No one is harder to empathise with than people who claim to love school. I hate it here. I stare out of the window, while Mrs. Waugh drones on about… something. It’s a beautiful day and the sun glints blindingly off the waves on the sea. I would love to go for a swim, but the beach is off limits.
“Miss Webb, can you repeat the last word I said?”
“Said,” I say.
“Sometimes I think you enjoy provoking me,” says Mrs. Waugh.
Jack, sitting next to me, mouths the words along with her, unconsciously. He’s working out his latest plan on paper. There’s a timeline along the top edge of the page, and it’s cross-referenced with a detailed map of the school below it. I don’t think anyone has ever put so much effort as he has into escaping.
“Mr. Moxley, would you mind telling me what you’re doing?”
“Science project,” Jack says, not even looking up at the teacher.
“And should you be doing your science homework in history class?”
“No, Mrs. Waugh,” he says, but continues sketching the outline of a streetlamp.
Mrs. Waugh sighs and back away. It’s typical that she would let Jack do whatever he wants. I notice that she has a limp – did she have that this morning?
The class resumes. No one is paying attention. Agnes is practicing picking a lock under the table, Joe is reading a comic book, and Hilary is embroidering a handkerchief. There’s a hole in Jack’s jumper, at the elbow. I inspect it sidelong, considering how I would mend it. “Make do and mend.” That was the motto during the war. Darning won’t do for this hole, though, no matter how carefully I catch the stitches. The yarn has worn too thin and I’ll have to put a patch on it, sewing around the tear in a wide circle to keep it from unravelling.
After history there’s mathematics. No hope of seeing Jack there – I’m in the dumb class. Then after that there’s geography, and then music. In the evening, when I get back after detention, there’s a pow-wow in the dorm room I share with Judith. She, Jack, and Imogen are sitting on the floor, inspecting the plans that Jack had been working on during Mrs. Waugh’s class. They all start guiltily when I enter, and Judith throws a blanket over the papers, then sighs and pulls it away when she sees it’s me.
“Hey,” I say. “Are you going over your escape plans?”
Jack laughs. “Yeah.”
“How was detention?” asks Imogen.
I know she’s trying to show me up in front of Jack, but she’s wasting her time.
“Great,” I say. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“How do you still get detention when your mum’s on the school board?” she asks.
“Equal opportunities,” I say.
Jack laughs again, which cheers me up. I climb up to my bunk, tuck my legs in so no one can see up my skirt, and sit looking down at the three of them.
“So what’s the plan?” I ask.
“It’s secret,” says Imogen. “So we’d appreciate it if you don’t mention it to anyone. Especially Hilary’s lot.”
“My lips are sealed,” I assure her.
“Basically, we’re going to completely cut off the lights through the forest, because no one should be walking through there after dark anyway-”
“And if they are, they probably don’t want to be seen,” says Judy. Is it my imagination, or does she wink at Jack?
“Yeah,” continues Imogen. She points at the plans as she explains the rest. “Then this section will be scheduled to be lit only during outdoor activity times, this section we’ll wire all alternate lights separately, and for the floodlights… we’re trying to figure that out right now.”
“So what’s the perfect time to escape?”
“Umm… I don’t know, after the teachers retire?”
“It doesn’t sound like you’ve worked anything out,” I say.
“I’m pretty sure Mr. Compton is more interested in the efficiency of the system than the potential for truancy,” say Imogen, at her snootiest.
It finally dawns on me that they really are working on a science project, and not an escape plan. I’m deeply disappointed. “What’s your project for, again?” I ask.
Imogen throws up her hands.
“We’re trying to find a more efficient way to wire the lamps around the school grounds,” says Judy.
“Aaand, why would you need to rewire them?” I ask.
“In case of a power shortage,” says Imogen. “But Mr. Compton suggested the project, so Hilary’s lot also jumped at it, and Mr. Compton thought it would be a great idea if our groups competed. That’s why it’s important that you tell no one.”
“Tru… who’s in your group?” asks Judy.
“I work alone.”
“It’s supposed to be a group project,” says Imogen. “Teamwork is one of the grading criteria.”
I shrug. “Who cares about grades, anyway?”
Three pairs of eyes turn towards me. They’re silent, but their expressions say it all. Are you insane?
