Authors: Daisy Waugh
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Stretchy Matilda/Miss Marple/Mata Hari/Lady Marchmain/Fatso-Crasher/ Retina Sputnik/Beauty/Mega-Dud/Genius/
…Panda Sarah de Sales La Terrière,
This one’s for you. With all my love.
So. That’s where the story begins. With Fanny Flynn and her ghosts, and Brute the dog, and an ancient Morris Minor half-filled with all their belongings, pulling up outside number 2 Old Alms Cottages, in the village of Fiddleford, near the market town of Lamsbury, deep in the heart of England’s south-west.
Fanny’s new home is in the centre of the village, beside the post office/shop and opposite Fiddleford’s fourteenth-century church. It is a few minutes’ walk from the pub and the primary school where she will be teaching, and within shouting distance of the excellent Gatehouse Restaurant. From the Alms Cottage front door, if she cranes her neck, Fanny can see not only the restaurant but, right beside it, the notorious, grand old iron gates of the Fiddleford Manor Retreat, behind which so many disgraced public figures have withdrawn to lick wounds and rebuild images.
It is April, bright and warm; the first morning in many for the sun to shine and the year’s first believable indication that winter is moving on. Fanny and Brute scramble down from the van. They stretch, dog and mistress, as engagingly compact, vital and untidy as each other. Fanny breathes in
the spring-like air, glances across at the press people lolling beneath the famous gates, and waves. They gaze morosely back, having long ago made it a sort of Cool Club rule to be disdainful with the villagers.
‘Bit rude, eh Brute?’ she says vaguely. ‘Go and bite.’
Brute, moronic but good-natured, sits on Fanny’s feet in gay confusion, and dribbles.
Number 2 Old Alms Cottages is a minuscule affair. It’s in the middle of a row of three two-hundred-year-old red stone terraced cottages, all of them empty. It has a single room and a bathroom upstairs, a single room with a kitchen downstairs and ceilings so low that the landlord has waited two years to find a tenant small enough to fit in. Fanny, at five foot three inches, fits the house as well as any modern human could hope to.
She stands in front of it now, jingling her new keys, pausing for a brief, thoughtful moment before launching on to this next new chapter of her many-chaptered life. She notices the faint, sour smell of old urine (old paparazzi hacks’ urine, as it happens; with the pub being a few minutes’ walk away, and the cottages empty, they often pee against her garden fence). She notices the paint-chipped, dirty-brown front door; the missing roof tiles; the sprawling ivy all but obscuring the single window upstairs – and feels a familiar rush of excitement.
New house. New job. New challenges. Another beginning. There is nothing quite like a new beginning, Fanny thinks – and she should know. This time, she tells herself (she mutters to Brute, still sitting on her feet), this time she is going to stick around to make it work. She is going to make roots. This small house and this fine spring day are to mark the beginning of Fanny Flynn’s new life. Her real life.
She laughs out loud.
. And immediately resents herself
for it. ‘Not bloody funny,’ she says aloud, shunting Brute off her feet as if it were all his fault. ‘Thirty-four years old next month. Thirty-four. Thirty-bloody-
. At this rate I’m going to wind up old and alone, and I’ll be dead and rotting for a fortnight before anyone even notices the stink. Got to stop farting around.’
Truth is, Fanny is growing jaded. After eleven years of wandering from place to place, picking up jobs and boyfriends on passionate whims and then passionately dropping them again, she is in danger of running out of mojo, or worse still, of becoming a caricature of her ebullient, spontaneous younger self. She longs to find a job or a man – or an unquenchable passion for woodcarving (but preferably a man). She longs to find something which might give her a little meaning, or at the very least might persuade her to stay still.
Last November she was once again focusing her search for meaning on the very large Jobs section of the
Times Educational Supplement
, when her eye fell upon the advertisement for Fiddleford Church of England Primary School. It had, she thought, an engagingly desperate ring to it:
TO START AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
Successful applicants should ideally have some previous experience as a Head or Deputy (although this is not essential)…
Perfect, she thought. Why not? A tiny village school, a challenge, a small and friendly community, a place where old-fashioned rural values might mean something, to someone – or something. Anything. Besides which Fanny had lived in many places before, but she had never lived in a village. And she had never been a head teacher. Perhaps,
she explained to herself last November, perhaps those are the anchors which have been missing from my life…
Fiddleford Church of England Primary School opened its gates in 1854 with over a hundred pupils and has been shrinking steadily ever since. Now it has only thirty-eight pupils, and thanks to a damning report from OFSTED has been put into ‘Special Measures’; promised a dollop of extra money by the LEA (Local Education Authority) and been given two years in which to improve itself, or else.
Mrs Thomas, the outgoing head, never had any intention of rising to such a challenge. Having called in sick with sneezes almost every day for the best part of three years, she immediately applied for early retirement on the grounds of stress-related ill health. By the time Fanny’s application arrived she was killing time, waiting for a replacement so she could sidle away from the problem for ever.
