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by Cathryn Norris
Lottie scratched at her chicken pox spots. She looked like a dog with fleas. Not that her dogs had fleas. In fact, her dogs were very well looked after.
She reached her hand down to stroke Gus, the old sheepdog, and he rewarded her with a warm lick.
She was so fed up being in bed, but Mum said she had to rest. At least she was allowed to have Gus for company.
“Just as a special treat,” Dad had said. “It’s not forever.”
Lottie lived on a sheep farm in the middle of the Somerset moors and normally, at this time of year, she’d be out with Mum helping with the lambing, or with Dad repairing fences. She might even have been messing about on the rope swings with her twin brothers, Zachary and Callum.
As she lay on her bed, dreaming of all the things she could be doing, she heard shouting from downstairs. Her brothers were back from school. Riversmeet Primary was a very small school: it only had 32 children, two teachers, one headteacher, two support staff and a hen who laid eggs on the school field.
It was their first day back after Easter. Lottie let out a long sigh, and braced herself; she knew her brothers would barge into her room soon. Callum was first, he thumped up the stairs and threw open her door, letting it bang against the wall with a thud.
“Hiya, Lottie,” he launched himself face first onto her bed. Gus leapt up, nuzzling Callum’s face.
“Get off my bed!” screamed Lottie. “Mum! Callum’s annoying me.”
Mum didn’t come. Instead, Zachary wandered in with a bowlful of cornflakes in his hand.
“I’m literally starving,” he said. “How’re you getting on, squirt?”
“Don’t call me squirt,” said Lottie, closing her eyes.
“We’ve got a new teacher,” said Callum, sitting up. “Miss Willow.”
Lottie opened her eyes and pulled Gus over to her so he lay in the crook of her arm.
“Seriously? What’s she like?” Lottie said
Zachary sat cross-legged on the floor and shrugged, “She’s alright.”
Pieces of cereal flew out of his mouth as he spoke, and Lottie scrunched up her nose in disgust. Gus leapt off the bed and licked up the soggy cornflakes.
“To be honest, she’s a bit of a drip,” continued Zachary, “She can’t control us.”
Callum laughed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Me and Freddie are going to run off tomorrow. She won’t notice we’ve gone, she’s in such a flap all the time.”
Lottie sat up, curious. Surely her brother wouldn’t really do that? She couldn’t wait until she was better. She wanted to meet Miss Willow.
And it wasn’t long before she did.
Lottie’s chicken pox scabs were quite visible on her bare legs and arms, but it felt good to put on her summer dress and short socks. Her friends hugged her as she walked into the classroom and they chattered about all the things she’d missed. Standing at the front of the class was Miss Willow. She was small, with long blond hair and a pretty, round face. She clapped her hands, trying to get everyone’s attention, but it wasn’t working. Lottie felt sorry for her and went over.
“Hello, Miss Willow, I’m Lottie.”
“Pleased to meet you, Lottie,” said Miss Willow. “Are you better? Why don’t you pull up a chair and sit next to me instead of the carpet today? Just as a special treat.”
Lottie smiled and did just that, but it took the rest of the class ten minutes to sit down. Miss Willow’s sky-blue eyes had tears in them, and Lottie felt a painful stab in her chest.
The behaviour got worse every day, and Lottie felt sorrier for Miss Willow.
One break time, as Lottie struggled with her coat’s zip, she heard sobbing coming from the cupboard. She crept over and peered through the door. Miss Willow wiped her eyes with a tissue.
“Miss Willow?” said Lottie. “Are you OK? Shall I get Mr Thomas?”
Miss Willow jumped, her cheeks turning scarlet.
“Oh, Lottie. No, I’m alright. Don’t bother the headmaster. I just had something in my eye.” She patted Lottie on the shoulder and smiled weakly.
Lottie nodded and stepped out of the cupboard, but instead of going to play, she stood behind the door and listened.
