School assembly, circa 1991. Age 9. We all sat on the floor in rows.
Our headmaster, Mr Noakes, addressed his audience, doubtless amazing us with a wildly apocryphal Biblical story for children, probably involving some normally-adversarial animals learning to cooperate on Noah’s Ark.
Suddenly, Mr Noakes singled me out of the crowd.
“You there,” he said, “Don’t be so silly.”
He must be talking to someone else, I thought. I hadn’t done anything silly. I looked down at my pumps.
“Don’t ignore me,” he said, “you there, in the blue tee-shirt.”
I was wearing a blue tee-shirt. Did he mean me? I hadn’t done anything silly. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“That’s it,” he said, “Get out and wait for me in my office.”
Being sent to the headmaster’s office was the most-feared disciplinary action in our little school. It was usually a last-resort threat from an exasperated teacher. I’d never seen the headmaster himself send anyone to his own office. This was serious. Someone was in trouble. Not me though, because I’d not done anything silly.
“YOU!” he shouted, “OUT!”
I chanced a glance at Mr Noakes. We made eye-contact. His were blazing with headmasterly rage.
It felt like he was talking to me. But he couldn’t have been. I hadn’t done anything silly.
“Am I talking to myself?” he asked the room, and I was beginning to think quite desperately that maybe he wasn’t. He was almost certainly talking to me.
I felt sick. Children in the front rows were starting to look around behind them to get a look at the idiot or rebel who was disrupting everything. I was keeping them from knowing whether Noah would be able to teach the spider and the fly to be friends.
I pointed at my chest and silently mouthed the word, “Me?”
“Yes! You!” said Mr Noakes, “If you can’t act appropriately in an assembly, you’ll have to leave.”
Blimey, he really was talking to me. But I’d not done anything silly at all. I hadn’t even been aware of anything silly happening in my vacinity.
I looked around for signs that maybe someone else was being silly and I’d been caught in the crossfire.
“Don’t look around!” he commanded, “You know who I’m talking to. You. You!”
“Me?” I said again, pointing at my solar plexus, “Me-Me?”
Nah, I thought, he can’t be talking to me. I hadn’t done anything silly at all. I wasn’t even sitting with my friends, vital accessories in the pursuit of silliness. Who on Earth could he be talking to?
“I’m not going to say it again. You. You! In the blue tee-shirt. Leave!”
Cujo spume frothed in the corners of his mouth.
My refusal to believe he was talking to me was reinforced by the fact that Mr Noakes knew my name but wasn’t using it. I was famous at school. Everyone knew me, especially Mr Noakes. He’d personally approved my second and third entries into the school talent show. He’d spent hours in his office talking to Mum and Dad about my allergies and my persistent refusal to do a forward roll.
Why didn’t he say “Robert Wringham” instead of “You there, you in the blue tee-shirt”? He knew who I was. And he knew I wasn’t a trouble-maker.
Not a deliberate one anyway. Maybe he was picking on me as some kind of revenge because I was too afraid of heights to climb the gym rope or because I’d caused him extra work by suggesting our school participate in the Blue Peter can drive.
By now, the other children were getting restless. They were all looking around and asking each other “who is it, who is it?” They were desperate to know whether Noah could unite the lion and the antelope in a rare example of predatory-prey harmony.
“Who, me?” I asked again.
“YOOUU!” he whined childishly. I thought he was going to tear some of his hair out. It was getting really bizarre.
There was no way I was making the walk of shame and leaving the assembly hall when I’d done nothing wrong, especially as I’d held fast for so long. One of us would come out of this looking like a complete idiot and it wasn’t going to be me. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I tucked my head between my knees and acted like a balled-up hedgehog.
Eventually, he lost interest. Wise birds, hedgehogs. He must have sensed that he’d completely derailed his own assembly and that the other children were dying to know whether Noah would be successful in getting red and grey squirrels to put aside years of bitter sectarianism and sign a mutually-beneficial non-aggression pact.
“Who do you suppose he was talking to?” I asked a friend once the assembly was over. I still wasn’t convinced it had been me. It couldn’t have been. I wasn’t being silly.
“Dunno,” he shrugged, “wanna trade some Pogs?”
I did! I did want to trade some Pogs. And in doing so I forgot all about the strange assembly episode until today. Seriously, what the fuck was that about? Had he really been talking to me? I’ve a good mind fly back to England right this minute, drag him out of retirement and straighten this all out.