New Places, New Problems
Claire Elson was deeply dissatisfied with life. It was only a race and all her friends seemed intent on participating in it, not seeing that it would offer no lasting happiness. She could not muster any enthusiasm for their new cars, new jobs, new houses, every new one more impressive than the one before. Except that they did not impress her. She saw how it changed people -- how they grew apart from her with their superficiality and she steadily came to resent the pressures of society. How was she going to live in this world if she hated it?
For a while she was very depressed. There was nothing she enjoyed anymore, her contacts with her friends slackened until they forgot about her and in any case they had very little sympathy for someone who was not on their level, and Claire grew very lonely. Her psychologist was a waste of money and after a few visits she realised that the problem was within herself and that she should perhaps go away for a while to think about it and not be confronted with the world every day. A short holiday had seemed the cure and she took several, but none had the desired effect. Every time she returned she was immediately thrown back into her dislike and it was as if some force pressed her down the moment she entered the city.
Perhaps this would not change unless she radically changed her life. She sat down and thought about what she had done. So far she could not be enthusiastic about her occupations, although she had chosen them with care. They were exactly what she had studied for, so that could not be it. Her colleagues were fine, on the whole. They were shaped by the little world they worked in and she would not suddenly encounter a differently thinking set if she merely changed companies but stayed in the same field.
But staying in the same field was not appealing, she realised. It was not her world. Why had she gone into it? She traced back the decisions that had led up to her choice and saw that it was on the most part parental pressure, combined with enthusiastic reactions from the outside world, who would have been friends of her parents. There had actually been very little of her own in it.
And so Claire had taken to studying job ads everywhere, because she did need money and she could not sit at home doing nothing. Frankly there was very little that she liked, which was not surprising. After a few days she lowered the standards that had been instilled to her and did not discard the ads that offered a lower salary or those in areas that were considered unfashionable. Some were not that bad, she noticed, they were actually quite interesting, but there had never been anyone around her who had considered or dared to consider such jobs.
Should she care? Where were her friends now? She did not think they were still her friends, since they could not share anything. It must be exhausting for them to talk to her, because she did not have a new car, a new yacht or a day-trip to Milan. What should she care about their opinion, or the opinion of her parents, for that matter? Claire straightened her back as she stared at one ad. She felt a challenging tingle as she read it for the third time. This one had been in the paper for six consecutive weeks already. Nobody had reacted so far, apparently, and it was likely that they would accept any applicant, regardless of the fact that she did not really qualify. She could at least try to do something that was completely her own decision. Nobody else had anything to do with this one. They would all be shocked that she would bury herself in such a remote place, unfashionable, but not corrupted by hectic city life, she hoped.
She wrote the application.
Stephen rolled up a piece of rope as he watched the mail boat come into the harbour of Tenrae. It was always a weekly event that half the population would assemble for. The children were jumping from rock to rock a short distance away, knowing their new teacher would arrive on this boat. They had claimed to be interested in that, although it was more the fact that they would have some time off school while they waited.
Two shopkeepers had closed their shops and sat gossiping on a bench, speculation on whether Pete McDonald would return on this boat or not. He had gone to the mainland and people who did, either did not return at all or with their tail between their legs. Many of the youngsters had stayed away, much to the grief of the older population who could see what was happening. The island was depopulating and they could not even find teachers to teach their children. If they could not, the children would have to be sent to a boarding school, which was synonymous to never returning at all.
Stephen knew that. However, contrary to most of his contemporaries, he had returned and by those on the mainland he was considered a loser. He shrugged when he thought of that. Their way of thinking only affected him insofar as that he wondered why someone from the mainland should willingly choose to live here. For city women there were far more exciting jobs, he should think.
There was nothing here, except good company, but no cinemas, no theatre. However, satellite TV, telephones and the Internet had become readily available to alleviate some of the gloom of the stormy winter months when life could become really depressing here. Emailing had made the island both less and more isolated, because it had lessened the need for the mail boat to come twice a week and now it only came once.
Stephen did not mind. He could do his work anywhere and the Internet only made it easier, because it had always taken so long to send changed or corrected manuscripts to the mainland. Now it was only a matter of minutes. And the local population did not know what he sent by email, whereas everyone knew what everyone had received or sent by normal post. Because the publishers sent him copies of the books, the people on the island thought he read a lot, which had prompted Lirra's council to ask him to fill in as a teacher while they searched for a new one after Mrs. Guthrie had died. Nobody else read much, so they assumed he had a lot of knowledge.
It had not worked to find a replacement until now and he was curious about this woman. He knew Lirra had not tried their hardest, because Lirra did not care much about the small island that belonged to their district. They preferred to spend all their money on tourist developments such as the new four-star hotel with golf course that was reportedly empty for most of the time, when things were bad in the fishery industry. Fishermen kept having to go farther and farther away to get a decent catch and consequently worked inhumanly long hours for very little money.
Things were not much better for the farmers, the few of them that scraped a meagre existence on the rocky soil of the island. Modern farm equipment was not practical and therefore the farmers still used time-consuming methods and it also cost them a lot to get their products to a market where they could not compete with the cheaper, mass-produced vegetables from mainland and overseas farms. Most had given up on selling their products on the mainland and the community was in part self-sufficient in that most of what was produced there was also consumed there, but nobody knew what would happen if there was a bad harvest. They would have no food and no money to buy it on the mainland.
In short, the situation on the island was bleak for many of the people living there. Again, he wondered why someone should choose to live here, but then she probably was not aware of the situation. And he dearly hoped she liked fish or poultry, since there was nothing else on offer. Once a year or so there was a run on the only beef of the year and sometimes lamb.
He recalled the email from the education council. It had been brief, since they did not think he would require all the details. Why indeed should he know who was coming? Why should anyone care? They did not care either. The new teacher was born in 1947 and had worked as a Junior Consultant with some company in a vague line of business. That was all they had cared to tell him, apart from her name that he had already forgotten, but it did not bode well. How old did one have to be to become a Senior Consultant? What sort of failure had they dug up?
