Go to Chapters ...
Enter the Ladies
Hang Together
Confidence Trick
Lost in France

Equality is a wonderful idea.
But just how leopard-like does the kid have to be before it can safely lie down with the leopard?
Or should we wait for the leopard to change its spots?


Enter the Ladies

At the very beginning of this story, I gave a potted description of myself. Perhaps I should enlarge on that. I thought of myself as a rebel, but there is no such thing as an old rebel. If a rebel survives long enough to outlive the Establishment, then a new cause is required - or that ageing rebel is in danger of becoming the Establishment. I found my cause - training the next generation of the rebellion.
My task? Trying to stop them from blowing the wheels off the pushchair before they could walk. We had promised them the Future, but they had to survive long enough to find a Brave New World of their own.
The Latin and Art didn't help much, but my qualifications in Social Security Form-Filling and Dole-Queue Waiting, provided many a useful hint. When a student came to me, struggling with difficult work tasks and feeling overloaded with course-work and mystifying new concepts, I could help them over the hump - that terrible moment that comes when you strive your hardest, have expended all your energy, and still, your goals seem unobtainable. A few wise words, a steady shoulder, and a shared laugh at the recounting some of my, more foolish youthful exploits.
A moment to take another breath, then one more step forward. Then another ...

Still too smart to be conned by the System, but learning to keep my mouth shut. A fallen angel, perhaps, but one who enjoyed the company of sinners.

As a Laboratory Technician at the Lower Methil Annexe, I made a point of being different. I fully supported the teaching staff, but I was determined to form my own, unique identity. The most obvious stand-out being the 'ice cream coat'.
Laboratory technicians were supplied, as standard, with long, white laboratory coats - the sort they show in television adverts to give a product a veneer of scientific credibility. We actually bought long, white 'food coats', made of cotton and polyester. Much harder wearing than the official nylon laboratory coats. The teaching staff in the Radio, TV and Electronics Department wore lightweight grey nylon jackets - absolutely useless when touched with a hot iron. You can safely clean the tip of a hot soldering iron with the sleeve of a food coat.
The only fault with a 'food coat' was the length. I was never a fan of dusters and frock coats, so a new food coat was immediately 'tailored'. A prompt surgical removal of the surplus length below the bottom pockets, produced a stylish ice cream coat. A quick stitching of a bottom hem, the application of an iron (a domestic - not soldering - variety), and I became a laboratory technician with style. Two bottom pockets for the odd hand tool, cigarette packet and lighter, one breast pocket for the selection of coloured pens, and two slits above the bottom pockets provided an easy access to the trouser pockets and a discrete way to scratch any itches.
The Motor Vehicle Department and the Electrical Installation Department favoured a long, brown food coat. They tended to get somewhat dirtier than the Electronics people. They looked very similar to the brown coats worn by BBC technical staff, to differentiate the workers from the celebrities and other non-working TV people.
Rico Napier wore a suit, and smoked roll-your-owns.
Archibald McCrae, the Janitor, wore a boiler suit. Of course!
Any male staff, who came from the main College in Kirkcaldy, wore suits, waistcoats and ties. Their kind of dirty work never required any kind of overall.
Miss Penelope Pillan, the Principal's Secretary, looked good, whatever she wore.

Working at the Lower Methil Annexe, had its points: good, bad, or merely difficult.
Amongst the good points was a certain freedom from authority. We were a long way from the bureaucracy of the main College in Kirkcaldy. Rico Napier led the Methil team - never pushed it. And, providing the required work was done, no-one was overly concerned about how it happened.
The bad points were few. The wages were not excessive, and a few hours at night-school were required to top up my bank balance. Due to a bureaucratic determination - that laboratory technicians cannot work overtime - my actual job title at night-school was 'Demonstrator'. As a life-time casual anarchist, it appealed to me to be paid, by 'The System'; to be an accredited 'Demonstrator'. Bizarrely, being a 'Demonstrator', in the employ of Fife Education Authority, made me a 'Civil Officer'. Not a 'Civil Servant', you may note!
The difficult points revolved around my position in the College. Despite being universally addressed as 'surr!" by the students, I had no real authority. I was not in the chain of command. I gave no orders (well, no 'official' orders, that is!). Yet the students seemed to consider me the leading authority on all matters not directly related to the College and the Curriculum.

The students soon learnt that grey coats riddled with burn marks meant Radio & TV, brown coats meant Electrical, and grease-stained brown coats meant Motor Vehicle. Students knew whom to approach when they needed the answer to an appropriate question.
All other questions? They came to me - the guy with the ice cream coat.
"Where is the best place tae buy a cheap pint?"
"The East Dock Bar. They'll let anyone in who has money in their pocket."
A fine establishment for any drinker who has zero social aspiration.
"How can I win at 3-card brag?"
"Easy! Don't play cards."
Sadly, no-one ever took that advice.
"Can we claim student bus-travel expenses when we cadge a lift to the College from one of the staff?"
"Only if you hand over half of the money to the person who owns the car and pays for the petrol."
Strangely, no student was ever amenable to sharing their ill-gotten gains!

Where I did have a problem was in the 'Agony Aunt' department. I was only a few years older than most of the students, and my romantic adventures were, to be honest, like churches in Methil - few, and far between. Unfortunately, after the affair (probably not the most accurate word) of the Snooker Match, the term before, I seemed to have acquired the status of the Don Juan of Lower Methil. True, I had played a game of snooker with Miss Penelope Pillan, the Principal's secretary, and the evening had concluded rather well. But, according to the Annexe gossip, I had 'conquered the Ice Queen', scored the highest break, and survived to tell the tale. Anything that I tried to say, any denial, only magnified the legend.
I will admit that I had found Miss Pillan to be a fascinating person, but she still terrified me. She was remorselessly intelligent, suffered no fools, and had visited places that I had only encountered in books. I was only a young, inexperienced laboratory technician. From the little about Miss Pillan that I had discovered, she was older than me. For a young man, that is difficult. Those few years had forged an impassible barrier. I felt young, foolish, and full of doubt.
The students had no doubt at all! I was the expert, and on matters of a romantic nature, they came to ask 'The Man'! With the advantage of my extra years, and the lack of any contradicting party, I was able to answer (or dodge around) the nervous questions.

