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21 December 2022

Trouble by Jade E Bradford

Read this exclusive extract from Jade E Bradford's short story 'Trouble', first published in Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education, which paints a startling and empathic portrait of the systemic racism and oppression embedded in educational systems, with blunt, evocative prose. You can read the full excerpt in Wasafiri 112, now available to download or purchase online.

At some point, Sally had begun to wonder what would happen if she didn’t wake up on any given day. It wasn’t a wish, nor a prayer, but an intrusive thought fuelled by morbid curiosity. What would people say about her when she was gone? It became something of a mantra, every morning and at times of trouble throughout the day — ‘What would they say if I dropped dead right now?’ and depending on what she was feeling at the time, it might be vaguely complimentary, if not completely impersonal, or it might be pure venom, something dark and menacing. On the day of the meeting, Sally couldn’t think what they might say about her, but she had a feeling she would understand soon enough. She couldn’t remember the first time she worried about it, her impact, her legacy. She knew it wasn’t something that happened on the first day, nor the second. It wasn’t a blow to the chest or any emotional injury that occurred at any specific time. It was more like a cloud, hovering gently over everything, raining frequently, discreetly, and only on Sally. If she were to carry an umbrella, people would find her strange, so she continued to roam through her life uncomfortable, bothered, unprotected. If she paused long enough, she could even hear it, a soft dripping somewhere, almost out of earshot. She had cycled through every emotion overnight; fear sprang fresh when Mrs Fitch the school secretary handed her the memo the previous evening, advancing to rage in the middle of the night, rehearsing what she’d say to the headmaster if he tried to fire her, and finally resignation, setting in at 4:00 am — arriving hand in hand with a restless fatigue. As she lifted herself from the pillow of her hard single bed to silence the alarm clock that never really got the opportunity to wake her, she heard her grandmother’s voice in her head. ‘A so life go.’ She opened the curtains to face a sky leaving behind a black, orange gradient to bloom into a full and suffocating grey. When she had arrived, the London sunrise had imbued her with a tiny bit of hope. At home, the nights were peaceful, still and dark. When people in her parish found out she was moving to England, they told her that the city never slept, and the lights never went out. It sounded both exhilarating and exhausting. When she finally got to London, Sally discovered there was some truth to this; there was always a light on, a cacophony of noise from vehicles and bodies, foxes in the shadows. But at dawn, it was still, and quiet, almost as quiet as home. Usually, when she lay awake at night, she wondered if the England she had read and imagined from the pages of books ever existed, whether they were works of fantasy in themselves, a sort of fiction within a fiction, or if it was all behind a locked door to which she would never be gifted the key. She had met none of the main characters, foppish men with emotional problems teaching at private schools, falling in and out of love. Schoolgirls with a keen sense of adventure and a talent for climbing trees, wearing straw boaters with a ribbon tied neatly around, a matronly headmistress who appeared stern but was ultimately fair. Instead, she was met with a litany of bit parts, people of small personalities and minds, very little intrigue or interest. But last night had been different. She had spent the quiet hours trying to remember every interaction, every report. Had she forgotten to sign her paperwork? Had another teacher complained about her? As the parade of Victorian buildings leading up to the school came into view through the misted bus window, Sally suppressed the urge to ride the bus to the end of the line. She grabbed her satchel and descended gently down the staircase, nodded towards the conductor and stepped off the back of the Routemaster, careful not to scuff her shoes on the kerb. Though she’d been gone for a long time, she still dressed as though she might have bumped into an elder in the street, shoes clean and polished, coat lint-free and pressed, hair combed just so. At first, when Sally left, memories of home were present, vivid, sometimes visceral, flashbacks stealing a moment of her reality. She could still smell the sea air and feel the heat bouncing off her skin. But the longer she stayed away, the less home felt real, eventually more like a collection of grainy movies she played over and over in her mind until the film wore out. In a moment of silent focus, she could see her grandmother on the veranda, peeling vegetables and listening to Motty Perkins arguing with callers on RJR. Her baby cousin Ronnie in short trousers running home, covered in red dirt and filled with mischief, his skin glowing from a day in the sun. Her mother wailing and waving her off at Montego Bay airport, dressed all in black. On that day, the sky heavy with cloud and the air thick with a wintry misery, she wondered what part of the journey was worth it. Three hours before the boys arrived, Sally stood on the steps to the school, clutching the memo Mrs Fitch, the school secretary, had given her the previous evening:

Memorandum For: Ms S Robbins From: The office of Headmaster Stephenson Subject: Appointment The headmaster would like to meet with you tomorrow at 8:00 am to discuss your conduct.

It wasn’t the first such memo she had received, but it was the first from this school. She put them together in a binder and sometimes, in an act of self-flagellation, she would read through each of the vague statements and attempt to remember what coded messages they had meant to convey, a perverse puzzle. She had done so before she left yesterday and wondered if the words lunging at her from the paper were the ones people would use if she dropped dead at that very moment. Belligerent — when she’d offered a differing opinion to another teacher in a meeting. Unprofessional from the days before she had her hair pressed straight...

Jade E Bradford is a Hertfordshire-born, South Wales-based writer and communicator. Working full-time in social housing, Jade is passionate about social justice and representing marginalised voices though her work. Edited by Darren ChettyAngelique Golding, and Nicola RollockWasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today. Featuring interviews with Inua Ellams, Gary Younge, and Steve Garner; fiction from Durre Shawar and Jade E Bradford; poetry from Salena Godden; life writing from Diane Leedham, and much more, this is an issue not to be missed.       Photo by Constanze Kahl on Unsplash

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