Thursday, March 29

McCullough’s Punishment

THE SCHOOLCHILDREN had been notified that Principal McCullough was taking a few days off. The assistant principal informed them all in the school assembly, a room filled with sniffing kids and short attention spans. She stood in the front and addressed them sternly. Then they were dismissed.
A week later, Principal McCullough returned to his office in silence and word spread quickly amongst the children that he was back. McCullough had suffered a heartbreaking loss and, for once, felt unable to go on. The week off had taken care of the funeral, numerous bottles of drink, family consolations, and various other small matters. His secretary, Miss Marlin, watched him walk past. She immediately told him—as it seemed the most important news to her at that moment—that one of the substitute teachers had terminated her contract and would not be available next week to take Mrs. Turnstable’s class.
‘I have a selection of CV’s for you to look over.’
‘Bring them to me later.’
When he had shut the door, Miss Marlin felt terrible that she had not offered her sincere condolences and, rouge with embarrassment, poked her head into his office and apologised.
His desk and his office embraced him. He could lose himself in his work, he thought. Hard work is ample retreat for a mind wrought with grief.
Principal McCullough was a broad man with a square-jaw that belied his unusual tenderness. He spoke very quietly and was often asked to repeat himself. His skin was tanned all year round and stroked by wrinkles. He had black eyes that looked limply at you. His hair was grey around the temples and at the nape of his neck, with only black on top, and it appeared to have been so exhausted having made its way over his head that it weakly collapsed on to his forehead.
The door knocked shortly after lunch. The bell echoed down the hall, all over the school, and strange smells penetrated every corner of the building, sent out in numbers from the cafeteria. ‘Come in.’ He said, but he had to repeat himself a little louder before the door edged open.
‘Good afternoon, sir.’
‘Hello, Miss Marlin.’
He was looking through his drawers for some black shoe polish he kept in there. Usually he polished his shoes at the weekend—Sunday afternoons in the garden, squatting over last week’s newspaper—and, in this time of need, would have to settle for a cheap liquid applier.
‘I can never find the stuff when I need it.’
‘Sir?’ Miss Marlin sat erect on the chair in her dress that was coloured like it was hoping for summer.
‘The shoe polish. Where’s my shoe polish?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Write this down, please—“Buy shoe polish”.’ Then he added—‘Black.’
She did so while nodding.
The office was very old. It had not been decorated in almost twenty years, and it showed. The room had obtained the most charming of aged smells, a kind that followed every visiting child the rest of their life. McCullough did not often notice the smell but he had this morning. The smell blossomed into his sinuses, lit a pipe and sat on the sofa of his nasal cavity. The corners of his mouth had lifted.
‘I have the CV’s I was telling you about. The general consensus seems to be that Mr. Cox is right for the job. I mean, just look at his experience. He even has an award.’
From halfway in the drawer—‘Then why’s he a substitute?’
Miss Marlin wrinkled her nose to stifle a sneeze and wondered whether she should continue—‘Then, if I may, the second lady was very impressive, a Mrs . . . Galloway . . . she remarked during the interview that she knows your sister . . . through church.’
‘If she knows my sister, scrap her; she’s a sadist . . . I suppose I will have to go without polished shoes.’ He straightened from the drawer. Something in it had attracted his attention and he wanted to be alone. ‘Get Mrs Galloway in here as soon as you can—but not Thursday—and I will talk to her. If she can handle my sister then god knows she can handle Mrs. Turnstable’s class.’
‘Very good, sir.’
As Miss Marlin got up to leave she remembered something, raised her hand to her forehead and said—‘Oh, one more thing. There’s a boy outside to see you. One of the dinner-ladies sent him up here.’
‘What for?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘Very well. Count to one hundred and send him in.’
The door opened and closed.
He was alone once more. His desk spread out before him: a blotter scattered with letters, opened and unopened; a collection of paperweights; one very expensive pen; one very cheap pen; some pencil shavings; an invitation to join some schoolbook scheme; two chocolate bar wrappers; a half-eaten sandwich. The window behind him opened out to the front of the school and a rich green hill that rose up away from the building. He shut his drawer. Then he spun in his chair and opened the window, lifting it halfway, to let in some fresh air and, in turn, admired the birdsong that came from the other side of the hill. The air was cool and forceful, as air was back before someone taught it manners.
Another knock at the door and a boy walked in.
‘Ah, Tom Sherman.’
‘Hello, sir.’
‘For pete’s sake, Sherman, didn’t your father ever teach you how to tie a tie?’ McCullough exclaimed while standing up to take a closer look at the abomination of a knot that hung around the boy’s neck. ‘Here,’ he said, and went about tying the tie for him. ‘And pay attention because I don’t want you just loosening it tonight so that you don’t have to redo it tomorrow. This is called a half-windsor.’ After McCullough had finished, he brushed something imaginary off of Sherman’s shoulder and took his place back behind his desk.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘You’re welcome. Now sit down.’
The boy sat down where Miss Marlin had, and noticed that her shapely behind had left a faint trace of heat.
