"The Blot" by Ian Crichton Smith


A little gem of a short story... So simple, but so perfect in its observation.

  Miss Maclean said, "And pray tell me how did you get the blot on your book?"
  I stood up in my seat automatically and said, "It was...I put too much ink in my pen, please, miss." I added again forlornly, "Please, miss." She considered or seemed to consider this for a long time, but perhaps she wasn't really thinking about it at all, perhaps she was thinking about something else. Then she said, "And did you not perhaps think of putting less ink in your pen? I imagine one has a choice in those matters." The rest of the class laughed as they always did, promptly and decorously, whenever Miss Maclean made a joke. She said, " Be quiet", and they stopped laughing as if one of the taps mentioned in our sums had been switched off. Miss Maclean always wore a grey thin blouse and a thin black jacket. Sometimes she seemed to me to look like a pencil.
  "Do you not perhaps believe in having a tidy book as the rest of us do?" she said. I didn't know what to say. Naturally I believed in having a tidy book. I liked the whiteness of a book more than anything else in the world. To write on a white page was like...how can I say it?...it was like a bird leaving footprints in snow. But then to say that to her was to sound daft. And anyway, why couldn't she clean the globe which lay in front of her on the desk? It was always dusty so that you could leave your fingerprints all over Europe or South America or Antigua. Antigua was a really beautiful name; I had come across it recently in an atlas. The highest mark she ever gave for an essay was five out of ten, and she was always spoiling jotters by filling them with comments and scoring through words and adding punctuation marks. But I must admit that when she wrote on the board she wrote very neatly.
  "And what's this," she said, "about an old woman? I thought you were supposed to write about a postman. Have you never seen a postman?" She was always asking stupid questions like that. Of course I had seen a postman. "And what's this word 'solatary'? I presume you mean 'solitary'. You shouldn't use big words unless you can spell them. And whoever saw an old woman peering out through the letter-box when the postman came up the stairs? You really have the oddest notions." The class laughed again. No, I had not actually seen an old woman peering through a letter-box, but there was no reason why one shouldn't, why my old woman shouldn't. In fact she had been peering through the letter-box. I was angry at having misspelt "solitary". I didn't know how I had come to do that, since I knew the correct spelling. " Old women don't look through letter-boxes waiting for letters," she almost screamed, her face reddening with rage.
  Why did she hate me so much? I wondered. It was the same when I wrote the essay about the tiger who ate fish and chips. Was it really because my work wasn't neat and because I was always putting ink-blots on the paper? My hands were clumsy, there was no getting away from that. They never did what I wanted them to do. Her hands, however, were very thin and neat, ringless. Not like my mother's hands. My mother's hands were wrinkled and one of the fingers had a plain gold ring which she could never get off.
  "Old women don't spend their time waiting for letters," she shouted. "They have other things to do with their time. I have never seen an old woman who waited every day for a letter. Have you? HAVE you?"
  I thought for some time and then said, "No, miss."
  "Well then," she said, breathing less heavily. "But you always want to be clever, don't you? I asked you to write about a postman and you write about an old woman. That is impertinence. ISN'T IT?"
  I knew what I was expected to answer so I said, "Yes, miss.'
  She looked down at the page from an enormous height with her thin hawk-like gaze and read out a sentence in a scornful voice. "'She began to write a letter to herself but as she did so a blot of ink fell on the page and she stopped. "Why did you write that? That again is deliberate insolence."
  "It came into my mind at that...after I had put the ink on my jotter. It just came into my head."
  "It was insolence, wasn't it? WASN'T IT?"
  Actually it hadn't been. It had been a kind of inspiration. The idea came into my head very quickly and I had written the sentence before I thought how it would appear to her. I hadn't been thinking of her when I was writing the composition. But from now on I would have to think of her, I realised. Whatever I wrote I would have to think of her reading it and the thought filled me with despair. I couldn't understand why her face quivered with rage when she spoke to me, why she showed such hatred. I didn't want to be hated. Who wanted to be hated like this?
  I felt this even while she was belting me. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps it had been insolence. Perhaps neatness was the most important thing in the world. After she had belted me she might be kind to me again and she might stop watching me all the time as if I was an enemy. The thing was, I must learn to hide from her, be neat and clean. Maybe that would work, and her shouting would go away. But even as I thought that and was writhing with pain from the belt, I was also thinking, Miss Maclean, very clean, Miss Maclean, very clean. The words shone without my bidding in front of my head. I was always doing that. Sums, numbs, bums, mums. I also thought, Have you Macleaned your belt today? I thought of a story where a dirty old man, a tramp sitting by the side of the road, would shout, "Why aren't you as clean as me?" The tramp was very like old Mackay who worked on the roads and was always singing hymns, while breaking the rock. And there was another story where the belt would stand up like a snake and sway to music. In front of her thin grey blouse the belt would rise, with a snake's head and a green skin. I could even hear the accompanying music, staccato and vibrant. It was South American music and came from the dusty globe in front of her.


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