Saturday, 24 October 2009


“No… that’s impossible…! How can that be?”

The spectre groaned and rubbed its knee. It glared up at me, bald head beaded with perspiration and goatee beard bristling with indignation.

“Well help me up then!” it said in my voice, extending its hand to be hauled up.

I did so in incredulous silence. Finally finding my voice I angrily said, “You’re me! I mean you’re me as I am now! How can that be?”

“I’m not quite you as you are now,” the spectre responded, regaining its composure. It tapped its chest self importantly. “I’m a Lord!” to my chagrin the other me grinned smugly at myself.


“I’m you after the New Years Honours List. Sir Graham Badman CBE. Awarded for services to education.”

“Then why all this…. Christmas Carol stuff?”

“I’m your subconscious! I’m the doubts you have deep down that home education has a valid place in modern society. I’m the devil whispering in your ear, Badders!”

“Don’t call me Badders!”

“Look, just hear me out. Let me finish what I’ve started and meet the Ghost of Education Future. See the ultimate outcome of punitive restriction. Look….”

Suddenly the spectre that was me had vanished and someone else appeared from the murky atmosphere. A pleasant woman in her early thirties approached me. There was something familiar about her smile as she clasped her hands together in delight.

I thrust my chin forward. “Do I know you, young lady?”

“Dark Lord Badman!” she breathed excitedly. “After all these years…”

“M…Miranda Smith? Is that you?”

She nodded happily.

As the mists began to clear, I found we were standing beside a high chain-link fence. Reaching up over ten feet, its top was marked out with razor wire and there was a buzz from a low level electric current passing through it. I jumped back in alarm.

“Good God, what’s this? Are we at Parkhurst?”

“No – the local comprehensive,” Miranda corrected me.

“My goodness! Has society become so dangerous that we have to protect schoolchildren to this extent? Is that what it takes to keep out the drug dealers and gang members?”

Miranda looked at me with an odd expression. “No, it’s what it takes to keep the kids in!”

“I don’t understand. This is only one step removed from guard towers with searchlights around the perimeter,” I gave an embarrassed laugh that died in my throat when Miranda said,

“They’re trying that in Manchester first. They anticipate rolling it out across the rest of the country within 12 months.”

I began to walk around the fence, Miranda trailing me. At the entrance to the school a formidable gate led to an area of scanners and x-ray devices. A large uniformed man stared out from under the brim of his cap. He carried a riot stick which he tapped against his leg.

“School security,” Miranda explained. “Come on, Dark Lord Badman, let’s eavesdrop on lessons.”

When I turned to reply, I found we were no longer outside, but within a classroom. The walls bristled with CCTV cameras monitoring every move that was made.

Youngsters of 14 years old were grouped around tables covered in graffiti while a frantic middle aged woman tried to maintain control. I did a quick head count and was alarmed to note that there were more than 40 children.

“Why are there so many in this class?”

Miranda shrugged. “A government report in 2015 stated that 42 was a perfectly acceptable number for class size. Of course it was just one effect of home-ed being outlawed. You can’t suddenly put twenty to forty thousand children back into state education and expect the infrastructure to be there to cope. Since then you have to allow for all the additional children who would also have been home educated, but were now denied the opportunity.”

“The teacher’s desk looks very hi-tech. What do all those buttons do?”

Miranda didn’t answer me but pointed to one youngster’s leg. “What do you think of the ankle bracelets?”

“Yes I noticed that. They’re all wearing them. Some trend is it? Like those silly friendship bracelets, I imagine.”

Miranda shook her head. “Tagging!” She exclaimed.


“All the kids are tagged. Not just at this school, but all schools. They have to wear the tag so that the local authority can make sure they are correctly contained during school hours. The hours were extended, by the way. School now start at 8.30am and finishes at 5.30pm. The school day was manipulated to achieve government targets ensuring all parents are in full-time employment. School holidays were adjusted in the same way. Oh…and school age begins at 3 years old. The leaving age was extended too. It is now 20 with pupils strongly encouraged to then go on to further education. It’s very clever really. On paper it makes it look as if the government has dramatically reduced the unemployment figures and they’re paying out much less in benefits.”

“Sit down!” the teacher shouted for the fifth time. “Now!”

