In 1995, Jane Cleaver leaves the military behind her, having seen far too much in her short life. Between Basra and the Highway of Death, or Bosnia with Sarajevo and Srebrenica, she’s ready to retire, move on, find something relatively quiet to do with her life. She doesn’t have much in the way of skills, but she finds a small advertisement for a physical education teacher at a small public school in Oxfordshire county.
She goes, carrying with her only one suitcase and a memory too full of horror, ready for a change.
The interview goes well; Miss Fritton is the latest headmistress at the school, though she airily claims to have long family ties to the place. Jane initially thinks she’s exaggerating until she sees the portraits in one hall- the previous headmistress was Arabella Fritton, and some years before her, Millicent Fritton. The latest Fritton is Camilla, who seems overjoyed to hire her.
“I understand that my qualifications are spotty,” Jane begins, but Miss Fritton merely waves a hand in the air.
“My dear, you survived some of the grimmest battles of our age. That you are still psychologically intact is more than enough for me.”
Jane doesn’t take this as the warning it actually is, deciding that Miss Fritton is merely honoring her as a war veteran in her own slightly twisted way.
She signs her contract that night, even the document that states that any harm that befalls her is not the fault of the school. She finds that odd, but she was in the military, so she’s seen stranger.
“Very well,” Jane says, straightening up and watching as Miss Fritton whisks the stack of papers away. “Could you direct me to the hockey pitch? I’d like to get a feel for it.”
Miss Fritton’s laugh is girlish, charming, and entirely forced. “Well, you see, my dear Jane, we don’t exactly have a hockey pitch at the moment.”
Jane gives Miss Fritton a hard look. “But then where does your hockey team practice?”
“Or a hockey team. No, we don’t have one of those.”
“Camilla, please,” Miss Fritton interjects, smiling happily.
Jane forces her fists to unclench. It wouldn’t do to hit her new employer on her first day. Tomorrow, perhaps, but not today. “Camilla. If you do not have a pitch, nor a team, what am I doing here, precisely?”
“Why, setting one up for us, of course.”
Miss Fritton (she doesn’t think she’ll be able to call her Camilla; she respects her rank too much, even if, right now, she doesn’t respect the woman) shows her to where she’ll be living until she finds some place in town, if she desires.
“Many of our staff are live-ins,” Miss Fritton explains. “You’ll love the lot of them. There’s Miss Wilson, she’s been here since my great-aunt was headmistress, lovely woman, fond of golf, and there’s Miss Spencer, our newest physics teacher, bit neurotic, I’m afraid, but then we all have our quirks! and Fiona, of course, dear dear Fiona, the school’s Matron, I suspect you’ll get to know her quite well over the course of time, yes, you’ll be the dearest friends, and so many others, you’ll meet them all tomorrow, here you are, my dear, have a nice rest, it may be the last you get for quite a while! Ta!”
Jane fancies herself a stoic woman, British to the core. She wonders where, exactly, Miss Fritton is from. She deposits her in her room and disappears, although Jane can hear her monologue for quite a while after she can no longer see her. It must be drugs, she decides, and looks around her new home.
It’s dingy, dirty, smells of alcohol and sex, and has clearly been used by some of the students as an illicit gambling den.
It’s so much more than Jane could have hoped for, after years of military barracks and hard ground. She settles in, sighing as her head touches the flat, musty pillow.
Her pupils are terrifying. Jane now understands why Miss Fritton looked upon her military service as a bonus.
When they come rushing toward her, she immediately goes down to grab her boot knife before reminding herself that these are schoolgirls, this is not Iraq or Bosnia, and that she is safe. She reevaluates that once the hockey sticks appear, and pulls out her knife anyway.
“Attention!” she yells, but the girls are far louder than her. They bat aside her knife, knocking it to the ground. It gets lost underneath the scores of heels and sandals and, God help her, bare feet, and she finds herself knocked over.
To her shock, they start an impromptu hockey game right on top of her, her knife acting as ball. They cheer and jump up and down when one of the girls manages to shoot it into a tree, the blade buried deep in the bark, only the hilt showing. Then the girls are off again, still screaming as they disappear back into the school.
When Jane sits up, she thinks she can see Miss Fritton watching her from behind the curtains in her office. She forces herself to stand, careful of her aching hip, and goes to retrieve her knife.
Next time she’ll be prepared.
She’d worn blue trousers and a white blouse for her first day with the girls, thinking it made her look like a teacher. She’d concealed her knife. She’d remained calm in the face of danger.
She’d gotten knocked on her arse.
When the girls come rushing toward her on the second day, Jane feels ready. She’s pulled out her DPM’s, slapped her cap on her head, and is standing in parade rest, just waiting for the girls. Surely they’ll respect the uniform, even if they don’t respect a teacher.
For the second day in a row, she finds herself flat on her arse, Miss Fritton watching her from the safety of her office.
She grits her teeth.
Jane is lifelong military. Her entire family is military. Her sister is in the SRR, her eldest brother in the Air Force, and her youngest brother is climbing the ladder in the Navy. Her father was a captain in the RAF, her mother a lieutenant. Her grandparent and great-grandparents served in the wars. The military is in her blood.
She thinks her father would counsel a tactical retreat at this point, but Jane has always been her mother’s daughter. Her mother would advise a fact-finding mission before an all-out assault. There is a reason why one daughter wound up in the SRR and the other flung herself into some of the bloodiest conflicts of her generation.
So Jane gathers information. She cancels classes for the rest of the week, and sets about observing the girls.
