Ali was a little late getting home from school. He’d just come back from visiting William, with whom he’d been playing snooker. William was convalescing on return from hospital, recovering from severe head injuries sustained in a road accident. Did Ali let him win? Not a bit – just beat him in the last pocket of the last frame. Play fair. Don’t ‘let’ the opponent win, that’s the worst kind of cheating. Ali grinned as he told us how he’d surprised everyone by potting the black from the awkwardest angle.
“Oh, I’ve got something else to tell you.”
“Come on through,” he said, “the kitchen’s too warm, and I want to sit down.”
We followed. Uneasily.
“It’s Mrs Fitzgerald in English, she might be phoning you tonight.”
“Why? Did you have homework when you told us you didn’t?”
“Well, not exactly. It’s about this thing we were doing in Mrs Fitzgerald’s class.”
“We were doing this thing about word associations. She said a word, and we had to write down what we thought of with the word.”
“Well, she said ‘OAP’, so we wrote things like ‘wrinkles’, and ‘free bus passes’ and ‘free meals’.”
“‘Millwall’. I wrote ‘nutters’ for that.”
“She said ‘nun’, and I told a joke about nuns.”
“You told a joke about nuns? How did you tell a joke about nuns?”
“Out my mouth. It just came out my mouth.”
“I know, I know, things you say usually come out your mouth. What was the joke?”
“I told a joke about these nuns doing exercises.”
“Doing press-ups in a field of cucumbers.”
“Mrs Fitzgerald send me out of the class and took our phone number first. She’s going to ring you tonight.”
There was a grin; a clear attempt at diversionary tactics.
Normally, when I sense imminent loss of control and consequential loss of disciplinary authority, I make a beeline for the kitchen, and turn on the taps to drown the sound of laughing. This time, I knew it was hopeless. Frances lasted about thirty nanoseconds longer than I did.
“You told this joke to the teacher?”
“I didn’t mean to. It just came out.”
We switched on the answering machine for the whole week and pretended to be out, in case Mrs Fitzgerald really did ring.