[Content Warning: suicide mention]
I don’t have favourite students anymore, but I had one once. I most remember Beatrice sat in the front row, beside the window, with her white hair pulled into a braid with a sharp end and her pressed poppies kept snug, pressed flat, between the pages of her Latin textbook. She was an uncomfortable person. Each day her hair was restrained into a different, tight style. Each day there was a different length to her skirt. I got the sense that she could never make her mind up about herself. The only things that stayed the same with her, day in and day out, were her quiet and her poppies.
She sat on her backpack under a tree, alone during breaks, rain or shine. She ate dull cucumber sandwiches and wrote lines in Greek and Latin in her notebook. Although she was an insomniac, you couldn’t tell. She wouldn’t identify herself by that term either. She was a reader of three languages, her native English, and the Classical Greek and Latin that she’d taken up at a young age and let consume her, but the term ‘insomniac’ meant nothing to her, she was simply told that not sleeping was a problem. It’s become common knowledge now that her favourite film was, painfully ironically, called My Life to Live, a dramatic French film which Beatrice watched without subtitles despite knowing little to no French. It was a result of things like that, that her parents chose to describe her as a very visual child. Beatrice wasn’t that, at least not just that. I think she liked that film because people with minds that moved as fast as hers did sometimes find it refreshing to feel dumb. She barely said a word to anybody but to look at her, to really look at her, which most people rarely did, was to see a girl with a mind that possessed gears constantly churning, it was to see brutal grey eyes intently observing every little thing around her.
When I heard she’d died, my first thought was that if she had ever written a journal then it would be well worth a read. She hadn’t. There weren’t poppies at her funeral. There were white lilies and although the casket was closed we were assured that she was holding daffodils, as if that would be a comfort. That enraged me. Daffodils held no significance to her. The first of two occasions when she said more than one word to me was when I asked her why there were poppies in her book. She said, “Opium used to be extracted from poppies, so it symbolises sleep, peace, eternal rest. You should know that, Sir. I struggle with sleep, so the more poppies, the more likely sleep might be. I need this superstition, please excuse it.”
I once saw her take a sleeping pill on a dim Wednesday, when the rain droplets streaking down the window to her left were reflected in shadows down her cheeks. She’d handed me an essay that I hadn’t marked yet and although she’d handed it to me directly, she hadn’t signed it with her name. She’d signed it Brutum Fulmen, which can be roughly translated to ‘senseless thunderbolt’. It made me laugh. She saw this, realised she’d made a mistake, leapt from her seat and swapped the essay in my hands with another. I got a paper cut but didn’t say anything. The new essay was signed with her real name so I kept it, ensured that it was set aside so that after all of the essays were handed in I could place hers on the top. When she returned to her seat, she turned towards the window, hand over jaw, and tried to hide the placing of a white pill onto her tongue. She coughed as she swallowed, and students looked to her, as she coughed, as if it were outrageous for her to muster even that sound. She grew sleepy, pulling the sleeves of her sweater over her knuckles and bunching them up as soft cushions on either side of her face. She stared out the window at nothing for the rest of the lesson.
She didn’t show up on non-uniform days. She wrote anonymous poetry for the school newspaper which was rejected because it was not written in English and did, evidently, not include an author’s name. If we showed movies during class, she’d bite her nails the whole time, dead silently. When Spring came and the poppies out of town blossomed, I thought of her. I drove out there and parked. I set my feet on the dashboard, sat for a minute or two, became bored and started the car to leave. Then, I was caught. I saw her running to my right, through red petals and green stems beaten down by morning sun, and with a smile that revealed dimples I’d never seen before. She fell into the floral mass, disappeared for thirty seconds, stumbled to her feet and, as if she felt me, as if she knew, she turned and her face fell. Beatrice picked a poppy without looking to me, then let it drop. Beatrice took my breath and then watched as I drove away. Nobody cared much when her life ended. Nobody knew her. I didn’t know her and I can’t claim to, but I saw more than most—I saw the pressed flowers and the popped pill, the bitten nails and the feverish way her fringe resisted her forehead in the fields that day, despite it being sweater weather, and I read her essays and I cared. If she hadn’t died, I could’ve recommended somebody to help her with her French.
