Miss? Clair acknowledged the boy with Vegemite smeared across his cheek with a small nod. It wasn’t the child’s fault he didn’t know her surname, but the loathsome title rankled. She gave the boy permission to fetch his hat out of his bag and resisted looking at her watch. It was a game she played. How accurately she could predict the passing of five minutes. The reward was five minutes having passed and nailing time on its despotic head. If she overestimated, being wrong was even better.
Don’t wish your life away, her Aunt Jan would say.
The bell rang when she expected. The sound was as ugly as a fire alarm; an abrasive self-important shriek that was nothing like a bell. Bell, like Miss, was a schoolism that should have gone the way of inkpots and slates.
Recess was over. Students scurried like forest animals to the assembly area. Clair waded through the bobbing blue sea to stand in front of her class. 2B. She’d had them before; they were okay. There was only one boy, Thomas, who was a bona fide little shit. He was spinning his hat around by its cord like a lasso. She sidled between two rows of squirming children and ordered Thomas, without raising her voice, to sit down and put his hat on. She hoped Mrs Hampton-Pask noticed the intervention. A relief teacher was only as good as her last day.
Another casual teacher – a slim woman of about fifty, with a styled bob and professional blonde highlights – gave Clair a tight smile. The woman stood hunched, arms across her chest, against the icy May wind that whisked crisp, tawny leaves, Gladwrap, and empty bright-coloured packets across the asphalt. They’d performed perfunctory greetings a few times, but Clair couldn’t remember her name. Just another Miss with a rising inflection.
She led 2B to their classroom, compartmentalising the next hour and fifty minutes, snapping it like a Salada into manageable chunks: reading groups, handwriting, R.E. She’d been asked to supervise the students who didn’t go to Scripture. The fortifying powers of a deep breath were a myth.
At ten to three Clair clapped her hands. Two slow, three quick: a rhythm supposed to make the children stop, listen and imitate. The technique was losing its effect. She used her cranky voice to arrest the remaining third, then instructed them to pack up: put their worksheets, books and pencils away in their tidy trays. Another misnomer. The plastic compartments beneath their desks were designed to impose order and uniformity, but were really recesses of clutter and chaos. Scrunched and torn paper, broken pencils and shavings, crayon stubs, workbooks with curled corners, mandarin peel – even mouldy sandwiches. The wreckage inside hidden from sight.
The classroom was superficially tidy and the children stood behind their desks when the deputy appeared at the door.
‘Good afternoon, 2B.’
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Hampton-Pask.’
Funny how kids exaggerated their own singsong greeting, feeding off each other, as though conspiring to mock the whole ritual. The bell rang. Clair said a formal goodbye and let them go.
‘How did you go today, Clair?’
‘Good. They’re a nice class. Thomas was a bit of a handful, but he calmed down after lunch.’
‘If Thomas is ever a problem don’t hesitate to send him to me.’
Sending children to the deputy was a queen sacrifice. The immediate threat to your sanity was removed, but your position was ultimately weakened. Your competence questioned.
‘Are you available tomorrow and Wednesday? Tina just called and she’ll be away another two days at least. A nasty bronchial infection, apparently.’
Clair said yes. Her rent was now guaranteed, and she liked being walking distance from work, even if it meant another two days of Thomas. The devil you know and all that.
The wind had picked up. Warning drops spat from the charcoal cloud mass coming in from the coast. Clair hurried up the hill to her apartment: one of six in a dark-brick Art Deco building with smooth corners and a tiled foyer. She avoided a drenching by seconds. School would be a special kind of awful if the rain didn’t ease tomorrow, but it was the loveliest thing in the world right now. She stood in the alcove off her bedroom where she kept her art supplies and watched the downpour, unbothered by her dusty collection of unfinished canvasses.
A text message bleated on her phone.
Darren was over half an hour late. She should have told him she was busy, but she’d wanted company. Her flatmate was out for the night. Clair had suggested they walk up to the restaurant hub around the corner and get dinner out – Thai or a pizza maybe – but he said he’d rather just come over and ‘hang out’. Stingy and transparent. She offered to cook instead and now the noodle stir-fry was congealing in the wok. She dished some into a bowl; it was lukewarm but she was too hungry to care.
