Miss Peverill by Alwyn Bathan

Creative Non-fiction
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Glamour by Ida Saudkova, around 1998

 

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.

And again.

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.

The Flavor of Change by Janette Shafer

Creative Non-fiction
20181105_143241

In the City by Kasia Grzelak, 2018

 

From my vantage point on the 43rd floor of One Oxford Center, a panorama of the city of Pittsburgh unfolds from my office window.  The Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers meet at “The Point,” an urban park with a fountain which designates where the three waters meet.  A train in the distance slowly ambles past Station Square and it seems to go on for miles.  Being the new person at work means I am in many ways back to the beginning of my long twenty-two-year career in retail banking.  Even a welcome career change comes with many stressors; I don’t know what I don’t know.  I’m dependent on unfamiliar colleagues to show me the way, and for the first time in many years, I wait for guidance on my next steps.

The view of the outside world from the high-rise offers a stunning cityscape, but the interior office is bland, with white painted walls, ultra-modern stainless-steel desks, and black padded office chairs.  The decor is sterile; no artwork or photographs on the walls, only mounted dry erase boards with black markers and erasers and the fake smiles of a model family on a corporate poster.

My new colleague Craig has invited me to lunch.  He is fit, attractive, and young enough to be my son.  His green eyes are warm and earnest. His smile offers an innocent sweetness.   I’m grateful for the friendly gesture.  He says to meet him in front of his office where he’ll take me to “this great place across the street, someplace kind of different.”  The elevator, sleek and steel, whisks me down at lightning speed.  It reminds of the scene from Stanley Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” when Dr. Heywood Ford takes a stylish transporter with a lounge interior to the space station on the moon.  Outside, the natural light is welcome after a morning of the overly bright glare of fluorescent bulbs punctuated by their perpetual hum.  I follow Craig into a Venezuelan diner called Arepittas.  The bright yellow sign with paintings of corn cobs still half cocooned in their husks promises “Venezuelan Street Food.”

Craig doesn’t know me and has no idea what this has done for my day and for my spirit.  Arepittas is a Venezuelan diner specializing in arepas, my favorite food from what once was home:  Venezuela.

The country of my birth is on the brink of collapse.  My cousin Evangelina posts videos on social media almost daily of protests outside her window, reposts news stories that cry out to the rest of the world, ayuadame!  In one of her recent updates, it is nighttime, and even in the dark resolution I can make out the thousands of people thronged in the streets with their signs.  I tell Craig that I’m from Venezuela and he couldn’t have picked a better place.

I order an arepa with chicken, avocado, cilantro, and guasacaca sauce (a green tomato and garlic salsa.) An arepa is a dense cornbread made from masa flour, served split and stuffed with savory or sweet fillings.  It is my favorite food, and a taste of home.  I don’t expect that this will be as good as the ones my mother and grandmother make, but it is everything I want it to be.  The arepa is golden brown with a crunchy crust.  The shredded chicken is tangy and garlicky, fragrant like the familiar perfume of a loved one.  The avocado is bursting green, as colorful as a vase of nosegays.  The satisfying crackle as the food gives way to my teeth fills my mouth with heritage, tradition, culture, and Latina pride.  An ache springs tears to my eyes as I think of my homeland teetering on the edge of utter devastation.

“Oh wow,” I say.  “This is so delicious it’s making me homesick.  Thanks for inviting me.  How did you find this place?”

“An app.  Or maybe Facebook?”  He shrugs and laughs.  “I never had Venezuelan food before this place and now I’m totally hooked.”

I post a picture of my lunch on Facebook with a note saying, “My new office is across the street from a Venezuelan food stand!  I’m having arepas!”  Many of my friends know what this means to me and more than 60 “likes” pop up in the next hour.  One of my friends, April, asks me in the comments, “What’s an arepa?”  My usual answer to this question is that an arepa is a dense, fried cornbread made from ground maize and that the usual stuffing is some kind of spicy meat with avocado or cheese.  Sometimes I joke that it’s like a Venezuelan taco to help give context.

