Authors: Lis Howell
Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
Psalm 127:3. Folio 31e.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
he young man stumbled towards the school gates. One, two, three…
He needed to step really carefully. Outside the car it was much brighter than he’d expected. The glare of the sun made it worse, despite his dark glasses. He had been sitting in the taxi from the airport for so long, he felt disorientated. After this, he would ask the driver to take him and his luggage to his brother’s house. But on a whim, he had wanted to visit the school first.
He could see nothing, now, from the corner of his eyes. He stood trying to get his balance and his bearings. Then he slowly shook his head. He was too late. The playground was empty.
Ahead of him, in the school, he could hear a child droning a rhyme in a flat monotone. But the child he wanted to see, really
, had already gone.
Mr Findley long and spindly
Takes his pills to keep him friendly
Mrs Rudder, what an udder
When she screams it makes you shudder
Fat Miss Hodgy pasty podgy
Cut her up and make her splodgy
The rhyme was being chanted rapper-style in the school toilets. Alison MacDonald, the new teacher for Year Six, hurried to see which child was still hanging around. But then she heard a little giggle, and the slam of the door. From the corridor window, she saw that the sunlit playground was empty. She shivered, though it was warm. The rhyme went round in her head.
Of course it was just a joke. Kids loved them. One of the younger ones had told her another as he ran out of school that afternoon.
‘Miss, what’s the scariest number?’
‘I don’t know, what is the scariest number?’
‘’Cos seven ate nine.’
She had laughed to please him. But now she had nothing to laugh about. She was alone; it was nearly four o’clock on a Friday. She was waiting to talk to a parent, and her fellow teachers had stampeded off for the first warm weekend of the year. The battered blinds swayed at the staff-room window like broken birds in the April sunshine, exposing the coffee and grease stains.
‘I hate it here!’ Alison MacDonald shouted, uninhibited, her words bouncing back from the dingy breezeblock walls. She was twenty-five, bright, enthusiastic and confident, and she had never made a mistake like this before. She’d been teaching in Manchester when she’d heard about the job at St Mungo’s in Pelliter. It meant taking on the top class in mid-year because their teacher had suddenly suffered a breakdown.
‘Go for it,’ her own head teacher had said. ‘You might not get it, but the interview would be great experience. And you’re good, Alison.’
Why not? she’d thought. She knew Pelliter. It was a village with a big council housing estate, on the West Cumbrian coast near her home town. The post would mean promotion; it was a challenge; she could teach more art, her speciality. And she could live with her parents, which was cheaper.
To her surprise she’d got the job. She’d been thrilled. It was a tough school with a great reputation. But now, she had been at St Mungo’s three and half months, and it was three and a half months too long. She stood alone in the staff-room and acknowledged it out loud; the realization caused a pain in her gut.
‘I’ve been a fool,’ she whispered to the walls. But how could she tell Mark? Her fiancé had been delighted about her coming north to take the job. It wasn’t as if they’d lived together in Manchester. She’d had the expense of her own flat, but now living at home would be much more economical while they saved up for a house. She had promised to drive down to Manchester every weekend to be with him and once they were married she would go back permanently. But in the meantime Pelliter looked like a great move.
That was another joke….
She went to the window and yanked the blinds fully open.
A man was standing in the playground, in a suit, with no bag or overcoat. That’s odd, Alison thought. Was he a dad? It was unlikely, after all the
had gone home. As Alison watched he turned away from the school, but paused to talk on his mobile phone. Should she go after him? Had he come to see her?
