A Tadge to Your Left
by Janet H Swinney
He wasn’t an old man, but he wasn’t fanciable either. There wasn’t one of them who would have volunteered to have anything to do with him. Chalky, the Maths teacher, on the other hand, or Blinker who taught music…
Someone forced open the grudging back door and swore. The thing had a habit of swelling in the rain.
No, he was about thirty or forty. Neat, innocuous, straight up and down. Shit coloured trousers and a snot-green shirt. Spectacles that sat at the top of a long nose that he blew frequently on a khaki handkerchief. A wide, formless mouth with a moist lower lip. Straps of oily, no-colour hair plastered across the top of his head. Sometimes he wore a lab coat that made him look like a storeman in the Co-op. He’d only been there a couple of weeks when he got his nickname – Hooter.
She stirred in her bed. It was only Derek. Home late after a long shift at the Caterpillar factory.
Hooter taught Biology. Fittingly enough, she thought, in retrospect. He was good at his job. Organised. Systematic. Expected the same of them too. They started writing up their experiments properly, and producing neater diagrams. A big improvement on the chaotic woman who had swept through their class on supply the previous term. Then their work had degenerated into inconclusive scrawl and enigmatic illustrations.
Spug, one of the lads, had preferred to execute his visuals on the surface of the lab bench with a compass. Over the weeks of that Spring term, his etching edged towards the gas taps then flamboyantly circumvented the sink. His rivals were filled with envy and his admirers with adulation. Margaret wondered what would have happened if Spug had ever deigned to speak to her. They all eagerly awaited the day when he would get his come-uppance, but when he was finally discovered, all the supply teacher said was, ‘You’re in the wrong class. You should be doing Art.’ It was the Sixties after all.
No, Hooter wasn’t like that. He didn’t have to do much to instil discipline, and with him, you felt that if you just followed his game plan, you would have a good chance of passing your exam, and might even get a decent mark.
Derek stumbled heavily on the stairs. If he thought that by kicking off his boots at the back door and coming up in his socks he wouldn’t disturb her, he was badly mistaken.
But the thing about Hooter was the lab store. The lab store was a walk-in room off to the right of the roller board. Hooter was always needing things fetched from the lab store. And whatever it was ̶ scales or bell jars, beakers or flasks ̶ it was, regardless of risk to life or limb, always stored on the top shelf. And whatever it was, it always required a girl to get it down.
He started with Shelagh. Not surprising really. Shelagh was a plump cushion, with soft brown hair and sleepy eyes. She was an expert in bending the school’s dress code to her own ends. She wore her pleated skirt well above the knees, flaunted nylons instead of socks and had a bar stuck through her shirt collar like a sea front Mod. In anybody’s terms, attractive. After her, he tried it with Twiggy’s younger corpse, Avril. She of the flawless anaemic pallor, and drop-dead-straight albino blonde hair. Margaret could see it now: Avril was an eating disorder waiting to happen, but back then she was just elegance on stilts.
Derek was at the bathroom door. She heard him sigh heavily as he manoeuvred himself into the cramped space. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed down for a bit to watch the telly.
As the term wore on, Hooter worked his way along the entire front row, all the bright, self-conscious young women who were working for a place at university.
Margaret heard them sniggering at the back of their form room, in the rows where she wasn’t welcome because she was out with the out-crowd, and they were all definitely in. They made a joke of him, dismissed him as pathetic – ‘Sleaze ball’, ‘Trouser Twitcher’, ‘Scum-bucket’. ‘Up the ladder,’ he says. ‘Just a tadge to your left.’ The boys paid no attention.
She could hear Derek’s pee rattling into the bowl. It seemed as though he was pittling for England. Had he been drinking? But finally he put down the toilet lid, and swore again because he’d let it drop more heavily than he intended.
And then it was her turn. A girl not of the front row. Someone who had never had a boyfriend, never been clubbing, never tasted blackcurrant and Coke. Sang in the church choir on Sunday mornings and evenings. Whose only ambition was to get into nursing college. ‘Could you bring down some more petri dishes, Margaret, please. I think we’re going to be short.’
