Squirm energy pervaded the universe, Spam knew, and certain buildings could focus this energy, and project it into a single spot. No matter how confident you were, no matter how righteous your actions or innocent your thoughts, if you stood at the squirm spot the energy would concentrate inside you. It hadnít got him through his physics exam, but it was worth bearing in mind whenever he had to see Mr Farpworth.
Mr Farpworthís office was a squirm energiser. In most parts of the room you were safe. Behind the desk, the schoolís Team Leader (he had discarded the old-fashioned word "headmaster") lounged in perfect poise. If you could stand at the back of the room, you were at a safe enough distance. Or right at the front of the desk, agressively leaning over the Team Leader, was another squirm-free space, although one which was usually interpreted as insolence. If you had to stand in the centre of the room, slightly off to one side was best. Spam now stood to the left, and desperately hoped he would be able to keep his dignity.
"Stand in front of me boy, or are you trying to escape?"
Reluctantly Spam moved to the centre of the room and began to fidget.
"Now, I expect you know why youíre here."
Spam nodded. "The webcam in the staff room."
"No webcam, sir. I meant the tunnel to the girlsí changing rooms."
"Tunnel?"asked Mr Farpworth, baffled.
"Not the tunnel," said Spam. "The system of hand-signals we use to communicate answers in exams."
Mr Farpworth was frantically making notes. "No, itís none of that, actually," he said. "Itís about your History project."
"I did my best, sir," said Spam.
"Indeed. Now we had a target for your project, did we not?"
Spam simply didnít know where to put his hands, and spent so much effort ensuring they didnít go where they shouldnít that he completely lost control of his feet. "Yes, sir. You said that if I didnít get a C, Iíd be put in the lower group."
"And what happened?"
"I got a B." Spam noticed that his nose was squirming. The energy was high today.
"And what happens when we over-reach our targets?"
"Theyíre raised so we fail next time," said Spam, who was now guiltily squirming and fidgeting so much that he was little more than a blur.
"Indeed." Mr Farpworth leaned back in his chair and stared at the uncomfortable student, in order to relax him. "It might surprise you to learn that I, too, have targets to achieve. This schoolís success is measured by the results of our students. I am pleased to announce that we have achieved our targets for this year."
"Well done, sir," said Spam.
"Why, thank you," said Mr Farpworth. "I think itís not often realised how far the success of our students depends utterly on effective management." He sat forwards suddenly. "But now thereís a fly in the ointment. Someone, whom we advised, and indeed managed, to get a C, has turned up with a B. This school has overachieved, and youíre to blame."
"Sorry, sir," said Spam.
"Because of your thoughtlessness, those targets will be raised next year to ensure that we can no longer meet them. The efforts of you and your fellow students, and indeed of management, must be all the greater to reach the new targets. Your actions have directly led to the failure of the school next year."
"But we succeeded this year!" protested Spam.
"There is no such thing as success," said Mr Farpworth gravely. "Only deferred failure. You may also not realise that I have punishment targets. In order to ensure a disciplined school, I have been required to issue five hundred detentions this year. So far, I have issued four hundred and ninety-nine. Given the gravity of the situation, I have no choice but to remand you in detention until the case can be brought to trial."
Shouting and begging for mercy, Spam was led away.
Persephone stared at the spreadsheet in front of her. This sector of her business was thriving: she may even be in a position to employ someone else. But there was no way she could take on the job that the boy next to her was proposing.
"No," she said. "For a small and entirely reasonable fee, I can provide people to serve a detention in your place. But not a remand sentence. He could be in there for months."
Huskinson felt that familiar sensation that he always got when he knew he was about to lose an argument. "But Spamís my friend," he said. "Iíve got to get him out."
"I can defend him," said Persephone. "But I need to know how you intend to pay for my services."
"Legal aid?" said Huskinson weakly. Persephone had already charged him his tuck shop money just for this consultation.
"Donít waste my time," said Persephone. "Iím skipping Geography to have this conversation."
"Canít you defend him on a no win, no fee basis?" said Huskinson.
"No win I can do. No fee youíll have to manage yourself. Now if youíll excuse me, Iíve got debts to collect." She gathered her papers together, closed her laptop and walked off.
