This story was commissioned by Fossil
harlie isn’t allowed to eat cake while he’s helping Miss Anderson. She doesn’t want sticky fingers all over her primary seven classroom, and Charlie doesn’t blame her.
As long as Charlie sits quietly at the table, leaving Miss Anderson to look through a tower of textbooks at the teacher’s desk, then Charlie is being a helper. (And what else could he be? Dressed in his school uniform, the only child in the classroom – he must be special, he must be on a mission).
He even has a book of his own – Miss Anderson asked him to look through it and tell her if he finds any mistakes, but the book is unfortunately very boring (why does it need so many words?) and Charlie soon loses interest.
He is allowed to drink as much orange squash as he wants, as long as he sits on his bottom at one of tables that the big boys and girls use and doesn’t run around with the cup. Running around is pretty much forbidden, in fact. Miss Anderson doesn’t want sticky fingers and she also doesn’t want anything broken or knocked over. And so Charlie has to be on his very best behaviour, he has to be careful and he has to listen, which isn’t that hard because Miss Anderson is very good at explaining things.
Charlie feels periodic tingles in his arms and legs, but it’s not like before. This tingle reminds him how much energy he has, and how nice it would be to run around. Of course, running is for the playground, not the classroom. Charlie knows that.
“How good you’re being,” says Miss Anderson. She gets up and walks over to his table. “What a good helper you are, so quiet and well-behaved.” She points at the book. “Any mistakes?”
Charlie shakes his head. “No, Miss Anderson.”
“And you checked every page?”
Charlie nods, and then he gives a little shrug. “Well, nearly.”
Miss Anderson smiles. “It’s a little dense, I know.” She goes to her desk and returns with a different book. “Take a look at that one.”
Charlie holds the book in his hands and his eyes widen. “Dragons!” he exclaims.
“Dinosaurs,” corrects Miss Anderson gently. “I’ve still got some work to do, but if you can find the dinosaur with the very long tail, let me know. It would be a great help, because I’ve looked and looked but just can’t find it.” She tilts her head at him. “Can you do that for me, Charlie?”
The boy nods. “Yes, Miss!” He gets to work, flicking through the pages. The flying pterodactyls appeal to him, they look just like birds, and he has an urge to flap his arms in energetic imitation. But they don’t have really long tails, so he keeps looking, grateful that he’s looking for colours, not words, and even though it takes the longest time, at least a minute or so, his hand shoots up in the air.
“Miss, I found it! I found the long tail!”
Miss Anderson looks up from her own text. “Classroom voice, please Charlie.”
The boy blushes. “Yes, Miss,” he says, quietly this time.
She beckons him with her hand. “Show me.”
Charlie gets up quickly, and he might have knocked over his drink cup, but that’s okay, it’s empty, and he trots over to the teacher’s desk.
He feels butterflies in his stomach – the dinosaur definitely has a long tail, but he’s still not completely sure he’s done the right thing – and when Miss Anderson nods approvingly and pats Charlie’s head, he can’t remember the last time he felt so proud.
“Clever boy,” says Miss Anderson. “Diplodocus. What a big help you’re being.”
Charlie bounces lightly on his feet. “I’m a good reader,” he says. And he’d like to run around the classroom in celebration, but he won’t. He isn’t going to break the rules.
“I’m finished here as well,” Miss Anderson says. She smiles at the boy. “What a good team we make.”
“Can we go outside now?” Charlie asks hopefully. He looks out the window and sees breaks in the clouds. He could run in the playground, he could climb and he could swing, he could show Miss Anderson just how fast and strong he is!
“Almost,” Miss Anderson says, and she pats Charlie’s head. “Almost time. I need your help in another classroom. Pick up your cup, we’re going to tidy the primary two class, which I suppose is your one! And then it will be time for play.”
Charlie remembers the pink and yellow sponge from earlier. “And cake?”
Miss Anderson laughs. “And cake, of course.”
