Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – “Seven Days – Part One” by Ken Dunn

This is tale of woe from the past which happened when I was still teaching. I do wonder how many other teachers have had experiences like this. Any comments will be gratefully accepted but will not necessarily be accorded any sympathy! Read on….

Education is a wonderful thing. It can be stimulating, rewarding and often extremely funny….. Except for School trips, well, some of them. I was sitting in the staff room, happily ignoring the mountain of marking which I should have finished last week, when in slid dear old George. Complete with fixed grin and slightly furtive, George is Head of the Music Department. I knew in my water that he was after something. It was the decisive way he made straight for me and sat down, beaming. Before I could say ‘NO!’ he began with a sickly sweet, ‘Hi!’ Trouble always followed that single word and I wondered what it would be this time. Minutes later I knew and heard myself saying ‘Yes’.

He was good was old George. He could con anyone when he turned on the charm. A smooth and seamless liturgy flowed over me as he extolled my professionalism, personal presence and responsibility for all things educational. The question was barely noticeable at the end of it. The question was, ‘So you see, you’re the only one I could ask. Can you help with the Paris visit?’

Over forty kids had been organised to go on that and he was a member of staff short. Not any more. Three weeks later, at an un-Godly 5.30am, the School choir, a modest orchestral ensemble, six staff, including me, and two parents, climbed aboard the double-decked coach. We adults immediately established our territorial rights on the lower deck, much to the annoyance of several of the kids who were turfed out of all the prime seats. Apart from George, who ensconced himself in the forward position next to the driver, the rest of us bundled various instrument cases and music stands to the back, the baggage compartment being quite full, and made sure all the kids were on board. Not unlike a railway carriage, tables between four seats, the arrangement, for us, was quite comfortable. Flora Westbury, Head of Drama, fiercely Welsh and self appointed ‘Queen Bee’, as far as the kids were concerned, took over two forward facing seats.

‘I cannot bear facing backwards!’ she said as she plonked herself down. No one said anything but there were a few smirks at the innuendo which that suggested. Lyndsey Appleyard, teacher of piano and keyboard, reluctantly sat opposite her. Flora failed to make her arrival a happy one. Then one of the two parents who had joined us plomped herself down next to her with a relieved sigh. A standard, ‘There’s better’, issued forth but the accent she had was picked up instantly by Flora, and a seamless flow of Welsh gibberish continued from both of them, on and off for hours. This was Mrs. Jones, another celt who, at a later stage in the trip, was to join ranks with Flora in complete nationalistic mode. Lyndsey retreated into cold immobility for some time.

On the other side, opposite each other and against the window, Harriet and Kevin Winton took up their seats. Harriet, a small and demure woman, was responsible for the choir. She sat quietly constantly pushing her long mousey hair behind her ears and adjusting the Alice band on her head. Kevin, as diminutive as his wife and with hair just as long, but without an Alice band to control it, had been dragged in to conduct all the performances. He was not a happy man. Next to them was Harry Ransome, Head of Chemistry, lolling not to gracefully as a direct result of having a few too many the night before, and opposite Harry me. Sitting behind us was Mrs.Mandon-Hackman. Aloof and remote, concerned only for her daughter, Finola, a viola player. A more irregular bunch of so-called adults could not have been organised.

The coach was fine. One of those low‑slung, swish, double-decker, discreet loo, coffee machine jobs and bristling with switches, lamps, fans and video screens as well as adjustable everything, everywhere. The kids were excited, discovering all the wonderfully ‘fiddle‑worthy’ bits of equipment, buzzing with silly conversations and only just remembering to wave at the surrounding sea of parents as we rolled away. Only the adults were less than happy, except George.

George, bless him, had omitted to tell us until a day before departure that we would be leaving just after the crack of dawn. He mumbled something about available ferry crossings and it would only take five hours to get there! A few pert suggestions were made at this revelation but he ignored the insults and there we were, freezing, half asleep and with the prospect of five long hours ahead of us with a coach load of hyper‑active children, too wound up to sleep at all. Thanks, George!

The motor way stop didn’t help. Still half asleep we herded the kids in, and eventually out, of a ‘greasy spoon’ and back on to the coach. Mrs Mandon-Hackman remained, as ever, aloof and apart, slowly promenading around but with a steely eye fastened on her daughter at all times. It took us over half an hour to round all the kids up, collect escapees, check the head count twice and then, thankfully, we were on our way again. Two hours later with little delay we rolled onto the ferry and scrambled up through the decks to find a place to sit and be sick. So far, day one was going reasonably well.

