"All right," Jane said from the front of the classroom, not loudly but pitched to carry. She smiled proudly when the children quietened down nigh immediately, their eyes all turning to her. "We're almost ready to go on our quest. Now, who wants to remind us what we're looking for today?"
Hands went up all across the room. Jane made a play of considering them all, before pointing at Tameca who stood up smartly and obligingly rattled off, "Miss Drew, we have to find dry sticks and leaves and other natural stuff that's fallen that we can make things out of."
"That's right," Jane said. "And what aren't we to do today... Craig?"
"Pick stuff what's still growing or, like, break things off trees," Craig said, equally prompt if also a little guiltily. Some of the other children clearly remembered previous outings and there was a small surge of giggles that made Craig flush a little, though he grinned in turn when Jane praised him for a correct answer.
"Coats, gloves, hats, scarves," Jane said, touching each of her own as she named them and watching to make sure each child did the same in turn. "Now, does everyone have their collecting bag?"
There was a chorus of "Yes, Miss Drew"s.
"Okay. Everybody come up to the front—" She raised her voice a little over the sudden cacophony of movement. "—and line up with your partners. Remember to push your chairs in! Donny, back you go. Katey, your hair-band—that's a girl."
With a little more cajoling, Jane managed to get them all in place and in order. Usually, for field trips, the school insisted on an excess of an adult supervision, adding parents to teaching assistants; today, Jane had neither—but she knew children could do fine by themselves, so long as they had an adult to come back to in times of need, so she wasn't worried. Besides, they were only going as far as the little wooded area at the edge of the school's sports field. It was hardly a quest at all, really. Still, like children, quests started out small so they had room to grow.
Her hand was on the door handle, when Tameca piped up again.
"Miss! Miss! Davey won't hold my hand."
The boy in question ducked his head, dark curls hiding his face, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands deeper into his armpits, muttering, "'s David."
"David," Jane said. "It's just for a minute." She waited. He didn't move. Patiently, she cajoled, "Go on. Everyone's waiting on you."
He gave a long suffering sigh but finally stuck his hand out at Tameca, who grabbed it triumphantly and beamed up at Jane.
"Here we go, then," Jane said, and opened the door to let them troop out.
Her classroom was well positioned for this, allowing them to exit the building almost immediately, leaving them only the corner of the field to cross to reach the trees. It was still two weeks until the end of term, but winter had come creeping in, hardening the ground and crisping the air. The rowan berries had long since gone and only the most hardiest of the hawthorn remained, dotting the woods with the occasional red. Jane's breath steamed faintly. She unleashed the children, cautioning them to stay in sight of her and their groups, and watched them scatter like gulls on the shore, swooping here and there in search of scraps on which to feast.
Listening to the rise and fall of child noise as things were found and discussed and discarded or shoved into plastic bags, Jane found herself thinking, for no real reason she could follow, of a holiday long ago in Cornwall, of her brothers, Simon and Barney and Will, of a bay and a waterfront and docks and gulls and chains and boats and fishermen and old Mrs Penhallow bringing them all hot chocolate and how, almost, she could smell salt air and feel the night on her skin and hear the giggles of the young women wishing for husbands on the brown and greens of the
"Miss! Miss!" Tameca yelled.
The half-grasped memory broke like water on a shore. Jane snapped, "What!" and then, immediately contrite, managed a less sharp a tone to continue, "is it, Tameca?"
Tameca blinked at her, huge eyed, but rallied magnificently. "Craig and Davey are fighting and they won't listen to me. And I don't like tattling," she added staunchly, chin up, "but I said I would tell if they didn't stop, and they didn't, and when you give your word you have to go through with it. That's the rule."
Jane did her best not to sigh and, with a quick check on the other kids, she followed Tameca around a thicket to find Craig and David playing tug of war over a collecting bag, into which Craig was trying to shove leaves with as much force as David was trying to empty it.
"Boys," Jane said.
They sprang apart guiltily, leaving David with possession of the bag, which he shook clear and then held to his chest behind crossed arms, glowering at them all.
