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The International Writers Magazine: Life Story

Trial by remorse
Carolyn Hughes

‘Until the boy or girl who did this owns up,’ said Mrs Hill, ‘the whole class will stay in and miss playtime.’ She stood at the front of the classroom and slowly scanned the room for a confessional raised hand.
Oh, the misery! The whole class kept in because of me?

I loved our teacher, Mrs Hill. She was plump and cuddly, and her kind face, framed by soft curls, was nearly always smiling. She was never cross; well, she was sometimes with some of the others, but never with me. I was a compliant, diligent pupil. She always told my mother how well-behaved I was. But she wasn’t smiling now; and I was terrified that she was going to discover that I was actually wicked and deceitful.
‘Miss!’ Martin had called out. He had just placed his model on the long cupboard where we displayed our artwork. ‘Someone’s model’s got broke.’
Mrs Hill hurried over. She picked up the pieces and looked for the scratched initials.
‘Oh, dear, I’m afraid it’s yours, Barbara,’ she said, and Barbara started crying. She wasn’t all that good at art and the dragon was the best thing she’d done in ages.

It wasn’t really my fault. The green clay dragon was rickety. I didn’t know it would topple over if I touched it. I only moved it to try to make space for my own model, but it tipped over and fell to the floor, breaking into five pieces. There was so much chatter going on that no-one else seemed to notice.
‘Who knocked over Barbara’s dragon?’ said Mrs Hill, looking round, her voice stern.
Geoffrey, in the act of placing his model on the cupboard, looked worried. ‘I done nuffin, Miss!’ he piped up quickly.
Immobilised by the awfulness of what I had done, I hadn’t yet returned to my desk, but now I was edging away from the cupboard. Mrs Hill spotted my retreat.
‘Do you know anything about this, Carolyn?’ she said.
Mute, I kept my eyes fixed on the floor and shook my head. But I knew my face was aflame.
‘Are you sure?’
I nodded, slowly, torn between a natural sense of honesty and the horror of having to admit that I had been careless. How could I say I’d broken Barbara’s best model? I couldn’t bear to.
‘Very well,’ said Mrs Hill, returning to her desk. Three times she repeated her warning about missing playtime, but I couldn’t bring myself to own up and my friends had to spend twenty minutes reading in silence.

I kept my face bent over my book, my hair forming a short curtain that hid my shame and the occasional tear that I was struggling to hold back.
I watched Barbara out of the corner of my eye, her grubby face streaked with dried tears, her podgy hands making a hopeless job of trying to fit the dragon back together. Mrs Hill came over to comfort her.
‘Can we stick it back, Miss?’ said Barbara.
Mrs Hill shook her head, but Barbara started sobbing again.
‘Please, Miss!’ she wailed. ‘It’s my bestest ever!’

Mrs Hill sighed, went to get some strong glue, and spent the rest of the break reassembling the dragon.
Occasionally I stole a glance at the others too: I peeked from behind my curtain to see children turning and whispering to their neighbours. And were they pointing at me? I couldn’t be sure.
The next lesson was history, my favourite. But I couldn’t concentrate and had no enthusiasm for answering questions.
‘Carolyn?’ said Mrs Hill, ‘I am sure you know the answer.’
I did, but I could only stare miserably at my desk and shake my head.
But Mrs Hill knew the truth: she’d read it in my anxious face and tense shoulders. At the end of the day, she asked me to stay behind.
‘Well, Carolyn’, she said gently, ‘do you have something to tell me?’

The dam of remorse burst in great heaving sobs. With big splashy tears wetting my cardigan, I poured out my shame and guilt, relieved at last to be able to unburden my misery at the end of a long unhappy afternoon.

© Carolyn Hughes October 2007

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