Count­down

Corinne had come full cir­cle at her beloved Hill Park Pri­mary . . .

The People's Friend - - This Week - by Ewan Smith

TEN! Corinne gazed round the class­room in as­ton­ish­ment. She had never been in such a place be­fore.

It was like the Cave of Won­ders from “Aladdin”. Ev­ery­where she looked there were things to do and see and play with.

Then Mum was squat­ting down be­side her, grip­ping her by the shoul­ders.

“You mustn’t worry, dear,” she said with a trem­ble in her voice. “Ev­ery­one is ner­vous and scared on their first day at school.”

Corinne frowned.

“Are you cry­ing, Mum?” “Oh, dar­ling.” Her mum sobbed, giv­ing her a damp hug.

Then she was gone, chased away with the other mums by the cheer­ful old lady with grey hair who seemed to be in charge.

A boy was stand­ing in front of her.

“I’m Far­quar Mclean. Will you be my friend?”

Corinne looked at him thought­fully. He had freck­les and grubby hands, but there was a mis­chievous look in his eyes which she liked.

“OK,” she agreed.

NINE!

Mr Camp­bell, the headteacher, smiled as he looked round the packed hall. He held up a sheet of pa­per.

“Chil­dren, we’ve counted your votes to elect the chair of the pupil coun­cil here at Hill Pri­mary, and we’ve come up with an in­ter­est­ing re­sult.

“It was a tie be­tween two of our Year Six pupils, Far­quar Mclean and Corinne O’don­nell.”

Corinne blushed with plea­sure as ap­plause rang round the hall.

“How­ever, it does leave us with a prob­lem,” Mr Camp­bell con­tin­ued. “I sug­gest that we toss a coin to de­cide the win­ner.”

Corinne quickly stuck up her hand.

“Yes, Corinne?” “Couldn’t Far­quar and I be joint-chairs?”

Mr Camp­bell’s eyes nar­rowed.

“Do you think the two of you could work to­gether?”

“Of course,” Corinne said con­fi­dently.

Far­quar was a sim­ple soul; it would be easy to per­suade him to go along with her ideas.

“What do you think, Far­quar?”

“Fine with me, sir.” Far­quar grinned.

Corinne was be­sot­ted with him. He knew per­suad­ing her to go along with his ideas would be a dod­dle.

“That’s set­tled, then.”

EIGHT! “Far­quar!” Corinne gasped. “Are you do­ing your work ex­pe­ri­ence here at Hill Pri­mary as well?”

Far­quar gave a florid bow.

“I am in­deed. It’s good to see you, Corinne.”

She went to the girls’ grammar, so the two of them rarely met these days.

“But surely you aren’t plan­ning to be­come a teacher?”

Far­quar snorted.

“You must be jok­ing. No, I’m spend­ing the week shad­ow­ing Old Parky, the care­taker.”

Corinne nod­ded. “That makes more sense.” Far­quar de­cided not to take of­fence.

It seemed to him that Corinne had changed. Her pro­por­tions were dif­fer­ent some­how; more curvy. He found him­self be­com­ing en­tranced by the move­ment of her lips as she spoke.

He won­dered what it would be like to kiss them. “Far­quar!”

“Sorry, what? My mind was miles away.”

“I was say­ing that maybe we could get to­gether dur­ing our lunch break.”

“Sure. That would be great.”

Corinne frowned. “Are you all right? You look a bit flushed.”

“I’m fine.”

SEVEN!

Mr Camp­bell smiled round the hall.

“Chil­dren, I am de­lighted to wel­come Miss O’don­nell as our new Year One teacher.”

Corinne stood up and gave a lit­tle wave.

“I am so pleased that she is start­ing her teach­ing ca­reer here at Hill Pri­mary. It only seems like yes­ter­day when she was sit­ting where you are to­day.”

Corinne felt her­self blush­ing.

“And don’t get too used to Miss O’don­nell’s name. It will soon be chang­ing to Mrs Mclean – just be­fore Christ­mas, I think?” Mr Camp­bell an­nounced.

