Don’t Tell Teacher – Suzy K. Quinn

We’re running. Along wide, tree-lined pavements, over the zebra crossing and into the park. ‘Quick, Tom.’ Tom struggles to keep up, tired little legs bobbing up and down on trimmed grass. He gasps for breath. My ribs throb, lighting up in pain. A Victorian bandstand and a rainbow of flowerbeds flash past. Dimly, I notice wicker picnic hampers, Prosecco, Pimm’s in plastic glasses. No one notices us. The frightened mother with straight, brown hair, wearing her husband’s choice of clothes. The little boy in tears. That’s the thing about the city. Nobody notices. There’s a giant privet hedge by the railings, big enough to hide in. Tom cries harder.

I cuddle him in my arms. ‘Don’t make a sound,’ I whisper, heart racing. ‘Don’t make a sound.’ Tom nods rapidly. We both clutch each other, terrified. I shiver, even though it’s a warm summer’s day. Tom gives a choked sob. ‘Will he find us, Mum?’ ‘Shush,’ I say, crouching in my flat leather sandals, summer dress flowing over my knees. ‘Please, Tom. We have to be quiet.

’ ‘I’m scared.’ Tom clasps my bare arm. ‘I know, sweetheart,’ I whisper, holding his head against my shoulder. ‘We’re going away. Far away from him.’ ‘What if he gets me at school?’ ‘We’ll find a new school. One he doesn’t know about. Okay?’ Tom’s chest is against mine, his breathing fast. He understands that we can’t be found. Olly is capable of anything.

Lizzie Monday. School starts. It won’t be like the last place, Tom knows that. It will be hard, being the new kid. ‘Come on, Tommo,’ I call up the stairs. ‘Let’s go go go. We don’t want to be late on our first day.’ I pack Tom’s school bag, then give my hair a few quick brushes, checking my reflection in the hallway mirror. A pale, worried face stares back at me. Pointy little features, a heart-shaped chin, brown hair, long and ruler-straight.

The invisible woman. Olly’s broken ex-wife. I want to change that. I want to be someone different here. No one needs to know how things were before. Tom clatters down the polished, wooden staircase in his new Steelfield school uniform. I throw my arms around him. ‘A hug to make you grow big and strong,’ I say. ‘You get taller with every cuddle. Did you know that?’ ‘I know, Mum.

You tell me every morning.’ I hand him his blue wool coat. I’ve always liked this colour against Tom’s bright blond hair and pale skin. The coat is from last winter, but he still hasn’t grown out of it. Tom is small for his age; at nearly nine he looks more like seven. We head out and onto the muddy track, stopping at a blackberry bush to pick berries. Tom counts as he eats and sings. ‘One, two, three, four, five – to stay alive.’ ‘It’s going to be exciting,’ I coax as Tom and I pass the school playing field. ‘Look at all that grass.

You didn’t have that in London. And they’ve got a little woodland bit.’ I point to the trees edging the field. ‘And full-sized goalposts.’ ‘What if Dad finds us?’ Tom watches the stony ground. ‘He won’t. Don’t worry. We’re safe here.’ ‘I like our new house,’ says Tom. ‘It’s a family house.

Like in Peter Pan.’ We walk on in silence and birds skitter across the path. Tom says, ‘Hello, birds. Do you live here? Oh – did you hurt your leg, little birdy? I hope you feel better soon.’ They really are beautiful school grounds – huge and tree-lined, with bright green grass. Up ahead there is a silver, glimmering spider’s web tangled through the fence wire: an old bike chain bent around to repair a hole. I wonder, briefly, why there is a hole in the fence. I’m sure there’s some logical explanation. This is an excellent school … But I’ve never seen a fence this tall around a school. It’s like a zoo enclosure.

I feel uneasy, thinking of children caged like animals. A cage is safe. Think of it that way. The school building sits at the front of the field, a large Victorian structure with a tarmac playground. There are no lively murals, like at Tom’s last school. Just spikey grey railings and towering, arched gates. A shiny sign says: STEELFIELD SCHOOL: AN OUTSTANDING EDUCATIONAL ESTABLISHMENT HEADMASTER: ALAN COCKRUN, BA HONS SEMPER FORTIS – ALWAYS STRONG The downstairs windows have bars on them, which feel a little sinister and an odd paradox to the holes in the fence. And one window – a small one by the main door – has blacked-out glass, a sleeping eye twinkling in the sun. The playground is a spotless black lake. No scooter marks or trodden-in chewing gum.

