A chapter from my debut novel — MIDDLE CLASS — a stand-alone version was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.
The full novel has garnered high praise from some lovely people:
“Hugely accomplished prose, both in its precision of observation and outstanding dialogue” — Lucy Morris, Curtis Brown
“Brilliantly depicts the emotional knife-edge on which a teacher and her classes rest” — The Literary Consultancy
“An exceptionally talented writer. I was completely absorbed by the sense of a teacher walking the line between the semblance of control and total collapse” — Emma Finn, Conville & Walsh
“Beautifully written and tenderly imagined, this novel will stay with you for a long time” — Dr Mary Bousted, NEU
You can buy MIDDLE CLASS in paperback or ebook, either online or at your local bookshop. Links here.
‘Sorry Miss, didn’t see you,’ Charlie says cheerily as he bumps through the door, head returning to level from slugging a Red Bull, nearly walking into her.
‘Allow me some of your drink,’ Danny asks as he swings his bag into Charlie and clouts him round the back of the knees.
A little shake of the wrist, assessing how much is left. ‘Sky it though,’ he says and hands it to Danny, who tips his head back ninety degrees like an old sweet dispenser, lifts his arm above it and deftly pours some drink into his mouth without the can touching his lips.
Charlie then finishes the last and arcs the can towards the bin, but it clatters around the square rim and falls out. He turns to walk away.
‘Pick that up please,’ Jo asks sternly. There’s almost a relief having an actual thing to focus on, an unmistakeable misdemeanour. Charlie gives a short stare, trying it but he’s not that kind of kid really, then goes to the bin. But he doesn’t pick it up, tries to flick the can up into the bin with his feet. Tries, and fails. Tries, and fails as the rest of the class arrive so he can’t back down. ‘Come on,’ Jo tells him, trying to make light. ‘Just pick it up.’
‘Nah Miss, that’s dutty.’ Dirty. Clean enough to drink from just seconds ago, but it has now left his hand, become so filthy his fingers cannot countenance contamination. Flicking, failing, flicking, failing. Once upon a time the terror of thermonuclear war; that fear now compressed to the invisible, shrunk and crushed into dread of the viral.
To everyone’s surprise the can finally makes it into the bin. Charlie dabs, wipes the drips from his shoes onto the backs of his trousers and heads to his seat.
Jo checks her lesson plan, looks at the detailed timings, asks for quiet as she gets the objectives on the board, ticks that off, then starts to give them back their books. There are ten or more conversations going on. Laughing, arguing, complaining, sympathising… doing all this but not listening to her. As she circles the room she asks them to read what she’s written, telling them to get their purple pens out to respond to her comments, spend a moment reflecting, then write some critical thoughts themselves.
‘Miss, what?’ Ade asks.
‘You’ve done your homework, I’ve commented on it, and now you’re going to write your reflection…’
‘Last time he saw his reflection the mirror broke,’ Jakob says.
‘That’s not what your sister said.’
‘No mate, you wish, that’s the problem you fu…’ And tables are thrust forward and chairs are knocked back, this the ritual percussion of young male aggression, both of them standing, neither wanting an actual fight but needing to prove something to the rest of the pack.
Jo cuts them both down, talks about being disgusted then has to ask for Lauren and Chanel to be quiet, unsure if the girls even registered what just happened or if they’d heard it all so often that they just deflected it. She worries that they get steamrollered by the boys, flattened under this constant cock-fighting.
Another minute smothering the flames, trying not to raise her voice, trying not to single any one person out, kicking over the coals of each chattering group, deflecting the teeth kissed and the stink-eyes.
‘Miss you need to chill down man,’ Jordan says, purple pen turning in his fingers. ‘Not being rude or nothing, but you’re way too stressy about every little thing.’
‘Init,’ Michael agrees. ‘Relax Miss man. Can’t you do enjoyment for a change?’
‘Trust me,’ she beams sarcastically, wide-eyed and simmering, keeping a lid on the steam. ‘I’ll be all smiles when you get fantastic grades.’
‘Truss?’ Michael sniggers into his palm. ‘Ain’t happening.’