Stephen stared at the mail boat in suspicion and distrust as it moored. Some familiar faces stepped on the quay and were greeted by relatives and friends. The mailman was besieged by eager island dwellers who wanted their mail instantly. The crew of the boat helped to bring the goods and people's luggage ashore. He recognised the alderman for education and looked at him cynically. What was the attraction here? The alderman had been here all of two times, as if this island did not belong to his district. Why should he suddenly come? But there was a girl accompanying the alderman, a girl he did not know but which Stephen immediately recognised as being a city girl from her clothes.
There was no sign of the new teacher. Had there been a change of plan? Was there going to be another teacher? The girl? How nice to have been informed of that, he thought. He studied the girl and knew she would not last here more than a day, so she was probably a day tripper, on an internship or something like that, coming to see the real world for an hour.
They had had tourists here who had fallen in love with the rugged scenery, or so they had claimed, and some had tried to live here. It happened a few times a year, but invariably they returned to the mainland because life here was not as idyllic as they had thought at first. There were storms, the locals spoke some incomprehensible dialect, and there was very little to do if one did not have a job. In fact, there were only a few immigrants who had managed to settle here. There was an Italian painter, who was considered to be a little messed-up in the head by the locals, but who had been allowed to marry a local girl nevertheless. Then there were a few women who had been born on other islands, but who had married men from here, having met them at the fish market on the mainland, since that was almost the only opportunity for men to meet other people.
It was amazing that they were so isolated, since they could see Lirra from here. It was not far, but not many people had the time to go there, Stephen reflected. He had a boat and he went there regularly, but then he did not have to work as hard as other people. He was not dependent on fish.
The alderman walked towards him with the girl and his first impression was only confirmed. This was definitely a city girl, probably a southern one as well, because she seemed to have trouble understanding what the alderman was saying when Stephen knew that the alderman liked to boast of his ability to speak correct English. There was a cynical twist around his mouth as he watched the two come nearer.
"This is Miss Elson," said the alderman. "And this is --"
So she was the new teacher after all, Stephen realised, but she was definitely not born in 1947. 1974 was more like it. Either the alderman had made the typo or the girl had been rather careless about her CV. "-- Stephen," he shook the girl's hand, cutting off what the alderman had been about to say. What did his last name matter? He did not insist on being called by it. His first name was just fine. The girl looked tired, not just from the journey, but tired of life and lethargic. That was just what they needed -- a burnout case. What had made her think that she would pick up her spirits here, only a short while before the season of bleakness would start? Compared to inner city schools this would be easy work, but unless he was very much mistaken, she did not have any experience in inner city schools.
"We'll accompany you to the school to show you around," said the alderman. "Mrs. Guthrie's cottage has been cleaned for you, I heard." Nobody had lived in it since the old schoolteacher had died. Most of her belongings were still there as well, since she had not had any relatives who had been interested in coming here to sort it out.
Stephen whistled on his fingers and the children who had not yet come forward gathered around them curiously to see their new teacher. There were forty in all and he taught them all at once. Frankly he could not see her do it. Mrs. Guthrie's inheritance had been an unruly and undisciplined lot of which half could not even read and write. Between little Iona and big Jamie were eight years of difference and the class had required a varied approach, but at least Jamie could now read simple books. Educational inspectors would be shocked, though, and it was perhaps good that Miss Elson had probably no clue about the level pupils of a certain age should have attained. Any child from here that had been sent to a secondary school on the mainland had come back in tears during the holidays, because they had been so far behind, but there had not been any government money to bridge the gap.
Claire looked around herself gravely as she observed the run-down building that housed the school. Inside it was a little better, because it had been painted in fresh and bright colours, obviously by the pupils themselves since the walls looked like huge abstract paintings. The main classroom contained so many tables that it dazzled her. It had not occurred to her that they would all be in the same room and that they would be taught at the same time.
She could barely understand what the alderman was saying, because of his accent. All she had gathered was that this man's name was Stephen and that he had apparently been the temporary teacher. What he was going to do now that she was here was not clear to her, nor what she should be using to teach the children. Was this even possible in modern society? What happened to inspections and guidelines and national curricula? Did those only apply to schools in civilised areas?
She looked at Stephen, who had seemed to eye her with distrust and reserve, mocking her nice clothes. He himself was dressed in a light grey woollen sweater and jeans, with sturdy but dirty shoes, probably from walking around in the mud. Although the weather was clear at the moment, the ground was still muddy. Fashion was unknown here, probably, and practicality ruled.
The tables were arranged in groups and she saw when the children sat down that they were grouped by age. That would make it a little easier. She had feared she would have to address them as a whole.
The alderman said some more incomprehensible things and then took his leave, because the mail boat was departing again and he did not want to stay on the island for a week.
Claire looked at Stephen for more information when they were left alone. She had not heard him speak much yet. Apparently he liked to stick to acting the part of the strong and silent type. He gestured that she should sit on the chair while he sat down on the desk.
"Continue your work," he said to the children, nodding at one who raised two fingers.
Claire was surprised to see the child leave the classroom. Apparently they had a secret code here. She watched as the smallest girl came to show Stephen the picture she had been colouring in. He patted the girl on the head. She guessed him to be about thirty-five. What was he doing here on this island? The alderman had attempted to tell her what he knew, but she had not been able to follow it. She watched him move from group to group for a while until it was three o'clock and those who were expected home ran from the classroom, others followed more slowly and Stephen beckoned her to leave the room as well. He closed it behind them, locking the door. He did not lock the building, she was surprised to notice.
"It also serves other purposes," he explained when he noticed. "Bingo night." Contrary to the alderman or any other person who had been on the boat, Stephen did not have a local accent, or perhaps only a faint trace as he spoke to her, yet she had not been able to follow him at all when he had said goodbye to the alderman.
