TW: The following piece contains themes that some readers might find upsetting.
When the rain wept and wailed and hammered its wet fists against the fences and flung itself down on the grass over and over again for two weeks, everyone in the valley was dismissive of it. After it had blown itself out and made way for the sunshine and a warm breeze that made the trees clap and the bushes shuffle in anticipation, the rain was chided and forgotten about. But its uneasiness had just withdrawn to the hills, where it had concentrated, pooled.
……… The water that came out of nowhere over the brim of the valley skipped up the cracked tile steps of the school like a trailing coat and skated down the ground floor corridor into the art class- room. It licked half-sculpted heads, reconfigured collages, fought against the repulsion of water- proof aprons and candle-wax stars in diluting midnight-ink skies.
………Taken off guard, the small group of students and their tutor tried ejecting through the fire escape, but the security chain had rusted into its bed, pinning it open only a couple of inches. Enough water could leave through the back to keep the flood at chest height – the teacher’s chest – so he and the four girls had to climb onto the storage shelf, stepping onto once precious mulched paintings and sketches, using the apron hooks twisted into the wooden shelf columns as a leg-up to the top shelf only a few feet from the ceiling. They pushed vague papier-mâché forms, wiry maquettes and carved animals into the dark grey rivery guest with an absorbing, inaudible plop.
………The sound was a constant waterfall yawn, like they were in a cove somewhere in America, the sun streaming in through the windows while the constant water ran over the flat-rock desks and rock-pool sink, giving the classroom the kind of deep clean it hadn’t had in over a decade.
………The girls had to bring out the most expressive sides of themselves to compensate for not being able to shout, partly from the noise but also from fear. They all hung onto one another, having not touched in years – not so much as a misplaced fingertip when reaching for the modelling clay or the scissors. They gripped the sleeves and knees of their young trainee teacher, grateful to him, and he felt indebted to them for making him feel awash with respect, duty and purpose. He praised them all every few minutes, shaking their hands as if handing out medals: young ladies, I am so impressed with your bravery… Sylvie, elodie, Sarah, Amandine, you are doing very well, everything will be fine, we just have a little wait. Shall we all sing a song to pass the time?, he screamed, grinning.
………The impatient water turned back out of the classroom to join the new wave running around the corner to the history lesson. The girls were grabbed and thrown from their desks, swathes of water pounced off their chests and then bounded out of the open windows like foxes.
………The teacher bundled a few of the girls together and hugged them to him while standing on his desk; tens of girls bobbed up in the swell, held and lifted at the waist, their chins rising as gracefully as their record-breaking jumps, their mouths in sweet ‘O’ shapes, their navy blue sailor suits dyed a teenage black. The large maps spaced along the back wall of the room started guzzling, choked, then lay upon the water in their new translucence.
Thank goodness the older, generally taller students were on the ground floor. The higher the floor, the younger the pupils.
* * *
Half an hour before the flood, Ernestine had been on the second to top floor being taught by Monsieur Dubois.
………She felt sluggish, her eyes and neck were drooping. She couldn’t concentrate through the heat and the throbbing fog that was lingering from another evening of late-night TV and texting and imagining a variety of ways to make Monsieur Dubois look at her.
………When he caught her eye and smiled in the hallway or in class, every muscle in her body did the equivalent of grabbing her arm and whispering, Did you see that? A positive comment on her work would be a week of euphoria, something negative or even lukewarm would mean a month of devastation, of shame and self-loathing. Most of the time she felt invisible, but he could see her.
………Why do you have to look shocked, like the girls in magazines, to be beautiful? she thought. When she tried it in the mirror, she looked like someone had jumped out at her unexpectedly. Mouth slightly open and eyes wide: Don’t toddlers look like that after seeing a magic trick?
………She practiced this look subtly at her desk as a beacon for him, but it turned into a yawn. She had been experimenting with eyeliner lately and remembered while looking in the noir sheen of her phone down under her desk that Madame Camille had made her wash off her sophisticated flicks before class, leaving her with smudged, sleepless eyes.
………She would watch anything on TV that seemed to have even the vaguest chance of having some- thing erotic in it at some point. Old repressed vicars broken down by the sensuality of the teenage daughters of their clergy; girls pursuing married men for months, unable to think about anything else, even studying; visiting former schoolmates of parents who were foppish, cool and flirtatious; teachers ravaging their pupils after school. The girls were always so long-limbed, and could hold eye contact.
