'Oi! Baron!' I look at my wife and abashedly walk towards the exit, tail cravenly tucked between my legs, children in tow, abandoned by a father now scurrying towards the automatic doors.
God help me! I loathe shopping. Not only do I have to suffer my wife's interminable dithering that demands we peruse every outlet in the emporium before going back to the very first one we entered two hours earlier, painstakingly re-examining the first item that caught her eye and finally, after a further period of exhaustive deliberation, making a belated purchase; I also invariably - and unenthusiastically - bump into one or two of my current or former pupils.
Now to clear up any misconceptions, many of these impromptu meetings are pleasant exchanges of everyday cordialities; but occasionally - and these are the ones that I guard against with the wide-eyed paranoiac vigilance of an SOE operative sitting in a cafe frequented by effete Gestapo agents in occupied France during World War Two - they are soured by the cretinous behaviour of some of my more slow-witted young charges. Today is one such occasion. I rush to the car, now clutching my daughter's hand whilst unsuccessfully attempting to appear unperturbed.
I can't escape these bloody kids. They're everywhere I go. It's an occupational hazard when one lives so close to the school, I rationalize, but, having said that, now back with my irrational hat on, it feels like I'm being stalked by twelve hundred adolescents. There must be a whole-school conspiracy against me, I wonder.
Let’s take yesterday, for example. I met, purely by chance, an ex-pupil outside McDonalds on my local high street. I was embarking upon my biweekly pilgrimage to the great temple of obesity; that monolithic personification of American neo-imperialistic dominance, built to accommodate a greedy, corpulent flock who proceed to lay prostrate at the altar of Mammon before stuffing their blubbery chops with saturated fat. Anyway, I digress.
The pupil in question, Laura, was unconscionably naughty. In fact, she spent the vast majority of her time wandering aimlessly around the school corridors. She shouted; she swore; she was lewd, rude and grossly crass; she even stole, as she was taught to by a mother unworthy of the title. As one would expect in today's educational climate, though, despite this behaviour, she was indulged by a short-sighted and obtuse pastoral team who proceeded to mollycoddle and insulate her from the school rules. She was allowed to get away with anything and everything. Needless to say, as a consequence, she left school with no moral grounding. She was, for all intents and purposes, rudderless.
As she approached, her dark eyes, weary gait and small, malnourished frame betrayed a sullen indifference to life. She looked up at me and, without stopping, and with a deep, evocative sincerity that I have never before witnessed, said: 'I am sorry, sir.' Before I had a chance to say anything other than hello, she was gone.
This makes me angry. Very angry! This young girl has been prevented from having a successful, happy life by an incapable mother and an education system that encourages failure. They – her teachers, including me, who stood by and said nothing - refused to help her. We took the path of least resistance. She is now at the mercy of life's travails, deprived of the tools to overcome them. In reality, she’s been afflicted with state-imposed Ignorance and Want. Beveridge and Dickens would certainly be turning in their graves.
As we strap the kids in, jump into the car and head off towards home, I ruminate on this meeting and consider the fact that we're being aggressively pursued, even harassed, by pupils very similar to Laura. It's depressingly familiar. I wonder if they'll apologise in ten years’ time, too. It is us, though, in my opinion, who should be apologising. We have let them down…badly. Perhaps their ubiquity, moreover, is my punishment. Like Marley’s shackled limbs, I am to be burdened with the guilt wrought by the interminable sight of these tortured souls in perpetuity.