JANE, May 1985
Everything changed when I got the news. I’m as scared of dying as the next person, but knowing my time here is short makes me feel more alive than I’ve ever felt before. While the blood pulses through my veins, a courage I never knew I had makes me want to live.
All my breaths are concentrated as I will my body to continue living; the things that were once bland, frightening, or anything in between, no longer have power over me. With everything in sharp focus, I no longer feel trapped by indecision and fear.
Knowing the worst is going to happen means I have nothing left to lose.
My body may have betrayed me by filling my lungs with cancer cells, but my mind is very much alive. At least, for the moment. The drawing in and out of every precious breath gives me strength, renews me. Where once I trudged through life, now I have a purpose. The way I move, speak and hear things, the way others respond to me; every nuance of the person I’m engaged with is amplified. Highlighted in every feature on each face I encounter, I register fear, happiness, sadness and pain. I have been transformed.
If only this knowledge had come another way.
My stilettos tap along the grey-green 1980’s terrazzo floor of the school’s main corridor. Cleaning agents cannot disguise the slightly mothy atmosphere of the place.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve passed these green walls featuring glories of former students holding up trophies and awards without paying due attention. Golden moments that have a faded unreality about them.
Close up, I barely recognise the younger Mrs Dumpling, the present head, rumoured to be on her way out any day now. Hard to believe that’s Valerie Pumberton, her erstwhile deputy, beaming away dutifully in the background. The two have always been inseparable.
Just ahead, I spot a gaggle of girls clustered about the headteacher’s door, presumably waiting to be reprimanded for some pointless misdemeanour. When they see me, they part like the red sea. That’s a first! Normally, I have had to squirm my through them.
This new me feels different. My mouth is no longer dry as I approach the classroom door. I’m almost disappointed my nemesis, Stell Hartless, is not on the other side to greet me in her time-honoured way. I was informed by my glamorous Head of Department, that Stell, a clever pupil who torments anyone she sees as weak, including me, is off sick with glandular fever. For once I would be able to look her in the eye and catch a glimpse of the troubled soul that that I suspect lurks beneath the showy façade. The authentic being, if you like. I’ve always wanted to strip away the hard-as-nails crust and expose the real person.
The first person I see sitting at one of the scratched wooden-topped desks inspecting the contents of the lid, is Nicky. Nicky, tense on the orange plastic seat, as if waiting for an explosion, a student who simply wants to learn.
Stell derives a perverse pleasure from tormenting Nicky over her cleft lip while awaiting the arrival of a teacher before the lesson begins. I found out about this when the goddess of spite drew back from the blackboard before there was time to wipe off her revolting cartoon featuring the lip on the blackboard.
She fancies herself quite the artist, does Stell.
Not wanting to make things worse for Nicky, I wiped the image away without commenting. Though every instinct made me want to say something, I didn’t want to make things worse for Nicky. Now, I wish I’d spoken up.
“Weeble’s wobble but they don’t fall down.”
They never fail to disappoint, do they? One of Stell’s followers starts the familiar refrain, albeit a little half-heartedly (it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it with the ringleader’s absence). However, I don’t let a minor setback like this flatten me. Not any more. Not now I have nothing left to lose.
“Settle down,” I hardly recognise my voice as my own. It sounds more authoritative than my usual timorous, “Please be quiet, girls.”
They do sit down, with a slightly chastened air. As I start handing out sets of well-thumbed Romeo and Juliet books, thirty or so faces are raised expectantly waiting for me to start the lesson.
But I pause.
“Before we begin, there’s something I want to address. What does that mean? Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. Do tell me.”
One of Stell’s followers, whose name is as insubstantial as her character, snickers.
“It’s from the Weeble toys, you must have heard of them. They always wobble, but don’t fall down.”
More snickering, but it quickly dries up.
“I’m aware of where the name comes from. What I want to know is why you feel the need to repeat it ad infinitum, rather than learn something useful which is why you’re here.”
“It’s just a lark, miss.”
