A Short Story
WARNING: Those of a sensitive disposition may find this story disturbing, but … well, it is Halloween.
The first kid was definitely an accident, I mean, there was no other way to explain it. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen, not like that. The poor kid. The poor parents. But anyone who looks after children knows, it only takes a split second for something to go wrong, just that fleeting moment when you turn your head and… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
They found her lying there on the floor of the school hall, her limbs all tangled inside her PE kit, as they would be if you’d fallen from that height. The irony was she was actually a brilliant climber, she belonged to one of those indoor clubs. Her seventh birthday party had even been held at one and apparently all of the children got a turn to have a climbing lesson with an instructor. Well, the ones who received an invitation that is.
Forensics quickly put up one of those white tents around the body, but the kids had already seen the worst of it. You forget about the blood, too. The school had to get a new floor put down because however much they tried, they just couldn’t get the red out of the cracks in the parquet flooring in that particular spot. The school hall was out of action for a week, the PTA fund for the year depleted, and to think they had plans for a new climbing frame for the playground. Still, it wouldn’t have felt right after, you know…
Some parents described it as an ‘accident waiting to happen.’ People always reach for clichés when something so tragic occurs. We all need a way of making sense of the world, whatever age we are. The official verdict from the coroner was ‘misadventure’ and luckily it happened just before the autumn half term, which gave everyone a chance to have a week off and put it to the back of their minds.
The second kid, well that was just awful timing, at the nativity, and in front of so many people as well. That was the worst bit. No, of course it wasn’t. The worst bit was losing another pupil, from Year Two as well, and so close to Christmas.
The tree the school bought was so beautiful — a Norweigian spruce with non-dropping pine needles. Since I heard that I’ve often wondered whether it might have been better for the poor girl if it’d had less needles when it fell on her, though perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference, especially as it wasn’t the tree that killed her so much as the bauble — it cut straight through the jugular. At first we thought they’d got everyone out of the way just in time, until someone spotted the patent black shoes poking out from under a bit of tinsel. It took four of the dads to lift the tree off her, and by the time they did, well, it was too late.
The kids had been looking forward to a Christmas lunch in the hall, but that put paid to that. It was all a huge shame. A tragedy. And a bauble, who would imagine something so beautiful, so delicate — so small — could be so lethal? I took all mine off the tree after that, I just couldn’t look at them. The little girl had been playing the Angel Gabriel at the time. There had been a bit of a squabble among the girls in Year Two for the starring role; I know Rachel had been disappointed she hadn’t got the part.
There were investigations of course because, coming just weeks after the last incident, questions were being asked, quite understandably, especially with it being the same year and all the same children as witnesses. But it was an accident, there’s always going to be a risk with trees of that size. Maybe it was Mother Nature getting her own back on us — for the tree, I mean. It’s only human to seek explanations in things we can’t understand.
Still, they’d had two weeks off for Christmas, and we all thought, new year, new start. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It’s the same as ‘time’s a healer’, more clichés to reach out for, but they’re there for a reason, because they’re true.
I guess after everything that had happened, the school wanted to give the children something to look forward to, that’s why they came up with the idea of a Valentine’s Disco. They never would have usually made a fuss about Valentine’s Day. They got all the pupils involved in decorating the hall, each class had to make these red paper hearts. It was something to take their minds off what had happened because the kids were nervous, quite naturally, you saw the way they hung on a little tighter to Mum or Dad’s hand in the playground each morning, how the parents had to gently coerce them into their classroom. Not my Rachel of course.
The Valentine’s Disco was cancelled on the day, it had to be, it couldn’t have gone ahead after what happened that afternoon. They found him in the boys’ loos, face down on the cold tiles, a pool of blood underneath him, and a couple of those green paper towels. That was nothing to do with the scene, but you know what children are like for not putting paper towels into the waste basket. They said he’d been running with scissors, the same scissors they’d been using to cut out those little red paper hearts. That was the ironic thing, because the scissors had gone straight into his — they’d punctured his aorta. Poor William.
By the time all the parents arrived to pick up their kids from the same class, they were furious, quite rightly.
‘There’s something wrong with this school!’
‘You’re picking off our children one by one!’
‘There’s a serial killer on the loose here!’
Well, that was just ridiculous because everyone knew all visitors had to sign in at reception.
It was worse for Rachel because she and William had that falling out. It was over something silly, him making a Valentine’s card for Maria. You know what kids are like, it would have been forgotten the next day, but, well, there wasn’t a next day, was there?
