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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

School Dinners
Emma Callan

I feel like a pigeon, tottering tentatively into the dining room. Nothing prepares you for this. The classroom is one thing, new faces, seats, books, toys. At least in there a kind voice tells me which seat to take, which face to look at, which thing to touch. Now there is no voice, just a roar, like the time in that shop when I wandered in a sea of mums and dads but none of them were mine.

Then I’d grabbed at denim, a denim jacket I thought was mum’s but wasn’t. I remember thinking then that it should have been hers. She should have been there, she should be here now.

Here there is no denim, only pink cloth wrapped around an army of dinner ladies. They all look the same – hair scraped back with clips and sticky stuff, pursed lips like edges of folded paper, so that the only movement in their faces is the rapid darting of dark cloudless eyes. My pigeon feet shuffle further on in the queue of children who - ‘don’t know what a straight line is!’

I want to disagree. From my angle we’re doing a pretty good job, but to challenge Mrs.Markham, I’ve been told, is to take on God herself and I’m way too scared and hungry to argue with anything holy right now. I’m nearing the front with Jack (my brother, if I’ve not mentioned so already), whose hand is squeezing mine tightly.
‘Over there, quickly. We haven’t got all day!’
This is it, I think to myself; the moment, the rite of passage that every four year old must go through – finding your own way to a place in the dinner hall. Jack takes the lead. Jack will look after me. His hand begins to pull me through the rows of tables carpeted in plates, mushy carrots and soggy chips. I’m glad I’ve got a packed lunch. Mum says packed lunches are healthier, Mrs. Markham says that they’re for spoilt children who think they’re better than her staff’s cooking. I want to tell her that she’s right. That both me and my brother are better than the mush on the plates that stinks like the inside of my hamsters cage. Poor Harry, I think. I really must change his saw dust.
‘Where do you think you are going?’
I stop in my tracks. We both do. As the din around us slowly fades, I feel unable to move.
‘Turn around. Now!’

Jack tugs at my arm so that I’m forced to turn. I do so hesitantly, with the reluctance of a four year old unwilling to acknowledge an adult instruction, but with the terror of a private whose sergeant is about to have him court marshalled. At first she doesn’t speak, but I can read her hatred in those eyes better than my a, b, c’s or Letterland. Why do we need an alphabet when eyes say it all? But the silence is filling up with questions which she doesn’t give us time to answer –
‘Are we stupid? Does it look like there’s seats there? Are we going to cause this much trouble for her everyday?’
Each word is louder and each blast brings more spit.
‘Where shall we go then miss?’
I want to kick Jack, tell him that he should have kept quiet, that she wasn’t asking us real questions. But the heat of her glare solders my mouth shut and my limbs stone still.
‘Walk back towards me this instant or you will be sorry. What are you waiting for you naughty children!?’ I suddenly realise that the others were wrong. Mrs. Markham is not God but the devil himself. I remember now being told at church that he can look like a human and I can’t understand why no one else has made this amazing discovery. I’m sure if I told a priest he could have him, or her (I’m slightly confused as to which it is) exorcised. But I’m no priest and at any moment she/he could launch at me with those devil horns disguised as plaits and that pitch fork concealed under nylon.

I wish instead of pigeon feet I had pigeon wings so I could fly away, or better still fly above Mrs. Markham to drop on her from high range. I’d aim for the eyes. But instead, I sidle slowly back towards her with Jack pinned to my leg. I tell myself that if I don’t look right at her, everything will be all right. In a way, I’m right. We’re both sent to the back of the queue. We are threatened to be quiet, or else. To help her with work by clearing pates, or else. To obey, or else.
When I get home that night mum asks me about my day. I begin to speak but tears take over. I tell her everything and she rocks me calmly in her arms and tells me it’s all over now. That she’ll ‘have words with that Markham’. I sob that it’s no good. I’m not scared of going back. It’s just I know that God will never forgive me for clearing those plates; for helping the devil with his work.
© Emma Callan October 2007

Emma is studying on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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