It occurs to me that they all actually believe that getting good grades will earn them a good job, or the love of their parents or something. My parents couldn’t wait to dump me in boarding school, and they haven’t been to visit since. Grades have nothing to do with it.
“Do you at least have a project?” asks Imogen.
“Sure,” I say. “I’m going to plan my escape. The irony is, I won’t be here to present it.”
“Well, I look forward to reading your report,” says Imogen. Apparently, she can be witty too.
“Let’s get to work, or we’re never going to finish in time,” says Judy.
They start debating the finer points of electrical wiring, but I can’t follow the first thing they say. I lay down on my bunk and wonder whether I should hand in a science project after all. I’ve always daydreamed about escaping, but now I think that a methodical approach could actually work. If only Jack would help me.
I must have fallen asleep pretty fast, because when I wake up – still in my uniform – I can’t remember having figured out a single detail of my escape plan. I ask Judy if they’re going to get together to discuss the project again, but she says no, they have to study for the history test.
“There’s a history test? Mrs. Waugh didn’t mention it.”
“Yes, she did, Tru. Twice.”
That evening, Jack comes over to our room again to study. Judy insists that I join them, and I’m not sure if it’s because she knows I like Jack, or if she just needs a third person to quiz them on the flash cards.
“Jack has the syllabus,” says Judith. “And I have the textbook marked up for each topic.”
“You have the syllabus? How did you get that?” I ask, taking the sheet from him.
“I asked Mrs. Waugh for it, of course.”
“But they’re not allowed to hand them out to students, are they?”
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know. I thought they were secret or something.”
Jack shakes his head, more out of disbelief than disagreement.
How do I keep saying such stupid things? I look over the syllabus, trying to hide my embarrassment.
“Why do we have to learn how gas masks work, anyway? I thought school was supposed to prepare us for real life,” says Judith.
Jack looks at each of us in turn. “If I tell you something, will you promise to keep it a secret?”
“I’ve been studying the syllabi from the past few years, since the start of the war,” he says. “Most of the core stuff stays the same, but every year they add a bit more about survival. See, four years ago they added a lesson on foraging, then the next semestre a whole week on harmful chemicals, then water purification, rationing, building shelters, repairing gas masks, mending clothes…”
“What are you saying?” asks Judy.
“He’s saying that the teachers have been preparing us for the aftermath of chemical warfare,” I say.
“Oh my god,” says Judith. “Do you mean the world is going to be destroyed? Are we really all going to have to wear gas masks all the time and wear hideous clothes and have to sleep in hammocks?”
“It’s probably just a worst-case-scenario,” says Jack.
“Oh my god, what if it’s already started?” asks Judy. “What if the world outside is being destroyed and we have no idea? Maybe that’s why the ferries stopped.”
“Wait, the ferries stopped?” I ask.
Judith rolls her eyes.
“How are you not aware of anything?” asks Jack. “At first they said it was the weather, then repairs, but it’s been months.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “I remember now.” That must be why my parents couldn’t visit. I hope they’re OK, but I’m sure they will be. They always know how to take care of themselves.
“And see, this year they’ve added a lesson on the history of chemical production.” Jack points. “That wasn’t there before.”
The thought of a war tearing up the world outside is terrifyingly at odds with the cosy camaraderie I feel studying with Jack and Judy. Jack is so close that every so often our hands or feet touch, and each time a pleasant little electric shock courses through me. Lights out comes too soon.
The next day I don’t have history, or any hope of seeing Jack. I wish I’d asked him if he wanted me to mend his jumper, so I could have an excuse to to see him when I returned it. I’m prepared for a boring day of classes, unalleviated by the promise of an hour spent in close proximity to Jack, but to my surprise he comes up to talk to me during break.
“Hey, Trudy. Umm… this might sound very inappropriate and forward of me, but I couldn’t help hearing the other night that your mum’s on the school board. Is that right?”
The sentence that had started out so promising disintegrates like the waves on the sand. I swallow, and nod.
“I was hoping you could put in a word for me. The prefect exams are coming up, and I’d really like to pass and become a teacher.”
“You can’t become a teacher!” I say, horrified.
“You… you’re too good to be a teacher.” I almost say “too good-looking”.
“I’m not sure what you mean by that, but it’s what I want,” he says.
“But… you’ll have to be chipped. You won’t be you anymore.”
“It isn’t that serious. You’ve seen our teachers. They’re nice, aren’t they?”
