“You’re late,” Madame McKinnon said for the third time, tugging on the left sleeve of her dress.
She appeared quite content to stay in her armchair. In fact, it appeared to be her favourite pastime – pulling her sleeves and telling people they were late.
“You’re awfully late,” she repeated.
“Yes, Madame, I do apologize, it’s because of the bus, as I said…”
I want to be somewhere else, Marie Bilodeau thought feverishly. She had concocted the stupid story about the bus to avoid telling the simple truth: just before she left the house, violent waves of nausea had knocked her legs from under her, forcing her to lie down, her skin clammy, her stomach churning. Surely even the headmistress of the École Sainte-Marguerite would have understood that, despite her apparent severity. But it was too late now. The words had jumbled in Marie’s mouth and what came out was this unlikely story– that the bus had stopped midway along its route, having run out of gas. (Why not a detour? Marie had wondered ironically, dismally, tangled in the web of her absurd tale.) It was always like this. She could never express her thoughts clearly. Whatever she said, it sounded like lies — her tongue seized up and she babbled uncontrollably.
Finally, the headmistress rose to her feet. She was very tall – next to her, Marie seemed to shrink in size to that of a worried schoolgirl.
“You have been a substitute before, correct?”
“No – I mean… yes, yes.”
Of course she had. And every time, a nameless panic wrenched her insides, as if she might vomit her very soul to the four winds or drop dead from sheer terror. Going to teach a class had the horrible feeling of going to the slaughterhouse. Perhaps it was just the air, heady and thick with schoolish odours: books, ink, blackboards, sweat… or the horrid clacking of heels in the tiled corridors… or all of these things combined, melding into a ghastly replay of her own schooldays, the strict order, those death-black veils… but there were no nuns at Sainte-Marguerite anymore, and the teachers all had the same whiff of virility as Madame McKinnon, who now led Marie up the twisting maze of stairs.
“Do you know Thérèse Dallaire?”
“Well, she’s the one you’ll be replacing. She’s in a bad way, the poor lamb. The School Board is at its wit’s end, what with all these substitutes coming and going…”
Madame McKinnon clutched the banister and squinted sideways at Marie.
“You seem dependable.”
“Yes,” Marie replied, not knowing what else to say.
“Remember, class finishes at three o’clock. With a ‘special’ first-grade group like this, you mustn’t rush things.”
They had reached the fourth floor. Impossible to go any higher; the staircase dwindled and vanished. Before them was nothing but a deserted corridor cut with dazzling bars of sunlight. Crystalline voices drifted from downstairs, disturbing the silence almost with regret; peals of laughter died away as suddenly as they rang out. The headmistress cocked an ear with evident satisfaction, resting her back on the wall for a moment, pulling on her right sleeve.
“It’s a long way up, but at least you’ll be left in peace,” she said, regaining her breath.
“Your classroom is right at the end, on the corner. You’ll see – no one can hear you from there, and you can’t hear anyone else.”
But Marie had stopped listening. The words “special group” were still ringing unpleasantly in her ears, and she looked at the headmistress with rising dread.
“It’s a small class, and they’re very sweet – you’ll see,” Madame McKinnon went on, still tugging her sleeve. “They’re bright, for the most part, but they have emotional or family problems. You know the sort of thing.”
She gave Marie a little pat on the shoulder.
“You’ll enjoy yourself. Mademoiselle Thibeault is with them at the moment, she’ll tell you everything you need to know. Room 424.”
Marie watched as she descended the stairs. Like a large, graceful aeroplane, the headmistress glided from one step to the next, seemingly without touching the ground. Her footsteps were lost in the silence.
Alright, let’s go, Marie said to herself, stepping half-heartedly into the corridor. The problem was, she didn’t like children. She couldn’t stand how brazen they were – it always seemed false – and how they got away with murder. But worst of all (although she didn’t dare admit it) was their unsettling gaze that drove her to distraction, to hatred. Diligently she toughed it out, afraid of becoming a pariah, a gutless coward, a woman despised and struck down by society at large. She consented to substitute for class teachers in kindergartens and primary schools, but because she was utterly incompatible with children, the tension never lessened.