Corinne nod­ded. Life was a bit chaotic at the mo­ment, but she and Far­quar couldn’t wait to be mar­ried.

Mr Camp­bell grinned. “As Miss O’don­nell has shown, it’s quite com­mon for peo­ple in the same class at pri­mary school to end up fall­ing in love.”

Around the hall, pupils gazed at their class­mates in hor­ror. Corinne smiled. There were worse things in life.

SIX!

Corinne pressed the sod­den lump of tis­sue against her eyes.

“Oh, Far­quar, I just don’t know what to do. I love Hill Pri­mary so much. Mr Camp­bell even talked about me go­ing for the deputy head’s po­si­tion one day.”

“Well, Mr Camp­bell is re­tired,” Far­quar re­torted. “And things are clearly very dif­fer­ent now.” Corinne sighed wearily. “I can’t stand Mrs BurneJones’s ap­proach. All she cares about is classes demon­strat­ing

progress in their learn­ing.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“Chil­dren aren’t machines!” Corinne cried. “They’re learn­ing all the time, but it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily show. De­mand­ing con­stant ev­i­dence of their progress puts such stress on them.”

She turned to him, tears over­flow­ing.

He took her hand gen­tly. “Life is too short to stick with a job you hate. I know what Hill Pri­mary means to you, but I think you’re go­ing to have to leave.”

FIVE!

The tele­phone call had come the day be­fore.

“We haven’t met, Mrs Mclean. I’m Khalid Shah, and I’m the chair of the gover­nors at Hill Pri­mary in Sun­ling­ton.”

Corinne had laughed. “Good heav­ens. There’s a name from my past.”

“I have a pro­posal for you. Would to­mor­row be a con­ve­nient time to visit?” “I sup­pose so.” Af­ter­wards, she and Far­quar had talked late into the night.

“He’s com­ing half­way across the coun­try to see you, Corinne. It must be some­thing im­por­tant. I checked on the in­ter­net. Hill Pri­mary is look­ing for a new headteacher.”

Corinne had gazed at him.

“Do you think it’s pos­si­ble?” she’d asked.

Now Khalid was here in per­son.

“Hill Pri­mary has achieved out­stand­ing aca­demic re­sults over the past few years. But the gov­ern­ing body feels that, in some ways, the chil­dren’s pas­toral care has been ne­glected.”

“That has al­ways been my pri­or­ity,” Corinne mur­mured.

He nod­ded.

“I’ve fol­lowed your ca­reer with in­ter­est. Your abil­ity as a teacher is undis­puted, al­lied to your ob­vi­ous con­cern for chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly those with spe­cial needs.

“You have gained such valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence in dif­fer­ent schools over the years.” He leaned for­ward. “Corinne, I would very much like you to ap­ply for the post of headteacher at Hill Pri­mary. What do you say?”

Corinne glanced at Far­quar for a mo­ment and then back at Khalid.

“I say yes.”

FOUR!

“Give your­self time, Corinne,” Khalid said qui­etly.

It was only a few days af­ter the fu­neral.

“Of course you’re dev­as­tated by Far­quar’s death. You and your fam­ily need to grieve.”

Corinne gazed out at the gar­den; she felt ut­terly numb.

“Take some weeks, months if you need them. In your years at Hill Pri­mary, you’ve built up a won­der­ful staff team. They can look af­ter things for the mo­ment.

“I’ve spo­ken to Va­lerie, the deputy head. She is more than happy to be act­ing head un­til you’re ready to re­turn.”

Corinne shook her head slowly.

“Va­lerie would make a won­der­ful headteacher for Hill Pri­mary. The school needs some­one ca­pa­ble like her at the helm. But not me.” She gave a lurch­ing sob and her head sank into her hands. “This has bro­ken me.”

“But Corinne . . .” “No, Khalid!” she shouted de­spair­ingly.

Af­ter a mo­ment, she took his hand in apol­ogy.