The urgency to park ourselves somewhere comfortable was a total failure. As we reached one of the more civilised lounges, one with a bar, most of the seats had been commandeered by the sub‑human, lager swilling, low life so there was nothing to do but check the kids. By this time, and despite all our advice, they were charging round like wild animals all over the boat. They raced through the decks and around the upper gangways outside, hanging off the rails alarmingly, but as we cleared the harbour most of them were turning green, firmly in the grip of a rising swell which reduced everyone to sober, look-a-like drunkards.

Various anti‑sea‑sick potions were issued, to no great effect, and a few of the staff were found ‘studying’ the wave pattern of the channel. The exception was George, beaming away up on the top deck, strenuously breathing in the sea air, and Flora, the Welsh Queen Bee herself, in complete control of the kids, some of the staff and probably the elements as well. Hatred is a difficult state to cope with, but from this point forward Flora was to make it very easy for a few of us. She had established herself, as usual, as the centre of the Universe, gushingly sympathetic to all ‘unseaworthies’ who hung to her coat and her every word, or rather words, which were a continuous stream of Welsh ‘understanding’. Mrs. Jones, or Angharad, later to be known as ‘Angryhead’, sat next to her as back-up.

Flora performed her assumed natural function as beacon and lifeboat to all, but in a few days time without her realising it, her lamp would begin to fail and her boat would spring a very big leak. The remainder of the crossing proved to be uneventful and as the public address system warned of landfall I bumped into fellow ‘staff leader’, Harry Ransome, by this time he was quite pissed and then totally pissed off at not being able to get another drink before we arrived. He’d been in the bar since our departure and was not amused about his hobby being interrupted just because we had to get the kids organised and back onto the coach.

He slouched off into the mass of the walking dead making their way to the exits, oblivious of his part on the trip. The rest of us were then fully occupied rounding up our dear little charges. As lemmings we all shuffled our way down through the decks to the coach but after three head‑counts we realised we’d lost six of the kids! Now this must be a record. One bus‑load departs, stuffed full of kids, and before we even hit France we lose six! Three of us fought our way up through the human stream to the passenger decks. Flora, Lyndsey, ‘the piano’, and me. We shot off in different directions, scouring the decks for little Charlotte Davis, Arnold Dibny, Penelope Ardvell, Sharon Twissle, Bernard Upshot and Evadne Shortworthy, all 11 years old and lost. They were all found by guess who? Yes, Flora Westbury.

Back on the coach the kids were even more hyped up by the crossing than before and the prospect of the journey to Paris did not look good, at least to those of us who were awake. The top deck of the coach proved to be the main problem with various tentative and gauche attempts at flirtation from several 12 to 15 year old kids. Policing the ‘foothills of sex’ can be very wearing. Harry, quite oblivious to this, slept through the whole journey, bless him.

Three and a half hours later we reached Paris. The South East of the city is not to be recommended and the reaction to the ‘Hotel’ was a stunned silence of disbelief from kids and staff alike.

Dear old George hadn’t told any of us that we would be staying in a youth hostel and this one was right in the middle of a heavy, Algerian ghetto, complete with barbed wire fence, border style entry, sentry box and red and white traffic boom as well as high powered lamps above. Various mutterings of ‘Stalag’ and ‘Colditz’ were passed round as we took in our new surroundings. An uncompromising brick, two storeyed block sat glaring at us. What must have been gardens were now weedy scrubland and full of beer cans, bottles both plastic and glass, crisp packets, old newspapers and God knows what else. All of this had been, no doubt, lobbed from various windows over the years. The interior of the building did not improve our depression.

We were confronted by a badly stained wooden parquet floor and a grimy, echo‑chambered concrete interior with a circular reception area plainly unused for some time. A wide open staircase ran off from this and underneath this lurked the actual reception desk. Nobody there. George was now flapping around and rapidly going to pieces. He was fretting about the fact that we should have been met by a courier, booked for the trip, to solve just this kind of problem. Half an hour dragged by before we managed to find the manager. She, at least I think it was, proved to be a stereotyped, stoic, ugly who gave away very few clues as to where we were to be billeted and stood with arms folded listening to our bad French and quite deliberately not understanding a word.

Mercifully the courier arrived, an attractive 23 year old female, Laurence, a brunette and oozing apologies for being late, but within minutes she had us all registered and we began the process of parking our charges. The two floors of the building were strictly organised, for very sensible reasons. The ground floor housed females only and that’s probably why Harry and myself were allocated opposite rooms at the end of that corridor! The morning was going to be an interesting experience for all. Upstairs was for males only and, yes, Flora, Lyndsey and Mrs Angharad Jones were smack in the middle of that lot. Wonderful planning. We couldn’t make any impact on the management and even after the courier tried to explain the situation, no changes to arrangements made in advance were going to be possible. And that was that.

