Miracles happen every day. They happen in classrooms.
Every day children of four and five, and occasionally twelve, look at the same white page covered with black symbols that they've been poring over bemusedly for almost as long as they can remember, and suddenly it means something. Yesterday it didn't, today it does. It might only mean The cat sat on the mat, but the cat's there and the mat's there, and this time they can see the relationship between the two because of the words in front of them. Because they read it.
They read it aloud, in tones of wonder - twice, to make sure it wasn't a fluke. But it wasn't. The brain has finally hardwired the connection so that the mind can hear what the eyes are seeing. Revelation glows like sunrise in the child's face. It had seemed impossible, remembering what all those little marks were supposed to sound like: huge double-handfuls of them, covering the pages - and somehow you were supposed to make sense of them. It simply wasn't reasonable. Yesterday the child knew for a fact that he was stupid, that he would never be able to do what other people could do. But today he's doing it. He's reading. And the whole world opens up before him.
Compared with that miracle, thought Desmond Chalmers,keeping 3c from putting their fingers in the pencil-sharpeners and stabbing one another with their compasses was nothing, a mere reflex action. Any teacher worthy of the name could do it without thinking - like breathing and keeping the heart beating, not so much an achievement as a habit. But teaching your first child to read is a hard act to follow. After that you tend to use the word miracle sparingly.
Chalmers had been a teacher for fourteen years, a head teacher for eight of them. He hadn't lost his sense of wonder - some mornings it was all that got him out of bed - but he wasn't easy to impress any more. He'd seen most things that children were capable of, good and bad, and most things that teachers were capable of. In fact, he'd seen most things that people are capable of. Before he went into teaching he was a Royal Marine commando, possibly the ideal preparation for running Dimmock High.
He hadn't seen anything quite like this before.
God knows he'd seen courage - on the battlefield, and also in places where the issues aren't quite so clear-cut, where excuses are more acceptable and cowardice goes by politer names like expediency and pragmatism. He thought that perhaps heroism in such circumstances - where it wasn't expected, where it might easily go unnoticed - might be of an even higher order.
He was aware that almost no one else standing in this corridor, watching through the glazed portion of the door, would see anything remarkable. A class of twelve-year-olds learning maths. Quiet for the most part, engaged, even interested, which suggested a certain quality of teaching. Buteven today, even in Dimmock High, that wasn't so unusual as to invite comment.
But Des Chalmers had been here - in this very corridor, as it happens - the last time Daniel Hood returned to the school where he once taught. It had ended, quite literally, in tears. It had ended with a terrified Daniel running wildly through the building because he needed to get out and couldn't find the door. It had ended with Des Chalmers taking him down in a rugby tackle and holding his shaking body still until the panic ebbed, making way for a soul-deep humiliation.
Then he'd taken Daniel home to his odd little shack on the shore, and made tea, and watched his trembling hands fill the saucer, and suggested quietly, 'Maybe a bit too soon?' But what he'd thought was, This young man is never going to stand in front of a room full of children again.
Whether you called it post-traumatic stress disorder or shell-shock, it was as real and crippling a catastrophe as anything that starts in a shatter of blood and bone. Chalmers knew the story, of course, heard most of it soon after it happened. Daniel told him the rest this morning when he came to ask for his job back. He wanted the Principal to have the full picture before he decided whether to trust him with thirty of his pupils. He had trusted him implicitly once. Daniel had worked in the maths department at Dimmock High for twelve months before ...
Before. All discussion of the subject tended to end with that word and a row of dots. People were kind, didn't want to embarrass him. They tried to skirt around the issue, leave the man to deal with his pain in privacy.
Sometimes it was the right thing to do. Daniel Hood was aprivate person, had always dealt with his problems alone, even before ... But this was different, and both men knew it. If Daniel returned to work, whatever problems remained with him would cease to be his alone. They would inevitably be shared, not just with colleagues but with the pupils. Children. He wanted his job back - desperately, teaching was all he'd ever wanted to do - but not at any price. He didn't want Des Chalmers to feel sorry for him and make allowances, and let him fail the children he was there to serve. They needed to be honest with one another. Painfully, brutally honest.
'I was tortured,' said Daniel quietly. 'It was a misunderstanding - I hadn't done anything: nothing I want you to know about, nothing I don't want you to know about - but for most of that weekend someone was stubbing out cigarettes on me. Then I was shot and dumped in a rubbish skip. But it was a cold night and you know what they say - you're not dead till you're warm and dead. After a week in hospital I was on the mend.'
'No, you weren't,' said the Principal, his voice hollow.
'Well, no,' admitted Daniel, 'I wasn't. My body was healing: the psychological damage was harder to handle. I'd lost my equilibrium. I had mood-swings that hit euphoria and despair, and everything in between, sometimes quicker than I can say it. I was bursting into tears for no reason.'
'No,' said Chalmers again, 'you weren't. You had every reason. Of course your balance was shot. Neither minds nor bodies are designed to cope with what was done to you. You survived it; more than that, you've managed to move on. But these are still recent events. Don't expect to put them behind you in a couple of years. It's amazing what a human being canrecover from, but the healing takes time. What makes you think you're ready to work again?'
It was a legitimate question. Chalmers was responsible for the well-being of everyone in his school, adults and children alike, but the children took precedence. He wouldn't let Daniel back into a classroom, even if it was what Daniel needed, if there was any danger that his pupils would be harmed or frightened.
'I'm better,' Daniel said simply.
'How much better?'