I’ve never seen a school so clean. We approach the main road, joining a swarm of kids battling for pavement position. Most of the kids are orderly and well-behaved. No chatting or playing. However, three boys stand out with their neon, scruffy shoes, angry faces and thick, shaggy black hair. Brothers, I decide. They are pushing and shoving each other, fighting over a football. The tallest of the boys notices Tom and me coming up the lane. ‘Who are you?’ He bounces his football hard on the concrete, glaring. I put a hand on Tom’s shoulder.

‘Come on, Tommo. Nearly there.’ The shortest of the three boys shouts, ‘Oo, oo. London town-ies’. I call after them, ‘Hey. Hey! Excuse me—’ But they’re running now, laughing and careering through the school gates. How do they know we’re from London? ‘It’s okay, Mum,’ says Tom. My hand tenses on his shoulder. ‘I should say something.’ ‘They don’t know me yet,’ Tom whispers.

‘That’s all. When they get to know me, it’ll be okay.’ My wise little eight-year-old. Tom has always been that way. Very in tune with people. But I am worried about bullying. Vulnerable children are easy targets. Social services told me that. It will be hard for him … As the three black-haired brothers head into the school yard, a remarkable change takes place. They stop jostling and pushing each other and walk sensibly, arms by their sides, mouths closed in angry lines.

Tom and I walk alongside the railings, approaching the open gates. It’s funny – I’d expected this new academy school to be shiny and modern. Not to have grey brick walls, a bell tower, slate turrets and bars. I sweep away thoughts of prisons and haunted houses and tell Tom, ‘Well, this is exciting. Look – there’s hopscotch.’ Tom doesn’t reply, his eyes wide at the shadowy brickwork. ‘This is my school?’ he asks, bewildered. ‘It looks like an old castle.’ ‘Well, castles are fun. Maybe you can play knights or something.

I know it’s different from the last place.’ ‘Castles have ghosts,’ Tom whispers. ‘Oh, no they don’t. Anyway, big nearly-nine-year-old ghost-busters aren’t afraid of ghosts.’ We move towards the school gates, which are huge with spikes along the top, and I put on an even brighter voice. ‘You’re going to do great today, Tom. I love you so much. Stay cool, okay? High five?’ Tom gives me a weak high five. ‘Will you be okay, Mum?’ he asks. My eyes well up.

‘Of course. I’ll be fine. It’s not your job to worry about me. It’s mine to worry about you.’ Tom turns towards the soulless tarmac and asks, ‘Aren’t you coming in with me?’ ‘Parents aren’t allowed into the playground here,’ I say. ‘Someone from the office phoned to tell me. Something to do with safety.’ Two of the black-haired boys are fighting in a secluded corner near a netball post, a pile of tussling limbs. ‘Those Neilson boys,’ I hear a voice mutter beside me – a mother dropping off her daughter. ‘Can’t go five minutes without killing each other.

’ The headmaster appears in the entranceway then – an immaculately presented man wearing a pinstripe suit and royal-blue tie. His hair is brown, neatly cut and combed, and he is clean-shaven with a boyish face that has a slightly rubbery, clown-like quality. Hands in pockets, he surveys the playground. He is smiling, lips oddly red and jester-shaped, but his blue eyes remain cold and hard. The chattering parents spot him and fall silent. The headmaster approaches the corner where the boys are fighting and stops to watch, still smiling his cold smile. After a moment, the boys sense the headmaster and quickly untangle themselves, standing straight, expressions fearful. It’s a little creepy how all this is done in near silence, but I suppose at least the headmaster can keep order. Tom’s last school was chaos. Too many pupils and no control.

I kneel down to Tom and whisper, ‘Have a good day at school. I love you so much. Don’t think about Dad.’ I stroke Tom’s chin-length blond hair, left loose around his ears today. More conventional, I thought. Less like his father. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘I’m scared, Mum,’ says Tom. ‘I don’t want to leave you alone all day. What if Dad—’ I cut Tom off with a shake of my head and give him a thumbs-up. ‘It’s fine.