An arepa is the longing for something familiar in my new corporate landscape.  An arepa is my small prayer against the political corruption that is destroying my country and threatening my loved ones left behind.  An arepa is my small act of defiance against the tyranny of Nicolas Maduro as his greed threatens to upturn our homeland.  An arepa is a twinge of guilt as I start to settle into my new work environment while everything in Venezuela shifts in turmoil and unrest.  An arepa is a memory of Abuelita in her vibrant flowered dress slapping the dough between her hands before lowering it into a skillet of olive oil.  An arepa is a phone call with my Mom when I tell her I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all this change but that I’ll figure it out.  An arepa is a balm for my wounds.  An arepa is a step towards home.

 About the Author:

Janette Schafer is a freelance writer, nature photographer, full-time banker and part-time rock singer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Her writing and photographs have appeared in numerous publications.  A collection of her poetry titled “Something Here Will Grow” will be published by Main Street Rag in 2020.  She is the Artistic Director and Founder of Beautiful Cadaver Project Pittsburgh.

Heavy Absence by Edward Lee

Creative Non-fiction
Inner spaces

Inner Spaces by India Hibbs, 2019

 

Sunday, 5:00 pm. I have just strapped my daughter into her car seat; she’s perfectly capable of doing this herself, but it gives me a gentle pleasure to do it for her. I give her an extra hug and kiss, tell her I love her and close the door. Her mother starts the engine of the car, pulls out from the pavement and drives away, the two of them returning to the family home. My daughter waves to me through the window and blows me kisses. I wave and blow her kisses in return. I will not see her for another thirteen days.

I stand at the side of the road for a moment longer, a heavy nothingness settling in my chest like a slowed detonation. Over the next thirteen days that heaviness will spread – explode – throughout my body until I can feel it in the tips of my toes and fingers. As it spreads its mass will increase until it seems as though it is weighing down my very existence. At approximately 11:00 am, on the Saturday morning thirteen days away, when I see my daughter again, that heavy nothingness will whiplash back into the centre of my chest, falling into semi-dormancy until the Sunday at 5:00pm when I once again strap my daughter into her car seat and watch her drive away for another thirteen days, and it slowly explodes throughout my body again, an ever-repeating pattern, my own personal circle of hell.

I try not to think about the next thirteen days as I turn from the road and, with slow steps and stooped shoulders, re-enter the house in which I am staying, confined to one room – my home, the family home which my daughter and her mother are returning to, is a locked building to me since myself and my daughter’s mother separated over a year ago. The evening to come will be hard enough to get through without absorbing tomorrow and the twelve days after into my being all in one go, but, of course, by trying not to think about it I am thinking about; there will be entire days over the next thirteen days, as there has been over the past multitude of thirteen days, when it is all I can think about, no matter how much I try to distract myself with writing or exercise or music or reading, when, in fact, I am utterly incapable of writing or reading, of listening to music or forcing my body to perform any task which requires conscious deliberate thought. Walking up the stairs to my room I can already feel my mood plummeting into a watery abyss I feel I could drown in. For thirty hours I felt like a father again, seeing my daughter, being with her, minding her, feeding her, playing with her, putting her to bed and reading to her, waking her the next morning and doing it all again; all those things which when done every day – as I used to do them every day as a stay-at-home dad – can become repetitive and almost annoying, and from which you sometimes wish you could be spared, but when taken from you become everything that ever gave your life meaning, and which you would be willing to make any sacrifice to reclaim. And now those thirty hours are over, and I have been made a distant father once more, and this switch, though I am expecting it, and have been experiencing it every second weekend for over a year now, is as breathtaking and sudden as it was the very first time.

