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The English Lesson

winning entry

Christine Harrison

2020 Short Story Competition Winner

The English Lesson

"It took longer than expected - there's no bus out this way you know."
"What did you see on the way Miss? Any blokes working on the roads Miss?"
"You know Miss - any blokes stripped to the waist Miss? Cor Miss"
"I did not pass one single solitary soul on the way," she said. "Sorry" she added. She passed copies of a poem round, handing one to the girl who sat on the radiator, who let it drop through limp fingers to the floor. Another girl, sitting in front, at one used hers to place underneath her nail varnish.
"Would you like to read Sandra?"
"No Miss."
"Um - what about you - Karen isn't it?"
"Carol Miss. No thanks Miss."
"Well I'll read it to you first," she cleared her throat. "Mariana" she said, "by Alfred Lord Tennyson." She began reading the poem and became quite lost in it.
"She only said My life is dreary.
He cometh not, she said;
She said, I am aweary, aweary.
I would that I were dead."
"I wish I was dead Miss" said Sandra.
There was a slight pause.
"Anything else? Any other thoughts? No?"
Only the breath of the asthmatic girl Nicola broke the silence. A freezing fog had begun to darken the room. She crossed the room and switched on the strip lighting. 
"Sod off." The girl who had her head down on her arms angrily turned her face the other way.
"Shall I give the books out now Miss?"
"Thank you, Ruth"
The copies of the Dickens novel were tattered. Maroon covers. Cruickshank illustrations.
"Where were we? Yes. Mrs Quilp. Page thirty-nine. Let's see what happens next."
Only Ruth opened her book, muttering to herself as she turned the pages, 
"That sod Quilp."
"Why d'ya wear your wedding ring on the wrong 'and Miss," - it was the girl who was sitting on the radiator speaking for the first time.
"You divorced Miss?" - the second layer of nail varnish was going on with the utmost care.
She turned the page, "I am a widow," she said, "Would anyone like to read for a bit?"
"You're too young to be a widow Miss."
"A widow Miss!" in awed tones.
"What did he die of Miss?"
"How long you bin a widow Miss?"
"Did you murder 'im Miss?"
"Shut up you," said Ruth.
"Got any kids Miss?"
She closed the book, keeping the place with her finger.
"I have been a widow for nearly two years. My husband died of heart failure following pneumonia. I have a boy of three and a half. His name is Paul. Now shall we make a start?"
"Oo's looking after 'im Miss? Your little boy. Got a photo of 'im Miss?"
She looked at the girls, the expression of deep interest on their querulous faces. 
"When we have read to the end of the chapter," she said, "I will show you a photograph of Paul. Would you like to read Carol?"
"Page missing Miss."
"It's too hard Miss. Great long words. You read it Miss, you read nice."
As she turned the pages, the Cruickshank figures attempted to climb out of them and walk about the room and sit frowning and twitching among the English class.
When she had finished the chapter, she took out a slightly creased photograph of her little boy and passed it to Ruth.
"Be careful," she said, "pass it round carefully." They passed it round with the greatest of care.
"He's lovely Miss. 'Ow can you bear to leave 'im to come to this bloody place?"
"Oo's looking after 'im?"
"My mother" she said.
"Ahhh," they coo'd, I bet she loves 'im Miss. An't you lucky Miss."
"Bring him with you the next time Miss. We'll look after him for you."
"Yes. We'll look after hi while you reads to us."
She smiled at this and put the photograph back in her briefcase. 
"We'll finish with a very short poem," she said. She felt calmer. She handed round the copies she had brought.
"It's not in the syllabus. See what you think of it," she said.
There was a fidgety silence.
Then Ruth, with her blunt vowels read, very slowly, stumbling here and there.
"Will no one say hush to thee
poor lass, poor bit of a wench?
Will never a man say; Come my pigeon,
come and be still wi' me, my own bit of a wench!
And would you peck out his eyes if he did?"
"Did you write that Miss?"
"No. It was written by D.H. Lawrence." She wrote his name on the blackboard. But the girls had all turned their eyes to the door, where a young nun stood, silent, still, immaculate and beautiful.
Ruth flashed dark red, the girl on the radiator slid off.
They shuffled clumsily into line ready to go to their next class. Ruth was last to go.
"Goodbye Miss."
"Goodbye Ruth." She collected the tatty books and cleaned the board. Then following the nun, waited while the door was unlocked for her.
"Next week" she said. "Yes, I'll come."
Once on the road she started to run.
She stopped to rest by an open gate leading into a frosted ploughed field.
Someone had flung a torn shirt over the gate.
It belonged to a young man, tinkering with a tractor. She could see the curve of his backbone as he bent over. Another older man said something.
She turned away.
After she has walked a little way, she hears one of them call out after her - "Want a lift lady?"
She heard them laugh.

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