Dear Dave

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Joining the Dark Side

Dear Dave,

Mr Fitzroy appeared to have entirely forgotten our previous encounter.

This was good.

I sat in his study at Malton House, my teenage nephew Ned's rather odd private school, and tried not to feel uncomfortable. It was a struggle, however - the chair was too hard, the room was too hot, I was wearing a suit, and a large number of stuffed animals were staring at me from high shelves. I couldn't help noticing that the baby crocodile on top of one of the bookcases still had sandwich crumbs glued to its teeth. Someone appeared to have tried to disguise the problem by posing the creature with its claws wrapped round one end of a bright pink toothbrush and with the other end near its mouth. The overall effect was to make it look like a novelty toy. I had a strange desire to put sunglasses on it and, as I squirmed on my seat waiting for the headmaster to speak, I sincerely hoped the little reptile wouldn't detect my movement and start waggling about singing Don't Worry, Be Happy. I ran my finger round my collar nervously.

"So..." said Mr Fitzroy eventually, drawing my attention back to him.

I jumped at the sight of his single enormous eye and spilt my tea.

* * *

It was all Ned's fault (in some passing, tangential fashion). As you'll recall, I'm tutoring him with his science and maths in an effort to improve his grades and avoid his parents sending him to an even odder educational establishment where early morning cross-country running is a compulsory part of the curriculum and that is situated just down the road from Brigadoon.

A couple of days before my trip to Malton House, Ned had done his practice maths exam and I'd been quite interested to hear how it had gone:

"Hi!" I said, letting him in for his usual mooch at our house after school.

"Ngh," he grunted in reply and made as if to go and play my Xbox.

I blocked his path. "How'd it go?" I was eager to know if all our hard work had paid off.

He shrugged and tried to get past. I stopped him. "You're going to have to try a little harder than that. How'd it go?"

"I dunno. All the computers crashed. We're going to have to do it again next week."

I was so surprised, I let him by. "What computers?"

* * *

"Do you require a cloth?" asked Mr Fitzroy.

"No, no," I said, wiping myself down with a hanky. It was black tea on a dark suit, so I was OK.

"Very well." He put down his tools and pulled at the enormous magnifying glass in front of him, swivelling it on its stand and moving it out of the way. When I'd first entered the room and spotted him working on something tiny with a fine-tipped brush, I'd imagined he was painting miniature soldiers. I could have related to that. But no, he was polishing a collection of beetles.

"So..." he said again and carefully took their case back over to hang on the wall. "You think you may be able to help us with our information technology arrangements?"

"Yes, my nephew tells me you don't have any IT support staff."

"Mr Harris, the computing teacher, is in charge of procurement, installation and maintenance."

"As well as teaching? He has to keep all the computers running in his lunch hour?"

"Not all of them," chuckled the headmaster. "The lab technician keeps an eye on the machines in the science block."

I wasn't convinced this improved matters much. "How many computers does Malton House have exactly?"

"Exactly?" The headmaster sat down again, poured me some more tea and turned his attention to stirring his own cup. "That would require some investigation. As with pupil numbers and lawnmowers, it's hard to keep track of such things. Nonetheless, we pride ourselves in embracing the modern age. I imagine we have several hundred personal computing devices around the school."

"You've got two people looking after hundreds of computers?"

The headmaster nodded, seemingly pleased that I'd noticed the high level of resources he'd devoted to the issue. "Then there's the Megatron 5000 in the cellar, of course."

"Of... course..."

"Yes, that's Mr McIntyre's pet project. Couldn't run the boilers without it..."

* * *

"You didn't mention anything about computers," I said as I followed Ned through to the glorified cupboard I use as a place to work and hide.

"We had to do the exam on laptops," he said, switching on the Xbox and settling down in the only chair.

I loitered by the door. "That doesn't sound like a good idea."

"Would have been OK if we'd got to type the answers."

"You had to do the exam on a computer but you weren't allowed to type?"

Ned stared at the screen intently as the game loaded up and he started to shoot things. "Uh-huh."

"Was it multiple choice?"


"Right. I don't understand. You're going to have to explain this in sentences of more than one grunt."

