It was the third time he’d been into the school. Again he felt uncomfortable, vulnerable. Why, if not about power, were the parents met here, in the middle area, and gestured to sit in these tiny, blue plastic chairs, rather than in the Head’s office? Or at least the staff room. The intended effect, he supposed, might be to soften. The difficult talks should take place here, surrounded by the children’s bright art, grotesque clay creatures, the soft blocks they lay down on for quiet time. Better here, the headmaster (or his secretary) judged, than in the office, which, even in this decade, in this progressive, suburban primary, might be thought to carry a freight of emotional memory. The framed diplomas, the mechanical sharpener, the gunmetal filing cabinet, the locked desk drawer. That room, that pattern of symbolic objects. No need to put parents on the defensive.
……Too late, Lowell thought, shifting his weight, the raised edges of the toy chair pressing painfully like an ill-fitting dental plate. It wasn’t cute. The Head perched serenely, as if it were a part of the job he practised regularly, this burlesque of the outgrown body, an extension of an exercise in empathy. He arranged some of the mucus differently inside his throat. ‘Is there anything that you, in turn, need from us, the school?’
……The other girl’s parents sat like crash-test dummies. The dusk dropped through the window all around them. He was muscled, young, with little press-stud eyes, rather frightened. His white shirt cut in at the neck – they’d dressed for this, Lowell realised contemptuously – and his corduroys flapped at the ankle. The woman was hoisted by a high ponytail which left stranded the anxious cheeks, the slightly buck teeth. Her shirt dress bunched where her underwear snagged it. They had expressed only one need, made one petition, which was that the school expel Lowell’s daughter, Kitty.
……‘For Christ’s sake,’ he said. A security light blinked on, casting an orange diamond through the high window and onto the carpet. He turned away from their downlit faces and addressed the Head. ‘Can’t you just separate them, put them in different classes?’
……The Head raised his two hands together in a nutshell. ‘It’s really breaktimes that are the issue.’
……‘So supervise them. They’re six.’
……‘We do, of course. Breaks are overseen by both teaching staff and dinner ladies –’
……‘Not enough,’ said the woman, with a visible surge of bravery that shimmered like a soap bubble, thin and coppery.
……The Head held up a palm. He was reasonable, but would not brook this. ‘You’ll appreciate, Nicola, that even with great care the children can’t be watched continuously. With almost fifty Lower Juniors… and there are, moreover, a number of blind spots around the playground.’
……‘Blind spots?’ The three of them craned their heads around to the tall window, whose darkening glass turned up their white faces like new potatoes growing in soil.
……‘Around the side of the caretaker’s building, the near corners of the sandpit, the porch to the girls’ toilet…’ He looked, momentarily, as if the moulded plastic had sprung a crack, and was nipping at his buttocks through his pressed trousers.
……Lowell shook his head. This was ridiculous. Down the dim corridor a floor buffer whined, keys and footsteps following it like a chaperone. ‘Look. They’re children. They’re clearly not the best of friends. Still –’
……‘How would you feel, if your daughter –’
……‘My daughter,’ he said gently, ‘wouldn’t stand still for ten minutes and let a playground full of children fill the hood of her coat with gravel.’
……The younger man unscrewed himself from the chair. ‘It wasn’t a playground full of children that did it, it was your kid.’
……‘Right. All by herself.’ He turned smiling to the Head, who nodded gravely.
……‘By herself, I’m afraid, yes.’ He took advantage of the lull. ‘Is Kitty happy at home?’
……‘She’s fine at home. Here’s the problem.’
……‘Perhaps if Mum came in, had a talk with her class tutor.’
……‘Or if she would come along to one of these chats – would that be possible, do you think? Would that be a good thought? Is she in work? Would that help?’
……He kept flicking those rising inflections out into the air, the little whips of them, like the ribbon-dancing Kitty had done the year before in the end-of-year pageant.
……‘No,’ he said.
……The couple nudged each other. Lowell straightened his back, the chair cracking and flexing under his thighs.
……‘She doesn’t need to. This is all getting out of proportion.’ He blew his cheeks out. ‘Do we know they weren’t just playing? Just playing together, and it went a bit far?’
……‘Maddy had three stitches.’
