Document 559

The Fower Quarters: 14 - A Very Dysfunctional Family

Author(s): Sheena Blackhall

Copyright holder(s): Sheena Blackhall


It was a cold, sunlit day in early spring. The staff in the run-down inner-city primary school were enjoying their cherished dinner hour, huddled together for solidarity around the cramped coffee table that was piled with books and brochures, jotters, memos and junk. The plastic kettle had recently boiled; four cups had been primed with caffeine; and the headmistress, a restless greyhound-lean woman, had loped off for her customary smoking constitutional round the block. On one of the few wisps of grass lingering in the children's playground, a thrush was ferociously tying to tug a reluctant worm from a slab of earth. Sam Jones Junior from Primary three had just given his classmate, Mary Summers, a thwack on the head with his lunch box, and the wretched victim had set up a tortured wail like a police siren. It was a reminder (if one was needed) that the staff room was a sanctuary in a sea of pre-pubescent anarchy.

"Thank God," sighed the infant teacher, Sally Michie, a strapping Dundonian with lobes heavily-laden with Macintosh earrings that swayed as she gave utterance to her thoughts. "Thank God the Union put a stop to playground supervision. I hope he kills Mary Summers. I hope he bloody well dismembers her. You wouldn't believe how bad that girl has been all morning."

Her friend, Jean Baxter, who taught Primary 5, paid no heed to this lament. For some time, she had been trying to get the attention of Jim Higgins, Primary 7's teacher. Jim also took football, a task thrust upon him against all the rules of gender equality despite the fact that he was thin as a reed with biceps like two blisters and a concave rib cage. Until saved by early retirement, nervous breakdown or heart attack, he was condemned by virtue of his sex to escort straggling crocodiles up and down to the swimming pool, football pitch or sports field, like a mother duck leading with her gaggle of raucous offspring.

"Don't sit there, Jim Higgins, like Keats' Grecian urn, pretending you don't hear me. The Council memos aren't that riveting - at least they weren't the last time I read one. Put them down and listen to me. What exactly d'you know about that new kid on the school roll, Helen Thespiosis. I hear she's Greek. The secretary says the child has fifty aunts. Fifty! Can you believe that? Imagine the strain on the Council, having to house them all. They're a population explosion in themselves. That beats the MacGee family into a cocked hat, and I thought they were bad enough, having sixteen in the family. That Thespiosis tribe's going to want a whole street to themselves. Must have needed most of the boat to bring them from the Parthenon or wherever they came from. And I bet they won't have two words of English between them."

Sally Michie regarded her colleague wearily, through eyes heavy-lidded from three hours' marking, after a late night clubbing. "I could have told you all about them this morning. My newsagent knows them. He says that Hercules Androkles, the owner of that taverna in Richwood Boulevard, brags to everyone that he once slept with forty-nine of Helen's aunties in one night. He called it the thirteenth labour of Hercules. He treated it all as one big macho thing. Men are such liars," she snorted, remembering how a certain insurance clerk had revealed, with tabloid sensationalism to an entire pub, the intimate details of a brief fling she'd had with him after a performance of Riverdance which had roused the blood in her normally placid veins.

"So he didnae sleep with all fifty then?" said Jim, tongue in cheek.

"I gather one of the aunts is gay."

"Well, chacun à son gout."

Jean Baxter's curiosity was kindled. "How old is this Helen Thespiosis? Which one of us is getting her? They'll have to build another school if Helen has as many sisters as her mother! The education budget'll go sky-high."

Jim Higgins folded the latest Council memo into a paper dart, propelled it into the air and watched it land gently on a plate of softening rich tea biscuits. They had been set out in honour of a visiting schools inspector last month but never returned to their packet.

"Dinna work yourself up intae a froth, Jean. The Thespiosis kids are baith in my class. They enrolled last week actually. Ye've likely seen them - though Helen's the mair distinctive o the twa."

