When she entered the hall, the children were all sitting cross-legged on the floor, with their four teachers sitting on chairs, two on either side. They were all talking and giggling and nudging each other, and one boy was throwing rolled-up paper pellets. None of them stopped when Laura came into the room.
‘Simon,’ she said, coldly.
The boy who was throwing paper pellets took no notice.
‘Simon!’ she snapped.
He stopped, and grinned at her. ‘Yes, miss?’
‘Go to the toilet,’ she told him.
‘I don’t need to go, miss.’
‘I don’t care. Go to the toilet, close the door, and stay there until I say that you can come out.’
All the children burst out laughing, including Simon, although his laughter was more uncertain.
‘What makes you think that I’m joking?’ said Laura. ‘Go to the toilet now and stay there, otherwise I will phone your mother and tell her that you’ve been misbehaving and she has to take you home.’
The laughter died away. The children could see by the expression on Laura’s face that she was serious. Simon stood up and stepped over the other children on his way to the door. His eyes were filled with tears and his mouth was turned down in misery.
Once he had gone, Laura said, ‘Listen to me, all of you! There will be no more talking during prayers. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. There will be no more talking in the corridors. There will be no more running. When you go outside to play, there will be no more shouting and screaming. You have come here to school to learn, and two of the most important things that you are going to learn are good behaviour and respect for your elders. I don’t care what your parents allow you to do at home. That’s none of my business. But here, at St Blandina’s, you will do what you are told. Do you understand that?’
There was silence from the children. Laura could see the teachers giving each other quizzical looks, and Leta shrugging and pulling a face as if to say, ‘Don’t ask me!’
‘Do you understand that?’ Laura repeated.
‘Yes, Miss Miller,’ the children chorused. Some of the younger ones sitting in the front looked completely bewildered, while others looked frightened, and two or three of them gave a little shiver.
‘Right, you can go back to your classrooms now,’ said Laura.
Susan Lawrence put up her hand. She was in charge of the six-year-olds, and had been teaching at St Blandina’s since it first opened.
‘No hymns today, Miss Miller? No prayers?’
‘We’re not singing or showing our devotion to some imaginary deity, thank you,’ said Laura.
‘But – this is a Christian school, isn’t it?’
‘Do you believe in ghosts, Susan?’ asked Laura.
‘Well of course not, but—’
‘Ghosts are imaginary. God is imaginary. We don’t have conversations with ghosts because that would be absurd, and we don’t sing ridiculous songs to God, because that would be equally absurd. These children are here to be educated, not deluded. Now, everybody back to your classrooms!’
She clapped her hands and all the children stood up and filed in silence out of the room, some of them glancing at her worriedly. What had happened to the warm and smiling head teacher who had led them yesterday in singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’ and ‘Arky Arky’? Most of the children had never been spoken to so harshly in their lives and Laura could tell by the way that some of the older ones were smirking that they thought she had been play-acting. Well, they would soon find out.
At 10:30, Natasha Bell knocked at Laura’s office door. Natasha was a small, shy young woman who looked after the nursery class. She was pale and plump but quite pretty, with her hair always twisted up in a bun. The four-year-olds all loved her.
‘I’m just going for my doctor’s appointment now,’ she said, cautiously.
Laura carried on typing for a few moments, but then she looked up and said, ‘What doctor’s appointment?’
‘The one I told you about yesterday, Miss Miller. For my IVF treatment.’
‘Did you? How long are you going to be?’
‘The rest of the day, as I told you.’
‘So who’s going to be taking care of your class?’
Natasha gave her an awkward smile. ‘Well, you are. You said you would. You said it wouldn’t be a problem.’
‘Are you sure I said that?’ Laura’s fingers were still poised over her keyboard, as if she were determined to continue writing her letter.
‘I’ve had to wait three months for this appointment,’ Natasha told her. She was beginning to sound desperate. ‘If I miss this one, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get another.’
‘So you want a baby?’ said Laura. ‘I would have thought you were heartily sick of small children by now. Sick to the back teeth.’
‘Please, Miss Miller. My husband’s come to collect me and he’s waiting outside.’
Laura looked at the screen of her laptop for a moment, and then she switched it off and closed it. ‘Very well. I can’t have you thinking that I’m an ogress, can I? Who’s looking after the little darlings at the moment?’
‘Gemma’s keeping an eye on them for me. She’s given her own class some colouring to keep them out of mischief.’
Laura stood up. Natasha was disturbed to see that she looked much taller than usual, and even though she had her back to the window, and the light was behind her, her face seemed different, with a chin that was broader and squarer, and with much smaller eyes. She was still wearing her brown tweed coat, and Natasha felt like asking her if she was feeling the cold, but she was in such a strange and prickly mood that she decided not to.
Natasha left; and Laura trudged upstairs. There were two classrooms on the first-floor landing – the nursery class and the seven-year-olds. Laura had arranged it like that so that the older children could be asked to help with the infants whenever it was necessary – like taking them to the toilet, which they needed with irritating frequency.
Gemma Watts was standing in front of the children when Laura came in, singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round’. Most of the children were joining in, although two or three of them were staring blankly at nothing at all and picking their noses, and a ginger-haired boy was standing on his chair and waving his arms from side to side as if he were conducting the singing.
‘Thank you, Gemma,’ said Laura. ‘I think we’ve had enough of this cats’ chorus. You can go back to the Sevens now.’