But she absorbs this blow, barks to quieten them again. ‘I would love nothing more than to come into this room and know I didn’t have to stress about you lot.’
‘Allow that Miss,’ Danny pipes up. ‘Saying we dumb.’
‘Speak for yo’ own dumb self,’ Jordan laughs, and they all roar and hoot and Jo knows that Danny won’t dare step to him so she pushes past the whole thing, runs through the register to change the subject.
‘Where are Sami and Holly?’ she asks, and just as she does Sami is delivered through the door, sent sprawling into a desk. Jo dashes to the corridor but is too late, the backs of various heads already running, dispersing.
More precious seconds, but she can’t just let Sami carry on being treated this way. Back in the room there is an odd silence, as though much seems to have just been said.
‘We cannot tolerate — ’ she starts to tell them.
‘Leave it Miss,’ Sami snaps back, drawing an ‘ooooo’ from Ade and Michael. He sits down, slumps into himself, picks up his book and opens it.
Everyone waits and watches, assessing what she’ll do, if she’ll just take this from him.
‘Cap off Sami.’ Win a lesser victory, just to make a point. Plus, she doesn’t want him thinking he has to hide under that thing. ‘And I’ll see you after the lesson,’ she adds, words that land unwelcome on all ears. Ade turns to Jakob and gestures crudely with his wrist. Jo pretends not to see but calls him a wanker in her head just for her own satisfaction.
‘OK!’ she announces, desperate to steer people back to her lesson plan, determined to railroad them through it if that’s what it takes.
‘Done it Miss,’ Nishaan says.
‘Good. Well done Nish — ’
‘Reflection. I’ve done it.’
‘Thank you Nishaan,’ she says, wanting to introduce the next task, glancing up at the clock again.
‘It’s here Miss.’
‘Thank you Nishaan — please, just let me finish for a minute.’
‘Exactly!’ says Charlie. ‘Let her finish you twat!’
‘Charlie — that is quite enough!’ Hints of anger in her voice.
‘Sorry Miss. Blimey.’
‘RIGHT,’ she shouts, picking up the plan again, demanding that no one says anything before she has finished explaining. She opens her mouth but the door speaks first, banging loudly into the desk that stands behind it. Holly walks in and goes to sit without a single look at Jo. The sudden noise had drop-kicked her heart into her mouth, but it gradually eases back down and she asks Holly where she’s been.
Which isn’t unreasonable. Children do need to go to the toilet. All this she must weigh in an instant. Holly isn’t a bad kid but school rules are school rules, hears Jackson berating her for not following them to the letter, pictures him naming and shaming her in the next staff meeting. Boundaries are good for children, she reminds herself.
‘Holly you know you are not meant to go to the toilet between lessons.’
‘Yeah well I was desperate Miss.’
‘Desperate,’ Nelson echoes, and Holly raises her middle finger, a gesture he mirrors, then slides the finger into his mouth.
No, Jo can’t have this again.
‘Holly,’ she begins, wanting to let her know that she won’t tolerate the girls being constantly demeaned like this.
But Holly is defensive, thinking she’s going to be told off. ‘Miss man, please. I beg you…’
Nelson mimics her voice. ‘I’m down on my knees.’
‘Snaps, or it never happened,’ Ade throws in, and there’s an instant animal stench, the drip of hormones under shirts and trousers as the boys hoot and stomp, Jo apparently invisible, standing, demanding quiet but getting nowhere, the flash flood of testosterone rendering them temporarily deaf, blind and dumb.
There’s probably little she can tell them about geography. By this age they’ve surely all seen what can go where, the moisture cycle, which valleys and crevasses should be explored. Chemistry comes and goes, and history is impossible: half claiming heroic pasts, half denying any past at all, all this learning screen-based.
‘Outside,’ Jo shouts at Nelson.
‘Come on Miss, allow it. We’re just having jokes.’
A forest of incident logs sprouts in front of her, emails she’d need to send, forms she’d have to fill in, statements she’d have to take, safeguarding considerations she’d have to be interviewed about and the time, the bloody time it would all take. But more than that, the backdraft of blame Jackson would doubtless direct her way — why wasn’t the class under control?
