• Simon Truckle

The TEFL bit, an extract from Love's Labours

On arriving in Volos, the boys had swiftly discovered that the only obvious employment for two non-Greek speakers in a provincial Greek town was to work as English teachers. To their surprise, Volos had around forty English schools of varying size and repute. Finding work had therefore proved something of a breeze.

Oliver was somewhat lacking in teaching qualifications, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in his way. At the age of fifteen, prompted by the small ads in the back of Private Eye, he had bought two O Levels with a month’s wages from his milk round and had been struck with how simple the documents were. With the aid of a printing set, a calligraphy book from the library, and a large amount of painstaking practice facilitated by a correspondingly large amount of cannabis, he discovered he had something of a talent for forgery. As a result, he left school at sixteen with ten O Levels, five A levels and a degree in Philosophy.

And so, after a trip to the Volos stationer’s, Oliver could boast an English degree to rival Scott’s genuine one. Within two weeks of their arrival they had both found jobs, each of which came with a flat, the rent for which was taken from their pay each month.

The pay was the downside. On examining what was left in their envelopes after the first month, it was clear they would have to either spend the next twenty years scrimping and saving or come up with some other money-making ideas to complete the labours, buy a boat and fund the trip back to England.

As they settled into their new life, Scott found that his anxiety about moving around diminished the more he got used to his new surroundings. Volos was not so huge and the trick was to not think about being so far from home, but rather to think about where he was right now as home. Abi still popped into his thoughts unbidden countless times a day, and he would often imagine bumping into her around the neighbourhood. In these daydreams he would construct whole dialogues in his head, in which he invariably sounded cool, interesting and in control.

Pretty much all of the English teachers met up once a week in an ugly pizza restaurant alongside a main road. The food was not particularly good and no one knew why they met there, but somehow it had become an ingrained habit passed from one set of transient teachers to the next.

One night, after they’d been working at the school for a few weeks, Scott and Oliver were taken along to it by an English colleague named Carl. As they strolled along, Carl explained that, broadly speaking, the teachers fell into two categories. The majority were like him: recent graduates who didn’t fancy a real job just yet and had signed up to a kind of paid gap year. He called these the ‘first offenders’. The other group consisted of those who had mistaken the job for a profession and were generally an odd mixture of superiority and embitterment. Carl referred to them as ‘lifers’.

Lifers were, for the most part, hugely qualified, some with master’s degrees in languages and additional teaching qualifications plus years of experience. In any other profession they would be highly paid, respected and probably in management positions. As it was, they worked for an hourly rate on short-term contracts, often for unscrupulous school owners who offered no pension, holiday pay or any other benefits that would recommend the job to a sane individual. They were, as Carl succinctly put it, a miserable bunch of fuckers – but there were enough people in the other category to provide an entertaining and varied social crowd.

Most of the people at the restaurant were in their early- to mid-twenties and the vast majority were female. Scott and Oliver were therefore something of a novelty, and each found himself being quizzed on where he worked and where he lived and what he thought of Volos so far.

Oliver was chatting about music to an Irish girl when he noticed Scott talking to two pretty girls at the other end of the room.

Women liked Scott, and on the face of it, it was difficult to work out why. He had a natural tendency towards smiling, dark eyes and a mop of naturally curly dark hair, but not even his mother would claim he was drop-dead handsome. Granted, he was funny and interesting ­­­and could be very charming, but none of this really accounted for his success.

Oliver had a theory. After years of seeing his mate succeed with attractive women, he’d given it considerable thought. He reckoned it was down to the size of his head. It was really big. This, Oliver reckoned, made Scott look like a baby and brought out the maternal instinct in women.

He had once tested this ‘big head’ theory. One evening Oliver had been invited to a party where he met and fell into conversation with a very attractive Leisure and Tourism teacher from Chelmsford. He had in fact quite literally fallen into conversation: turning from the bar, he’d got his leg caught in the strap of a handbag and pitched headlong into a firm and shapely pair of breasts. Having already reached second base, so to speak, he’d found it quite easy to return to first and start a conversation.

She was lovely and he was absolutely delighted to get back to his flat with her address. Except he hadn’t, exactly. Since neither of them could produce a pen, she had told him it as she was leaving and he’d memorised it, then written it down as soon as he could borrow a pencil from his cab driver.

The next morning, he had written a masterpiece of wooing that would have made Cyrano de Bergerac toss it all in and get a job writing birthday card messages. Which would have been all been great if he hadn’t written her address down as number sixteen rather than the number sixty that she lived at.

A day later, Sarah from number sixty had written to tell him that she could safely say she’d never read wooing quite like it and if he cared to write again she’d be delighted to hear from him. Within a week, they’d got to exchanging photos, and this was where Oliver had seen the opportunity to test his theory about Scott. By painstaking cutting-and-pasting he’d managed to graft a 150% image of his head onto a 100% body so that you could barely see the join.

