The Careers Teacher
By Mark Burrow
Mrs Darwish, the manageress, was standing behind the main desk flicking through papers.
“Excuse me,” said Darren.
She carried on doing whatever it was she was doing in her snooty, superior manner. The majority of staff were invisible to her. It’s one of the reasons he generally avoided working in hotels. Each one had a strict caste system. The people in charge were rude and full of themselves, confusing the hotel’s stars with their own identity and self-importance.
“Excuse me,” Darren said, coughing.
The irony was that Darwish and her husband were up themselves when running a complete crap hole. The two of them were in the bar area for large parts of the year, sat at their special table. He’d drink scotch with a splash of water and she would drink gin and slimline tonic. They spent hours doing crosswords and sudoku puzzles.
“Mrs Darwish,” he said.
She glanced at him. “Yes.”
The receptionist was on the phone, taking a booking. She sounded East European. She was new. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t clocked her fitness sooner.
Mrs Darwish said, “Do you have a question for me?”
In her eyes, he was trash, completely disposable. Use once and destroy. She was skinny and short, wearing glasses with sharp edges at the rims like his gran used to wear back in the day. Straight out of Roald Dahl. His mind was muddled. He wasn’t a great talker at the best of times. Thoughts and words were generally out of synch. “I’m cleaning the room, you know,” he said.
He didn’t want to say ‘blood room’ out loud as there were a couple of guests in reception, waiting to check out once the sexy German – or wherever she was from – receptionist was off the phone. “You know… The room… What happened last night…”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.
He wondered how many guests had tried to top themselves in this place. Maybe he was working in the Beachy Head of hotels.
“The room,” he said.
At last, she cottoned on and replied, “Oh, that room.”
“I’m cleaning the room… I work in housekeeping… It’s a mess.”
She looked at him through those glasses. There was something repellent about her red lipstick, thick face powder and bony cheekbones. He could imagine her working on the reception desk of hell.
“I wondered,” he continued, “if you had gloves?”
“It’s a bit dangerous without them.”
“No, we do not have gloves down here.”
“Nowhere in the hotel?”
“There are no gloves.”
He found this difficult to believe. It was making him angry. He managed to keep in what he was feeling for once and calmly, he said, “What can I use then?”
She shrugged. The conversation was below her paygrade. In all probability, she’d complain to his boss, Isabelle, later.
“You don’t have anything I can use?” He was doing his utmost not to sound arsy.
“Bin bags,” she replied. She swivelled on her low-heels and took a folder into the back office, closing the door behind her.
“Did you enjoy your stay?” said the receptionist to the two guests.
Darren walked to the stairwell. The guests were from Germany, it sounded like, and were asking the receptionist where she was from. He walked up the stairs. Bin bags. Fucking bin bags. Darwish must have been taking the mickey. It’s a wind up. It has to be. Isabelle will have gone into the room and left a pair for him. Otherwise, how could he do the job? There was hepatitis. Aids. Other stuff. Viruses galore that could infect him. It was a scandal how he was expected to clean a bathroom Jackson Pollocked in blood. He paused on the second flight of stairs, gasping for breath. He had smoked a million cigarettes last night. His insides felt boiled. He had quit jobs for less. Had blazing rows over nothing. He should have told Darwish to do one and stormed out. And then what? Return meekly and beg for his pay packet? Nowhere to stay and skint after blowing a fortune on booze in the club. Anne was done with him. They were history.
Keep going. One more flight. Darwish had him by the short and curlies. He reached the corridor, pushed the fire door. He thought he might talk to Sondrine and Clare. They’d understand. They hated bosses too. Fuck all the bosses. He walked and saw there were no other chambermaids around. The dumbwaiter was silent. No guests. The hotel was quiet. He used to mix up the word ‘quiet’ with ‘quite’ at school. His English teacher, Mr Robinson, said he was dyslexic and should have a test. Darren refused. He couldn’t bear the stigma. He was shit enough at maths without being dyslexic as well. Robinson was alright until doing one in his third year. A lot of teachers were the same. Offski. Without a by-your-leave. The hotel wallpaper in the corridor reminded him of the woodchip he had in his bedroom as a kid. He used to lie in bed, imagining that each flake of wood was a planet for him to explore as an astronaut. Venturing to other worlds. A star rover. Better than listening to his mum and dad shouting, or hearing his mum sucking off some random stranger after his dad had done one. Offski. Everyone I know goes away sooner or later. Vanishing acts. Ghosts in drag. He stuck the key in the lock of the room and leaned into the door. It opened easily, without any need for force.
He walked in, craving an ice-cold coke. Something fizzy. The door closed behind him and he saw Mr Beer, his Careers teacher, sitting at a desk by the window. “You’re late,” said Mr Beer.
“Sorry, sir,” he said.
“Take a seat.”
Mr Beer wore a cheap grey suit that was two sizes too big for him. He was pale, overweight, unshaven and always appeared to be sweating. His nickname at school was “Mr Ballbag” as there was a view he resembled a sweaty scrotum.
Darren took a seat. The room was heavy with the smell of cigarettes and coffee.
Mr Beer whistled. “That bathroom’s a state,” he said. “Cut wrists leave such a mess. Now hanging, that’s much simpler and tidier.”
