He picked up the phone because he thought it was Caitlyn.
It was the Headmaster.
“Jason, sorry to ring you at this hour, but I needed to catch you early.”
“That’s okay, Graeme. I was planning to come and see you as soon as I got in.”
There was a short silence.
“I think under the circumstances, you should probably stay at home today. I’ve decided to take the interim action of suspending you from duty on full pay.”
Another silence. “Was he expecting me to reply?” wondered Jason.
The Head went on, sounding more formal by the sentence: “There’s a policy and process in place for dealing with incidents like these. We will follow them to the letter, of course. Jason that’s not a threat, it’s a promise to you that we won’t be shortcutting the process.”
“I’m sure the Board will be mindful of your recent situation. It also holds your teaching skills in the highest regard. However, a staff member assaulting a student is a serious matter, and we have to deal with it appropriately and transparently.”
“Jason, I’m very sorry we’re in this situation, I’d like to support you as best I can. Can I give you some advice?”
“Get a lawyer. I’ve already had a fax from the Palmer family lawyer making all sorts of threats against the school. I’m guessing dad rang his lawyer before he rang for the ambulance last night – you get the idea.”
“Ok,” said Jason, aware of a rising feeling in his throat. “What’s happening with Palmer?” But for his own stupidity Jason would have expected a suspension for the boy.
“He was released from hospital last night, against his father’s wishes. Mr Palmer is to come and see me to discuss his son’s return to school. However, based on what I’ve seen so far, I suspect there will be a live-to-air broadcast outside the school when he does.”
The Headmaster tailed off, as if he’d said too much.
“And Jason, there’s something else. One of the students edited iPhone footage to show you retaliating to a normal tackle. It’s been removed and the boy has been suspended. However, it did go viral overnight, so there is no retrieving it, I’m afraid. I will be informing parents today of the whole affair, but I will press home the fact the video has been doctored.”
“Thank you.” His throat felt constricted. He could feel the thump of his heart.
“We will deal with it as best we can Jason. I will be in contact. Please feel free to ring me directly if you need to talk.”
“I appreciate that Headmaster.”
“Okay, well, I’ll be in touch. And look after yourself.”
Jason hung up the phone, and slumped against the chair.
He didn’t have much trouble finding a version of the Youtube video. The punch looked pretty bad, filthy tackle or not. The comments had racked up.
“Sack the bastard.”
“Little Hitlers those private school teachers . . .”
“I had a teacher like that once..”
He scanned for anything positive, but they were worse: written by types he generally loathed. He downloaded a copy as it might be useful later on. The “Sack Jason Walters” Facebook page was no better. All this in less that twenty four hours? Imagine if he’d been famous!
By mid-afternoon the online Telegraph was running it with a large photo of the younger Palmer, arm in a sling for some reason, as well as a heavily bandaged head. The story used “allegedly” in all the right places, but it was very anti-Jason. Online comments were piling up there too.
“There was nothing in the tackle. I was shocked at how he reacted,” Palmer was quoted. A paragraph near the end of the story grabbed Jason’s attention.
Several months ago, Mr Walters was allegedly involved in a violent incident with a teenager near his home. No charges were laid at the time.
He stared at the paragraph. Kept staring. Was it the Palmers or just the work of an old school hack with access to police files?
The phone rang. It was his lawyer.
“I just got a fax from your ex’s lawyer. Friday night phone calls are off for the time being, I’m afraid. I’ll spare you what else was in the fax, but things are going to get uglier from here on. If that’s possible. Nice punch, by the way.”
“Hard to imagine things getting worse,” was all Jason could say. He hung up.
An hour or so later Jason had to turn off his mobile. Thirteen calls, all allowed through to his message bank. He had to do something – now. With his cap pulled low he did a grocery run, grabbed some DVDs and what he’d gone for: a new SIM card and number. At least the sun was out. The season had turned suddenly and a few young families were out walking as he headed home. He buoyed his spirits with the idea that he was at least doing something to fight back, however small.
Jason checked his mail box at the front gate of the flats. His fingers sank into something soft. He knew even before he had pulled his hand out. He retched as the dog turd stink reached his nose. He flicked it and a few pieces of junk mail onto the path, flicking them into the garden with as little shoe as possible. Looking around, to see if anyone was watching, he wiped his fingers off on the grass, before heading up the stairs, his hand out in front like a zombie’s, shopping held behind his back as far away as possible. The smell clung on, or seemed to, despite his scrubbing.
