Rita turned towards the write screen, her eye deliberately avoiding the camera high in the corner. She pushed back a yawn and laid her fingers on the screen. It sprang to life.
She spun back to the class, forcing a smile.
Twenty-nine children – Darius Williams was late, again – sat to attention at four rows of desks. Every one of them was neatly dressed, striped blue tie tucked into the regulation grey shirt. The boys’ trousers were grey and neatly fitting, with no scuffed knees or frayed hems. The girls had scrubbed knees lined up under the desks, regulation pleated skirts, all exactly one inch above the knee. Every knee was pink, every neck stretching out from a starched collar was alabaster. This was a model class, an all white class. She, the teacher, didn’t count.
“Morning everyone,” she breezed. “Welcome to this beautiful sunny Wednesday morning.”
The children said nothing. A few coughs. The sound of a pencil case being unzipped.
She pushed at the smile again, willing her face to hide the longing to be back in bed. She shouldn’t have gone to the pub last night. Shouldn’t have let Ash stay over.
“So,” she said. “Maths books out.”
The class did nothing.
A hand crept up in the front row.
“Yes, Saskia,” she asked, steeling herself.
“Um, Miss Gurumurthy, haven’t you – haven’t we missed something?”
Rita blinked, holding onto the smile.
“No, Saskia. It’s definitely Maths first.” She looked up. “Every day, in fact.”
There were a couple of polite laughs. Half of the class were looking up at the camera, trying not to let their gaze stay on it for too long. They knew better than to break the fourth wall.
Saskia’s hand was still raised, although not as high as it had been. “But the oath, Miss?”
“Now, Saskia. Miss Gurumurthy is my name.”
“Sorry, Miss Gurumurthy. But surely—”
Rita took a deep breath. “Don’t worry, Saskia. We’re going straight into Maths today.”
The girl blushed and lowered her hand. Rita heard a muttered again.
She lifted her head and frowned. “Who was that?”
Silence. The rows of eyes were off the camera now and directed at the desks.
She turned back to the screen and gave it a swipe. She loved the way it responded to her touch, quick and lively like a lover.
There was a knock at the door. Rita looked up to see the headteacher, Mrs Toft, peering in through the glass. Two dark figures lurked behind her. Not another school governor visit, Rita thought.
Rita turned back to the class, knowing she was expected to carry on as normal.
The class lifted books out of desks. The door squeaked open. Rita felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise but didn’t turn. She willed herself to relax, her stomach to be calm.
“Good morning, Miss Gurumurthy.”
The head’s voice was heavier than usual. Rita waited for the habitual don’t mind us to follow, but there was nothing. She felt her heart accelerate.
Rita turned, plastering her smile on again. It disintegrated as she took in the two men in dark suits standing behind Mrs Toft.
Rita raced through the possibilities. Citizenship classes? Security checks? Darius Williams?
She swallowed. “Good morning, Mrs Toft.”
The children behind her were silent. She could picture their open mouths.
The head looked at her hands, which twisted together in front of her. The knuckles were pale and the skin rough.
“These gentlemen need you to come with them, Miss Gurumurthy.”
The headteacher retreated as the policemen stepped forward. One of them unclipped handcuffs from his belt.
A wave rose through Rita’s chest. She felt cold sweat break out on her face. Behind her, the children were silent as the grave.
One of the men grabbed her hand. She tensed, pulling away, but he was stronger than her. She looked at the class. Best not to protest, for their sakes.
She felt her bones turn from steel to jelly as the man clamped the handcuff shut and pulled her towards the door.
“Miss Gurumurthy!” a boy shouted. She blinked and turned, her eyes pricking. Gavin McLeish was standing up at the back, leaning over his desk. He looked like he might cry. He opened his mouth to speak again but was silenced by a look from Mrs Toft.
Rita turned to the headteacher.
“Why is this— Did you—?”
But the Head stared up at the wall behind Rita, standing to attention like a good citizen. She stayed there, blinking, as the men led Rita out of the classroom.