Annalise Taylor

The Girl who Swallowed a Pencil Sharpener

The smell of new stationery was in the air. The extreme dryness of refill pads and exercise books. The graphite of pencils and tang of ink. Katy had left the room to get some scissors so she could cut sticky back plastic and cover her exercise books. Norelle was alone with the lovely shiny stationery. She had lied about why she hadn’t bought hers yet. Said her aunty worked at Whitcoulls so they bought theirs direct and ready covered. Katy had been impressed by that. Norelle wasn’t sure how she was going to explain when the new books didn’t appear in her school bag and she had to make do with the grey-papered Mighty Pads that teachers gave out to those who had forgotten their books. All year. But that didn’t matter now. Norelle scanned the lovely pencils all in a row. Two each of HB, 2B, 4B, the soft lead ready to draw marvellous things in art. Katy was pretty good at drawing but Norelle was better and she never had the good pencils or the nice sketch books, had to make do with the stubs in the art room pencil tray – the ones that left your cramped up hand all covered in grey from the lead dust that they sat in.

The sharpener was sitting on the table, just under the A3 sketchbook. It was just a cheap one – 20 cents worth of red plastic with a shiny metal blade. ‘I found them,’ Katy called as she approached down the hall. Norelle’s arm shot out, grabbed the sharpener and hid it in her mouth.

Her tongue explored the hard edges and corners. The pinched-in sides were inscribed with regular grooves that made her tongue tingle as she ran it over them again and again, like one of those instruments they scraped with a stick at primary. The tip of her tongue traced the tiny circle of the screw holding the metal blade in place, then stroked the length of the blade, which seemed longer in the confines of her mouth. She could flip the whole sharpener in her mouth and stick her tongue tentatively into the hole where the pencil was meant to go, but not all the way because of that blade. Could it hurt her soft mouth in any way, or did it need the hardness of the pencil to bite against? She wasn’t risking it.

‘Are you ok?’ Katy asked, as she began rolling out the thin sticky plastic and measuring it with an exercise book.

Norelle couldn’t speak. Her mouth was hiding her theft. She swallowed. Coughed. Coughed again. Grabbed her glass of squash from the kitchen bench. Drank it all. Felt the cornered lump of plastic descend her throat.

‘Fine, I’m fine. Bit of a cough.’

Would the squash make the sharpener sticky, or rusty?

Norelle helped Katy cover her beautiful clean untouched books, holding the curling plastic down as Katy measured and cut along the grid lines of its backing paper, smoothing out air bubbles as the plastic rolled into place, judging the perfect angle to cut the corners and fold them in, collecting a pile of sticky triangles. Katy’s books would remain pristine throughout the year, their perfect covers encasing immaculate headings, dates, underlinings. Norelle could see her rough notes on loose leaves of paper, shoved in a manila folder, dogeared before half term. Eventually, some teacher would take pity on her and slip her a few blank exercise books. Probably the maths teacher would give in first because she would need graph paper for something, and no matter how they judged her slack-arse parents, they would know that it wasn’t Norelle’s fault.

Soon it was time to go. As usual, Norelle said, ‘No, thank you’ to Katy’s mother’s offer of dinner. Norelle didn’t need rescuing – she could feed herself. She grabbed her bag and with a promise to meet Katy at the end of the road in the morning, headed home.

Trudging along the long straight road home she could feel the place at the back of her throat where the sharpener had forced its way down but she didn’t think it was stuck there. It was heading towards her stomach, she was sure of that. It would sit there like a bit of fencing wire in a cow’s second stomach – the one designed to hold onto any non-grassy stuff a cow might be stupid enough to send down its throat.

No-one was around when Norelle opened the back door and went into the kitchen. She found a bag of bread, pulled out four slices and covered them with her nan’s plum jam. She picked the stones out and put them on the side, remembering when she was little and used to cry in the toilet after swallowing plum stones. She spread out the curled-up plum skin, trying to hide it in the fruity pulp. The sandwiches were a bit dry around the edges but lovely and doughy in the middle. As she chewed and swallowed, Norelle thought about the food falling on her sharpener. Would it just get buried or would some food go through it and come out the other end? If so, maybe doughy white bread wasn’t the best choice. But she was hungry and that was all there was. Tomorrow she would think about the best food to feed a pencil sharpener.