But that was unlikely. Alison had been waiting to talk to a parent because
she was worried about one of her class, Molly Spencer. But she had been watching for Molly’s mother, not her father. Molly Spencer’s dad had decamped long ago, according to the new deputy head, the formidable Liz Rudder. Mrs Rudder was virtually running St Mungo’s now, and that was the problem. Mr Findley, the head teacher, was completely distracted. It had been his wife who had taught the top class, and had the breakdown. The upheaval, and the head teacher’s anxiety over his wife’s illness, had led to the school becoming a jungle which Mrs Rudder couldn’t really control. Eleven-year-old Molly Spencer and her friend Becky Dixon were the sort of kids who suffered. They were the odd ones out, in an aggressive
where the kids fought for attention and advantage in the stress of Year Six. Alison suspected that with Molly her alienation was just a phase. But Becky was different. There was definitely something unusual about her, something that couldn’t just be put down to being brought up by her
As Alison watched, still wondering if she should go out and speak to him, the young man swayed slightly. He had his back to her and his thick dark hair was blowing in the breeze coming up from the sea. But by the time Alison reached the door to go out and speak to him, he had gone. Maybe he was just lost, Alison thought, although there had been something strange about the way he looked….
She mooched back to the staff-room. Then the visitors’ bell rang and Alison hurried to the main entrance. A friendly-looking, fair, spiky-haired woman was struggling with two bags, a bunch of keys, and a couple of books. The woman smiled cheerfully at Alison, and made exaggerated signals through the window. Alison opened the door.
‘Hello, you must be Mrs Spencer. Are you with that man who was here a minute ago?’ But even as she asked, she knew the man was too young to be Molly’s father and that Mrs Spencer was here by herself.
‘The chap in the black cab who was just leaving?’ Suzy Spencer answered. ‘No, he wasn’t with me.’
Even odder, Alison thought. There weren’t many black cabs in Pelliter. But she put the mystery of the young man out of her mind and said, ‘It’s good of you to come, Mrs Spencer. Actually, I’m rather worried about Molly.’
A few hours later, Suzy Spencer was back at home, making the supper. She and her partner Robert Clark lived in The Briars, a large double-fronted Victorian house in Tarnfield, a pretty village just east of Norbridge and fifteen miles from Pelliter. When Suzy had moved to the area seven years earlier, the local schools were full and she had happily sent Molly to St Mungo’s. Now, though, she regretted it. Rumours were rife about the
Findleys, the head teacher and his wife who had run the school. Ray Findley was a respected headmaster and had married his Year Six teacher after a discreet romance. They were a great team until Sheila Findley’s breakdown. It was Mrs Findley’s replacement, Alison McDonald, whom Suzy had been to see that afternoon, and she seemed very young, with a lot on her plate. Year Six was always a difficult class, and the breakdown of an experienced teacher had been disruptive. As if that wasn’t enough of a crisis, the school atmosphere had been made far worse. The recession-hit local private school was planning to offer last-minute discounted scholarships to local children. The top class at St Mungo’s was a seething mass of raging hormones and cut-throat competition.
But Molly Spencer’s problems weren’t only to do with the mess at school.
Suzy’s partner, Robert Clark, was supposed to be scraping the first of the year’s new potatoes, but instead he left them in the sink, poured two glasses of wine, and sat down and waited for Suzy to talk. He had known for a while that Suzy was worried about her daughter, but he had tried to be tactful. Puberty was pretty personal and it wasn’t something they had really discussed. He suspected Suzy wanted to ignore the changes in Molly until it was all over and she was a beautiful swan. But it wasn’t going to be that easy. In the space of a few months Molly had become lumpy, spotty, morose and alienated. And although Tarnfield was a beautiful village there weren’t many pre-teens living there. Becky Dixon was the first friend Molly had talked about in weeks.
‘Becky Dixon’s mother was a drug addict who died. She overdosed when Becky was a baby,’ Suzy said, chopping spring onions with concentration. ‘Becky’s being brought up by her grandparents.’
‘And Becky Dixon is Molly’s new best friend?’
friend,’ Suzy said fiercely, chopping the last onion with such force it bounced on the breadboard. Less than a year ago, Molly had been one of the brightest and most popular girls in the class. Not any more, thanks to the spots and an ungainly growth spurt. Not to mention her recent lack of interest in pop and celebrities, unlike her cool classmates.
‘So how did you find out about Becky’s background?’ Robert asked.
‘The new teacher Miss MacDonald told me. It’s common knowledge in Pelliter. The Dixons are originally from this area, and they moved back here from Cheshire a few months ago. The grandparents have been very open about the death. Apparently Becky knows everything. They think that’s preferable to secrets and lies.’
