What happens when bad advice is given at the worst possible time?
From Beauty Tips for Girls
By Margaret Montgomery
Published by Cargo Publishing
3B ENTERED the classroom at the end of the corridor on the third floor of Craigie Academy like a pack of steaming animals. The buffaloes entered first, boys who scraped chairs away from desks as they fought to reach the seats furthest away from the teacher. They bumped each other deliberately, kicked each other on the shins. Their faces shone with a mixture of exhilaration and aggression. Eyes alight, hair wet, spots glowing, they went for the kill and when they had claimed their prize, sat on it as if it was nothing to them. They didn’t want to be here anyway. English was for girls and Miss Ellingham had the contemptible scent of weakness about her.
Next came the hyenas, giggling girls with their arms folded across their recently grown bosoms, hair hanging round their faces in untidy ropes you would never have guessed they had spent hours arranging. They kept their heads down, feigned awareness of no-one except themselves. But the strong scent of perfumes, soaps, deodorants and hair preparations revealed to the watchful Miss Ellingham who stood like a gamekeeper at the edge of the savannah that these were animals on heat, dizzy from the proximity of testosterone, who could tell by instinct alone which boys were sitting where and what they were wearing.
After the hyenas came the gazelles, graceful and long limbed, quivering with nervous beauty. Of these, Katy Clemmy was the last to cross the room, dropping into a seat in front of Miss Ellingham’s desk with a flustered quickness which betrayed her self consciousness. Wide-eyed and watchful, she sat forwards and kept her blazer on, as if anticipating a need to run from danger at any moment.
The gazelles were closely followed by those who had somehow missed the point of evolution. Girls like Madeleine McCutcheon who wore thick glasses, and shoes she allowed a comparatively elderly mother to buy for her from Damart. Boys like Kevin McCarra who excelled at everything but could only talk to himself. These pupils, like the gazelles, deliberately took seats close to the teacher’s desk and pulled out their jotters as if they were hymn books. Then, eyes lowered, they meditated above them, looking as if they expected their teacher to say, “Let us pray.”
“Ink exercises down to the front,” was what, in fact, she did say, and there was the rumble of conversation and another scraping of chairs on the black and white linoleum tiles as the buffaloes slapped their ink exercise jotters down on their desks.
“Pass them down then,” Miss Ellingham said and the buffaloes took the opportunity to slap the hyenas on their backs and necks with the yellow exercise books. Soon the hyenas were giggling and rolling their eyes, attempting to hide their excitement beneath feigned indifference.
Miss Ellingham was by now rolling her eyes too, for among the things she hated most about a job she hated was the sheer juvenility of the pupils. Outside, she observed, it was fine spring day in which cauliflower clouds were coursing across a bright blue sky. The trees that ran round the perimeter of the nearby park looked less black and spidery than they had done a week ago when she had last taken 3B for literature. Craigie, the Godforsaken cultural backwater she had reluctantly taken a job in seven years ago, telling herself it was only for a year (something ‘stable’ that would utilise her ‘talents’, as her mother put it) looked almost picture-postcard pretty.
But time out for reflection was time she could ill afford. Turning her eyes back to the classroom she saw that the jotters had now made their way down to the wounded and gormless.
Madeleine McCutcheon had piled the jotters neatly on top of each other so that they formed an erect skyscraper but somehow a paper airplane had lodged itself in her bushy brown hair without her realising it and the sight of its nose emerging from just above her left ear was causing mirth in the desks behind her. Elise MacDonald who sat behind Kevin McCarra was making a show of dropping the jotters she had collected onto his desk one by one. She threw each from a slightly different angle so that Kevin, whose life would have been much easier if he had simply turned round and collected the jotters as a job lot, jumped nervously at the arrival of every one. Next to him, Katy Clemmy was faring little better. Her elfin face fixed on the window, blue eyes wide with panic, she was pretending not to notice as Billy Neill flicked rolled up balls of paper at her with his ruler from five desks back. As Miss Ellingham could have predicted, the ink exercise jotters were meanwhile lying on her desk in such a higgledy-piggledy fashion that they were starting to fall onto the floor.
“Clemmy’s got big tits,” said a voice that sounded suspiciously like Billy Neill’s. Miss Ellingham felt a sudden burst of pity for the girl just a foot away from her whose delicate face had flushed red and who appeared to be trying hard to fight back tears.
“I’ll just pick those up, will I?” she said, bending down to scoop up the jotters lying at the girl’s feet. But as she gathered them, her fingers running across a film of dirt and dust the cleaners had failed to observe, sympathy turned to confusion. Katy Clemmy, recovered from the embarrassment of Billy Neill’s comment, was watching her, along with most of her classmates. Watching her and, in Billy’s case at least, smirking. “Check that bum.” “Lost a contact, miss?” Miss Ellingham rose to her feet and stared out the window at the web of trees in the distance. All of a sudden she wanted to cry too. But I am too old to cry like Katy Clemmy, she thought, which made her want to cry all the more.
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