I gave up.
Sian looked at the message again, feeling a great sense of sorrow.
She had heard about the incident where Kristina had run out of the science lesson — how could she not? The school was abuzz with it.
The way people were talking about it disgusted Sian. A number of people whom she knew for a fact had never had a lesson with Kristina seemed to be seeing the fall of a teacher as a “victory” — for whom, she couldn’t really determine. She certainly didn’t feel it was something to be celebrated when the teacher of one of the subjects she was going to be examined in come the summer had been driven out of her job, perhaps never to return. She knew that music was hardly the most popular subject in school, but that was no reason to celebrate.
The injustice of it all frustrated her. She knew that Kristina was trying her best, struggling against difficult odds made even harder by the school’s own woes. And Sian thought she was doing a good job, too; she always came away from her music lessons feeling like she’d learned something and that her life was somehow richer — even in those sessions where she’d done little more than play the piano or sing. Kristina just helped her feel like she was doing something good and worthwhile.
Now she had lost Jasmine and Nicola to the mob, too, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. She got on well enough with her peers in her music class, but not well enough to feel confident hanging out with them. And she felt sure that by now, if Jasmine and Nicola had judged her for her supposed “sins,” the rest of her peers were likely thinking much the same thing.
She felt very alone.
I can understand how you feel, replied Sian. I’m feeling that way too.
She rolled over and faced the wall. She felt comfortable inside her duvet; safe and peaceful. At least until her mother came in on one of her regular visits to see if she was “all right”.
Sian had successfully managed to convince her parents that she wasn’t feeling well enough to go into school today. It was a lie, of course, but she felt like she needed some time to recuperate and gather her thoughts.
She hadn’t told her parents anything of what had transpired, nor had she told them of her worries about Kristina. She’d made an appointment for them to see Kristina at Parents Evening earlier in the week, and as far as they were concerned, that was going to go ahead as normal next week. Sian found herself doubting that was an appointment that would be kept, however.
There was a tap on her door, and she heard it open.
“Hello,” said her mother in an overly cheerful voice. “I brought you a cup of coffee. How are you feeling now?”
“Not great,” said Sian, faking a croaky voice and continuing to face the wall. “I’m really tired. I think I’d like to try and sleep for a bit.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” said her mother. She leaned over and stroked her daughter’s hair. “You should put that phone away if you’re trying to get some sleep.”
Sian realised she was still clutching her phone in her hands, and hoped that her mother hadn’t seen the message exchange on the screen. She looked down at the device and saw that it had automatically gone to sleep. Suddenly, it buzzed in her hand and lit up.
“Oh, you’ve got a message,” said her mother. “Is it your friends checking up on you?”
“Something like that,” said Sian, silently urging her mother to please just leave her alone.
Eventually, she did, and Sian was left to review the message. It was, of course, from Kristina.
How do we pick ourselves up after this? she’d written. How do we get back to normal?
I don’t know, Sian typed back immediately. I wish I knew. I wish life was easy.
Moments later, Kristina replied again. You sound like me. You’re a bit young to start talking like that, aren’t you?
Apparently you’re never too young, responded Sian. We’ll work it out. We have to. There’s no other option, is there?
There are other options, replied Kristina. But none of them are particularly desirable or helpful. So I guess you’re right.
Sian paused, unsure of what to say next.
Do you want to meet for a coffee later? came another message from Kristina, moments later.
Yes, said Sian. Only my Mum thinks I’m sick, so I doubt she’ll let me out.
Are you skiving off? came the reply. I didn’t think you had it in you.
Sian smiled weakly. I could say the same to you.
* * * *
Later in the day, well after the school day had ended, Sian successfully convinced her mother that she was feeling better, and that a walk in the fresh air would do her more good than sitting around the house.
Her “walk” was actually to the bus stop, and onward into town, where she would meet Kristina and the pair of them would commiserate with one another.
The bus ride seemed to pass very quickly, since Sian was lost in her thoughts. She got off and walked down the street to the coffee shop, which wasn’t far away. Kristina was already in there waiting for her. She looked very tired, with bags under her eyes, unkempt hair and no makeup.
“Hello,” she said as brightly as she could manage.
“Hey,” said Kristina with a dry, cracked voice.
Sian sat down opposite her defeated teacher, and the pair just looked at the table in silence for a moment, then Sian got up, fumbled around in her pocket for her purse and went to the counter.
“What are you doing?” Kristina called.
“I owe you one,” said Sian. “Let’s indulge.”
Sian returned a moment later with two large lattes and two big slices of chocolate cake, much like the ones they’d had at the supermarket a few days earlier. The pair of them dug in, and Sian found herself immediately feeling a little better.
