Short Story: Could do Better (from ‘Could do Better’ by Peter Rolls)

IMG_0587Not making enough effort’, ‘lacks application’, ‘more effort needed’.

Boswell’s father looked at Boswell, and Boswell looked at his father, and his father said “There is a pattern here, Boswell.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“A consistency.”

“Yes, Dad.”

His father squared his glasses.  “Your English, Maths and Science reports.  Key subjects – would you say?”

“Yes, Dad.”  Boswell had come to realise that ‘least said’ was often the best policy.

His father flicked report pages.  “All telling much the same story.”

Boswell kept it simple, kept his brow furrowed.  “Yes, Dad.”

“In fact, the whole report is – how shall I put it – mediocre.”

Boswell took issue.  “Well, it doesn’t actually say that.”

“True, Boswell.  It doesn’t actually use the word ‘mediocre’.  But tell me, how would you describe ‘More effort needed’?”

Boswell puffed his cheeks and went for it.  “Average?” he said.

His father’s tone rose a notch.  “No, it does not mean Average.  In any case, Average isn’t good enough.”

“Average is better than lots of people …”

“I know what average is, Boswell.  Average is somewhere between grey and grunge.  What we’re looking for is the glint of silver and gold.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Boswell’s mother came in and joined them at the table.  “Sorry I’m late.  How is it going?”

Boswell made a put-upon face.

His father said “Not good,” and gave her the report folder.  “Boswell and I are discussing the concept of ‘effort’ in relation to doing better than ‘average’.”

She had once been an Art teacher and had a sharp eye for critical detail.  She scanned the marking grids.  “Eleven subjects, but not many ‘Goods’ – are there, Boswell?  Rather a lot of ‘Room for Improvement’.  Well – is there?  Room?”

“I don’t know, ” said Boswell.

“Spending more than ten minutes on your homework, for example?  Less time on computer games?”

The old refrain, thought Boswell.  He sighed.

“It’s no good sighing.”  She flipped through the folder.  “In Drama you ‘lack confidence’ for Speaking and Listening, whilst also being ‘Too talkative in class’.  Does that make sense?”

“Probably not.”

“And for Geography, we get ‘Exam mark 42%.  Disappointing.’  What does that mean?  Were you expecting better?”

Well, I’m not usually too bad there – but in the exam, I did this diagram of the solar cycle and …”


“And some of it was wrong.  He called it the Figgis Phenomenon.  Said it gave a new slant on global warming.”

His father pointed.  “‘French – Shows little aptitude.’  How come, Boswell?  You’ve been learning French since you were eight.”

“Yes, but it’s French.  Everyone’s useless.”

“You’ve been to France on a school trip …”

“Stuck on the boat for hours.  We were all sick.”

His mother chimed in.  “And you had Marcel here for a week …”

“Yes, but we had to speak English to him.”

“A treat for us all, Boswell.  As I recall, he spoke it better than you.”

“Well, he was showing off.”

His father’s eyebrows worked theatrically.  “Here’s a first … For RE, it says ‘Takes a lively interest in the subject.’  How so, Boswell?  Who’s the lucky teacher that thinks you’re lively?”

“Miss Wemyss.”

“Strange woman,” said his father.

Boswell coloured, but said nothing.  He had a bit of a thing about Miss Wemyss and was more than pleased with ‘lively’.

His father smote himself on the forehead.  “Good grief, Boswell.  It says:  ‘History – 94%.  Excellent.'”

“I told you.  When it comes to Victorian Britain, 1838 – 1902, I’m the man.”

His mother said “It was 1901, Boswell.  But well done.”

“Thanks, Mum.”  It seemed good to finish on a positive note and he headed for the door.

His father said “Not so fast, Boswell.  We still have a ‘Must concentrate’ and ‘Not a strong subject’.”

“That’s Music.  I can’t be good at everything.”

“It’s not funny, Boswell.”

“No, Dad.”

“Your Year Tutor, Mr Squibb, sums it up as “Has ability, but must learn to apply himself.  Lacks organisation.”

“Yes, Dad.”

“It’s not good enough, Boswell.  In my day, the phrase was ‘Could do better’.”

“Yes, Dad.”  Boswell was on auto-response.

“So we shall have plenty to discuss.”

“How do you mean?”

“The Parents Evening.  Meeting your teachers.”

“Yes,” said his mother.  “All of them.”

