This story is by Johanne Winwood and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I stared at the scuff mark on my shoe, the twisted pattern on my hastily pulled up sock, the scab on my knee from falling during netball.
‘Helen! Are you listening?’
My head shot up and I stared at the picture behind the headmistress’ chair. A group of sepia girls, a trophy, crossed hockey sticks. Some long distant sporting achievement, forgotten even by those pictured if they were still alive.
‘Yes Miss, sorry Miss.’
But I wasn’t sorry, not even a little.
‘We cannot have that sort of behaviour in this school, Helen. Am I making myself clear?’
‘Yes Miss, sorry Miss.’
Still not sorry of course, not even a little. Why should I be? Was she sorry? I stole a glance at her, sitting on the other chair, limp and weeping. Nice bruise, very shiny.
‘I will have to speak to your parents, Helen. They will be most disappointed.’
Heat rising, my shirt began to stick to my back. I felt a trickle of sweat run between my shoulder blades, redness spreading up my chest and across my neck. Still not sorry though.
I wasn’t sorry when I pushed her back into the locker.
I wasn’t sorry when her head banged against the metal with a loud satisfying clang.
I wasn’t sorry when I kicked her shins, bloodying her white socks and scuffing my shoe against the concrete floor.
I definitely wasn’t sorry when I flung all my weight behind the punch that blacked her eye.
‘Why did you do it, Helen?’
A kindly voice from the side, the school nurse who’d applied cold flannels to fist and face.
I looked down, crossed my ankles and shrugged. They’d never understand. Why would they? All the times I’d told, reported like we were supposed to. All those times they’d not listened. Why would they listen now? I stole a glance at the headmistress, furrowed brow, cold eyes. Why hadn’t anyone taken me seriously? I didn’t deserve to be in trouble, didn’t deserve to be here. I’d played by their rules and they had failed me.
‘Helen, there must be a reason. You’re not a violent person. Why did you attack Kim like that?’
The heat rose again, wetting my armpits and making my hands slick. I shrugged, felt the heat reach my scalp making my hair sticky. My ears began to buzz and the world closed in. I stared down a long tunnel, tried to stand and collapsed onto the beige patterned carpet.
Hands under my armpits, something flapping in my face, ringing sounds and muffled voices. So hot, so very hot. Why wouldn’t they leave me alone, stop touching me? Mouth dry, lips stuck together. I tried to breath deeply but only a whisper of air entered my lungs and I felt myself sinking again, the world fading away down a long dark tunnel as the ringing got more shrill. My body pulled and dropped, pain in my hips as they scraped across the floor. I let myself go and everything went quiet.
‘Sit her up, head between knees, that’s it. Come on Helen, snap out of it.’
A rough hand forced my head down and a wave of nausea flooded through me.
‘Sick,’ I whimpered.
From somewhere a scuffed plastic bowl was thrust into my hands and my head forced down into it. The smell of warm plastic and disinfectant released a floodgate and I vomited twice. Gulping in air I tried to raise my head but a hand on my neck kept it lowered towards the cooling vomit. Always carrots, I thought. I pushed back against the hand on my neck and raised my head.
‘Away, take it away.’
The bowl was removed, I sat up and a glass was thrust between my lips. A cold dribble of water dripped from my chin and I tried to drink. I felt cold and shivery, light headed and weak. Opening my eyes I saw the headmistress and the school nurse watching me, creases across their foreheads, eyes scanning my face. She was still sitting limp in the other chair, eyes in her lap. Not a scrap of concern, not even watching the drama unfolding before her. Cow.
I sat straighter, took the glass and sipped the water. Moving away the headmistress walked behind her desk and sat down, pulling her gown back onto her shoulder and patting down her hair. The nurse held my hand, slick with sweat and patted my knee.
‘OK now? Feeling better? That was very dramatic, always a fainter, eh Helen?’
I nodded. One of the legion of girls who regularly fainted in Assembly or when queuing for lunch. Even once in the middle of a rounders game. I had quite the reputation for hitting the ground, pale and wan. I believe it was even written on my school record that I had ‘a tendency to faint in crowds or warm weather’.
The headmistress cleared her throat, coughed and took a sip of water. She fixed me with a gimlet eye and tipped her head to one side. Cold sweat beaded under my shirt and I swallowed hard. Did she see through me? Had I got away with it? I tried to look as limp and pale as I could but she continued to stare.
‘Helen, I’m very disappointed in you. This fighting is most out of character. Not to mention being far below the standard we expect from young ladies at this school. You will be suspended for two days. Next week I expect a written apology for Kim and an essay on why violence is never a solution to our problems. Kim, your mother will collect you from Reception and you may take tomorrow off.’
Buzzing in my ears, nails digging into my palms I took a deep breath. No. That would not do.
‘I’m sorry Miss but I’m not going to do that.’
Kim’s head whipped round and she dropped her mouth open. Eyes wide she frowned at me, then a sly smile spread across her face.
‘I’m sorry Helen. What are you not going to do?’
‘I’m not going to apologise to Kim. Because I’m not sorry. Not one little bit.’
‘Helen! You will do as I say. Violence is not the answer and you will say sorry to Kim at once!’
I pulled myself up to my full height, puffed out my chest and shook my head.
‘No, Miss. I won’t say sorry. She’s been a cow to me all this term, all last term, even over Easter break. She’s pushed me into walls, knocked my things off my desk, tripped me in the corridor, broken my pencils, put my gym kit in the bin …’
I struggled to stop the tears but they came. Hot, angry tears dripping from my nose, flowing down my chin. I wiped them away with the back of my hand and sucked in more air.
‘I’m not sorry I hit her. I wish I’d hit her harder and more, I wish I’d hit her until she begged for mercy, until her nose bled and she felt half as bloody rotten as I’ve felt all year!’
I collapsed onto the chair and wailed. The pain and the anguish poured out of me and I couldn’t stop. A tiny part of me felt dreadful that I was crying and my nose was running and I was making a scene in the headmistress’ office but I couldn’t stop. All the unhappiness and the loneliness and the powerlessness poured out and I cried until I was dried up.
A hankie was pushed into my hand and I scrubbed it across my face. Screwing it up into a ball I clung on and waited for the blast from the headmistress. The room felt hot and airless, I could hardly breathe and time ticked slower and slower.
‘I didn’t know, I really didn’t. It was a laugh, a bit of fun. I was showing off to my mates and I didn’t know how you felt. I thought you knew it was a joke, a laugh. That’s all it was.’
Kim looked down at her hands, a tear dripped from her nose. Her bruised eye looked swollen and sore and she looked small and beaten. The power she’d had over me weakened, I saw someone not unlike me, trying to fit in, making unfortunate choices. Somewhere under the school uniform was a girl like me, a girl lost and looking for a place to feel like herself. She wasn’t a monster. She behaved like a bully but I sensed that there was more to her than that. Whatever had made her pick on me wasn’t personal, it wasn’t anything to do with me at all.
We’d never be friends but at that moment we were both victims.
‘Sorry,’ we both said at the same time.