 

Norelle shoved another jam sandwich in her school bag and rushed out the door to meet Katy. Norelle liked to be on time, and if you left ten minutes early then you had built in time for any problems on the way. She couldn’t understand these kids who got a lift right to the school gates every morning and were still late because of ‘the traffic’ or ‘we had to go back for my football gear’, or whatever. Rubbish. Katy and Norelle walked to school together every morning, except when it was really pouring and Katy’s dad might give them a lift on his way to work, but basically, they got themselves to school every morning and they were never late.

This morning was no different. The 8.05 train shot past on the other side of the road as Norelle reached the corner and Katy was just walking down from her house. They shared a silent smile recognising their perfect timing.

‘English this morning,’ Katy said.

Norelle murmured her approval. No need for words. They both loved English, or had done last year with Mr Bassett. They had Miss Kingsright this year. She was new and young and should be exciting. Maybe they would study Shakespeare like the older kids.

Norelle could see how full and heavy Katy’s bag was. So many books. Her own backpack was tired and hungry for stationery and lunch and body spray and change for the tuck shop. But that wasn’t Katy’s fault.

In registration the beautiful girls French plaited each other’s hair and the boys pretended not to watch. Katy and Norelle took their seats at the front of the class – hiding in plain sight. Norelle swallowed to try to make the hard feeling in her throat go away. Mrs Haughton called out all their names then read the daily notices and told the class that there was a poetry competition coming up and they should enter to earn points for their house. The boys snorted. The beautiful girls ignored her. Katy and Norelle filed the information away to discuss later.

Miss Kingsright welcomed them into B14. A seating plan was on the board. Norelle was stuck halfway back but Katy was still near the front against the wall. Norelle took her seat and waited for the boys and the beautiful girls to take their places around her. She stared straight ahead at the quote Miss Kingsright was writing on the board.

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be.’

‘Look it up. Find the rest of the poem. Who wrote it? Read it. We’ll talk about it next lesson.’

She looked around the room. Norelle thought, she’s not glancing, she’s looking and seeing.

‘Poetry. You can roll your eyes and twist your hair, but I will bring you to poetry and poetry to you this term.’

She consulted the seating plan. ‘Linda, what do I mean by that?’

Linda let go of her plait. ‘Um. That we have to do poetry this term whether we like it or not?’

‘Partly. Caleb – anything to add?’

‘Hmm. Nup. Well, what was the question?’

‘Anyone else?’

Norelle had never volunteered an answer in class. Not once. But she was special now. She was the only one in the class with a blade in their stomach. She could be brave. She could be smart. And no-one would understand why. Only she would know. She raised her hand. Miss Kingsright nodded at her, ‘Norelle?’

‘You will be offering us poetry to learn about but we have to come to the poetry as well. We have to read it and think about it and feel it if we are going to understand it.’

Miss Kingsright nodded her approval. ‘Yes. Thank you,’ she looked down at her list, ‘Norelle.’ From the corner of her eye Norelle could see Katy turning and looking at her, as was the rest of the class. She had always known the answers but now she could speak her knowledge.

 

Norelle went straight home that afternoon to be alone. Usually she stopped at Katy’s house for afternoon tea, always a piece of fruit, fresh baking and a glass of yellow squash, but today she wanted to sort her sheets of grey lined paper and think about her homework on her own. She was smart now and Katy might feel uncomfortable when Norelle failed to hide that she knew the answers straight away. And Katy was lovely and her only friend so Norelle didn’t want to make her feel bad.

She sat down and spread her papers on the coffee table. There were worksheets for maths so no need for an exercise book. She raced through the fractions and decimals – all revision from last year, and likewise some simple definition matching from Science. Then she looked at the sheet from English. That quote. How would she look that up? There was nothing in this house to help her. She’d have to go to the library in the morning, get there early before registration.

