The Geography Teacher’s Son: Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

It was New Year’s Eve and his parents were having one of their parties. As soon as he saw his mother’s loud orange tent of a dress he knew it was an ‘Abigail’s Party’ party. Moments later his father came through in a tight, grey three-piece suit, wide flared legs flapping around a pair of brown platform shoes he’d managed to acquire from the Oxfam shop last week for added authenticity. Despite the costume though, he looked the same as he always did: just a man in a bad seventies suit. For whatever reason, he didn’t possess the ability to transform himself into someone else the way Marcus’ mother could.

“Eh? What d’you think?” He did a bit of a twirl.

Marcus was sitting on one of the kitchen cabinets, picking at the bowls of nibbles his mother had prepared. In keeping with the seventies film they were paying homage to, this meant lots of little things on tiny cocktail sticks. It seemed needlessly fiddly to Marcus: too much effort to prepare and definitely too much effort to eat if you were anywhere close to starving (as he always was) – you burned more calories lifting the numerous toothpicks to your mouth than their minuscule cocktail-sausage or pineapple-cube payloads could deliver. The maths just didn’t add up.

“Didn’t the guy in the film have a moustache, but?” he asked his father after a while.

He saw the man react, the way he knew he would, then of course there was the anti-reaction as George Lamb checked himself and once more regained control of the situation.  “A moustache-butt. What on earth could one of those be?” he laughed.

Marcus scowled, turning to his mother, but today she just looked away, not about to get involved.

George stroked his chin. “No, the beard stays, whatever the circumstances.”

Marcus looked unimpressed. “Well what about your ‘artistic integrity’?” he asked, making air quotes with his fingers.

He scrutinised his father for any sign of the tremor, just below the surface, the affirmation that his comments were starting to get to him.

“Well, I think you look just the ticket.” Anthea gave her husband a quick peck on the cheek, adjusted the fat knot of tie around his neck and patted his chest affectionately through the pin-striped waistcoat. Then she turned back to Marcus. “And you, you stop needling your father. It’s New Year’s Eve and this is a party.”

“Yeah, a lame one.” He hopped off the kitchen counter, stuffing a silverskin onion and a square of cheddar into his mouth.

“Then I guess it’s another night on the Xbox in your bedroom,” called George as Marcus wafted past him like a bad smell. “That’ll make a nice change for you.”

His wife shot him a pleading look. It was New Year’s Eve. And this was a party.

“You know what happened to the guy in the film,” Marcus warned him.

“God. Not you as well.” Marcus’ brother and older sister came through the front door laden with Spar carrier bags. He watched them take off their coats and hang them on the fancy coat stand by the front door. (Apparently it was acceptably kitsch to have such an ornate nineteen-seventies’ style piece of furniture when you did it ironically as the Lambs did.)

“We’ve bought about a thousand packets of crisps,” announced Michael excitedly. “We even got Wotsits!”

“You didn’t actually go out like that, did you?” asked Marcus.

“Course we did,” Cass beamed. “You should try it some time. It’s liberating!”

She had on a tank-top over a blouse with impossibly large lapels, an A-line skirt in brown tartan, and purple suede platform boots (that had once been worn much less ironically by someone). “Mind you, down here they probably think we’re bang on trend, so it’s kind of win-win anyway,” she laughed.

His little brother Michael was wearing some kind of jump-suit that Marcus couldn’t be sure wasn’t meant for girls rather than boys.

“And just when I thought you couldn’t get any more nerdy. Incredible.”

“Thank you,” smiled Michael as Marcus sloped off to his room. Michael had recently discovered sarcasm.

“Ignore him. I think you look darling,” grinned Cass.

Music thumped through the wall as the party got underway. Marcus lay on his bed, his thumbs expertly moving over the control pad of his games console. He had little interest in his parents’ activities, their soirees and fancy-dress parties, and sometimes felt more like a lodger in the house than a fully paid-up family member, but that was just fine by him anyway.

The game was a shoot ’em up, his favourite. Guns were cool. He had learned that making a gun out of his two fingers, aiming it slowly at his father’s head and then pulling the trigger was oddly satisfying despite his father’s determined lack of reaction. George clung to the belief that by not reacting to it, Marcus would soon tire of this disturbing charade. Instead, Marcus did it more and more, following a well-honed hunch that it probably pissed his father off way more than he ever let on. He’d had sixteen years to perfect such hunches and they were rarely wrong.