"Bingo night?" she echoed.
He shrugged apologetically. "For those too old to fish." He led her down a path between two untidy hedgerows that ended up in front of a back door. "This is your new house." He fished a key from his pocket and opened the door. "They cleaned it last week." Why did they who had cleaned it leave it to him to show the new teacher around?
It still smelled stuffy, Claire noticed. "Do you resent my coming?" she asked him curiously, having wondered about it for a while. He was not exactly welcoming.
Stephen looked at her in surprise. "No. Whatever gave you that idea?" He would have been glad to hand the class over to an experienced teacher so he could concentrate on his own things. The fact that she was not experienced would only mean that they had to work together, which would also relieve the pressure on him. He could only be glad that assistance had finally appeared.
"I just wondered." She looked around herself. The furniture was guaranteed to make her even more depressed, dark and heavy as it was. It had gone out of fashion a hundred years ago. "Where can I get a meal?"
She could get one at the pub, but he would not advise it, since many of the young fishermen spent a lot of time there. A girl on her own would have a hard time with them. "Nowhere." And yet he realised that she would not have any food to cook. That would be a problem.
"There are no restaurants?" Claire asked.
Stephen laughed a bit sarcastically. "Here?" Did she have any idea how small this place was? It was not big enough to support any restaurants and could only boast of one pub. The islanders were not the sort to want to try out fancy meals. When Mrs. Graham had had macaroni in her stock, she had had to throw it away because it was not sold before its expiry date.
"And where are my suitcases?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to sound demanding.
"They ought to be in the hall." He opened the door and pointed at them. "They were delivered here while we were at the school." She had brought more than he would bring himself, but still not as much as he had expected a woman to bring. "Did you bring any food?"
"No, of course not. I assumed that I'd be able to buy it. If I can't get a meal anywhere, I suppose I'm going to have to cook. Where are the shops?"
Stephen stared at her. He was going to have to disappoint her once more. This was not simply a smaller version of some southern town. This was different. "Closed."
"I beg your pardon?"
"They're open until midday." Why should they stay open all day? Did she think the shopkeepers had nothing better to do with their time? It was logical, he thought, that they were only open in the morning.
Claire sank down on a chair and rested her head in her hands. "Oh no," she moaned. "What did I end up in?"
"Tell you what -- come to my house tonight," he suggested reluctantly. "I'm having a few friends over." Friends that he would have to invite over first, but he did not say so.
"I'd rather not intrude."
That was fine with him. "Then you won't have any dinner," Stephen said not unkindly. He felt she ought to know that fancy phrases of politeness were taken literally here. It was a bit rude, but he was sure she would not expect any differently from an islander.
He left her to unpack and then cycled to Marco to ask for advice. "I heard," said Marco, even before Stephen had said anything. "She's young."
"And Angelo says she's pretty," his wife Liz added. She wore a bright orange turban around her head for no special reason, but people were used to seeing her in the strangest creations. It had always been clear that little Lizzie would not settle for an ordinary fisherman, although people were sure that she could have found something better than an Italian painter who often had strange visitors stay with him. Angelo was her son, who had come home with enthusiastic stories about the new teacher, who had looked much nicer than old Mrs. Guthrie, who had been at least ninety.
Stephen ignored what Angelo had said. "And she has no food. That's why I wanted to ask if you'd like to come over to have dinner with me tonight."
"Can we bring Angelo and Lara?" Liz asked practically, after a short giggle at Stephen's inventiveness.
"Of course. I'll also ask Matthew." The more, the merrier. He was not going to have a private dinner with Miss Elson, knowing how quickly rumours would spread through a small community such as this one and for some reason he was one of their special focuses of attention, along with Matthew. It was not good to have rumours started on the very first day. They would be a constant burden and perhaps cause embarrassment and awkwardness.
Matthew was the doctor. His services were not often needed, since the island dwellers were a healthy lot, and most often he was concerned with visiting elderly people and pregnant women on this island and the next. But he had also been educated on the mainland and was therefore not solely knowledgeable about fish. He had originally had his practice on another island, but he had moved it here because this had become the bigger community after the other one had greyed at an even quicker rate. Because of his cell phone and his boat he could be on the other island very quickly.
It was also hoped that Stephen and Matthew would marry local girls, because they had better prospects than fishermen. While Matthew was thought to be sort of involved with his housekeeper Isobel by everyone but himself, Stephen had never been tempted to fall in love with any island woman, least of all a housekeeper.
Claire unpacked as much as she needed and then showered. She was too tired to do anything else. What had she been expecting to find? A postcard village perhaps, not a haphazard collection of impoverished houses with flaking paint. It had taken her three days to travel here and she ought to wash some of her clothes, but the tiny cottage did not come equipped with a washing machine. That was something else she would have to ask the mysterious Stephen.
He had not been very enthusiastic in asking her to dinner. Perhaps all the islanders were very private people and wary of strangers. How could he be a real islander, though? He might dress like one, but he did not speak that way. Either he had been away or he had come here later. Anyway, he was the only person she knew -- sort of -- and he was the only person who could show her around.
She brushed her hair, pulled on her coat and stepped out of the back door, only to find a woman with a basket coming up the garden path. She paused.
"Afternoon, Miss," said the woman. "Here's some food that we could spare and that will see you through the night until the shop's open."
"Ahh...thank you," Claire accepted the basket. "Because I didn't have anything to eat, I was...going to have dinner at...what is his name again...the schoolmaster...his house." She hoped the woman would not be offended that she was not going to use this basket of food tonight.
"Stephen's not a schoolmaster," said the woman immediately. "But he's very learned, aye. Our children need to learn, but we like to keep them here. That's why it's good that you came. Aye. You didn't come to send them away when we need them here. Pete McDonald went away to university and he never returned because he has a lass there and Pete's father needs him on the boat now and he's had to hire a man because Pete wouldn't come home."
