Glynnis and I are sat outside the office of Mrs Garbutt, Headteacher of Bracewell Primary. Glynnis is wringing her hands, fretful: “We need to be in London in two hours’ time. Why did this have to happen today of all days?”
Michael Benzine, one-time winner of the Jockey Slut Magazine Edu Music App of the Year Award (for ‘Numuze’: ‘Hey! Play your way to numberal literacy, in a day, in a fun way! Today!’), is currently being lectured quite loudly in Mrs Garbutt’s office; to the extent that children passing in the corridor drag their feet in order to hear more.
“No, Michael!” The pitch of Mrs Garbutt’s voice is rising even higher. “‘Augmented reality’ trousers are not the same thing at all!”
An unusually quiet Michael Benzine replies: “It was the Oculus: I’d come to school with it on.”
“That’s no bloody excuse. What the hell am I going to tell the governers this time?!”
Mumbling is heard over the top of a zipping noise and a rustling.
“That’s right. Now put your effing clothes back on and get out!”
The door opens and Michael walks out, threading a belt through his trouser waist. On seeing me, he looks down, then sidelong towards Glynnis. “Best be off then.” he mutters.
Today, Michael and Glynnis have been released from their duties at Bracewell to visit the Department for Education in England’s London. It’s the first time that Michael will get a flavour of what it means to be Edu Tech Czar to one of the most innovationalary educationist administrations in recent history.
“Opel is really the German name for Vauxhall,” says Michael, as we drive down the M11 in his two-tone, gold and brown Opel Manta, “I put ‘Vauxhall’ into Google Translate.”
“What did it say?” asks Glynnis from the back seat.
“Here, press that.” says Michael, reaching back to pass her his smartphone. Glynnis presses a small blue arrow on the phone’s unusually large screen, and a small tinny voice says “Vauxhall.” She smiles at me.
We pull up outside Sanctuary Buildings at 11am. “Many a teaching career’s been made and broken on these steps.” says Michael, stepping over Estelle Morris in the vestibule. “It’s a cutthroat business, the business of teach.” Glynnis smiles down at the slumbering figure and holds the door open for me.
It’s now 11.10am and we are being ushered past an array of glistening computers, and across a vast, diamond-shaped atrium lined with smoked glass and potted palms. Our guide, an affable civil servant called Merlin is answering Glynnis’s questions: “No, those computers aren’t ours; we sublet, now, to a publishing house. The DoE is a couple of doors down. Here, it’s coming up on the right.”
Merlin opens a door and leads us along a narrow corridor. “Don’t touch those.” he says, as we pass some unpainted lead pipework. “It lets off steam every couple of minutes.”
“S’like Tomb Raider.” says Michael, as we have to move to single file, and then shoulder forward sidelong, the corridor narrowing.
Eventually we reach a green door with a stencilled sign that reads “Department of Education”. The words “Welsh”, “Scottish” and “Northern Irish” have been crossed out, leaving “English”. Inexplicably, someone has written “Cornish” in purple pen over the top of the word “English”.
“Hold up!” a man’s voice cries out as we open the door. “Give it a minute.”
We wait back outside in the corridor: the sound of shuffling, a rustle of paper and then a flushing sound. “That’s the one!” the voice again, and the door opens.
The office is about two metres square with a narrow desk, behind which are sat a balding bespectacled man and a woman with a look of shock on her face. The sound of a cistern filling comes from a door ajar to the right of the desk.
The man rises: “Welcome to Pearso-”
“-The Department for Education.” cuts in the woman; the look of shock seemingly fixed onto her face.
“You must be Mr Benzig.” The man gestures for Michael to sit in the only available seat, quickly moving a sandwich carton off of it: “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Glynnis is smiling fixedly at the shock-faced woman, gradually mirroring her wide-eyed horror.
“Here I am!” Michael beams. “Ready to synergize.” He smiles back over his shoulder at Glynnis, who is now frowning, unable to draw her eyes from the shock-faced woman.
“Okay, well,” the balding, bespectacled man rubs his ink-stained hands together. “Nicky, here, does the Test and I do the Textbook. We need you to take over the Website.”
“Dreamweaver!” cries out the shock-faced woman and Glynnis starts.
I look around and notice that Merlin has left us. The room seems more crisply in focus than before, and not a little darker.
“We’ve been using Nicky’s Blogspot for a couple of years now,” continues the balding man, making a steeple of his bony, ink-stained fingers, “but feel it’s time to change things up. You know: a likes button, maybe one of those visitor clicker things.”
“Are you recording this?” The shock-faced woman is looking at my phone, which I’d placed on the desk between them.
“I’m a journalist.” I say, “I’m using it as a dictaphone.”
At this, the balding man snickers into an inky fist and the shock-faced woman cries out: “Dreamweaver!”
“Can we, er, talk about my ideas?” Michael takes an iPad out of his satchel. Both the balding man and the shock-faced woman start back at the sight of the iPad. “IPad.” they say, in a sharp unison.
Michael starts to show them an app that videos the shock-faced woman, but places an augmented reality Thinking Hat onto her head. She keeps looking into the iPad and reaching for her head, patting it. This happens several times. Glynnis is fidgetting and curling the chain of a Saint Christopher necklace around her index finger. The shock-faced woman turns suddenly to check that the things behind her are behind her.
“Very good,” says the balding man, sliding a finger down the screen of Michael’s iPad, “but let’s talk typing speeds.” He slides out an Olivetti word-processor from under the desk. “Whilst the Psion is being repaired, you’ll revamp our website using this.”
“Dreamweaver!” cries out the shock-faced woman, still checking her invisible hat.
“Michael,” I say, “I have enough notes to work with, I think.” I reach for my phone and gesture to Glynnis.
Glynnis looks to Michael, who is staring down at the Olivetti. The shock-faced woman has a hold of Michael’s iPad and has a fountain pen in her other hand. She is poised to write on the screen.
A wordless glance is exchanged between Glynnis and Michael. His mouth opens. And closes.
“I’ll be back for you,” says Glynnis.
The balding man pats the Olivetti and Michael soundlessly turns both of his hands, yellow in the office’s crisp light, over the keyboard. He looks back at us.
“You’ll be right back?”
“I’ll be back.” Glynnis turns to the door, her smile out of kilter with her pinched eyes.
“Dreamweaver!” cries the shock-faced woman.
“Let us begin, Mr Benzig.” the balding man smiles hungrily over the keyboard.
As Glynnis and I leave, Michael is patting his legs absent-mindedly. Barely audibly, he asks Glynnis a question.
“Yes, Michael,” she replies, “you are wearing your trousers.”
I close the door softly on our way out. Without a word, Glynnis and I pick our way along the pipe-riddled corridor, through the crystalline atrium and out, over a still-sleeping Estelle Morris, into a seemingly less light London.