Death by PowerPoint
By Juliet OC
There must be a factory that makes Conference Speakers; and inside this factory there must be a plastic mould that contains the salient features like an inflated sense of self and verbal diarrhoea because they are all the same. Take Mr Simpson, staggering through the hotel’s revolving doors with seconds to spare, breathless, sweaty and clutching a cardboard box brimming with power point hand-outs.
“Death by PowerPoint.” I heard a delegate say once, which made me giggle into my hand and prompted her to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, (my ribs are still tender.) Mr Simpson disappears into and then backs out of function room three, still clutching the box as if I had pressed rewind on an invisible remote; and as he stumbles towards reception I notice his garishly pink tie is caught up in the strap of his laptop, so I can’t help but picture the strap slipping off and the tie garrotting him, (thoughts can’t kill people.)
Hoisting the box onto the counter and breathing noisily, he says;
“Excuse me! I need a white screen. I did ask for one, I always use a screen, they’ll be arriving any minute, I must have the screen!”
Delia places a hand over the mouthpiece and looks into his tightly screwed up face, nodding, slowly. His hands make fists that turn from pink to white and the top of his ears darken to deep purple as if he is about to burst like a gigantic fart, nothing a bit of pine air freshener couldn’t fix.
“Sir, I am on the phone,” she says, sucking air through her teeth.
He reddens further and Delia returns to her conversation, which by the way she winds the cord around her finger, its nail adorned with a diamante heart, has little to do with work. I can’t abide unprofessionalism. I’m not saying I wouldn’t give him short shrift if I worked on reception, but I would have said, in a firm but professional tone;
“Sir your late arrival and subsequent emergency does not, by default, make it my emergency. I will deal with your concerns when I have finished with this very important phone call that for all you know could be an actual emergency.”
Anyway Delia finally hangs up and says;
“How can I help you sir?”
“I need a screen!” He jabs his finger at her face, eliciting the exact opposite of the attentive professionalism that she feigns when she thinks an Inspector has arrived.
I hear a flurry of activity behind and turn to see the first delegates filtering through the doors. I straighten my tabard and name badge and hurry into the small galley kitchen between the function rooms to prepare the tea and coffee. This is Mr Simpson’s tenth conference in as many months, but not once has he acknowledged me. I must be invisible.
Yet, I know all about Mr Simpson. I listen. I watch. I know his wife left him; I know his credit card has reached its limit; I even know where he gets his suits dry cleaned and that his favourite past time is collecting stamps. I would make a good detective. I also know he enjoys belittling the delegates, which according to Freud means he’s got a small widdler, or he can’t get it up, (which may explain why his wife left him.) I do so like it when I can apply what I’ve learnt to real life. Sigmund Freud’s theories make a lot of sense to me; I’m convinced I’m stuck in the Electra complex.
To be fair, I like Mr Simpson’s conferences the best of all and I always volunteer if I see it coming up on the roster, but not because of him; it’s the delegates. They’re teachers. I like teachers, I feel safe around teachers. Sometimes I pretend that I’m still at school and I know it’s silly, but I kept my uniform and if I’m feeling worried, or a bit panicky, just the sight of it, hanging in my wardrobe is enough to calm my breathing. I only wear it on very special occasions because I worry about damaging it, you can’t get the tie and pullover with the school logo on any more. It got turned into a city academy five years ago, just after... mustn’t dwell on that, I’ve got things to do.
I push the heavy trolley into the foyer, the cups rattle. Delia remains on the phone and he hops from foot to foot like a demented kangaroo.
“The porters aren’t answering,” she says and yawns before examining her nails.
I look at my watch, 10 am, of course not – tea break. I could get the screen for him and maybe if he’d been nicer to me… it’s not in my job description, but I don’t mind deviating for the right guest. Delia replaces the phone, it rings again immediately and she picks it up, saying;
“One moment,” then places her hand over the receiver and looks at him. “There’s no point you standing there. Why don’t you go and set up, Sir. The porters will bring it in as soon as possible.”
