Extract from : Various Pets Alive and Dead
CLARA: Vandalism, pee and the Doncaster climate
On the first day of term, 1st September 2008, Clara Free turns into a drab crescent of red-brick semis in Doncaster, eases her little Ford Ka into reverse, and lines up the school entrance in her wing mirrors. She looks over her right shoulder. She gives it a bit of gas. The car nudges backwards and scrapes the gate: crunch. Drat!
Getting out to inspect the damage, she enjoys a moment of smugness. Someone else, probably Miss Historical Postlethwaite, aka Miss Hippo, has done an even bigger crunch. The school sign is leaning over crookedly against the ugly chain-link fence with its frill of barbed wire: eenhills Primary Schoo (the ‘Gr’ and ‘l’ disappeared years ago) curved round a rural landscape of green hills folding into each other, although in fact the school is bang in the middle of a Doncaster council estate.
Parking is not her strong point, and this morning she’s been particularly distracted. In fact, she’s lucky to still be alive, given that the crunch could have happened while she was on the motorway, trying to drive and simultaneously read the letter from her mother that came in the post this morning.
I wanted to tell you our very exciting news. Marcus and I are thinking of getting married.
Hey, what’s going on, parents? After nearly forty years – why not leave well alone?
Her classroom with its lingering scent of bleach and beeswax polish breathes quietly, waiting for the children to arrive. She pulls her mother’s crumpled letter out of her bag, wondering – why did she write a letter and put a second-class stamp on it? Why not just phone? Probably a sign of general dottiness.
We’ll have a reunion, get all the old commune gang together, remember old times . . .
Can it be nostalgia for the lentil sludge? The green-painted floorboards? The cheesecloth kaftans? The rotas?
. . . celebrate our lives together . . .
Cooking rota. Housework rota. Laundry rota. Childcare rota. Sex rota. All the rotas were pinned up on the noticeboard in the kitchen beside the shopping list.
We’d love you to be there, you and Serge and Oolie-Anna. But don’t tell Oolie just yet.
Ha! It must be something to do with Oolie-Anna. At the end of the letter, squashed up in smaller handwriting, is a postscript.
And maybe you could contact the other commune kids and invite them too? I’d love to see how they’ve all grown up.
See, her mother believes she has oodles of spare time. Unlike her brother Serge – who, being a genius, is excused family obligations on the pretext that he’s writing up his PhD. This has been going on for years. ‘Oh, Serge is so clever – just give him time,’ Doro says. For heaven’s sake, how long does a PhD take?
Squeezed between her brother’s genius and her sister’s disability, she’s carved out a space for herself as the sensible one, the organiser, the one everyone can lean on. Which is all very well, except sometimes it would be nice to have someone to lean on herself.
She stuffs the letter back in her bag, switches on her phone to call Doro, changes her mind, and texts Serge’s number instead.
Call me, Soz. Our parents are up to something.
Then she heads off to the staffroom to greet her colleagues.
There’s a fizzy new-term atmosphere; everyone’s showing off their suntans and holiday snaps, and swapping information about their new classes with the teachers who taught them last year. From Mr Kenny, she learns that Jason Taylor is a sneak-thief and an endless source of trouble, Dana Kuciak, the Polish girl, is the class swot, and Robbie Lewis masturbates under the desk. Poor Mr Kenny, with his forty-year forty-a-day habit, is a victim of the new head’s ‘no smoking on the premises’ policy, and his hands are shaking uncontrollably as he speaks. Still, she wishes he hadn’t told her about her new kids – sometimes it’s better to make your own judgements.
At ten minutes to nine, the bell rings in the playground. With a blast of shrill voices, 6F hurtles in, and her day begins.
They spend the morning finding out about each other, and the undifferentiated mass of children gradually separates into thirty-two individuals, with idiosyncrasies, challenges, complicated home circumstances and mystery gifts. It’s at times like this that she thinks she has both the best and the hardest job in the world.
