It’s Tuesday 23rd January 2001 and I don’t want to go to school. Today is a different day from the ones that have gone before. Every day since Saturday has been a different day from the ones that have gone before.
I get myself up, and dressed. I eat my breakfast on my own in the kitchen, which is like a waiting room. I delay deliberately so that I can get the later train. No one else from school will be on that train, and I won’t have to explain.
I sit on my own in the train carriage and watch the space of the world move by outside the window. A can rolls across the floor, and there is no one else here.
I get off the train at Tonbridge Station. I remember when I first got the train down here from London with my mum, and my heart sank. She’d told me we were moving to the countryside, but all I saw was concrete and grey.
‘There’s a huge field at your school,’ she’d said.
It’s true, there was. Later the P.E. teacher would yell at me to run faster round that field as the other athletic girls zipped past me.
‘And the sixth former I spoke to says she goes horse-riding instead of doing P.E.’
I never got to go horse-riding. But once I turned blue in the outdoor swimming pool. The substitute teacher was shocked; she said: ‘Oh my goodness! You’d better get out.’
On Tuesday 23rd January 2001, I walked slowly up the hill to school. My legs felt so heavy. I wanted to turn round and get the train back home. But I’d been told to go to school. My father had said: ‘If you don’t go back now, you’ll never want to go back.’
I trusted him. I believed he wouldn’t send me somewhere that wasn’t safe.
I walked through the open gates and up the path until I reached the block that housed my classroom. The short corridor was dark. I could hear Mrs. Rhodes’ voice reading out the register. I took a breath and stepped into the bright classroom.
Mrs. Rhodes looked at me as I walked to my seat. She carried on calling out names.
‘Did you miss the train?’ the girl next to me whispered.
I looked at her. And I realized that Mrs. Rhodes hadn’t told anyone. She hadn’t told anyone that my mother had died two days before, and now I was sitting here as if nothing had happened.
The bell rang and the girls jumped up to grab their books from their lockers. I stayed sitting in my seat. Mrs. Rhodes walked over to me. She looked pained.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t have the chance to tell them,’ she said.
‘Do you want to come outside?’
I followed her out of the classroom into the corridor and I couldn’t help it: I cried. Mrs. Rhodes looked terrified.
‘It’s okay to cry,’ she said.
She walked me to a room in the English block where they kept the spare books and TVs on wheels. It was cluttered and dark.
‘Just wait here,’ she said, and left, shutting the door behind her.
I sat down. I wasn’t crying anymore. I looked out the window and saw the girls in their green jumpers and tartan skirts walking to lessons.
It seemed like a very long time I was sitting there on my own.
Then Mrs. Rhodes came back in with Mrs. Evans – the head of Year nine - and a box of tissues. They sat down in front of me.
I cried again, briefly.
‘There are tissues there,’ said Mrs. Evans, pushing the box towards me.
I looked at Mrs. Rhodes and Mrs. Evans, one looking afraid and the other indifferent. And I realized I had been wrong. My dad had not sent me to a place where I would be safe. I wasn’t safe here at all.
The bell went for the second period.
‘Do you want to go to your next lesson?’ said Mrs. Evans.
What I wanted to do was go home. That was all I wanted: to go home. But I wasn’t allowed. In my teachers’ eyes I saw how inconvenient I had become. I realized that I had entered a different world now. A world where the grown-ups would not protect me. The grown-ups were not safe. I was completely on my own.
So I said: ‘yes’ and went to my Math lesson. And went to all my other lessons that day, and the next. I had Thursday and Friday off school so I could go to see my mother buried on a hillside in Stroud, and then on Monday I went back to school for good.
My mother’s death would be mentioned only once more in the following four and half years at the school. It would be clumsily addressed by the school nurse who asked me who I lived with at home.
‘My dad, my brother and sister,’ I said.
‘What about your mum?’ she said.
‘She died three months ago,’ I said.
‘Do you have friends you can talk to?’ she said. ‘I’m sure you have friends you can talk to.’
I nodded. I went to the loos and cried for a few minutes. The door to outside was wide open, but of course, I walked to my next lesson.
Before I joined Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls, I went to an open day with my mother. We sat in the plastic chairs in the hall as the head teacher, Mrs. Carey, stood above us on the stage. She and Mrs. Evans – who was the deputy head as well as head of Year nine - showed us the school uniform we’d be wearing.
‘We’ve put darts in the summer dresses so they’re fitted,’ said Mrs. Carey, pointing at the tartan sack being modeled by a student.
‘And we looked at all the latest fashions when we designed the wool coats.’
We would later discover that the wool coats gave off a smell of urine when it rained.
‘We’re a big school,’ she said, clasping her hands together, ‘but we treat every one of our girls as an individual.’
Mrs. Carey only spoke to me once during my seven years at her school. It was a hot day in July, and I was seventeen years old. In sixth form we were allowed to wear our own clothes, as long as they were smart, and I was wearing a long skirt and a black tank top.
As I walked towards the hall to morning assembly, I felt the bones of a hand dig into my shoulder. I turned round to see Mrs. Carey, with a face full of fury.
‘What do you think you are wearing?’ she snarled.
The other girls around me stopped to watch.
‘What do you think you’re doing, going to assembly with your shoulders uncovered?’
I had no reply.
‘Go to your form room and put on something to cover yourself this instant.’
I was so obedient. I walked down the stairs, feeling shame twist my stomach. Out of the main doors and across the car park under the white hot sun. The school was deserted; everyone was in the assembly, no doubt being lectured on how badly behaved we all were at the train station. More than once, local residents had written letters to the school complaining about how disheveled we looked or boisterously we behaved.
‘Girls, when you are in your uniform you are representing your school!’
I walked into the empty classroom, the same one I’d walked into on Tuesday 23rdJanuary 2001. I picked up my cardigan that was hanging over the back of my chair. I stood in the quiet.
‘I could just leave,’ I thought. ‘I could just walk out this door, walk down the hill, walk through the gates and head home. I could walk home in the sun.’
I stood there in rebellion for several more minutes. Then I pulled on my cardigan, over the sweat-sheen on my skin. I clenched my shoulders and I pulled myself up into my head, away from the shame and the sadness that spread through my body like dark blood.
I walked back to assembly and caught the end of the Mrs. Carey’s words to us 1000 individuals – ‘…this behavior is just not good enough.’
Ellie Stewart's works of non-fiction and fiction have appeared in print and online in various places including Popshot Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She lives in London, UK, with her partner and will begin studying an MA in Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmith's in September. You can find more of her work at www.alittlefantastic.com, and follow her on Instagram @eleanorstewart and Twitter @EllieAStewart