The School Run by Lucy Stephens

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My father sat in a thin blue shirt with buttons undone, his breath seeping out the corner of his chapped lips in lazy coils. The windscreen had frosted over during the night, barbed spirals of ice like bacteria in a petri dish. He hadn’t bothered to scrape it off on my side and only an angry bludgeoned “O” revealed the road before him. The uniformity of country lanes, branches all gnarled and knotted, left me wondering how far we were. The traffic congested, his fingers started to knock against the door handle (tap. tap. tap. pause. taptaptap). Condensation dribbled down my window, passing headlights tinging the beads a honey gold.

‘Are you ignoring me, Eleanor?’

I peered over, shaking my head.

‘Not speaking to me either?’

I stayed mute.

‘Like your cunt mother!’

Brake lights ahead drenched his face in a pool of red. Ice fragments casting shadows across his cheeks, like splinters of bone from a butcher’s cleaver. He twisted towards me clawing a clump of my hair in his fists. Then yanked my head back, so I could feel his wet mouth next to my ear.

‘Are you fucking deaf?’

He flung me back into my seat, shaking wisps of hair from between his knuckles. The queue dissipated, and we continued in silence. A sign for the school appeared ahead, bathed in the cold beams of a streetlight. We followed a bus through the gate, students writhing in the back seats, squashing their smiles and spit against the windows. We parked in his favourite spot. Handbrake up, he bared his teeth in the rear-view mirror and then, using his index finger, scrubbed them quickly. I slipped out, keeping my eyes ahead.

My friends huddled together on the peeling benches outside the gym. I rebuilt my face into a grin and attempted to enter their circle. My closest friend Beth watched me, a look of agitation on her face. The last couple of months I had become more withdrawn, but I couldn’t trust her to be silent, not with my father teaching here.

‘Gracing us with your presence today are you?’

‘I’ve been busy with revision, I guess.’

Beth looked sceptical.

‘Where did you go? We haven’t seen you for ages?’

‘I told you –‘

‘Yeah yeah revision – but the exams were weeks ago, Holly told us that you didn’t apply for university in class last week? Did you not pass?’

I glanced at Holly, who had the courtesy to blush.

‘I did fine, just might take a gap year – work, make money.’

I hadn’t done fine. Everything had reached a crescendo a month before my exams. I had been walking home after picking up a pint of milk, when the rustling of bin bags drew my attention to an alleyway adjacent to the chip shop. The reek of burnt oil and battered fish clung to my clothes like sweat. Through the gloom I saw them, my father pawing at my neighbour, his fingers tugging at her thong, face hooked in her jowls. I dropped the milk and it rolled across the gravel, making them both look up. Horrified I ran, his voice shouting after me. He beat on my bedroom door, preaching promises and threats, so I never breathed a word. Mum found out a few weeks later anyway when my father left a message open on his phone. At first the shock consumed her, I would often find her sat in the kitchen, smoke curls tinted blue in the dim hours of early morning. My father tried to soothe her with excuses and petrol station flowers but quickly her sadness blossomed into anger to screams and plates shattering against walls. He knew she only stayed with him now for his wage packet, for the house and mortgage. So, he blamed me, convinced I had warned her.

Beth stepped off the bench, hands on her hips and walked towards me.

‘So why didn’t you tell us?’

‘Just hadn’t really decided till last week.’

Beth opened her mouth but was interrupted by the shrill of the bell, saved by the sound, I turned to leave, when she suddenly grabbed my arm. I whipped around and snatched it back.

‘Don’t touch me.’ I hissed.

Beth looked at me, shocked.

‘Jesus Christ Eleanor, what’s wrong with you?’

‘Just don’t, he… I can’t.’

She held my gaze then sighed.

‘I just wanted to see if you’ll meet us for lunch? Oh, and there’s something in your hair.’

I nodded but we both knew I wouldn’t go. I weaved between the crowds of students, while tentatively touching where Beth had pointed. My fingertips came back wet. His nails must have grazed my scalp. Luckily, my first class wasn’t for an hour, so I headed to the toilets next to the psychology rooms, to the last stall on the left. There was a cow drawn in sharpie on the wall with big tits instead of udders and the words ‘JOCIE IS A SLAG’ underneath. I sat there every day, wondering who Jocie was, observing the stains on the sanitary bin, the beer coloured rust along the door hinges and counting the hexagonal patterns on the ceiling. There were 26.

