Although she was of small stature, when Ms Fellows entered her classroom, every pupil lowered their voice and turned around from their friends to face forwards.
“Good morning, eight jay,” said Ms Fellows, whose voice was not loud, but clear like a bell.
“Good morning, Ms Fellows,” chimed thirty voices varying in maturity, a class on the cusp of adolescence.
Ms Fellows sat down and put the register on her desk and her bag neatly under the table. To her left was her page-a-day cat calendar. As she had done every day for many years now, she lifted the current page and put it to the back of the stack in the clear plastic stand. Today’s picture featured two cats sniffing each other’s noses, one with a pink collar and the other a blue. ‘One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.’ was the accompanying quote by Paulo Coelho. It was the fourteenth of February, Valentine’s Day. Ms Fellows gave away a small smile, her eyes soft. She allowed herself but a moment of indulgence before returning her focus to the group of children.
After taking the register and updating her form on the day’s announcements, she saw them off to their various lessons. She glanced again at the two sweet cats before striding off to teach year nine history.
After lunch, Ms Fellows returned to 8J’s form room once again to take the register. The children were silent as she sat down, and their voices low as they wished her a good afternoon. Ms Fellows could sense something in the collective mood of the class, but it was only as she opened the register that she noticed something strange. All the pages from her calendar were gone, except for today’s. Her usual response to a prank like this was to address the matter immediately, give the guilty culprit an opportunity to own up and launch an investigation if no child came forwards. She had her methods, and they were effective. So much so, that it was rare for a child to even attempt any misbehaviour in Ms Fellows’ classroom.
But Ms Fellows did nothing but take the register as normal, the children dutifully answering “yes” when they heard their name. Her voice didn’t waver, neither did she tense forward or slouch in resignation. The children were silent, and she told them to use the remaining five minutes of form time for reading. Many had not brought in a book, so simply sat flicking idly through their exercise books, glancing regularly at the clock. Ms Fellows observed the children, with an uncomfortable feeling that actually she hardly knew these strange young creatures at all.
There was Benjamin White – she had heard many complaints from other teachers about his disruptive and clownish behaviour. She looked at his round, pink face and blonde, curly locks and knew that Benjamin could not have taken her pictures. He was spontaneous and silly; this was a deliberate and personal act of vengeance.
Then there was Jessica Sweet – unlike her name, she was known to delight in excluding children from her friendship group; children who she seemed to adore one day would find themselves victim to her rejection the next. But what could Jessica Sweet have against her?
For the most part, the children in 8J were well-behaved and sweet natured. Ms Fellows had been lucky not to have had many problems with them at all for the year and a half she had been their form teacher. In fact, she was the envy of the other year eight form teachers for having such an obedient class.
Ms Fellows had year thirteen history after lunch, which was, as secondary school teaching goes, an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. This small group of young people were actually in the class by choice, and had their own opinions and sometimes insightful commentary into events of the past. She wrote ‘Winston Churchill’s role in WW2’ in blue ink on the whiteboard, circled it, and turned to face her small class of 15.
“Joe, Billy, what’s so fascinating outside, please?”
“Err, there’s loads of paper on the field Ms Fellows.”
“Paper?! There’s no need to stare at paper. Pay attention, both of you.”
It was some minutes later, when the students were engaged in a pair work activity, that Ms Fellows looked up from her desk sharply. She got up and walked to the pair of students closest to her, listening to them for 30 seconds or so before moving on and working her way around to the back of the classroom. There she stayed, with the winter sun casting shadows on her thin, sculpted face. Her long, pleated skirt and white shirt hung well on her narrow frame, and only a few streaks of grey ran through her neat, honey coloured hair. She stood stoically as she looked onto the field where her cat pictures lay scattered, and it was as if everything that was good and simple lay in ruins. But no lump rose in her throat and no tears welled in her eyes; she remained perfectly still, her arms folded tightly across her chest.
At the end of the day, after spending over an hour in the staffroom with a cup of tea and some marking, Ms Fellows walked along the corridor past the nurse’s room and the P.E. changing rooms and headed outside. She hurriedly turned the corner and walked along the path to the part of the field where she had seen her abandoned pictures. As she walked onto the grass, at first it seemed that the pictures had all gone. She stopped still and turned around on the spot, her honey hair blowing in the wind. She saw no pictures at all but walked further into the field until she was quite far from the path. If anyone had seen her, they would have thought, ‘What an earth is Ms Fellows doing in the middle of the school field looking completely lost?’
