The 1980’s smokers are discussing the trials and tribulations of their beleaguered colleague, Jane Weeble, in their staff room.
“She’ll be along any minute now, tottering in her heels. Beats me why she wears them,” the maths teacher observes.
“What do you mean by that, Denis? Why shouldn’t she wear them if they make her happy?”
“I don’t mean anything by it, Brenda. It’s just they’re strangely at odds with that faded cardigan and dress with the pocket she always wears. I always think she looks like something from the war years.”
“A refugee, maybe?” Sally, the sociology teacher suggests.
“That’s it. Exactly.”
“Maybe she wears them to give her height. I mean she’s such a slip of a thing, when you come to think of it. It’s not surprising she can’t hold discipline in the class.” This tart observation comes from Lesley, a geography teacher, who holds it together by a hair’s breadth.
“It’s sad really. She has a first-class degree in English. She obviously loves her subject.”
“I don’t know how poor Laura Grange puts up with it. After all, she is Head of English. Didn’t one of the girls climb out of the window during one of Jane’s lessons? Stell Hartless, wasn’t it? There’s a troubled girl, if there ever was one,” Lesley says.
“The bane of Jane’s life.”
“Not Laura’s though. She adores Laura.”
“All the girls do.”
“Apparently, Laura heard the commotion from the next class and had to step in and calm things down. They were chanting the usual “Weeble’s wobble, but don’t fall down.” Beats me why Laura doesn’t get rid of her.”
“Don’t be unkind, Lesley.”
“I’m not being unkind, Brenda. I know she’s your friend, but you’ve got to admit Jane’s a liability.”
“Grangey doesn’t get rid of Weeble because she doesn’t want to throw a work colleague under the bus who seems so frail. In the meantime, she keeps her on and puts her with the low stream groups – where she can do the least damage.” Sally acidly observes.
“You’re her friend, Brenda. Does she ever talk about her discipline problems with you?” Denis wants to know.
“Not in great detail. Only obliquely. I don’t like to humiliate her by bringing it up myself. She’s a nice person. Very witty when you get to know her.”
“Being nice doesn’t cut it when it comes to getting the pupils in order, though does it?”
“No, Sally. It doesn’t.”
“The days are fast approaching when giving them a quick slap or threatening them with the slipper, are going.”
“What are you talking about, Denis? We’ve never used the slipper here, that I’m aware of. Not with girls.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t ban smoking too. Our one refuge in this dingy establishment.”
“Well, it’s been known for some time that it’s bad for you,” Brenda says dolefully
“Well, give it up then.”
“I enjoy it too much.”
“But back to Jane…”
“What about her?”
“I don’t know. She fascinates me. There’s a kind of heroic quality to her, wouldn’t you say? I mean battling on, in spite of everything. I don’t think I could put up with prolonged abuse like that.”
“I must admit. If it were me, I’d have caved in years ago. If you haven’t got their attention in the first minute, you’ve lost them for ever.” Sally puts in her pennyworth again.
“Wasn’t her brother some kind of war hero, Brenda?”
“She had an older brother who flew a Hurricane during the London Blitz. Very successfully. Must have saved many lives. Just think, you might not be sitting here, if it wasn’t for him. Your family hail from north London, don’t they, Denis?
“Some of my relatives still do. They had to get out when the bombing got bad. They ended spending two years in Edinburgh with Scottish relations.”
“Apparently, Jane’s brother was on one of his final flights when he was shot down. She adored him. I don’t think she ever got over it.”
“Shush. She’s coming over now.”
“What are you all conspiring about today?”
“The idea that one day, smoking in public places will be banned, including this staffroom. Our only haven. The last refuge for the sane.”
Jane shudders, her eyes the colour of cornflowers. “What a horrible thought.”
“Come and sit down. You look done in. Here, have one of mine,” Brenda offers.
A collective groan goes up when there’s a knock at the door. Eventually, one of the less jaded teachers at the main table, feels obliged to get up and answer. Even the hard-nut students feel nervous about approaching the inner sanctum. A room clothed in mystery, you only come here if you absolutely have to.
“Oh, thank you, just what I need.” Jane’s face lights up and for a second she turns into the woman she could have been.
“How’s it going today, or shouldn’t I ask?”
“You shouldn’t ask, definitely not.”
“Oh! One of those days?”
“You could say that.”
Brenda checks her watch. “Still, only two more hours and the agony will be over, eh?” That’s about as close as they get to referring to Jane’s troubles in the classroom.
“Not long, when you come to think of it.”
Jane inhales to forget. Another ten minutes and she will have crossed the Rubicon, her lip will quiver and the hell that is her teaching life, will commence. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot get the class in order.
But that is another lifetime. Right now, as she inhales hundreds of minute carcinogens into her lungs, a memory is triggered of her first ever cigarette with her second oldest brother, Tom. They had been illicitly inspecting the ruins of a bomb-site in one of the ancient London churches on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1941. The smokiness of fires still blazing in the city hung in the air. In that first round of the wartime Blitz, Jane was aged five and Tom, was eleven.
“Here, give it a go, sis. You really have to suck on it. Like this, see.” She watched spell-bound as he breathed in manfully.
“You look like dad when you do that.” Their father was too old to go to war, though he was much admired in the community for his work as a warden. He practically lived in a helmet with a W painted on the back, forever handing out numerous gas masks and making sure everyone got to the nearest shelter when an air raid was on, thereby saving many lives. No one dared let even the slightest hint of light escape from their windows, or there’d be a roar of “Put that light out now, you stupid sods,” followed by a loud hammering. Jane was terrified of him.