The school was closed on Thursday and Friday. I suppose with three children killed in the same year, they had more questions to ask than before. The head teacher sent a pamphlet home to all the parents: When The News is Sad: Talking to Children About Sudden Death. I explained it all to Rachel as she sat colouring-in at the kitchen table. She didn’t look up from her felt-tips, but I know it went in. Many of us parents thought in clichés again — bad luck happens in threes — perhaps it was the only way of carrying on.
There were two more deaths before Easter — twins. I know, awful, and that one really was horrific. But in some ways maybe it was best they went together. Perhaps given everything that had been happening we shouldn’t have agreed to that school trip to the pier at Brighton, maybe it was a bad omen and there are some strong currents in that particular stretch of coastline. Still, Rachel said she had a nice day. She enjoyed the fish and chips she said.
So three plus two makes five and so it was no wonder that Year Two struggled on Sports Day, we were at a disadvantage to start with.
The sun shone that day for us though, which seemed a stroke of luck we sorely needed. I watched Rachel as she hopped inside her sack, giving it all she had. She’d been practising in a pillowcase in our back garden for much of that week. In the end though it was Emily from Oak Class who pipped her to the post for the sack race and the loudest cheer went up from both her parents, which I thought was a little over the top. I’ll admit Rachel had a bit of a meltdown.
‘She’s fine, she’s fine,’ I told the other parents, as they stood back with their own kids as she was kicking and punching, ‘just a bit tired, that’s all.’
I knew they understood. These seven year olds, they’re all the same really. Well, the ones who are still with us.
Looking back now it’s a shame such a sunny day ended how it did. The police had quickly secured the area after little Emily’s body was found in the wooden playhouse, inside the same sack she’d beaten Rachel in — a bittersweet moment for her parents. The post-mortem revealed one of those tiny beanbags they’d used for the obstacle race right at the back of her throat. I’ll admit, that posed a few questions. Why would she have wanted to try and swallow that? I wouldn’t go so far as to say she deserved it but…
Anyway, the police decided enough was enough, the BBC did vox pops outside the school and a splinter group of parents formed and put pressure on the governors to investigate. But didn’t they realise that we’d been the victims of nothing more than a string of bad luck?
We were all grateful the end of the school year was only a week away. It had been a tougher year than most.
On the last day of term, I put Rachel to bed.
‘Mumma,’ she said, ‘tell me again the story of how I was made.’
I knelt down beside her bed as she pulled the duvet up under her chin. ‘Well,’ I began, ‘a kind man gave some seeds and a kind lady gave an egg, and the doctors put them together in a tube to make an embryo and put that in my tummy, and then you were mine.’
‘And were they really kind?’ she asked, looking up at me with that foxy little face that looked nothing like my own.
‘The kindest people you could imagine,’ I said, smiling.
I kissed her goodnight and pulled the door closed behind me. I didn’t let go of the handle until I’d cried all the tears, and it was only then that I crept downstairs. I went into my home office and shut the door behind me and there I opened the safe I kept locked away in a drawer marked ‘private.’ Inside, a pile of paperwork, and right at the bottom one sheet embossed with the logo of the IVF clinic. Just a few details: age, height, eye and hair colour, education. No other clues.
I looked up to Rachel’s bedroom and felt my heart pull on that invisible string, that direct line to hers.
By the time September came around everything had changed: new town, new start, new uniform.
‘I preferred blue,’ Rachel said, wriggling inside her new pinafore.
‘Green suits you better, Darling.’
We walked to school, her tiny hand in mine. I smiled at other parents along the way, we’d need to make friends before it was too late. I’d found the perfect school — an outstanding Ofsted, a lovely little library, they even had a tennis club. It will be different this time, I told myself.
I kept busy that first day, I unpacked boxes and found places in the new house for ornaments. I watched the clock, crossing off the minutes towards 3.15 with pride swelling inside, only we never quite made it. The secretary who called from the school office sounded so shaken.
‘Th…there’s been an accident,’ she said, ‘I need to reassure you that Rachel is absolutely fine but …another girl in her class…this …this has never happened before…’ She broke down.
It wasn’t until I got to the school that I heard the details, many of the parents questioned how a whole wall of books could come unsecured like that.
‘She might have stood a chance if they’d been reading books,’ one mother said to me, ‘but they say they were all atlases that fell on her.’
Talk about the weight of the world, eh? I shook my head slowly, as Rachel slipped her little fingers through mine.
‘I had a nice first day, Mumma,’ she said, smiling up at me as her classmates clung crying to their mothers’ knees — I guess they’d known the child a lot longer than Rachel.
I wanted to give this other mum something to help make sense of it all, after all, I’d been there. But there was little I could come up with on the hoof like that.
’An accident waiting to happen,’ I said, patting her arm. A cliché yes, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got.