Darren didn’t speak. He was wary of teachers. They never talked just to make conversation. There was always an agenda.
“I told you to join the Royal Mail. That would have been fine for you.”
The fact was that Darren had tried for the Royal Mail after leaving school, but he’d failed the aptitude test. He kept his failure to himself as he couldn’t believe how fucking stupid he was not to pass and get in. To this day, the sight of a letter through the letterbox or a Royal Mail van could cause a massive downer.
Not good enough to deliver letters.
“Better still, British Gas. You never look back if you have a trade,” said Mr Beer.
It was staggering how teachers had no idea. If I’m too thick to pass the exams to be a postie, I’m hardly going to pass fucking British Gas, am I? It freaked him out, failing that test. It’s one of the reasons he didn’t apply for the army. What if he fucked that up too? He was disgusted by his own stupidity. I’m thick. So fucking dumb. He fantasized about studying harder at school. Passing exams. Being a boffin. But he fucking hated studying. It did his head in.
“What’s the next move for you?” asked Mr Beer.
It was beyond a joke. “What do you care?” said Darren. “I heard you’re dead anyway, that you topped yourself in France.”
Mr Beer stirred a cup of coffee, trying to dissolve granules of instant that floated on the surface.
“You quit as a teacher and buggered off in my last year,” Darren went on. “You left a lot of us in the lurch as you were supposed to be setting up work experience.”
Mr Beer chinked the spoon on the rim of the cup like he was in some Parisian café. “Do you think it would have made any difference?”
Darren didn’t reply. A teacher had stepped in at school and arranged work experience for Darren at a bank near the Imperial War Museum. It had been a disaster. The memory of those two weeks made him cringe. They thought he was as thick as pig-shit. Laughing at his innumeracy. Illiteracy. On his third day, they stuck him in a tiny basement room to do filing and barely anyone spoke to him for the rest of the placement.
Mr Beer raised the cup to his mouth and drank in slow sips. Jean Paul-Sartre fucker. He then placed the cup back on the saucer. “I can’t taste a thing,” he said.
Darren nodded. So the rumour that went around school about what happened to Mr Beer in France was true. He left the school to go into business with his father-in-law. Darren guessed it must have gone seriously pear-shaped.
“Can you imagine being a careers teacher in a secondary school like your one? Do you think that’s what I wanted to do with my life? How do you think it feels to sit with kid after kid without a shred of ambition? Asking them what they want to do with their lives and hearing in reply: ‘Dunno.’ Or: ‘I want to be a mum.’ It grinds you down, seeing how clueless you all are and knowing how hard it will be to find a proper job with unemployment going through the roof. I spent 5 years doing that job after my PGCE and I hated it from start to finish. The only job I could imagine being worse in that school was teaching RE or Social Studies.”
“You can’t blame the kids.”
“I don’t,” said Mr Beer, firmly. “You were a bunch of little shits but I don’t blame you. It’s the education system that’s at fault. It failed you and I was part of that failure.”
Darren hadn’t fully realised how bad his school was until he’d seen Dulwich College when training with the South London district football team. He was a goalkeeper. Walking into the grounds of Dulwich College for the first time and seeing the buildings and the size the playing fields was an eye opener. The grass was perfectly mowed and free of dog shit. It brought home to him how the other half lived.
“I can’t tell you how much I detested going to your school, having to look at the poorly written CVs, knowing the majority of you didn’t stand a chance in the real world.”
“A couple of kids in my year did alright.”
“They did,” said Mr Beer, “but is that something to be happy about? A handful of you went to college I imagine. There were definitely kids who could have gone to university. A couple of them were bright. I wonder how many of them got there? The idea of a ‘career’ was a joke. I did what I could to make them consider jobs that would keep them off the streets, off benefits, so they could earn a wage. Trying anything else was delusory.”
“I wasn’t going to change an entire system.”
“Half the time, it was like you couldn’t be bothered. You’d smell of alcohol too some mornings. Alcohol and shit aftershave like Old Spice. Remember when you lost our CVs?”
“I did not.”
“You definitely did.”
Mr Beer picked up the cup and drank the dregs of the coffee. He looked into the cup and licked his lips. “Nothing,” he said, “I can’t taste anything. Smell’s gone too.”
Darren was conscious of time. Isabelle would barge in any second and ask why he hadn’t started on the bathroom. “Mr Beer, listen, I need to crack on, otherwise I’ll be in trouble.”
“Is this it for you, then?”
“How’d you mean?”
“Working as a Chambermaid.”
Darren gave a shrug of the shoulders. “It’ll do for the meantime.”
“I suppose it has to.”
“That’s why I could never adjust to working at a school like yours.”
“The lack of expectation. None of you thought you deserved better. It was the norm. Trying to shift how you valued yourselves was neigh on impossible.”
Darren stood up. He had the same feelings stirring inside of him as when he had sat with Mr Beer in the office at school, discussing career options. Postie. Gasman. Car mechanic. It was a con. Neither teacher or pupil wanted to be there. He remembered coming out of those meetings and feeling genuine fear about what the fuck he was going to do with his life.
He picked up the plastic box for cleaning the blood room, filled with the sponges, cloths and sprays. He entered the bathroom and looked at the mess.
It was hard to know where to begin.