vision after ten years of teaching was, however, so acute that at times they thought I could literally see out of the back of my head. It did no harm: it made control easier.

'Don't drop the core on the floor, Paul,' I said mildly. It was one thing to let him eat the apple – he'd deserved it – but quite another to let him think I hadn't seen. Keeping a grip on the monsters was a perpetual psychological game, but also priority number one. I'd seen stronger men than myself reduced to nervous breakdowns by the hunting-pack instincts of children.

When the end-of-lesson bell rang, they did me the ultimate courtesy of letting me finish what I was saying before erupting into the going-home stampede. It was, after all, the last lesson on Friday – and God be thanked for weekends.

I made my way slowly round the four physics laboratories and the two equipment rooms, checking that everything was in order. The two technicians, Louisa and David, were dismantling and putting away all apparatus not needed on Monday, picking Five E's efforts at radio-circuitry to pieces and returning the batteries, clips, bases and transistors to the countless racks and drawers in the equipment rooms.

'Shooting anyone special?' Louisa said, eyeing the gun which I was carrying with me.

'Didn't want to leave it unattended.'

'Is it loaded?' Her voice sounded almost hopeful. By late Friday, she was always in the state in which one never asked her for an extra favour: not, that is, unless one was willing to endure a weepy ten minutes of 'you don't realise how much this job entails', which, on most occasions, I wasn't. Louisa's tantrums, I reckoned, were based on her belief that life had cheated her, finding her at forty as a sort of store-keeper (efficient, meticulous and helpful) but not a Great Scientist. 'If I'd gone to college…' she would say, leaving the strong impression that if she had, Einstein would have been relegated. I dealt with Louisa by retreating at the warning signs of trouble, which was maybe weak, but I had to live with her professionally, and bouts of sullenness made her slow.

'My list for Monday!' I said, handing it to her.

She glanced disparagingly down it. 'Martin has ordered the oscilloscopes for third period.'

The school's shortage of oscilloscopes was a constant source of friction.

'See what you can manage,' I said.

'Can you make do with only two?'

I said I supposed so, smiled, hoped it would keep fine for her gardening, and left for home.

I drove slowly with the leaden feeling of resignation clamping down, as it always did on the return journey. Between Sarah and me there was no joy left; no springing love. Eight years of marriage, and nothing to feel but a growing boredom.

We had been unable to have children. Sarah had hoped for them, longed for them, pined for them. We'd been to every conceivable specialist and Sarah had had countless injections and pills and two operations. My own disappointment was bearable, though none the less deep. Hers had proved intractable and finally disabling in that she had gone into a state of permanent depression from which it seemed nothing could rescue her.

We'd been told by encouraging therapists that many childless marriages were highly successful, husband and wife forging exceptionally strong bonds through their misfortune, but with us it had worked in reverse. Where once there had been passion there was now politeness; where plans and laughter, now a grinding hopelessness; where tears and heartbreak, silence.

I hadn't been enough for her, without babies. I'd been forced to face the fact that to her motherhood mattered most, that marriage had been but the pathway, that many a man would have done. I wondered unhappily from time to time how soon she would have divorced me had it been I who had proved infertile: and it was profitless also to guess that we would have been contented enough for ever if she herself had been fulfilled.

I dare say it was a marriage like many another. We never quarrelled. Seldom argued. Neither of us any longer cared enough for that; and as a total, prolonged way of life it was infinitely dispiriting.

It was a homecoming like thousands of others. I parked outside the closed garage doors and let myself into the house with arms full of air-gun and exercise books. Sarah, home as usual from her part-time job as a dentist's receptionist, sat on the sofa in the sitting-room reading a magazine.

'Hullo,'I said.

'Hullo. Good day?'

'Not bad.'

She hadn't looked up from her pages. I hadn't kissed her. Perhaps for both of us it was better than total loneliness, but not much.

'There's ham for supper,' she said. 'And coleslaw. That all right?'


She went on reading; a slim fair-haired girl, still arrestingly pretty but now with a settled resentful expression. I was used to it, but in flashes suffered unbearable nostalgia for the laughing eagerness of the early days. I wondered sometimes if she noticed that the fun had gone out of me, too, although I could sometimes feel it still bubbling along inside, deeply buried.

On that particular evening I made an effort (as I did more and more rarely) to jog us out of our dimness.

'Look, let's just dump everything and go out to dinner. Maybe to Florestan's, where there's dancing.'

She didn't look up. 'Don't be silly.'

'Let's just go.'

'I don't want to.' A pause. I'd rather watch television.' She turned a page, and added with indifference, 'And we can't afford Florestan's prices.'

'We could, if you'd enjoy it.'

'No, I wouldn't.'

'Well,' I sighed, 'I'll make a start on the books, then.'

She nodded faintly. 'Supper at seven.'

'All right.'

I turned to go.

'There's a letter for you from William,' she said with boredom in her voice. 'I put it upstairs.'

'Oh? Well, thanks.'

She went on reading, and I took my stuff up to the third and smallest of our three bedrooms, which I used as a sort of study-cum-office. The estate agent who had shown us the house had brightly described the room as 'just right for the nursery', and had nearly lost himself the sale. I'd annexed the place for myself and made it as masculine as possible, but I was aware that for Sarah the spirit of unborn children still hovered there. She rarely went in. It was slightly unusual that she should have put the letter from my brother on my desk.

It said:

Dear Jonathan,

Please can I have thirty pounds? It's for going to the farm at half-term. I wrote to Mrs Porter, and she'll have me. She says her rates have gone up because of inflation. It can't be for what I eat, as she mostly gives me bread and honey. (No complaints.) Also actually I need some money for riding, in case they won't let me earn any more rides at the stables by mucking out, they were a bit funny about it last time, something to do with the law and exploiting juveniles, I ask you. Roll on sixteen. Anyway, if you could make it fifty quid it would be fine. If I can earn my riding, I'll send the extra twenty back, because if you don't want your heavy dough lifted at this high-class nick you have to have it embedded in concrete. Half term is a week on Friday, early this term, so could you send it pronto?

Did you notice that Clinker did win the Wrap-Up 'chase at Stratford? If you don't want me to be a jockey, how about a tipster?

Hope you are well. And Sarah.


P.S. Can you come for sports day, or for Blah-Blah day? I've got a prize for two plus two, you'll be astounded to hear.

Blah-Blah day was Speech Day, at which the school prizes were handed out. I'd missed every one of William's for one reason or another. I would go this time, I thought. Even William might sometimes feel lonely with no one close to him ever to see him collect his prizes, which he did with some monotony.

William went to public school thanks to a rich godfather who had left him a lot of money on trust 'for his education and vocational training, and good luck to the little brat'. William's trustees regularly paid his fees to the

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