Читать онлайн «The Classroom: A gripping and terrifying thriller which asks who you can trust in 2018»
‘I just wasn’t sure about the headteacher, at the new joiners evening, you know?’ Kirsten says to her husband, as she gazes at little Harriet. She bites her lip, as she resists the urge to hug her daughter another time before getting her into the car. Harriet looks so smart and grown-up in her new uniform, but Kirsten doesn’t want to deliver her to the destination: first day of reception.
Ian lays a hand on Kirsten’s shoulder.
‘The headteacher was just fine, darling. You know that. You got on like a house on fire.’ There’s a wryness to his delivery, probably born of being a headmaster himself. He knows the conversations that go on.
‘And what about the other kids? They say that the most important thing is the cohort your child’s in. What if they’re mean?’
Ian shrugs. ‘There’s bound to be one mean kid there. Maybe it will be Harriet.’
Kirsten shoots him a poison dart with her eyes.
‘Joking,’ he tells her. ‘Harriet’s no bully. But they’re five, Kirsten. No one’s going to be selling drugs, or making them down alcohol.’
Kirsten looks at him more carefully this time. It’s an oddly chosen example, considering.
She sees Ian notice her look. ‘Whatever,’ he says. ‘What I mean is, she’ll be fine, you need to get her in the car, or we’ll both be late, OK? You’ve been taking her to nursery for three years. School’s no different, really. She should be so lucky, going somewhere like that. We can catch up this evening.’
Kirsten nods. But she doesn’t agree. He doesn’t get it. Or maybe he does: he gets what’s on the surface. The anxiety that she’s actually expressed. But there’s the deeper anxiety, the one she never shares. The one she never knows whether dads truly face too, or if it’s just the mums, the worried mums. The need that can suddenly seize you to know exactly where your child is at all times. The sudden rush of panic that they could be with anyone, with any number of terrible things befalling them. And that even if they were meant to be in safe hands – with relatives, at school – it would always ultimately be your fault for making the choice that day, that hour, to outsource their care. To not be looking after them yourself.
The guilt, Kirsten knew, would always linger. And it worked the other way too: if she was indulgent enough to take a day off work, that particular day would be the one when their route to the Fun Activity was favoured by terrorists, or a gas explosion, or a sinkhole.
‘Can I go to school now, Mummy?’ Harriet asks.
Kirsten tries to shut her anxiety down. She’d made such a thing of school being Grown-Up and Very Important that Harriet can’t be blamed for wanting to get there sooner. But it’s still too soon. Only a moment ago, Harriet was a newborn. Kirsten still remembers looking at those amazing owl-like eyes, wide and unblinking, as Harriet sat in the back of the car on the journey home with Ian – their little miracle. He’d been a bit cold, nervy with the weight of responsibility, but she’d been transfixed. If she’d known, really known, how enchanting a newborn could be, it would have got her through the discomfort of all those rounds of IVF – the injections, the hormone reactions, the tests – with much less heartache. Or maybe more, knowing what she was missing.
‘Of course, darling – it’s so exciting. I’m so proud of you!’
Kirsten watches as Harriet clambers into the back of the car. She tries to capture the moment in her mind. It’s just as significant as the ride home with the newborn, those life milestones every mother faces. Kirsten knows she’ll only get to savour them once – there are no more children after Harriet. So she must enjoy them now.
But she also really must get to work. Kirsten sees the time as she turns on the car ignition: 8.25. Shit. Not only were they meant to be at the school five minutes ago, her first appointment is fast approaching, as well. And as emotionally rewarding as it is to gaze dotingly at Harriet, it isn’t financially rewarding. Those financial rewards have kept the roof over her daughter’s head. OK, so Ian may be laudably busy managing the struggling comprehensive school he heads up out of special measures, before the Ofsted inspection – but he doesn’t get a bonus for the hours he works. The more Kirsten works, the more she gets paid, and the less they have to watch the overdraft every month.
Harriet begins complaining that she’s left one of her new special pencils in the house and says that they’ll have to go back and get it. The gloss of the first school day becomes tarnished. The usual negotiations (or bribes) kick in. By the time Kirsten drops Harriet at school, she is thinking very positively about the benefits of being able to deposit your child elsewhere for someone else to deal with.
As soon as she has that thought, she wants to run back after Harriet and apologise. Never wish away something so precious. Never try to abdicate responsibility for one so dear. The school staff seem good on health and safety, but what if they aren’t?
She considers calling Ian, asking him what he thinks. Should she go back in and make sure Harriet is properly settled? But no. She knows what he would say. It’s fine. The school is a good one, excellent parent feedback, and the teachers are fully checked for criminal records. She’s safe, Kirsten tells herself. She’s safe.
