OVER HILL AND DALE accompanies Gervase Phinn during his second year as a school inspector in North Yorkshire. Some of the wonderful characters from his first book,THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DALE, re-appear, from Mrs Savage (by name and nature), to the endearing school governor Lord Marrick, and Christine Bently of Winnery Nook Nursery and Infant School. The real stars, of course, are the children themselves, whose innocent remarks make OVER HILL AND DALE such a joy.
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GERVASE PHINN was a teacher for fourteen years before becoming Senior General Inspector with North Yorkshire County Council. He is now a freelance lecturer and schools adviser. He has published several collections of plays and stories.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dr Gore, Chief Education Officer for the county of Yorkshire, smiled like a hungry vampire, the sort of thin-lipped, self-satisfied smile of Count Dracula before he sinks his fangs into a helpless victim.
‘And how are you, Gervase?’ he mouthed softly, showing a glimpse of teeth.
‘Oh … er … very well thank you, Dr Gore,’ I replied, attempting to sound cheerful and relaxed.
‘Good, good,’ the CEO murmured. He stared for a moment over the top of his small, gold-framed spectacles and then, resting his elbows on the large mahogany desk in front of him, steepled his long fingers and nodded thoughtfully. ‘And how have you found your first year with us in Yorkshire?’ he asked. His voice was soft as the summer breeze.
‘Oh … er … very well, thank you, Dr Gore,’ I replied for the second time and shifted nervously in the chair. He continued to smile and steeple his long fingers without saying a word. In the embarrassed silence which followed I heard the slow ticking of the clock on the wall, squeaking footsteps in the corridor outside, the distant hum of traffic on the High Street and a slight buzzing of a faulty fluorescent light in the outer office. ‘I think, well, quite good actually, quite successful …’ my voice trailed off. I sounded incredibly inarticulate for the County Inspector of Schools for English and Drama. ‘Not too bad,’ I said finally.
‘Good, good,’ the CEO said almost in a whisper. ‘I expect you are wondering why I sent for you so early in the new academic year?’ he continued, smiling and steepling.
‘Yes, I was wondering,’ I replied nervously.
The morning had started off so well. I had arrived at the Education Office in Fettlesham that first day of the new term, bright and early and keen to be back at work. A warm September sun had shone in a cloudless sky, the air had been fresh and still, the birds singing and everything had seemed right with the world. Over the summer break, while the schools had been on holiday, I had managed to clear my desk of the mountain of paperwork. Reports had been completed, guidelines written, courses planned, correspondence dealt with and documents had been filed away neatly. I had surveyed the empty desk with a sense of real satisfaction and achievement.
It had been a fascinating first year, occasionally exhausting and frustrating, but for most of the time full of variety and challenge. The colleagues with whom I worked and shared an office had been immensely supportive during my induction into the profession of school inspector. There was Dr Harold Yates, the Senior Inspector, Sidney Clamp, the unpredictable and larger-than-life creative and visual arts inspector and David Pritchard, the small, good-humoured Welshman responsible for mathematics, PE and games. We got on well together and were supported and kept in order by Julie the inspectors’ secretary.
That first year, I had worked alongside teachers in the classroom, organised courses and conferences, directed workshops, rum seminars, and attended governors’ meetings and appointment panels. The most interesting part of the job, however, had involved visiting the small rural primary schools in the heart of the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, to spend a morning or an afternoon observing lessons, looking at the children’s work and reporting on the quality of the teaching and the learning.
As I sat at my empty desk, thinking about the quiet, uneventful, stress-free day ahead of me, I heard a clattering on the stairs, telling me that a moment later Julie would totter in on those absurdly high-heeled shoes shoe was so found of wearing. In my first year Julie had been invaluable. Not only was she very efficient, good-humoured and extremely comical. She had those qualities often possessed by Yorkshire people – generous to a fault, hard-working but with a blunt nature and a fierce honesty, characteristics which often got her into trouble. With her bright bubbly blonde hair and bright bubbly nature, Julie was a breath of fresh air in the drab and cramped office. That morning she struggled into the room, breathing heavily and loaded down with assorted bags, papers and files. I jumped up to help her.
