I like writing the occasional short story with a paedophilic theme.
There’s nothing here to scare any but the most skittish of horses. But if you think you may be offended by a description of a photograph showing a (naked) child who’s just come out of the bath I’d advise you to pass onto something lighter. Maybe some easy-listening music? I recommend the soothing tones of Mantovani’s Cascading Strings – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – Mantovani?
She’d come back from the long holidays and during those few minutes before the morning-bell had been showing some photos to whoever would look at them.
I suppose I’d have to get used to all those kids’ curious looks – whichever of these would turn out to be in my class were probably worried about what I’d be like – the school’s first male teacher, each child probably imagining I’d be something like their father – the person their mothers threatened them with when they misbehaved during the day.
Anyway, as it turned out, the girl with the photos was Nicola, and I wouldn’t be having her in my class till next year. She’d seemed nice enough as I watched her showing those holiday pics, despite what had been said about her in the staff meeting. But kids are never quite what they seem to be at first glance and why am I wasting time thinking about her anyway?
I didn’t have to wait long for my first dealings with her. Halfway through the morning Jane came in from her classroom next door and asked if I could have a word with Nicola. Jane had intervened over some argument about a pencil and Nicola had stormed out of her class and locked herself in one of the cubicles in the girls’ toilets. Now she wouldn’t come out.
Jane said she’d keep an eye on my class. I headed for the girls’ toilets with its little low sinks and its disinfected, start-of-year smell.
One cubicle door was open, the other closed. I cleared my throat: “Nicola? Are you in there?”
A little six-year old voice answered something about, ‘Lucy’ and ‘Miss’ and a ‘pencil’, ending with a protest about it ‘not being fair’. I knew these spats between girls to be like fishing lines, nothing much is achieved by trying to untangle them…
“Listen, Nicola, these things sometimes happen. I’m sure that if you go back to class and just carry on with your work nothing more will be said – I’ll have a word with Mrs Cartwright”
I waited a couple of seconds. Nicola didn’t reply.
“You know, you can’t stay in there all day, you’ll have to come out sometime, even if it’s just to have your dinner. You may as well come out now and we can all pretend that nothing happened. How does that sound, ehh?”
The latch on the toilet clicked and the door opened. She’d been crying. Close up her face revealed itself as symmetrical, slightly boyish, with a largish mouth, her upper lip just slightly uneven from the loss of a milk-tooth or two. Whilst certainly not plain, it wasn’t one to which the eye would be irresistibly drawn in a crowded room, not like, say, Emily’s or Katie’s in my class.
“Come on, lets get you back into class so you can have a really good end to the lesson”. She looked up at me with sad eyes and for a fraction of a second smiled. I gave her hair a little ruffle, despite myself, as I guided her out of the toilets and back to her classroom.
I was on the roster for afternoon break. There was a pleasant, relaxed mood – the children being generally too excited about seeing each other again to squabble. Moreover they were probably a little uncertain about what they could get away with, never having had a male teacher on playground duty before. One or two little groups of girls approached me, watchful, keeping a shy distance, giggling. “Let them be wary,” I thought, “they’ll learn soon enough that I’m just a big softy…”
But towards the end of break Nicola came and sat on the bench next to me.
“Sir, I went to Majorca for my holidays. I’ve got some photos. Do you want to see them?” And she held out the pack of photographs she’d been showing round before school.
I flicked through the usual, slightly dull snapshots people take on holidays – unknown faces, landscapes that were probably beautiful in reality but just sat lifeless and two-dimensional on paper, then a photo of Nicola and her little sister stroking a tame lion at a zoo. I feigned interest, asked questions and expressed surprise as appropriate.
Then a photo that must have been taken back at their hotel room : Nicola and her sister, their grinning faces confused by the smudged remains of face-paints, were standing naked in a tiled bathroom. The light was harsh, with black shadows thrown behind the girls by the camera’s flash. The symmetry I had noted in Nicola’s face was there in her body, which was athletic without being muscular. Her skin had a light olive warmth to it, as if some Mediterranean ancestor had left her a little of his colouring. Her nipples were brown, distinct and large for a child of her age. The crease rising from where her thighs met was long and just slightly patulous. At its apex a small bean-like nub could be made out. The next photo was of a hotel, and the next one of a park bench, with a small dog running about in the background.
