Authors: Roger Scruton
You pause on the landing, and shake your head free of men. The key to the flat is in your pocket, pressed against the thumbed paperback copy of
The Wind in the Willows
. You didn't intend to break your rules on the first night in Whinmoore. You drank that glass of wine out of politeness, and also because Justin Fellowes wanted you to stay and talk. He told you that tomorrow will be a heavy day's work. All the files have to be brought out for examination, and an office has been cleared for you to work on them. He said that he's hoping for an early start, maybe eight o'clock. Still, it was good to linger. Justin is the kind of man you like â soft-spoken, idealistic, handsome in his way, with clear blue eyes and a nice smile, but with a hint of sadness. He must be in his early thirties, and naturally you wonder whether he is married. Not that it is relevant. Since Mick did that unforgiveable thing you are not going to let a man into your life, not without unbreakable guarantees. It has been six months now since Mick left, smashing up the flat while you were working late at the office, and throwing your papers into the downstairs bin, including the file for the Ponthurst case, which was your personal assignment. Someone had poured kitchen waste on top of it, and all the pages were stained with tea. That was Mick's present for your twenty-sixth birthday, the final proof of his transformation from the poetic student who sang beneath your college window to the angry layabout who drove you at last into that disastrous affair with Finn.
It was a decision of the CEO, Justin had said, to hire a flat. It might be necessary to bring confidential papers home, and hotels aren't secure. Besides, the job could last into the summer, depending on what discrepancies you find. The CEO, he said, had asked for you especially. He had looked up Milbank and Co.'s junior partners on the web, and picked out Laura Markham: first in history from Cambridge, ACCA qualifications in three years, and the Law society a year later â all this together with a reputation for taking complete responsibility for every case you deal with. You knew from the way he talked, with just that little edge of excitement in his voice, that it was Justin himself who had looked you up, who had seen the picture on the website and thought how after all he wouldn't mind being shut up in an office for a month if he could be shut up with you. âAll that knowledge and looking so young,' he said; ânot a day over eighteen.' But you weren't going to think about it, or to wonder what he meant by asking âWill you be OK?' as he dropped you at the door of the block. You smiled and said âof course', getting out quickly on to the pavement.
You wonder whether Justin has noticed that your briefcase is fatter than when you arrived in this Yorkshire city from the London train. The Ponthurst case is always in your mind: it was your triumph and no doubt the reason for the contract. It taught you that the crucial file might not be in the archive, that it could be lying out somewhere, as though current, as though it had no connection to the time when the discrepancies arose. You don't know whether it was Justin's desk on which you found it; probably not, for it was in an obscure corner of the office, which looked as if no one had worked there for many months. There was no computer, no telephone, no in-tray, only a textbook of accountancy that someone must have left there before moving on, and which you lifted up out of curiosity. Underneath you found a file of correspondence from last summer. Its absence won't be noticed. Justin locked the office for the night, and you will be back there first thing.
You hold the key ready in your hand as you climb the communal stairs. It is good to have a flat of your own, but annoying that it is in this unfriendly modern block, with its uncarpeted stairwell of concrete, and its views from metal-framed windows across car-parks and warehouses. The flat is warm and tidy, and the agent made a special point of opening all the cupboards to show you how clean it is and well provided. But there had been something insinuating in his manner, and you were glad when he left, peering back around the door before shutting it. He had greasy hair with dark pouchy eyes under an overhanging brow, and he spoke with an accent. You assumed he was Polish since he called himself Janusz. You shrug off the thought of him. Now, after a meal in town, a run-through of the job, and a pleasant drink with Justin, you don't care so much about the surroundings either. It's just great to have a place of your own.
You open the door into the foyer. It is dark, you reach for the switch beside the door, and nothing happens. Then you remember. That switch governs the stair-light. The foyer is lit from the passageway. It seems a strange arrangement now, obliging you to grope your way in through a pool of darkness. You reach the passageway and find the switch in the wall. A dim light smears an unframed acrylic of rose-petals between two plain white doors: one to the bedroom, and one to the lounge. You choose the bedroom, which is lit through the window by a yellow glow from the car park. You stand for a moment in the doorway, assessing the layout: double bed facing the window; wardrobe against the inside wall; chest of drawers opposite; and to each side of the bed a door: the door where you stand, and the door to the bathroom. There are two bedside tables with reading lights, and a heavy bedcover of some green silky material topped by a pile of cushions. You go back to the passageway, still carrying the briefcase. Opposite you is the door to the kitchen. You have seen tea bags, sugar and UHT milk in the cupboard there, and for a moment you wonder whether to make a cup of tea. But no: long-lasting milk tastes of loneliness. Tomorrow you must do some shopping, make the place a home. Tonight you will look at the file, read a bit of
The Wind in the Willows
, take comfort from Rat, Mole and Toad, and then sleep with the thought of them.