‘I feel like some sort of peripatetic car boot sale!’ she cried, dropping her load noisily on the nearest desk. Before I could open my mouth she continued, ‘I started off with a handbag and a bit of shopping but collected all this little lot on my way from the bus stop. As I was passing committee Room 1, Debbie – you know, the big woman with the peroxide hair who always wears those awful pink knitted outfits – asked me to take Mr Pritchard’s briefcase which he left there last term. Forget his head if it wasn’t screwed on. I mean, that briefcase has been there for six weeks. It wouldn’t have done Debbie any harm to bring the briefcase up herself. The climb up the stairs would have given her a bit of exercise. She could do with losing a few pounds. Anyway, when I got to the Post Room that Derek – you know, the gangly lad with the spectacles and big ears – asked me to pick up the inspectors’ mail since I was going that way anyway, Then I had these confidential staffing files pushed into my hands when I reached Personnel. They weigh a ton. I don’t know why Dr Yeats didn’t pick them up himself. I must have looked like an old pack horse, stumbling along the corridors on County Hall.’ She shook her head and breathed out heavily. ‘I’m too good natured by half, that’s my trouble. And I’ve snagged a nail.’ She began to root about in her handbag and continued chattering on without pausing. ‘Anyway, how are you?’ I attempted a response but without success. ‘I had a nail file in here somewhere, I’m sure I did,’ she continued. ‘I don’t know about you, but I could murder a strong cup of coffee.’ Without waiting for an answer she disappeared out of the room.
‘Good morning Julie!’ I shouted after her, at last getting a word in. I thought of the wonderfully descriptive and rather unkind Yorkshire expression to describe a person, just like Julie, who so enjoys talking about anything everything that it becomes almost a running commentary: ‘She’s got a runaway gob – talks and says nowt and she’s said nowt when she’s done.’
A few minutes later, when I was sorting through my mail, Julie returned with two steaming mugs. I watched as she set one mug down on my desk and cupped her hands around the other.
‘you’re very quiet today,’ she said. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Nothing at all Julie,’ I replied amiably, putting my letters into the in-tray on my desk. Then I asked a question which I immediately regretted. ‘How was your holiday?’
‘Not too good then?’ I hazarded, looking up and reaching for the coffee.
‘Awful! I went to Majorca with my boyfriend. It took months to persuade him, because Paul’s about as adventurous as a dead sheep when it comes to holidays and, of course, his mother has to put her two pennyworth in about foreign food, plane crashes and hijackers. Anyway, the flight was delayed so we had a four-hour wait at Manchester Airport with him moaning and groaning. Then I was stopped at customs by a horrible little man in black. I got Spanish tummy the day after I arrived and Paul fell asleep in the sun and woke up like a lobster with an attitude problem. The he came out in blisters the size of balloons and wouldn’t leave the room. He said he looked like something out of a horror film and when I agreed he didn’t speak to me for two days. The hotel was only half built and the pool was full of spoilt, screaming children. We had karaoke every night until two in the morning with a tone-deaf Dutchman singing “I did it my way” at the top of his voice and a woman from Dudley who sounded like a sheep about to give birth. And if you got down after eight o’clock in the morning you could say goodbye to the sunbeds. We’ll go to Skegness next year in his auntie’s caravan. Anyway, what was your holiday like?’
‘Oh, very restful,’ I told her. ‘I managed to get away for a few days and –‘
before I could elaborate, Julie dived in with her characteristic bluntness. ‘And did you see much of that sexy teacher you were taking out?’
‘Unfortunately, not a great deal,’ I replied smiling and thinking of what Christine’s reaction would be to Julie’s comment about her.
I had met Christine almost exactly a year earlier when I had visited the infant school where she was the Headteacher. She had appeared like some vision and I had been bowled over by those large blue eyes, warm smile, fair complexion and soft mass of golden hair. After a long period spent summoning up the courage and with constant nagging from my colleagues in the office, I had asked her out. We had been to the theatre and the cinema, to a concert and various school events and as each day passed I felt sure I was falling in love with her.
When I had first met Christine she had had a boyfriend – miles. He was everything I was not; strikingly handsome, with the sort of sculptured features of a male model. He was lean, athletic, sophisticated and suave and he was also very wealthy. But Miles had those flaws of character often possessed by men who are rich and handsome: he was arrogant and self-centred. To my delight, Christine had, in Sidney’s words, ‘given him the old heave-ho’, which was when I had chanced my arm and asked her out. Over the recent summer holidays I had not seen very much of her. She had spent three weeks in Chicago, staying with a cousin and a further week writing up a dissertation for a masters degree. We had enjoyed a day walking on the North York moors and been to the theatre and out to dinner a couple of times. This term I was determined, I was going to see a whole lot more of her.
‘So what’s happening with you two then?’ asked Julie. She was not one to beat around the bush.
‘what do you mean, what’s happening?’
‘Well, are you getting it together? Is it serious?’
‘I’m not sure … ‘ I started.
Julie folded her arms and pulled a face. ‘Typical of men that – “I’m not sure.” Just like Paul.’ She put on a sort of whining voice. ‘”I’m not sure about going to Majorca, I’m not sure that this is the right flight, I’m not sure I’ll like this Spanish food, I’m not sure –“’
I decided to change the subject. ‘Am I the only one in the office this morning?’
‘It’s always the woman who has to make the decisions. What did you say?’
‘I asked if I was the only one in the office this morning?’
