The smart animals sleep during winter, he thinks.
Human beings act like they’re smart, and they tell you there’s all these books to read and facts to learn, and sums and maths puzzles to do to get all these smiley-face stickers and ticks in your books. But they’re not that smart.
If they were, they’d sleep during winter.
The breath leaves his mouth and he can see it and he feels like a steam train.
He’d be a strange train, though. This steam all coming from nowhere, it seems like. He’s seen the engine of a real one being stoked, seen the coal being shovelled inside. A while back, when he had time.
Doesn’t feel like that’s happening with him. Within him. No fire in his belly. Not much food in there either. He got up late, so no time for breakfast.
The smart animals, they eat so much food just before the winter sleep that they don’t have to worry about missing a breakfast. They don’t have to worry about breakfasts in winter full-stop. Or lunch. Or dinner.
This walk gets longer at this time of year. He can’t prove it, scientifically, because his knowledge of science feels limited now to watercress-farming and the construction of small circuits with batteries and crocodile clips. But is pretty sure that’s the case.
The steam billows up above him and he tilts his head to watch it. There is a point at which he loses sight of it against the everywhereness and the whiteness of clouds. It becomes the sky.
He stays on the rails. Stays on the pavement.
Next stop the school gates. Char-black and steel and unfriendly.
Then the playground, empty, and more of it scheduled to be sold to developers, so the sign on the gates says.
Then the classroom, which won’t start to feel warm until about ten. At which point it’ll be history, and he won’t have time to appreciate the warmness.
It’s always the history of human beings that he’s tasked with teaching. Tells his class about the Vikings, or the Egyptians, or about Angevin kings. And it was interesting, to begin with, and the children seem to like it fine. But most of it boils down to royalty, and how they had it better than anyone else, but still managed to make all kinds of mess for themselves; and he worries that, sooner or later, his class will grow up and realise they’ve been short-changed.
That there is a whole other aspect to life on Earth that they’re missing. That there are smarter animals out there.
He sits behind his desk and looks at the pile of marking he really should have done last night. Taps his pen on the cover of a book, absent-heartedly, and then sets it down. Looks at his coffee cup. Steam rises from out of the blackness, like what’s in there is liquid coal.
Nobody else is here yet. Even though he was late, the children won’t start trundling in for another forty minutes. No matter how late he is, he never passes any of them on the walk up here.
He takes hold of the cup and begins to push it across the bare patch of his desk, shifting the books further away with his other hand to make room, to make way for progress. It helps him to remember the last time he saw an actual engine in motion. He was with his Granddad, his Dad’s Dad, a man who did actually sleep most days away, near to the end. A man always with stories, but a quietness to him as well that suggested he kept the best ones back.
He gets carried away, upping the pace of the coffee-cup-engine, even taking advantage of the emptiness to make a few hushed chugging sounds, and some of the coffee slops out over the rim, splashes the top book.
He swears, moves the cup away, scrambles about for something to mop it up with. Has to settle for a tissue in his pocket that he was planning to blow his nose with, but hasn’t yet. Gets most of the liquid up, but there will be a stain. Had to be on a yellow cover, didn’t it? Not on the dark purple, or the dark red.
Feeling guilty, he opens the book to the latest piece of work, pulls the green marker from the plastic pen holder on his desk, gets busy searching for places to tick. Avoids a couple of misspellings he should really underline. Writes at the end of it: Great work! and then draws a smiley face because he can’t think of what else to say. Toys with the idea of explaining the coffee stain, but thinks it’s best not to.
The kid won’t ask. He knows her. She’s timid, shy. She’ll be OK with it.
Still, if one of the parents asks, he’ll be as honest as he can. Won’t say about the train – that’ll just bring more questions – but will say he was tired.
It’s still pretty much winter. They’ll understand.