My year threes are planning a coup.
This is a fair assumption to make, I think. Sitting in the window of the staff room, watching a lazy May wasp drift in circles above my head, I can see them plotting in the periphery. Congregating on the playground, clutching at each other with sticky little fingers. Hushed glances at me, though there’s no way they can see me in the glare of the sun, not when the staff room is dark and cool. Small mercies. At the head of the classroom I always feel so exposed.
5 minutes left of break time. I’ve been asked why I chose to become a teacher, and it’s not a question I have an answer to. I like children, I’m good with children, I will never have children. It precludes favouritism, at least. The wasp lands on the rim of my mug, probing delicately at the gluey honey. I have a cold coming on; I was on that playground only thirty years ago and now I’m the dispenser of common wisdoms, the drinker of honey and lemon, the elder to be eyed balefully and plotted against.
In the classroom it soon becomes clear who the nexus of this little coup d’etat is. My teaching assistant is handing out rulers and sugar paper the colour of a summer storm (You may want to do something more involved, she said to me earlier; there’s a lot of restless energy in the classroom today, I don’t know what it’s about.) as I write 3D shapes on the board in wide, child-friendly script. There’s something brewing, that’s true. Hushed voices, little laughs that escape sucked-in cheeks like
blown raspberries, producing yet more giggles in response. At least they’re enjoying themselves, I say to my TA when she comes up beside me with a crumpled packet of Extra and a furious look and a chewed up glob of gum lodges in the back of my hair.
Find it with my fingers.
It’s sticky and hot.
I feel like a teenage girl again. There are crayons all over the floor; they radiate outwards, not so much indicating as illuminating the culprit, the ringleader, the queen bee. Everyone around her is flush with quiet fear, alternately looking between themselves and at me. Sophie just tilts her soft chin.
Was this you? Asked directly, though that’s not the way to do it, but that hot storm hanging in the air has found its way to my blood, tapped in through the back of my skull via a little piece of gum. No, she says, with a smirk that says, yes.
A hush in the air. The TA, aside, maybe we should—
Continue with the lesson, I tell her. Sophie—staff room. Now.
She has no explanation for it. None. She sits in utter silence, watching earlier’s wasp dip and dive in hexagons around her head, as I tap the tip of my biro and notice a jam stain on her pinafore. My throat itches. I have no honey and lemon left.
I’m not going to waste the rest of the class’s time, I tell her. You can sit here and think about your actions, and at the end of the day your mum and I will have a chat, okay? She just sits there, blinking big, blue eyes at me. Tory blue. Her mum will arrive in the Merc, Hunter wellies swinging out onto the gravel, long legs in expensive jeans…
I cut the gum out of my hair in the staff bathroom using leftie safety scissors, yellow and green, blunt so it’s more like a hack job. Then I take my phone out and call Caroline: Ten minutes ago your daughter stuck gum in my hair.
Nice to hear from you too, she breezes. I wish it was a Wednesday.
Wednesday afternoon is games, always, the children ushered out of my care and into rounders or football for the rest of the day. It’s time I ought to spend marking, planning, cutting out templates and making powerpoint presentations. I try it, sometimes, sheets in a pool around my thighs and laptop panting with effort, but I don’t like to do it in front of Caroline. She winds herself around me and comments, scrutinises, runs her fingers down the side of the keyboard.
I am fucking a Mother. Capital M. Woman’s Most Natural Career.
So, on Wednesdays, I leave school. I drive through country lanes. I unfold myself in an expensive bedroom. I have her number saved in my phone: she texts me things like Come for two, lunch is overrunning or Richard is home today. Sometimes she thinks I’m someone else and sends me Whatsapp chains, political jibes I earn too little to get. She doesn’t apologise, but I know they’re not for me. Just as I know never to add an X to my eager, pathetic response.