Jean Baxter was furious on two counts. She was nettled that Jim Higgins and Sally Michie hadn't mentioned these new pupils before and irked that the arrival into the fold of two Greek children had passed quite unnoticed by herself. Jean's powers of observation were usually so acute she could spot a louse on a pupil's head at a hundred paces.

Dorothy Giddings, the school nurse, was perched on a stool at the periphery of the conversation, carefully painting her nails a shade of puce.

"I saw one of the two Greek girls yesterday," she volunteered. "Her name's Clytemnestra. Crying her eyes out, the poor wee lamb was. Mary Summers took her to the sick room because she was greetin in the girls' toilets. Seems there's been a family bust-up. Mr Thespiosis had to come into school and take her home. Her two brothers had just been flown back to Greece by Mercury."

"Now you mention it," said Sally, warming to the theme, "the newsagent told me that as well. Though I must say, I've never heard of Mercury Airlines. Must be Greek. You'd hardly credit the odd names these Greeks give their kids - Pollux and Castor, the boys are called."

Jean Baxter gave a derisive sniff. "Why can't these foreigners use nice sensible names for their offspring, like Philip or Alexander? I mean to say, Castor and Pollux! Bollocks! And how on earth do you get your tongue round the poor girl's name each morning, when you call out the register? I can just hear it - Andrew Buchan, Jessie Coutts, George Duguid, Clytemnestra Thespiosis!"

Jim extracted a tooth pick from his jacket pocket, and began poking methodically in his teeth, like a Cornish miner extracting a nugget of tin from a rich mineral seam.

"It's like talking to a tray of cement, I swear! Jim! Answer, will you!"

Triumphantly, Mr Higgins impaled a wedge of apple on his toothpick, removed it daintily from the point with his fingers and propelled it expertly into the waste bin.

"I jist caa her Clytie," he said. "She disnae mind. She's a fine bairn really."

"Her parents will complain though," warned Sally Michie. "They'll call it racial prejudice. You can't so much as breathe on a pupil now but you're accused of assault or defamation of character or abuse. And that's just the kids themselves! What's this Clytemnestra's sister like, then?"

Jim fidgeted in his seat and turned the question over slowly, like an aged crofter cutting peat. "Helen's caused a fair stooshie with the boys already. Primary 7's an awkward-like age onywye - they're starting to discover there's mair to life than fitba and bools."

"And you encourage them, you know," snapped Sally." I've seen that Rodin print on the back of your classroom cupboard."

Jim frowned. "Yon's Fine Art. Only a Philistine sees smut in Fine Art."

"Art-schmart! Why do artists' models take their clothes off, for heaven's sake? Answer me that! Seriously, you'll need to keep a tight rein on that Helen. She spends far too much time behind the bike sheds according to the playground supervisor."

"Now I know the girl you mean," said Jean Baxter excitedly. Very pretty child. Pure, pale skin. Very slender neck, just like a ..."

"Swan." Dorothy the nurse completed the sentence and ran away with it. "And you don't know the best of it, not one of you." She lowered her voice dramatically and waited a moment for this to sink in before going on, then leaned forward confidentially. "You know I go out with Tiger Morrison? Well, Tiger's the Thespiosis family's social worker. They've only been here five minutes, and they've a social work file as thick as the London phone books."

Jim Higgins grunted. Dorothy Giddings was prone to exaggeration. It was a female failing. But she did go out with Tiger Morrison and she knew more local scandal than a Catholic priest. The unfortunate Greek family's dirty washing was aired for all to know.

"Tiger says Mr Thespiosis told him that he isn't Helen's real dad."

"Half the school don't know their real dads. Neither do their mothers. Nor the Child Support Agency for that matter. It's a national scandal. Family values breaking down. It's the thin end of the wedge!"

"Shut up, Jean Baxter and let Dorothy finish," Sally Michie chided.

"So Helen's a cuckoo in the nest, is she?" joked Jim.