‘And presumably the Dixons took Becky on when she was small?’
‘Yes. Becky was only a few months old. Living with her grandparents makes her a little bit old-fashioned, Miss MacDonald says. That’s probably
why she and Molly get on so well. Neither of them are exactly catwalk
.’ Suzy finished mixing the salad and plonked it on the table.
‘But Molly’s teacher didn’t just want to discuss Becky Dixon, did she?’ Robert asked gently. He knew Suzy was avoiding the real topic. She sat down opposite her partner and he saw her blink fiercely. It was a release, at last, for her to talk to Robert about all this, but it was also upsetting to face it. The changes in Molly had been so dramatic that she had hardly known what to say to herself, never mind to him. A few nights before, Suzy had dreamt that Molly had been abducted. The perennial parental nightmare. She had woken up flooded with relief. But the child who had returned in Suzy’s waking moments had been the old Molly – the pretty, happy one, not this new lump with greasy hair and bad manners. Molly really had been abducted, Suzy thought, abducted by adolescence. It had made Suzy cry, sitting up in bed, hoping Robert wouldn’t hear because it was such an awful thing for a mum to think. And Robert wasn’t even Molly’s dad.
But she had scolded herself for thinking like that. Robert really cared for Molly and her brother Jake, even though he had been a childless widower when they met. Suzy wondered how she would have discovered Robert on a website, the only way to meet a new partner these days – wanted, a childless churchwarden with GSOH willing to take on a crazy agnostic freelance TV producer and her two kids. They’d fallen for each other when she drove into his garden fence – hardly internet dating, but the low-tech way had worked for her. They weren’t an obvious couple but they were really very happy and she knew she could trust his judgement, even about something as
and unexpected as Molly’s sudden change.
Robert said, ‘You shouldn’t worry so much, Suzy.’ He hated to see her agonizing. ‘At least Molly has this new friend now. It was lucky that Becky joined the class. Even if her background is a bit difficult.’
‘But it isn’t just a case of her needing friends! Molly’s school work has gone downhill even though we know she’s pretty bright. And her father phoned yesterday to ask if she had lost any weight. Last time he met her from the train she was wearing those hideous shorts and leggings, and he said he didn’t want a daughter who looked like a pregnant page-boy.’
‘That was a bit harsh.’ But Robert knew where Molly’s dad was coming from. Nigel Spencer wasn’t the only one to have noticed that Molly wore some odd outfits. ‘You do your best, Suzy, but it’s really hard. What did Miss MacDonald say? It wasn’t all negative, was it?’
‘Well, she does think Molly might be good at art. I think that might explain her weird taste in clothes. Miss MacDonald has suggested that Molly paints something as a backdrop for an end-of-term show. It would mean she and Becky could be part of the gang.’
‘Art? That sounds promising.’
‘I hope so. I’ve offered to video the art project. It’s a big commitment but I’d like to try and help.’
‘So Molly’s got something you can get involved with, which she can do well and enjoy. And at least she has someone in the class she gets on with. It will get better Suzy, really.’
‘I hope so. I feel better for talking to you about it.’ Suzy sipped at her wine. ‘And Miss MacDonald was perceptive, though she did seem very young to be in that job. You’re right, Rob. It’s good that Molly has a new best friend.’ She paused, thoughtful. ‘Although it’s not just her background that’s unusual. I do get the impression that Becky Dixon is a rather odd little girl.’
A few miles away, Philip Dixon sat on the bench at the top of the rise, where the edge of his land suddenly dropped to the Solway Firth. It was one of his granddaughter Becky’s favourite spots. It was warm enough for him to have his sleeves rolled up.
He was surprised to see how young and tanned his own arms looked contrasted with his grey hair. His wrists were only lightly wrinkled, like the pearly shore below him where the soft mud melted into the sea. Behind him, the gorse-covered headland slowly settled inland, to the farms on the outskirts of Pelliter. In the far distance towards the east, the edge of the Northern Pennines made a smudge on the horizon. The place felt good and, as always, he relaxed when he looked out over the Solway.