SHORT STORY : GRASSHOPPERS GALLOPING (From ‘Could do Better’ by Peter Rolls)

Figgis had been burning the not-quite-midnight oil.  His desk was littered with text books, handouts and note-books.  His eyes ached: his head ached.  He looked, but did not see; he thought, but could not think.

His mother came into the room.  ‘You should be in bed, Boswell.  You’ve got a History exam tomorrow.’

‘I know.’  The tone was why-else-would-I-have-been-up-here-all-evening.

‘So, it’s teeth, pillow, good night’s sleep.’

‘Yes, Mum.  Sleep.’  The tone was you-must-be-joking.

‘If you don’t know it now, you never will.’

‘Yes, Mum.’  The tone was never-will.

***

Sunlight streamed through the windows and turned grey with the weight of morbid expectation.

Figgis drummed fingers on his skull.  He wasn’t the only one.  Around the room, skulls were drummed, hair was twiddled and nails were nibbled.  Year 8 waited for its History paper: ‘Victorian Britain (1838 -1901)’ was due for resurrection – for regurgitation.

Not yet.

Mrs Chigley polished her glasses, took her time, enjoyed the tension.  The register was complete, it remained only to wait for two o’clock.  Precisely.

Figgis wriggled behind his desk.  His legs were getting too long for the furniture.

People unwrapped glucose sweets.  The Chiz glared.  They sucked secretly.  Their blood-streams buzzed.  Their stomachs sank.

The question sheets lay face down on the desks.  Face down or face up, it was all much the same to Year 8.

The brainy one or two hoped for 40 marks out of 50.  Possibly.

The not-quite-so-brainy hoped for 30.  Perhaps.

The not-at-all-brainy would settle for 15.  Pushing it.

One minute.

They lined up their mascots: the lucky pebbles and fluffy green Gonks.

Figgis didn’t believe in mascots, but he had an exam routine.  He sharpened his pencils, tested his rubber and checked his calculator.  Pi still weighed in at 3.14159.  This was of uncertain benefit for a History exam, but routine was important.

The clock hand swept on.  Thirty seconds.

Mrs Chigley’s voice cut the silence.  ‘Write your name clearly in the top right-hand corner of every sheet.’

Figgis wrote ‘Boswell Figgis’ on all four of his blank sheets and underlined it in green.  He used his ruler.  It looked neat.

Next.

‘Turn over your question papers.  You have sixty minutes.  No talking.’

Now.  Figgis took a breath and turned the paper.

Oh, God!  Blur, blur, burble, blur … Come on, Figgis.  Get a grip … He blinked and took another breath, double-deep.  The blur sharpened:

Discuss one of the following topics (25 marks) and comment briefly on the other five (5 marks each).  Time:  one hour.

OK, his exam-engine kicked in and he read the rubric closely.  Key phrases were ‘discuss one’ and ‘comment briefly on the other five.’  It could be worse: ‘comment briefly’ was his sort of thing.  Now for the gritty specifics:

The Great Exhibition

The Chartist movement

Charles Darwin

The Suez Canal

The Zulu War

Florence Nightingale

Aaagh … awful … abysmal … appalling … No, no, stop … Amazing … There was something he actually knew about.  Lots.  His eyes shone bright and he held up his hand.

The Chiz was busy marking homework.

He coughed.

The Chiz frowned.  ‘What is it, Figgis?’

‘Can I have more paper, miss?’

The class looked up.  More paper?  Already?  He was having a laugh.  Nice one, Figgis.

The Chiz wasn’t amused.  ‘Paper?’ she hissed.  ‘Surely you have four sheets, like everyone else?’

‘Yes, but I need two more.’

‘Very well, Figgis.’  She took paper and slapped two sheets on his desk.

‘Could you make it three?  Just in case.’

She slapped another sheet.  ‘Will that be all, Figgis?’  Her voice was acid-drop sweet.  Hydrochloric.

Figgis beamed.  ‘Thanks.’

The Chiz eye-balled the room.  ‘You have fifty-eight minutes.’  She got back to her marking.

The class got back to Victorian Britain.  ‘Discuss’ implied something structured and coherent.  Most of them didn’t fancy it.  ‘Comment briefly’ was better.  Six topics – picking up a couple of marks here and there – might get them up to twelve, even fifteen.  Maybe thirty per cent.  Not too bad … Grade E.  Better than last time.

Figgis had a different problem.  For once in his life, he knew too much.  He was more or less average on History as a whole, but the Zulu War was different.  He had seen ‘Zulu’ and ‘Zulu Dawn’ and loved them.  He had played the computer game; he had read books.  Real books.  An hour wouldn’t be enough to write half of it.

For the first time ever, Figgis saw the prospect of getting top marks at something.  But, if he was really going for Grade-A glory, he needed points on the minor topics as well:  on Charles Darwin, etcet.

