Sunday 24 April 2022

Any Ordinary Day - Short Story by Lynda Tavokoli

 



Any Ordinary Day


Daylight finally rescues me from the secret corners of sleep that have eluded me in the night.  Outside, my father’s footsteps scrunch across the gravel as he leaves for work, but I remain completely still, strangely connected with the newness of another day and the whispering of spring that it brings.  This morning though, there is a strange reluctance in my bones to stir and I do not want to go to school.  For the life of me I cannot tell you why, for really I do not know myself.

In the room next to mine I can hear, through the thin partition wall, my younger brother wrestling with the demons in his sleep. Sometimes he cries out in the middle of the night and I listen for my mother’s hushed reassurance as she comforts him, gently exorcizing the bogey men inside his nine-year-old head.  Nobody knows the source of his unhappiness so they buy him things to try and compensate – computer games with 18 years and over discretely positioned on the back side of the box in tiny print. He plays them unconstrained inside his room when he comes home from school but the violence amuses him he tells me, so I choose to leave him be – he is my little brother after all.  I dress and go downstairs where in the kitchen mum is washing dishes while humming her oldie songs into a sudded sink. The smell of burnt toast begins to irritate my nose.  I eat breakfast and run. 

            My friends are waiting near the entrance to the school, chattering on about their weekend escapades and flirting unashamedly with boys from the year above. I notice Janice Tilley hitching up her skirt to knicker level and most of the other girls follow suit because in order to avoid detention it is always best to flaunt the rules in the safety of numbers. My own skirt remains glued fractionally above the knee, for much as I would like to conform to this rebellious act of unity, I do not wish to display the course hairs that lurk darkly behind my adolescent thighs.  Neither do I wish to give to Archie Bannerman further reason to expand his cruel observations to every other boy within our class.

 We snake begrudgingly through the gates and on towards the main assembly hall where Miss Higginson, our vice-principal, scans her prey with the shrewdness of a jessed hawk.  The boys form in orderly lines, by year, on one side of the room; we girls along the other and in between, the monitors feed their superiority upon a hoped for dissent among we, the lower ranks.  The wave of hush comes always as a shock. I watch rows of heads in front of me bend like young, winded trees, as pupils shift their weight tediously from foot to foot. Today’s sermon is about to start.  Janice Tilley nudges me gently with her hip and a low sigh squeezes from the side of her mouth. We have both heard it all before.

“Children!” Miss Higginson begins and the staff sitting in a row of chairs behind her, jump. “This morning’s assembly is dedicated to one word and that word is deference.”  She pauses then for effect; her eyes blazing like the night-sights on a hunting rifle searching for a target in darkness. The lines of trees ahead of me are suddenly stilled and nothing stirs.  Miss Higginson carries on, “Treat others the way you would have them treat yourself and you will ultimately reap the rewards in later life.  If you show other people respect you will be repaid for it tenfold.  And if you demonstrate deference; yes, deference, children, you will find that adults will return your obsequiousness in kind.”  I think it would be a lot easier just to say, “Try to be nice to each other,” for at least then the younger pupils might understand, but I have long since lost the will to comprehend how the minds of adults work.

            When the bell finally calls us for the start of classes we file out through the big doors as submissively as cattle in an abattoir would resign themselves to their brutal and unalterable fate.  Another day at Memorial College has begun.  Janice links my arm, hauling me along with her towards the lockers to collect our stuff.  She likes my plainness which is no threat to her and I am useful for my status with the teachers.  Yet there are times, if she knew it, when I would gladly give to her my conformity in exchange for a single day of her rebelliousness.  But today my usefulness has little weight.  At the lockers a young teacher whom I do not recognise is taking names into a book.  The book has pretty, glittered swirls across its cover and I imagine it to be meant for something other than to list the names of unruly girls who keep their skirts too short. But it is not. 

            “Do you not know what the school rules state?” yells the teacher into Janice’s face, a spray of spit freckling over my friend’s cheeks.  “Get that skirt pulled down to the proper length and report to the office at break for blatant flagrancy of uniform rules.”  I wonder if she has been to assembly earlier and if the word deference is in any way within her remit.  She redirects her eyes to gaze at my compliant skirt length.  I almost wish she’d pick on me as well but instead of that she simply nods her approval.  Respect, it seems, is reliant on certain rules that only adults are allowed to generate.  She turns on her heel and strides away. “Bitch,” breathes Janice, at the same time tugging on her hem with one hand and giving a fingered salute with the other.  Then nonchalantly to me, “See you at lunch then, Melissa,” and she slopes off up the corridor while I mount the stairs to the next floor and my first lesson of the day.

Within my head there is a beat.  It is attached to the fingertips of my teacher in room fourteen, science block, and it is relentless.  The beat pounds persistently as fingers hit wood; dadada, dadada, dadada; rather like the thud of machine gun fire I hear from my brother’s play station in the bedroom adjacent to mine.  Jesus, I think - as if it wasn’t enough to listen to at home.  Mr Hamilton teaches us biology and he is beautiful. His hair is the colour of honeyed corn and when it flops across his eyes he deftly flicks it back again with fingers that no science teacher ought to own.  They are a piano player’s fingers and I envy their soft delicacy when I compare them with my own stumpy appendages.  In short my teacher is what we teenage girls describe as ‘fit’ and I’d actually quite fancy him myself if only I wasn’t female.  Mr Hamilton, you see, sadly isn’t into girls, or so I hear.  Daniel Gregson tells a good story about it most lunch times in the canteen but I notice that this morning his chair is empty so we must forego the daily diatribe of faggot jokes until his return.