Close friends and his Dad got the text and email about the new number. Not that Dad would break his duck and call, he thought. He included the Headmaster, but agonised over whether Joanne should get it. In the end he decided to keep communication lines open.
The punch made it onto the TV news that night. Who did the Palmers know to get that to happen? he wondered. Still it could have been worse. Only one channel ran it and they were very cautious, exposing the fake Youtube video in an interview with the Palmers. Palmer Snr sounded shifty and his eyes flickered when asked if he had anything to do with the video. Young Palmer’s smirk was as off-putting on TV as it was to the teachers stuck with him in their class.
Jason hit the TV remote, opened a bottle of wine and took his first mouthful over the start of the first Matrix movie – he’d hired the trilogy. His world now seemed as confusing and brittle as Neo’s. At least there isn’t an Agent Smith on my case, he thought wryly.
Friday was a drag. Jason stayed in, reading Runners’ World and staying away from the internet. There was no word from the school. He looked at the clock every fifteen minutes or so. He tended to do that on Friday’s, waiting. Not today. Every minute that passed brought him one minute closer to the time when he wouldn’t be speaking to Will.
The door bell rang at four. A courier. Jason went down to the main door to sign for the letter. It was from the school.
He stood in the foyer and tore the letter open, scanned it. Board had met . . . suspension to continue . . . half-pay from following Monday . . . date set for appearance before Board . . . show cause why he shouldn’t be dismissed . . . page with current entitlements should he chose to resign with immediate effect.
Jason trudged up the stairs, closing and bolting the door behind him. “So, resign now or go through a hearing and get the sack. Excellent.”
He had a few days to think about that, but the money was going to run out regardless. Maybe some freelance writing? He spent the next few hours sending out a few emails to warm up some leads and contacts for doing some writing work. It would at least bring in some cash, even if he’d have to write under a pseudonym.
Over wine and pizza he thought about the novel he’d planned to write “one day”. It had never really gotten off the ground; there’d been a few false starts, a few editorial pointers from a writer friend. He tried not to think about the chances of commercial success for a historical novel about Oscar Wilde.
The phone rang just as he was starting the second half of the bottle. “Unknown number” came up, but he answered it anyway. Only his closest allies – and Joanne – had the number.
“Jason Walters?” It was no voice he knew. An immediate code red.
“Um, it is, but who are you and how did you get this number?”
“Jason, my name is Oliver West. A friend gave me your number because they knew you needed some help in your current . . . . situation.”
“I see. What kind of help? Are you a lawyer?” Jason took the phone away from his head and was about to close it when he hesitated. “Go on.”
“We can offer legal services, but we’re more than that. We are a group who donate our time to help ordinary people who are being crushed by the system, unfairly dealt with by large organisations, that sort of stuff. We’re passionate about standing up for the those who get knocked down. We provide an even playing field on which to take on the world. And as I said, we donate our services, so there is no charge to the people we actually assist.”
It wasn’t smooth enough for a sales pitch, but too smooth for a total idiot. Jason heard his father’s voice inside his head: “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.” He dismissed it. Not too good to be true, just good enough at a time like this, perhaps?
“How did you find out about what happened to me?”
“Jason, we keep an eye on the media. Our team can spot a beat-up a mile away. The newspaper and television stories about the . . . incident . . . on Wednesday were so obviously biased that we looked into it. And what do you know? A doctored video! Just who is the victim here Jason?”
Jason sat there grinning, trying not to yell “At LAST!” He kept his voice in check. “Well, I can’t say that your offer doesn’t interest me. How do we progress this further?”
“Well, Jason, I’d like to meet you face to face, maybe on Monday morning?”
“Fine. I’m free.”
“Good. I’ll pick you up on Monday morning at eight thirty, then we can have a coffee, meet in our offices. We’ll be done by ten thirty.”
“It’s settled. What’s your address?”
Only later did Jason realise he didn’t give the flat number.
“Jason, you’ve made a wise choice. I look forward to meeting you on Monday.”
“Likewise. Good bye.”
Elation surged through his body. Someone wanted to help him. He drank to his own success and settled into the lounge to watch junk TV for the evening.
That’s it for the previews. The real thing is out soon.
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