Hence the need for more paper.  After a month’s all-round, all-topic revision, Figgis’s mind was a Google-plex of French, Maths, Science and so on.  He knew that History was in there somewhere – if he pressed the right buttons – but it would only appear randomly: when it felt like it.  So he needed at least six sheets – one per topic – to jot things down as he thought of them.  Intermittently.

The question paper asked for ‘brief comment’.  But how brief was ‘brief’?  What counted as a ‘comment’?  Figgis had a system for History, involving the ‘5-Ws’:  Who, When, Where, What and Why.  He reckoned that every name, date and place – however baldly presented – would count as a comment and thus earn a tick on the mark-frame.  If he could manage some ‘Why’, it would be a bonus.  He raised his hand and coughed.

The Chiz looked up; eye of newt, face of boot.

‘Could I have more paper, please?’

She caught up a fistful of paper and clumped down the room.  Exam etiquette prevailed, but her eye blazed with the promise of a reckoning to come.  ‘Enough, Figgis.’  It was a statement rather than a question.

He took the sheets: twenty or more.  ‘Thank you, miss.’  His voice was cool, his mind was elsewhere.  It was a grasshopper mind, rarely in one place for long.  If a logical path went from A to B to C, Figgis usually found himself skipping through D, F, Q and Z.

For now, he concentrated on centering his title:

The British-Zulu War of 1879.’

Excellent, he thought: six words and already he was ticking off three or four marks-worth of Who, Who, What and When.  OK, he would start on the Where …

On a separate sheet of paper he drew a map of Africa and coloured the bottom end in pink.

By 1870, Britain was the dominant power in South Africa …’

Now for some Who else and an inkling of Why …

But the Zulus, under Chief Cetshwayo, were an obstacle …’

He put a green arrow on his map and labelled it Zululand.  This was splendid stuff – and all the while, other Victorian items grasshoppered at the back of his mind.  He jotted them on to separate sheets of paper – names and dates:

Crimean War, 1854 … Charles Darwin 1809-82 … Chartist movement 1838-48 Joseph Poxmarsh …

Who the hell was Joseph Poxmarsh?  He wrote the name on his wrist for later and flashed back to Zuluworld for further despatches.

‘…In January 1879, three columns of the British army, under Lord Chelmsford, invaded Zululand …’

Another sheet, a map of Zululand itself.  Three thin red lines for Lord Chelmsford’s advancing army …

… On 22 Jan, the British centre column was defeated at Isandlwana … Zulus attacked the British camp at Rorke’s Drift …’

Deep breath.  This was the biggie.  Figgis had identified with Michael Caine in the film and his mind was swamped by images of blood, sweat and bayonets.  He lived the moment.  But he could only afford five minutes to write about it.

He drew a map.  He thought, he planned, he wrote like the African wind …

24th Regiment … 140 men … hand-to-hand fighting … Victoria Crosses …’

All the while, grasshoppers travelled the landscape of Victorian History, picking up facts – jot-them-down-and-scrape-a-mark scraps of knowledge.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) … ‘Origin of Species’ … Suez Canal (1859-69)…

Figgis looked at the name on his wrist … No, Poxmarsh wasn’t right … Packfold ..?  Nearer.  But nearer to what? And why?  1851 – why?

Meanwhile, Lord Chelmsford was in trouble ‘… heavy fighting at Khambula.’

***

Thirty minutes gone, thirty minutes left.  Some students wrote and some re-wrote and some could write no more.

The Chiz wrote herself out of red ink and switched to purple.

Figgis re-grouped his coloured pencils and stabbed red arrows into Zulu country … Ulundi burned …

***

Ten minutes to go.  Most of the class had almost finished; the Chiz had completely finished.  People looked at Figgis, who was by no means finished … His war was over, but there was much to sort elsewhere.  On the separate sheets, his pen jotted and jabbed – recording disconnected dates, names, phrases:

1857 … Scutari … Ferdinand de Lesseps … votes for all …

Every item worth a mark.  Probably.

Two fifty-nine.  All done and a minute to spare.  The grasshoppers were gasping, but triumphant.  Figgis dotted ‘i’s’ and corrected things: ‘feild’ and ‘Gallapagos’ and ‘Egypt’.  With twenty seconds left, he stuck in a few commas.

Oh, yes.  Not Packfold, not Picton, but Paxton.  Of course … Joseph Paxton – The Great Exhibitin.  Gotcha!

Enough.  Five seconds to spare; ten sheets left over.  He looked round the room, at the last-gasp scribblers, tongues out and shoulders hunched low.

Ever the hero, Figgis stood and made the grand gesture.  ‘Extra paper, anyone?’

***

‘Any results yet, Boswell?’

‘One.’

‘Which subject?’

‘History.’

‘Well, how did you get on?’

‘Not too bad.’

‘Stop messing about, Boswell.  What grade did you get?’

‘A.’

‘You heard me, Boswell.  What grade did you get?’

‘Grade A.’  As Figgis floated from the room, he tossed a magic number into the air ‘94%’.

It had been worth it.

Next week: “The Gizmo in the Gazebo”

With thanks, as always, to Peter Rolls.

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