'A World Beyond Knowledge' by Paula Read
LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist 'A World Beyond Knowledge' by Paula Read
A World Beyond Knowledge
It was in Sainsbury’s, where I spent hours shopping trying to find things that might encourage Paulette to eat, that the inevitable happened. I met Scarlett’s mother. Even if I hadn’t known her from parents’ evenings, there is no way I could not have recognised her. Her stricken face stared out from screens, newspapers, magazines. And she knew me. We looked at each other. I asked how she was. But that was stupid. I could see how she was. She looked faded, as if she had been washed too much. Scarlett had obviously inherited her beautiful auburn hair from her mother. Only it was a sort of dull pinkish blonde colour, not the flame red that I saw lying on the pillow around Scarlett’s upturned face.
I didn’t know what else to say.
“I don’t blame you,” she whispered.
“I don’t blame you,” she repeated.
I grabbed her hand and kissed it. Then I moved away from her abruptly with my empty trolley. I dumped it by the door and fled.
When I arrived home (how did I drive? I don’t remember) Johnny wasn’t in. He had probably gone out on his bike. It was a fine day. I crept up the stairs to check on Paulette. Her bedroom door was closed (always) and I could hear music playing, the gentle lyrical voice of my most gentle daughter’s favourite singer.
There was coffee in the pot. Johnny must have made it before he went out, so thoughtful. I didn’t deserve him. I didn’t deserve our daughter.
I went upstairs to change my clothes. I felt so dirty, I always felt dirty. I scrabbled for a fresh tee-shirt in one of the drawers of the pine chest, the one that I had spent so many hours stripping and sanding and feeding with beeswax polish so that it gleamed like the darkened butter in an omelette pan.
And there it was, slightly crumpled in the back of the drawer, the group photograph that would become emblematic of the fated trip. All of us were in it - the coach driver insisted on taking the photo with one of the students’ cameras so that we teachers could join in. It belonged to Larissa who had one of those newly fashionable Polaroid cameras that had been all the rage when I was young. An instant memory to hold in your hand before the future happened.
Small, compact Catherine is standing to the left, taller Arabella is behind her slightly, her hair a cloud of silver. Julie is over on the other side, her young rectangular face turned up to welcome the full force of the aggressive winter sunshine. I am at the back. I am shading my eyes, but I am smiling. I look crumpled. The students are in front of us, and there is the inseparable trio: Christina, arm in arm with Keira, and Scarlett. Christina’s long blonde hair is held to one side with a big silk rose. Skinny little Keira is in stripy leggings and standing like a model, her toes turned in. Scarlett, ever the iconoclast, is standing off slightly on her own, her arms crossed, pulling her fake leather jacket tight around her. It is a cold sunny day. The September sunshine makes all the girls’ hair look shiny and freshly washed. The blonde and the brown, the red and the black. We all look happy.
* * *
The trip. Let me get back to that. To the start of all of this when life was normal and ordinary and what I worried about on the way home from work was dinner and picking up groceries and whether I would find a parking space big enough to drive straight into rather than having to back in while all the traffic piled up behind me.
That day, when I found out that I was, in fact, going to be responsible for leading the trip, had been a difficult day.
One of the assistant heads, June, called me into her office (so many assistant heads in the school, I never could figure out who they all were). She was a tall plump woman who always wore long skirts that floated around her ankles and whose glasses, held on a chain around her neck, always bumped against her voluminous breasts as she climbed up and down all those endless stairs.
In fact, June didn't call me into her office. She beckoned.
“Well, Freddie, congratulations. But you won't be on your own. We've asked Catherine Johnson to accompany you on the trip. She should be a great source of advice and support.”
“Pardon.” I was rather shell-shocked. What was June saying?
“Well, Freddie,” she began again, but slower as if I were one of her students. “You're in pole position. I know it's a huge responsibility and that you're part-time, but believe me, we do appreciate it. Cancelling the trip just wouldn't be fair to the girls.”
“Catherine Johnson? But she's retired, isn't she?”
“Yes. Nevertheless, she's agreed to go on the trip. She has so much experience of this sort of thing, you see.” Catherine Johnson was a severe woman who had retired from the deputy headship about two years ago. We had barely spoken in the three years before that, the period I had been working in the school as a French teacher. I was part-time, and therefore, pretty much pond scum in the teaching hierarchy.
“And I'm to lead the trip, definitely? It's been decided?” I remember that I kept insisting so that June had to keep repeating it. I could tell she was irritated. She had a way of questioning you so that you ended up questioning yourself.
