She had wanted to listen to that new Phoebe Bridgers album on the drive home from school. Just shy of 41 minutes, she knew she would be home before the penultimate track, but was prepared to sit in the car until its finish, if the album proved worth it.
She waited until she had driven out of the area entirely, before connecting Bluetooth and pressing the play button on her phone. The car stereo came slowly to life. She allowed it all to fade into obscurity, rounding the corner onto Fairfield: the gates of the school, the bus stop, the manicured hedgerow, and the smattering of parked Audi parents in gilets and floaty dresses, waiting for their kids.
NME had promised a sonic palette – something close to ethereal – and she would give the album her full attention.
But it was not to be. Looming in the distance, four yellow roadworks signs, and a subsequent diversion, had already interrupted some of the finer dissonances in Track 4, and the experience had, all at once, been marred. She pressed the power button on the car stereo and stared through the windscreen, listening only to the beginnings of flat patter on the glass, and waiting for the lights to go green. She would have to take Hedley, and avoid the A road altogether.
The afternoon had been stressful. Class 4B – her last lesson of the day – had, as usual, proficiently sapped the life from her. She had long since abandoned the schemes of work. To hell with what the Head wanted – how could she possibly plan lessons on time signatures and Italian dynamics, for a troop of leaping monkeys?
It had not always been like this. Over the summer holidays, before she had started her new post, she had bubbled with enthusiasm, keen to deliver a broad curriculum to all of her classes in the upcoming Autumn term. Stretching the Music Department’s limited budget as far as she could, she had bought in all sorts of colourful and interesting second-hand instruments to add to the usual dull stock of boom whackers and battered tambourines. In one corner of the room, she had arranged a ‘Music of the World’ station, where she imagined curious and undiscovered prodigies might pick up a mbira, or a set of panpipes to try them out.
Despite her efforts, most of her students had met her enthusiastic display with apathy, though one or two had blasted the didgeridoo a few times, dribbling spittle from one end and laughing at the weak timbre produced by their efforts. She had laughed too. This is what it’s all about, she thought, triumphal, before one of them dropped another’s mobile phone into the hollow tube of the instrument, where it got stuck. The site team was called, and the didgeridoo had to be sawn open. This, to the very least superstitious, would have been considered an omen. A few snapped ukulele strings later, and the Music of the World station was dismantled.
By Spring, most of 4B’s lessons consisted of silent listening and worksheets. No deviation from the pattern, week after week after week. Even then, managing their behaviour was an exercise in heartrate regulation, but there was nothing to be done. If I give an inch, she thought. Remembering that first term with them still made her shudder.
Once – just once – after she had stilled the furious tide of their misbehaviour for a few weeks, she had attempted a lesson on South American rhythms. On the surface, the hour had seemed a success, albeit a frantic one, and she had congratulated herself, only to discover that several of the class had stuck drawing pins through the skins of the Conga drums. Stuffed behind a shelf of books, she had found a broken maraca, it’s skull bashed in, bleeding its seeds, and silent.
A few weeks back, she had been pawing over the curriculum, searching for answers, when it occurred to her that the content was outdated. How can they appreciate Mozart? Did I, at their age? Undeterred by past failures, and in some small act of desperation, she experimented in their next lesson by using chart music, in the hope they might indulge her.
‘Think about the beat, 4B. What can you hear? Try to find that beat. Are there 3 or 4 in a bar? Listen to how it changes during the middle eight. When you hear it, put your hands up and –’
What had proceeded was a sort of miniature rave, students raising their hands and howling the lyrics aloud to one another. They had liked the music, but this had made them even harder to control. They danced about like witches around a cauldron, cackling. Thinking back on it the following day, when she had finally dared, it had reminded her of a hazard perception test, except the hazards were everywhere and this was a moving vehicle she couldn’t brake. She saw fires all around the room, and did not know which to extinguish first.
Casey Robbins had stood sentry at the light switches, flicking them on and off to create a faux strobe effect. Jayden Kyle had started break dancing in the centre of the class, and Serena Khatri had filmed the whole thing for TikTok. At one point, amidst the chaos, she thought she’d seen someone waving a lighter.
Eventually, in the melee, she had managed to annex one of the pack, hovering at the side-lines of the mob – separating him from the rest. The lights went back on, the music stopped, and she faced her sole prisoner – Michael Kelly – as the others looked on, smirking but silent. Some sort of Medieval crowd of degenerates gathering to witness a public execution. He had faced her with utter defiance, scowling and humiliated, as she made an example of him. In one fierce attack, the weeks of disappointment, frustration and desperation, honed to a fine point, struck fiercely, as she dealt blow after blow. Feeling spit burst from her mouth in her untempered rage, she watched a light go out in his eyes, and did not stop, even as she saw them moisten in fury and shame. Then, during the verbal salvo, for a split second, she had looked down and noticed his trainers.
