Wilbur The Magnificent

 

It was another grey afternoon in early February and the bell that signalled the end of the school day was about to sound. Parents and carers stood in huddled clusters by the Lower Key Stage Two entrance, swapping tales of looming unemployment or caps on their benefits. The huge stone edifice of Silver Lake Academy stood placidly before them, its old, wooden doors firmly shut, its modern electronic entry system looking strangely out of place. Carved in stone above the door was the word, ‘Girls’. Further along, where the parents and carers of older children stood similarly huddled, was the entrance marked ‘Boys’. Around the corner, by the Key Stage One entrance: ‘Infants’. The signs, it would seem, were all that was left of a vanished period of segregation.

At the sound of the bell, the doors were pushed open by thankful teachers and hordes of boys and girls streamed out to greet their respective grown-ups. Most, as usual, came grim-faced and determined, bags full of homework and heads full of instructions. After their daily demand of sweets (their sugar craving unsatisfied by the healthy snacks allowed at school), the children made their several ways home with problems to solve and sentences to punctuate, targets to meet like every other day. Yes, it was a typical end-of-school moment for most. But not all. One class came out, every single girl and boy of them, with faces beaming, smiles as wide as all outdoors. This was Mrs Monotone’s Year Three class. But it was not Mrs Monotone who had made them this happy. Mrs Monotone was off sick. It was somebody else.

‘What are you looking so happy about these days?’ inquired Mrs Stokes of her daughter, Kelsey.

‘Nuffing,’ the child replied. ‘Just had a good day, that’s all.’

‘A good day? What do you mean, a good day? What happened?’

‘Nuffing. I just like my teacher.’

‘Mrs Monotone?’

‘No, not her. She’s off sick and we’ve got a supply teacher. A man. He’s been here all week.’

‘Oh. What’s his name then?’

‘Mr Wilbur, but that’s not what we call him. We call him, Wilbur The Magnificent. And he is, Mum, he really is.’

‘Really is what?’

‘Magnificent.’

In her office, Deputy Slump put the phone down and went back to the financial spreadsheet on her computer. So, Mrs Monotone would not be in school again tomorrow. Mrs Monotone had not been in school all week. Furthermore, this was her third period of absence this term. Mrs Monotone was claiming that she had Repetitive Strain Injury as a result of excessive paperwork, a claim the school was disputing. No one else had RSI and all teaching staff had the same workload, more or less. Mrs Monotone was costing the school an awful lot of money in supply teacher pay.

The normal procedure at Silver Lake, if a teacher was absent, was to ask one of the Teaching Assistants to step in. One of the first jobs created after the school had converted to academy status was that of ‘Cover Supervisor’. This was a post paid at a Teaching Assistant’s rate and staffed by a Teaching Assistant, but it sounded to parents like a teacher’s job. When someone called in sick, therefore, the school could happily announce that a Cover Supervisor was in charge and all the parents were happy. The problem with Mrs Monotone’s class was that it contained Alfie Grumble, the son of Elena Grumble, the new chair of governors. It wouldn’t do for Mrs Grumble’s son to be taught by anyone less than a qualified teacher; Mrs Grumble had to be kept happy at all costs. It was part of the Deputy Head’s role to take care of all matters relating to staff; but bringing in a supply teacher was playing havoc with Slump’s budget plans and Mrs Monotone’s refusal to recover rapidly was not helping at all. At least this Wilbur seemed alright. In fact, in some ways, he was an improvement; there had been no further behaviour issues in Monotone’s notoriously difficult Year Three class since Wilbur had come along. Slump wondered if Monotone might leave and they could appoint this supply man in her place. As she pored over her statistics, wheels began to whir into motion inside her mind.

Wilbur was a middle-aged man, an experienced teacher. He was of medium height, with a large bald patch in the middle of his thinning ginger hair. He also had a ginger moustache that twirled slightly at the ends. His full name was Wilbur Wilbur, a fact he was always prepared to share with any class he taught. ‘My parents loved their surname so much,’ he would explain, ‘that they wanted me to be able to use it twice. However, when you use my name, I don’t want you to call me Wilbur Wilbur, or even Mr Wilbur. I want you to call me Wilbur The Magnificent.

‘Why?’ the children would invariably ask.

‘Because that’s my stage name. Don’t you know what a stage name is? It’s the name someone uses whenever they are performing. I am a performer, children. Do you want to know what kind of performer?’