………She spent a lot of time in her room watching TV, sometimes from after dinner until one or two in the morning, especially in the summertime when she couldn’t sleep, without her pyjamas on, watching things she wasn’t meant to watch. She had worked out how to switch off the timer her parents had set years ago. She had been staring into the TV for a long, long time – she was in dialogue with it. She had been restless since she was in primary school, fidgety, distracted, and the TV started presenting her with things that made this pleasant agitation peak. It started to even initiate it. Is this what you like, ernestine? it seemed to ask her.
In the summer she felt like she belonged to everyone, and that she wanted to be near every- one. She felt drawn to every living thing.
Sometimes she felt like she wasn’t made of the same blood and skin as the other students. She felt like she was in a spaceship looking out of the front window at the world and everyone knew she wasn’t real. Mimi and Suzanne did make her feel real. They worried about her. ernie, they would peep when they could see her drifting off into her own thoughts. ernie, let’s all go to the beach this weekend. ernie, we love you.
………‘Ernie, we can wait for you?’ Mimi looked concerned and annoyed.
………Monsieur Dubois had asked Ernestine to stay behind at the end of the class, enthusiastically, without looking at her and without saying why; he just began talking slightly erratically about the similarities between mathematics and literature, how they create spaces where anything could happen. She nodded, elated at his request rather than his statement, and he said that he was pleased that she agreed. She packed away her notebook and pens, half reading the eight-ball prophecy that loomed up on her phone from Patrice at the boys’ school a few miles away: Photo? xx
………‘Ernie,’ Suzanne repeated, ‘shall we wait outside for you?’
………‘No,’ she drowsily waved off.
………They both filed out, laying a curse on Monsieur Dubois as they left.
………Monsieur Dubois kept looking at her arms and legs while he piled up textbooks, perhaps at the fine white hair sticking straight up and out and catching the sunlight. Maybe at the down on her face, like a baby has, that baby’s lick off and eat. She looked down at her arms. Was the hair a continuation of her blood vessels? They hadn’t been taught that, but why do we have hair on our bodies? She wiped a sweaty hand down her sweaty leg. She liked being around Monsieur Dubois but also found him repulsive. In turn, she found the repulsiveness of him attractive and somehow correct. She noticed that his nose and forehead were greasy and she acknowledged to herself that she was not greasy.
………‘Would you come to my office with me, would you help me carry some books?’
………‘Yes, of course, Monsieur.’
* * *
His office was in a former science lab on the ground floor. He swung open the windows to suck out the stale air. He asked her to sit down with him at his desk and he started saying that she was a real talent and that he could help her improve even further.
………He placed only two fingertips – not a palm, not a hand – on her upper arm, tapped them unperceptively. She couldn’t hold his look, her head was fixed downwards as if her neck had locked up, embarrassed, exhilarated.
………‘You are a joy to be around, my top pupil. We need more like you, we need you to be an example, and we will have to work very hard together. You get my lessons, you always fulfil your tasks exactly as asked. I’ve told my wife about you, we’ve been talking about you. It’s hard being a teacher, so much responsibility, sometimes people don’t listen. I’m so pleased about you. There is some- thing about you, do you know that? You must be able to see it! Of course you do! It’s such a relief to be out of that classroom and here, with you.’
She felt constricted, she felt dangerous, powerful; was she his now? She felt the age that she felt she was. They were having an adult conversation.
………‘Please, call me Bernard. But not in the class- room. I’m worried about you though. I’m worried you might lose focus. We must start right away.’
………He touched an opened envelope on his desk and tucked his frizzed-out hair behind his enormous elephant ear.
………Adults always look tired, but he looked really tired. His clothes looked as old and as tired as he did. She imagined that underneath his clothes he was wearing all the clothes he’d worn on all the previous days she’d seen him. Did he sleep, did he eat?
She was amazed that she had created this reaction in him. She sat on her hands and looked at the desk, nodding out of sync with his boomed words and his conducting hands. She was so overwhelmed that she could hear a roar in her ears. Is this what happens before you faint? she thought.
She could smell the sweat emitting from the greenhouse of his opaque white shirt. The sound seemed to be rumbling out of her own body. Or was it from the dips in the floor set with drain grates for washing the burnt-red tiles, a dozen of them like eyes?
