She arrived earlier than usual on her last day at St Ambrose High, earlier even than the neat, bleary pupils decanted from expensive cars by parents on route to city jobs, and certainly earlier than the dawdlers loitering at favoured corners within close proximity. They’d be still drinking their sugar loaded breakfasts, purchased daily with money given in lieu of care.
She walked swiftly past the caretaker, or – recently renamed – facilities director, as he guided his mechanical broom down mercifully quiet corridors. His face a studied façade of blankness as he cleared the battleground for the next onslaught of boisterous exuberance. He nodded at her as she passed, as he had almost certainly done to all staff during the five years she had worked here. She had no recollection of hearing him speak and it was unlikely now that she ever would.
Turning left took her through the Maths corridor in which trigonometry examples and Pythagoras theorem were displayed in the manner of those passé wall slogans that people hoped represented their lifestyle choices: Live, Laugh, Love and embrace your Algebra. She had definitely worked here too long.
Reaching learning support, she grappled in her bag for the specially-made key fob that eliminated the requirement for thumb print entry. Her fingerprints rarely registered anywhere.
‘Of course they don’t. You need body heat for that. You’re cold…frigid.’
An image of Malcolm’s mocking face. His disdainful laughter that somehow made her culpable for his misdemeanours.
She had never entirely belonged here. She belonged at St Mary’s Catholic girls’ school, but staying there had become untenable. She couldn’t bear the pity or the speculative gossip.
Nor could she continue to work alongside Malcolm.
She’d transferred here, reassured by anonymity. But the religious curriculum in a secular school was unfamiliar; the debates were difficult and the staffroom politics even more challenging. Teaching boys required adaptations she had not accounted for. When A level results took a downturn, it was suggested she may be more comfortable in a supporting role.
Sitting at the far desk nearest to the window, she swivelled her chair to survey haphazard piles of notes, books and papers on the surface in front of her. Evidence of her organisational decline. Her self-imposed task, in this quiet half hour, was to separate what belonged to the school from what she could dispose of. She began to place small items in the boxes she had accumulated under her desk. Her colleagues would assist with their removal to her car. It would be the first time she had ever asked them for help.
Swiftly she sorted through pupils’ work, each essay loaded with associations, stamped with imprints of faces, personalities and quirks. She shredded them all. By the time colleagues arrived, bearing bouquets and bonhomie, all boxes were neatly arranged, and any evidence of the past five years had been wiped from her learning station.
All but one small pile of Ben’s work.
From the corner of her eye she observed the daily carnage. Parents battled to drop their treasures as close to the gates as possible lest some awful fate befall them during transition to school’s care. Occasionally, the gates opened electronically and victorious parents, brandishing their special permissions, drove regally through. Their darlings were discharged at the doors of reception, skilfully avoiding contamination with playground air. Ben had been one such student.
Lynne had met Mum on the second day of the Autumn’s term. A tiny, blonde woman (‘call-me-Lorna’) was standing in Carl’s office, anxiously fingering the gilt buttons on the pink tweed-style jacket, whilst her worried eyes searched the face of this woman she would entrust with her son.
Ben’s story emerged in an explosion of maternal concern. Taking A levels at a neighbouring college, he’d been an above average student whose sporting talents, combined with parental investment, had facilitated openings for a promising rugby career. An appalling accident during some inter-college final, had led to almost six months in hospital, during which time he had undergone repeated operations on his shattered leg. The overriding concern, in the initial months, had been brain injury and his sporting future seemed inconsequential by comparison. It was only afterwards that the enormity of lost potential descended. Ben was unlikely to play again, and a year later still had a frame around his left leg. He was awaiting one last operation to enable him to walk unaided. Having missed a year of college, his parents had chosen to transfer him to St Ambrose where he would be spared his friends’ successes.
Lorna’s personal heartbreak unleashed, she looked to this other woman for the sympathy she was accustomed to. Lynne merely nodded.
‘You know how worrying it all is. We live for our children, don’t we?’
Lynne froze, watching a flush spread up the translucent skin on Lorna’s throat.
‘Gosh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed…’
Lynne had squashed stirrings of a natural empathy. Secure and cossetted, Lorna embodied all the privileges that eluded Lynne.
‘I’ve worked closely with young people all my life.’