“This is so weird,” said Sian. “These feelings, I mean. It’s like… I feel really sad, but there doesn’t feel like there’s anything causing it. I mean, I know shitty things have happened recently, but it’s not those things I’m sad about; it’s just a general feeling of, you know, meh.“
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Kristina. “That’s depression, Sian. And it happens to the best people.”
The pair of them took another mouthful of cake. Kristina continued.
“I had a friend at university while I was training,” she said. “A really close friend. We got on really well. But she had depression. So much so that there were times when she just couldn’t deal with being around people. I felt terrible when that happened, because there was just nothing I could do; I couldn’t comfort her, I couldn’t tell her everything was going to be all right — she’d just push me away and want to hide. As difficult as it is to admit now, I think I finally understand where she was coming from. There isn’t always a cause. There isn’t always a cure. It just… is. And you sort of have to learn to deal with it.”
“Well, you’re handling it better than she did,” said Sian.
“Really?” said Kristina with a weak laugh. “Have you seen me? I’ve seen me. I look like a tramp. And I just don’t care right now.”
“No,” said Sian. “You haven’t locked yourself away though. You’re not hiding. You’re here now, aren’t you? You’re talking to me about it.”
“Hm,” said Kristina, pondering. “I guess you’re right.” She smiled. “Kindred spirits or something, perhaps.”
Sian took a gulp of coffee, and Kristina put another piece of cake in her mouth. She chewed it a few times, swallowed and then sighed.
“Oh, Sian,” she said. “What are we going to do?”
“Well, I don’t have much of an option,” said Sian. “You, on the other hand, I think…”
The third voice interrupted Sian. The pair of them hadn’t noticed him approach, but now Edward was standing by their table, looking slightly uncomfortable.
“Edward,” said Kristina weakly. “Hello.”
“You all right, Miss?” said Edward. “You look like shit.”
Sian smirked. Kristina looked at her, then back to Edward with a slight smile.
“Yes, well, I feel like shit,” said Kristina. Sian couldn’t help but feel a ripple of excitement at hearing a teacher swear. “But Sian here is helping. And perhaps you’d like to join us, too?” She looked to Sian for approval; Sian gave her a nod.
“Okay,” said Edward. “Will someone buy me a drink?”
Sian reached into her pocket but Kristina stopped her.
“I got this,” she said. “What do you want, Edward?”
“Hot chocolate,” he said. “Extra cream. And marshmallows.”
Kristina walked off to the counter to order Edward’s drink. He turned to Sian.
“You weren’t at school today,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“I, umm,” he said, his cheeks flushing somewhat. “I, err, missed you.”
Sian was surprised at what he was saying, but that surprise soon gave way to a pleasant feeling of warmth inside.
“Thanks,” she said. “Since the other day I was… wondering if anyone would care if I wasn’t there.”
“I, err, I do,” he said awkwardly, his face now bright red. “You’ve been really nice to me, so I… I don’t know, I…”
At this point, Kristina returned with Edward’s hot chocolate and rescued him from his stammering. Sian was intrigued; was he simply expressing friendship or preparing to confess deeper feelings? She was surprised to find herself not entirely repulsed by the idea, but knew anything more than friendship with Edward would almost certainly be more trouble than it was worth.
Kristina put the big glass of hot chocolate in front of Edward, who received it gratefully and immediately dug in, a moustache of whipped cream forming on his top lip. He turned to Kristina.
“Miss,” he said. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry for being a dick in the past. And I wanted to say thanks, too.” He turned to Sian. “You two are the only people outside the Unit who take me seriously.”
“That’s my job, Edward,” said Kristina, passing him a napkin and indicating his top lip. “It’s a teacher’s job to take her students seriously and try and do what she can for them.”
Sian smiled. She knew that Kristina’s words were for her own benefit as much as Edward’s, but Edward seemed to appreciate them.
“Well,” he said. “I’m going to try. I’m going to try harder, and make my Mum proud. Then I can tell my Dad to stick it.”
Sian raised her eyebrows. She knew that Edward didn’t talk a lot about his family or his troubles with his father, so was both surprised and pleased to hear him being so open with Kristina.
“That’s good, Edward,” said Kristina. “I’ve seen how hard you’ve been trying, and I think it would make your Mum proud.” She hesitated a moment. “Edward, your Mum and Dad aren’t together any more, isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” he said, looking at the floor. “I live with my Dad.”
Sian unconsciously grit her teeth, but said nothing.
“Why don’t you ask your Mum to come along to Parents Evening?” she asked. “It’d be good for her to find out how you’re doing, and I don’t know how well you’re getting on in other classes, but I’ll be more than happy to give you a good report, given how hard you’ve been trying.”
“I don’t know if she’ll say yes,” he said. “But I’ll try.”