She backs down. Knows that she shouldn’t, but she does. She knows that she ought to treat this with the utmost seriousness, but she needs to keep it in the room, can feel the minutes running away, her lesson objectives disappearing through her fingers. So she retreats, insists that Nelson apologises to Holly, which he does.
She gets the class to open their anthologies and read over a poem for a couple of minutes, just to let the waves lull and the surge drain away. ‘Page fifty-five,’ she tells them. ‘Song for Autumn.’
‘Miss mine’s at home.’ Four or five of them without their copies, but no matter, she’d predicted as much and has made some photocopies.
They are good kids. Basically, they are good kids. But they are teenagers, excited by their bodies. It doesn’t make them bad, but she just wishes that they would show one another respect.
They open the anthology, some knowing where to look, some flicking through laboriously, some coughing in overly pronounced ways, some sniffing more loudly than they need to, these constant noises just signals of continued existence, as if silence might render them invisible. She can empathise with that.
She walks down the row of desks, smiles at Sami, following a line of text slowly along with his finger.
‘Autumn,’ she says with a flourish once they’ve all had a chance to read. ‘Mary Oliver is a poet very connected to nature.’
‘That’s what season we’re in Miss,’ Ade says.
‘Well done Ade.’ Frowning, a little sarcastic.
‘Found out on Instagram last night, innit. “The best images of hashtag Autumn.”’ Jo looks dumbfounded, and he lets her hang, then cracks up. ‘I’m only rinsing you Miss. Don’t take everything so serious.’
‘Lord have mercy Ade, what am I going to do with you?’
‘I don’t know Miss, but I’m Muslim so… you know.’
And they all roar at this, and she has to let them. She apologises and he tips his fingers to his head in mini-salute, letting her know it was all good.
Needing to hear girls’ voices Jo asks Kelly to begin reading.
In the deep fall
don’t you imagine how comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the nothingness of air.
Jo then nods for Chanel to continue, Sami’s eyes gently shutting as she speaks of the golden summer flowers whispering goodbye, the fox running through shadows.
At this Jordan calls to Michael and makes a whelp.
The piled firewood shifts a little
Something has disturbed them. Jo waves for Chanel to stop.
‘Jordan, you have something to share?’
He shakes his head. ‘No Miss.’ But she’s pinning him with a stare and he gives it up. ‘Just this fox thing the other night,’ gesturing to his book.
‘Something that you latterly alluded to in your homework?’
He doesn’t flinch at the vocabulary, just nods shyly. They are quiet, waiting for him to act.
Jo walks down, picks up his book and tells him that she’d been intrigued. He doesn’t blush exactly, but looks pleased with himself, pleased enough for Michael to turn round.
‘Oh my days, you put that in your homework?!’
‘Just sprung off it a bit,’ he says, immediately diminishing his labours, not wanting anyone to think that actual effort had been made.
But Michael is laughing, telling her, ‘Miss you got to hear this, this was some sickness.’
She looks at the clock, then at Jordan, as if sizing up permission for him to go ahead, knowing that she had planned for this anyway but wanting the class to think that they have agency. Jakob and Ade close their books like it’s carpet time. She tells Jordan to go to the front, saying something about ‘good practice for your… speaking,’ hoping no one notices the tiny pause, swerving to avoid the word “oral.”
He lumbers to the board; Jo perches on his desk at the back, the curved plastic bumper nestling into her thighs, watching them, the class quietening at his presence. He pops his hands together, softly but purposefully, thumb caught in opposite palm, separating, coming together, leaning his generous frame back slightly, bouncing a little on his knees.
‘Like…’ he begins, and Jo sighs, everything hedged as metaphor, nothing allowed to actually be, speech all peppered with caveat, refusing to land solidly on meaning. ‘Like, those of you from the Tower know there’s been noise all hours, round the bins, out on the hard, everywhere. And though it sounded like babies getting strangled and shit,’ — a profuse apology thrown quickly at Jo, a genuine vernacular mistake — ‘turned out it was like, foxes.’