I will sleep little tonight, and the few hours I do get will be broken hours. When I wake on Monday morning I will feel as though I have had no sleep at all. My daughter not being there as she was there only the morning before, will add a hard pain to the heaviness in my chest, stalling the breath in my lungs; I will feel not just like an absent father but like I am not a father at all, that I am in fact an interloper in my daughter’s life – and this sensation too will only increase as the thirteen days proceeds – and I will want to close my eyes and not open them again until the Saturday morning when it is our weekend together. But I won’t. I will rise from the bed because I must rise. My life must be lived and this is my life now, this spreading heaviness and repeated pain, this seeing my daughter thirty hours out of three-hundred-and-thirty-six; the world does not cease its spinning simply because you are undergoing some hardship – even my daughter knows this – though, I freely admit, I sometimes wish, more childish than my own child, that it would stop its turning, or, at the very least, I might cease to exist for a moment, cease to think, to feel, to be spared for a handful of minutes from wondering, childishly so again, what I might have done to deserve this life.

And just as I will rise Monday morning, I will rise Tuesday morning, and every morning after, fighting the urge to not rise at all. I will stumble through my days, because what else can I do? I worry that after all this time – seventeen months to be precise, seventeen months this very day as I type these words – that this nothingness still sits so heavy inside me, that there is still such fresh and eager pain; even allowing for the pain born from the ending of the relationship with my daughter’s mother, pain which, thankfully, has faded away into a dull echo, it still seems excessive for this heaviness to be still so relentlessly prominent. It is not that I have been expecting it to have passed by now, but surely, after seventeen months, it should have lessened as I grow accustomed to it, or if not accustomed, at least somewhat inured – and I have spoken to other separated fathers and they have told me that it does lessen to such a degree that you are barely aware of it, and they are quick to voice their genuine surprise that it has not done so for me after so much time – but it has not lessened, it has not eased, it is a weight so prominent and unyielding that it feels like an extra organ in my body, pushing aside my heart and my lungs to make room for itself, and it does not feel like it will ever lessen; potentially another childish thought, a ‘my world is over’ kind of statement, but one that is solidly real in its sad surety. In fact, it sometimes feels like it gets worse every time, the burst of pain as I say goodbye to my daughter on the Sunday evening a milligram heavier, a millimetre deeper, than it was two weeks before, as though the repetitiveness of it is not allowing it to heal, like a scab that is constantly pulled off just moments before it can become a scar and is made all the worse for this cruel savagery.

Part of the problem might be to do with the depression I have suffered with all my life, how, among the many ways it impacts my life (the unwanted gift that keeps on giving), it can amplify stress and other negative emotions while also allowing them to continue beyond what would be a normal duration of such emotions and experiences. Maybe I simply need more time to acclimatize myself to this change in my relationship with my daughter, as I usually need more time to overcome stress or sadness or anxiety. Maybe another seventeen months. Thirty. Forty. I hope not, because not only does my depression amplify that heaviness, my depression, in turn, is amplified by that heaviness, detrimentally affecting not just my emotions, but all aspects of my life from my concentration to my appetite, and everything in between that make up the day-to-day living of a life.

I find much-needed comfort in the fact that my daughter, in that awe-inspiring way of children, has adjusted to the change in her life, her parents no longer together and living apart; her heart is still kind, her smile is still warm, her eyes still full of love. And as that heavy nothingness which contains her absence at its very centre spreads itself though my body across those thirteen days which seem to progress as though each one contains more than the normal twenty-four hours, it is the thought of her kind heart, her warm smile, and her loving eyes, that gets me through each of those too-long days, until that Saturday morning finally arrives and she is there running towards my arms, her eyes, so like mine, alight, her face shining with her beautiful smile, and the most wonderful word I have ever known rushing from her mouth like a promise that yes, it will eventually get better, someday: Daddy.

 

 

About the Author:

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll.  His debut poetry collection “Playing Poohsticks On Ha’Penny Bridge” was published in 2010. He is currently working towards a second collection.

He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy.

His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com