Circle Time

Wrote this a long time ago and (appropriately or not?) I’m coming full circle to edit and post it now. Having problems at the moment committing myself to anything longer than flash fiction. Keep starting things and abandoning them… Ideas are never a problem; it’s sorting the good from the indifferent, making decisions, keeping going that all feels out of sorts. So instead I’m reading and editing old stuff.

If you have a read, thanks! And do let me know what you think.

Miranda

Circle Time

Break time: movement, sunlight and noise fill the playground. Inside, a girl races along a shaded corridor, two long brown plaits streaming behind. Her face is flushed, exhilarated.  She turns a corner sharply and escapes through an open door, into the noise and light of the playground.

At the other end of the corridor in a large, gloomy cloakroom a boy – short and stocky – walks between vertical lines of coats and bags, his face scrunched. He is trying not to cry.  He holds a backpack in one hand and reaches into it with the other. Piece-by-piece he is emptying the bag – pencil case, football boot, water bottle – flinging things to the four corners of the room, bellowing as he lets each object go.

***

On Sunday nights Annie likes to stay awake as long as possible. Tonight, as usual, in the familiar shadows cast by her nightlight, object-by-object she checks the possessions spread around her, lingering over those that are most significant. She can sense rather than see the coloured edge of the 1000-piece Degas jigsaw amongst a pile of boxed games on a shelf. She has stared at the dreamy picture on the lid, of floating dancers in smudgy blue dresses, but has never tipped out the thousand pieces as far as she can remember. She pauses at the shadowy humps at the end of her bed; one is her Dad’s old teddy bear and the other the beautifully dressed rag-doll, with multicoloured hair, that her mother made for her, the Christmas Annie was three.

Annie hears her father coming up the stairs to bed and calls softly.

‘Dad! Dad!’

‘Did I wake you, Annie?’

‘No, I wasn’t asleep yet.’

‘Oh, Annie sweetheart.’ He sighs as he pushes open the door. ‘It’s half eleven.’

‘Dad?’ She holds out a hand to draw him into the room. ‘Mum was a vegetarian wasn’t she, ever since you met her?’

Annie’s father takes the offered hand, sits down on the bed.

‘Yes, since she was at university, before we even met. What is it, Annie?’

‘We had turkey nuggets again last week, at Auntie Pat’s. Me and Adrian. I had to eat them so he would.’

‘Annie, love, she’s your Mum’s sister. She’s doing us a big favour.’

Annie rolls over onto her side and curls her body around her father’s seated form, then snuggles her face into the pillow. If she were a cat she’d purr, both for the comfort of it and to keep him there.

‘Stop worrying and go to sleep now. You’ll be tired in the morning. You know what Miss Stevens said, about being a bit more with it at school, Poppet.’

It is her turn to sigh.

Gently he sweeps Annie’s fringe to one side, then strokes the mass of dark curls that spread across the pillow as she drifts off to sleep. Tomorrow morning, Annie’s Aunt will brush and pull and twist Annie’s unruly locks into two long plaits, to save time during the school week.

***

At eleven o’clock every Wednesday it was Circle Time in every classroom at Annie’s school. In class 5, Miss Stevens was sitting with her whole class in a circle of chairs, holding a small green wooden frog. Children had swapped places across the circle according to eye colour or month of birthday – all without too much giggling and bumping – and now it was time for the game of passing the magic box.

Annie enjoyed Circle Time with Miss Stevens. Her teacher was young and for the most part cheerful and she didn’t make you join in the discussion bits, unless you wanted to. The children passed the green frog round the circle as a signal to speak. Instead of the funny wooden animal, Annie imagined that she saw a real magic box, oval shaped with a pink varnished lid and delicate ornate hinges. She imagined it cradled by each child as she pictured each of their suggestions – in my box there’s a magic dragon, a jet-propelled skateboard, a fifty-pound note.