"I was just trying to help!" Craig complained without prompting, face red. "He weren't picking nothing up. Like, not anything, Miss!"
"Still looking," David muttered obstinately, toeing the mud with one well-scuffed shoe.
"But there's stuff everywhere," Craig insisted, and Jane deliberately took a step between them before they went off again. He subsided with a mumbled "Well, there is."
"I can help Davey," Tameca offered.
"David." He heavily emphasised the last syllable, turning the glare fully on Tameca, who flipped her hair back, unconcerned. "Don't need no help."
"We've still got a little while left to look," Jane said patiently. "The two of you should see to filling your own bags. David will be fine by himself for now. You know what you're looking for, don't you?"
All three kids nodded, and she looked at David until he said, "Yes, Miss" out loud.
"Tameca, why don't you look over by those bushes. Craig, you can check out under those trees back there. David can keep looking around here." She made a little shooing movement with her hands when they didn't move immediately. "Off you go, then."
With, respectively, a flounce, a grumble and a glare, Tameca, Craig and David did as ordered.
Jane definitely sighed this time. Every day she had more respect for her own parents, putting up with the three of them as well as they had, as well as they did. She was sure they had been terrors, though she'd never thought of it like that at the time. Always playing at knights, blundering about in attics, going looking for treasure and almost getting drowned and losing—losing— For a moment, Jane could see it clear as anything, an oar hitting a telescope case, it coming apart in the air, the map breaking up and something splashing like a stone into the sea. Something. It had been important, she was almost sure. But holding onto it was like grasping at sea foam, cool on her fingers and gone.
The period bell rang, startling her. How had so much time passed so quickly? Jane had no idea where he head was at today. She had a job to do—children to look after—and this wasn't the time for half-grasped nostalgia. Jane shook it off, clapping her hands to get the children's attention. "All right, everybody. We all need to be back in the classroom before the next bell. Last chance to grab something."
There was the expected chorus of complaints, but most of the children already had filled bags and chill reddened faces and they came back to with little further reluctance. Jane checked each to make sure hats, scarves or gloves hadn't gone astray, and that each one had at least some useful things, making Craig but some of his rocks back, assuring him they didn't need quite so many. To her relief, despite still acting squirrelly, David's collecting bag was, if not well filled, at least not empty, which was good enough. Properly lined up, she marched them back inside.
The classroom heat was bliss. Jane sank into her chair while the children bustled between coat hooks and their desks, amazed at how little she'd noticed the cold until it stopped, how good it felt to take her coat off and stretch, to rub feeling back into her fingers and cheeks. She thought briefly of Bran, up on his mountain, of harps and crackling log fires, and smiled a little. The children were looking at her expectantly, and she let the smile widen.
"Did everyone get a good haul?" she asked. There was a chorus of agreement.
Jane retrieved her own collection, done before class, as she'd known she wouldn't be able to both collect and watch them at the same time, for all the good that preparation had done her.
"Now, there's no right or wrong way to do this," she cautioned them. "Different branches will bend a different amount, so you'll need to think about what you have, and what you might be able to use it for. Simple shapes are best." There were attentive nods, but she knew some of them would have to be dissuaded soon from trying to build life size dinosaurs (Craig) or rocket ships that actually flew (Tameca, and also Craig). "So, the first thing to do is for each table to put all their things together and see what they've got. Then you can discuss amongst yourselves what you might try and build."
As she circulated around the room, the children dumped their bags out. Twigs clattered and pebbles rattled and leaves rustled, the mess resolving itself as the children worked, hazel and rowan and hawthorn separated out into lengths of brown and green, foliage sorted by shape and colour. Jane went from table to table, listening to ideas and offering suggestions, showing them how branches could be locked together, interwoven into a frame, weighted with pebbles for stability and stuffed with leaves. She made the mistake of thinking things were going well, and turned to find a fight breaking out.
"Craig! David!" The boys froze in their tracks. "What is the problem this time?" They both looked at their feet. Jane tutted. "Well? I'm waiting."
