I’m following a nineteenth century tradition and publishing some of “Leefdale” by Michael Murray in weekly instalments.
You can find the links to previous instalments on this page.
So, if you like the Dickensian idea of reading your novels in weekly instalments,
read on …..
‘Have there been any changes in the circumstances at home?’
Sharon considered the head teacher’s question carefully and suppressed her initial response which was to say, “No, of course not. That’s the problem: the home circumstances are as bizarre as they’ve ever been”.
They were in Mrs Henshall’s office and had been discussing Louise for over twenty minutes. Sharon had already been shown her daughter’s behaviour report: this was a little note book that Louise was required to present to her teacher at the end of each session for a signed comment on her behaviour. Louise had been placed “on report” three weeks after the term had begun. The intention behind the system was dual: the child’s behaviour could be monitored on a daily basis and hopefully being “on report” would incentivise them to incrementally inch their way back to a reasonable standard of conduct. In Louise’s case it clearly hadn’t worked. The majority of the comments in her behaviour report were negative. It was a depressing account of Louise’s inappropriate attitudes, and included descriptions of her non-cooperation, swearing and isolated acts of sporadic, low level violence. As punishment for these serious infringements of school discipline she’d forfeited many playtimes and other privileges.
The head teacher had sought to elicit from Sharon reasons for the unexpected decline in Louise’s behaviour. She’d already asked the more obvious questions: had Louise been behaving badly at home? Had she become involved in undesirable friendships outside school, perhaps involving children older than herself? Had she started menstruating? To all of these questions Sharon had answered “no”.
And now Mrs Henshall was asking if the home circumstances had changed; a question which Sharon regarded as an implicit criticism of her own lifestyle. Why didn’t the woman come right out and ask if she’d installed a toy boy in the house? Or if she was shagging a different guy every night? Why be so coy about it? Mrs Henshall’s perceived prurience and moral superiority only increased Sharon’s sympathy for Louise, and she had a sudden and overwhelming urge to smash the edifice of bland respectability that the school represented and expose its hypocritical foundations. How satisfying it would be to outrage this confident, poised, professional woman by revealing the real reasons for Louise’s bad behaviour. You want me to shock you? OK. How’s this? I’ve been fucking your chair of Governors for nearly twelve years now and Louise is his daughter! The liberating effects of even thinking this in front of Mrs Henshall made her feel lightheaded and reckless. But she drew back from such a potentially catastrophic indiscretion. There was too much at stake. If she revealed what was causing her daughter such acute distress it would quickly become staffroom gossip and then the conflagration of disgust would engulf the village. Every household would be discussing Greg Maynard and his two families and wondering how the whole sordid scandal had been kept secret for so long.
‘Do you mean have I moved a new boyfriend in with us? Something like that?’
‘Yes.’ Mrs Henshall looked embarrassed. ‘Have you?’
Sharon smiled. ‘No. No new additions in that department. Look, I really can’t understand why Louise’s behaving as she is. Perhaps it’s something to do with the school. As you know, she was perfectly all right until this term. I think she’s being bullied.’
Mrs Henshall immediately went on the defensive and automatically produced her standard response to such accusations: there was no evidence of anyone being bullied in the school; the children had been told that all bullying incidents had to be reported immediately; teachers had been trained to react sympathetically to alleged victims; the school had an anti-bullying policy which had been commended at the last Ofsted inspection.
Normally, Sharon would have accepted Mrs Henshall’s assurances. But today she was feeling vindictive. She’d suddenly understood precisely what it must feel like to be her daughter, entering this place day after day, crushed by the burden of subterfuge and deception that her parents had imposed on her. Living a lie, unable to reveal who she really was. This act of empathy made Sharon feel guilty and resentful on Louise’s behalf. Why did Louise have to bear the brunt of it? Why should Jade and the rest of her family escape the burden of secrecy and duplicity so easily?
Sharon said, ‘Well, for all that, I think Jade Maynard is bullying Louise. She’s jealous of her and says horrible things about her.’
‘What sort of things?’
‘About her not having a father. That’s why Louise hit Jade and pulled her hair.’
