NICK CLEGG ATE MY HOMEWORK
Teacher looks at me. ‘Where is it?’ he says.
'I don't have it.'
'That's not good enough.'
'I don't have it, sir?'
'Why?' he says. Why? He never asks why. I shrug. 'Come on,' he says with a smug look that teachers don't even know they have but most of them do. 'Come on class, I'm sure we'd all like to hear why Bill has failed to hand in his homework.'
'You won't believe me,' I say.
'I will,' he says, and he begins itching his chin, not in a usual I've-got-an-itchy-chin way but in a ridiculous pantomime kind of way. A few of the girls exchange looks and try to stop themselves from laughing.
'What's wrong with your chin, sir?' asks Neil, who will always ask questions like that. Questions that make teachers annoyed, like 'What are those damp patches under your armpits, miss?' or 'Why does your breath smell so bad, sir?
This time teacher doesn’t look annoyed – in fact I begin to think that he was waiting for such a question. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my chin,’ he says. ‘I’m doing the Jimmy Hill.’
'The what?' asks Gemma.
'The Jimmy Hill, otherwise known as chinny reckon,' says teacher. 'You don't know it? Never heard of it? Ask your mum and dad when you get home.' My classmates exchange curious looks. 'I'm not crazy,' says teacher. 'Back in the 1980s, when I was at school, Jimmy Hill was a football pundit with a big chin…
'Sir,' says Neil, raising an arm.
'Why do you think we care about the olden days when you were at school?'
'Let me finish,' says teacher.
Normally Neil’s impertinence might get him sent to detention but teacher has clearly got bigger fish to fry.
'When I was at school people would rub their chin and say “Jimmy Hill” or “chinny reckon” if they thought that someone was lying. For example, Bill would say “I didn't do my homework because my computer broke” and I would stroke my chin and say “Jimmy Hill” because he was lying. That's it Neil, you've got it. Come on class, everyone give it a go.'
Excluding me, the whole class starts stroking long imaginary chins. I don’t join in because I know what teacher is doing. He is now casually resting half a butt-cheek on the girl’s table and looking pleased at everyone doing his Jimmy Hill thing, which is, incidentally, the first thing he has successfully taught in over a year. ‘That’s enough now,’ says teacher and he turns to me. ‘Right Bill, we are all dying to know why you haven’t got your homework.’
Out the corner of my eye I can see Neil already stroking his chin. When I look at him he looks at the ceiling and acts all innocent. I look back at teacher. ‘It got eaten.’
Half the class titters and the other half stroke their chins. Someone who may or may not be teacher coughs and says “Jimmy Hill.”
After a whole second teacher lets out a preposterous laugh that’s so fake and smug it should remind everyone of what a prick he is, but today it’s obviously more fun for my peers to savage one of their own.
'It got eaten? That's odd because I didn't think you had a dog,' says teacher like he's a genius CSI agent or something.
'It wasn't a dog. It was Nick Clegg.'
The classroom erupts in laughter and teacher, the great phoney, slaps himself on the leg. It’s like watching your dad trying to be funny.
'Who's Nick Clegg?' asks Amy.
'He's a Tory MP,' I explain.
'He's not a Tory,' interrupts teacher. 'He's the leader of the Liberal Democrats.'
'Whoever he is, he ate my homework.'
Teacher turns his back so I can’t see his face but Neil is not the most subtle member of the audience and he soon lets the cat out of the bag. ‘Yeah that’s right, sir. Chinny reckon.’
'Why don't you believe me?'
'Why?' says teacher, suddenly turning serious. 'Because it's not true. Now what's the real reason?'
'That is the real reason.'
'Then why didn't you print it out again?'
'You told us it had to be handwritten.'
Teacher stops stroking his chin for a second and his face experiences a slight drop in smugness levels. ‘Okay, Bill. If you insist that Nick Clegg ate your homework then you will not have any problem getting him to come in and apologise.’
More tittering around the classroom. ‘But, sir…’
'Nick Clegg is a reasonable man. If he has done what you say he's done, he will be here straight away to apologise.'
No-one is stroking their chin. I hate this school.
'How was school?' asks mum as I get through the door and throw my bag in the hallway.
'What about your homework?'
'I don't want to talk about it.'
'Oh Bill, it can't be that bad.'
'My teacher doesn't believe me. He says that unless I redo the homework or get Nick Clegg to come in and apologise then he'll enter me for the lowest exam paper. That means I can only get an F.'
'Then you'll just have to redo it,' says mum as she reaches into a cupboard and pulls out a feather duster.
'Where is he?'
'Darling,' she says. 'You can't expect him to apologise.'
'You gave him your homework. You knew he would eat it.'