In the next room Anthea was dancing with Michael. He danced without any trace of self-consciousness, a mixture of moves he had seen on MTV and his own unique style. He was eleven. In another year she would not be able to do any of this because by then he would have entered The Marcus Years, the sullen, grunting, withdrawn years of puberty and she was determined to make the most of every last care-free minute until that dreadful day arrived.

The Abigail’s Party DVD played silently in the background for the true aficionados. The song on the stereo changed (Mud breaking into the opening bars of Tiger Feet) and a roar went up from the guests as they assembled themselves into a line, drunkenly mimicking moves half remembered from Top of the Pops circa 1974 when all of them had been so much younger. Michael enthusiastically copied the inebriated adults buffeting him one way then the other, studiously following, albeit ever so slightly out of time.

“Beverley, where are the olives?” shouted George to his wife.

“Who’s Beverley?” demanded Michael, pausing to frown earnestly at his mother.

Anthea leaned down to whisper in his ear. “The lady in the DVD.”

“The lady in the orange dress?” Michael liked to have everything clarified so that there was no room for error. He would forget nothing. “I thought she was called Abigail?”

“If you want olives, Lawrence, you’d better get them out of the kitchen,” Anthea called playfully back over her son’s head.

“And who’s Lawrence?” Michael now stood there with his hands planted firmly on his hips, frowning; an old man’s head on a young boy’s body.

“So are we allowed to smoke in here?” inquired one of George’s colleagues, pulling a packet of cigarettes from her handbag, “in the name of authenticity, I mean?”

“We’ve actually got a specially designated smoking-area already set up for you,” George informed her pleasantly.

“Don’t tell me, the garden, right?” She rolled her eyes good naturedly. “It wasn’t like this in the seventies. Smokers weren’t made to be the social pariahs that we are today.” She slung her bag over her shoulder. “Marcus not making an appearance tonight?”

Now it was George’s turn to roll his eyes. “If you’re really lucky he may appear later, an apparition on its way to the fridge. Something for us all to look forward to. I expect he’s just slipping into his costume as we speak.”

“Really?”

“I hear he’s decided to come as an obstreperous teenager,” George nodded.

And she laughed and went to join the other social outcasts on the patio.

Cass slipped through to the bedrooms at the back of the large open-plan bungalow, tapping persistently on Marcus’ door until he finally gave in and grunted ‘what?’ at her. She took this to be her cue to enter (not that she generally waited for an invitation) and pushed it open, leaning up against the door frame. He was stretched out on his bed as she knew he would be, playing Xbox.

“They’re all wondering where you are,” she informed him.

He shrugged. “Are they drunk yet?”

“Getting there. Sherry merry, I think Dad would call it.”

“Lame. Let me know when they get to whisky wankered and I’ll come out and record it on my phone.”

“Surely you’re not going to spend all of New Year’s Eve in your bedroom?”

Marcus shrugged again. “Don’t see why not. It’s better than out there.”

Cassandra exhaled dramatically. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you these days.”

“Jeez. You sound just like Mum.” Marcus didn’t look at her.

Cass glanced over her shoulder and down the corridor towards the party, wishing she had chosen a different tack. “Sorry.” She turned back to Marcus. “Is this still about you not being allowed to go to that party in Tipton Vale?”

“No,” Marcus lied. Not that he and his father needed an excuse to argue anymore. It was about everything and nothing all at the same time. “Anyway, I don’t have anything to wear.”

She smiled at him. “Is that right? You look fine just as you are.”

“D’uh, it’s fancy dress, you muppet.”

Anyone who knew the Lambs knew that they took their fancy dress parties very seriously. It wasn’t done not to participate. Even Miss Brownlow, Marcus’ form tutor and a young woman who hated fancy-dress, had come as a sexy school-girl with pencilled-on freckles and bunched hair. (She looked way hot, according to Marcus.)

“Oh come on. I’m sure you’ll think of something,” said Cass. “Do it for me.”

“I always do it for you,” Marcus mumbled crossly.

“I know,” she smiled and slipped away again, annoyingly leaving his bedroom door wide open.