“No, they’re not! And I thought you wanted to escape as much as I did.”
“No, I want to stay,” he says, looking confused. “Look, if you don’t want to talk to your mum, I understand. I know it was a long shot. It’s just… I don’t have the influence or resources that some of the other applicants have.”
Of course not. There are students who come from wealthy, influential families and can easily buy their way in. And Jack’s still wearing a torn jumper. I touch the elbow, and feel an overwhelming tenderness towards him. He works so hard.
“I can mend that for you,” I say. “And if you help me with my science project, I’ll talk to my mum about your application.”
“Thank you,” he says, shaking my hand.
Not exactly what I had in mind, but I still thrill at the feeling of his hand in mine.
“What’s your science project?” he asks.
His face falls. “No way. I’m not helping you escape. Are you mad? There could be a war going on outside. Didn’t you hear what I said yesterday?”
“I did. And you also said that the ferries weren’t running. How do you expect me to talk to my mum if I can’t see her?”
“Won’t she attend the board meeting this weekend?”
“She never attends any meeting,” I lie.
He considers. “No, no way. I want to be a teacher. What kind of teacher would help a student escape school?”
“A really good, kind-hearted one who wanted the best for his pupils,” I say, sweetly.
He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Trudy. Ask me for something else. I can’t help you with that.”
I sigh. “Jack. I didn’t want to do this, but you leave me no option. If you don’t help me with my science project, then I’ll let Hilary know about yours.”
“No! You wouldn’t do that. That’s blackmail.”
“That’s just part of the plan,” I say. I should feel awful, but behaving badly isn’t something new for me.
He gazes into the distance, thinking. He probably hates me now, but after a few moments he says, “alright. I’ll help you.”
“Tonight,” he says decisively. Mr. Compton is going to show us the control switches for the streetlamps. I’ll try and make sure the courtyard and forest stay off.”
I hadn’t expected it to be so soon. I thought he’d prevaricate and delay. But this is what I wanted. “I’ll be ready. And… take off that jumper.”
Back in my dorm room I cut up a brand new school skirt – it’s not as if I’m going to be needing it now – and round off two pieces of fabric into patches. Then I sew them with more care and patience than I’ve ever taken over anything, onto the elbows of Jack’s jumper. When Judith leaves to take a shower, I hug the jumper and take long, deep breaths of Jack’s scent. I’ve never loved anyone like I love him, and I’m doing my utmost to leave him behind. What’s wrong with me?
I meet Jack around one in the morning, by the servants’ staircase. He looks miserable, but his expression softens a little when I hand him the mended jumper.
“Thanks. Where’s your bag?”
“Your bag full of your things, and provisions.”
“Oh, I don’t need anything. I have some chocolate buttons in my pocket. Want one?”
He shakes his head, and I feel like he’s trying to hide a smile. “I took care of the lights,” he says. “And I brought a flashlight, because I didn’t think you would think of it.”
“But I don’t know how we can get out into the courtyard without being seen by the porter.”
“We take the laundry lift, of course. I can’t believe you don’t know that.”
It feels good to be able to teach Jack Moxley something.
We wheel each other down. The lift squeaks, but the porter doesn’t come to investigate. Jack keeps the flashlight off until we reach the woods, then he flicks it on when we’re out of sight of the main school building.
“Where are we going?” I ask, belatedly.
“I’m going to take a boat?”
“Yeah, how else would you get away?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t think about it.”
We walk on in silence for a while. I wish this could be my life. Just walking around the woods in the dark with the boy I’m in love with.
“Tru, why do you hate it here so much?” he asks, as we’re nearing the boathouse.
I like how he calls me “Tru”. “I just hate being told what to do,” I say.
“If you hate that, you’re not going to enjoy married life much.”
“Who says I’m going to get married?”
“I don’t know. I just thought, since you don’t care about grades or going to university, or getting a job, you’d want to settle down to domestic life.”
“Well, you’re wrong. I don’t.”
“Then what do you plan to do when you escape school?”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t that scare you, not knowing?”
“Doesn’t becoming a teacher scare you?”
“Of course not. I like the idea of knowing that I can stay at school. I love it here, far from the madding crowd. Whatever’s going on in the world outside can’t touch us here. I think you’re very brave to be leaving. Brave but foolish.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I think.”