McCullough picked up the cheap pen as if to write something down—‘Now, why has one of the dinner-ladies sent you to see me. I don’t have time to be seeing young men this week, Sherman. I’ve been away and I have a lot on my mind. I shouldn’t have to be dealing with the likes of you coming into my office with that travesty of a knot you call a tie.’
Tom Sherman shifted in his seat. He noticed the smell of the principal’s office. He would never forget the smell of the principal’s office. Even now, with the trouble he was in, he would remember the smell in years’ time. Smells like that leave stains on young people, much like the taste of a dentist’s gloves remain forever with a child.
‘I was caught doing something I shouldn’t have.’
The man stifled a laugh—‘Caught? I’d say you shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place. Now what did you do?’
‘Well, last week Mr Fitzpatrick showed us what happens when you shine the sun through a magnifying glass. So today I took one from his office and used it in the playing field.’
Principal McCullough was beginning to remember that he had not had a drink all day and it was nearly two o clock. This boy was wasting his time.
‘What did you burn?’
‘There was a dead mouse, sir, and I used it on that.’
‘Jesus, Sherman! What the hell’s wrong with you? Do you get a kick out of burning dead rodents?’
‘No, sir. And the burned fur smelled really bad.’
‘I bet it did.’
Something washed over McCullough. He looked into the eyes of the boy. They shone bright and brown and watered with fear. A pity took hold of him. After his week away, the incident that had provoked it, the things he had done, the sorrow he felt, he could not administer any normal punishment on the boy who sat before him. After all, look at how casually the boy considered death. It did not disturb him, nor did it evoke any feelings of dread. No, the boy was young and careless of mortality. McCullough was envious, deeply envious, and he reached down to open his drawer. In there was a bottle of expensive whiskey and a number of unwashed glasses. He brought out the bottle and two glasses.
The bottle stood in the middle of the blotter with the sunshine from the window piercing it like a harpoon.
A couple of fingers were poured into one glass and then another couple into the other. McCullough pushed the glass over to Sherman.
‘You ever had whiskey before?’
‘Pardon, sir?’
‘I said, have you ever had whiskey before?’
‘No, sir.’
‘Well, here you go, Sherman. I’m glad I could be here for this momentous occasion. Now, drink.’
The boy nervously took a sip and pulled a face. It tore down his throat and when it swum into his stomach he thought that he might be sick. He had to breathe very rapidly to subdue the onset of vomiting.
‘I don’t like it.’
‘Drink it.’
McCullough emptied his glass and put it down with a bang. Tom Sherman was intimidated with how quickly his principal finished the drink. Between the smell of burned mouse fur in his nose and the whiskey in his belly, he thought that he might cry. But he did not wish to cry, not in front of McCullough or anyone.
When he had struggled the glass down, he set it on the table and prepared to leave.
But he could not.
The large soft man in front of him smiled and refilled both glasses. He once more pushed Sherman his portion of whiskey. The young boy could only stare at it in horror.
‘I drank a lot of this last week. I’m sure you’ve heard what happened and I’m sure you all had a little joke about it . . .’
‘We didn’t, sir. Nobody did. I swear.’
‘Don’t worry, Tom, you don’t have to lie to me. I know kids. You are wonderful little things but you have no idea about these things and you’ll joke about anything, thinking it will never affect you. But it will, someday.’
Tom Sherman lifted up his glass. He held it tightly. He felt nausea coil itself around his guts.
‘You shouldn’t have burned that mouse.’ He coughed a little and, lifting his glass to his lips, added—‘Now, drink.’
‘But I don’t feel good, though, sir.’
‘I know, Sherman, but this is what happens when you play around with something you don’t yet understand.
‘Now, drink.’
The boy looked beyond Principal McCullough at the rich green grass hill outside and the afternoon sun was trapped upon it with nowhere to go. Looking hard at the scene, he lifted the glass to his lips, smelled the strength, the warmth, the fire, and sunk the whole lot. He gagged on his tongue and coughed and spluttered, blowing some of the pieces of paper across the blotter. McCullough did not display any emotion as he looked hard at the top of the boy’s head, bobbing with his gagging.
The punishment was almost over.
The chair creaked as the principal stood up. Out of politeness the boy did the same. His face was red and his eyes were running. He stared sorrowfully at the man in front of him and wondered what sort of man would deliver such a punishment. He felt his blood cook as the drink made its way into the streams that ran through his small body.
‘ I’m sorry, sir. I promise I will never do anything like that again.’
‘I know you won’t, Sherman.’
The pair stood before one another, each with a distorted respect for the other.
‘Now, go back to class and get on with your work. And no complaining.’
The boy thanked him, apologised once more for good measure, and stumbled out of the room, closing the door clumsily behind him.
Principal McCullough sat down behind his desk and put the whiskey and the two dirty glasses back in the drawer. He still could not see the shoe polish. It did not matter now. He could not bear to spend another moment in the office. ‘Miss Marlin, I am off for the afternoon. I’ll see you in the morning,’ he spoke into the telephone. ‘
‘OK, sir. Have a good evening.’
‘You too.’
It was a great effort to distract himself from the funeral invitation that had found its way on to his passenger seat as he pulled out of the staff car-park. The sun through the windscreen had heated the car to an almost unbearable level. He rolled the window down and looked forward to getting home, before he remembered that there would not be anyone there waiting for him.

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