The difference between the beautiful and the ugly is a matter of millimetres: a nose just a fraction too wide; a mouth a shade too narrow; a chin slightly too long.
That was Sheila.
The other thing which I will always remember – as if I could forget – was that she was always doodling. The margins of her rough-book were littered with odd, abstract drawings. Designs of triangles, circles, lines and squares. It seemed that her right hand was always twitching across the paper.
Our school was in Canterbury, a city which had once been a Roman town. With results of excavations regularly published, it was understandable that Mrs Burgess, our history teacher, would think we would be interested. She was wrong, of course.
During one of our lessons, she placed a transparency on the overhead projector with a flourish. This was the seventies, and an OHP was considered high tech. My friends and I were more interested in getting to break time and a game of footy, so we feigned attention as Mrs Burgess imparted wisdom.
“This is particularly interesting”, she declared.
It was a roughly circular arrangement of triangles and bent lines, crudely photocopied from some learned journal.
“But Miss”, said Gary, “What is it?”
Gary was not the sharpest tool in the box, and could be guaranteed to ask the daft question. In this case, a daft question that could extend the lesson into our break time kick-around.
“This, Gary, was found in the house of a Roman official, but from the design it is not Roman. This suggests that it was given to the official by a native Briton. The question is ‘Why?’”
Looking at the design with her head cocked on one side, Sheila asked, “But what does it mean, Mrs Burgess?”
“We don’t know.”
A collective sigh went up from the class. Show a group of thirteen-year olds some random squiggles and say you don’t know what it means, and the reaction is assured. Still, even then, I could see a similarity between the OHP image and Sheila’s doodles. Even while speaking to the teacher, she kept scribbling.
“We don’t know what it means”, repeated Mrs Burgess, “but we think it was some kind of curse. It is worth noting that the body of the official was found buried in the foundations of his own home, in what appears to be some kind of bizarre murder.”
Satisfied that she had finally given us something to interest us, she closed the lesson. I looked one last time at the projection. I didn’t like it. There was something about the way the lines twisted, and the triangles interlocked that didn’t seem right. Somehow, and I have never been able to explain it, they looked as if they should never have been drawn.
We escaped, and indulged our usual game of footy while exchanging misogynistic comments. Plus the required amount of teenage four-letter words. Heady joys, indeed.
Over the next few weeks, something strange started to happen. Sheila started getting good marks. Not that she had ever been dumb, just mediocre. Mr Hobson, the English teacher, went as far as to read her work to the class. I couldn’t work it out. It was a load of drivel, yet he was excited by it, and gave her an A+. It was the same with all her subjects.
Next, her friends – or at least those she desired for friends – started getting good marks too.
There seemed no reason to it, until one day, I saw her drawing a little doodle at the top of one of her friend’s work. It seemed like some kind of hybrid between the scribblings she used to do, and the obscure symbol that Mrs Burgess had shown us.
I didn’t like to look at it. There was something to the arrangement of lines that slipped inside my head, making my eyes water and forcing me to turn away. She saw me, and moved to cover the symbol until I left. I did not feel the need to linger.
An average, not-so-pretty girl starts getting good marks, and finally finds a way in with the other girls. So what? It doesn’t matter.
Then something happened that did matter. It was during Cookery. Well, it was called Home Economics, and today it would probably be called Life Skills or something. We called it Cookery.
Sheila hated Cookery, and she hated the Cookery teacher. Mrs Stanforth wasn’t too enthusiastic about Sheila, either.
We had a class just before lunch, and Gary had managed to do something dumber than usual - I forget what now. Sheila made a comment to one of her new “friends”, and there was the expected giggling. Mrs Stanforth blew up and shouted at Sheila. All pretty normal.
Except that at the end of the lesson, Sheila went over to Mrs Stanforth, and showed her her rough book.
My mates and I left for our lunchtime footy, while making homophobic comments to Gary about his blunder. He reciprocated by ascribing a variety of personal habits to us, only one of which was true. All was forgotten. It wasn’t until we were stuck in Maths that we knew anything was wrong. Staring out the windows, we noticed an ambulance draw up outside. Mr Styles encouraged us back to the joys of log tables but when the police car arrived, we knew something was up.
At afternoon break we found out that Mrs Stanforth was dead. News like that doesn’t keep quiet with a thousand mouths to whisper it. When we got into our English lesson, we were immediately sent to the main hall with the rest of the school, where the Headmaster confirmed what we already knew. Sheila sat through the impromptu assembly with a smug smile on her face. Later it emerged that Mrs Stanforth had been discovered by the afternoon class, and, with horrified fascination, we found out how she died.