'Mum, he promised that he wouldn't.'
Mum begins to wave the duster around the television set. I go upstairs, into my bedroom, pull down the loft ladder and climb up into the loft. As I expected, Nick Clegg is sitting in the corner of the loft. Beside him is a big cardboard box with the writing ‘Bill”s stuff. Hands off,’ scrawled on the side. The box has been ripped open and there are scraps of paper all over Nick Clegg’s lap.
'Can't you read?' I half-scream, glad that none of my classmates hear the girly squeak in my despair.
There is a single bulb in the centre of the attic and it is hard to see his expression clearly but it strikes me as being gormless. I crawl across the floor-boards and reach the silent Deputy Prime Minister.
'What have you eaten this time?'
His head tilts to one side, a helpless look about him. If my little sister could see him like this she’d want a Nick Clegg all of her own. From his knee I pick up a small scrap of dribbled-on paper and hold it up to the light where I can just make out the surviving words “50 metre breast.”
'You ate my swimming certificate?'
Nick Clegg shrugs. It’s no good trying to talk to him. He doesn’t understand a thing I say.
'Just stay out of the boxes,' I say. He looks at me blankly and I point at the box and shake my head. 'No,' I say, making one more attempt at communication. 'Bad. Eating paper is bad.'
'How was your day son?' asks dad.
I try and make a noise without answering the question.
'Don't grunt at the dinner-table,' says dad. 'Save your grunts for your friends and your English for your family.'
'I had my exam today.'
'How did that go?' he asks. How does he think it went? I stare at Nick Clegg as he tries to spear several peas with his fork.
'I think I got most of the questions right.'
'So I probably got an F.'
'What?' says dad, going from naught to angry in less than a second. Apart from Nick Clegg, everyone stops eating and waits for me explain. I can't be bothered but then mum speaks.
'He didn't redo his homework,' says mum. 'That's why he got an F.'
'Thanks mum.' Dad is about to work himself into a rage so I have to talk quickly. 'I shouldn't have had to redo the homework. Nick Clegg shouldn't have eaten it.'
'He couldn't help it,' says mum.
'Then he should have apologised.'
There is a brief awkward silence around the dinner-table that seems to be lost on the deputy Prime Minister. He grabs the gravy and pours the last of it into his Yorkshire pudding as he starts to sing ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music. Out of his jacket pocket he pulls some tissue paper, rolls it between thumb and forefinger and sprinkles it over his dinner, like it’s some kind of garnish. My little sister giggles.
'Don't stare,' says mum.
'But mum, he's…'
'Son,' says dad in his take-me-serious tone, 'he shouldn't apologise. He was put in an impossible position. It wasn't his fault.'
'Chinny reckon',' I mutter, but no-one hears.
'High-five,' says teacher and Neil jumps out of his seat and high-fives him.
When he reaches me he leaves his hand in the air. ‘Don’t leave me hanging,’ he says. A few of the girls still titter even though it’s been the same stupid routine for weeks and they know what’s coming. Reluctantly I lift my hand to slap his hand and just as I do so, he withdraws it. Genius. What a surprise. ‘No, no Bill, you know the rules,’ he says. ‘No high-five unless you have some homework for me.’
'I told you sir,' for the hundredth time, 'Nick Clegg ate it.'
The whole class stroke their chins. ‘Jimmy Hill,’ they say in unison. Teacher turns to them and, like a conductor in an orchestra, raises both arms as the whole class booms ‘Chinny reckon.’ In three weeks they have become star pupils in the art of humiliation and teacher could not be any more pleased with their progress. He lets out another fake laugh and slaps his leg. Really, it’s worse than seeing your dad in fancy dress. I wait until he’s had his moment and then I slowly rise to my feet and meet him man to man.
'He did eat it. And today I can prove it.'
There is a shocked silence around the room like I’ve presented the crucial piece of evidence in a murder trial. For the first time in weeks the smugness fades a little from his face. ‘I’ve got Nick Clegg.’ Teacher almost looks worried for a moment. ‘He’s out in the corridor. My little sister persuaded him to come and apologise.’
'Ha ha ha.' Teacher's laugh makes me wince. 'This I would love to see. Go on then, fetch our deputy leader.'
Out in the corridor Nick Clegg is standing, cheeks puffed out, eyes wide open. In my haste and stupidity I left him standing next to the school notice board and scraps of what once were fire safety notices, exam timetables and other important notices fall in flutters from his mouth.
'No, Nick Clegg,' I say.
He shrugs as if to say ‘what?’ He can’t actually say the word because he is still slowly chewing the last morsels of printed A4.
'You can't keep eating… Oh, never mind. Come on.'
