Just One Question

by Jez Patterson

I knew the girl wasn’t really there because the kids didn’t notice her and there were still only twenty-eight names on the register. So I ignored her and her frown. We both knew that was as ridiculous as her being there to begin with. She carried on shaking her head after each thing I told the kids and by the afternoon she’d added a metronome finger. Uh-huh, you got that one wrong too, Mister Fawkes, it said.

At the end of the day–chairs up on desks so the cleaners could do the classroom floor without needing to slalom round them–the kids left and I was alone with her. The kids hadn’t said anything, but they hadn’t touched her chair, so she was still sitting there, watching me as I tried to mark maths books: dark circles under darker eyes; thick, cherry-red lips; dull frizzy hair. And that frown, that shake, that finger.

You shouldn’t be okay with this, I told myself—also with infuriating calm. You should be freaking out the same way it irritates you in films when people accept the incredible as commonplace.

What did it mean that I wasn’t accepting I was crazy? It was a larger denial than my attempts to convince myself the girl wasn’t sitting there.

#

She wasn’t a ghost because she was dressed in a white T-shirt, blue shorts and plimsolls–like the kids wore for physical education, although her t-shirt had no school badge on it. Her arms were pale and hairless, her fingernails short, but not bitten.

And she wasn’t a ghost because the room wasn’t any colder and the kids weren’t running out screaming.

And she wasn’t a ghost because, despite the frown, she didn’t give off those waves of melancholic oppression the dead are famous for exuding.

The seat next to hers had been empty and the next day I asked Milly to sit in it. Milly who did everything to please her teacher either because her parents taught her that was the way to get on in life or because she was one of those needy people who would always do too much. Milly shook her head, begged me not to make her change seats, started crying when I insisted, then wet herself.

That shook me more than any ghost that wasn’t a ghost. Tick tock went the finger. This time I agreed—I’d got that one wrong.

That evening, I went online and checked back issues of the local newspapers, just in case. The school had no history of scandals, disappearances, or sick kids dying. In fact, there were no sudden deaths of girls her age in the town in the history of the paper. None that matched her description, in fact, in the entire county.

She wasn’t a ghost, dammit.

Sometime after the incident with Milly, the new girl raised her hand with a question and kept it there, saving her other hand and finger for wagging. I ignored her until my neck and jaw ached.

#

“Are you coming to bed, Mister Fawkes?” Mark, my boyfriend, asked me. He liked to talk to me like the kids do, sometimes because it was cute, sometimes–when I was in a playful and willing mood–because it turned him on. Today though, he realised something was up. He’d taken him his time. “Bad day at school?”

“You could say that.”

“I did. Tell me about it.” I smiled: tight, but patient. Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you it’s impossible explaining to their partner why the job is stressful. Sympathy is fine, but empathy is another thing. Mark worked with computers and found my life entertaining because it seemed ten parts subjective to every one part objective.

“It’s nothing. I’ll deal with it.”

“New kid in class?” I swallowed hard and in a croak asked him why he’d asked me that. “Dunno, teach. It’s usually a parent, a new kid, or you’ve got an inspection coming up.”

“I’m being silly is all.”

“It’s Friday. Come here and let me take your mind off it.” I went and he was right. But after sex–Mark snoring the sleep of the perpetually content–I thought about the new girl again and wondered if that was exactly what she was: a new girl. Not just a new student to enter my class, but a new type of girl entirely. I didn’t know what I meant by that phrasing, but somehow it seemed right to describe her that way.

The alternative was that I was seeing things. But that meant I had to have conjured her features from somewhere I’d seen them. I’m not imaginative enough to create an entirely new face, nor a composite of others, like some mental Photoshop. That weekend I scoured the photos mum had left me, searching for the girl’s likeness as I ignored those where dad’s image had been cut out. There were a few frizzy-haired girls in my old class photos, but none of them matched the new girl. Nor did she remind me of any of the fag hags I’d acquired at university. Opening up the box of snaps had got me scratching my cheek and neck where a rash had sprung up. It wasn’t the worst nervous reaction I’d ever experienced and, considering what was happening, it was not just understandable, but worryingly delayed.

