by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

You dreamt of birds, though you’re not sure what type. Crows, perhaps. Because when your alarm goes off, that’s the sound. Crows. Or maybe children. You get up straight away, like a machine of some kind. You unfold, out of bed. You hear yourself creak because it’s still dark and sounds behave differently in the dark. Your throat is still sore. You packed your stuff, ready, in your briefcase, last night so you didn’t have to worry this morning. It’s in the hallway and when you go downstairs, it, the briefcase with all the stuff in it turns your stomach. Last night, it took ages to plan those lessons and yet this morning you can’t seem to remember any of them. You make coffee, though you don’t want any. You eat a banana—half a banana—though you don’t like bananas much, but you need to eat something, or the antibiotics won’t work. As you properly come round, you decide how much it hurts to swallow. The clock on the cooker is flickering faintly. Just after 7am. You rest your hand on your phone and consider calling in sick. You really must, you think, stop biting your finger nails. There’s a red biro in the fruit bowl on the table there, and you pick it up, doodle something—a bird, or something—on an unopened envelope, then put it down. You do feel a bit sick. You have already had one disciplinary letter.

You take a very quick shower but don’t wash your hair. Not today. You choose a nice top, comfy trousers. You stand in front of the mirror. You look OK. Closer, you open your mouth. Your throat is red and swollen on the left side. You decide against lipstick.

Your new car starts first time. The engine is very quiet. The traffic is light. The day looks clear. Birds look like an interference in the sky. You don’t listen to the radio. Not today. You park next to the Science Block but not under the oak tree, because of the sap on the roof of your car. It takes you five minutes to walk to your classroom. You miss morning briefing, on purpose. You set out the handouts on each desk. Six. You login to your computer and flick on the interactive whiteboard. You don’t check your emails. You open a window closest to your desk, just a touch. You can see your new car from there. You set out your lesson plans on your desk and read through the first one. When the first bell sounds, other teachers appear from the direction of the staff room. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you think. You open a bottle of water and take a drink. It hurts quite a lot to swallow. You stand next to your open window and let the air cool you, cool your face. You can see your new car from there quite well. You’re still looking at it when Rosemary knocks at your door. You don’t say she can, but she comes in.

‘You OK?’ she says.

Rosemary is good. Nice. You’ve worked together for the past year, as good as. She is your mentor.

‘Yes,’ you say. Your voice sounds thick and Rosemary squints at you.

‘Are you?’ she says. ‘Your voice…’

You nod, swallow—which hurts—and nod again. You see something flicker across Rosemary’s face. Uneasiness, annoyance. You can’t tell which. She steps closer and then seems to correct herself.

‘It’ll be Brian,’ she says, and you feel yourself slump. ‘Denise is off sick, so…’

You know what this means, or think you do. So does Rosemary.

‘Do you need anything?’ she says.

You tell her no, you don’t. You sound cross. You know she wants to ask if you received the letter.

‘Rightio then,’ Rosemary says. ‘Break a leg.’

The second bell sounds, and there is a flurry of movement in the corridors. Flashes of blue blazers and red ties. You can feel your heart beating a throb in your throat. Your breath catches somewhere at the back there.

When they arrive in your classroom, the students, there are only four of them. Lower sixth. You greet them, ask them to remove their headphones and complement them on turning up on time. You tell them what the learning objectives are and set a brisk pace to things. One of them, Sabrina, offers you a Strepsil, which you decline, but you make sure to thank her. By the time Brian arrives, all four students are engaged and involved, making notes from the whiteboard. He takes a copy of your lesson plan and sits at the back, legs crossed, head bowed. You listen to yourself and think you must at least appear knowledgeable. You stand close to your open window whilst they complete a task on the worksheet, and let the air cool your face a little more. There is a line of birds perched on the roof of your new car. You can see them from where you’re standing. They don’t move.

The hour seems to be passing quite quickly. You need to somehow show they have learned something. You ask Sabrina if she will read out what she has written. Your voice is strange, swallowing is very painful.

‘I don’t…I mean…I don’t like reading aloud,’ she says. ‘You know that.’

You see Brian lift his head and level his gaze towards you. You smile, encouragingly, you hope, at Sabrina, touch her gently on the shoulder, tell her to just have a go, just read a little bit. You feel her twitch away from you. The other students seem to take a collective breath in. It’s so quiet, it’s disturbing. Sabrina looks down at her notebook. There is a slice of silence between you and everyone else and you everything has changed. You know you will not be able to retrieve this, you have lost them.

Eventually, you say, ‘Not to worry. Anyone else?’

No-one responds, so you try asking some open questions. A couple of the students check their phones, for the time, you imagine. One student starts putting their notebook away, another sighs and then yawns. Brian, you notice, has started making notes. You ask a final question. Your voice sounds not desperate exactly, more, flat. You mention homework, but none of the students seems to notice. Sabrina takes out a pack of tissues and blows her nose. There is a little gust of wind from the window and it makes you look outside. You can see your new car, but the birds have gone.

When the bell goes, it’s like a war has ended, the sense of relief is so great. It’s as if you have disappeared. The students stand up. The corridor outside starts to flush with streams of students and noise.

‘Wait,’ you say. This is your classroom, your lesson. You want to sound, or at least appear, as if you have some authority. You stand by the door so that they cannot simply walk out. They look at you with growing impatience. Brian remains seated.

‘Sabrina,’ you say. ‘Can you stay behind for just a second?’

At break time, in the staff room, Rosemary brings you a cup of tea. You take a sip and leave the rest. It hurts to swallow but you need to take your antibiotics, you know that. She touches you gently on the shoulder.

‘How was it?’ she says.

Brian isn’t free to speak to you until after school so you don’t know, precisely, how it was, not officially, anyway.

Rosemary sits down next to you.

‘New car?’ she says. ‘Swish.’

You nod. You feel hot, feverish.

‘When I was newly-qualified, I had to catch the bus,’ she said. She’s smiling. ‘You lot don’t know you’re born. All that freedom.’

You look at the staff room and the piles of unmarked books and tins of biscuits, and cardigans on the back of chairs. There is something post-apocolyptic about it, you think, something dirty.

You’re supposed to complete a load of forms, about the observation, collate all the paperwork, the lesson plan and so on, Brian’s comments, to keep in your Professional Development Portfolio, but you need to nip to your car and grab your antibiotics. You tell Rosemary.

‘Ah,’ she says. ‘I thought you had a bad throat. I could hear it.’

On the way out, you pass Sabrina who is sitting alone on the bench near the Science Block. Your car, inside, still feels warm from the drive in. You feel something you can’t describe. Not safe, exactly. Not safe at all. The day is still clear. A flock of birds suddenly swoops up and away. You have a compulsion to start the car and drive out of the gates, and follow them. When you do, the engine is so quiet, it’s disturbing.

Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. She is currently a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Writing. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019.

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