It was like a tiny man with a teensy little pickaxe, jabbing away inside my head. Actually, it was worse than that. More like a thousand tiny people with a thousand little chainsaws relentlessly slicing at my inner skull. That's how bad my headaches were that Friday afternoon.
They had started a few days earlier as a distant throbbing in the back of my head, like on hot summer days when you haven’t drunk enough water. I paid little attention to them at first but gradually, the pain worsened. The usual methods didn't work; I tried having a nice warm bath with a book, but I couldn't concentrate on the words in front of me because of the pain. Instead of reading, I tried listening to some nice, relaxing music. I thought Emma Christie’s acoustic album would be just the thing, but even that did nothing to stop the incessant throbbing that seemed to bounce rhythmically in time with my heartbeat in an effort to poke fun at me. The headache became a life of its own then; I imagined the little bugger as a sort of evil-looking brain with googly eyes, a horrid, crooked grin and a scalpel in hand advancing menacingly towards me.
The pain from the headaches got so bad that on the Friday morning my story begins, I had described the pain to my husband as a “stupid big lump like The Blob from those old horror films, only made out of broken glass and barbed wire, and burning at a thousand degrees”. Then, just before lunch, I had thought it was more like “a hive of bees trapped up there, stinging at the inside of my head in an attempt to get out so that they can chase the bear that stole their honey”.
That was when I realised I had reached the point of being a bit of a drama queen, so I finally settled on the tiny pickaxe theory and tried to stop thinking of other fantastical ways to describe what was going on in my head.
The two main people I had been moaning about headaches to were fellow members of the English department at Arthurstone High School, Hazel Smith and Ursula McGregor. Most of the school students were as genuinely terrified of Ursula as I used to be of Mr Blobby, but she was actually lovely. She was also the principal teacher of the English department, making her our boss, which was great because the headteacher always seemed a bit too busy to deal with any minor issues that would crop up, and the deputy head was even scarier than the kids’ horror film-esque perception of Ursula, or indeed of a man in a fat pink suit with yellow spots and horrifically huge eyes. If we had any problems, we’d stick to Ursula.
‘You should go home, Paula,’ Hazel said. ‘Stick your head in a bucket of ice or something. Do what you need to do. I’m free later on. I could cover.’
I nearly choked on the cup of tea I was drinking. ‘That’s class 4B, you know! Why would any sane person offer to take that class? Gary Blair’s in there. Last Monday he had one of the other boys all shaken up because he’d threatened to beat him up. All because his football team beat Gary’s over the weekend.’
Hazel rolled her eyes. ‘My offer still stands, though. Go home and get some rest.’
‘No, honestly,’ I said. ‘It’s Friday anyway. Once this last lesson is over, I get to go home and order Sean to bring me food and water. And chocolate, lots of that – I've heard it doesn’t count in the same category as food.’
‘Well, I hope for your sake 4B aren’t in a particularly rowdy mood today.’
As it happened, the students of class 4B were in a very rowdy mood that afternoon.
With fourth-year students, you always got that mix of keen kids who were looking forward to, or at least feeling nervous about their first proper exams, and the ones who couldn’t wait until the year was over so that they could leave school. They had no interest left in school, and as such, no interest in the exams. And that was okay; school isn't for everyone, and some of them would go on to do other things when they left. But some of them had no respect for their classmates who wanted to do well; they were disruptive in class and after lunch was one of their most disruptive times. Fridays were even worse because they only had a couple of hours to wait for the weekend. I called that period the black period. So really, to say that my most raucous class, at the worst time of day, on the worst day of the week was a nightmare is both palpable and an understatement.
My plan to tackle the black period was to commit that particular time of the week to reading. For that specific black period, we were due to continue reading our novel. I had set them the homework of reading chapters forty-two and forty-three at home, only seventeen pages, but I was sure that some would still complain about how they never had the time. That excuse always amused me. Why didn’t they have time? Did they have a mountain of homework to do from all of their other teachers? Maybe they had too many nubes to own on Call of Duty.
Three chapters a week was the goal I had set in order for them to be finished in time to write a short essay and begin preparations for their exams. Most of the pupils had seemed to be enjoying Great Expectations, despite some reservations that it might be “old and boring”. When I had pointed out that Charles Dickens was also the author of A Christmas Carol, Nick Stewart had become excited thinking that Charles Dickens was the creator of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
‘Nope, sorry Nick,’ I had smiled at him. ‘That’s my favourite Christmas film too, but The Muppets aren’t in the original work, sadly.’
At that, Nick had attempted to change my mind about which novel we should read, suggesting The Hunger Games and reasoning that it was also a classic. When I had corrected him by pointing out that it was published in 2008, he had protested.
‘Nah, Miss,’ he’d said. ‘It was written by the same guy that wrote To Kill a Mockingjay.’
‘Nick,’ I had sighed. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee. The Hunger Games books were written by Suzanne Collins. Also, both authors are female.’
The class had laughed a little at this and I had been annoyed at myself. I felt some sympathy for Nick; he seemed to not understand a great many things, and his classmates often giggled at him, which clearly upset him. I habitually tried to make no jokes out of the things he said for fear that he may have been bullied by the likes of Gary Blair.
The well-behaved pupils were, as usual, the first to arrive. I greeted them with smiles and they immediately sat at their desks and took their copies of the Dickens classic out of their school bags. When the miscreants arrived in their mud-stained trousers (No holds barred football and amateur professional wrestling were two sports I often observed out of the staffroom window), they predictably had a huff about having to read. Some of them were okay with it because it seemed they thought it meant they were allowed to sit and simply pretend to be reading the novel along with the rest of the class. But when they wouldn’t turn the page for over ten minutes, I would get suspicious.