They go to the new classroom which has a lot more pictures on the walls, and Charlie finds the table and chairs a much better fit.
“Do you want me to look in another book?” he asks. Maybe there will be more dinosaurs.
Miss Anderson fills his cup with more orange squash. “This time, I need you to clean the tablet screens.” She wags a finger at him. “But no playing any games.” She instructs him to fetch a special cloth from the bank of tablets and to wipe the screens free of fingerprints.
He holds the cloth and then sniffs at it. He isn’t surprised when it has the same scent as the towel. He closes his eyes, remembers his grandparents’ orchard, remembers being hoisted on his grandfather’s shoulders so he could reach the high branches.
“I don’t want any smudges,” says Miss Anderson.
Charlie opens his eyes and nods. “Yes, Miss.”
“I want them to sparkle! Can you do that for me, Charlie?”
The boy nods. Of course he can, it’s an easy job. But first, he drinks more of the squash.
“What a thirsty boy you are,” Miss Anderson says approvingly. Yes, partly he’s thirsty, and partly he’s glad to rinse the cloying sweetness from his mouth. The cake he enjoyed before – and hopes to enjoy again – had the sweetest, almost sickening aftertastes – but the orange drink is refreshing, it is clarifying, and so Charlie keeps drinking until he feels full to the brim and then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
“Let me know when you need the toilet,” says Miss Anderson, refilling his cup. “You can raise your hand, just like the other boys and girls do, and I’ll take you to the toilet.”
“Because I don’t want any accidents on my classroom floor,” she says with a wink.
Charlie giggles. What an idea, that he would wet himself like a baby. What a ridiculous thought.
And now to work. There are ten tablets laid out neatly in front of him. Charlie takes each of them in turn, wiping carefully, diligently, with the yellow cloth. It’s easy work, as long as he focuses, as long as he doesn’t get distracted. The tablets aren’t turned on, just blank screens, and so he knows he won’t try to play any games.
After a couple of minutes, he notices the tingling sensation in his hands. He reports the news to Miss Anderson.
She looks up from her books and asks, “But no bouncing?”
The boy hesitates, considers the question, and then shakes his head.
“Jolly good. Definitely no bouncing around in my classroom. As long as you’re not a silly bouncy boy, then I’m pleased.” She gestures at the tablets. “Keep on polishing. When you’re finished, then we can talk about going outside to play.”
Charlie returns to the tablets.
“And if you get thirsty, drink your squash,” Miss Anderson reminds him.
Charlie nods. “Yes, Miss.” But he’s not thirsty, he’s still full to the brim. And he should probably go to the toilet. But he’s going to finish his work first, because after that he can play.
He keeps polishing, even if the tingles on his hands feel funny, and it’s only when his sleeves creep over his wrists that Charlie starts to worry.
He looks down. Are his shorts getting baggy? He wriggles his toes. What about his shoes?
He looks over at Miss Anderson, who seems focused entirely on a tower of books at her desk.
Is he getting smaller?
He pushes up his sleeves. Maybe the teacher won’t notice.
“Who are you kidding?”
The voice in his head comes back at full volume.
“Of course she’s going to notice. You’ve got the tingles, and soon you’ll be bouncing, and then you’ll be back on her lap for more story time. Only this time, she’ll be the one telling the story. About a silly, messy little baby who can’t even keep his school uniform on.”
“Stop,” Charlie whispers. “Stop it.”
“Everything all right?” asks the teacher, looking over at him.
“Yes, Miss,” says Charlie.
“Good boy. Make them all sparkly for me.”
Charlie wipes one of the last screens. He won’t listen to the voice in his head, he doesn’t have to do that anymore. He told his story, he’s gotten rid of his poison. Now, he can just play and have fun. He can let Miss Anderson help him, just like she promised.
Ruth giggles. “What a good job you’re doing,” she says, her tone thick with condescension. “Little teacher’s pet, all dressed up in your uniform. You always were better at taking orders than giving them, one of the things I liked the most about you.”