Terry, as usual, said he would take a football out of the box and some children groaned or laughed, even though in Circle Time, Miss Stevens reminded her class, you were supposed to let everyone say what they really did wish was in the box and it was not a competition. Can’t it at least be some sort of football with magic powers? Annie thought. She could tell Miss Stevens didn’t really like Terry and the way he and his friends tried to put people off, even if she had told them all not to laugh at Terry’s football.

The frog was passed to Annie.

‘In my box I’ve found a tiny ginger kitten, with lovely green eyes,’ she said, suddenly speaking up, her voice squeaky and unfamiliar even to herself.

‘Beautiful, Annie!’ Miss Stevens smiled encouragement.

Annie looked down into her lap. She didn’t like to see the way some children smiled sarcastically across the circle. Beside her, Hayley tapped Annie’s chair gently with her foot. It was Hayley who’d shown Annie the pictures of her cat’s litter of kittens at break time.

The game over, children shared an achievement or news, but you didn’t have to. Annie was still thinking about Hayley’s photos. How lovely it would be to actually own one of those kittens and to say something real in the news section for once. She’d had a lovely weekend with Dad, but that seemed a long time ago now and anyway too private, so she passed as usual on her turn.

‘So, any problems to report before we finish?’ Miss Stevens was using her singsong Circle Time voice. ‘We’ll go this way round this time.’

She passed the wooden frog. Tom shook his head, as did Jenny next to him.

‘One of my gel pens went missing from my bag again,’ said the next girl.

‘My new football boots ended up in lost property last Friday night. My Mum was fed up waiting for me,’ said the boy next to her.

‘Yeah! Stuff is still being chucked about in the cloakroom, Miss,’ said a tall girl across the other side of the circle.

‘Take turns please, Kirsty.’ Miss Stevens’ voice was sharp.

‘Okay, sorry Miss. But what’s the point anyway? We’re supposed to tell the truth in Circle Time, but we’re not allowed to say who’s doing it.’ Kirsty shrugged. ‘That doesn’t make sense.’

‘You said it might stop if we all talked about it.’ This boy was red and agitated, unlike Kirsty, nervous at speaking up. ‘But people are still being pushed about in there at home time.’

Around the circle children started to mutter in agreement. Head still bowed, Annie watched Miss Stevens from under her fringe.

‘And Abby got thumped yesterday in the library when she was changing her reading book, only she was scared to say,’ said one of Kirsty’s friends above the noise.

Several children looked at Terry who sat squat and defiant, protected by two taller friends left and right. Annie eyed his round cheeks and tight little features; tomato-face she thought to herself, stupid squinty little tomato-face.

‘Me?’ he mouthed, pointing a fat finger at his own chest and staring across at Kirsty and her friends.

‘Don’t worry, Terry,’ said the boy next to him. ‘She can’t mention anyone’s name you know, it’s Circle Time.’

‘You all know the rules; you can all tell me things in private, outside Circle Time.’ Miss Stevens’ voice was stern and hard as she stood up to gain control. ‘Then we can try to sort this out. Come and see me this lunchtime.’ She indicated Kirsty and her friend.

Miss Stevens glanced at the faces around her. The changing places games were designed to mix the class up, but she could clearly see the little groups, the clusters of friends, the alliances, arranged around her circle, the ridiculous Terry protected left and right.

‘Now let’s just finish properly,’ she said, resuming her gentler voice. She sat herself back into the circle. ‘Give Annie the frog please. Your turn.’ She knew Annie would just pass it on, get them back on track.

Annie stared at the frog in her lap. ‘I just think that, well I think that we should try to get along, to think about everyone’s feelings,’ she mumbled.

‘How sensible, Annie. We should try to think about each other’s feelings. I think that’s where we’ll finish for today.’

And Miss Steven’s stood up to signal Circle Time was over.

‘What about my go then,’ said Terry. ‘People over here haven’t said nothing yet.’

Miss Stevens stared at him. ‘Well go on then,’ she said coldly but she didn’t bother to sit back down in her precious circle or pass the frog. ‘And make it quick.’