He swallows the last bits of paper as I drag him by the suit to the classroom. Before entering I brush off the paper crumbs and walk into the classroom.
'Ladies and gentlemen, your deputy Prime Minister and paper-eating extraordinaire: Mr Nick Clegg.'
Teacher’s face is smiling smugly. He and Neil have obviously been sharing jokes while I’ve been out and they simultaneously start to rub their chins.
'It's probably his dog,' says Neil.
'Ha ha,' teacher's laugh stops the moment Nick appears in the door. He jumps up from his perch on the girl's table, rushes to Nick, whispers some lies in his ear ('This is the best thing that's happened to this school) before sternly addressing the class.
'Right,' he roars. 'Class, you will listen to Mr. Clegg, you will learn from Mr. Clegg and one day you may be lucky to be like Mr. Clegg. Bill,' he shouts, beckoning me with his finger. He pulls up a chair in the centre of the room for me to sit in so that my back is to the class and I am awkwardly facing Nick Clegg. As I take a seat teacher whispers in my ear. 'You haven't proved anything yet. He hasn't apologised for eating your homework and unless he does that F grade will stand. Do you understand?'
I take my seat and Nick Clegg begins to talk.
'When I look at people around the classroom it's obvious that many of you have strong and mixed reactions to me, Nick Clegg. Most of you are probably thinking that I'm a lot more handsome than you were expecting. The rest of you may be frustrated and angry that I couldn't keep my promise not to eat Bill's homework. It was a promise made with the best intentions but I shouldn't have made a promise I couldn't be absolutely sure I could keep.'
My heart begins to sink.
'I shouldn't have said it when I knew that as soon as his mum called him to dinner, I would devour the homework. There's no easy way to say this. I made a pledge, I didn't stick to it and for that I am sorry.'
Nick Clegg’s face fills with pride but my mouth is hanging wide open. He begins to applaud himself and teacher hurries to join in but I finally recover enough to speak.
'Wait, wait, wait,' I interrupt. 'This is a joke. Are you saying you're sorry for making the promise or for eating my homework?'
Nick Clegg searches for the right answer. ‘For making the promise.’
'What about the fact you ate my homework?'
'I couldn't help that.'
'What?' I say. 'Let me get this right. You're only sorry for making the promise – not for the destruction of my homework, which caused me to fail my GCSE, which screwed up my chance of taking the A-level course I want, which has buried my dreams of higher education under the rubble of your broken promises?'
'It was naïve of you to think I would not eat the homework. I knew it when I said it.'
'Then why did you make the promise in the first place?
'Look,' he says, addressing the whole class. 'When you make a mistake it's the Nick Clegg way to apologise. In the future, when Bill asks me not to eat his homework, I will make sure I don't hear him and will eat the homework without making any promises. And if I become Prime Minister with a majority government I promise that I will not eat any paper at all. No toilet rolls, no bank-notes, no manifestos, no A4, no A5, no Chinese lanterns, no Italian menus, no paper plates and no receipts…' Nick pauses in mid-flow and glares at me beneath knitted brows. 'Will you stop doing that?'
'That chin thing.'
I realise that my hand is clutching at my jaw. I try to stop it but my hand draws a long imaginary chin further and further from my face, in an increasingly preposterous fashion. It’s idiotic, I know, but it’s the only time Nick has noticed me… Have I finally found a language they understand - the language of idiots?
'Stop it,' demands Clegg.
'I can't help it.'
I twist and turn along the imaginary contours of my gigantic chin, smiling like an imbecile as Nick’s face burns red. This is my only form of protest; to relinquish any dignity and enter the play-grounds of power.
'Please stop it,' says Nick Clegg.
The extent of my disbelief at the man, at the suit, at the position, at the whole damn government overwhelms me and I realise I must embrace it. I jump up from my chair and both hands frantically rub my chin. I am deranged – I can tell it from the looks on the faces of my school-mates but it doesn’t make any difference. My teacher is sheet-white like a Christian looking at a possessed spirit but I can’t stop it. I don’t want to stop it. In some weird way this is exactly what I need to do – not to plead to justice or reason or to attempt any human dialogue but to look into the insensible face of power and blow it a raspberry.
'Stop it!' screams Clegg.
I slump back into my chair and laugh.
'Now I wanted to come here today because it was the right thing to do.' He starts to waffle in the insincere accents of political power and I feel the waves of indignation surging up inside me, demanding to be heard one last time. Nick Clegg ate my homework and the only thing I can do is fight nonsense with nonsense. 'Jimmy Hill!' I bellow so loud I hope that Big Ben shudders. 'Jimmy fucking Hill!'