Back to school blues

First day back at school tomorrow and Susan was less than keen to return to her class.

“There’s really nothing to worry about, dear. You’ll be fine,” said her Aunt Emily. Susan was not convinced. Emily tried to reassure her. “You’ll be able to see your friends again.” That was true, but she was not sure she wanted to see them, particularly if it meant going back to school to do so. First day after the long summer break, it was also the day when she and four other children had been selected to tell the class about their summer. They were told to choose one thing that they had done during the vacation, and speak about it for five minutes, bringing something along to use as a visual aid. A kind of show and tell.

From the day school finished back in July, until a few days before term started, Susan had managed to take her mind off the school year to come. She had given herself wholeheartedly to the farm where she lived with her aunt and uncle. It was just outside of the town, in a slice of greenbelt where there was a smattering of small holdings and one or two larger farms. During term times she would take the infrequent bus into school each day. None of the other children lived on farms. Although she saw friends a couple of times over the holidays, Susan was far more at home with her animals, particularly when there were plenty of lambs to look after.

During the Easter break, she had helped to bring dozens of new lambs into the world. She had spent long days, as well as some nights, helping the ewes to give birth when they needed it, feeding, watering and generally looking after them. She counted, sorted and marked the little newborns and bottle-fed any orphans. That was her favourite job. Sitting cross-legged in the straw, she would cradle the gangling woolly infant between her legs while the lamb suckled greedily from the bottle, spattering Susan’s overalls with milk.

Easter was always the best time of year for Susan. The summer break was not as much fun, with most of the lambs in the field and only a few remaining orphans in the shed along with one sickly one. Even with all the lambs gone and the shed full of young bullocks, they still referred to it as the ‘lambing shed’.

Apart from the occasional visit by a friend her own age, most of the people she saw were those around the farm. Peter the part-time farmhand, Del the delivery man and old Rosie the neighbour who used to keep pigs, until it got too much for her.

Over the summer, Peter helped out on the farm most days. Arriving in the morning of the day before term started, he was quick to pick up on Susan’s subdued mood. “You got summ’n on yer mind, gel?” asked Peter, who spoke with a half-affected West Country drawl. Susan just shrugged.

“It’s nothing really,” she said without conviction.

“Well don’ let northin’ ruin yer day, ‘en,” he said, as he sauntered off to the top field, pushing something or other in a barrow.

“Gorra prob’m,” he muttered to himself as he ambled along with the barrow. “Do wha’ I does ‘n walk away ‘em it.”

Del turned up later that morning, his ancient Bedford chugging and coughing as he pulled to the top of the drive. He had nothing to deliver that day, just stopping for a mug of tea and a natter with Auntie.

“Where you off to Suzie?” he asked.

“Lambing shed,” she replied over her shoulder as she strode off. Uncle would be taking the last of the orphan lambs out to the field later. The one sickly lamb that Susan had been looking after ever since Easter would go with them. He was much stronger now and ready to build himself up on the sweet summer grass. She would miss looking after him and hoped they would keep him when the others went off to market. Just as well he was able to look after himself now that she was back at school tomorrow. She shuddered at the thought of returning to school. Why couldn’t she just stay at home and help out on the farm?

Having spread out some fresh hay and topped up the water for the last time, Susan shuffled back to the kitchen for her morning tea, stopping on the way to collect the eggs from the coop. Not as many as she would have expected, and she wondered whether the hens were worried about something too. As always, the cockerel strutted towards her, flapping and cock-a-dooing. She took a swipe at him with the egg basket.

“Cock off! You… you… you… stupid bird,” she shrieked. It staggered back, tripping over its tail before resuming a more dignified pose at a safer distance.  

Back at the kitchen, she put the basket of eggs down on the side. Del was still chattering with Auntie but had just got up to go.

“Still worrying about tomorrow?” asked Emily. Susan was saying nothing, not with Del still there. Why did he have to hang around?

“Wha’ you got t’ worry ‘bout Suzie? Clever girl like you…” he said, giving her a smirk. Susan just grimaced, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched.

“Well wha’ever it is, he ain’t worth it.” At this, Del guffawed before putting down his mug. “Thanks for the tea, Em,” he said cheerily as he walked out of the kitchen. “See ya t’morrer.”

As Dell left, Emily glanced up at her niece.

“Oh, come on Susan, dear. It can’t be that bad, can it?”

“Don’t want to go back to school, Auntie.”

“Well, you know where ‘don’t want’ gets you, don’t you?”

Susan just stared at the tablecloth, sipping tea from her mug. She took a tiny nibble from the big wedge of fruit cake on the plate beside her mug, before taking a great big bite, the heavy coating of Demerara sugar cheering her a little. Auntie’s baking always did.

“I’m just off up top field,” said Emily, as she grabbed the overcoat from the back of the kitchen door. “Finish your tea and there’s a pie on the side for old Rosie. She’d starve if we didn’t feed her.”

Susan didn’t even look up. Sitting there alone, taking alternate mouthfuls of fruit cake and gulps of sweet tea, she thought again about what she would say tomorrow, and what she could take in to show the class. She could hardly take one of her lambs on the bus. Even if she could, the others would laugh at her, calling her ‘farm girl’ and making silly animal noises.   

“Why not talk about those chicks you hatched?” her Auntie had suggested. Susan didn’t think she could talk for five minutes about hatching chicks. There was nothing to it. You just leave the broody hen on the nest and check on the eggs every now and then. She thought about taking one or two of the hatchlings to school in a shoe box.