She had cut her own throat with a vegetable knife.
Today there would have been offers of someone to talk to if we needed it, but this was the seventies, so we just had to get on with it by ourselves. Then it was half term, and that was that.
After half term, life went on pretty much as before, except that there were a spate of accidents involving girls that Sheila didn’t like. Mostly nothing serious, although one girl suffered a rather nasty broken leg. Subconsciously, people started to make a connection to Sheila.
Except Gary, of course.
He wasn’t dim, exactly, but his brain didn’t seem as receptive to ideas as other people. Perhaps that’s why he was so worried about his upcoming school report. Sadly, his report was never needed, but he approached Sheila on the matter.
“Yeah, but I need some help.”
“Yeah, but I need you to do one of your doodles for me.”
Everyone in the form room went silent. We all knew, or thought we knew about the drawings Sheila put on peoples’ work, but it was a taboo subject.
“I don’t do doodles.”
“Yeah you do. Everyone knows. You doodle on someone’s work, and bam! They get top marks!”
“I don’t do doodles, and I don’t do anything for you.”
“What? Why not? I need some good marks.”
“Work harder, then”
There was a dutiful giggle from the surrounding girls, which infuriated Gary. When Gary got angry, then he could flip out. I do not feel obliged to record the language that he used, but suffice to say it was insulting, if predictable. This produced a tight-lipped silence from Sheila which made his anger worse.
Seizing her unholy rough book and a biro, he yelled in her face, “Well, have a go with this then!”
He drew a crude set of male genitalia across one of the pages, and walked out of the room. No one said a word. Sheila started drawing again.
Just before lunch, Sheila handed Gary a folded sheet of paper.
“I did this just for you”, she said.
“Oh, er, thanks!”, said Gary, opening the paper.
I don’t know what was on the paper, and nor do I want to.
Because as soon as the lunch bell rang, Gary walked to the end of the school field, hopped over the fence, and lay on the railway tracks in front of a train.
If people were careful of Sheila before, now they were petrified. People knew, even the teachers. There was nothing said, no warnings, no attempt to stop her. Just the fear that you might be next.
A couple of days after Gary’s funeral – we got time off to attend, which I like to think would have made him proud – I collared one of the other lads, Martin. He was one of those who had reason to be worried. A few times he’d been rude to Sheila, and she had a long memory.
“Hi, Martin, can you do us a favour?”
“Can you create a distraction in Cookery?”
I shrugged. “Don’t ask, and no one can blame you, can she?”
“You’re not going to try doing something about… you know… are you?”
“Did you hear that Jim Norton bust his ankle today?”
“When’s it going to be your turn?”
Martin turned and walked away.
In Cookery, the supply teacher had us doing boiled eggs. How you can make boiling an egg last an hour, I don’t know, but she gave it a good try. Then, just as the water was boiling, Martin managed to knock a pan off the hob.
While Sheila was rubber-necking to see the damage, I slipped her rough book off the desk. It felt slimy, even though my eyes told me it was clean and dry. I could have sworn it writhed in my hand, and it almost slipped from my fingers before I could drop it on the gas ring.
For a second, nothing happened, and then the pages started to blacken and burn.
Sheila screamed. At first I thought she had seen what I’d done, but then I saw her clawing at her right arm, staring at her drawing hand. I looked back at the book, well alight now, with pages curling and charring. I caught a glimpse of one of her doodles, the lines seemed to be driving spikes into my eyes, slithering tentacles into my brain. I wondered if this was what Gary had felt when he had seen the picture she had done for him.
Still the screams carried on, wild, agonised cries of panic. Sheila’s arm was red with blood where her nails had torn the flesh. The spilt water was forgotten, the smoke from the burning book ignored, everyone was focused on her pain.
With a last plume of vile, glutinous smoke, the book collapsed into white ash. At the same time, the screams stopped, and Sheila dropped to the floor. She was still breathing, but her eyes were blank. They took her away and, as far as I know, she remained like that the rest of her life.
Explanations? I have none. Was it some kind of automatic writing, maybe channelling some ancient ancestor? I don’t know, and even after forty years, I don’t want to know.
But one thought does occur. Once, a teacher had told us that true beauty was on the inside. Gary, with all his usual grace, had said, “You’re just saying that because you’re ugly, Miss!”
Yet if the difference between beauty and ugliness is a question of millimetres, might not the same be true of the brain? Shift a neuron here, another there? Perhaps true ugliness is on the inside, too.