Or had been able to answer. Till this year, when the East Fife Technical College Lower Methil Annexe admitted the first female students on Pre-Apprenticeship courses. In the space of a few weeks, the Annexe had changed from an industrial monastery to a co-educational equal-opportunity centre-of-learning. It was then that the questions became more varied, and much more difficult. We were all forced to adapt. Evolution or revolution.

We were all, profoundly grateful that I had discovered the Ladies, only a few months before. The Ladies' toilets, of course. I had noticed that Ladies (the female of the species as opposed to the male) existed some time before that. I just did not have a great understanding of Ladies in general. This made me an expert in a College where the average student was barely aware of the existence of human beings who buttoned their coats on the other side. They all came to me for fatherly/brotherly advice. To 'The Man' who was terrified by the Principal's secretary. I was indeed fortunate that, with their visual impairment, they could not see the blindfold that I wore.

The first day of a new term might be busy for most people at the Lower Methil Annexe, but not for a laboratory technician. The full-time teaching staff had a nice long summer holiday (one of those terrible burdens that have to be suffered if you are a teacher) but the support staff only got a fortnight. So in those weeks where the teachers and students were struggling to acquire a Leven Beach suntan, and the College lay empty, all the little jobs that had been neglected all year, were done. In the final week before the new term, I even did a little floor sweeping and window cleaning to fill in the time.
I did say empty, but, in fact, the janitor occasionally became confused with the drink, and remembered to turn up.

And so, on that first day of the new co-educational term, with nothing of consequence on my schedule, I settled myself comfortably in a little niche under the Angel, and watched the new students arrive. I was curious to see what equal opportunity would bring.
New students are easy to spot. They arrive early (or dreadfully late due to ignorance of bus times and routes). The old hands turn up just in time. New students become confused with a building that resembles a picture house, and spend a moment or two, deciding which one of the four front doors is the correct one.

I could see the first two figures of the new intake, hesitate outside before choosing Door Number 2! Sadly, this was the Lower Methil Annexe of East Fife Technical College, and we did not present door prizes. Although, I must confess, the first figure through the door was attractive enough to deserve one.
The first entrant was a classic beauty. She was tall for a Methil girl, elegant, with a well formed face framed by long, dark flowing hair. Much, much more appealing than our usual Annexe inmate.
I found myself staring at her, possibly a little longer than good manners would allow. There was something about her face. I was certain that I had never met her before, yet there was a fleeting familiarity.

Before I could make any further conjectures, her companion bustled through the doorway. An inch or two shorter, but heavier built, the second girl sported a shock of flagrant red hair. The freckled face, the healthy complexion and determined smile as she hefted a large kit-bag, made me think of Highland Games and ladies' sporting events. Not lawn bowls - I was certain of that - but something involving hockey sticks and compound fractures. Or possibly even cabers ...

I stopped staring at the first girl because the second was staring at me. Possibly as the next event. I blinked first.
The Highland Amazon turned, and said a few words to the Classic Beauty, who looked around, considered for a moment, then smiled . and pointed to me. Being the only person wearing a white lab-coat, in fact, the only other person around, I was the obvious one to ask.

As they approached, I prepared my "Welcome to the Lower Methil Annexe" speech. Before I could get in the first word, the kit-bag was grounded a fraction of an inch away from my toes, and cheery, freckled face demanded ...
"Heh, Jimmy! Where's the Ladies?"
Obviously a believer in subtlety and charm.
Her friend regarded her with a wry smile and a hint of admonishment.
"Helen! That is no way to ask anyone!"
"It is if yer needin tae go!"
Definitely a Fifer. Possibly not Methil - but certainly no further than Pittenweem or Cupar, and I had misgivings about the term 'lady'. My day was developing all kind of previously unsuspected possibilities.

I abandoned the nascent welcome speech, and focused on a subject that was truly within my area of expertise. As the discoverer, only the term before, of the Lower Methil Annexe Ladies' Powder Room, I was uniquely qualified to answer the question.
"Are ye goin tae stand there all day, Mister?"
Sometimes, all you can do is stand there and look stupid. I managed to do that quite well.
That elegant face turned to me. Offered an apology.
"I sorry, Mister ... ?" She encouraged.
"Collins. Neil Collins." At least I managed that much.
"Mister Collins. I must apologise for my friend Helen. She does tend to be a trifle blunt at times. Helen! Please apologise." Helen thought about it for a moment, then opened up with a smile that would be the envy of the Cheshire Cat.
"Oh! All right then. Just cause ah like ye!"
I murmured a faint acceptance. What happened to people she didn't like? Suddenly, I found myself wondering what was in the kit-bag. Not that I had any intention of asking. Ever!
"Mister Collins?"
Obviously, the dark-haired girl was used to the paralysing effect of the direct questions favoured by her friend. I pulled myself away from contemplation of the Kit-Bag and its theoretical contents.
"Yes. Miss ... ?"
"Weronika. Weronika Lewitsky."
She pronounced the 'w' as a 'v'.
"And this is my friend Helen Anderson."
The Kit-Bag owner confirmed this with a nodded grin.
I finally managed to lever my derailed welcome speech back on to the track.
"Ladies! Welcome to the Lower Methil Annexe of East Fife Technical College. I am the Laboratory Technician. If you have any requirements, just let me know."
My brief smile was terminated by a meaningful nudge of the Kit-Bag.
"The Ladies! Big man! Where's the Ladies?"
I pointed across the foyer, to the door with the newly refurbished brass sign.
"Just across there."
Helen swept up the Kit-Bag and aimed for the Ladies. Weronika took a moment to thank me, before following her friend. Such a haunting smile. So familiar, but, as yet, un-placeable.

I watched them as they crossed the foyer. Helen spoke to Weronika as they approached the door leading to the Ladies. At that distance, I could not hear, and, with her face turned away, I could not attempt to lip read. Weronika glanced in my direction as she replied.
"He's nice. But he's too old, Helen."
Thankfully, they vanished through the door before my embarrassment became obvious.

To my eternal relief, Helen Anderson - one of the new Pre-Apprentice students - was not really interested in me. For someone who could be described as 'sturdy' or 'robust', there was only place where she could naturally choose to park her Kit-Bag. Next to Podge Cunningham. If there ever was a case of love at first sight, it was those two. Both were in the heavyweight division.
Podge might be a bit slow when it came to talking, but Helen could talk enough for two. A perfect match.
Other, would-be, romantic notions would only be resolved with time, effort, and the occasional punch-up! The Annexe might have gone co-educational, but there were only a handful of girls compared to a football crowd of boys. This did not seem to present a problem to the girls. Indeed, I suspect that they rather enjoyed their status. Teenage girls tend to more mature than comparable-aged boys. In a situation where words failed to deter the rutting male, the female knee proved to be extremely effective.

