Bancher’s daughter knows her knives. A chink of pride opens in his heart. He feels it widen, widening fit to split him asunder.
Gud gurl yurself.
Then he rights himself, sitting bolt straight in the chair. He remembers where he is, why he’s here. Leather farts gently under him.
The school principal’s office is coloured like a mushroom. Pinky-white on the top half of the walls; from waist height down, the pinky-brown of gills. It must’ve been a classroom at one time. The entire school is a put-together effort. Some classes are held in prefabs. Long pale-blue chalets. Tinderboxes: they’d go up in an instant, if someone had a mind to lay a fire to them.
Bancher had to fight to get his daughter in here, after the business at the convent. Like being fired from a job, stories of expulsion follow a person, getting bigger as they do the rounds.
It was said that Bancher head-butted his boss.
It was said that Bancher’s daughter pinned a nun’s arm behind her back.
It was said that Bancher came to work one too many times doddery and blood-eyed with drink.
It was said that Bancher’s daughter threw a table.
It was said that Bancher was a danger to himself and others on the job.
And Bancher’s daughter was said to be a living lighting threat to teachers and pupils. To the buildings themselves. ‘Your daughter brought a carpet knife to school, Mr Bancher.’
A carpet knife. Would you credit it? And the easiest thing to buy, too. You could get them for cheap in PoundWorld, ones with flimsy blades that buckled easily and bright-coloured handles. Sold in plastic packets backed with cardboard, the cardboard printed with instructions for safe use. Exactly like you bought toys. Action Men and Barbies and Jedi Knights shackled with twists of wire to the backs of boxes, hanging one in front of the other.
Bancher preferred to think that she went to a hardware shop for the knife, instead of PoundWorld. A hardware shop had a bit of class to it. Pay the extra bit, and you got the best. The chain with the thickest links, sold in feet, however many you wanted. Tile cutters, heavy knife files, boxes of blades.
‘We have every reason to believe that your daughter intended to employ this knife at some stage, Mr Bancher. Given what we know of your daughter’s history, we are entitled to our assumption.’
Who are the ‘we’, the ‘us’ in this outfit, Bancher wonders. They are alone in the office. Sitting at the enormous desk, the principal looks like a child bellied up to a big table. The mahogany desk looks like it might take several men to lift it. He thinks of it being hoisted by six men, they shouldering it like a coffin, and the principal draped along the top of it like one of those blondes on the bonnet of a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. The ones you used to see in posters, those posters that lads framed as expensively, displayed as importantly, as a piece of work in a museum.
But this feat of imagination fails him when he notices that the principal is wearing a brooch at her throat. The ultimate Don’tyou-even-think-about-mentally-undressing-me weapon. Cos you’ll prick your pretend unbuttoning paws on this savage sharp prong, you will.
He tries instead to hold her gaze, but feels wilted by the pity he sees there. She feels sorry for him. She thinks that she’s breaking some terrible news, some awful bulletin of dysfunction. And that’s how it should have been. After all Bancher has done over the last seven or eight years to rise them up in the world. The news that his daughter has brought a carpet knife to school should shaken him, sicken him, make him resolve to work harder. Be an iron fucking fist in her upbringing.
But instead he finds himself sliding his thumb across his bent forefinger, moving an invisible blade forward. Just the sharp snout of it. The merest triangle of metal. Ah, the lovely threat of it rasping the thick skin of his thumb.
‘We are loath, however, even under these extreme circumstances, to expel your daughter, Mr Bancher.’
Her sentences are like triple jumps. Landing. Just where. She wants them to.
‘We pride ourselves on our progressive attitude to problem pupils.’
Oh yah; he remembers the (P)PPP of the school’s manifesto. It was told to him only after he’d had to beg them to take her. He’d begged like a cur for a cronge of bread. He’d made a fool of himself.
And here he is, sitting across from a woman who’s just used the word ‘loath’ in a sentence, and presented him with the good news that she isn’t about to give his daughter the boot. She smells of something that he’s sprayed into the cap of an aerosol can in Boot’s. Limara. They used to have the best ads on television. Half-naked cartoons. A voice ripping off Robert Plant, singing ‘I’m gonna wake you… remember my name… Lim-aaara!’
She’s going to give a chance to his daughter, his knife-carrying daughter who could’ve nicked into a carotid artery in quick-time and given the place a right paint show.
‘We will, however, see to it that she takes her classes under one-to-one tuition, for a period of one month.’
Two-ition, she says, as an American would pronounce it.
‘Because, Mr Bancher, we don’t want word of the knife incident causing, shall we say, repercussions among our more volatile pupils.’
He wants to tell her that ‘reprisals’ would be a better word. It had more of the terrorist about it. Of course, the school can well afford to pay teachers for his daughter’s tuition. It’s absorbed into the fees he pays three times a year, his hand cramping as he writes the massive cheques.