Ned let out a long sigh as if I'd asked him to do something as onerous as tidy his room or help with the washing up. Nonetheless, after a brief pause while he blasted some particularly resilient aliens, he did enlighten me further. "Head of maths signed up for some new course that's being tested out. We all had to do the exam on laptops. The questions were on the screen with a picture of a keyboard underneath and we had to click on that to write the answers."

"That must have been fun for putting in formulae and fractions."

Ned shook his head. "Not really."

"What about working?" I said. I couldn't believe anyone had come up with a system quite so daft. "Did you have to put in all the working like that as well?"

"They didn't want working. We had to do it in our heads until someone asked for some paper halfway through."

I banged my head off the wall. "That's crazy."

"At least the batteries in the laptop I had didn't run out."

"I'm not sure I want to hear the rest of this..."

"Then five minutes from the end, the computers started beeping to let us know that time was running out."

"Oh for goodness sake." I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. "How many of you were there in the room?"

"'Bout a hundred. And all the computers started the beeping at different times. It was loud, what with the people fighting over the four power sockets as well. Then time was up, we all pressed the button to send our answers and the server crashed. Everything got wiped."

"But... But..." It wasn't the worst designed computer system I'd ever heard of but, considering it hadn't actually killed anyone, it was running remarkably close. "Why? Why would anyone think that was a sensible way to do things?"

"Dunno. Mr Castleford said it was a test of our computer literacy. We've got to do it again next week."

I went back to banging my head off the wall - a little harder than before. "Let's hope they get someone who's computer literate to organise things this time."

Ned finally looked up from the game. "I thought you said you used to do stuff with computers..."

* * *

I'm not too sure how I went from phoning up with an offer of assistance in re-running Ned's exam to sitting an interview for a part-time technical support position (although I think it may have all started going wrong when I began talking about network redundancy to a man who refers to laptops as portable computing devices). One misunderstanding led to another and then there I was, sweating in a suit, talking up my suitability for a job I didn't even want.

"Does the Megatron run MVS?" I asked, bluffing. As far as I was concerned, a Megatron 5000 was a nuclear powered vacuum cleaner.

Fortunately, as far as the headmaster was concerned, it might as well have been. "I'd, well..." he began uncertainly, then recovered quickly, not wishing to look ignorant. "I'd have to look into that... but it's quite possible. Yes. Mr McIntyre regularly requests funds for the latest..." He fished for the correct term.

"Attachments?" I suggested.

"Quite. Xpods and such like."

I made a mental note to investigate whatever Mr McIntyre was really up to in the cellar but outwardly I smiled sagely. "Excellent. I have plenty of experience with MVS."

The headmaster nodded and perused my CV. As I'd hoped, he completely blanked my years of being a housedad. The concept was clearly beyond the natural order of existence as he understood it. Instead, he focused on my previous life in IT. "Yes, you seem very qualified. Very qualified indeed. But could you explain to me why we need someone to look after the computers? It's not as if it's necessary to task anyone with regular oversight of the televisions and microscopes. They simply work."

I stifled a giggle at the idea of computers simply working and tried to come up with an example of the regular attention they require that the headmaster would understand. "Erm... Who installs the anti-virus software on the school's machines?"

"Do we require such software?"

I couldn't help pulling a face. "Let me put it this way, does your computer do anything strange?" I sipped at my tea, trying to hide my expression.

The headmaster leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers against his cup in thought. "It used to make clucking noises whenever I touched a key..."

He trailed off as I choked on my tea. "That is strange," I muttered weakly, when I'd recovered.

"Ah, no, the odd thing is that it stopped doing it a few days ago without so much as a by your leave."

"It wasn't supposed to make those noises," I said, breathing deeply to retain my composure. "It probably had a virus."

"Really? Now it just makes a nasty juddering sound every so often and I can't seem to find any of the letters I wrote before last week."

I stoically drank more tea and toyed with the idea of asking if he'd made backups. In the end, I decided against it...

* * *

"Are you really going to do this?" asked Sarah earlier that morning as I stood in front of the mirror, trying to remember how to tie a tie.

"I'm not sure," I conceded. Working at Malton House wasn't exactly a dream of mine. Still, it was something to try and it was unlikely to be high stress. More than that, it was liable to make anywhere else I applied seem sane and desirable.