His face goes the same shade as his ears and I await the inevitable explosion, but then he spots someone he knows and grimaces instead. Shaking hands they walk into the conference room as I follow up the rear with the trolley, I hear him moan;
“You can’t get the staff,” and his companion replies; “These hotels employ immigrants, so what do you expect.”
My grandparents on my mother’s side are Italian immigrants.
I arrange the biscuits in rings, alternating custard with jam and smile as I stand back to admire them. Teachers deserve a bit of pampering, what with the press they get, and I know I was far from a perfect student and there were a lot worse than me, a lot worse, but I will not dwell on it.
I always try to hang around at the beginning, before it starts. No one can see me. I am invisible. Sometimes I pretend I’m at school and that I’ve snuck into the staffroom and hidden under the skirt of the soft and cosy couch, listening to the teachers compare notes about the worsening behaviour and the funny things that children say.
Here, there are no bells to cut short their chat, no self conscious monitoring less a stray ‘shit’ should slip from their lips and be downloaded on Youtube by lunch time. Just him, Mr Simpson, who hasn’t been at the chalk-face for years, and they know that, the delegates, I see it in their raised eyebrows, their barely concealed yawns, or in most cases their complete lack of attention.
I see them all. The majority catch up on marking, or filling in their shiny teacher planners in a rainbow of colours with to do-lists and half thought out lesson plans. I saw one teacher spend the whole conference writing chapter eight of a novel. I read a bit when she was at lunch; a couple were having sex, it was very graphic and a little disturbing, it made me blush and I covered it up with the complimentary notepad.
If there is a cocky PE teacher in the room, notes get passed in smirking nods from table to table. I found one in the bin last month, it said – Is this speaker a knob or what? and then in lots of different handwriting; not a knob more a wet blanket; how long since he tried to teach a class of year 10’s on a windy Friday afternoon; knob’s a bit of a compliment, and my favourite; don’t you mean a total waste of space.
That’s what they used to say about me. (I don’t know what it is about today, but the past will not remain so.) I kept the note, it’s on the fridge in my bedsit and sometimes I get the tie out and make a border around it with fridge magnets.
I refill the hot water in the coffee flask, there are always more coffee drinkers in the morning than tea, so I always.... It’s her!
My hands shake and a tiny splash of hot water sears my skin at the base of the thumb, just above the pale silver scar of a hot metal oven rack, an accident at school, like the itchy scar across my cheek, just an accident in the playground with a sharpened nail file.
It can’t be her? She’d be retired by now. I remember she told me how she was looking forward to spending time in the garden and seeing more of her grandson.
No. Of course it isn’t her. She doesn’t look like that anymore; I saw the picture in the paper. I cried. I made her face all wet. I didn’t keep that. I didn’t keep anything about that time. It’s not healthy to dwell on the past, it only makes you yearn for that which you can never return to, how ever much you pretend.
I watch her shake hands with someone and laugh, her red hair tossed back over her shoulders as a murmured expletive comes from behind and I swing round to see Miguel, half-carrying and half-dragging the screen into the room. A lazy oaf, but harmless enough – if I was head porter I’d lick him into shape.
“Vere does e vant it?” his words slide from the corner of his mouth like he is practising to be a ventriloquist, but I know he isn’t practising to be anything. Of course this job is just a means to an end, to pay the fees on my Open University degree in Psychology. I’m going to be a teacher, one day. I point towards the front and Miguel lumbers through the delegates, nudging elbows and spilling coffee. He really is an oaf.
It was Mrs Rochelle that got me interested in being a teacher. I used to go to her classroom every day after school. She was never too busy to talk and I’d help her with the displays and filing. I hated it when she said it was time to go home, but then she’d wink and say, “there’s always tomorrow.” I hated the summer holidays even more and I would get really scared at the beginning of September in case she’d left or something had happened to her. She’s the reason I stayed on in the sixth form, I only did year 12, things happened, but it made me realise, well Mrs Rochelle made me realise, I could do it, I could do anything I wanted to.
