The Write Stuff: Lessons from the staff room

Illustration: Grant Paterson
Illustration: Grant Paterson
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NO 1: IT’S impossible to bring your inner life to work, as a teacher realises in this extract from the debut novel by Margaret Montgomery

“Katy Clemmy – girl in your guidance group,” Ron Turner said to Jane in the staff room. “Can you give this note to her?”

The music teacher bundled an envelope into her hands and immediately turned his back on her. “Craigie RFC is on a downward slide, Pete my man,” she heard him say with bonhomie to the cauliflower-eared P.E. teacher, Peter Bryce, who was standing near by. He slapped the lumbering former prop forward on the arm and laughed loudly.

Jane looked down at Turner’s “note”. The way it had been handed to her proclaimed disinterest. You, Miss Ellingham, and what I have just passed you, are of no consequence to me. But now, as she turned the envelope over, it struck her that it was made of paper that was rather too thick and creamy to have been lying around in a school cupboard. What’s more, the writing on the front of it was studied and neat, executed in the type of fibre tipped pen she herself reserved for Christmas cards, or letters to aged aunts.

Jane looked up and found herself still faced with a rear view of Turner. The back of his neck was inflamed with several angry boils. Under the arms of his pale blue shirt, two patches of sweat spread like ink stains. There’s something untrustworthy about him, she thought, and then immediately scolded herself for being so judgemental. But her unease returned as she noticed Pete “my man” Bryce staring down in bemusement at the arm Turner had just given a matey slap. Without giving the music teacher so much as a glance, Bryce wandered off to join a group of noisy male maths teachers at the far side of the room.

If only there was someone she could talk to, really talk to, thought Jane. Close by, a group of female teachers were discussing cups. “My mug simply disappeared,” Ellie Littlejohn from P.E. told Jeanette Wilkins from Biology as they fussed over jars of Nescafe and Coffee Complement. “Poof! Evaporated. Just like that.” She flung up her hands like a magician. Jeanette Wilkins laughed a hard, clipped laugh which died on her lips: “Terrible. But I tell you what’s worse. That creep Eric from the library helping himself to your mug and not even washing it afterwards. Have you seen the state of him? I had to throw that cup out!”

What was the point, thought Jane. All around her there was chatter and clatter, men prizing open Tupperware boxes to peer at the sandwiches their wives had made for them that morning, women on mobiles instructing teenage children where to find the soup they were to defrost for lunch. “No, below the ice-cream … there’s a label … lentil…” The truth was she did not fit in here. She had never fitted in here, even when she was going out with Jim.

Perhaps if we had married … But that way madness lay. Jim had lost interest in her when she told him she wanted children. Pity she hadn’t had the Home Economics’ teacher’s guile and marched him into matrimony - and paternity – before he’d had time to notice what was happening. Too honest for my own bloody good, she thought. She turned her back on the hubbub of the staff-room at interval and looked out the window. She wanted colour but was greeted by grey. Grey concrete. Grey uniforms. Grey sky. She bit her lip and tried to fight off the urge to cry which had been with her since her lesson with 3B on Wednesday. Ron Turner. Katy Clemmy. Who cares? It’s not as if anyone had cared much about her when she was Katy’s age. She walked to the staff-room door and half kicked, half pushed it open. She had made the mistake of allowing the bloody, throbbing pulp of her inner life into the workplace. It had to stop.

When she handed Turner’s letter to Katy during 3B’s second English lesson of the week later that morning she concentrated her mind on the face which had looked at her as she picked the jotters off the floor the previous day. She hadn’t imagined it. Katy Clemmy barely saw her and what she did see was not a human being. Miss Ellingham was just a teacher, a woman old enough to be her mother. It was according to the natural order of things that she pick up her fallen jotters for her.

Katy looked puzzled at the envelope. Then her face flushed red. She took a swift look round to see if any of the rest of the class had noticed it. But Kevin McCarra was mumbling to himself and Madeleine McCutcheon two desks along was polishing her glasses in a fierce way which suggested to Miss Ellingham she was doing her utmost to appear indifferent to the existence of the rest of the class. Only the troubled Billy Neill had seen anything. “Hey, Miss Ellingham’s passing dirty letters to Katy,” he yelled. But as the rest of the class, including Katy, ignored him, he soon shut up and took to pinging one of the hyenas’ bra straps instead.

“Romeo and Juliet today again,” said Miss Ellingham. “Open up at Act Two.”

As the shuffling and noise which accompanied the act of book opening started up, she took her opportunity to read out a notice which had been passed to her by Malcolm Dick.

“You’ll be interested to know …”

“You’ll be interested to know,” said a parrot which sounded suspiciously like Billy Neill speaking in received pronunciation.

“That …”

“Thet …”

“Billy Neill, if there’s one more word from you, you can go and report to Mr Dick right now.”