‘Yes, please!’ they would chorus.

‘I’m a magician. I’m Wilbur The Magnificent and I do magic. Would you like to see some?’

Of course they would.

‘Alright. I’ll do some of my favourite magic for you. Watch carefully and, if you don’t like it, then you can call me Mr Wilbur. But if you do like it, you have to call me Wilbur The Magnificent. Do we have a deal?’

They always had a deal and afterwards, in every case, the children would call their supply teacher, Wilbur The Magnificent.

What the magic was that Wilbur could perform depended very much on who you spoke to and how much you were prepared to believe. Only when it was all over did any substantial details leak out. Some people said that Wilbur could reach into the sky, grab a cloud and turn it into a sunbeam. Others claimed he showed the children how to make time run backwards. One usually trustworthy pupil later swore blind Wilbur could turn the class guinea-pig into a real pig and back again in the blink of an eye. The magic seemed unbelievable to those who were not present, and so news of it tended to stay within the classroom. Wilbur never insisted on this, but somehow the children always knew that the magic he showed them was for their eyes alone and not for public consumption. Wilbur opened their minds to a world of ideas and possibilities they had never imagined before. He seemed to bend the laws of nature, make the invisible suddenly visible, the incredible somehow everyday. The children loved it; the children learned from it; but the children didn’t tell anyone else about it. Slump, and other members of the senior management team charged with overseeing the supply teacher in Year Three, knew nothing; but as the children were no trouble, and as their work seemed of the required standard (somewhat better than usual, even), they had no need to know.

And then the rumours started. The first that Miss Needle heard of it was in the staff-room at break time the following week. Mrs Monotone had still not returned; Mrs Monotone was not expected to return any time soon; Mr Wilbur was said to be doing a marvellous job. But then Miss Worrisome leant in towards Miss Needle’s ear and asked if she had hear the latest on the new chap.

‘The latest? No, I don’t think so. He seems to be better than adequate, that’s all I’ve heard.’

‘They do say,’ imparted Miss Worrisome in a confidential tone, ‘that he is something of a magician.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He does tricks. Vanishing air pockets, mysterious portals, that sort of thing.’

‘In the classroom? In lesson time?’ Miss Needle was astonished.

‘That’s not all,’ continued Miss Worrisome. ‘Apparently, the only maths lesson he teaches is that one equals one.’

‘No!’ gasped Miss Needle, who had a love for mathematics that bordered on the obscene.

‘Yes. What’s more, he encourages the children to make links between ‘one equals one’ and Monday Yoga. What’s ‘one equals one’ got to do with Monday Yoga? What’s it got to with anything? Monday Yoga is about improving grades, not making connections.’

Monday Yoga was an exercise regime that Miss Worrisome had introduced to the school some time before. At first, it had been a regular thirty-minute activity every Monday afternoon, but pressures of the curriculum had seen it gradually whittled down to a five-minute period of sitting very still and silent at the end of Monday morning assembly. Monday Yoga taught the children the benefits of a still mind and was designed to help them concentrate better in class. Sandwiched between Mrs Dinglesby’s assembly (a reading of notices and an extract from the Bible) and whole-school silent reading, Monday Yoga provided a welcome respite for the children and a chance to value peace and quiet (always a struggle, especially for the little ones). But, as Miss Worrisome pointed out to Miss Needle, Monday Yoga was not about making connections; however, connections kept popping up unbidden in the lessons of Mr Wilbur Wilbur.

According to the children in Mr Wilbur’s class, science lessons could also be practical art lessons.

According to them you could learn maths when studying poetry.

Playing rounders outside while every other class did citizenship also had its benefits, apparently.

Children in every other class began to ask their teachers why they couldn’t have lessons like Mr Wilbur’s lessons. Teachers began to discuss amongst themselves how Mr Wilbur’s lessons were full of magic tricks more suited to Saturday-evening television. Some members of staff were shocked by Wilbur’s apparent disregard for the school curriculum; others were simply jealous. Quite a few were both shocked and jealous, Miss Needle amongst them. She went to see Deputy Slump about the matter, hoping that this strange supply man could be quietly got rid of; but in this hope, she was to be disappointed.

‘I understand your concerns, Elizabeth, of course I do,’ sympathised Slump. ‘However, I have to look at the bigger picture. First of all, the parents like him. We get phone calls every day now from people saying how happy their children are and hoping we will keep this new man on.’

