I love my kitchen. It’s cosy, warm; it’s comforting. Dark wooden floorboards, hand-crafted cupboards, a large round table in the corner next to a huge welsh dresser. I’ve even got a pantry. I always wanted a pantry. My grandmother had a pantry, even though my dad used to say it was nothing more than a glorified cupboard. I like my glorified cupboard. I love my life. It’s a bit like my kitchen, really – cosy. Comforting. Familiar.
“We’re going to be late if we don’t get a move on, Joss. Are you ready?”
Sam comes rushing into the kitchen, his arms full of notebooks, a slightly flustered expression on his face. Sam Coburn. My husband. Ready for work in his tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt.
Handsome. Smart. Funny. We’ve been together over sixteen years now, married for thirteen, and he still makes me laugh. I still love him as much as the first day I met him.
“I’ve been ready since seven 0’clock. It’s you who’s running late.”
He looks at me and shrugs, throws me a half smile as he swipes a slice of toast from my plate, winking as he shoves most of it in his mouth all in one go.
“You’re such a pig sometimes, do you know that?”
“Yeah. But you still find it sexy, right?”
He winks again, but I don’t answer him. I pick up my books, my bag and my phone and I usher him out of the door. He’s right. If we don’t get a move on we are going to be late. And I’ve never been late for school. Not once. Not ever.
She’s way more organised than I’ll ever be. Joss. Mrs Coburn. History teacher. My wife. Every teenage boy’s secret crush, understandably so. If I was fifteen again I’d make sure I was always hanging around in the corridor, just so I could watch her walk past, man, she has the sexiest arse! Not the reason I married her, of course. Well, not the only reason.
I slam the car door shut, which puts me on the receiving end of one of Joss’s death stares. She’s always telling me not to slam the door like that, but it’s just habit. And I’m not good at breaking habits. Especially the bad ones.
We walk across the yard, weaving in between teenagers loitering in groups, huddled together, heads bent over their mobile phones. Doesn’t anyone talk to each other anymore?
I glance at Joss out the corner of my eye as a group of boys yell something wholly inappropriate at her, even though I’m right there beside her. Her husband. Mr Coburn. Head of the Physical Education department. Science teacher. The man who gets to live out their wet dreams, for real. Horny fuckers. But they mean no harm. To them it’s just banter, and despite its inappropriate content, given their age and Joss’s position, she treats it as just that, flicking them the finger behind her back as she walks past. Which they love, of course, it’s attention. They crave attention, no matter what kind, and that’s exactly what Joss has given them. But she knows how to handle them. She knows how to handle anything. My wife...
Millers Bridge is very different to the last school I ran. The first one I was ever in charge of. That one was in a fairly run-down area, on the outskirts of south London. The kids were disillusioned; distracted. It was a hopeless place, for the first few months I was there. But I turned it around, with the help of great staff and students who finally realised the whole world wasn’t against them. It was, in fact, just waiting for them to go out there and grab it by the balls.
My job there, though, is done. An amazing teacher called Gary Banks now runs that school, continuing the legacy I created. And now I’m here, hundreds of miles away in North East England. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, to be exact. I’m here, running a school that, basically, ticks along quite nicely. It doesn’t need my help. It doesn’t need me. I need it…
“Savvi! Savvi, come on, you’re going to be late! Savannah!”
“All right, Jesus! I’m coming.”
I stand at the bottom of the stairs, watching as my soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old daughter comes thundering down them, her white-blonde hair pulled back from her pretty face in a messy ponytail.
“And don’t call me Savannah.”
“That’s what it says on your birth certificate.”
She just throws me a look.
“Savannah is a beautiful name.”
She doesn’t respond. She sits down on the bottom stair, shoving her books into her bag, checking her phone, she rarely puts the thing down.
“You need to get going, Savvi. The bus is due in five minutes.”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
“Have you got money for lunch?”
She leans in to me, quickly kissing my cheek. And she smiles, squeezing my hand before she runs to the door and leaves without another word. I smile too as I head back into the kitchen. I’ll tidy up in here, then I need to email my editor, make a few calls. And I’m teaching a yoga class this afternoon, I need to prepare for that, too.
