I chalk the sums for the lesson across the black-board. I am momentarily interrupted by a flash of reflection in the long bank of windows to my left. It is not until the next occurrence that my brain unscrambles the reversed, silent, slow-motion image. A sandshoed boy leaps up the rear wall of the class-room. My back stands frozen. I know not what to do. Turning around is not an option. An intelligent response is required, not barked discipline.
A new vibe had filled the air. Although 34 backs were bent, and nearly the same number of black-leads were working the sums, a hum of expectation infused the room. To buy time, I continue to add the next long-division to the morning's list. Mesmerised, my eye registers the shower of powder as it cascades from the moving stick of chalk. Flash. And again, flash. The boy silently leaps. This is an initiation. There is an aim, I realise. As I scratch the final digit for the tenth long-division, I voice my intention to turn.
'Okay, Year 4, you now have twenty minutes to complete this exercise. Show all working.'
The vibe turns to barely audible groan, their arched backs slump. My perambulate of the room, takes me past a pair of newly whitened sandshoes, tucked around the leg of a chair. I guessed who was calling the shots here, and it wasn't Robbie. I turned, leaning against the rough brick courses of the rear wall. My eyes were trained on young Mr Englund, second from the front, left. When he cast a furtive glance, as I knew he could not resist, I eased the white chalk through the mortar groove about ten courses high. His sight tracked from my eye, to the thin line of white, then back to my eye. Exposed, he retreated to the set task. Checkmate? I should be so lucky. No point setting him double the work-load, as even one was beyond his ken.
'Doris, what is the drum with Robbie Jones at the moment?'
Even I thought Mrs Shirley to be a bit of a tartar, and did not enjoy her tug on my sleeve as I entered the staff-room for elevenses. She regaled me with a litany of infractions, some downright humourous, others of a more substantial gravity. I had learnt, as term eased into term, to listen and to nod, hearing her out, acknowledging her experience, if not her wisdom. I realised Robbie was becoming a handful, getting a reputation. I figured this to be his aim. Why else be at Glen Englund's beck and call? Why else do his bidding? Englund was loading the gun and, like desperate outsiders before him, Robbie was pulling the trigger.
'Get his parents in for a chat, sooner rather than later, please' and with that she vacated the small room, leaving her staff to their boorish whinges and eternal regrets. As she glided out to the verandah, however, talk moved from Gestetner ink and psychological testing, to football ladders and last night's tellie. I'd never had to do this before - confront a parent. With Robbie being newer to the school than me, I had never set eyes on his family. Something told me that neither had Mrs Shirley. A sense of dread lodged in the pit of my stomach.
'Robbie, would you get your Mum or Dad to pop in for a chat on Thursday afternoon, please?'
A deathly hush enveloped the room. I was caught by surprise. I had not expected this reaction. To be frank, I had not expected any reaction. Thirty three pairs of eyes were trained on me. I shifted my buttock where it perched on the front of the wobbly table. Just one tousle of knotted hair was bent over an exercise book, pencil frozen. Cutting through the silence from stage left, Glen's ten year-old nasal rasp took control.
'They're spazoids, Miss. Never leave the 'ouse.'
A suppressed giggle of culpability dominoed around the room. The harsh clatter of a lunch bell reverberated against a corrugated iron hoarding. Saved. They were off. Brown paper bags clutched in grubby hands. Tupper-ware containers tucked under smelly armpits. A waft of Vegemite and squashed banana trailed in their wake. A lone red-faced boy remained exposed at his desk. He uttered no sound. He cried no tears. Urine dripped down the chair leg, and puddled on the cracked linoleum.
Dryly clad in faded King-Gees from the storeroom, Robbie pushed the gate. Flakes of rusted iron fluttered down. We stood in front of an unkempt fibro house. The grass had gone to seed. A lank Easter Daisy splayed across the path. As Robbie led the way, I caught the flutter of net curtain. Splattered on the door, caked egg yolk was encrusted with shards of shell. Robbie turned the iron key. His shape filled the door frame.
My eyes took time to adjust to the gloom. A television screen spluttered in a far corner, a cascade of static. Two shapes stood beside a laminated kitchen table. Their eyes welded to Robbie's hands.The hands told who I was. The hands told why I was there. Patient. Eloquent. Robbie's hands responded to each guttural utterance; to each body jerk. They crafted the silence with tenderness, with respect. The hands conveyed understanding. The hands, in turn, were understood.
'Me Mum wants to know if you'd like a cuppa, Miss.'
Blood pounded through my inner ear, deafening the language for which I was desperate. In comparison with the hands, I was reduced to monosyllables.
Written in response to a prompt ('Softy-spoken bullets; Hardly-spoken lips') from the Tenth Daughter of Memory, a writers' collective
9 months ago