Claire nodded in sympathy. She could understand both Pete and his father, but she wondered about Stephen. "If Stephen is not a schoolmaster, what is he?" she asked. He had not appeared to be here just because his father needed him on the boat. In fact, he had not appeared to be a fisherman at all, even if he had been busy with ropes in the harbour when she had arrived. His hands did not look as red and big as the fishermen's hands. He would be using his head more often than his hands, but how learned would very learned be on this island? Maybe he was merely the only person who had finished secondary school.
The woman shrugged. That was something she did not really know either. "You'll see, Miss, when you go there."
Claire walked down the unpaved road. There was no motorised traffic on the island, seemingly. She had not seen any cars so far. The road led over a hilltop and she paused to take in the view. It was beautiful. On three sides she could see the sea. Behind her she could also see the mainland from where she had taken the boat. Ahead of her and to her right was a vast expanse of water with islands here and there. Between her and the water were rocks, cultivated land and sheep. She could see a few farms too. To her left was more grassland with a large building in the distance. She wondered what it was. Perhaps the road would take her past it. Stephen had said she should go left at the first crossroads. Since there were only farms here and no other villages, did it mean that he lived on a farm?
After another ten minutes she reached the crossroads. Bicycle tyres had left multiple tracks in the mud, so Stephen would not be the only one living on this road. She passed a small farm where the laundry was blowing in the wind. Three children ran towards the road and stared at her. One or two might have been at the school, Claire thought and she smiled at them.
Next to it was another small house, but not a farm by the looks of it. It was in better repair than the farm next door, but it looked incongruous with its surroundings because of its light pink paint. The same children appeared again, but their number had doubled. Suddenly there were six of them. They made a game out of following her behind the hedge and peering through it. She could hear them giggle behind it.
She left them behind and saw a field with a few sheep to her left. Then there was a small copse of trees and then a big surprise. This had to be the large building she had seen from the hilltop. It looked like an abandoned abbey and she paused to observe it. Its grey walls were overgrown with plants and it had no doors. Stephen had said it would be the third house on this road before the road twisted, but he could not be living here, could he? Claire looked at it uncertainly. There was nothing else in sight. Ahead of her the road turned around another small wood.
There was a bicycle on the road behind her that approached steadily. She waited for it to reach her, estimating that it would take the cyclist about a minute. It was a man and he slowed down when he reached her, because she was obviously waiting for him. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"I was wondering if this was where Stephen lived." She pointed at the abbey.
The man could not help laughing. "Does it look like that?"
Despite the fact that the man was laughing at her, he looked nice, Claire thought. He was not that old either, somewhere in his thirties. "He said it was before the turn in the road," she said helplessly.
"That's right." He clicked his tongue. "Stevie should have explained himself better, eh? You didn't walk on until right before the turn?"
"You should have," the man chuckled and got down from his bicycle. He shook her hand. "Matthew."
"Follow me, Claire." He wheeled his bicycle past the abbey and onto a narrow road she had not seen. It led past the side of the abbey and past a pond to a rather large and well-kept house that was hidden from the road by the abbey and the trees. "Now that's more like it, eh?" Matthew asked good-humouredly. He set his bike against the wall and entered without knocking.
Claire followed him a little reluctantly. Was it alright to just walk in?
"It's okay," Matthew said over his shoulder when he noticed she was lagging behind a little. "He's not home yet. Do you want a drink?"
"Are you sure...?" It was awfully strange that this man should treat Stephen's house as his own. "Or do you live here as well?" Claire looked around herself in the relatively modern-looking kitchen. Not all houses on the island were like Mrs. Guthrie's cottage, apparently.
"I live in Tenrae village." He got two glasses from a cupboard and then looked into the refrigerator, shaking his head. "It took me some time to get used to this hospitality as well." He decided on milk for the both of them.
"Thank you," Claire accepted the glass. "I don't think I really know what I got myself into yet. Does this mean that anyone will walk into my house and take things from my refrigerator as well?"
"Yes," Matthew gave her a cheerful grin over his milk. "But I heard there's nothing in it yet and that's why Stevie invited you over."
"Where are you from then? Not from here, I take it."
"No. I'm from Lirra originally, but I studied in Glasgow."
"So why would you come here?"
"I work here as a GP. It's not too far from home. Why did you come here?"
Claire looked at her glass and turned it around in her hands. "I don't really know." That was an easier answer than having to explain about her depression and her aversion to a mentality he would not know anything about and therefore not understand.
"I heard you were not a teacher by profession."
"No, I advised businesses on where to settle."
"Would you advise any to settle here?" Matthew asked immediately. He could guess at the answer. She would not. Nobody would.
"I don't think so. There seems to be a distressing lack of infrastructure and attractions."
"I've been told Tenrae has the most attractive men of all of the western isles," Matthew said in mock seriousness.
Claire laughed. "Well...that..."
"...remains to be seen?" he finished the sentence with raised eyebrows.
"Yes...I haven't seen that many men yet." But he had got her to think about the general attractiveness of Tenrae's men all the same. They did have something, the ones she had seen. Perhaps he was not far off the mark.
"True, most were out fishing. I wonder if Stevie's out catching himself our dinner?" Matthew asked himself. "Do you like rabbit?"
Claire looked a little shocked. "He catches his own dinner?" It seemed a little primitive somehow.
"We're in the wilderness, lass," he replied.
She hoped Stephen would not come in holding a dead rabbit by the ears. That would be so disgusting. "So you're having dinner here too?"
"Does he always poach?"
"Sometimes he goes to the butcher's," Matthew reassured her and laughed at her expression.
There was a sound outside and shortly after, Stephen entered with a bucket and very dirty hands. He did not seem surprised to see Matthew, Claire noticed, but he gave her a brief startled glance before setting the bucket down in the sink.
"Are we having rabbit today?" Matthew asked.
Stephen made an inarticulate sound as he turned on the tap. "No, we'd be going fishing with wooden stakes if only you had a better aim. I wouldn't want you to starve, Matt." He began to wash the potatoes he had just dug up.
