(Quick Cup of Nescafe Made in Unwashed Cup in Staffroom)
Ella wished they'd stop talking. Dirty grey drifts lingered at the perimeter of the school playground, without even a budding snowdrop to mock them, but already the other teachers in the staffroom were discussing summer holidays. At the next desk, where Debbie was surfing the internet, Ella glimpsed whitewashed villas, purple bougainvillea, and an impossibly turquoise swimming pool. With an effort, she picked up her pen and continued marking.
‘This is where we’re going, in Tenerife,’ said Debbie, swivelling the screen around, just as Ella was settling back into 10B’s essays on Dickens. ‘The children are going to love it. Be in the pool all day.’
‘Sounds lovely,’ said Ella, without looking up.
‘It gets up to twenty-five degrees in July.’ Debbie hugged her skinny chest with her folded arms, crushing the raw linen top everyone had admired that morning. ‘I'm so cold in here.’
Ella, wearing two jumpers and other – unmentionable – layers underneath, felt just right.
‘Turn the heater on, will you, Antonia? Antonia!’ Stretching over her, Debbie flicked the heater switch on the wall.
Bracing herself for a blast of hot air, Ella edged her chair sideways.
‘Sorry. What did you say?’ Antonia clicked off her CD player and lifted her headphones from her ears. ‘I'm trying to learn Russian. Did I tell you we’re going to Russia in July?’
Yes, you did, several times, thought Ella. In fact, over the last few days, Antonia had given them a running commentary on the booking of her holiday and now she was doing it again. Ella anticipated every word. After Moscow, it was the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ekaterinburg… where the Tsars were murdered, you know… then on to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In a minute, her colleague would list the works of art on view there. Ella considered buying a device with headphones for herself, an iPod perhaps.
‘I couldn't be doing what you’re doing,’ said Debbie, picking up Antonia’s CD. ‘It says on here that you should be speaking ‘travellers’ Russian’ in six weeks. Everyone in Tenerife knows English. That’s one of the reasons why we keep going there.’
‘Russian’s a beautiful language,’ said Antonia. ‘And how else do you absorb the culture?’
‘You can't do culture with teenagers,’ said Debbie.
‘We took our children to Florence when they were six and seven. They went round all the museums and churches with us. And they thoroughly enjoyed it. It depends what you want from a holiday, Debbie.’
Debbie opened her mouth to answer but Antonia had rendered herself incommunicado again by replacing her headphones. Ella corrected a pupil’s spelling of ‘receive’. ‘I before E except after C’, as Barbara used to say. If she had still been here, they would have exchanged raised eyebrows, with Barbara intoning ‘miaow’ in an undertone. No one expected Ella to hold a view, even though she was about to take sixty Year Nines to London in a coach to see The Mousetrap next week. She carried on marking, with just the usual staffroom sounds burbling in the background, the gentle hum of voices, the clatter of cups upon the tea tray and the clunk-clunk of the fridge being opened and shut.
All too soon, the bell rang for the beginning of afternoon school. The teachers made for the door with pupils’ work piled high in the cardboard lids of printer paper boxes, which they used for filing trays. Picking up her pencil case, a class set of handouts and a tatty cardboard wallet on which she had written ‘Hamlet Worksheet 1’ in small, neat handwriting, Ella sneaked a glance at her holdall under her desk. Inside it a bright pink cover glowed through its flimsy plastic W H Smith carrier. She took two steps from her desk. She halted. She went back. She reached under her desk and zipped up her holdall, before rushing out the staffroom with the others. Miss Pritchard was never late for class.
‘Actually you might like Tenerife, Ella,’ said Debbie, as they climbed the stairs amidst the hurly-burly of children texting on mobiles and playing hand-held games consoles. ‘There are parts of it which are very quiet.’
As she was getting into her car at the end of the school day, Ella’s mobile rang. Weary, thinking of what she could eat tonight, which wouldn't take too long to prepare, she almost pretended she hadn’t heard.
‘Ella, it’s me. Did you call earlier I’ve just been for an amazing walk across the fields in the snow.’
‘Now… did you manage to buy the ordinance survey map?’
‘Oh yes.’ It scorched a pink hole in her bag. As she struggled through the afternoon traffic, Ella asked herself why she had rushed out and to buy a map in her free period when Barbara, who was retired, had been rambling across the country for pleasure.
Winter melted into spring – crocuses, daffodils, tulips. Over Easter, both Debbie and Antonia visited France and returned with the inevitable photographs, Debbie in front of the Eiffel Tower, Antonia against a backdrop of rippling blue water. ‘That’s the Lake, Ella,’ Antonia said. ‘Lake Geneva.’
‘As if I’d never seen such a thing before,’ Ella said to Barbara, as they drove to book club that evening.
Her friend groaned. ‘I know, dear.’
‘Then she explained that she had taken the photo in a place called ‘Thonon Les Bains’... She pronounced it very slowly. It’s a town, Barbara… in France. Poor, pathetic Miss Pritchard couldn't be expected to know where France was, now could she?’
‘Don't let them get to you.’
‘Oh no. Known them too long. They’re all right really. Do you want to see my new Kindle?’