“Hello, is that the Teachers’ Care Line?” Miss Willow was on her phone. Lottie put her ear closer to the door. “…I had to leave my last job because I couldn’t cope. This is my last chance. They said they’d put me in a tiny school and I’d be OK. But, it’s not. It’s not OK!”
Lottie eyes widened. Poor Miss Willow! What could she do?
Things just got worse. During Maths, when Miss Willow was helping Ranjit Varma with his number bonds, Lottie could see Callum and Freddie through the window.
They were tearing across the fields behind the school. She bit her nails. What should she do? She didn’t want to get her brothers in trouble, but when she saw the horrified look on Miss Willow’s face, Lottie’s tummy tightened like a stretched rubber band.
Things didn’t improve the next day either, Lottie nearly fell off her chair when she saw her two best friends skipping over the fields instead of doing their phonics worksheet in class.
“Poor, poor Miss Willow,” she said to herself.
Later that evening, Lottie helped Dad to round up the sheep. Gus was showing the younger dogs how to do it properly, and Lottie beamed with pride. He really was an amazing dog, doing everything Dad told him. “Come bye!” Dad shouted.
“Away,” he called.
Lottie listened and watched carefully. An idea was beginning to brew.
Lottie waited until her brothers had left for school the next morning, and then slipped out of the house. Gus was herding some chickens around the courtyard. “Psst, Gus! Here, boy!”
Gus ran over, obedient as ever. She bent down and whispered in his ear, ruffling his thick coat, then the two ran down the lane before anyone could see.
When she got to school, Lottie took Gus behind the shed.
“Wait,” she said. “Good boy.”
Gus lay down, happy to chew a stick he’d found. The classroom was in chaos when Lottie hurried in. The boys were throwing book bags across the tables and the girls were practising their dance moves for the village show. Lottie bit her lip. Miss Willow jangled her tambourine and clapped her hands, eventually getting them to sit down. Lottie noticed her teacher’s hands were shaking.
During Maths, five children slipped out of the back door, across the playground and towards the fields. The teacher’s face went as pink as a raspberry. Lottie clenched her fists. She knew it was time.
“Leave it to me, Miss Willow,” she said.
Lottie scooted outside and whistled.
Gus galloped over and tilted his head to the side, listening to her instructions. Within seconds, he’d darted across the tarmac, leapt over a gate and headed towards the runaways. Lottie climbed on the fence and called out her commands to Gus.
Crouching low, Gus ran in front of the children, cutting off their path. They hesitated, then laughed nervously. Callum clicked his fingers, but Lottie knew Gus would obey her, not him.
The children backed away, but Gus ran after them, pretending to nip their heels. Half screaming, half laughing, the children charged around the field trying to escape, but Gus was in control.
It took him five minutes to round them up and herd them back to the playground. By now, the rest of the class and Miss Willow had come to watch. Gus sat in front of the runaways, and everyone clapped. Lottie jumped off the fence and placed her hand on his head.
“Good boy!” she said.
For the rest of the day, Gus sat by Lottie, and every time a child got out of their seat, she nodded at him and he’d herd them back. Miss Willow was delighted, and the children quite liked it too, it was great having a dog in the classroom.
When Mr Thomas came in, Zachary was sitting in the reading corner with his arm around Gus.
“What’s going on?” said the headteacher.
“Gus is helping the children with their reading, Mr Thomas,” said Miss Willow. “He’s a Reading Dog.”
“Ah,” said Mr Thomas nodding. “Good idea!”
And because Gus was an old dog, Lottie’s dad agreed that he could go to school every day instead of helping on the farm.
“He’s now the Behaviour and Reading Monitor,” said Lottie to Miss Willow. “He’s got a new job, just like you.”
Miss Willow smiled. “Children, you better watch out. I might bring in some sheep-shears next week, you all could do with a good haircut!”
Lottie narrowed her eyes and tucked her plait into the back of her dress. She knew Miss Willow was joking … but then again, did she really own some shears?