“That dog followed us round all day. You can choose and keep a photo if you want, Sir” she said. She had moved closer and was leaning her slight weight against me as together we leafed through the rest of the photos. I picked out one of a tree. I thanked her and told her I liked trees, that they made the oxygen we breathed and allowed birds and insects to live in them.
Over the next couple of weeks Nicola would be an occasional visitor to my classroom. Jane would send her to me whenever she could no longer cope with Nicola’s behaviour. I’d say something like ‘Oh, Nicola, what’s happened now?’ and she’d give me an apologetic look before I guided her, with a gentle hand, to an empty table where she could get on with her work without distraction. I’d keep an eye on her and she’d work quietly. Occasionally she’d ask me to help her in what she was doing. And whenever I passed her I’d have a look at her work and try to be encouraging. Once or twice she was sent over towards the end of the day and I wouldn’t object when I noticed she’d stopped working and was listening to the story I was telling my class.
At my next playground duty she came and said “I like the stories you tell, sir.” She had sat close to me and her bare fore-arm had come into contact with mine. There was that almost excessive softness and smoothness I’d noticed at the touch of certain girls – as if their skin were some evanescent, permeable thing, with some of the quality of mist. I moved my arm away.
“Do you like stories, Nicola?”
She said that she did, and that she liked the way I told them, without a book, and making bits up. She told me that she wished she were in my class and I told her that she would be next year and that I hoped that she’d work hard for me like she does now. She said she would.
There was a pause. “Did you like the photo, sir?”.
“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve got a book which gives you the names of trees and I found out that it’s called a Mediterranean Pine”.
She was silent for a few seconds.
“Was that really your favourite photo, Sir?” I looked up. An argument had briefly broken out somewhere. The boys had gotten over-excited playing football, but the problem had resolved itself almost immediately and the game had been resumed. I took a sip of tea.
“Why do you ask, Nicola?”.
She squirmed in that way little girls do when they have something they wish to say, but daren’t. Her arm had found its way against mine again and was resting across it.
“Sir, did you really think it was the prettiest photo?”
“I chose it because I like trees, Nicola.”
“What did you think about the photograph of me in the bathroom, Sir?”
“I liked it.”
Shit, shit, shit – I thought to myself – how did I let that slip out.
She was rummaging in the school bag at her feet. She brought out the photos and was flicking through them. There were traces of pink nail-varnish on her little finger-nails.
She handed me the photo. There she was again – her soft flesh, clean from the bath, nailed in the hard light of the flash. The edge of a crumpled towel intruded across the edge of the photo. I noticed her tousled, towel-dried hair. I noticed again that generous crack and felt again a slight shock at the almost womanly appearance of her nipples.
“You can have it, Sir.”
I imagined her mother, back at home, going through that same pack of photos, noticing that this photo was missing and asking Nicola why.
“Are there any more photos of trees?” I asked.
I took the pack from her, replacing the bathroom photo, and leafed through till I found some photo, any photo, with a tree in it.
“Could I have this one, please, Nicola?” And as she was saying “yes” the bell rang for the end of break.
Summer ended. Autumn, winter and spring passed.
In the playground the girls had long ago become bold. A few weeks into the academic year Emily, Katie and some other girls in my class had approached me and asked if I was married. I told them that I wasn’t, saying something about not yet having met the right girl. One of them then asked if I had a girlfriend.
“No,” I replied, “but if you know someone who might be right for me..?” Which set them off into girlish speculation and laughter till one of them said “Emily said she’d marry you.” And the little group exploded as Emily chased the others round the playground in a show of mock anger.
I settled into my work and got to know my class, the teachers and the other kids in the school. As for Nicola, she’d settled into her work too. She was sent to me less often. She sat with me at break less often too, busier now with her classmates – healthy behaviour for a girl her age, I’d tell myself. Gradually Nicola seemed to become just another one of the many children who surrounded me during my working week.