But running a Special Measures school, in a small village deep in the middle of nowhere, is not an occupation very high on many people’s Must-Do lists. By the time Fanny’s application arrived, Mrs Thomas was growing impatient; there had only been one other applicant for the job. And that was the school’s deputy head, the pathologically idle Robert White.
When Robert threw his hat into the ring, the remaining six governors called an urgent, secret meeting, during which they unanimously agreed to pretend the application had never been received, which was clearly impossible, since he had hand delivered it to them himself. They had hoped he might take enough umbrage to resign. He did not. Not quite. Lazy sod. He knew which side his bread was buttered, how hard it would be for them to get rid of him, and how hard it would be, as the long-standing deputy head of a newly ‘failing’ school, for him to get a job in the same salary band elsewhere.
Besides which, he’d taken a great shine to the school’s very young new dinner lady/caretaker, Tracey Guppy, the thought of whose white-fleshed, wide-eyed innocence kept him awake for at least three delirious minutes every night.
The situation of head had remained vacant for yet another month. The school had staggered along. Governors began to wonder whether Robert White might have to be appointed after all. And then along came the letter from Fanny.
Fanny is, in fact, a very good teacher; intelligent and kind and instinctive – and reasonably industrious, if never yet quite truly dedicated. Children love her. And so do her numerous referees. She got the job.
When the summer term starts tomorrow morning, thirty-three-year-old Fanny Flynn will be the youngest and possibly the least experienced headmistress in the history of the south-west. There are plenty at the Lamsford Education Authority who sincerely hope she may also be its least successful. At which point, of course, and with minimum loss of face, they could save a lot of money and close the wretched school down for good.
The telephone is already ringing when Fanny pushes open the Alms Cottage front door, so she is less demoralised than she might have been by the pervasive stench which hits her, of damp and human piss. The landlord said he would clean the place up before she arrived, but the peeling seventies wallpaper still lies in mouldy heaps on the carpet, and she has to climb over two years’ worth of junk mail and two dead mice to get into the sitting room. He obviously hasn’t been near the place.
In any case Fanny’s dealt with enough landlords over the years to be surprised by none of them any more, and Mr Ian Guppy’s creepy, half-simple manner when he showed her round in March led her to expect the worst. She has arrived in Fiddleford equipped with dustbin bags, disinfectant etc., and even some large pots of white paint. She enjoys the process of transforming a house into a home. It lends her New Beginnings a little added emphasis, which – after so many – is never unwelcome.
She clambers over the rubble and the mouse corpses and dives for the telephone – a telephone, she can’t help noticing, which is so old it might have been fashionable again, except
that, like the ceiling, curtains, windows and walls, it’s stained the patchy yellow-brown of ancient nicotine.
‘Hello?’ She holds the receiver a few centimetres from her ear, for obvious reasons, but is nonetheless half-deafened by the explosion of childish screams which comes blasting out. ‘Hello?’ Fanny shouts above them. ‘Hello?’
An efficient feminine voice glides smoothly over the surrounding racket: ‘Oh, lovely. You’re there. I’m so pleased. I’m your neighbour, Jo Maxwell McDonald. Welcome to Fiddleford!’
Fanny recognises the name. General Maxwell McDonald, Jo Maxwell McDonald’s ancient father-in-law, is on Fiddleford Primary School’s board of governors for reasons neither he nor the school can quite remember. He participated most fulsomely during her interview, grilling her about the high turnover of jobs on her CV and then refusing, unlike all the others, to overlook her irrelevant replies. Fanny has developed a particular way of speaking during her job interviews, a sort of jargon-filled auto-lingo which kicks in as soon as the questions begin. She doesn’t understand why it works, but it does. One way or another – partly, of course, because of the shortage of teachers everywhere, partly because Fanny tends to be attracted to unpopular jobs – she has never yet failed in an interview.
‘I feel,’ she said to the General, ‘that multifaceted qualifications are essential for any modern head teacher in this day and age and I’m proud to have experience in a diverse cross section of educational establishments, enabling me to bring to Fiddleford a knowledge and understanding of children from a variety of backgrounds—’
‘Hmm? Yes yes, I dare say. But didn’t it occur to you you might learn something from occasionally staying in the same place?’
‘I needed to balance objectives,’ Fanny said solemnly. ‘The
objectives of the students, first and foremost, and secondly the objectives of my own career development—’
‘What? You’re the restless type, are you?’
Fanny hesitated. She said, ‘Erm, no.’
‘You’ve not spent a year in the same place since you qualified!’
Fanny said, ‘Yes. Well. As I was explaining—’
‘Do you envisage spending longer than a year at Fiddleford?’