The whole trip had gotten off to a bad start because we were late leaving. One of the teachers was missing. Arabella Worsthorne. I remember fumbling around in the dark - it was 5 o’clock on a damp April morning - trying to locate her name in my battered phone. The coach driver was getting anxious. Girls and parents were milling around, waiting. Everyone was talking to each other but in that desultory way that people do when they are expecting instructions.
Arabella arrived on her bike, booming her apologies to everyone in that cultured voice of hers as she extricated her wild greying hair from her bicycle helmet. Julie came up to me and started whispering about how she hoped Arabella wasn’t going to carry on like this, the whole thing would be a nightmare. By this time, Catherine had started herding everyone onto the coach. Parents were snatching quick embraces. The girls were turning away from them and looking for their friends, eager to start the journey, while the parents stood, looking abandoned. Luggage had been stowed in the belly of the coach and the girls were left with their carry-on bags, overflowing with phone chargers and ear buds, hand creams and lotions, tissues and moisturisers. And food. Many of the girls were already munching on something. Water bottles stuck out of their pockets. Things trailed.
I grabbed my own backpack and followed the last of the girls onto the coach, waving goodbye to the parents and telling them not to worry, we would take care of them.
* * *
What I wrote in my diary the night we arrived:
2 a.m. April 13th 20...
Well, I'm finally in my room. I can't believe this place. It's a great big cold castle in northern France. We are housed in single-storey dormitories arranged in a wide semi-circle around a wide sandy courtyard. The girls are sharing four to a room. Each row of chalets is punctuated with a teacher’s room. Each teacher has her own room. And each teacher is allocated a certain number of dormitories to monitor.
The doors give out onto the courtyard. And the courtyard is open to a small country road that snakes its way past the castle grounds. We arrived in the twilight as the last streaky remnants of pale spring sunlight were shrinking away.
If I were my normal self, I would be enchanted. But I'm not my normal self.
I am so exhausted, so exhausted. I am exhausted in that way that Audrey is always exhausted. Audrey, the one who got me into this. Audrey who got pregnant and dropped out of the school trip that she had given birth to. Audrey’s full lips turn down at the corners, in a charming pout. She lifts a small hand to her forehead, presses her temples with her little fingers, the nails so beautifully manicured, and murmurs “oh je suis epuisée, epuisée…Je n’en peux plus.” That’s how I am feeling. I am echoing Audrey to myself and for once, feeling as genuinely broken as she so often seems to feel. “Oh I can’t take any more, I just can’t take any more.”
Because tonight I will not sleep. I am responsible for children not my own. I must stay awake, on guard, to keep the girls safe.
* * *
It wasn’t hard to find out where the red-headed girl was staying. The flock of schoolgirls straggled through the streets of the small town, observed with half an eye by their four teachers, all women, chatting with each other in a relaxed way.
Pelayo Hernandez made no conscious decision to follow them. But it wasn’t hard. Their chatter filled the narrow streets. Their laughter echoed up and down, rippling along the cobbles. Passers-by looked at them, some with an irritated expression, but most with a smile. This was a picturesque village, used to the tides of English schoolchildren flowing in and out. Their arrival was one of the harbingers of spring.
When Pelayo Hernandez had started trailing along after the schoolgirls that afternoon, his intentions were not yet fully formed. But as he continued to follow them, these inchoate intentions started to gather themselves up, to harden. That red hair. By the time he made it all the way to the castle ground, he knew what he was going to do. No-one noticed him, a man of indeterminate age in wrinkled jeans and grey hoodie, because no-one was surprised he was there, a seasonal labourer probably, up from the south. This was not London. Here, there was nothing to fear…
The girls found the countryside - not quiet exactly (how could it be with the racket the birds were making and the rustlings from the branches overhead and the crunch of footsteps, animal footsteps, in the undergrowth?) - but alien, uninterested in them, and so, perhaps, boring, perhaps unnerving, perhaps even mysterious. When they crashed back into their rooms, kicked off their shoes, plugged in their phones, chattered, chattered, chattered, they were not thinking of the countryside. Nor were they thinking of being in France. They were back in their own London world, with their own London concerns, their own London friendships and rivalries.
Pelayo Hernandez spent that evening in a bar. He kept drinking. And he kept thinking - about that castle, about that courtyard that opened onto the winding country road, about all those girls giggling in their rooms. About that flame of red hair.
The next day, Pelayo Hernandez went back to the castle. The girls were all out somewhere. Hernandez slipped into the grounds and made a circuit of the dormitories, checking their distance from the main castle. For such a stocky man, he was nimble and adept at creeping silently through the grassy landscape, darting in and out of the great cedars that spread cover over the gardens and the clumps of rhododendrons, not yet flowering.