Boswell looked in alarm.  “That will take hours.”

His father nodded.  “Needs must, Boswell.  All eleven – OK?  Plus the Year Tutor.”

“Well, that’s if …”

“No ifs.”

“His mother looked at the clock.  “Eight o’clock, Boswell.  What’s tonight’s homework?”

“English.  I’ve done it.”

“You’ve just got time to do it better.  Supper at nine.”

“Yes, Mum.”


“So this is our schedule, is it, Boswell?  Words from the Head at 7.00.  Straight into English at 7.10.  Then interviews until 10.00.”

“Yes, Dad.  I tried to group things.”

“Which explains – does it – why we have six subjects before eight o’clock, and nothing more until after nine?”

“I thought I’d leave a bit of lee-way.  There might be a clog-up.”

“No clog-ups, Boswell.  I’m expecting it to be fully organised.”

“Yes, Dad.”


It was Friday evening at Crimpsfield:  outside dark and wet, inside bright and slightly steaming.  Round the Hall stood the teachers: bright-eyed young and sad-eyed not-so-young.  On the stage, sat the Head and senior staff, unblinking and untouchable.  In rows, sat two hundred parents and their offspring:  all of them damp and over-dressed and uncomfortable.

Boswell Figgis had come straight from the bath:  a spindly figure with clean shirt, clean shoes and flat black hair.  His eyes rolled sheepishly at his mates, Mick and Dave.

Malcolm Figgis had come straight from the office:  his suit was rumpled, he hadn’t shaved and his hair stood up at the back.  His architect’s eye checked for cracks in the ceiling.

Angela Figgis had come straight from an hour’s getting-ready:  her jumper and skirt were smart-casual, her hair was careful-casual and her make-up was careful-careful.  Her eye flickered over the assembled Othermothers.  She gave them a ‘Room for Improvement’.


First on the Figgis list was English.  No problem.  Boswell led the way upstairs.  Problem.  There were already three families in line …


7.30.  The Figgises went in.  Miss Blinkhorn shook hands, opened her folder and came to the point.  “He has some good ideas, but … his grasp of grammar … sense of structure … presentation …”

Mr Figgis made notes, Mrs Figgis made the sharp-eye at Boswell.  They thanked Miss Blinkhorn and headed for French.  Twenty minutes adrift.

Boswell made an offer.  “We could skip French.  Save time.”

“No chance, Boswell.”


In the corridors, parents came and went.  Changed their minds … Went back later.  And again.

In the classrooms, teachers shook hands, sharpened smiles, said it all again …

And again.

In the kitchen, the caretaker scraped and swilled …


“Where’s the Cafeteria?”

“It’s closed,” said Boswell.

“The drinks machine, then.”

“It’s broken,” said Boswell.


Longer queues, shorter tempers.

Parents lost their schedules, lost their bearings, lost their gloves.

The caretaker switched off the heating.


“He said you were no problem, Boswell.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

“I don’t think he knows who you are.”

“Same here,” said Boswell.


Pushy parents, tight-lipped teachers.

Chunter-chunter …

“They’ve been in there for ages.”

“Sorry, wrong room …”

“I think he’s gone home.”


“So that’s another ‘Disappointing’, and a ‘Does the bare minimum’. Which leaves me trying to gain comfort from an ‘Occasional glimmer’ and a ‘Quite good, but …’.”

“What about my ‘lively’ in RE?”

“I think she was being sarcastic, Boswell.”


Thinner smiles, limper handshakes.  “Good evening” … Nag-nag … “Thank you.” Next …

Miss Wemyss’s smile ever curlier; her queue ever longer.  Some fathers went round twice.


His mother said “Who is the girl?”


“The one you were talking to.”

“Was I?”

“The pretty blonde one.”

“No idea,” said Boswell.


End of evening, end of tether.  Foot-sore, bum-weary.

Teachers pulling no punches.

Parents tired, on auto-twitch.

Caretaker rattling keys, flipping lights, locking doors.

Time to go … Go. Go.


10.20.  The Figgises called it a night.  Boswell got in the back of the car.

His father rubbed the windscreen.  “What did you make of the evening, dear?”

His mother said “The school?  Organisation?  Absolute shambles.  What did you think?”

“All I can say is Could do better.  Much Better.”

In the dark, Boswell smiled.  Ten minutes stuck in a queue with MH … It didn’t come much better than that.



Next week:  Figgis and the Summer Rain


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