‘Certainly I do. I envisage spending many years here, helping to establish and nurture a learning culture and environment which—’
‘Mind you, that’s probably just as well, of course,’ he interrupted, ignoring her reply. ‘Because the government
it’s given us this time to improve. Ha. When we all know perfectly well –’ he glanced around at his fellow board members, who were all suddenly staring very hard at their notes, ‘what they’re
giving us is this time
to improve. Isn’t that right? So they can feel quite justified in closing the ruddy place down. Thereby saving themselves a great deal of money. And frankly, Miss Flynn, with our track record I can’t say I blame them…Had you thought of that possibility, Miss Flynn?’
Fanny blinked. Of course she had.
‘Which gets you off pretty much scot-free, if I’m not mistaken. To continue your –’ he glanced down at her CV once again, ‘really – admirably adventurous life, as per before. With a short but impressive stint as a head teacher under your belt thrown in. Isn’t that right, Miss Flynn?’
And all she could do was blink, and blink again. ‘That’s not true,’ she said eventually, but she was blushing because of course, in a way, when he put it like that…
In the end Mrs Thomas (for fear of losing their one and only candidate) intervened to shut him up. Fanny, full of
relief, and also guilt, threw the General a shamefaced sideways glance and caught him scowling at the outgoing headmistress with such intent ferocity that for most of the rest of the interview she’d had to struggle very hard not to laugh.
So Fanny remembers the General with a mixture of awe, annoyance and some affectionate respect. More to the point she knows all about the beautiful, businesslike daughter-in-law Jo Maxwell McDonald, and her ravishingly attractive husband Charlie, because she has read about them in magazines. Since opening their famous Retreat a few years ago Charlie and Jo have both become minor celebrities themselves.
Anyway, Fanny isn’t used to speaking to people she’s read about in newspapers. She’s a little disconcerted. ‘Hello, new neighbour,’ she says goofily. ‘How lovely. Thank you.’
‘That is Fanny Flynn, isn’t it?’ Jo says briskly. ‘Our new head teacher? Is that Fanny Flynn?’
‘Yes. Sorry. Being silly. Yes, this is Fanny.’
‘Only I thought it might all be terribly chaotic, since you’ve just arrived, and I wondered if you might like a bit of lunch…Plus I’ve got a small proposition to put to you. Hope you don’t mind.’
‘Ooh. Very intriguing!’ Immediately Fanny pictures herself tipping up at the famous Manor, still in her worn-out combats and dirty trainers, her shaggy mop of curly hair unwashed for over a week. She imagines sitting down to eat at an enormous mahogany dining table; Fanny Flynn (and Brute of course), Jo and Charlie Maxwell McDonald – and whichever glamorous, wicked celebrities they have staying up there today.
But then she looks around her at the peeling wallpaper. She notices the skirting board at her feet is sprouting mushrooms. ‘I’d love to, and I’d love to hear your proposition, whatever it may be, but really I can’t, not today,’ she says
sadly. ‘There’s so much to do in here, and term starts tomorrow. I really ought to—’
‘Plus actually, while you’re on the line, I should remind you about the limbo evening on Friday night. You’ve heard about it, haven’t you?’
‘The limbo evening? No. I must admit—’
‘That’s what was worrying me, you see. I put a thing through your door but perhaps you haven’t had time—It’s in the village hall. Mrs Hooper – you’ll meet her, she lives at the post office – she’s brought in a man all the way from Exeter to teach us, and I’m terrified no one’s going to turn up.’
‘Oh, I’ll come,’ Fanny says cheerfully. ‘Why not? What time does it start?’
‘Six thirty. Very early. Everything starts terribly early in Fiddleford, God knows why.’
‘Keeps us out of the pub, I suppose.’
‘In any case, it should be a good opportunity for you to—’ But her children’s playful yells have by now reached a pitch which even their highly focused mother can no longer ignore. ‘Oh God, hang on a moment—’
Fanny peers at her crop of mushrooms and listens idly while Jo, with stirring management skills, brokers a moment’s silence from her two-and-a-half-year-old twins.
‘Sorry, Fanny.’ She comes back to the telephone. ‘Where was I?’
‘A good opportunity, I think.’
‘Exactly. It’s such a good opportunity for you to meet people. Tickets are only £3 and you have to bring your own drink, but don’t worry about that because we’ll be bringing plenty. And £1 goes towards repairing the disabled ramp in the churchyard. So it’s all in a good cause. What are you
up to right now? Shall I come and fetch you in the car? You won’t want to run the gauntlet of that horrible wolf-pack at the gate, and lunch is more or less on the table. Why don’t I come down and pick you up?’
‘No, really, Jo. I can’t—’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s no trouble at all. I’ll be down in three minutes. And it’s vegetarian, by the way. It’s always vegetarian with the children. Obviously. So no need to worry about that!’