“I assume you are referring to my head tremor. If you paid a bit more attention, you’d realise I can’t help it. It’s one of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.” It seems ironic telling the class this, considering my recent far more serious diagnosis.
“What is multiple sclerosis?” someone asks.
“It’s a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord. There are a number of symptoms, but it often causes fatigue; or, in my case, tremors.”
“Will you die from its, miss?”
“No, I’m not likely to die from it. It’s usually a slow progressing condition. It’s different for everyone. It’s possible to be in remission for several months, sometimes much longer.” A truly ironic conversation, but there it is.
I continue boldly where angels fear to tread.
“What you call having a laugh is actually cruel. There’s nothing funny about laughing at people’s disabilities or how a person looks. Just because someone is a little different from you doesn’t make them less than you.”
By the time the lesson ends, I like to think the students have learnt something more than what was on the lesson plan. Shakespeare has much to teach us, but it made a nice change.
After class, the girls troop out to their next lesson. One or two smile at me shyly – as if seeing me for the first time.
I turn to Nicky who is putting her books into her rucksack. “Mrs Grange was pleased with your last three essays,” I tell her. “I’m going to recommend you get put up a stream, at least in English. Your history teacher is pleased with your progress too. I think you can handle more advanced studies. If you put your mind to it, you could have a good future ahead of you.”
“Thank you. That means a lot. I hated being put in a group where some of the students didn’t seem to care about studying. I wanted to go to the grammar school, but was told I was borderline. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I must have done badly in the assessments when I joined this school. I felt a failure.”
“No one should be told they are borderline or a failure,” I replied hotly. “Eleven is rather young to be judging people’s academic abilities, in my opinion. Much can change in the intervening years before you leave school. If it’s any comfort, my father told me that I was borderline in everything except academic ability.”
“Your father doesn’t sound great, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Say all you like. It’s the truth. I was frightened of him, but I didn’t want to acknowledge how much it affected me.”
I thought of my downtrodden mother, the tussles between my father and my brother who had fled at the earliest opportunity to make a better life for himself in Australia. I thought of my oldest brother Bill, the only person I’d truly loved, who’d escaped my father’s grip in the saddest way. Honouring his country by flying through the clouds in his Hurricane, keeping us safe during the storms of the London Blitz. Things I found difficult to speak about.
“Anyway…” I bit my lip. “Make the most of every moment. The education system may not be perfect, but it’s the one we’ve got. Better then nothing. If you keep on like you are, you have a chance of a better life.”
“You sound like you won’t be with us much longer.” A good pupil always scratches beyond the surface when searching for answers. “I thought you said MS was a slow-progressing condition.”
“It is, but who knows what the future holds?”
BRENDA, August 1985.
By the time Stell had recovered from glandular fever and returned to school, Jane was no longer teaching there.
Jane had asked me not to tell anyone about the cancer until “you absolutely have to.” The other teaching staff had their suspicions, of course, especially when Jane suddenly stopped smoking. Jane had always been a heavy smoker and it was an activity we shared together, both in and out of school. We knew it was addictive, but wrapped ourselves around this cocoon of pleasure. Jane amazed me when she told me she had shared her first cigarette with her middle brother in a bombed-out church, of all places, during the war, at the tender age of five! I didn’t have my first cigarette until I was sixteen.
I’d managed to find a hospice for Jane as she couldn’t bear the idea of dying in a hospital ward. During the final days, I stood beside her bed, holding her hand, my heart silently breaking. Her other hand clasped a raggedy old doll close to her chest. She told me she had knitted it as a child for her oldest brother as a good luck charm when he flew his plane during his war missions during the London blitz.
She looked so small and frail in that bed, dragging out each breath. I was reassured the morphine had taken effect and she was not in pain. Her face had taken on a drawn, waxy expression, but to me she remained beautiful. Her eyes, now the colour of faded cornflowers, lit up when she smiled. Her hands were delicate like the rest of her and right up to the end, I felt an answering pressure as she held my own.
When it came to say what would be our final words to one another. I told her she was the best friend I’d ever had. I said I’d always loved her and would never forget her.
“My only regret is not to have been a better teacher,” she said sadly.