“No, Khalid,” she said more gen­tly. “I have of­fered my res­ig­na­tion as head of Hill Pri­mary and I ex­pect the gov­ern­ing body to ac­cept it.”

He gazed at her for a long mo­ment be­fore nod­ding re­luc­tantly.

“If that’s what you want.”

THREE!

When Corinne an­swered the door, she found Khalid and Va­lerie stand­ing there.

“Could we have a quick word?” Khalid smiled.

With a sigh, Corinne stepped back and led them through to the sit­ting-room.

“Be­fore you say any­thing, I want to make it ab­so­lutely clear that I am not com­ing back to Hill Pri­mary. The re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing headteacher would be too much for me.”

“That’s not why we’re here, Corinne,” Khalid said qui­etly. “The gov­ern­ing body has been very happy with how Va­lerie has per­formed as head over the past year. We are about to ap­point for­mally.” Corinne frowned. “Then why . . .?” Va­lerie leaned for­ward. “Corinne, ev­ery­one knows what an amaz­ing job you did in your time as head. But there was one weak­ness at the school which you never man­aged to solve.”

“Spe­cial needs,” Corinne mur­mured.

“Right. So many of our pupils are cry­ing out for ex­tra help. Chil­dren with autism, lan­guage dif­fi­cul­ties and be­havioural is­sues. We need some­one with very par­tic­u­lar skills to co­or­di­nate our ap­proach.”

“I tried for years to find the right per­son.” Cor­rine sighed. “It’s such a vi­tal role.”

“Well, we think we’ve found that per­son.” “Who?”

“You.” Khalid smiled. “Think about it,” he con­tin­ued quickly. “You’ll be able to con­cen­trate on the care of in­di­vid­ual chil­dren in need. That has al­ways been your spe­cial con­cern.”

Khalid put a hand on her arm.

“So what do you say?”

TWO!

Corinne looked at the card. It was filled with tiny cap­i­tal let­ters.

DER MISS MCLAN, THANG YOU FOR YUR HELP AT HIL PRIMRY. I REMBER YOU CAM ON AR SCOOL TRIP TO THE ZO AND SAT NEX ME ON THE BUS.

It went on and on, a mem­ory from each year. Corinne couldn’t imag­ine how long it had taken Car­wen; he had such dif­fi­culty with his writ­ing.

His mum gazed at her across the desk.

“He spent hours on it in his room last night. He in­sisted.” She clutched Corinne’s arm. “I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us over the years.”

“It’s been a plea­sure. Car­wen is a lovely boy.” “Not ev­ery­one sees that.” Corinne squeezed her hand.

“We’ve sorted out the per­fect place for Car­wen to go to now that he’s leav­ing. They’ll un­der­stand him at Leaven Vale.”

“We would never have got that place with­out you.”

“It’s my job.” Corinne smiled.

“You’re an an­gel,” Car­wen’s mother said. “Ev­ery­one says so.”

ONE!

Corinne gazed round the packed hall. Her chil­dren were there; even her grand­son, Far­quar, tod­dling about dis­tract­ing ev­ery­one.

Par­ents and col­leagues from over the years and the heads of the other lo­cal schools had all gath­ered for the cel­e­bra­tion.

Her arms were full of cards from the chil­dren, presents from the staff, flow­ers, bot­tles, cho­co­lates.

Va­lerie led the as­sem­bly, and then Khalid spoke; first of Far­quar and their re­la­tion­ship, then of her con­tri­bu­tion to the school. You could have heard a pin drop.

He hugged her once he had fin­ished, and Corinne won­dered if he was ever go­ing to let go.

She found that she liked the feel­ing.

Then Va­lerie be­gan the count­down that would mark the start of her re­tire­ment.

Hill Pri­mary had al­ways prided it­self on pre­par­ing pupils for their next step in life, and the school had done just the same for her.

She was ready to face the fu­ture.

A few Year One pupils had gath­ered round her.

She caught sight of Khalid gaz­ing at her through the crowd, and as a lit­tle hand slipped into hers, she made her way to­wards him. ■

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