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It was Monday morning.
“Yeah, he’s dead,” said John.
Susanne looked at John, her colleague of almost ten years standing, and someone she regarded as, if not exactly a friend, then at least a sympathetic associate. “Are you sure?” she said.
“Yeah,” said John. “It’s all over the local news.”
“How?” said Susanne. “How did he die?”
“Jesus. That’s fucking terrible.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I mean that’s the third this year.”
“The third what?”
“The third student of mine who’s died this year.”
“Yeah, first there was Theresa Tatchell. Do you remember her?”
“Oh yeah, I remember Theresa. Nice girl. How’d she die again?”
“Yeah, I didn’t know that.”
“And then there was Jeremy Baskerville.”
“He was the hit and run, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah, the drunk driver. And now this.”
“God, I hope there aren’t any more.”
“People might begin to get suspicious.” John started laughing.
“It’s not funny.”
He stopped laughing. “No, of course not. Sorry.”
Later that day Susanne was teaching a class of fourteen and fifteen year olds, the dead boy’s classmates. She was teaching them to identify and analyse examples of imagery in Macbeth, a play by William Shakespeare about why it’s probably not such a great idea to murder a king. Basically, what goes around comes around.
She gave everyone a worksheet and made them write down quotations from the play and analyse them. What did the quote mean? What was Shakespeare trying to say? What was the effect on the audience?
At the end of the lesson she addressed the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room was the dead boy. He wasn’t there anymore. He had become figurative.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard the horrible news,” she said. The students looked at her blankly, giving no indication whether they had heard the news or not. The effect of this was rather unnerving. “Um,” Susanne continued, “well, of course, this is a terrible, it’s, I’m sure … well, if anyone would like to talk, um, if you need to, sort of … I mean if you need someone to talk to, or even if, well, what I’m trying to say is …”
“It’s OK, Miss,” said a boy in the front row. “We’re OK. No one really liked him anyway. He was a bit of a dick, to be honest.”
“Oh,” said Susanne. “But that’s not really the point, is it?”
“It’s OK, don’t worry about it,” said the boy. “We’re fine. Aren’t we?” The boy who was called Miles looked back at his classmates. “Aren’t we?” he said again.
His classmates mumbled assent.
“But,” said Susanne, “it’s just that, well, the thing is. He isn’t, or wasn’t, the first. There have been others.”
“Other what, Miss?” said Miles, who seemed to be taking on the role as the spokesperson of the class.
“Other dead, um,” said Susanne, “other children that have been, well, that have died.”
“Well, yeah,” said Miles. “Obviously.”
“I mean to say,” said Susanne, “from my classes. Other children from my classes. He was the third this year.”
“At least it’s less marking for you, Miss,” said Miles.
“It’s not funny, Miles. These are dead children we’re talking about.”
“OK, Miss,” said Miles.
“I just want you to be aware,” said Susanne. “Children from my classes keep dying.”
“It’s not your fault, Miss,” said Miles.
“Thank you, Miles,” said Susanne. “I appreciate that. Well, anyway, just so you know. Just please be careful, everyone. OK?”
A few days later, actually a week later, it was Monday morning again. Susanne was making herself a cup of coffee in the office.
Phil entered the room. Phil was a tall man with very little hair. Soon he would be almost totally bald. He was also Susanne’s line manager, the Head of English.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the news,” said Phil, addressing Susanne’s back as she made her cup of coffee.
“No,” said Susanne, fearing the worst. News, in her experience, was very rarely good. News always, in her experience, meant bad news. “What news?”
“Another student’s died,” said Phil.
“You’re kidding,” said Susanne.
“I’m most certainly not.”
“Not another one of mine I hope.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh God. Who?”
“Harding, Jesus. How? What happened?”
“He cut himself rather badly down by the old train line. The cut got infected. Sepsis.”
“Yep. It’s a killer. Lots of people die from it. It’s deadly.”
“That’s five this year, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, of your students.”
“That have died.”
“Um, I think it’s four actually.”
“That’s still quite a lot.”