………The odd dripping and gurgling coming from down below gave the room a dungeon quality of coolness. Words started coming out in a crescendo of his desperate eagerness.
‘So, I was thinking about how you live very close by – across the park? Yes, well, I thought that maybe this weekend, tomorrow, you could simply walk across the park and we could –’, he coughed, twice, ‘go over some quite complex things that the others in the class just wouldn’t understand, your parents must be busy on the weekends anyway and most probably wouldn’t even notice you not being in the house, a young lady of your age must come and go as she pleases, I think I’ve seen your late night comings and goings –’, he wagged his finger and giggled while grimacing, ‘and, and, and…’
………The ‘and’ was reverberating, becoming quieter with every repeat; she seemed to be tilting back- wards at the same time. He swallowed and dryly said her name while casually, mechanically, reaching his hand out towards her, his hand not attached to him. He fixed her with a horrified stare; he could hear the roar! He could read her mind because she was staring at him so hard. But then he looked at the door. Water!
………There was a thud against the door – he must have shut the door – but the water squeezed itself underneath, around and even over, pressing in to join them, spurting with enormous pressure in massive arcs into the room like clear rainbows.
………It ignored the step down from the door and came gushing across the floor, swirling, dancing, shimmering, crawling around and under the workstations, pooling around Monsieur Dubois’ desk, splashing him playfully, bathing their feet.
………Ernestine windmilled her arms and fell back- wards off her chair, the stream of shrieking water already a foot up off the floor; it hit her in the eyes, weighed down her arms. He was shouting her name, questioningly, as if she had caused this interruption. Then he was screaming it as the crowd of water rushed them, whisked her up and chucked her straight out of an open window, sending her sliding in a torrent of bush-prickled water down into the continuation of the valley behind the school.
Au revoir, ernestine!
* * *
She was sucked downwards like a handkerchief sacrificed at the set-sail farewell – pop – far, far away, rolling on the surface of the thundering water, trapped inside a mirror in flux.
………Hours and hours went by, she stole a gasp of air whenever she felt the wind like warm breath on her face. She dreamt of her parents, walls, chairs, eating breakfast, blue sky, beach holidays, feeling bored, Monsieur Dubois. Would he have escaped? she wondered.
………She ricocheted off of things natural and synthetic and sharp, parts of her body ached, she felt winded, there were bits of her that stung as if bleeding. She imagined these cracks in her skin smoking like dirty paintbrushes in jam jars of water.
Paper and leaves and tissue and plastic stuck to her, she slid across the roofs of cars, got snagged momentarily on a cluster of tangled bicycles. She was just debris, mixing with other debris. Preoccupied eyes fell upon her in the swirling mash without realising what she was. A bin-liner, a piece of rubbish. She was kissed all over by plump baguettes bobbing around her like ducks.
* * *
When she finally came to a stop her face felt frozen, taut. She had no energy left. She was in pain. She blinked shallowly; something was sticking her eyelashes together. She could only see a few grey inches in front of her. She tried harder and could make out fields of water, she was hovering above them. How long will it take to walk through the park tomorrow? she wondered without feeling. I better get home, my parents might already be home – (Her mother was on a halted train four hours out of the city, anxious in the middle of the submerged countryside, trying to get through to their house phone but with insufficient signal. Her father was pacing around their house half-dazed with the flu, holding his car keys in one hand and his portable radio in the other, wishing he could drive to the school, knowing the roads would be closed and that he too could get stuck. He had woken up from a fever dream half comprehending that his daughter’s school was being read out in a list of those affected by severe, sudden flash floods that had been on repeat for hours.) – but she was being held in the responsible arms of a tree and could not move for fear of it releasing her.
………She felt unalone.
………She turned her head very gently and saw a grotty cushion with a soft-toy face. What was once a sheep was lying in the tree above her.
………She felt like being friendly.
………‘Bonjour,’ she mouthed at the sheep’s head.
………It didn’t respond. At first. Its mouth was smashed up, like a rotten log chipping itself to pieces. It slowly seemed to be testing whether the bits that made up its mouth would hold together, and then, finally, it mumbled:
A mite skated over the surface of its only eye. ‘Are you OK?’ Ernestine clucked out the question in her throat.
