Laura rinsed her muesli bowl and left it in the sink. Then she went through to the bathroom to brush her teeth. It was a dull grey morning and when she saw herself in the mirror over the washbasin she thought that she was looking tired and old.
She had been head teacher at St Blandina’s primary school for four years now and this term had been her hardest. Three of her best teachers had left to get married and the Ofsted government inspector had given her school an ‘inadequate’ rating. Her dyed-brown hair was dry and wiry and she had pouches under her eyes and deep lines on the sides of her mouth. And to think she had once been the prettiest girl at her teacher training college.
She was just about to start brushing her teeth when she heard a rattling, scuffling sound from out in the hallway. She listened, still looking at herself in the mirror. The rattling continued, and it seemed to be coming from the cupboard where she hung up her coats and kept her outdoor shoes.
At first she thought it might be an airlock in the central heating pipe – but that always made a knocking noise. This was softer and quicker, almost furtive, as if there were somebody trying to hide themselves behind the coats.
She put down her toothbrush, went across to the cupboard and opened the door. Three coats and two jackets were hanging on a rail, and her shoes and boots were neatly arranged in wooden compartments. The rattling and scuffling had abruptly stopped, although she was sure that the coats were swaying slightly on their hangers.
She left the cupboard door open while she went back into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Although she couldn’t understand why, she couldn’t help feeling that she was no longer alone in her flat. She was on the point of calling out, ‘Who’s there?’ until she thought to herself: Don’t be ridiculous. Both the front and the back doors are locked and all the windows are shut. Nobody could have got inside without my knowing.
She gave her hair a quick primp, and then she went back to the cupboard and lifted out her thick brown tweed coat. As soon as she had put her arms into the sleeves, and before she had even started to button it up, she felt a hard jolt, as if somebody had come up behind her and grabbed her by the shoulders. She gasped, and stumbled forward, so that she collided with the frame of the bathroom door on the opposite side of the hallway, hitting the right side of her forehead.
Half-stunned, she tried to turn around to wrest herself free from her attacker, but she was dragged bodily back into the cupboard. She fell among the other coats and jackets, and the impact of her falling made their sleeves flap up and almost smother her. She struggled to free herself, but they kept flapping up as if they were alive, and they were trying to wrap their arms around her.
She reached over her shoulder with her left hand to push off whoever it was who had seized her, but it was then that she realised that there was nobody there. It was her coat that was gripping her. It had fastened itself onto her shoulders and her back and it was clinging to her as if it were three sizes too small.
She took hold of her right cuff and tugged it, but she simply didn’t have the strength to pull it off. She jerked it again and again, harder and harder, but she still couldn’t budge it.
She stood still, and took several deep breaths. The coat was so tight that it was making her feel panicky. I can’t think why it’s suddenly got so tight, but if I can’t take it off normally, I’m going to go to the kitchen and get my scissors and cut it off.
The other coats and jackets were still swaying, even though she was standing still, and the sleeve of her khaki raincoat suddenly flipped up over her shoulder and brushed itself against her cheek. She took two or three unsteady steps forward to get out of the cupboard, and staggered towards the kitchen as if she were drunk. The coat was even tighter now, and she felt that it was going to break her collarbone and force her shoulder-blades together, and she was finding it hard to breathe.
She opened the drawer in the kitchen and took out the scissors she usually used for cutting chickens, and string. As she was about to cut into the left-hand cuff, though, she hesitated.
Why does she want to take it off?
It’s hurting. It’s far too tight. It’s making me feel panicky.
Tell her to relax. Tell her that she doesn’t need to worry. The coat is her and she is the coat. It won’t hurt her so long as she understands that.
How can I be a coat? I don’t understand.
We’re like conjoined twins now, she and me. I can enter into her, and then we’ll be together, the two of us – inseparable. I know she’s not happy at the moment. I can feel it. I know that she’s tired and disappointed. But I can give her the life that I once had. I can come back, through her.
Laura slowly lowered the scissors and then she laid them back in the drawer. She was right. The coat didn’t feel as if it were crushing her any more. In fact it seemed to fit her perfectly. All she could feel was a prickling sensation across her shoulders and down her back, but that wasn’t altogether unpleasant. In a strange way, it was slightly erotic.