“Remember CRB testing?” Miranda asked me. “Now the authorities store DNA of everyone who comes into contact with children.”

“SIT DOWN!” the teacher shouted again. Her fingers hovered over the buttons on her desk. “Right! I warned you!” Her hands played over the console like a concert pianist. There were buzzing noises everywhere and various children jerked like broken puppets. I turned uncomprehending eyes to Miranda who pointed once more at the ankle bracelets.

“Low level shock delivered through the tag. The authorities assure us that it doesn’t hurt at all.”

“But this is awful! How can anyone learn in this environment? This isn’t what I wanted at all.” A sudden thought occurred to me. “How am I remembered?”


“Yes – Statues, blue plaques, that kind of thing? Memorial somewhere…?”

“But…. But you’re not dead, Dark Lord Badman!”

“Oh… but I thought…. I must be very old then.”

Miranda looked at her watch then caught hold of my hand. “Come on. At this time of day you’ll be in the park. If we hurry we might just get there before you leave.”

Twenty minutes later we rounded the lower path that encircles the local pond and approached a stooped, wizened figure sitting on a bench with a bag of bread crusts. He threw a crust to the ducks every now and then and appeared to be muttering.

“You there! Sit up straight in the water! Have you laid your egg? Hmmm? Where is it? On my desk by the end of break, boy! You! Yes you, beaky, I’m talking to you! Your feathers are crooked! Listen to me – I am an expert you know!”

I stood over the pathetic little figure in shock. Eventually he turned rheumy eyes towards me without interest. His little goatee was decidedly sparse, but still distinguished.

“Why aren’t you in school?” he demanded. “Not one of those ridiculous home-ed brigade I hope?”

Miranda tapped the side of her head and smiled at me sadly.

“I stopped them!” the old me suddenly shouted. “I made them register, I got autonomous education outlawed. I had them working to targets and objectives. I brought in testing and regulation! Then we shut them down altogether. All back to school! I win! I’m in control! Me!”

I didn’t know what to say. I suddenly felt weak to the point that my legs might give way. I dropped heavily onto the bench beside myself in all senses of the phrase. The old me threw bread and muttered at the ducks again. After a while he paused. He slowly held out a crust and put it gently in my hand nodding at the ducks. He smiled encouragingly and mimed throwing.

I turned the crust over and over in my hands.

“Go on!” he said. “…Badders….”

“Badders!” laughed Miranda.

“Badders…..Badders! Badders! What’s all the noise outside.”

I jumped up off the sofa.

“They’re ducks! They’re only ducks!” I shouted.

“What? What did you say? Badders, are you all right?”

I shook my head and looked around wildly searching for Miranda and my older self. I saw only the familiar sitting room and ran a trembling hand over my fevered brow. My wife was looking at me with concern.

“I’m worried about you,” she said softly.

“I’m fine,” I shook off her arm in irritation. “What were you saying about noise outside?”

“It’s next door. It looks like they’re off on some sort of march or demo. Is it to do with this home-ed thing?”

“What? Oh they are, are they? Right!”

I stormed out of the house and strode menacingly to the fence separating my drive from Smith’s. There was a large group of people brandishing banners and placards on Smith’s front lawn.

“What’s all this, Smith?” I demanded.

Smith separated himself from the crowd and approached the fence. He was holding a banner that read; Hands off Home Ed.

“We’re off on a demonstration. These are all members from one of the home-ed groups the children attend.”

I grunted. My head was throbbing – I had jumped up too quickly from being asleep and still felt a little disoriented. “No-one is suggesting prison schools!”


“40 to a class. Shock treatment. Tagging.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about, but I’ll tell you this. You won’t win, you know. Look at these people and their commitment but you can’t even understand why, can you? All of you in positions of so-called authority bring in these rules and regulations and just expect the rest of us to fall in with your dictate, because that’s what you’ve decided is in our own best interests. But you’ve overlooked something this time.
“You’re attacking our right to decide what is best for our children. In doing so you’re attacking not just parents, but our children too. We may all come from different backgrounds, cultures and religions – but there’s not one of us wouldn’t lay down our lives to protect our children. If you bring in your registration, we’ll resist. We’ll comply with your draconian regulations if we legally have to, but you’ll get no co-operation and nothing in the way of goodwill. If you force our kids back to school then collectively we’ll be the biggest thorn in the side of state education that you could possibly imagine.”