‘Yes, but parents do not understand – ’ A raised hand from the Deputy silenced Needle mid-sentence.

‘And then there are the results. I asked Mr Wilbur to administer a standard reading and maths test yesterday, so I could monitor progress within his class. Without exception, every child in there had an improved result from the last time such a test was taken which, as you know, was only last month. In some cases, Elizabeth, the improvements were dramatic. Truly dramatic.’

‘Yes, but … how?’ wailed the bewildered Miss Needle. ‘How can he possibly achieve such results with … magic?’

‘It certainly is a mystery. He has only been with us for … how long?’

‘Two weeks now.’

‘Two weeks. And yet he is achieving great things. My instinct is to leave well enough alone. Goodness knows, I’ve got enough other things to do.’

‘Carla, we have always been friends, haven’t we?’ simpered Needle. Miss Slump, who, as a Deputy, knew that she had no real friends upon the staff, bristled slightly at the word. ‘Couldn’t you – as a friend – find out exactly what’s going on? It really would set all our minds at rest.’

‘Well, I suppose, given that there is some unrest among the staff, I suppose I could ask Mrs Devon. Maybe she could shed some light. Don’t worry, Elizabeth: if I find out anything interesting, I’ll be sure to let you know.’

‘Thank-you, Carla, thank-you,’ gushed Needle, as she was ushered out of the Deputy’s office. Slump wasted no time and sent straightaway for Mrs Devon to occupy the still-warm chair in which Miss Needle had sat.

Mrs Devon was Mr Wilbur’s Teaching Assistant. She had been at the school for many years, since her own children (now in their thirties, although both of them still lived at home) had been pupils there. Originally hired for her ability to wash paintbrushes and work the Banda machine, she was now in charge of the bottom set for phonics and the slow reader group in Year Three, as well as supporting the less able children in Wilbur’s class. She had never particularly liked Mrs Monotone, but found Mr Wilbur to be ‘ever so charming, quite a gentleman, a very nice man.’

‘Excellent,’ said Slump and sighed. Everyone who worked with him seemed to like Wilbur. She would have to be more direct. ‘This may seem rather strange, Mrs Devon, but has Mr Wilbur ever … has he ever performed any magic?’

Mrs Devon frowned for a moment, her two thick eyebrows coming together to form a sort of black hedge across the top of her face. ‘Magic? Well, now that you mention it, I suppose he does do a sort of magic really, yes.’

‘Good,’ said Slump, leaning further forward across her desk. ‘What is it exactly that he does?’

‘Well, it’s difficult to say really. Yes. It’s difficult to say.’

Slump sighed again and sat back in her chair. She clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with this woman. A new approach would have to be found.

By the end of that week, by which time Monotone had announced she would not be returning before the half-term holiday (another fortnight away), a new approach had been found. Slump invented some menial tasks to keep Devon busy out of the classroom and transferred Mrs Pincher from Miss Worrisome’s class into Wilbur’s. Worrisome was not altogether happy about this, but Slump assured her it would be only a temporary measure and would help get to the bottom of what was really going on in the Year Three classroom, which went more than a little way towards mollifying her colleague.

Mrs Pincher was a reliable informant that the Deputy Head had used before to keep herself up to speed on questionable behaviour amongst the staff. She was as suspicious as she was observant, and she was very observant, like a hawk on over-time. The Deputy Head was fairly confident that, if anything peculiar was happening in Wilbur’s classroom, this tell-tale would spot it straightaway. Mrs Pincher started on the following Monday and it was at lunchtime that same day that she came into Slump’s office and said she had something to report.

‘You saw Wilbur do some magic then?’ asked the Deputy.

‘Oh, yes. I saw it alright. He made a child disappear.’

‘What?’

‘Bobby Blossom, Miss. Him of the slow readers group.’

‘Bobby Blossom? Yes, I know Bobby.’

Slump knew Bobby alright. He had one of the worst attendance records in the whole school. His mother, a single parent, made a living selling cigarette filters in local public houses, and survived on a mixture of government hand-outs and good fortune. She had been reported to the social services for neglect when Bobby had worn the same unwashed jumper for three days straight; had been in court twice for keeping her son off school without due reason (‘I kept finking it was Saturday,’ was her main line of defence); and she had spent more than the odd night in the local police cells for being drunk and disorderly. Bobby Blossom was on the list for every intervention strategy under the sun, none of which had made the slightest difference, and some of which had barely been tried due to his low attendance. Under other circumstances, Deputy Slump might have been relieved to hear of this particular pupil’s disappearance; on this occasion, she was only interested in what it might tell her about the mysterious Wilbur. She hung upon Pincher’s every word and Pincher knew it, milking the moment for all she was worth.