Eventually we organised the kids into their ‘cells’ and began the calming down process. By 9.30pm we managed a relative level of stability and thoughts of the bar began to emerge. We had missed the evening meal but at that stage none of us really cared. A quick skirmish with the management established that the bar would not open until 10.00pm! Was this really France? My room was somehow nominated as the ‘common room’ and we all piled in complete with whatever duty free liquid had been won on the ferry. It was then that I realised that Harry must still be on the coach! He was still there. Fortunately, for Harry, the coach was booked to stay with us the whole time, otherwise…..

A little rumpled but reasonably happy he joined us half an hour later and after partaking of a couple of bottles of muscle relaxant we all felt a little more human. Feeling decidedly more durable, a false impression after too much duty free, I needed to ‘test the plumbing’, and as my room didn’t have the ‘equipment’ I made my way to what I thought was the loo. Wrong! It was the fire escape and as I opened the door an ear-splitting bell erupted throughout the building! I managed to close it after a few mind numbing seconds but by that time the corridors were full of kids running in all directions. The management were not best pleased about it.

When we eventually settled things down, and the others had gone off to their rooms Harry and I crept back to my place and re-engaged with the duty free. Slowly relaxing, we exchanged various points political, social, cinematic, theatrical and literary including the possibilities of how to escape from this concentration camp. The last topic reduced us to helpless laughter but this sank into a resigned depression for our collective plight. It was unexpectedly lightened when I happened to look out of the window to find two strange characters shuffling up and down outside in the dark and staring at the ground. I then realised they had two sticks in their hands and appeared to be ‘dowsing’ for water! Not only did we have the most bizarre place to stay but had two French nut cases walking round the building dowsing when not twenty yards from where they were, zigzagging around, was a bloody great lake! We decided that the French are even more crackers than the Brits. Well after 1.00pm, and a little worse for more hysterical laughter and duty free ‘testings’, Harry shuffled off to bed.

Breakfast held its own joys for us. Every meal had to be negotiated with a ‘Barclay Card look‑a‑like’ piece of plastic by pushing it into a long vending machine. Laurence stood at the door to the dining room dutifully doling these things out as we all trouped in, slightly red around the eyes. This self service arrangement only allowed four items to be provided, covered by the card, a piece of fruit, a piece of bread, a pot of something resembling jam and three pre-packed biscuits. Once the card had been slid into the slot at the top of this device only one of a double line of small, transparent, plastic doors could be opened to retrieve the four items. If these did not suffice then other breakfast choices such as croissants and the like, were available and served by two miserable females but these had to be paid for. Several of us did, rather grumpily, with Harry mumbling about, ‘bloody French hospitality’.

The general conversation over breakfast was a slightly disgruntled one. Flora complained of the shower in her room which tended to spray everything outside the shower area. Lyndsey had discovered an ant colony had come to say hello and ‘Angryhead’, Angharad Jones, gave us a rather graphic account of how her next door neighbour, a rather undetermined ‘continental’, was given to clearing her nasal passages first thing in the morning. George just sat there with a smug expression. We realised later that he and Laurence had been allocated adjoining bedrooms in the sub‑basement and this may well have accounted for his general ‘bon homie’. In any case general agreement saw the place not just as another Stalag or Colditz but more a mixture of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘Gremlins’ and someone even suggested ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’. I couldn’t work that last one out at all.

After breakfast we clambered on to the coach and chugged off to the first venue for rehearsal. This turned out to be a rather fine old church just off the Rue Jaques and not far from the Notre Dame. Sadly, somebody had forgotten to tell the builders to clear their stuff. Major refurbishment was in progress so the place was alive with a concrete mixer, scaffolding and pendulous plastic sheeting which covered most of one end of the nave. We managed to pick our way through it, set the kids up in front of the altar then, as they began their rehearsal, Harry and I left them in George’s, Kevin’s and Harriet Winton’s tender care.

Lyndsey was looking decidedly fed up but as pianist for the kids she couldn’t escape. The Queen Bee and Angryhead were locked into another of their bouts of Celtic gibberish at the back, George was chatting Laurence up again so Harry and I tip-toed out to take in Paris at first hand. By now it was late morning and we only had about an hour and a half to ourselves but this was more than enough to reduce Harry to being partially pissed again. He does enjoy a pre-lunch bevy. The only high point was on our way back which was a bizarre confrontation with a complete ‘Spock‑like’ individual wearing something which resembled a flying helmet, a yellow wrap‑around rug, games bag and green welly boots. Obviously a Liberal Democrat on the loose.