I shook my head at Smith incredulously.

“Smith, you all bleat on as if state education was the most harmful thing in society, when it’s you home edders who are the greatest danger! Children are SAFE in school, don’t you get it! We can see them. We can monitor them. We can protect them. They are SAFE!!!”

A figure was coming up behind Smith, peering intently at me with a steely expression. To my amazement I realised it was old Mrs Mort.

“Wha.... why is she here?”

“Who? Oh, Mrs Mort you mean? She asked if she could come.”

There was an unwelcome smugness in his voice as he continued. “Apparently she was bullied at school when she was a little girl. It took her years and years to come to terms with it. She was saying earlier that if only her parents could have had the courage and ability to home educate her she believes she would have grown up to be a different person.”

He smiled kindly at old Mrs Mort. Her wrinkled little face lit up and she beamed at him.

“Terrible isn’t it. To think that something that happened at school all those years ago can blight your entire life, destroy your self confidence and make you timid and nervous. It’s not right, Mr Badman, not right at all.”

Old Mrs Mort was wearing a T shirt which was odd in itself, but the slogan on it shook me rigid. I pointed a wavering finger at it.


It was a white T shirt emblazoned with artwork from that blog on the internet. You know the one that always tries to make me look like some sort of idiot? The image was Batman with a goatee and carried the words; The Badman Report; Tough on Children – Tough on the causes of Children.

Old Mrs Mort looked down at it delightedly and then turned a glinting expression to me, meeting my eyes with determination.

I had lost the capacity for coherent speech. To my abject horror I felt my mouth forming into an all-too-familiar, wobbly O shape that I knew could ultimately crystalise into a long, drawn out scream.

Clasping my hand to my mouth I turned and fled back to the house.

In total amazement I heard a strident voice ring out behind me. It was the first time in living memory that I had ever heard old Mrs Mort utter a single word.

“I must say he moves surprisingly quickly for an expert with his foot in his mouth!”

Saturday, 17 October 2009


I glanced through the net curtain at Miranda Smith. She was peering across the driveway with an earnest expression from her side of the fence.

“Dark Lord Badman!” she called shrilly. “Are you coming out to play or not?”

I ducked back and paced up and down, gnawing on a knuckle. My wife smiled as she walked through the lounge.

“Ah! Sweet! Why don’t you go out and play, Badders?”

I glowered at her. “You know why! I want to keep a low profile for a bit.”

“That’s silly. It’s been two weeks now! Anyway you ran into Miranda when you were leaving for the Select Committee the other morning.”

I turned back to the window ruefully. “She asked me if I’d been CPR checked.”

“She meant CRB,” my wife laughed.

“No she didn’t. She said her daddy told her it was CPR in my case because I’m heartless! Damned guinea pig! Damned cat!”

My wife gave a snort before adding thoughtfully, “Have you been CRB checked, Badders?”

“Don’t be ridiculous! I am an education expert! It’s these home edders who are under suspicion.”

She shrugged and went through to the kitchen. Miranda appeared to have given up and resumed her dolly’s tea party on the lawn. She seemed to be talking to a large fluffy doll I was unfamiliar with. I squinted at it for a second as she patted and stroked its ginger hair. Suddenly the penny dropped. It wasn’t a doll at all. It was Autonomous Ed! Traitor!

I grunted and moved over to the computer. I didn’t suppose Rev. Thomas would be coming over to look at it now. Maybe the spell checker problem had resolved itself. I sat down, opened a Word document and began to type a heading for a new report.

I had intended it to read;

Balls Upholds My Position Amid Parents Objections

The spellchecker had altered it to read;

Hold my Poison Acid Pants Suggestions

I angrily tossed the mouse aside and moved to the sofa. I sat there stiffly with my arms folded staring sullenly at the floor. I though about Smith and his family, home-edding over the fence and felt the corners of my mouth turn down. How could he be so convinced that he was right and I was wrong? I am an expert.

“An expert!” I muttered out loud, nodding vigorously to myself. I continued to stare at the floor deep in thought as I mulled over everything I believed in. I saw all my convictions swimming before my eyes in a maelstrom of events recalled from a lifetime in education.

