Leanne is barely three minutes late today and still Mrs. Baker raises her eyebrows and looks at the clock. Since the beginning of Year Nine, Mrs. Baker has taken it upon herself to count the minutes and seconds Leanne is late. She once made a joke about calling a representative from the Guinness Book of Records to see if they fancied a trip to a run-of-the-mill state school in Yorkshire. Whenever Leanne comes back after missing a few days, Mrs. Baker states: “Four minutes, but at least you’ve actually turned up!” And the girls who sit without fail at the front of the class snigger into their little hands.
As she takes her seat, Leanne wonders whether Mrs. Baker gets some weird kick out of being so precise, if she relishes shining spotlights on others’ mistakes. Does it give her a tiny thrill somewhere in her saggy, supermarket-clothed body? Leanne feels sorry for Mrs Baker’s kids, if she has any.
One of the girls at the front glances over, but Leanne catches her eye and her face falls. Leanne is aware that some people are afraid of her. Sometimes she is glad of it and sometimes she isn’t. It is a life-raft in a storm, but a stone in calm water. She used to be friends with some of the girls at the front, before their differences pushed them into more obvious groups.
Leanne slots in now between Chloe and Jack in the back row, although she wants, desperately, in some core part of her, to succeed. When they tip their chairs back onto two legs, pass around notes or laugh loudly, she joins in for a few minutes, but then tries to concentrate again, frowning at the teacher, at the board, at the book in front of her. It is the way out of everywhere and everything, education; she really believes that. She has frowned so much that already at fifteen she has a permanent line between her eyebrows from the tension in her face.
When the bell rings after registration, Mrs. Baker beckons Leanne over to her desk in the corner. Leanne watches the rest of the class leave. A few girls look over, and Leanne imagines that she will be all they talk about all day, because their own lives are so fucking dull.
“You’ve been late a lot, Leanne, and worse, your attendance has been terrible recently,” Mrs. Baker says, running her finger along the register at the red crosses by Leanne’s name. “What’s been going on?”
“Nothing.” Leanne smoothes her hair back.
The searching look on Mrs. Baker’s face, as though she actually cares about her, is too much. Leanne looks out the window. “I’m just late. And sometimes I’m ill or whatever.”
“You’ve got potential, Leanne, and that’s what saddens me. Don’t be your own obstacle.”
The look again, on her face. Leanne isn’t sure what to say.
“If something’s going on, you can tell me,” Mrs Baker says.
Leanne shakes her head.
“You know; if you don’t get your attendance up, your mum might have to pay a fine, go to court even.”
Tears push up behind Leanne’s eyes and she blinks them back. Sometimes she imagines that underneath her skin there is just water; no organs, bones, veins or arteries, just water. And the skin’s job is to hold all that water in and never let it escape.
Mrs. Baker sighs. “I’ll see you in Science.”
Science is the last class of the day. Leanne wishes she could just go home. She turns on her phone. No new messages. She slides it back into her bag.
Leanne sits next to Kyle. She is surprised that Mrs Baker hasn’t split them up yet, considering how loud Kyle is. Teachers always blame the person next to the loud person, too. They think no one can talk to themselves. But Kyle doesn’t care who listens and who doesn’t. He is both entertainer and audience. If anyone else pays attention to him, that’s a bonus. Leanne and Kyle live on the same street and have known each other since primary school. Although both fifteen, Leanne looks like a young woman, whereas Kyle has a lanky frame, acne along his hairline and an up-and-down voice.
“Baker wants to ring my mum about me missing school,” Leanne says when she sits down. “Who’s she think she is?”
“Can’t do that,” Kyle says.
“Well she fucking thinks she can,” Leanne says, louder than she intended to.
“Swear again and you’re out, Leanne,” Mrs Baker says from the front of the class.
“Fuck’s sake,” Leanne mutters under her breath, but Mrs Baker doesn’t hear. She can’t escape her on Thursdays: first form period, then double Science.
Mrs Baker has clearly always been a front-of-the-class girl. There is something annoyingly prim about her. Her body is straight and rigid. Although she can’t be more than forty-five, she dresses like a seventy-year-old on her way to church. Leanne wonders if she isn’t getting laid. That’s what people say about women like her.
