The sunlight streamed through the high windows, illuminating every speck of airborne dust in the classroom. All was peaceful and we were being gently lulled by the rhythmic tones of the teacher's voice. But, quite unexpectedly, she halted the flow of words, stood for a moment, tapping one of her smart black shoes on the wood block floor and said, not loudly but with feeling:
"It makes me sick to see two boys digging out the contents of their noses. And one of them eating what he finds!"
I sat upright, shocked out of my self-imposed task of adding a rain of five hundred arrows to my drawing of The Battle of Hastings.
I wondered which one of these disgusting boys was I. It was some time before I began to relax with the grateful realisation that, for once, the blame did not lie at my door. Looking around at my classmates, I could see unmistakeable signs of guilt and shame written on the face of Ian Barlow. Ian was not a particular friend of mine. There was no enmity between us, but we unconsciously avoided each other's company realising, with the unerring instincts of childhood, that we were not and could not be soul brothers.
I was noisy, rebellious, and liked to be at the centre of things. Poor Ian was quiet and shy, even something of a misfit. Soon after this, I do not know if it was days or months, my family moved away to live in Bristol. And so, it was perhaps not surprising that, insofar as Ian held a place in my memory at all, this place should be closely linked to the nose-picking incident.
It was a jolt to my carefully-cultivated attitude of self-assurance when, some twenty years later, I found myself sitting opposite Ian in a job interview.
It might have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a slight colouring rise in his face as he glanced up at me when I walked into the room. A sort of faint echo of the pain and embarrassment he had felt so long before in the classroom. But he gave no clear sign of recognition.
I wondered if I should remind him of our childhood acquaintance. No, perhaps not. Our former relationship had never been a close one and what could we talk about? I could remember so little about him, beyond the crimson flush on his young face when he'd met the teacher's stern gaze. We could hardly talk about that. Besides, I was the one who was after a job; Ian was the interviewer on the other side of the desk. He was the one who was making the rules. In fact, I was desperate for a job, any job, at this time. Things had not been going well for me since I had rashly walked out of the one with the insurance company. Thirty-one years old and still not in a settled career, despite my past academic success. 'Exceptional promise' had been a consistent theme in school reports and later references.
Promise of what? I wondered.
Only that morning, I had received a solicitor's letter 'promising' that action would be taken unless I settled a debt. Ian, on the other hand, seemed to have done well for himself. He was now the Personnel Director of this company. Not bad for a boy who always found himself somewhere near the bottom of the class.
Now I could remember more about him: his constant squinting at the blackboard through spectacles repaired with sticking plaster; his halting voice when he had to take a turn at reading aloud in class; the curious grey shorts he always used to wear. Those shorts! Patched up and held together by worn leather braces. They used to make him look like a child belonging to an earlier, less prosperous era. I used to wonder quite seriously why he didn't wear hob-nailed boots to complete the picture.
Did he remember me at all? Apparently not. He'd already introduced the interview and was asking his first real question. Easy enough to answer, I could talk at length and, I thought, reasonably impressively about my academic background and training. I saw no need to dwell on the earliest part of my education, the part that Ian and I had shared.
Other questions followed. He was a skilled interviewer. Sometimes I found myself answering not quite in the way I had rehearsed; not projecting myself in exactly the favourable light I'd intended. But I was holding my own, and felt not altogether unhappy at the way the interview was unfolding.
Then it came:
"Tell me, you're thirty-one years old and haven't exactly shown yourself to be a reliable employee. Why should this company take a chance on you?"
I had expected this question, or one like it. But something about the timing of it, or the way he asked it, threw me. My carefully-prepared answer disintegrated into several hundred words of unconvincing waffle. The more I spoke, the worse it sounded. With every word, the inner strain that I was feeling came more and more to the surface. And I could not stop myself.
At last, Ian held up his hands, to stop the flood of words that was threatening to engulf him. At that moment, he looked every inch the successful businessman. I felt remorse at wasting the time of such a busy man. I even wondered if I'd made a mistake in thinking I'd recognised him.
"I'm sorry. It's as well to be honest about these things. There's no way I could think of taking you on. My Assistant made a mistake in putting you on the shortlist."
"Then why did you have to..."
"I know what you must be thinking. I went through with the interview hoping to let you down gently. It was a mistake. I can see that now. Sorry."
I felt like punching him on the nose. Or of reminding him of the incident in the classroom. But all I said was:
"Let me ask you something. Did you recognise me?"
"As soon as you came into the room. Although I didn't think you'd realised who I was."
"Look, I do need this job. Things are pretty bad with me right now."
I regretted my words immediately. I had some pride left. Why should he do any favours for me? He owed me nothing.
"I'm going. I'm sorry I said that. It's my problem, not yours. Good to have seen you again, anyway."
What a stupid thing to have said! I rose quickly, wondering whether to shake hands with him or not.
"Sit down. Sit down, please. There is something."
He took out a sheet of clean white notepaper from the drawer of his desk and quickly began to write. I could not read a word; his handwriting was as bad as I remembered it. Only now he wrote with an expensive fountain pen instead of a wooden school issue one. Now I remembered he'd been the only boy in the class not to possess a pen of his own. He signed his name with a flourish, carefully blotted and folded the paper, and placed it in an envelope.
"I hope you won't be offended by this. We have a small subsidiary company not far from here. They have a big project getting off the ground. They could use someone like you. I expect the salary will be better than what we're offering for this job, too. John Jefferies is the man to ask for. I'll give him a ring, to let him know you're coming, if you like."
"Ian," I said, "I don't know what to say. Thanks, I suppose, for a start. Tell me, why are you doing this for me? It's not as if we were great friends at school."
He glanced down at his polished desk. It was a long time before he looked up to answer. He adjusted his glasses and looked thoughtful.
"If you really want to know," he murmured softly, sounding again like the shy young boy I remembered, "It's because, at school, you were the only one who didn't laugh at me."