He arrived when she was washing up. He wasn’t so much full of excuses as the semantics of what ‘see you at 7’ meant.
They fucked twice. She could have taken the initiative to get on top and instigate her own orgasm, but she wanted to see if he’d put in the effort. He didn’t and she wondered, not for the first time, why she bothered with him. He left at ten without her trying to dissuade him.
The sky was undecided when Clair left in the morning, but it would have been daring not to take an umbrella. It was a handsome school. A two-storey structure of russet brick with large blue-framed windows fronted the main road. Around the corner a large camphor laurel stood sentry inside the gate. Clair walked across the sideways-sloping basketball court, its surface dark in patches from the overnight rain, to an old sandstone building to collect the keys and make a cup of instant coffee.
She climbed the stairs to the classroom, leaving a trail of wet beige dots in her wake.
You could tell a lot about a teacher by their desk. Tina had a plastic organiser with six different coloured drawers: lead pencils, pens, sharpeners, erasers, stickers and stamps. On the shelf beside the desk she kept stacked document trays for worksheets. Homework. Spelling. Maths. English. Her drawers showed the same need for neat classification. Clair used some of Tina’s L’Occitane hand cream and took a red jellybean from a jar that once contained salsa. What drew people like Tina to teaching she couldn’t fathom. Childhood was shambolic. How did she cope with the disposition towards mayhem and squalor? Clair found it exhausting.
She needed to impose her own order on the day, partition it in such a way that the dread – doughy in her gut – of keeping twenty-six children occupied for five hours was sliced thin enough to dissolve like a communion wafer. She took a sip of tepid International Roast. On a sheet of A4, and in consultation with Tina’s weekly planner, she timetabled Tuesday into submission. Hashtag divide and conquer. She went downstairs to photocopy a page of sums and a colouring-in activity for just in case.
The other relief teacher was there. Clair remembered her name: Ms Linton. What the kids called her, anyway. Heather? Or maybe Helen Linton?
‘Sorry. I’m almost done,’ she said.
‘You’re fine. No hurry.’ Clair looked at the clock and rubbed the ragged edge of her thumbnail. ‘Who have you got today?’
‘2M. Reading groups are straight after recess, aren’t they?’
‘Yep. You’ve got the Penguins. Send your Pelicans to me. Magpies to Maria and Owls to David. The kids know where to go anyway… It’s Heather, isn’t it?’
‘Sorry. I wasn’t sure.’
‘That’s okay.’ Helen smiled. Her eyes almost disappeared into the soft creases of her lids. ‘And you’re Clair, yes?’
By six o’clock night had fallen like a dusty stage curtain. Wads of cloud, settled low over the city, blocked all but the most persistent celestial light. Clair drove to her community college art class, splinters of light rain illuminated in the streetlights. Last week their task was to select a painting by one of the masters with the aim of reproducing it. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Café Terrace at Night were the popular choices. Clair chose Matisse’s Odalisque, one of his many paintings to feature an odalisque, but the only one named so without an addendum. She picked it as much for its title – a beautiful word she could roll around in her mouth like a boiled lolly – as its colour, loose uninhibited edges and elegant simplicity. A deceptive simplicity, Clair discovered when she tried to sketch an outline of the young woman’s reclining form. Her posture was reminiscent of how Clair often fell asleep in front the TV: her head nestled in one hand propped against a cushion, the other resting on an upright bent knee.
She was fifteen minutes early, but others were already staking their easels. Clair set up her canvas at the back. She tipped tubes of oil paints from their calico bag, and picked what she needed to create the heightened skin tone for her odalisque. She wanted to work on the face, try and capture the enigma of the girl’s expression: exhaustion, disappointment, boredom, or just deep in thought? It seemed different to Clair each time she looked.
An hour later the girl’s face was a lopsided brown blob. Noticing Clair’s sighs and the circling of her wrist, the teacher – Ben – came over to have a look. He suggested she leave it alone and work on something else, the pants maybe.
