Varahna’s school is in south-east London, across the river, a few minutes from Tower Bridge. Once, I took her class on a walking trip. It wasn’t my idea. No lesson plan; we were simply told to go. There must have been something to teach – all that history, all that river – but I couldn’t think of it. When we got there, we stepped on the bridge, looked down at the flowing water, then walked back again. It was a waste of time, except for Varahna, who walked next to me and put her arm in mine.
Walking. You do a lot of it in school. Schools slow things down. For a child, the year never ends. Varahna’s school is Victorian. Signs say Girls’ Entrance, Boys’ Entrance, but no one bothers now. The signs are carved in stone, fixed in time, like the school itself, a well-meaning ogre, clumsy and hard to be with. Stone gets in the way. The stairs are narrow. There are big footprints painted on them: yellow on the left for going up, blue for going down. They’re on each step, meant for walking feet. All you have to do is follow.
One morning, as usual, I was late. The children were lined up in the yard. I came down to collect them, Varahna’s class again. I saw Céline first, through the doorway. Her eyes lit up. I just stared. The class cheered. I hadn’t been in for months. They knew someone was coming, but they didn’t know who. Varahna was at the front of the line, in the doorway, facing out. She hadn’t seen me.
“Hallo, sweetie,” I said. She turned around, said my name and hugged me. The children filed in; another girl hugged me; a couple of the boys shook my hand. As Céline approached, she kept her head low and tried to sneak past, as a child does when she thinks she is forgotten. I hugged her, too; a giant one, fit for the footprints on the stairs.
“I missed you!” I said, like an apology. For a few moments, she waited at the side as the other children went upstairs, then she walked on. Varahna stayed till everyone had gone. When she spoke, she was looking at the wall. She was only nine.
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
In class, I wrote the date on the board. 10.10.10. Some children giggled.
“And next year, will it be 11, 11, 11?”
“Yes,” the children answered in chorus.
“Then 12, 12, 12?”
“Ye-e-e-s!” they chimed.
“Then 13, 13, 13?”
“Oh, children!” cried the teaching assistant. The year never ends.
Varahna preferred games to lessons, running to walking. The next time I saw her, we were in a corridor, at different ends. She was outside the staffroom. The door was open, and there were teachers inside. Varahna didn’t care. She shouted my name and ran the full length of the corridor straight into my arms, without slowing. She had started doing this. She ran across the playground too. As long as there was space between us, she ran – the bigger the space, the faster she ran – except three times that I remember. The first time, we were in assembly. She didn’t look at me. If she did, she’d have to run, and you can’t do that in assembly. I wondered how long she’d last till she couldn’t not look any more. It took the whole assembly. As she walked out, she smiled, but she still didn’t run. The second and third times were connected. It was lunch. She was in the hall, talking to the deputy-head. When she saw me, she took a step forward instinctively, then stopped. In the yard, minutes later, when she saw me again, she didn’t run either. She was self-conscious. I thought, She’s growing up. But she hugged me as she always did, then turned around with her back against me and let me hold her.
“Where’s Céline?” I asked.
“She went to another school.”
Varahna was holding something; a few, tiny strips of blue cellophane. Most of them blew away. She gave the last one to me. It’s on my desk now, as bright as ever, in a little dish along with some paper clips and a lock of hair.