Spring became summer – alyssum, cornflowers, sweet peas, then at last the roses, their heavy scents wafting in through the open windows of the staffroom. Exams invigilated and marking done, just the paperwork remained. Ella entered her results on to a spreadsheet while Antonia tidied her desk, chucking out dog-eared pieces of work by pupils who were about to leave. The ‘learn Russian’ CD slipped out of a pile of old handouts about Henry VIII and on to the floor. As she stared down at the sleeve, Antonia’s mouth curled and her shoulders heaved themselves into a tight shrug. ‘Too late now. We’re flying on Saturday.’ She threw the CD away, the plastic case hitting the metal bin so hard that it wobbled and shifted backwards.
Debbie burst into the staffroom, her phone clasped against her ear. ‘No, darling, it’s not going to be boring. We’ve got the pool, haven’t we?’ She switched on the kettle as she spoke. ‘But you like swimming.’ The furrows on her face deepened as she wrestled, one-handed, with the brown plastic cap on her Nescafe jar. ‘No, you can't stay at home. Hang on—’ She shoved her phone in front of her eyes, her glare bouncing against the tiny screen. ‘The little madam’s hung up on me.’ She stomped over to her desk in four large, straight-legged strides. ‘She doesn't want to go. My daughter is refusing to go on holiday with us.’
‘Well, you know, Debbie, she’s fifteen now,’ said Antonia. ‘Not a child anymore.’
‘I do know how old my own daughter is, thank you very much, Antonia.’
Silence. Other teachers listened and watched, with lowered heads, pretending not to. After a moment Ella stood up, walked across the staffroom, finished making Debbie’s coffee and handed it to her.
‘Thanks,’ she said, gripping her mug so hard that her knuckles became white. Tears spilled from her glistening eyes, rolling down her cheeks. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered. ‘Sorry.’
‘She’ll enjoy it when she gets there,’ Ella said, passing over the tissue box which they kept for pupils who turned on the waterworks. ‘She’s doing what teenagers do, testing the boundaries. She’d be scared if you did let her stay at home.’
Debbie gave the tiniest of nods.
‘You’ll have a wonderful holiday in Tenerife,’ Ella said.
‘Of course, you will,’ said Antonia, joining them.
‘And you’ll have a great time in Russia,’ Ella added. ‘Don't worry about not knowing the language. How could you possibly learn it when you’re teaching full time, and doing all the wretched paper-work? You’ll have a tour guide. He or she will show you around.’
Antonia rolled her eyes. ‘Stout ladies from Intourist, ex-KGB, saying, ‘This is where the Socialist comrades shot the Imperialist Romanoffs. Look now, please.’’
‘It’ll be very interesting,’ said Ella.
‘Where are you going, Ella?’ asked Debbie, sniffing and wiping her face. ‘Somewhere nice, I hope.’
The morning after the end of term Ella had a lie-in, even though the sun poured through her curtains making criss-cross patterns on her light summer duvet. The only thing that did take her downstairs was wanting a cup of tea, which she drank watching the feathery ears of corn fluttering in the field opposite. She listened to the radio as she did her chores. ‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ she murmured on hearing that traffic on all motorways to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted was gridlocked. The phone rang while she was opening the fridge to survey what remained inside it. ‘Hello there,’ said Barbara. ‘Free at last, eh?’
‘We need to talk about tomorrow, dear. I'm going to pick you up at eight.’
‘Now, have you got sun cream?’
‘And your cap with the sun visor?’
‘Oh yes.’ Ella made her breakfast and ate it, with her phone pressed against her ear.
‘Better let you go,’ Barbara said at last. ‘Have a nice relaxing day.’
‘Don't wear yourself out, dear. You and I will be doing enough walking next week.’
Half an hour later, Ella closed the front door of her little terraced house and made her way down the main street of her village, pausing at the church, as she always did, to enjoy the blues, pinks and yellows of the flowers in the churchyard. No gardener, she didn't know what they were, but she recognised their sweet fragrance, which, for years now, she had called the ‘end of term smell’. She climbed up the hill, alongside a field of wispy barley, over a wooden stile and through set-aside land dotted with white and yellow daisies and dandelions.
Stopping at last by a big oak tree, she laid her checked travelling rug at the foot of its trunk and sat down, leaning against its soft corky trunk. She took out her Kindle and read a novel which was not on any school English syllabus. In the distance, she could just about make out the sound of cars, a soft drone above the rustling of the wind through the grass and the hum of insects.
Next week she and Barbara would walk Hadrian’s Wall; like Debbie’s daughter in Tenerife, she would enjoy it when she got there. But today she would watch the furry bees as they crept into purple bells of wild foxgloves, their rotating wings rippling through the air like tiny propellers, and a frumpy brown mother duck, with six downy chicks, waddling by the river.
Ella’s holiday had begun.
Charlie Britten lives in southern England with her husband and cat. She writes because she enjoys it. Her work has been published in Mslexia, Long Short Story, Every Day Fiction,Alfie Dog, The Copperfield Review and Radgepacket and other places as well. In real life, she lectures in IT at a college of further education. Charlie’s blog, ‘Write On’, is at http://charliebritten.wordpress.com/.
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