Miss Peverill was engineered from left-over hand grenades and fighter planes damaged in the Second World War. She had no need of a voice. She wore a tweed suit cut from the finest wire wool, scented of carbolic soap, mothballs and lilac talcum powder. Parents of new starters to the school dared not dally any longer than necessary to deliver their tender five-year-olds to her classroom.
When Michael Brown baulked at being left for the first time, Miss Peverill’s oxter became the weapon of choice. Non-compliant beginners were scooped up and crumpled unceremoniously into the deepest recess of her inner arm and chest, (Miss Peverill had no breasts, just a double string of pearls to clack against the little skulls on the way up). Their arms and legs flailing, they realised quickly that efforts to abscond were futile.
As long days elapsed, escape attempts tailed off, and rewards crept in; crayons appeared on tables in re-used biscuit tins, the milk crate brought in early to allow a few degrees of defrosting before poking a straw through the silver foil cap to the crystalline milky ice-pop below. Even a Friday afternoon Bring Your Favourite Toy from Home session was a cover for Miss Peverill to manually calculate individual attendance, multiplied by the fifty-six pupils in her class.
Her modus operandi was simple: comply or face humiliation.
The tariff of punishments was non-standardised and unique. It included but was not limited to;
-standing in the corridor to allow passing staff the opportunity for casual berating
-standing in a nominated corner of the room facing the walls; back right corner for coughing incidents, back left for scraping chair legs on the floor, front left for speaking when not spoken to, and front right for asking to go to the toilet,
-and, standing inside the grey metal waste paper bin next to her desk for even greater misdemeanours.
Gossip at the school gate had it that Miss Monforte, in the classroom next door, had a policy of keeping her wastepaper bin occupied: it was one child less to supervise.
On Friday 29th September 1961, Thomas Mitchell had nothing to bring to the Toys from Home session. He told William Moore, whose desk was one to the left in the rows and columns of the classroom grid, that there were no toys in his house, and that he preferred sticks. Sticks could be guns or knives or whips and he liked having choice, he said.
Although the boys’ proximity was alphabetical in nature, this was their only similarity. William’s blond hair was parted neatly down the centre of his whistle-clean scalp and Brylcreemed flat to either side of his head. The lenses in his tortoiseshell spectacles were clear and cleaned by his mother every morning, as were his shoes. His striped tank-top, knitted by grannie for him starting school, bore every colour of wool collected since his birth. William constantly pushed up the clean cotton handkerchief which resided inside the cuff of his starched and ironed shirt, first checking that Miss Peverill’s eyes were occupied elsewhere. He assured his mother every day it would not be needed, and it got in his way.
Thomas had an unfamiliarity with the bathtub, or the sink: his hygiene requirements were managed by spit on a tea-towel. His dark hair was matted and cut at irregular intervals using the scissor attachment of a Swiss army knife. Perched on top of his olive skin, it resembled the bird’s nest he stole from Leppy’s copse, similarly full of wildlife. Sunburnt cheeks and nose and filthy fingernails evidenced his free-range existence; the lyrics to his life-song scribed in utero. He found little of interest in his school environment; the crayons were useless after invading every orifice he could access unobserved, milk made him sick, and he decorated the inside of the waste paper bin with curds and whey for three consecutive mornings before being allowed to drink water from the art sink tap. Neither could he sit still in his allocated place, Desk 3, Row 2. Thomas liked to swing his feet and stub his boots, laces flailing and clicking, against the legs of the desk and as he watched the dried mud clumps decorate the classroom floor while William looked anxiously on.
‘If you have brought nothing, then sitting quietly is what you must do, Thomas,’ Miss Peverill said, ‘perhaps that will help you remember next Friday.’ Replacing the reading glasses tethered by a golden snaking chain, she re-applied herself to the back pages of the green register grids which covered the surface of her desk.
The low hum of herd breathing resumed and was occasionally punctuated by odd shuffles of permitted movement as the children played, mainly solitarily, at their desks. Geoffrey White successfully assembled his Mr Potato Head, popping plastic arms and legs into the hollow brown tuberous body, adding glasses and moustache, and lifted it to show Raymond Tindale next to him. He nodded in appreciation, offering by return and with blue smudgy fingers, a page bearing R-A-Y printed from his John Bull rubber letters and ink pad. The Smith twins brought their Hoover Junior twin tub, and shared it on their desk, Christine turning the handle of the spinner painstakingly smoothly as Pauline lifted out the pretend-washing with her pretend-tong-fingers. They had forgiven Miss Peverill for last week when she had promised to bring a scoop of Daz washing powder from home to let them demonstrate to the boys how a washing machine worked. She then forgot. The contagion of crying that resulted, initially from the Smiths, which then spread through the remainder of the starters who were only just keeping control of their own separation anxiety, taught Miss Peverill an important lesson in teaching; that some promises were best not made in the first instance.
The gridded sheets of the register were turned over with care and attention at the front of the class accompanied by an occasional irritated glance over the black-rimmed spectacles.
Suddenly, the infant purr was ruptured by the clatter of wood upon wood.
The children jumped in their seats.
A lone desk lid, raised and dropped.
Fifty-five pairs of eyes swivelled to locate the noise whilst Thomas Mitchell elevated his chin and stared directly into the eyes of the woman seated at the big desk. He lifted the lid once more and held it momentarily, surveying the expressions of those around him before allowing it to fall freely from such a height it bounced on the empty desk framework.
William’s face drained of colour.
As the lid crashed against the frame once more, the eyes quickly relocated their gaze.
To Miss Peverill.
Then to Thomas.
And back to Miss Peverill.
Mouths opened. Bodies tensed.
‘Thomas Mitchell,’ she hissed, ‘take yourself off and stand at the front of the class. We no longer wish to see your disobedient face.’
‘I won’t,’ he said, jumping off his seat and brushing against William as he squeezed through the narrow gangway, the width of a puny five-year-old and Miss Peverill’s narrow hips.
William reached into his shirt sleeve and pulled out the crisp folded whiteness that usually returned home in a pristine state. He dabbed it against the corners of his eyes and his nose which were now starting to leak.
Making his way towards the teacher’s desk, Thomas stamped his feet hard on the tiled floor as he walked, releasing a trail of last-night’s muddy scrapings as he muttered under his breath,
‘and there’s nothing you can do to make me.’
About the Author:
Alwyn Bathan was a teacher for 39 years before deciding to return to formal learning through the MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University where she graduated with distinction. She works for Unicef UK, promoting children’s rights in education settings. She is keen on social justice and work-life balance, not necessarily in that order!
She won the Evesham Festival of Words Short Story Competition 2019. She has also recently finished writing her first novel. Alwyn enjoys the gym, walking her dog and being life-long learner.