A running joke among the year group was that Mr. M________ and [a certain Irish politician] had been separated at birth.
“Looks like he’s about to give someone a blowjob”, remarked my desk-mate as we scrutinised the photograph from a history textbook that had incited the observation. My attention was drawn to the Irishman’s parted lips, frozen in mid-speech, suspended before the head of a microphone as if he intended to bit it off.
For me, M________ bore a stronger resemblance to a sack of butchered fragments carved from the carcasses of assorted animals and fused together – Dr. Moreau-style – into a vaguely human form. He had the stomach of a rhino, the jaw of a pelican, the lips of a carp, hands like the pincers of a dried-up lobster, the rear end of a whale and the forbidding brows of an owl, permanently knotted into a cold grimace that rarely altered.
His features appeared as if they had been jammed effortlessly by a child onto the flesh of a rotten potato. His yellow crust crawled as if the limbs of the beasts sacrificed to build his hobbling frame still twitched with life below the surface, yearning to escape their prison.
The only hint of tamed civilisation present on his figure was a pair of glasses – the sort that magnified the shadowy caverns of his eyes so that they appeared thrice their usual dimension - perched permanently on his forehead when not in use. I wondered if this were a fashion-statement.
He was a supply teacher. I’m guessing, as a result of having no specific expertises, he tried to assure the students that he was their equal. To achieve this, he seducing them into a sense of comradeship by delivering dry witticisms on such subjects as the futility of homework, the hypocrisy of uniform standards and the contours of female assets. My one encounter with him ensured me that he was certainly not on my side.
The GCSE mocks were underway. M________ was invigilating the French listening paper. He was putting on his usual performance, placing a ruthless spin on the instructions he had to read out to us before the start of the exam.
“This examination will test your listening skills in relation to the French language”, he read in his nasally, bird-like voice, weathered by decades of tobacco, “Skills you only need if you live in France”
A chorus of amusement met his strategically timed afterthought. He paused, leaving himself enough time to bask in the glory of his success before continuing.
“Ensure all answers are written clearly in black ink - well, they certainly wouldn’t want you writing in blood now, would they?”
Another round of ovation.
“Silence is to be maintained at all times – by threat of beheading. You all know the French!”
With each applause, a note of triumph rose in his voice as he excited their admiration. He knew that his cutting humour had won their hearts. He was their friend from the other side. They loved him, and it made the mouldy potato perched upon his shoulders swell, like when so much mucus gathers beneath a boil that it seems to pulsate in agony.
I had no sympathy for his humour, which became cruder with each applause. Realising that the exam probably wasn’t going to start for another fifteen minutes, he being more intent on giving his audience what they wanted, I took the opportunity to look fleetingly through the paper in order to write down the question numbers. It was something we had always done in class, to save time and to give us an idea of how to answer the question.
I was half way through this exercise when I realised that I was being watched;
“You! Stop what you’re doing!”
The glasses had returned to his forehead – he meant business.
I was so too shocked and embarrassed to listen to the thundering torrent of abuse he poured upon me, denouncing me for opening the paper before permission had been granted.
Embers seemed to crackle from the depths of those soulless caverns, as if the beasts beneath were fighting for dominance over their host.
I suppose he was justified in his criticism, but if he’d bothered to ask, he would have learnt that I had no intention of cheating. It isn’t possible to cheat on an exam when you have to listen to a recording for the answers.
“Here I am, trying to help everyone relax by having a bit of fun, and you take advantage of my benevolence! It’s students like you that I loathe!”
Students like me.
He was in no position to cast judgement on my character. That was the first time he had ever spoken to me.
The pincers snapped up my paper and cast it into the bin.
"For wasting my time and holding up your class-mates, you can go and start a new sheet"
His scrutiny continued as I returned to my seat. The others loved it, seeing the class boffin and gay-lord get a verbal lashing. Even in a blind rage he hadn’t fail to entertain them. Now that he hated me, they loved him even more. He had officially migrated to their camp.
Satisfied at having soundly humiliated the convict for his crime, M________ returned to the front of the room and resumed his former task.
“Students must listen to the recording and answer the appropriate questions – well, you don’t say, monsieur!”
Later, I wondered if his wrath was prompted partly by indignation at the fact I was the only person in the room who hadn’t found his assessment of French people as amusing as he’d hoped.