Chapter 2 (#ulink_4e2fef3e-42a4-5479-9a3a-7ca4d76610d1)
MIRIAM, 4 SEPTEMBER 2018
Miriam stands at the front of the still-empty classroom, mentally hugging herself. Finally, she is here – about to embark on teaching at St Anthony’s. All summer, the thought of it had been her best thing – the one that gave her hope and excitement each morning. The one that made her happy to exist as she curled up in her bed at night. She’d think about all those little faces, staring up at her, yearning for knowledge.
She knew how the first morning would go. Pick out one particular face, that natural teacher’s pet – all blonde, dimpled, cute floppy hair. Then look to the one next to them. That’s the one you want. The one you should go for. Maybe their hair is red or brown. Maybe they don’t smile. Maybe they have glasses, or their lack of a smile suggests they’ve learnt the hard way that everything doesn’t go hunky-dory just because you’re a kid. Maybe they wouldn’t be the archetypal cute kid on the bleeding heart ‘Missing Child’-type posters, or the pictures that stare out from papers hauntingly when sad news hits. But it’s that little one, the less than obvious one, that you want. That child will change your life. It’s worth taking the rap for that kid, if something goes wrong. She’d seen her formative teachers choose the less obvious kids, and she knew for herself that it made an otherwise average teacher become truly memorable.
And it was that thinking that got her the job. Not her own personal goal for where all this is going, of course. But the emphasis on child-focused attention. Thinking beyond the normal line of duty. Looking beyond the obvious to achieve results. She replays the interview in her head. So nervous. All her dreams depended on it.
‘Ms Robertson, where do you see yourself in five years’ time?’
She’d wiped her sweaty palms on her dress. She’d bought it specially but hated it already. Why did she go for acrylic peach? She’d read in some magazine one time that you look confident in pink. This was not the right pink and she did not feel confident. What she felt was hot and grimy, and the dress wasn’t helping. She could literally see her palm marks on the fabric.
‘In five years, I’ll be … I don’t know, maybe married, with my own child, maybe two children?’
The headmistress had stared back at her, stifling a yawn. How many other twenty-somethings had she tried to imagine being five years older that day? It was a world away. Miriam had to up her game. She tried again.
‘So. Five years. I’d hope to be well on the way to making an early Deputy Head at a school like this one and be helping out in the co-curricular activities – running a breakfast club, that kind of thing? I see you don’t have one, but I’d be more than willing to start one. But I guess I don’t need to wait five years – I can start it sooner, if parents want it. It’s so important to have these extra conveniences, isn’t it? Happy parents, happy children, that’s what I always think.’
And she’d smiled brightly, hoping it was enough, that she wasn’t just gushing madly. And it was enough. The headmistress’s yawn had gone. She was leaning forward. Rapt. Thank God. Miriam took a sip of water. The next twenty minutes were a formality. The job was hers. The other twenty-somethings could go home; the school had found ‘The One’. Maybe she wasn’t the best choice, objectively speaking – if the school had all the facts at its disposal. She certainly didn’t have the best childcare credentials (her sister had still never forgiven her). And if she’d told them where she really wanted to be in five years – well, they might, in their misguided way, have called the police. But she was the choice they made.
Summer holidays done, here Miriam stands. Finally. Behind her desk, waiting for her assigned class to potter in for registration. Waiting for that one little face that will make or break her heart. Not wearing peach today. Baby blue silk (OK, viscose) shirt with a pussycat bow, and a blue tweed skirt. It looks professional, approachable, maybe a bit sassy. She hopes.
They start to arrive. Dribs and drabs at first. Little poppets in their burgundy uniforms. How lucky their mummies and daddies are; how much she wants one of them for her own. The boys in little ties and caps, the girls in pretty pleated skirts. They are meant to have just turned five, but some of them are tiny. One girl, she’s far too small for the chair. She brings her knees up to her chest, and sits there, curled, thumb in her mouth, Peppa Pig lunch box clutched to her. But then you have the boys – big enough for a rugby team, some of them. Could overpower the little girls in an instant, get them into a scrum tackle. Maybe they are already in kiddy rugby teams; they’re in North London after all. It’s never too early for stretching your children.
‘Good morning, class,’ Miriam says, in her best Miss Honey voice. Try not to let it shake. Try to smile the words. Remember the lesson plan. Remember you’re in control, this time. Kids trust adults who assume authority. And that’s what she wants. Their trust. That’s central to her plans. To get close.
‘Welcome back to school, everyone. My name is Ms Robertson, and I’m delighted to be working with you all. Let’s go through the register. Stand up when your name is called, please – it helps me learn who you are.’
Miriam had their photos already, of course. She’d studied them over the summer. But it looked like some of them were about two years old when they registered; nothing beats seeing them in the flesh. So she calls the roll. And they’re away. Names fly by, some the latest crazes (we have several Olivias), some more traditional (welcome, Peter). They’re nearly at the end when she stands up. The girl. And Miriam knows, instantly, that this is the one. She squeaks her name: Harriet White. Doesn’t even meet Miriam’s gaze at first, just fiddles with her messy plaits. But then she looks up and Miriam sees those beautiful hazel eyes.
