Film Night

 

There was going to be a Film Night. It had been decided. Miss Prettybore had decided it, or rather it had been decided that Miss Prettybore would organise it. Being a Newly Qualified Teacher, Miss Prettybore had to more or less do as she was told. The Film Night would be on a Friday after school, two weeks before the end of term. The school play was one week before the end of term.

At Silver Lake Academy, there was an unspoken assumption that all teachers would, quite naturally, run an extra-curricular activity of some kind. Mr Token, being the only male teacher, had to coach the football team on a Saturday; but most activities were held at lunchtime, such as the Quiet Reading Club or the Computer Games Club, or after school, like the Maths Club and the Literacy Club. The Choir met most lunchtimes and the Acting Club was an after-school activity; both were run by Mrs Sack.

Evengeline Sack was a stout, unsmiling woman in her late forties. Physically, she had a rather unfortunate resemblance to a potato, which had led to the coining of the nickname, ‘Potato Sack’, a cruel if somewhat apt expression. Her voice had a pinched, nasal twang and, when talking to children, an artificial honeyed sweetness. The result was far from the dove-like coo Mrs Sack imagined and much closer to a cross between a robot and a doll that wets its own pants and says sorry. Mrs Sack did not run the Choir and Acting Club out of any desire to provide cultural enrichment for young people. She did it because she was a frustrated musical actress and she saw in each of her young charges a smaller version of herself. If she could not succeed on the stage or in the concert hall (and she certainly could not), maybe they could do so in her stead. This vicarious existence led to her harbouring certain grandiose dreams of unrealistic proportions.

The Acting Club staged lamentable productions at the end of each term in which nervous, tongue-tied children delivered nonsensical lines in a dull monotone while parents stifled yawns and watched proceedings through camera phones with grins fixed to their bored faces. Evangeline wrote the scripts for these execrable productions herself and considered them second to none in terms of theatrical quality. The more she treated each production as a significant cultural event, the more those who had the misfortune to witness it found their thoughts straying towards slipping out the back door at the interval.

As for the Choir, Evangeline insisted, with all the fervour of an army sergeant-major, on a modicum of tunefulness from its participants. She would find each poor wretch who could not reach her exacting standards and make them demonstrate their failings in front of the others before banishing them forever. Each year, she entered the County School Choir competition, the only public performance they ever gave. Each year, they finished in eleventh place. Usually, only ten schools took part. Nevertheless, Mrs Evangeline Sack was considered an extremely talented teacher (the Choir’s failings the result of professional envy) and the younger teachers were in awe of her.

To begin with, Mrs Sack had been very put out about Film Night. She had not been consulted. She had not been asked. She had been passed over in favour of an NQT. But when Mrs Dinglesby explained to her that Film Night was nothing more than an opportunity for pupils to gather together in Miss Prettybore’s classroom and watch a DVD, when she realised that it involved no creative input whatsoever, she was somewhat reconciled to the idea. To Miss Prettybore, the whole thing seemed an enormous challenge – if not an Everest of educational opportunity, at least a Ben Nevis or a Snowden. She had to recruit children. She had to organise tickets and a DVD. She had to take charge. It was all up to her.

Louisa Prettybore had gone straight from school to Teacher Training College and then to Silver Lake. Working with several teachers much older than herself, Louisa often felt more like one of the children than an actual, proper teacher. Yet here was an opportunity to prove herself. Here was a chance to show she had what it takes. Here was Film Night.

At her interview, Mrs Dinglesby and the governors had grilled the young teacher on her background, her educational qualifications, her experience and her understanding of current educational practice. The college graduate answered them all with responses straight out of the textbook and was promptly offered the position of Year Five class teacher. Louisa was almost straightaway given the responsibility of co-ordinating Geography across the school, with which she coped admirably. However, the issue of extra-curricular activity was one that made Miss Prettybore quake in her kitten heels. Poor Miss Prettybore, who felt she had no particular skills to offer in any area, was at a loss as to what she could do. She had, of course, promised at interview that she would run some sort of activity, but had struggled to actually do so. Then one day Mrs Turnem had popped in the classroom after a Senior Management meeting and suggested that Miss Prettybore organise Film Night. After she explained to Louisa how little was involved and how much the Senior Management Team wanted her to organise the event, it was agreed. Film Night would be two weeks before the end of term.