“All you have to do is put your mind to it,” she would say, time and time again, her words smooth and round like fat smoke rings floating in the air.
That teacher does look remarkably like her. I watch her sip her coffee and I watch her reach out to place it on the table, coffee slops over the side. I grab my cloth and hurry over.
“Do you want me to move my things?”
I almost faint; she’s talking to me and she sounds just like Mrs Rochelle. She glances at my chest, then reaches out her hand and lightly touches my arm.
“Rosy, is it? Do you want me to move out of your way so you don’t have to stretch?”
I hope my cheeks are not too red as I nod and try to smile. She slips from her chair and as I lean forward I smell her perfume and my knees nearly give way. Mr Simpson clears his throat and claps his hands together. I move to the side and she takes her seat, whispering, “thank you,” the hairs on my neck stand up and my foot nudges against her handbag.
“Right everyone, now the screen has finally arrived, we can get started if you’d just like to take your places and sign the register as it comes round.”
He claps his hands together a couple more times, applauding himself and switches on the projector.
EBD – when is it too much to handle in a mainstream classroom?
EBD means emotional, behavioural disorder – we had a unit in our school. Everyone called it the loony bin. Mrs Rochelle said it was her favourite place to work. Mrs Rochelle loved her students, I mean really loved them. I think she loved me best of all, though she’d never say it. I could tell by the way she ruffled my hair and her smile, she had a special one just for me, it was all in the eyes.
“Right everyone. I want you to brain shower your response to that question.”
“On what?” Someone shouts.
“I was about to tell you…you lot are worse than the kids.” Polite laughter trickles towards him, he winks and takes a small bow. “On the flipchart paper in the middle of the table, ten minutes everyone.”
He claps his hands together, again, then makes his way towards the trolley, I crouch down to stack the dirty cups on the bottom shelf. He stands so close to me, if I turn, even a fraction, my face will meet his crotch. I wrinkle my nose as his body odour reaches me, he pours his coffee, then reaches over my back for the sugar. Holding my breath and trying not to panic, I crab-crawl to the side then stand and smooth my uniform. He doesn’t even make eye contact before walking back to the front with his coffee and four jammie dodgers. Greedy pig.
I check my watch, I ought to be getting the coffee ready for the other conference next door, but I don’t want to go in case she speaks, then I can pretend that I’m in Mrs Rochelle classroom on a warm summer afternoon, just us and the silence of an empty school, the deepest silence I have ever experienced. “It’s the contrast,” Mrs Rochelle said in a voice pure and soft, weaving magic into the silence, into my silence, so that I nearly… but I didn’t and there’s no point wasting my wishes on things I cannot change.
I decide to get next door’s coffee done really quickly. I can be fast, this job’s not hard, but I do like to do it to the best of my ability. Mrs Rochelle used to say I was a perfectionist, and then she’d mop my tears with the tissues she always carried and gently ease the crumpled paper from my hands and smooth out my work, try to make me see what she could. But I never did.
Some people! Really!
Just when I was trying to get it done at speed, how difficult can it be to work the flask? You turn the lid and pour. Stupid woman! But then it is a food and safety conference, hardly the most educated of delegates. She tried to blame me, said I’d left the lid loose, of course I didn’t, I wouldn’t, that would be unprofessional and one thing I’m not is unprofessional. Well you can guess whose side Frank, the duty manager took. He’s never liked me, not since I poured his dinner into his lap at the staff Christmas party, should’ve kept his piggy little eyes to himself then, shouldn’t he? Take the money out of my wages for a new suit, see if I care. That’s what I should have said:
“See if I care! And while you’re at it, you can stick your lousy job that doesn’t even pay minimum wage up your arse!”
Oh my god? It sounds like a riot has kicked off in there, and I nearly missed it because of stupid Frank and his tin pot degree in ‘Hotel Management’. I slip into the back of the room. I am invisible.