"Miss," Tameca started, but Jane hushed her.
"David?" she asked. He just pulled in tighter on himself. Jane could see the small amount he'd collected in with the others. A couple of branches that Jane thought had been his were even being used, and she was sure the pebbles were from Craig, so neither was being obviously left out. "Alright. How about you, Craig?"
Jane could see the urge to complain fight the urge not to snitch across his face until the former won out, and Craig blurted, "He's hiding stuff! You said, you said put it all on the table, and we did, but Davey didn't and—"
David made a wordless sound of rage and lunged at Craig. Jane caught him before he could do more than start to shove, pushing him back. Craig barely rocked on the spot, but his mouth dropped opened and his wide eyes looked suspiciously watery.
"Outside!" Jane said to David sharply, manually turning him towards the door, knowing she really, really wasn't supposed to manhandle the children like this, but needing to take control of the situation. "You do not push people!"
David did, not looking at anyone, trudging through the silence, shoulders shaking.
"Everyone, get back to work," Jane said softly. "Sit down, Craig. I think Tameca needs some help with her twigs."
She looked at the girl who, to her relief, played along, offering a branch to Craig and saying, "I think maybe this could be an arm? Or a leg?"
It took a few minutes longer to settle the class than she'd liked but, once they'd been distracted by their work enough, Jane quietly slipped from the room to check on David. As expected, he hadn't stayed just outside the door like he was supposed to, but was sitting on the bench, half hidden by dangling coats, sniffling. Caught in some indescribable impulse, she stopped just out of his sight, watching him.
David wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve, then pulled his legs up onto the bench. Jane could hear his breathing slowly ease, hear his top zip open, hear a rustle as he carefully took something out, ever so gently smoothing it. It caught the light somehow, bright in his hands and on his face, and Jane saw David smile then, sad and beautiful. Perhaps she made some noise, because he looked up suddenly, face guarded, body hunching protectively around the thing as he tried to hide it.
Jane made no comment, but she came and sat next to him on the bench, leaning back against the coats.
David's breath hitched. Jane forced herself not to count the seconds, just made herself breath, slow in, slow out, implacable as the tides. Otherwise, she did not move, and, slowly, his breathing evened out again and his feet lowered themselves back to the floor.
"I didn't mean to," he said, eventually, softly. Not an excuse. An explanation, perhaps. Jane looked at him and David glanced up at her and then quickly away, sighing gustily. "I was angry."
"Is it over now?" Jane asked, equally softly.
"It's over now." David sighed again, dark curls bobbing around his face. He looked down at his chest, his face screwed up in thought, started to pull his zip back down, then stopped, clinging to it like it was a soft toy. Jane waited and finally he looked back up at her, and whispered, "I have a secret."
Jane smiled. "You're lucky."
"It's mine. But I'll show you," he added generously. "If you like."
"Please," said Jane.
David carefully pulled his zip down, reached just as carefully inside, and pulled out a large rowan leaf. It was perfect, untattered and unmarred and a deep and complete red from stem to tips, caught by chance at the exact height of autumn, the very last moment of turning.
"That's amazing," Jane breathed.
(Half a thought of mistletoe slipped, barely noticed, through the back of her mind. And something else, too, bright amidst green.)
"It's mine," David insisted again and, when she didn't disagree or move to take it, added in a more mollified tone, "I found it."
"You did," Jane agreed easily. "Well done."
He peered up at her suspiciously, perhaps checking for mockery, then nodded solemnly before looking back at leaf in his hand.
"They won't let me have it."
"Well. It's not really up to them, is it?" Jane asked patiently. "Sure, if everyone had held back everything, nobody would be able to get anything done. That would be bad, right?"
David reluctantly nodded.
"But is it the only thing you found?" Jane asked.
He shook his head. "Craig had more."