Fortunately, the Lower Methil Annexe was not burdened with too many of the old, decrepit traditions ...
"A woman can't do a man's job."
"Women are too flighty and unreliable."
"They might get pregnant!"
Only with some assistance from the opposite sex, so I am informed!
"Men are the wage earners. Women only work for pin money."
"Women are too weak and fragile for some jobs."
Obviously, someone who had not yet encountered our delicate little Helen!
The teaching staff tended to open-minded, and the students had minds that were malleable - their opinions had not yet fossilised into the bedrock of society.
Now that we were co-educational, I was asked some questions that had never arisen before.
"Surr! D'ye think ah'm guid lookin?"
"Helen. I don't really think that qualifies as an appropriate question to ask any member of the College staff!"
"That's why ah'm askin you, Surr!"

The was just the first day! Already, I was too old, too young, and too confused to think. Fortunately, thinking does not play a large part in the educational process.
Not then. Not now.

It was time to start work.

Hang Together

On that first day of the new co-educational year, Rico Napier had co-opted Miss Penelope Pillan as an adviser to the Methil teaching staff. She would also provide a female contact point for the new girls. All good, sensible stuff. Miss Pillan had informed the Principal, in Kirkcaldy, that this was a 'good idea', and he had readily agreed. Miss Pillan could be extremely persuasive. He may even have believed that it was 'all his idea'.
She had also determined that I could play a useful part, and I was promptly summoned to the meeting in Rico Napier's office.

When I entered the office, Rico was fiddling with his cigarette-rolling machine. In all the time that I had known him, I had never seen Rico actually rolling a cigarette. I had always presumed that the rolling ritual must require some intense concentration, and was not possible when others were present. I simply never knew. I always bought my cigarettes by the packet.
Miss Pillan, a total non-smoker, watched with interest. Marvelling at Rico's dexterity as he assembled a roll-up.
Hold the machine in the left hand. Separate the two rollers by running a finger along the cloth wrapped around them. Select a pinch of tobacco with the right hand - generous pinch for a big smoke, a few shreds for a parsimonious puff. Sprinkle the tobacco into the trench formed between the rollers. Correct any unevenness in the density.
Push the two rollers together, and use the left thumb to effect a trial roll. Select a cigarette paper from the packet, and insert the non-adhesive end into the tiny gap between the closed rollers. Use the left thumb again, to draw the paper into the machine, effectively wrapping up the tobacco.
Wet the tongue, then slide the machine past the mouth, lightly moistening the strip of adhesive on the paper.
Another roll of the thumb, and the paper disappears inside the rollers. A short pause, then pop apart the rollers. Like some fairground conjurer, a completed roll-up appears for final inspection.

I had tried, once, to manufacture a roll-your-own. Money had been in short supply. The same could be said for expertise. I ended up with a scattering of tobacco stuck to a soggy piece of crumpled paper. Like a very cheap and nasty macaroon bar!
After that miserable attempt, if I couldn't afford to buy a packet of cigarettes, I managed to live without. Rico could afford the ready-made variety. He just liked to make his own.

"Good morning, Neil."
Rico gestured towards Miss Pillan. Like all good magicians, Rico took advantage of the mis-direction, and made the cigarette machine disappear.
"Penelope has come here, at my request, to assist us with the new, female student intake."
Another twist of the wrist, and the newly created roll-up was slipped into the top pocket of his jacket.
"She has some good ideas on how to deal with the administration side of things. I feel that she would be an asset to the Annexe, when it comes to the paperwork. However ..."
Some words always make you pay very close attention. Rico was about to play the 3-card trick!
". when it comes to matters of a more personal nature, Penelope feels that some assistance may be necessary."
That first card was a King. Miss Pillan looked at me with neutral expression, but I was sure that the eyes were keeping their own secrets.
"Thomas has told me ..."
'Thomas'? I always called Rico 'Mister Napier' or 'Sir!'
"... that you have an excellent, informal relationship with the students. That you have often dealt with emerging problems without involving the College in an 'official capacity'. Situations where the students would be reluctant to approach bureaucrats like myself."
Next card - a Queen. Now she was smiling. It was my turn to put up the straight face. My career, as an independent trader (and laboratory technician), had been moderately successful, up till now. Was my little dog-and-pony show about to be cancelled 'for the duration'?
Rico cut in.
"If I may, Penelope. I think what Miss Pillan is trying to say is this. The students know you, and trust you. They'll come to you when they would be most reluctant to approach me."
I was a wheeler-dealer myself. I knew a pitch when I heard one. I kept the face unchanged. I waited for Rico to turn over the last card.
"Would you be prepared to help Miss Pillan get organised during her stay here? Offer her some informal guidance. Help her to make contact with the students."
I had to rewind that last bit. Did Rico say 'stay here'. Where on earth would she be able to set up her tent?
Not in Rico's office. That was 'official' territory.
Not in the Staff Room, nor the Student Common Room. No privacy.
And she could hardly pitch that tent in the Ladies.
That only left one place!
The broadening smile on Penelope Pillan's face, convinced me once more, that she was adept at mind reading.
"We thought, perhaps, that you could easily fit another desk into your workshop. Share premises, so to speak. I am certain that we could come to an arrangement."
Before I could reply, Rico stood up, then walked around to the office door.
"Must go. I have a meeting with the teaching staff."
I could have sworn that he was concealing a grin, as he nodded to Miss Pillan.
"I'll leave you two to discuss the details."
His last card lay uncovered. An Ace.
"Thank you very much, Mister Napier."
Well, words almost like that!
He was gone, and I was left with Miss Pillan. This was going to be difficult.

At the end of the previous term, I had spent a wonderful evening with Penny, playing snooker and being the leading man in a Methil western. A man doing what a man's gotta do! But this was work, and there was no place for personal affairs in the Annexe. She was the Principal's Secretary, for Heaven's sake! And older than me.