Then Pelayo Hernandez made a discovery. He had slid into one of the dormitories, slipping the lock on the door that let out onto the interior corridor. He gazed around at the tumble of t-shirts and leggings and jars of skin cream and make-up wands and lacy underwear, then made his way between the bunks and over to the door on the other side of the room. The door that let out onto the courtyard. It was a fire door, with a bar across it that had to be pushed down in the event of an emergency exit. He pushed it down. It opened onto the courtyard and Pelayo Hernandez stepped out carefully, quietly, pulling the door behind him. He then turned the handle on the outside of the door. And, as he had guessed, it opened.
The doors, once pushed from the inside, remained unlocked.
* * *
When I woke up with a start early the next morning to the sound of banging on my door, after a few hours of the first proper sleep I’d had over the past few days, I had no notion of what would greet me as I stepped out onto the courtyard. It was cold. Dawn light was just beginning to creep through the mist, hanging low over the land. As I looked around, nothing registered immediately. Catherine was standing over by the door of the room that Scarlett shared with Christina, Keira and Larissa. The door was wide open. Christina was standing next to Catherine who had an arm around her shoulders. Both of them were in their night clothes and slippers. You could see their breath in the clammy morning air. As I stood at my door, looking around at the unexpected scene, I noticed Keira with Julie. The two of them were walking away from the courtyard. It must have been Julie who was trying to wake me. She, too, had an arm around Keira’s shoulders.
Then a thickset man in a bum freezer jacket that revealed the gun on his belt emerged from the misty undergrowth that lay between the dormitories and the castle, talking rapidly and urgently into his mobile. Fabien, the centre’s nervous manager, was with him. Catherine caught sight of me. Gently, she passed Christina to Julie and came towards me. There was a look on her face of utter sadness. She took my hands.
“Something terrible has happened. . .”
“Larissa?” I gasped the question.
“Larissa is all right…but Scarlett isn’t.”
Catherine took me over to the room. My heart was pounding. Larissa was all right, but Scarlett wasn’t. What did that mean? When I entered the room, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness of the interior.
Arabella was leaning over the bottom bunk. Larissa was huddled on the floor with her arms around her knees. As I came into the room, Larissa looked up at me, her eyes wide and full of tears. She launched herself at me, sobbing. I grabbed her to me. “What’s happened?” But she couldn’t speak. All through these moments, I remember being numb with the unexpectedness of the situation. Why weren’t we all at breakfast, the girls chattering or on their phones, the teachers bickering with each other? Why wasn’t I drinking coffee? Why was Larissa sobbing?
Arabella moved away from the bed. Scarlett’s red hair was spread out on the pillow, like flames. Her eyes were open. She wasn’t moving. Then I noticed the duvet was half on the floor, leaving Scarlett’s slender girl’s body exposed.
I looked at Arabella. Who was crying.
The next thing I remember is a flurry of policemen and women taking over the castle. The girls clinging to each other. Scarlett being taken away in an ambulance. The phone call. To Scarlett’s parents.
That’s something I could never forget.
After that, there were so many procedures. We all had to be interviewed. It’s funny, some things from that day are etched in acid in my brain. But not important things. I can’t remember, for example, when exactly I found out the awful details of the events of that dawn. I simply can’t remember. I just know them. I do remember that Arabella seemed to be wearing men’s pyjamas as she leaned over Scarlett’s body. I remember noticing that Fabien, still had stubble on his pale stricken face. I remember the crunch of the gravel in the courtyard under the rope-soled espadrilles I had on my feet for slippers. I remember the shape of the trees against the grey sky. I remember the folds of Catherine’s soft face and the sorrow in her brown eyes as she led me to Scarlett. But the odd thing is, I can’t seem to remember being interviewed by the police. Nor can I remember what I said to Johnny. Nor can I remember when Larissa told me what she witnessed.
* * *
What I wrote in my diary the day a faded woman in Sainsbury’s forgave me:
2 a.m. September 2nd 20..
Me and Scarlett’s mum. What I know is this:
…we would forever be outside that charmed circle of the unharmed, the untested, outside that world where happiness still had the potential to exist, outside the realm of normal misery and quotidian unhappiness, for we were now of that world of the strays and the lonely, of those who had been touched by evil. We would always be peering in through the windows of other people’s houses, envying their innocence. We no longer belonged. We were no longer of this world. Forgiveness was beside the point.
*from the writings of Charlotte Delbo, a fighter for the French Resistance in the Second World War and survivor of the German camps