Sunday night, I was shaking enough to Milly my own pants.

But Monday morning, I still made myself walk into that room again.

On the blackboard, in neat, rounded schoolgirl font was a message for me:

‘I have a question.’

And the new girl was sitting a row closer to the front.

#

I allowed the children that had previously occupied those seats to shift back a row. Nobody remarked on the change in the room and apart from that, everything was as normal. For the kids, at least.

I began to ignore her side of the classroom, especially when the kids there put their hands up–just in case she accidentally thought I was pointing at her and those red, ruby lips opened up and said something worse than just a wagging finger communicated.

I wiped the board clean but knew the question would be back the next day.

And that she’d move up another row. I’d slept the weekend with the aid of pills, but now even they weren’t knocking me out. Mark finally woke up to the fact something was seriously not right and the next day, seeing circles under my eyes to match those of the new girl, he was standing before the front door as I came down and pushed me back towards the foot of the stairs and ordered me to ring in sick.

I expected to see her materialise at the end of my bed when Mark left for work, but evidently she hadn’t found out where I lived yet.

The school asked me when they could expect me back, what work I’d been doing with the kids, how I was feeling. Yes, in that order. I didn’t tell Mark when he arrived home, but he read it anyway.

“I don’t know why someone who had such a shit time at school would want to be a teacher anyway.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

I offered myself to console him, put the argument to bed–how apt a phrase–but he pushed me away, told me some of us had to work this evening, and left me to the oppressive thoughts his comment had stirred up. Why do people always beg for ‘closure’ when what they really want is for the doors and windows to be opened and to run free?

#

After three days off work, I’d have needed a note from my doctor and didn’t know what I would say to her–let alone if a GP was what I needed right now. I broke the rules and risked another day off, but phoned and said I was definitely coming in on Friday and so they let it slide.

Walking in that Friday, I was dosed up on meds, already practising the excuse that they were antihistamines, hence my drowsiness. There were actually a few among the mix I’d taken–Mark took them for his hay fever. We hadn’t really spoken for two days, so I hadn’t sought his permission to take some from the bathroom cabinet. Fights occasionally had their advantages. The other advantage was that I hadn’t needed to talk about what was happening at school, with the new girl in my class.

My addled mind had decided she had to be a vampire, then that she was a hallucination, then that someone in the school was playing an elaborate practical joke on me that even had the kids involved. A few threats, and it was amazing what you could make any child deny. My cheeks and neck itched thinking of this.

When I entered the classroom, she was in the front row. Close enough that I had to keep my chin up unnaturally high to stop seeing her. That frizzy hair like nylon, like that belonging to an old, frail pensioner. Bloody lips and black rimmed eyes. Maybe I’d seen a girl in an accident one time and shock had buried the images so deep in my subconscious I’d forgotten it had ever happened. If mum were still alive, I could have asked her. Childhood traumas were good at doing that. Cutting themselves out like unwanted portions of a photo.

“Are you alright?” my teaching assistant, Sarah, asked as I attacked the words on the board like they were offensive graffiti. I’d totally forgotten she was back from maternity leave. I mumbled an apology and an assurance that I was fine, and then proceeded to conduct the lessons from anywhere but the front. “Why are these chairs empty?” she asked at some point but shied away from either using them or suggesting we put a couple of the slower learners where they could benefit most from being at the front.

The new girl didn’t turn around, just waited patiently for me to come back out front. There was a label sticking out at the back, where her hair ended, and though it might have told me the make of the T-shirt and thus something more about her, I avoided crouching down to examine it. God, no.