"Well, Miss Pillan, welcome to the Annexe. It seems that we will be working together."
The formality of my welcome brought a passing shadow over her smile.
"Thank you, Mister Collins. I know that we will be able to work, together."
The room felt colder. I put it down to the Janitor, and his equally reluctant heating boiler. Miss Pillan and I, we had always spoken to each other this way. Why would we change?
"Because we had a great evening together, you idiot."
I stifled that thought. Work is work.
"If you have any questions, Miss Pillan, perhaps I can make a start by answering them?"
Miss Pillan thought for a moment.
"Why does everybody call Mister Napier 'Rico'? His name is Thomas, not Richard"
That was not a question that I had expected. Not a 'Miss Pillan' question at all! I picked up the packet of cigarette papers that Mister Napier had left on his desk. I held them out to Miss Pillan, for inspection. The name, on the front, stood out in gold. 'Rico. Fine Papers for the Roll-Up Artist'
"Oh! I never realised."
So Miss Pillan was not an expert in everything. I felt happier, for that.
"Shall we retire to the drawing room?"
With confidence, comes a little humour. Miss Pillan looked at me with raised eyebrows.
"My workshop. We can see about arranging a desk."
The smile reminded me of Penny. Formality had become unimportant.

Thinking back, it occurs to me that Penny was even cleverer than I thought.

As we left Rico's office, the clatter of brass-bound doors, and the sound of the approaching student menagerie, caught our attention.
"Aw, look! It's Penny Lope with surr! Is there another Snooker match on the go?"
A shocked student mass suddenly distanced itself from the unfortunate individual who had addressed the formidable Miss Pillan as 'Penny Lope'!
Realising his dread error, the lone student looking around for a sword to throw himself on.
"Good morning, Mister Rankine."
Penny delivered her greeting without the slightest tingle of ice.
Reprieved from the shadow of the gallows, young Mister Rankine stuttered a quick "Hello Miss Pillan, Mister Collins" before fleeing to blend in with the safety and protection of the herd.
The crowd parted before us ( Miss Pillan had that effect!), and we began to ascend the stairs to my office. Halfway up the stairs, Penny stopped, her arm lightly braced against the banister. I followed her gaze - she was looking intently at the Angel above Rico's door. The small hand of familiarity tugged at the edge of my mind, but before I could follow that thought, Penny spoke.
"She is beautiful."
"Yes. She is."
There was a sense of confusion in my mind. Who was I referring to? I could not say with any certainty.
"So lifelike. I wonder who she was."
If anyone had ever asked me questions on my specialised subject - this was it!
"Her name was Svetlana."
Penny turned to me. Wide-eyed. Questions forming on her lips.
I smiled. Shook my head. I had the moment, and I was determined to savour it.
"Later. When we have time. Business first!"
"Mister Collins! You can be an exasperating man!"
I shrugged.
"You, Miss Pillan, can be a demanding woman!"
We confronted each other for a moment. Half way up the stairs, hand on the hilt of our swords. That Errol Flynn moment.
"We work together. Colleagues, work-mates, call it what you will. Wouldn't it be simpler if we just used given names?"
I'm not saying if that was me, or if that was Penny.
A pause. Then smiles.
The two 'OK's came as one.

All I had to do now, was find room for a desk in my workshop. My cluttered, over-filled, semi-organised workshop. Penny failed to hide the look of professional dismay, as she surveyed the jumble before her.
"Neil! This place is a tip!"
"Penny! This is MY tip!"
A moment. A sigh.
"Our little tip.

Confidence Trick

The first year of the Co-educational Annexe brought its own set of problems.
Many of those problems were solved with the aid and assistance of Miss Penelope Pillan, the Principal's Secretary from the main College in Kirkcaldy. Released from her normal duties at the request of Rico Napier, Miss Pillan dealt with the new problems that came to the Lower Methil Annexe in its first year as a co-educational College.
Despite my misgivings, Penelope Pillan and I rapidly achieved a sound working relationship. In any formal situation - for example, speaking to the students - we were Miss Pillan and Mister Collins. When only the two of us were present, I called her Penny, and she called me Neil. Although we now shared the same workshop, we became quite relaxed about personal differences; I smoked as I worked, and did not object when the open workshop window became a permanent fixture. It took me two hours, and the application of a hammer, screwdriver and crowbar, to loosen thirty years of petrified paint.
Miss Pillan had a delicate, but extremely persuasive cough. Penny appreciated fresh air.

There was the odd argument. Not too often, but they did not intrude on our otherwise harmonious working relationship. One particular Tuesday, I was busy assembling prototype wiring boards for the Radio, TV & Electronics class. Penny was working through the class registers; checking the attendances and making sure that we had not misplaced a reluctant student or two. I was beavering away. Fit a component here, twist a wire, solder a joint. I enjoyed working with my hands. Another soldered joint, a pause for reflection, a quick check of the circuit diagram. My cigarette smouldered in the ashtray. I put down the soldering iron, picked up the cigarette, and enjoyed a contented puff.
Circuits are like words. Put a few together. The cigarette acted as punctuation. Short pause - a comma. Long pause - a period. On to the next sentence.
Penny looked up from her truancy check, and asked me a question.
"Have you seen Campbell Hutcheson recently?"
I stopped in mid-solder. I had to think about the name for a moment. Very few people ever used his given name; he was Too Hot Hutcheson to almost everybody. I put down the soldering iron.
"I haven't seen him since last week, now that you mention it."
I reached out towards the ashtray, intending to have another puff as I contemplated the whereabouts of Campbell Too Hot Hutcheson. The distraction confused my intentions. I picked up the hot soldering iron, and placed it against my lips.
"Oh my goodness, I appear to have been foolish, and burned myself."
With a lady present, it would have been nice to have actually said that. Or, even better, not to have done something so utterly stupid. What I did say was ...

[multiple expletives deleted] I'm sure that you can fill in the blanks!

After the shock of the pain, and the greater shock of the self-generated idiocy, I could only offer a mumbled apology to Miss Pillan. Penny was beside me in an instant. She picked up the abandoned soldering iron and slid it back into its holder.
"Are you all right?"
She reached to touch my face. She had only gentle concern for my pain. Like a fool, I buried myself in my embarrassment, and pulled away. What man likes to demonstrate his incompetence in front of a woman.
Penny held herself back. Miss Pillan took charge of the situation.
"Mister Collins! Don't be a baby!"
My male insecurity was taking a beating.
"We will have to do something about that burn before it gets worse."
Before I could protest, Miss Pillan strode to the First Aid box, fitted on the wall beside the door. She grasped the handle, and pulled. The box was clipped firmly to the wall, and the clip refused to budge. No matter! The fixing screws were simply torn away from the wall. A momentary raise of an eyebrow chided the recalcitrant First Aid box. Miss Pillan placed the box on the bench, in front of me. The lid opened easily; obviously convinced by the fate of the wall fixing.

