Mr Sullivan isn’t Lynda Day’s guardian angel except in her more random dreams. It is a little difficult to imagine, after all, and this isn’t how it happens:
The Archangel Gabriel stands with unfolded scroll in his hands and reads the next name out: “Lynda Day.”
No one comes forward. There’s a lot of shuffling and if angels can be awkward, some of them are definitely achieving it now. Gabriel taps his foot. “One small child,” he says. “Must I draw straws?”
Suddenly they’re all remembering they’ve got harp lessons or choir practice or they’ve just this minute decided their mission in life lies amongst hardened criminals. Anything but this particular ‘one small child’.
Eventually, one white-suited, somewhat rotund, and balding angel steps forward. “I think this one’s mine.”
“You are sure?” asks Gabriel.
The angel smiles. “Oh, I think I can cope. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.”
Lynda doesn’t believe in angels or fairy tales, and she doesn’t think Mr Sullivan does, either. Their first meeting isn’t brought about by heaven; it’s pure bad behaviour, and this is how it happens:
“Lynda,” says Mr Sullivan, summoning the tiny first year into his office. (He feels sure that first years get smaller but more troublesome with each passing year. By the end of his career, he’s going to be dealing with an invasion of evil Lilliputians. It’ll be something to look forward to.) “We really need to stop meeting like this.”
Lynda Day glares back at him, undeterred by her third detention this week. “Well, it’s you that keeps asking to see me, sir. I’d be happy to go away and do my maths homework instead.”
“First,” says Mr Sullivan, giving her a warning frown that doesn’t seem to have any effect on her, even though it’s been known to subdue the worst delinquent fourth-year, “there’s the small matter of why you felt the need to throw the contents of your pencil case at Robin Halliday.”
Lynda stares ahead.
“A reason, Lynda, or you’ll be in detention again next week and I imagine both of us have better things to do with our time.”
Lynda sighs, and then says, “Well, why did you choose him to read aloud? He’s so slow we’ll still be reading Stig of the Dump when we’re in Sixth Form. Somebody had to do something, and since you wouldn’t –”
“I see,” says Mr Sullivan. It’s novel, he’ll give her that. He’ll almost always be able to give her that. “Well, next time suffer in silence. Preferably without moving and certainly without causing multiple injuries. Tomorrow, since you feel so strongly about it, I’ll select you to read for us. I trust you can live up to your own standards?”
Lynda nods. “Thank you, sir. I knew you’d see sense. I’ll get us to the end of the chapter, no problem.”
“I think, Lynda, you miss my point,” says Sullivan. “We’ll work on that presently. However, in the meantime, let me tell you a secret about English Literature – and life.”
“It is not, in fact, a competition to see who can finish the book first. That’s not what makes a winner in this subject.”
Lynda looks mulish. “No?”
“It isn’t even about getting your spelling and grammar correct – and yours is excellent for your age, by the way, congratulations – it’s always about the journey itself. You need to stop, look about you, appreciate the scenery – by which I mean prose style, plot structure, revealing dialogue – and pick up the hints of what lies underneath. It’s not a race to the end, it’s about who can dig down the deepest. And I for one, Lynda, would be very interested to see how far you can go in that direction.”
She stands up, and he wonders what she’ll say. Then she glances at her watch and says, “Well, I’m three minutes late now, so I hope you’ll deduct that off my next detention?”
“Lynda,” says Sullivan, “I’m telling you I don’t want there to be another detention. Do you understand me?”
She wrinkles up her nose. “Only sometimes, sir. But don’t worry. I’m sure you mean well.”
“I want to complain,” says Lynda.
Mr Sullivan looks down at her as he steps out of the staff toilets. “So do I. This is the second time I’ve found you lying in wait for me here, Lynda, and it had better not happen again. Now, do enlighten me, what is it you want to complain about? I can’t wait to hear. I assume it’s a matter of national importance?”
“My essay,” Lynda says, fishing her English book out of her schoolbag.
“Oh? You know, I thought it was quite good for a twelve year old.”
“You only gave it eighteen out of twenty,” Lynda says. “If you read it again, I think you’ll see from my notes where you went wrong. Not that I blame you, sir. It must be difficult reading through so many essays at once, and I saw Frazz Davis’s attempts at spelling. It’s horrendous, isn’t it, sir? And it’s not as if you’re getting any younger, either, is it?”
