Mr. Barker always, always dressed in a brown suit with drainpipe trousers. The suit – made of high quality rayon - rustled slightly as he walked, the interlocking fibres generating thousands of volts of static electricity. Every ten or twelve paces, he would pause to ground himself on a metal window frame or door handle, the pain of each static shock strengthening his resolve to never stop hating the children under his supervision. Mr. Barker, through word and deed, was the living manifestation of the grim reaper whom we all feared. Following my innate sense of self-preservation, I kept my distance and allowed my terror of him to quietly and steadily develop.
At one time, together with a couple of my friends, I took to spending time inside the classroom at lunchtimes, where we would read, tell each other silly stories, and draw. It was simple stuff, innocent and utterly harmless. Staying indoors wasn’t exactly banned, but was definitely frowned upon (the staff didn’t bother with ‘gently discouraging’ anything, and instead leapt straight into frowning disapproval), since the merciful Lord’s fresh air was deemed to be good for us. Other teachers had seen the three of us making our own fun and had quietly warned us to not make any noise, but otherwise left us alone, since we were doing no harm and not actually breaking any rules.
One day we all decided (for the same kind of reasons that kids will stand in the shower with their raincoat on, or try – just once - to drink milk through their nose) to sit underneath one of the classroom tables and read a favourite story from the library shelf. It felt a little like camping – it was fun! For a while we quietly giggled and chortled at something very innocent, but were interrupted by the shock of a huge BANG on the top of the table. For the first time in my life, I farted with fright. I looked up to see – to my horror – a pair of brown drainpipe trouser legs standing motionless next to the table, an occasional crackle of high voltage sparks playing across the surface of them. Mr. Barker, the seeker of all things sinful, had found us.
His curiously high-pitched and hoarse voice reached out to us like a whiplash; “Come OUT of there at ONCE!”. The indignation in his tone was palpable, as was the magnetic field being generated by his suit. We didn’t even look at one another, so deep was our terror. Trembling, we emerged from underneath the table to stand, huddled together for protection, under the distant gaze of the fearsome electrified man. Above him boiled and rolled a black cloud, from which lightning bolts flickered and jabbed. Obviously he hadn’t grounded himself in the last few minutes…either that, or I was hallucinating. “WHAT do you mean…” he hissed, baring yellow, narrow teeth in oversized gums; “…by this BIZARRE behaviour?”. I was nine, and had absolutely no idea what the question actually meant. Nobody had ever thrown the word ‘bizarre’ towards me before. As for what did I mean…well…I didn’t mean anything! I was just having fun. I doubled the amplitude of my trembling. “WELL?” roared the mighty pipe cleaner, flaring his impressive nostrils. My dad had big nostrils, with bits of hair poking out of them, but Mr. Barker had him beaten on that count by several dozen as far as I could tell. I wondered why I was noticing that detail at such a dangerous moment. “I don’t know sir.” a small, reedy voice said. I was a little shocked to realize that it had found its way out of my own mouth.
I knew instinctively that – feeble, contrite voice or not - this was a poor response. He flared his mighty air intakes again; “YOU DON’T KNOW?” he bellowed (as well as he could, with his sinister, hoarse voice), his eyes widening to the point where we could almost see them. “You don’t KNOW? How can you not KNOW? What on EARTH would lead you to…to…sit under a table at…at…lunch hour?” The latter part of the question was delivered with an almost hysterical emphasis and prompted me to wonder if he thought that sitting under a table at some other time of the day was perfectly acceptable. Worryingly, I could see some white, foamy spittle forming at the corner of his mouth. I suspected that I needed to stop noticing details such as that, but I took the spittle to be a bad sign, and allowed my bottom lip to quiver accordingly. To my left, my friend Paul grabbed the leadership role and burst into tears, to the accompaniment of soft sobs and the gentle vibration of his mop of blonde, curly hair.
The fearsome man croaked again, warming to his task now that he had caused some real distress; “I have never come across behaviour of this kind before; I find it quite incomprehensible.” I found his sentences pretty hard to understand too, but I decided not to mention it, as well leaving out my thoughts about his nasal hair. I was also still a little fixated by his spittle, the sight of which made me feel a little nauseous. “You boys...” he went on with ill-disguised relish, “…will stand outside my office in silence for the REST of the lunch hour. THEN I will decide what to do with you…”. The last part was left hanging in the air, as if everything up to and including public execution might be one of the options he was considering. I wouldn’t have put it past him. Trying my damnedest not to wet my short pants, with my two fellow criminals I dutifully made my way along the corridor, past the open door of the staff room and up to the wall adjacent to Mr. Barker’s small office, there to wait below a large and rather explicitly gory crucifix, for our fate to be decided.