We’re safe now, okay? He has no idea where we are.’ Then I hug him, burying my face in his fine hair. ‘I love you, Mum,’ says Tom. ‘I love you too.’ I step back, smiling encouragingly. ‘Go on then. You’ll be a big kid – going into class all by yourself. They’ll call you Tom Kinnock in the register. Social services gave them your old name. But remember you’re Riley now.

Tom Riley.’ Tom wanders into the playground, a tiny figure drowned by a huge Transformers bag. He really is small for nearly nine. And thin too, with bony arms and legs. Someone kicks a ball towards him, and Tom reacts with his feet – probably without thinking. A minute later, he’s kicking a football with a group of lads, including two of the black-haired boys who were fighting before. The ball is kicked viciously by those boys, booted at children’s faces. I’m anxious. Those kids look like trouble. As I’m watching, the headmaster crosses the playground.

Mr Cockrun. Yes. That’s his name. He’d never get away with that at a secondary school. His smile fades as he approaches the gate. ‘Hello there,’ he says. ‘You must be Mrs Kinnock.’ The way he says our old surname … I don’t feel especially welcomed. ‘Riley now,’ I say. ‘Miss Riley.

Our social worker—’ ‘Best not to hang around once they’ve gone inside,’ says Mr Cockrun, giving me a full politician’s smile and flashing straight, white teeth. ‘It can be unsettling, especially for the younger ones. And it’s also a safeguarding issue.’ He pulls a large bunch of keys from his pocket. ‘They’re always fine when the parents are gone.’ Mr Cockrun tugs at the stiff gate. It makes a horrible screech as metal drags along a tarmac trench, orange with rust. Then he takes the bulky chain that hangs from it and wraps it around three times before securing it with a gorilla padlock. He tests the arrangement, pulling at the chain. ‘Safe as houses,’ he tells me through the gates.

‘Why the padlock?’ I ask, seeing Tom small and trapped on the other side of the railings. Mr Cockrun’s cheerful expression falters. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘Why have you padlocked the gate?’ I don’t mean to raise my voice. Other parents are looking. But it feels sinister. ‘For safeguarding. Fail to safeguard the children and we fail everything.’ ‘Yes, but—’ ‘Mrs Kinnock, this is an outstanding school. We know what we’re doing.’ I pull my coat around myself, holding back a shiver.

It’s a very ordinary wool coat, bought while I was with Olly. I was a shadow then, of course. Hiding behind my husband. I’m hoping that will change here. ‘It feels like I’m leaving Tom in prison,’ I say, trying for a little laugh. Mr Cockrun meets my eye, his hard, black pupils unwavering. ‘There is a very long waiting list for this school, Mrs Kinnock. Thanks to social services, your son jumped right to the top. I’d have thought you’d be the last parent to criticise.’ ‘I didn’t mean to—’ ‘We usually pick and choose who we let in.

’ The politician’s smile returns. ‘Let’s make sure we’re on the same page, Mrs Kinnock. Not start off on the wrong foot.’ He strolls back to the school building, and I’m left watching and wondering. When I get back to our new Victorian house with its large, wraparound garden and elegant porch pillars, I sit on the front wall, put my head in my hands and cry. I try not to make a sound, but sobs escape through my fingers. Things will get better. Of course I’m going to feel emotional on his first day. Lizzie I’ve been invited to a party, but I’m on the outside, not knowing what to do with myself. I’m not a skier or snowboarder, so I’m … nowhere.

Standing on the balcony, looking at the mountains, I feel very alone. Morzine is one of the world’s best ski resorts. I’ve heard it described as ‘electric’ after dark. Tomorrow, the slopes will be tingling with pink, white and yellow snowsuits. But tonight, they’re white and calm. It sounded so adventurous, being a chalet girl out here. But the truth is, I’m running away. Things with Mum are unbearable again. I thought they’d be better after university, but if anything they’re worse. Her need to tear me down is stronger than ever.

It’s not about blame. All I know is that I needed to get away, for my own sanity. Behind me, Olympic hopefuls talk and laugh in their day clothes, drinking sparkling water or, if they’re real rebels, small bottles of beer. Most of them aren’t interested in a twenty-something chalet girl with straight, brown hair and floral-patterned Doc Marten boots. But … someone has come to stand beside me. He’s a tall, blond man wearing ripped jeans and a loose, light pink T-shirt. His light tan and white panda eyes tell me he’s a skier or snowboarder – probably a serious one, if the other guests at this party are anything to go by. ‘It’s Lizzie,’ the man asks. ‘Isn’t it?’ ‘How do you know my name?’ ‘You’re still wearing your name badge.’ I glance down and see my health and safety training sticker: Lizzie Riley.

