It is a hot June afternoon, the last-but-one lunch of term, and the dinner queue is impatient for playtime and the holidays.
She fidgets from foot to foot, scraping at the worn wooden floor and absent-mindedly teasing the torn edge of her dinner ticket while she looks for her friends. Jackie is nearer the front and calls to her “Marion, come on, it’s sausage and mash and chocolate pudding,” and she half wonders about jumping the queue to join her, but Billy, Vanessa and Christine are in front of her. Billy, held back from the previous year, is the oldest and biggest in the class and Vanessa and Christine hang doe-eyed at his elbow. She thinks they are silly but together they are a formidable trio and, as they will all be going to the seniors together in September, she decides to wait.
The queue shuffles forwards but she is captivated by lazy motes of dust that drift across the high Victorian windows. They speak to her of summer, more than ice cream and thin cotton dresses ever have. While she drifts with them she does not notice that the queue has moved on, or that Wilf has moved to fill the gap between her and Billy. Billy’s crushing fist comes down on the hapless interloper, knocking him to the ground: he glowers over him. “That’ll learn yer to wait yer turn, come on Marion” and he grabs at her hand to pull her past the prostrate form.
She moves but, like everything else, now in slow motion. The smell of fried onion mixes with floor polish; the dust motes, made briefly frantic by the turbulence, seem to hang, somehow brighter in the shafts of sunlight. A circle of children is mouthing “Fight, Fight” but the chanting is drowned by a buzzing sound; even the rushing dinner ladies, wielding flashing fish slices, seem to be standing still. Her dinner ticket slips from her fingers, fluttering down, and then she is moving away from them all, faster and faster into warm, wet, darkness.
When the light returns the nurse is gently sponging her legs, with water that slops from a chipped enamel basin. “No more school for you today, poor little lamb.” She does not know that this will be the last time someone calls her that. Her mother, somehow different too, brings a long coat for her, even though it is hot.
Now it is the last day of term and she stands apart in the dinner queue; there is a gap behind her and one in front that no-one moves to fill. Everyone is looking at her, or so she thinks; some in awe and some disgusted. Vanessa and Christine are whispering behind their hands as if she cannot see, as if she isn’t even there. Billy, who might understand what it is to be different, is not there: suspended for his last day. Only Jackie saves a place for her at the table, and she is a child for one more hour: “Roast beef and gravy, and semolina with jam for afters! Don’t you just love school dinners?”
© Andrew Gold June 2009