“Shut up,” mutters Charlie, frantically polishing the last of the tablets. Not a smudge, sparkly clean, Miss Anderson will be so pleased. Won’t she?
He inspects the screens. They look perfect, to his eyes at least. He brings the cloth to his nose for a rewarding, reassuring sniff, and he smiles as he remembers that shiny red apples were best for eating right there and then, and the green Granny Smiths that were destined for a pie.
“Look at you,” Ruth teases. “Holding that cloth like you’re a toddler with a blankie. Is that what you are? A silly, sucky baby?”
Charlie’s cheeks turn scarlet. He drops the cloth.
“Silly Charlie,” says Ruth. “What do you think comes next? After showing that strange old woman how good you are at being a six-year-old? After showing how easy it is for her to make you a helpless, gullible little boy. Do you think she’s just going to let you go back to your normal life?” She giggles again. “Can you even remember what that looks like? Running around in the playground? Seriously? God, Charlie, you’re even less ambitious now than when we were together.”
“Stop it,” Charlie begs. He looks over at Miss Anderson, sure that she will have heard, but she seems intent on her phone, tapping at the screen.
Charlie pushes at his sleeves, but it’s no good, they swamp his hands. He looks down at his shoes, which are now unwearable, and with a tingle that almost makes his legs buckle, Charlie’s shorts fall to his ankles.
“What comes next?” Ruth asks mockingly. “I can answer that. I bet you can too.” She giggles. “I think you know exactly what comes after, and it’s not playing in the big playground. It’s sitting on the old lady’s lap, it’s sucking your thumb and gurgling and wearing a nappy.” She laughs more loudly. “You’re barely able to control your bladder even now. Sucky baby, I wouldn’t be surprised if you just wet your pants!”
Charlie shakes his head. “No! I’m not a baby!”
Miss Anderson looks up from her books. “What’s going on over-“
“Stop!” Charlie cries. He’s had enough, he’s out of here. He’ll run away, he get his things and escape. Miss Anderson can’t stop him, because he’s strong, he’s fast, and he’ll fight if he has to.”
Ruth laughter echoes in Charlie’s head. “Go ahead and try. See how far you get. Silly little Charlie, that woman is going to have you all cuddled up and gurgling in about five seconds flat.”
“Charlie, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” Miss Anderson gets up and starts walking towards him.
“Notta baby!” Charlie blurts. He moves in the other direction, tripping over his shoes and shorts, and he grabs onto the table for support but only succeeds in pulling his full cup of orange squash on top of him.
“Oh, my,” Miss Anderson says, reaching him in moments.
Charlie looks up at her. He’s soaking wet again. Isn’t he always? But this time he’s not even wearing pants. Such a messy, half-naked boy.
Tears fill his eyes. “Sorry,” he sniffles. “Didn’t mean it.”
Miss Anderson crouches in front of him. “I know you didn’t, honey.” She puts her hands on his shoulders. “Are you thinking bad thoughts again?”
He nods. “I…keep…hearing her,” he says, between gulps. “I can’t…stop.”
“Poor little lamb,” Miss Anderson says, her face filled with concern. “I think we’re going to need something extra special to help you, sweetheart.” She looks at him thoughtfully, and then she nods, as if reaching an important decision. “I know what will help” She laughs gently. “And it’s not more squash.” She pulls off the wet sweatshirt and polo shirt, leaving Charlie naked.
“Going to dress you up and make you look all sweet,” she says gently. “Would you like some cake now, Charlie?” She glances at the tablets, which somehow escaped the orange squash. “You did such a good job polishing, you deserve a reward.”
Charlie shakes his head. He’s not hungry.
“What about the toilet? Do you need to go?”
He shakes his head again. Maybe he does need to pee, his bladder aches, but doesn’t all of him ache? He’s not anything but filled with a numb sadness. He will never be free of Ruth, he will never lose his shame and regret. And how could things be any worse?
