She is leaning in again with the faint smell of cigarettes on her roomy cardigan. She is wearing the tan dress with green diamonds, the one with meagre pimples of fabric on it and she is leaning in with her big teeth, each set in its own space like a church. Her breath smells like the bottoms of the drawers in my Gran’s house. She has wire hair. Her skin looks like parched earth.
“There are so many reasons to be different, Dimpnah,” she says. “I can’t list them all for you but, if you are going to dress in that, at least make an effort to look, well, constructive.” I tug a loose sock up to my knee and look at the blue frayed skin on my legs. Nobody cares about clothes in my house.
Constructive is Miss Metcalf’s favourite word and although she never quite finds the right use for it, she deploys it with great resonance and vivacity and all the children enjoy her flamboyance in the classroom and especially her repeated use of this word. I enjoy it, too, though perhaps not quite for the same reasons. My favourite word this week is lizard. I have also discovered that four is an appropriate number. My favourite song is Crazy Horses.
The room is grey and lifeless, and the pale magenta posters draped along on the walls are neither contemporary or inspiring. One is about farming cycles, though we are twenty, may be thirty miles from any farm I know. Like most classrooms, the environment is largely unseen and dully deterministic and chiefly there to show to the adults that something progressive is happening each day, even if the days are baldly the same and the only compelling thing is Mr Monaghan’s nose. Today the nose is puce. The air is stagnant and smells of drains and sweet wax polish. The heavy windows allow some light in, but the light is hampered by the close terraced housing and the tall sides of the factory beyond the grit and tarmac and painted shapes of the school grounds. Heavy shadows chisel their way along the parquet floors all through the afternoon. Near the headmistress’s office there is a tall vase of flowers, their thin white blades reach upwards towards the tight panelling, their smell is a smell that will never leave me.
I’m sitting beside John Joseph Mulligan. I’m watching the dark windows of a house. At the far end of the school grounds, I can see that the prefabs are now lit up. The windows are masked in condensation. Next to these buildings I can see some tall privets hiding the railway, yet every half hour I can hear the goods trains arriving in the sidings next to the factory. I imagine the giant gas chambers beyond the factory rising and falling. Pylons marching in on us like sentinels in the dusk. No one knows what is made there. Men hide in that place. All day long they are busy with the weather of their industry. What is time, but a series of arrivals and departures in the air? I’m thinking a great deal about bombs now.
On the left of Miss Metcalf, near the warping crucifix and a large mounted light switch, are several photographs of distorted children of varying sizes in a scrub village saturated in colour, yet filled with a special kind of misery: God’s misery for children. It is a reminder to us all that life is poised to deny us all things beautiful and desirable and that this can happen anywhere but happens an awful lot in Africa. Africa is the great aide-memoire of priests and nuns, a symbol of God’s precarious enterprise. If anything is permanent in this life, it is the dispensation of misery. The misery of the absence of purpose. The nuns I see call this a vocation.
“If we are to be good and kind and know our vocation, children,” Miss Metcalf suddenly remarks. “We must also be constructive in our attitude and demeanour. No one will thank us for being wishy washy lazybones. God does not want those who are neglectful of His needs.” Threads of dust hang below the ceiling in failing angles. We all begin to tire and yawn and sag onto our desks. “Heads down!” shouts Miss Metcalf. “Time for a story.” We all begin smelling the burned veneer of the years.
I have just opened my eyes. Lucy’s nose is running into her mouth. Terrance is pulling at his crotch now, and begins to cry and wriggle. His eyes are still shut. He raises his hand. There is a little commotion and some snorting and Miss Metcalf rushes forward and removes Terrance from the classroom with a gestural sigh. His shorts are dripping. The heavy door thuds shut and a small billow of air shoves the motes around in soft waves: the cadence of absence, I say in my head.
We have formed a line. It is home time. Through the dark panes I can see a line of prams and hats and overcoats beside the chipped green railings. It is the mothers. A heavy sky is moving fast over St Andrew’s and the air turns cold and viscous. The air seeps through the glass. We wait for the final bell. What exactly is released then? There might be time for some penny cakes and Arrowbars if Donaghy’s is still open. It depends on the amount of chatting at the gates.
How do we become who we are? It is a mystery. Do people simply end up being something and settle into it like a long sort of accident. Maybe it’s a lifelong performance that somehow grows into them, like a parasite. A parasite of meaning and intention. Taking them over like actors in a play. I hear some children become their mothers. Fewer become their fathers. Some are destined for evil, like Mr Walcott and Tyler Burns. Others rebel and enjoy a measure of difference. Some even leave. But I tend to think that whichever route you take, inconveniently evil or banally separatist, you end up with what you got. What you arrived with. What you take with you. The big juicy bowl of nothing.
Some people hate the idea of nothing in their lives. People spend hours avoiding it. And, admittedly, it’s best to keep busy to avoid seeing too much of nothing in your days. Stoning cats can help. And eating beetles.