Jack was conducting an object lesson. He held up an empty glass jar and asked the children two questions: what it was and how it was made. There were only a few raised hands for the former and a resounding silence for the latter. He chalked up an explanation of the essential ingredients and processes involved in glassmaking on the blackboard as the boys copied the notes into their exercise books. He was about to embark on a discourse on glassblowing, the various applications for glass, its impact on society and its contribution to history, when the schoolroom door opened and Sister Callista came in. She nodded to him and waved her hand to indicate that he was to continue the lesson and took a seat at the back. The pupils were unperturbed – it seemed the nun was a familiar interloper in the schoolroom – but Jack was overcome with nerves, stuttering and struggling to breathe, his voice rising and turning shrill like a badly played violin.
The nun smiled encouragement at him, but he was lost. The room began spinning and he could sense the children shuffling in their seats. Everything moved in slow motion. The pupils merged into a single hostile mass like a lump of cold, hard clay that was resistant to being shaped. The headmistress towered over them like the angel of death and Jack wished that the past few days had been a dream and he would wake up back in Derby on the badly-stuffed straw palliasse with his baby brother’s chubby arm around his neck. Glass. Sand. Silica. Blowing. No. Not Silica. Something else. Why did it matter? What did he know anyway? He was telling them about a process he had never seen. Why hadn’t he told them instead about mixing plaster? His father and Kenneth had furnished him with enough raw material to talk for twenty undiluted minutes. He coughed. He shuffled his papers. He looked up and saw Sister Callista smiling encouragement. He took a deep breath. Then another. In slowly, out slowly. And then he carried on.
This time the words flowed. He turned to the blackboard and chalked up diagrams and spelled out words and was gratified to see the boys copying them down and to hear the scratch of the younger boys’ slate pencils scraping across their slate boards and the scratch of the older boys’ pens as they tried to write without smudging their copy books.
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