“Well, yeah, but-”
“It’s unheard of, actually. I can’t remember a teacher ever having so many dead students in one year.”
“Well, yeah, but you don’t, I can’t, you don’t think-”
“You’re going to have to be careful.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, five is rather a lot of deaths to have in just one year. You wouldn’t want any more now, would you?”
“It’s four. Four deaths.”
“Whatever. It’s a lot of deaths for one teacher.”
“But they’re not, you don’t, you can’t, they’re not…my deaths, they’re nothing to do with me.”
“Well, they are your students. You are their teacher.”
“Five is rather a lot.”
“Four, right, but it’s still a lot.”
“But you can’t possibly, you don’t, you do realise that there’s nothing I can actually do to stop people dying in their free time.”
“Of course, I realise that, Susanne. I’m not blaming you, of course not. But I’m just saying, five, I mean four, is rather a lot, and people will start to talk and, you know, all I’m saying is you just better be careful, for your own good, that’s all. I’m just trying to…you know, it’s not me you need to worry about. I’m trying to help, you know, that’s all.”
“Well, who, what, who do I need to worry about?”
“Look, I’m just saying, just be careful. You can’t afford any more dead students. That’s all I’m saying. It doesn’t look good.”
Susanne sipped her coffee. It was too hot to drink really, but it was there in her hand so she had a little sip.
“What do you expect me to do?” she said.
“Just get it sorted,” said Phil. “Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Later that day Susanne was teaching a group of thirteen and fourteen year olds, the dead boy’s classmates. This was the second death of the year in this particular class. They had been reading The Merchant of Venice, a play by Shakespeare, about a Jewish moneylender. She was asking the students to consider whether the play was anti-Semitic or not, and to find evidence from the play to support their view. Basically, the consensus was that some people thought it was anti-Semitic, and some people thought it wasn’t.
At the end of the lesson she looked at the empty chair where, had he still been living, James Harding would have sat. She felt herself beginning to well up, but then she remembered the words of Lady Macbeth in Act 3 Scene 4 of Macbeth when she says to her husband, “When all’s done, you look but on a stool.” And that sorted her out. James Harding was dead. It was just an empty chair.
She decided to address the class. “I’m sure you have noticed,” she began. “That one of you is missing today.”
“Yeah, we know,” said Annie, a smart girl in the front row. “Our form tutor’s already spoken to us about it. He’s dead.”
“Well, yes, OK, so that’s good then.”
“It’s good?” said Annie. “It’s good that he’s dead?”
“Well, no, obviously, it’s not good that he’s dead, that’s not what I meant. I meant it’s good that you’ve already been spoken to about it, because that’s, it’s–”
“Because it means that you don’t have to do it,” said Annie.
“Well, no, not quite, that’s not quite, but it just means that I can speak to you about other things, maybe more important things.”
“More important than the death of a child?” said Annie.
“Well, if you would just let me speak.”
“Of course,” said Annie. “Go ahead.”
“Thank you. Yes, well, what I wanted to say was that it seems to me that some of you, and it certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, I realise that, but some of you need to, perhaps, take a little more care of yourselves. James is the fourth student from this school to die this year, and while I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead, it does seem, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, maybe, if people just took a little more care of themselves, then there wouldn’t be quite so many of them dying.”
“So, what you’re saying is,” said Annie, “you want us to take care not to die?”
“Yes, essentially, that is what I’m saying. Words to that effect.”
The bell rang. The children stood up and hastily exited the room. The noise in the room became a din.
“Don’t forget what I said,” said Susanne, largely unheard. “Please be careful. We don’t want any more people dying.”
Fast-forward another week. Another Monday morning. When Susanne entered the office to make herself a cup of coffee Phil was already there, checking his emails.
“The head wants to see you,” he said.
“Me?” said Susanne.
“Yes, you,” said Phil. “She wants to see you.”
“Yes, right away.”
“I don’t know. She just said she wants to see you ‘first thing.’”
“Have I got time to make a coffee?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so. It sounded important. Quite urgent, actually.”