"Hmmpph," said Matthew indignantly. "Now Claire's never going to want me to give her an injection."
"I assure you that I wouldn't want that even if you were really good at it," Claire said hastily.
Matthew laughed. "Can we help, Stephen?"
"You could peel the potatoes if you want." Stephen set the potatoes on the table and gave them knives. He was surprised to hear that Matthew was already calling Miss Elson Claire, but Matthew had always made friends with everybody right away.
"They're awfully small," Claire remarked.
"The soil isn't good," Stephen said curtly. They simply would not grow any bigger.
"They're actually ecological potatoes," said Matthew. "Except that he hasn't capitalised on it yet. All the yuppies would love it -- cute, little, unfertilised potatoes."
"They would eat anything as long as it's fashionable," Claire said a little bitterly. "You're right -- big potatoes are out. In fact, all potatoes are out. Eastern food is in. Don't even try to feed your friends potatoes." The dislike of pretentious city life welled up again and she tried to suppress it. She was away from it now, so why should she depress herself by thinking of it?
Stephen paused. Here he was trying to cook this girl a decent meal and she was saying you should not give guests potatoes. "Well, here people are just happy to be given something to eat and they don't fuss."
"Now, Stevie. They haven't got the time to fuss about anything," said Matthew, thinking Stephen had spoken a little too harshly. Claire had been criticising yuppies, not potatoes.
Claire looked from one to the other. Why did Matthew call him Stevie? And he had said that the men on the island were all attractive. "Strange question maybe, but...are you two gay?"
Matthew snorted. "No! I love women. And Stephen...hmm...he's not gay -- he just thinks the women here smell too much of fish."
"Aye. They smell like fish, they taste like fish, they look like fish -- hell, they are fish!" Stephen said fiercely.
"You must not be liking fish," Claire commented. She peeled the potatoes much neater than Matthew did, because he made them all square, not caring that he was reducing them to half their original size by doing that. "Do you dig up potatoes every day?"
"No, only when I've run out of them," he answered. "Matthew, I can see your housekeeper always cooks for you. Don't make the potatoes even smaller!"
Claire had been surprised to see a woman with an orange turban and an Italian on the island, but they had been very nice. They had left early because of their children, who had to go to bed. Only she and Matthew had remained with Stephen, until Matthew had been bleeped away and he had dashed off on his bike to go to an old man who had had a stroke.
"I guess I'd better go too," said Claire awkwardly when they found themselves alone and he had been staring at the wall for at least three minutes. "I suppose it's okay to walk alone?" It had long since become dark and a little rainy, but she had not considered that sooner.
He shook his head. She did not know the way. "It's not wise. I'll go with you." He pulled on his boots and raincoat and grabbed his powerful torch.
The rain swept into her face and they did not speak much during the twenty-minute journey. He flashed his light on the back door so she could unlock it, but when she was inside and turned around to ask if he knew where the light switch was, she noticed he was gone. Claire was perplexed and thought him very strange. She locked the door behind her when he did not respond to her tentative calling of his name. Stuff Stephen.
The light switch was quickly found and she made herself a cup of hot tea before she went to bed. Her wet clothes were hung over the kitchen chairs and she hoped she would not hear the dripping.
Mrs. Guthrie's cottage was very small. It only had two bedrooms. Claire could only sleep in one, since the bed in the other one was not made. The bedcovers were dark and heavy, just like everything else in the house, which made it appear even smaller. As soon as she got the chance she would paint the walls in a lighter colour, she decided.
As Claire realised in the morning, she had forgotten to set the alarm. In fact, she had not even unpacked it yet. At first she did not even notice that the morning was nearly over, because it was very grey and dark outside and it could easily have passed for some time just after dawn, but when she looked at her watch, she saw that it was a quarter past ten. School had begun at half past eight.
"Damn," she cried and tried to get out of bed, which was pretty difficult because of the heavy blankets.
Ten minutes later she stumbled into the school, leaning against the wall on the inside to regain her breath before she entered the classroom. It was a rather useless thing to do, because she found that the classroom was empty. Confused, she stared around, but nobody jumped up from behind anything. There really was nobody there.
There seemed to be some noise coming from below, but she could not find the stairs anywhere. Suddenly the noise grew louder and a door was opened a little way down the hall. Five girls came out of it and made for the toilets. Claire walked in the direction of the door, meaning to go downstairs, but the rest of the class was coming up too, including Stephen.
He gave her one of his disapproving glances. "Miss Elson, we were beginning to think you had got lost."
"I didn't set my alarm," Claire coloured in embarrassment.
"The punishment for coming late is very grave here," he said seriously. "A rhyming poem on the reason, to be presented in front of the class."
The children around him giggled in delight and Claire wondered if he was serious. It was alright if he subjected his pupils to this, but not her surely? "I'm not used to writing poems."
"And you'll never be, provided that you set your alarm correctly," he responded.
"Annual medical check-up!" A cheerful voice called from the door. Matthew had entered and was now taking off his yellow raincoat.
"Today?" Stephen asked in a surprised tone. Matthew usually announced such things and he had done no such thing now. It seemed to him that the annual medical check-up was not due for another three or four months.
"I have time. I might as well do part of them now." Matthew smiled at Claire. "Hello Claire. Did you get home safely yesterday? I was a bit soaked when I got to my patient."
"I got home --" Claire said.
"How is he?" Stephen interjected, feeling a little annoyed about the situation. Matthew was his friend, but he should not be coming here to do medical check-ups without telling him.
"Oh, he died," said Matthew and turned back to Claire. "I would have taken you home if I hadn't been called away. Sorry about that. Forgive me? I hope you didn't have to stay with Stephen."
"N-N-No," she stammered, trying not to look at Stephen. She did not know if she should say that Stephen had walked her home, because he had seemed almost reluctant and yet to say that she had gone alone would be a lie. It was nice of Matthew to ask, though. She wished he would not have had to go last night, because surely being walked home by Matthew would have been more agreeable.
