I like many things in life. I like coffee and coffee houses. I like the attention of cute baristas, and talking to said baristas, and receiving coffee on-the-house from afore-mentioned baristas. I even like non-alcoholic pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. I do not, however, enjoy phone calls from the local secondary school, especially when they concern any number of my four currently attending siblings.
I stare at the slide-to-answer feature on my new iPhone’s screen reluctantly. I don’t want to answer. I shouldn't even have this number saved. I answer.
“Miss Hastings?” the lady says in that sternly maternal tone, only mastered by nurses and school receptionists.
“This is Saint. Benedict's. I’m calling about your siblings.”
Very specific. “Alan and Jacob?” I ask with a sigh.
“Yes,” she replies. There's a pause. “And Abigail.”
This grabs my attention. “Abigail?” I repeat, mostly in disbelief. “Is she in trouble?”
“The three of them have been involved in a fight with another student. It would be best if you could make your way to the school,” she continues.
“Yes.” I say, slightly out of it. “Of course. I’ll be there soon.”
I pay my bill, grab my coat, promise Adam (cute barista) I'll come again, and leave, in what feels like one fluid motion. Within eight minutes I’m in the school car park. I use my compact to touch up my makeup and adjust my hair. I look down and thank God I chose nice slacks and heels this morning.
The moment I walk into the reception I see Abby, perched on a plastic chair next to the main office. She has the cuffs of her pullover clenched in her fists; her elbows on her thighs and her chin in her hands. Next to her are the twins, nowhere near as upset as their sister. I walk in just in time to see Alan's rock crush Jacob's scissors. I toss them an infuriated look as I begin to walk towards the trio but I’m intercepted by a tall, unfortunately familiar woman. Headmistress Keller takes my hand in a firm, serious grip. It's always been an object of fascination of mine, how she manages to convey such gravity through a handshake, and how it never changes. I remember receiving the exact same one three years ago, when news had broke out without me having to say a word.
I know Mrs. Keller well- she was headmistress even when I attended Benedict's, almost four years ago. She's quite acquainted with our family’s ‘situation’ so when she thanks me for coming so quickly, I notice the sympathy in her eyes- I just don’t mention it.
"I'm sorry you had to get called in Annabelle," she says.
My worry for Abby reaches new heights and begins to gnaw at my stomach. “What happened?” I ask.
Mrs. Keller says, “I think we should discuss this in my office,” and places a gently-leading hand on my back. “You three. Up,” she adds.
I step into the austere office, recognising the greyish-blue walls and uncomfortable wooden chairs from my student days here. The headmistress walks in behind me and Abby trudges in after her. Alan and Jacob wrestle their way in to get to the remaining chair first. Alan gets it so Jake sits on him. My hand itches to smack them. Someone closes the door. For the second time I ask what happened.
“At break time Miss Keith had to tear Alan and Jacob off Neil Donnel, a year 11 boy, and pull Abigail off the same boy's back."
No one can say Mrs. Keller doesn't know how to deal a blow. I turn to my sister, who refuses to lift her gaze off the carpet. I turn to the twins, whose demeanours have taken an abrupt turn from playful to remorseless. Alan calls Neil Donnel a not-very-nice alternative for an illegitamate child and Jacob seconds it. Mrs. Keller and I snap at them together.
But before I can go on in the interrogation, my maternal-sisterly instincts kick in.
"Are you hurt?" I ask them. They all shake their heads. That settled, I rub my forehead wearily and demand that I hear exactly what happened. Jake begins,
"So it's break and Alan's sobbing because my team's winning –"
"Oh shut up, you fat sod. "
"Jesus Christ, you two!" I snap.
"When Neil comes up and–" Jake pauses.
"What does he do, huh?" I ask, my frustration inching towards anger. "Does he call you a 'fat sod'? Is that it?"
"Yeah," he replies sarcastically, "of course. That's why Abby got involved, isn't it?"
"Then what did he do?" I ask through gritted teeth.
Alan picks up on his twin's story, "He called you a–" he stops, too, and glances at Abby. "He called you a woman who really likes guys," he says, with eyes that say get it?.
I stare at him, not getting it. He hints, "Someone who really, really likes guys."
It clicks. I turn to Abby again.
"Did you hear it, too?"
She nods. I sigh deeply and address the headmistress. "I'm sorry about this. Honestly, I am. Is the other boy okay?"
"His wrist is sprained," she says, "and his nose won't stop bleeding." Then she adds, "Violence is not tolerated at Saint Benedict's- I trust you remember that Annabelle."
For a moment, a brief smile plays on both of our lips as we reminisce. But I don't blame her for breaking the moment by saying what she says next, "I'm afraid the three of them are suspended, until the end of half term," there's a pause, during which my siblings are dismissed from the room. "Although, I am stunned by Abigail's behaviour, Annabelle. Is everything alright at home?"
The sympathy makes its return. I run a hand through my hair. "We'll be moving this weekend," I inform her, "back to our old house. I guess she's a bit unsettled." As an afterthought I add, "I'll talk to her alone."
Mrs. Keller approves. She smiles and shakes my hand again, leading me out of her office the way she led me into it. I look at my three miscreants, shake Mrs. Keller's hand one final time and nod when she says, "Take care, Annabelle."
She sees the four of us out and we walk to the car in silence. For the first five minutes of the journey no one speaks, until Alan grants me a sheepish 'sorry'. Jake chimes in, too. I assume Abby mumbles it at some point as well. Despite my valiant attempts to try to cling to it, my anger still melts away.
Somewhere in me, there's a warm fuzziness, emanating from the fact that my siblings would stop at no lengths to defend me. There's pride, too, that familial pride is so embedded in them. But it's difficult to locate these feelings when they're being smothered by so much guilt. "I appreciate what you did, you guys. I really do," I say finally, smiling slightly at the twins' expressions of relief. "It's just that you shouldn't have to, you know? People are going to say things; sometimes you just have to let them."
Jake shakes his head vehemently. "That's crap, Anna. You shouldn't have to take anything from anyone."
He's sitting next to me so I coo and stretch a bit to pinch his cheek tightly. "That's adorable, darling. Really. Just promise me you won't do it again."
The trio says nothing. I wait… I surrender. "I'm starving. Who wants McDonald's?"
Boyish whoops and cheers resonate throughout the car but nothing from Abby.