Carr’s first weeks as headmaster of Fabhurst Preparatory School had, so he considered, progressed reasonably well.
Thus far, although he had worked 12-hour days, before slogging through the remainder of his e-mails and reviewing policy documentation, his self-imposed deadline of 9pm had enabled him to spend some quality time with his wife over supper, followed by a dose of television. After five minutes of blank gazing at the box, he would doze. He claimed to feel “in fine fettle”: the promise of his two-week half term lay just ten days away.
This Monday, though, was different: for, after his daily briefing to staff and an assembly that he’d spent for too long putting together on the theme of ‘Loving your Neighbour’, he had an appointment in his diary for 9.30am with Mrs. Welch, mother of Zak in year five. Despite clear instructions to his secretary never to make a meeting for him without finding out its subject, she had, on this occasion, been unable to do so as Mrs. Welch had refused to tell her. Apparently all she had said was something along the lines of “he’ll find out soon enough.” Carr couldn’t recall ever having met her.
The headmaster liked to inform people that “he didn’t do nerves”, an assertion, given the queasy feeling that he’d had since waking, which now seemed inaccurate. Chats to the year-head and Zak’s form teacher had garnered little. All that he had gathered was that Mrs. Welch had caused some tension last year with her tart comments about the quality of catering. His secretary knocked.
“Mrs. Welch is in the waiting area. Would you like me to offer her some coffee?”
Carr paused: coffee might mean that she would stay too long. Not offering it might seem unfriendly. He chose to be generous.
“Yes, I suppose so and one for me too, please – black.”
Hurriedly, he put some piles of paper together on his desk so that it looked reasonably organised and plumped up the rather tired patterned sofa which he’d inherited from his predecessor, Smithie.
Mrs. Welch was not seated in the waiting area but was standing, positioned with her back to Carr, inspecting a Fabhurst photograph from some years ago. Blue jacket, grey trousers, flat shoes, plumpish. She hadn’t seemed to hear his footsteps. Carr coughed. No reaction.
“Ah, Mrs. Welch,” he tried. “Good morning to you.” Carr stretched out his hand in greeting. Mrs. Welch ignored it and marched past him towards the study. A trifle more encouragingly, she stopped at the door.
“Please go in,” Carr said. “Do sit down.”
Surprisingly – indeed no parent or colleague had done this before – Mrs. Welch flopped herself down in Carr’s armchair. He had no choice but to sink into the sofa.
“Now what can I do for you Mrs. Welch?” he opened optimistically. “I imagine it’s about Zak?”
“Yes, and it’s Zachary; as I made clear on my registration form. He was christened Zachary. If we had wanted to call him Zak we’d have christened him Zak. As you know, Zachary derives form Zacharias – the father of John the Baptist.”
Carr didn’t know, but nodded.
“Now, continued Mrs. Welch, “I want you to understand that I am very disappointed and that Zachary is devastated.” She paused for effect. “Disappointed and devastated.”
“What about?” responded Carr, trying to remember whether situations like this had been covered in his Aspiring Heads course.
“What about? Well it’s obvious isn’t it?”
Carr felt his heart begin to pump. What was obvious? He had to say something.
“Well Zak’s – my apologies, Zachary’s – teachers seem to be quite pleased with his academic progress,” he said, trying to develop a cheery tone.
“What’s that got to do with it?” Mrs. Welch snapped, going a little redder. “Headmaster,” she added with an exasperated snarl, “Are you really pretending to me that you don’t know why I’ve had to drop everything this morning to come here?”
Mercifully, saving Carr from blundering onwards, a rap on the door announced the arrival of coffee.
Carr took a determined gulp that even though it burnt his mouth, still gave him a second in which to think. Best to tell the truth.
“Well no, Mrs. Welch. I’m afraid that I do not.” His voice sounded quavery. “So you must tell me.” That sounded better, more authoritative.
“Well I will, although it shows that you do not know what is really happening in your school. It is about the C team football match tomorrow.”
Carr faintly remembered something else scheduled for tomorrow afternoon – could be a Governor’s sub-committee meeting. Thus far, the Under 10 C team fixture hadn’t featured much in his future planning.
“Tell me, is it school policy to make boys cry?”
Carr wondered what on earth that had got to do with it. He stayed silent, noticing a vein starting to pulse on Mrs. Welch’s neck.
“Because that is what happened yesterday evening. Zachary was beside himself. I could not get him to sleep until past midnight. I am a working mother, you know.”
Carr ignored this statement and brought the conversation back to Zak. “So what seems to be the trouble?”
“The trouble? You don’t have to tell me it’s trouble. Ever since Zachary joined the school he has played in The B team. That alone is ridiculous. As I presume you are aware, he’s far better than that, but I haven’t once complained even though lots of mothers have told me to do so. Last year he was made captain. And now… and now.” Her face had assumed a deeper red. “Now, he’s been selected as goalkeeper for the C team. He’s never even played in goal. I want him back in the B team and back as captain.”
Carr took another major slug of coffee and felt worse. Solutions were elusive. He thought that Mrs. Welch might have a daughter at the top of the Pre-Prep. At worst, if things escalated, she could become frazzled enough to threaten withdrawal. With a big leave coming up next summer, there had been a certain degree of governor-pressure already to ‘turn numbers up’. Somehow he had to placate her. He filled his lungs.
“Well, Mrs. Welch. As soon as possible I will have a word with our Head of Sport, Mr. Coombes, and see what we can do about it.”
“What does that mean? Do not talk to me in riddles Mr. Carr. I want the poor boy back in The Bs and as captain. As headmaster you represent the company. I am the customer: and you know what they say…I am always right.” With that, Mrs. Welch relaxed back into Carr’s armchair. She seemed to think that the matter was settled: her dominance had been established.
Carr had had enough. He could either fight back over the next few days or attack now. De-clenching his fingers, he told himself to go slowly, and started.
To be continued – keep an eye on our website for the second and final part of the story this week!