“Who the Dickens are these home-edders anyway” I said, closing my eyes and allowing myself to drift down into my own subconscious. “Who the Dickens…”

I suddenly sat up with a start. The room was darker and colder. Had I fallen asleep? I glanced at my watch, but it appeared to be only five minutes since I had last looked. Why did I feel so odd? I was startled to see a swirling fog slowly enveloping the room. I called for my wife.

“Have you left something on the stove?”

The fog had grown so thick that I could no longer see across the room. Soon I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I became aware of a figure moving in the gloom.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

A whispering voice answered me with a tut-tutting sound. “Graham Badman CBE. An expert in education.”

“Who’s there? What is all this?”

“A review.”

“Not another one, surely!” I gulped.

“A review of education past. A review of education present and a glimpse of education future!”

“That’s not only ridiculous, but a cliché,” I complained. The shadowy figure was starting to fade away but in its place stood a smaller apparition. A timid, weedy looking boy in short trousers was looking intently up at me.

“Let me guess. You are the Ghost of Education Past?”

The little boy nodded solemnly. “I’m you!”

“What! Good heavens!” As I examined the child more closely I recognised a face that I hadn’t seen in the mirror for a very long time. “Well stand up straight, boy! You’re wearing that uniform like an old sack! Straighten that tie for a start.”

I fussed over the eight year old version of myself, appalled at the smudge on my face. I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and scrubbed at it.


“Well stand still then! Oh this is no good. Stick your tongue out!”

The little me did so. I dabbed the handkerchief in the wet and then resumed scrubbing.

“Oh that’ll have to do! So, what exactly am I supposed to learn from meeting you?”

“We’re at school. It’s Monday, just after assembly.”

The fog quickly dissipated and I found we were in a classroom I barely remembered. The younger me sat down at a desk and I crammed my legs underneath to sit beside him. The teacher was walking up and down the rows of desks tossing exercise books onto them.

“Harris, well done! Gold star!... Jenkins, you should have included more detail.... Patterson…. Acceptable, Patterson.... Badman….” A book thudded onto the desk making the younger me jump. “Badman, I sometimes wonder if I’m wasting my breath. You have failed to grasp the subject, your spelling is atrocious and the only thing you know about grammar is that she married Grandpa! See me at the beginning of break.”

“What!” I exclaimed, appalled. “I don’t remember this!” I snatched up the exercise book and began thumbing through it.

“Good grief! This really is awful!” I glared at the younger version of myself, who muttered something. “What did you just say?”

“I said I don’t like school,” the younger me sulked.

“Yes you do! School is wonderful. Look at all the things you get to study!”

“Who cares? It’s boring.”

I reached over and clapped a hand over my younger mouth.

“Shhhh. Don’t ever say that!” I riffled through the pages of the book again. “What were you studying? Victorian trades? There are two ‘B’s in ‘cobblers’.”

“Maths,” boomed the teacher from the front of the class. “We will carry on with multiplication of fractions. Badman do try and keep up this time!”

The younger me swallowed audibly. “I can’t do this. I don’t understand it.”

“Well, tell the teacher.”

“I have. He says I’m being lazy. He goes at such a pace that I can’t follow.” A thought occurred to him. “You’re me grown up. Can you multiply fractions?”

“Hmmm? No, there’s no need to. Everyone works in decimal places…. Anyway I use a calculator.”

“What’s a calculator?”

“It doesn’t matter…. You need to pay attention to the teacher. Look what he’s doing on the blackboard. See, it’s quite simple he’s turned that one upside down.”


“Well… because that’s what you do… Look, I’ve had enough of this, where’s the Ghost of Education Present?”

“When I grow up I want to be a teacher,” the younger me declared.

“Excellent! And you will be!”

“Then I can change school completely!”

“No you will not! You love school!”

The younger me was welling up. A large tear spilled down his cheek and splashed onto the desk. We both became aware of the teacher’s shadow falling across the desk and looked up fearfully.

“Are you with us, Badman?” he barked. “In all the years I’ve been teaching I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more distracted child. Whatever I try and drum into you, it just doesn’t stick, does it? I can spout about a subject until I’m blue in the face, but you never seem to get it, do you? I can swamp you in a deluge of information about any given topic, but you completely fail to assimilate it. Tell me, Badman, what do you aspire to be when you leave school?”