Mademoiselle Thibeault was not in room number 424. Instead, on the desk, a carefully torn-out sheet of paper had been left, looped with curling grey handwriting:
Sorry, I stayed as long as I could. If you need me, I’m in room 420. The class activities are written on the board, and also on the photocopied sheets next to it. Class finishes at 3pm. Good luck.
– Lisette THIBEAULT
The children were seated in a semi-circle behind pale wooden desks which swallowed up their entire bodies; only their hands poked out over the top, and their small bobbing faces, turned silently towards Marie. Surprisingly, they hadn’t taken advantage of the brief lack of supervision to wreak the kind of havoc that Marie would have expected. Right away, she felt her anxiety shrink, to be replaced by an odd sense of gratitude.
“Good afternoon. I’ll be your teacher for today.”
Without a moment’s pause, she began to give out the exercise sheets. The twelve blank faces were raised towards her with calm curiosity, and not one betrayed the slightest reaction as Marie bustled between the desks. These kids are like statues, she thought, not without satisfaction. She found them easiest to deal with that way; frozen, mute, a million miles from the little hooligans she normally encountered.
“You can call me Marie,” she said, almost kindly. “Aren’t you going to say good afternoon to me?”
“Good afternoon, Ma-moi-selle,” twelve little voices chanted in unison.
They had not accepted her awkward gesture of friendship; they had learned to blend themselves into uniformity, maintaining the gulf which separated them from their teacher. Deep down, Marie felt that a great weight had been lifted. These were hardly the free-spirited children of Summerhill School; no vain efforts at classroom democracy were needed here. The centuries-old dominant-subordinate model would do the job. All the same, Marie was rather uncomfortable with the role of dictator. She was always uncomfortable, in fact – but here more than anywhere, among these children who stared back at her, reflecting her own weakness like a fractured mirror.
“Now. We’ll go round the room, and each of you can tell me your name. OK?”
Everything was in place: the syrupy teacher-voice, that pompous and patronizing tone she so despised in others, was now hers – and she owned it, suddenly convinced of the necessity and rightfulness of the part she played.
“The names are written!”
Marie instantly loathed the little red-haired girl who had spoken. Seated in the middle of the semicircle, she looked at Marie with a mean glimmer in her eye and no hint of a smile. Stay calm, Marie thought to herself. The girl wasn’t looking at her. And indeed, each desk displayed a large coloured rectangle, scrawled with letters so big you could read them with your eyes shut: Catherine, Jean, Stéphane, Evelyne, Richard… The red-haired girl was called Françoise.
There was no use in insisting, under her breath, that those coloured rectangles had not been there a moment ago. Marie was losing her cool. Fluid seemed to leak out of her brain from one moment to the next, dissolving into the air, in full view of the pink faces raised towards her.
Stay in control, Marie thought. Her eyes fell somewhat gratefully on a little girl, reassuringly blonde and smaller than the rest, and with no name card in front of her.
“How about you, petal, what’s your name?”
“He’s a boy, and he’s called Benoît,” the red-haired girl answered, as placid as before.
When Marie looked again at the blonde child, the girlishness she had seen was suddenly gone. The shoulders were sturdy, the features were hard, the rigid mask of the face was unmistakably a boy’s. It was the hair that confused me, Marie told herself, leaning heavily on her desk, her heart squeezed tight. Just the hair. She took off the thick glasses that shielded her eyes. Three things she knew with unshakable certainty: when she had arrived, the names were not written on the desks; Benoît had been a little girl a moment ago; and she desperately wanted to go home. No. She didn’t know these things, because none were true – the children kept gazing at her trustingly, waiting for instructions that didn’t come, and Marie, her palms sticky, had simply let her unhealthy imagination run away with her again. But it was over now. Class would resume, and order was restored.
“Look at the sheet I’ve given you. You’ll see that there are blank spaces below the words; copy out each word twice. Does everyone understand?”
They did not understand. She had to repeat the instructions over and over again, until finally the wrinkled confusion was smoothed from the faces before her. She couldn’t help it; irritation and weariness were already seeping into her voice. She wished the children would figure things out for themselves, that they wouldn’t hang on her every word, begging for knowledge that she had no desire to share. And at that moment, she was hit square in the back of the neck by a big yellow eraser that almost knocked her off-balance.
“Who threw that?”