Bancher thinks that his daughter might be treated like a serial killer for the duration of her punishment. They’d cage her. Give her all the books she wants. But never anything sharp; not so much as a colouring pencil. Knitting would be out of the question. The tutors would have to be trained in self-defence. How to shoot straight if the place was plunged into darkness. Bancher might visit her with a sliver of Gillette’s Closest Shave under his tongue. It’s a nice thought, like something from a film. He has to force himself to draw back from it and listen to the principal drone on about the school’s success with problem pupils. She speaks with the glazed zeal of a Jehovah’s Witness telling you how wonderful their book is.
Bancher has to buy into what the principal is selling to him. It’s part of his scrubbed-up life. It’s a way to keep things alright. Even keel. She’s offering him a Plan for Damage Limitation. And Bancher is well up for that.
Bancher can only remember mumbling, ‘Thank you, thank you indeed.’ He adds the ‘indeed’ because it seems like the kind of expression she’d appreciate. He thinks he may have even called her ‘ma’am’. He backs into the door; he backs out into the corridor; he lays his sweating hands against the cold skin of the wall.
He’d prefer to think that his daughter bought a carpet knife, stowed it in one of the hundred pockets on her army-green canvas bag, because she needed to know that it was there. For protection. For slicing the air with threats to the boys who might be making fun of the birthmark that lay alongside her ear, almost the same length as a sideburn. St Anthony’s Fire, as it was called. As if that somehow made it alright. Sanctified it.
Bancher had broached the topic of special concealing cream with her only once, showing her the Before and After pictures in the back pages of a woman’s magazine. She’d reacted by telling him not to be so stupid; by saying that it wasn’t that big of a deal; by reminding him that her hair mostly covered it. And anyway, she didn’t give a shit what people thought.
But Bancher would’ve preferred that she was being taunted by the most pitiless malicious names for her poor printed face. That she’d bought the knife for backup. That she liked how safe it felt to carry, its blade slid fully into the handle like a snail’s head pulled back into its shell. That it was her secret, the power she was biding until someday someone went too far, and she showed them what she had looking out for her.
He would’ve preferred that to the other possibility. And it was always there, even though he thought he’d escaped it by her being a girl. The chance that she hadn’t taken it from the wind, hadn’t licked it from the stones.
Chip off the block.
The thing that was in him, and sent him, back before she was born, looking for thick chain and boxes of blades. Bancher. All six feet of him, tank-shouldered and beered to the gills, making the terraces his own.
Did he like football back then?
Did he hell?
But he loved the crowds it mashed together, and he loved the streets afterwards. Tributaries thick with panicky people, all running from the source. The ones he brought to their knees. Finding the precise hiding place of a kidney, jabbing his boot into that spot beneath the love-handles. He knew, from when he’d been down himself, the way the pain roared like a siren, made you think that dying itself would have to be better than this hot va-voom inside you.
And the ones whose faces he branded. Opening smiles on lads’ cheeks. When the lips closed on the wounds, the small sickle of skin let everyone know how it had happened. Because everyone with a knife had their own trademark.
Even now, Bancher’s throat itches when he watches faces in the stands on television. The camera pans just slowly enough to show their mouths shaping the long loud words of songs. The group has a repertoire for referees, managers, players. Then there’s always the impromptu piece, tricked off to a familiar tune, and within two lines the whole gang has it. They love it like a new toy. They laugh after each rendition.
Some fucker ate all the lard.
Some fucker ate all the lard.
That fucker there.
When Bancher watches these faces on the screen, remembered lines pour into his head, and he can hear the slurry voice closest his ear. The way he felt almost in love with the beery breath, he had that much goodwill for whoever stood next to him.
And that was all that mattered. That song, that group. That and the anticipation of havoc after the match. Because it didn’t matter who won. It never mattered who won. When it went way beyond what they could control, articles in the papers and documentaries asked questions like How Could This Happen? Bancher saw an interview with a lad whose face was gridded into little squares to disguise it, and his voice made to sound like Darth Vader. He told the interviewer how waiting for a match to end was like waiting for ‘sex that you knew was goin’ to happen. You jus’ knew. That’s the kind of excitement I’m talkin’ about.’ He talked about knives and broken bottles.
‘As I said, Mr Bancher, we would very much like to… to liaise with you on the outcome of this matter.’ The principal’s head and shoulders came round the doorframe. Parting words. An injection of moral support. ‘You need never feel alone in dealing with this.’
For a second, he fancies that she sees right into him. He thinks that he could tell her everything, every single thing leading up to this. How the carpet knife is all his fault. He could talk to her about the bad drop. She might feel sorry enough for him to take him out for a drink. She might even be fascinated by what he used to get up to, before his daughter was born. She might be one of those people interested in Badness as a Product of Social Deprivation. Likely she watched documentaries about crack babies and their parents.
She withdraws into her office. The door shuts with a thick wooden clap. Bancher stands in the school corridor, his heart going like a piston.
He levers himself away from the wall. Further down he hears running feet, the high spirits of a day’s classes done. In the room off the principal’s office, his daughter is waiting for him. He hasn’t a clue what stern thing he could say to her. He’s afraid she’ll know how to look back at him.
Deaden the eyes.
Drop the lids.
Don’t look at the lad in front of you.