You go to the lounge, open the briefcase, and take out the file. There is an overhead light, a concoction of bare bulbs on flower-stalks, which you switch on from the door and then immediately off again. The glow from the car park guides you to the standard lamp, which you turn on from the foot-switch on the floor. You lay the file on the table beneath the window. The correspondence dates from last July, and concerns a deal with a Russian company, Lesprom, for a consignment of timber. Most of the stuff is pre-contractual, settling the price per cubic metre of seasoned pinewood and the time and place of delivery. You will have to work out whether the prices and quantities tally with the company accounts. But you notice a curious detail. There is a slip of unheaded paper, inserted between two official letters in comic English from Lesprom. The slip says âcomplete off-shore until delivery. MS advise. Reference Squirrel'. There is no signature, only a phone number, beginning with a foreign country code. Justin will know who MS is, and you make a mental note to enquire in the morning.
It is then that you know there is another person in the room.
When he took the job in St Catherine's Academy, Whinmoore, Stephen Haycraft had assumed that he would be teaching there for a couple of years at most. St Catherine's had started life in the nineteenth century, as an independent Roman Catholic secondary school, accepting boys from the age of eleven and preparing its best scholars for the priesthood. Now it was fully integrated into the State system, took girls as well as boys, and did its best to educate its four hundred pupils to the level required for university entrance. Its pleasant situation on the edge of town, with playing fields overlooking farmland and the distant Yorkshire moors, made it an attractive place to work, and its pupils were largely well adjusted, recruited from a suburb of sturdy Edwardian houses round about.
There was one subversive factor, however, and this was explained to Stephen on his first day by the head of science, a weary man on the verge of retirement called Jim Roberts. Within the catchment area of St Catherine's were two twenty-storey concrete blocks surrounded by warehouses, which belonged to the local Council. Two hundred families had been housed in these blocks, and between them they provided sixty of the school's pupils. Some of these pupils had honest parents struggling to achieve the best for them. But there would always be troublemakers from Angel Towers, and it was as well for Stephen to be aware of this. Jim reinforced the warning by jabbing Stephen in the chest with a long nicotine-stained finger and fixing him with dark eyes that lurked under bushy brows as though on the verge of pouncing. Stephen had the impression that Jim's life had not been an easy one, and that Angel Towers was a major cause of this.
Stephen was thirty years old and new to teaching. His ambition on leaving Oxford with a second-class degree in English had been to become the foreign correspondent for a prestigious London paper, preferably the
, whose opinions he largely shared, and in the long run to establish himself as a writer of informed political commentaries. But five years of fighting for the tiny bits of disputed territory on the edge of the middle pages, while watching with dismay as one by one the newspapers crumbled before the onslaught of the Internet, convinced him that he must look elsewhere for a trade. He had spent two years behind the counter of a bank, a year in an advertising agency drafting slogans for addictive drinks, and a year setting up a wine import business with a friend who first provided the money, and then ran off with it, leaving him with a warehouse of Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon that had never been paid for.
His mother, who directed a headhunting agency, bailed him out, and it was as a result of this fiasco that Stephen joined Teach First, with every intention of at last becoming a useful member of society. There was no reason to remain in London. His last girlfriend had left him for an environmental campaigner in Devon, and his mother had indicated that she would like to work from home and could use his room as an office. When St Catherine's Academy, which was part of the Teach First network, advertised for an assistant English teacher, Stephen travelled to Yorkshire for the interview. His heart sank when he was offered the job, and it went on sinking as he walked around Whinmoore in search of a place to live. But he knew that a sinking heart is a sign of maturity, and that it was up to him to make the most of a life that had so far done nothing much to justify itself.
Accommodation was hard to find in Whinmoore. After a couple of days he took a year's lease on a furnished flat near the school. The four-storey building was home to eight addresses sharing a plate-glass door at street level and a central concrete stairway. Most of the residents were temporary â accountants called in by local manufacturers, supermarket buyers visiting a nearby meat-packaging firm, a husband and wife team of born-again evangelists, once a folk duo with a gig at the local pub. The building had a provisional air, like the commandeered headquarters of a retreating army. The staircase was bare and dirty, lit by rarely used fittings outside the doors to the individual flats. The view from one side was of a car park, bordered by windowless warehouses of corrugated steel and dominated by gantries of safety lighting, which shone through the night with a bleak yellow glare. The other side faced the road, and across from it, behind a few streets of Edwardian terraces, rose the two stark concrete towers of the Angel estate. It was a fitting reminder to Stephen that it was time to grow up. He moved in with his suitcase of books, his laptop, his manuscripts and a few changes of clothes. And he began to teach.