And so it was that Miss Prettybore drew up a letter to send out to pupils about her new venture. All were welcome and the cost was minimal, to cover expenses, but places would be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. There would be popcorn at Film Night, Miss Prettybore decided. Popcorn, and squash, and blinds drawn in the classroom to make it seem more like a cinema. She would choose only the most popular films from the latest release of DVDs and she would collect together the comfiest cushions and beanbags in the school. She would hand-write tickets for the children, produce a programme, put up posters all over the academy. Mrs Dinglesby (who was in an unaccountably good mood and wearing expensive new shoes the morning Miss Prettybore went to see her), loved her ideas and approved them immediately.  Everything was proceeding very well.

The Film Night letters were sent out. The replies came in. The event was proving very popular. Mrs Sack noticed that a number of the boys and girls in Acting Club were hoping to get a place at Film Night. A flicker of concern passed over her face when she realised that Film Night was only one week before the performance of her own precious play, Lucky Jack and The Golden Ticket, a musical fantasy. Alicia Money-Pocket was playing the part of Lucky Jack. Alicia was by far the most talented performer at Silver Lake and, before her father’s bankruptcy the previous year, she had been attending a very prestigious Private School. Alicia could play the clarinet to Grade Eight level. Alicia knew seventeen Shakespeare sonnets by heart. With Alicia in its ranks, the Choir actually stood a chance in this year’s competition. Alicia was ten years old. Next year, she would move on to secondary school. Evangeline had just a few precious months to make Alicia her star among stars.

‘Are you thinking of going to Film Night?’ Mrs Sack asked her.

‘Oh yes,’ replied Alicia. ‘Miss Prettybore said I was sure to get a place.’

Mrs Sack frowned. Of course she was sure to get a place. All the teachers wanted Alicia to attend their clubs. All the staff sucked up to the child and to her parents. Despite his impecunious status, it was widely hoped that Mr Money-Pocket would be the next Chair of Governors of the school. He was a man with connections. Alicia also had a younger sister who showed promise.

‘You do realise Film Night is one week before the performance, don’t you, Alicia?’

‘Yes, Mrs Sack, but we don’t have a rehearsal that night, do we?’

Acting Club never rehearsed on a Friday. It met on a Thursday. The performances were always on Fridays so that they could have a final Dress Rehearsal the day before, but they never rehearsed on a Friday. Never. But a sudden, spiteful impulse seized control of Mrs Sack. She didn’t want Miss Prettybore getting her hands on Alicia Money-Pocket. She didn’t want any other teacher attracting that child’s interest, potentially taking her away from Choir and Acting Club. She wanted Alicia all to herself. Besides, she was sick of all the fuss the little NQT was making over her precious Film Night. Hand-written tickets? Mrs Sack had never made hand-written tickets. Posters? Programmes?! Popcorn?!! Mrs Sack had never thought of any of those things. Mrs Sack was jealous of Miss Prettybore. She was jealous, but she was also older, more experienced and more worldly-wise. She wanted to squash Louisa Prettybore beneath her flat-soled feet and she knew just how to do it.

‘I’m afraid, Alicia, that I’m going to have to call an extra rehearsal that night.’

There was a general gasp of surprise and disappointment.

‘No, Mrs Sack, not on Film Night!’

‘Yes, boys and girls. Our play just isn’t ready, is it? We need an extra rehearsal.’

‘But not on Film Night!’

‘I’m afraid it’s the only night I am free. You can’t have a rehearsal without the director, can you? The director is the most important person.’

It was not unprecedented for Mrs Sack to call extra rehearsals. It had certainly happened before. In fact, it was a fairly regular occurrence in Acting Club. The plays she wrote were so ambitious in their scope that they were frequently beyond the comfortable capacities of the Silver Lake students. Evangeline had to push and propel them from behind, exhorting them in her robot-doll voice to ever-greater energy and effort. Parents were not unduly surprised, therefore, to receive notification of the extra date. Quite a few children, though, were surprised when the Film Night list went up on the student notice-board a few days later and their names were on it. ‘We can’t go to Film Night!’ they protested. ‘We’ve got extra Acting Club!’

‘Oh!’ said Miss Prettybore when the children came to see her about this. ‘I had no idea!’ As it happened, this was absolutely true. Louisa had had no warning of the extra rehearsal from Evangeline. If she had known in advance, she certainly would not have done anything to conflict with the intentions of her more experienced colleague. However, she had not known in advance and the information was something of a shock to her. Something of an embarrassment, too. ‘How many of you does this affect?’

‘Seven of us, Miss,’ replied Alicia, the self-appointed leader of the double-booked.

‘Well,’ said Miss Prettybore after a moment’s thought, ‘I suppose you had better go along to Acting Club and I’ll have to give your seats to someone else.’ She looked at the crestfallen little faces in front of her, their eyes now dropping to the ground, some of them with tears already welling. ‘That is,’ she continued, and the eyes looked up again, all hopeful little pleading suns rising on their own horizons. ‘That is…unless you’d rather attend Film Night?’

