**Content Warning: murderous, psychopathic behaviour**
“It’s terrifying, Mercy,” says Mrs Stafford, when she finally finds her voice. “It must be taken down.”
I don’t understand. It’s a magnificent scene. A vista of 17th century London is stapled across the wall-mounted display board, crammed full of rickety wooden houses cut from corrugated cardboard. Tissue paper tongues of flames engulf the buildings, sending sequined sparks soaring into a soot-black sky. Panic-stricken Londoners flee the inferno in a steady stream, their crayoned mouths in multiple ‘o’s of horror. A few have been trampled, daubed with a pattering of bloody footprints, a detail not mentioned in Pepys’s diary but which no doubt occurred if modern history is anything to go by. Although official accounts reported few casualties, the children and I have attentively depicted several figures with blackened arms raised above their heads, hands lit up like human torches, halos of fire illuminating their anguished, melting faces.
This is education at its finest. This is history brought to life.
We have spent the whole afternoon in the school’s activity room, updating the wall display, as Mrs Stafford herself requested. The small group of pupils in my charge were distressed at times, it’s true, but never will they forget this particular part of the curriculum. Standing beside me, their tear-stained faces are a testament to the evocative art created under my direction.
Only Grace remains unmoved. She is a rare child, mature enough to appreciate my tutelage. Her gooseberry green eyes, unblinking behind the thick lenses of her glasses, take in details lost to her peers. Children, like weeds, pop up irrepressibly between the pavement cracks of society, in wave after relentless wave. They must be disciplined, controlled, and occasionally eradicated, in order to manage their natural propensity to consume the world. Frankly, I’m perplexed by the sacred adoration that’s lavished upon them. But Grace is different. She is as refreshing as winter sunshine: bright, alluring, yet bitterly cold.
“It’s supposed to be lifelike, so the children can imagine they were there,” I reason with Mrs Stafford. “Surely you can appreciate the work we’ve put in. Have you spotted the cat?”
I am particularly proud of this detail. History books omit the loss of animal life in the Great Fire but I have ensured its representation. The scorched creature lies in a grotesque pile of twisted felt and pipe cleaner legs, a tiny pink tongue lolling from its open jaws. Explaining how it would have become overcome by smoke inhalation before the heat contracted its muscles and shrunk its organs was straightforward, given I was there when the Roberson’s nasty, yappy dog became trapped in the Village Green bonfire last Guy Fawkes night.
“Yes, I see the cat. It’s an unsettling image. Unnecessary.”
I refrain from rolling my eyes. 1666 was an unsettling year, and I have no intention of sugar-coating this fact for the children. My new role as classroom assistant is proving challenging; it seems there is a fine line between the initiative and obedience required of me in equal measures. It’s not even as if Mrs Stafford is an outstanding teacher. Weeks in, I’m shocked by the mollycoddling I’ve witnessed in her class, the overprotective pampering of spoiled children. I’m left in no doubt− our education system needs a radical awakening.
“Please don’t take down our display, Mrs Stafford. It was a lot of fun,” Grace pipes up. “Although… the Black Death would have been funner.” She stares at me as she speaks, and I offer an almost imperceptible nod. I agree. Mentally, I begin to plan a collage of corpses in a mass grave.
The bell rings for the end of school. The children jump, their peaky faces turning to Mrs Stafford, relieved when she ushers them out. Only Grace stays behind. She slips her hand into mine, her fingers sticky with PVA glue.
“Mrs Stafford will come to her senses,” I murmur. “I’ll see to that.”
“I’ll see to it too,” Grace says, her green eyes glistening like peeled fruit.
This morning, in Maths, the children are designing tessellating patterns. They concentrate hard, eyes down, cutting along the dashed lines of their worksheets with imperfect coordination, tongues poking from the sides of their mouths− not unlike the dead cat in the activity room display. Fragments of chatter are shushed by Mrs Stafford. She sits at her desk like a monarch overseeing a kingdom of stunted, little people, flashing a stern gaze when disturbed from her marking. She has no need to reprimand the children at my table, however. As usual, my group works in utter silence. My latent talent for behaviour control is one I imagine many teachers in this school covet.
The beauty of the activity is overwhelming, and I could weep when I see the order and symmetry of shapes being glued side by side in patterns that infinitely repeat. Everything has its place; everything is in harmony. Only once do I have to pinch Jeevan’s chubby thigh when he is careless about lining up clean corners.
Mrs Stafford glances at the clock- it is almost break time. She reaches into the arms of the cardigan slung over the back of her chair, preparing for playground duty.
I am as surprised as the children when she gasps. Everyone looks up. The sleeves of her cardigan have been hacked with blunt blades, the cabled pattern unravelling in unruly ladders. Mrs Stafford’s mouth hangs open, eyes popping out from her aghast face.
“Who did this?” she demands, every ounce of school teacher authority weighing down her words, lowering her voice to an unfamiliar growl.