I don’t recall how it started. One day we were studying each other over a Pritt Stick-sticky desk, I just wanted to check in, see how Sophie’s settling in with the class, it’s so hard when you move out of the city and I’d like her to have friends here, you see, I’d like her to be happy, and the next it’s dirty words and hot breath in my ear, something rare and disgusting about it, something that makes it hard to look in the mirror.
She won’t do it again, Caroline says, firmly, that afternoon in the staff room. Will she? Sophie looks at her mother, quails, shakes her head. This isn’t what I wanted, she mumbles. Caroline is wearing a blazer, big shoulder pads, black. I was right about the wellies. What did you want? I ask, out of curiosity. She doesn’t answer. They leave. Tomorrow is Wednesday.
I am picking my clothes from the floor on a Friday evening (She’s out, Caroline breathing into my neck, she’s at a friend’s down the road, it’s fine, just fuck me—). I have nothing better to do. I have been absorbed—June is crawling at my skin—I’ve started putting Xs on my messages— I’ve started kissing her goodbye—
Mummy, Sophie says, and Sophie is in the doorway, looking at us, looking at that fragment of kiss still lingering on our lips, fully clothed but painfully bare, now, now she knows—
She’s six but she has a father, a man who kisses her mother goodnight each night, a man who commutes every day and goes to dinner every Friday without his wife, a man I am not. We learnt about love on Valentine’s Day. As much as we could. (Not that this is love.)
Sophie runs. I follow.
I find her in the garden, where it is beginning to rain, fresh green and lawn shavings everywhere.
It didn’t work, she says, whines, like a child, which she is. It didn’t work.
What didn’t work? I ask her, voice slipping into that careful, cushy teacher voice, wrapping around her like a padded cell, like honey.
You, she stings. To get you to stop. Mummy—
And then I know.
We all know, don’t we, when it comes to it; what we’ve done wrong, what its consequences are. Children have such an acute understanding of the world, this I also know. I know that sticky little Sophie wants her mummy all to herself and she raised me a challenge, like tilting her chin up when I asked her to tidy away her crayons; she marshalled her forces, laid down a duel. It was a power play. More concerning—
She knew I was in her way. She knew something of the tangled gossamer stretched between us, Caroline and I, the secret loathing only I could find between her thighs—and how? Did Sophie stumble upon us, laid out on the bed, the sofa, the kitchen counter? Widen eyes and turn away, lock it into a manifesto for the future revolutionary? This is no soap, though, I know that. I know beyond today’s kiss it was probably far more subtle: her mummy’s perfume on my shirt, her mummy’s lipstick blossoming rosewood on my neck, the way I looked at her mummy. The way I looked at Caroline—lovelorn, as though the middle haircut of a million middle aged women and the gilet and the Merc and the name, even, Christ, she voted so I wouldn’t get to retire before eighty—as though she was anything different than every mother I sit across from when their child pours PVA on another—as though I had a right to the privacy of the language we breathed on Wednesday afternoons, when everyone knows children understand everything—
She already knew. I say this turned half to Caroline. There’s a hot plum hickey on her neck; I was rough today, perhaps because I knew it was our last.
Don’t be ridiculous.
She already knew. Why else would she act out? Stare sullen, silent at me? Chew up gum and land it in my hair, hair her mother’s fingers had tangled in? Hair too long, hair of a primary school teacher, hair that comes undone. I doubt she told her co-conspirators. She ushered them, merely, magnetic to them as her mother is to me. These people are good at that.
Don’t tell your father, Caroline is begging. This is our secret, okay? Don’t tell him. Don’t. I won’t teach Sophie any longer, I know this. I won’t see Caroline again. The year is almost over, so perhaps I’ll be lucky. Perhaps I won’t need a new job entirely. Perhaps she’ll be merciful. But already I can see them receding.
I cannot have children. My ugly wound of a body prohibits it. Caroline and Sophie repel me; they make me desperate. I should like to cling to them. Nothing lasts, but I should like to stick to them, dripping.
I have been deposed. Something crawls up my throat, more bitter than honey.
Artwork: Rachel Jung