The morning of the funeral, a Sunday, I returned to the school to retrieve some essays. When I was walking back to my car I saw something white under Beatrice’s tree. A half-eaten cucumber sandwich, barely bitten, left on a bed of cling wrap, rain sodden, doughy, and wrong. I left the essays and the cucumber (wrapped in a spare paper) on my backseat whilst driving to the church. There were only a few church pews filled. I was last to enter. Her father was too overcome with emotion to say anything, so I stood up. I told them about the second of two occasions when she’d said more than one word to me. They laughed through tears at this opening, like her silence was endearing.
“I was considering another job, outside of teaching Classics, within teaching another subject. I was capable of it, although that’s not what I’d studied myself. Anyway, I was thinking on it a lot one day when the students were leaving, it was the end of the day and I was so tired, my head ached, and it all… it all became empty but her. She stood at the front of my desk and said: Learning these languages is sport. We’re never fluent, we’re never perfect, but we’re part of it nonetheless. There’s enough action in Greek and enough difficult unrest in Latin for us to call this sport…”
At this point we heard thunder, the windows of the church began to shake, and for a long moment I lost my train of thought. “If you come across something you don’t know in this, and you try to sort it out, do you ever find yourself running a temperature? I nodded at her. It’s sport, she said, and you don’t give up sport unless you’ve got nothing left to give, unless you’re injured or broken. I nodded again, and she left, calmly, as if we’d never spoken. I stayed in that job. She wasn’t shy. That is a common misconception about Beatrice. She wasn’t shy…” I may have had more to say, but I was done. I exited the church early, stepped into the rain and crumbled onto the steps. I wanted it to rain down on me, hard, but it began to sprinkle. I looked up and saw a tall woman with loose white hair, wearing a burgundy skirt suit, smoking a wet cigarette and staring at me.
“Who are you?”
“Her mother,” She said, oddly calm, as she stood there outside herself.
I began to shake.
“I don’t understand how this could have happened.”
“I do,” She said, dropping her cigarette to the grass. “It didn’t have to be suicide. She was electrocuted. Do you know what did it?”
“It was a power cord she touched, after she’d left her window open and that cord had been heavily rained on. She was playing a French film whilst it rained. She always did that. The film started cutting out, so she checked and therefore touched the cord. That’s how she died.”
“My husband thinks she killed herself because of the senseless thunderbolt.”
I glared at her. “How do you know about that?”
“We all do. She was intrigued by Latin proverbs, and she liked that one in particular. He’s seeing a coincidence as an implication of suicide. He thinks her sleeping pills contributed but, ultimately, he thinks she did this, deliberately, to make a proverb a reality. He’s convinced everybody that she did this.”
“And he’s wrong?”
She paused, turning half away from me, hugging herself. “I don’t know.”
I stood, strode passed her, got into my car, and found myself at the school, spreading puddles over the classroom’s already slippery floor, opening Beatrice’s desk. I found her Latin textbook and flicked through it. There were no notes. Just poppies. I took them all out, held them in my fist in a bundle, sheltered them within my jacket on the way to my car, skidded out and arrived with panicked, blurred vision back at the church.
I entered and there was a hymn being sung that felt joyful and therefore wrong. The anger I felt towards that hymn made my vision clear. I opened the casket and the singing stopped. Men grasped my shoulders as I tore the daffodils from between her pale, bitten hands and replaced them with the dry poppies. Behind me, a woman’s crying grew louder the longer I kept my head in the casket. I breathed over Beatrice’s face, her hair in two even braids, her lips a terrific white unlike their everyday pink. It was her face, rather than her death, that made me feel loss. That face did not seem hers. That face did not seem like that which I had looked to during lessons, increasingly proud when it paid undivided attention to me. That face was nothing. I felt as if I had known somebody otherworldly, somebody that we should all be talking about and writing about to the same degree that we do for Sappho and Aphrodite, but that face in that casket was just a poor imitation of her, a stone bust through which an artist who had never met her had attempted to portray her image.
The black dress did not suit her, if it had been her. She should’ve been in whites, all whites, and then my mind became all pleading, ignoring the body and praying to the church itself, words like: ‘sorry’ and ‘it’s my fault’ and ‘I shouldn’t have opened her window to look’, I should’ve been content without needing a closer look, and ‘sorry’, ‘sorry’. There are so many lines unwritten and her tree will be so empty, and her nails will grow beyond the length she’d want for them. I was not permitted to attend the burial. I sat on the church steps all night. I still own her textbook. And cucumber sandwiches make me sick.