Proceedings appeared to pause for a moment. In what could have been no longer than two minutes, Miss Ellingham saw her whole class as if freeze framed on video. Her eyes bore through the hyenas’ make-up to their delicate faces and clear eyes and on into their hearts. She felt them beating and was panicked to feel her own beat in time. She saw Billy Neill staring down at the blue-eyed, Nordic beauty that was Katy Clemmy with the gaze of boy who already knew there were going to be a lot of things in life he would never get. And she saw Katy Clemmy herself, distracted, self-obsessed but vulnerable as an alpine flower that had somehow found its way into a hothouse.

“The school show this year is going to be West Side Story, which for those of you that don’t know is a modern take on, guess what?”

“South Park,” said a giggling hyena.

“Buffy,” said Billy Neill, never one to miss an opportunity to attempt endearing himself to a hyena.

The silence had lit up in her like a radar screen too much of the adolescent nether world. Why should she bear witness to all their pain? Hadn’t she enough of her own to carry? She felt her lips thin and tighten. To communicate with the pupils at the level of one human being to another was impossible anyway. She’d seen others try, by wearing Simpsons’ tee-shirts and inviting sixth formers round to their homes for video and pizza nights, or by letting their classes call them by their first name. Miss Ellingham shuddered at the very thought. It was her lifeline that Jane Ellingham remained unknown to all in Craigie Academy. Well, almost all.

“Actually it’s based on Romeo and Juliet,” she said, relieved to find her firm, no-nonsense voice again.

“Romeo, Romeo …” said a hyena called Shirley Stapleton who had dyed platinum blonde hair and an hour-glass figure she painted her school uniform on to each morning.

“That’s right, Shirley. Glad to see you’re learning your quotes. And perhaps you’ll want to become a real actress by going for an audition.”

There was a murmur of interest.

“They take place on Thursday 18th of April in the school hall. Four o’clock onwards. And if you want to see what you’re auditioning for, Mr Turner is showing the film of West Side Story on Tuesday 16th at the same time. The production team, it says here, is looking for dancers, singers and actors. If you’re all three in one, even better.

*

THEY say there’s an alcoholic personality, that you’re born a drunk and the actual drinking is just a way of medicating a nest of nasty traits like selfishness, pride and wilfulness. Certainly, I exhibited a lot of what the likes of you in this room would call ‘alcoholism’ long before I found the corkscrew.

Take selfishness. God knows, it’s not my only character defect but it’s probably one of my worst. Anyway, I came across a photograph of me with my husband - ex husband - the other day. It was taken in 1997, twelve years after we were married. We’re standing at the front door of our farmhouse and there are baskets of flowers hanging above us. The sun is shining. My then husband has his arm round me. He is looking at me as if I’m all that matters to him in the world.

Look more closely, though, at the woman so beloved of that devoted man and you will see an impatience in her expression. The truth is I had long begun to resent what many other women would have been grateful for. The way I saw it, I’d been cheated out of a life of glamour and passion, and cast into one that consisted of little more than muddy fields and home baking fairs. The fact that I had a man who cared about me and was prepared to love me through the most awful of trials meant nothing to me back then.

About a year after that photograph was taken I met an old school friend who appeared to agree my discontentedness was justified. “Corinne MacBeth,” I heard someone call to me on Craigie High Street. I turned round and saw a tall woman with bronze-coloured hair. Her green eyes flashed with all sorts of mischief and she had a full, very sensual mouth that seemed to be saying things too – if all the men who were taking sideways glances at her were anything to go by. She was wearing thigh-high leather boots over tight fitting jeans, a sheepskin waistcoat over a black jumper. An Amazonian princess. So un-Craigie. I stared at her for a long time, like I would a plate in a fashion magazine, before she nudged me out of my stupor.

“Corinne … it’s Susan, Susan Flockhart. Remember? Sixth year art class at Craigie Academy? I’d been expelled from Campsie Girls’ in Ayr… But I probably didn’t tell you that – mother’s orders. Anyway, all that’s ages ago now.”

You could say meeting Susan again was like pulling at a loose thread. Before long, I’d unravelled most of what I had become and was left with who I really was. And it wasn’t a farmer’s wife. The farmer had wanted a wife but I – I began to convince myself all the more – hadn’t wanted him.

Soon I had also convinced myself I needed a holiday (on my own, of course) so I booked myself into a hotel in Deja, Majorca, for a fortnight. I spotted it in a magazine and with Susan to encourage me, it seemed only fair.

“Tell Alan you need a break,” Susan said. “For God’s sake, Corinne, it’s 1998, not 1898. When did you last have a holiday? Sounds like you’ve been stuck on that God forsaken dump of a farm since the day you got married.”

Fuelled by Susan’s sense of outrage, my indignation grew with every day. “What happened to the Corinne I knew – Corinne MacBeth?” my old school friend asked me once. “Didn’t you once go to a school fancy dress party dressed in a Vivienne Westwood t-shirt, a black PVC miniskirt and canary yellow tights, telling everyone you were Malvolio? And look at you now – in your wellies and cardigan – cleaning out barns.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Montgomery is an Edinburgh-based lecturer and writer with an M.Litt in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews. Margaret has extensively written and edited for an array of publications including The Scotsman, and Scotland on Sunday. Beauty Tips For Girls, from which this is an extract, is her first novel, which was published by Cargo on March 2nd and is available now.

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