“You had your moments,” I said.
“Only in the last weeks at our school.”
I asked her if there was anything I could do for her and was surprised when she said there was. In spite of her breathing difficulties, her words were distinct. I leaned towards her, not wanting to miss anything. “I’ve no family to speak of. I’ve left all my worldly possessions, such as they are, to you. I never forget kind deeds. I’ve never forgotten anything.”
She had already told me she wanted to be buried with the doll she had knitted as a good luck charm for her brother and I was determined to make that happen. She indicated there were two sealed letters in her bedside locker. When I retrieved them, the names Nicky and Stell were written with a fountain pen in spidery writing on the envelopes. “Please make sure they get them. You will know when the time is right. I know one is likely to be scoffed at, or even thrown away, but it’s worth a try. I hope some good will come of them.”
She was still thinking of others towards the end.
When I gave Nicky the letter, tears filled her eyes.
“I’ll treasure it,” she said. “Miss Weeble really helped me.”
I know I was going against Jane’s wish, but something made me hold back from handing Stell her envelope. I felt I’d want to slap her if she slighted my friend in death. Jane’s memory was too precious to be trashed by an ignorant schoolgirl.
A couple of months later, I received the news that Stell’s family were leaving the area and she would be attending another school. At least, Nicky would be free from the cruel taunts about her cleft lip.
The day before Stell left the school, she careered into me in the corridor.
“Watch where you’re going,” I said crossly.
“Sorry, miss.” She seemed brittle, the usual cockiness gone.
I was on the threshold of telling her about the letter that Jane had left her before she died, but the words stuck like a craw in my throat.
Instead I asked her the name of her new school.
“Heathcliff Manor. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it.” It didn’t take long for the old archness to return.
“Indeed, I have.” That took the wind out of her sails a bit. I omitted to mention I knew one of the teachers there.”
“Well, all the best.” I spoke through gritted teeth, glad I’d never have the misfortune of coming across her ever again.
IN the meantime, I was pleased when Nicky was moved up into another set where she was able to realise her dreams of doing well. I knew her progress would have made Jane happy.
STELL, 10 October 1986
This school is so much better than my old one. The girls here have class, money and style. There’s a tennis court and a swanky pool and a state of the art gymnasium. It shows my old school up for the dive it was. One of the less popular girls has taken me under her wing. I had her in stitches when I mimicked the mannerisms of one of the teachers here.
20 October, 1986
I received a letter in the post today. On the envelope, my name was written in a strange spidery scrawl. The writing seemed familiar but I couldn’t think where I’d seen it before. I was about to open it, but then the gong sounded for the evening meal so I tucked it away in my dormitory drawer to be read later.
That evening when the other girls were together in the common room, I rushed up to the dormitory to be alone. Outside, the wind howled and tore at the branches of a gnarled tree. A chill came over me which had nothing to do with the weather. Suddenly, a small figure dressed in a pale blue cardigan, tapped its nails along the window pane. Horrified, I turned away, but when I saw my own lipstick had been used to draw a grotesque lip on the mirror, I think I must have passed out.
That evening, as I lay in bed, I heard the horrible sound of snickering. It started gradually, quickly growing into a high-pitched whine. The next moment, the pillows came flying, from all directions, one after the other, pulverising me until I begged them to stop.
From then on, my new school became a place of dread. Every day, it was considered fair game to hide my things, get me into trouble with the teachers and constantly mock my accent. I begged mum to let me come home, but she said my schooling was costing a fortune and I should be grateful to have a chance for a superior education.
The girls have been tormenting me for weeks now, but Weeble’s ghost (if that’s what it was) has yet to make another appearance. Perhaps it thinks I’ve been punished enough.
With every passing day, I certainly have reason to regret my behaviour towards Nicky and all the others I mocked.
I’m not sure how I’m going to get past this, but some kind of serious amend-making is clearly needed.
I’d almost forgotten about the weird letter. It only had one sentence.
It said: “Ut sementem faceris ita metes.”
I think I will have to ask the Latin teacher what it means.