Anna Metcalfe‘s Number Three is today’s extract from this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award nominees…
Miss Coral gets up from her desk on a cool October afternoon. She walks over to the kettle and drains steaming liquid into a clear plastic flask, the tea leaves swirling within. Moon is crouched in the corner of the office, a small book of poems on her knees. ‘Dead Water’ by Wen Yiduo. She learns the lines, breathing out the words.
‘Time to go,’ says Miss Coral. ‘The Director can’t catch you here again.’ Her tiny frame and button bright face do not convey the threat she intends. Moon looks up. Her eyes, a little too far apart and as flat and smooth as her forehead, sit open and blank. She gets to her feet. She can’t have grown an inch since she got here, Miss Coral thinks.
Moon is a scholarship student, transferred from rural Wanzhou. To the Director’s surprise, she arrived in Chongqing by train, unaccompanied. She was standing on the platform, carrying her belongings in a bamboo basket strapped to her back with coloured rope. When the Director asked Moon why her parents did not bring her, she replied indirectly. They allowed her to take the train instead of the bus, she said, cutting through the mountains to cross the Golden River in four hours instead of six.
Though Moon has been at Number Three Middle School for two years, she remains the new girl. When she arrived, her grades in Chinese and mathematics were already exceptional, but she had no knowledge of English. Miss Coral was engaged to improve her until she reached the requisite level for her age. It was felt that once her skill set was complete she would fit in. She never did. One or two of the other students like to mock her country accent; the rest remain aloof. Moon doesn’t seem to mind. She neither seeks friendship nor denies it and wanders the extensive grounds of the school wearing a look of mild surprise, as though perpetually reliving her first day.
Their evening English lessons became the first of Miss Coral’s extracurricular duties. They met every day at six o’clock in the break between afternoon and evening classes. They waited for one another by the entrance to the school library. They chose always to sit at a table towards the back of the lower ground floor, far away from the computers and the teen fiction shelves and where few other students gathered. They leant over a new copy of English Now! and Miss Coral made frequent corrections to the textbook’s spelling and grammar with corrector fluid and a ballpoint pen. To make time for Moon, Miss Coral had to hand over one of her English Literature groups.
A month after their lessons began, rumours started to circulate that the rival school across town had employed what they called a Real English Teacher. Letters from parents of students at Number Three Middle School arrived, threatening the withdrawal of their children. Number Three was supposed to be the best, they said. Why didn’t they have such a teacher on their staff? A meeting between the governors and the school’s patrons took place and a partnership began with Teach China. Anglophone language teachers would come and go in six-month-long rotations. Miss Coral was charged with the running of the programme. These foreign teachers must receive a good impression of Chinese hospitality, the Director said.
Within a few months of Moon’s arrival, Miss Coral had been removed from the classroom completely. She acquired an office at the end of the Director’s corridor from which to conduct her duties as International Hostess. The Director was keen that she should not take the redistribution of her skills as a sign of promotion, so he liked to hint among her colleagues that she had been withdrawn from teaching on grounds of incompetence. It was to be understood that, if it wasn’t for his greatness of heart and generosity of spirit, she might not have a job at all.
Miss Coral and Moon moved their evening English lessons from the back of the library to the office. Miss Coral would leave the door open, to save Moon the shame of standing in the corridor like the students awaiting detention. When Miss Coral entered the room she would find Moon hunched over her homework, sitting squat in the corner with her papers placed neatly in front of her on the floor. At the beginning of each lesson, Miss Coral had to invite Moon to sit down with her at the desk. Moon worked hard, improved quickly, and soon there was no more need for lessons. Yet, Miss Coral kept up the habit of leaving her office door open in the evenings and often she would come back from afternoon meetings with the Director to find Moon in the corner.
‘Time to go,’ Miss Coral says again. ‘I have to be at the airport in an hour.’ Moon watches as Miss Coral sips a mouthful of tea and twists the metal cap back onto the flask. She hooks the flask’s wire handle over her wrist like an expensive handbag. From the desk, she gathers a small purse, a plastic folder full of papers and a laminated sheet of A4. She slots them into a canvas satchel. Moon makes a small bow towards her, a shimmer of a smile on her lips, then leaves. Less communicative than ever, Miss Coral thinks.
Taken from the short story Number Three by Anna Metcalfe
The winner will be announced on 4th April