Reading is easy when it’s just me and the book. I look at Janet. I look at John. I look at them on the beach, or by the river, or playing with their dog. I look at a picture and then I look at the big words in the white space underneath. And then, while I’m quiet and thinking, the words come floating up off the page and into my head and they tell me the story. And then I turn the page and more words come floating up. It’s quiet and happy for me and Janet and John.
It’s harder when I have to read to Sister André at her big desk. The book is between us. I stand so close that I’m pressed against the big black folds of her habit. I can see the soft, downy hairs on her plump hands as she turns the pages. The words aren’t always light and floaty when I’m with Sister. But she is kind and she smiles. She helps me when the words get stuck to the page. If she is pleased I get a sweet from the small green tin she keeps deep in her pocket. Her rosary beads rattle as she reaches for it.
But today Sister wants me to read to the class. I am going to have to stand up with my book. And while Janet and John play and laugh and splash, the big words in their white spaces will curl and twist into hard spiky shapes. I’ll stare and stare but instead of flying gently up towards me, the words will hook themselves into the paper. And there they will stay. And while I’m staring my tongue will go tight and dry and there will be heavy weights hanging from the corners of my mouth, pulling them down and down as my eyes fill with hot, splashy tears
And that’s why I hid among the trees at the edge of the playground. The big hand-bell clanged and the other children lined up. Nobody missed me. And when it was quiet again, I walked through the empty playground, past the little house where the lavatories are and down the tree-lined path to the street. And I walked home. Along the top lane, past the allotments and down the hill by the railway line. I felt free and happy and safe as I passed the park gates and saw the swings hanging still in the morning sunshine. Then I was on the long uphill street that led to the edge of the town and the winding lane where my house and garden was – the last bit of the town and the first bit of the country. Nearly home.
And then a blue car that I recognised was coming down the hill towards me. It was our car and my mother was driving it and she had seen me. The car stopped. I climbed in and we drove off. But we didn’t go to the shops and we didn’t turn around and go home. Instead, we sped past the park, up the hill by the railway line, past the allotments and straight back to school. Within minutes we were outside the classroom door and my mother was talking quietly to Sister André.
‘Of course, I told Miss Briggs immediately,’ Sister said.
Miss Briggs? Miss Briggs was the headmistress. She taught the big children. She didn’t look a bit like plump, comfortable Sister André. She was tall and thin and wore a brown scratchy tweed suit. She had round, wire-rimmed glasses. She carried a stick. When Sister André took you anywhere, she held your hand. If Miss Briggs needed to, she held you by the wrist.
And while my mother and Sister André murmured, Miss Briggs appeared at the far end of the corridor: almost as thin as the stick in her hand. Her heels click-clicked on the polished floor. Miss Briggs gripped my wrist and led me down the long, long corridor.
I can’t remember much of what happened next. I think she asked a question that began with ‘Why?’ and I think she asked me to promise that I’d never run away again. I promised. She smiled. And I noticed that Miss Briggs was much younger than my mother.
And then I was back in the classroom. Janet and John were still playing on the long tree branch by the stream. The dog was still splashing in the shallow water. The words floated up towards me as I sat quietly reading to myself, sitting at my desk at the back of the class.