Mr Sullivan pushed the book back into her hands. “Lynda, one more thing you need to learn about being in my classes: right or wrong, my marks are final!”
Maybe Mr Sullivan is not only not an angel, maybe he’s the devil’s advocate. Think about it.
“Lynda Day as editor?” says Mr Winters, the head teacher, giving him an alarmed look. “You don’t think that might – well – encourage her – ah, well –?”
“More dictatorial tendencies?” Sullivan returns. “I prefer to think of it as finally putting them to good use. I think the Junior Gazette may bring out the best in quite a few of our pupils.”
Winters pushes himself back from the desk. “Well, I did say I’d leave the practical running of it to you and Kerr, so I suppose it’s up to you. Out of interest, who’s going to be looking after their finances? I am rather concerned about some of the more practical aspects of –”
“Colin Mathews,” says Sullivan.
Winters raises both eyebrows. “Good Lord, Bill. You think that’s wise?”
Oh dear, thinks Sullivan. And he hasn’t even mentioned Spike Thomson yet.
Or, of course, it could be the other way around. Maybe Lynda’s the devil’s own, and Mr Sullivan is the last, forlorn hope of heaven.
“Well?” says Lynda, meeting Mr Sullivan again for the first time since her proposal to Kerr – her winning proposal to Kerr. She sounds as fierce as ever, but they both know it’s part bravado. He’s one of the few people whose opinion she values. “Are you going to congratulate me?”
Bill Sullivan turns around. “You stole the Gazette from under my nose, Lynda. I don’t think you need my congratulations.”
“What do I need then, sir?”
He relents with a smile. “I don’t know, but I imagine you’ll work that out for yourself. You usually do. Oh, and Lynda?”
“Congratulations,” he says.
You might even say that perhaps Lynda’s the guardian angel, albeit one who stands with a fiery sword outside the staff toilets. That’s even more unlikely, but you never know.
Lynda left school two years ago, but now she’s here in his office, as if she’d never gone. Sullivan raises an eyebrow as he walks in, shutting the door behind him. “Come to congratulate me?”
She shakes her head. “No, sir. To interview you. New head, our readers are understandably going to be concerned about the direction you’re going to be taking – any changes you might make to Norbridge. You can tell me about your ideas for the future, all that sort of thing.”
“Well, you may reassure your anxious readers that I shan’t be making very many changes at all,” Sullivan says. “I shall not, in fact, be cancelling exams, banning homework, or putting a stop to P. E. lessons. The teenagers of Norbridge may sleep safely at night with no fear of detention becoming illegal in the near future. And, you know, if you were so concerned about change, you needn’t have disposed of the old head quite so ruthlessly.”
Lynda looks down suddenly, as if avoiding his gaze. It’s a rare misstep from her.
“And I do hope,” he adds, “that this article won’t be as sensationalist as the last one.”
Lynda lifts her head again. “Well, that part is up to you, isn’t it, sir?”
“Power corrupts, eh?” says Mr Sullivan. “Well, in that case, we’ll both have to be careful, won’t we?”
“Nothing in this world is ever one-sided, Lynda,” says Sullivan. “Didn’t I teach you anything?”
“I did the right thing,” she says, stubbornly.
Sullivan nods. “Oh, probably. You can’t expect me to approve, though, can you? I worked with Winters for a long time.”
“You know,” says Lynda suddenly, “when you think about it, I suppose that means I made you headmaster.”
“And here I was thinking it was the PTA.”
“It was the right thing.” And Lynda smiles finally. “Anyway – congratulations, sir.”
Mr Sullivan is not Lynda’s guardian angel, but then again maybe angels come in all sorts of shapes and guises. Maybe it’s impossible to tell, and this is how it happens:
It’s been a day full of smoke and mirrors – well, no, it’s just been a day full of smoke. Smoke and hallucinations, none of them welcome.
In comparison to the rest of them, Mr Sullivan’s a relief.
“Lynda,” he says from somewhere across the room, from somewhere beyond the blinding smoke and the crackle of the flames, “how many times do I have to tell you that neither English Lit. nor life are supposed to be a race to the end?”
Lynda opens her eyes. She’s alive, she’s still fighting to be alive – and this is how it happens.
(Mr Sullivan is not Lynda’s guardian angel, except in her more random dreams. That would be silly, wouldn’t it?)