"You said you were going to spend some time planning your future." She handed me a different tie, one without teddy bears on it.

I shrugged. "This way I can get paid to do it while sitting around mindlessly installing software updates."

Sarah raised an eyebrow. "Anything to do with computers always takes twice as long as you expect. Is it going to be worth it?"

"Nope," I sighed, finally perfecting the knot, "but I should probably give it a shot to get back into the swing of things."

"Well, it's up to you," she said sceptically and then kissed me. "Good luck."


I went to wake the kids. They all laughed at the sight of me in a suit.

* * *

Then headmaster offered me money.

Not good money exactly but money nonetheless. Earning anything after so many years of unpaid housedadhood was very enticing. Then I estimated how many hours I could feasibly work while Marie was in nursery (not many), how much I'd have to pay in national insurance and travel expenses (more than a bit), the amount of tax credits I'd lose (a lot) and the scale of work I was liable to be landed with (vast). A few quick mental calculations delivered a reward/effort ratio that was so small it fell out of my ear and disappeared through a crack in the floor.

Nevertheless, I needed to take the job at least long enough to get Ned through his exam. It was worth angling for some extra incentives.

"Beyond my wages and normal benefits, I'll require a bus pass, a personal supply of biscuits and permission to take equipment home with me to work on it."

Mr Fitzroy took a chocolate finger from a plate on his desk. "I'm sure that could be arranged."

"Excellent. For instance, does the school have a video projector?"

"I believe we have several. I don't think they're used very often - many of the teachers find them rather complicated." He snapped the chocolate finger in two and popped one half in his mouth.

"Ideal... I mean, I could take one away and experiment on the simplest ways to hook it up and operate it. Oh, and I'll need my own computer to use, something with a Blu-ray player and high-end graphics card. You know, just to make sure I can test whatever, erm... attachments the school might need."

"Very well. I will get Mr Harris to put you in touch with our supplier." He offered the plate to me. "Chocolate finger?"

* * *

Ned was slouching around by the main door as I found my way out.

"Did you get it?" he asked, hunched over, his hands in his pockets.

"Provided my references and security check are fine. I said I'd come in on Saturday and set up things for your exam. Want to help?"


"Tough. You got me into this. You might as well suffer too."

He perked up as a thought struck him. "Do I get paid?"

"As if... but I'll bring my Xbox along. If we get done in time, we can project the picture onto the end wall of the examination hall and play Call of Duty in huge. It'll be like our own personal IMAX."

This sold the idea to him but I couldn't stick around - I had to rush to get back in time to collect Marie from nursery. We made arrangements to meet up on Saturday and then I jogged off down the school's long driveway, waving goodbye over my shoulder.

As I departed the grounds, I encountered a small band of boys coming the other way. They nearly jumped out of their skins on seeing me but then relaxed when they didn't recognise me as a member of staff. In itself, this was enough to convince me they weren't supposed to have left the school. The feeling was reinforced, however, by their guilty looks and the large, heavy object under a black tarpaulin that they were carrying between them. I couldn't tell what it was but I hazarded a guess...

"Nice lawnmower," I said and hurried on past.

"Thanks," one of them called after me. Then his friends all slapped him round the head and told him to shut up.

I decided it was best not to look back and I ran for the bus instead.

That place is so weird. What have I got myself into now?

Yours in a woman's world,



Gwen said...

Yikes! That was fast! Well, good luck! And have fun with the projection system! ;)

DadsDinner said...

The job's a bit fictional. Well, quite a lot fictional, actually. (Like I have time for anything other than looking after kids and running this website.)

Terrifyingly, however, that exam really happened to one of my nephews... Shiver

Anonymous said...

Nice story Ed, I had to retake my maths exam on Tuesday. They decided against the laptops this time though!

DadsDinner said...

Thank goodness for that. What were they thinking?

Anonymous said...

What were they thinking?

Don't they know it isn't possible to do math in your head? Ever. Math is a paper and pencil sport.

DadsDinner said...

There was supposed to be paper, just no one thought to hand it out. D'oh.

What confuses me is that back when I did maths exams, we were always told that the working was worth half the marks. Not wanting to see the working at all is bizarre.