Gemma’s cheeks flushed. She was a big young woman, wearing a long dark brown cardigan and an oatmeal tartan skirt. Usually, she was very outspoken, and had her own strong ideas about educating small children, and she was never afraid to tell Laura what they were. Now, though, she didn’t answer back. She was still unsettled by the way that Laura had spoken to the school at prayers this morning, and there was something else that she found even more disturbing. Laura seemed to have grown until she was nearly as tall as she was, even though she wasn’t wearing high heels, and her face was oddly mask-like and expressionless. Laura actually frightened her.
She left the classroom and Laura closed the door behind her. It was obvious that she had made an impression on the children this morning, too, because they were fidgeting and whispering and staring at her apprehensively, when normally they would have been laughing and larking about. The ginger-haired boy, though, was still standing on his chair waving his arms and singing.
‘Luke,’ said Laura, quite quietly. ‘Get your feet off your chair and sit down properly.’
Luke took no notice and started to sing ‘Old King Cole’, clapping his hands.
‘Luke!’ snapped Laura. ‘I won’t tell you again! Stop that horrible howling and get your feet off your chair and sit down properly!’
Luke continued to ignore her, so she marched up to him, picked him up and carried him over her shoulder to the front of the classroom. He screamed and kicked in anger and embarrassment, but she was far too strong for him. Some of the children laughed but others were clearly terrified, especially the very little ones, and they sat round-eyed and silent.
Luke carried on struggling and screaming ‘No! No! No! Let me go! Let me go! You’re horrible! Let me go!’
Laura said, ‘Shut up, you little runt! You asked for this!’
She let him down onto his feet, but she kept a tight hold on his collar while she unlocked one of the windows. Once she had swung it wide open, she lifted Luke up again and forced him over the windowsill. Then, without any hesitation, she pushed him out. He let out an extraordinary noise that sounded more like a gargle than a scream and then he was gone.
It was over twenty-five feet down to the narrow concrete pathway at the side of the school, and it was fenced off from Hillbury Road with spiked iron railings. Luke dropped onto the railings with a thud and a crunch, because the spikes penetrated his ribcage. After that he hung there, with his arms and his legs outstretched, looking more like a ginger-haired doll than a real boy.
Six or seven of the children got up from their tables and rushed to the window. The windowsill was too high for them to see out, but a little Somalian girl with her hair tied up in four bouncy plaits dragged a chair over and climbed up onto it. The rest of the children stayed where they were, too shocked to understand that Laura had actually thrown Luke out. One of them started to cry, and then another, and another, until almost all of them were wailing.
‘Luke must be hurt, miss!’ said the little Somalian girl. ‘He’s stuck on the fence! We have to go down and save him!’
‘Luke got what he deserved for being disobedient!’ Laura retorted. ‘Now get down from that chair and go and sit down, Bishaaro, and the rest of you – the rest of you – stop that crying! I said, stop it at once!’
‘But Luke is stuck!’ Bishaaro protested. ‘We have to save him!’
‘You want to go down and save him?’ said Laura. ‘All right – you go down and save him!’
With that, she picked up Bishaaro and even though she struggled and kicked, she pushed her out of the window, too. Bishaaro let out a shrill scream and tried to snatch the handle to save herself, but then she dropped straight down, bouncing off Luke’s body and rolling to one side, so that the railing spikes pierced the back of her neck and she hung there, still alive, unable to utter a sound, but thrashing her arms and her legs as if she were swimming the backstroke.
Now the whole class was moaning and crying. Laura stood in front of them and shouted, ‘Shut up! Do you hear me? Stop that appalling racket! If you don’t stop bleating, you’ll all go out of the window!’
The classroom door was thrown open and Gemma Watts came bursting in.
‘What on earth is going on, Miss Miller? Why are all the kids crying?’
‘Mind your own business and get back to your class!’ Laura told her.
But one of the little girls pointed to the open window. ‘Luke and Bishaaro!’ she sobbed. ‘Miss Miller threw them out!’
‘Gemma – I told you to go back to your class!’ Laura repeated, but Gemma went over to the window and looked out.
‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Oh my God, Miss Miller, what have you done?’
‘They were misbehaving! They got what they deserved!’
‘Henry!’ said Gemma, turning to the children. ‘You’re the class monitor! I want you to take everybody downstairs to the dining hall and I want you to tell Miss Lawrence and Miss Clover what’s happened! Go on, everybody, off you go, quick as you can!’
‘You can’t do this,’ said Laura. ‘This is my school and my children. Everybody stay where you are!’
But the children were already hurrying out of the classroom, whimpering in panic, almost tripping over each other to get away. When Laura tried to go towards the door to stop them, Gemma stood in her way. She took her mobile phone out of her cardigan pocket and prodded out 999.
Laura tried to get past her, but Gemma sidestepped and blocked her again.
‘Ambulance,’ she said, into her phone. ‘Ambulance and very quickly, please. St Blandina’s School next to Tooting Bec Common. And police, too, please. Two children have been thrown out of a window and impaled on railings. Yes. I’m going to look at them now but I think they both may be dead. Yes, I’ll stay on the phone.’
Laura stood and watched her without saying a word.
They have no idea, do they, that children need discipline? No wonder the world is in such a mess, with so much violence and so much civil disobedience. People need to be taught right from the beginning to do what they’re told, or suffer the consequences.
Laura sat down at her desk. Behind her on the chalkboard there were pictures that the children had drawn of the animals going two by two into Noah’s ark.
Gemma went to the window. She could see that Susan Lawrence was already outside, along with two passers-by, trying to lift Luke and Bishaaro off the railings. She closed the window and locked it and dropped the key in her pocket.
‘I want you to stay here until the police arrive,’ she told Laura.
Laura smiled and shrugged and said, ‘The police won’t blame her. The police will understand. Children can’t be allowed to run riot. You know that as well as she does.’