October comes with lots of memories. Some of them are true, some deliciously fabricated. But one event sticks in my mind like super-glue: a spine-chilling meeting that took place between four educational entrepreneurs and a gang of international mothers at a brand new school in Krakow, back in the mists of time.
It’s the day of the Big Meeting. Monday evening, early October, getting colder by the day.
We’re surrounded by snarling mothers, we being Mad Vlad, Smiley, Hubby and me. The Snarlers press-ganged us into this meeting via their leader, Mrs Horrible. Twenty snarling mothers growling and baring their teeth against four defenceless school owners. Doesn’t seem fair, if you ask me. You could say they’ve got us by the balls, except that I don’t possess any.
Oh, I understand their concerns, I keep trying to tell myself. They’re just lonely mothers who want the best for their children. Mothers living in a foreign country, not speaking the language, heart-bitingly home-sick, with husbands away on business most of the time, probably screwing enigmatic she-devils in stilettos and furs. Polish women are exceedingly enigmatic. They have a tendency to wear knicker-length dresses in temperatures of minus-you-name-it, with yards and yards of unbuttoned fur flapping open in the Slavonic wind as their thinly-clad legs stalk the snowy streets. And they don’t get frostbite; therein lies their enigma. My own Hubby was eaten alive by a Polish she-devil, so I should know. A veritable vamp. Yes, I really should try to understand these mothers, I keep telling myself. Insecurity leads to irrational behaviour at times, I keep telling myself. I take it out on my poor children, the mothers take it out on poor me. It’s quite understandable, really, I keep telling myself.
But I hate them, nonetheless. Worse still, I’m terrified of them. Scared shitless. They have an uncanny power over me. If I don’t do as they demand, they’ll take their children out of our brand new international school and we’ll go bankrupt. They have power over Hubby too, although he’s only here one day a week, so at least he has a regular escape route. So do Mad Vlad and Smiley, who also only make the occasional guest appearance. I’m the only one who is here day in day out, coping with all the shit. Shit at work, shit at home. At work: waiting for the snarling mothers to pounce; at home: waiting for Loverboy to ring, but knowing he probably won’t. Or if he does, knowing it’ll just be a: Sorry, can’t make it tonight, which really means: I’d rather be out drinking with colleagues than sitting at home with you.
They have power over the entire school, these snarling mothers. They’ve changed it. They’ve driven it into a cage, whipped it into shape, made it salute, bow, click heels, sprout horns, breathe fire. They’ve made it into a monster – but not a passionate one, like my lover. No, this monster is unleashed from hell, completely out of our hands, out of control, just in their control, part of their militant regime.
‘Another thing we’re extremely concerned about is fire safety,’ Mrs Horrible is saying, extreme concern shadowing her face as she pictures her beloved little Cherub choking in sulphurous fumes. Well, what do they expect from a fire-breathing monster, for fuck’s sake? I’m swearing a lot more than I used to, these days. She’s quite attractive, actually, Mrs Horrible. In an aloof sort of way. Rather like Snow White’s wicked stepmother.
‘Yes, this building is a tremendous fire risk,’ another Snarler drivels on.
They all look at my business partner, Mad Vlad, who happens to be in charge of finance. But installing millions of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms and collapsible ladders is not the kind of thing that Polish entrepreneurs bother themselves with in these heady, post-communist days.
He clears his throat.
‘Kraków is a very old, historic city,’ he begins, as though on the outset of a guided tour. He speaks excellent English, unlike Smiley, my other business partner, who sits around at these meetings just blinking and smiling and being convivial. Very convenient, if you ask me.
‘All schools in the centre of Krakow are in the same position as us,’ Mad Vlad continues. ‘These buildings are very old, so it’s obvious that they aren’t built in the same way as newer buildings. Architects didn’t think about fire risks in the seventeenth century, you know. But I’m sure that people didn’t die from fire any more frequently than they do now.’ He attempts a laugh, but no one responds, including Hubby and me. Our faces have gradually turned a whiter shade of pale. Bravely, he soldiers on: ‘It’s part of the sacrifice we have to make for being situated in such a privileged, beautiful area.’
This is not what the Snarlers want to hear. I mean, what exactly is he implying? – that they have to sacrifice their children in the name of beauty?
Again he proceeds: ‘But I assure you that the Fire & Safety department haven inspected our premises, installed the appropriate number of fire extinguishers, and given us their certificate. I can show it to you if you like.’ What he doesn’t tell them is that it took four bottles of … Actually, no. I’m not going to tell you what it took to extract that highly-desired certificate from of the doubting, frowning firemen.
