“Mia sat at the back of the classroom, trying to be invisible as usual – the new girl who didn’t quite fit in.” In this excerpt from the novel "When We Get to the Island" (2019) we are introduced to Mia, a young girl who constantly feels that she does not belong.
As you read and listen to the following text, take notes about the following two points. This will better prepare you for the suggested tasks to this text.
- Important information about Mia’s background and current situation. Some relevant questions here would be: Where does she live? Who does she live with? Why has she moved?
- Details about how Mia feels and how she is treated by others.
Mia sat at the back of the classroom, trying to be invisible as usual – the new girl who didn’t quite fit in. She was small and quiet and shy – on first appearance, that is, but appearances can be deceptive.
Halfway through the history lesson she felt a sharp rap on the side of her head. She pretended not to notice, even though it stung. Someone had fired a missile across the classroom at her.
She sensed rather than heard a ripple of amusement at her expense.
Jamie – a notorious trouble-maker – let out a deliberately protracted yawn as he slouched back in his chair.
Mrs Mackenzie ploughed on, regardless. “However… interestingly enough… something the British have always been very proud of is the fact that they were the very first nation to deplore the slave trade.”
“Deplore?” Jamie sneered.
“It means object to, Jamie,” Mrs Mackenzie said patiently.
“Didn’t know this was an English lesson as well, Miss.”
An icy silence fell across the classroom as Mrs Mackenzie fixed him with a bayonet stare. Jamie leaned back in his chair and stared right back at her.
“A word with you. Outside!” she said quietly.
“What? I haven’t done anything, Miss.”
One or two of the girls sitting near the front sniggered as he slouched past them between the rows of desks. He winked at them and flashed a thumbs-up.
Mia didn’t snigger. She felt sorry for Mrs Mackenzie, trying to teach a bunch of kids who clearly didn’t want to be taught.
Jamie pushed the back of Mia’s chair on passing, just a subtle reminder that he still had her in his sights. “Later,” he whispered beneath his breath, so that no one but Mia heard.
Mia was sure Mrs Mackenzie had noticed the shoving, if not the whispering, but would she do anything? Probably not. The teachers never did.
She had been bullied since the day she arrived at this school six months earlier, and in spite of everything they told her, it was not getting any better.
She bent her head over the page, aware of Mrs Mackenzie moving towards the door. She knew what was coming next: they all knew. The teacher stepped outside to ‘have a word’ with Jamie.
As soon as she left the classroom the girls at the front turned and whispered, nudging each other. It was the moment Mia always dreaded – an empty classroom with no one in charge.
“Look at little Princess Mia,” one of them laughed. “Getting on with her work, as usual.”
“Yeah, look at what she’s wearing,” another sniggered.
“Is that – actually – school uniform?”
Mia said nothing and no one leapt to her defence. She was still the new girl.
She stared at the page in front of her, the words dancing before her eyes. If she ignored them, it would all go away. ‘It was not until 1833 that an act was passed giving freedom to all slaves in the British Empire.’
Mrs Mackenzie returned, followed by a smug-looking Jamie who did not look in the least bit chastened.
The teacher’s gaze swept the classroom, the rows of desks, lingering the longest on the girls at the front.
“Now, where were we?” she murmured.
“You were saying, Miss,” said Chloe sweetly, batting her spider lashes, “that Britain was the first country to abolish slavery.”
Mrs Mackenzie brightened. “Excellent, Chloe. So you were listening, after all.”
Fifteen minutes later, Mia listened to Mrs Mackenzie’s final summing-up before the bell. “It’s worth noting at this point,” she finished, “that hopefully we live in a much fairer society today and here in Scotland we can be proud of our track record. Slavery is a thing of the past… but why is it still worth studying the topic today?”
She threw the question back at the class, and waited.
No one said anything. They were desperate for the bell to go, so they could exit fast. Eventually Jamie put up his hand.
“Yes?” Mrs Mackenzie sighed.
He waited till he had the attention of the entire class before speaking, then slurred his words very slowly, for maximum effect. “It’s not worth studying, miss, but we haven’t got a choice, have we?”
Mrs Mackenzie went slightly pink and the girls at the front collapsed into a fit of the giggles.
As the bell rang the whole school exploded, pupils pouring from the exits.