Norelle sucked her pencil while she thought about alliteration and assonance for her reflection journal. She thought about the plastic and metal in her stomach. She felt fine, if anything, less hungry than usual and that had to be a good thing. Lots of kids chewed the ends of their pencils, flaking the red and black paint. What would happen if you actually chewed a piece off and swallowed it? The soggy wood splintered between Norelle’s teeth and tasted dry and resiny – a bit like pine cones. She tentatively chewed the end bit up, making the splinters smaller and smaller, with maybe a small section of lead mixed up in there, though she knew it was graphite, not lead, so she wasn’t going to get lead poisoning like some parents and teachers said you would. She kept chewing until she could swallow – this was harder than the sharpener because she had time to think about it. It hurt a little bit but not too bad and she went and got a big glass of water to wash it down.

Norelle put her papers away safe in her bag, ready for the morning.

 

‘Where were you?’ Katy demanded when they were lining up outside their form class. ‘I had to walk into school all by myself. You could have told me.’

‘I had to get here early for the library.’

‘We always arrive on time – you always say there’s less time to be hassled if you’re organised and right on time.’

‘I know, I’m sorry, I had to look something up – you know, for English.’

‘We’ve got a poetry anthology at home – if you’d come home for homework yesterday you could have used it.’

‘I know. Sorry.’

Mrs Haughton interrupted them and they went in. As everyone was filing out of the class, Norelle dropped behind and spoke to the form tutor.

‘Excuse me, Mrs Haughton.’

‘Yes, Norelle. How can I help you?’ Mrs Haughton seemed surprised that Norelle could speak, let alone was speaking to her without being asked.

Norelle felt the sharpener inside her and knew she was doing the right thing.

‘The thing is that I haven’t got any stationery because my parents can’t afford it. Is there any way I could get some proper exercise books because when I write on Mighty Pad paper, it’s hard to keep track of all the different subjects.’

Mrs Haughton sat up straighter. ‘Well, yes. I’m sure I can do something about that. Meet me at the resource room at break time and we’ll get you sorted out.’

‘Thank you, Mrs Haughton. I have to get to PE now.’

‘Thank you Norelle for telling me. See you at break.’

Katy was waiting in the corridor – a question in her eyebrows.

‘She just wanted to ask me if I was entering the poetry competition,’ said Norelle. ‘I think I will.’

 

That afternoon Norelle went home with Katy as usual and Katy didn’t seem to mind that Norelle didn’t need the atlas to check twelve capital cities in Africa and that she drew her osmosis diagram without copying from the book. Katy’s mum had made pikelets with jam. Norelle had three to be polite but she didn’t really want them. They got out Katy’s mum’s poetry books and searched through them for possible competition options. The poem had to have been published in a book, be at least twelve lines long and you had to memorise it – and recite it in front of the judges without referring to any notes. Miss Kingsright had said they would be judged on fluency, tone and interpretation. They would be asked a few questions when they had finished to check their understanding of the poem. They needed to bring in their choice of poem the next day.

‘I could never do that,’ Katy had said on their way home from school. ‘I would never remember all the words.’

‘You just have to practice.’

‘No, I’d be rubbish. Aren’t you scared of making a mistake?’

‘No,’ said Norelle. ‘I won’t forget. I’ll practice loads and I’ll get good at it. I just need to find the right poem.’

So, there they were laying on the lounge floor searching through one poem after another.

‘I want to do something by Shakespeare,’ said Norelle.

‘That sounds hard.’

‘It’s just words.’

‘Hard words,’ Katy mumbled. ‘Mum, all these poems are by men.’

Mrs Wilcox stepped through from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. ‘Not all – surely.’

‘Yup – Wordsworth, Keats, Yeats, Hardy, Thomas – all men.’

‘Maybe you two will have to change all that – write some poems of your own and conquer the world.’

‘Doubtful,’ said Katy.

‘I might,’ said Norelle.

‘Good on you Norelle,’ said Mrs Wilcox. ‘Have you found anything you like yet?’

‘She wants something by Shakespeare,’ Katy rolled her eyes as she rolled over to the coffee table and grabbed another pikelet.

‘Ah! A sonnet. Why not. Now, will you stay for dinner?’

‘No, thank you, Mrs Wilcox. My mum wants me home.’ Which wasn’t true, was never true and everyone in the room probably knew it but Norelle always said it. She carefully stacked her exercise books and packed them into her bag.

As she left, Mrs Wilcox handed her the poetry anthology to borrow and a roll of sticky back plastic that she said was ‘going spare.’

