Saturday, 16 January 2010

Mrs Furnell

Mrs Furnell is loud and fearsome. I see her march along the road to school in her sensible shoes and her tightly buttoned Mac, humming with lips tightly pursed. As I jump off the bus, she strides into the playground, carrying bags stuffed with marvellous items of nature; speckled toadstools, beetles in jam jars and fluffy white clouds of cuckoo spit on twigs. I watch with grim fascination as she snaps off her crisp, silk headscarf and walks purposefully through the red brick doorway of the school.

I trail behind her at a distance, listening to the clickety clack of her clumpy heels on the parquet floor. She steps smartly into a classroom and flushes out a snuffling child spotted loitering in a corner, before sweeping into her own domain with an audible sound of delight.

Her abundantly labelled classroom is another world; a honeycomb of boxes, trays and displays. At its centre, a sturdy oak desk stacked with books and pencil pots. Sunshine pours in through a wall of metal framed windows which overlooks the Water Garden. We may only enter this garden under strictest supervision. Moray Simpson once strayed into the courtyard and tumbled into the large, dark pond amongst the lilies and tadpoles. He was rescued by Mrs Furnell who, it was rumoured, soundly boxed his ears. Skinny little Moray with his red hair and freckles became a legend in the playground for surviving this ordeal.

I tiptoe past the open door of her room on my way to the cloakroom. A forest of thick brown pegs, hung with draw string bags and scarves. I kick a rubbery black plimsoll across the floor as I carefully unbutton the toggles on my brother’s old duffel coat.

The school bell clangs in the playground, robustly shaken by Mrs Pratt. This morning I am Classroom Monitor. This means I run errands for my teacher and am in charge of distributing the little bottles of milk at playtime. There is always a scramble for the bottles with the red foil tops but this morning I will set one aside for myself before the mad rush. The classroom fills with children and Miss Pollard quickly settles us down in a large group on the rug so she can call out the register. Later, as we gather our books and pencils from our plastic trays, I am summoned and told to deliver a message to Mrs Furnell - and bring back her reply. My stomach flips over and my mouth goes dry. I cannot imagine anything more terrifying. Miss Pollard shoos me off, oblivious to the effect her request has had upon me.

Twiddling my long, brown ponytail, I walk slowly down the corridor that runs like an artery through the body of the school. I hover nervously outside Mrs Furnell’s room while my stomach completes another somersault. I practise saying the message over and over in my head before reaching up to the golden doorknob. The word ‘door’ is taped to the glass pane above the handle.

Inside, Mrs Furnell is buzzing round her room in a flowery print dress, drifting a soapy smell in her wake and waving a red marker pen. She doesn’t see me come in so I tag limply behind her, hoping she’ll notice me. Her loud voice booms above me. Work quietly! Read quietly! And CHECK your spelling, she says. She spins about and spots me quaking in my brown pinafore dress. AHA! We have a VISITOR, she says and welcomes me with expansive arm gestures, embracing the whole room. Two bright black eyes fix firmly on my face. Trembling, I bow my head and recite the message. She listens as she sweeps up an exercise book from behind my left ear and begins to make elaborate ticks across the pages. I have to say the whole message twice, because she doesn’t hear me the first time. I see a bowl of shiny conkers and a spiky green stick insect in a clear, square box. The big children surge around us, holding up carefully inked writing exercises. Their faces tower above me on their long, lean limbs and the room hums with excitement. She is telling me the answer to the message I have courageously delivered. I hardly dare look at her directly. I glimpse a brightly lipsticked mouth moving at speed and notice powdery marks on her neck. She stops talking and I scuttle out the room, anxious to reach the safety of the corridor.
It’s peaceful out here; just me and the sunlight streaming in through the windows of the big double doors of the main entrance. A sweet breeze blows in from the playground and the muffled sound of “Stand Up, Clap Hands” played vigorously on Mrs Pratt’s battered piano, drifts up from a distant classroom. As I begin the long walk back to Miss Pollard, a terrible realisation dawns upon me. I don’t remember a single word of Mrs Furnell’s reply. I stop still, a sense of dread flushing my body from head to toe. How can I return to Miss Pollard without an answer? Do I risk the wrath of Mrs Furnell by going back and asking her again? Or do I try and slip quietly back into my own classroom and hope that Miss Pollard won’t see me? I press my nose against a cold glass door that leads out onto the Water Garden. From here I can look beyond the pond and into the windows of Mrs Furnell’s room. Children swarm around her like little worker bees as she sits regally at her desk. All I can see is the top of her head, crowned with carefully crafted curls. Beverley Smith stop CHATTERING this MINUTE! she shouts, so loudly, I can hear her across the garden.

Unable to make a decision, I stand awkwardly in the corridor, hoping no-one will notice me. The smell of stewed cabbage wafts passed me. I wonder if I’m brave enough to run all the way out through the double doors and keep going and going until I’m running down the big hill that leads toward home. But I know my mother would shout louder than Mrs Furnell if I did something so naughty.

Suddenly a voice booms behind me. Somebody looks LOST, it says with dread familiarity. I swivel round to see a flowery dress flapping gently in the breeze. My stomach drops down into my shoes and I feel faint with fear. Cat got your tongue, young lady? Asks Mrs Furnell. I look up to see two pink lips pulled taut. Resigned to my fate, I confess I have forgotten her reply to the message I have just delivered. I say it twice because she says What? A little LOUDER please! after my first attempt. Goodness gracious! Never mind, never mind, she says and grasps me firmly by the hand. Miss Pollard raises her eyebrows as we return to my classroom. I watch her face anxiously as Mrs Furnell explains. Expecting a severe telling-off, I’m hugely relieved to see smiles breaking out on both their faces. And to my amazement, as Mrs Furnell leaves, she pushes a fat brown conker into my shaky little hand.

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