The May dawn creeps into my room creating long shadows from the lopsided piles of magazines. Wires and winking LED lights blink like an airport runway under my bed as my assistants: iPad, phone, laptop and power-bank guzzle power. Notebooks and blunt pencils lie haphazard beside them, flung by frantic reading and panic in the night.
I’m tired and cold but force myself to concentrate. Pulling the duvet around my shoulders, I cover the text with my hand, trying to force the stupid sentence into my weary brain:
“Here He Lies Beneath Bed Clothes, Nothing On, Feeling Nervous, So Margret Always Sighs,” Uummm. What’s the next word? Huffing, I peek under my forefinger to look, “Please Stop Clowning Around,” I say mechanically.
Now the hard bit, the chemical names:
“Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, er - Beetroot?” No!
I throw the book on the floor and the magazines slip into the cold cup of coffee. A brown puddle spreads over the parquet flooring.
That’s my Head Voice talking.
I dive for the kitchen roll and tread on the amoeba coffee mess which throws out pseudopodia heading for my phone. My lifeline. What would I do without it? I save its life hoping it will save mine later.
The coffee is sucked into the paper, making brown frilly edges – a furbelow? Is that a frill’s proper name? I might be asked that question.
I pick up a dictionary, but my fingers shake, I’m not sure if it’s the cold or nerves. Changing my mind I shout out,
“Alexa, what is a furbelow?”
But she’s unplugged.
‘Focus for God’s sake.’ It’s my Head Voice again.
Today, I need to be organised. Sharp. In the right frame of mind; calm. In control. Perhaps breakfast will help. Facts might stick. But my stomach refuses to contemplate food.
I pick through the detritus of the flat and promise to tidy everything later as I run through performance exercises. Preparing like any athlete. Focus! Pulling in a big breath, I start reciting the names of the 18 biggest football grounds in the UK.
“Wembley, Old Trafford, Tottenham Hotspur,” but stop when I get to 17 and check my sport notebook. Of course, “Pride Park and King Power Stadium.”
I forgot the last two. It does not bode well. My memory is having an off day. Usually I remember minuscule things like every single planet in our solar system AND their moons. But bad days I struggle to recall the phonetic alphabet which I learnt years ago. My memory has become unpredictable and I miss its reliability especially as I use it so much. How can you quiz if you can’t remember things?
‘Early onset dementia.’ My Head Voice suggests
In the mirror, I note the dark shadows under my eyes standing out like triangles and I pull down the bottom lid to look at the white rim under my eyeball. Is it whiter than usual? Am I anaemic? I stick my tongue out and see the white centre parting and light brown patches around the edges – the mucosa? Median sulcus, dorsal surfaces? I learnt the tongue months ago. Gone!
‘Daft names,’ my Head Voice sympathises.
I see a notification flash. A message from Mum:
‘Ring me,’ next to a yellow smiley face emoticon.
She answers on the first ring.
“Hi Mum. Got to be quick.” I say.
“Wanted to wish you luck. Got everything crossed for you. Have you done your revising?”
“Yes Mum. All OK. I’m just leaving. Can’t be late.”
“Got your earphones for your meditation? That helps me. Mindfulness. Mrs Tandy in the newsagent says, ‘good luck’ and the others on the ward. They all know about you-”
“Have you heard from Charlie?” I interrupt her.
“Charlie?” I caught something in her voice, “Why? I’m sure he’s OK. Perhaps he’s leaving you to revise. You know how you get–”
“Yes I suppose. Everything is fine. I’ll call you after.”
“Oh. OK.” I hear the disappointment in her voice but I can’t be doing with it. “Good luck. Remember the wives of Henry VIII. Bye. Sending you brain waves. Let me know-”
I cut her off and see a Twitter notification, someone’s retweeted me! Yeh! Who and what? Twenty minutes later I surface from the sea of ridiculous news. No time for breakfast now even if I want it.
My clothes are laid out on the back of the sofa in putting-on order.
Today, I am wearing my ‘Chorister’ outfit. A white shirt under a dark grey pinafore dress which hides my bulges. I borrowed the look from Britney in her ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’ video. I wear black opaque tights and small heels. Under my arm nestles a black zip folder, opening it reveals the latest iPad, calculator, and mobile phone. I’ve rarely used the calculator but it looks good. Psychological advantages matter in this game.
I dress in record time and give myself a quick up and downer in the full length mirror. Looking back is an imposter; a smart, confident, and important woman. I look younger than 33 and I’m grateful for the delicate bone structure of my face, inherited from my mother.
This total look serves me well for my teaching job too.
I run out, shushing the door as it bangs shut behind me. No 4’s door is closed tight. Will it open? Perhaps he’s still asleep? The nosey sod across the hall, watches mine and everyone else’s moves in the building. And God help you if you make a noise after hours. He also loves to gossip. He uses it as a tool to gather info. His name is Mr Thomas - which Paul and I shortened to Tom. As in ‘Peeping.’ We give nicknames to everyone. I know it’s childish but Hey Ho, it’s my life.
A tinkle sounds from my phone, a text notification from the man himself.
I've known Paul for five years - since I started teaching at Penhope Primary School. He was the architect in charge of building the new library wing and I volunteered to help advise on the design. I love reading you see.
He wore a phosphorus yellow jacket, safety specs, a blue hardhat and a black suit underneath – brains and beauty. Such a pleasing picture. We had a real laugh together, giggling and joking around. We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend but great friends. In fact, he’s my only friend. We help each other. It's nice to have somebody to talk to whilst waiting your turn or watching old quizzes. We do a lot of that together.
‘See you there,’ his message finishes with a yellow thumbs up emoticon.
I work three days a week teaching at Penhope: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The rest of my week I dedicate to quizzing. I started competing properly after I met Paul.
I have two careers, teaching, and quizzing. Split fairly. I used to love teaching but since the new headteacher, Mrs Kramer, or, as I know her, the Dragon started, it’s been difficult to do either satisfactorily.
So far, I’ve managed to hold out against the pressure hose she’s turned on me to go full time, making me do extra duties, ignoring me, checking my lesson plans hoping for errors. It’s not been easy after poor Arthur, er Mr Bowles the old Headteacher left. We got on so well. He thought I was the Bees Knees and told everyone I was the best teacher he’d ever worked with, which didn’t make me popular with the rest of the staff but Hey Ho, what can you do?
I miss Arthur. Someone I looked up to and trusted. If he was Head, I promise you I would never even have considered throwing a sickie to do this quiz today. I wouldn’t have needed to.
But I did.