‘Just you. Mr Clamp’s planning his art course, Mr Pritchard’s meeting with the newly qualified teachers and Dr Yeats is at a conference. There’s not much mail either, by the look of it.’
‘So,’ I said happily, ‘it looks like a quiet start to the term.’
‘Not necessarily,’ said Julie. ‘Mrs Savage phoned last Friday.’ At this point her lip curled like a rabid dog and her voice became hard-edged. ‘She wondered where you were. I said, “People do take holidays, you know.” If she’d have bothered to look at those wretched inspectors’ engagement sheets I have to send over to Admin. every week she’d have seen that you were on leave. She just like the sound of her own voice and it’s not her real voice anyway. She puts it on. I don’t know who she thinks she’s trying to impress.’
I began to chuckle and shake my head. ‘You’ve really got it in for Mrs Savage this morning, Julie, and no mistake. She’s not that bad.’
‘she’s unbearable. “Ho,” says she, “well tell Mr Phinn, when he returns, that Dr gore wishes to see him in his room has a metter of hurgency at nine hey hem prompt.” Made you sound like a naughty schoolboy. Then she slams the phone down with no trace of a “please” or “thank you”.’ Julie’s face screwed up as if she had chronic indigestion. ‘That awful voice of hers really gets under my skin.’
Mrs Savage, the CEO’s personal assistant, was not the most popular of people in our office nor was she the easiest woman to get on with. She had a formidable reputation with a sharp tongue and a stare that could curdle milk; she definitely was not a person with whom to cross swords. I had kept a wary distance after battling with her the previous year.
‘And speaking of getting under people’s skin,’ said Julie, ‘I reckon she’s had her face done.’
‘Who?’ I asked.
‘Mrs Savage. When I saw her last week in the staff canteen I didn’t recognise her. Her skin’s been stretched right back off her face. She looks as if she’s walking through a wind tunnel. All those wrinkles have disappeared. And she did have some lines on her face, didn’t she? Looked like something out of that shop in the High Street where they sell all those wrinkled leather coats. Those two pouches under her chin have gone as well.’
‘I don’t remember her having pouches.’
‘Of course you do! She looked like a gerbil with mumps. And I think she’s had the rhinosuction because she looks a lot thinner as well.’
‘Liposuction,’ I corrected her.
‘She’s that thick-skinned, I think I was right the first time. She gave me such a glare, I can tell you, if looks could maim, I’d be on crutches.’
‘And she said Dr Gore wanted to see me?’
‘She’s unbearable that woman,’ said Julie with venom, ‘you would think –‘
‘Julie!’ I snapped. ‘Did Mrs Savage say that Dr Gore wanted to see me?’
‘At nine o’clock prompt. That’s what Lady high and Mighty said.’
‘I wonder what it’s about?’
‘She puts on that posh accent and that hoity-toity manner but it doesn’t fool me. Marlene on the switchboard remembers her when she started as an office junior. That’s when her hair colour was natural. She had a voice as broad as a barn door and as croaky as a frog with laryngitis. Then she went through all those husbands like a dose of salts and was promoted far beyond her capabilities and she now speaks as if she’s got a potato in her mouth.’
‘I think the expression is “a plum in her mouth”.’
‘With a mouth like hers, it’s definitely a potato. When I think of the times –‘
‘Did she say what Dr Gore wanted?’ I interrupted. I was feeling rather uneasy about this interview with the CEO so early on in term. A small cold dread was settling into the pit of my stomach.
‘No, I never gave her the chance. I keep all conversations with that woman as short as possible. Anyone would think she was royalty the way she carries on. It might be promotion.’
‘Why Dr Gore wants to see you. You know, a step up. Doubtful though – you’ve only been here a year and a bit. Could be a complaint from a governor or an angry headteacher.’
‘That’s all I need the first week back,’ I sighed.
‘Then again,’ said Julie, with a mischievous glint in here eye, ‘it could be one of his little jobs.’
‘oh no!’ I exclaimed. ‘Not one of his little jobs! Please don’t let it be one of his little jobs!’ I was well acquainted with Dr Gore’s little jobs, having been given several in my first year – and they were never ‘little’ jobs. There had been the county-wide reading survey and the full audit of secondary school libraries followed by a detailed report to the Education Committee. There had been the investigation into the teaching of spelling, the production of a series of guideline documents for teachers, and the organising of the visit of the Minister of Education. All this was extra work on the top of the courses, inspections and report writing. I prayed it was not one of Dr Gore’s little jobs.
Dr Gore, Chief Education Officer for the County of Yorkshire, continued to smile like a hungry vampire as he leaned forward in his chair. He peered over his glasses, his eyes glinting like chips of glass. ‘Well, Gervase,’ he murmured, stroking his brow with a long finger. I just knew what he was going to say. He was going to say, ‘I have a little j...
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