An Old School Photo
There's an old picture in my photo album, one so large it takes up an entire page. In this picture, row upon row of teenagers, their hair neatly combed, gaze at the camera; a small blackboard propped up at the front has the following words chalked on it:
Coal Hill School
The woman to the left of the sign - the one with the back-combed dark hair - is Miss Wright; she is (or rather was) our history teacher. I remember her being very kind, if a little firm, and she was always neatly dressed. I seem to remember she was wearing a blue skirt and matching blouse on the day this picture was taken, not that you can tell, though, because the picture is in black and white. The man a few spaces to the right of her is Mr Chesterton; he taught science and I remember he seemed to have a bit of a "thing" for Miss Wright. My friends and I used to make bets that the two of them would end up married.
I (my name in those days was Jeanette Williams) am in the third row, fourth from the left, my collar-length blonde hair tucked behind a hand-knitted Alice band. Now look at the row behind and count the kids until you get to the one second from the right and you'll see a girl with short dark hair. That's her, Susan Foreman. I only knew her a few months, but she's someone I've never forgotten.
I first saw Susan on the day she first appeared at school. It was nearly 9 AM and all the pupils were gathered into their year groups for registration, when the headmaster came into my classroom. A middle-aged man in glasses, his name was Mr Barker, but we used to call him "Doggy" behind his back. Not that we would have dared call a teacher by any nickname to their face; they were a lot stricter in those days and expected us to show them the respect due to them. For instance, whenever Doggy . . . Excuse me, whenever Mr Barker came into a classroom, we all had to stand up and stay standing until told otherwise.
On this particular occasion, the moment he walked through the door, the sound of twenty-six chairs scraping the floor was heard as twenty-six fifteen-year-olds got to their feet and stood straight behind their desks. None of the slouching you get from fifteen-year-olds today. Oh, we slouched around in our own time, but this was school and standing up straight was the order of the day, especially when the headmaster was in sight.
"Good morning, Mr Barker," we said in unison, as was required whenever he entered a classroom.
Mr Barker returned our greeting, told us to "be seated", then called to someone out in the corridor. "You may come in now, Susan." And a young girl with short dark hair walked into the classroom and stood in front of the blackboard, facing us. Mr Barker introduced her as Susan Foreman, who was "joining our class" and invited her to tell us about herself. This was a tradition whenever a new pupil entered the school, the aim being to give the other pupils chance to get to know the newcomer. But Susan didn't say anything; she just stood there, hands clasped behind her back.
"Don't be shy, my dear," Miss Wright said to her after several minutes had passed. Miss Wright was our form tutor as well as our history teacher. "I know it's hard standing up and speaking in front of people you don't know, but just say a little about yourself."
Susan took a deep breath. "Well . . ." She paused. "There's really not much to tell. I live with my grandfather and we just arrived . . . here. We travel around a lot, but I think we'll be staying for a while this time. That's all really."
I don't know why, but I had the oddest feeling that she wasn't telling the whole story, that she was being deliberately vague. But it seemed to satisfy Miss Wright for now because the next thing she said was: "Thank you, Susan. You may sit next to Jeanette for now."
As Susan sat down in the empty chair next to me, my head brimmed with questions. Why did she live with her grandfather? Was it because she was an orphan? Where did she come from? What places had she and her grandfather travelled to? But all that would have to wait; it was time for lessons to begin and, in those days, you didn't spend lesson time idly chatting with the person next to you. No matter how curious you were about that person . . .
Our first lesson that day was history, so we didn't have to change classrooms. Miss Wright told us to get out our exercise books, then, as we all delved into our satchels, walked over to Susan with an empty exercise book, the space for the pupil's name and form still blank. "We're studying the Tudors this term," she explained. "I don't know what you studied at your old school, but I'm sure you'll catch up with the others before long."
"I'm sure I will," said Susan, as Miss Wright turned to the blackboard and, directly below the date, chalked the words:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII
We copied those words down and Miss Wright then got out a text book and began dictating from it, as we wrote down what she was saying. As I wrote, I occasionally glanced at Susan, who seemed to be writing unusually fast. And, yet, her writing was very neat, not like the illegible scrawl I would produce if I tried to write at that speed. Then, as Miss Wright reached the part about Anne Boleyn's execution, I read a little of what Susan had written; she was already writing about Anne of Cleves. Had she already studied this subject at her old school? Probably, but that didn't explain how she was able to write so fast. And, needless to say, she was finished long before the rest of the class had reached Catherine Parr.
At the end of the lesson, Miss Wright asked me if I would keep an eye on Susan and show her around, just until she was settled. I agreed, thinking it might give me a chance to get to know this strange new girl a bit better. But, though Susan seemed interested when I told her about my parents, my dog and my little brother, she wouldn't say anything about her own background. Every time I asked, she would find some excuse to change the subject. And, when I asked if I could come over to her house one evening . . .
"Oh no!" she said, looking at me as if I'd just suggested robbing a bank. "My grandfather doesn't like visitors."
"Bit of a recluse, eh?" I asked.