It was eleven o’clock by the time Marcus joined the throng of party-goers in the living room, driven first and foremost by hunger but also still smarting at not being allowed to go to the party in the neighbouring village that half his classmates would no doubt be attending. The rules were different for him, it seemed, because his father was also a teacher at his school. George Lamb knew exactly what would be going on at the unchaperoned party and had forbidden Marcus from attending. And without a means of getting over there, he was housebound. Not for the first time Marcus had wished they didn’t live in Cornwall: the arse-end of the world, he had called it. More accurately perhaps it was a small village, with only an intermittent bus service to connect it to the neighbouring towns and villages. Marcus had begged to be allowed to get a moped now that he was sixteen, but that idea had been dismissed out of hand: he had more chance of flying to the moon than ever being allowed to ride a scooter. So this became yet another example of the injustice that had come to characterise his teenage years.

He made an anxious bee-line for the kitchen while his father’s back was turned as he held court over by the fireplace. Michael was asleep on the sofa, squashed up against Miss Brownlow (one of the few people in the room who couldn’t actually remember 1974, nor for that matter Top of The Pops) and her boyfriend (some guy who didn’t work in education and was only there because she had begged him to come, promising him it would be hilariously naff). Marcus was just leaning into the cold glow of the fridge when his mother came up to him.

“What are you doing now?” she demanded.

“Getting something to eat.” He straightened up, a chicken drumstick already rammed in his mouth. He closed the fridge door and defiantly met her eyes.

“I mean, what are you wearing?” she asked.

“Ah, there he is!” Mrs Crosby, one of his English teachers, came towards him.

It was worse than being at school. She smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and whisky. Pretty much the same as at school. “I half thought you would be over at the Maitland place tonight.”

“I would, but Dad forbade me from going,” Marcus told her pointedly through a mouthful of chicken.

“Is that a fact?” Her eyes flicked from Anthea to Marcus.

“I think we need to talk,” Anthea muttered into her son’s ear.

But it was too late. His father had appeared in the kitchen doorway, hands full of dirty glasses. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Marcus.

“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?” he asked finally.

Marcus shrugged. “It’s fancy dress.”

Miss Brownlow and her boyfriend were following George into the kitchen with a couple of empty paper plates and they paused, their path blocked as he just stood there, staring at his son.

Marcus had on one of his father’s checked flannel shirts, and one of his dull ties, along with his brown jumbo cords and the sports coat he always wore with its silver pen clipped eternally to the breast pocket. He’d even picked the beige woollen waistcoat off the back of George’s chair next to his bed and put that on too. The devil, as his father would say, was in the detail. Whatever the hell that was supposed to mean.

“Isn’t that your waistcoat, George?” Miss Brownlow asked from behind him, biting at her lip.

The woolly waistcoat was an object of derision in the staffroom amongst the younger teachers; trademark Lamb, they sniggered when he wasn’t around.

“I’ve come as a geography teacher,” Marcus explained levelly. “Just your average, boring, fifty-three-year-old geography teacher. What do you think?” And he did a little twirl.

Miss Brownlow giggled behind her hand, shooting her boyfriend an ‘I told you so’ look.

“Ooh. Ouch,” winced Mrs Crosby. “That was a tad below the belt.”

George calmly put the glasses down on the draining board. “Very good, Marcus. Very droll indeed.” He set about filling fresh glasses with ice and the moment passed.

Marcus tossed the drumstick into the bin and went through to the living room, catching his sister’s eye. Michael was just waking up on the sofa demanding to know if it was midnight yet. Cass looked angry.

George came up behind him, surreptitiously grabbing a hold of his upper arm through the tweedy jacket. “I want a word with you.” Marcus flinched as the pressure became more intense. “In your room.”

They moved unnoticed through the party and back to the bedrooms, George pushing Marcus inside and shutting the door behind the pair of them.

“So this is your idea of getting back at me, I suppose,” said George.

Marcus shrugged as if he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. “You said it was droll.”

“It was designed to humiliate me.”

“Did it work?” asked Marcus.

Maybe it was the extra-strong Martinis. Maybe it was the fact that after two weeks together under the same roof the tension between them was stretched like an over-chewed piece of gum with no more give in it. Or maybe it was simply the realisation that next week school started again so there would be no respite for either of them. George took a single step towards his son and delivered a stinging slap hard across his cheek.

The noise of skin against skin cracked open the room and he saw with some small satisfaction the absolute shock that flashed over Marcus’ face, for once unable to conceal the emotion that bubbled away just beneath the surface. He stared hard at his father, his lips pursed tightly together, holding everything back, but that brief flicker of emotion, that chink in his otherwise impenetrable armour, was enough to give George the strength he craved.

“Enough,” warned George quietly. “This ends here and it ends now.”

 

 

 

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