| Some Rain Must Fall
FRANCES STRATHAIRN came home to find that her partner had cooked her a meal.
'First day at your new job,' he said. 'I
thought you'd be exhausted.'
My relationship with this man is in
crisis, Frances reminded herself, kissing him on the lips. There is no doubt about
But of course there was doubt.
Exhausted, she collapsed on the sofa and ate her meal, which was excellent. Her own
recipe, followed to perfection.
'So how are the kids?' he asked.
It wasn't a question about any children
belonging to him or her: they weren't that kind of couple. He was asking her about the
pupils at Rotherey Primary School.
'It's too soon to tell,' she said.
The first thing she'd got them to do was tidy up. Wellies in neat
rows. Coats on pegs. Story books arranged from largest to smallest. Every pencil sharp.
Neatness was not her own personal
bugbear: she merely knew, as a professional, that it was what the children craved. She was
their new teacher and had been imposed on them at short notice; a contract must be made.
They needed to demonstrate their goodness, their usefulness; they needed her to
demonstrate her authority.
Most of all, they needed life to go on,
with a maximum of fuss.
'Next: does every one of you have an
eraser?' asked Frances.
The rustle and click of a dozen pencil
cases being disembowelled.
Anyone whose eraser is smaller than
this, gets one of these,' she smiled, holding up one of the bagful of brand-new giant
Faber-Castells she always brought along to new classes.
General wonderment as every child
realised he or she qualified for one of these magnificent gifts.
Out of the corner of her eye, Frances
observed one of the school's other teachers watching her from the doorway of the next
room, no doubt wondering if Frances was really worth three times an ordinary teacher's
'Now, I want every one of you to look
through your project books and choose a page that you think has your very best handwriting
on it. When you've chosen, I want you to lay your books open at that page, all together on
the floor just here... No, not on top of one another - all showing fully. Edge to edge,
like bricks in a wall. But with a little space in between. That's right... Give each other
room. Good... Good...'
Frances squatted down, giving the
children the hint that she could play with them at their level, while reminding them with
her bigness and her spreading halo of skirt that she was something other. Though scarcely
interested in their handwriting at this stage, she noted that nobody was conspicuously
incompetent: Jenny MacShane, their teacher until last week, can't have been too bad.
On the morning of the second day, the two children who hadn't turned up on the first day
presented themselves. That was a good sign: word of mouth among the mothers, perhaps.
Frances read the absence notes: upset
tummy for little Amy, doctor's appointment for little Sam. Fear, most likely, which might
have grown unmanageable if they'd been allowed to stay away longer. She welcomed Amy and
Sam back to their school, gave them their erasers. They were slower than the others to
settle in, so Frances decided, among other things, to put off the essays until tomorrow.
Frances herself was slow to settle in to her new house on the hill above Rotherey village.
Her last lodgings had been in a
ramshackle apartment -dog's-dinner decor, hastily convened furniture. She'd liked it
there: it had once been the occupational therapy wing of a mental asylum, before Care in
the Community had evicted the inmates. It still had some intriguing features: the odd mark
on the wall, peculiar plastic things sealing some of the power outlets, a wicker
clothes-basket woven by unsteady hand.
This house in Rotherey was a council
house, cosy and generic; a policeman and his wife had lived there, and had respected all
its prefab integrities. Not so much as a WANTED poster in the loo.
'The anonymity of this place gives me
the shits,' she said to Nick, her partner.
'Well.. . Can I change anything for
you?' he offered. 'I've got the time.'
Enjoying a sabbatical while he waited
for his doctoral thesis to be assessed, he did indeed have the time, but there was nothing
Frances could imagine him doing with this house. Rather, she wanted him to change.
'Let's go to bed,' she sighed.
The next night, though, she stayed up.
'How long, do you think?' he asked,
just to sort out the sleeping arrangements.
'As long as it takes,' she replied.
As with everything, he was fine about
having to sleep on his own; well-behaved, well-behaved, well-behaved. She wished he would
haul her up to the bedroom and fuck her. It would be inconsiderate and inconvenient, God
yes: she had no time for sex tonight because she had the children's essays to examine:
eleven responses she must keep distinct in her mind, eleven plans of action she must
conceive by the morning - as well as needing some sleep, of course. And yet she longed for
him to knock her off course, or at least dare to try.