Leanne has only had sex once, with a boy she went out with for a few weeks, and it was awkward and like being pumped. She told Chloe, who was embarrassed about still being a virgin, that the feeling was like pushing out and sucking in a shit but from a different hole. She imagined it would get better, otherwise what was all the fuss about? The boy, Liam, broke up with her soon afterwards, and spread a rumour around the kids on the estate that she didn’t move during sex, just lay there like a plastic doll. The truth was she didn’t feel any connection to him at all; she just didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. Afterwards she was expecting to see tiny drops of blood in her knickers, but there were none.
The topic of the Science lesson is the kidney. What a kidney is, what it looks like, what it does. Leanne likes Science. It makes more sense to learn about Science than it does algebra or classical music. Science is the actual world. Leanne copies Mrs Baker’s notes into her book. She draws two bean-like circles, an artery and a vein, and labels them. She writes: “Kidneys regulate the amount of water in your body.” Next to her, Kyle makes tiny paper airplanes and every time Mrs. Baker turns to write on the board, throws them in different directions. Most end up on the floor, a metre from his feet.
Half-way through the lesson, Leanne hears her phone buzz. She is sure she kept it on silent. She rummages in her bag to turn it off. By the time she looks up, the class has stopped. Mrs Baker is walking towards her.
“I’ll take that,” she says, holding out her hand.
“I need it,” Leanne says.
“You know the rules.”
Leanne reluctantly hands over her phone. She sees the missed call on the screen: ‘Home’. She watches as Mrs Baker turns the phone off and puts it on her desk.
Leanne wants a cigarette. That would calm her down, at least for a while. She feels hot and begins to sweat underneath her itchy jumper. She pulls at the collar of her shirt. She tries to concentrate on the rest of the lesson, but her mind keeps darting to her phone. She stares at the jumble of words that Mrs Baker has written on the board. “Kidneys maintain homeostasis,” she writes, eventually.
A phone rings. Half the class look at Leanne. “Well, it’s not mine, is it?” she says. They turn their heads back to the front. The buzzing is coming from Mrs Baker’s handbag.
Once again, as the class leaves, Leanne has to hang about like a lemming. Mrs Baker puts up her finger as if to say, one minute, and takes out her own phone to make a call. Leanne leans against a desk at the front. She looks at the posters on the classroom wall, crap ones made by eager Year Sevens. Back in the day, one of those would have been hers.
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” Mrs Baker says. “Congratulations! We’re going to have to celebrate tonight! I’ll see you this evening.”
Leanne feels like an idiot, waiting. She wonders if Mrs Baker has completely forgotten about her and her phone. She doesn’t want to miss the bus.
“My daughter’s got into Oxford University. Oxford University!” Mrs Baker says. “Got the letter today. Couldn’t be prouder.” She comes over to Leanne and looks into her eyes. “Just proves you should always aim high. Remember that.” Leanne feels a sudden warmth envelop her; she wants to look away but can’t. When Mrs Baker gives her back her phone, their fingers touch briefly and Leanne wishes she could hold her hand. Mrs. Baker smiles. “See you tomorrow, then.” She heads towards the door and then turns back. “On time.”
So, she has a daughter.
On the bus on the way home, Leanne can feel the water press behind her eyes. When she unlocks her front door, she runs in to see her mum lying on the sofa in her pyjamas and dressing gown, her face pink and blotchy. “Hi love,” her mum says. The room is cold. The TV blasts out adverts. Leanne looks around but sees no bottles.
“It’s been a bad day,” her mum says. “But I didn’t try anything, I promise. I’ll never do that to you again. I won’t. I’m just so sorry you have to see me like this. I’m so sorry. I tried to call –”
“Ssshh,” Leanne says, kissing her on the forehead. “It’s OK.”
Leanne crouches down beside her mother and strokes her hair. “Mrs. Baker daughter’s going to Oxford University, Mum. Can you imagine?”
Her mum says something she can’t make out and closes her eyes.
Leanne sits on the floor and curls her body in on itself, her legs tucked into her chest. The tears flow then, all the water inside, pouring out, down her face, onto her neck, her chest. She lets herself soften, lets her body restore some kind of balance until the morning, when the hardness will cover her again.
Rebecca Lawn is a freelance writer and editor based in Cardiff. She has had short stories published in The Lonely Crowd, Litro and Cheval, among others. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University.