‘But extinguishers aren’t enough!’ yet another of the Snarlers cries out. ‘We’re on the third floor up here! How in the world could anyone escape if a fire broke out?’
Mad Vlad’s face starts turning crimson. ‘I told you we’ve been inspected by the fire authorities,’ he growls. ‘Don’t you trust the Polish authorities? You think we’re all barbarians, do you? Is that it?’
I subtly kick the brave maniac’s foot under the table.
‘Of course that isn’t it,’ Hubby says with his unstoppable good humour, smiling urgently at Mad Vlad. ‘I think everyone is just a little concerned about the safety of their children.’
All the client-parents agree, start muttering, clucking, making suggestions …
‘Couldn’t a fire escape be erected?’
‘Or what about enlarging the windows on the top floor so that they’re big enough to get out of?’
‘Or if you knocked down that wall over there, at least there’d be access to – ’
Mad Vlad waves an arm theatrically. ‘Ladies, please!’ he announces as though about to embark on a Shakespearean soliloquy. Richard III would suit him. ‘I must remind you of the fact that our school is an historic building and therefore any structural alterations would be out of the question. If we ignored these council regulations and went ahead with the suggestions you are making, then all four of us hapless school-owners could be thrown into prison. Would that satisfy you? Hmm?’
Several intakes of breath reverberate around the room, followed by a sinister hush.
Sensing rising panic, Hubby intervenes. ‘Look, I’m sure the situation needn’t be quite as dramatic as all that!’ he laughs nervously, but no one follows suit. ‘I can assure you that there isn’t any reason to worry about fire risks or prison sentences.’
‘So what, may I ask, do you propose?’ Mrs Horrible demands of him, baring her teeth.
Hubby falters, but only for a fraction of a second. ‘Smoke detectors,’ he says, bless him. Forever the tactician, my ex. ‘I suggest that we order six of them directly from England, and place them in key locations throughout the school. Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure.’
One of the Snarlers nods begrudgingly. ‘Smoke detectors are certainly a good idea, but personally, I’d also like to see at least some sort of fire escape erected.’
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ Mrs Horrible pipes in, peering at us with her horrible crows’ eyes.
I flick back a loose strand of hair, feigning calm. And at last I say something. ‘I understand your concern,’ is what I say – first words I’ve spoken all meeting. ‘But you must also understand that we’re living in Kraków, not fucking England, and you simply can’t expect the same kinds of standards over here, so soon after the demise of the communist regime.’ Only I omit the fucking, of course. Would be nice not to, then they’d really have something to take their kids out of our school for. But there you go.
Mrs Horrible isn’t satisfied. ‘We’re paying a lot of money for this school, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you. Surely the least we can expect is to feel that our children are in a safe environment? I don’t care what country we’re in; it’s your responsibility to guarantee safety.’
What does she expect us to do? Erect a fire escape on the historic frontage of our school and spend the rest of our days in a Polish prison?
More clucking of agreement, muttering, shaking of heads in dismay at our incompetence and Eastern European barbarity. Perhaps they really do think that as long as we get their school fees, we couldn’t give a shit about their young ones being swallowed up in flames.
And then a brilliant suggestion comes to my mind. The sheer brilliance of it waylays my fear. ‘You could always fly out of the skylight, Mrs Horrible, taking the children on your back two at a time. Ever thought of that?’
But she doesn’t have time to reply, because she’s suddenly sprouted feathers. Look! There she is, flapping her wings just below the skylight, waiting for me to mount her back. She’s so much nicer as a crow, it’s amazing. God made a mistake in creating her a woman, if you believe in God. If you don’t, then I suppose it isn’t worth capitalising the ‘g’.
The other Snarlers aren’t interested. They’re just carrying straight on, clucking away at each other, no longer concerned about Hubby or me or Mad Vlad or Smiley. All the mothers have turned into hens, you see, so they no longer understand English.
Mrs Horrible has butted open the window with her beak, and I’m already on her feathery back, ducking low as we squeeze ourselves out into the crisp autumnal air.
‘No point in waiting for the outcome of the Big Meeting, seeing as all of your friends have turned into hens now,’ I say, shivering in the early-evening mist. ‘You might as well take me back home, there’s a good crow.’
So off we fly into the October night; into freedom, abandonment, annihilation.
That is, before the raucous coughing of Mrs Horrible brings me right back to where I am, at the Big Meeting, with all twenty Snarlers staring at me like jackals.
The above extract is taken from my novel, Thirteen States of Being.