‘I got thumped in the cloakroom too,’ said Terry. ‘And last time it was by her!’

He pointed across the circle at Annie. Miss Stevens watched as Annie looked up, her usual distracted expression replaced by a tense frown. And who could blame her. Terry’s friends started to laugh, whilst all around children talked to each other animatedly. Only Terry and Annie were silent, as Miss Stevens quickly stepped into the circle between them.

‘Thank you, Terry,’ she said. ‘Well you know I’m available in private at lunchtime to discuss any problems, if you can tear yourself away from your usual football game that is.’

Miss Stevens was aware that the sneer in her voice sounded nothing like the caring unflustered teacher on the Circle Time training video, but she was also aware of the smirk on Kirsty’s face.

‘Chairs away now please, sensibly.’

***

At five o’clock, Terry walks home from school. He’s hung around outside his friend Paul’s house for a while, having goes on his bike, until Paul’s mum has called Paul in for his tea. Now he’s slowly walking back along the high street, past the emptying shops, to his own house. Terry swings his bag back and forth across his body, banging his right leg then his left as he trudges along. He feels in his trouser pocket. There’s the note Miss Stevens has written especially and given him to remind his mum about parents’ evening. Miss Stevens hadn’t even mentioned Circle Time when she had given it to him at the end of the day. Stupid bitch with her pathetic frog and swapping games. Terry clutches the piece of paper, screwing it up inside his pocket.

Across the road in the traffic, waiting at the lights, Terry notices a white car with windows open and music pounding. Someone is waving. His sister is leaning across the driver, waving frantically, her blond hair draped over the steering wheel.

‘Terry! Terry!’ she calls. ‘Want a lift home?’

She’s supposed to get his tea when she gets in from school, before their mum comes home at six, but she’s usually out with her friends.

‘Come on, Tel, room for a little one.’

Terry’s face remains blank but he checks the road and begins to cross between the stationary cars. Just as he reaches the traffic island in the centre, the lights change and the white car moves off in the line of traffic, leaving him stranded there as cars stream by in both directions, gathering speed. He can just make out another girl in the back now, behind his sister. They’ll be having a good laugh at his expense.

***

Break time. In the corner of a large, gloomy cloakroom a girl sits on a wooden bench, gently tapping her feet against the wire shoe rack beneath. She is reading a book and humming to herself as she nestles against one of the hanging coats. A boy comes into the cloakroom, walks between a row of coats and tugs open a backpack hanging there.

Annie sees him at the end of the row where she sits. It’s Terry. She shrinks further back into her coat. Terry looks down the aisle at Annie. She’s not the sort of girl you would thump. Not that she would thump back, or tell. He starts pulling something from the bottom of the bag.

‘Annie! Annie!’ he says in a surprisingly soft, singsong voice. ‘Be kind to Annie please, children,’ he chants.

He turns to face her.

‘Your Mum must have hated you, to go and top herself.’

Annie feels squashed into her corner; she can hardly breathe. She looks at his round face, its tiny features and with a great effort she gets up and takes a single step towards him. She can feel her legs trembling.

‘And you must hate yourself,’ she says quietly. Her voice is shaking too, but it comes out louder now. ‘Be kind to Terry children, he’s fat and stupid!’

He stares at her, amazed. Would Miss Stevens really say that?  He wouldn’t put it past her.

Terry watches as Annie begins to walk directly towards him. She moves steadily, one step at a time. It is Terry who is frozen now, unsure how to respond. She raises the book to shield her face from his stare and then, as she passes him, with a tiny animal noise, half-way between a sob and a laugh, she slices the book sharply with surprising force towards the side of his head. Terry stumbles backwards, but Annie is too quick and the book catches his ear painfully.

***

Annie has passed him now and is out of the cloakroom. She can feel her heart pounding as she races along the shaded corridor, two long brown plaits streaming behind. Her face is flushed, exhilarated. She turns the corner sharply and escapes through the open door, into the noise and light of the playground.

M J Lewis 2016

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