It was unnecessary to add that she had no children of her own and at 38 she considered it extremely unlikely. Malcolm’s new baby son she had discovered on one shameful foray onto Facebook. On that evening, she deleted all social media.
She touched her own name on her desk, running her fingers across the letters she once believed happily discarded: Miss Stanhope. The brass plate was tarnished, plain and unutterably dull, its lustre long faded. And clearly that was how Malcolm had viewed his wife. With self-granted permission, he had embarked upon a series of discreet infidelities. The final one however, uncovered in horrific splendour in its physical manifestation, was with the deputy head.
Although all these happenings were years ago, they replayed daily. And with each showing they became louder and more vivid. She no longer believed they could be diminished by distraction, nor obliterated by focus on work: both methods had a pathetic prognosis. She stared out into the yard, almost conjuring up Ben’s family Dacia. It was unlikely to park here again.
Of all the pupils she’d been given that September, Ben proved the most rewarding. She had welcomed her tall, polite new pupil and was delighted to find him receptive and diligent. One of only three doing A levels, he quickly emerged as thoughtful and engaged. Although reticent at first, he gradually began to relax. He was allotted an hour a day for tutorials but, over the term, he drifted back in free periods and it became more convenient to ensure that her timetable coincided with his.
The routine became established. As they were studying the philosophy of religion unit, it became natural to discuss their own faith, and she took pleasure in his intelligent reception of her own ideas; ideas that Malcolm had been swift to ridicule. He watched her carefully, head slightly tilted, his eyes narrowed as he considered her questions.
‘With the Determinism unit, it’s a matter of arguing for and against free will. It’s tricky. We consider how much we get to decide what happens in our life or whether everything is somehow already mapped out for us’
‘Oh, It’s definitely free will. It would be awful to think we had no control.’ He looked at her for approval. ‘What do you think?’
She smiled at him.
‘I agree, but it’s a weightier responsibility.’
His eyes narrowed further as he looked at her to clarify. How quickly she had learned to read his expressions.
‘We need to make sure we make the right choices and we have to bear the guilt if we don’t.’
‘And we are answerable to God, you would say?’
‘I believe that. Yes.’
Throughout their mornings he grew in confidence to share his own opinions with her. And to consult on hers.
‘So, Miss, d’you believe God intervenes in our lives. Changes stuff?’
His gaze was disarmingly open, even if his words lacked a certain articulate maturity. But had been such a long time since she had an interesting conversation. With someone who actually listened.
‘Er.. I believe He is in our conscience. Do you know what I mean by that?’
‘I think. And do you think we actually get punished?
‘Bad conscience is punishment enough.’
She’d always believed these words, but Malcolm didn’t appear punished. He looked happy, reinvented. His new glossy family pictures, plastered over an album of discarded promises. A shiny new life constructed on the rubble of hers.
‘But sometimes I wonder why God took rugby from me? Or why He let me believe I had a chance to be something special.’
But you are special…
‘Cos’ its actually worse to lose something than not to have had it at all.’
‘Ah, Ben, many people believe otherwise.’
Although, she was not one of those people anymore.
Study discussions flowed easily into personal issues. Comfortable enough now for confidences, he shared his worries about the accident’s effect on his parents.
‘Mum blamed Dad at first…for the rugby and everything. For encouraging me. There were a lot of rows.’
Lynne enjoyed a fleeting fantasy of perfect Lorna, thrust from her protective cocoon, exiled in a flat similar to her own. Solitary nights spent wakeful as the walls echoed with regret. It could happen. Fault lines widen into chasms across which you find yourself stranded.
‘Are things better now?’
‘Better since I came here. I think I’m calmer.’ He smiled at her, shyly.
Lynne laughed. ‘I’m trying to picture you with a temper.’
He creased his smooth forehead into a parody frown, and their laughing intermingled. Automatically, she reached across and stroked his hand. It was warm and solid.
A connection with another body.
Immediately, she gathered the papers together, re-establishing their roles.
‘Mocks before Christmas, so lots of revising this weekend.’
His smile didn’t falter. ‘All weekend, I’m not joking… I’ve nothing else planned in.’
As she watched his tall, solid frame negotiate the door and his now-automatic way of manoeuvring his damaged leg, she reflected on the absence of self-pity in that remark. Her weekend was similarly devoid of plans but she didn’t greet it with quite the same equanimity.