She left the kitchen and went back to the cupboard in the hallway. She looked at the coats and the jackets hanging there, and she thought: You’re alive. You’re my brothers and sisters. Don’t worry – we’ll find people like Laura for you, too. People you can embrace. People who will give you back the lives you’ve lost. You’ve suffered enough. Now it’s your time.
The coats and the jackets swung on their hangers as if they were silently showing their approval.
She parked her Mini Clubman at the back of the school and went inside.
St Blandina’s was a large red-brick Edwardian building on the corner of Hillbury Road overlooking Tooting Bec Common. It had been named for the Christian martyr who was the patron saint of young school-children. St Blandina had been half-roasted on a red-hot grille and then wrapped in a net and thrown into an arena to be tossed by wild bulls. Lately Laura had been feeling that she had been suffering almost as much. Not only did she have to deal with Ofsted inspectors telling her how much her school needed improvement, but she had to cope with carping parents and dim supply teachers and spoilt, arrogant, misbehaving children.
From today, everything’s going to be different. From today, she’s not going to take any more nonsense from anybody. She wasn’t born in this world to suffer, not like I did.
She walked along the parquet-floored corridor to her office. She could hear children chattering and laughing in the classrooms, and some of them slamming the lids of their desks.
Why does every school smell the same? she thought. Of paints and paper and children’s wee and whatever’s being cooked in the kitchen for lunch? I hate the smell. It makes me feel nauseous. It makes me feel trapped.
There were seventy-seven children in the school at the moment, between the ages of four and seven. Before the Ofsted report there had been over a hundred, but now it was difficult to make ends meet, financially, and she had been forced to cut down on educational trips and on school dinners, too. Some of the parents had complained that the meals were smaller than they used to be, but most of the children left half of their food anyway, with one or two obese exceptions.
As she reached her office, Leta Clover came out of her classroom, making a point of looking at her watch. Leta was a young supply teacher, originally from Jamaica, with a cornrow hairstyle and huge gold earrings.
‘What time are we going to start lessons, Miss Miller? My class is getting very restive.’
‘Oh, excuse me,’ Laura retorted. ‘Are you pointing out that I’m ten minutes late? I am sorry to have kept you waiting so long! I’m only the head teacher and your employer. How silly of me to assume that I could come and go whenever I pleased.’
Leta’s mouth dropped open. Laura had never spoken to her so sarcastically before – not to her, nor to any of her supply teachers. Usually she made a special effort to keep them happy, and to make them feel appreciated, mainly because really good supply teachers were so scarce.
‘Prayers in five minutes,’ said Laura. ‘And can I hear some girls in your classroom screaming? I won’t have screaming. Go back in there and sort them out.’
‘They’re only playing,’ said Leta.
‘They don’t come here to play, they come here to learn. They can play when they get home. Now go and tell those girls to keep the noise down.’
‘Well, yes. If that’s what you want.’
‘It’s a school rule. No screaming. And no running, either. I don’t want running.’
‘Anything else?’ Leta challenged her.
‘Yes. No impertinence. I won’t have impertinence. Either from the children, or from you.’
Leta was obviously ready to answer her back, but she managed to restrain herself. Without another word she turned around and went back to her classroom, slamming the door behind her.
Right, thought Laura. That’s the end of your career at St Blandina’s, young madam!
She went into her office. There were seven or eight letters waiting on her desk. She quickly sorted through them. Bills, most of them, although there was also a letter from Ofsted about her NTI – notice to improve. She tore it in half, and then tore it in half again, and dropped it into her wastepaper basket. Then she stared at the other letters for a moment before picking them up and tearing all of them in half, too.
She’s in charge now. Properly in charge. She’s not going to allow anybody to make demands on her or tell her what to do.
She sat down at her desk, opened her laptop, and began to write out a letter to parents informing them of her new school rules. If a child was defiant, the parent would be expected to come immediately to the school and remove him or her for the rest of the day. Children who refused to eat their lunch would have to sit at the table until it was finished, even if it meant sitting there until home time.
She could hear the children chattering and laughing as they were ushered into the large hall at the front of the school which was used for assemblies and for meals. Once they had all passed her door, she stood up and went after them, still wearing her coat. The school was well heated, but she didn’t want to take it off, and guessed that she probably couldn’t, although she had no inclination now to try. She felt that the coat was part of her. The coat was her.