Soon enough, she saw something rustling in the grass ahead. She rushed over and crouched down to pick up the square piece of paper. On the front was Monday 3rd June’s cat, a longhair amongst long grass, and on the back, Friday 2nd August’s cat was white and wide-eyed. Still in a crouched position, Ms Fellows looked around some more and saw another picture a few metres away. She went over to it and found Friday 15th November’s cat playing a piano key. On the back was Saturday 16th February’s cat deep in snow. Now she could see more scattered pictures in the distance. She put her free hand to her chest and breathed heavily, gripping her coat tightly. In her other hand she held the two pages she had collected. She turned around, screwing the pages into a tight ball before marching off the field to the staff car park.
Back at home, Ms Fellows busied herself in preparation for the arrival of her guest, Alice Jackson, a woman a few years her senior who she had met at a bereavement support group.
Last Valentine’s Day had been the first she had spent alone, and the pain was still too raw for her to mark the occasion in any way other than with several gin and tonics. But this year, with the passing of time inevitably starting to dull her grief, she had invited Alice round in a rare moment of spontaneity.
She had bought the bottle of rioja and the steak, potatoes, onion and green beans. She had bought the chocolate eclairs. All she needed to do was find the CD. She looked in the obvious place, the CD rack, but it wasn’t there. She looked in the cupboard of stationery and other miscellaneous items, she looked in the bookcase; she even went out to the car to look in the glove compartment.
When her guest arrived, the steaks were oiled and seasoned and the potatoes were boiling gently. After hanging Alice’s coat and leading her to the kitchen at the back of the house, Ms Fellows poured two glasses of rioja. Alice raised her eyebrows but accepted the glass.
“How do you like your steak, Alice?”
“Oh, medium-well will be fine, thanks.”
Ms Fellows busied herself with the meal preparations while Alice sat at the edge of her chair and sipped her rioja.
“Thanks for inviting me over.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I thought we could both use some company on a day like today.”
“Very thoughtful of you,” said Alice, wistfully.
Ms Fellows put the steaks in the hot griddle pan and they began to sizzle. She stood over them, not taking her eyes off them while she poked at the potatoes and stirred the onion gravy.
“Steak and red wine on Valentine’s Day was a tradition of ours,” said Ms Fellows, finally turning around to face her guest. Alice looked away momentarily before forcing a small smile.
“We had a romantic classical music CD we always listened to,” she continued. “But I can’t find it. Do you like classical music?”
“Oh yes. Roddy and I saw the Vienna Philharmonic for my 40th, it was wonderful.”
“How lovely! I wish I could find that CD.”
Alice looked down and then took a sip of wine. Ms Fellows turned her attention back to the steaks, which were still sizzling and spitting tiny drops of oil all over the hob. She lifted one up partially with tongs to check the colour before flipping both steaks over and continuing to stare at them.
“Martin used to do most of the cooking, so you’ll have to excuse me, I’m a bit of a novice at cooking steak.”
“I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”
Ms Fellows half picked up one of the steaks with the tongs again and decided to flip them over one more time. After a couple more minutes she took them out of the pan to rest and finished the final preparations of the meal – mashing the potatoes and draining the green beans. When the pair came to eat their meal, Alice’s knife went back and forth through the steak many times before she succeeded in tearing away a dark sliver of meat.
“I’m afraid you’ve ended up with well-done rather than medium-well,” sighed Ms Fellows.
Alice’s mouth was full and she shook her head vigorously as her face flushed. The two women ate in silence and sipped their wine slowly.
“It’s delicious,” said Alice.
“Thanks. Martin would have done it better, though.”
Knives scraped plates, mouths sipped wine and teeth chewed tough steak. The clock ticked loudly above them. Ms Fellows thought desperately of the sweet sounds of an orchestra and the deep, gentle voice of her husband.
“A strange thing happened to me today.”
“Oh?” Alice looked at Ms Fellows, her right hand halfway between her plate and her mouth.
“Yes, it was strange. Someone in my form group stole all the pages from my calendar and threw them out onto the sports field.”
Alice stared at Ms Fellows bug-eyed, mouth slightly open.
“It was one of those page-a-day calendars, you know? It had a different cat every day. Martin used to buy them for me because he felt bad we couldn’t have a cat. He was allergic.”
“I kept buying them after he died. I quite liked them.”
“Anyway, I just don’t understand why someone did it. Threw them all over the field. I don’t see the point to it.”
Alice stared at Ms Fellows with a knitted brow, biting her lip. Finally, she mumbled something about kids and their silly pranks.
“I don’t know, Alice, I feel so out of touch with the children these days.”
Showing tenderness for the first time that evening, Alice touched her companion’s arm and told her how long it can take to fully feel yourself again. Ms Fellows smiled, then cleared the plates and took the eclairs out of the fridge.