“Jesus, no one else has died, have they?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Jesus, I hope no one else has died. If someone else has died, I’m screwed.”
“The door’s open,” said Jane. Jane was the headteacher, and a thoroughly professional person she was too. Everything about her was professional: her hair was professional, her smile was professional, the way she said, “The door’s open” was professional, as was the way she said, “Please, take a seat.”
Susanne took a seat and sat with her hands folded nervously on her lap. Jane finished perusing some document or other that was on the desk in front of her before directing her professional smile on Susanne. “Now,” she said professionally, “this whole business really is most unfortunate.”
Susanne obviously knew what she was talking about but felt as though she ought to pretend she didn’t. “What business might that be?” she said.
“Why, the dead children of course,” said Jane, prof-
“Of course,” said Susanne. “I thought that was what you meant, but just to be sure.”
“I do hope there isn’t anything else I ought to know about.”
“Oh no, absolutely not, no, no.”
“Good. Well, yes, as I was saying. There are five dead so far, is that correct?”
“Four, right. That’s still quite a lot. And they were all in your classes?
“Well, yes, but, there’s no, that doesn’t mean, you can’t-”
“There’s nothing to worry about, Susanne, I’m just establishing the facts.”
“And Jade Filimore, is that one of yours?”
“Oh yes, actually, she is one of mine. But she hasn’t, has she, she’s not…dead, is she?”
“Not yet, no, but the prognosis is not good.”
“She was taken ill at the weekend and is currently in intensive care.”
“But that’s not, there’s nothing, I mean–”
“Please, Susanne, no one’s accusing you of anything.”
“Good, because, you know, I can’t, there’s really nothing that I can do about what students get up to in their free time.”
“Well, no, no one’s suggesting there is, really, but you have to admit it does begin to look a little, how can I put this, a little more than coincidental, doesn’t it Susanne? You are their teacher after all, aren’t you, and as their teacher don’t you think you ought to take some responsibility for their welfare?”
“Well, yes, I see what you’re saying, and I do take responsibility, while they’re in my care. I mean no one’s actually died during my lessons, have they?”
“No, of course not, Susanne. No one’s suggesting they have. Look, please don’t get upset. I really am just trying to establish the facts of the matter. I am certainly not leaping to any judgements here today.”
“Good, because there’s no, nobody can, I don’t think you-”
“And, of course, there’s now the added complication of the parents.”
“Yes, the parents. People talk, Susanne, and of course word has got around that students in your classes keep dying, and parents are understandably, how can I put this, jittery.”
“Yes, jittery. I think that’s fair to say. I have received several emails from parents asking for students to be removed from your classes, and one parent has even threatened to remove their child from the school altogether. I have tried to reassure them, of course, but they really are jittery, very jittery indeed.”
“Yes, so you see, I find myself in quite a difficult situation.”
“Yes, I see, but you must understand that there’s nothing, I really don’t see, I can’t stop people dying.”
“No one is expecting you to perform miracles, Susanne, but I think that, ultimately, as a professional, that if children keep dying then, sadly, I really wouldn’t have any choice. You would have to take responsibility. Your position here would become untenable.”
“Yes, I am sorry Susanne. Like I say, it really is a terribly unfortunate business. But, as you can see, my hands really are very much tied.”
“Right, OK, I see.”
“Well, thank you for understanding. And fingers crossed. Hopefully Jade will get better and this whole thing will blow over.”
“Yes, well, do be careful.” Jane smiled professionally. “All the best, Susanne, and good luck.”
Later that day Susanne was teaching a group of eleven and twelve year olds, the sick girl’s classmates. The class had been studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In today’s lesson the class were asked to consider the similarities between Shakespeare’s play and the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. One of the most obvious similarities is that both pairs of titular characters end up committing suicide. After considering the similarities between the two stories Susanne then asked the class, in pairs, to produce a modern day retelling of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth. Her intention was to give the students as much creative freedom as they wanted, and she was quite relaxed about how much of the original story they included in their own version.
“Does it have to be set in the olden times?” asked one student, a boy called Nasim.
“Oh no, absolutely not,” said Susanne. “You can set it whenever you want.”
