Number 43 by Diane Simmons

A prefect arrives and starts giving Susan even more instructions. It’s difficult to concentrate – there’s been so much to take in already today. And then there’s the beastly pants thing.

She forces herself to listen as the girl explains about 7 am cleaning duties, table setting rotas, brass polishing. The list of chores seems endless – are there no staff to do these things? It’s like something out of Jane Eyre. She looks down at her faded uniform and can feel her lip begin to wobble – she’d imagined a crisp cotton dress, not something beastly and second-hand.

‘Try not to blub,’ the prefect says. ‘Your parents will have sacrificed a great deal to send you here. It’s important to be happy – to be grateful.’

The memory of her parents’ angst about the school fees makes Susan even more upset. The whole family had gone without a holiday this year. She tries to sound firm. ‘My pants are hanging below the hem of my dress. I rather think I should have some smaller ones.’

The prefect looks at her like she’d asked for a fur coat. ‘That’s not how things are done here. You inherit all your clothes from the previous number 43, use her locker, her hockey stick etc. It’s just tough luck the last number 43 was a sixth former.’

‘I still don’t –’

The girl sighs. ‘Matron has surely explained already – six formers wear different uniforms to the rest of the school so you can’t inherit most of it – but the pants are the same.’

Matron had explained, but Susan had not believed it then and she can’t quite believe it now.

The bell rings for lunch and she follows the prefect to the dining hall, her legs shaking all the way. She wishes she could just hide under the bedclothes. Everyone’s bound to laugh when they see her.

‘Will the teachers and girls call me “Number 43”?’ she asks as they enter the dining room.

‘Goodness, no. What kind of school do you think this is?’

Susan looks around the busy room. Some of the girls glance across in her direction, but no one gawps or acts like there’s anything strange about her appearance. They don’t seem to notice her droopy pants at all.

 ‘I don’t know,’ she says. ‘I really don’t know.’

Widely published and anthologised, Diane Simmons is Co-Director of NFFD UK and a Director of Flash Fiction Festivals UK. Both her flash collection on the theme of grief Finding a Way (Ad Hoc Fiction) and her novella-in-flash An Inheritance (V. Press) were shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards. | @scooterwriter