The nurse gave him an odd look. "Not quite. Mr Thespiosis told Tiger that when his wife was pregnant (her name's Leda by the way - nice name that) she had it off with a swan! For some minutes, there was total silence in the staffroom, broken only by the rasping sound of Jean Baxter compulsively stirring her coffee anti-clockwise.

"That's it then," sighed Sally. "The man's certifiable. So much for Care in the Community. He's likely a paedophile. Probably goes into public lavatories and exposes himself. Or taps into sewers of filth on the Internet."

"Well no, actually," the nurse went on. "Tiger says that apart from that one wee delusion, he's perfectly sane, and a very nice man really. Except that he does have one other minor delusion. Thinks Helen was born from an egg."

"Nae sae daft then. Children do originally come frae an ovum," observed Jim.

"You didn't let me finish," protested Dorothy. "He believes Helen was born from a swan's egg."

"Well, that convinces me," said Jean. "The guy should be banged up. He's not safe to be let out."

"Funny thing though," mused Jim, rummaging around in his memory like a kirk elder fumbling for his pandrop, "When I took Primary 7 tae the pool yesterday, young Helen Thespiosis took tae the water like a ..."

"Swan?" asked Jean acidly.

"Duck, actually. And 1 ken she's a bonnie bairn but her taes are webbit."

"You don't seriously mean that!" gasped Dorothy.

Jim picked his words carefully, like a butler picking shards of glass from a sugar bowl.

"I ken what I saw, and the lassie's taes are webbit. Naethin strange aboot odd little quirks of nature like thon. A wee NHS operation pits it richt."

Sally Michie's thoughts were still tethered to the swan revelation. "It's called bestiality, isn't it?" she whispered, repelled yet fascinated.

"I knew a farmer once," said Jean Baxter, "who had a very close encounter with a Friesian heifer. But to the best of my knowledge, it didn't go on to lay an egg."

"Inter-species copulation carries a jail sentence. And huge social stigma," Dorothy Giddings remarked censoriously.

"What a man does in the privacy o his ain byre should be his ain business," joked Jim. "Unless of course, the Friesian was tethered, in which case bondage enters intae the scenario."

"You're not funny, Jim," said Sally. "If you were in my class, I'd wash your mouth out with carbolic for coming out with a dirty crack like that."

"I did wonder why they'd put A VERY DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY on the two girls' notes," said the nurse. "But after I spoke to Tiger it all became clear."

"It must be a good month for new pupils enrolling," remarked the headmistress coming in briskly from her stroll, oblivious to all that had gone before. "There's a new boy coming tomorrow. Odd Christian name. What is it again? Amsterdam? Delhi? London? No - I have it now. Paris! Yes, that's it. His name is Paris. Seems he's Greek too. I'm sure he'll take to Helen and Clytemnestra like a duck to water."

"As long as it's like a duck and nae a swan," said Jim.

But nobody laughed.

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The Fower Quarters: 14 - A Very Dysfunctional Family. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 12 April 2024, from

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 559

The Fower Quarters: 14 - A Very Dysfunctional Family


Text audience

General public
Audience size 100+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Word count 2104

Text medium


Text publication details

Publisher GKB Enterprises
Publication year 2002
Place of publication Aberdeen
ISBN/ISSN 0952655462
Part of larger text
Contained in The Fower Quarters: Tales by Sheena Blackhall

Text type

Prose: fiction
Short story


Author details

Author id 112
Forenames Sheena
Surname Blackhall
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 16
Upbringing/religious beliefs Brought up Protestant, now Buddhist
Occupation Writer and supply teacher
Place of birth Aberdeen
Region of birth Aberdeen
Birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Aberdeen
Region of residence Aberdeen
Residence CSD dialect area Abd
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Manager of Deeside Omnibus Service
Father's place of birth Aboyne
Father's region of birth Aberdeen
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Private Secretary
Mother's place of birth Aberdeen
Mother's region of birth Aberdeen
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Abd
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary. Gaelic choir. Poetry.
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes