had been amputated. He realises such thoughts are best kept out of school and out of his conversations with Jamil. Eventually, with a sigh, he gives each anagram a big blue tick, writes “Well done, Jamil. Make sure your letter p hangs below the line”.
Simon has fallen asleep in front of Newsnight. He is woken by his mobile ringing in the hallway where his school jacket is hanging. The call cuts out and then the cordless phone next to his armchair rings. It’s his wife.
“Hi Simon, how are you doing? How’s the marking? I’m getting a taxi home so should be with you in half an hour. By the way, I think you should check the voicemail answering message on your mobile.”
Simon dials his number and after four rings a voice says, in a slightly Bengali-Cockney accent, “Hello. This is Mr Hopkins’ phone. I’m sorry he’s not available right now. He’s having gay sex with his neighbour”.
Homo Bile Pen won 3rd prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2015, as chosen by Paul McVeigh, and appeared in Issue 7 of Bare Fiction Magazine in May 2016.