‘You don’t remember me?’ the man challenges, raising a thick, blond eyebrow. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t—’ ‘Olly.’ He holds out a large hand for me to shake. ‘I’m staying in the chalet next to you. With the Olympic rabble over there.’ He points to a rowdy group of young men holding beers. ‘You’re a chalet girl, right?’ He grins. ‘Nice work if you can get it.’ ‘Actually, it can be exhausting,’ I say. Olly laughs.

‘Are you thinking about jumping of the mountain then?’ My smile disappears. ‘No. Why would you ask that?’ ‘Just joking.’ We stare out at the peaks for a minute. A live band strikes up behind us, playing a Beatles cover – ‘Love Me Do’. Olly’s shoulders move to the music. Mine do too. ‘You like the Beatles?’ Olly asks. ‘Yes.’ I look at him shyly, hoping this is the right answer.

‘Me too! I have a massive collection of Sixties vinyl.’ ‘You collect vinyl?’ I ask. ‘No, well … not really. Most of my records are my mum’s. She listens to CDs now. It feels like time-travelling when I play vinyl, you know? Like I’m part of the swinging Sixties.’ ‘Olly!’ A tall, red-cheeked man swaggers over, holding out a beer bottle. ‘Olly Kinnock. This is supposed to be a lads’ night out and here you are chatting up girls again.’ Olly smiles at me, staring with blue, blue eyes.

‘Not girls. A girl. A very interesting girl.’ I feel myself blushing. ‘Fair enough,’ announces the red-cheeked man, thrusting the beer into Olly’s hand. ‘We’ll see you in the morning then.’ He returns to his group of friends, who break into guf aws of laughter. ‘Sorry about them,’ says Olly, putting his elbow on the balcony and, in the process, leaning nearer to me. ‘They can be morons.’ ‘You can go back to them if you like.

’ ‘Actually, I’ve always preferred female company,’ says Olly. ‘Girls smell better. But you must have a boyfriend, surely? A pretty girl like you. So tell me to get lost if you want.’ I blush again and stammer, ‘Um … no, I don’t have a boyfriend.’ ‘Have a drink with me then.’ Surely he’s just teasing me? Handsome snowboarders don’t chat up chalet girls. And he really is handsome, with his lean, toned arms and perfect white teeth. His eyes are serious, holding my gaze. Maybe he isn’t joking.

‘Okay,’ I hear myself say. ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s a date.’ Olly takes my hand like he’s won a prize. I laugh, sucking in my breath as his strong fingers close around mine. ‘So what are you drinking?’ Olly asks. ‘Um … white wine?’ ‘Chardonnay?’ ‘Sure. Yes please.’ He winks at me. ‘I love Chardonnay. Best wine ever.

Just don’t tell the lads. It’s a bit girly. I’ve been noticing you for weeks, Lizzie Riley. I think we should spend lots and lots of time together. And then get married.’ I can barely believe this is happening. A nobody chalet girl like me, being chatted up by this confident, tanned athlete. I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts. When he works out what a nothing I am, he’ll run a mile. I laugh.

‘Are you always so forward with your wedding plans?’ ‘Only with my future wife.’ ‘You don’t even know me.’ ‘Yes, but I’ve been watching you and your purple puf er jacket for ages, wondering how you don’t freeze to death in those DM boots.’ ‘Where have you noticed me?’ ‘Drinking black cof ee in the café, buying a ginger cookie and giving crumbs to the birds on your way out. Always carrying a pile of books under your arm. Are you a student?’ ‘I’m training to be a nurse.’ ‘A nurse? Well, Lizzie Nightingale, you’ll have to put your career aside when you have my five children.’ ‘Five children?’ ‘At least five. And I hope they all look just like you.’ Our eyes meet, and in that second I feel totally, utterly alive.

I’ve never been noticed like this. It’s electrifying. And I feel myself hoping, like I’ve never hoped before, that this man feels the same sparks in his chest as I do.

.

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