"But heís your best customer!" called Huskinson. Persephone stopped at that. He had a point. Spam was always first in the queue to buy homework in the morning. So long as he was in detention, he could play no further part in school life, and could not pay for Persephoneís services in making it bearable.
"I could always take this on as a human rights case," she said thoughtfully. "Perhaps we should pay a visit to Mr Farpworth."
Mrs Spitzlong sat at the desk at the front of the room, looking sternly at Spam. He looked behind her, at the clock on the wall. The red second hand made its regular circuit of the hours, and Spam pretended it was the hour hand, ticking away a day every minute.
As he watched, Mrs Spitzlong stood up, removed the clock from the wall, and replaced it with a calendar. Spam let his head fall to the desk.
"Bail is set at three hundred punishment tokens," said Mr Farpworth. Punishment tokens were a brilliant invention of his. Because of the high administrative costs of punishing students, including the especially high costs of detection, and the extra expense in providing detention facilities, he had introduced a scheme whereby a student could pay for the cost of their own punishment, and consequently be excused it altogether. Mr Farpworth had created a new currency for punishment trading, and had set the cost at twenty tokens for a telling-off, fifty for lines and a hundred for a detention.
He had had two thousand punishment tokens minted. Persephone had bought the lot on the first day, and doubled the price almost overnight. She gasped at the high price of bail. "But Spam doesnít have that kind of money!" she said. She was standing well outside the squirm point: there was only room enough for one person in it, which was why sheíd brought Huskinson with her.
"The seriousness of the misdemeanour warrants it," intoned the Team Leader.
"I thought you had three hundred punishment tokens?" asked Huskinson, once they were outside.
"I have, but Spam hasnít," said Persephone. Indeed, it was because she had them all that nobody else did. "I can try selling them to him, but he canít afford my prices."
"But canít you lend him the money?" There were rumours of a student who had been placed in detention in 1973, and due to staff shortages, had never been allowed to leave. One of the fifth-year girls swore that sheíd once spent a detention in the company of a skeleton. Huskinson wanted his friend out before he was forgotten.
"Do you have any idea how much he owes me already?" asked Persephone. "He has to borrow money off me to pay the interest. The only way he could afford to borrow the money for the punishment tokens would be to pay his debts off so Iíd have the money to lend him in the first place." She put her pen on her tongue thoughtfully. "Of course, if he used the punishment tokens as security on the loan that he hadnít taken out yet ..." She began to make frantic calculations.
Huskinson was glad he never got grade Bís.
"With a grade B in History, that boy could go far," said Persephone. "And if retirement ages continue to go up, he could have a working life of over fifty years. Now, if he were to sign a mere five percent of his income over to me, I could afford to lend him the bail, and defend him in court, on a no fee, no win basis. All Iíll need is for him to sign this contract."
"He canít sign the contract," said Huskinson. "Heís inside."
Persephone looked Huskinson straight in the eye. "Then Iíll have to give you power of attorney," she said. "Youíll have to sign the contract for him." Huskinson hesitated. "If you donít, he may never get out."
Reluctantly, Huskinson signed his friendís life away.
Mrs Spitzlong stared at the boy at the back of the room. She sighed. He really seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for life. At first heíd been content to sit and draw his tally on the wall, but now he just lay, head slumped on the table, motionless and silent.
She wondered if there was something wrong with him. Suspiciously, she stood up and walked over. "Sit up straight," she said. There was no response. Annoyed, Mrs Spitzlong pushed at his shoulder.
She gasped in fright as his head fell off and rolled along the floor. Trying not to panic, the Maths teacher picked it up.
Papier machť. Who on earth would have thought that the boy had actually been paying attention in craft lessons? Swiftly, Mrs Spitzlong sounded the alarm.
Persephone and Huskinson caught up with Mr Farpworth as he strode along the courtyard. "Bail is refused," he told them curtly.
"What?" cried Persephone. "But Spam will be in debt for the rest of his life for this."
"Bail was dependent on good behaviour," said Mr Farpworth. "Which in my book, means no escaping. Follow me, please. Yes, you too, Mr Huskinson. Relax, Iíve had this building evacuated."
