by Alison Allen
a glass of Chateauneuf du Pape
My French teacher claimed she kept a gun in her handbag.
She liked to tap the bag in lessons, when someone was stumbling over basic vocabulary, or when Martin Chumley was playing the fool. ‘There’s a revolver in here,’ she would tell us, giving each ‘r’ a dramatic roll, ‘and I’m not afraid to use it.’
She stood on the raised dais in front of the blackboard like a West End star, pointing to the handbag as though it contained something explosive. The only weapon we actually saw in her hand was a wooden ruler – painful enough if she caught you across the knuckles when you weren’t expecting it.
How a young French widow ended up teaching in a boys’ school in the 1950s, I’ve no idea. I was too young at the time to imagine a previous life for any adult, but I suppose it would have been the war that brought her to England. There must have been thousands of displaced people like Mme Jerome across Europe long after the conflict ended.
I think we were all a little in love with her. Even a stolid, no-nonsense Englishwoman in a tweed skirt would have stood out amongst the rows of male staff at our school. As it was, Mme Jerome’s foreign nationality, like the sensuous curves of her mouth, gave her a powerful allure. Her clothes, though invariably modest and sombre, graced her shape with unmistakable French style. She had little need for the ruler. We never played up in her lessons like we did with poor old Trimble, the Chemistry master, who was half-deaf when he joined the school and thanks to us, half-mad before he reached retirement. By contrast, Mme Jerome’s sallies with the ruler were mere play-acting. When she set us written work and took to wandering around the classroom, each of us was secretly waiting for her to pause at our desk and stoop to correct something, enveloping us in her perfume and the intoxicating closeness of her person. Maybe that accounts for the halting progress we made in French.
Then Reg Sproat joined the school. With his hair slicked back into a Brylcreemed DA, and his tie flapping from his pocket, his casual disregard of the uniform regulations indicated his contempt for authority. He had the sort of attitude that didn’t so much hit you as knock you over and pummel you senseless. He cheeked Mr Jones, our form tutor, within the first half hour, reduced Trimble to a stuttering wreck the following day and replaced Martin Chumley as class ringleader without even trying.
With some anxiety, we waited to see what Reg would do in French. Other teachers were fair game, but the normal rules of ‘them and us’ did not apply to Mme Jerome. I don’t think I was the only one who felt the desire to protect her. In the event, nothing happened. She glided into the classroom in her usual serene manner and Reg did nothing out of the ordinary. We allowed ourselves to relax.
As Reg settled in, he got louder and bolder. He became one of the regulars waiting to be caned outside the Headmaster’s office. The teachers found it impossible to get him to do anything. I never saw him lift his pen in class and he never opened his mouth without making a sarcastic gibe. Mme Jerome’s lessons were no exception. I could see, day by day, the frustration building in her eyes.
One Wednesday afternoon, Reg was lolling in the back row with his feet up on the desk beside him, using his own desk lid to hide a fag. The door of the classroom opened. In those days, we were expected to stand when the teacher walked in. Mme Jerome entered, bringing a cloud of scent with her. As one, we got to our feet. All except Reg.
‘Asseyez vous,’ said Mme Jerome. She looked at Reg. The corners of her mouth tightened. He returned her gaze, his eyes lazily insolent, his smile an obvious challenge. Someone opened a window but there was no disguising the smell or the blue haze hanging by the ceiling.
‘Sproat, will you please remove your feet from the desk and put out the cigarette.’
My heart winced for her politeness, for the French accent that made her so vulnerable.
‘No, ta very much. I’m comfortable as I am.’
The rest of us exchanged uneasy looks. How far was he going to take this? Should one of us intervene? What would Reg do to us afterwards if we did?
Mme Jerome put her handbag on the desk. ‘You had better do as I say. This is your last warning.’
This could only end one way. We’d watched Trimble capitulate in seconds, his face a red wash of humiliation and anger. Hattersley, the Geography teacher, normally a reasonable man, had erupted in a volcanic rage we’d never suspected he possessed, without making the slightest impact on Reg.
Reg did not move. His smile grew wider. ‘Warning, eh?’
‘I have a revolver in my handbag and I know how to use it.’
I wanted to groan out loud. How could she have made such a fool of herself? She would never regain the upper hand now.
‘A rrrevolverrr?’ Reg repeated. My hands bunched into fists, ready to smack the stupid grin off his face. He put his head on one side. ‘Is that the French for ruler, miss?’
Martin Chumley sniggered. Reg’s eyes glinted in triumph. Then I saw the colour suddenly drain from his face.
I turned. Mme Jerome’s handbag was open and she was standing behind it. But she did not look much like my French teacher any more. Clasped in her hands was a Smith and Wesson pistol. Even from where I sat, I could tell it was real. There was nothing amateur about the way she slowly raised it, nothing random about its aim. She cocked the trigger.
And the room fell silent.
About the author:
A former English teacher, Alison Allen has published study guides on poetry for GCSE students. After completing an MA in Creative Writing, she is currently working on a novel for children. She also writes short stories and poetry, both of which have appeared in CafeLit and Writing Magazine.