In the week before Christmas timetabling was disbanded to allow for exams.
‘I may need to keep Ben for daily revision. He’s almost there’
Carl acquiesced immediately: Lynne’s record in his department was unblemished. But, whilst Ben was completing other exams, Lynne was expected to pick up listed pupils to assess. Unmonitored and in charge of her own schedule, she saw no-one extra.
How gradually their demarcation lines had blurred. Each morning he popped his head round the office door as if it was his natural home.
‘How was your evening?’
‘Busy – with your prep.’
‘Poor you.’ He was grinning at her.
‘You’d better be worth it.’
‘You know I am. Brought you breakfast.’
She hesitated, looking at the half-bitten doughnut he extended, then she took from him and raised it to her lips.
He smiled through his narrowed eyes; the accepted challenge was a secret bond to treasure.
One morning she had asked him if he had made any friends here. ‘Only you,’ he had replied. And she had looked away as something long-buried stirred inside her.
On the Thursday of his exam, she stood at the small rectangular window and watched his sandy head bent in concentration. She looked at the way he held his pen with index finger and thumb close to the nib, like a child with its first pencil. Envy gnawed her consciousness. Lorna owned all these memories of him.
Catching her eye, he broke into a wide smile accompanied by a thumbs-up. That he’d be pleased with this paper was no surprise. She had, of course, been consulted on the practice questions. He was fully prepared.
The last Friday before the Christmas holiday, normal lessons were postponed and the whole school succumbed to compulsory jollity. Colleagues in her department were dressing the central table for a Christmas lunch and the festive freakshow – the ubiquitous jumper day – was in full swing. Ben appeared at the window of the office. She jumped up to meet him outside, but he was already being ushered in.
She stood up in front of him noting their heights as if for the first time. He was probably two inches taller than her. He grinned at her. Resplendent in a green nylon jumper, she had a 3d cracker protruding from her chest. The team had bought her this monstrosity last Christmas, removing her barrier to ‘joining in the fun.’
He eyed the cracker and winked at her.
‘Can I…?’ he begun with a laugh. She looked at him in alarm, and he faltered. They both stood mired in a new discomfort.
To fill the silence, he handed her a beautifully wrapped parcel.
‘From my parents,’ he said, with extra emphasis.
She took it from him, saddened by this one-sided transaction. He made as if to leave. But the thought of two weeks without seeing him opened before her, vacant and hollow.
‘I’ll walk out with you.’
In the corridor she stuck to acceptable script about holiday plans. But he stared through her words and straight down into her eyes. And she looked back at the man within and neither person spoke nor cared to clutch at pleasantries.
In that fractionally small amount of time a perception changed and a recognition was established that whatever this was, it was mutual. Once that had been wordlessly accepted, it was permissible to move to recognisable dialogue.
‘Take care of yourself over Christmas. Try to study a little…’
‘Of course. Will you miss me?’ Half cheeky, half sincere.
‘I will see you on 2 January 9am. Next year.’
‘It’s a date…’
Back at her desk she stroked the shiny red paper of her parcel, bringing her fingers down to caress the gift tag. ‘All my love, Ben.’
She had driven home that night passing, as she always did, the little church that she used to feel so much a part of. A group of families were gathering there, awkward and uncomfortable, obliged to attend what was probably a school’s seasonal carol concert. The sort of event that she used to lead. She would never go back inside that building, never pray alongside people who must have laughed at her or pitied her. Now she wholly rejected communal worship, preferring to pray alone in her flat.
She continued to pray over that Christmas, not for fortitude or strength, but for happiness and with the self-justification of one who believes that God is entirely in sympathy with their own circumstances.
In the event, her holiday was neither lonely enough to warrant pity nor celebratory enough to justify the hype. She had sufficient family that required visiting, she had parents to travel up to on Christmas day and a couple of old friends to meet for drinks but all of these occasions, habitual only by annual expectation, were underpinned by an electrical charge that she allowed to remain unquestioned. She chose to name this excitement, hope.
