During the five years since she had left the gracious house allocated to the Headmistress, Miss Berry had settled into retirement in a small cottage within easy walking distance of the school. The Sunburst Academy for Girls had consumed her since her first year of teaching over fifty years earlier. It had absorbed her after Jack’s death in a climbing accident only three weeks before their intended wedding; it had become her life. She had given herself willingly to that school, first as a teacher, then as a head of department, as a deputy to the Headmistress and, during the last ten years of her working life, as the Headmistress.
It still rankled that her successor, the youthful Mrs. Edwards, had never invited her to anything other than the annual prize-giving ceremony. Even there, she was simply one of the crowd of parents and other so-called VIPs.
“VIP my eye!” Miss Berry would sometimes scoff at the coloured invitation that doubled as a parking ticket for the VIP section – not that she ever needed to park. Last year it had been scarlet, blue the year before that, and yellow before that. In her day a VIP meant just that: a Very Important Person. She had kept such invitations to a minimum so that they had become sought after by people other than the members of her School Council. Their inclusion was both obligatory and automatic.
She had treated these ‘important’ people to a modest lunch in the spacious dining room of her campus home after the ceremony. This had been her opportunity to thank individuals for the contributions they had made to the well-being of the school, where the budget had always been constrained.
Miss Berry still chuckled at how pleased Mr. Andrews, the local plumber, had been to rub shoulders with what he obviously deemed to be august company. That was the year he had installed eight rainwater tanks at strategic points around the campus and had fixed the drinking fountains outside the classroom blocks – all for a modest fee. “Just to keep the auditors happy,” he had winked at her when he presented his invoice.
The school lawyer, Mr. Dell, had been disapproving of her choice of visitor mixing so freely with the bankers and businessmen and women who made up a large part of the School Council. “My dear Mr. Dell,” she had patted his arm and smiled sweetly. “At least he puts his money where his mouth is. Just think where we would have been without all those tanks during this dreadful drought.”
Money had always been tight. Ever since she had started teaching at the Sunburst Academy for Girls, teachers had been encouraged to make the most of their meagre resources. The girls had been the focus for all of them and innovative ways were constantly explored to keep them happy and interested in learning. Some of the teachers had even repainted their own classrooms or provided new curtains. Miss Berry had become adept at securing donations for educational materials and graciously accepted offers from parents or local businesses to tidy up the grounds or to tend the flower beds.
Miss Berry walked past the school every morning on her way to the supermarket. Over five years she had honed her ritual to a point where it had simply become part of life: breakfast in her tiny garden; plan her lunch; walk to the supermarket and sit down at the ‘Graceful Place’ for coffee and a slice of cheesecake; read the newspaper they provided; purchase her ingredients and walk home.
She shook her head at the smart green palisade fencing that now surrounded the campus; at the lush lawns and bountiful flower beds; the sprouting of elegant garden benches; at the large glass front that dominated the reception area … it seemed to Miss Berry that there was something new to be seen every month or two. Had Mrs. Edwards found an untapped source of money Miss Berry hadn’t known about?
This morning had felt too hot and the gusty wind too strong for Miss Berry to walk to the shop. Instead she ate a stale roll for lunch and thought about stopping at the ‘Graceful Place’ for afternoon tea instead. The daily journey was becoming longer as she felt herself slowing down. Her knees ached and she paused more often to catch her breath.
She walked home more slowly than usual in the afternoon. The ‘Graceful Place’ had been crowded with young people and she hadn’t been able to find a newspaper. The supermarket had been noisy and she found it difficult to think properly, so the two slices of ham and the small tin of asparagus spears in her bag seemed less appealing for supper the closer she got to home.
Miss Berry paused at her usual place next to the school boundary. From here she had a good view of the tennis courts and the hockey fields. Watching the girls playing sport filled her with contentment. These fields were usually empty in the mornings. “Perhaps I should come here in the afternoons more often,” she said loudly to herself.
“My, my, if it isn’t Miss Berry!” A familiar voice approached her, the speaker still hidden by the vestiges of the honeysuckle hedge that had once surrounded the school. At last dear Mr. Venter came into view. He was now nearing his own retirement, she was sure. “How are you keeping, Miss Berry?”
“Well. Very well in fact.” Her breathlessness disappeared as a flood of pleasurable warmth filled her body. “Are you still teaching history?”
“I am doing the best I can, Miss Berry. These days the children all have iPads or laptops. Our lessons are stored on a cloud for them to access whenever they want them.” Mr Venter shook his head and laughed ruefully. “I’m counting the days until I can leave all of this window dressing behind and go fishing.”
“The campus is looking so beautiful these days,” Miss Berry ventured in an attempt to ground the conversation in something she was familiar with. “It is so much smarter than it was in my day. Then we seemed to count every penny twice.”
Mr. Venter bent down to retrieve an errant hockey ball that had banged against the metal fence. He threw it towards the hockey field. “All true, Miss Berry,” he said quietly. “All that is true.” He moved closer to her. “Those were the good days, Miss Berry. Those were the days when we knew what we were doing was right.” He straightened up and looked her in the eye. “We grew children in those days, Miss Berry. We grew children then, not grass or flowers, smartboards or laptops: we grew children then and they thrived.”
Miss Berry walked home with a lighter heart and wondered if there would be enough ingredients left in her fridge to make a robust salad. She hadn’t failed. She knew that now: she had helped to grow children.