Chapped skin under a scalding shower, Beth rubbed at a patch of mud on her calf. The games mistress ticked names off the register as the girls filed through the school showers, grabbing their greying towels and wiping the rest of the dirt away. Her face still glowing from a hard cross country effort, Beth coughed as the steamy room filled with deodorant spray and cheap perfume. The school bell rang, piercing the chatter, as the class frantically buttoned shirts and unravelled socks to line up for their school buses. Beth was constantly anxious about missing the bus home, which probably spurred her on in the PE lesson. She stuffed her muddy kit into a plastic jelly bag, slipped on her scuffed black school pumps and ran to join her bus queue. Touching her sternum, she felt for the bump beneath her school vest to check for her house key. Reassured, she unzipped a small pocket in her rucksack to locate her bus pass. A missing step in this ritual could easily spiral into disaster in her twelve year old mind. In the adjacent queue, her friend Sophie waved at her. Sophie’s double-decker bus line bunched as children jostled for their places, with the youngest being left to fend for seats amongst the older kids..
The school served several outlying villages, in an English rural farming community, with eight different bus routes transporting students to adjacent settlements. Now in her second year at high school, Beth was familiar with the monosyllabic bus driver. No eye contact, just a nod of acknowledgement at the laminated bus pass, Beth swung herself into the second row of seats. The back seats were always occupied by noisy fifth years. The front seats ‘reserved’ for the very timid. Some boys from her grade were trading football cards in the seats behind her, while nearby, a pair of popular older girls chattered. Beth’s journey wasn’t significant enough to bother with conversation, so she wiped at the condensation and tried to look out of the window as the bus swung out of the village. Dark brown fields and sparse hedgerows sped by, as the school bus picked up speed on the main road. As they gained speed, the driver braked sharply and lurched to the left, on a potholed minor road, the branches of an overhanging horse chestnut tree scraped the roof as they pulled into Lower Marham. Stopping abruptly opposite St Peter’s church, at the T junction, the hydraulic door hissed open and Beth climbed down the steps that now hovered awkwardly over the edge of a large puddle. The bus driver closed the door and continued his journey through the farm lands. Clutching her plastic mesh gym bag and rucksack, Beth carefully tiptoed around the edge of the ditch and crossed the road to walk home. Her school pumps were worn out, and she could feel puddly mud seeping into the end of her white socks.
The sun, weak and low in the sky, cast long shadows behind her. Beth had about a mile to walk, along the quiet Main Road. The Anglo Saxon settlement was formed over a thousand years, and remained sparsely populated; a node between larger, more useful places. There had been a primary school at one time, with a single classroom for all ages, but now The Old School House was one of the grander properties, along with The Vicarage and Martin’s Farm.
Beth switched hands carrying her bags, the plastic handles pinched her skin. Her school books were heavy and she began to think about homework, projects and revision. Her stomach growled. The late afternoon stillness was broken by the sound of a red, box-shaped Fiat Panda coming to a halt just behind her. She looked around and recognised Mr. Eaves, who lived in one of the small white terrace houses nearby. Beth was relieved he wasn’t a stranger but smart enough to instinctively cross the road and keep her distance. Mr. Eaves had two scruffy haired boys, and Beth remembered her dad talking to him at the local salvage yard, while she hovered behind and watched them climbing into old cars and playing Dukes of Hazard.
Beth quickened her stride and glanced again, over her shoulder. The man heaved open the door of the red telephone box, and looked directly at the girl, narrowing his eyes. Heart pounding, Beth broke into a run, as much as she could manage with the lumpy school bags. She thought about stopping at Mrs. Thompson’s cottage, but decided the elderly lady may take a while to open the door. Mr. Eaves was only stopping to make a call, she reasoned. Calm yourself, girl. Still, Beth couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in her stomach. A street light flickered on ahead. Beth’s house was almost in sight, but stood alone, dark and unlit. Bundling everything onto her left side, she unhooked the Yale key on the shoelace from around her neck. Hands shaking and heart beating, Beth fumbled with the lock, dropping her bags on the floor to work the swollen door open. An empty glass milk bottle rolled off the porch, making her jump again. She left it, grabbing both bags and tumbling into the empty hallway, banging the door closed and feeling around for the light switch.
Inside, she turned on the television for company, and began drawing the curtains closed in each room. A carriage clock ticked loudly on the mantle piece, reminding her that dad would be home in an hour. She drifted into the kitchen, took four Bourbon biscuits from a tin, poured a glass of milk and began opening her school books. The sound of the boiler, firing into action on a timer, and the radiator pipes creaking into life shook her from her reverie. Every little sound in the empty house made Beth listen harder for anything abnormal. She brought her books to the lounge and lay on the floor, in her muddy socks, writing an essay, with a TV show on in the background. She rested her head on her left arm and wrote sloping letters across the page, occasionally watching, and feeling the room temperature rise. As it warmed up, Beth relaxed and yawned. Sleepily completing a page of mathematics, she closed her books and checked the time again. Her stomach ached for food and she wondered why her father wasn’t home yet. She stood at the window, and squinted out to the dark, empty street and the fields beyond. The single streetlight illuminated a cluster of trees that looked eerily bare at this time of year. Headlights, from the right, drew closer, bumping over potholes in the street. She told herself, with a mixture of dread and hope that it was her dad coming home from work.
Beth’s legs shook as she gripped the windowsill, only to be flooded with a tremendous wave of relief to see her dad’s familiar old Volvo pulling in. She took a deep breath, wiped her face with her sleeve, and ran outside in her socks to give him a welcoming bear hug.