Instinctively she turned to the right, to the red-haired girl – who nevertheless had not moved a muscle, but sat calmly studying her paper, her pencil up her left nostril. Behind Marie, the other children sat, frowning with effort, working their clumsy fingers with slow innocence.
“Who does this belong to?” she demanded, with an anger which took her by surprise.
Hesitantly, the faces were raised, and a hush fell across the classroom. Marie held the eraser – grubby, bitten down at the edges by nervous teeth – between her trembling fingers.
“Is someone going to answer me? Yes or no?”
“Not mine!” said little Philippe, and eleven murmuring voices hurried to agree, “Not mine,
‘moiselle, not mine…” until they were suddenly cut short by a burst of mad laughter from Marie.
There was nothing she could do. She was alone, humiliated, not daring to strike out at random in the blind rage which shook her suddenly, and which common sense demanded that she keep under control.
“Get on with your work.”
Twelve heads bowed back to their desks, and for the next few minutes, the scraping of tightly gripped pencils was all that could be heard… except for the phantom whispers which escaped the pursed lips – Peter Piper picked a peck and Betty bought some butter… such senseless drivel, Marie thought, as she watched a big dozy fly, zig-zagging tirelessly under the fluorescent lights, following a mysterious and arbitrary path known only to itself. Mind-numbing, idiotic phrases, she thought with disdain, and yet she herself was doing nothing to lift the vulnerable first-graders out of their culturally sterile petri dish, where they floundered and drowned in endless pecks of peppers and eeny-meeny-little-lambs – the eternal tripe of childhood wrapped like a miserable bow around life, like a Christmas box with nothing inside, like a big sham, like a piggy-bank full of lead. And yet it was too hard, too much of a gamble, to get involved in a battle already lost, and for what? – for children! – practically sub-humans, whom (cute antics be damned) Marie could never be fond of. Suddenly, she was roused by a strange glittering on the floorboards by the desk. When she got closer, Marie saw shards of glass strewn across the floor like a shattered jewel, and for no good reason, she thought of diamonds. Upon inspection, she realized with an icy twist of the stomach that it was nothing more than her glasses, smashed into a thousand tiny pieces.
“Who did this?”
It was a pointless question, and a little ridiculous, really: the eyes settled on her with unerring serenity, each neck bent in innate respect for the voice of authority. Yet no one answered. Under her glare, no cheek betrayed the hint of a blush. In the painful flood of white noise which now filled her ears, she wondered how it could be that she’d seen nothing, heard nothing, and yet there lay her glasses, in smithereens.
“I said, who did this? Are you trying to tell me that fairies came and broke my glasses?”
Marie had lost control of her own voice, or rather, the trembling rasp which had replaced it. A great surge of fury was gradually creeping over her, and soon it would drown them all.
“Fine,” she croaked, “fine. I shall fetch the headmistress.”
In the silence, Marie made a beeline to the door. She had no doubt that Madame McKinnon, with her stern profile and sharp resolve, would get to the bottom of this in no time. Seventy-five dollars, she thought, as tears of desperation stung her eyes.
She grasped the handle. It turned in the void, and the door stayed shut. This is absurd, she said to herself, and began to wrench with all her might on the handle; when the door still wouldn’t give, she beat more and more desperately on it, kicking it, ramming it with her shoulder, to no avail. The door would not open.
Marie turned around. On the blackboard, enormous chalk letters spelled out:
DIE, MARIE BILODEAU!
The children sat perfectly still, looking at Marie. She was slowly drowning in a pool of terror, her fears from the past gushing back, as if by some premonition she had already lived this nightmare, while other people went about their business far, far away… oblivious, indifferent, Thérèse Dallaire, Lisette Thibeault, Madame McKinnon, mother, MOTHER!
“Who… who wrote this?”
“Wasn’t us,” said Françoise, the little red-haired girl. “We don’t know how to write.”
All together they stood up, and twelve laughing voices rang out in unison, clear as a piercing bell. There, on every shoulder, Marie saw the red armband of the revolution.
Frances Pope is a translator, writer, and poet originally from the UK, living in Montreal since August 2015. She has been translating for two years and writing short fiction and poetry for around ten years, and has had her translations and her own poetry published in magazines and journals. In 2016, she was chosen as the student applicant for Canada for the Banff Centre’s Literary Translation residency. She completed her master’s degree in Translation Studies at Concordia University the following year.