The classroom is silent at first: a sea of wide-eyed faces, scissors issued from Mrs Stafford’s drawer glinting in frozen hands— each child a potential culprit. Even I am unsure from where the first giggle bubbles up, from which child it erupts. The deliberate, strategic sound trips a cascade of sniggers, that swiftly builds to a crescendo− maniacal laughter driven by hysteria rather than amusement, until the whole classroom howls, fingers raised at Mrs Stafford like compass needles to a magnet. It occurs to me that I’ve never heard Grace laugh, or even seen her smile for that matter. When I look over her mouth is upturned in a parody of mirth, but her eyes are flat; dead fish floating in the glass bowls of her lenses.
Mrs Stafford gathers the ruined cardigan in her arms, and blinking back tears, rushes from the classroom.
I’ve been summoned to the activity room for a chat, at the end of the day when the last gaggle of children have dribbled through the school gates, taking with them their snotty noses and incessant, mindless questions. To my dismay, I find Mrs Stafford is already extracting staples from the wall display, removing the gruesome highlights I had painstakingly overseen. She has bounced back from this morning’s distressing incident with a flair of efficiency and purpose.
“Ah! Mercy,” she announces, in that overly bright way that heralds a difficult conversation. “I’d like to thank you for all your hard work.”
“It’s my pleasure, Mrs Stafford. I want to do the best job I possibly can. It’s what the children deserve.” I won’t make this easy for her.
“This is the first time you’ve worked in a classroom setting, isn’t it? Although you seem to know a lot of the families.”
“I’ve worked in many of their gardens, over the years. The families know me around here. They trust me.”
“It was very kind of you to step in at short notice to cover the vacancy. It looks like Malcolm won’t be coming back.”
I’m sick of hearing about Malcolm, the last classroom assistant, who never showed up at the start of term, and left his little riverside flat deserted. So what if the children adored him, if he played the piano in assemblies with unrivalled gusto, if the money he raised selling school raffle tickets was unsurpassed? The fact is, Malcolm wanted to plant a tasteless clump of pampas grass in his garden, in plain view of all the village. I did my best to deter him when he asked about mulching requirements, but he was stuck on the idea. The introduction of a species so invasive and unsightly would have been a heinous crime. So I nipped it in the bud. I recall how the fabric of his parka billowed and swelled as his body floated face down in the river’s current. Picturing the minnows nibbling his nose, I smile sagely.
“He’s definitely not coming back, Mrs Stafford.”
“The thing is, I think I’ll manage just fine until a permanent replacement is found. Someone with a bit more experience.”
“You’re firing me?”
“No! Not at all. I’m letting you go.”
“I had nothing to do with your cardigan being shredded.”
“Of course you didn’t. I would never suggest such a thing. It’s just that the vibe in the classroom has become a little…unnerving…since you’ve been with us.”
I blink, astonished by this precocious suggestion. Has she really no notion of the harm her weak, indulgent teaching methods are wreaking on the children’s developing brains? Is there no appreciation of the benefits my skill set offers?
Mrs Stafford reaches out and pats my arm, as if pacifying a pet. “I’m sure you’re a wonderful gardener, Mercy. Maybe it’s best to stick with what you know.”
We are interrupted by a sudden flurry of movement at the door. A furious bundle of energy hurtles in, outstretched arms pushing Mrs Stafford away so that she stumbles back into the stacked chairs with a clatter. Little hands grab mine and pull me through the doorway into the corridor, slamming closed the door behind us.
Mrs Stafford’s keys hang in a bundle from the lock. With Grace’s green eyes fixed upon me, I turn the activity room key, trapping Mrs Stafford inside.
There’s nothing like hands-on experience to consolidate learning. Why settle for a wall display when the re-enactment of a historical event is so much more sensory?
Grace skips beside me as I walk her home- I know the place, a shabby property on the dual carriageway approach, one window cracked across and taped, the front room always aglow with light from an enormous TV. This bright child has potential, and I fear her circumstances—and most likely her parents—hold her back. I will be sure to get to know them.
She asks a dozen questions as we walk, and I don’t mind answering them, because now I understand the rewards of teaching, the pleasure of feeding a hungry mind. Modern buildings have fire regulations, I explain. Destruction on the scale of the Great Fire of London is unlikely, these days. But take an environment rich in sources of fuel; a school building packed with paper supplies perhaps, and it will burn.
How sweet she had looked, waiting for the waste paper from the classroom bin to ignite, the flame’s twin reflections flickering in her glasses, her face alight with curiosity. How satisfying to have seen her unperturbed by Mrs Stafford’s clamouring, so intent she was on her task. It’s a shame that the rest of the children missed out. The wailing of fire engine sirens reminds me that at least I will have bestowed on them a colourful formative memory- the Great Village Fire.
I’ve never been muddled by maternal feelings. My role in this world is more noble than parenthood, my destiny more magnificent. But perhaps I could learn to care for a sensible, fearless child. A child like Grace.
Because Grace is amazing.