The school minibus pulled through the gates of the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth and she started counting in her head.
‘One … two … three’
‘Can I go to the toilet Miss?’
‘Not yet Maria, we’re all going to gather at the information desk to book in for our time slot, and then everyone can go before we start.’
‘Four … five … six’
‘Sir, do we need our coats?’
Yes, Caitlin we need to take everything off the coach.’
‘Can we have our lunch yet?’
‘I win!’ Jennifer Morris always had a quiet bet with herself that someone would ask that question before she got to ten.
‘No, Nasreen I told everyone before we left the classroom that we will have a tour of HMS Victory, then there’s time to have a quick look around before lunch at half past one.’
They’d only just arrived and Miss Morris was already wondering if it had been a good idea to get talked into this school trip to Portsmouth to see Lord Nelson’s flagship. It had all been the suggestion of her student teacher Justin, who thought it would fit in well with their current study of Great Military Leaders.
‘Everyone into a line and please be careful on the steps,’ she called to the girls standing around. ‘And yes, Millie Jackson I can see that bag of crisps. PUT THEM AWAY NOW!’
‘Can anyone remember when the battle of Trafalgar was?’ Asked Justin. Twenty-three hands shot up. They were all so keen to impress ‘Sir’.
‘Look at that!’ exclaimed Shipra Patel, it says, “Lord Nelson’s cabin and cot”. ‘It’s a bit fancy for a bloke!’ It was true. The drapes that adorned the admiral’s bunk were indeed very prettily embroidered with flowers and brightly coloured patterns, and they noticed that this was true of many of the bunks that belonged to the officers.
‘Ah it’s interesting that you should notice that Shipra’ replied Jennifer. ‘It’s a little known fact that in his Majesty’s Navy the officers were all very gifted at sewing. Many was the evening that while the able seamen would be on deck whittling, dicing, drinking – the officers would be giving their attention to their embroidery.’
‘Really Miss?’ chorused the girls in her group.
Justin caught her eye, and with a ghost of a wink caught the ball and ran with it. ‘Absolutely girls, Nelson was famous for his needlework! In fact modern scholars believe that he didn’t say “Kiss me Hardy” in fact he said “Crochet Hardy”, a reminder that he needed to finish the shawl that he was making for his granny.’
‘Wow, is that true Sir?’ said the wide-eyed group of girls who had been hanging on his every word. Jen hastily had to turn her laugh into a cough, at which point she noticed the guides who were standing around to answer questions were similarly afflicted and all seem to be choking back laughter.
They carried on, gradually making their way down lower into the depths of the boat. It was easy to imagine what life might have been like sailing on this majestic vessel.
‘It smells funny’ commented Louise Gomez turning her nose up. The ancient timbers of the boat creaked.
‘Shhh… you’ve hurt its feelings’ giggled her friend Martine.
‘Miss! Miss! Millie’s fallen down the ladder!’ ‘She was wearing heels and she slipped! ‘She says she thinks her ankle’s broken Miss!’
Every teacher’s nightmare, an accident off school grounds. ‘That’s all I need’ thought Jennifer, ‘I only put the steps down as ‘moderate’ on the risk assessment. I told them all to wear sensible shoes. We’re on a boat for goodness sake!’
‘Ok, ok, let me through’ she said, ‘what happened Millie, are you hurt?’
However Justin got there first. He was crouching down at her side, his face full of concern.
‘It’s ok Millie, can you put any weight on it?’ He asked in a gentle voice, strong arms helping her up. And then it hit Jennifer – horribly reminding her she wasn’t that much different to the group of girls gathered around her – a twinge of envy. It was that moment of unexpected intimacy – that surprise touch that ignites a spark. Sadly she realised that it was something she hadn’t felt for a long time.
‘Don’t worry you’ll be fine in a minute or two. Why don’t you sit down?’
‘Worried, my foot,’ thought Jennifer, ‘she thinks she’s died and gone to heaven judging by the way she’s clinging on to him with a huge grin on her face.’ Indeed the restorative powers of Justin’s care seemed to have worked wonders. Surrounded by friends, keen to show how caring they could be, she was soon walking with only a trace of a limp.
‘Pull yourself together woman’ she said to herself firmly. ‘You’ve got a job to do, you can’t go round thinking like this. Get the girls sorted out for lunch and then check in with school.’ As they sat on benches in a lovely little garden she listened idly to the girls’ conversations about boys and hair and music. ‘Did I get old?’ she thought? ‘I’m more likely to go to a museum than go clubbing these days!’
By the time she’d rounded everyone up, done a final headcount and then got them all on the bus she had cheered up again. ‘I think I’ve earned a glass of wine and a take-away in front of East-enders tonight’ she promised herself.
She was the last off the bus after checking for any leftover coats and bags, by which time all the girls had got off safely and were heading for home. Trailing back into school she was just thinking about going to the staff room for a coffee when Justin placed a hand on her arm, making the hair on the back of her neck stand up.
‘Thanks ever so much for helping me organize this today Jen. Don’t suppose you fancy getting a drink later do you, just to say thank you?’ She looked up in surprise.
Was he blushing?