The midmorning break passed without too much incident and despite her need for the bathroom Sarah stayed at her desk and pretended to be mulling over a problem in her book. The ten minutes passed slowly as she envisioned the gossip and the revenge being planned. Somehow they blamed her for their lack of success and there’d be a heavy price to pay come lunch break. She heard the giggling and snorts of laughter as they returned and once again buried her head in her book. Not all the girls were like June and her clique, but even those too studious to be in her circle found her fascinating. It was hard not too in a time when their changing bodies and mindset made them uncomfortable within a skin that didn’t fit. June was blessed with clear skin and her confidence in her dealings with the boys from the school next door was awe inspiring.
The second class of the day was English and Sarah groaned when she saw the familiar folder under the teacher’s arm. Mrs Smith was her favourite teacher and embodied everything she imagined as the ideal of womanhood. Married with three young children, she managed to look groomed and relaxed despite her busy lifestyle. She was kind to Sarah and it wasn’t out of pity. She saw something special in the girl and encouraged her by lending her books she thought she’d enjoy. None of the other teachers were aware of Sarah’s home life, but the neglect was obvious in the way she dressed and the tattered appearance of the second-hand books she arrived with at the start of each year. Some were in such a state the pages were held in with tape and it was wondered aloud in the teachers’ lounge if she found them in the rubbish skips behind the school. Some of the students dumped their unwanted books there and careful watching gave them their answer. At the end of each term Sarah stayed behind after school and waited until she was sure no one was about before foraging. They now bought second-hand books on their chosen subject and placed them where they knew she couldn’t fail to find them. There wasn’t one within the teaching staff who didn’t like Sarah and while they did everything they could to make her time in the school happy, there were those who admitted they sometimes were made to feel uneasy by the girl with the sad, haunted look.
“Another success,” Mrs Smith smiled, as she handed her the test results.
Sarah mumbled her thanks and slipped the paper between the pages of her book. Then the sniffing started. Not too obvious at first, but increasing as more and more of the girls joined in. Soon Mrs Smith became aware of it and looked around the room.
“Have you all got colds?” She asked.
“No, Miss,” June answered. “It’s the smell.”
The teacher sniffed the air and appeared puzzled when she couldn’t detect any unfamiliar odour.
“I can’t smell anything,” she said.
“Yes, Miss, it’s like cat pee,” June said. “It’s really bad from back here.”
Mrs Smith walked between the rows of desks sniffing the air.
“Can you get it now, Miss?” June asked.
Sarah felt her cheeks flame as she waited for the answer.
“I’m not sure,” Mrs Smith said. “There’s definitely something unpleasant, but it’s not enough to have you all sniffing like that. Let’s get on with the lesson.”
There were more muted giggles and someone tugged at Sarah’s hair when the teacher’s back was turned. The words on the page blurred as she tried to concentrate and the shame she felt at her favourite teacher’s comment stung. The bullying was done indirectly and none of the teachers were aware of it. She didn’t dare complain as then she’d be known as a snitch as well as the other titles they’d given her.
When the bell sounded for the lunch break she was glad to be free of her prison and hurried to answer to cries of her painful bladder.
Inside the stall, she sat on the toilet and waited for the others to appear. They made the toilets their first port of call as they vied with one another for the mirrors above the sinks. The powdering of nose and slicking of lip gloss was a prelude to meeting the boys from the other school, but today there was no sign of them. The food in the canteen was never an option as they existed on a diet of apples and mineral water. Sarah opened the door and peeped out. Other than the odd straggler washing their hands, there was no sign of her tormentors. The cold water felt good on her skin and she took her time drying her hands on the white roller towel. They were allowed an hour for lunch and what seemed like no time at all to most, was an eternity for Sarah as each minute was filled with unspoken threat.
The corridor was deserted as she made her way back to the classroom and there was none of the teaching staff to question why she wasn’t going outside. The sandwich she’d so carefully packed was squashed and flattened by her books and she fished it out of her satchel not intending to eat it. Picking a piece of dough from the centre of the bread, she put it into her mouth. It felt dry and stuck in her throat when she tried to swallow it. It took some time before it went down into her empty stomach and she didn’t dare risk eating any more. She couldn’t afford bottled water and the water in the drinking fountain tasted of chemicals. At home the water was pumped in from a local well and always tasted cool and refreshing.
