She read the words inside the retirement card one more time: Leave him. I love you. Graham.
A knock at the door made her close the card and push it into a drawer.
‘Good morning young man,’ she said.
‘You really do this with everyone?’ Scott asked, falling into the chair on the other side of her desk. ‘Every year?’
She nodded. ‘That’s right.’ She reached for the cards. ‘Looking forward to big school?’
Scott shrugged. ‘Think so.’
‘You’ll love it.’ She opened the box, took out the cards and placed the deck on the table, face-down.
‘That’s a lot of playing cards,’ Scott said, resting his elbows on the table and his chin on his fists. ‘If you do it every year — with everyone.’
‘A lot. 40 years worth.’ She looked about her office. ‘And this will be the final time.’
‘What do I do?’ Scott asked.
‘You know how to shuffle?’
‘Sure.’ With his tongue between his lips, his shoulders and neck hunched over the deck, Scott shuffled.
‘Keep going,’ she said. ‘That’s it.’
He handed her an untidy pile of cards.
‘Good job,’ she said, neatening the deck.
She watched Scott’s eyes narrow on her hands as she slid the cards into the box. He scratched the side of his head.
Placing the box on the table, she said, ‘The deck always feels heavier after it’s been shuffled.’
Scott raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s not though… is it?’
She shook her head. ‘Only seems that way.’ She tapped the box. ‘You know what the probability is, of there being another shuffled pack of cards in the same order as this one, anywhere in the world?’
Scott leaned back in his chair, looked up at the ceiling. ‘Probability?’
‘Don’t worry, this isn’t a lesson. Not the usual sort anyway.’
Scott stared at her, his lips mouthing sums. ‘There’s fifty two cards in a pack. So fifty two to one.’
‘Can see why you’d say that.’ She leaned closer to the cards. ‘The odds there has ever been, or ever will be, a shuffled pack of cards in this order, are so remote it’s virtually impossible.’
Scott edged forward on his chair, his neck stretched towards the cards. ‘Impossible?’
She nodded. ‘To work out the probability, you have to do some wild maths. You have to calculate, 52 x 51 x 50 x 49, and so on, all the way to 1. And the number you end up with is ridiculously big.’
‘Big?’ Scott asked, staring wide eyed at the pack of cards. ‘Like infinity?’
She smiled. ‘It may as well be infinity to one. It’s a number 68 digits long. That’s a number way bigger than all the people, the planets, the stars, the galaxies put together. Much, much bigger.’
Scott’s hand edged towards the cards, one of his eyebrows raised at her.
‘It’s ok,’ she said. ‘They’re yours.’
He took them, turning the box over and over in his hands.
‘And,’ she said, ‘if 52 pieces of card can be so remarkable, so unique, imagine how remarkable you must be. You’re far more complex than 52 cards Scott. There never has been, and never will be another you.’ She pointed to his chest. ‘Will you always remember that?’
Scott shrugged and nodded. The sound of children playing outside made him turn to the window. ‘Can I go now Mrs Taylor?’
‘Yes,’ she said, as if waking. ‘Of course. You go and play.’
Scott stood, pushing the cards into his pocket.
‘Remember what I said. About the cards.’
‘Yes Miss,’ Scott said, closing the door behind him.
She looked at the remaining pack of cards. There were no children left to speak to; she was done.
The bookshelf had been emptied. Three pot-plants sat huddled together on a table next to the door. A large brown box containing a framed photograph of James and their two children, books, a collection of retirement cards from staff, parents and children, sat on the floor in the middle of the room. Beneath the window were seven bouquets of flowers, each one stood in a large plastic cup of water.
She found herself reaching for the remaining pack of cards. After a minute shuffling, she held the deck in her hand; the deck was heavier when shuffled. She arranged the deck on the table, face-down.
High up on the wall opposite were seven photographs of smiling headmasters, each with their dates of service printed in gold on the wooden frame. Next to them was her own photograph, missing the final date.
She took the retirement card from her desk drawer and read it again: Leave him. I love you. Graham.
Sitting forward in her chair, she readied herself. With slow fingers, she peeled away one corner of the top card.
That sound. That sound of children playing on the playground had always been the same — was the same sound she’d heard on her first day 40 years before.
Her finger peeled back more of the top card; she focussed her thoughts on the sharp edge of the card pressed against her fingertips.
She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of children playing. Because the sound was the same year after year, it could only be borrowed. That sound, she thought, was free of cynicism, was honest; was filled with energy, expressed a want to be heard; was all about the present, indifferent to the future.
Still with her eyes closed, she turned over the card, placed it on the table and whispered, ‘Red, it’s Graham. Black, I stay with James.’
The odds: two to one.
By the time she opened her eyes, she’d decided which colour it would be.
Adam wakes far too early in a morning to write before he teaches English at a secondary school in the Black Country, UK. His stories have, or will soon appear in publications such as STORGY, Fictive Dream, Literally Stories, Firefly Magazine, Occulum, Flash Fiction Magazine & The Green Light. You can find links to his stories at adamlock.net. He is also active on Twitter @dazedcharacter.