For a moment, Susan looked flustered. But, then, she shook her head and said: "No, it's not that. But he is very busy; he has a lot of . . . work to do." But, as before, she wouldn't elaborate on exactly what that "work" entailed. One thing was certain, though; her grandfather, whoever he was, must be some kind of eccentric.
I never met Susan's grandfather face-to-face. But, while I was out shopping with my parents one day, I caught a glimpse of Susan in a crowd. She was walking alongside an old man with longish white hair, who was wearing an old-fashioned frock-coat and carried a walking cane. Was this the "grandfather" of whom Susan spoke? I would have gone over and said "hello", but, before I could even think of doing so, they were gone.
Over the next few months, the mystery of Susan deepened. I suppose you could say we were "friends", in a sense. We did the things normal teenage girls did in the 1960s - talked about fashion and pop music, went to the pictures, hung out at coffee bars and things like that. But Susan never talked about her private life.
Her aptitude for history was strong; she was nearly always at the top of the class and often came out with facts that even Miss Wright had only vaguely heard of. Sometimes, I wondered where she was getting all her information from, how she came to know so much. In fact, if I hadn't known any better, there were times when I could have sworn she had actually witnessed some of the events she described. But that, I knew, was impossible . . . On the other hand, she also had an uncanny knack for predicting future events, like the time she said she thought we were on the decimal money system, eight years before Britain switched from pounds, shillings and pence. And, then, there was the discussion which took place in one of Mr Chesterton's science classes.
We were studying the Solar System and one of the boys, whose name I can't remember, asked if man would ever land on the moon. In those days, the Space Race had barely begun; it had been just two years since the first manned space-flight, six years since the first artificial satellite was launched. Anyway, we ended up having a pretty lengthy discussion on whether or not it would be possible to land a spacecraft on another world, the principles which would be involved in making such a journey and things like that. Then, Susan, who had not said anything until that point, spoke out.
"It will happen," she said with absolute conviction. "On July 20th 1969. And the first words said on the lunar surface will be: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"."
The boy who'd brought up the subject of landing on the moon in the first place snorted with laughter. "How do you know?" he retorted. "You're just making that up."
"It's true!" Susan insisted. "I know because I've . . ." At this point, she seemed to realise that she had said something she shouldn't have said because she stopped herself in mid-sentence. "Anyway, you'll see I'm right," she added under her breath.
I cast a sideways glance at her. She was brilliant at science as well as history, so much so that, looking back, I can see how frustrating she must have found the lessons. Like the time we were using litmus paper and she said the experiment was "a bit obvious". But surely even someone who was as good at science and history as she was couldn't predict the exact date of something that was going to happen in the future. There had to be something else going on here, but I never found out what it was.
Six years later, I watched on my black-and-white television as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. At the same time, his words were beamed all around the world. "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." The exact same words Susan had said would be the first words uttered on the moon. I was married and expecting my first child by this time and Susan was long gone from my life. But this was just one example of her uncanny ability to know what was going to happen in the future, although, unlike with her knowledge of the past, she rarely let her knowledge of future events slip. If she did, she would look embarrassed, as if she had committed some major faux pas.
One day, I arrived at school as usual to find that Susan wasn't there. I saw no sign of her on the road leading up to the school, nor in the playground. And that wasn't all; when I got to registration, the first thing I saw was that our geography teacher, Mrs Dewhurst, was sitting at Miss Wright's desk. It turned out that Miss Wright hadn't come in that morning (and nor, as I later learned, had Mr Chesterton) so Mrs Dewhurst was going to take registration in her place.
Mrs Dewhurst cleared her throat, adjusted her spectacles and began calling out the names of the people in the class:
The first five names all received the standard responses of "here" or "present", but, when Mrs Dewhurst got to the sixth name on the list - "Susan Foreman?" - there was no reply. "Susan Foreman?" Mrs Dewhurst tried again, with the same lack of response. In the end, I had to speak up.
"She's not here, Miss," I said.
"And do you know why she hasn't come in today?"
"No, Miss. But I don't think she's ever missed a day before."
Mrs Dewhurst looked at me for a moment. "Very well. But we will need a note explaining her absence, so, if you see her, tell her to bring one when she comes back to school - without fail." She went back to calling the register. "Peter Harris?"
As it turned out, Susan never returned to school. In fact, I never saw her again, so I can only assume that she and her mysterious grandfather must have moved on. But why had they done so without telling anyone or leaving a forwarding address? And why had Mr Chesterton and Miss Wright left at the same time? Those are questions I still don't have answers to.
That was more than forty years ago and I've never spoken of Susan to anyone until now. Our old school photo, taken two months after she first arrived at school, is the only picture I have of her. Sometimes, when I look at it, I wonder where she is now, if she has any children or grandchildren . . . and things like that. But I've never been able to find out where she went after she left school so abruptly; I've tried to contact her via those "lost touch" columns you get in newspapers and magazines, but I've never had any luck. It's as if she's vanished from the face of the Earth.
But not from my memory, I think to myself as I turn the page in my photo album.
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