Even Miss Pillan must have been dismayed by the contents of the First Aid Box. No matter how often we checked them, the Annexe First Aid Boxes were subject to repeated predation, and rarely contained a full set of anything - with the exception of triangular bandages. No-one ever stole the triangular bandages. Not even to deal with a sniffley cold.
Even the old, standard joke - the packet of three Woodbine cigarettes - failed. Someone had smoked them.
No salve. No burn ointment. No pain-killers. Just the bandages, and a resident earwig. This was going to be a real challenge for Miss Pillan.

Cometh the moment; cometh the woman! Miss Pillan pulled a travel bag, out from under her desk. A quick search produced a tube of lip-salve. She knelt down in front of me, and the cool, soothing balm was applied to the burn.
I waited till she was finished. In appreciation and relief, I babbled out the first words that popped into my head.
"Are you going to kiss it better?"
"Mister Collins!"
The shock and outrage should have nailed me to the spot, impaled on the spike of my own foolish words. But I could sense that, behind the indignation, there was the faint trace of something warmer. A suggestion of interest.

Feeling bolder - and I could hardly place the blame on the medication - I peered at the earwig, scurrying around on a field of triangular bandages.
"Seeing as we appear to have acquired a new pet, don't you think that we should give it a name?"
Miss Pillan bent over for a closer look at our new house guest. A muffled squeak. Then that chuckle that I was becoming ever fonder to me.
"Mister Collins! Really!"
Penny looked straight at me. There were tears in her eyes. Her shoulders shook. She clung to me for support.
"Ah'm no interruptin anythin important, ah'm I?"
Campbell Too Hot Hutcheson, lately of the College Attendance Register, stood in the doorway.
Speak of the devil and he is sure to appear. Usually with utterly inappropriate timing.

"Come in, Mister Hutcheson."
I held his attention while Penny discretely dabbed away the tears. With a feeling of resignation, and the knowledge that the moment had passed, I addressed the Annexe's favourite Pantomime Villain.
"What can we do for you?"
Hutcheson sidled up to me - the Huckster seeking the confidence of the Mark. All done with Hutcheson's misguided notion of a stage whisper.
"Ah wiz wonderin if ah could have a wee word wi' ye, Surr?"
He tilted the side of his head in the direction of Penny, and performed a series of strange, jerking nods. Subtly (only in his opinion) indicating that he was aware of the presence of Miss Pillan.
"Kind o' confidential, like. If ye ken whit ah mean."
The wink only made his manner even more bizarre.
Penny, needed all the self control that years of Miss Pillan had accumulated.
"I will leave you two, alone."
There was a slight tremor to her voice.
"I have a few matters to attend to."
Miss Pillan walked briskly, out into the corridor.
I might have been mistaken; did I hear a faint squeak as she disappeared down the stairs?
"OK! Mister Hutcheson. What do you want?"
Perhaps a chuckle as she vanished into the Ladies?

Too Hot Hutcheson edged the workshop door closed with his foot. If he had been the owner of a flat cap, it would have been gripped between both hands; slowly being wrung with Dickensian working-class anguish. It all looked a bit familiar.
"This wouldn't be about another motorbike, and yet another, freely given offer of my services, by any chance?"
I expected the usual Hutcheson misinterpretation of irony; the eager acceptance of an offer that had never been made. Instead, he gave the imaginary cap another twist.
"No! No, Surr. Nothin like that. It's kind o' personal, an' ah thought that you might be able to help me oot. Put in a word, mebbe."
I reached across, and switched off the soldering iron. It didn't look like I would be getting much work done. My sore lip was responding well to the prompt First Aid from Penny. My thoughts in that direction, would have to wait.
"Tell me about your 'personal' problem, Mister Hutcheson."
"It's aboot a wummin, Surr!"
I sat up, abruptly. I hadn't really expected woman trouble, so soon into the co-educational year. Without waiting for details; without thinking it through, I jumped straight to conclusions.
"Mister Hutcheson! Don't tell me that you have managed to get some girl . pregnant?"
Too Hot Hutcheson stopped twisting his metaphorical flat cap. He stared at me as if I was mad. I certainly could not blame him.
"What! Me! How would ah manage that?"
Fortunately, I managed to stop myself before I could prattle on with a 'birds and bees' lecture!
"Then, you haven't ... er..."
Hutcheson gave me such a look.
"No, Surr! Ah've no gaun an' done that!"
The melancholy look returned, accompanied by the cap twisting.
"No much chance o' that. No wi' mah luck!"
I carefully composed my next query. No need to put my foot in, again.
"OK. Tell me all about your problem."
The normally confident Hutcheson, struggled to find the words. This was not the flamboyant Pantomime character that we all knew, loved, and locked up our goods whenever he was present.
"It's Weronika. Weronika Lewitsky. Her in the Pre-App class."
Hutcheson hesitated. I nodded encouragement. He started to form a statement - then stopped. He blushed. Too Hot Hutcheson actually blushed! It was turning out to be a really strange day!
Hutcheson looked up at some imagined sight, then sighed. After a moment, he turned back to me.
"Ah kind o' fancy her."
Now, I understood the forlorn look; the sheep's eyes. Too Hot Hutcheson was in love. Young romance in the happening. The Pantomime Villain, falling for the Maiden. Not at all in Too Hot Hutcheson's script! I had to admire the focus of his intentions. Weronika Lewitsky was a real looker.
I interrupted his daydream.
"Mister Hutcheson! If I might repeat myself? What seems to be the problem?"
"She's no goin' tae fancy somebody like me, is she?"
"And why not?"
I was curious to know the answer.
"Cause who'd want anythin tae dae wi' a crook like me?"
His expression was so tragic. I could only do one thing. I laughed.
The sorrow in his eyes turned to anger. His fists clenched till the knuckles turned white. I held up my hands in surrender, before he could hit me.
"Just hold it a moment, Mister Hutcheson. Before you end up in front of Mister Napier, will you listen to me?"
He stopped. The anger subsided into misery.
"You just think the same, Surr. Naebody fancies a crook. Ah wiz wrong tae come and ask yer advice. Ah thought that you would help me out. What, wi' you and Miss Pillan, ah thought that you would be an expert on how tae pull a wummin. Could gi'e me a few tips, like."
I couldn't help it. I had to laugh again. My reputation, as the Don Juan of Methil, was grossly overvalued. And Too Hot Hutcheson actually believed it!
"Campbell! What have I told you, before?"
He was puzzled. He struggled, and failed, to find an answer.
"I asked you 'Who was the bigger crook?'."
He thought for a moment.
"Aye, you did, Surr!"
"And who is the bigger crook, Mister Hutcheson?"
He was starting to catch on. Behind the patter, he had a good mind.
"You are, Surr!"
"And who sits right next to Miss Pillan every day?"
His expression brightened.
"You do, Surr!"

