She doesn’t know how she went from drawing a row of Cs on the board to saying it: Have you ever been truly let down by someone you loved? It hurts so much, I can vouch for it.
The children look up at her. They don’t understand why she has a tear in her eye. Or why Mrs Taylor is suddenly talking about pain and love in the same sentence. They are unsure about what vouch means, but it sounds like it involves money.
All besides Andy, that is. He’s thinking about the fish counter at Sainsbury’s down in Halifax. He wants to see a crustacean. Obsessing, in fact, about seeing a crustacean since visiting London Aquarium and watching Finding Nemo all in one, epic, life-changing week.
Her voice wobbles as she leans her paisley-clad bottom on the side of her desk, its wooden surface a foot higher than their bold-lined pads, streaked with drunken Aas and overweight, top-heavy Bbs. Small fingers grip oversized pencils, hovering, lost.
It’s not your fault you loved, it’s not your fault you pretended you didn’t see it coming. It’s not your fault you let yourself be consumed. That you dreamed. She finds she is still talking.
The five-year-olds sit on their tiny, yellow-footed chairs, around building block tables of hexagons, squares and rectangles. They stare at her, wondering if she will crease, throw them her grounding, comfortable smile any minute now. They are confused, for the first time, by their parent-like, all-knowing friend.
Behind her head, to the right of the white board, the clock’s arms move, reaching a time the children can’t tell. Now, her shoulders slump, her diaphragm drops and she heaves as her weight envelops a sob, her large breasts pushing against the bottoned shirt that exposes chinks of pale breast to which Mr Nairn aims bad breath and sideways glances across mugs of Nescafe and value-pack biscuits.
Did you hear about the man who cured his myopia by watching telly through the holes in Rich Tea biscuits? He once showed off to her near the tea-making area as driving rain blurred the upper school’s football pitches, landed in the silo-like three-wheeled bins at the back of the kitchens and slowly crept under the door of the changing rooms, inching its way forwards on the cold tiles like a perverted, sordid coach.
It’s not raining today, the sun is low and dead leaves sit still in neat, raked piles under the trees.
I’m sorry my loves. I’m just being silly. She stands up, wipes a hand across her cheek, smudging away the rivulets. Her skirt, so old, so Eighties, so unlike anything she dreams of wearing, falls back to its default mid-calf position.
Let’s have a look at how your Ccs are coming along. Jenny, shall we look at your curly cees? She suddenly feels no older than Jenny, she needs her mum no less than Jenny needs hers. The line of lobed letters blurs then dips, submerged under water. A tear plops onto the lined page.
Oh, Jenny, my love, I’m sorry. She uses her sleeve to wipe the glinting droplet away, catches a tail of a B in the way and streaks the pencil trail. The B looks like it has been given speed and motion, hurtling as an action hero in a cartoon.
Mrs Taylor, my mum said she doesn’t love my dad. But said she will always love me, says the mouse-haired girl. The grown woman can’t take it. Like a crumpling hot air balloon, she sinks, silently lolloping into a spare chair on Red table, and cries, openly, properly. Alarming as she knows the sight is to class A1, as utterly unequivocally as she cares about the small children, she can’t fight the tightness, the grip, any more. They don’t know – how can they? – that there is no mister, no second half, no daughter, no parent waiting for her.
She cries, she gasps, she bunches her shoulders, buries her head in her hand, lets her nose run. Her knees are level with the table top, she notices how oddly close she is to the corduroyed green carpet underfoot. How close the children always are to the curling, scratchy man-made fibres, the crumbs, the dust, the floor.
Andy has forgotten, for the first time in six and a half days, anthropods. Mahmoud’s lower lip is unsteady and Tina can feel tears welling up, like the prickly heat she caught in Salou last summer.
Jenny knows what helps her mum, although her dad hates her doing it. She moves towards the alien version of her teacher, the broken adult who is no-one the children have ever known as a group.
Mrs Taylor feels a stroke, a gentle tug, then a warm, sticky loop around her neck. She hears a chair move, feels a weight lean against her back. She grapples for a tissue in her skirt pocket as another arm wraps around her tubby middle. She smells crisps, sleepiness, cooking fat, sugary fruit, dirty hair and washing powder. Four children are squeezing her, the whole class is inching closer, not afraid now.
She hears a whisper into the grey hair above her ear. A Yorkshire lull – the sound of a cup of tea. You can cry Mrs Taylor, we won’t tell Mr Taylor.