My phone ringing jolts me from my to-do list and I pull myself up onto the countertop, crossing my legs underneath myself as I answer it.
I smile at the sound of his voice. I never know when he’s going to call, we don’t make definite plans. We can’t. But hearing his voice, it always fills me with an inner peace, despite the chaos our relationship would cause if people knew about us.
“Hey. You at work?”
“I am. Another day at the coal face.”
I laugh quietly, absentmindedly picking at the hem of my skirt. “You make it sound like you hate what you do. And you don’t, I know you don’t.”
“No, I don’t. It has its moments. What are you up to today?”
“Writing. Yoga. And I might head down to amateur dramatics tonight, I haven’t decided yet.”
“I need to see you, Summer.”
I pause, just for a second. “Yeah. I need to see you, too.”
I need to see him more and more as each day goes by, and this wasn’t what we planned. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It should have been over by now, but it isn’t. Because we’re both weak, too weak to shut it down, even though we know that’s what we should do.
I can hear in the background that he isn’t alone now, so I ready myself for the call to end. For him to go back to his life and let me get on with mine.
“I have to go,” he almost whispers down the line, and I don’t even get a chance to reply before he hangs up.
I don’t normally make bad decisions. He’s one I could’ve stopped myself from making, I could have walked away; should have walked away. But I didn’t. And I don’t regret what I did.
“Joss, hang on. Can I have a word?”
I swing around and come face-to-face with Connor Sloane. Our new headteacher. A thirty-something hot-shot from Boston, Massachusetts who came to England to study nineteen years ago, and never went home. That’s all I really know about him. He’s a bit of a closed book, but he seems like a good man. He’s only been here, at the school, for a couple of months, but he’s already made quite an impact on the female students who see him as something quite fascinating. I’m guessing it’s the accent. But I’ve also heard him being called the hot headmaster. He’s certainly like no headteacher I ever had, let’s put it that way.
“Of course. Is something wrong?”
“No. No, nothing’s wrong… You’re not busy, are you?”
“I don’t have a class until second period. I was just on my way to the staff room to finish preparing.”
“I won’t keep you long. I promise.”
He smiles. A wide smile that reaches his eyes, and I can completely understand why it isn’t just the female students who find him fascinating. He’s made quite an impression on some staff members, too.
I follow him into his office, closing the door behind me.
He walks behind his desk but remains standing, one hand in the pocket of his perfectly cut suit pants. This is a man with great taste, I’m guessing.
“I’m sure everyone’s aware now that David Calder is retiring next week.”
David Calder. Head of Maths and a stalwart of Millers Bridge Comprehensive. He’s been here since this place was a grammar school, stayed loyal through its time as one of the best performing schools in the country. It still is, one of the best performing schools in the country, I’m proud to say. Thanks to teachers like David Calder. He’s going to be missed, by both staff and students.
“So, that means I’ll be needing a new Deputy Head.” Connor’s eyes lock on mine, but the smile he gives me this time has an almost nervous edge to it. “I’d like you to take up the position, Joss.”
“You want me to be Deputy Headteacher?”
“Yes. I do.” He walks out front of his desk and leans back against it, crossing his arms. “How long have you worked here, Joss?”
I look up to the ceiling for a second or two as I silently count the number of years I’ve been a part of this school which has, in reality, been forever. I was a student teacher here. As soon as I’d graduated I came to work here. I came, and I never left. I never wanted to. I went from trainee teacher to Head of the history department before I was thirty, and I’ve been very happy here, on the whole. Although no job is without its ups and downs.
“Almost seventeen years now. This is the only school I’ve ever taught in.”
Now I feel old. Have I really spent almost two decades in this place? My whole life has revolved around Millers Bridge. My best friend works here. This is where I met Sam, when he started teaching P.E. and biology a year or so after I arrived at the school. And now I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. About my whole life revolving around this place. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before. Until now.
“So, you know it inside out, right?”
“I suppose I do, yes.”
He shrugs; throws me another dazzling smile. “Then you’re perfect for the job, don’t you think?”