 

Norelle sat in the window reading poetry by the streetlight, the remains of a pencil stub in her mouth. She’d forgotten about the competition and was just enjoying the words as she whispered them to herself. Katy was right – Shakespeare’s sonnets were quite hard but Norelle thought she sort of understood what he was saying. She awoke as the streetlight flickered off, her face damp from condensation, her legs stiff from being curled up all night, splinters of wood down her front.

‘I’ve chosen my poem and written it out,’ she told Katy at the corner as the 8.05 thundered past.

‘Shakespeare?’

‘No, another man,’ Norelle smiled. ‘Stevie Smith.’

‘Stevie? Sounds like a kid.’

‘Yeah, but the poem’s good.’

In art that morning Katy lay out her 12 felt tips, her 12 coloured pencils, her pristine white rubber and a red pencil sharpener. Norelle looked at the sharpener and thought about that afternoon in Katy’s dining room. Her tongue remembered tracing those ridges where the sides pinched in. She swallowed and felt where the sharpener had grazed against her throat as it went down. Norelle went to the class trays and got herself one with a mixture of things in it. Mr Fielding was talking about self-portraits and Katy pushed her pencils forward, indicating that Norelle could share. Norelle shook her head and selected a bright red pastel.

They had to look in a mirror and draw what they saw. Mr Fielding had showed them some slides of Van Gogh and Picasso and Francis Bacon and Frida Kahlo to show that you could make a picture that was more about a feeling than what you saw in front of you. Norelle swallowed against the lump at the back of her throat and made her first mark.

Of course, there was a form to fill in about the poetry competition. Really there were two. One was easy – title, poet, your name, form class, house – the other one was a letter inviting your parents to come to the recitation. That was easy too, of course. Norelle signed it like she signed everything and put it in the front pocket of her bag to hand in the next day. She thought of her parents being sad that they could not attend the 2.30 assembly. She imagined them busy in their offices or hard at work looking after family members or some of the other things that might be decent reasons if a teacher asked. Work was the best one; you couldn’t argue with a job in an office.

She had one week to prepare for the competition. Her copy of the poem was getting soft in her hand as she went through it again and again. Maybe she should have chosen a different one but she’d given the book back so she was stuck with it now. She wondered if the blade in her stomach needed sharpening. When they only sharpened pencils, a time always came when a sharpener got a bit blunt and the pencil just turned and turned in the plastic tunnel without feeling the bite of the blade.

Norelle pulled the big nail that she hung her towel on out of the back of her bedroom door and worked it into a little depression in the breeze block next to her bed. The longer she ground into the cement block, the more dust fell out which she caught on her poem sheet. Soon there was a little mound of grey white powder. She licked her finger and dipped it into the top of the mound, leaving a perfect circle. She sucked the cement sherbet off her finger. It went down pretty easy – easier than pencil. This would be the grit that her blade needed to stay keen and see her through the competition. She dipped her wet finger back into the powder and pretended she was made of liquorice.

When you are twelve and made of liquorice with a pencil sharpener in your stomach you can do anything. Norelle laughed at herself – she knew the liquorice part wasn’t true but everything else was. No-one could touch her because she was different from them all – in a good way – even if they couldn’t see that. Even Katy, who was still lovely and still her best friend but couldn’t help feeling a little bit sorry for Norelle and was sometimes just nice to her because her mum told her to be. Norelle didn’t really believe that but it was still a maybe in the background.

Norelle walked up the polished wooden steps at the side of the school hall stage. She had never stood on the stage. Never been in a school show, never received a certificate at the end of the year, never joined the choir or the debate club or done a dance for the talent quest. But she was here now. She stood alone in the middle of the space which had held the First Fifteen when they’d won some cup, and all the orphans and Ms Hannigan when they sang ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ with fake dirt on their fake faces. She looked over the rows of benches right to the back of the hall where Mrs Haughton was standing. She looked down at the three judges in the front row, Miss Kingsright in the centre and she began.

‘Norelle Adams reading “Not Waving but Drowning”, by Stevie Smith.’





Annalise Taylor

Annalise Taylor is from Auckland and has been living in London for the last 16 years. ‘The Girl Who Swallowed a Pencil Sharpener’ is her first published piece. She is currently writing a YA novel when not working as a librarian at an international school in Central London.