Timothy watched as his mother walked out of the school gates. He tried to keep his eyes on her as she disappeared into the crowd but it was like one of those tricks where they put a ball under a cup and then move it around, constantly swapping and switching places with two other cups. Soon it was just her head he could see moving through the crowd, then the head switched directions and became someone else’s head and then that was that: she was gone.
He turned and looked at the imposing building in front of him. This was it. First day at Dunn Park School. This wasn’t the first time he’d been the new kid – the last few years of moving around because of mum’s job meant that he’d already experienced this ordeal twice before.
Timothy looked up and read the words over the double doors: Pluris est Imaginatio quam Scientia. He tried to roll the words around in his mouth but got stuck on the first one, unsure whether it was a long or a short u. “It’s no use,” he thought, “I don’t even know how to speak French.”
“Who are you, then?” came a voice to his left. He turned to see a boy, slightly shorter than him, in thick-lensed glasses looking at him with a knotted brow.
“Er… um… my name’s Timothy. I’m new here today. We just moved into the village at the weekend.” Timothy replied.
“We?” asked the shorter boy, his voice pitched a little higher than Timothy’s own.
“My mum and I. We moved into Robinson Gardens, just near the playground.” Timothy waited for the boy to respond, looking to see if his mention of something familiar would unknot the boy’s brow and hopefully end the inquisition.
“Yeh, I know it. Whose class are you in?” Timothy resigned himself to the interrogation. “Um, my mum spoke to the school last week. I think the teacher’s name is Miss Mummyford?” Timothy’s eyes squinted as an inquisitive tone, in imitation of his scrutiniser, tried to wrap itself around the name as he uttered it.
“Miss Honeyford!” The boy’s round face finally ventured forth a smile. Timothy reflected the smile back as the boy became, in that very moment, animated. It was as if a different boy had suddenly replaced the surly one who had been questioning him. “She’s my teacher! You’ll be in my class!”
“Oh… good. I mean, great. What’s she like?” The ‘great’ may have been a stretch on Timothy’s part, but the question was meaningful. He’d had quite the range of teachers over the past few years and he really could do with someone normal, particularly after that bearded old duffer he’d had at the last school. What was her name again? Timothy actually felt a warming pleasure that he’d forgotten it already.
“She’s alright. Quite nice really. She’s good at teaching sums and she does a funny American accent when she tells stories sometimes. Oh, by the way, I’m Kelvin.” This last bit was accompanied by an outstretched hand, palm to the inside. This was the first time Timothy had seen another kid want to shake hands with him. Sometimes adults did it – men mostly – but he knew they were just being playful or doing it to show off to his mum. Timothy took Kelvin’s hand and the boy grasped it firmly and gave it a tug upwards and then swung it back down again just once before letting go.
“Miss Honeyford is better than most of the teachers I’ve had here. Geography is always fun – we made cliff dioramas last week. Yeh, she’s alright, except…” Kelvin paused as a flash of recollection came over him.
“Except what?” Timothy asked.
“Except… well… except for the mumpsimus in the room.”
“Mumpsimus?” Timothy repeated. Timothy wondered whether he’d heard that right. What on earth was a mumpsimus? At his last school, the teacher had kept a stick insect in the room. And he remembered his first teacher at that school in Wales had kept a guinea pig – all the kids got to take turns taking the guinea pig home for the weekend to look after. He remembers it because it was due to be his turn in the coming weeks and then he found out that they were going to move house before he’d get the chance. He remembers the teacher saying that he could even swap with the person who was due that week but Mum wouldn’t let him because they had “so much to do and having a guinea pig in the house would be a bloody hinderance.” Whilst Timothy would have loved to have taken that guinea pig home, he wasn’t sure he’d want to get too close to a mumpsimus, whatever that was. It sounded huge. Kelvin had said that it was in the room. “What is a mumpsimus? Is it in Miss Honeyford’s classroom?” asked Timothy, the sound of the word making him more nervous with every articulation of it.
