James Huck

The Sick Teachers Cook Book

I began writing short pieces some time ago, but they were fragments of stories and parts of characters. It wasn’t until I reached a crisis in my career and life that the writing process crystallized and ideas became paragraphs and chapters.

I suppose I am the original Sick Teacher, although I have nothing on my principal character Aileen Byrne.  As a devoted career teacher myself I have experienced the rollercoaster that working in a State run school in the UK can be. 

After fifteen years I had climbed up the greasy pole to the point where I thought that I could really begin to put my pedagogy into practice. However, I let my principles and my pride stand in the way of corporate pragmatism and slipped straight back down.

Serious two or three thousand word writing days began as a form of cathartic therapy. A process whereby I could give voice to all my ideas. All my pent up, controlled, constrained and irrepressible creativity erupted from me. Long years of ‘towing the line’ and following directions; sparking creativity in others by repressing it in myself. 

To help control it I took long walks with my Working Cocker Spaniel, Jet. Together, she and I walked for miles every day. I allowed my feet to just follow the path, my mind emptying of worry, travelling along country paths on autopilot as she sniffed and chased pigeons and squirrels.

I suppose I entered a meditative state. The characters began to exist without my conscious direction and the plot revealed itself before me as I walked. Characters began to explain how they felt and why they were behaving as they were. At one point, I imagined them arguing about a particular plot device as Aileen argued a Head Teacher would never behave in such a manner in public. Needless to say, she made her point well and the plot was altered accordingly.


Once I returned home with a tired, and often muddy and soggy dog, I would set myself up at the kitchen table, dog lying across my feet, my laptop open and try to capture the action that had occurred that morning.  Sometimes I could instantly recall everything; sometimes my memory was not quite up to the task.  However, I always got there in the end.

Some days I hit a block, not sure how to get from the point of the story that I was at, to where I wanted it to be next. I found that the only way through this was to walk and then write – no matter what. Even if it was a day where fifty or a hundred words were hard fought for. The only way to get to where you want to be is to write through it. I had to just keep writing, deleting, writing, deleting, writing and so on, until it just felt right.

Writing has become a part of my life now. I couldn’t give it up. My career needs to fit around my writing as I have become a writer who is also a teacher, rather than the other way round. I have begun to write my second novel, the characters have begun to take shape and they have begun acting through the plot. I am excited to find out what happens.

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The Sick Teacher’s Cook Book

Only the illumination of the monitor pierced the darkness of the semi-detached house where she lived, alone. Aileen’s face and neck were bathed in this glow, floating in the inky blackness of the smallest of the three bedrooms she had converted into her study. Her clothes absorbed the weak light, making it appear that her body had vanished into a black hole that occupied the office chair.

Vague shapes of files and folders orbited a gently humming tower on the desk in front of her: a plastic monster that glared into space with the single indifferent red eye that indicated existence, without consciousness. Around it, on the desk, that had once been fastidiously and obsessively neat, as only a teachers could be, printed sheets and scribbled papers lay as disorganised as her rapidly deteriorating grip on reality.

Aileen leaned closer, her eyes fixed on the accusatory, blinking cursor, aware that a ghostly apparition was visible and returning her gaze. The careworn wrinkles and lines around the face were invisible in the reflection, only bitter eyes and a fixed scowl burned out of the empty page of the document that she was determined to write.

The electronic apparition’s neck appeared to be adorned by the colourful icons that were displayed along the base of the screen. A multicoloured collar of international news broadcasters, where a deluge of cherry picked, guilt  and anxiety breeding content rained and poured out. Every click and hyperlink led to an atrocious, voyeuristic video or photo slide-show of a new war, famine, flood, tyrant or assault.

Night after night, Aileen and her unblemished digital phantasm, devoured the litany of civilised monstrosity where truth and fact had been incrementally demeaned, disproved and twisted. She was just one of many who were groomed accidentally and unknowingly by the short-sighted and ambitious merchants of media in the bubble of the capital city; her eyes were pierced by needles of condoned violence as the world shrugged, day by day. 