I managed to drag Harry back to the church just before the lunch break for all of us and sat him down behind one of the pillars near the concrete mixer hoping he’d sober up. Kevin was in full, red faced flood, his long shoulder length hair whipping around as he made several strident statements about what they’d been doing. It hadn’t been a good rehearsal. Lyndsey sat at the piano, her head cradled in her arms across the keys. Enthusiastic girl. Harriet sat to one side looking like a little waif, listening to Kevin ranting at all of the kids. She gave me a woeful smile and then looked down at her feet, her brown mousey hair falling like a curtain in front of her. She was not enjoying this at all. The others were out in the vestry folding programmes for the evenings performance and trying to be ‘jolly’ in the face of the verbal abuse going on in the nave.

Then the echoes from there died down and it seemed things were returning to normal. I looked out and all the kids were still sitting in their places but quite silent. Kevin and Harriet were having a private conversation which didn’t seem to be going to well as far as Harriet was concerned. It was just like observing two gerbils having a chat. Kevin then turned and ordered the kids to pack up. It was lunchtime. They trouped mournfully down and passed us on their way to a small room at the back of the church which they were using as a green room come changing room. I joined the rest of the staff to supervise the lunch‑break.

This was down on the itinerary as ‘own arrangements’. Terrific! That was code language for traipsing the kids around until we found the nearest fast‑food joint. Here we were in Paris, with all those restaurants, and all the little buggers wanted was a ‘Big Mac’! So much for Parisian cuisine. After lunch we crocodiled down to the Notre Dame. It was shut. Great. The coach arrived and off we went to the Eiffel Tower. Look but don’t climb! Not enough time for that. What next? The Pompadou Centre, that was what. A very grubby, scruffy building then, twenty years after completion and alive with weirdo’s selling ‘suspicious substances’, variegated spivs selling other kinds of tat and very little else, except, it seemed, the whole tourist world who were there at the same time.

Mrs Mandon-Hackman surveyed the whole building within disdain, muttering to herself at one point, ‘I must have a word with Richard about this.’ She obviously operated at higher levels than the rest of us. We bundled the kids back onto the coach after spending quite some time rounding them up. Not until the final head count did I realise that Harry was still at the Church! The coach driver wasn’t too bothered about the slight detour to pick Harry up. It was the Queen Bee who made all the snide comments as Harry stumbled back onto the coach. We both ignored her.

Back at what we now had nick-named ‘The Reform Centre’, I managed to get Harry into his room while the rest of us picked up our ‘cards’ for the early evening meal. That over, we took off again back to the church for the evenings performance. Despite the building site feel it went off rather well and with a full house. George had at least done his pre‑advertising of the event in the city, via the agents for the trip, and the Parisians enjoyed themselves, as much as you can ever tell. The kids took some settling down that evening. The success of the day had sent them off into hyper drive again. Midnight rolled up by the time we had them all pinned down, at least to their rooms. Harry, George and I made for the bar, miraculously open, but after an hour or so George was out for the count. He had had a long day, bless him. Ten minutes later I somehow found myself stuck with the bill. This did not please me too well as this was supposed to have been organised by George, now totally ‘zonked out’ from his celebration of the kid’s performance. I grumpily sloped off to bed.

I must have been in bed for about three hours when all hell broke loose outside. Clicking the light on I found it to be 2.45am and someone was shrieking in the corridor. It was Flora. The Queen Bee herself and in full voice. What a sight! Curlers, the baggiest nightie known to man and a purple face as she harangued the noisy, foreign intake which must have arrived an hour or so before

No sooner had I stuck my head out of the door than Harry appeared, looking slightly bemused by the row. Before he or I could utter a sound a door at the other end crashed open and an equally terrifying sight stepped into the corridor. I think it was female but it was a tricky decision. She, it, stood there with hands on huge hips, built like an outside toilet and bellowed to all and sundry, in what must have been the foulest of French.

Everyone in sight disappeared instantly and silence fell like a damp blanket. She, it, grinned slowly, winked at Flora and turned back into her room. Flora just stood there with her mouth open, speechless. A rare thing to experience. Unfortunately that proved to be the last time during the whole trip. Enjoying the silence I eventually dozed off. After only two days I was knackered. There were five more to go.

To Be Continued…?

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