“A…. a teacher….Sir…”

“Then heaven help the youngsters of tomorrow, Badman!”

Everything began to go grey, the voices becoming distant and the fog billowed up once more from nowhere. I thought I was alone until the whispery voice from before hissed in my face.

“It’s so easily forgotten, isn’t it? How we felt when we were children? As grown ups we make decisions about our children’s lives with the arrogance of adulthood. We never honestly put ourselves in their place and imagine what it feels like for them. Just because we endured something, doesn’t make it right to perpetuate the experience. It takes far more courage to stand up and try something different. It should be applauded, not treated with suspicion.”

The elusive spectre faded once more and a new figure was standing before me. This one was about 15 years old and dressed in a hoodie. The hood was pulled so far forward I could only see the mouth and chin. It slouched and shuffled toward me exuding an air of sullen menace.

“I’m the Ghost of Education Present, innit!”

The fog receded again and I discovered we were in a large modern classroom of over 30 children. A very harassed young woman was trying to maintain order amid noise and chaos. The young hoodie slumped into a chair and stuck his feet on a desk.

During the next hour and twenty minutes I watched the disaffected youth and several of his comrades totally fail to engage with the subject matter. At the end the teacher handed out a homework assignment requiring considerable research and organisation.

The Ghost of Education Present stuffed the photocopied sheet into a folder without examining it.

“Shouldn’t you read that in case you need clarification on something?”

He shrugged. “S’a point? Download it, won’t I?”

“I beg your pardon? Are you suggesting that you will simply copy and paste your project from the internet?”

“Yeah, mate! It’s how I done all them others, innit? We all do… well, ‘cept a few who think its cheating.”

“Well it is cheating!”

“So what?… I get top marks, they don’t. 'Nuff said!”

“But when you come to take the exam you won’t know the answers!”

He shrugged. “Don’t matter. I’m never gonna use this stuff anyway when I leave school.”

I sighed on hearing that tired old argument yet again. “But you might! It could become how you earn your living.”

“How d’you figure?”

“You might become a teacher!”

He snorted. “So are you saying that every subject in the curriculum must to be taught to all pupils, even if only a tiny percentage of them ever end up using it to earn a living?”

“Of course!”

“Why not teach brain surgery then? Some tiny percentage of kids will become brain surgeons.”

“That’s a ridiculous example.”

“Percentage wise, far more kids go into the armed forces than ever make their living from history or trigonometry.”

“Your point being?”

“You ought to be teaching kids how to kill someone with a garrote. Statistically it’ll be more benefit than studying Henry VIII.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but everything was going grey once more. Soon I was back in the foggy room with the spectre again.

“Look, I’ve had about enough of this!” I rushed through the fog towards him. “Just who are you anyway.”

The spectre backed away with a yelp. “No, no, no…. keep away…”

Now it wasn’t whispering there was something very familiar about its voice that I couldn’t place. The spectre tripped over its robe and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Triumphantly I leaned down and pulled the cowl from its head to reveal its true identity...


Sunday, 4 October 2009


I watched my wife with a critical eye as she moved the iron back and forth. 

“I do wish you’d find something else to do!” she complained. 

I picked up the sock she had just ironed and ran an expert eye over the crease. Satisfied, I placed it neatly on the “done” pile and watched her iron its companion. 

“Is it absolutely necessary for me to iron your socks? Trousers, yes – shirts, of course, but honestly, socks?” 

I handed her my Mr Messy underpants without bothering to answer. She gave me an exasperated look before shaking her head and adjusting the iron. 

“And don’t put the crease through Mr Messy’s face, like you did last time,” I warned. 

The doorbell rang and I went to the window to peer through the net curtain. An unfamiliar car offering no clues was parked in the drive. I went to the front door and opened it, beginning the routine speech. 

“I already have double-glazing and a conservatory, my kitchen doesn’t need replacing and when I want my drive re-surfaced I certainly won’t be asking a grubby, unskilled, intellectually-challenged non-entity like you!” 

With the door now fully opened I found myself confronted by Ed Balls. He looked a little taken aback. “Badders?” he asked, a little uncertainly. (I do wish he wouldn’t call me Badders). 

“What are you doing here?” 

“Can I come in?” 