Aileen knew she couldn’t rely on fact and truth, they could no longer hold up a shining light to expose the lies of the elite and politic. Every calamitous global event had become a point of debate for talking heads who argued and tried in desperation to appeal to the consuming public’s communal opinion. Meaning was constructed out of the ephemeral egos of the insecure, spawning clashes of cultures, counter-cultures, generational cultures, political cultures. The terrifying enquiry of the multi-channel, twenty-four hour news cycle meant a race towards  banality. Her eyes, and those of untold thousands of others, were gouged by this information, agonising electrical impulses to torture offended morals.

In the muddy light of the small room, she considered whether to write in the style of a diary or a memoir. The ghostly head scattered its fixed features with an electronic twitch and formed the words that hissed from Aileen, ‘A confession.’

Fingers caressed the familiar keys smoothly, the capital letters and numbers almost invisible on the small buttons after hours and years of overwork.  It was no matter, the sequences of words and sentences were well known to the Head Teacher commanding them.  She typed a title first:  The Sick Teacher’s Cook Book.

‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-five years since my last confession,’ Aileen’s lyrical voice disturbed the silent gloom of the sleepless night.

She reflected that she had been a good Catholic girl, growing up in Waterford, in Ireland in the 1960s. Her family had worked in the world renowned glass factory. The lush green land and charismatic town had provided her family with security, stability and happiness.

Admitting her transgression aloud in the midnight space surprised her in an unexpected way. She reached down under the chair to recover the half filled glass of whiskey. The liquid first tingled her lips and tongue as she took a sip, then lit a gentle fire as she swallowed the rest of the glass in one. The fingers returned to their work typing: a plan, a manifesto, a justification, perhaps more importantly for Aileen, a confession of her struggle.

Letters appeared, hesitantly, nervously. Guiltily. 

Those of us alive today, mistake the seeming solidity of our existence, our daily business providing a collective tectonic plate on which we all stand;  where we are balanced precariously, endlessly stumbling through the moments of our life. We fail our ancestors and descendants, those we have loved and those we love still, through determined ignorance.

As the words appeared on the screen and became cathartic sentences, Aileen’s invisible shoulders began to relax in the shrouded blackness of her jumper.

No warnings or signs are convincing enough to penetrate bourgeois delusions of luxurious permanence. Seasons, natural and human, become confused.  Wars spread like the wildfires that consume our grasslands and forests all over the world. Storms rage, water dries out, pollution has become a desirable and trade-able commodity and opinions and popularity have become more important and reliable than fact, truth and morality. How has all this happened?

The glowing whiteness of the screen became dulled by the electronic black letters; the spectral reflection dimmed and faded.  Dark thoughts bubbled around Aileen’s head like blobs in a lava lamp.  Now was the time.  Her fingers tapped on the keyboard, an irregular rhythm bearing a cadence for ephemeral ideas.  Her introduction continued.

It is known that the motion of the moon creates the oceans’ tides; the ebb and flow of the water over our planet’s surface: a placid and serene benefactor, encouraging life to flourish in glorious diversity, or by turns a vengeful hammer that indiscriminately smashes anything in its path against a rocky coastal anvil.  Could it be as simple as tiny changes in magnetism, altering the flow of underground water, changes that make people ebb and flow?  Kindness and cruelty in equal measure, as the form and structure of the non-linear god-like biological machine in our heads is influenced and changed. Axons and Dendrons formed and joined into ley lines by new thoughts and experiences like mystical monuments to barbarity and civilisation.  The planet that bore us broadcasts a plan for our thoughts and actions like a nightly shipping forecast.

Outside the first glow of the dawn of a new Monday morning smudged onto the horizon. A lifetime of stifled anxiety, stress and mental illness was bursting through the shackles of professional respectability into the world with the radiance and glory of the rays of the Sun through a stained glass window.

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