They’re feral, she discovers, but with an inner hierarchy that isn’t readily apparent. They do not respect uniforms or rank, but will respect those who they feel have earned it, usually through some show of force or display of cleverness. They can sense weakness, and are quick to cut it down, as though they are the embodiment of evolution. Miss Cleaver likens them to sharks, in her head: they can smell blood in the water.
They’re also, to her surprise, intensely loyal and tribe or clan-like. Those they consider family are untouchable. They welcome challenges and cherish victory. They’re passionate, and fierce, and in so many ways, they’re much like Jane was, before the wars ate her alive.
The other teachers are mostly worn down beneath the girls’ attitudes, but she’s pleased to discover that Miss Emmeline Wilson, despite her advanced years, still adores the girls, finds them amusing, and can cut them down with a simple look, something that no one other than Miss Fritton can do. She’s a tough old bird, with her monocle and martini glass, with a lopsided smile that Jane can’t help but return. She’s a bit like her first commander, in Iraq.
“Haven’t you seen our school motto, Janie?” Emmeline asks one night after Jane confesses her concerns. Emmeline is the only one who calls her Janie. “Non illigitimus carborundum. Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
“I thought that applied to the outside world,” Jane says, accepting the martini Emmeline hands her.
Emmeline’s laugh is a harsh bark, worn ragged by years of drinking and yelling at the girls. “It applies to anyone that it applies to, Janie. You’ve excellent instincts; otherwise you wouldn’t be standing here. Use them, and you just might get a pitch out of it. Maybe even a halfway decent hockey team.”
Jane doubts that, but she resolves to try.
She spends the weekend shopping in the more dubious parts of London, hating herself for breaking the laws she once swore to uphold and knowing that it’s necessary. She carries her new school equipment back to the school in a suitcase, looking all the world like she’s merely transporting more of her possessions to her new home.
She cleans the assault rifle that night. She doesn’t trust gun smugglers. Not in Iraq, not in Bosnia, not here on her native soil.
Jane drags out her number two’s, her service dress, figuring that it suits the surroundings better, figuring that some of the girls might have family that fought in World War II and thus will recognize this uniform over the modern field uniform. She thinks about all the things she’s seen, the women and children and men beneath her boots, and reminds herself that St. Trinian’s girls may be feared by all of England, but she’s seen hell, walked through it and lived, and they will not be the ones to break her.
When the girls rush toward her, sticks in the air, Jane lifts the assault rifle in the air and let’s loose with a warning barrage. The girls falter in their stampede, some halting altogether. The older, more fearless students do not stop, however. Jane allows them to get a few meters closer, and then fires shots just in front of their feet.
That stops them.
“This will cease,” Jane announces in her sharpest, most authoritative voice, the one that made everyone stop and listen, regardless of language barriers. “You will comport yourself in the manner expected of British schoolgirls everywhere.”
Taryn Dean, an Eco (and God, has she struggled to figure out these archaic tribe names and the divisions; they all look the same to her), sneers at her. “Clearly, you need an education about what it means to be a St. Trinian’s girl, Janie.”
Jane looks at her coldly. The only one allowed to call her Janie is Emmeline. She lifts her gun and shoots a quick horseshoe around Taryn, making her shriek and dance a bit. “That’s Miss Cleaver to you, Taryn Dean. Twenty push-ups, now!”
Taryn does so immediately. Jane imagines that it’s the first time that girl has ever listened to a teacher in her life. She studies the other girls, who are looking at her with a mix of wariness, outrage, and dawning respect. She allows the gun to drop to her side.
“I’ve been hired on as your physical education teacher. Therefore, it is my intention to give you a physical education, one that does not involve you stomping on whomever you don’t like and running around with those sticks in the air. You, Vance!” she snaps. Vance, first name Jody, slides to attention. “Give me your hockey stick.”
Vance hands the stick over, looking nervous, as though she expects Jane to hit her with it. Jane considers faking her out for a moment before deciding that would be immature and beneath her. Instead, she drops the stick toward the ground, holding it as though she were intending to play a game.
“This is how your hockey stick is held! Let me never see you approach me with it above your heads again! Now! How about we form a hockey team!”
To her astonishment, the girls cheer.
After that, she’s tempted to call it easy. Telling them tales of heroic feats on the hockey pitch induces several of the girls to turn one of their fields into an actual pitch, with handmade goals that fall apart at the slightest wind, and uneven lines that look like they were laid down while someone was drunk. Their equipment isn’t even third rate, their uniforms are whatever they can come up with on the spot, and they don’t seem to know any of the rules.
They are sloppy, undisciplined, easily distracted, and prone to cheating.
They’re hers, though. Jane only needs to use her gun to stop mass stampeding twice more, a very lucky thing given that sooner or later they’d figure out she’s firing blanks at them.
And honestly, she thinks, watching as Mary trips Eliza with her stick and Cora drags the net across the field in order to prevent a goal, she’s out of the military. She’s paid her pound of flesh. She’s lived order and discipline and walked away from it. These girls, these chaotic girls who send her nightmares, who give her flashbacks at inconvenient moments, who drive her into carrying a flask with her at all times, are the most honest, real, and unique women she has ever had the privilege to work with. They live by a code of honor that Jane is proud to uphold.
Truth be told, Jane fears for any force that tries to take on England with a score of St. Trinian’s girls waiting in the wings.
(Still, she thinks- would it be too much to ask for them to care a little bit more about the rules?)