(I am afraid this little story may feature the same Janice who hurled a number of jelly trifles at the music mistress in ‘Might As Well Be Hung For A Sheep’)
This story doesn’t take place in Midwinter, bleak or otherwise. Imagine late May and a long time ago. All will become clear.
She is at school. Whatever the type of gym – hockey, netball, tennis, athletics – all those torments – they get changed in the same cloakroom, in an ancient and mostly forgotten area of the school called Crimea because Florence Nightingale once nursed soldiers there, according to the headmistress. The paint is chipped and the floors are dampish concrete; the lighting isn’t up to much, the windows are high and small. All around the room are wooden benches, for sitting on whilst doing up plimsolls, and above the benches, coat hooks. The cloakroom smells of sweat, menstruation and those sticky-sweet roll-on deodorants girls favoured in the sixties.
She has forgotten her gym bag and so she can’t do gym, which means that Miss Potter will punish her. In fact, it is her mother who has forgotten it. The bag would normally by the front door, containing a pale blue ironed gym shirt, darker blue skirt-shorts, socks and plimsolls, but her mother is working up to, or possibly spiralling down from, one of her nervous breakdowns.
She is a good girl, or at least a fearful one. Her father has shouted, slapped, walloped and goaded into her a fear of all authority figures. Miss Potter is teensy-tiny whereas Janice is tall, like the shouting, slapping and walloping father – but she fears Miss Potter, who is grizzle-haired, gruffly-spoken and probably a lesbian. Miss Potter will take it as read that any gym bag forgotten had been forgotten on purpose, especially if the girl in question hates all sports, which Miss Potter knows to be the case here.
Her punishment this time is to be an unusual one. Quite often punishments involve walking round and round the sports field, still in your uniform, whilst the others are playing. You just walk round, and round for fifty minutes or so, and Potter keeps her eye on you. Another of her duties is to be in charge of the sick room and this is basically the same punishment you get for period pain – a glass of cloudy gingery stuff (briskly whisked with a glass rod, like they have in the science lab) and walking round and round the sports field, whether pouring with rain or not.
Maybe Potter is in a creative mood. “You will stay here,” she says, “and learn a hymn by heart. I will hear you recite it when I get back, and I expect you to be word perfect.” And she produces a copy of the school hymn book.
“Which hymn, Miss Potter?”
“Any hymn you choose, Janice, as long as it contains at least four verses.”
In the now-empty changing room Janice chooses In The Bleak Mid-Winter because she loves it. She offers up a little prayer of thanks to the God she already half-disbelieves in. In The Bleak Mid-Winter is not just one of those dirges penned by a Victorian vicar but a proper poem, by someone called Christina Georgina Rossetti. The name is a sonnet in itself.
She already knows the first two verses from chapel.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow… There is something revolutionary about that line, something so pure and bright and absolutely certain of itself. This Christina is a woman who has walked in snow, who has seen the water standing hard as iron, listened to the frosty wind making moan. Janice never had any problem memorising words, and words like this –how could they fail to stick?
The hardest part is doing the reciting when Miss Potter comes back. She takes the hymn book from the girl and waits. Janice recalls how the other kids used to read in her infant school class –a kind of staccato drone, with stumbles and mispronunciation. She tries to imitate that, without laying it on too thick. Potter mustn’t catch on that she has just spent one of the happiest fifty minutes of her life being punished.
But of course, she can’t keep it up. Angels and Archangels are just too much for her. Awe creeps into her voice, the hint of a sob, even.
At What can I give him, – Give my heart she sighs, knowing the game is up.
“Next time,” says Miss Potter, “algebra.”
(flash fiction: 756 words)