Margery put down her chalk. The laughter fell away, bit by bit, as they realized she was watching. It was sink or swim, she'd been told once. Don't try to be their friend. These girls are not your friends. There was an art teacher who'd given up after a week. "They hum," she'd wept in the staff room, "and when I ask who is humming, they look straight at me and say, 'No one is humming, Miss.' You have to be half dead to work here."
Margery stepped down from the wooden platform. She held out her hand. "Give me the note, please, Wendy."
Wendy sat with her head bowed, like a frightened rabbit. Girls in the back row exchanged a glance. Other than that, no one moved.
"I just want to know what is so funny, Wendy. Maybe we can all enjoy the joke."
At this point Margery had no intention of reading the note. She certainly had no intention of enjoying the joke. She was just going to open it, drop it into the bin, and after that she was going to clamber back onto the platform and finish her lesson. It was almost break time. There would be hot tea in the staff room, and a selection of biscuits.
"The note?" she said.
Wendy handed it over so slowly it would have been quicker to send it by post. "Oh, I wouldn't, Miss," she said quietly.
Margery took the paper. She opened it. Silence unspooled itself like ribbon.
What she had in her hand was not the usual. It wasn't a joke. It wasn't even a few words about how dull the lesson was. It was a sketch. It was a carefully executed cartoon sketch of a lumpy old woman, and this lumpy old woman was clearly Margery. The baggy suit was hers, and there was no mistaking the shoes. They were planks on the ends of two large legs—you could even see a toe poking out. Her nose the girls had done as a potato, while her hair was a mad bird's nest. The girls had also given her a mustache—and not a stylish mustache but a short, stubby one like Hitler's. At the top, someone had written, "The Virgin Margery!"
Margery's breathing reversed itself. There seemed not to be enough room for the mix of hurt and anger swelling inside her. She wanted to say, she actually wanted to shout, "How dare you? I am not this woman. I am not." But she couldn't. Instead she kept very still, hoping for one irrational moment that the whole business would go away and never come back, if she just stayed where she was, doing absolutely nothing. Then someone giggled. Another coughed.
"Who did this?" she said. In her distress, her voice came out oddly thin. It was difficult to shape air into those exact sounds.
But she was in this now. She threatened the class with extra homework. She said they'd miss afternoon break. She even warned she'd fetch the deputy, and everyone was terrified of the woman. One of the few times she'd ever been seen to laugh was when Margery had once shut her own skirt in the door, and got stuck. ("I've never seen anything so hilarious," the deputy said afterward. "You looked like a bear in a trap.") None of it worked. The girls sat there, resolutely silent, eyes lowered, a bit pink in the face, as the bell went for afternoon break and outside the corridors began to swell, like a river, with feet and noise. And the fact they refused to apologize or name who was responsible—not even Wendy Thompson buckled—left Margery feeling even more alone, and even more absurd. She dropped the note into the bin but it was still there. It seemed to be part of the air itself.
"This lesson is over," she said, in what she hoped was a dignified tone. Then she picked up her handbag and left.
She was barely on the other side of the door when the laughter came. "Wendy, you champion!" the girls roared. Margery made her way past the physics lab and the history department, and she didn't even know where she was going anymore. She just had to breathe. Girls crowded her path, barking like gulls. All she could hear was laughter. She tried the exit to the playing field but it was locked, and she couldn't use the main door because that was for visitors only, strictly not to be used by staff. The assembly hall? No. It was filled with girls in vests and knickers, doing a wafty sort of dance with flags. She was beginning to fear she'd be stuck there forever. She passed the display of school trophies, bumped into a box of sports bibs, and almost went flying over a fire extinguisher. The staff room, she said to herself. I will be safe in the staff room.