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Public Property

By Heather Colley

Art By Eloise Cooke

The winner of the ORB Short Fiction Prize, judged by Hermione Hoby.


And where was the blood found, exactly?’

‘Well that’s the thing, right. Everywhere, in a way.’ ‘Everywhere?’ ‘In a type of way.

But it was deliberate.’ ‘Deliberately everywhere?’

‘So.’ ‘And we’re sure about those responsible?’

'Yeah. It’s always the teenage fucking girls’.

In her classroom Jane cried. I stood and said things that you’re meant to say when a friend is crying. I said things like, it will really all be alright, in the end. ‘When is the end?’ she said. I don’t know, I said. Not for a long time. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘That’s the problem’.

It didn’t help her mood that we were public property. We are mothers and fathers and

aunties and social workers and big brothers and sisters, and coaches and mentors, and therapists

and doctors, and psychiatrists, and real estate agents and customs officials and lawyers, and representatives and lobbyists, and key constituents of the political debate, and thinkers and scholars and leaders, and custodians and janitors and mental health professionals, and the problem for me, it has always seemed – is that I am just a woman. It is no longer enough, unfortunately. I must be woman and everybody, or else I am not woman at all.

We are entirely public. This is why Beau and Ashleigh stormed Jane’s room that morning and stormed on till they reached her desk, where she was trying to wipe her tears with the wetness of more tears. Tears have tears. But because Beau and Ashleigh were 16 years old, they didn’t notice. Many teenagers reject curiosity. If you’re not disengaged, you’re not modern. And because we are teachers, we tolerate it. Nobody wanting us for anything much; our arms are extensions of the filing cabinet and our toes figments of the cleaning cupboard. We are inanimate objects for a lot of the time.

‘Something has happened,’ Ashleigh said. As things do, I said. They looked at me like I was out of line. ‘What’s wrong, girls?’

Jane was a natural-born teacher. She claimed that she could not see herself doing anything else. And while this was intended to imply a sort of inherently philanthropic nature, I suspected that it was more to do with complacency. It is so easy to do the easy thing, especially when you do it every day. That is why teachers stay teachers stay teachers. I sometimes feel that the sidewalk never ends to the grave. Then I’ll be looking at it and I’ll think oh fuck, my whole life has been a pursuit of the professional. I’ve despised it.

And now the girls told a manic story that involved bathrooms and blood and puberty. Another working day begun, and already so tired tired tired.

I had to go to the pharmacy during my lunch. The Academy was toward the top of High Street, which was a hill. Life happened on either side of it. Here was the roadman just inside the coffee shop. Here was the barista, training another barista. Here was the trainee barista, reading an employee handbook. Somewhere was the writer who wrote it. Somewhere near them was the Executive who demanded it, and somewhere near them was the salesman who supported it. Elsewhere was a man getting rich.

I was nowhere to be found. That was how it was, then: Life was a lovely bustle all around, and I with not a single toe through its door. The pharmacy was sterile and unlovely. A line of people stood extended outward from the sign: PRESCRIPTION PICKUP. Everything ticks. in a pharmacy. Toes, pens. The heart at certain rhythms.

There had recently been a complication. It began when I started this medication, and it happened again on that morning, as I stood before the pharmacist. They can’t just give a refill and send me off back down the road. I suspect that this is their conspiratorial punishment. Your brain, they’re saying. It’s not quite right. It’s a bit off, your brain. It’s gotten so tired; it’s gotten so weepy! Sorry – what was your last name again?

‘Bird’. ‘B – e—a – r –d?’ ‘Bird’. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Like a canary?’ ‘I thought it was bird’. ‘Then why did you have to ask?’ ‘So’. ‘B-i-r-d’. ‘Date of birth?’ Another pharmacist joined. He asked: ‘Date of birth?’ as his colleague wandered away. ‘October the 27th 1995’. ‘I’m sorry. What was the last name?’ ‘Bird’. ‘That’s pretty’. ‘And then the date of birth is October the 27th. 1995.’ ‘First name?’ ‘Mary’. ‘Spell it’. 'M–a–r–y’. ‘So, it’s one month supply? Of this –’

I made it back in time for the lesson, the start of which was unusually uneventful. I settled into a suspicious calm. I assigned a creative writing task. I instructed the students to compose a short story about a scene which involved exuberance, a word which appeared on that month’s spelling list. The story can be real or made up, I said. Or a mix of both. You must use literary devices. Metaphors, similes, allegories, and so on. You must work silently. You have twenty-seven minutes from now. No hands for the first ten minutes. I wrote these instructions on the board. Begin, I said. Seven hands went up. I nodded to the first one, which belonged to Dexter.

‘Miss, are we allowed to make it up?’ ‘Yes’. Two hands went down as another shot up. I nodded

toward the new one, belonging to Millie. ‘But does it have to be made up?’ ‘No. It can be real. It is up to you’.

I nodded toward Kieran, who suffered from deep anxiety and had a ‘leaving pass’ as a consequence. He could exit the room without permission if emotionally overwhelmed. ‘Miss, how much time do we have?’ ‘About twenty-one minutes now’. Oh. Really?’

