St. Warren is standing tall, wearing a long gown that reaches his ankles, as he holds a cross against his chest in a humble manner. His beard is long, almost concealing the imperceptible frown plastered on his stony features. Claire is standing beneath him, gazing up at him in wonderment. Even though her school is named after this man, she does not personally know anything about him. Instead, the closest insight she gains about him is through his statue, which is the school's main attraction. The longer she stares at the stone sculpture, the more depressed St. Warren appears with his grim eyes, looking down at everyone as if he is deeply ashamed of them.
Suddenly, a blood-curdling cry snaps Claire back to reality and pierces her heart. It is the noise from yesterday - the high-pitched desperate wail of a baby being tormented. It made Claire freeze to the spot with only the violent noise capturing her alert senses.
It is none other than James Robertson, racing over to the girl with the howling baby doll. He throws it into her hands sloppily, enabling her to examine the injured object. Its wrinkly head is misshapen, appearing to have feral teeth marks dented onto them. The head is supposed to be screwed on tightly, but it is hanging loosely to one side, as if it will fall off any second with a mere tug.
"What did you do?!" Claire shrieks, horrified by the state of the baby doll.
"It was my dog," James replies.
"You left the baby alone with the dog?" Claire asks incredulously.
"It was only for a split second. She doesn't have many toys - you can see why," he explains.
"Because you're poor?" Claire replies. Usually she refrained from asking such a personal question in a tacky manner, but her fury got the better of her.
"Wha-!? No...! I mean..." James mumbles, fidgeting with his fingers.
Claire notices various odd stares they were receiving from curious students scattered all over the playgrounds. She feels her face burning in embarrassment, particularly feeling uncomfortable being under the spotlight, like an organism under a microscope for scrutiny. Without thinking, she shakes the screaming robot in her hands pathetically in the vain effort of silencing it.
Suddenly, a loud boom echoes throughout the playground.
The noise travels across the playground, bouncing from object to object, to person to person, and shaking the students to the core, stopping everyone in their tracks. It's Miss Gay with a scowl across her stern face, standing at the entrance with her hands on her huge hips. Claire almost feels her heart stop for a split second, realizing that the woman is shooting a fiery glare at the girl. The teacher beckons her over with a claw-like finger.
Claire shoots James a nervous look, before walking over, her heart thumping in her chest with each step she took.
"My classroom now!" The teacher barks, refusing to let Claire speak.
The girl hangs her head low, her golden hair shielding her burning face, as she avoids eye contact with the prying students nearby. Her mind is spinning wildly and she is trying to muster the courage to explain herself adequately. Eventually, they arrive at the teacher's empty classroom. The blinds are drawn, trapping them into a dark, gloomy atmosphere. The door slams shut, its noise seeming louder in the silent classroom, making Claire jump in fright.
The teacher's eyes, that appear darker in the dim classroom, are glued to the girl's pale features. Unable to hold her aggressive stare, Claire's focus shifts to the woman's sharp nose, which morphs into a crow's beak. The dark, angry creature is towering high above Claire with its beak drawing closer to her, threatening to peck her.
"Do you realize how expensive this baby is?" Miss Gay caws. "You've destroyed school property, shaking it around like a hooligan!"
Claire winces. "But, Miss... it wasn't me! I was shaking it to stop it from crying, but it was James who let his dog abuse it," she protests.
"Frankly, I'm no mood to hear your pathetic excuses now, Johnson," the teacher scoffs. "Barely two days into the project and you have already failed your assignment! How will that look on your otherwise outstanding report?"
"But, Miss, you can view the footages - there are cameras inside these things, right? You can see that it's all James' doing!" Claire persists desperately. She goes to open the classroom door, "Look, I'll go fetch him and he can expla-"
Just then, the familiar stench of unpleasant body odor whacks Claire across the face. James tumbles in and faceplants onto the floor, landing near her dainty feet. The blonde girl looks down at him, raising a shapely eyebrow. Quickly, he picks himself up and brushes off the imaginary dust on the sleeves of his blazer.
"Oh, um, hi there, I was just stopping by..." he says, smiling nervously.
Claire is glowering at him furiously, knowing that he was clearly spying on them.
Miss Gay shakes her head disapprovingly. "I'm really disappointed in you, Claire," she says, surprising the girl, "I expected better from you. I know you're a Golden Student, yet you're abusing that privilege to walk over the school like it's dirt. You need to respect our resources and set an appropriate example for your peers. This is a poor start to the most important year. You're clearly not taking this seriously. It's a shame, really."
