The last day of school

Alice looked at the haul of presents spread across her desk. It didn’t seem much of a reward for another year of her life. She’d always imagined that at the grammar school she’d get more. The parents could certainly afford it.

It was slightly better than last year. Her strategy was working. For the last four weeks of term she’d set the kids very carefully selected homework which culminated in the blank word exercise.

It was designed to help the children’s word power – at least that was the justification for it. In reality she hoped to send subliminal messages and influence what gifts the kids would give her at the end of the year.

Jodie Long had broken the record. She found one hundred and seventeen words that could be inserted to complete the sentence. Alice’s favourite was her use of the word accumulates. What a great sentence: The teacher accumulates chocolate.

Jodie hadn’t brought a gift. Less than half of children brought gifts. It was the same in every school she had worked in. The percentage of children bringing gifts for the teacher was reducing year on year.

But this school was the worst. Only one large box of chocolates, three chocolate oranges, a handful of fancy chocolates, a collection of useless knick-knacks and the obligatory apple. In her last school in one of the poorest estates in Leeds she could guarantee at least five large chocolate boxes and several giant bars.

She was surprised to see the apple. It was years since she had one of them. She had no idea how apples and teachers had become connected. This apple was from Sofia Kuznetsov, which meant that even in Russia there must be a history of pupils giving apples to their teachers.

This apple looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. It had one rosy red half which faded gradually into the green half. It looked designed to poison princesses. There was no chance it would poison Alice; she hated apples and she was certainly not a princess.

Alice put all the chocolate in the shopping bag she’d especially brought for the purpose and tipped the knick-knacks into the bin. She didn’t even want to touch the apple but couldn’t leave it rot. She’d have to take it into the staff room and pass it on, or more likely she’d toss it into the kitchen bin.

She got a shock when she picked it up. The apple was incredible heavy and cold to the touch. She weighed it in her hand and tapped it. The apple was solid metal.

Alice wasn’t sure what to do. A metal apple somehow seemed better than a real one, but she hated everything about apples. She’d been forced to eat them when she was young and became adept at surreptitiously using her fingers to gouge out realistic looking bite marks, while secreting apple flesh into her pocket for later disposal. It meant she couldn’t use her pockets for anything else otherwise whatever she put in there would become impregnated with apple scent.

She dropped the apple into her bag and regretted not taking more care as it crushed the posh chocolates with liquor centres.

*

Alice had to change bus in Leeds city centre just outside the library and as usual she had arrived just in time to see her bus disappearing around the corner. The next one would be in twenty minutes. She didn’t usually mind the wait as it gave her a chance to call into the library, but the apple was weighing her down enough without adding books.

She decided to take a quick stroll through the art gallery instead. She climbed the steps, went through the doors and discovered it was closed while they were installing a new exhibition.

She still had eighteen minutes to fill. She could turn left into the cafe or right which would lead her through to the Henry Moore institute. She’d never been in it. It wasn’t her thing. The exhibits in the lobby, designed to entice you in, always put her off. They either looked like piles of junk the caretaker hadn’t gotten around to clearing up, or they were rude.

This time the connecting corridor looked less unappealing than usual. The displays seemed to be items of fruit balanced on intricate metal stands. She checked her watch. There wasn’t enough time to enjoy anything in the cafe so she walked into the exhibition.

It took her a while to realise that the fruit wasn’t real. Like the apple in her bag each one was made of metal. She tried to work out how she felt about the sculptures and set herself a sentence with a blank to fill: The exhibition was inoffensive.

The fifth cabinet caused her to pause and reconsider: The exhibition was intriguing. There was an apple just like hers. This one was enclosed in what she could only describe as a spherical mirrored flame. The inside of the scarlet flame reflected that apple distorting the colours, making the red even more vivid and the green darker. Suddenly the green half looked more poisonous than the red.

Alice pulled out her own apple and compared the two. They looked remarkably similar.

“How did you get that?”

The shout startled Alice. She turned to see a uniformed gallery attendant marching towards her.

“I was given it.”

The confused man looked into the display cabinet and back at Alice’s apple.

“One of my pupils gave it to me.”

“May I?”

Alice passed over the apple. The man took some glasses out of his pocket and stared intently at the base where the stalk emerged.

“I was hoping for chocolate. But… well apples seems to be traditional all around the world.”

“Ah. Found it.”

“What?”

“The maker’s mark. This looks like a genuine Kuznetsov.”

“Kuznetsov. That’s right. That’s the girl’s name.”

“I’m sorry I am going to have to ask you to come with me to the office.”

“But my bus is due in a few minutes.”

The man ignored her and spoke into his radio.

“Security. Code artful. Front lobby.”

“Did you hear me young man? I said my bus is due.”

Alice’s teacher-stare didn’t work. She noticed three security guards had suddenly appeared behind her.

“What’s all this?”

“I’ll need you to accompany me. We need to investigate where you got this from.”

“I told you. I was given it.”

Alice missed her bus. She had to repeat her story to three levels of gallery staff and two police officers. Eventually the school secretary managed to get hold of Mr Kuznetsov and arrange a video conference call with the gallery directory. Mr Kuznetsov confirmed that he had given the fruit to his daughter as a gift for her teacher, Alice.

The gallery staff we all apologetic. The director instructed the staff to bring Alice tea while he made some arrangements. He returned with a sheet of paper that he presented to Alice with a great flourish.

“What’s this?”

“A certificate of provenance and authentication. It confirms that you are the owner of the apple and that the apple is genuine.”

“Why?”

“So you don’t have any trouble…”

“This apple is nothing but trouble.”

“My dear. I don’t think you understand the gift you have been given. What Mr Kuznetsov has given you was made by his great-grandfather over a hundred years ago. It is a very, very, generous gift.”

“I was hoping for chocolate.”

The director took a fountain pen out of his top pocket. Picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and wrote down a number.

“What’s this?”

“That is what the last Kuznetsov sculpture sold for.”

Alice looked back at the number to check she had read it correctly. She had.

She reached into her bag and took out the chocolates.

“Please will you take these? As a thank you – to celebrate my very last day of school.”

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