Persephone frowned as they entered. Huskinson felt only elation. It was as if heíd entered the temple to a different religion, or a spiritually advanced nation in which westerners were unwelcome. Empty it may have been, but Huskinson was thrilled.
In the corner of the room was a set of lockers. The bottom right cupboard was swinging open. Inside there was a hole in the floor of the building, and it was through this that Spam was just raising himself to freedom. He stopped, devastated, when he saw Mr Farpworth.
"A tunnel to the girlsí changing rooms," said the Team Leader. "Most ingenious. But not, alas, successful."
With a resigned expression, Spam lowered himself back through the floor, to the detention room.
And so the seasons passed at Saint Street Comprehensive, but Huskinson never forgot his friend, detained at the Headmasterís pleasure, nor did Persephone forget the gaps in her spreadsheet where Spam should have been providing an income. The pair never ceased working for Spamís release, organising a letter-writing campaign, candle-lit vigils, a rock concert at Wembley stadium and ultimately, economic sanctions against the Team Leader.
Until finally, weakened under the public gaze, Mr Farpworth allowed a trial.
Spam was tried in front of a jury of twelve of his peers. This was bad news. Firstly, his peers took a savage delight in seeing their friends get into trouble. Secondly, jury duty was worse than an exam. If you got the answer wrong, you were in big trouble. Huskinson himself had sat on a jury once to decide a case of insubordination. When heíd returned a verdict of Not Guilty, Mr Farpworth had accused him of copying the verdict off the internet, and heíd had to change it before he found himself charged with contempt.
Spam looked old and worn as he was led into the courtroom. Huskinson pitied his friend, but was grateful that he seemed to be alive.
"You are charged with working for the failure of the school," said Mr Farpworth gravely. "How do you plead?"
"Not guilty," said Spam.
"You are now charged with working for the failure of the school, and pleading not guilty," said Mr Farpworth. "How do you plead this time?"
"Objection!" shouted Persephone. "Under the school regulations, a pupil cannot incriminate himself."
"Quite so," agreed Mr Farpworth. "Mr Huskinson, youíll have to do it."
"He pleads guilty," said Huskinson.
"Excellent," said Mr Farpworth. "I suppose we still have the formality of a trial to go through."
"The defence will argue," said Persephone, "that the defendant is incapable of producing work to such a high standard. The defence will argue that the defendant is a bit thick, and could only have copied the essay off the internet. Far from breaking the school target, he is in fact, a cheat."
"So he should be in detention for cheating?" asked the Team Leader.
Persephone had hoped that he wouldnít think of that. "That would be an entirely separate matter, with entirely separate costs," she said. "For now, it matters only that he could not have obtained the award himself."
"Let me clarify the matter," said Mr Farpworth gravely. "The issue here is not the quality of this young manís work. The issue is that he was awarded a grade B. Whether he deserved it or not is irrelevant."
"Mr Farpworth," said Persephone, "are you not aware of the health and safety implications of awarding students a grade B?" Mr Farpworth liked health and safety. Indeed, he prided himself on managing the healthiest and safest school within a 200 metre radius. "Go on," he said, suddenly more alert at the mention of the phrase.
"Studies have repeatedly shown that grade B students consider themselves in a no-manís land of achievement. They have neither scaled the heights of a grade A, nor plumbed the icy depths of a grade C. They therefore spend their lives in a search for an identity, for a role between the two classes. They become little more than go-betweens, communicating the demands from the grade A elite to the lower-class grade C workers. Because of this, they find themselves more prone to diseases of stress such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, and that sickness and diarrhoea thing that no doctor has ever successfully diagnosed, but which gets you a day off school."
Mr Farpworth nodded. The teachers often went down with that one, and he had long since suspected that they were catching it from the students.
"Furthermore, these grade B nobodies are prone to industrial accidents to a far greater extent than the rest of the population. Nobody knows if this is due to low self-esteem, general uselessness or just chance. In fact itís probably just chance, but if chance alone can create the effect, how much larger will it be once the other two factors start kicking in?"
"What exactly are you arguing?" asked Mr Farpworth.
"The defence argues that by awarding the grade B, the school was negligent in its attitude to health and safety. It is you, Mr Farpworth, who should be in the dock, not one of your victims, to whom you had a duty of care."