"He's very enthusiastic, and that's okay, but there's also nothing wrong with taking a moment to think more—so long as it doesn't stop you doing anything," Jane cautioned. His head came up a little. "You did your best to find the right twigs and leaves and you gave those to the others to help out. So, I think you can be forgiven for keeping just one for yourself."
David looked up at her with a small smile.
"Still," she added thoughtfully. "...I have two brothers, one older, Simon, and one younger, Barney. When we were kids, Barney always wanted to come with us everywhere and Simon and I didn't always want him with us. We thought he might get hurt or, sometimes, we were a little mean and thought he might get in the way, and either way we tried to stop him coming. But you know what?"
David shook his head, wide-eyed.
"Our adventures with him were always better than our adventures without. Sometimes the greatest treasure is the treasure shared." David's head went back down, not troubled again, but frowning a little. Jane smiled and stood up, smoothing down her skirt. "Come on, then, kiddo. Straighten yourself up and go and say sorry to Craig and Tameca for fighting."
David wiped at his face again and then, to Jane's barely concealed amusement, actually did straighten his top out, tugging the sleeves into place quite primly. He took a deep breath and then let it out, then stood up tall, chest out, shoulders back. "I'm sorry I was fighting, Miss Drew."
She smiled warmly down at him. "Thank you, David."
He nodded resolutely and then walked back into the classroom without further prompting, right up to his table. "I'm sorry for fighting, Craig."
"Uh." Craig blinked owlishly, hands full of leaves. "Okay?"
David nodded solemnly, and turned to Tameca, and said again, "I'm sorry for fighting."
"I accept your apology," Tameca said, sticking her hand out. David stared at it, and she waved it a little. "You're supposed to shake my hand now." When David and Craig both stared at her like she was a crazy person, she sighed. "It's what you do! To show everything's square!"
David quickly shook her hand and then snatched his own back.
"We're making a diver," Tameca told him, sitting back down. "For the fish tank. You can help if you like."
"We did the head, but we gots ta finish off the body somehow," Craig explained, squishing his handfuls of leaves haphazardly into the lumpy humanoid frame. They mostly fell out, Jane noted, but this didn't stop him much. The little statue rattled when it moved, belly filled with stones to hold it down.
"Um." David said. They looked at him quizzically, and he unzipped his top again, to take out his prize. "I found this."
"Whoa!" Craig yelled. "Cool!"
"That's amazing," Tameca said. "It's so red."
"It's mine," David said. He looked at it in his hands, started pulling it closer, and then shoved it out at them. "You can use it. If you want."
"Brilliant!" Craig gushed.
"It can be his chest-plate," Tameca agreed. "Like Iron Man! Thank you very much, David."
David let her take the leaf from him and ducked his head, shrugging his shoulders, but one corner of his mouth curved up in a smile, and Tameca grinned ear to ear in response. Within seconds they were all bent over the statue, working twigs and leaves together, filling it out and building it up.
Jane left them to it, going to check on the others. She was surprised every day by her children's ability to forget and forgive, to crash against each other and smooth out just as quickly, come and gone in the moment. But, she wondered, did it really matter if you forgot the details if you still remembered the lesson? If you lived, and loved, and learned—and shared?
The end of class bell finally rang and she called them all to order, helping them tidy up before dismissing them for the day into the arms of their fathers and mothers. Craig, Tameca and David gathered at the fish tank to watch Jane sink their red-chested diver into the water. She'd been a little worried it would break apart, but the kids had done their job well, and it nestled nicely at the bottom to the kids' cheers. They left together, Craig's arm thrown around David's hunched shoulders while Tameca lectured them on something or other.
Jane fetched her own coat in turn and was at the classroom door when her phone rang. She dug it out as she turned off the lights, looking back to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything as she answered it.
"Hello? Oh, Barney! I was just thinking about you. No, nothing bad," she laughed. In the dim light, she couldn't quite see into the fish tank. She'd check it in the morning. There'd be time. Closing the classroom door behind her, Jane joined the last trails of departing children, saying, "Do you remember when we went to Cornwall?"
In the tank, the little statue's leafy head rippled and stirred once before settling.