Strawberries and Frightened Water
Michael W. Thomas
It was hot. Everyone agreed that the stage got smaller every year. Suggestions were rife: get a few fans up there, arrange the chairs differently, let some staff sit at the back of the hall. But nothing changed. A particular Friday in July impelled sixty-odd bodies to meld in sufferance, becoming a beast which sighed from its many mouths, rubbed its weary legs.
This year, the end of term speaker was a biggish noise in education consultancy. He stalked his portion of the stage, praising this initiative, drubbing that government plan. To his left, the Headmistress followed his moves with an interest that was beginning to sour. None of the staff could catch much of what he said. At one point, he threw a sheaf of papers to the floor, and the composite beast behind him rippled with shock. Even the Headmistress leaned forward, abandoning her attempt to remember the name of Paul Newman’s last film. But then there came a tide of mainly girlish mirth from the well of the hall. His eruption had been scripted; the rows and rows of pupils and parents, or clients and their backers, were laughing with, not at him.
On the back row of the stage, Jane Pearson studied the nape of Matthew Tate’s neck. It was more attractive close up. She’d thought exactly that the previous night, as always, while he arched his back and she did that particular thing he liked. Smooth as anything his nape was: a gift of creamy skin, to compensate perhaps for the untimely wrinkles elsewhere. Not a bad body, but capable of unappealing surprises—scrawniness, for example, where there should be generosity.
A line from a Martial epigram, cheerfully coarse, pushed into her thoughts, and she looked around to see if anyone had heard her groan. The first two days of the holidays would be shot with those damn subject meetings. Out of the blue, her Department head had decided to ditch the current Latin A-level syllabus and go for something new—and experimental, if you please. Jane couldn’t believe it. The woman was usually a millpond. Change, she’d often claimed, was something that airy-fairy subjects went in for: Economics, IT. But now, Jane and the others would have to spend all summer battling with stuff they hadn’t taught for ages—the loathsome Martial included. Another of his epigrams, appallingly ripe, filled her mind. Jane tried to give it the slip but realised that she had nothing good to think about. Again she stared at Matthew Tate’s neck, now willing it to erupt in boils. He’d let her do what she did last night, every last rub and lick, before telling her. The cheek of it . . . the everything of it! ‘No, she’s moved on to pastures new,’ he’d assured Jane again and again. ‘Good and gone, she is.’
At the front of the stage, the speaker was now lurching about, jiggling an official report in the air as though it were a bone to entice an origami dog. Several people were laughing. Make them stop, thought Rhoda Willersley--please. The man’s a buffoon. Even by the usual end-of-year standards, he’s beyond dreadful. And that jiggling was giving her a headache…well, worsening the one she had. Again she cursed her ill luck in being parked on the front row. The likes of Jane Pearson, they had the right idea. In fact, she’d been right behind Jane when they all came onto the stage--confident that, for once, the anonymity of the back row would be hers. But then things had gone twisty and broken up, as they sometimes did. The next thing she knew, some well-meaning clown was chaperoning her to this seat, the last one left. There was nowhere for her eyes to go. If she looked down into the hall, the regiment of stares made her feel naked, soiled. If she looked at the buffoon, her head split a little more.
Cautiously, her tongue investigated her mouth. Dry as a desert. It wouldn’t be—not if she hadn’t made that mistake. But no, it wasn’t a mistake. She knew she’d put it there: a new place, to be on the safe side. Nearly full, too, with one of those fiddly caps. Better a fiddly cap, though, than any loss of life. That’s how she’d always seen it, whatever colour it was, whatever provenance, however cheap. Life, pure and simple, never mind the taste. She’d gone for a needed top-up just before the bell dragged everyone to the hall. But it had vanished: not in the document box, not behind the shelf. Someone must have known. Just her luck, someone picking that moment to show concern. Or be a vicious cow.
The speaker was swinging this way and that, raking the air with his hands. Just behind Rhoda Willersley, Eleanor Laird was all alarm. What was the man doing? Inviting the entire stage to scrum down with him? Gearing up for a cringeworthy pirouette? But then he called a name, and Tom Howsell sprang up at the end of her row. Amid applause, and some over-appreciative cries from the girls, he joined the speaker for handshakes and the bestowal of a certificate. Oh my, thought Eleanor. So Tom got the teaching award after all. So no-one found out. So I’m the keeper of his secret and he doesn’t even know. Yet again, she pictured the Reception room at the front of the school, its handsome drapes and carpeting. A bit dishevelled, it was, after that Sixth Form debate. The cleaners would have their work cut out next morning: she remembered thinking so as she’d hurried back for her forgotten pile of books. She’d nearly decided that they would keep, only to be ambushed by her librarian self, the one who ticked the girls off for their cavalier attitude to her precious stocks. Oh, she’d imagined the chanting: Lairdy’s lost her books! Lairdy the Loser! There’d been no-one in the Reception room—so she thought, till, with the recovered books in her hand, she’d turned for the door. But one of the drapes had squawked and billowed aside, revealing Tom Howsell and . . . whatever her name was—one Upper Sixth blonde looked just like the next. Not that Eleanor had got the best view of her: Tom’s back, yes, broad and half-shirtless. But the girl . . . Eleanor’s life had not been without adventure, was occasionally colourful still, but she couldn’t believe that one human being could bend another quite like that. The girl was a rubber doll beneath him. Above and around him, too.
