Friday, December 30

The First Woman to Ever Notice Me

THE FIRST woman to ever notice me was much older than me. The first woman to ever love me sat in the staff carpark at lunch, smoking a cigarette and feeling despicable—sometimes even ducking—when one of the children spotted her. She wore these thick, soft old cardigans that were black & gold. Her hair was cut short, was grey, was dry, and did not move in the wind, and in assemblies one got the impression that she lay on the outskirts of the staff. She smelled, without fail, of instant coffee & cigarettes.
Her name was Mrs Davis.
Now, how those words tumble into each other: how the “D” gives it a second wind, how the “is” reverberates over what I am and what I became to be. The “D” is as forceful as her entrance into our ground floor classroom at primary school. The room sat solidly in the small bowels of the place; opposite the school hall, beside the playground, and juxtaposed intimately with the sundial that someone had vandalised, leaving only a naked bronze disc with Roman numerals upon it. She was one of those teachers who is respected in the profession for entering a room and endowing it not only with silence but with a placated interest upon the inhabitants that is difficult to master.
From above her flat-soled shoes and her heaving bosom she told us all—“Kayleigh has been taken sick with the chickenpox. You should go home and tell your parents, too. Some of you will probably get it.”
Damn near the whole class got it that month; every one of us succumbing, one by one, to the illness. She probably saw it year in, year out.
She told my mother that I had a knack for drawing. She had noticed it. I was only six but she, leaning over my chair, noticed that I didn’t draw like the other children. She, of course, pointed it out to my mother after school.
“His granddad taught him how to draw tractors and so on.”
“He is very talented at it. You should encourage him to draw at home.” She paused and eyed the other parents leaving the playground. “Also, I’ve noticed something else about him.”
“Oh?” said my mother.
“Yes, he walks on tip-toes. You know? Always on tip-toes. Like the floor is cold or hot or something.”
My mother stared at her, at me, at her.
“Keep an eye on it. It could be a problem.”
Mrs Davis was old and knew what she was talking about. Three years later I was operated on. The tip-toes had been a bad sign. The operation was a success but I could no longer run faster than anyone else in my year, however I no longer walked on tip-toes. I walked like everyone else. By that point, I was long out of Mrs Davis’ class.
It was on our way to school one morning, passing the village store, my baby brother twitching his chubby legs, that my mother suggested an idea for Mrs Davis’ Christmas present.
“Why don’t you draw her a picture?”
I was silent, considering.
“Draw a picture of her or you or something, and then we’ll buy a frame for it and give it to her.”
I was still considering it.
“What do you think? It’s better than getting her a bottle of wine or some chocolates. Everyone will get her a bottle of wine or some chocolates.”
I thought—“OK then.”
I drew things very small back then. “Draw bigger,” Mrs Davis told me. I could not. My perfectly detailed drawings would take up only a quarter—always the bottom-left quarter—of one A4 sheet. I drew myself, a timid self-portrait, and showed my mother.
“Could you not have drawn yourself bigger?”
I tore the thing to pieces and started again.
This time I filled the page. My form was slap-bang in the middle. I was all right with it.
My mother looked at it while she was cooking dinner.
“Very good! OK, I will pick up a frame when I go into town on Thursday!”
Walking to school that last day before Christmas—when I fully anticipated a day of watching films and fooling around and no work—I felt a joy in being able to give Mrs Davis such a gift. All the other children with their wine and their chocolates and their flowers, and here I was with a picture in a frame! She would love it, I was sure, my little head was positive that she would love it. It was wrapped up, with the terrible wrapping skill only available to young men, in my bag. My mother walked me to school, my middle brother holding firmly to the pram of my youngest brother.
She unwrapped it as soon as I gave it to her. I watched her face. At the end of the day her desk was cluttered with chocolates and wine and flowers, and there was my picture.
Now when I think about Mrs Davis I imagine her hand on my shoulder, looking down through the glasses she wore with the string that kept them on her neck, and the smell of instant coffee & cigarettes that fell down to my nostrils. Even then I was cheeky and I often made her laugh, just as much as I made her scream across the class at me. She always made me draw. When she shouted across the room at me, I froze. My spine whipped straight and I stared at her and her body seemed to fill the room. I stopped whatever it was I was doing. You did not cross her, that was the rule, otherwise you were in trouble. She could shout louder and deeper than many men. I suppose all that instant coffee and all those cigarettes gifted her a rugged and powerful set of pipes.
She showed me a photograph some months later. It was of the hallway in her house. There, on the cornflower wall, was my picture. She smiled at me and I, nervously, smiled back at her. There! my work was there, long after the chocolate had been eaten and the wine had been drunk and the flowers had died. My work was there.
I was only in her class for the year, then I would often look her up in assemblies. She sat, as well as the other staff, around the hall full of children, on a chair, overlooking, her flat-soled shoes together. Still it occurred to me that she did not fit in with the other teachers. Sometimes I saw her in the carpark, having a cigarette in her car, and when I passed to go to the dentist’s or the doctors, she would slide down in her seat and look out through those big glasses at me and I would smile and wave.

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