Call it a vestigial Stockholm Syndrome; call it simple nostalgia, or an intellectual and professional playfulness – whichever interpretation held best for the observer, it became quite a ‘thing’ and provided the ailing teacher with some final settlement that sent them peacefully onto whatever lay behind the veil of sentience.
It is April 2nd, 2036, and Amy Caulder has suffered the spread of a golfball-sized tumour in her neck. It restricts her breathing and she has for these final weeks required the use of a ventilator to ease her inhalation. It is a prolongation that has left her more exhausted than if she had let nature take its riddling course. But it has given her time to compose one final piece of writing.
Her hand is flecked with downy hair and its skin is rudely healthy for a hand of the dying. She uses it to lay down her pen for the last time. As the pen rests in the folds of her bedsheets, she smiles with a heavy grace at her surrounding colleagues.
Around her bed, sit four of her most cherished work friends. They had worked together through the peaks and troughs of scrutiny, judgement, intervention, praise and condemnation. They had celebrated the erection of a sign outside their good-sized, urban primary. They had all secretly and separately broken when the school was taken over by a global supermarket chain.
They had all left teaching, years before, but had promised to reconvene at moments such as these. Indeed, Amy was the third such teacher to go through this rite.
“Rest a little, Amy. We shall read it now,” says Catherine, with a fracturing stillness. The paper upon which Amy has just finished writing is passed from Catherine to David to Sophie to Martin.
David is the first to commit.
“It’s interesting,” he says, halting. “There’s controlled… use of imagery.”
“It conveys complexity with some use of ambiguous viewpoints,” puts in Sophie, her reddening eyes darting to Martin.
Martin shakes his head with a slow discomfort. “I… don’t know,” he says, “It held my interest throughout, but at the midpoint, it was a little contrived. I saw the twist coming. It’s… I’m sorry.”
“Level 7, Amy,” says Catherine, a single tear sliding down into her smile. The four teachers nod and look to Amy.
“Level 7,” mouths Amy through the beat of her ventilator. “Level 7.”
They held hands, the five of them. And the four teachers waited for the profound silence that falls like a blanket of snow when a friend’s breath becomes absent.
And a long, final exhalation within which a hissing, prolonged “Seven” is barely audible.
Amy, now a sleeping beauty, moved with smiling finality beyond levels.