I tore off a square of toilet roll and dabbed at the wet patch, using my fingers to tease out the knot he had made. The meeting with Beth had made me think about the night I had opened my results packet. It was the same evening mum had asked my father to leave, she had finally saved up enough money for a divorce lawyer. Echoes of his pleas had resonated through the house, followed by a crash so loud that I peeked from behind my door. He had smashed their bedroom window, glass shards like glitter across the floor. Mum tugged at his shirt as he tried to lift himself onto the ledge, but he swatted her away. Shaken, she allowed him to stay but this only made her resentment grow and with it my father’s irrationality. He had always been too rough with discipline, a disciple of anger management classes but now he grew reckless, happy to leave marks. I laid back on the cold porcelain and took a deep breath, trying to compose myself before class.

Subjects blurred, I copied notes from each whiteboard, trying my best to feign interest but my eyes were ignorant to the words I scribbled down. Sometimes I saw Beth or the others and they’d smile and motion me over but I always shook my head. Some teachers started to give me sympathetic glances, my father’s laments of a looming divorce bleeding from the staff room to the hallways. Sometimes I saw him in between classes with groups of students always buzzing around him and laughing at his jokes; he had one of the best reputations in the school to uphold. His extra attention and effort to help his students was what made him so well liked. I always felt pang in my chest when I would see him with his class, reminding me of the days when I was younger, accompanying him to the school on my days off.  He would allow me to sit at the back of the class in a pair of slightly too large goggles while he demonstrated experiments. I would squeeze my eyes shut when the magnesium glowed too bright, which would make him laugh and place his hand over mine, so I wouldn’t peek through my fingers. Now, however, his effort was forced and his jokes self-deprecating, the laughs from his audience becoming more and more sympathetic.

School was always over too soon, unwillingly I trudged slowly back to wait by the car. Students trailed after him, some waving, others glaring at me enviously. But as he got closer, his smile would sour and with each step, deepen further into a frown. Off went his mask as he sat back in the car with me. The journey was uneventful until a message flashed on my phone. He looked over and saw it was mum, just – How was your day honey? – but her name was enough.

‘You want me gone, don’t you? It’ll be easier for you both, sending little messages to each other, ignoring me. Shall I fuck off Eleanor?’

As we edged near a junction, he paused, indicated, and turned the car before continuing his rant. His voice rising then dropping, the words jumbling together until they were just a buzz in my ear (cuntbitchwhore.) Through slit eyes I watched him. He was too skinny for his 6,5 frame; he had long suffered from Crohns Disease which ate away at him, leaving an emaciated carcass of jutting bone and skin spread too thin. He didn’t shower anymore, maybe once every two weeks, so his skin was waxy with a perfume of urine. His face was deeply scarred and teeming with red cystic acne from his medication, while his eyes were sunken in their sockets, glassy and bloodshot. The only thing we have in common was their colour – like his, mine were a misty green.

His tirade abruptly stopped, and the car swerved off the main road towards a farmer’s field. Home was in the other direction. Panic started to prickle in my armpits, beads of sweat pregnant and ready to drop. The wheels whirred, sticking in the muck as we pulled up by the metal gate, where he switched off the engine.

‘Look at those flowers, look at them.’

The field he pointed at was a spectrum of gold and purple, delicate bulbs intertwined between paper thin petals and blooming mouths thirsty for the approaching spring sun. They were so serene, surrounded by manure and mud, bursting iridescent, like rings in a ruined jewellery box. I could feel the alien sensation of a genuine smile tug at the corner of my lips and in that instant, I knew there would be an end to this. Maybe not tomorrow, next week or even in a month but soon. I could still see his mouth chewing over a tumble of words, but I wasn’t listening. I only remember the last line he said. It was meant to be another one of his cowardly threats, but to me it was a promise.

‘Remember the flowers when I’m dead.’

I knew I would.


Lucy Stephens

Originally from Cardiff, Wales, after completing my BA in English from The University of Nottingham, Lucy moved to Innsbruck, Austria. When she is not teaching English or studying German, Lucy spends any other available time writing short stories.

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Photo by Olga Moiseenko

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