Cheryl Smith lives near Edinburgh. Her first, book, a memoir, is due for publication in June 2016.
She had an exotic name, at a time when no-one else did. She took it from her husband, she told us between translations and conjugations. You had to wonder what kind of man her husband was, to have his name stolen in the interests of enchantment.
It wasn’t just the name. She was startlingly blonde and heavily pansticked, every day of the school year. My mum would have called her brassy, and looking back, it would have been hard to argue with that. But we’re not here to judge, and so I take back what I just said. Let me take back that judgment.
Still, judging, like learning, is something we do regardless, and judge her we did. The basis of our judgment wasn’t the same as my mum’s though. The 1960s were barely in the past and, to our bitter disappointment, we hadn’t grown up fast enough to be fab or groovy. This access to what we could never be was our ticket to our might-have-been. She was our would-have-been, if only we’d been born sooner. As for our mums, they weren’t there, so to hell with what they would think.
It wasn’t just the name and the hair. It was the denim blue shadow and the spiderleg lashes and the dresses that clung to her like they loved her too. And it was the way she spoke to us.
As if we were real people. As if we were her friends, fellow grown-ups. She told us her first name and she teased us with snippets of her life at home with her exotic husband. None of the others offered us that. None of the others had an exotic husband to offer, and their first names were guarded to preserve the enigmas of adult lives to which we were not yet party.
One afternoon she pulled off her platinum helmet to expose the scraped-back mouse underneath. She couldn’t be bothered to do her hair in the mornings, and it was hot in here, and her head itched.
Such was her sass, and it could cancel out the mousey disappointment. She made us smile. Often, the French was forgotten about. School work was so much less interesting than our sassy-brassy fab exotic friend.
We weren’t to know that she wasn’t our friend. Nor was she our teacher, not properly – at least, she didn’t teach us much of what she was paid to teach. She taught us about sass and enchantment and what you could get away with when you became an adult and got a job that placed you in a room full of impressionable minds, unsupervised. But I don’t remember learning much French.
I do remember the strap. Brown leather, sturdy. She kept it in her desk drawer, top right. I remember that.
All the others had one too, just like they all had a box of chalk and a pointer and a good pension. But none used their leather quite so prolifically as our exotic, fake-hair-and-lashes fake friend. The cruelty of that, the betrayal. We judged her as more than she could be, and she punished us in the face of our adulation.
She strapped us when we hadn’t done our homework and when we hadn’t learned our vocab lists. She strapped us when we had learned our vocab lists but were frozen into forgetfulness by the threat of six stings to the hand. Or to the wrist, when she missed. On the tender spot.
That stung more.
It stung when we judged her worthy of our adoration; when she enticed us into judging that she was our friend. It stung when we couldn’t decline our verbs, and it stung when we couldn’t make sense of the gap between the sophisticates we yearned to be and the mousy, sassy, denim-eyed pastiche of the impossible that she showed us.
It stung us, when we were children, and had not yet learned to judge. I suspect she knew that one day, we would. I suspect that somewhere beneath the blonde, it stung her too.