The House Mistress

She thought it would be wonderful to work at a boarding school. A House Mistress – she liked the sound of that. She went to a boarding school herself, she knew how things were. She knew how girls were.

Even after she got married, Laura was content they’d made the right choice to stay on the grounds of the Hillbury School for Girls. It was every history buff’s dream, a 19th Century manor house turned World War Two hospital turned school for well-to-do young ladies (much like herself). And a nice, safe place for her, her husband and any little ones that should come along.

She liked being more than a teacher – having a house, dorm rooms, girls. Being there at lights out, hustling them off to breakfast, personalising their walls – Henry VIII’s wives, Shakespearean quotes, posters of One Direction – being their House Mistress, their confidant, their friend. Watching over them.

It was after her second failed cycle of IVF that she found the used pregnancy test.

They’d tried naturally first, of course. They were a young married couple and it doesn’t happen straight away and it can take a few years and don’t put too much stress on yourselves. Four years later and she flinched every time someone offered well-meaning advice. You’re only 32, they’d say, what’s the hurry? That’s what he said too, at first. Until he realised there was no point in arguing anymore. All he wanted was an easy life.

The test wasn’t even hidden. No tissue, just there in the bin. That was the first thing she noticed. It’s like someone wants me to find this. It’s like someone’s mocking me, she thought. And then unthought. Because of course that’s not true.

Gary always wanted kids. He’d talked about it on their first date. Not explicitly, but it was there when he talked about everything - his aspirations, his plans for the future, his dreams. Like it was a given that it would be there, in his future, like a part of his own body. When they started trying for a baby he talked about it all the time, what they’d call it (Daniel if it was a boy, Clara if it was a girl), how fun it would be. And then one day he stopped talking about it. Just like that. Like a part of him had been removed, chopped off, gone.

Laura started shaking as she looked down at the test, at the cross throbbing in front of her. She felt dizzy, nauseous. She never usually used the bathroom next to the dorm – she’d been desperate, caught short. Third cubicle, for no reason at all. She felt something bubbling up inside her; not bubbling, burning. She dismissed it as panic, pity, disbelief. But somewhere, deep down, there was anger. A student. A teenager. From here, from my House. Without realising, she walked away with it still gripped in her hand.

She looked at the sleeping creatures in their beds. She scanned their soft faces – Emily, Arabella, Persia. Then she saw Zoe. Lovely Zoe. Lovely, popular, cock-sure Zoe.

It started with snooping. She hadn’t meant to but the dorm was empty and she had to check anyway, didn’t she? That was her job. The dorm smelt of youth and silliness, cheap aerosol and damp gym clothes. Beds were half made and drawers half open – she was a relaxed House Mistress, young, cool – that’s why they liked her. That’s why they confided in her. Sometimes.

Zoe’s drawer was half open. She was there fast, foraging, faster and faster. In the cupboard, under the bed. What was she hoping to find? Another pregnancy test? A tell-all diary? Condoms? She needed something, something that would give her away.

Nothing. Nothing. Just anger.

She started to watch Zoe. She watched her walk, watched her laugh, watched her eat. She watched her gossip in the corridor – what was she saying? – watched her playing Lacrosse – was she being more careful? One night she followed Zoe to the toilet and listened at the door. Zoe wees in little bursts. Zoe doesn’t throw up. One night she took Zoe’s phone and tried to guess the password. One night she watched Zoe sleeping.

“Miss, are you bringing Gary to the ball?”

Giggles. Laura stopped short, marker in hand, her back to the class (luckily). It’s wasn’t new, her husband being the topic of conversation – girls will be girls after all. And she was a cool teacher, young – it was allowed. But this was the first time Zoe had dared to use her husband’s name. She’s getting braver, Laura thought. Cockier. She’s becoming a woman. Or trying to be. Laura turned around slowly, put the marker on the table in front of her and turned a page in the text box for no reason at all. She didn’t look up.

“Chapter 7 please Zoe, you can talk about the ball in your own time.”

“I’ll take that as a yes…” she heard Zoe snigger with her groupies. Laura could feel herself shaking and, shocked, gripped the desk for support.

She should have told Gary she found the test. And about Zoe’s comment. Perhaps if she had, Friday wouldn’t have gone the way it did. The fact is, the thought hadn’t even occurred to Laura until the Christmas Ball. Not until she saw them standing together. Gary was good like that, talking to the students, showing interest. Maybe it was genuine interest, maybe not. That’s the thing about Gary, you can’t tell – he’s so SWEET.