I could see the Hutcheson Calculator grinding away. It would not take long for Hutcheson to get his mind straight. I give his thought one more nudge.
"Mister Hutcheson. She's a nice lass. Intelligent. I don't think that you will need all your usual palaver. Just play it straight - no ducking and diving. Drop the phoney image."
He looked at me, but his eyes were contemplating a whole, new way of presenting himself to the world. I put in the last word of advice.
"Just talk to her. Who knows? She might just talk back."
Campbell Hutcheson smiled.
"D'ye really think so, Surr?"

I opened the door, and ushered him out into the corridor. He had classes, and I had work to do. Before I switched on the soldering iron, and started back on soldering prototypes, I gave my advice to Hutcheson, one brief review.
"Just play it straight. Drop the phoney image."
This from the man who played the game like a small town magician; who wore an ice cream coat where no-one could see what his hands were doing. I could recognise hypocrisy when I see it, but I was never very good at taking my own advice. I 'fancied' Penelope Pillan, as Mister Hutcheson would say, but did not know how to deal with my doubts.

Sometimes, if you look real close, you cannot see what you are looking at.

Lost in France

The first co-educational term at the Lower Methil Annexe passed swiftly. Working with Penelope Pillan had turned out to be an interesting experience. I called her Penny; she called me Neil. We worked together on matters of mutual concern. If I said something silly, she would put me right - a less painful process than it had been a year ago. If she said something silly . well, I would struggle to think of an example. She had a brilliant mind; incisive, organised, able to deal with the multitude of problems that Annexe life threw up.

Don't get me wrong. I have no prejudice against intelligent women. In fact, I much prefer them to women who think a bubbly smile can substitute for a few working brain cells. Unlike some, so-called 'intelligent men', I do not believe that a woman should be 'bright, but not quite as bright as a man'. I have a good, working brain; there is no modesty required, neither do I boast about it.
I do occasionally fall for the mistaken belief that I am cleverer than I really am. That is not a problem. Nature has evolved a way of correcting such mistakes. She is called Miss Penelope Pillan!

We would have seemed the ideal couple. Most of the staff and students seemed to think so, and I caught the faintest whisper that someone was running a sweep-stake on Penny and myself. My bet was on Too Hot Hutcheson being that 'someone'! I had no intention of ever tracking down this Annexe fantasy. I had inside information; you can't put a bet on yourself!
Penny and I worked together. Worked well. But staff romances rarely ended in happiness. (I have no idea where I gathered that particular strand of romantic folklore). She was a woman of the world; I was a simple laboratory technician. She was older than me; somehow, that trivial fact seemed relevant. She was by far, the most qualified of the two of us. I had seen her name on an envelope that had been delivered from the main College in Kirkcaldy.
Miss Penelope Pillan PhD
I had achieved a Distinction in the City & Guilds Radio, TV & Electronics examination, by the most devious back-door route that could be imagined. She could call herself Doctor Pillan, if she had wished. She never did.
Why would such a woman ever take any personal interest in me?

I considered myself to be professional. I would not let my personal thoughts intrude into the workplace. I had managed to function efficiently, and correctly, alongside people such as Roger McNichol, our one-time Physical Education Teacher, without resorting to physical violence. (except as a last resort!) Surely, it would be so much easier to work beside someone that I liked, and respected?

That first term had been exceptionally busy. Man had taken his first, faltering steps on the moon. Half a million people had spent three days struggling through the mud and rain, listening to the Woodstock Festival. I had all the store-room stock-taking to do; counting the contents of all the storage drawers and writing out the purchase orders for components that we would need in the next term. I would work out all the numbers, then deliver them to Rico Napier's office. He would forward them to the main College in Kirkcaldy. The College Accountant would automatically cut the numbers in half, with scant regard for need nor reason. The Principal would give them a cursory glance, then pen out anything that he deemed excessive. The heavily-edited purchase orders were then returned to the Annexe, marked 'for the attention of Ms. P. Pillan'. Penny might have been seconded to the Lower Methil Annexe but she was still expected to perform all the clerical duties of the Principal's Secretary.
I knew how the system worked. I took the number that I first thought of, then doubled it. I sent duplicates of everything. Rico Napier never quibbled; he sent all the paperwork (unexpurgated) to Kirkcaldy. Kirkcaldy never realised that 'duplicated' meant two copies, so treated it all as one order. Then halved it under instruction of the Accountant. Finally, the Principal would chop out a few random savings 'on principle'. The arithmetic was simple:

Original Purchase Order = £100 [for example]
Purchase Order multiplied by 2 [by me] = £200
Purchase Order plus Duplicate Purchase Order [Kirkcaldy] = £400
Purchase Order divided by 2 [Accountant] = £200
Purchase Order minus 25% [Principal] = £150

Everyone was happy; the Accountant had achieved massive savings, the Principal had trimmed away any frivolous excesses, and I ended up with 50% more than I absolutely needed. The surplus stock was then traded in barter for those things that money just can't buy!

Penny would spend hours at her desk, wading through a quagmire of paperwork. I could always tell when she reached any Purchase Orders that had originated in my workshop. The brows would furrow, her eyes would take on the 'thousand yard stare', as she battled with a logic system that defied logic. She would then snatch a quick glance at me, if she thought that I was focused elsewhere. There would be the 'sigh of inevitability', then the pen scratch of approval. She was only seconding a motion that had already been passed in Kirkcaldy. Creative accounting in action.