Then one afternoon a few days before the end of the academic year Jane came into my class. Nicola had started crying in class. Or rather weeping. Quietly. To herself.
“You talk to her, she listens to you,” she said. We’d learned a few weeks before that Nicola’s family would be moving away and that Nicola would be leaving at the end of the year. Jane thought her crying may have something to do with this.
I fetched her out to our bench and we sat down together.
“What’s the matter Nicola?”
“I don’t want to go away.” she said through her sobs.
I was unsure what to say.
“You’ve had a good year, haven’t you? you’ve worked hard and made some good friends. I know it can’t be easy for you. “
“It’s not that – it’s that I wanted to be in your class next year and now I won’t”
I looked round at the empty playground. Birds were picking at some crumbs from a dropped biscuit that had been crushed under-foot. The caretaker was trimming back the hedge at the far side of the playground.
“I’m sad about that too, Nicola. I’d been looking forwards to teaching you.”
Nicola was pressing herself closer to me. The caretaker was still working at the hedge with the clippers – he made a reassuring rhythmic click as he worked.
“You’re a nice kid, Nicola, you’ll make new friends. And I’m sure there will be good teachers at your new school.”
“But there won’t be you, Mr Leonard, and I’ll never see you again – I want to be in your class, I want to be with you.”
I put my arm round her narrow, little shoulders and squeezed her close for as long as I dared.
“You know, Nicola, we can’t always have what we want…”
There was a pause. The playground was quiet. The caretaker had gone in. I gently took my arm away and stood up.
“Let’s go back in. I’ll ask Mrs Cartwright if you can stay in my class for the rest of the day – I’ll tell you and the rest of the class one of my stories.” She looked up at me and smiled through her drying tears.
Other than the caretaker I was alone in the school. The school trip had been and gone. I’d picked up the photos from the lab – mostly kids grinning and posing for the camera in front of the animal enclosures – and was scanning the best ones in for the school web-site. Tomorrow they’d be cleaning out their trays and taking home the year’s work.
Half out of habit, half out of boredom I’d wandered down to the staff-room for another cup of tea. On the way back I stopped outside Mrs Cartwright’s room and looked in. Without the children, and without all of the their work on the walls and windows, her room felt strange. I looked into some of the exercise books on her desk: these were the children I’d be teaching next year. Against the wall was the piece of furniture that held the plastic trays that, by this time tomorrow, would be empty and cleaned our.
About half way down the second column from the right her name was written out on adhesive paper in large, clear teacher’s writing, each of the six letters in a different colour. It was hard to open being full of pencil cases, books, and the pink, fluffy paraphernalia of girl-hood.
At the back, beneath two slightly grubby plastic ponies, was the envelope containing the photos she’d shown me all those months ago. I took it out and leafed through them. The photo taken in the hotel bathroom was still there. Once more I saw her, maybe more beautiful than she’d ever be again, displaying herself with such ease and generosity. I thought of that small, neat, sensual body and how it would barely make its weight felt were it to rest upon my own. I thought of that taut surface of warmth and softness that was her skin, her mobility as she’d move to fit my embrace. I thought of her girlish smell, part animal, part the bubble gum on her breath as she’d bring herself nearer to look more closely into my eyes.
I thought of the computer still switched on in my room and how easy it would be to scan the photo and save it to my memory stick.
Then I remembered how, a couple of days ago, when she had turned to me for comfort, I’d only been able to give it her in stifled dribs and drabs, and how she’d held her small body against mine, and how comfortable her small shape had felt against mine. I remembered how she had looked up at me through her tears, and a swell of a tenderness I’d had to suppress. I remembered how, when I had said to her ”we can’t always have what we want”, my eyes had pricked and I’d had to bite on my lip hard to hold back what was trying to force its way out. I remembered how delicate the nape of her neck had felt, her light hair against the back of my hand, as I guided her back inside and into my classroom, where I sat her down in the story-corner with the rest of my class.
I took another look at the photo, replaced it amongst the others and returned the pack to where I’d found it in the bottom of her tray. Back in my own classroom I turned off the computer and prepared a face with which to greet the caretaker, whose friendly whistle I could hear approaching down the echoing, bare-walled corridor.