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[personal profile] marrog

Okay, it was stalled a little by my exam last week, but here is the final installment of Carol Anne Duffy's The Laughter of Stafford Girls' High. The beginning, if you want to refresh your memory/read the whole thing at once, is here. I'd be really interested to know what everyone thought, so if you wanted to post a comment after this it would be great to see who read it/enjoyed it/hated it/etc. Onwards!

Small hours. The moon tracked Mrs Mackay as she reached the edge
of the sleeping town, houses dwindling to fields, the road
twisting up and away into the distant hills. She caught her mind
making anagrams - grow heed, stab, rats - and forced herself
to chant aloud as she walked. Hedgerow. Bats. Star. Her head
cleared. The town was below her now, dark and hunched,
a giant husband bunched in his sleep. Mrs Mackay climbed on,
higher and higher, keeping close to the ditch, till the road snaked
in a long S then levelled out into open countryside. Shore,
love, steer, low, master, night loom, riven use, no.
Horse. Vole.
Trees. Owl. Stram. Moonlight. Universe. On. Wed, loop, wand,
drib, tiles, pay thaw, god.
Dew. Pool. Dawn. Bird. Stile. Pathway.
Dog. She arrived at the fringe of a village as morning broke.

Miss Batt held Miss Fife in her arms at dawn, the small room
chaste with new light. Miss Fife began to talk in her sleep -
The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum
of the squares of the other two sides
. Miss Batt slid down,
nuzzled her breastbone, her stomach, kissed down,
kissed down, down to the triangle. The tutting bedside clock
counted to five. They woke again at seven, stupid with love,
everything they knew - the brightest starts, Sirius, Canopus,
Alpha Centauri, Vega; the Roman Emperors, Claudius,
Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellus; musical terms, allegro, calando,
crescendo, glissando
; mathematics, the value of pi,
prime numbers, Cantor's infinities - only a jumble of words,
a jumble of words. A long deep zero groaned from Miss Fife.

Miss Dunn took out her list and checked it again. Her class
was sniggering its way through a test on Britain's largest lakes.
She mouthed her list like a prayer: socks, mittens, shirts, leggings,
hat, face mask, goggles, harness, karabiners, ice screws, pitons,
helmet, descender, ascender, loops, slings, ice axe, gaiters,
crampons, boots, jacket, hood, trousers, water bottle, urine
bottle, waste bags, sleeping bag, kit bag, head torch, batteries,
tent, medical kit, maps, stove, butane, radio, fixing line, rope,
cord, stoppers, wands, stakes and chocks and all of it twice.
A sprinkle of giggles made her look up. Pass your test to the girl
on your left to be marked. The answers are: Lough Neagh,
Lower Lough Erne, Loch Lomond, Loch Ness, Loch Awe, Upper
Lough Erne . . .
Diana Kim climbed and climbed in her head.

Doctor Bream read through the letter to parents then signed
her name at the end. The school was to close at the end of term
until further notice. A dozen resignation notes from the staff
lay on her desk. The Head put her head in her hands and wept.
A local journalist lurked at the gates. Señora Devizes
and Miss Nadimbaba entered the room to say that the girls
were filing into the Hall for the Special Assembly. There was still
no sign of Mrs Mackay. She looked at the shattered Head
and Kipling sprang to Miss Nadimbaba's lips: If you can force
your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they
are gone . . .
Señora Devizes joined in: Persiste aun no tengas
fuerza, y sólo te quede la voluntad que les dice:
The Head got to her feet and straightened her back.

And so, Doctor Bream summed up, you girls have laughed this once
great school into the ground. Señora Devizes plans to return
to Spain.
Cries of ¡Olé! Miss Batt and Miss Fife have resigned.
Wolf whistles. Mrs Prendergast is joining the Threatre Royale.
A round of applause crashed on the boards like surf. The Head stared
at the laughing girls then turned and marched from the stage,
clipped up the polished corridor, banged through the double doors,
crunched down the gravel drive to the Staff Car Park and into her car.
Elvis, shrieked Caroline Joan from the Hall, has left the building.
A cheer like an avalanche bounced off the roof. The Captain of Sports
slipped from her seat and followed Miss Dunn. The girls burst
into song as their mute teachers walked from the stage. Till we
have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.

