It was Julia’s habit to stay on an hour or two after the end of school, long after the commotion in the playground had died down. She had the small office to herself, a glass box portioned off in one corner of the new library. When her eyes were tired at the end of the day, she’d turn to the small pile of new acquisitions, dressing the paperbacks in their plastic jackets, stamping the blue crescent of St Stephen’s Prep School, it’s tiny curled-up lamb, onto the title page, a page from the middle and one from the very end of the book – a ritual she’d inherited from her predecessor and adhered to with loyal superstition.
The library had been moved five years ago, from the damp ground floor of the original Victorian building, where they now kept the banks of computers, up into the new wing. Once the children were all gone, the dusky afternoon turned to the mirror-black of winter evening, Julia could imagine she was on a cruise ship; not the Titanic – though that is how she pictured life below: white linen, golden chandeliers – but a Mediterranean cruise, one that would take in the Greek islands, the temples to Aphrodite, the tinkling of goats’ bells. It had been a long-time dream of her mother’s, and one, which, one day, she very much intended to fulfil.
Six was her favourite hour: something so satisfying about the way the little and big hands, having chased around all day, pointed away from each other, tense, charged, Strictly Come Dancing. Julia’s window, on the far corner of the first floor, looked out over the half a dozen bays in the senior playground reserved for staff parking, and from here she’d noticed a pattern. Somewhere between five-forty and six, Mr Baines, Head of the lower school, would stride out from the double swing doors, the metal toe-caps of his shoes striking a distinctive drill across the netball pitch towards his invisible BMW, which as he opened a back door, would light up from inside – a soft, glowing moon – as if with joy to see him. He’d set his briefcase carefully onto the back seat, straighten up, turn, now, she’d think, craning forwards, lifting her chin; for this was the moment when, like a moth to the flame, he might glance up to the single pulsing oblong of light, and know that she was there, tidying up, finishing off. Whether or not he could see her from that angle, she’d often remove her specs, and, lifting from her swivel chair, raise a hand to him and smile.
It wasn’t as if she were angling for promotion – there was nowhere she could go – she just liked to keep on top of things. So, when, at tea-time that Friday afternoon, she’d come down to the staffroom with the tartan hold-all, packed and ready to go, she was sure that one of them (Celia, Isobel and Brian were all at their preferred stations) would have something to say.
“Going somewhere?” Celia asked.
Julia knelt to post the bag out of harm’s way between the legs of her usual chair. “I’ve got a train to catch, after tea,” she said. She clambered up from the floor, straightening her skirt. Celia was holding a thin, orange biro as if it were a cigarette; she puckered her lips and exhaled. Julia made for the kitchenette, pulled open the cupboard where the mugs were kept. Someone had taken her new mug again. She scanned the L-shaped counter. No sign. It was on the tip of her tongue to say something, but she clenched her jaw: not today, she was nervous enough about the journey ahead, she didn’t want an argument. Deliberately, she brought down one of the free medical ones they used for visitors, GlaxoSmithKline.
“Bunking off?” Celia said, in a sing-song designed to capture the room’s attention.
“I never go early,” Julia protested. (She’d bought that mug from a National Trust shop, it was just the size she liked.)
“Keep your hair on,” Celia said. “We won’t tell.”
“There’s nothing to tell.” Julia had been practicing breathing for such occasions: Celia was as bad as the year nines. Breathe. She unscrewed the top from the milk and poured the remnants of the carton straight in, jiggling the tea-bag about between her fingers until the colour was right. “It’s a family thing,” she said.
Celia Beckwith-Jones had been at the school almost as long as Julia, but was ten years younger, and currently worked only three days a week. It seemed to Celia that it was the first time Julia had ever mentioned doing anything over a weekend, or, for that matter, having any family other than her dead mother. “What’re you up to?” she asked.
Well, Julia thought, savouring for a moment that twitch of genuine curiosity.
“My brother,” she said, making her way over to her chair.
Imperceptibly, Celia raised her eyes to Isobel Baker. “Oh,” she said. She was wearing her clingy lime blouse, exuding, when she spoke, wafts of sweet-smelling perfume.
Isobel had appropriated the leatherette armchair, and was clucking over a wodge of knitting. “I didn’t know you had a brother?” she said.
“Jonathan,” Julia pronounced, as if this were proof.
“Older or younger?”
“Younger,” Julia said. “By seven years.”
Celia, for want of anything better to do or say, was affecting interest. It had probably never occurred to her, Julia thought, with a shot of satisfaction, that she too might have family. “You must come round,” Celia was always saying, “meet the tribe.” The Beckwith-Jones’s lived in a farmhouse with three or four children, two red setters, about six miles out of town.
“What about you, Brian?” Isobel asked. “Got any plans?”
Brian grunted from where he sat at the table littered with his week’s marking. He was proficient at zoning out of the chat, hovering over the open pages of an exercise book as if he were about to spear a fish.
“Rob and me are doing quiz night,” Isobel said.
“I,” Brian grunted, without looking up.