At the end of the day, my neck was burning and my face felt like someone had scoured it with steel wool. I’d had pretty much every member of staff and even a few of the older children ask me if I was okay. Some of my colleagues criticised our head teacher for not ordering me home. Mark texted, asking me if we were still dining with friends that evening, and I could read the tired sarcasm in the few words he’d thumbed out.

Life was clamouring at the window, needed to be attended to.

Mark, the school, my face, the kids. I had to deal with this now. She had a question? Then okay, let her ask it.

When the last of the kids had gone, I closed the classroom door, lowered the blinds, and sat on the corner of my desk. I had my eyes closed, not praying and not doing anything beyond instructing my heart not to explode. I opened them and forced them down to look at the ruby-lipped, black-eyed girl with the frizzy hair.

Her hand was still up, finger pointing at the ceiling as kids always do when they have a question. Or, I realised distantly, an answer to something you had asked.

“What is it? What do you want? Who are you?

She stared at me, the frown still there. Then her arm lowered, down, down, slow and steady and ramrod straight until the finger pointed elsewhere. At me.

“What did I do? I don’t know you? I haven’t done a thing…”

But it wasn’t an accusation. Not entirely, anyway. Her other hand curled towards herself and the wagging finger touched her chest. Or maybe her heart. I swallowed. She was answering my question and I saw her for what she was. The frizzy nylon wig, which was responsible for the label sticking out the back. The clumsily applied red lipstick, all smeared and lumpy. The eyeliner applied round her eyes in scratchy black lines with the mascara brush and then smudged around with her thumb.

It was me sitting there, in my own classroom, visiting myself with an accusation long overdue.

“Oh, God. I didn’t know.” Sealed balloons of emotion, no longer of steel but of the thinnest of rubber, burst in my chest. One after another: inflating, bursting and then more. They showered images, the memories that the last two weeks had stirred up from the silt.

My grandmother’s wig, stuffed in a cupboard box with all her other stuff when she’d gone into the old people’s home. My mother’s make-up on the dressing table. Her shoes hadn’t fitted on my tiny feet, her dresses had slipped repeatedly off my shoulders, but I hadn’t cared. Because it wasn’t just a game of dressing up. Ten years old, and it was who I wanted to be. I said as much to my father, who told me he hadn’t sent me to a religious school so I could say such things in his house. Because his house was also His house, governed by His rules. Or my father’s stolid version of them.

Something in an already troubled man had burst its own balloons that day: ones filled with anger, paranoia for something he might have been holding back in himself. He slapped my face. One cheek, the other, alternating to slam my head side to side. When he paused and I begged him not to stop hitting me but to let me be the girl I wanted to be, his hands moved to my throat.

That was how my mother found us, separated us. The act of separation didn’t stop there. When she started divorce proceedings, my father neither contested nor added conditions. I never saw him again.

My mother loved me, accepted me, but there were still social rules that guaranteed a more comfortable survival. And, for all his faults, she had loved my father. The new girl I had presented my parents with had robbed my mother of her husband and destroyed our family.

I scrubbed at my adult eyes, adult nose, and on this occasion my fingers didn’t come back greasy with my mother’s make up. I looked and was sad to see I was no longer sitting there. The only thing that still lingered was the question I had asked her, asked myself. Who was I, indeed. I didn’t have an answer to give myself. Not yet at least.

My father had left a mark, I knew, and my mind played around with its phrasing to also include the man I shared my bed with. I couldn’t blame that Mark. Nor even my father anymore for his terror and moments of madness. I was an adult now, with my own decisions to make and no one else to hold responsible if I made the wrong ones.

Regardless of who or what I was outside this room, in here I was always just the teacher. Yeah? Then what had I taught myself today? That if you don’t answer the questions the little voice inside you is trying to ask, then sometimes it has to climb out and come visit you in person? Perhaps. Or perhaps that we carry our own ghosts inside us, and we can haunt ourselves if we don’t have them exorcised or answered.

I would talk to Mark. But I would listen to myself.

The End

Just One Question