At the end of the day, we had a chance to talk.
"Neil. May I ask you something?"
I was alone in my workshop with a stunningly attractive woman. If any question could skip a heartbeat, that would be the one. I nodded; breathing could wait.
"Who was Svetlana?"
That was not on my Top Ten list of possible questions. There was a transient feeling of disappointment, then breathing recommenced. I had promised that I would tell her the story. Now was as good a time as any. I had an attentive audience, and I made the story ring.
I started with the 'over-large' store-room, and the accumulated junk of ages. The obvious clue - a large brass sign - and the mysterious breeze that drew away the cigarette smoke. Penny moved closer, the better to hear my tale.
Of course, I gave my part of the story a little polish, and I did make the demolition of the partition wall sound more dramatic than it possibly was in truth, but Penny didn't mind. Her eyes shone like a child at their first picture-house matinee; her first viewing of some 'sword and sandal' epic. OK, I'll never be as good looking as Charlton Heston and the 'sword' was a brass sign saying 'Ladies'; nevertheless I managed to bring my own sense of magic to the stage.
"... and that is why we have a Ladies Powder Room in what was, for many years, a male-only preserve!"
Penny could not resist clapping with glee. That chuckle; reward enough for my story telling. She reached out and touched my arm.
"Svetlana! Where does Svetlana come in to the story?"
I could feel the warmth of her fingers. I hurried on with the story.
"There was a reason why Mister McCrae could not enter that room. As a child, he had accidentally wandered into the Ladies, and upset Svetlana. The original model for the Angel!"
Penny was entranced.
"She must have been truly beautiful!"
"She was."
She might have been held captive by the story, but Penny had a burning curiosity that always searched for answers. It occurred to me that she had a mind like mine in some ways. Her fingers pressed insistently on my arm. Her eyes fixed on to mine. The room became warmer.
"How do you know all this, Neil."
I seized the opportunity to break away; to turn and point to a dusty cardboard box on the shelf. And next to it, a similar-sized box clad in red leather.
"I found these in the store-room. The whole story is in that box."
The hand that had, moments before, been gripping my arm, now gently pushed me towards the boxes on the shelf.
"Neil! Please! Bring those boxes here. I must know the rest of the story."
As I pulled the boxes down, Penny sat perched on the edge of her chair. I wondered if anyone who had met Miss Penelope Pillan - The Ice Maiden - would recognise the matinee urchin, waiting eagerly for the next reel to start.

The next few hours were lost in the story:
Randolph Hughie Simpson and the Methil Mining School. The battle with Ramsay Tarvit over the provision of an 'unnecessary' facility at the school. Randolph Simpson's brief foray into politics. A short musical interlude, which brought us to Svetlana McCrory; the Angel of the Annexe, Election Campaign Manager and the one, true love of Randolph Simpson's life.
"Svetlana. Svetlana?"
I could see Penny's incisive mind, worry at the name. I knew what was coming next.
"Svetlana ... svetty ... the students call the Angel 'Betty'! They must have originally called her 'Sweaty Be ..."
I waited with a grin.
I had never seen Miss Penelope Pillan so embarrassed! She could not look me in the face. Not so much an 'Ice Maiden', more a raspberry ice lolly.
To quote the Chinese saying: There is nothing more enjoyable than watching your neighbour fall of the roof whilst trying to mend a tile.
I plead guilty.
In her discomfiture, she failed to spot those last vital clues. The cause of the original dispute between Red Ramsay Tarvit and Randolph Hughie Simpson, and the need for a tin of green paint, suitable for the door of a boiler-house. I thought that my part as an art thief, could wait for another day.

Now it was my turn. I reached out with my hand, and tilted up her chin until I could look directly into eyes.
"Now, you can tell me about Albert."
For a moment, I thought she would turn away. I eased my hand back a fraction; I would not force her. She gathered her thoughts, then began to talk. I have never heard such a heart-rending story. Penny deserves her privacy. There are many parts of her early life that I was privileged to share that day, and I will never repeat them to another soul. Only Penny has that right.
Her childhood was terrible. Adopted at an early age, and treated like a skivvy. Cinderella without the possibility of a Prince; Little Orphan Annie without Daddy Warbucks, cheery songs and a Hollywood cast. She ran away from home at the age of twelve before physical abuse became something even darker. A few months later, her adopted parents fled the country, never to be seen again, to avoid the pressing demands of a local loan-shark. Abandoning any hope of Penny's return. Possibly, their first decent act in her favour.
By her 13th (un-celebrated) birthday, she had slipped across the English Channel into France; blending in un-noticed with a coach party of Welsh tourists. In the language confusion, the authorities in the Port of Calais simply waved them all through. Penny had only one thing to cling to. A romantic childhood notion to see Paris. There, she met Albert Bouchard. A freelance journalist, and a gentle man.
I'll let Penny tell this part ...

I met Albert in Paris. I had walked all the way from Calais, terrified that someone might report a lone girl to the police. I dared not try to hitch a lift. I arrived cold, foot-sore, and very, very hungry. Paris is an enormous city, and I had many foolish ideas but few French words.
Somewhere in the streets around the Gare de l'Est, I found a small Cafe; tables and chairs on the street, like a picture postcard. I was tired; I sat at an empty table, wondering what next to do. The Cafe was busy, full of office workers arming themselves for yet another bureaucratic day. Gulping coffee, feeding on croissants and Le Figaro. A frantic glance at a watch, and they were off. I discovered that I could snatch a half-eaten roll from a derelict table, or casually lift an abandoned glass of water as if it were mine.
I was desperate; I was careless! I did not see that one customer who had stepped into the Cafe, only for a moment, to signal for another coffee. The voice from behind startled me.
'Do English girls help themselves to breakfast?'
I turned to flee ... then stopped ... turned. I saw Albert for the first time.
'How do you know I am English?'
His eyes laughed at me.
'A French girl would wait to be served breakfast before she ran away.'
Albert encouraged boldness in a woman. I let him buy me breakfast.

As Penny told her story, I could close my eyes and see that young girl sitting in a street-side Cafe. She spoke of Albert as a 'gentle man'. The offer of a bed for the night. The terrified refusal. The casual brushing away of all objections.