* * *

The empty school creaked and sighed, its desks the small coffins
of lessons, its blackboards the tombstones of learning. The books
in the Library stiffened and yellowed and curled. The portraits
of gone Headmistresses stared into space. The school groaned.
the tiles on its roof falling off in its sleep, its windows as white
as chalk. The grass on the playing fields grew like grass
on a grave. Doctor Bream stared from her hospital window
over the fields. She could see the school bell in its tower glint
in the evening sun like a tear in an eye. She turned away. Postcards
and get-well messages from the staff were pinned to the wall.
She took down a picture of Everest from Miss Dunn: We leave
Camp II tomorrow if the weather holds to climb the Corridor
to 21,000 feet. Both coping well with altitude. The Sherpas . . .

Mrs Mackay walked through Glen Strathfarrar, mad, muttering,
free, a filthy old pack on her back filled with scavenged loot -
banana, bottle, blanket, balaclava, bread, blade, bible. She sat
by a stream, filled her bottle and drank. She ate the crusts,
the fruit. Kingfisher. Eagle. Heron. Red deer. Midge. The Glen
darkened and cooled like History. Mrs Mackay lay in the heather
under her blanket, mumbling lined from Lear: As mad as the furrow weeds,
with burdocks, hemlocks, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, darnel . . .

Syllables. Syllables. Sleep came suddenly, under the huge black,
the chuckling clever stars. The Head at her window looked north
to the clear night sky, to Pollux and Castor, Capella, Polaris,
and wondered again what could have become of Mrs Mackay.

Rough lads from the town came up to the school to throw stones
through the glass. Miss Batt and Miss Fife had moved
to a city. They drank in a dark bar where women danced, cheek
to cheek. Miss Batt loved Miss Fife till she sobbed and shook
in her arms. Stray cats prowled through the classrooms, lunging
at mice. Miss Fife dreamed that the school was a huge ship
floating away from land, all hands lost, steered by a ghost,
a woman whose face was the Head's, was Miss Nadimbaba's,
then Mrs Mackay's, Mrs Lee's, Miss Feaver's, Miss Dunn's,
Miss Munro's, Mrs Kaye's, Miss Aherne's, Señora Devizes' . . .
She woke in the darkness, a face over hers, a warm mouth
kissing the gibberish from her lips. The school sank in her mind,
a black wave taking it down as she gazed at the woman's face.

Miss Nadimbaba put down her pen and read through her poem.
The palms of her hands felt light, that talented ache. She altered
a verb and the line jumped on the page like a hooked fish. She needed
to type it up, but the poem was done. She was dying
to read it aloud to her aunt. She would open some wine.
In the hospital, a nurse brought warm milk and a pill to the Head,
who stared through the bars at the blackened hulk of the school.
By dawn, at John O'Groats, Mrs Mackay had finally run out of land.
She wrote her maiden name with a stick in the sand then walked
into the sea, steady at first, step by step, till the firm waves lifted her
under her arms and danced her away like a groom with a bride.
High above in the cold sky the seagulls, like schoolgirls, laughed.
High again, a teacher fell through the clouds with a girl in her arms.

[END | beginning]

(no subject)

Date: 2006-03-18 12:31 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Thanks for posting this -- really enjoyed it. I was forced to do Carol Ann Duffy for GCSE and hated her, but I think I might seek some out now...! So thank you -- very kind public service :) -- poem strange, but rather wonderful...

(no subject)

Date: 2006-03-18 12:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You're welcome - who is this, though? I'd be interested to know how you found your way here.

(no subject)

Date: 2007-09-06 09:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

And, um, more wow.

(no subject)

Date: 2007-09-06 10:07 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-26 10:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
this was beautiful. i just read the entire poem aloud to my partner over a glass of wine - it needs to be read aloud!

thanks for typing it all up.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-26 10:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
So glad new people are reading it. It's something, huh?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-11-29 11:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
amazing. i've recommended it to a couple of friends, too!

(no subject)

Date: 2013-04-17 09:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Have now read it through - I don't know how I missed you putting it up when you first did. I wanted to comment (as requested) so you knew I'd read it, but it's hard to know what to say as I'm still thinking about it. I found the sadness in it hard at first, but I suppose that's what gives it the the sense of depth and life is the inclusion of sadness, loss and death alongside the sparkling, fizzing, life-affirming bits. It's certainly an awe-inspiring bit of work, and one that I'll no doubt come back to.

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