“So you’re telling me that all EBD students should be taught in mainstream schools, after what my colleague Ms…?” she turns to him and I put my hand over my mouth to stifle the gasp, in profile she could be Mrs Rochelle. A doppelganger?
“Strickland,” she says, her voice sounds like she’s been crying. Who made her cry?
“After what Ms Strickland just told us about her mother?”
Mr Simpson attempts a smile, the power point remote clasped in his hand, sweat drips down the sides of his temples and his ears begin to redden, again. I reach behind me and turn the control on the wall up to hot. Let him sweat, the pompous arrogant fool.
“Well there are always going to be exceptions, I mean the point I was making was that most of the kids can be taught in units within the mainstream system. Inclusion is the government’s gold standard and we are here to work through the practicalities of fulfilling this, but I can assure you that Special schools are long gone and so they should be. I mean I’m not saying that what happened to Ms…?”
“Strickland,” the delegates shout like a school choir that has hit puberty simultaneously.
“Strickland’s mother is not terrible, only what I mean is, who was supporting her? Who was helping her deal with this clearly very disturbed student, I mean she should have been warned not to get too close, it’s a failure of the management, she was clearly naïve and…”
I watch her stand, planting her feet firmly apart, just like Mrs Rochelle used to when Kyle or Shane confronted her. They were so mean to her, so mean, and what they did to me… I’m not going back there, I mustn’t open that wound.
“How dare you! How dare you make assumptions about my mother’s professionalism. She was doing her job to the best of her ability. This girl should never have been there. My mother had spoken to the head teacher on a number of occasions, she’d written letters. She knew it was a tragedy waiting to happen. If my mother hadn’t been on the ball, if she hadn’t picked up a worrying change in the girls behaviour then there would have been two deaths for the school to explain away. As it was it was only her that got hurt, hurt saving those lads, she didn’t consider herself.”
“I, I… I can see how painful this still is for you and your family, um… when did you say it happened, I mean things have changed considerably since then I’m sure, more Educational Psychologists for a start, and counsellors I bet they were non-existent back then.”
“For Christ sake it was only five years ago, not in the dark ages. She even went to the Head teacher after school that day and said she was worried about this girl. She’d seen her striking matches at lunchtime and confiscated them, there was something about her that had shut down. It was because my mother had bothered to get to know her so well that she could tell. This girl refused to speak, she never said a word, but mum had learnt to read her body movements, she always knew when she was about to blow…. Of course what she didn’t know at the time was that these two boys she’d saved had harassed this girl, pulled her trousers down in the canteen, but she knew all the same that something wasn’t right, teacher’s intuition from twenty-five years in the classroom.”
“Unlike you!” the man next to her shouts, pointing at Mr Simpson.
I reach out and turn the control to cold, very cold, sweat slips down my neck, my arms and legs, it pools in my belly button. It can’t be, it can’t be?
“Precisely,” she agrees looking at him and smiling grimly. “God, I remember all the stories she used to tell us over dinner, we used to laugh because this girl was clearly nuts. She would creep up on mum and watch her, hiding under the desks like she thought that it made her invisible. I don’t know how mum kept up the pretence of liking her for as long as she did, she just knew that if this girl got angry or felt rejected, well... So Mr Simpson with your government agenda and…”
Pretence? She said pretence. No! It was real, our friendship was real, she loved me watching her, she told me, she said;
“Rosy, I am flattered that you find me so interesting, really flattered, but you don’t have to spy, just come and sit with me, you can help me if you like.”
And she smiled and held out her hand and I crawled from under the desk and when my hand touched hers my chest ached and I had never felt so happy.
I blink, the sounds in the room return as if the volume had been yanked up, everyone shifts in their seats, bad tempered murmurs sweep around the room. Mr Simpson coughs apologetically and the murmurs quieten.
“Take thirty minutes for coffee,” he says and hurries out of the door, and before I know it they have flocked around the trolley and she is right there by my elbow; Mrs Rochelle’s daughter, close enough to touch.