“Too much bother,” she muttered to herself. She decided she would just take some eggs in. She could talk about the fertile eggs, how to see whether there was a chick inside by holding the egg up to the light, and then say about collecting the other eggs that she would leave in the wooden box at the front of the house for the people who stopped to buy them. Auntie let her keep some of the money to buy sweets from the village post office. Susan thought it would be a boring talk, but she didn’t care, she had to do something. Yes, thought Susan, that would do, she would take in half a dozen eggs in an egg box. Auntie had said before that she should take some eggs in to give to her teacher, Mr Quintrell, but she wasn’t going to do that. She might give them to Mrs Jacobs, the school secretary, after the talk. Mrs Jacobs always had a friendly smile for her.

Getting up and placing her mug and plate in the sink, to wash up later. Susan picked up the pie and, covering it with a tablecloth that was draped over the back of the kitchen chair, 9headed off down the lane to Rosie’s.

When Susan let herself in, Rosie was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace. Bedraggled hair fell around her shoulders, framing the blotched and ruddy face. She was wearing the same mottled dressing gown she wore most days. Yesterday’s dinner was spattered over the front.

“Mornin’ Rosie, brought you some gooseberry pie.”

“Don’t want none.”

Ignoring her, Susan put the pie down and made tea in the earthenware pot on the mantle, carefully pouring the brew into the delicate bone China teacup that Rosie liked to sip her tea from. Susan added milk, then two lumps of sugar from the jar. Susan put this, with its matching saucer, on the little table in front of Rosie and then placed a slice of Auntie’s pie on a plate beside it.

She sat in the chair opposite and watched Rosie take a sip of tea before putting down her cup and saucer and picking up the slice of pie, crammed with fruit and sugar. Taking a huge bite, she munched away at it, dropping pastry crumbs and sugar all down her gown.

“Like it, Rosie?” asked Susan.

“No.”

Rosie finished off the pie with studied relish, before looking up at Susan, as if seeing her for the first time.

“What you doing today, Emmie? Coming out to play with me later?” Susan had given up trying to explain that she wasn’t Emmie.

“School tomorrow,” was all Susan said in reply.

Rosie thought about her own schooldays and remembered the time she had been caned by her teacher for being late. Rosie’s friend Emily had whispered “be brave” as Rosie was ordered to the front of the class.

“Be brave,” said Rosie, with a half-smile directed at Susan.

The next day Susan headed off to the bus stop, her books and the eggs in her satchel, smartly dressed in the freshly pressed green and grey uniform of Woodcrest Secondary School. It was the second Autumn she had worn it and Auntie had had to let the clothes out and the hem of the skirt down. Uncle had ironed her grey skirt and white blouse the night before. He always ironed Susan’s uniform. Auntie found the pleats in the skirts too fiddly. Uncle had also slipped a Marathon bar into her bag. Susan hadn’t seen it, but she knew it would be there.

Sitting on the bus for the long rumble through the lanes, Susan felt her heart thumping in her chest, thinking about the day to come. The bus driver had smiled at her as she boarded. Handing him the thrupenny piece, she looked down as she passed on into the bus. She was not in the mood for a back-to-school chat. He would say something like “glad to be back?” and she would have to think of a polite answer.

Later, in the classroom, Susan sat next to her friend Wendy at the back. Neither girl was particularly chatty, despite having not seen each other for six weeks. Mr Quintrell sat at the front, behind the big desk, and Miss Shadworthy, the stern headmistress, sat on a chair by the door to listen to the holiday stories. That did not make it any easier for Susan.

The class heard two stories before it was Susan’s turn. Johnny Jeffries talked about making model aeroplanes during the holidays and showed the class a Spitfire he’d made from a kit. Just the sort of thing a stupid boy would spend his time doing. Linda Bradshaw boasted about going to Spain and eating Paella. She said they always went abroad for their holidays and showed a pair of brightly painted maracas, giving them a shake.

Then, it was Susan’s turn. Hesitantly, she rose, heading towards the front of the class, before remembering the eggs and having to turn back to take them out of her bag. It flustered her even more, particularly when she heard some silly girl suppress a giggle.

“Come along, Susan, we haven’t got all day,” said Miss Shadworthy, chivvying her along.

Susan picked her way through the narrow gap between desks to the front of the class. She reached Mr Quintrell’s big desk and stopped, shoulders hunched, staring at the floor. For a moment she froze. Then she looked up uncertainly, first at Mr Quintrell, who had a curious expression on his face, and then across at Miss Shadworthy, who was starting to frown, her eyebrows gathering at the centre of her forehead.

“Susan, dear, whatever is the matter?”

A feint background murmur could be heard. All eyes were on Susan’s back. Susan thought about Rosie and what she had said: “Be brave.”

A moment’s further hesitation and then, without warning, Susan threw the egg box onto the floor in front of her and, raising a leg, stamped down hard, mercilessly crushing the eggs within. Stretching her arm towards Mr Quintrell, she extended her index finger, as if aiming a gun between his now widening eyes.

“You!” she yelled. The background murmur ended abruptly. All sound had ceased. If anyone other than Susan had been looking at the teacher’s face, they would have seen the colour draining from it, top to bottom, to be replaced first by a ghostly white, then by a tinge of pale green. Susan’s piercing stare gripped Mr Quintrell like a vice and bore deep into his being.

“You!” She repeated. “You will never… ever… ever… touch me again.”

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