I can’t help smiling back. “You want me that bad, huh?”
He looks at me, leaving a brief pause before he answers. “Yes. I do.” He goes back behind his desk, flipping open the lid of his laptop, and I watch as he leans forward slightly to look at the screen, his brow furrowing in concentration. “We’ll catch up later. Arrange a time to sort things out on an official basis.” He raises his gaze and his eyes meet mine, and he smiles again. He smiles a lot. I wonder what – or who – is making him so happy. “Okay?”
“Yes. Yes, that’d be good. Right, well, I’d better get back to that lesson preparation.”
I start to walk towards the door.
“Joss? Sam’s going to be all right with this, isn’t he?”
I turn back around, cocking my head slightly as I frown at him. “Why wouldn’t he be?”
“I don’t know… Joss, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that to sound…”
“Sam will be just fine. His ego will be just fine, if that’s what you were getting at.”
He slides both hands into his pockets, briefly dropping his head. “It wasn’t… Joss, again, I’m sorry.”
“He’ll be happy for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
I turn back around and leave his office.
Seventeen years at this school and I finally make Deputy Head. I’m happy for me. I’m proud of me. It’s been a long time coming…
It isn’t a spur of the moment thing, asking Joss Coburn to become the new Deputy Head. The local authority and board of governors recommended her. She’s been loyal to this school for a long time. They want someone like her to help run the place, I want someone like her to help me run the place. And I shouldn’t have asked her about Sam, what the hell had I been thinking? I don’t even know where that came from, my staff’s private lives are their business. Not mine. Not unless they need to be.
I can hear her – Joss – in the outer office, talking to Maggie, my secretary. Someone else who’s been here a long time. It seems this school has a knack of holding onto its staff, and I like that. It gives the place a sense of continuity I don’t think I’ve experienced anywhere else before. Maybe I’ve just moved around too much, never settled in one place for long enough. That’s about to change. It has to.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sloane, there’s a call for you.”
I look up from my laptop as Maggie pokes her head around the door. “Who is it?”
“Jessica Franklin? She says she’s from a law firm called Lambert, Gray and Davies. I can take a message, if you’re busy.”
“No. No, it’s fine. Put her through.”
I wait until Maggie’s left; wait until I hear the click that tells me she’s put the call through to me before I sit back and pick up the handset.
“Is something wrong, Jessica?”
“You always sound so wary when you speak to me, do you know that?”
“Maybe that’s because you’re a lawyer.”
“And you don’t trust lawyers, right?”
“Not all of them.”
“That includes me, though. Huh?”
I smile, drumming my fingertips lightly on the surface of my desk. “Is there a problem?” I ignore her comment. I’m not sure she was even looking for a response.
“No problem, no. But I am gonna need a signature. Can I email you some documents? Get you to print them off and mail them back to me?”
“If that’s necessary.”
“Then email them over. When do you need them by?”
“As soon as. We’re close to the end now, Connor.”
I sigh quietly and sit forward, rubbing my forehead. “Good. I’ll get them back to you within the next day or so.”
“Thanks. And Connor? It’s going to be okay. We’re going to win this.”
I end the call and sit back, twisting my chair so I look outside, onto the now deserted yard and school garden.
This school isn’t a challenge to me, I don’t need another one of those right now.
This school is my escape.
“Hey. No class this morning?”
I look up as Joss throws a pile of books down onto the table before going over to the kitchen to switch on the kettle. “Next period. Do you want one?” She holds up a jar of coffee and I shake my head.
“No. I’m fine. I’m out of here in five, I need a quick word with Gareth about next week’s Year Nine maths tests before my next lesson. You got a busy day?”
“Busier than I thought it was going to be.”
She sits down opposite me, taking a sip of her coffee and I watch as she closes her eyes, lets the caffeine hit take hold.
She opens her eyes and smiles at me. My best friend. A woman who’s been a part of my life since the day she was born.
