Mis Higginbottom, by Catherine Evans
Miss Higginbottom had been games mistress at Highbridge School for Girls for twenty-seven years. Sundays aside, she was never seen in anything other than a navy tracksuit with yellow piping, which clung to all her lumps and bumps, providing a rich source of satire to the girls, aged between eleven and eighteen. Secret satire, it must be said, for Miss Higginbottom could wither with a look, and the children were mightily afraid of her, especially those who were no good at games or who couldn’t be bothered to try. The tracksuit top failed to conceal a large spare tyre in the front and a hefty bottom which jutted out like a shelf at her rear. ‘You could eat your dinner off that,’ remarked Mr. Moody, the maths master to Miss Ellis, the new housemistress, who had yet to learn that it is not obligatory to laugh at unkind remarks made by men.
Other than a long-departed aunt’s pearl earrings, Miss Higginbottom’s only adornment hung from her neck by a piece of industrial strength string: a silver whistle, which bounced from side to side on her monoboob as she moved. ‘And boy, can she move,’ observed Mr. Moody to Miss Ellis as they drank tea in the staff room, which overlooked the games fields. ‘Like a hippo on steroids.’ Miss Ellis tittered, out of amusement or politeness it was hard to tell. Like many of his waspish remarks, this one was deadly accurate: Miss H was either running her bulk from one end of the lacrosse pitch to the other, stalking the edges of the swimming pool or marching the grounds and the corridors of the school. The monoboob was an object of fascination to many, remaining solidly immobile, even in the face of its owner’s frequent bursts of exertion.
Miss H was seldom seen without her clipboard, an item which arguably gave her more authority than a loaded gun. She used it to keep a register of her classes, lists of her carefully chosen sports teams, and also to ruthlessly suppress any form of skiving from the ranks: ‘So what if you have your period? This is the twenty-first century. Haven’t you heard of tampons?’ ‘Forgotten your games kit again, Penelope? Have a rummage in the lost property bin. I don’t care if it’s dirty and doesn’t fit you. You’ll jolly well remember to bring it next time.’ ‘A stomach ache. Honestly, Corinna, is that the best you can come up with? Get changed and get out there. I’ll let you off if you faint, chuck up or die.’
Her voice was a deep foghorn, occasionally disturbing the focus of certain lessons. For example, it had been a challenge for 4C to fully appreciate the pathos of Cleopatra’s death while 6B jumped hurdles, being urged by Miss H at full volume to ‘Move it, you bone idle little baggages.’
Her hair was an iron grey helmet which was ruthlessly cut back by the village barber every six weeks. Miss H saw no sense in paying extra for a pretty interior, inane chatter and magazines filled with drivel.
These attributes, along with her spinsterhood, provided a rich and predictable seam of humour for the girls and those more insensitive members of staff, such as the aforementioned Mr. Moody, who only had time for those of his female colleagues who were under the age of thirty-five.
As well as being Head of Games, Miss Higginbottom was, of course, a housemistress. Without any family, her life revolved around the school and its sporting life, such as that was. One of her duties was to do a last round of the dormitories at ten at night, to ensure that they echoed only with the sound of slumber. She fulfilled this responsibility diligently, as she did all others. One evening, however, she had been uncharacteristically gripped by a romantic film starring Tom Conti, which finished at a half past ten, and she allowed herself to veer slightly off course. With a bittersweet smile as she pondered the film’s conclusion, she set off on her rounds. All was quiet on the top and middle floors, but on the ground floor, which was occupied by the older sixth form girls, she heard the unmistakable sound of vomiting.
As Miss H entered the bathroom, which was flanked on one side by a row of loo cubicles, the stench of sick was thick in her nostrils. She could see immediately which receptacle was being defiled, as the occupant had not bothered to close the door, and was on her knees, hugging it as if it were a beloved pet.
‘Anna, what on earth…?’
Anna was a particular favourite, an ace on the tennis court and Right Attack on the First Lacrosse team. Added to these formidable attributes, she could swim butterfly, and represented the school in the Over 16s Individual Medley.
The girl stared glassily at Miss H. She was forced to re-engage with the loo as another heave convulsed her.
She was scantily clad, but not in her nightwear, and stank of alcohol and cigarettes. Miss Higginbottom was aware that she was privy to a scene quite alien to the pages of Malory Towers.
Miss Higginbottom marched to the bathroom window. All windows on the ground floor could incline only to six inches, thus keeping the girls in and the riffraff out, but this aperture offered no resistance, and swung to a fully horizontal position, allowing Miss H to deduce the girl’s means of escape and subsequent re-entry.
Miss Higginbottom trooped to the kitchen opposite to retrieve a mug and filled it with water. ‘Drink this,’ she ordered. The girl obeyed, and flopped against the side of the cubicle wall.
She began to cry. ‘He dumped me, Miss H. I can’t believe it, after… after everything we did… he told me he loved me. Told me he was gonna leave his wife.’
‘I believed him, and we… and then he…’ she sobbed.
‘Anna, I’m not sure you’re going to thank yourself for telling me this in the morning.’
Her manner was brusque and her lips had disappeared inside her head, but in truth, while of course she could not approve of a child filling herself with alcohol and throwing her good name away on a paedophiliac predator who ought to be behind bars, she was in fact full of pity, and wished she could provide a crumb of comfort to a visibly suffering soul. As the old cliché goes, she herself had once been young, and in her twenties had been taken in by a gentleman of Levantine extraction who had stolen her heart and her savings, and had skipped the light fantastic, leaving her dreams of love and dark-eyed children in tatters.
When the worst of her sobbing was over, the girl lifted her head. ‘You’re right’ she slurred. ‘You don’t geddit. ’S’not your fault.’
‘Anna, I strongly suggest you finish that water and get yourself to bed.’
Miss H was torn. Her duty dictated that she report this incident, which would result in Anna’s expulsion. Undoubtedly this would be a blot on the girl’s future, but it would be a disaster of colossal proportions for Highbridge’s forthcoming match against Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
‘Yeah, you don’ know what it’s like,’ the girl slurred. ‘You never loved anyone, did you Miss H? You never wanted a man, or kids, or anything like that.’
‘That’s immaterial now. I need you to pick yourself up and-’
‘Even if you did you did nothing about it and now it’s too late. Sorry, Miss H.’ It was unclear whether the girl’s scattergun apology was meant to express pity for Miss Higginbottom’s solitary state or for the want of tact in mentioning it.
Later that evening, moments after Mr. Moody had delivered the coup de grace to Miss Ellis in her quilted bed, scattering her stuffed animals to the floor in the process, a strange noise could be heard coming from the adjoining flatlet, which belonged to Miss Higginbottom.
‘Crikey,’ said Mr. Moody, still panting. ‘If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the old hefferlump’s crying.’
Author of The Wrong'un, published by Unbound in 2018. Trustee of Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and organiser of ChipLitFest Short Story competition. Editor of fictionjunkies.com, a website which publishes short stories of all genres by authors from around the world.