‘Well, Bobby was definitely here this morning. Miss. Then Mr Wilbur, he says, just before break time, that he can show the children how to make a person vanish. Well, of course they all want to see that, so he takes out this big purple cloak from his bag. I thought he was going to put it on, but he held it up like a curtain and asked for a volunteer to come and stand behind it. Of course, every hand in the place goes up, don’t it? But Wilbur, he chooses Bobby, he says Bobby’s been away a lot, he’s missed out, he deserves the chance. Bobby stands behind that big, purple curtain, Miss, and next thing – lo and behold – Wilbur sweeps it away – and Bobby with it. The cloak, or curtain, or whatever it is, gets all folded up again and Bobby Blossom is nowhere to be seen. Nor has he been since. The kids went out to play, Wilbur with them, and Bobby never come back.’

Carla Slump stared in disbelief for a few seconds. When she spoke, it was in a voice so calm it surprised even herself. ‘Could you ask Mr Wilbur to step in here for a moment, Mrs Pincher?’

‘Yes, indeed, Miss,’ replied the Teaching Assistant with a look of vindication on her face. While she waited for Wilbur to arrive, Slump checked with the lunchtime supervisor that young Blossom was not in the dinner hall or playground. He was not. Then she checked with the front office to see if he had been signed out of school. He had not. Then Wilbur arrived.

‘Could you tell me, Mr Wilbur,’ intoned the Deputy Head, ‘what has become of young Robert Blossom in your class?’

The supply teacher did not act like a man found out. ‘He was collected by his mother at break time. He had a doctor’s appointment, I believe.’

‘Really?’ Such a brazen lie was not what Slump had expected. She had thought some sort of verbal sleight-of-hand might have been involved. She felt now a little disappointed.

‘Yes, really. As I’m sure you know, Bobby suffers from eczema which flares up from time to time. His mother was going to ask the doctor for a different cream. His eczema, of course, is the reason he is so frequently absent from school. But you know this already, don’t you?’

‘Yes. Of course.’ Slump made a mental note to check Bobby’s file to see if there was any record of any of this; she was fairly confident there was not. ‘It’s just that the office has no record of him being signed out.’

‘No. I’m afraid that’s my fault.’

‘Oh?’ Perhaps now he was going to confess.

‘I was on playground duty and saw his mother come to the gate. I let her take Bobby without having to go to the office. I know she can’t read or write and didn’t want to embarrass her with the signing-out procedure. It’s not strictly doing it by the books, but sometimes you have to cut a corner or two, don’t you? Where people’s feelings are concerned, I mean.’

‘I see.’ This had rather taken the wind out of the Deputy’s sails. She rallied and tried one final assault on the man. ‘The thing is, I have a – well, a witness, I suppose – who says that you made Bobby disappear this morning.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You made him disappear. With your magic.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you, Deputy Head.’

And so, Slump told Wilbur the whole story as Pincher had told it to her. What had sounded completely believable just fifteen minutes earlier, however, seemed now to carry an air of untruth about it. Wilbur frowned in bemusement throughout and denied outright owning a purple cloak of any kind. He suggested Slump search his belongings, if she did not believe him.

‘No, no, that won’t be necessary,’ said Carla, beginning to regret the whole conversation.

‘Look, I know I stepped out of line and I apologise, but I don’t appreciate being ridiculed in this way. I suggest you call Bobby’s mother and check with her.’

‘Yes. Yes, I’ll do that.’

‘And then, if you’re still not satisfied, I suppose you had better call the police.’

‘Oh, I don’t think it will come to that,’ said the worried Deputy Head. ‘Thank-you, Mr Wilbur.’

Slump asked the office staff to call young Blossom’s wayward parent and to keep calling until they got a reply. She needed to confirm that Bobby had been collected, she said. The Deputy then returned to her office wanting only to hide away and weep for a while, but instead found the chair of governors sat there waiting for her.