The red for the culottes needed to be intense, but bright: vermillion, like some kinds of chillies, or a field of poppies. She squeezed a generous glob of red paint onto the palette and added dashes of yellow until satisfied with the mix.
When done with the red, she approximated Matisse’s relaxed lines, gratified to see the contours of the girl’s torso and legs taking shape in the sketchy dark creases.
She packed up pleased with herself, despite the over-painted but blank face. They would spend one more week on it before Ben set them a new project. A group was filing out of another classroom across the hall. She’d never seen them there before. Helen was among the crowd, but was gone before Clair could wave.
Her flatmate had stuck a note on her bedroom door. Her mother, Rhonda, had called. It was too late to ring her back.
She turned on the desk lamp in her alcove and placed the faceless odalisque on the table easel. She pulled a printout of the original off the corkboard. She liked it even more in soft light. The girl was definitely dozing.
Her own efforts seemed less impressive now. It looked forced the way she tried to blur the distinction between outer and inner, more like she couldn’t stay in the lines properly. Matisse made bleeding edges look natural and effortless.
Her mother had scolded her once as a child for giving a man a pink shirt and a red vest in a picture for a colouring-in competition. Rhonda had ripped up the entry and thrown it in the bin. Clair didn’t understand why red and pink could not go together, but her mother was adamant it was a serious colour violation and Clair had blown any chance of winning, even though she had stayed in the lines as instructed. Matisse, from what she’d seen of his many portraits, did not receive either memo.
Grey shapeless clouds shifted and jostled for position as Clair waited out the last three minutes of her lunchtime duty. She felt a droplet on the back of her hand, followed by two more, and pitied whoever came to take over from her.
Helen waved on approach to the junior playground. Clair pointed to the sky and shrugged with raised palms. ‘I’ll let them know it’s starting to rain. If it’s just drizzling they’ll keep them outside.’
‘I think I’d rather be out here than inside with them.’
‘I saw you last night. At the high school. I do an art class there.’
‘That would have been my support group. Our usual room was being painted or something.’
‘Oh, right. Right.’
‘It’s okay. It’s a support group for parents who have lost children to suicide.’ Helen clutched her mug in both her hands, close to her chin. Steam wafted onto her face. ‘I lost my daughter,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. How old was she?’
‘Seventeen. She would have been twenty-one this year. I can talk about it now, just. It’s taken a while though.’ She gave Clair that strange compact smile, her eyes vanishing beneath their weary curtains.
Clair felt porous; as though she had absorbed Helen’s grief, experienced the thick texture of it, through her skin. If she had been a different kind of person, someone less constrained, she would have squeezed Helen’s arm, or something.
‘I’m so sorry.’
Helen patted her on the shoulder. ‘It’s okay. I’m okay.’
‘Miss. Miss Stevens.’ The boy tugged on Clair’s dress. ‘Thomas just pushed me over and he’s telling everyone I can’t play and then when I tried to play the game he threw bark at me.’
‘I’ve got this,’ Helen said. ‘You go. Go and have your lunch.’
It was her aunt who told her. Clair started probing as a teenager, asking questions her mother said she didn’t have answers to. But Aunt Jan was going through a therapy stage. The truth had to be told and it had to be the whole truth.
‘Your father left when you were two’ meant he left via a lead pipe over the shower recess and two of her mother’s bras hooked together and twisted into an improvised rope. A month earlier Rhonda had caught him wearing her clothing.
Rhonda didn’t speak to her sister for almost three years.
By three o’clock the rain was torrential. Clair held her red umbrella like a shield going up the hill, fending off bullets of rain strafed sideways by the wind. She hadn’t been asked to take 2B tomorrow; presumably Tina’s antibiotics were working. The weather guaranteed she would receive a call in the morning from somewhere – if not that school, then another.
When it came, at 6.09am, Clair didn’t answer. She let it ring out, then turned her phone off. She lay back in bed and pulled the doona up to her ears. She could hear the swish of water under car tyres and the patter of rain that had settled in. A single heavy drip outside the window kept time like a metronome. Today she would paint, pop coloured jubes in her mouth and suck off the sugar without thinking. Let things – herself – bleed at the edges. Later, maybe in the evening, she would call her mother back.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.