………‘I’ll. Be. Fine.’ It took a few minutes to process these words.
‘I don’t feel well.’ She felt too tired to nurture a tear. Her exhale was a shallow, almost imperceptible draft.
They lay in silence for a while, an hour, two hours, not looking at each other. Then, her thoughts seemed to come out directly as speech.
………‘Do you think Monsieur Dubois is… alright? I shouldn’t have left him.’
………‘you wanted to leave him.’
………The sheep slurped on its words.
………A pig was hanging in the branches above them, heavy as a rubber thundercloud, its tongue hanging like a deflated balloon out of its mouth.
………‘I wonder if it’s listening.’
………‘you should have. By the way.’
………The sheep coughed, dribbling black blood into its woolly goatee.
………‘you should have wanted to leave.’
………‘I like him.’
She muttered it almost inaudibly.
The pig’s tongue disappeared up behind its teeth and it boomed:
………STAY AWAY FROM HIM
Its chewy voice echoed over the plain of water. Saliva ran out of its mouth onto her shoeless foot.
………‘But… why? He… likes me too. He makes me feel… good.’
A trio of skinned rabbits, presumably from the butcher’s or a nearby farmhouse, glistened in the tops of the tree like oily pigeons. They tweeted every now and again:
………G i v e m a m a a k i s s ! G i v e p a p a a k i s s !
The sheep’s eye did nothing.
………STAY AWAY FROM HIM, the pig rumbled again.
………‘He is not your… friend. He is trying… to trick you. He wants to be… alone with you.’
………‘I want to be alone with him.’
………G i v e g r a n d – p è r e a k i s s !
………‘you want to… share a secret with him. that’s… oK. you can’t stop… thinking about him. Like that sports presenter that’s… on tV all the time. What’s his name. Bruno Petit. that’s oK too. you want to… continue feeling. Fine. Just not with him.’
………G i v e y o u r s p e c i a l u n c l e a k i s s !
………‘It won’t stop where you… hope in your heart. His praise won’t… last much longer. you won’t… want him in all rooms in broad daylight sober and in all weathers…’
………‘Stop patronising me. I’m not a… child.’
………‘there won’t be a… bed and… candles and… roses and… conversation, he won’t be wearing his… shit suit. It will be in his… living room or a… kitchen or a… utility room.’
………‘It will be in the… morning or lunchtime or the mid-afternoon. He’ll be in his… weekend track- suit. you won’t feel like it. He will. It cannot be undone.’
………HE’S AN ARSEHOLE
………He just doesn’t want to… play by the rules, he thinks they’re not for him. He’s like a king burn- ing down his own castle.’
………DON’T TRUST HIM
She looked down through the branches to the water, and saw her podgy red face scribbled out by her black hair.
………‘When he looks at you, you feel like a… woman. When he looks at you he sees a… little girl. A pet. A challenge. A fix. You’re not yet in the age of lovers. you should be able to laugh at a lover. overpower them. Feel safe even in the deliciously perilous moments. you can tease them. Argue with them. they shouldn’t be able to hold you being you against you. or call you a liar in public and ruin your life at any moment. Please, keep it all for yourself, for as long as you can. you can trust yourself. you will not let you down, or lie to yourself, or misunderstand things, or change your mind on what the deal was, or hurt you. Give yourself everything that you’re feeling.’
………HE SHOULD KNOW BETTER
………‘ernie, do you know how heavy a man is?’
………e n c h a n t é e !
………‘How do you picture it happening, from above? From the side? Can you picture his real face right now?’
………I r e w a r d a l l m y l i t t l e w o r k e r s !
………‘Will you both spend supper with your family?
………Has he seen your collection of bears? your post- ers?’
………HE SEES THAT YOU THINK YOU’RE WEAK
………t h e r e – t h e r e , t h e r e – t h e r e !
………‘you are curious. you won’t resist. you don’t even know what it is you would be resisting. you haven’t experienced the aftermath of count- less complicated situations. you’ve not yet experienced your self breaking. Afterwards you will justify it, even if you feel a certain sadness.’
………‘I… won’t regret it if that’s what you mean. I have to live.’
………‘you will. It will all come to pass. But on better terms. Maybe with Patrice. Maybe someone else. Maybe no one. you think this is living. I under- stand why. But it’s like nuclear waste, it’s like setting a cliff off crumbling, it’s like turning over a sand timer. the memory will start off small and even maybe warm. then your brain will adjust, but will have to do so around it…’
………I t h o u g h t w e w e r e f r i e n d s ? !