‘Do forgive me for popping in like this unannounced,’ said Mrs Grumble, ‘but I did so want to thank you, Carla, for finding this Wilbur chap. Alfie says he’s an absolutely magical teacher. Of course, he won’t expand on that remark, but I notice his test score was massively improved the other week, so … in fact, I was wondering if you and I couldn’t put our heads together and see if we can’t find some way of encouraging Monotone out and Wilbur in. What do you say?’

Slump did not know what to say. Luckily, at that moment, the phone rang.

‘Excuse me a moment, Elena. Hello? … You have? … And what does she say? … I see … Thank-you … Thank-you very much.’

‘Everything alright?’ inquired Grumble.

‘Oh, yes. Just an absentee unaccounted for. Now accounted for, I’m pleased to say. He’d been picked up by his mother and she’d forgotten to sign him out.’

‘Oh, dear. When will these parents realise how important our safeguarding procedures really are? You must crack down on this, Carla.’

‘Yes, of course. It was Bobby Blossom’s mother.’

‘Oh, well. That explains it. You know, after we sort this Wilbur business, we really need to see if we can’t find some excuse to exclude that little tyke – and others like him. I’m sure it can be done, can’t it?’

Deputy Slump smiled a huge smile of relief.

By the end of the day, Grumble and Slump had worked out a very attractive employment package with which they hoped to lure Wilbur to the school on a permanent basis. They had not had quite so much luck with Mrs Monotone, however. Indeed, the very mention of ‘moving on’ in a joint exploratory phone call to their errant employee had prompted such fear in Monotone that she had promised she would be back the following day. This was not exactly what the two ladies had hoped for and had left them in something of a quandary, with two teachers for one class.

‘Could we suggest some sort of team teaching?’ wondered Grumble. ‘It’s only a matter of time before Monotone would be off again, I’m sure. A little extra paperwork in her pigeonhole might hasten that day and then maybe we could start competency proceedings against her. That’s usually enough to scare off most teachers.’ Elena Grumble might be new to the role of chair of governors, reflected Slump, but she certainly knew her stuff. ‘The important thing is, we’ve got a deal to offer Wilbur. Let’s get him in here a.s.a.p.’

Just then, there was an urgent knocking at the door and Mrs Pincher poked her head in the room.

‘Ah, Mrs Pincher, just the person,’ said Slump. ‘There’s a few questions I’d like to ask you about a certain purple cloak.’

‘Yes, well, don’t be hasty, Miss. I felt under so much pressure to deliver results that maybe … well, maybe I exaggerated the events of this morning a little. But I really did think he had made Bobby Blossom disappear.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ asked Grumble.

‘Well, never mind now. It can wait until later.’

‘Yes, Miss. Actually, I wasn’t just coming to explain. There’s something else.’

‘Yes, yes. But first of all, go and ask Mr Wilbur to pop in for a moment, will you?’

‘Well, that’s just it,’ said Pincher. ‘And please believe me, Miss. It’s really true this time.’

‘What is?’

‘He’s disappeared, Miss. Wilbur. One moment he was there, the next – nothing. A puff of blue smoke, that was all.’

‘Oh really, Mrs Pincher,’ said Slump. ‘Do you think I’m going to fall for this again?’

‘Have you been drinking, woman?’ added Grumble.

‘He’ll be in the toilets or something!’ muttered the Deputy Head and stormed out of her office to find out for herself exactly what was going on.

In Wilbur’s classroom, the scene was one of chaos. The children, all ready to go home with their coats and bags weighing them down and their chairs up on the tables, had been standing in a line by the door as usual. Now they were sprawled across the carpet and linoleum, some of them in tears, all of them shaking like survivors of an earthquake.

‘What on earth is going on?!’ demanded Slump.

‘It’s Mr Wilbur!’ said one child.

‘He made himself disappear!’

‘One moment he was standing there …’

‘…the next, he was gone, just like that.’

‘A puff of blue smoke and he vanished into thin air.’

‘Thin air, Miss!’

‘You see,’ said Mrs Pincher, at the Deputy’s shoulder. ‘What did I tell you?’

The next day, Mrs Monotone was welcomed back to Silver Lake as if her return upon that day had been part of the plan all along. Wilbur Wilbur’s name was never mentioned again. Grumble blamed Slump for his vanishing act, and in truth Slump blamed herself, though she never admitted it. The fact is, she told herself, the school is better off without strange people like that in it. Only Mrs Devon, Mrs Grumble and the sad-faced children of Mrs Monotone’s class, their achievement levels steadily falling once again, knew any better, and they kept the information to themselves.