“It’s… it’s… oh, it’s awful, Timothy. Just awful. It’s this… this… thing. And Miss Honeyford… she just… she just can’t help bringing it out in the classroom. It’s like it’s got some sort of hold on her. All the kids in the classroom know that it is terrible, but Miss Honeyford, she just… she just loves that horrid thing.”
Timothy actively felt a chill bolt down his spine. He thought that just happened in books. What sort of a creature is a mumpsimus? I don’t like animals that are bigger than me. And I really don’t like reptiles. That chill spilled down him again, began to subside and then expanded at the shrill sound of the school bell ringing.
“Come on! We’d best get in.” Kelvin said, grabbing Timothy’s coat sleeve and giving it a tug. Timothy dutifully followed Kelvin as they made their way though the double doors – under those strange foreign words – and into the building. Kelvin led them through the corridors and into Mrs. Honeyford’s room where the mumpsimus awaited them.
The morning went by quickly, and there was no sign of the mumpsimus. Timothy spent most of the time scanning the room for this creature, but it was well hidden. At least it couldn’t be as big as he’d originally thought it was, which was a relief. They’d done some subtraction, learned some spellings and read some passages from a book about a badger. Timothy was really pleased that Miss Honeyford hadn’t made him stand up and introduce himself like some of his previous teachers had. Lunch was some unexceptional pasta bathed in a rather wan and feeble tomato sauce, served with some over-boiled, greying carrots. After they’d eaten lunch, Timothy had sat on the steps outside the gym and chatted to Kelvin, who told him all about the village and shared his repertoire of stories about other kids at the school. Timothy wanted to ask Kelvin about the mumpsimus but Kelvin was directing the conversation and he seemed to be enjoying delivering the potted history of his new classmates.
When they returned to their classroom after lunch, they took their seats and Miss Honeyford announced that she had some puzzles for the pupils to solve.
She handed worksheets out to each of the pupils but when she got to Timothy, she paused and withheld the paper from him. “Not for you, Timothy. I have something different for you.” Miss Honeyford said, seeming very pleased with herself. “I’ll just get it for you.” She walked to the filing cabinet next to her desk, opened the second drawer and her hand began flicking through the suspension files, her fingers dancing with a verve Timothy hadn’t noticed in her before. It sounded like she was humming a song too.
Kelvin leaned in to Timothy. “The mumpsimus!” he whispered. “She’s getting the mumpsimus out! Oh God! Poor you!”
Timothy felt a pang of horror. Oh my goodness. It was in that filing cabinet all this time! The mumpsimus. And now she’s going to set it upon him. He looked around the room at everyone else. They were all busying themselves with their puzzles. Weren’t they going to help him? Miss Honeyford started walking towards him with some paper carefully held out in front of her. It must be an insect of some sort, thought Timothy. It must be sat on that paper. He looked at Kelvin, who deliberately averted his eyes from Timothy’s and pretended – for Miss Honeyford’s benefit, thought Timothy – that he was completing his puzzle. Isn’t Kelvin going to help me? Isn’t anyone going to help me? Does this mumpsimus bite? Does it sting? What should I do?
But the more he let these thoughts dart through his mind, the closer Miss Honeyford had gotten to him. As she reached him she lowered the paper and placed it in front of him. Nothing. There was no insect on it. No creature at all. Just some writing.
“I’d like you to complete this quiz, Timothy. It just asks you some questions about how you usually learn things. It’ll help me work out how to teach you best. We all have what we call our ‘preferred learning style’. I’m a kinaesthetic learner. Kelvin here is a visual learner.” Timothy looked at Kelvin and saw him roll his eyes. “Some people say that learning styles don’t really exist but, even if they don’t, I think they are quite useful in helping me plan my lessons for you children. It doesn’t hurt to do things like this. I don’t care if everyone thinks it’s a load of old rubbish. We all have our little mumpsimuses, eh, Timothy? That reminds me, we forgot to do our Brain Gym before lunch.”