“Am I a baby now?” he asks, sniffing. He may as well be, he won’t fight if Miss Anderson tries to put him in a nappy and some babyish outfit.
“Oh no,” says the teacher, a look of surprise on her face. “You’re definitely still a big boy.”
Charlie looks at himself and isn’t convinced. His arms and legs are chunky, and he has a little belly sticking out. The woman towers over him even more than before.
Miss Anderson reads his expression, and she pulls him close, hugging him against the soft fabric of her cardigan. “You’ll feel better soon, I promise.” She strokes his hair and smiles. “What you need, after I dress you up of course, is to have someone to play with. So I’m going to invite a friend to the playground. That sound like fun?”
Charlie shrugs. In truth, it doesn’t sound like the worst idea in the world. As long, of course, as the guest isn’t Ruth. But it won’t be. Ruth isn’t even in England; the country wasn’t enough, just like her fiancé, and she left as soon as the lockdown restrictions lifted.
“Thing is,” Miss Anderson says, “You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. You did such a good job with the book, and with the tablets. And it’s not your fault that you spilled your drink, that’s the silly tingle’s fault!”
Charlie frowns. “Why’d I tingle again?”
Miss Anderson gives a little shrug. “I suppose they weren’t quite finished with you, Charlie. It seems as though you needed to get just a little bit cuter and cuddler.”
She winks at him, and Charlie giggles. But then he says, “But not like a baby.”
Miss Anderson looks at him with a theatrically serious expression. “Oh, no. Definitely not a baby.” She lifts Charlie up, as if he weighs next to nothing, and carries him through to a new room. There she cleans him up, making him giggle as she wipes him free of stickiness from the squash, and then she dresses him.
“There,” she says, nodding with satisfaction. “Nothing babyish about that. See?”
He’s not wearing a nappy. The underwear is very thick but decorated in racing cars that made Charlie smile when he saw them. And when Charlie looks down at his blue overalls, he can only grin at the character on his bib. “Dinosaur,” he says slowly, concentrating on saying the big word correctly, running his chubby fingers over the white vinyl pattern.
“That’s right,” Miss Anderson says with a smile. “And everyone knows, dinosaurs aren’t for babies, they’re for big boys!” She tickles Charlie’s sides gently. “Can you growl for me, Charlie? Are you a scary dinosaur?”
The boy doesn’t need to be asked twice. He forms claws with his hands and shows his teeth. “Rawr!” he shouts, and even though his voice is high-pitched, Miss Anderson clutches her chest.
“Goodness!” she exclaims. “What a scary dinosaur!”
Charlie giggles. He can’t help it; Miss Anderson is so funny. The laughter makes him bounce and jiggle, and he can feel pressure on his bladder, but now is not the time to worry about that. Not when he’s getting rewarded for all his schoolwork, not when it’s time to just have fun.
The teacher smiles, picking up Charlie and cuddling him. She pats his bottom. “What a sweetie.” She carries him over to the window and they look outside together.
The sun shines on a rapidly drying playground. “What do you want to play on first, Charlie? The swings? The tunnels?”
It all looks promising to Charlie. He puts a finger to his mouth, and for a moment he is tempted to suck on it. But only for a moment. He’s not a silly baby, after all, he doesn’t suck his fingers.
He points at the merry-go-round.
“Good choice,” says Miss Anderson.
“Is there someone to play with?” His diction is lazy – Dere some pay wif? – but Miss Anderson understands him perfectly well.
“Yes, just like I promised.” She holds him securely against her chest. “You see, I thought our time in the nurse’s office would be enough, but I was wrong. Your poor little heart got broken even more badly than I realized..” She taps his nose playfully. “We’re going to make sure you don’t hear any more scary voices, Charlie. I’ve got a special friend who can make sure you’re only thinking happy thoughts from now on. Sound good?”
Charlie nods and smiles. That sounds perfect. And he keeps smiling as Miss Anderson carries him out to the playground.
To be continued...
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