That was the worse thing about it in the end, I mean I knew she wouldn’t have come to see me in the Young Offender institute, but when I was released they slapped a restraining order on me. She would have come to find me otherwise… she loved me. It was the only thing that kept me going because I knew she’d understand why I did it. Shane and Kyle used to say awful things to her. I knew she would have thanked me if she could.
“Your poor mother, how is she now?” a woman says, before placing a whole custard cream in her mouth.
“So, so… you know, her hands are pretty useless and her face is… I’m sorry this conference guy has made me really angry… I came here thinking we were actually going to discuss this, get to the bottom of what’s going wrong, he’s just a Local Authority lackey… cut costs, close schools… how many more tragedies must there be?”
“What happened to the girl?” the woman asks, spitting biscuit crumbs.
“She did two years in a Young Offender institute, started a degree from what I heard… Some punishment, huh! If I knew where she was I swear I would show her the pictures of my mother, ask her, why? Mum did everything she could to help her.”
Bitch! Turning her mother against me. Mrs Rochelle knew I would never hurt her, I didn’t know she would return to the school that day. What does she know, stupid bitch! And anyway, how do you think I got Kyle and Shane in a broom cupboard in the first place? Because they couldn’t keep their trousers snakes in their trousers; the merest hint that I might give out and they were putty in my palms. If they hadn’t been perverts I never would have done what I did. I thought Mrs Rochelle understood me; she would do, if her daughter wasn’t telling her lies. Oh god! Here comes Frank, can my day get any worse.
“Rosy, can I have a word outside please.”
I follow him into the galley. He turns to face me, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.
“Rosy, I’m going to have to let you go. I know you don’t speak, but stamping your feet and spitting in front of a guest is not in any circumstances acceptable. I’ve spoken to Mr Morris and he would prefer it if you left now, via Housekeeping to hand in your pass and uniform. I’ll sort your wages out and meet you down there. You’re very lucky you know, Mr Morris said he’ll pay you two months. He doesn’t have to give you anything the way you’ve behaved.”
He reaches out and pats my shoulder. “I’m sorry Rosy, I really am. I know you have a tough time, but this is not a charity.”
Sorry my arse! Well he can stick his crappy job; him and everyone else in this crappy hotel can rot in hell for all I care, arrogant pompous loud mouthed know it alls! I was going to jack it in anyway, I always hated the uniform.
I stroke the logo and nudge the knot a fraction of an inch to the left. Doing up the tie always calms me, it’s the concentration required to create the perfect knot, sometimes it takes all day to get it just right, but not today, no time for that today. Right! Pullover on, and then my hair – bunches or plaits? Plaits… yes, perfect.
That’s it, time to get going or I’ll miss them, oops silly me I nearly forgot the matches.
Hotel Excelsior – where comfort and corporate meet. Hah! Should be where liars and idiots meet.
Mrs Rochelle said;
“Rosy, no learning is ever wasted. Education expands the borders of your world, and besides you never know when you might need something that you learnt years ago.”
So I listened. I listened to the kids in the institute, I listened to their techniques, to their boastful escapades, and it stuck, because as she said, you never know. I skip down the road, I only need to start fires in a couple of vents, the air conditioning ducts will do the rest. The matches feel warm in my pocket, like they’re desperate to burst.
How beautiful it is, they way it licks around the E of the sign. How quickly it went up. No learning is ever wasted, how true….
“Love, you need to step back, the fire crew are saying there might be a further explosion. In fact shouldn’t you be in school?”
I nod at the policewoman and do as she says – my work here is done and it’s high time I found Mrs Rochelle. I know she’ll be pleased to see me, she always said she was and I saw it in her eyes, how they used to widen when she realised I was standing right behind her and how they would crease into my smile, the one she kept just for me. When she sees me in this uniform it’ll be just like old times.
I dip my hand into my pocket and pull out Ms Strickland’s address book, (well she’s hardly going to need it where she is.) I smile and nod, it’s not far, I should be there by five, just in time for tea, just like the old days.