Mia hoisted her bag onto her shoulder and waited for the crush to die down. She was pushed from behind, and laughed at. Jamie, Chloe and their pals threw back their heads and burst out laughing. Then the others went on home, out into the streets.
Mia walked slowly down the long white corridor, slipped inside the disabled toilet on her left and waited. She did this on purpose, so she could avoid walking home through the streets at the same time as everyone else.
She waited until it was quiet then let herself out again.
Stillness, at last.
This was a new building and the teachers said they were lucky to have it. Mia hated it. To her it was like a prison. One side of the corridor was composed of rough white breezeblocks; on the other were long glass windows from floor to ceiling, overlooking a pebbled forecourt which the pupils were not allowed to enter.
She stared at this sad little courtyard now, which boasted a few fake plants, with white and grey pebbles that had been transported from some distant beach and plonked here as a way of trying to ‘pretty’ the place up a bit. It hadn’t worked.
The one or two striplings planted behind wire mesh were dying. A crisp packet blew in the wind. That’s why the pupils weren’t allowed in there. It was ‘to look at’ only. Look, but don’t touch.
She stopped when she got to the big glass doors at the entrance. The secretary and receptionists were still behind their desks. They glanced up, wondering who was still hanging about. Then they saw Mia… ah, no-one of any importance. They glanced down again and began tidying up for the day, clipping bits of paper together, opening and closing files.
She put her head down, pushed through the heavy swing doors and began her own walk home.
‘Home’ for Mia was a small semi-detached house in the grid of interlocking streets which made up the town of Grangefield. She hadn’t always lived here and she could not force herself to like it.
It was a relatively new town on the banks of the Forth. Across the bay was the Kingdom of Fife, which sounded very grand. Mia caught glimpses of it sometimes when she walked near the estuary on lonely Sunday afternoons when there was nothing else to do.
She was fostered by Angie and Clifford, a well-meaning couple who had been fostering young people for years. Mia was just one more in a long string of ‘cases’ which had passed through their doors, no more or less remarkable and no more cherished than the rest.
She unlocked the front door into the tiny narrow hallway, where a radiator was hanging off the wall. The builders were in, and Angie ‘was up to high doh’ with it. She was having an extension done, with a view to taking in extra young people.
Angie greeted her with her usual display of professional cheer. Mia smiled and went up the stairs to her own room – except it was not really her own. It wouldn’t be long before another young person replaced her and the same books and posters would be there to greet them and make them feel artificially ‘at home’, unless Angie and Clifford decided to update the posters and books a little by then.
Mia had never felt at home here. She didn’t blame anyone and it was no one’s fault, just the way things were.
She flung her bag into the corner of the room, and collapsed on the bed. From her pocket, she drew out three small pebbles, a reminder of the family holidays they used to take in the Hebrides when her parents were still alive. One was pure white, like snow or ice, the other a deep green with rich layers of meridian in it, the other was deep red. She twisted them in her palm.
She often thought about the island as a way of comforting herself. Coll, with its pure white beaches, glistening skies, and trembling fields of machair or wildflowers.
How had she got from there to here? A place she did not want to be, watched and monitored by social workers, swallowed up by the care system, simply because her parents had died and she had no other living relatives to support her?
She lived with her gran in Linlithgow for a couple of years, but when she died the authorities stepped in and took over. They placed Mia in a children’s home, but in view of the circumstances were quick to find a place for her with a good foster family – in Grangefield – a place she had never lived before.
“You’ll have to adjust,” she was told by the social worker, Margaret. “It’s in your best interests to try.”
Then Margaret smiled, got into her car, and drove back home to her own husband and children, and house and dog, and goldfish too, probably, leaving Mia to face an uncertain future.
Grangefield was not the most attractive town. It sat on the banks of the estuary, dominated by a petrochemical plant which blinked and spat fumes into the sky. It never snowed in Grangefield. The sleet that fell in winter was sodium-yellow, like the streetlights.
“Mia? You up there?” she could hear Angie calling her from downstairs. “Your tea’s ready.”
She swung her feet off the bed, and made her way downstairs to the chaos and confusion below.
“It makes sense,” Clifford was saying, as he spooned beans onto Mia’s plate. “You can watch television afterwards if you like,” he added as an afterthought.
“It makes sense, Ange,” he went on, once he thought Mia was well out of earshot. “We can take in another three at this rate. Might as well. Pays the bills.”
MIA © Alex Nye 2020