It was different from other exams she’d had to invigilate. The students weren’t sitting in rows at little desks. They were in semi-circle, tucked behind their easels. There was the normal exquisite silence however. But not the apprehension. She could tell by their faces that they were engaged and committed, ready to show off their best. They worked away with their pencils, brushes and charcoal sticks, never getting eye-contact with her or with each other.
Sun streamed through the large window, colouring the parquet floor toffee. Particles of dust floated in the light. She could see snowdrops outside and the crocuses looked ready to burst into flower. Even the daffodils had stems.
Still no sound except that of the pencils, brushes and charcoal sticks on the paper and occasionally of swirled water. She was warm and calm. It was so much easier to be here than in a class of fourteen-year-olds trying to distract her. Nobody could touch her here. Nobody could make any demands.
The students were working on a still-life. A tray of cheeses, a crusty loaf and a glass of celery sticks had been tastefully arranged on a table covered with a cream cloth. Each student saw it differently, she realised as she walked behind them and as unobtrusively as possible looked at each one’s work. It was not just because they were looking from slightly different angles. Stylised celery, here, almost a photograph there and one or two seeming to have no connection at all with what was on the table.
Someone should have come to relieve her by now, but she didn’t care; she was enjoying being inside this bubble. But she was hungry as there’d been no time for breakfast. She’d overslept a little because she’d been marking her own exam papers until 4.00 a.m. that morning.
Her tummy rumbled. She reached over and took one of the celery sticks.
The silence was shattered as she bit into it.
Then it returned, now more intense, as all activity stopped and twelve pairs of eyes now at last looked into hers.