Miss Taylor arrives, her entry steel barred. Security cameras lock onto her face then a catch is released with a beep and a click. The gate swings closed behind, and the door opens with a belch of deodorised air. She attempts a ‘hello’ through a Perspex screen, and the receptionist tries to apologise, pointing to the computerised arrivals system.
Tick- ID, tick- photo, tick- to supply teaching agency verification, tick school pass print-out. The touch screen says WELCOME. She’s admitted, to the inner sanctum of the school.
The receptionist, human after all, chats as she shows the way to Classroom One. Thirty uniformed five-year olds sit in restrained silence. She lists the children, a tick for each name on the register screen. Then ticks for the spelling test, for grammar, maths. Ticks for assembly, for science and for art.
At last Miss Taylor is free to go beyond ticks, books and screens. She passes round apples and tells of a tree, conjures its blossom in spring in an orchard far away. Eyes open wide, small fingers probe stalks, then tongues suck at juice that once fell as distant rain. She notices Sama touching the scar of the apple blossom, reluctant to throw his core in the bin. There is no tick box for sensitivity, she notes.
The moment is cut by the sound of the bell. Miss Taylor releases the children into to playground, catching their sense of boundless joy. Only Sama sits alone on a bench fingering the tiny apple seeds in his pocket. Other children rush and screech, chase and race but Sama shifts nervously when he sees his teacher watching. He wanders to the spike-topped fence, picks up a stick and begins ringing the rhythm of some distant place. With his cheek to the metal, he feels the vibrating railing. Other children see the game, and rush along the fence, tap tap tapping to the speed of their feet, pushing past Sama when they get to his bar.
Sama retreats to the bench. Miss Taylor, joining him, lets her gaze wander beyond the fence, past the car park and along the road. Her eyes are her escape, they lift her to the rooftops, beyond the mills then to the flank of Winter Hill. Cloud shadows scud across its blackened turf, like memories of last summer’s fires. She wonders what skies, what dark clouds, what fires Sama has seen. Glancing down at his jet-black hair she remembers with a jolt the scribbled picture he drew that morning with bars of dark colour thrusting up spear-like and tiny triangle shapes beneath. It bore no resemblance to the green leafy campsites and hotel pools that other children drew.
She tries to meet his eyes, but they too have escaped the bounds of school. A feathery white seed from a willow tree has captured his attention. They watch together as it drifts on the breeze, beyond the fence, unrestrained.
For City of Sanctuary, Bolton