Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew's performance at parents' evening is defined by two things: impatience and showy behaviour'
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It is parents' evening at Louis' school today, and I am looking forward to it in the same way that I look forward to root canal. This has nothing to do with the teachers, who are very nice, or any worries about academic performance. It is because of Matthew that I dread it so.

His performance (it really is a performance, not just an appearance) at these events is defined by two characteristics: impatience and showy behaviour. The impatience is brought on by the queues of parents. Matthew is, simply, unable to queue. Even if there is only one person in front of us, something base lurking within him stirs and he becomes less patient than he was the day he told the Radio 4 news pips to "stop dawdling".

He sighs, he groans, he puts his head in his hands and rocks on his heels. Then he threatens to walk in on the ongoing interview, clapping and shouting, "Time! Time! Haven't you lot got homes to go to?" Once in the classroom, in front of a teacher, it is irony that comes into play and I brace myself for some showy displays. Many of the younger teachers do not "get" Matthew and believe that he is intentionally goading them - these good, conscientious, well-intentioned people - into calling social services.

I remember the time at Louis' previous school, for example, when Matthew asked the headmaster whether he thought it was misguided to allow a seven-year-old to stay up until 10.30pm watching I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! or whether he agreed with Louis' mother that 11.30pm was a more seemly school-night bedtime. And there was a frosty moment at the current school when he told the games teacher that he could see no point in Louis continuing with cricket at school when he got so much practice on the PlayStation 2.

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We have been waiting to see the history/ geography teacher for 90 seconds and Matthew's patience has just evaporated. "For God's sake," he says in the sort of stage whisper that could carry from West London to the West Bank. "What is that parent doing in there? They conducted the Nuremberg Trials in half the time." I point out that "that parent" is the mother of a friend of Louis' and that we like her very much. "In that case," said Matthew, "you'll have her mobile number. I suggest you ring her and tell her to bloody well hurry up. If you don't, then I will." I ignore him but he smiles to himself, happy that he has caused a ripple, a polite, middle-class stir among the parents behind us, before continuing with: "Oh God, this is torture. We must have been here 40 minutes." In fact, it is four minutes.

Louis' friend's mother finishes well within the five-minute allotted time-slot and as she passes us she stops, gives social kisses and apologises if she has kept us waiting. "Not at all," says Matthew a little too warmly. "Really, you couldn't have been quicker."

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The history/geography teacher says nice things about Louis and we beam with parental pride. Matthew, presumably unable to think of anything ironic to say about his son's remarkable drawing of a Saxon village, is silent. Then the teacher mentions that Louis has lost his geography exercise book. "Ah," says Matthew. "That would probably be the one he threw on the fire when he was drunk." The teacher looks appalled, shocked, aghast, which pleases Matthew. "We were watching Blackadder," he continues. "It was around 11.45 last Tuesday night and it was the episode where Baldrick throws Dr Johnson's dictionary into the flames and, well, I asked Louis not to have that second glass of rioja but..." I laugh weakly and say, sounding very like Sybil Fawlty: "My husband will have his little jokes. In fact, Louis left his geography book at his grandparents' house. I will collect it from there tomorrow."

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We queue for 10 minutes to see the Latin teacher, who is sharing a room with the religious studies teacher, and Matthew is quite saintly; relaxed, good-humoured and thrilled with his comic turn over the geography. But I find myself having to be quite sharp with a parent who, after spending 10 minutes talking to the religious studies teacher, squeezes herself in front of me at the head of the queue.

"Excuse me," I say. "Are you queuing to see the Latin teacher, because, if you are, we have been here 10 minutes." "Oh," she says. "Well, this is tricky, isn't it? You see, I was here first but I just nipped in to..." "No," I say, smiling, "It's not tricky. Not tricky at all. We were here first, we have been queuing for..." It is then that Matthew takes hold of my arm and says: "You must excuse my wife. She's never been good in queues."

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Once in front of the extraordinarily young, pretty Latin teacher, Matthew's main concern is to show off in the manner of an elder and wiser father figure about his own Bristol University classical education. He asks her, in a patronising, if gentle, tone, where she did her degree. "Oxford," she says. "Ah," says Matthew stiffly, remembering his own rejection from that university. "And which college?" "Balliol," she says.

"Come on," says Matthew, standing and taking me once more by the arm. "It wouldn't do to keep the other parents waiting. You know how absurdly impatient some people can be."

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