Stephen was more than a little irritated now. First Claire had the nerve to come two hours late, as if anyone woke up after ten, and now Matthew had come here to flirt with her under the pretence of doing his job, while she was supposed to do hers as well. He probably should not expect her to ever do it and he clapped his hands angrily to get the children back in the classroom after their break. And Matthew was really putting it on thickly by saying he hoped that she had not stayed with him. It was all very well if Matthew said that to him in private, Stephen thought, but now he was implying that there was something wrong with him and that it was better to avoid having to stay with Stephen.
"Well, Miss Elson," said Stephen as soon as all the children had sat down. "If you don't mind teaching the class geography, chapter two of this book, I'll go and see the doctor with the little ones." Especially the youngest ones were afraid of the doctor and they would not go alone. This was a perfect arrangement, since it both forced Claire to do some work and defeated Matthew's purpose in coming here. Stephen admitted to being cynical. He did not think a lot of examining would be done if Claire was there to distract Matthew and it would only give Matthew the opportunity to come back every day for two weeks in order to get all the children examined.
Claire looked a little lost when Stephen took the five smallest children with him. How could he leave her alone like this, with thirty-five children who would undoubtedly start dancing on the tables once they found out she did not know what to do? She would have to give them something to keep them busy. Chapter two, he had said. She would have to read it first to know what was in it. "What were you doing before the break?" she asked finally.
"Chapter two," said a girl with a ponytail and pointed at the blackboard.
Claire saw an incomprehensible drawing there that told her nothing. "And do you all understand it so far?" she asked. They all did and she figured that she must be a little stupid. A look at chapter two revealed that it was very simple material and that they would not have any problems doing the first question. "Alright. Draw what you would see in your garden if you were a bird flying over it."
A hand was raised. "What sort of bird, Miss?"
"That doesn't matter. A bird with eyes. Or you in a plane." As they began to draw, she thought about Stephen's manoeuvre, but especially about Matthew's. It seemed likely that he had come especially to see her, because Stephen had expressed surprise upon seeing him. It was always flattering to know you were the object of someone's visit, but it was less nice that Stephen had thwarted Matthew's plans by being the one to take the children. Had he done so on purpose? If so, why? Maybe he was a little angry that she had been late.
The first hands were raised -- the youngest ones, she noticed. Would they be having trouble with the assignment? But it was a very simple one. She walked around the class, answering questions varying from how to draw a rabbit to how to write, because she discovered that there were a few who could not write yet. Fortunately the questions were all easy and to keep them busy she told them to draw the bird's whole flight to the school.
An hour had passed and there still was no sign of Stephen. Claire began to worry a little when the first few children sat back to indicate that they were finished and she had no clue what to do next. He returned just when she was beginning to despair. The small children ran to their tables and Stephen sat down in the windowsill, ignoring the fact that Claire had got up.
"I'd rather you took over," she said in a low voice.
He was silent for a while, looking alternately at her and at the class. "What did you let them do?"
He got up and leant his hands on the table to look into the book. "Groups three and four can go on with question number three. Group two can do question number two."
Claire observed him as he leant partly over her. He was again wearing a woollen sweater, but not the same one as yesterday. Whether his jeans were the same she could not tell from studying them.
Claire looked up guiltily.
"What do you think of my jeans, Miss Elson?"
She could not tell if he was amused or annoyed. It sounded like a serious question. "I think it's time for a new pair." She had to say something. To give some excuse for staring.
Stephen knew they were a bit worn due to a protruding bit on the edge of the saddle of his bike and he looked at her disapprovingly. "There's no hole in them yet. And apart from you, nobody on this island studies my --"
"Neither do I!" Claire said quickly, turning red, but she was lying.
"Maybe you could do a puzzle with group one," he suggested, standing up straight. "Do one that's a little harder than the ones they suggest."
Claire figured out that group one were the smallest children and she was glad to leave the desk. They indeed suggested very simple cartoon puzzles, but she got them to do a more difficult one of two Golden Retriever puppies, taking care that she did not help them too much. Because it required rather a lot of explaining, she did not pay any attention to what Stephen was doing anymore.
At twelve o'clock, the children left. Claire assumed they would leave soon after, but Stephen walked through the classroom to tidy up a little.
"How do I buy food if the shops close at midday and school doesn't finish till three and when this break is also too late?" Claire asked. She felt her stomach rumble and remembered that she had not eaten anything yet.
"If you forget to set your alarm every day, then you might starve," Stephen remarked. "Does this mean you still don't have any food or did you go shopping first before you came to school?"
"I woke up and I came here right away. And someone brought me a basket last night. Is it alright if I go home to eat something? I'm starving. I haven't eaten anything yet."
"You sound like you're going to be more troublesome than the most troublesome pupil," Stephen sighed. "You can't work on an empty stomach. Don't do that ever again. I don't think you will," he grinned evilly. "Because you can have lunch with the children today." He took her out of the room past a kitchen where he loaded a tray full of milk and bread, but with only one knife and a plate.
"Why only one?" Claire asked.
"Because I make the sandwiches."
"All of them?"
"Well, they wouldn't pass muster at an official lunch, but they do very well for the children who didn't take any lunch from home."
"Special funding," he said vaguely, showing her into another classroom where all the children were seated at tables. Some had a packed lunch they were already starting on, but others jumped up when Stephen entered and formed a neat queue in front of his table. They said what they wanted on their bread and he made it for them, having long ago discovered that this was a far easier situation to control than if they had all got their own knife and plate. "You can go around with the milk," he said to Claire when she sat idle. It could have occurred to her too, he thought.
She noticed they all had a beaker and filled it with milk. When she was done she found the plate in front of her with two sandwiches on it. "Thanks," she said, a little surprised. He was making more and piled another one on top of the two. "Umm..." Did he think she had a fisherman's appetite?