The applause was still going strong as Tom Howsell resumed his seat. Eleanor scanned the audience to see if she could spot the girl—or at least a pair of hands clapping extra hard beneath that just-had-sex hairstyle they were always being told off about. But she abandoned the search as another memory got in front of Tom and the girl and the drapes. ‘Well, Eleanor,’ came the Headmistress’s crisp, girlish voice. ‘We’ve appointed Polly. She’ll be such a boon for you.’ Yes, thought Eleanor now. Polly the computer whiz. Polly the doyenne of library systems. Something a touch lopsided about her. Smile just a bit too big for her face. But there—usurpers come in all shapes and sizes.
Now the Headmistress rose to thank the speaker. Jane tried and failed to catch his name. In her mind, Matthew Tate’s neck was scabrous and wasted. I’ll go over tonight, she thought. I’ll have it out with him and that wife-who-wasn’t-but-is-again, if she’s there. What were they planning? Re-marriage? Or had they never--? The enormity of the thought almost caused Jane to slide off her chair. He’d never actually said ‘divorced’—she’d just assumed, and he’d let her. On the other hand—this time she did slide a little—she’d never so much as seen a photo of the woman. Did she exist? Was this a ploy of his—a regular one? Tate’s Patent Girlfriend Remover? All Threats of Commitment Erased? Before she knew it, her hand was reaching out to him. Only at the last second did she turn vengeance into a stretch. I’ll go over, she thought. I’ll bring down his roof.
Only minutes to go, thought Rhoda as the Headmistress wrapped up her little speech. Thank God the buffoon had put his papers down—much more jiggling and she’d have blacked out. Now for the bunfight on the lawn. Soggy strawberries, tasteless cream. Before all that, though, she’d go hunting for her lifeline again. She was sure she’d put it there—she could remember the way the glass chinked against the side of that shelf. The wine on offer outside would be less than useless—just frightened water, really. It sure as hell wouldn’t protect her against the Husskisons. They’d know the moment she stepped into the sunlight. It was cruel, really: Mrs. H always wore something terrifying on her head, some get-up from a malarial vision of Ascot—she was easy to spot across any stretch of grass in England. Yet even with that warning, Rhoda could never escape. Mrs could dip and weave; so could Mr. As often as not, Rhoda would turn to flee, only to bounce off his rubberised belly. Then they’d have her, and the talk about ‘our spirited Gemma’ would come thick and fast. Spirited, yes. If Social Services ever touched the world of the Husskisons, they’d have to work in relays to deal with that spirit. Gemma would be starting her GCSEs next year. Rhoda just knew she’d be saddled with her for History—none of her colleagues would touch her. The Husskisons would know, too, without being told. They’d stare intently at Rhoda as their interrogation droned on. Rhoda would have to drum up grace under fire—principally from the wayward lunges of whatever perched atop Mrs’s head. Their eyes would narrow; they’d scrutinise her for signs of unsteadiness. Mrs might comment airily on some news item she’d read about the official dispatch of some unfit teacher. Mr would assure Rhoda—and everyone within thirty yards—how much he was looking forward to another year on the Board of Governors. Rising to depart with the rest of her row, Rhoda wondered whether she shouldn’t just grab a bottle of the godawful wine and quit school and town forever.
Shouldering a space for herself in the lines exiting the hall, Eleanor nearly bumped against a now familiar sweater. She prayed that its owner wouldn’t turn round. Ah, hello Polly, she’d have to say, then nod idiotically as the woman ran through, yet again, the stuff they’d be discussing in the library next week. Yes, Polly knew what was what—databases, systems, innovations in cataloguing. One of those memory stickies swung permanently from her flawless neck. Pushed along in the flow, Eleanor imagined a conversation a year from now, out on the lawn: the Headmistress, pressured from above, speaking not unkindly about budgets and restructuring, asking what Eleanor thought about going half-time, or less, or even…. No immediate rush, the Headmistress would say a year from now. Think about it. Enjoy the summer. Eleanor saw Tom Howsell up ahead. Well, if she was going anyway, soon or late…. She imagined leaping on him: ‘The drapes, Tom,’ she’d cry. ‘Bend me, bend me.’
The lines broke on the steps to the lawn. Jane found herself with Eleanor on one side and Rhoda, her mouth still dry, on the other. Down in the ruck, Matthew Tate cackled; a nightmare of ribbons and silk bobbed above random groups; Polly laid a hand on the arm of a smitten father. The three women stood like explorers with toes flush against the first yard of a desert. Well, well, said one of them as they stared at the blank mass of summer that waited beyond the lawn. As if with hands joined on a dare, they stepped together.
Michael W. Thomas’s work has appeared in Britain, Europe and America, including The Antioch Review, Stand Magazine, Magazine Six (Florida) and Irish University Review. His latest novel, The Mercury Annual, was published in 2009 (Silver Age Books); his new poetry collection, Port Winston Mulberry, was published in 2010 (Littlejohn & Bray). He is poet-in-residence at the annual Robert Frost Poetry Festival, Key West, Florida.
Michael W. Thomas