Tuesday: There are not 18 tots but 27 and the bottom left hand drawer is empty save for a box of rusty drawing pins, a batch of lidless felt pens and a glossy travel brochure expounding the merits of Eilat, doubtless a relic of some classroom project. Floundering desperately, I ask my charges what Mrs Randall normally does on a Tuesday morning. "Ingerlish," ventures one small girl tentatively, but is immediately shouted down by the others. An animated conflict ensues over Mrs Randall's Tuesday routine, until a gloomy-looking boy called Eric earns widespread agreement with his morose announcement. "We never do nuffing," he growls. I am horrified. Determined at all costs to do something, I set some sums.
Wednesday: I ask the head to contact Mrs Randall for the promised work, but there is no reply at her home number. I set some more sums.
The children accept the situation without question, apparently having gained the impression that I'm here to stay permanently. Hastily I assure them that Mrs Randall will soon be back. "Course not, 'cos she's broke her back," says Joanna. "She's dead," says Eric lugubriously. "She was a hundred years old, at least, and now she's dead and buried." I panic. Why haven't I been told? Was the sick leave merely a ruse by the head to lure me, unsuspecting, into an unwanted permanent position?
Thursday: The head is away on a training course, and the school secretary's efforts to contact Mrs Randall are still fruitless. I sit up half the night charting a course through the choppy waters of national curriculum maths, English, science, history and geography.
Unlike my ineffectual, doddery old predecessor, I intend to cram my young charges brimful of knowledge. Key stages, programmes of study and attainment targets haunt my dreams. My only consolation is that Joanna presented me this morning with a pink rose, crumpled and wilted from its sojourn to school in her coat pocket. Mrs Randall is evidently not only the late, but unlamented.
Friday: The afternoon's final session is interrupted by a knock at the classroom door. The headteacher enters with a sensible-looking, middle-aged woman who is promptly mobbed by the pupils. This, it turns out, is Mrs Randall, not only miraculously back from the grave but looking fit and unmistakably tanned.
Intimations of Mediterranean holidays cross my mind fleetingly and are firmly dismissed. "Oh, I say, I thought you were - um - seriously ill," I stammer in surprise. She smiles pleasantly. "Oh no, it was only a touch of arthritis. " I gather my belongings and slink back into obscurity, but Mrs Randall's clear voice follows me down the corridor. "Well, have you all been working hard while I was away?"
I can't escape Eric's lugubrious tones and gloomy pronouncement: "We never learnt nuffing, Miss."
Rachel Atkins is a freelance journalist and writer with 12 years teaching experience.