In her lap lay the children's essays:
'About Me, My School and My Teacher'. To each one she had clipped the best ID shot she'd
been able to cull from the school's photographic montages of prize-giving nights, sports
teams, Christmas concerts.
The first essay to hand was by Fiona
Perry, the blonde one with the tiny ears and the oversized T-shirts.
Our school is called Rotherey Primary School. It has three big rooms, the oldest kids are
Primary 6 and 7 and that is the room I am in. We do the hard stuff. Next year I am going
to Moss Bank Accademey. Our teacher says thats where the fun really begins. Our teacher
isnt at the school anymore. The last day I saw her she had to go home because she was
crying. The next day was the day I was off sick with food poisning (the wrong kind of
fish). But my best friend Rachel says our teacher just lost her head that day and now shes
not coming back. We have a new teacher now who is you Mrs Strathiarn who is reading this
Frances turned the page to see if there was any more, but that was all Fiona had to say,
so she turned the sheet facedown on the couch next to her. 'The wrong kind of fish' -she
smiled sadly. The wrong kind of fish could make a child an absentee on a day which might
have changed its life for ever. Fiona Perry had missed a Wednesday presumably quite at
random; yet by that evening her parents, along with the parents of all her classmates, had
been phoned with the news that all the children could stay home until a replacement
teacher for Mrs MacShane was found. In her essay, little Fiona was turning on the charm
for the newcomer without missing a beat; Mrs MacShane had simply disappeared from her
young life as if rubbed out by that lovely new eraser.
My school is called Rotherey Primary, wrote Martin Duffy. I am in the big grade,
Primary 6. I use to live in Bolton when I was young. My mum says that what happened with
Mrs Macshane has got nothing to do with me and I should forget about it. Lots of people
have asked me about 1,000 times and some times I tell them and some times I dont. But
every time I do tell I forget it worse and worse, because really as soon as Mrs Macshane
started crying I got embarsed and covered my eyes and I didnt see much. So thats my story.
As if to punctuate, a toilet flushed. Nick, coming down for one last pee before sleep.
Don't you realise our relationship is in
crisis! she felt like yelling to him, which was such an absurd impulse that she
laughed out loud. He heard her laugh and came to her, his wrists still wet from hurried
'Something funny?' he wanted to know.
His sense of humour was the best thing about him - one of the best things, anyway. He
stood there, naked above the waist, a spray of glistening water-drops across his ribcage,
a glow cast over his contours by her reading lamp. Her breath caught with the pain of soon
not being with him anymore, because she would push him away, make sure he would never come
'Come here,' she murmured. He obeyed.
She would make love to him fast, here
on the couch, then get on with her work. Undressing, she speculated on what Martin Duffy
had really seen through his ten little fingers, which were tinged with the Marmite he had
for breakfast. The covering of eyes was a social gesture, a message to one's peers asking
for confirmation of the transgressive status of an event. . . She slid her rear over the
edge of the couch to let Nick get inside her from where he was kneeling. So, did Martin
Duffy really not see much? She doubted it. She might have to work on him, if there was
evidence that his apparent robustness was a defence mechanism. Being new to the village
made him vulnerable straight off, though on the other hand it would have prevented him
getting too attached to Jenny MacShane
Right now Frances had to admit that her
clitoris wasn't getting enough friction, especially with that damned condom, and her back
was being repeatedly stabbed by a metal zip on one of the cushions.
'Let's go upstairs,' she said.
After orgasm, drunk with endomorphins,
she drifted off to sleep, nestled against his back.
The school is fine and my old teacher is fine. This was the entire text of
Greg Barre's essay. Which one was he again? She couldn't picture him, even with the aid of
the photograph - admittedly an out-of-focus shot of a Nativity performance: a blur of
cotton-wool beards and cardboard wings.
'What does this kid make you think of?'
She handed Nick the photograph across
the breakfast table. He checked his fingers for margarine and took hold of the tiny square
of card by its edges.
'Shy,' he decided after a moment.