‘Oh, Miss,’ exclaimed Alicia, clapping her hands together in joy, ‘we’d much rather attend Film Night! There’s going to be popcorn and comfy cushions and you’re giving out tickets you wrote with your own hands and everything!’

‘But what about Acting Club?’ said the astonished young teacher.

And then she heard it all. The children couldn’t wait to tell her. She heard about how difficult it was to learn the lines, how complicated the staging and production, how harsh and metallic the voice of Mrs Sack when she got angry with them for getting it wrong and how frequently they got it wrong and suffered for it. She heard how they were prepared to go through with Lucky Jack and the Golden Ticket, having got so far, but how they all vowed never to join Acting Club again when this production was over and how much they were looking forward to Film Night as a welcome change.

‘Very well then,’ decided Miss Prettybore. ‘You can all come along.’

‘Hooray!’ cried Alicia. ‘And we can tell Mrs Sack you said it was alright to miss the rehearsal?’

‘Well, you can tell her I didn’t know that there was a rehearsal and that the choice is up to you,’ Miss Prettybore replied.

‘Thank-you, Miss,’ said Alicia, her little eyes twinkling like newly-formed stars. ‘You’re the best!’

Mrs Sack, when she heard about what Miss Prettybore had done, was not quite of the same opinion as her leading lady. She bided her time, however. She did not follow her first instinct and blow her lid like an over-filled kettle. She waited until the lunch hour of the following day, when she knew Miss Prettybore would be alone in her classroom, marking books and munching couscous.

‘Could I have a word?’ she said in her grated honeycomb voice. Louisa’s heart gave a little jump in her chest.

‘Of course, Evangeline, come in.’

‘Thank-you, Miss Prettybore. I’m sure you know what it’s about.’

Louisa was nervous. She was put on the spot. She felt automatically intimidated by this much older, much heavier woman, as Mrs Sack had known she would. But she also felt that her professional integrity was challenged, that her good name was questioned and her reputation under threat. She had done nothing wrong; she had acted, as she thought, in the best interests of the children. She had certainly not caused any deliberate confusion or offence. And so, she held her ground. No, she would not rescind the invitation to Film Night for those in Acting Club. Yes, she was sorry for what had happened, but she really didn’t think that it was her fault. No, not at all. Yes, she would be happy to discuss it in the Head’s office. Sorry, Mrs Sack, but that was her final word.

Louisa quivered and quaked for the rest of the day, expecting at any minute to be summoned before Mrs Dinglesby to defend herself. Yet she was prepared to do it if she had to. Having made her stand, she wasn’t going to back down now. Mrs Dinglesby was known for pulling teachers out of class if she felt they had overstepped the bounds in any way. Surely, any moment, the door would open and a Cover Supervisor would inform her that her presence was required.

The afternoon passed and the children went home and no invitation to the Head’s office materialised. Louisa was puzzled. Finally, she decided to grab the bull by the horns and go and see Mrs Dinglesby herself. She strode along the corridor and down the stairs with as much confidence and purpose as she could muster and knocked timidly upon the door, all confidence now having seeped out of her.

‘Come in, Miss Prettybore. How are you? Do sit down and tell me, how is Film Night coming along?’

‘Well…um…it was Film Night I wanted to talk to you about, actually.’ Louisa took a deep breath. ‘You see, Mrs Dinglesby, Mrs Sack thinks – ’

The Head raised a hand to silence her. ‘I know all about the clash of dates, Miss Prettybore. Mrs Sack has already been to see me.’

‘Oh dear, has she?’

‘Yes, she has, and I told her exactly what I’m going to tell you. Film Night was arranged some time ago and the details shared with all the staff and students. If Mrs Sack wants to hold an extra rehearsal on the same night, she will have to work around you, not the other way around. Don’t you worry anymore about that.’

‘Oh, thank-you, Mrs Dinglesby, thank-you!’

‘That’s quite alright. It really doesn’t matter. We all of us have more important things to think about that day anyway. Mr Sadface has just called to say he wants to visit us that afternoon.’

Mr Sadface was a member of the Schools Inspectorate who worked in a private capacity for Silver Lake Academy, advising them on ways to improve their work and teaching in preparation for whenever their next school inspection might be. Inspections were held with very little notice and most schools were advised on how best to be ready, either by officers of the local authority or (in the case of academies) private consultants such as Mr Sadface. Although his visits were feared by teachers – Sadface liked to make unannounced drop-ins to lessons and pronounce harsh judgements upon unsuspecting staff – there was general consensus that it was better the devil you know. Miss Prettybore, however, could only think of one thing: she had survived. Film Night had survived. It would be unpleasant to be observed by Sadface, true, but after school she could relax – along with Alicia Money-Pocket – and watch a movie. She had won and the great battle with Mrs Sack was over.

