Her knitted face, whiskery with stray wool at the edges, is tea-stained with discontent. It emerges from a puff of chalk dust like the baddies in the VHS films I watch on rainy Sunday afternoons.
She smells like the inside of my Granny’s cupboard that time the old water tank burst – stale, dank and mildly septic. I fancy her square brown shoes house mangled toeless feet, like Roald Dahl’s Witches. It’s my favourite book; I hardly need to read the words now; I know it so well. It sits warmly on the shelf, moulded into the shape of my hands. It neighbours my other favourites: Polly Pockets, Connect Four, and a jam jar of my best felt tips.
The drawer of my beside cabinet holds other treasures: a stone with a tree pattern cast through the middle like lightening; a lazy spiral fossil I found on a beach; haystacks of paper dolls; and – underneath all that - my hidden notebook. The secret pages are filled with hideous portraits of my teacher. I colour her skin and hair the same hue as the fag-stained wallpaper at my Great-Uncle’s prefab. I stab in a grotty biro to scribble over her mouldy auld face and Thaterchite skirts.
And here we are again, on a calendar-boxed Wednesday: little bodies on little chairs, with splayed metal legs, like a beastie cowering under a shoe. We are small. And contained until lunch time, jingling about inside like buttons shoogled in a biscuit tin.
Patent feet tap-tap-tap like dominoes and frilly ankles dream of sparkly Skip-its and weathered footballs. Our scabby knees wear fierce sheddy medallions. The playground calls to us through the classroom window, in a sing-song voice of puddles and tarmac.
I join the dots between the freckles on my left arm. Jenny sucks on her ponytail, the end as wet as a paintbrush. Mo repeatedly flips his eyelids inside out, like a hi-fi ejecting a tape. Craig pretends to stick a compass into his thumb and grimaces at us with a pantomime of gore and blood loss. My chest jerks up and down, my shoulders join in, and, like air escaping out a balloon - out pops the squeakiest of giggles.
With the whisp of the giggle-trill still on my lips, I immediately feel the spotlight land on me, and me alone; icy and deep, and it expands to be larger than the classroom itself.
‘Lisa, come up to the board now.’ You have sunk my battleship.
I look ahead and a complicated question squats on the board. Which she knows I don’t understand. We haven’t been taught this yet. I realise she’s going to make An Example of me.
I’m like a remote-control car, forcing myself across the classroom, pushing on primary-coloured buttons. Everything around me is now in between-channels static, at once both close and out of reach. My insides liquidised; I suddenly wish I could ask to go to the toilets. I could lock myself inside and wait out the day amongst the haunted windows and rattling Victorian pipework, painted in flaking pink. Everyone shrinks back from me, leaves withering on a jaggy bramble bush: my fate is contagious.
The teacher points her finger, gnarled like a monkey nut husk, at the black board. If her wizened potato-face knew how to, it would be smirking. But I know she doesn’t have the imagination.
After a second and a lifetime, I reach the apologetic black board; it was made for greater things. It smells like sighs. I pick up the largest, least-used piece of white chalk, thinking it won’t yet have been poisoned by her claws. I fumble, and it drops to the ground soundlessly. I bend to retrieve it, feeling its smoothness in my palm, like my tree-stone.
The chalk tries to whisper me possible solutions. But I can’t do anything. There are numbers and letters on the board; all heaped into a pile. I don’t know what to do with this tenement alphabet with numerical sheets hung out to dry.
She makes me stand there until I cry.
And I am red-eyed with chalky fingertips and angry crescents on my palms where I’ve sunk my nails into the flesh. Like birds flying off into the distance. Once more contained within my seat, I feel other childish eyes upon me.
After the bell releases me, I run home quickly and alone, escaping from my classmates and their unblinking eyes and our smallness. I don’t tell my mum. Instead, I take out my notebook and I scribble and rage and rip through pages with heat and sickness and shame. That night, I fall asleep with it clutched in both my hands, like a shield.
The next day, at that same no man’s land time between morning break and lunch, the teacher vomits out another impossible question across the black board.
This time, there is no hair sucking, no eyelid gymnastics, no mime acts. We sit inside the silence, eyes downwards and obedient. The classroom is set up as a torturous game of Guess Who. The teacher enjoys the wait, pacing back and forth with her hands behind her back, like the captain of a slave ship (which our school history books don’t tell us about).
And we wait. I try to hold my book in my head so it occupies the space; my drawings laced with sharp-angled graffiti, the words like dry black-eyed beans left soaking in me, overnight. They expand. My secret makes me Big.
But this time I am not selected, and I exhale a guilty relief that goes from my clenched fists down to my curled-up toes, and oozes out under the classroom door.
This time, eyes are off me. The teacher’s hook pierces her catch, and Clara shuffles up to the board. Clara who has Mrs Green come in on Mondays and Tuesdays for her reading and writing. Clara who still needs help buttoning up her jacket and lacing her shoes. Clara who just had the patch removed from her right eye last week. Clara who blinks both eyes, surprised, and moves the chalk from one hand to the other, as if she’s forgotten which hand she writes so inexpertly with.
The teacher waits until Clara cries.
It doesn’t take long this time, maybe six breaths. So clearly, the teacher hasn’t squeezed out enough from the event. Her soiled raisin eyes dart from side to side like a crow, looking for carrion.
‘Come on, now, don’t cry, Clara’, she says, raising her chin.
She looks out at her eight-year-old charges who have almost forgotten my shame from yesterday – ‘Crying doesn’t help anyone. Does it, Lisa?’.
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