……‘Yes, obviously, that’s not great. I’m really sorry to hear that. But – look, all I’m saying is that kids do roughhouse. They mob about. It’s all a game, it goes awry, someone gets – ’ He waved his finger in the air, realising he wanted to avoid the word, the admission of it, that their child had been hurt. He trailed off. The woman pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand, as if she was going to sneeze. Lowell waited, but she didn’t.
……Sighing, the Head got to his feet, achieving the gigantic distance from the floor to standing by a propulsive unfolding of his legs. ‘We’ll pick this up tomorrow, shall we. I’ll have the office email you about next steps. In the meantime – have a talk with your girls. Your wife. And then we’ll regroup.’
She spooned chicken soup, slurping the broth noisily from the rim, then tipped the stranded carrots and onions back into the bowl. Lowell watched her swinging her legs under the table. His fingers drummed lightly on the table, next to his own spoon, which he would sometimes pick up, put down. A bracelet of plastic beads clacked on his wrist; she’d made it for him, with its enamelled white letters: K, I, T, T, Y. He’d asked her whether it shouldn’t instead say his name. ‘L, O, W…’
……‘No,’ she’d replied, reproachfully. She fastened it around his wrist, tying a tight triple-knot. He pulled his sleeve down in the job queue, hiding the beads from sight, like a hospital band. Later, he’d seen a matching bibelot dangling from the cat’s collar as it slunk past him. Letters in white, not the cat’s own soft name but those same etched, bone-straight proprietorial lines.
……She dropped her spoon down into the bowl, splashing the table mat with flecks of buttery broth. She smeared at one with the sleeve of her school jumper. ‘What about Mum?’
……He leaned across the table and folded up her sleeves for her, exposing the bare, bony wrists. He picked up a droplet of soup on his fingertip and put it in his mouth.
……‘Do you want to take some for her?’
……She jumped down and padded to the counter with her own bowl, refilling it from the tureen. He remained at the table, he did not lift his head as she opened the door and the silken night shook in over the threshold like a black handkerchief. He picked up his spoon again, and in it saw the square of darkness reflected, magnified, gigantic in the convex back. Oh my family, he said inside. Under the table, the cat lapped at the spilled soup. Oh, my daughter.
There were more meetings. Lowell sat with other parents in the punitive infant chairs. His knees ached and clicked as he lowered and lifted his body. Kitty, according to reports, slipped the drawstring of her duffel bag out through its loops and around Callum’s throat, scored welts into Kayleigh’s soft thigh with the snapped edge of her ruler, and held the door to trap Saoirse and then Maya and then others in a toilet cubicle, all the lights off, girls who later dreamed of sewers, of rats and dripping darkness. Led in procession by the Head the plaintiffs toured the playground, a reiteration or revision of that first visit they’d made the previous spring.
……‘But is this new behaviour?’
……Lowell wondered which answer they wanted.
……He remembered the three of them, hand in her hand on one side and hand in her hand on the other side, coming on a visit to admire the sandpit, the grassed hectare, the curling slide. Now, the Head swung his arm like a weathervane, indicating the dark lee of the pit, the blind alley of the lunchbox rack, the wilderness where the field’s boundary dissolved into gorse and young pine. Beyond it, the dunes, the sea. This way, Lowell retraced Kitty’s daytime steps, could place her there – breaking a whippy branch and swinging it at the grassheads, running with, or after, her classmates, digging in the loose sand.
……He asked her about it.
……‘It’s playing, Daddy.’ She paused, wide-eyed, the plate of spaghetti and sauce balanced in her hands.
……‘It hurts them,’ he said. His heart pounded, he was afraid. She nodded. What could he say to her? She saw it rise and fall in his eyes, watched it slink back. Then she opened again the garden door, and the smell of the woods poured in, salt pine, cold and emerald.