'In Christmas plays they always give
the non-speaking shepherd parts to the shy ones. The girl in front is obviously the one
who says, "We have followed a star," or whatever. This kid just has to tag along
- maybe hand over a gift.'
She smiled at him as he handed back the
photograph, a real eye-to-eye smile, the most genuinely intimate exchange they'd had for
days. He was perceptive, all right. When it came to strangers.
'You'd make a good father,' she purred,
still conscious of her flesh tingling with satisfaction and sleeplessness.
'Let's not start that again,' he
advised her tersely.
Something flashed disconcertingly in
her line of vision. It was the photo of little Greg. She hadn't accepted it back yet, and
Nick was irritated all of a sudden, waving the image at her as if she'd already lumbered
him with a child he didn't want.
The school was walking distance from the house, which was a pity in a way. A long drive in
the passenger seat of someone's car would have given her a precious last chance to read
the other essays. How could she have fallen asleep last night? She was like those useless
men that women were always complaining about in advice columns.
'Good morning Mrs Strathairn!' chorused
the children when she walked in.
She was 'Mrs' to them. She was always
'Mrs' to her classes, by professional decision. She felt that children trusted her more if
they believed her to be a conventional spouse and mother, as if this made her an emissary
from that story book world where family equations were not negotiable. Unconventional and
coolly feminist among her peers, she was able to compromise instantly and enthusiastically
when she saw the need for it. Perhaps this quality more than any other got her chosen
ahead of colleagues in her field, at least in fiendishly delicate situations like this.
She'd figured out almost immediately
which of the children were the touchy-feely ones, and she drew them to her as bait for the
others. Her talent was to radiate safety and the restoration of order. It was a gift she
had possessed well before all her years of training.
Already children were pressing
themselves to her, whispering things into her ear just for the thrill of leaning against
her soft shoulder. The ones she was most worried about weren't these, but she worked hard
to charm them anyway: they would help thaw the others out.
'Rachel? I'm told you know how to use
the photocopier in the office. Could you make ten copies of this very important document,
Rachel (I don't play with many
people at all I like doing work much more) hurried away to the sacred machine, glowing
with pride at the confidence shown in her as she prepared to step into an off-limits zone
and tame the mysteries of technology.
Frances had a feel for the group as a
whole, its tensions and safety valves, its flame-haired explosives, its doe-eyed
emollients. The shock of the last day the children had spent with Mrs MacShane was working
its way through their systems at different rates; Frances guessed that either Jacqui Cox
or Tommy Munro would be the first to crack, in some spectacular incident that would appear
to have no connection with their old teacher. Jacqui (classic hot-house flower, very
particular that her fellow pupils spell her name 'the proper way') had written in her
I like my teacher very much and I wouldn't want another one, at
least not permantly. She has all my old work and it was her that wrote my reports and she
knows why she wrote what she wrote. So when she comes back she will be able to keep me
Tommy Munro, an ill-coordinated, excitable boy with startlingly long eyelashes and a prem
head, wrote much the same essay to the best of his more limited abilities: My old
teacher is fine and everthing els is to.
But his old teacher wasn't fine, at
all, and Tommy was struggling with the impossibly unfair challenges of ruling straight
margins and glueing sheets of cardboard together, his emotions corkscrewed deep into his
Miraculously, nothing unusual happened
on the fourth day, at least nothing any ordinary teacher wasn't paid to deal with. Just a
heated argument about who was supposed to bring the sports chairs inside now that it had
started raining -class beauty Cathy Cotterill, overwhelmed by responsibility. Red-faced,
grimacing with a bee-stung mouth that would soon be grinning broadly again, she was one of
life's intuitive survivors. Her essay had devoted two matter-of-fact lines to the
circumstances of Mrs MacShane's departure, then went on to fill a page with I don't
play football much I rather play hop scoch. On Monday I get Jim I am not very good at Jim and
so on. Her anger had in-built transience and a limited scope: as an emotional firelighter
she was a dud.