Our parents had been – still are – the best of friends. They’d all grown up together, in a small village on the outskirts of Gothenburg, Sweden, where they all still live. It’s where Joss and I were born, less than a year apart. We grew up together. Went to school together. Did everything, together. We were mistaken for brother and sister all the time, because we were always so close. Closer than most siblings, our parents used to say. Our relationship was just – I don’t know – special. We liked being together. We loved each other, like brother and sister.
When it became clear that we both wanted to become teachers, and to expand our horizons a little, we travelled to the UK together. Worked our way through university, together; started working at Millers Bridge. Together. Our lives have been forever interlocked – Josslyn Engström and Alex Olsson. Best friends.
“I’m fine.” She takes another sip of coffee, dropping her gaze as she flicks open her notebook, flipping her pen deftly between the fingers of her right hand. “Connor’s just offered me the Deputy Head position.”
“You say that like you’re surprised.”
“I’m not surprised. Sorry… Are you going to accept it?”
“Of course I am! I’d be crazy not to.”
“You told Sam yet?”
She looks at me, only slightly raising her head, it’s a hooded glance. Have I said something wrong?
“Why’s everyone so concerned about what Sam might think? This isn’t Sam’s career we’re talking about, it’s mine.”
I hold up my hands in surrender. “Hey, back down, missy. Drop the defensive shit, all right? I didn’t mean it like that.”
She looks back down at her notebook. “I know you didn’t. Forget it. I had one too many glasses of wine last night, I’m probably still slightly hungover.”
I click my tongue in disapproval as I gather my things together and stand up. “What kind of message does that send out, Mrs Coburn? Turning up at school still inebriated?”
But she was smiling when she said that, although her eyes were still down on her work. She looks so much prettier when she smiles. She has a nice smile. My beautiful best friend.
“Okay, well, I’ll do just that, then. You have a good morning, all right? Might catch you at lunch.”
I leave the staff room, walk out into the corridor, which is eerily quiet, as it should be during lesson time. But then the bell signalling the end of first period rings out, filling the air with its shrill tone and I’m suddenly swamped by students and staff all making their way to their next lesson.
I push through the crowd, accompanied by the sound of chatter and laughter and mobile phones going off, despite the fact we tell them to switch the bloody things off in school. I love the familiarity of this job. This place. I love the fact I get to work with my best friend, every day. I love that this place feels like an extended family, there’s so much of our lives wrapped up in it.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of Danny, my eighteen-year-old son leaning back against the wall next to the canteen entrance talking to a group of his friends, and the second he sees me it’s quite obvious he knows he’s been caught out.
“Shouldn’t you be somewhere else, kiddo?”
I’m not going to lecture him in front of his mates, I’m committed to being a cool dad, seeing as his mother isn’t around anymore. She prefers the company of a Danish pastry chef called Kristoff, which only confirms the fact she has a thing for Scandinavians. She’d always liked the fact I was Swedish – that I was fluent in the language. That I had an accent. Joss has an accent, too. She’s also fluent in Swedish. Both of us were brought up bilingual, it’s just another thing that keeps us close. Our history.
Anyway, my whore of a wife – sorry, ex-wife – she lives somewhere just outside of Copenhagen now. I haven’t heard from her in over two years, neither has Danny. It’s better that way, she was too disruptive an influence on his life when she was in it. Maybe we got together too young, had Danny too soon, I’d barely graduated university when he was born. I’d only just started work here, at Millers Bridge, when I became a dad. But he’s been the best thing that ever happened to me, my son. And all I know is that he’s calmed down a lot since his mother did her disappearing act. Sometimes I wonder if it would’ve been better if she’d fucked off a little earlier, but I try not to dwell on the past.
“I’ve got a free period.”
He fixes me with a look that all parents who teach in their child’s school would receive. But he hasn’t just got his dad working here, he’s also got his Aunty Joss and Uncle Sam, because that’s how he sees them. As family. We may not be blood related, but we’re as good as. This place, it’s practically a family business.
“Free periods are supposed to be for studying, Dan. A-level year, remember?”
I leave it at that and walk away. He’s a good kid at heart. He knows what he should be doing. And so do I. I think, maybe, I’ve always known…
© Michelle Betham 2017
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