Ignoring the fact that they flouted school uniform policy, the trainers were too big for his feet. The lace of one did not match the lace of the other. She lost her train of thought, and stepped back, releasing him from her momentary grasp. As the bell rang, the class left in a tangled hoard, vibrating with chatter, Michael Kelly last of all.
“Oh, sod them.” Diane had said, as they waited in the staff room for afternoon briefing to begin. “Fuck the lot of them.”
In a quiet corner, she had confessed the events of 4B’s lesson, still shell shocked by the ordeal, and a few other staff members had chimed in to remind her that poor behaviour needs reprimanding: that she was entitled to give them a good bollocking if need be.
“That’s what kids like that need.” Phil had declared, reaching for another digestive. “Especially kids like Kelly – his whole family is feral.”
She sipped her coffee and shrugged, mulling over the email she had sent home after the ordeal. But, perhaps she had been too harsh? As she ran a highlight reel of the lesson, he wasn’t even remembered as one of the main offenders.
“Doesn’t matter!” Tim had laughed. “Did he do his work, like he was told? No. Good for you, I say. I only wish I’d seen it! Bet it was brutal, you dark horse. And we all thought you were a soft touch, when you started!”
They all laughed then, but hushed quickly, as briefing began. The head began his usual diatribe on standards, and she stood and nodded, not listening, as she thought about the tumult of the lesson, of teaching, and of trainers.
Now, driving down Hedley High Street, she took her usual delight in knowing that Wednesday afternoon marked the longest period of time before she had to face them again. After the initial surge of adrenaline had subsided, the relief had seeped through her, a restorative balm, as she had watched them scrabble out of the classroom, and, now waiting in the line of traffic stemming from the zebra crossing, she felt positively calm. She even switched the car stereo back on.
It was then that she saw him, stepping out from the shortcut between Costcutters and the off licence, carrying a plastic shopping bag and waiting for a gap in traffic near the crossing. Michael Kelly had not been in school for a week. In fact, she realised that she had not so much as seen him in the corridors since that fateful lesson the week previous. On Monday, the school had phoned his father, who had said he wasn’t feeling well. Now it was Wednesday again. She had barely noticed his absence in the lesson.
Here he was, the truant, clutching a bottle of Lucozade and looking fit as a fiddle. Not feeling well? She scoffed, indignant. The stress of her day manifested itself in his image, in a familiar rush, as she thought of him sauntering across town, unaware of the effort dedicated to his education, and the opportunities he was wasting. Wouldn’t we all like to take the fucking week off, just because we fancy it? And what was his dad playing at, actually letting him? Fury gripped her, and then, as the traffic crawled closer, she watched him wedge the empty plastic bottle into a barrel of pansies by the side of the road.
She wanted to stop and shout from the window. A part of her wanted him to know he had been seen. She felt entitled to that and, gauging both the speed of the cars, and his proximity, she knew she would have the perfect moment. He would not be able to cross before she had driven past him and stared him right in the face. The Golf in front of her inched its way across the speed bump and she was careful not to allow any gaps for him to dart into. He had to see her. He had to know she knew. The moment was afoot. She pushed up her glasses and fixed her gaze on him as she neared the crossing, willing the lights to stay green, and at the moment he saw her she felt a bolt of electricity and sinister excitement dart through her brain. Would she mouth anything to him? Would she frown? She laughed inwardly at the ludicrous prospect of putting two fingers up. But then he turned to check the lights, and she clocked his left eye, bulging and smooth.
The colour of a plum.
That night, Jason had made tea. She had pushed and scraped her way around the lasagne, taking sips of water and rubbing the bridge of her nose.
“Bad day?” He had said, clearing the plates.
“A bit, yes.”
“Oh, of course! It’s Wednesday. How were the swamp creatures today? Anyone cut the guitar strings or shove Wotsits into the… I don’t know, flutes, or something?”
She smiled for him then, and Jason mimed playing a blocked recorder, hamming up the expression of confusion as he blew without sound.
Afterwards, as they were half watching the evening news, Jason nudged her with his elbow.
“Did you listen to that album yet?” He asked.
“No, not yet. I was going to, on the way home, but I guess I got distracted.”
He asked the source of the distraction and she told him. When she mentioned the black eye, his face fell into the mark of sympathy and soft distress.
“Poor lad.” He whispered, taking a sip of wine. “You know, I bet there’s loads out there like him. I doubt it’ll be his last.”
He sighed indulgently.
She lifted her legs up onto the sofa and drew her knees up to her chest, frowning, as she laid her chin on them.
“Anyway,” said Jason, perking up, “at the very least, he’s lucky to have you for a teacher. It’s people like you – naturally sympathetic – that make kids like that come into school in the first place.”
Reaching over, he squeezed her arm and kissed her forehead firmly, before heading into the kitchen to fetch the rest of the bottle.
The TV played filler music almost inaudibly over a montage of clips about cricket. She sat, staring at the window, seeing the darkening spring sky as the ink of night bled in, and listened hard to the music. She tried to find the beat, but she couldn’t.