“Yes, of course.” I ushered him in, glancing up and down the Avenue to see if we were observed. I guided him into the sitting room and indicated a chair. He waited until I was sitting, peering at me through those bulging little eyes of his. 

“Is it news of my knighthood?” 

“No, it’s not that.” 

“Because you promised me…” 

“It’s nothing to do with the knighthood. It’s getting close to the date for the select committee,” he began. “I thought it was time to touch base with you. Make sure we both know where we are coming from. Make sure you are… all right…” 

“All right? Whatever do you mean ‘all right’? Why wouldn’t I be all right?” 

“I’ve been getting the odd bit of feedback. I understand that you have been feeling vilified and harassed because of adverse reactions on the internet. Reports suggest it has been to the detriment of your ‘mental well-being’.” 

He stared unblinkingly at me with those pop-eyes. Although my expertise might not extend far into the world of the medical profession, I know an over-active thyroid when I see it. 

“No, not at all!” I laughed nervously. “That was just to prevent my expenses being published under the Freedom of Information Act.” 

Ed Balls paled visibly at the mention of expenses. He swallowed. “Yes, well I can understand that. But how are you coping?” 

“I’m fine. I’m as mentally sound as anybody else you work with.” 

“Yes, that’s what worries me. I ran into one of your neighbours just now. I wanted to make sure I got the right house. You know, the elderly lady over there? It looks like she is building a wall. Quite a high wall actually. She started to twitch when I mentioned your name. Almost like a nervous tic. She pointed at your door, but never uttered a sound. She did make a funny little ‘O’ shape with her mouth, then she scuttled indoors. I must say she moved surprisingly quickly for someone with a breeze block in each hand.” He stared thoughtfully out of the window for a moment. 

“Yes well, she’s a bit funny,” I said, tapping the side of my head. 

Ed Balls pulled his eyes away from the window with some effort. “And then there’s that thing tied to your tree in the garden. Bit macabre, Badders. Some sort of Totem is it?” 

“Thing tied to the tree…?” I had no idea what he was talking about. 

“Look, never mind about that. What you choose for garden ornamentation is none of my concern really. What does concern me is that you appear as a credible authority on education when the select committee starts picking over your report.” 

“But, I’m an expert!” 

“Yes, but can you be certain that you undertook the report from an unbiased perspective.” 

“Of course! When I started I had no preconceptions regarding the extent to which home education is inadequate!” 

“And are you confident that your research was thorough.” 

“I met over one home education group.” 

“Y-e-e-s, I wanted to ask about that. It’s been suggested that you sat there staring at the floor with your arms folded, not actually listening.” 

“They were making statements and claims incompatible with the evidence I was trying to gather!” 

“…And that the only time you showed any interest was when the negative aspects were being discussed.” 

“I’ve just explained that!” 

Ed Balls jaws were working silently as if he didn’t quite know what to say next. 

“In the interest of ongoing investigation I’ve ‘befriended’ the home educated family next door. That proves there’s no bias.” 

“Have you?” His eyes bulged even more alarmingly. 

“Oh yes. We get along famously. They value my input and opinion and they even took on board some of my study suggestions.” Through the window I could see Smith in his driveway and leapt up. “There they are now. Come on, I’ll show you…” 

I hurried out of the house trailing the portly MP behind me. As I rushed at Smith he recoiled slightly. Turning to Ed Balls, his jaw visibly dropped. 

“Isn’t this a bit over the top? If you have any concerns about my home education provision, shouldn’t you have gone through the local authority first?” 

“Yes, highly amusing Smith! Look, tell Ed Balls how well we get on.” 

“What? Do we?” 

“And how you value my input and suggestions.” 

“Well, Rob did enjoy studying Scooby-Doo.” 

Ed Balls rounded on me in shock. “You suggested studying Scooby-Doo?” 

Before I could answer, Miranda appeared in the doorway. “Daddy, I can’t pick up the axe.” 

Ed Balls stared from Miranda to Smith to me. “Axe! Good God, Badders! And is this another of your study suggestions?” 

“It’s computer software,” Smith explained. “She means she can’t pick up the axe on the computer.” 

“And you think that makes it acceptable do you?” Ed Balls demanded. 