“I what?” Isobel asked. She had her elbows propped on each side of the chair, paused to wind the wool around her needle – impossibly big, childish needles – she was knitting everyone scarves for Christmas. Brian Gross, both she and Celia agreed, was on the spectrum. She turned to Celia now, “I’ve told Rob, I think he’s addicted. He’s kept me up half the night on rivers and lakes.”
“Why don’t you take Brian along?” Celia asked. “I bet you’re good at quizzes Brian. I bet you’d be good in a team.”
“Not my bag, thanks,” Brian said.
Isobel tugged at a strand of multi-coloured wool. “Good job too, Brian. It’s fully booked. You have to be vetted to get in.”
“Vetted?” Celia asked. “You make it sound like MI5.”
“We’ve got a professor from the Uni on our team,” Isobel said.
Julia was shuffling with her fingers in the biscuit tin – the broken, soft bits, anything to make the tea go down – when the door from the main corridor was thrust open and Mr Baines appeared. He didn’t often grace the staff room, and they all, in their various ways, jumped to attention. Celia rolled back her shoulders, puffed out her chest. Mr Baines looked almost as if he’d made a mistake, but persevered, turning to close the door behind him in a studied way, standing erect, shooting his cuffs from his blue jacket, before fully entering the room.
“Not interrupting am I?”
All eyes blinking their not-at-all as he walked the walk-of-the-watched over to the kitchen sink. When he turned back, holding the plastic kettle in one hand, he blenched at their expectant faces.
“Anyone for a top-up?” he asked. He looked – to Julia at least – heroically flustered. They shook their heads in sequence, “No thanks,”, “not for me,” and pretended to be otherwise engaged. He fumbled at the tap. The kettle was too tall to fill from underneath.
“Take the lid off,” Isobel suggested, pausing in the middle of a row. “It’s easier,” she added with a smirk.
“You have boiled a kettle before?” Celia asked. She was glancing through the OK! that had been stuck in the staffroom all year.
“Thank you, um, Celia. I can manage,” he said.
Celia was on one of the adjustable admin chairs. She spun around to face Julia. “Where does he live, then, your brother?”
Julia had a mouthful of biscuit. She sucked the sticky mixture from behind her teeth. “Brecon,”she said before she was quite ready to. She was aware that Mr Baines might be listening, that he might even be looking at her.
“Brighton?” Isobel asked, helpfully. “Sounds like a dirty weekend.”
Typical of Isobel, who always brought it back to Rob. It wasn’t an image Julia relished, but sex, in a seaside postcard sort of way, was what, when faced with the ruddy, comfiness of Isobel, most often popped into her mind.
“Brecon,” Julia repeated, blushing. “It’s in Wales.”
Celia dropped the magazine, propelled herself around in the chair, lifting her feet from the floor, hands flapping in horror, “Wales?”
Brian glanced from the two exercise books at present perched on either thigh. “What’s wrong with Wales?”
“Don’t tell me you’re Welsh?” Celia said, “Please.”
Mr Baines was leaning back against the counter uncomfortably. He knew it was important, every now and again, to show his face in the staff room. In his experience, every school he’d ever worked in, there’d been that same whiff of discontent – state, private, it made no difference. It was brown-coloured and stale, like the tins of instant coffee; the place where, in the old days, everyone used to smoke, where now, however many times the walls were painted over, the smell, the stain, was impossible to get rid of.
“Miss Fitzgerald’s got a brother,” Celia said. “She’s going away for the weekend.”
The kettle clicked and steamed and Mr Baines sprung forwards as if surprised that it had finished its business so soon. “A brother?” he asked, absently, addressing the kettle, not sure what to do next.
“Tea bags above your head,” Isobel interjected, leaning round helpfully, motioning upwards with her chin. He’d been in post six months, six months since he and Valerie had embarked on what she’d called their ‘trial separation’, and there was still something about the daily demands of domestic activity that floored him.
“She’s leaving the country,” Celia confirmed. “She’s going to Wales.”
“I know,” Celia said.
“Not permanently, I hope?” he asked.
Julia was floundering. “My brother – “ she began. How ridiculous Celia was. “No,” she said, “Just for the weekend. It’s not actually terribly far.”
“Driving?” Mr Baines asked.
“I don’t,” Julia said. “There’s a train. My brother’s going to pick me up at the station.” The words sounded so wooden, so far from anything she’d imagined saying to him. (Don’t be long, Darling, as he went up on deck to have a cigar under the stars to work out how he was going to propose.)
“Have you got anything nice on, Mr Baines, this weekend?” Celia asked.
Mr Baines moved his neck under scrutiny like a turkey, in and out. He plucked at his collar. “Oh, this and that,” he said.
“Nothing special?” Celia asked, cocking her head to one side.
She was an English teacher and he found her impossible to get to grips with. He was no linguist, but the word déshabillé sprung to mind. Her hair was raised on the top of her head, and held in place precariously by two laquered chopsticks. There was no taming her. She was one of those types he’d come across in London, who gave the impression she didn’t have to do it for the money. His name for her – he had names for them all – was Wuthering Heights.