I nodded. His hand shot back up, then down. I said, ‘No questions for the next ten minutes. If you want individual guidance, reread your work, then I will help’.

Kieran put his hand down. He looked straight at me, our glares meeting in the stinky space of the room’s cluttered prepubescence. He pulled his card from the inside of the blazer, I nodded, and he exited the room. I prepared myself.

There was a knock at the door. Nadine was the new internal social worker, and she appeared in my doorframe at least twice per day. ‘Sorry about this, Miss’. She looked outward across the audience. ‘I need to borrow Joanne. Would that be alright, Miss?’ Joanne’s bag was packed and her foot out the door before Nadine had finished delivering her question. Unspoken, it was always alright. Yes, thank you, Mrs. Turner, I said. I turned back inward.

‘Miss?’ ‘Working silently now, Dexter’. ‘I don’t have any ideas’. 'Anything that interests you’. ‘Nothing interests me, Miss’.

I went toward his desk. Dexter was capable once he set off; the trouble was that he rarely ever started, which convinced him that there was no way through or around or over. He liked to stay behind, where nobody expected anything much. ‘Anything interesting happen this weekend that you would like to write about?’ ‘Nothing that you would like to read about’.

I faced Dexter with my back to the door. A compromised position. The school was made of glass: the classroom doors, the walls of everything. The only opaque spaces which still retained the pre-remodel concrete were the offices of those in senior leadership.

This is why standing with your back to the classroom entrance is a risk. The leadership spend a significant amount of time pacing the halls and staring freely through the glass of classrooms, serialising teachers’ mistakes and shortcomings and students’ failures, depressions, episodes.

I abandoned Dexter still without ideas or desire. Paced once around the room, pretended to read over bits of stories. Kieran had returned by the time I arrived at his desk, front right. He was our star. He scored well on his exams but his creative writing was stifled. ‘Can I see what you’ve got?’

He handed me his workbook, half of a page filled, the writing getting bigger and more robust the farther down it went.

It was the middle of the night. It is hard to feel exuberant in the middle of the night. So, I didn’t. Then I got up. Something was at my window. What was it? Tap. Tap. Tap. Oh my god, I think.

I scanned the rest, landing with satisfaction at his conclusion – Was it all a dream? ‘It was,’ he tells me. I stared at it. He stared at me staring at it. ‘Miss’. ‘Miss’. ‘Miss’.

Pens clicked, bags opened, flirtations began again. I looked toward the glass. He was approaching. His attempts to appear meandering were pathetic. Dr Halls opened the door, shot his head in, stared directly at Dexter, who stared directly back. I looked again at Kieran’s story.

‘Lovely,’ I said. ‘That’s brilliant’. The silence held and quivered. ‘I like your use of metaphors. The ending is evocative’.

Kieran smiled as Dr Halls shut the door. They ruptured, then. Papers ripped; pens bled. I let the chaos onward. It is sometimes nice to let it force its way in, to let it climb inward and around. I dismissed them early, slumped down for a moment, then walked over to Jane’s room, where she also had a free period, and where she’d again begun to cry.

‘They’re sometimes manic, and sometimes not’. ‘That’s year 10,’ said Jane. ‘Sure. Highly hormonal’. ‘Especially this lot’. ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah 'There’s been a development in the Year 10 girls’ bathroom story’. ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah. Menstrual’. ‘You’re joking’. ‘Nope. They sent it off somewhere. I heard from Laura who heard from Josh. Who was told by Dr Halls’. ‘So it was actual writing?’ ‘Yep. Various things, in blood’. ‘Want a coffee?’ ‘Yeah’.

We wandered down the English hall into into Maths, Science. Then into the staff room, where we made coffees from stale dust. We wandered back toward the Humanities side, penetrating through the glass of the Maths rooms as we went. Dr Halls passed us by before we reached English. His eyes went in and all around.

My year 7s were characteristically early, lined up outside. I went in and locked the door. I placed a copy of Peter Pan on each desk. An odd choice, I thought. Jane disagreed. ‘It’s easy enough for them to follow,’ she’d say. ‘It’s a part of their popular culture, sort of. It’s pretty’. Is it, I’d say. Sometimes I think it’s revolting.

‘Yeah,’ she’d respond. ‘I guess that’s the beauty of interpretation’. After my Year 7s I had three back-to-back Year 8 grammar lessons, each of which were the exact same as the one before.

I started to feel the cloud. It always came back around toward the end of the school day. It made children despicable. It made me despicable. Something welled up in my womb. The posters on the walls were farcical advertisements. Macbeth and Scrooge and Miss Havisham cackled in lightning laughter. I told my final year 8 group that we’d finish with a film, and pulled up the original Wizard of Oz. Everyone sunk into it. I closed my eyes till final bell.

Jane often worked until after 5pm, and so we never left school together. I always left as early as possible, once the children vacated. I despised speaking to them after hours, when I was not myself anymore. Just before 5pm I glided into the bathroom to change into gym clothes. I felt the hormonal warmth. My fingers are small. They were covered in brightness. It was beautiful. With my pointer finger, I began to write.

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