Charity begins

6th February 2004 at 00:00
St Brian's is haunted by a ghostly figure - although she's not dead yet

I'm trying to liven up a Year 7 class on the Hundred Years War with a digression about ghosts. You know, how ghost stories were used by the medieval clergy to reinforce religious notions of punishment, retribution and purgatory. It seems a bit advanced for 7B, but my head of department, Judith Crock, insists it's part of the key stage 3 history syllabus.

At least Shanique seems interested. "St Brian's is haunted, Miss. Kayleigh said she saw somefink dreadful in the girls' toilets once." This is undoubtedly true, given that things lurk in the toilets at St Brian's to which no child should be exposed. But they are unmistakably man-made horrors.

"Yeah, it's true, Miss," confirms Michael. "If you call it four times it comes out of a mirror and slashes your head off and rips out your guts."

Michael watches a lot of videos.

Later in the day I find myself alone in the staffroom and wonder if I was too hasty in laughing off the children's tales. The curtains billow gently as the wind whistles through rattling window frames. I recall that St Brian's began life as a Victorian workhouse, and that our caretaker, Roy Striper, has had weird experiences in the boiler room. (But then Roy can often be seen on early September mornings "picking flowers" on the playing field. The kids call him the Mushroom Man.) "Ghosts! Pull yourself together, Charity," I mutter to myself when suddenly I see a blanched, ethereal shape flit across the room. An icy gust scatters my pile of reports to the floor. Stooping to pick them up I sense a presence and look up to see a listless figure drifting towards me. It stops and stares at me, then opens its mouth and wails mournfully. "NQT, I wear the chains I forged in life. I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate." Or something like that.

What the hell is it? Is it Shanique's ghost? No, it's Cynthia Thyme from the technology department, and those are metaphorical chains round her ankles - carrier bags full of coursework assessments, target-setting, schemes of work and marking. She takes them everywhere.

Cynthia's been stalking the corridors of St Brian's for years, an invisible spectre ignored by staff and pupils alike. The only time her presence registers is during her heated telephone calls to the pensions agency, occupational health or her "association rep".

She's been trying to get early retirement since corporal punishment was abolished and teachers lost the respect of their pupils. Like all ghosts, she lives in purgatory, doomed to see the end but never to reach it.

Cynthia is by no means the oldest member of staff at St Brian's, she's just the most past it, exhausted by years of change and initiatives and living through the horror of her subject - needlework - being subsumed into the technology department. I try to imagine her former self, but it's difficult conjuring up a time when girls wore bobby socks rather than thongs, and a trip to the school nurse was to have your hair checked for nits rather than to demand a nicotine patch.

I feel sad as she trails out of the room. I know she's going nowhere but, half-dead or half-alive, the school needs her. The only way Cynthia Thyme will leave St Brian's is in a box.

Next week: Happy Valentine's Day

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