Children skipping in a playground –
“She is handsome, she is pretty
She’s the belle of Belfast city”
The bell rings. It’s time to go back to class.
The children sit at desks with hinged lids. Under the lid they store their books, pens, rulers. The desks are paired and set out in neat rows, three double rows across the width of the room, six going back. A class of thirty-six girls.
Today’s lesson is joined handwriting. There are inkwells on the desks but they are empty. Pen and ink is for the older children. These girls will learn with their pencils. The teacher draws on the blackboard “ llllll”. The girls copy into their lined exercise books. Then “nnnnn”, all joined together. The girls concentrate and fill the pages. Once a page is filled with “l’s” they take the book to the teacher for approval.
“No, Isabel, these are all leaning to the left. They should be upright. Do it again.”
“Alright, Rebecca, but make your letters bigger next time. I can hardly see these.”
“Sarah, that won’t do. Each letter should be the same. That is too messy. Try again.”
On the wall of the classroom are maps of the World, with the British Empire coloured in pink. There is a lot of pink. Also a picture of the King, and charts of multiplication tables. The ceiling is high and light comes from windows near the ceiling. The children are too small to look out. So is the teacher. The room smells of furniture polish, bleach and a faint odour of onions drifting in from the kitchens. The girls work in silence and you can hear the clock ticking.
In an identical classroom, next door, the older girls are reciting poetry in unison. Their toneless chanting comes to an abrupt end when the headmistress unexpectedly marches into the room. There is a scraping of chairs as the girls stand to show their respect. The young teacher looks flustered, rising from her desk at the front of the classroom with a nervous smile to greet her employer.
“Sit down, Girls”, instructs the senior woman in a clipped voice, “I have an important announcement to make”.
The girls exchange questioning looks with their best friends, invariably the girl sitting next to them.
“ Our Governor, Sir Wilbert Smythe-Jenkins, is offering a prize of £5 for the best piece of creative writing from each class in the school. You have two weeks to submit your entry, which should be one thousand words in length. Girls whose home circumstances are not conducive to study may use the school hall after class to prepare their piece. Any questions?”
Of course there are none. No-one ever dares to address the Headmistress directly. If any girl has a question, she will timidly ask her class teacher later. The headmistress leaves, the girls sit down and a quiet chatter breaks out among them. The teacher, relaxing a moment herself, finally calls for order and a return to the recitation.
Walking home from school that day, Emily is excited. She will enter the competition. £5 will mean the whole family will eat well for almost a month! But what can she write about? She asks the family over supper, which tonight is turnip soup and dry bread.
Her father is dismissive. “Girls can’t write”, he says. He hopes there is a similar, or better prize offered to the boys in the other school.
But her siblings are full of suggestions- “Write about a brave soldier who dies fighting for his country” pipes up her younger brother. “Write about a beautiful young woman who is reduced to poverty by the evil actions of her wicked uncle”, suggests a sister, “Write about a shipwrecked sailor who discovers treasure”. This from another brother. There are other suggestions and a heated exchange is enjoyed at the table. Her mother says nothing, but seems pensive as she serves and then clears the food, eating little herself.
Emily helps her mother clean the dishes and sweep the floor after the meal. The other children have gone up to the one bedroom upstairs and her Father, as usual, has gone to the pub.
“What do you think, Ma?” asks the child.
“Och, lass, I cannot even read and write, you know that. But if I could, I would tell people what it is really like to live like us poor folk. I don’t think those people who own books and fine things have any inkling of how it is for us. Tell them what your life is like, how it feels to be hungry and cold, what you think when you wake up in a bed you shared with two sisters and a handful of bedbugs, what your hopes are, for yourself and your family, what you most fear, and what you expect your future to be.”
Emily ponders. She will try. There must be more to life than this and she is sure she can write in an interesting way.
She stays behind at school every day for the next two weeks, to write, and think, and write some more. Then she reads and corrects and amends her work. She reads it out to the family. They are all very excited, and each have a different idea of how to spend the prize money.
At last the day comes for the winners to be announced.
Emily’s name is not mentioned.