Or so she thought.

Mrs Sack said nothing to her about Mrs Dinglesby’s ruling. Nor did she cancel her extra rehearsal, eager not to lose face as well as Alicia. She showed every sign of carrying on with the rehearsal with a full cohort of Acting Club members, despite what she had been told. Louisa was not worried, however. She knew Alicia would be coming to Film Night, and she knew that Mrs Dinglesby knew too. Most importantly, Alicia and her parents knew.

The day of Sadface’s visit found teachers nervously checking lesson plans in the staff room, marking books in the corridors, annotating evaluations in the toilets. Everything had to be ready – more than ready – perfect. It was never known exactly what focus Sadface would take when he came to observe the school. One time, he had criticised teachers for not dressing smartly enough, another he had pointed out the ragged condition of wall displays. A teacher might find her planning torn to shreds, or her plenary exposed. Anything could happen.

Louisa Prettybore survived the ordeal with her nerves intact. Sadface spent only ten minutes in her classroom, looked at a few children’s books, smiled encouragingly at her and left. On the way out, she heard him saying to Mrs Dinglesby, ‘It’s not enough to do well with the average child. We must make sure the more able pupils are stretched, too. They must all be stretched to the utmost limit of their abilities!’ but whether this was said with reference to her own class or to somebody else’s, she did not know. Louisa was just pleased that he had made no open criticism to her or in front of the children. By the look on Mrs Sack’s face as she passed Louisa in the corridor at the end of the day, she had not fared so well. Her face had the red-eyed, crumpled look of someone who had just been crying. However, there was no time for Louisa to find out what had happened: she had to get ready for Film Night!

At the appointed hour, the children began to file in to the classroom, all waving their hand-written tickets excitedly. Louisa could hear the stern, yet faltering tones of Mrs Sack carry up the stairs from the main hall below, where Acting Club was already in full swing. Yet soon, she told herself, even these sounds would be drowned out by the opening music of the latest blockbuster she had rented on DVD. However, as the children settled into their beanbags and cushions and started to chew their popcorn, Miss Prettybore noticed that Mrs Sack’s voice seemed to be getting louder instead of quieter. Yes, there was no doubt about it: Mrs Sack was coming up the stairs.

Miss Prettybore stuck her head out the classroom door just in time to see her dour-faced colleague approach along the corridor. ‘What can I do for you, Mrs Sack?’ she inquired.

‘You can kindly let me have the children who are supposed to be in Acting Club.’

‘But…but…I thought this was all settled, Mrs Sack.’

‘Miss Prettybore, the world premiere of Lucky Jack and the Golden Ticket is precisely one week from today. The show is in need of attention. An extra rehearsal has been called. Attendance is mandatory from all of the actors!’ Mrs Sack’s voice was rising in pitch and volume as she said this so that she was beginning to sound like a particularly enraged dalek.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Sack – ’ began Miss Prettybore, but both her reply and her person were brushed aside as Mrs Sack barged past her into the classroom.

‘I don’t mean to interrupt you, children, but I do need those of you in Acting Club to accompany me downstairs to the hall. Right now!’

Miss Prettybore looked at the faces of the children, popcorn and consternation plastered all over them. Was Mrs Sack really going to force these boys and girls to go with her? How could this be happening? Miss Prettybore thought of going to see the Headteacher, but remembered that she was in a meeting now with Mr Sadface and had left instructions not to be disturbed on any account. In any case, she would have to move quickly: Mrs Sack was already pulling at Alicia Money-Pocket’s arm to help raise her up from her beanbag.

‘But I don’t want to go!’ she heard Alicia cry. ‘I want to stay here!’

‘Come along now, Alicia,’ rasped Sack. ‘You’re the main part. You’re Jack!’

‘But I don’t want to be Jack, Mrs Sack! It’s a boy’s part! I want to be a girl!’

‘Why don’t you leave her alone?’ Miss Prettybore found herself saying.

‘You stay out of this,’ snarled Sack. ‘You’re only an NQT! Alicia, you come with me.’ By half dragging her and half pushing her, Mrs Sack manoeuvred Alicia to the door, right where Miss Prettybore was standing.

‘Leave her alone!’ screamed Louisa. ‘Leave her alone!’

‘Help me, Miss Prettybore!’ cried Alicia as she was dragged away.

‘She’s coming with me!’ yelled Mrs Sack.

