‘Death throngs’ and ‘tragedies that end in death.’ The book club reviewers have been exciting themselves again. Excelling themselves, I mean. Literature is in safe hands.
To be fair, we all make schoolboy errors. What about Auden’s ‘poets exploding like bombs’? And Heaney’s pen, ‘snug as a gun’? The imagination can be dangerous.
In the Swat Valley, there are more guns than pens. Commuters carry a rifle to work, like a briefcase. I was sightseeing near the Chinese border, when tourists could still do that sort of thing. A bus took me up to a lake in the mountains. I forget the name, but it’s a beauty spot. When I arrived, a well-heeled family was standing by the water. There were two teenage girls. Their bright clothes flashed against the grey stone like glass in sunlight.
I chatted with Dad about hotels. Mum was holding a rifle, a big, wooden thing that was normally under a bed in Rawalpindi or Lahore. They weren’t at home now. They needed to protect the girls. But the gun looked strange in a woman’s hands. I suppose the girls were her department. She would have packed a hairbrush, handkerchiefs, a jar of skin cream, whatever girls need on a drive in the mountains, and a gun. She didn’t look like a shooter, though. She held the rifle by the barrel, resting the butt on her shoulder. If they’d been expecting a fight, Dad might have carried it, or, more likely, they wouldn’t have gone at all.
Managing teenagers can be fun. Think of all those schoolgirl errors. Think of all mine. I saw one of my pupils on the bus to school. In London, not Pakistan. I sat down next to her – let’s call her Tina – and looked across at where she was sitting.
“I normally put my bag there,” I said, and propped it on her lap. She had a scarf around her neck. She always did, even on a warm day. I asked her why. She said it stopped her head rolling off. I said if I saw her head on the ground, I’d take it home and put it on my mantelpiece. Tina thought for a moment, then replied: “That’s a pretty weird thing to say.”
She must have seen it in her mind, her head on my mantelpiece, like a trophy.
“It’s pretty weird to say your head’ll fall off.”
In class, when girls talk too much, I do a mime. I zip my lips up with a thumb and forefinger, turn an imaginary key, and toss it away with a flick of the hand. Some Year 8s did it back to me once, like a West End musical. When the moment came to fling away the key, a row of hands flew up together, as if they had rehearsed.
Last lesson. As the girls are leaving, one of them stops in front of me, lips pressed tight. Her friend asks me if I have the key.