"Hmm." Mr Farpworth was impressed. "A very interesting argument, young lady. Yes, we must never turn on our backs on the schoolís health and safety policy. Indeed, I have only just increased the punishments for being ill or having an accident, which I believe will be a highly effective deterrant.
"But let me assure you that the decision to give this boy a grade B was not taken lightly. I can provide copies both of the risk assessment, and our Care Of Grades Hazardous to Human Health sheets."
"You did a risk assessment?" asked Persephone. "What risks did you identify?"
"The risk of detention seemed awfully high," admitted Mr Farpworth. "But frankly, you canít go through life without taking risks."
"Just a minute. If he didnít deserve a grade B and you knew he was going to get a detention for getting it, why did you give him it?"
"I told you," said Mr Farpworth triumphantly. "I had to hit my detention target."
Persephone had very little else to try. Spam stood glumly in the dock, knowing that the case was lost. Desperately, she took one last gamble. "Then Iíd like to call Huskinson as a character witness," she said.
There were gasps of amazement from the jury. Even Mr Farpworth gaped for a second. "But he hasnít got a character!" he said finally.
"I meant Spamís character," said Persephone icily. "Take the witness stand, please, Huskinson."
Huskinson stood reluctantly, and placed his hand on the schoolís health and safety policy.
"Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"
"Mmmm," said Huskinson uncomfortably, having discovered a new squirmhole in the fabric of spacetime.
"Apart from the webcam in the staffroom, have you ever known Spam to act against the interests of the school?"
"Ah. Well," said Huskinson. "This is it, isnít it."
"Answer the question please, Huskinson."
"Well, I think the issues that youíve raised show very important areas of concern, and we should not be afraid to act on them," said Huskinson.
"Iíll ask again," said Persephone. "Apart from the webcam in the staffroom, have you ever known Spam to act against the interests of the school?"
Mr Farpworth was becoming very interested in this webcam. Detention was too good for the boy, he thought. What a pity heíd run out of expulsions.
"You see the thing is," said Huskinson. "And this is the point, and I think youíll agree with me on this one. Spamís a mate."
Huskinson gave up. "In a very real sense, Spam didnít put the webcam in the staffroom."
"Then who on earth did?"
"Er, actually ... it was me."
Mr Farpworth leapt from his seat. "Guards!" he yelled. "Put this boy in detention!" Within seconds two prefects were forcefully manhandling Huskinson from the courtroom.
"And now," said Mr Farpworth. "As youíve lost not only all your arguments, but your star -" and he said "star" in the most sarcastic voice he could manage, and made a sign to the jury to laugh - "witness, it only remains for me to pass judgement, and to warn you that you will be detained at the headmasterís pleasure for -"
"- ten seconds," finished Persephone. "Thank you very much for your time, but if weíre quick we can still make the second half of French."
Mr Farpworth stared at her. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Persephone closed her file and packed her bag to leave. "Five hundred detentions, you said. Huskinson was the last one. You donít want to exceed your quota, do you?"
Mr Farpworth stared from her to Spam and back again, out-manoeuvred. Detentions were very expensive and time-consuming. If his quota were raised ...
"Very well," he said finally. "We have considered your appeal against your grade B, and have decided that in view of the extraordinary circumstances of your case, we will allow it. You may be downgraded to a grade C."
Everyone in the courtroom cheered. Spam almost collapsed with relief. Persephone merely smiled, and left with dignity, as the Team Leader glared at her back.
"Today is the first payment of the rest of your life," thought Spam, as he handed his dinner money over to Persephone. Once heíd been downgraded, Persephone had re-evaluated his career prospects, and decided he was too great a credit risk. Consequently sheíd called the debt in. Only by negotiating a crisis loan with her was he able to raise the cash. He handed over his dinner money with little enthusiasm.
"Excellent," said Persephone. "My best customer. Now that only leaves us with the small matter of Huskinson."
"He canít afford your services," said Spam. "He doesnít have that kind of money."
"Heís got good prospects though," said Persephone, taking the contract from her briefcase. "Now, Iím granting you power of attorney. Five percent for the rest of his life - a small price to pay for his freedom. At the bottom, please."
And Spam signed his friendís life away.