Jack flicks off the flashlight when we reach the edge of the woods. The night is perfectly still, and quiet, and before my eyes have adjusted to the dark, he kisses me. Once, quickly. Not on the cheek, or on the forehead, but right on the lips. Then, without giving me a chance to process things, he takes my hand and leads me around to the front of the boathouse. He somehow has a key and reaches out to unlock the door, but it’s already open. He turns to me. There’s just enough light for me to see him put a finger to his lips.
We tiptoe in. I’ve never been in the boathouse before. There’s a small stock room with boot-racks and boat stuff. I have no idea what any of it is, but the door that leads from this room is ajar, and light is slicing across it. I swear under my breath. Jack moves carefully towards the door, and I do the same. It’s a miracle that none of the floorboards creak. Through the gap in the door, we watch as Mr. Compton unbuttons Mrs. Waugh’s blouse. I feel a mixture of disgust and fascination. She’s a married woman! Or… I assume she is. I realise I’ve never thought about it. I suppose she could be a widow.
But Mr. Compton just loosens her breastplate. I see a few blinking lights, and all the internal workings of Mrs. Waugh’s body. She’s as tidy on the inside as on the outside.
“Are you sure about this?” Mr. Compton asks.
Mrs. Waugh nods, lips pursed.
He reaches inside her and pulls out a part. There’s no change in her expression. He takes the part and walks over to an engine standing on a workbench nearby. I can’t see it very well, but it looks like it’s been cobbled together out of all the wrong pieces. He starts the motor, and under cover of the noise, Jack turns to me.
“That’s what they’ve been doing,” he whispers. “They’re using their own parts to build a motor for the rowboat.”
I remember seeing Miss Clark a few days ago, with some loose wires wound into her hair bun. “I thought they were just getting old,” I say.
“That’s how you can escape.” He points at the motor.
But through the hum of the engine, we don’t hear Mrs. Waugh’s footsteps. Suddenly, the door opens, and she’s standing in front of us, her chest still open and tufts of wires bursting out from the empty slot where the part used to be. Was it her heart? I wonder. Is that the price of becoming a teacher?
“Mr. Moxley, Miss Webb,” she shouts over the noise, then gestures us inside.
I don’t understand what’s happening. I look at Jack, but he’s looking into the room, and his face is white. I follow his gaze and see a woman leaning on the edge of the boat. The engine stops.
“Trudy, dear, how nice to see you.” There’s that tightness in her voice that means I’ve done something wrong, but she has to wait until she can rebuke me for it.
I swallow. “Mum, this is Jack Moxley. He’s the best student in our year.” I hope that’s a fair introduction.
Jack steps forward and shakes my mother’s hand. “How d’you do, Mrs. Webb?”
“Mr. Moxley, would you mind waiting outside?” asks my mum, although it’s more of an order. I hate how she can be so rude while sounding so polite.
“Of course,” says Jack. As he passes me, he whispers, “good luck”.
“Now, Trudy, dear, I’ve arranged things with the headmaster, and he’s agreed to let you stay on as a prefect, and then, as long as you’re a good girl and pass your exams, you can be a teacher. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“No!” I shout. “No, absolutely not.”
“Now, Trudy, we’re not going to argue about this. I’ve had to pull a lot of wires to get you this opportunity.”
I start to back away towards the door, but Mr. Compton is standing in the way.
“Be a good girl. You know this is what’s best for you,” my mum continues.
To my horror, I see Mrs. Waugh approaching. She’s wielding something… is it a teaching chip? Are they going to implant me right now?
“No!” I scream again. “I want to leave. I can’t stand another day here. Let me go!”
But Mr. Compton clamps his hands around my arms, and Mrs. Waugh keeps approaching until she’s looming over me.
“Miss Webb? Miss Webb, are you with us…?”
I think people like either school or university, and rarely both (though frequently neither). I definitely hated school, and I’m still surprised to hear schoolmates say that they enjoyed it. On the rare occasions I was able to skip school, I remember spending the whole day at the library, reading the Romantics. It was the best thing I did!
So the protagonist has a little of me, but also quite a bit of my best friend, whose ability to ignore the world around her while she daydreamed was (and still is) legendary. It turns out that an inattentive narrator gives you a lot of leeway – maybe too much? – and I liked the idea of paralleling her detachment with the detachment of the school from the rest of the world.
Thank you for reading! :)
WORD COUNT: 3468