“Are you Sarah?” She jumped, when the voice sounded.
A little boy about her brother’s age stood panting in the doorway.
“Yes, why?” She asked.
“Your brother fell over by the skips and he’s cut his knees bad.”
She was out of her seat and running along the corridor leading to the yard. The skips were used by both schools and provided an invisible border. Sometimes there was broken glass and old tins dumped by the catering staff and visions of lockjaw and tetanus shots swam before her as she ran. During lunch break there were no teachers about despite the staffs assurance to parents there was always an adult presence in the yard. So no one saw her running to the end of the school and disappearing around the side. Her lungs ached from the cold air and she was panting when the skips came into sight. There was no sign of her brother, but the towering yellow bulk of the skips could hide him and she moved between them calling his name. There was shuffling from behind one of them as she drew closer and she hadn’t time to react as a hand reached out, grabbed her hair and dragged her behind the skip.
“I want a word with you, bitch” June wrapped her fingers in Sarah waist-length hair and bounced her against the wall.
The shock of her forehead hitting the cold bricks winded her.
“Let me go,” she tried to wrestle free and this made June pull harder on her hair and the pain as some was uprooted made her cry.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” June’s face was so close she could smell the perfume of her lip gloss.
She concentrated on its sparkly redness as she tried to find the words to answer, but no matter what she said she was in trouble.
“Just leave me alone, will you?” Was all she managed to say.
“I’ll leave you alone all right,” June smirked. “When you’re dead.”
This was considered the height of wit by the four other girls surrounding her and they joined in the laughter.
“I’ve done nothing to you,” Sarah winced as the fingers tore at her hair and her forehead stung from the small cuts left by the bricks.
“Fuckin teacher’s pet. Always showing us up and thinking you’re better than the rest of us, but you’re not.”
“Let me go,” Sarah reached up and grabbed the hand holding her hair.
Her efforts were rewarded with a punch in the stomach from one of the girls.
“Stop,” she sobbed, but the blows came thick and fast. One or two got her in the side of the head and the pain roared.
Tired of the game, June released her hold on the hair and Sarah huddled down beside the skip and tried to ward off the blows from the others.
“That’ll teach you to be so stuck up,” she heard June voice from somewhere above her. “Everyone here hates you. You stink up the classroom with your dirty clothes. If I were you I’d kill myself, I really would.”
There was a chorus of “yeah” from the other girls and some delivered a parting kick before walking away. The last thing she heard was June’s snort of disgust as she said.
“I have to wash my hands before meeting the boys. There’s no telling what sort of germs that bitch has, she probably has nits.”
Sarah stayed huddled between the skips until their laughter faded and she was able to stop crying.
There was no way she could go back to class as the teachers would ask too many questions. Although her ordeal seemed to go on forever, only ten minutes passed since she’d left the classroom. She had to retrieve her satchel, but first she’d have to go back to the bathroom. There were some pitying glances from the girls loitering outside the school, but she saw none of them as she kept her head down.
The mirror showed the full extent of her injuries and she bundled toilet paper into a ball and wiped the blood from her forehead. Small holes dotted her skin when the rough cement penetrated and a dark mark was already evident on one side of her face. Her stomach felt bruised and the pain made it difficult for her to breathe. With no brush or comb to ease out the knots in her hair, she raked her fingers through it as gently as she could. She felt at the sore spots where the hair was torn and to her dismay her fingers came away stained with blood. Dabbing her eyes, trying to reduce the puffiness made by her tears, she cleared her throat to dislodge the sobs caught there.
She was shaking from shock as she made her way back to the classroom. The abandoned sandwich mocked her as she loaded her books back in the satchel so she picked it up and dropped it in the bin at the front of the room. School didn’t let out until four-o-clock and she had to wait for Brian or she’d get in trouble with her mother. There was no one about to watch her as she slipped out through the main gates. With no money she couldn’t take refuge in some café to pass the time so instead walked to the park. With over three and a half hours to go, she sat on the frost covered bench and huddled deeper into the neck of her threadbare coat. The pain within her battered body roared again and she wondered how much more of this she could take.