“Smith, I am appalled!” I joined in. Miranda had spotted me and came skipping over to join her father. 

“Hello Dark Lord Badman!” she trilled. Ed Balls shot me a look of pure astonishment that only grew when she continued, “Are you coming round to play with my dollies again today?” 

Ignoring her I continued to berate Smith, in an attempt to restore some of my dignity. “Gratuitous violence is not to be condoned whether it’s computer software or not. I don’t regard it as educational hacking limbs off of enemy soldiers or whatever else you’re allowing this impressionable child to engage in. Axes? Good grief, what else? Meat cleavers into zombie skulls, I shouldn’t wonder! Gelatinous brain matter spraying everywhere in a fountain of blood and tissue? Shotgun charges tearing into ruptured flesh? Slippery, grey entrails splattering across the screen?” 

“Daddy!” Miranda’s hand flew to her mouth. “I feel sick!” 

Ed Balls leaned down to Miranda, “Is that the sort of computer game you’re playing?” he asked. 

She looked horrified and shook her head. “Jack and the Beanstalk…” she uttered softly. 

“What? Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “There are no zombies in Jack and the Beanstalk!” 

Smith glared at me angrily. “No-one except you suggested that there was! You pick up the axe to chop down the beanstalk! It’s reading software I got at the library tied into Key Stage 1.” 

Ed Balls gave me a pained look and patted Miranda on the head. Smith cleared his throat forcefully. 

“Excuse me, but have you been CRB checked?” 

Ed Balls looked flustered. “I’m a member of Parliament!” 

Smith muttered something that sounded like “two legs good, four legs bad” but I couldn’t be sure. 

At that moment I noticed the Rev. Thomas doing his rounds with the Parish news sheet. Spotting me he hesitated a moment, seemed to gather himself and then called out. 

“Mr Buh-Badman! I have been meaning to speak to you about your computer.” He began to approach the front gate and I danced a few steps sideways to meet him. “Your wife explained about the fuh-phone call and the misunderstanding. She said you’ve been under a lot of stress and didn’t mean to buh-be so rude.” 

Ed Balls was suddenly interested. “You were rude to a vicar?” he asked. 

“Quite a tuh-tirade, wasn’t it. Mr Buh-Badman.” 

“Please, Reverend, there’s no need for formality after all this time. Call me by my first name.” 

The Rev. Thomas suddenly jumped visibly and turned stricken eyes to me. 

“Nuh-Norman!” he wailed. 

I smiled at him and shook my head. “No…. Guh-Graham!” 

“No!” he squeaked. “Nuh-Norman.” 

Whatever was the matter with the man? I began to correct him a second time when I noticed he was pointing at the tree next to the driveway. 

Norman…!” he said again, his voice trailing away into a small sob. I suddenly remembered what Ed Balls had said about something being tied to my tree and took a hesitant step forward. With a sense of foreboding I forced myself to look up where the Rev. Thomas was staring. Icy fingers of dread were once more playing on my spine as I had the horrible feeling that I already knew what I would see. 

There, gaffer-taped to the front of the tree trunk were the desiccated remains of a certain guinea-pig. Its brief sojourn in the wheelie bin had done nothing to improve its appearance. It now appeared to be slimed with mayonnaise and wore a glace cherry on one withered paw like a tiny boxing glove. 

Ed Balls and Smith both joined us and we all regarded the grotesque little display in silence. After a moment, Smith became quite animated. 

“Hang on! That’s the thing that was left on my doorstep in a Tupperware box a few weeks back. Poor little thing. It’s a hamster, isn’t it?” 

“It’s a guinea pig,” Rev. Thomas and I snapped back in perfect synchronisation. He looked at me curiously. 

“How can you tell, in that state?” Ed Balls asked in wonder. 

“Because it’s MY guinea pig!” Rev. Thomas cried plaintively. “My poor little Norman! He’s been missing for weeks. Someone took him from his run in the garden. I never imagined I’d find him like this! What sort of person…” he began. To my alarm he was looking at me. I pointed at Smith. 

“He had it. He said he had it in a Tupperware box…” 

“It vanished,” said Smith. I called the police, but that was the day poor old Mrs Mort had a funny turn and they got caught up in that. I forgot all about it until later in the evening and then I couldn’t find it. I assumed my wife had thrown it out. How on earth did it end up here?” 

