At the chalkface: A pork pie and shandy

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

He gets a rush hour bus. The road is a snarl up. He gives up, jumps off and races through the park, just in time to be late for school and the Breakfast Club. He gets a bollocking from Ms Strict.

Charlie’s in the low stream – probably for life. That’s how it feels these days in Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, like one long emergency.
Take today.

He wakes up on a chill October Monday morning. No heating. He shivers in the kitchen and looks into the bereft fridge. The milk’s curdled, there’s half a Weetabix. His big brother’s still in bed. No job. His mum’s worn ragged. No partner. All her fading attentions go on his baby sister.

His mum’s zonked on tranx. Her zero-hour contract is worth a pittance – just enough to screw up her benefits. Thousands are in this trap.

Charlie grabs any remnants from the fridge. A pork pie and a can of shandy.

He puts them in his rucksack and leaves. No one says goodbye. He might get to school in time for Breakfast Club. He gets a rush hour bus. The road is a snarl up. He gives up, jumps off and races through the park, just in time to be late for school and the Breakfast Club. He gets a bollocking from Ms Strict.
“You’re late!” she tells him.

It will go in his file and affect his life chances. What life chances?

He bunks his first lesson, because can’t be doing with negotiating another late slip. He sips the shandy in a toilet. He feels dizzy with hunger. He somehow gets through some lessons to lunchtime. He can’t afford school dinners and slinks off behind the bike sheds...

Charlie is 13. He has that undernourished look of so many English children. Face as pale as paper, cheeks concave, hair falling out and the permanent sniffle.

He’s knackered all the time and last week his little legs fell off the horse in PE...

His favourite teacher Ms Jupe catches him trembling outside the sheds. He stops sucking the can of ulcerous shandy and gnawing at the carcinogenic pork pie. He hides them in his rucksack.

“You alright, Charlie?” “Yes, miss.”

He’s not. He’s shaking. She wants to fill him full of proper orange juice, a tasty, harvest apple and nutritious porridge. She wants to hug his skeletal body, but it might break.

She feels like breaking things.

She looks inside the rucksack at the bit of pie and the can.

Smuggling food is increasingly common in schools – things like Maryland biscuits, Mars bars, crisps or mouldy fruit from the Portobello – washed down with toxic drinks. Last week a girl was scavenging round the bins.

Lovely Sylvie is in his class. She blooms with proper orange juice and vitamins. She offers Charlie a kale and spinach sandwich.

“Brain food.” “Er, no thanks,” says Charlie. His mother has no food until Friday.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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