Exercising authority like a physical
skill, Frances calmly took hold of the flailing ends of the dispute and wound them around
her little finger. The yelling stopped, the threat of mayhem disappeared without a trace,
and within ten minutes she had her entire class sitting at her feet, spellbound as she
paraphrased text and showed photographs from a book about albinism. Frances had quite a
number of these sorts of books: odd enough to promise children a frisson of the bizarre,
informative enough to fill their heads with the crunchy cereal of fact, irrelevant enough
to be unthreatening. The sight of white Aborigines with pink eyes was enough to keep even
Tommy dumbstruck while the cleverer ones frowned over the finer points of genetics.
As the rain dimmed the skies outside
and the fluorescent strip-light took over, the children looked a bit albino themselves, a
phenomenon Frances pointed out to suppressed squeals of queasy delight.
'Maybe it's catching,' she teased.
At hometime it was raining so heavily that even those children who lived
easy walking distance from the school were picked up by relatives or neighbours in cars.
All except Harriet Fishlock and her tiny brother Spike from the tots' grade. (Frances
found it hard to believe his name could really be Spike, but that was what everyone called
'I don't know how I'm going to get
Spike home,' sighed Harriet, fussing her pet-sized sibling into his greasy dufflecoat,
'without him getting totally soaked.'
Harriet lived in a shabby caravan park
on the edge of the village with her alcoholic mother and a stepfather who could get spare
parts for cars if necessary. There were rumours of sexual abuse, and a social services
file running into dozens of pages.
'I have an umbrella,' said Frances. 'A
super-duper giant umbrella. I can walk with you as far as the petrol station.' She watched
the flicker of calculation cross the girl's face: yes, the petrol station was not in view
of the wretched caravans: yes, the answer was yes.
Together they walked through the
streets of Rotherey, the pelting rain screening the shops and houses as if through frosted
glass. Everything was an indistinct and luminous grey, a vast sea with a mirage of a
village shimmering on the waves, through which car headlights cruised slowly like distant
ships. To get the best cover from the umbrella, Spike and Harriet walked on either side of
Frances, and after ten minutes or so Frances was surprised and delighted to feel Harriet
fumbling to hold hands with her.
Near the edge of the village, a red
light pulsed luridly through the gloom: a police car parked outside the MacShane house.
The police were there every day, apparently, though what they hoped to achieve at this
late stage was hard to imagine. Perhaps they thought David MacShane would come back to
pick up his mail or feed the dog.
The rain was thrashing down absurdly
now, as if in fury, almost deafeningly noisy against the fabric of the umbrella. Luckily
there was no wind, so Frances was able to hold their protecting canopy still as spouts of
water clattered off the edges all around them.
'This is awful!' shouted Harriet.
'No it's not!' Frances called back.
'We're safe under here, and the rain won't last!'
They passed the petrol station; Frances
said nothing. She understood she was crossing a Rubicon of trust and would soon glimpse
the farther shore of caravan-land.
'This is where we live,' said Harriet
when the park was in view. The rain, softening now, shimmered like television static all
over the dismal junkyard of permanently stalled mobile homes. Frances knew that to
accompany the children any farther would be to push her luck.
Yet, as Harriet and her brother were
leaving the canopy of their new teacher's umbrella, Harriet made a little speech, spoken
at a gabble as if escaping under pressure.
'Mrs MacShane used to come here
sometimes after school. To see a man who's moved away now. They made loud noises together
inside his caravan for hours, then she'd go home to the village. It was sex - everybody
knows that. That's why Mr MacShane got so angry. He must of found out.'
The secret relayed at last, Harriet
grabbed her brother by the hand and hopped gingerly into the marshy filth of her home
In Frances's home - or rather, the house she would live in for the duration of this
assignment - all was not well.
The wild weather (highest volume of
rainfall in a single day since 1937, the radio would have told her if she'd known how to
find the local station) had battered through the roof's defences, and there was water
dripping in everywhere.
Frances walked through the upstairs
rooms, squinting up at the clammy ceilings. They seemed to be perspiring in terror or
exertion. In the bedroom especially, the carpet sighed under her feet and the bed was
drenched: Nick had brought the buckets in too late. Returning downstairs. Frances almost
broke her neck on the slick fur of the carpeted steps; perversely, this somehow knocked
the edge off the contempt she felt for the house - as well as shaking her up badly.
