Absolution on the Number 23 by Fee Johnstone

Content warning: homophobia and homophobic slurs

Her hair was pure white now, but I’d have known Miss Taylor anywhere. Despite being in her eighties, her fragile frame held together by Marks and Spencer’s finest, she still had all those cowlicks scattered randomly through her short hair.

Guilt and excitement surged through me. At school, we’d bullied Miss Taylor relentlessly, calling her a lesbian for daring to be an unmarried gym teacher with cropped hair and a bow-legged gait. We were convinced she was a predator, leeching after every one of us, because what could be more beguiling than the awkward pubescent bodies that lurked beneath our sweaty Aertex t-shirts?

We’d shiver and make retching noises when she walked past us, and we’d dare each other to stick notes on her back along the lines of ‘Pervert’, ‘Manny with a Fanny’, and ‘Fuck off back to Lesbos’. Of course, you had to make a big show of washing your hands thoroughly afterwards because there was every chance you could become infected with lezzie-itis.

We even took it as far as to tell our guidance teacher that we didn’t want to do trampolining with her, because even though we’d barely a boob between us, she was definitely, 100% staring at our chests.

It wasn’t long after that incident that she left. Rumours abounded: she’d run off with the dinner lady, she’d tried it on with the headmaster’s wife, she’d had a breakdown. Whatever the reason, it was good riddance to rug-munching rubbish. Well, that’s what I’d told my friends as we celebrated her departure by changing the lyrics of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’:

 

She’s a creep,

She’s a weirdo,

What the hell was she doing here?

She didn’t belong here.

 

And now, she was sitting across from me on the number 23 bus. The fluttery feelings that used to invade my insides back then returned. I’d suppressed the feelings I’d had for Miss Taylor by verbally attacking her – the abuse was my protective shield. My friends couldn’t be allowed to know that it was me who was the lezzie, the creep, the pervert.

I had to speak to her.

“Excuse me?” I said, tentatively.

She looked up, and when her kind grey eyes met mine, I was unable to contain the goofy smile that stretched across my face, nor the flush that crept up my neck.

“Yes?” she said.

“Erm, did you use to teach at Woodburn Academy?”

Her demeanour changed immediately. She sat back in her seat and crossed her arms.

“Yes, a long time ago,” she snapped and looked the other way. It was my cue to leave it, to let her remain in the present and not thrust her back to a past she had no desire to revisit, but I didn’t have another five decades to wait for a moment like this.

“You taught me for a couple of years. You were a great teacher. I went on to play netball semi-professionally thanks to you.” This wasn’t strictly true – I’d tried out for the university team, but I’d been too distracted by all those short skirts and athletic legs. Flattery, however, can soften even the hardest of resolves.

After a silence that seemed to span the fifty years since I’d last seen her, she looked at me again.

“Sorry to snap dear, I had a horrendous time there. I can’t say I recognise you, but my memory isn’t what it was.”

My crimson cheeks throbbed, but I was thankful she didn’t place me as one of her tormentors. In fact, I hadn’t just been part of the gang, I was at the helm. It was I who’d written those notes. It was I who’d told the guidance teacher those untruths. It was I who’d outwardly wished her dead, yet inwardly dreamt of running my hands through those indiscriminate cowlicks as she rubbed my feet after a hard day’s school.

Now that she thought me a protégé and not a perpetrator, she was happy to talk about what the past fifty years had bestowed upon us. She’d left teaching altogether and found menial work in an office, and although she didn’t say why she’d changed careers, I couldn’t help thinking it was because of us. Because of me.

As the number 23 took us on a tour of the city and suburbs, Miss Taylor held me in her gaze. I couldn’t believe this was happening; I was finally getting a chance to absolve myself of the hurt I’d inflicted upon her and, in the bargain, maybe I’d get to explore what I was confident was happening between us.

“Oh, this is my stop,” she said as we reached the terminus. I’d missed mine fifteen minutes ago and the walk back was sure to be murder on my bunions, but more time with Miss Taylor was worth the agony. It was nothing an Epsom salt bath wouldn’t soothe.

I helped her up from her seat and we alighted together, arm in arm.

“I’ll walk you home,” I told her, and she didn’t protest.

We walked a short distance to a skyscraper that had seen better days. Is this what she’d been reduced to because she’d left teaching? Her hands trembled as she let herself into the foyer.

“Do you want to go for coffee sometime?” I asked.

“Yes, why not? I don’t get out much these days and it’s wonderful to know I had a positive effect on even one person from those days. You can tell me all about your netball career!”

I swallowed down bile. Guilt tastes terribly bitter.

“Okay, do you want to give me your number?”

“I’m useless with my mobile, I’ll write down my home number.”

She scribbled onto a Homebase receipt, folded it four times, and handed it to me.

“Till next time,” she said with a wink, and I giggled like a schoolgirl.

I held onto my absolution the whole way home, turning it over in my fingers and my head. Of course I’d received it under false pretences, but what purpose would it have served to tell her who I was? Maybe it was selfish, but at 66 years old, I too was getting on, and this could be something wonderful. This could be my last chance to find a way to navigate through those cowlicks.

Once home, I poured a large merlot and sat on my sofa, receipt in hand. I would call her straightaway – this was not the time to play it cool. My heart was pounding so fast as I unfolded the receipt that I was sure a cardiac arrest was imminent. A list of her Homebase purchases stared back at me (cacti, bird seed, and a sledgehammer of all things). I readied my phone to type in her number and turned over the receipt.

But the expected phone number was not there. Instead, there was a scrawl of words written in shaky but bold handwriting. I read the words slowly, and each one landed with the force of a hammer blow, pulverising any absolution to mulch.

Fuck off back to Lesbos.

Yours sincerely,

Manny With A Fanny

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Fee Johnstone

Fee Johnstone lives in Scotland and writes flash fiction and short stories, which have been published in various zines (such as Paper and Ink, Ellipsis, Crab Fat, Razur Cuts, and Glove) and anthologies (such as F, M or Other by Knight Errant Press, Shades of Pride and Carrying Fire by TL;DR Press, and Nothing Is As It Was by Retreat West). Her debut short story collection, Hath no Fury, was published in 2020.

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