The space in front of the school gates was, as usual, a mixture of tight-knit conversations and individuals seeking a moment of refuge in the screens of their phones.
Huddled inside her thickest coat, hands plunged forcefully into its deep pockets, Clara knew that she cut an unwelcoming figure. She had always envied the community ties that some mums somehow managed to forge in those brief moments between the stress of parallel parking and the fraught arrival of the children. She also struggled, from day to day, to recognise them amidst an ever-changing reel of coats and jackets, and the way that, like Clara herself, they oscillated between office sleekness and faded leggings on the days that they were working from home. It was the children, in spite of their uniforms, whom seemed more individual. But by the time they were reunited with their parents, the chaos was too insurmountable for her to approach the right parent.
The bell rang. Clara braced herself for the swell of noise which would inevitably follow.
“Harry’s mum, isn’t it?”
Clara looked round, surprised to be addressed by quiet, adult tones in the midst of the frenzy.
“Rachel Thomas. Harry’s still inside. Would you mind coming with me for a minute?” She was wearing just a floral dress, fluttering in the autumn breeze, which made Clara’s coat feel unwieldy and hot. Her question was phrased politely, but there was an implicit authority in the tone which brooked no room for disagreement. It was a voice that was used to commanding a room full of ten-year-olds. Clara could only nod in reply.
She followed Rachel through the corridors, glimpsing the debris of a school day – overturned book boxes, pencils scattered on carpets, tiny chairs set at irregular angles – through various windows and doors as she passed. At the far end of the building, in the Year 6 classroom, her son was sat in the front row, arms crossed defiantly across his chest, head bowed sullenly. Heat suffused Clara’s cheeks at the sight of him, immediately subsuming his misbehaviour into her own guilt.
Rachel sat at her desk, leaning slightly forward in a vain attempt to make eye contact with Harry. There were no other adult chairs in the room, leaving Clara to either lean against the desk or perch next to her son. Preferring not to present a united front with either side until she’d heard the details, she stood awkwardly to the side instead, hands plunged once again into the pockets of the bulky coat to hide her clenched fists.
“Now, Harry’s mum,” Rachel began, and Clara felt a surge of irritation that there had been no opportunity to supply her own name, leaving her to be defined solely by this role. “We need to have a conversation before Harry goes home today. Harry, would you like to start us off and explain why?”
There was a single shake of his head, his unruly blonde bangs swinging, as if to chastise Clara for forgetting to take him for a haircut yet again.
“Okay. Should I tell Mum what happened at lunchtime today?”
The heavy silence which followed was thick with the tang of wax crayons, PVA glue and marker pens. Clara’s nails dug tiny crescents in her palms.
“The important thing to remember, Harry,” the teacher said, “is that whilst it is okay to feel angry – and everyone feels angry, even me – it is never okay to hit.”
These were the same words that Clara had often told her son, repeated like a mantra. It should have reassured her to hear them mirrored by Rachel, served, perhaps, as a reminder that this conversation and Harry’s actions were not the product of anything she had said or done. Instead, Clara shifted to the other foot, the reasonable, calm voice making her feel more isolated than ever. Was this the reason that there had been no invitations to play dates or birthday parties for Harry this year?
“I know it can be tough starting out at a new school,” Rachel continued, “particularly when there are also changes going on at home.” At this, the teacher raised her gaze to Clara, offering what was presumably meant to be a supportive smile and expecting Clara to be grateful for the euphemism. But tears threatened suddenly at the way she, like everyone else, avoided the topic. Divorce had become the D-word: a profanity never to be spoken in polite conversation, and certainly never in front of the children. It made it feel like a dirty, unconscionable act.
“Can you tell me why you were so angry?” Clara asked, her voice gritty from the lump in her throat.
Arms now uncrossed, Harry rubbed frantically at the scratched surface of the desk. “He said books were stupid.” He looked up at Clara, a single dark glance. “He said I was stupid. They’re not. I’m not.”
“That sounds hard, Harry,” the teacher responded before Clara could. “I can see why it made you angry. It wasn’t a kind thing to say. But it still comes down to the same thing: it’s never okay to hit.”
“But he snatched my book! My favourite one!”
The teacher let out a sigh at Harry’s outburst, readjusting her glasses on her nose and crossing her legs. The polished veneer of patience and composure was beginning to show some cracks. “We often meet people we don’t get on with it in life, Harry. It’s about learning when to walk away.”
“Yes,” Clara added, suddenly feeling the need to add her voice to the conversation before it ended, “sometimes it’s for the best.” She left other words unspoken: Just like I walked away from your father. Heat prickling along her spine, Clara took the opportunity to orchestrate their escape. “Thank you, Mrs Thomas. Come on, Harry, let’s get your bag.”
For once, he obeyed.
Trailing behind Rachel, they walked side by side along the corridor in muted silence, fingertips occasionally brushing. Neither Clara nor Harry could bring themselves to do more than nod in reply to her farewell.
Outside again, they shivered in tandem, the afternoon chill proving a sharp contrast to the warmth of the classroom. The streetlight opposite flickered twice. Dusk was approaching. Clara turned to lead the way to the car. She could easily picture the scene from lunchtime: Harry, settled against the trunk of a tree in the playground, seeking comfort from his book in a still-unfamiliar world, happily lost in the imaginative web spun from its pages. Then the shadow of another boy falling across him. There was a missed call from the divorce lawyer on her phone. Life could be so unfair sometimes.
Just beyond the gates, Harry launched himself into her arms. He was heavy these days, so she staggered slightly to regain her footing.
“I’m sorry, mum,” he whispered into her hair.
“Me too,” she said, squeezing him tightly, absorbing the weight and contours of his body into hers. There was nothing left to say. “Let’s go home.”
Alice (Ali) Sharman lives in the North West of England with her husband, two small boys and fluffy dog. She has had a varied career, from teaching English both at home and abroad, to copywriting, journalism, content management, and ghostwriting. Her jobs have one thing in common: a love of the written word. She is currently studying part-time for a PhD, freelance writing, and scribbling short stories and poems about the challenges of motherhood and the world of crisis that we currently find ourselves living in.