The father had been an irrelevance until then. But now. Now Laura saw things clearly. Her so young, so inviting, so full of life. Him, so… so… childless. Laura stood in her slightly saggy, slightly old dress, sipping her non-alcoholic cocktail. How she wished it was wine. She watched Zoe laugh and touch his arm. Laura’s face felt hot and the noise around her felt loud and muffled all at once. Why was everyone laughing?! Gary leaned over and said something in Zoe’s ear and she smiled and looked up at him. Laura dug her nails into her palm, the pain pulsating. Zoe was talking to Gary. He was nodding, smiling and looking at Zoe and... Laura was walking then, she could feel herself moving, quicker and quicker, her heart pumping louder and louder in her ears. She was such a force she thought for a moment she might run them both over.

“Come with me!”

She grabbed Zoe on the arm and pulled at her.

“Hey!” cried Zoe and Gary together and this made Laura’s brain scream.

“I need to talk to Zoe outside. NOW.”

“How many weeks are you?”

They were on the patio. Their breath could be seen against the dark night. One woman clutched her arms around herself and shivered, the other was burning.

“What? What are you talking about?!”

“How many weeks Zoe? I found the pregnancy test.”

“What?! I’m not pregnant!”

“Don’t lie to me Zoe. I have a responsibility... I have a responsibility for you and I need you to tell me.”

“Miss, I don’t know what you’re talking about…”

Laura could feel her blood rising in her face, she felt hot. This bitch thinks I’m stupid, she thought. She thinks I’m a stupid, old, dried up hag…

“Don’t lie to me Zoe…”

Laura didn’t see the steps behind Zoe. They were new, only put in the week before to make the patio more amenable to moneyed visitors.

“Is someone pregnant Miss?!”

She laughed. LAUGHED.

“Miss, are you ok?”

“It’s his, isn’t it?!” Laura grabbed Zoe, almost pleading, tears in her eyes. “IT’S HIS, ISN’T IT?!”

Her heel slipped under the weight, she fell backwards, crack.

There is always a humming in hospitals. The machines, Laura thought. It’s all the different machines.

“How is she?”

Laura’s voice cracked as she spoke. Cracked.

“She’s ok. She’s got a broken wrist and concussion but she’ll be ok.”

Laura nodded, her face drained, bloodless.

“How’s… how’s the baby?”

“Baby? What baby?”

Laura sat on the cold, stone bench and looked at the still, slithery water. The water looks cold, she thought. She’d taken to sitting alone by the lake, in the still, by the calm. Empty.

Zoe hadn’t said anything to anyone, as far as she could tell. She’s more mature than I give her credit for, Laura thought. Or more stupid. It was the holidays and the school was the emptiest Laura had known it for a while. Only a handful of students remained over Christmas – those whose families were too far away or too self-centred to whisk their children away for a festive break. The school put on a good show for those that remained. Usually Laura and Gary would go to one of their parents’ for Christmas but they hadn’t discussed it this year and it was now only days away. They hadn’t discussed much lately. Gary had tried to talk to her the night of the ball but Laura had been in that other place, that place of redness and rage and wasn’t letting anyone in. And Gary hadn’t tried very hard.

It was getting dark, cold.

Drops of ice water fell from the frosty leaves above and onto her face and brought Laura back into the present. She noticed she wasn’t alone. Someone else had found this sanctuary, a student wrapped in the school colours of red and gold. Like a robin, she was a burst of colour against the greyness of the barren land. It was Wing, a year nine student from Laura’s history class. A pretty young thing, reserved but assertive when given half the chance. It wasn’t like Wing to be staring at her own reflection in the lake and … crying?

It shook Laura to see such blatant emotion. Something stirred. Something moved. It was her, she was moving towards Wing. Softly and delicately, like a wave across the shore.

She sat down, arm stretched, engulfing. Two eyes looked up at Laura, wide eyed. Her heart ached.

“I need to talk to you about something Miss.”

Laura heard them laughing and smiled. The kettle had almost boiled and she got out three Christmas mugs (tis the season. And Wing will like it). Gary had been so good about it. Hadn’t even questioned it when Laura had ushered Wing into their house, wrapped her in a blanket. He was good like that.

Laura looked out at the howling wind blowing the branches against the kitchen window and felt warm inside. The advice had come easily; tenderness had come even easier. Wing had her now. And she had Wing.

Sugar? Did Wing take sugar in her tea? Laura wasn’t sure. Still with Wing’s tea in her hand, she walked to the door of the sitting room. She was about to call out to Wing but stopped herself. Gary was on the sofa, his back to her. Wing was curled up in the armchair, just where Laura had left her. She was looking intently at Gary, eyes wide, with a soft frown and a half smile. They were talking about something deeply. Quietly.

Steam rose from the mug gripped tightly in her hand, and her face flushed from the heat.