“Do they have to be called Pyramus and Thisbe?” asked another student, a girl this time called Jessica.
“Oh no, not at all,” said Susanne. “You can call them whatever you want.”
“Do they have to kill themselves at the end?” asked another student, a boy whose name Susanne, for some reason, could never quite remember.
“No,” said Susanne. “Not necessarily.”
At the end of the lesson she had been going to talk to the class about Jade Filimore. The doctors had almost given up hope, and it seemed likely that she was going to die within days. She wanted the class to know that she was there for them if they needed someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on.
Susanne looked around the room. The students were busily imagining ways in which their imaginary lovers could end their imaginary lives. They seemed happy enough. The absence of Jade Filimore did not seem to be concerning them unduly. Just leave it then, thought Susanne. There’s no point rocking the boat when it’s bobbing along quite contentedly. And so she left it alone.
She didn’t say a word about Jade Filimore.
Next week. It was Monday morning. Yes, another one. The first person that Susanne saw after arriving at work was John. His face, it appeared, had been seized by a kind of intense excitement.
“Have you heard?” he said.
“Heard what?” said Susanne, naturally fearing the worst.
Bad news, thought Susanne. That’s what he should have said: bad news. All news was bad news.
“What?” she said. “Just tell me.”
“There’s been a suicide.”
“What? A suicide?”
“A double suicide.”
“Oh God. Are you serious?”
“Who? Who was it?”
“Kate Maiden and Billy Butler.”
“Did you know them?”
“Yes. Oh Jesus.”
“Were they in your class?”
Susanne made her way to the office where she found Phil staring intently at his computer screen. He was reading an article on the local newspaper’s website, obviously, thought Susanne, about the dead children, the double suicide. The star-crossed lovers. She could imagine the headlines. She checked the kettle. It was cold.
“Good morning, Phil,” she said.
“Terrible, just terrible,” said Phil. “Have you heard?”
“Yeah, I saw John in the corridor.”
“Terrible, just terrible.”
“I know. It’s awful.”
“The head was just up here looking for you. You’d better go and see her.”
“Did she say what it was about?”
Phil didn’t answer. He had returned his attention to the computer screen. “Terrible,” he muttered, “just terrible.”
The door was open, and inside Susanne could see Jane tapping away at her keyboard, and looking up every so often at the screen in front of her to check what she had written, and make any necessary corrections. A pair of glasses was professionally perched on the end of her nose. Susanne knocked on the open door.
Jane swung around on her plush leather chair to face her. “Ah, Susanne, good morning. Please come in,” she said.
“Phil said you wanted to see me,” said Susanne.
“Yes, that’s quite right. Do take a seat. I’ll be with you in just one moment.”
Susanne took a seat and looked around the headteacher’s office. On top of a filing cabinet she noticed a professional portrait of the headteacher’s three children, smiling like professionals-in-waiting. She could imagine Jane standing behind the photographer. “Nice big smiles everyone,” she could imagine her saying, while smiling broadly herself, by way of example. On top of another cabinet was a plant. Susanne stared at it for a long time, trying to figure out whether it was real or not. In the end she had to give up. It was impossible to tell. If it was real it was doing an admirable job of pretending not to be, and vice versa.
“Right,” said Jane eventually, rising from her computer and removing, briefly, the glasses from their perch on her nose. “Sorry to keep you waiting, but I’ve had a deluge of emails to respond to this morning. A veritable deluge. There are a lot of concerned parents out there, let me tell you.”
She sat down opposite Susanne and looked at her rather severely. Her severity, though, was on a strictly professional basis.
“I suppose you’ve heard what’s happened.”
“Regarding the suicides?” said Susanne.
“Yes, regarding the suicides,” said Jane.
“Yes, I have heard.”
“A most unfortunate business.”
“Yes. Absolutely dreadful. The families must be absolutely…well I can only imagine.”
“Yes, quite. That’s exactly the right word. It is unimaginable.” Jane paused, sat back and looked directly at Susanne. “Now as I am sure you can imagine, I am under enormous pressure to do something about all this. Seven children from our school have died and people want answers. I simply can’t afford to do nothing.”