"At least four."
After they had finished eating, the children had some time to play outside, but Stephen did not join them. He withdrew into a small office, leaving Claire by herself. It was dry and she decided to go outside. As she walked over the playground, looking at how some of the children played with a ball, her old feelings of depression came back.
Was it really better to be away? Was it better to have no friends than to have superficial friends? At least superficial friends were sometimes fun and that could not be said for Stephen. She did not know how to take his comments. He probably disliked her and he would not even allow her to go home because he probably thought she would not return.
"The doctor is waving at you, Miss," said a very small girl who had been skipping around her unnoticed.
Claire was startled and looked up. Matthew was on the other side of the hedge, waving at her enthusiastically. She walked over with a smile. It was good to see a friendly face.
"How is your day going so far?" Matthew asked.
"Hey, I'm sorry Stephen let you teach this morning when I came around. I was looking forward to a chat," he said.
"I can't have you monopolised by Stephen all day, can I?"
She raised her eyebrows in wonder. "But he hardly looks at me."
Matthew's face brightened and he beamed. "Oh? That's good. Yes, that's good. "
They were still talking when the bell was rung and Claire barely noticed that all the children had run back inside until Stephen appeared beside her. "We're starting again. I don't know if you'd care to join us," he said rather coldly. "But I thought you were a teacher and not a doctor's assistant."
Claire coloured. "Of course. Bye," she said hastily to Matthew.
"I might stop by your house later on if I don't have anything to do," Matthew promised. "See you later!" He rode off on his bike after a cheeky smile at the two of them.
"He's after you and he's not even subtle about it," said Stephen in a conversational tone.
Claire had thought as much and she did not know yet what to think about it, but it was a small shock to hear someone say it nevertheless. "Do you have a problem with that?" she asked indignantly. Was Matthew not a friend of his? How could he speak like that? "I'll continue with the puzzle and you can teach the rest of the class yourself. I don't want to talk to you."
Stephen's mother, who lived on the other side of the house, had known he had had the new teacher to dinner, but she had not yet heard anything about it. "What was it like last night?" She and her husband had been out to dinner with friends on the mainland and they had only returned that morning.
"Hmm," was all he replied.
"Is she nice?"
"Yes, she seems as though she could be nice, but..." he sighed. How was he to explain the situation? "...very, very young. Not even twenty-five, I think. Technically I'm not her boss, but she's mine, but I keep telling her what to do. It's as if she's one of the pupils. This morning she was two hours late and I have to drag her away from Matthew every time he shows up."
"How often can that be?"
"Matthew knows how to throw himself in the way of pretty girls." And Claire certainly encouraged him by smiling at him.
Stephen's mother knew that and she could imagine Matthew passing by the school very often if the new teacher was pretty. "So she's no help?"
"It was too much to expect that there would be someone willing to come here who would be a blessing," Stephen answered. "But I let her amuse group one and that went alright, I think." Except that he had not been very nice to her, he feared, because she had said she did not want to talk to him. Later on, she had had to, but he did not know with how much reluctance she had done so.
He would see how things went tomorrow.
Matthew had said he might stop by, Claire remembered just about every minute, but she had no idea at what time or if he wanted to eat. At last she made herself some dinner with things from the basket, realising Stephen still had not said what time the shops opened. Maybe she could walk past before school, if she had enough money to buy anything. She checked her wallet and saw that there was very little left. The chance of running into a cash dispenser was probably not very high, provided that people here even knew what they were. She could ask Matthew for money. He was nice and he would lend her some.
But Matthew did not show up and it had been a very long time from three o'clock till eight. Maybe Matthew would not come and then she would again have nothing to eat in the morning. There had not been that much in the basket. Maybe she should just bite back her pride and ask Stephen if he could lend her some money tomorrow.
Also, she was beginning to be a bit nervous about Matthew's intentions. Had he planned to visit her after dark? What if he entered her house just like he had entered Stephen's, after she had gone to bed? She would think it was a burglar. And she was not very partial to nighttime visits in general. He had had more than five hours to visit her and he had not come.
She did not want him to come anymore, she decided, but she would never be able to pretend that she was already in bed at eight. No, she had best be out. But there were not many places she could go. If she went for a walk, she would have to stay near the house or lose her way. The only way she knew was the way to Stephen's house.
Maybe she could say she wanted to borrow some money. It would give her an excuse. Yes, she would go and she grabbed her coat.
Stephen looked rather surprised to see Claire on his doorstep. The front door had looked so unused that she had gone around the back and knocked on the window there. She had kept knocking until he had come out, when he had assumed she would go in after knocking once, the way people usually did.
"Have you run out of food again?" he asked, suspecting that she had, since she had not been able to go shopping that morning.
"Yes, but actually I came to ask you some questions about the school. No. I came to ask you if you could lend me some money."
Stephen looked even more surprised. "Money?"
"I don't know where else to get money on this island. I'd probably have to go to the shore to find a cash point and I have to buy some food tomorrow morning."
"Had Matthew run out?" he asked.
"I...didn't ask him," Claire said quickly. "I haven't seen him yet."
"Hmm," said Stephen and showed her into the kitchen. He wondered if she was disappointed that Matthew had not come and why she had not waited. "He might still come, you know. He's usually rather late." He got his wallet and handed her a banknote.
"Thank you," Claire put the money away. "I know he might still come, but I'd rather be out than in bed if he does." She noticed that he had not yet done yesterday's dishes and that he was doing them right now.
"Do you want to come in?" he asked finally, after having tried to figure out what she meant. He had no idea what she could mean. Why did she want to be away if Matthew came? He thought that she liked Matthew.
"I am in," Claire said in some confusion.
"You're in the kitchen. I mean further." Stephen gestured at a door.
Claire followed him through the hall and up the stairs into a small room. A large desk with a computer took up half of the available space and the rest was taken up by a couch and a low table. "What is downstairs if your living room is upstairs?" she asked curiously.