He cut carrot sticks for her lunchbox, he paired her white ankle socks. He enjoyed this work, small acts of love, of making-right. Late into the evenings, after tucking Kitty into bed, he would sit downstairs, drinking a beer and restitching the hem of her school skirt, unpicking the loose threads where she’d caught it on some bramble or splinter, squeezing through a narrow gap like a wild rabbit. He ironed her collars flat, drew new laces through the eyelets of her good shoes when the ends had unravelled. When they’d moved, from their large house in a different town to this small one at the edge of a village, and Kitty had had to change schools, Elena had sewn the strips of fabric into the neck and waistband of all her new pieces of uniform, her name – the lines of the K, the double Ts, the rounded shapes of their shared surname – stitched in black thread across the neat white tabs. He touched the word at the neck of her shirt, feeling the vanished work. And she lost things, nevertheless, he thought – despite all that industry of care – jumpers and gym clothes vanishing between morning and afternoon as easily as a shell buried by wind-blown sand.
He waited at the gates at five to pick her up. The iron palings scored the sky, still light, and the smell of woodsmoke drifted over from the houses opposite. She’d long been signed up to after-school club, with its milk cartons, colouring sheets, apple slices and crash mats, leaving Lowell alone in the afternoons to look for work. Kitty had approved. ‘So you can search for her,’ she had said, considering him as if he had, finally, taken the required action, as she’d been willing him to. She was pleased with him, the good child. She stroked the cuff of his shirt as they sat on the settee watching cartoons.
……Standing near Lowell, hand steadying the crossbar of a blue bike, was a woman he recognised. She looked at him quickly, her ponytail joggling, and then away, craning for a glimpse of the children. Nicola, he remembered. He turned back to the school, across the playground. Through the tall glass windows, adorned with ABCs and cut-out starfish, he could see the shadowy forms of the children as they were counted into cross-legged rows on the crash mats. He went over to her. She was quiet, polite. She spoke about Stephen’s job – that was his name, the husband – the difficulty since the closure. He found himself listening properly, asking questions. ‘It was something similar for us,’ he told her, and she nodded.
……‘Yes, it’s the same all over.’
……The bell rang, tinny at that distance. The low sun flashed off the glass door like a beacon as it swung wide, disgorging the twenty or so kids who stayed on for the two hours after school ended, though their parents were mostly at home, sitting at kitchen tables, lying under the covers in darkened bedrooms, or looking down into their pints at the Fisherman’s Rest, if they weren’t in one of the queues, with crumpled forms or stubby pencils in their hands.
……Children came across the playground towards the gates, swinging their rucksacks. He waved, and Kitty waved back, absently, still talking conspiratorially with the redheaded girl on her left. Nicola waved too – this was Maddy, then. He hadn’t seen her before. The two girls were hanging on each other’s arms, their heads close and secret, laughter performed through all their limbs. He felt like taking her by the arm and saying, See, do you see? He was flooded with relief – the two were clearly friends, Kitty had been right, it’s only playing. Kids’ stuff. When the girls reached the gate, he got a chocolate bar from in his pocket and gave it to her.
Nicola took Maddy’s picture from her and helped her clamber onto the blue bike. She gave Kitty a fearful, tight smile.
……‘Say goodbye, Maddy.’
……He saw the softness in his daughter’s face, the eager shyness with which she said goodbye. Nicola seemed surprised, too. She nodded at them and then moved away, hovering her hand at Maddy’s back as she pedalled slowly along the pavement. He gazed after them as Kitty began to chatter. But he’d seen it, as Nicola had fumbled with Maddy’s parka and rucksack, the sleeves of her jumper drawing short as she reached for the handlebars, and the gleaming pinkish lines of the three healed letters on the girl’s forearm.
……‘Now we’re going to do it,’ Kitty said, at teatime. She moved her bowl to the side, sweeping the table clear of crumbs. ‘I’m going to get the scissors.’ Lowell felt the darkness at his back, the palings of the trees beyond the glass.
……‘We’ll go into the woods behind the garden and do it, and then she’ll come out. Are you scared, Daddy?’
……He was. He came down from the table and they gathered the things she said, the math-squared paper, the matches, a sealed Tupperware bowl. He followed her through the door. Together they stepped onto the damp, black grass, getting wet socks, and walked into the woods of grasping, soundless pine.
Martha Sprackland is an editor, writer and translator, and is co-founder–editor of independent publishing house Offord Road Books. Martha’s debut collection of poems, Citadel (LUP, 2020) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Costa Poetry Award.
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