After the holiday, she returned to school buoyed with unfamiliar optimism. Checking the buttons on her new silk shirt, she reapplied the perfume from the Ted Baker set that had been contained within the red wrapping and prepared herself for the arduous post-holiday pleasantries with colleagues. She smiled hazily at the phones thrust under her nose that almost invariably displayed people’s children reciting something unclear. Yes – she agreed – how unbelievably advanced they are! She dutifully manufactured approval of someone’s daughter’s engagement ring. She summoned some enthusiasm for school nativity clips, despite their being indistinguishable from previous years’. People’s shared lives, all momentous in their extreme ordinariness, yet it seemed easier to compliment them today. She was even able to bear her own interrogation with a little more patience than usual.
Relieved as people drifted away to organise themselves, she had begun preparing her new term’s work when Carl beckoned her into the office. A call from Lorna Shaw. Lynne glanced out to the car park; the space she had come to regard as his was empty.
It transpired that, due to a cancellation, Ben had had his operation just after Christmas. In theory it had gone well, but he was on medication and in some discomfort. He was likely to miss the first few weeks of term.
‘Thing is,’ Lorna said, with her grating breathlessness, ‘he really wants his results today and doesn’t want to miss the new topics so I’m speaking to all his teachers to…
‘He got an A.’ A pause followed as two very different women briefly united in pride.
‘…and I can bring work round if you wish.’
‘Gosh – brilliant, thank you and – no, don’t go to any trouble … I could give you my email address, or his maybe…?’
‘No, it’s fine. It’s quite a complex unit, we begin with the Design Argument. Maybe I could explain it a little to him after school. If that’s OK?
‘Maybe if you explain it to me as well, I can help him.’ Lorna laughed nervously.
It clearly wasn’t fine in school terms, it was indeed highly irregular, but this foolish woman was unaware. Most parents believe their child worthy of individualised curriculum, so bespoke assistance would go unquestioned. But If she informed Carl, she risked the delivery of work being handed to office staff. Ben needed continuity. Ben needed her.
The lounge of the well-kept semi that Lorna showed her into at around 4:30 was feminine and over decorated. Ben was recumbent on a cream leather sofa, his leg resting on a crocheted blanket, no doubt to protect the surface from scratches. He looked thinner and his hair, grown longer, was breaking into curls at its ends; Lynne could see it had been recently combed. He had on cargo shorts that ended just below his knees and, as she perched on the edge of the sofa, she allowed herself a glance at the strong muscular calf, still toned from years of rugby. The other leg was newly bandaged but Lynne could see that it was considerably thinner. His green t-shirt’s short sleeves stopped high enough for her to glimpse the muscles previously hidden under sweaters.
He noticed her notice. It was provident that mum had gone to make tea.
‘I’m still training – just with hand weights – can’t let myself go.’ He flexed for her benefit.
There were so many right things to say here but Lynne couldn’t summon any coherence. She floundered, treasuring the thrill of new intimacy.
‘How was Christmas…I mean before… ?’
‘Shite.’ He winked, cheekily, at her surprised face.
‘It’s OK I’m not in school. I couldn’t drink, my mates tried to get me out but two shots and I was done for. Laid up New Year’s Eve…’
‘He’s not supposed to drink on these tablets’ the monitoring voice broke in as Lorna arrived with a tray of tea. Lynne realised that she had almost said something similar.
‘Actually, would you like some cake?
Despite disliking cake, mainly as an inverse reaction to how giddy her colleagues seemed to become over a piece of hard sponge, she agreed gratefully.
‘Me toooo,’ Ben shouted to Lorna’s retreating back. His wheedling tone a reminder of the lad within. But weren’t all men boys again in their mother’s house? Even Malcolm had been charmingly guilty of that small shred of humanity.
‘Your hair’s nice.’
She’d taken it out of its customary pleat and it fell, long and wavy, over her shoulders.
‘It’s OK I’m not in school,’ she mimicked him and their smiles linked.
‘No seriously, you should keep it like that, it’s beautiful.’
Lynne’s heart lurched. She wasn’t sure she knew how to receive compliments any more. Whilst the suburban afternoon tea scenario played out, she outlined the work ahead and as they spoke, the undercurrent of their innocuous dialogue became a code that only they could decipher.
‘I’ll call on Friday, to see how you’re getting on.’ A long wait, but necessary to retain professional plausibility.
‘I won’t be back til much later that evening,’ apologised Lorna, ‘and Mike is away that weekend. Is that OK with you?’