‘Hold on,’ she says. ‘Before you start that, roll back a bit.’ He shrugs, has no idea, so she prompts him, ask for this to be placed in context. ‘The homework was about framing a memoir, like Dickens does for Pip at the opening of the book. So…’
But he shakes his head, laughs. ‘Miss man, I’m baffed.’
Baffled, lost, unwilling to do the necessary mental work, waiting for her to do it for him.
She picks up his exercise book, turns to the page and reads his own words back to him. ‘“London has collapsed…” This was a really good start Jordan. I want to know more.’
Danny and Charlie give each other looks, which Jordan feels the need to slap down. ‘What you looking at? Think I’m dumb and shit?’ Another apology, ungratefully accepted. The boys look down into their desks, and he begins again.
‘That homework… I was just thinking,’ he says, choosing his words carefully, ‘like, what if it all kicked off? Properly kicked off. Like next time the police cap a ni… a guy, people say “enough.”’ He surveys his congregation, looks unsure whether to push them further, but decides he might as well. He picks up Nishaan’s copy of Great Expectations, Nishaan slapping a hand down to try to stop him, but missing. ‘Not gonna lie, low-key I read some of this you know.’ Michael laughs, and Jordan does too. ‘Don’t laugh man, don’t laugh. But I swear down, nothing has changed. Nut-ting. Couple of rich people keeping a lid on a whole lot of poor people. Like, how do they do that man? How,’ he says, voiced raised for the first time.
No answers given. No fists raised, no shouts offered in solidarity. Blank faces mostly. Not so much that the revolution would not be televised, but that a million tiny screens had deflated it, prevented it, left everyone a bit too distracted.
‘Just get to the fox, blood,’ Michael shouts.
‘I am, fool,’ launching a scowl that silences Michael in an instant. ‘Like I said, the inciting incident Miss’ — emphasising each syllable — ‘is that there’s been these foxes around the Tower. Making bare noise in the night.’
And he begins unfolding the story, a bunch of them gathered one evening, nothing much to do since the youth club shut so just talking, swapping rhymes, moaning about the noise, foxes keeping people up with their shrieking.
‘They’re not even meant to live round here, scavengers come from far.’ He swears-down that they’d been known to drag babies out of pushchairs, wipe diseases over benches. ‘But on the OT, out there in the countryside people don’t be taking that, aren’t having that. They get gangs of dogs and horses to hunt foxes down, a proper traditional thing too, all in green Barbours like you see down Portobello. So we thought, why not? Vermin keeping us up all night, why not go country on their vulpine asses?’
Dare vulpine asssesss. Just the briefest flick of attention to Jo, making sure she had clocked his technical vocabulary. The good, the bad, the ugly, all present in just three words. Jesus, she thinks, let me at this kid for A Level next year.
A couple of dogs had been gathered. No horses, but minor horsepower: two of them had had scooters, lean petrol steeds, faster, more agile. Others had fetched bikes.
‘We all go tool up, blaze up, everyone revving, some kid tooting a vuvuzela, dogs barking, rest of us howling like a pack, all hyped and we set off. Young ones running in front, b-ball bats, lengths of wood, whatever, in and out of the bin store, kicking, shaking, proper jokes, not really serious or nothing. But then this fox actually makes a run for it. Not thinking we’d actually find one, but then everyone’s blood is up and it turned into proper madness, some low-key focused dudes, the dogs straining for it now, no laughing anymore, everyone tearing after this thing like, “we’ll teach you to keep us up, to go for our babies, spread viruses.” Not gonna lie that fox was a bit lame, I mean like hobbling, all thin. E-may-see-ated.’ Another glance at Jo. ‘Dodges under a car so we think we’ve got it, then scarpers out but we follow it, this thing bare terrorised, dogs yanking at leads, scooters whining, wheel-spinning round and cutting it off, cornering it. Tries to jump a wall but doesn’t make it.’
A bead of sweat down Jo’s back, hands moist, clutching Jordan’s desk. She can Sami’s knee bobbing furiously, the class silent as they hear described a howling mob, sounds of the chase echoing off brick walls and down concrete channels.