"But... Miss..." Claire whispers, feeling her eyes sting with fresh tears. She bows her head down, not wanting anyone to witness her spirit breaking down. She hates disappointing her teachers but, in this case, she feels unfairly targeted.
"It's not Clary's fault," James says, stepping forward in front of Claire, as if he was shielding her from an attack. "I'll bear all the punishment. Please just let Clary go."
Miss Gay leans against her desk, her unamused eyes scanning her students before wandering through the unattended paperwork. She heaves a sigh. "Alright then, James. You will solely pay a £200 fine for the reparation of the baby. However, both of you will fail the project."
Claire's head immediately jerks up with her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "But... the baby only costs £160! Where is the extra 40 coming from?"
"For shipping and baby clothes and such," the teacher explains vaguely, waving her manicured hand in dismissal.
"I really don't think you're being fair," Claire says bluntly. She almost bit her tongue, unable to believe the words that escaped from her. However, this was the truth. She felt that the teacher was overcome with rage that she was making an unreasonable demand.
A dark, hostile look forms on the teacher's face, like a shadow being cast upon her sharp features. In this moment, she looks nothing like herself. A startlingly, obvious blue vein is popping out on the side of her forehead, like it will explode anytime soon with her impending rage.
James holds onto Claire's arm and, for once, she allows him. She feels that her shaky legs will collapse beneath her, if it were not for James supporting her weight and holding her upright.
"It's fine, Clary. As long as you're okay, I'm willing to endure this punishment," he says softly.
At that moment, the school bell rings. Break time is over.
"I will be making a call to your parents informing them about the £200 fine, James," Miss Gay says sharply. She turns her back on her students, indicating that there is no more room for discussion. "Now, get out, both of you."
James leads Claire outside the classroom, through the double corridors, and into the busy hallway, whilst still holding onto her protectively. They make their way through a herd of students, all bustling and shoving each other aside, as their noisy chattering fills the narrow hallway.
Meanwhile, Claire is distant from her surroundings, as she is in a state of mild shock, just replaying the incident in her mind. Then she snaps back to reality and yanks her arm away from James, startling him with her sudden movement.
"You're such an idiot!" She exclaims, jabbing him in his chest with her pointed finger. "Why didn't you stick up for yourself? You were letting her walk all over you - that's so not cool!"
"Huh? But I...!"
"Come with me," she interjects, as she holds his big, bear-like hand, and she drags him towards the end of the hallway.
"I-I'll go anywhere with you," James croaks out, his hand sweating with immense excitement. He follows her obediently, while feeling like he is floating through a blissful dream with love hearts dancing around the pair. He squeezes her hand tightly, never wanting to let her go.
"Ow!" Claire hisses in pain, snatching her hand back. They have stopped outside the head teacher's office, where the current manager of the school resides.
Claire examines the gray door with a shiny plaque glued to the center, spelling out 'MR. NILES' in gold print. She has deliberately avoided this part of the building for the past two years. Even now, a pang of guilt threatens to overwhelm her, but Claire shakes the feeling away quickly.
It wasn't your fault. Just forget about it, she thinks, composing herself.
"Huh, here? Why?" James questions, baffled.
"We're gonna report her. She's abusing her power to extract money out of you," Claire says in a determined voice, although there was a slight tremble of uncertainty as she spoke.
James' goofy smile instantly turns into a frown. "I don't know Claire... I already said I would pay the fine. You don't have to worry about it..." He reaches out to hold her hand again, cupping it around his gently, "but I'm really touched that you're worried about me."
"Don't get too excited. I'm reporting it because I don't want her getting away with this," Claire says, pulling her hand away, once again, and using it to knock on the office door.
The defiant knocks echo through her mind, matching the chaotic rhythm of her beating heart. She understands that Miss Gay used to be the deputy headteacher, meaning that she worked directly with Mr. Niles, and the two would have surely formed a close, professional relationship. Would Mr. Niles believe or even bother with their complaint - or would he dismiss them because of their inferior status compared to their teacher?
"Hmm, I think the Head is busy. He rarely opens his door," James says, after some time had passed. "To be honest, I think he's an alien. I hardly see him around school."
With that said, the head teacher's door opens.