Thief of time, p.9
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       Thief of Time, p.9

         Part #26 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 9

 

  Miss Smith thinks a good book is about a boy and his dog chasing a big red ball, said Miss Susan. My children have learned to expect a plot. No wonder they get impatient. Were reading Grim Fairy Tales at the moment.

  That is rather rude of you, Susan.

  No, madam. That is rather polite of me. It would have been rude of me to say that there is a circle of Hell reserved for teachers like Miss Smith.

  But thats a dreadf- Madam Frout stopped, and began again. You should not be teaching them to read at all yet! she snapped. But it was the snap of a soggy twig. Madam Frout cringed back in her chair when Miss Susan looked up. The girl had this terrible ability to give you her full attention. You had to be a better person than Madam Frout to survive in the intensity of that attention. It inspected your soul, putting little red circles around the bits it didnt like. When Miss Susan looked at you, it was as if she was giving you marks.

  I mean, the headmistress mumbled, childhood is a time for play and-

  Learning, said Miss Susan. Learning through play, said Madam Frout, grateful to find familiar territory. After all, kittens and puppies-

  -grow up to be cats and dogs, which are even less interesting, said Miss Susan, whereas children should grow up to be adults. Madam Frout sighed. There was no way she was going to make any progress. It was always like this. She knew she was powerless. News about Miss Susan had got around. Worried parents whod turned to Learning Through Play because they despaired of their offspring ever Learning By Paying Attention to What Anyone Said were finding them coming home a little quieter, a little more thoughtful and with a pile of homework which, amazingly, they did without prompting and even with the dog helping them. And they came home with stories about Miss Susan. Miss Susan spoke all languages. Miss Susan knew everything about everything. Miss Susan had wonderful ideas for school trips. . . . . . and that was particularly puzzling, because as far as Madam Frout knew, none had been officially organized. There was invariably a busy silence from Miss Susans classroom when she went past. This annoyed her. It harked back to the bad old days when children were Regimented in classrooms that were no better than Torture Chambers for Little Minds. But other teachers said that there were noises. Sometimes there was the faint sound of waves, or a jungle. Just once, Madam Frout could have sworn, if she was the sort to swear, that as she passed there was a full-scale battle going on. This had often been the case with Learning Through Play, but this time the addition of trumpets, the swish of arrows and the screams of the fallen seemed to be going too far. Shed thrown open the door and felt something hiss through the air above her head. Miss Susan had been sitting on a stool, reading from a book, with the class cross-legged in a quiet and fascinated semicircle around her. It was the sort of old-fashioned image Madam Frout hated, as if the children were Supplicants around some sort of Altar of Knowledge. No one had said anything. All the watching children, and Miss Susan, made it clear in polite silence that they were waiting for her to go away. Shed flounced back into the corridor and the door had clicked shut behind her. Then she noticed the long, crude arrow that was still vibrating in the opposite wall. Madam Frout had looked at the door, with its familiar green paint, and then back at the arrow. Which had gone . She transferred Jason to Miss Susans class. It had been a cruel thing to do, but Madam Frout considered that there was now some kind of undeclared war going on.

  If children were weapons, Jason would have been banned by international treaty. Jason had doting parents and an attention span of minus several seconds, except when it came to inventive cruelty to small furry animals, when he could be quite patient. Jason kicked, punched, bit and spat. His artwork had even frightened the life out of Miss Smith, who could generally find something nice to say about any child. He was definitely a boy with special needs. In the view of the staff room, these began with an exorcism. Madam Frout had stooped to listening at the keyhole. She had heard Jasons first tantrum of the day, and then silence. She couldnt quite make out what Miss Susan said next. When she found an excuse to venture into the classroom half an hour later, Jason was helping two little girls to make a cardboard rabbit. Later his parents said they were amazed at the change, although apparently now he would only go to sleep with the light on. Madam Frout tried to question her newest teacher. After all, glowing references were all very well, but she was an employee, after all. The trouble was, Susan had a way of saying things to her, Madam Frout had found, so that she went away feeling quite satisfied and only realized that she hadnt really had a proper answer at all when she was back in her office, by which time it was always too late. And it continued to be too late because suddenly the school had a waiting list. Parents were fighting to get their children enrolled in Miss Susans class. As for some of the stories they brought home. . . well, everyone knew children had such vivid imaginations, didnt they? Even so, there was this essay by Richenda Higgs. Madam Frout fumbled for her glasses, which she was too vain to wear all the time and kept on a string around her neck, and looked at it again. In its entirety, it read: A man with all bones came to talk to us he was not scarey at all, he had a big white hors. We pared the hors. He had a sighyve. He told us interesting things and to be careful when crosing the road. Madam Frout handed the paper across the desk to Miss Susan, who looked at it gravely. She pulled out a red pencil, made a few little alterations, then handed it back. Well? said Madam Frout. Yes, shes not very good at punctuation, Im afraid. A good attempt at “scythe”, though.

  Who. . . Whats this about a big white horse in the classroom? Madam Frout managed. Miss Susan looked at her pityingly and said, Madam, who could possibly bring a horse into a classroom? Were up two flights of stairs here. Madam Frout was not going to be deterred this time. She held up another short essay.

  Today we were talked at by Mr Slumph who he is a bogeyman but he is nice now. He tole us what to do abot the other kind. You can put the blanket ove your head but it is bettr if you put it ove the bogeymans head then he think he do not exist and he is vanishs. He tole us lots of stores abot people he jump out on and he said sins Miss is our teachr he think no bogeymen will be in our houses bcos one thing a bogey dos not like is Miss finding him. Bogeymen, Susan? said Madam Frout. What imaginations children have, said Miss Susan, with a straight face. Are you introducing young children to the occult? said Madam Frout suspiciously. This sort of thing caused a lot of trouble with parents, she was well aware. Oh, yes.