‘Nowhere for it to go now, dogs off the lead, the fox snapping at them, little thing trembling for its life, then some dude’s pit bull leaps in and gets it by the neck, proper blood, throat ripped and it’s rasping, this horrible high pitched bark before it gives up and goes quiet, still moving its legs in little jerks like it might still get away, but no there’s chance. So caught up in it low-key we don’t notice the van roll up, coppers piling out, like “what the f is happening here,” jumping in all heavy, calling us animals, monsters. And true dat: not going to lie, with all the blood and flesh there was a bit of shock, like holy s what have we done.’
A touch of pride at his self-censorship, Jo wondering if the exam board would consider his context-appropriate ironing over of expletives mark-worthy.
‘Then Nate — this older brother who knows bare about everything — fronts up, telling them like if it was Chipping whatever with all them Lords on horses la-di-da on big estates the police would be doffing their hats. And he starts preaching it, “watch, soon as black people start hunting foxes on their estates, everyone be in a mad panic.” And the police had to back off because someone searched it up and apparently two dogs isn’t a pack so they couldn’t do nothing anyway.’
He stops. Nothing moves, then he nonchalantly lands the story. ‘So like when I went indoors to do homework all that was on my mind. And when I started writing it all went a bit end-times, a bit dystopian Miss. Apocalyptic, like. Book of Revelation, you know.’
He stops again and looks at her, signalling he’s done. She ungrips the edge of the table, trying to process, running through the assessment criteria, the flashes of mature vocabulary, horror and joyous pride in equal measure, knowing he has held a narrative, captivated a room, shown an understanding of drama.
‘That was bare lit,’ Michael clucks in approval. High praise in local tongue. Pure naked flame, powerful enough to set something alight.
Jo lifts herself up, beaming at him, wondering what best to say and how to frame it without actually validating the violence. But the first person to break the silence is Sami.
‘Disgusting,’ he says, almost to himself, head down, addressing his desk. ‘Torturing an animal, killing it like that.’ Jo’s face flushes with pride. He has taken her advice, is speaking up, for the first time becoming a solid object in the room.
But in perfect mirror Jordan’s face changes again, muscles switching it in an instant, pride to animus. ‘Who the fuck do you — ’
Jo doesn’t even think about it, just does it, rushes between them, palms held out, telling Jordan no, she will not have it, will not have that language, people have different views, there must be respect.
‘Nah miss,’ he continues, all furrows and bulging eyeballs. ‘Nah miss, I don’t care. He does not get to come to this school, cotch at Darren’s desk and start chatting at me.’
‘Yes, I do,’ Sami says, stamping his words out, Jordan’s vicious gaze nailing him. As if to resist this pinning down he raises his voice. ‘Yes I do get to speak,’ he howls above the rising chorus of abuse.
He looks so vulnerable, so alone there with everyone gathered around him and before she knows it a surge of emotion has cascaded up her throat. ‘Sami, love,’ she says gently, a little Yorkshire in her lilt, feeling like she’s teaching Primary. ‘Please don’t shout.’
But now they’re all shouting, braying. ‘Ooooooooo! Love!’
‘Stop that!’ she orders, her face reddening but Sami’s properly burning.
Jordan doesn’t care, is playing the angry king-pin. ‘Nelson, you got to sort this boy out.’
‘What, just because I live opposite!?’ Nelson argues, a scowl and a dismissive wave of a paw.
‘Same corridor, same problem.’ Jordan tells him, rejecting his complaint. Some stupid Tower code he’s demanding is respected. He takes in his audience before ramping up the menace. ‘What? Too busy gripsing up your dick you butters sack of shit?’
Nelson stands, the boys arrayed around Jordan, Holly with one hand on the top of her blouse pointing and laughing, all the other girls around her. He looks like he’s boiling in his own skin, the pressure to obey Jordan rising in him as his face contorts and finally rips, spilling its bile over Sami. ‘Shut the fuck up you dirty, sponging, teacher-licking FUGEE.’
The words hit Sami, take out his knees and he drops to his chair. Jo is calling for them all to stop but they’ve formed a ring around Sami and are completely ignoring her.