………The sheep suddenly got more and more worked up.
………‘He should be like a third parent to you! Better than a parent! A protector, a confidante! He should want you to grow, and help you to! there are laws. there is protocol. there are contracts. you don’t have to worry about those. He does! His name is all over these things. Not to mention the unspoken rules. He shouldn’t be so selfish.’
………I ’ l l g e t y o u o u t o f t h i s m e s s …
………‘But… But sometimes teachers and students fall in love and get married.’
………Ernestine mumbled this without any commitment at a slowed down speed, like a worn-out video, her eyes closing.
………‘the world has offered you a lie. Maybe both of you. But I don’t care about him. I care about you.’
………… I f y o u d o m e a f a v o u r !
………‘He’s pushing against a world he feels trapped in. It’s all for him. And afterwards, you will be…’
………RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN
Ants were working through her hair whispering the sweetest things. Something heavy and half- formed, like a pebble or a bubble, dislodged from the back of her mind and settled at the front of it. And then she fell asleep.
* * *
Ernestine woke up in the backseat of a farmer’s truck, covered in a coat pungent with animal dung, moving at a crocodile’s pace through water in the dark.
………My poor Moutony, poor poor Moutony, the farmer’s hat muttered to itself over the low radio.
………A bundle of wool and legs could be made out in the trailer through the thin, rectangular back window, spattered with dry mud like flicks of plaster of Paris.
* * *
At the hospital, with her worried-sick mother and sick-shuddering father asleep in chairs by her bed, she was exhausted but wide awake.
………She felt feverish. She found herself in the en suite staring at her miraculous pink body in the mirror. She was bruised, nicked and grazed.
………She felt strong and calm and like an old friend.
* * *
The school almost fell apart after its vigorous wash. A makeshift learning environment was set up in the form of a series of raised portacabins perched on the residual water in the games field. The students would avoid alligators by jumping from wooden pallet to wooden pallet from the driveway to the jumbled row of huts.
………On her first day back at school six weeks later, Ernestine looked out for Monsieur Dubois. He better be the one looking out for me, she thought. He better watch out. She had had a long time to think and had a lot to say to him.
………All the teachers were lined up on the driveway of the damp school in rubber boots and coats – all of them apart from one.
………‘Madame Camille, where is Monsieur Dubois?’
……… ‘Ah, hello Ernestine, I’m glad you’re feeling better! I’m afraid Monsieur Dubois got very sick after the incident and he’ll be taking a long rest. We’re not sure when he’ll be back. Hurry now, your lesson is starting soon!’
………Ernestine wearily took on the pallets, hopping like a sulking frog across lily pads, slightly behind Mimi and Suzanne, and just in front of some older girls who were speaking very loudly and stepping on Ernestine’s heels.
………‘Did you hear about what happened to the sale type?’ ‘Which one?’
………‘My papa and the rest of the firefighters found him on the roof of the school the day after the flood. He’d climbed up the drainpipe. He was only wearing a vest and his underpants and was covered in cuts. But that wasn’t the weirdest part. Get this: he was talking to some dead pigeons and a half-drowned cat and a mouldy rat. Saying all this stuff about how he knew it was wrong, that he was sorry, and all this fucking scary shit about a girl at a school in Lyon and he kept shouting: Call the police! Call the police! Apparently he’s still in hospital, but my mama saw his wife and daughter driving off in their car with suitcases and boxes…’
………‘Good riddance to the creep. Did he say anything about Sophie?’
………‘Don’t know. I wonder if she’s had it yet?’
………At the crossroad of pallets leading to different cabins, the older girls took a left with their arms tentatively around each other, as if trying it out. Ernestine stopped for a moment and watched them, then carried on heaving her heavy body to her classroom.
Suzanne held the door open for her, and Mimi leaned forward and offered her a hand up.
‘Divination’ by Jen Calleja, from I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype, 2020). Reproduced by permission of Prototype.
Jen Calleja‘s latest books are the short story collection I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For (Prototype) and the pamphlet essay Goblins (Rough Trade Books). Her next book, Vehicle: a verse novel, is forthcoming autumn 2022 from Prototype.