It’s Thursday afternoon and the usual line of boys who squabble, jostle and push each other into the wall outside my cookery room is missing. The Thursday afternoon boys have have frightened off most of the girls who have changed to learn about mucky metalwork with dusty drilling. Some days I would like to lock my door, strip off my pink nylon overall, and run away and lock myself in my Mini Traveller in the staff car park and hope the boys clear off.
Today, only Len and Sam are propped outside my door. Inside we face the pile of ingredients that I have bought to make macaroni cheese and baked apples. How will I use of all of this food with just two students? The cheese is cut into equal chunks, and the greengrocer has brought identically sized cooking apples. All to avoid squabbles of ‘His is bigger than mine – it’s not fair!’
‘Hello boys – it looks like you’ll get larger portions today if no-one else turns up. Where are the others? Are they bunking off?’
Neither boy replies. If we start cooking they will loosen up.
‘You can have two apples each as the rest are missing.’
We core the apples and push sultanas, raisins and mixed spice into the centre, then top with a knob of margarine. And into the oven to bake. Something serious has happened. Not even a knob joke today.
There’s lots of excuses when students miss lessons.
‘I’ve got to go to the doctor’s .. the dentist …the cat is dead.. ‘
Walthamstow dog track is down the road and betting is a profitable school pastime. Boys mess about in maths lessons as they see no point in Pythagoras’ theorem but they can calculate the outcome of an each way bet as quickly as they say yep to one of my lemon curd tarts.
‘So have they gone to the dogs or is it the horses today?’
Silence, heads down. Len stirs the boiling macaroni.
We stir up a quick all-in-one method white sauce invented by Stork margarine. Milk, marg and flour into the saucepan and whisk and heat until it thickens. Easy.
‘Bring your saucepans to the dem table and we’ll finish the cheese sauce together.’
We grate in extra quantities of cheap Cheddar cheese.
‘Don’t grate your knuckles – blood in the sauce isn’t nice. Season with Coleman’s mustard powder, pepper and a little Worcestershire sauce and taste it.’
Delicious – we like tasting.
‘Mix the sauce into your cooked macaroni with some frozen peas and pile into your foil dish.’ The room feels warm and nurturing.
‘Come on Len – tell me where they are.’
He heaves his shoulders.
‘Most of them have gone to court miss.’
‘Why’s that Len? You can tell me.’
Sam is not happy with Len giving away secrets.
‘Neil and Tom got caught after they broke into factory.’
‘Tom left his gloves behind after he’d climbed through a window and they had his name in them.’
We chuckle together. A boy burglar with gloves labelled with his name – his mum should have attached them with elastic to wear round his neck and down his sleeves so they didn’t get lost.
‘And the others?’
‘George borrowed a milk float. The milkman had left the keys in it and George thought it would be a quick way to get to school. But the man ran after and caught him and someone called the police.’
George is always late and rather dozy, so this spontaneous act is a surprise.
‘And Nick? Where is Nick?’
Nick loves cars and motorbikes but is too young to drive but he likes taking them for a spin and lives up to his name nicking anything that will speed along the highway.
‘Nick got caught for driving underage and without a licence.’
So Nick by name and Nick by nature. The list of petty thieving, borrowing bikes and cars and general mischief goes on. The consequences could be serious – a fine, probation or worse still they could be sent away to a young offenders institution and Borstal.
We pile the macaroni into foil dishes, grate more cheese on top, decorate with slices of tomato and a sprig of parsley, then wrap them with instructions to heat in the oven with the baked apples for 30 minutes ready for the tea when they get home. This quiet, gentle afternoon with no challenges or jokes feels rather sad. What will the future hold? Will my class shrink to just two?
Next week I sit at my desk and watch to see who turns up. Neil and Tom come in first, perky as always. They dump their bags and pile duffle coats and blazers on top then tie on their aprons. George and Nick arrive looking sullen. Others shuffle and push past the pile of coats and soon the room is noisy and bustling.
‘What are we cooking today miss? I’m hungry.’
The room has returned to Thursday chaos and I am pleased.