When the whole class arrived, I informed them that we would be reading the next chapter of the novel. ‘I hope you all read chapters forty-two and forty-three?’ I asked, standing in front of my desk as my head continued to throb.
‘Yes Miss,’ came the unenthusiastic drone from around the class. I suspected some of them were lying, so I employed one of my favourite tactics to make sure.
‘Quite a twist in the tale in the last chapter, isn’t that right, Robbie?’
Robbie Patrick looked up from his desk with a concocted confident look on his face which I assumed was supposed to tell me he had done his homework. ‘Yeah, Miss, didn’t see that one coming.’
‘Do you think Pip was justified in punching Drummle?’ I asked.
‘Yeah Miss, totally,' Robbie said. ‘I would've done the same if I was him.’
‘Hmm,’ I mused, leaning back on my desk a little. ‘And what about the shocking news that Miss Havisham is actually a lost cyborg from the planet Gallifrey?’
If it weren’t for the chuckles coming from the other pupils, Robbie just might have fallen for this one too. Instead, he buried his scarlet face behind his copy of the novel before having to share it with Gary. The latter had once again “forgotten” to bring his copy in. I assumed it was probably in a bin somewhere. The amount of money the school must have spent replacing missing or vandalised books must have been astronomical. No wonder young adult fiction is a thriving business!
‘Right guys,’ I said once the fiasco was over. ‘I have a splitting headache today, so I'm not going to read this chapter aloud with you. You're all big boys and girls now so I’m sure you’re all literate enough to read in silence by yourselves. I’ll write out some questions on the board, and once you’re finished I’d like you to answer them in your jotters. Robbie, perhaps you’d better start from where you really finished. Around chapter thirty? I hope you’re a fast reader.’
Robbie performed a wonderful impression of a horse puffing while most of the students' attention turned towards their books.
My headaches started again, this time, sharper. I worried that it was the beginning of a vexatious crescendo, which would end with a pain so bad that my brain would begin a daring escape plot using my ears as tunnels. I took a sip of water from a bottle I had on my desk and walked over to the whiteboard to write some questions about the chapters the students were reading. I quickly scanned the pages of chapter forty-four to remind myself exactly which one it was. Ah. The one where Pip expresses his love for Estella to her. Good chapter. I picked up the whiteboard pen and began by writing the date:
Friday 22nd February 2013
Then, underneath this:
Why does Miss Havisham allow Pip to believe she is his benefactor?
‘I hope there’s no spoilers on the board, Miss,’ a voice came from somewhere in the back of the classroom. I recognised it instantly as the voice of Gary Blair.
‘Please keep your eyes glued to the book, Gary,’ I retorted. ‘Or I’ll glue your mouth shut. Besides, anything I say about the novel is a spoiler to you if you’ve not been reading it. Ouch!’
A gigantic burst of pain suddenly erupted in my head.
‘What’s wrong, Mrs Hamilton?’
This time I didn’t know who was speaking. One of the girls. But her voice sounded different. Muffled. A million miles away.
‘Nothing,’ I gasped. ‘Just the headache. Get on with your reading, guys.’
I placed my hand on my temple. It was still throbbing. Now and then, it would give me another sudden shock of pain. I tried to focus on the task at hand. If I could just write three or four questions, I could sit at my desk and pretend to read the novel. I lifted the pen to the board once more.
What does Este
Ow! Another quick blast of pain. I had to stop. What was the question again? I’d gone completely blank.
Maybe it would just come to me if I continued to write.
What does Estella
No good. It was gone. What about Estella? I'd have to scan over the chapter again.
A noise from somewhere in the classroom disturbed my thoughts. It sounded like someone had thrown something. Something big. Heavy. How could any fourth-year student lift something so heavy? It sounded as though someone had dropped an anvil.
‘You!’ a voice screamed like a rock band at Wembley Arena, making my eyeballs hurt and my head pulsate. The weight of the sound nearly knocked me off my feet.
‘Whoever is throwing things j-just cut it o-out,’ I stuttered. My own voice sounded louder than usual, catching me off guard. I could feel myself starting to panic slightly.
I turned around to look at the class. When I’d finished, the room continued to spin by itself. I could just make out some of the good ones shaking their heads or trying to continue to read their books. Some of the boys appeared to be smirking and looking up from their own copies, perhaps trying to figure out if I’d caught the culprit.
Saying nothing, I took another swig of my water and returned to the board. As my head continued to hammer I stared down at my own copy of Great Expectations. The words looked blurry. I blinked. Blinked again. I still couldn’t make out any words on the page. I looked up at what I had written on the board. My own writing had become a messy haze.
W t do E tel a
It reminded me of that famous painting of the melting clocks. Who painted that? Was it melting clocks or a man screaming? Both? Neither? What was the question?
I began to feel nauseous.
Oh God, please don’t throw up in front of the kids.
‘GARY!! STOP IT!!’
The voice boomed and resonated inside my skull, likely knocking all those little buggers with their chainsaws into each other. I whirled around to face the class once more, but I only made myself dizzier. I tripped forward a little but managed to find my balance just in time to stop myself from falling over.
‘Miss, are you okay?’ The voice of the girl who had spoken earlier. She sounded even further away than before.
‘I’m fine, Estella,’ I breathed. The pupils in the class now resembled an entire oil painting that had begun to melt. I could no longer make out any solid objects, just colours. The pupils' faces were melting, just like the clocks. My head pounded and pounded, and my heart now began to do the same. The sound of my own heartbeat was almost too much for my ears to handle. Suddenly, colour began to fade altogether, and a blackness engulfed me. The last thing I could remember before blacking out was the girl’s voice one more time, crying out from somewhere on Jupiter:
‘Someone get Mrs McGregor! Something’s wrong!’