"My parents. I still have them," Stephen said when she looked amazed. "I'm not that old. Sit down." As she sat down, he began to search the files on his computer for the school schedule. "I'll print something out for you."
Claire looked around herself in wonder. Most of the books on the shelves were not schoolbooks and there seemed to be a great number of reference works among them. She wondered what he needed all that for. What he was printing out seemed to be many pages and she studied him as he waited for all of them to come out of the printer. Once their eyes met, but he quickly looked away again. She did not know what to think of him. He was friendlier than before, but he still was not warm.
"Got it," Stephen announced and pulled the pages from the printer. He gave them to Claire and sat down next to her. "This is what I plan on doing with the children this year, per subject. We're in this week now, so this is what we have to do."
It was very neatly done, she remarked. "Is this the same as what other schools do?"
"It's based on a plan I got once," Stephen admitted. "But considering that I'm on my own and that I'm not at all qualified to teach certain subjects, I've left some out."
"Music and sewing," he replied promptly. "And we do traffic only very marginally."
Claire had to smile in spite of herself. "Sewing? Don't you like sewing?" She saw he smiled too when he shook his head, but he was looking at the schedule.
"Did you bring your running gear?" he asked.
"Right now?" her voice rose in surprise.
Now he really laughed. "No, to the island. Did you think I was going to take you running in the dark?"
"It could have been. Why do you ask?"
"Because we always run on Tuesday and Friday mornings, followed by exercises on the west beach. You have to come. If you're not at school, I'm going to send a few children over to fetch you."
"I unpacked my alarm now," Claire assured him. She studied the rest of the schedule. It did not have much meaning to her, since she did not yet know all the books they would be using.
"Could you do me a favour?" Stephen asked. "I taped a documentary, but I don't know if it's very useful. Could you watch it and say what you think of it? I'll give you the tape."
"My house doesn't have a TV," Claire said quickly before he could take out the video.
"Would you mind watching it here or do you have something else to do tonight?" he asked. "You could come back another time, but it goes with the chapter two we're doing this week and next week we're supposed to be doing chapter three. If you don't want to watch it, I'll just show it and hope that it's not too difficult for them. It's not very long. Half an hour."
Claire had nothing else to do. "I'll watch it right now."
"Thank you," Stephen said gratefully and turned on the TV. "Would you mind if I did some work while you're watching? I'll look up if you want me to look at something."
Claire wondered what sort of work he wanted to do, but it would feel less awkward than having him sit next to her. She watched as he sat down behind his desk and began to type irregularly, and then turned her attention to the documentary. It would probably be alright for the older groups, she thought, but the youngest ones would be bored because they did not understand. When she said so to Stephen when he gave her a cup of hot chocolate, he nodded.
"We'd have to split them up, which is why I wanted you to see this. You might prefer showing a video over doing something difficult."
"How difficult?" Claire paused the videotape.
"I don't know -- multiplication tables or something like that." She did not know who had mastered which tables, which would make it difficult.
"Mmm...yes. Maybe I would prefer the video."
"Do you think it's useful?"
"Yes, I think it might be. I mean, I would have liked it if we had been shown a video at school."
"Good. I'll take it with me in the morning. We have a TV at school," Stephen explained. "They wouldn't all be coming here to see it."
"Yes, I saw the TV." Claire paused. "How often do you show videos?" she asked politely, just to say something.
"Once a week if I've got a good one."
"Oh!" Claire said in dismay when it began to rain very hard outside. "Does this happen every night?"
"No, only every other night," Stephen said in an indifferent tone. "Wait a while." She had her chocolate too, anyway, and she had to drink that before she left. "It might become better later on." He sat back down next to her when the documentary was over, because it would be impolite to keep on working.
They watched a few programmes on television and Claire glanced at the window every ten minutes, although she could hear the rain beating against it steadily even if she did not look. It did not appear to be getting any less and she grew worried. Was she going to have to sit here with Stephen all night? Soon the television broadcast would come to an end and they would have to resort to real conversation or a video.
Stephen, meanwhile, was thinking the same. Now and then commenting on what happened on TV was not going to work if there were no more programmes to watch and he guessed Claire felt a little awkward about being here. He was proven right when she spoke at midnight.
"It's a bit silly that I would go out to avoid having a visitor so late at night and then impose myself on someone else in the same way," she said a little nervously. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't my intention to impose on you for so long and keep you from your work. I think I'll just go and get wet."
"It's not silly," he answered. "If you don't mind, you could stay in the guest room," he suggested hesitantly. "Unless you would prefer to wait maybe until dawn for the rain to stop. It's not wise to get wet. You'll catch a cold."
Claire thought about it. The guest room indeed sounded more appealing than getting wet. Maybe she should accept the offer. She had seen him yawn a few times and he seemed anxious to go to bed. If she insisted on waiting, he would have to stay up with her. "Alright..."
"I'll ask my mother," Stephen said and ran down the stairs. A minute later he reappeared and showed the way to a small bedroom, done up in light colours, which made a huge difference from the bedroom in Claire's new house. She liked it much better.
A woman came upstairs, but she looked so very unlike Stephen that Claire did not immediately think she was Stephen's mother. She was tiny with grey hair and a warm smile, and she brought Claire a nightshirt and towels. "I'm Stephen's mother. If there's anything you want, don't hesitate to ask," she said. "This is the guest bathroom you can use. Everything is there."
"Thank you," said Claire. Stephen seemed to have disappeared. Perhaps he had already gone to bed. "Do you have an alarm clock? He's going to kill me if I'm late again," she said anxiously.
Stephen's mother laughed. "Stephen?" she asked in amusement. She had heard that Claire had been late that morning, but she had not heard that it had bothered Stephen so much that he would kill her if it happened again. "I'll tell him to wake you. I'm afraid I don't get up as early as he does and he's usually out by the time my husband and I wake. Stephen's got the only alarm clock in the house."
© 2000 Copyright held by the author.