When Daniel Hood smiled, suddenly you realised his fairy godmother hadn't after all been on a sloe-gin blinder behind the Christening cake. She might not have given him much stature - half the third year were taller than him, including some of the girls. She might not have given him much in the way of looks - the sunshine yellow hair was the only memorable thing about him. She managed to equip him with an impressive intelligence, though if she'd tempered it with a little more tact he would be less prone to irritating his friends with a quite unconscious arrogance. And his pale grey eyes were so weak she must have found them in the reject bin after the eye factory closed for the weekend.
But his smile made people who'd never met him before warm to the world. There was a simple sweetness about it that made them forgive his gaucheness, his obstinacy, and that way he had of caring so much about big issues that the nuances most people live by - the shades of grey, the concept of least worst and the lesser of two evils - were like a foreign countryto him, full of signs he couldn't read, where even if he asked directions he couldn't understand the replies. In his twenty-eight years Daniel Hood had annoyed a lot of people, but only the ones who hadn't seen him smile managed to stay annoyed for long.
'I don't know,' he said honestly. 'I hope so.'
'Only you remember what happened last time you were here,' said Chalmers gently. 'And you were only using the library.'
Daniel would never forget. 'I'm better now in a lot of ways. I can deal with people. I can even deal with crowds. As for teaching, I don't know any way of finding out except by trying.'
'And if you freak out again?' It wasn't tactful, or very kind. But there were higher priorities than Daniel's feelings.
The younger man shrugged. 'The flying tackle worked pretty well.'
Finally Chalmers agreed, with a caution. 'I'll be no distance away. You start to lose it, you get out. There's enough mayhem in an ordinary school day without you going ape-shit.' Des Chalmers wasn't a typical head teacher. His days in the Services, which had equipped him with many skills he now found tremendously useful, had also left him with a vocabulary he had to edit in polite company.
Daniel had been away from Dimmock High for two years: most of its twelve-year-olds had no idea who he was. Chalmers introduced him without much explanation then left them to it. But he didn't go far. He checked out Daniel's progress five times in as many minutes; three in the next ten; and then, with no sign of problems, ventured as far as the staff room for a cup of tea.
When he got back this was what he saw: Daniel with his jacket off and his shirt-sleeves pushed up, expressive hands helping to tell the story, calculations and a diagram of the Solar System up on the board, and thirty-odd children vying to answer questions.
'Oh yes,' Des Chalmers murmured to himself, 'you can still do it.'
Afterwards, back in his office, he asked Daniel how the lesson had gone.
The smile stole across his face again, touching his homely features with pixie-dust. 'I've missed it so much. Even when I knew I couldn't do it, didn't even want to try, I always missed it. Teaching is like learning afresh every day. I love maths - but I only remember just how much when I try to pass it on to someone else.'
Chalmers thought for a few moments before he said anything more. But only a few. 'Are you ready to come back?'
'Yes,' said Daniel immediately.
'I told you your job would be here when you wanted it. I meant that. You know I can always use a decent maths teacher. Start on Monday if you want. Just a couple of classes a day, if you like, to see how you get on.'
'I can do a full week. I don't need protecting any more.'
Chalmers chuckled at the glow in his face. 'Of course you do, Daniel - you're a national treasure. Tell me: what does Mrs Farrell think about you coming back to work?'
The merest flicker of uncertainty crossed the pale eyes behind Daniel's thick glasses. 'Ask me again on Monday. I haven't told her yet.'
'She'll be thrilled,' Chalmers predicted confidently. 'Of course she will. Why wouldn't she be?'
'Yes, of course she will,' nodded Daniel. 'But first she'll be surprised.'
'She doesn't think you're ready?'
'Oh yes - she thought so before I did. She'll be surprised I didn't consult her before coming to see you.'
It wasn't a criticism. It was a little glimpse for Chalmers, as through the window of a moving train, into the heart of other people's lives. Like the past, like a foreign country, Daniel Hood and Brodie Farrell did things differently. 'She's been a good friend to you,' commented the Principal. 'She cares what happens to you.'
'She has been a good friend,' Daniel agreed warmly. 'I don't think I'd have survived without her. But ...'
Chalmers thought he understood. 'It's time to stand on your own two feet?'
Daniel considered. 'In a way. Hell's bells,' he snorted in exasperation, 'this is nothing to do with what I came here for. But you've been a good friend to me too, Des, and maybe I don't owe you an explanation but it's good to confide in someone. Things are a bit different between us now. Things I would have said to her, only a few months ago, now ... It's different. Not in a bad way. Just ...'
Chalmers had his head cocked like a curious parrot. 'Daniel - are you trying to tell me you two are now an item?'
'No,' Daniel said quickly. 'I mean, if it was up to me ... But no. Only ...'
'You're in love,' said Chalmers plainly. Nothing in his tone or his eyes suggested this was as absurd as all Daniel'sinstincts told him it was. Of course, Des Chalmers was a head teacher - he was good at hiding what he thought.
Daniel gave a little lop-sided shrug. 'I suppose so. Yes, I think that's what it is.'
The older man grinned broadly. 'Well, you may have been off work but you've not been wasting your time. Can we expect to hear wedding bells?'
'I shouldn't think so,' said Daniel glumly. 'What I want and what Brodie wants aren't the same thing. I want to marry her. She wants to know that I'm eating enough and not reading The Astronomer under the bedclothes when I'm supposed to be asleep.'
Chalmers laughed out loud. 'I always say, a man can never have too many mothers. Hang on in there, stud, you'll work it out.'
Never in his entire life before had Daniel been addressed as Stud. 'Of course we will.' And he knew that they would, just not necessarily how he hoped. 'At least now I can support a family.'
'Go tell her,' advised Des Chalmers. 'And if she allows you, I'll see you on Monday.'
FLAWED. Copyright © 2007 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.