Polyzoa; sessile aquatic animals forming mossy colonies of small polyps each having a curved or circular ridge bearing tentacles; they attach to stones or seaweed, are filter feeders, and reproduce by budding.
She looks up from her book. This new girl’s raised arm is the colour of Miss Jelly’s leather-bound volume of the complete works of Livius Andronicus.
The fuchsia talons click against the pen she clutches and waves in the air. It is topped with some ostrich feather sparkling bubble-gum pink spring and is too big in the child’s hand.
Miss Jelly adjusts the spectacles on her nose, taking in the blue-black straightened harshness of the girl’s hair, which hangs down to her inadequate shoulders, the plaited ends of unexpected blonde dancing to and fro underneath like spiky barley stems as her head nods to some silent beat.
Miss Jelly smiles. “Miss McDonnell – you have a question?”
“See when it says ‘puer puellam amat’, that is like the boy dissing the girl, Miss J, isn’t it, treating her like a doormat, or somefink?” She turns to survey her classmates, giggling, waiting for them to join in.
A bulbous boy with a face like a truck rumbles from the back row. “Just the way it should be.”
Miss Jelly maintains her smile, removes her spectacles and stares through chipped-ice eyes at the girl. “Miss McDonnell, I know you haven’t been with us long, but please don’t pretend to be less than you are – my dear child; amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatus, amant. The boy loves the girl. And Mr….” Miss Jelly scans the Register. “Mr Collins – another new arrival – on this occasion I will overlook your ridiculous comment, but please, silent reading and written answers. Class, derivation and declension of silent?”
18 hands are in the air.
A sweaty girl with a high ponytail jumps up, her hands pressing down against the folds of her calf-length skirt.
“Please Miss…Silere – Sileo, siles, silet, silemus siletis, silent.” The girl sits down and smiles up at Miss Jelly, gods and angels in her eyes.
“Very good, Miss Logan. Silemus indeed!”
At a window seat, the McDonnell girl fiddles with some device concealed behind her desk. Miss Jelly thinks of the days when it was easy, when there were so few transfers, and they only needed a bit of smoothing out. Now they mostly came from those vast camps under the Thames Estuary, and they learned their English from the Internet and their manners from the tribesfolk of Canvey Island and Herne Bay.
An electronic beeping signals the end of the class and the pupils stand in a single motion, even McDonnell and Collins having grasped the bell rules, both now upright and facing forward.
Miss Jelly nods: “Class dismissed!” They troop out in golden order, military spacing.
The McDonnell girl ignores the regimented exit, distracted by the beauty of the whey-haired Mitchell, a rosy boy at the end of the line.
Her thin navy skirt, revealing way too much nut-coloured thigh ripples past towards the doorway, as she catches up with Mitchell. Miss Jelly reaches out to the fronding ends of her charcoal tresses and nips her fingers together. Girl and loose hair are parted.
Miss Jelly is at home. She nets the largest of the lobsters from the tank and lowers it, snapping and clawing, into a bubbling pot. She watches it wriggle as it boils, removes it from the water, and sits at the table, thumping her fist on each claw to shatter it. Her bifurcated tongue splits down the middle, and extends into the deepest reaches of the shell to suck out the juicy interior.
She wipes her mouth and hands with a steaming white flannel as she stares out to the horizon, the breeze jangling the blue linen blinds through the open window. She fills her body with sea air until she feels the calm cover her, rising through her toes like an opiate.
She approaches the tank, and leans over to deposit McDonnell’s hair, which floats and wriggles in the flow of bubbles and the movements of the creatures beneath. Dark stones line the bottom, carpeted with moss animals which vary in colour from palest corn yellow, to hues of chestnut and ash tones; some of the fern-fronded invertebrates are volcanic black, and two together in the furthest corner anemone auburn.
From the darkest recess of the tank, a translucent tentacle emerges and stretches upwards, sucking the hair into its length. Seconds later, a moss animal, a tiny bud the size of a thumbnail, blue-black on the surface with delicate golden fronds underneath emerges from the dark and attaches itself to a rock, next to a whey-coloured companion.
She sprinkles the remains of her lobster dinner over the surface; splashing and fighting, the crustaceans grapple with the largest pieces and leave the detritus for the bottom feeders. Miss Jelly yawns and covers the tank. She retires to a leather duck-egg blue chaise-longue and looks out over the setting sun, the sky a bruised mix of reds and purples.
She points a remote control at the window – a pale blind rolls over to block out the fiery colours. She shuts her eyes and dreams of the moons and oceans of her youth: the raw herring and whale blubber feasts; the respectful shine on her children’s faces; her husband taking her hand, placing her fingers into his ridged mouth and sucking until her cheeks flushed and her hearts filled in each other’s rhythms.
The next morning, as Miss Jelly passes the pupils in their line outside the classroom like a delicious string of pearls, she feels the shift and nods as she counts along the heads and enters the room. “In you come then”, she says.
“Good morning Miss Jelly”, the red-headed Jarvis twins chant in unison. Mr Collins is right behind them, now with a pattern of lines shaved into the side of his head, some hairs still loose on his collar. Miss Jelly touches him lightly on the shoulder to guide him to his seat and strokes her hand in and out of her pocket.
Miss Jelly nods at the McDonnell girl, navy skirt hanging mid-calf. “Good morning Miss Jelly!” she beams, clutching a book of verb tables in her shining hands, nails short and natural. Her arm swings out to lift a leather satchel over her shoulder, her skin sweet and plump, like the pale inner flesh of a lobster claw.
Lorna’s dissertation is a creative non-fiction project based on three different voices from her familial archive. This piece was inspired after a creative jaunt to the Darcy Thompson Museum, which is highly recommended for anyone looking for writerly inspiration. Lorna has been accepted to start a PhD at the University of Dundee in 2018, which will be based on her professional practice as a celebrant, and the changing creative output which is generated to celebrate and pay tribute to our lives both as we live them, and after we are dead.