In retrospect, his big mistake had been to choose a torso shot that had no recognisable inanimate objects in it to give a sense of perspective. Sarah from number sixty, on receiving the photo and discovering her dream man had a horribly wizened body and appeared to weigh about six stone, had abruptly stopped writing.

Reflecting on the injustice of this, Oliver sipped his beer and looked around the pizza restaurant at his newfound fellow teachers. His eyes settled back on Scott and the girls he was chatting to. They were looking in his direction and smiling in a conspiratorial way. One of the girls walked over and tapped him on the shoulder.

‘Hi, I’m Su,’ she said, and then did the most surprising thing that had ever happened to him. She lent down and whispered in his ear. ‘Your friend Scott says you might be up for a foursome.’

Now any fantasies that Oliver had in that direction – and there were many – generally consisted of him and a number of other women, and didn’t feature other men. Particularly not Scott. However, he was open-minded and prepared to give it a go.

In his head he had practised for this moment for years. This was where he lazily raised an eyebrow and, smiling confidently, said, ‘I thought you’d never ask.’

What he actually said was:

‘Smashing. Thank you very much.’

‘Great. Finish your drink and we’re on then,’ she said.

They all left together. Su’s friend, who was called Samantha, flagged down a passing taxi and within ten minutes they were being shown into her kitchen.

‘Give us a couple of minutes, just need to get everything set up,’ said Samantha, disappearing­ into what Oliver assumed was the bedroom.

He turned to Scott and whispered, ‘What the fuck?’

Scott grinned. ‘We just got talking and it came up in conversation that they liked it, and, well, I haven’t done it for ages, so I thought why not.’

‘You’re being very cool about this, mate,’ said Oliver. ‘I’m off to have a bit of a scrub up.’

He disappeared into the bathroom. Scott heard splashing and guessed Oliver was rinsing the parts of his body that were about to see some unexpected action.

When he came out, Scott nipped in to use the loo, leaving Oliver in the kitchen with Samantha. She smiled as she edged around him in the narrow space.

‘Just need to rinse these glasses.’

‘Can I help?’

‘No, you’re fine.’ She squirted some bright yellow liquid into the washing-up bowl. ‘I’m really looking forward to this. Scott says you’re really good.’

It was fortunate she had her back to him, as it meant she missed the look of shocked incredulity on his face.

‘Did he?’

‘Yes, he said you were a natural,’ said Samantha.

‘Right, yes, no, nice,’­ Oliver stuttered.

Scott bigging him up in the love stakes was possibly the least likely thing he could imagine – but clearly tonight was a night of surprises. Scott reappeared from the bathroom as Samantha, having dried the glasses and grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge, said, ‘We’re all set. Come on through.’

The flat had just the small kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom, with no shared living space, so the room they entered was Su’s bedroom. Su’s preparations had involved folding her bed away and setting up a table and four chairs in the middle of the room.

Su indicated the seat farthest from the door.

‘You don’t mind being North, do you?’ she asked Oliver.

In something of a daze, Oliver found himself sitting at the table and staring at the pack of cards in front of him.

‘Ah, bridge, great, nice, hmm, bridge,’ he said.

Scott grinned at him from his seat opposite.

‘You alright, mate? You look a little like your crest may have fallen.’

‘What, eh, no, smashing, bit of bridge, lovely.’

‘You weren’t expecting something else, were you?’ asked Su, who had very big, pretty eyes and was doing her best wide-eyed innocent look.

‘You gits,’ said Oliver as the three of them dissolved into helpless laughter.

Eventually they calmed down enough to start the game. After the first couple of hands, as the smirking and occasional bursts of giggles began to subside, and Oliver’s disappointment and embarrassment faded, they fell into the rhythm of playing the game and chatting between hands.

‘Noticed you speaking a bit of the old Greek to the taxi driver there,’ said Oliver.

Samantha nodded.

‘This is my fourth year, so I’ve picked up quite a lot. It’s not too bad when you get used to it.’

‘You’ve been here for four years?’ said Scott.

‘Not here in Volos, no – this is my first term here. I was in Crete for three years.’

‘What was that like?’

‘Amazing. Really beautiful place and incredible people.’

Su caught Samantha’s eye at this point and raised her left eyebrow. Samantha continued, ‘Well, lots of nice people and one complete arsehole.’

It transpired that she had spent two years in a relationship with a guy before he finally got round to proposing. Unfortunately, not to her. Hence she had felt it was time to move on and so had taken a job in Volos. She didn’t seem to think a great deal of the place, and was clearly missing Crete as she talked about it a lot and in very glowing terms.

With three years under her belt, Samantha ­was just on the right side of becoming a lifer. This was a fact of which she was only too aware, and she made them all promise that if she was still there for the next school year they had permission to take her to the nearest beach and drown her.

Su was a fairly standard first offender: she had a degree in psychology and was toying with the idea of completing a master’s, and thought a year in the sun might help her decide. The evening rolled on until three a.m., when the last bottle of red wine had been demolished. At which point they said their drunken goodbyes, agreeing that they should play again soon.


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