 I sit at a window seat.  It is my reward for being obedient and conscientious.  Daniel on the other hand, is always forced to sit right up at the front near Mr Hamilton’s desk, where he can be ogled at or letched after depending on who you like to talk to.  I rather suspect it is the latter.  I think about what Miss Higginson was on about this morning and consider what kind of reward Mr Hamilton might reap from his so-called deference towards vulnerable pupils like Daniel. These thoughts are running through my mind as the register is being called.

“Bannerman,”

            “Yes sir.”

            “Craig,”

            “Present sir,”

            “Gregson. Daniel Gregson.”

            Silence.

            “Where’s Gregson this morning?” Mr Hamilton enquires of the class, his face struggling momentarily to hide its disappointment.

“He’s absent sir,” somebody says.

And so it goes on.

Outside in the teachers’ car park a stray dog pees up against somebody’s shiny hubcap and then trots off indifferently out of sight. Along the pathway leading up to school pretty yellow and purple flowers dance under an April sun and the fresh green of spring filters through the new leaves of an overhanging beech tree.  Ours is a well kept school.  This is just an ordinary day.

“Wilson!”

Nothing.

“Melissa. Pay attention.  I’m calling the register.”  Dadada, dadada.

“Sorry sir.  Here sir,” I mutter apologetically seeing his mouth betray a smirk he usually reserves for the other girls.  The drumming stops abruptly.  Mr Hamilton checks his watch and the lesson begins.

“Okay everyone.  Turn to page fifty-two.  Chapter six.  Photosynthesis.  All eyes down.”

Something flickers across my field of vision.  It feels like the briefest flash of light on metal and I turn idly towards the window again to try and locate its source.  Unexpectedly, I see Daniel Gregson ambling nonchalantly up the gravel path, a golf bag slung casually over his shoulder, silver clubs glinting sharply like staccatoed bursts of sunshine. 

“Jenkins, can a plant photosynthesise without light?” asks Mr Hamilton from somewhere near the back of the room, but I am only half listening.  There are more intriguing things to observe through the windowpane and Daniel, with his long, easy strides, is making surprisingly good ground. Soon enough he will reach the big double doors at the main school entrance, but now he is just close enough for me to examine his face.  He looks quite relaxed, happy even, and the corners of his mouth curl gently upwards into a warm smile. I half expect him to look up and see me watching him but instead he reaches an arm effortlessly behind his left shoulder and pulls out one of the clubs.  I can see now that it is an odd shape; that it is perhaps not a golf club after all.  I suddenly do not dare to wonder what it is.  And I don’t want to be in school today.

            From my mouth comes only silence.  From my eyes a terror that chokes its way through my uncomprehending brain and buries itself deep into my consciousness.  Only my ears function with a sweet clarity.  Dadada, dadada.   In a terrible unison timed like the opening bars of some Beethoven concerto the gunfire rings out with the first awful screams.  In the room where I sit though, everyone has petrified themselves to stone, their legs reluctant to accept the urge to flee; their brains as yet too stunned to function normally.  Even Mr Hamilton is rooted to the spot, unable to fully comprehend the battle raging through the corridors on his behalf, and fleetingly I pity him for his ineptitude. But Daniel now is on his way to reap his rewards.  I let myself imagine him reaching the bottom of the stairs and then I time the steps it takes for Daniel Gregson to arrive at room fourteen.  Nine seconds.  Ten.  Eleven.  Three more and still my body refuses to move from its privileged position beside the window.

            Dadadada. Dadadada.  Dadadada.

 The volleys of gunfire are deafening and brutal, but I am like Lot’s wife pillared in salt and cannot join the other pupils now lying prone across the parquet floor.  All I can do is look into my teacher’s disbelieving face for one last time before the quiet opening of our classroom door.  And there is Daniel, smiling now his sweetest smile as he prepares to take the final shot.  Just like the play station guy I think and wonder why it is that anyone should be so surprised. 

 



 

Lynda Tavakoli lives in County Down, Northern Ireland, where she facilitates an adult creative writing class and is a tutor for the Seamus Heaney Award for schools.  A poet, novelist and freelance journalist, Lynda’s writings have been published in the UK, Ireland, the US and the Middle East, with Farsi and Spanish translations.

Lynda has been winner of both poetry and short story prizes in Listowel, The Westival International Poetry Prize and runner-up in The Blackwater International Poetry Competition and Roscommon Poetry Competition. Her poems have also appeared in The Irish Times, New Irish Writing.

She was recently a guest poet on RTE1 The Poetry Programme and her poem, ‘You’re Beautiful’, was featured in the ‘Words Lightly Spoken’ podcast.

Her debut poetry collection, ‘The Boiling Point for Jam’ is published by Arlen House.

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