“There’s a note, look!” said Ed Balls. At the bottom of the tree, caught between the trunk and the wall was a piece of paper sporting more gaffer tape. It had obviously been originally stuck to the tree as well, but had since unpeeled. I tried to grab it, but Ed Balls beat me to it. 

“It’s a formal warning.” He said. “Your dustmen are saying if you ever leave anything like this in your wheelie bin again you will be prosecuted.” He handed the note to me and I took it with fingers of lead. My blood seemed to have congealed to the consistency of porridge and I wasn’t sure how to breathe anymore. 

“Autonomous Ed!” I blurted out. 

“What?!” Smith demanded. “I know you have a bee in your bonnet about autonomous education, but I seriously hope you aren’t implying this has anything to do with my children.” 

Ed Balls cleared his throat. “I think you better explain yourself, Badders.” He said sternly. 

“Cat….it’s a cat.” 

“No, it’s a guinea pig.” 

“Let’s go inside, Badders,” said Ed Balls. “Come on.” He began pulling my arm in the direction of the house. Smith and Rev. Thomas simply stared. 

I looked wildly from one to another of them. “This isn’t fair. You’ve just made up your mind about a situation you don’t understand. You’re all making assumptions that are totally unfounded. Never mind getting the facts straight, oh no! Let’s ignore the evidence, you just carry on and label me as some sort of weirdo!” 

“Come along, Badders!” Ed Balls said more forcefully, pulling my arm quite hard now. 

“But you’re not giving me the chance to explain. I want you to hear my side of it!” 

I was being dragged to the door which my wife was holding open, a worried expression pinching her features. 

“This isn’t fair…” I told her in a quiet miserable voice as the door closed behind me. 

From the kitchen doorway, Autonomous Ed began striding down the hall towards us. 

“YOU!” I hissed through clenched teeth. Autonomous Ed froze, alerted to danger by that supernatural cat sense. He swished his tail but began backing away. Tearing free from Ed Balls grip I flung myself after him. 

He yowled and scooted across the kitchen tiles while I chased round the table with a whisk snatched from the utensils pot. “You just wait… I’ll fix you if it takes me five years.” With a final spit of fury, Autonomous Ed dived through the catflap as I tripped over the table leg and lunged.


Some time later I lay looking up as the retreating sun spilled gold across the early Autumn evening. I inhaled a deep breath of crisp fresh air and held it. It was cold, an advance warning of the frosty nights ahead. I exhaled slowly and closed my eyes. Tried and tested relaxation methods had taken their time, but my pulse was almost back to normal. I opened my eyes as my wife joined me outside carrying a cup of tea. 

She placed the tea on the concrete floor close to my head and popped a drinking straw into the cup. As she guided the other end to my mouth she sighed and said, “I’ve called the handyman again. He got caught up at his last job, but reckons he’ll be here in about an hour.” 

I took a sip of tea and let go of the straw. 

“Good. It’s not very comfortable you know, having your head wedged through a catflap.” 

“I know, you’ve told me enough times.” 

“My nose is cold!” I moaned. 

“Never mind. Not long now.” 

We remained in silence for a while, me sucking tea through the straw, she staring into the middle distance wistfully. 

“You did tell them the real story of what happened with that guinea pig, didn’t you?” I asked for the sixth time. 

“I told you I did.” 

“And they DID believe you, didn’t they?” 

She shrugged. “People believe what they want to believe.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Sometimes, Badders, when people have already made their minds up about something they can ignore a barrage of evidence to the contrary.” 

I squinted at her through narrowed eyes. “This is about my report, isn’t it? You’ve been talking to Smith again. I seriously cannot see what his objections are.” 

 She pointed up at the sky. “He tried to explain it to Ed Balls with an analogy. What colour is the sky, Badders?” 

“What? What sort of stupid question is that? It’s blue.” 

“And if a colour blind expert in meteorology decided it was green, what colour would it be then?” 

“I have absolutely no idea what on earth you are talking about!” 

She shook her head sadly. A few moments later she shivered and rubbed at her bare arms. “It is getting chilly out here. I’m going to start supper.” 

As she disappeared from my restricted field of vision a thought struck me and I called after her. 

“Did Ed Balls mention my knighthood before he left?”