‘That is perfectly fine.’
Back home she faced her wardrobe. An incongruous feature in her plain flat, this spacious walk-in wardrobe begged for an injection of colour. Rows of navy skirts and trousers reflected her anonymity back at her and, behind them, a neglected heap of out-of-date dresses huddled, stained with memories unsafe to explore.
Later, in her ¾ bed – which wasn’t quite as hopeful as a double, nor as defeated as a single – she traversed though the NEXT website, ordering a frivolous amount for next-day delivery.
At work, a curious disconnect settled on her. Despite gentle queries in the department, Lynne did not fill Ben’s vacant timetable space with the next pupil on the waiting list, preferring to sit at her desk dreaming behind a mask of paper-shuffling and book sorting. Her previously guarded professionalism, an amalgam forged of necessity and pride, became a trifling intrusion on private thoughts.
On Friday, in her new black top and shorter-than-usual cream skirt, she spent the entire day meticulously planning his work, as if by attention to detail she could shade herself in innocence of intention. Because of her seniority, and previous exemplary work ethic, her puzzled colleagues merely noted the changes and made adjustments around her.
Arriving in his street just after four, she parked two houses away to allow herself time to apply the new lipstick in her car mirror. If at that point she was aware of certain clichés in the situation, she did not stop to question it. Instead she allowed her quickening heartbeat to accelerate her pace through his gate. He had obviously been watching for her. The door flung open as she lifted her hand to announce her arrival, and he stood just inside, wearing the same clothes as Monday, and looking her up and down appreciatively.
‘Afternoon Ben. How are you feeling?’ Silently she cursed herself; she sounded like a care assistant.
She looked up at him, his delighted smile thawing years of frozen restriction. He stood back to allow her to enter, his eyes twinkling with something she couldn’t yet identify.
‘She won’t be back until till well after seven.’ He stared intently at her. His lips parted; his head tilted knowingly.
A nervous cough strained at her throat and her mouth was dry. She had so much she wanted to say and so much she needed to hear from him, but she didn’t know how to begin. As she looked up at this handsome – no, beautiful – young man, she felt her body shudder; nerves that were simply a regular blend of fear and joy.
‘Shall we sit down?’ She needed some better chat.
‘Leg hurts a bit.’ He stroked her exposed forearm. ‘I’m trying to stand on it more’. As he moved in closer, she attempted to imagine they’d just met at a party, tried to remove their defined roles. But she lacked any frame of reference for that scenario.
They remained in the hallway although she was unsure why. She backed towards the wall and placed her briefcase on the floor.
There seems to be a moment when people know they are about to kiss; an unspoken agreement to move closer. Probably that’s what happened here although, despite torturously replaying it later, Lynne could not be sure who initiated it. But she moved towards the kiss she believed would be tender and ardent. In actuality, it was far from perfect: he seemed to place his lips over both of hers, in a kind of suction, giving her little room for manoeuvre and forcing her backwards to try to gain some control. As he moved on her a second time their teeth clashed, which didn’t hurt but sounded embarrassing. She was definitely overthinking. She tried to guide his head away, to begin to kiss him more tenderly, but he faltered.
‘What?’ A little impatience, a discordant note.
Then he was back again, large tongue filling her mouth, devouring her, lips far too hard and insistent and her body backed against the wall whilst her right hand still clutched her handbag. Her nose was squashed under his pressure and momentarily she struggled for breath. She tried to make it feel right, desperate not to allow the magic that sustained her over these months to dissolve. But the glossy romantic veneer unpeeled in that moment, starkly revealing a thirty-eight-year-old woman being kissed clumsily by a teenage boy. Disgust seeped into her bones as her pathetic lust for excitement evaporated entirely.
She pulled sharply from his grip.
‘Ben, I’m sorry, it’s wrong.’ She watched his beautiful face as it clouded with hurt pride and a trace of anger. She watched him trying to work out the next step. Reluctant to let this adventure escape, and driven by his youthful hormones, he moved towards her again but she held him back with an arm between them. She understood his confusion; she was wholly responsible and she failed to find any excuse suitable for herself.
‘Do you wanna go upstairs? It’ll be better.’ Still hopeful, a voice thick with lust, natural feelings in this young man.