'Young lady! I may be a Frenchman, but I prefer to sleep at home.'
He handed over a key.
'This is for the small office above the Cafe. My office. Sometimes I work late. There is a small camp bed that you can use.'
I hesitated. What should I do. He reached out and closed my hand around the key. A secret amusement played around his lips.
'There are no strings. I do not need a mistress.'
I had no experience of trust, but I so wanted to trust this man.
'Now off you go young lady. Even beauty such as yours requires a little sleep. I have a story to file.'
He handed me a folded copy of Le Monde. I could not read a word, but I could see the byline on one of the columns.
'Correspondent: Albert Bouchard.'
He stood, then offered a polite, formal bow.
'My American friends call me Albert the Mouth'
Who could not trust such a man?

I sat, entranced, as Penny let the story flow from her memories; each line a tear from a grief held too long. How Albert took a naive young girl under his wing and treated her like a favourite niece. Watched her take her first, stumbling steps in French, then applauded her growing confidence in the language of Art and Culture. He took her to the theatre. Followed her breathless steps as she danced through the galleries; each painting more exciting than the last.

Throughout those wonderful months, he asked for nothing. If he had ever asked, I would have said 'Yes!', without hesitation. I was more than a little in love with him, and one day, I would be old enough ...

Penny paused; lost in a faded memory. Then her expression darkened.

These were not good days for France. The country had lost so much in the last War, and now she was entangled in another. Petty pride demanded that what had once been, would always be. They would lose no more! The upstart Democratic Republic of Vietnam would be crushed. Indochine Francaise would prevail!
Albert was a journalist, and the war in Asia was the biggest story in France. He accepted a commission to cover events for an international News Agency. Albert would always follow the story. It was his life.

The excitement was gone from Penny's story. Penny narrated the words, clearly and precisely, as if reading a newspaper out loud, for the benefit of some dim-sighted elderly relative.

When Albert travelled to Hanoi, I went with him. I had nowhere else to go, and Albert would never abandon me. Somehow, he acquired a French Passport for me. He was a journalist; he had connections in the grey halls of politics, and he could talk his way around any obstacle. Never was a man so truly named.

Some of the light crept back into Penny's voice. Those few months in Hanoi were the last wonderful days in her life. She spoke about meeting new people, seeing fresh, exotic places. There was even a hint of humour ...

Of course, most of the people I met, were the refuse of Hanoi. The rogues and riff-raff of a turbulent city. It would appear that the favourite residence of Foreign Correspondents, in the Far East, always seems to be a bar, a brothel - or both! They told me that, if you wish to know how sea-worthy the Ship-of-State is, you should live amongst the rats. They always know.
Albert's favoured residence met all the desired criteria. We laid down our dusty travel bags in Henry Lo's Biscuit Shop. The owner was a small, polite Vietnamese; he thought that a Chinese name and a neon sign in English were a guarantee of popularity and good business.

I had to ask ...
"Henry Lo's Biscuit Shop? What kind of name was that?"
For a moment, the sparkle was back in her eye. She even chuckled.

Everyone thought that it was a wonderful name. Such an honest name for a house of ill-repute. A biscuit, as you know, gets its name from being 'cooked twice'. In the Biscuit Shop, you got 'done' twice. Once, upstairs by the girls; then 'done' again, downstairs in the gambling-room, behind the bar! I loved the place.
Despite its dubious standing, I was always perfectly safe. When Albert was away, chasing a story, Henry and the girls looked after me.
My education was assured: Henry taught me book-keeping and business practice, the girls taught me fashion and all the latest styles, and the other journalist delighted in teaching me about people, politics and the world.
For when the occasional drunken customer over-stepped his manners, the girls also taught me self-defence!

I could barely contain my amazement. This was the woman that I had dared to take into the Snooker Hall in the Miner's Welfare Institute. I had worried over her safety! Perhaps I should have been more concerned for the 'Welfare' of Methil's criminal classes. It would have been safer for them, if I had taken a female Tiger to the match.
As I diverted my attention to the possible outcome of a confrontation between the McLaren gang and a Vietnamese Tiger, I was caught unaware, when Penny suddenly moved towards me, and clutched at my arms, demanding my attention. A harsh desperation filled her voice.

One day, Albert was gone. At first, I did not worry. Albert did that. He would follow a lead; vanish without saying,for half a day, then come back that evening, and tell me all about it. I trusted him. For Albert, it was the story; always the story. That evening, another journalist told me where he had gone.
'Trust Albert, that lucky sod! Heard about the show, up at Dien-Bien-Phu, and talked himself on to one of the follow-on flights.'
There was admiration, and a little envy in his voice.
'Albert the Mouth will be reporting from the heart of the battle.'

Penny's grip on my arm tightened. My arms began to ache, but that was nothing to the pain evident in her voice.

Albert Bouchard flew out, as a 'non officiel' to Dien-Bien-Phu on 26 March 1954. He died in a small fortress called 'Eliane' on the First Day of May. The French garrison surrendered on 07 May 1954. Albert was not on the list of casualties. He was never officially there.

The pain in my arms became excruciating, but I sat there, unmoving. I have never heard such agony in a voice.

'Albert! Albert! Pourquoi es-tu parti?
Tu n'avais qu'a me le demander.
Je serais parti avec toi!'

I stood there, unmoving. My oh-so-clever mind screamed for answers; my instincts choked for lack of practice. Penny released her grip; her arms slowly fell to her sides. I could only stare at her face. There should have been a tear, a sign ... anything. I should have done something ...

We stood there, worlds beyond reach. Then she turned and walked out of the workshop. My hand reached out to an empty room.
Outside, I heard her car start up, and she drove away.

On the following day, I received a note from Kirkcaldy.

"Miss Penelope Pillan will be taking a short period of leave till the end of the current term.
When she returns, she will be resuming her normal position, as Secretary to the Principal at the main College in Kirkcaldy.
I am sure that we are all agreed that Miss Pillan has done an excellent job at the Lower Methil Annexe, and that the integration of Female Students can be considered a success, mainly due to her efforts.

Signed : David Falkland Orr. Principal. East Fife Technical College."

I crumpled the note; threw it in the bin. I spent the day, picking my way through a French-English dictionary. Painfully translating the words that Penny had burned into my brain.

'Albert! Albert! Pourquoi es-tu parti?
Tu n'avais qu'a me le demander!
Je serais parti avec toi!'

"Albert! Albert! Why did you go away?
You only had to ask!
I would have gone with you!"

Oh Penny! I would have gone with you!

   Go to Chapters ...
Enter the Ladies
Hang Together
Confidence Trick
Lost in France

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