He slipped into the room behind her. She remembered the curious smell of iodine mixed with polish and chalk dust.
‘They’re up there. Top shelf. Can you reach?’
She climbed the waiting ladder. ‘Yes sir.’
‘Good girl. Hand them down.’
‘She passed him about five dishes.’
On the pretext of reaching up for the next batch, he slid his hand up her skirt and stroked her inner thigh. She faltered on the step.
‘Are you all right?’
‘Yes, sir,’ she whispered, looking down at him in fear. Something inside her had stirred. Maybe she was going to wet herself.
He saw that he had unsettled her. ‘Then lean just a tadge to your left, and hand me the next lot.’ This time he got his hand to her crotch, where he encountered the thick wadding stowed in her pants. She felt ashamed and encumbered. She passed him the next five.
‘All right, Margaret. That’ll do for today. You can come down. We should be able to manage. Better luck next time.’ He smiled.
She tumbled down the steps and fell out of the storeroom. She scuttled back to her seat without daring to catch the eye of any of her classmates. All she could see at that moment was that someone had spilled ink on the lab’s parquet floor, and that the stain had a green tinge round the edges like the patina on an insect’s wing.
Water whooshed from the tap into the hand-basin. Derek was trying to clean off the worst of the day’s grime. Not enough hot water. No time for a bath. Not enough puff left to pick between his toes. He’d been working every hour God sent. They needed a three-piece suite and a washing-machine. At present they were relying on his mother for getting his overalls done. There were always rumours of a three-day working week going around. You had to make hay while the tractor tread lasted.
And there was a next time. The next time it was scales, and they were a lot more difficult to shift. She wondered years afterwards, how much effort he used to spend stowing those things up on the top shelf, how many hours a day, a week, he spent setting his trap.
As she was at full stretch on the top rung, he stepped on to the bottom one, slipped a finger deftly inside her body and moved it about as though he were searching for something. She came over faint.
‘Are you all right, up there, Margaret?
‘Come down. I’ll get them myself. Maybe I’ve asked too much of you.’
She scrambled down the ladder and brushed past him.
‘Steady as she goes,’ he said. He emerged from the store a couple of minutes later, carrying the set of scales carefully, as though it were a new-born baby. The experiment they did had something to do with testing for starch, but the whole thing passed her by. She stayed on her stool with her hands clenched between her knees while the others clustered round Hooter’s bench up on the dais and watched him in action. She couldn’t think straight, let alone observe and write. For the first time, she had no notes from which to complete her homework.
Derek opened the bedroom door and padded in. She made room for him under the quilt. ‘Hard day?’
‘Ye still awake? As it happens, it was shite.’ He wrenched his vest off and dropped it on the floor. ‘Still: another day, another dollar, as me grandad used tae say.’ He fell heavily on to the mattress, and she bobbed up and down next to him like a cork on a pond.
It went on for a while. ‘You know I’m just trying to be nice to you,’ he’d say. ‘Yes sir,’ she’d answer.
‘Don’t call me “sir”.’
‘No “sirs” about it.’
But she wasn’t sure. The experience troubled her. If someone found out, she was sure all hell would break loose. And yet, it had become a habit she didn’t want him to break. Her parents hadn’t expected to have a child so late in life, so there was nothing she could discuss with them except who might land the tenor role in the choir’s forthcoming rendition of Stainer’s Crucifixion. She wasn’t even sure if the matter warranted discussion. Perhaps it was just something you were meant to wrestle with by yourself as part of growing up. She looked forward to his lessons with excitement and dread. She longed with a terrible fear for the day when he would keep her behind to ask about her missing homework. Which he eventually did.
Derek snuggled up behind her, his arm as heavy as a felled tree across her ribs, his broad chest like a stone wall radiating summer heat behind her, his legs folded purposefully into hers. When they were locked together like this, she felt protected against the world. Safe. She caught a whiff of something. She sniffed at his hand.
‘What’ve you been doing?’
Derek shuffled in closer. She felt him begin to harden between her buttocks.
‘Got a bit of wire caught in me hand. Right in the fleshy bit. Came off a spindle. Had to put a dab of something on it.’
