Robert was both things and yet could spell neither.
Pen nib shaking over the paper, Robert made an effort to haul the smile somewhere closer to his eyes. He wound up wrinkling his nose as if offended by the week-old unwashed armpit smell of the damp, murky hole he’d been given for this training session. The failure at a smile might be mistaken for an entirely natural reaction to his surroundings, if not his support worker students. Or maybe it would be taken as a sign that the woman’s suggestion was wrong, was inappropriate, was unworthy of being committed to the same scribbled flipchart paper as the other words that had so far been suggested. The ones he could spell.
“Definite,” Robert repeated, the pen nib starting to make a move towards the initial “d” even as every muscle in his arm attempted to pull it back. “How so, definite?”
The large-ish middle-aged woman in the cardigan and Crocs shuffled a bit in her creaking plastic kiddy chair. A cast-off, no doubt, Robert thought, from the nearby infant school. As, indeed, was perhaps the large-ish middle-aged woman in the cardigan and Crocs herself. “Well, they know their minds, don’t they?” she said. “They know what they think and they think everyone else thinks the same.”
Robert knew what he thought. A tiny “d” continued to be nibbed into the air just above the paper. She had some kind of point, of course. “They” did know their minds. Just as she’d had a point with her other suggestion that “they” could be quite “separate” from other people. Robert had pushed her on that and he could see her casting around for appropriate words – “aloof”, maybe, or “apart” – before she’d landed again on “separate” and confirmed her choice with a jowly nod of the head towards the flipchart.
“Of course, you know,” Robert began, the pen nib still circling, “that could be said of a lot of people, couldn’t it? That we’re very definite in our views.” He tried for a “ha ha”; the room wasn’t up for a “ha ha”, so he continued, “you only have to look at Twitter, don’t you, to see how firm people can be in their beliefs.”
Cardigan and Crocs pursed her lips. The other middle-aged types in the room crossed arms and legs and raised eyes to the stained polystyrene ceiling tiles. They weren’t here for audience participation, and the instant coffee and stale Rich Tea biscuits had already proved to be a disappointment. Write the words down, the room told him. We know this already. You don’t need to tell us.
Definite and separate. It was Mr Baker who’d caught Robert in his shameful errors. “It’s not an ‘a’, son. It’s not definATE. Comes from finite. And it’s sep-AR-ate – I thought English was meant to be your thing?”
Robert had been at the desk in Baker’s office. Not a detention. He’d never received a detention. This was back when he’d been taught 1-2-1, which meant most of the day on his own in there while the other kids passed by the door and peered in at the freak who couldn’t sit in class with the rest of them without having a “Spaz attack”. Oh, yes, they had words for him when he got upset, so it had mattered that he could spell.
Of course the corrections burned.
“Definite,” Robert said, and the pen was ahead of him now with the first three letters at least. He found himself looking at his own writing as if it was attempting to undermine him. He’d never liked his handwriting. He’d been caught out on that, too, when he’d trained to be a teacher, as if that was ever the ideal calling for someone as thin-skinned as him. “Call that a g?” the assessor had said, looking at what he’d written on the board. “How are the children to understand what you’ve written if you call that a g?”
He’d called it a g. His children had come to call it a g, too.
“Definite,” Cardigan and Crocs said. “I had one, he was a right character he was. He’d tell me that the government had passed a law saying that you had to wear a hat in winter. He wouldn’t hear anything said against it. He’d walk right up to people in town when I was with him and he’d tell them straight out. And God help you if you called it a train station and not a railway station. Anyone asking directions, he’d tell them the nearest train station was in New York. He could never be wrong,” she said, to the nods of the other women around her.
She’d already told the story of the character who’d insisted that it wasn’t a Hoover but a vacuum cleaner. Another had been adamant that all newsreaders on TV wore earpieces because they were deaf. She’d made no distinction between accurate and inaccurate information. It was enough that these people – and she’d said ‘these people’, complete with italics – thought they could tell her anything.
“But that’s what makes them so…separate…so alone, isn’t it? I mean, really, who cares about any of these things? How can you live your life being bothered all the time by being right?”
She tapped a Crocced foot firmly on the floor as she folded her arms.
Robert looked again at the board. At the first three letters of the word that still had the power to shame him. The word he still needed to look up to feel secure because Mr Baker had corrected him. But he knew what he knew, too. He always had.
He shook his head. He tutted and clucked and repeated the word a few times as the pen reached the fifth letter and then paused.
“Definite,” he said, “Definite.” And he turned and gave Cardigan and Crocs his most convincing and convinced smile. “It’s an ‘a’, isn’t it?’ he told her.
Mike Hickman @MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including a 2018 play about Groucho Marx. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, the Blake-Jones Review, Bitchin’ Kitsch, the Cabinet of Heed, the Potato Soup Journal, and the Trouvaille Review.