‘Watch it,’ Ade laughs, ‘he might pull his blade on you,’ and makes a tiny, worm-like gesture with his finger.
Sami tries to hide his face, but Nelson is more in his stride now, wants to make sure he’s fulfilled his obligation to Jordan. ‘What, you going to cry?’ Sami’s head twists for a moment, desperately wondering why anyone would be so cruel, Jordan looking on fiercely, but Nelson thinking he might as well go for the kill. ‘That’s it. Miss is here. Go blub on her. Cos you can’t go to your mum.’
Jo is trembling, her voice box warning that it will shake if called upon. She looks at Sami, his face pure sorrow, no doubt in her mind now: his mother is dead. She must not cry. She absolutely must not cry.
Jordan is stood, breathing like a bull, wrestling something inside himself. He looks back at Sami, utterly defeated, and holds his hand up to Nelson.
‘Stop,’ he says finally, and everyone pulls back. ‘Safe, Miss,’ as if returning control to her. She pushes through the ring of boys and stands at the front of the classroom again. Jordan walks to his desk, sits down before rising briefly again, a warning in case anyone thought he had gone soft. ‘Best watch it,’ he snarls, poking a finger towards Sami.
But Sami is done, has been punctured, whatever air he had gathered to speak out now gone.
No surprise that Golding had taught before writing Lord of the Flies. Violent blood in young veins. Struggle. Privilege. Power. But it is over. Jo’s first thought is to cast a glance at the door, making sure that Jackson wasn’t outside of it, secretly observing.
‘SILENCE,’ she shouts at them, and though there is quiet she knows that it is not her orders they are following. She stands with her arms folded, digging a nail hard into her armpit. ‘We cannot — ’ she begins to say, but Michael cuts across, breaking ranks, a scowl of irritation.
‘What can’t we have Miss? Different views being expressed? Robust debate?’
‘You know damned well what I mean Michael. We cannot — ‘
‘Have bad language? Got to speak to one another with respect? Alright Miss man.’ Face bitter, ‘lemme just go check that one with Darren.’
A more brutal silence now in the room. Jordan moves a hand over to Michael’s arm, gives him a subtle shake of the head, stands him down.
‘Michael, Nelson, Jordan I will deal with you later.’ They shake their heads in disbelief. ‘Let’s move on, not waste any more time,’ forcing her eyes wide so that they will not well up, dealing with it but not dealing with it.
Sami is wrapped tight up in his arms, face buried. Jo knows that she isn’t getting in, and he isn’t coming out. Not for now. With a stern, emotionless voice, she tells him that she will need to see him after school.
‘Open your books and start the analysis of the Autumn poem. There’s bullet points coming up on the board.’
She turns the projector on and it grumbles as it warms, gradually gathers what light it can and weakly throws it forward.
‘Read the text carefully before you try any answers,’ she says, and stays stood in the middle at the front, scared to retreat, breaking down these words and forging a shield from them. Your mum. Repeating them to herself, piercing herself with them again and again.
‘Quiet!’ she snaps again as Lauren and Chanel begin chatting. They eye one another and snigger. Nelson has tunnelled down deep into his desk. Michael and Jordan have legs stretched out in front of them, are leant back in their chairs, pens moving in sporadic bursts. Blades truly pulled in the middle of your lesson, she thinks. Tongues displaying a brutal sharpness and control at least as good as she’d demanded.
Soft flesh over iron skeleton, or iron scales to protect a tender core? Like Dad, or Mum? She releases her grip on her upper arm, enjoys the blood running back. She bites into her lip and returns to her desk, takes up a red pen and steels herself. Choice made. Only one way to get this done, keep the hardness on the inside. Suffer the little children. If you commit to carrying them, you do so knowing that they can wound you. Education as redemption. Teaching as dogged vulnerability. No sacrifice without bloodshed, her father’s voice whispers. Wounded for their transgressions, bruised for their iniquities: by your stripes they are healed.
She walks slowly back out among their desks, marking as she goes, tiny red slashes into each book, encouraging wherever she can, praising each attempt at an answer, saying, ‘Good. Well done. Good.’