‘Is it all right now? Did you have to have a tetanus?’
‘Naw. It’s all right. Just a bit sore.’
‘Can you wash that stuff off now, then?’
‘I’ve just done that,’ he said.
She woke with the twang of iodine in her nostrils, and couched in cotton wool. The thing had been no more than a jellybean, but it had had to go. She was off school for no more than a few days, but when she got back, everything seemed alien. She sat in classes paying attention, but assimilating nothing. The pages of her exercise books remained blank.
Hooter had gone by then. Avril’s mother had done the unthinkable, ‘braying a way in’, as she put it, and actually confronting the Headmaster in his lair. Margaret tried to visualise the scene where Avril had voluntarily spilled the beans to her mam, but candour between daughter and mother were unfamiliar to her and a crooked mile from her own wretched situation.
‘I telt him what for,’ said Avril’s mam, briskly recounting the episode to many another mother over many a garden gate. ‘Lord High and Mighty! Letten a pervert get his hands on our bairns. Who dae they think we are?’
The girls picked up the term, and with all the triumphalism of the News of the World, developed the vitriol further. ‘Pervo!’, ‘Sicko Dicko!’, ‘The Pervertrator!’ they whooped. They declared self-righteously that they’d known all along how dangerous Hooter had been. No one else said anything. Jimson, the Latin teacher supervised their weekly Biology class and they did nothing but silent revision.
At home, an oppressive silence overhung the house. Biscuits rattled in tins, spoons clinked in saucers and her mother sighed as she did the washing up, but not a word was spoken. At night, the lights were switched off at nine, her father hung his cap on a hook behind the back door and they all went dolefully to their beds, all three lives lived in disgrace.
Margaret failed her Biology exam and did poorly in most of the others. Some of the other girls went on to university. Shelagh even got a place at Oxbridge. First ever from their school. Margaret was lucky to get a job on the production line at the Dainty Dinah Toffee factory.
Derek held her closer, stroking her nipple with his thumb.
‘Maggie, I’ve been thinking.’ She liked the fact that he called her ‘Maggie’. When he first did it, it was like a new and uncomplicated beginning. She was grateful to Derek for loving her, and she did her best to return his affection. ‘Dae ye think a bairn would mind if we didn’t have a three-piece suite?’
‘No,’ she said slowly.
‘Dae ye think a bairn would mind if we didn’t have a washing-machine?’
‘It would make life harder for its Ma.’
‘But loads of babbies come intae the world without those things, and families get by. Surely the thing is tae want the babbie, not the washing-machine?’
‘I’m just so tired of all the bloody graft. Get this, get that. We’ll never be done wi’ it.’
Margaret stayed silent.
‘Maggie’ – he pressed himself in closer between her buttocks, and started fiddling with her with one hand – ‘ha’way oppen yer legs, and let’s have another go at making the babbie.’
Margaret caught that whiff again. She shrugged her shoulder away from him and rolled over on to her belly. ‘No,’ she said into her pillow, ‘I don’t think now’s the time.’
About the author
Janet H Swinney was born and grew up in the North East of England, got her political education in Scotland and now lives in London. She also has roots in India, and her experience of life there has influenced her work.
Ten of her stories have appeared in print anthologies. The Map of Bihar was published both in the UK (Earlyworks Press) and in the USA (Hopewell Publications), where it appeared in ‘Best New Writing 2013’ and was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose. The Work of Lesser-Known Artists was a runner-up in the London Short Story Competition 2014, and appeared in ‘Flamingo Land’ (Flight Press, 2015). The Queen of Campbeltown appeared in ‘The Ball of the Future’ (Earlyworks Press 2016).
Several of her stories have been published by online literary journals, including the Bombay Literary Magazine, Out of Print, Joao Roque and the Indian Review.
Janet has had commendations and listings in the Fish International and Fabula Press Nivalis competitions, among others. A Tadge to Your Left was shortlisted in the Ilkley Literature Festival 2017. She is currently working on a play based on the stories of the Indo-Pakistani author, Saadat Hasan Manto. When she isn’t writing, she teaches yoga.