‘She’s staying here!’ With this full-throated roar, Miss Prettybore grabbed hold of Alicia’s trailing arm and held on tight. Alicia’s body jerked towards Miss Prettybore, who swiftly slipped her arms under Alicia’s and pulled her further back into the classroom, causing Mrs Sack to let go. Straightaway, Sack grabbed hold of Alicia’s legs. There the two teachers stood in the doorway, one holding the frightened ten year-old by her arms, the other by her legs and both pulling at her for all they were worth. Mrs Sack’s face turned red from the effort; Miss Prettybore soon found herself having to grit her teeth. Neither was prepared to let go. The whole of the Film Night audience sat open-mouthed in silent astonishment; the film was forgotten. Alicia closed her eyes and bit her lip and hoped for the best.

As she did so, an odd thing started to happen to Alicia’s body. Young children are, of course, much more flexible and adaptable to change than those older than themselves and the force of these two grown women pulling at her in opposite directions was causing her to lengthen. Her arms grew an extra two inches in as many seconds and her legs the same. Even Alicia’s torso was getting longer as force continued to be exerted on her by her teachers. Soon, Mrs Sack found herself having to take steps backward into the corridor, and Miss Prettybore further into her room, as little Miss Money-Pocket grew physically taller between them.  Being a well-educated girl, Alicia had heard of the medieval torture device called The Rack, which pulled its victim’s arms and legs in opposite directions. She had never expected to be subject to its cruelty, however, even if the wheels and ropes of the middle ages had been replaced by a pair of professional teachers. For Alicia, it was unpleasant, to say the least.

It was at this moment that Mrs Dinglesby and Mr Sadface entered the scene. The inspector had wanted one last tour of the school to check the condition of the displays and general tidiness of the classrooms and the Head was only too happy to oblige. It would, she thought, give her the opportunity to show off the excellent after-school provision at Silver Lake Academy. Mr Sadface might want to watch the Acting Club rehearse, and they should certainly pay a visit to Film Night. Mrs Dinglesby decided to start at the top of the school and work their way down and Miss Prettybore’s club, therefore, was their first port of call.

What the Head and her visitor encountered, in the corridor outside the young NQT’s classroom, was the sight of a pair of teachers engaged in a tug-of-war contest with a child. Mrs Sack, with Alicia’s feet and ankles now draped over her shoulders, was pulling at the girl’s calves, while Miss Prettybore held on to the elbows of her enormously elongated arms. It was a sight that neither of the visitors had been expecting and at first neither of them knew quite what to say or do. Noticing the arrival of the Head and the inspector, Sack and Prettybore stopped pulling Alicia and stood still, the girl’s body still taut between them.

Finally, after a few moments, it was Sadface who spoke. Alicia had already fainted with the shock; the Film Night audience held their breath. Mrs Dinglesby feared the worst; Miss Prettybore wondered if her career was over before it had begun; while Mrs Sack simply saw her life flash before her eyes. But Sadface’s mouth was smiling. He looked from Prettybore to Sack to Dinglesby and said, ‘Well done, all of you! Well done, indeed!’

There was a pause.

‘Oh…er…yes, thank-you!’ uttered a perplexed Catherine Dinglesby.

‘It was only this afternoon that I mentioned this matter to you, Mrs Dinglesby,’ continued the private consultant, ‘and already you have teachers putting it into action. And after school hours, at that. Congratulations! Your academy really is living up to its reputation!’

‘Yes, well, we do our best, you know,’ said a rapidly recovering headteacher. ‘May I ask exactly which element of the school you are particularly pleased with? In particular, I mean.’

‘Come now, do not be so modest,’ answered Sadface. ‘What did I say this afternoon? We must make sure the children are stretched. They must all be stretched to the utmost. And that is just what is happening here!’ The inspector gestured towards the young girl now hanging limply between her teachers and he gave Dinglesby his deepest look of admiration. ‘Well done, Silver Lake Academy! Well done, indeed!’

Mrs Dinglesby managed a faint smile. Sack and Prettybore stared at each other. Then Sadface suggested he and the head move on with their tour.

For a long time, nobody else moved. The three figures in the corridor were as still as statues. Even the DVD had fallen silent, as if aware of the lack of attention it was receiving. The Film Night children stared blankly at the floor, or into space, or at each other’s unrecognisable features, pale and ghostly in the half-light of the darkened room.  There was a dreamlike quality in the air, the only proof of reality being the sound of footsteps on the stairway – the hard, remorseless tread of Inspector Sadface and, click-clacking beside him down the stairs, the heels of Mrs Dinglesby’s gorgeous new shoes.