  What? Why?

  So that it doesnt come as a shock, said Miss Susan calmly. But Mrs Robertson told me that her Emma was going round the house looking for monsters in the cupboards! And up until now shes always been afraid of them!

  Did she have a stick? said Susan. She had her fathers sword!

  Good for her.

  Look, Susan. . . I think I see what youre trying to do, said Madam Frout, who didnt really, but parents do not understand this sort of thing.

  Yes, said Miss Susan. Sometimes I really think people ought to have to pass a proper exam before theyre allowed to be parents. Not just the practical, I mean.

  Nevertheless, we must respect their views, said Madam Frout, but rather weakly because occasionally shed thought the same thing. There had been the matter of Parents Evening. Madam had been too tense to pay much attention to what her newest teacher was doing. All shed been aware of was Miss Susan sitting and talking quietly to the couples, right up to the point where Jasons mother had picked up her chair and chased Jasons father out of the room. Next day a huge bunch of flowers had arrived for Susan from Jasons mother, and an even bigger bunch from Jasons father. Quite a few other couples had also come away from Miss Susans desk looking worried or harassed. Certainly Madam Frout, when the time came for next terms fees to be paid, had never known people cough up so readily. And there it was again. Madam Frout the headmistress, who had to worry about reputations and costs and fees, just occasionally heard the distant voice of Miss Frout who had been quite a good if rather shy teacher, and it was whistling and cheering Susa
n on.

  Susan looked concerned. You are not satisfied with my work, madam? Madam Frout was stuck. No, she wasnt satisfied, but for all the wrong reasons. And it was dawning on her as this interview progressed that she didnt dare sack Miss Susan or, worse, let her leave of her own accord. If she set up a school and news got round, the Learning Through Play School would simply haemorrhage pupils and, importantly, fees. Well, of course. . . no, not. . . in many ways. . . she began, and became aware that Miss Susan was staring past her. There was. . . Madam Frout groped for her glasses, and found their string had got tangled with the buttons of her blouse. She peered at the mantelpiece and tried to make sense of the blur. Why, it looks like a. . . a white rat, in a little black robe, she said. And walking on its hind legs, too! Can you see it?

  I cant imagine how a rat could wear a robe, said Miss Susan. Then she sighed, and snapped her fingers. The finger-snapping wasnt essential, but time stopped. At least, it stopped for everyone but Miss Susan. And for the rat on the mantelpiece. Which was in fact the skeleton of a rat, although this was not preventing it from trying to steal Madam Frouts jar of boiled sweets for Good Children. Susan strode over and grasped the collar of the tiny robe. SQUEAK? said the Death of Rats. I thought it was you! snapped Susan. How dare you come here again! I thought youd got the message the other day. And dont think I didnt see you when you turned up to collect Henry the Hamster last month! Do you know how hard it is to teach geography when you can see someone kicking the poo out of a treadmill? The rat sniggered: SNH. SNH. SNH. And youre eating a sweet! Put it in the bin right now! Susan dropped the rat onto the desk in front of the temporally frozen Madam Frout, and paused. Shed always tried to be good about this sort of thing, but sometimes you just had to acknowledge who you were. So she pulled open the bottom drawer to check the level in the bottle that was Madams shield and comforter in the wonderful world that was education, and was pleased to see that the old girl was going a bit easier on the stuff these days. Most people have some means of filling up the gap between perception and reality, and, after all, in those circumstances there are far worse things than gin.

  She also spent a little while going through Madams private papers, and this has to be said about Susan: it did not occur to her that there was anything wrong about this, although shed quite understand that it was probably wrong if you werent Susan Sto Helit, of course. The papers were in quite a good safe that would have occupied a competent thief for at least twenty minutes. The fact that the door swung open at her touch suggested that special rules applied here. No door was closed to Miss Susan. It ran in the family. Some genetics are passed on via the soul. When shed brought herself up to date on the schools affairs, mostly to indicate to the rat that she wasnt just someone who could be summoned at a moments notice, she stood up. All right, she said wearily. Youre just going to pester me, arent you? For ever and ever and ever. The Death of Rats looked at her with its skull on one side. SQUEAK, it said winsomely. Well, yes, I like him, she said. In a way. But, I mean, you know, its not right. Why does he need me? Hes Death! Hes not exactly powerless! Im just human! The rat squeaked again, jumped down onto the floor and ran through the closed door. It reappeared for a moment and beckoned to her. Oh, all right, said Susan to herself. Make that mostly human. Tick And who is this Lu-Tze? Sooner or later every novice had to ask this rather complex question. Sometimes it would be years before they found out that the little man who swept their floors and uncomplainingly carted away the contents of the dormitory cesspit and occasionally came out with outlandish foreign sayings was the legendary hero theyd been told they would meet one day. And then, when theyd confronted him, the brightest of them confronted themselves. Mostly sweepers came from the villages in the valley. They were part of the staff of the monastery but they had no status. They did all the tedious, unregarded jobs. They were. . . figures in the background, pruning the cherry trees, washing the floors, cleaning out the carp pools and, always, sweeping. They had no names. That is, a thoughtful novice would understand that the sweepers must have names, some form by which they were known to other sweepers, but within the temple grounds at least they had no names, only instructions. No one knew where they went at night. They were just sweepers. But so was Lu-Tze. One day a group of senior novices, for mischief, kicked over the little shrine that Lu-Tze kept beside his sleeping mat.

 
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