“Like this?” Her body was wracked by a coughing fit.
“You get used to it, the more you do it. Then you have to make circles in the air.” Tom proudly demonstrated how it should be done.
“Mum says we’re too young to be smoking. And dad wouldn’t like it. You know that.”
“Ah, stop wheedling. Dad smokes like a chimney when he gets the chance. There’s a war on. We have to grab what little bit of happiness we can while we still can. That’s what Bert says.”
“You’ll meet him in a minute. Anyway, what they can’t see can’t hurt them.”
Jane remembered following her brother through an archway into a dim recess where they reached an empty sarcophagus.
“Ah, he’s not here,” her brother said, disappointed. “He was sleeping here last time. Looked like Dracula he did. He had lots of spare roll-ups on him. Don’t know where he got them from, but we could have cadged one.”
“He must be dotty. He shouldn’t be handing them out to children.” Jane couldn’t get out of the vault fast enough. Her brother ambled after her. She looked up at the sky longingly. “I wish Bill was here.” Their older brother was a pilot.
“He’ll soon be somewhere in the skies defending the country in his trusty Hurricane. He calls it his workhorse. He might even have been trying to shoot the planes down when they hit this church.”
“They’d never have hit it if he’d been flying,” Jane said loyally.
Jane squeezed the lucky charm in her pocket. She’d knitted two identical miniature pilot boys and dressed them in cloth and string. She’d given the best one to Bill and kept the other one for herself. “He’ll be alright as long as he keeps hold of his lucky charm.”
“What? That raggedy old thing you knitted for him.”
“Yes. He promised to take it with him whenever he flew. So long as he keeps hold of that, he’ll be safe. I know he will.”
Jane closes down the memory before it becomes too painful.
“Well, I must get to my lesson. She daintily stubs out the last of the cigarette and rises shakily from her seat.
“I hope they’re not too ghastly.” Brenda offers a sympathetic smile.
Laura Grange breezes along armed with books, impressive in a lilac power suit. Smiling stiffly, she briefly crosses paths with Jane at the staffroom door.
“Hello.” Unable to say the younger woman’s name, Jane despises the timidity in her voice. Laura is the kind of teacher she once aspired to be. Vibrant, with a successful career and marriage and two children, always immaculate.
“Ah, there you are Jane.” Can you carry on with Romeo and Juliet this afternoon, please?”
“Yes, of course.”
“By the way, Stell Hartless won’t be at school for a few weeks. Her form teacher told me she’s off with glandular fever.”
“Ah, I see.” Overwhelmingly relieved, Jane can’t quite bring herself to smile, but the absence of such a disruptive pupil in the lesson, will certainly simplify things.
On stepping into the classroom, she catches the eye of Penny Jackson, the girl with the cleft lip who has been equally tormented by Stell. A pupil who genuinely wants to learn. For once, Jane has a chance to teach the subject she loves without too many interruptions.
London, August 1941
As usual, Bill woke at dawn and was driven out to his aircraft. Once the order to scramble had been given, he felt a familiar surge of fear and excitement. He checked his jacket pocket for the doll his sister had knitted for him as a lucky charm. She told him she had made two of them, and had given him the best. He felt the rough cloth and bumpy stitches, complete with tiny bag and hat, beneath his fingers and smiled. The thought of her little face gazing up at him adoringly the last time he’d seen her brought a lump to his throat. It gave him the strength he needed to see this thing through.
“You will come back, won’t you Bill?”
“I’ll do my best.” They both knew his returning lay in the hands of a higher power. The odds were stacked against him. He could only do his best.
Then he stepped into his plane. It soared in the air, the clouds dusting the wing tips as he met a brilliant crimson sky.
Stepping into the staffroom, Jane gazes longingly at the smoke-filled corner where her colleagues sit sprawled puffing away in smoggy contentment. Only she can’t join them now.
After a while, Brenda stubs out her cigarette and comes over to join her.
“What are you doing hiding over here? What’s the matter? You look pale! Are you alright, Jane?”
“I’m afraid I can’t join you, much as I want to. You see, I’ve decided to give up smoking.”
“Have you? Really?”
“Yes, for good.”
“It’s something we should all do. I mean, we all know it’s not good for us, really.”
“The difference is I have to give it up. I’ve got lung cancer.” A tear slides down Jane’s cheek which she hurriedly brushes away.
Brenda’s face drops. “Oh, my dear. I’m so sorry. How long have you got?”
“A few months, maybe less. There’s nothing they can do. It’s gone too far. But if I stop smoking now, I may have longer.”
“I’m so sorry,” Brenda says again, feebly.
“Don’t be,” her friend says surprising her. “You see, for the first time in a long time, I’m free.”
“Free?” Brenda tries to keep the incredulity out of her voice.
“Yes, free. It no longer matters if I’m a lousy teacher who can’t keep discipline in the classroom. It no longer matters what Laura Grange thinks. I no longer care what anyone thinks about me. For the first time in my life, I’M FREE. I want to shout it from the rooftops.”
Clickety clacking along the corridor that leads to the classroom, Jane has a sudden vision of her older brother, the only person she’s ever loved and how she will soon be free to join him. Her hand goes to her pocket, she traces the lumpy little doll and smiles radiantly.