By midday, the sun has swung round, making the classroom hot and stuffy. The kids are fidgety after their six weeks’ holiday, itching to get outdoors while the weather is still warm. She’s about to disappear off to the staffroom for a quick coffee before playground duty when Jason Taylor sidles up to her desk. He’s a pale, scrawny kid with dark rings around his eyes and a thin stubble of mousy hair.
‘Please, miss, I forgot my dinner money. Me mam says can you lend me some while tomorrow?’
Close up, the smell of him hits her nostrils – cigarette smoke, stale chip fat and wee. She conjures up an instant stereotype of his mother: neglectful, obese and slightly unclean, the sort of woman who goes to the shop in her pyjamas (Benefit Mum Spent Kids’ Dinner Money on Fags and Booze).
‘I’m sorry, Jason. You know I can’t do that.’
‘Don’t you get free school meals?’
‘No, miss, because me mam’s working up Edenthorpe’s.’
So her stereotype of Mrs Taylor has already taken a knock.
‘What’s up, miss? Don’ you trust me?’ he whines.
He’s persistent, this one.
When she arrived at the school three years ago, she was brimming with ideas about the contribution she would make to this poor community, how she would light the small spark that would fire these kids up and propel them onwards, upwards, out of this drab, cramped barbed-wire-and-chain-link little world. At the end of her first week, she planted a fast- growing Russian Vine, hoping it would clamber up and cover the ugly fence in the car park, but even this rampant weed has now more or less given up its struggle against vandalism, pee and the Doncaster climate. And like the Russian Vine, she’s finding the local conditions a challenge to her stamina. She opens her plastic lunch box and extracts a chocolate bar to give her a sugar fix that’ll tide her over until her lunch. She snaps it in half, and gives half to Jason. Despite what Mr Kenny told her, Jason is one of those kids whose hopelessness tugs at the heart.
‘Don’t tell anyone I did that. Now, go away.’
Jason pockets it reluctantly. Then as she’s about to close the box, quick as a cat, he dips in and snatches a raw carrot, carved to look like a rocket.
‘What’s this, miss?’
Before she can get her answer out, he’s wolfed down the rocket carrot in three bites. At least he’s still got his own teeth.
‘It’s a carrot, Jason. Vegetable.’
He clasps his stomach and makes vomiting sounds. ‘Oah noah! I’m gonner die of vegetable poisoning!’
Despite herself, she laughs.
‘If I die, miss, it’ll be your fault.’
‘You’re more likely to die from not eating vegetables.’
‘Mam says if I eat carrots all t’ birds’ll fancy me.’ He gives her a leery bad-tooth grin. ‘Do you fancy me, miss? Cos I reyt fancy you.’
Of all the no-hope kids in her class, there’s always one that gets under her skin.
On the way home, there’s been an accident on the M1 and the traffic is almost at a standstill. It’s six o’clock before the bottleneck has cleared and she swoops down into Sheffield, skimming the Parkway roundabout under the curving tram tracks and the water chute from the leisure centre. Compared with the drab bricky thickets of Doncaster, Sheffield seems like a gleaming metropolis pulsing with culture and glamour. She parks her car in her space, turns the key in her door and kicks off her school shoes, like shedding an old skin. Then she puts the kettle on, lights her only cigarette of the day, and looks down from her plant-filled window at the people strolling in the square and the lights twinkling in the water, thinking about the kids in her new class.
When you’re a kid, you assume the world you inhabit is the only world there is; you don’t realise how temporary, how provisional everything is. How quickly things can change. She wishes she could take Jason Taylor aside and tell him that. ‘Don’t worry,’ she’d say, ‘you can escape. Look, I don’t live in a commune now. I live in a lovely modern flat in the centre of Sheffield with a clean bathroom all to myself and tall windows full of plants overlooking a square with cafés and fountains. One day you’ll grow up, then you can choose your own life.’
But she’s not sure how true that really is.