'I did check all the windows were
closed when the downpour started,' Nick told her a little defensively. 'I just didn't
expect the place to leak, that's all.'
They looked up together at the droplets
of rainwater gathering on the umbilicus of the light fitting. All the power in the house
might blow any second.
'I want a child with you, Nick,' said
Frances, hearing herself speak as if through the din of a rainstorm, though the brunt of
it was actually over now, leaving the after-effects to carry on the harm.
Nick stared at her uncomprehendingly,
as if her comment might decode itself into being about buckets or laundromats.
'We've talked about this before,' he
'I want it.'
She wanted him to take her upstairs,
smack her down on the sodden bedsheets, and start a little life that would grow up to walk
under an umbrella with her one day.
'I've told you,' he reminded her. 'You
could maybe adopt one, as a single parent, and I could see how I feel. No
'It's not the shared responsibility I'm
worried about, you bastard,' she said. 'I want your baby and mine. From the beginning.
Nothing on the slate except our genetics. A clean start. Adopted children bring
their damage with them from the womb, from the day they leave the womb. Already in the
cradle they're soaking up their parents' fuck-ups.'
'Oh! Well!' he exclaimed, gesticulating
aggressively. 'What a pity the fucked-up human race has to keep bringing children into the
world, instead of leaving it to experts like you!'
Mesmerised by his violent display, she
followed the sweep of his big hands, longing for him to hit her, batter her to the floor.
But even in anger he was hopelessly, infuriatingly safe.
'Damn right!' she screamed in a misery
'You know what you are?' he accused
her, shoving his face right up to hers so she could see his lips forming the words with
exaggerated clarity. A - control - freak.'
After they'd finished arguing, they stripped the bed, turned up the central heating and
went out to Rotherey's only restaurant, a combination hotel and snooker hall which also
Inevitably, the mother of one of the
children from Jenny MacShane's class was there too, buying a carry-out, and she stumbled
straight to Frances and Nick's table.
'I just want to thank you for what
you're doing,' she told Frances blushingly. 'Last night, for the first time since
you know... this terrible MacShane business... our Tommy slept right through without
having nightmares or wetting the bed.'
'That's good to hear,' smiled Frances.
'I just want to say that I don't care
how much you're getting paid, you're worth every penny.
'Thank you,' smiled Frances. Warmth
came harder to her when it was parents or other teachers wanting it.
'I just wanted to know... Is there any
chance of you staying on? As Tommy's permanent teacher?'
'No, I'm afraid not,' smiled Frances.
Her lamb korma, none too hot when it was served, had stopped steaming altogether. And she
could tell that this woman was going to go away and tell the other mothers that Frances
Strathairn wouldn't stoop to work at a teacher's wage.
'Much as I'd love to,' she sighed,
making the effort. 'The powers that be wouldn't let me.'
The mother went away then, walking with
a peculiar shambling gait and a posture which suggested congenital inferiority. Frances
stared at the door she had gone through, and picked at her food irritably. God, how she
disliked herself for pleading impotence when that had nothing to do with why she must move
on! This pretence of being the passive slave of higher authority - it was a deplorable
lapse in dignity, an act of prostitution.
And to top it all off, she was going to
break up with her man.
'I've seen you like this before,'
observed Nick quietly from the other side of the candles. 'You always get like this just
before the job's over. Those kids that survived the bus crash in Exeter, remember? A few
days before you finished up there, we had almost the same argument' - he smirked -'almost
the same restaurant. And that time in Belfast-'
Spare me the details,' she
groaned, tossing her fork into the mound of rice and taking a deep swig of wine. Ask the
proprietor if there are any rooms free for tonight. If so, book one.
He stood up, then hesitated.
'For how many people?'
'Two,' she chided. 'Bastard.'
Next day, the children started breaking down at last, more or less as Frances had been
anticipating, with one or two exceptions. Tommy Munro seemed to have sidestepped the
process, behaving with unusual maturity and poise for a brain-damaged kid; maybe, because
he was so used to being confused and mistaken all the time, he'd come to believe that the
incident with his old teacher must have happened in one of his nightmares.