And there she is. Miriam’s vocation. Miriam catches a breath. Because it’s a big moment, isn’t it? When your life’s purpose is suddenly right there in front of you. Tantalisingly close already. But so much work required to get there. Little by little, she’ll secure it. She’ll secure her. She must.
Chapter 3 (#ulink_bd5e5cd8-07fd-5b86-aeda-231fec26a283)
BECKY, JULY 2012
Becky rubs her eyes and puts her maths textbook down. She needs a break from calculus. Besides, they’re done with exams for this term, so why bother really? She throws herself onto her bed and looks into the full-length mirror at the end of it. She pulls her glasses down on the end of her nose, and pouts into the mirror. ‘Pretty Geek.’ That’s how people know her. She could live with either of the labels separately. But together – well, it’s sort of like she’s not good enough to be one or the other. She’s only an acceptable geek because she’s pretty, and only acceptable for her prettiness because her IQ is higher than average. Try to devote herself to being either one of them? Wouldn’t work. She’d be even more of a social outcast.
Her middle sister never seems to have that problem. Quite the opposite. Becky hears, sometimes, about the boyfriends and parties at university, somehow juggled with first-class marks and doting tutors. She wishes she could be more like her.
And yet … Becky doesn’t mind her own image as much as she should. Leaning over to her desk again, she pulls out the leaflet for drama summer school. Her parents were amazed when she signed up for it. She knows, she’s not stupid – she overheard all those conflicting conversations downstairs. They went like this, basically:
Mum: Oh, our little darling is finally getting some social skills.
Dad: But drama makes people stupid. What if she fails her exams?
Both: We only want her to be happy (as long as she gets good grades and doesn’t have S. E. X., of which God might not approve. And as long as she doesn’t catch Acting, distracting her from a good career as a doctor or a teacher or something Solid – which she and her sisters must do).
Then there’s some disagreement – it escalates into a row and Becky tunes out.
OK, Becky was summarising the part she listened to, but that was the gist. And she kind of understood, because yes, she was surprised with herself too. If it weren’t for Caitlin, she wouldn’t have agreed. And Caitlin wouldn’t have pressured her if they hadn’t both caught Andrew Carmichael staring over at them in Maths. (Becky was busy concentrating on finding what n equalled, so Caitlin had to nudge her.) Becky assumed he was looking at Caitlin, because Caitlin is gorgeous, in a way that is the opposite of everything about Becky (blonde to Becky’s mousy brown, long-limbed to Becky’s wiry petiteness, twenty-twenty blue vision, compared to Becky’s black-framed myopia). Becky isn’t totally sure how they managed to become friends. But they seem to be, and it doesn’t do to prod the proof under the microscope, or it might burst.
Besides, apparently the timing worked out well for her parents because Becky’s other sister, the boring one, was coming to stay with The New Baby. The baby had been new for the past, what, year? And it hadn’t learnt to sleep, or was it swallow, or had forgotten while it got its teeth, or something, so Becky’s sister needed Help and everyone had to make way for the invasion. Becky just hoped she didn’t come back to find her room full of nappies.
So anyway, at school, Caitlin had been convinced Andy (divine Andy) was staring at Becky, and vice versa. Unlikely. But later, by the notice boards, it seemed like Caitlin might be right. Becky was looking for the algebra club meeting, when she heard a voice behind her. A male voice.
‘Are you signing up to the drama summer school?’
She’d looked round to see Andy just there, almost kissing distance away. Could smell the minty intrigue of the gum he was chewing. Pulling her gaze away from him momentarily, she followed it to where he was looking. A sign-up sheet for drama summer school, with a few flyers in a little plastic folder pinned next to it.
There were two spaces left on the sign-up sheet. Under Andy’s name.
Becky had smiled shyly. ‘Oh, it’s not really my kind of thing,’ she said, and made to turn away.
‘What she means is,’ came a loud, springy, female voice behind her, ‘she’d love to go, and so would I!’
Caitlin. She grabbed a pen from her ponytail and filled in her own name first, then Becky’s.
‘I went last year,’ Caitlin said. ‘It was amazing.’
That was six weeks ago. Now, the course was only four weeks away. A two-week summer school, with gorgeous Andy. And Caitlin.
‘Get some contact lenses,’ Caitlin had advised her.
But the optician had said there were none suitable for her eye type. Pretty Geeky Freak. Or at least, none that she could comfortably use to look at computers with. So Mum said no. The drama course was expensive enough, and she wouldn’t have Becky ruining her eyes over it.
Still, she could take her glasses off if she ever got close enough to Andy to warrant it. Or he could take them off for her. Caitlin said Becky was still in with a chance – said that’s what she was giggling about with Andy in the cafeteria. Seeing them together had sparked something in Becky’s chest. But Caitlin was a good friend, wasn’t she? So it must be true. You had to trust your friends.
Chapter 4 (#ulink_df55a244-6a6e-5beb-b5f1-1b668d788307)
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