9.30AM: The bell let out a prolonged high pitch ring that cut through the concrete and steel walls and out to the forecourt where the kids could hear it all too clearly. Max joined the other school kids massed around the entrance like bees to a hive. The young students stole last deep drags on their cigarettes before exhaling the fumes rapidly as they passed through the doorway. Max held his breath slightly as he passed through the dense fog of second hand smoke. Once inside, everyone made their way down the various grey corridors that led to the different classroom. Max veered off to the right in the direction of the science labs for biology when the school supervisor called out his name.
– Maxwell Woodger! Come to my office!
Max turned around to see the sharp eyes of Miss Duchamps focused on him with accusatory intent. He dropped his gaze and walked slowly away from class towards the open door of her office. Miss Duchamps stood waiting for him to pass her before following him closely from behind. The tight knee length skirt and steep heels she wore made her steps sound short and rushed. She was definitely a power dresser. His memory flashed back images of Joan Collins playing Alexis in Dynasty with her big hair and bigger shoulder pads. Alexis was a devious and dangerous character that commanded respect. Miss Duchamps wasn’t far from the mark, but rather than mind-fuck oil barons and cowboys, she preyed on unassuming teenagers. With the support of a few minders, she operated an academic police force eager to catch pupils stepping out of line. As squadron leader, Miss Duchamps was particularly motivated to maintain discipline within the ranks and therefore believed she had to set the example for her peers when it came to cracking the whip. Max had been on her radar for quite some time now, but somehow always managed to slip through the net. The British charm – and parents paying very expensive tuition fees – always seemed to hamper her efforts to catch him.
The room smelt of cigarette smoke. A lone office plant drooped heavily in the corner behind the desk like a cancer patient suffering chemotherapy. There were papers and folders stacked into several piles on various surfaces creating a patchwork of faded primary colours and off whites. Max scanned the room for anything personal that might prove Miss Duchamps had a soul but his radar remained silent. He went to sit down in the chair opposite hers to wait and hear what she had to say. The chair was a mass-produced mold of hard plastic with four metals legs, one of which was missing the tip making the person sitting in it rock off balance slightly. This was done on purpose to put anyone sitting in the chair at a psychological disadvantage, Max thought to himself. It was much smaller and less comfortable model than Miss Duchamps’s; an executive seat with a high back, adjustable armrests, faux leather finish and a full 360-degree swivel. The juxtaposition of the two seats clearly symbolized Miss Duchamps’s delusions of grandeur towards whichever sorry soul had the misfortune of meeting with her within these four concrete walls.
The clicking sound of heels and a door closing shut preceded the interrogation. He thought he caught a whiff of perfume as she passed him by to sit on her throne.
– Woodger, I take it you were absent last Thursday?
He nodded but couldn’t get a word in before she switched to an accusatory tone.
– Yes, you were. And for no good reason I might add.
He raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to defend himself but Miss Duchamps was already in full stride with her prosecution and carried on regardless.
– It says here that you were attacked by a tiger!
Max grinned as she waved a photocopy of his absence slip in the air like a little red flag.
– Do you think you’re funny Mr. Woodger? Well, I don’t! There is nothing funny about making a mockery of the academic system and its whole-hearted attempts to provide an education for youngsters like you.
– Let me explain…
– Oh, I’m all ears!
– You see… Excuse me Miss Duchamps for any insubordination on my behalf but it’s just that last week there were all those bus strikes going on.
– Yes, I am aware of the bus strikes and I’m also aware of you taking complete and utter advantage of them to miss your classes.
– It wasn’t on purpose Miss Duchamps! The buses were constantly on strike, so instead of wasting your time with the same old excuse every day, I thought I’d be a bit more imaginative.
– Imaginative? Imagination can be dangerous and I demand that you abstain from expressing anything but the absolute truth in your reasons for absence.
– I’m sorry… Michael thought it was funny when I presented him my slip.
– Peters you mean. Did he really? Well I’ll be talking with my colleague shortly to explain the strict rules and regulations by which the school abides. Pass me your attendance book.
She stretched her arm across the desk. Max passed the book across and caught a glimpse of the time on her watch: Quarter to Ten. Biology class was slowly slipping away. Miss Duchamps snatched the book away muttering something under her breath, quickly flicked through the pages and stood to leave the office.
– Wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.
His eyes rolled as he slumped back into the chair, the missing tip making him rock to the side ever so slightly. He thought the idea of switching up excuses was pretty cool. Nobody likes to be fed the same old bullshit day in and day out. A little bit of imaginative flair gives you something to think about and smile a little. At least that was the desired effect and it seemed to have worked on everyone except Miss Duchamps. Max turned in his seat and gazed outside at the river that ran past the school. Further upstream there was a bridge he’d been meaning to paint a piece under. It was pretty open and quiet this far up the river. The school had been built here as a pilot project to try and regenerate the neighbourhood but the city was slow to follow its lead. The neighbourhood was on the outskirts of the inner city and held all the character traits of such a dwelling. Dual carriage ways ran straight through the middle for a fast connection to the nearby motorway; four high-rise building blocks celebrated the drabness of social housing; and a hotel-slash-motel caught the lucky few who needed a cheap place to rest on their long haul journeys North or South. The only other modern site in the surrounding area was a top security pharmaceuticals laboratory a few hundred meters away from the school. The laboratory stocked strains of all of the world’s most lethal viruses and germs. He started to wonder to himself which was more of a menace to society: the deadly vials of Ebola or the classrooms full of disenchanted kids? As he pondered the thought, Miss Duchamps returned.
– You do realize that your mother signed your fictitious excuse?
– Uh, yeah…
– Well, perhaps it’s that British sense of humour you’re all so proud of except this joke doesn’t translate!
He declined to mention that his mother had simply signed the absence slip and let him write the excuse later on. France and it’s endless labour strikes got rather boring after a while and his mother was not such a fan for Groundhog Day.
– Here! Now get yourself to class!
Max lifted himself out of the wonky chair, grabbed his attendance book and walked out of Miss Duchamps’s office for what remained of his biology class.