Alice didn’t stay long after dessert, claiming to need to get ready for work the next day. After exchanging pleasantries at the door, Ms Fellows headed back to the kitchen to put the plates and cutlery in the dishwasher and wipe down the worksurfaces. She sat at the kitchen table with half a glass of rioja and wondered what Martin had done with that CD. Instinctively, she got up and walked to the CD player in the living room and opened the top. There was the CD. And in the small gap between the CD player and the wall, pushed back a little, was the case. She turned the CD player on, pressed play and sank back on the cream sofa, absorbing the sound of Debussy’s Clair De Lune. She closed her eyes as the sweet, sad piano notes filled the room, her every pore on fire, his presence ever close by.
The next day, Ms Fellows entered 8J’s form room, her head held high. She sat down and looked at the plastic container with its one lonely page. Then she looked at the thirty young faces in front of her and sighed.
“Good morning, class. I’m afraid to say that something was stolen from me yesterday. I haven’t reported it to Mr Yates yet but I won’t have a choice if no-one owns up. If someone does own up, today, I won’t report it this time. You can tell me at the end of form time or you can write me a note.”
She looked around the classroom and not one young person was looking back at her. They’re all in on it, she thought.
“Now you all know that stealing is wrong, but in this case, there was more to it. This person not only stole something, but they also destroyed it. I want you to think about how you would feel if that happened to you.”
Ms Fellows could feel herself going red and her hands starting to tremble. She looked around the classroom at the children she had thought she knew, and could not see an innocent face amongst them. As she scanned the room from left to right, one girl lifted her head and looked Ms Fellows straight in the eye for a mere second. Her face was contorted into a mix of shame and fury that gave Ms Fellows a terrible sense of déjà vu. In an instant the girl, Carly Wright, lowered her head again.
Images flashed into Ms Fellows’ mind: a collection of stills that when lined up together painted a picture that was obvious and terrible. It was that same look on Carly’s face when Ms Fellows had told her off in front of the whole form for being late to school. When she had taken Carly to one side after history class and told her to ask her mum to sew up the hole in her jumper. And it was when, just last weekend, she had seen Carly in town with her parents, who were both too busy shouting at each other to notice her, or their daughter, at all.
Ms Fellows gripped her desk to steady herself as her ears started to ring and nausea rose in her chest. She felt as though she’d been jolted right out of her seat, and was looking sideways at this strange woman who was a faulty replica of her true self. She had absolutely failed to notice that Carly was suffering at home. She had missed the most obvious signs of neglect; she was just another adult that didn’t notice Carly at all.
Ms Fellows had always been strict throughout her long teaching career, but she had always been fair. She had been both intuitive and observant when it came to her pupils, and perhaps because of this, she had been respected. And now, she thought, she was such a figure of hate that someone, most certainly Carly, had taken and destroyed the only personal item she kept at school. How she despised herself in that moment. The come-down from the nausea was making her shiver so she clenched her fists and closed her eyes before forcing herself back to reality and the necessity to take the register. After she dismissed the class, two girls hung back sheepishly and came up to her desk.
“What is it, girls?” Ms Fellows brushed some strands of hair from her face.
The pair looked at each other and the smaller girl, Amy, swung her rucksack around and unzipped it. She reached inside and took out a stack of cat pictures.
“We collected these for you. They were on the field,” said Amy, holding out the stack.
“There might be a few missing, and some are a bit creased,” said the taller girl, Millie.
Ms Fellows stared at the girls without blinking. The girls stared back, Amy with her hands still outstretched, holding the pictures.
“Ms Fellows, we felt bad that someone had done it. We thought we’d try and gather them up. It wasn’t us who stole them, we promise,” said Millie, timidly.
“I don’t want them back, girls. You can throw them away.”
The girls stood still for a few seconds before Amy retracted her hands and put the stack of pictures back in her rucksack. They walked towards the classroom door, heads low. Just as they were about to open the door, Ms Fellows called out, “thanks for picking them up though, girls. You did the right thing.”
The girls turned around, all smiles.
“That’s OK, Ms Fellows. I liked your calendar,” said Amy.
“Thank you. I liked it too.”
Ms Fellow paused and the girls hovered at the door.
“Do you know who did it, girls? You won’t be in trouble.” She looked at them, expectantly.
“No, sorry,” they said in unison.
But Ms Fellows knew exactly who had taken her pictures and what she had to do now.
Naomi Alder is a writer living in Nottingham, UK. She works in communications and marketing for the not-for-profit and public sectors and is starting an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham. She has always loved books and stories and is a keen cook and traveller.