“So tell us what you’re up to, Celia?” Isobel asked, on behalf of them all. “You and your exciting life.”
Celia rested her eyes on Mr Baines’ midriff and delivered a catlike smile. “We’ve got people coming over… Friends. I’ve no time to get the place decent.”
“I thought that was what the au pair was for?” Isobel said
“Oh my God,” Celia flashed her eyes, “Don’t! She’s ten times worse than the last one! She’s worse than the children.”
Mr Baines was looking perplexed. Julia would have loved to take him aside, tell him about Johnny; how when her brother was little, it was she who’d looked after him; how she understood about heartbreak, about needing someone to share the agony; how families could be worse than judge and jury, the way they carry on. Her chest hurt as if she’d swallowed pebbles. She removed her specs and huffed onto the glass, began to polish with the remains of a hankie.
When she hooked them back on, she found Isobel peering at her, wrinkling her nose, “Trouble is,” she said in a stage-whisper, “Celia judges them all by the photos.” She had stopped knitting. Julia was lost. “Any that are too good-looking,” Isobel said, “she bins.”
“Wretch!” Celia drew out a chopstick from behind her head and aimed it straight at Isobel. The chopstick redounded from Isobel’s plump knee and landed on the brown carpet between them. Celia reached up and drew out the other stick so that her hair fell, red and crinkly over the lime-green acres of her blouse. As she shook her head her scent was like a veil across the room. She pouted at Mr Baines, who’d knelt to retrieve the first chopstick for her, kneeling as if – as if (Julia was in a cold sweat) – he were about to propose marriage. From where she was sitting she could see the eczema behind his ears. As he rose, it flared like lichen on a gravestone.
“I haven’t seen him for years,” Julia blurted. “He’s got three children. There’s one of them I haven’t even met.”
“Wow,” Isobel declared, and she paused long enough to wind and pass over another stitch.
“We lost touch,” Julia said. She could feel the heat in her face. “Because of the age gap.”
Celia was sitting bolt upright, away from the back of the chair, one toe pointed like a ballerina. “Thank you, sir,” she said, accepting the chopstick, setting its tip between her teeth as Mr Baines rose uncertainly to his feet.
He was reeling from the white tobacco plant that shrouded her, the buttons of her shirt, ready to pop, their threads tugging at the capillary tubes that pulsed between his legs.
“I’m leaving early, today,” Julia announced hastily. “I hope that’s all right? I’ve a train to catch.” He didn’t appear to have heard her. “I don’t usually,” she began.
“Of course. Absolutely. Good job.”
Good job, what could he mean?
“Send us a postcard,” Isobel said. And it seemed as good a time as any for Julia to take her leave. She gathered her bits and pieces, her hankie, her Dorothy L. Sayers from Brian’s table, and zipped them into the front pocket of the bag, pulling it out from under the chair, lifting it, as she got to her feet, with a heavy heart.
Mr Baines walked as far as the door and opened it for her, pulling it towards him so that he didn’t see at first the two blond girls from year six, standing there, fists raised, about, they gabbled, to knock for Miss Baker.
“Sorry, sir,” they said as Mr Baines looked them up and down and then turned to where Isobel sat poised in the middle of a row. “Miss Baker?” he prompted.
“Can’t it wait?” she snapped.
“Miss asked for us,” they protested, as if Mr Baines were the police.
Julia nudged her way between the girls, could hear them behind her re-petitioning their case. As she progressed along the corridor, a boy with his shirt hanging out came haring past, whooping. He, by the rumble further off, was the advance guard: it was home time for the infants, and before she could reach reception they were flooding down the main stairs, making a sound like gulls, not a language she’d ever spoken or understood. They carried her along, sweeping her out through the doors, a sea of bodies milling into the playground, bearing her in an oscillating motion out towards the large iron gates.
In the staffroom Isobel was collecting up the mugs. Celia produced one from behind her back. It was an off-cream with ‘HER LADYSHIP’ in old- fashioned type.
“She didn’t say anything!” Isobel said.
“You could see it in her face,” Celia said. “She was dying to.” Celia made her sniffy laugh. “Do you think she made it up?”
“About the brother?”
“Why would she do that?” asked Mr Baines.
“Can you imagine a male version?” Celia asked.
“Oo,” Isabel answered, with a look of prospective glee, as if quiz night were already upon them, “one of those munchkin things from Harry Potter?”
“Ronnie Corbett?” Brian suggested, dourly.
“Oh My God,” Celia said, returning the glint in Mr Baines’ eye. “Ronnie Corbett. You’re so right!”
“I see her up there,” Mr Baines said, warming to the subject, “on my way home. She’s like an owl.”
“Like a Brown Owl,” Celia said, elated.
“How did you guess?” he asked. As if she could see straight through him! God he had to get a grip.
“Dob, dob, dib, dib,” Brian said. “You know, I always wanted to be a cub.” He flipped over the cover on the last exercise book. “Job done,” he said, laying his pen down with finality like a sword.