His age made it excusable, hers made it unforgiveable.
‘No Ben. I’ve made a mistake. I’m really, really sorry. It’s not your fault.’ Her voice was faltering as the shame continued to refresh.
‘Fuck’s sake, Lynne.’ Fury mixed with something that looked like tears. She couldn’t look at him any more as the gravity of the transgression crushed her with a full weight of self-disgust.
She hesitated, wholly unable to rationalise. Devoid of guidance on how to handle the situation, she reached for the briefcase. He anticipated the action.
‘Don’t fucking dare. I don’t want to see another piece of work from you.’
Picking up the offending case he thrust it at her chest with force she had not witnessed in him previously, but that she felt she entirely warranted. She clutched it to her and noticed he was wobbling a little on his leg. Her heart momentarily spiked with maternal concern and the resulting confusion of feelings induced nausea that turned her stomach. She needed to leave. Again, predicting the action, Ben pulled the door inward, sharply catching his own bare foot on the underside. He hissed quickly in pain.
Tactfully she tried to ease round him but his body, although trying to avoid her, seemed to inadvertently block her. Time slowed torturously to extract maximum humiliation from this clumsy dance.
Once outside on the step she tried to meet his eyes, pathetically seeking something conciliatory. She felt the early pain of absence; she was already hollow. He shut the door without acknowledgement. Back in her car she grappled under the passenger seat for a bottle of water, but she couldn’t find it, and this frustration was compounded further by her lipstick smeared face and showy new clothes. Starting the car, she drove three streets away to a small supermarket car park: where amidst the shoppers purchasing ingredients for their family evening meals, she cried like she had never done before, even for Malcolm.
She called the school to report herself sick. It was the only action she recalled doing in the bleak week that followed. She lay on her bed, uncovered and barely ate, feeling worthy of neither comfort nor sustenance. The numbness of the last years had eased but old wounds were freshly exposed, the pain preserved and as acute as when it was first inflicted, and the new sickening shame congealed into self-loathing. She had closed-off from the shame Malcolm had brought; she was unable to award her own behaviour the same privilege.
She had returned last Monday. Giving in her notice was easier than expected. There had clearly not been any complaint as yet, but she took no relief from this. Informing Carl of inappropriate feelings, she stopped short of the transgression. Carl, at a loss to comprehend what he was hearing, chose to underplay the non-event as described to him, preferring to focus on the breakdown he judged she was on the verge of. Aware of the paid time off allowed for these conditions, the school was only too happy to waiver a long period of notice. They also assured her of references, which she knew she would never need.
Now it was Friday. Exactly two weeks since she had seen him, and six years since she had last seen Malcolm. Almost to the date.
If ever a day managed to feel agonisingly long and yet to pass without feature, then this was it. The cards kindly meant, filled with telephone numbers and promises, she left on her desk next to her name badge. Those well-meaning strangers, with whom she had shared an office, had helped her with the boxes, hugged her awkward frame and proffered invitations to family occasions that they were all aware she would never attend. When all this was done, she returned to her flat alone.
With sufficient pride to avoid a cliched scenario, she eschewed a microwave dinner to purchase a small portion of Chinese food on her way home, which she reheated later and had with a mini bottle of shiraz, whilst watching Sky news. After hearing of another bombing, with fatalities, in a country she would never visit, she turned off the television and allowing herself no time for self-indulgent reflection or maudlin thoughts, she set to work on the discarded clothes scattered uncharacteristically around the flat. Neglected dresses lay tangled with untried new items, and navy skirts and jackets cowered in crumpled heaps, divorced from their correct partners. Finding remaining resolve, she set about clearing this mess of her own making. She reached for her best leather work belt. It wouldn’t take too long. By tomorrow everything would be hanging in the walk-in wardrobe.
Josephine recently returned to university to complete a one-year MA with Manchester Writing School. Since then she has been published online in The Manchester Review, Lunate fiction and Cabinet of Heed, and has a short fiction published in The Invisible Collection (Nightjar Press) and Aesthetica annual.
She lives in Manchester with her three student children and is currently completing a collection of short stories.
The Invisible Collection is available from email@example.com
Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2021 is available from @aestheticamag
Facebook josephine harper https://www.facebook.com/hetty.harper/
Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay
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