“Seven? I thought it was six.”
“No, seven, I’m afraid. Your Jude Filimore passed away over the weekend too. There was nothing more the doctors could do apparently.”
“She wasn’t, you know, my-”
“Now, come on Susanne, let’s not quibble over semantics. You know quite what I mean. She was your student just like all the others. And there is a pretty solid consensus forming, I have to tell you, around the idea that this has moved a little beyond the realms of coincidence. It is surely pushing the boundaries of credibility to suggest that this is all down to pure chance.”
“I haven’t, but I don’t know–”
“In all my many years of teaching I’ve never heard of anything quite like this happening before. Have you?”
“Well, no, but that doesn’t mean-”
“Tell me, Susanne, is it true, and please excuse me for asking, but is it true, as I’ve now heard from multiple sources, I have to say, is it true that, only days before they took their own lives, you asked Kate and Billy’s class to write stories about teenagers killing themselves?”
“Um, well, yes, in a way, I suppose, but we’ve been studying Romeo and Juliet. I only asked them to write their own modern versions of the story.”
“Which, to be clear, were to end with the lovers taking their own lives?”
“Well, yes, they could end like that, but they didn’t have to, and I made that quite explicit. I did say they could change the story, they didn’t have to take their own lives.”
“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, Susanne, that teenage suicide is hardly an appropriate topic for such young children. These are eleven and twelve year olds we’re talking about.”
“But it’s Shakespeare, for God’s sake, it’s Romeo and Juliet.”
“There’s no need to get upset, Susanne. This is a difficult issue for all of us, but there’s no need to get upset. Be mindful of whom you are talking to.”
“It’s not, I’m not getting upset, but I just don’t feel that you’re, I don’t think–”
“OK, look. I think, ultimately, Susanne, if what I’m hearing is true, and you seem to be confirming that it is, then I really have no choice but to suspend you, effective immediately.”
“But what, how can you, I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“It seems to me, Susanne, that you are guilty of, at the very least, displaying poor professional judgement. Very poor. To study texts that seem to glorify teenage suicide, when there is already a trail of dead children, seems to me to be an example of, like I say, at the very least, poor professional judgement.”
“For God’s sake, it’s Shakespeare.”
“Let’s leave claims of authorship to one side for the moment, shall we. These are young, vulnerable children we’re working with here, Susanne, and next to the welfare of vulnerable children the reputations of one writer or another count as naught.”
“You can’t do this to me.”
“The children have to be, are always, our primary concern.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Yes, I think we are all in a state of shock, which is all the more reason to suspend you while the dust settles. Allow us to investigate these deaths more closely. And let’s just see what happens. If, after all, the deaths continue then it will be clearly proven that it is nothing to do with you.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Well, let’s just wait and see, shall we. Let’s not jump to conclusions.”
There was a pause. The two women looked at each other. It was Susanne who broke the silence.
“So, shall I leave now? Do you want me to leave now?”
“Yes, absolutely. Your suspension is effective immediately, as I said. I really have no choice. As you can see my hands are tied.”
“Right. May I clear my desk, say goodbye to colleagues?”
“I think, don’t you, it would be better if you didn’t. In fact, I will have to insist that you don’t. It is in nobody’s interests to make a fuss. Of course, we will respect your privacy in this matter, and would appreciate it if you would do likewise. You, of course, mustn’t talk to the press or anyone else about any of this.”
There was another pause. Susanne was wide-eyed. Shocked. Jane was steeled. Professional.
“So, you want me to leave quietly?” said Susanne.
“I think it would be in everyone’s interests, don’t you?” said Jane. “Nobody likes a fuss.”
William Macbeth is a writer. He has written a book called 'The Warehouse Industry'. It is about a man who kills a duck and doesn't have any friends, but apart from that it's not autobiographical at all. He has brown hair and, while not exactly tall, is certainly above average height. He lives in London, in a house. William Macbeth has never won any prizes, raffles, or competitions of any kind.