‘I see. Has Jade teased Louise in this way before?’
‘I’d hardly call it teasing!’
Mrs Henshall instantly reminded herself that she was interviewing a touchy parent who was quite naturally protective about her child. More care with her vocabulary choices was required.
‘Perhaps “teasing” is the wrong word. But has Jade made such comments to her before?’
‘Yes. Several times.’
‘You say Jade’s jealous. Why?’
‘She was desperate to play Nancy in “Oliver”. Ever since Louise got the part Jade’s been making her life hell.’
Mrs Henshall’s brown eyes radiated concern. ‘Louise has never complained about Jade to me. Whenever I ask her why she behaves as she does she simply becomes silent and withdrawn.’
‘That’s because she’s embarrassed. Possibly even frightened.’
Mrs Henshall could understand why Louise might be embarrassed to talk about her absent father, but she considered it unlikely that she’d be intimidated by Jade Maynard as she towered a good six inches over her. However, Mrs Henshall’s prudence and tact told her that it might not be politic to mention this. She said, ‘Well, it’s good that she’s at last providing an explanation for her behaviour. I’ll speak to both girls and get to the bottom of all this.’
Sharon became alarmed. Had she said too much? Given the chance, would Louise, in her vulnerable and volatile state, bring down the whole fiction they’d elaborately erected? She felt too weary to protest. ‘Good,’ she said.
But Mrs Henshall was far from mollified. ‘I’m still very concerned about Louise’s general behaviour. Whatever the causes, there’s no justification for swearing at teachers or behaving aggressively. Until recently, I always felt confident that I, at least, could control her. Now, she’s stopped obeying me and is even speaking to me in a most inappropriate manner. I’m afraid that if her bad behaviour continues I’ll have to exclude her for a short period. Which means she’ll lose her role in the school production. That would be a tragedy: we’ve only just started rehearsals but I can already see she’s going to be brilliant.’
‘I’ll tell her that,’ said Sharon. ‘It should bring her to her senses.’
Throughout their discussion Mrs Henshall had been writing notes. She’d acquired this strategy on a course some years ago. The course tutor had explained that taking notes formalised interviews with difficult parents, it made them speak more slowly – less emotionally – and gave them an opportunity to calm down. It reduced their aggression, prevented the interview from escalating into a confrontation, and conveyed the impression that the head teacher was authoritative and in control: that something would be done. Mrs Henshall also found it a useful means of terminating an interview. She always followed the same procedure, which she now repeated with Sharon. She stopped writing and gave Sharon a professional smile. ‘Good. Now, is there anything we haven’t covered? Or are there any other issues you wish to raise with me?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
Mrs Henshall placed her pen decisively down on the desk. She tore the page of writing from her A4 pad, folded it and put it in an empty wire basket marked “For Action”. She stood and the backs of her legs made contact with the light swivel chair she’d been sitting on, sending it gliding smoothly backwards on its castors. Taking her cue, Sharon stood too.
‘Well, Goodbye. And once again, thank you for coming so promptly.’
‘That’s all right. It had to be sorted out.’
And so they moved towards the door, in the course of which an obvious question occurred to Mrs Henshall.
‘Are you in contact with Louise’s father?’
Sharon was completely thrown. There was a very long pause. Finally, she said ‘No.’
‘But you know where he is if you wish to contact him?’
There was no choice but to continue the lie. ‘No. No, he’s disappeared. I haven’t seen him for years.’
‘Has Louise ever met him?’
Tentatively, Sharon said, ‘No. Why?’
‘I just thought that if Louise could meet him it might help with her behaviour.’
‘I’ve no idea where he is,’ said Sharon.
‘So presumably he doesn’t provide you with any financial support for Louise?’
‘You know there are ways of tracing errant fathers.’
Sharon opened the door of the office and turned back to Mrs Henshall. ‘He’s out of my life. I’ve no wish to contact him again. OK?’
Mrs Henshall registered the aggressive tone and remembered that she was no longer taking notes. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I quite understand.’
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The beautiful English village of Leefdale seems reassuringly tranquil. But appearances can be deceptive.