There were no longer any children in the village.
Young people didn’t move here. It wasn’t a place to start a family. Something in the air, in the water, so the rumours went.
Even after the oldest child had passed through the village school alone from the age of five to sixteen, the school teacher, Hannah Watson, continued to go to the schoolhouse each day.
Maggie Bates lived opposite the school. She watched Hannah Watson from her window.
Every morning Hannah unlocked the gates and the main door and went into the schoolhouse. Maggie watched Hannah as she tidied up the single classroom. Once a week, Maggie changed the display of the children’s work in the windows. She must have kept every piece of artwork produced by the twenty-odd children who had attended the school over the years. Maggie watched Hannah walking around the playground during morning and afternoon break, watched her sitting at her desk in the empty classroom at lunchtime eating her packed lunch.
Sometimes, when Hannah stared out of the window, she caught Maggie’s eye, and each time, Maggie tried to hold Hannah’s gaze a little longer.
Maggie wanted to go over there and tell Hannah that she didn’t have to do this, didn’t have to keep on going into that school, but she never did.
One of the many things she never did; Maggie had once made plans to move away, after her husband left her, after the pain of all those babies that were not to be. It had never happened. Something always kept her in the village, like an invisible cord pulling her tight to that house.
The school started to look more and more rundown, but Hannah Watson still went in day after day. Her hair was almost white now, and she walked with a stick.
Every day, at three o’clock when school ended, Hannah locked up the school gates and went home for the night.
Sometimes Maggie reached for the latch to open the window and call out to Hannah to come inside and have supper with her, but her courage always failed her.
One night, Maggie continued to watch the school long after the sky turned dark; she realised she couldn’t bear the loneliness of watching Hannah Watson in that schoolhouse with no children anymore.
She went up to the attic, where she kept her childhood locked in a trunk. There were two dolls inside, Sarah and Katie, both dressed in their Sunday best frilly frocks, though the lace was now yellowed with time. Katie used to have eyes that closed when you lay her down to sleep, but they had jammed long ago, and the doll stared at Maggie unblinking.
The dolls’ hair was matted, brittle and crispy as parchment paper. Maggie stroked it, thinking about Hannah Watson.
‘I think it’s time you girls got an education,’ she whispered to the dolls. That night she tucked them up together in the spare room bed.
When Hannah Watson came to open the school gates the next day, Maggie Bates was waiting for her with Sarah and Katie.
Hannah nodded at Maggie to follow her, and she showed Sarah and Katie to their desks at the front of the classroom.
‘Now, you girls be good for Ms. Watson, I’ll be back at three o’clock to pick you up.’
Hannah showed Maggie out of the classroom. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and her hand reached for Maggie’s, a brief, gentle touch, and she smiled.
That day Maggie watched Hannah standing in front of Sarah and Katie in the classroom. She was talking and writing on the blackboard. Maggie had never seen her look happier.
It seemed it wasn’t only Maggie Bates watching the schoolhouse. The next day, Maggie’s neighbour, Elsie Spencer, was at the school gate with her doll in her arms. Elsie’s doll had received a lot more love over the years; she even had on a new stripy frock.
‘Had to make her look her best for her first day at school,’ said Elsie.
Soon the whole village had dropped dolls off, filling the small classroom with expectant plastic and china faces.
The villagers continued to drop their dolls off each morning and pick them up each day at three o’clock.
Until the day Hannah Watson didn’t come to the schoolhouse.
It was Maggie Bates who found her, who held Hannah’s dead body in her arms. ‘You should have come to my house after school. Why didn’t I ever tell you that?’
The women of the village talked about erecting a statue to Hannah Watson in the school. Maggie went one better. She spoke to someone in the city and had Hannah’s body embalmed. She now sits permanently in her chair at the front of the classroom.
The villagers brought their dolls in and arranged them in their chairs in alphabetical order.
Then they closed and locked the schoolhouse for the last time.
The villagers still peered in through the windows to check on their dolls from time to time. And if they noticed that the lesson on the blackboard was always different, nobody mentioned it, just as nobody mentioned that every night someone pulled down the blinds.
Maggie Bates still watched the schoolhouse from her window. She watched the blinds go down, and she watched as Hannah Watson slipped out of the school gates, and each night, Maggie was there waiting with her door wide open.
Terri Mullholland is a writer and researcher living in London, UK. She has a PhD from the University of Oxford, where she has taught English Literature and Critical Theory. Her flash fiction has appeared in Litro, The Sirens Call, Flash Fiction Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Toasted Cheese, Full House, Severine, Tether’s End, and The Liminal Review.