Greg Barre, however, blew his crewcut
top just after lunch-time, starting with a misunderstanding about which times table he was
supposed to have learned, and climaxing with a shrieking fit. Mrs MacShane's name was
thrown up in the ensuing hysteria and several children were soon weeping and accusing each
other of causing what had happened or failing to stop it when they should have. Martin
Duffy wailed his innocence with fists clenched against his day-glo sports shorts; Jacqui
Cox wailed her guilt with arms wrapped tightly around her head. The teacher of the
adjacent class rushed to the doorway, trembling with fear, her face twitching with a
ghastly nervous smile like the ones sometimes seen on people about to be executed.
Frances gave her the hand-signal for
'I'll handle this', and a nod of permission to shut the door.
Then she moved forward and took
By the end of the day, she had them all quiet again, entranced by her own soothing murmur
and the gentle patter of rain on the windows. She sat in the midst of them on a high
stool, keeping the stories coming and the airwaves humming, hypnotising herself to ignore
the fact that her rear end was numb under the weight of Jacqui's body in her lap. Jacqui
was going to be a big girl, at least physically. Emotionally, she was too small for life
outside the womb, and she clung to her teacher's waist with marsupial tenacity, pressing
her face hard into Frances's bosom. She had been weeping for hours, an infinitely
sustainable whimper: nothing that half a lifetime of reassurance couldn't fix.
Greg Barre was playing quoits with
Harriet Fishlock and Katie Rusek, happy as a lamb, wearing the sackcloth trousers he'd
worn as a shepherd in the Christmas play. His own were drying out on one of the radiators;
he'd soiled them at the height of his frenzy. Frances had recognised she couldn't afford
to leave the group to attend to him alone, and had chosen Katie to bear him off to the
toilets and help him get changed; a risky choice, given the rigid gender divisions in this
little world of Rotherey, but Frances judged it was the right one: Katie was mature and
self-assured, Greg was afraid of her and secretly infatuated too. Most importantly, Katie
was smart enough to perceive that the situation - half the class weeping and throwing
hysterics, a boy with shit in his pants - was beyond the control of just one adult, and
she caught the devolution of responsibility as if it were a basketball. In her essay she
My name is Katie Rusek and I am in Grade 7 of Rotherey Vtllage School. Something very bad
happened here last week. Our teacher Mrs MacShane was giving us a Maths lesson when her
husband came in to the class room with a shot gun. He swore at Mrs MacShane and hit her
until she was on the floor. She kept saying please not in front of the children but it
didn't make any difference. Then her husband told her to put the end of his gun in to her mouth and suck on it. She did that for a few seconds and
then he blew her head to bits. We were all so, so scared but he went away and now the
police are looking for him. Every time I think about that day I feel sick. I ask myself
will I ever get over it?
From her perch, Frances watched Katie Rusek watching Greg Barre prepare to throw another
quoit. Desperation to impress his guardian angel was making him suddenly awkward, a
faltering of confidence which both Katie and Frances, from their different angles, noticed
'Let's play something else,' the girl
whispered in his ear, before he'd even thrown.
Frances murmured on. She was telling
the class about her squelchy house, her wet bed, how she'd spent the night in the Rotherey
Hotel. She made up a story about how she and her husband had tried to sleep at home but
the water had come up through the mattress and soaked their pyjamas. She described how she
and her husband had balanced the mattress on its side near the heater and watched the
steam begin to rise. She kept returning to the theme that her house was in chaos just now
but that she could manage because she had people to help her, and soon everything would
return to normal. All the while she pressed her cheek against Jacqui Cox's wispy skull,
stroking her gently at key phrases.
She talked on and on, effortlessly, the
words coming from a reassurance engine idling deep within her; her words and the rain
maintaining a susurrating spell over the children. Most listened in silence, some played
games, completed word puzzles or drew pictures. No drawings of guns or exploding heads
yet: Jacqui might do one of those for her next week sometime. In the days following that,
she would smooth the new teacher in and then move on to God knows where.
Jacqui convulsed in her arms, jerked
awake the instant after falling asleep, and repositioned her ear in the hollow of
Frances's breast, reconnecting with the heartbeat.
'It'll be all right, angel,' Frances
purred. 'Everything will be all right.'