The Good Teacher by Richard Anderson

Sarah

Sarah knew.

She knew the minute she squeezed into the too-small chair at the pushed-together desks and saw them sitting at the other end, side by side, beneath the higgledy-piggledy row of paintings of ‘My House’. Their faces looked normal, if a little tense, but their bodies couldn’t pretend indiffer­ence: they were glowing, turned away from one another in a battle not to swoon.

Sarah had to look elsewhere, up at the papier-mâché fish with bulging eyes suspended from the ceiling, and then down into her handbag to search for something nonexistent, cer­tain that everyone else at the meeting would be wondering, too, where on earth they could safely look. As the minutes dragged, she strained to hear if anyone was brave enough to mention it in hushed tones or corner-of-the-mouth intrigue. No-one was.

And when she forced herself to look up (she couldn’t look in her handbag all night) she saw no sign that anyone else was aware that the relatively new, young principal, Brock Kelly, and the very married president of the P&C and pil­lar of the community, Jennifer Booth, had obviously been getting it on.

The mothers were happy and relaxed, smiling and chirp­ing in their usual fashion: Pam Loathe (little Amelia was her fourth child to go through the school), Betty Thom­son (community talker), Susie Green (secretary or perhaps lieutenant), Elise Taylor (who wished for Susie’s job), sweet Angela Crown, and the others. It was a normal Ordinary Meeting of the Parents and Citizens’ Association of the Stony Creek Primary School—student body: fifteen; staff: one (not including P&C-funded casuals), the second-last night of the school term before the three-week autumn holi­day. The school was a standard one: a long timber building with verandah, a sports equipment shed, a toilet block, play equipment above soft fall, a Covered Learning Area (COLA), P&C planted trees (claret ashes and rivergums) and a sports area that, if it was bigger, might have been an oval. The classroom was air-conditioned and jam-packed with com­puters, SMART Boards, technical gear and the artistic and academic creations of the month of March (which included that fish). And all of this sat as the focus, and indeed the mainstay, of the tiny village of Stony Creek: four streets and thirty houses, several hours drive from the coast and just as many from any state border. As a village, it was only a few half-hearted hymns above the terminal category ‘hamlet’.

Sarah took out a pen, put the minutes of the last meeting on the table and scribbled on them, trying to make believe that she was re-reading them. It was a pathetic ruse. No one read the minutes, not even Susie Green, who took them, and certainly not Sarah. Her brain was spinning, trying to find a logical path to understanding what was going on. Either the other members simply hadn’t noticed or didn’t care what Brock and Jennifer got up to or were much better at masking their feelings than Sarah had ever realised. But which? Was it possible to not notice something so carnal in this small room full of childish things? And who wouldn’t be scan­dalised to hear of such a liaison? Affairs and divorces might be fashionable in the city, but not here. In the Stony Creek district an affair was incest, if not technically at least mor­ally. Except of course if you took up with a new principal.

The only reasonable assumption was that the women around her were far superior in controlling their emotions than she had ever understood.

Sarah was particularly bad at hiding her own feelings and, up until this point, had considered that failing to be a virtue. But now, looking around the room, muscling up a smile, she realised she was adrift from this world. These peo­ple were statues. They could conceal anything. Susie Green was the kind of loyal deputy who would not be able to see wrongdoing in Jennifer even if it slapped her in the face. But Angela? Sweet Angela? The woman she shared biscuits and jokes with as often as she could? Surely she wouldn’t conceal something like this? She had to be as shocked as Sarah, but she showed nothing.

Sarah had always prided herself on being intuitive and sensitive to people, but here were mothers she had spent the best part of the last decade with and she obviously didn’t know them at all. What other terrible things had these women, her friends, seen and concealed from her? What else had they not batted an eyelid at? Perhaps everyone was swapping partners, getting it on in every recess of every public building. Maybe betrayal was as normal for them as loyalty.

All the time she could feel the eyes of that damn fish ogling her as if to say: ‘How naive are you? Surely you knew they wouldn’t trust you with this sort of information?’

Not that Sarah held any prudish, middle-class ideas about sex or even fidelity for that matter, but betrayal and public displays of it were an entirely different matter. And Jennifer Booth with the principal? Jennifer, who was afraid of noth­ing: who had stared down department heads and even local members when the interests of the school or the community were at stake; who took on the job even though her own daughter had long since left the school?

Jennifer brought the meeting to order in her usual com­manding manner: clear, polite and forceful. Perhaps Sarah had misread their body language. Easily done. Jennifer’s body language now gave nothing away except: ‘Pay attention.’

Sarah sorted her notes with shaking hands and deter­mined to concentrate on the meeting and forget what she thought she’d seen. They were discussing a recent cake drive and what might be done to improve it for next year.

Jennifer listened without interrupting for a while, but before the talk could spin off into a multitude of tangents as it often did, she stepped in. By that time, Sarah was much

less agitated. Her breathing had slowed. Her suspicions dulled. When Jennifer spoke Sarah was able to look at her without feeling her face flush. She’d made a mistake. That was all. Jennifer and Brock were not bonking and the idea was best forgotten.

So Sarah listened, reassured, as Jennifer, in her no-nonsense fashion, created order from the mess of observations, recol­lections and irrelevancies. Everything was normal. She really must stop jumping to conclusions just because of a ‘feeling’. It was good to be calm again and look around at the pleas­ant faces of her friends. Her senses had returned to an equi­librium and she even fancied she smelt chrysanthemums in the garden (or was it air-freshener?) and a waft of smoke from the recently burnt wheat stubble across the road from the school.

But then she noticed, in a hand at the end of a calm wrist, a pen was being wiggled to the point of meltdown. While Jennifer sat upright and spoke coolly, the pen was a mad tail, wagging obvious, unstoppable sexual energy.

Sarah felt her blood pulsating around her body, prickling over her scalp and flushing out to the tips of her fingers. The fish might have tried to ridicule her, but the pen knew the truth. It was time to leave. She stood, muttered something about ‘unwell’, ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ and left.

She had to walk past Jennifer to get out of the room and so she kept her head down to avoid eye contact. It meant she saw the floor, Jennifer’s shoes and the contents of Jennifer’s slightly open handbag. Later she would wonder if she really had seen a pack of cigarettes in among the jumble.

As she strode out to the car she knew they’d be worrying about her sudden exit. Or she might have known that a few hours ago. Now she wasn’t sure that they weren’t cackling with laughter at her discomfort or making snide comments about her many failings. She could hear them saying: ‘Poor Sarah, she’s only just worked out what’s going on. Imagine that.’

Jennifer

For the second time that day Jennifer was surprising herself, if not downright astounding herself.

She was conducting the meeting as if nothing had happened— as if she had not just been in that office, a couple of metres from where she sat, half-naked and noisy, not fifteen minutes ago. She was still clammy in places she hadn’t been for years. No one would ever guess by her manner or her deportment, not even her husband, Andy, what she had just been doing. Her words came out without a quaver. Her eyes were dry, her face unlined. Jennifer Booth was organised and in control. Everything was as normal.

Everything except for that damn pen. She tried putting it down but then her hand started to drum loudly on the table. She picked the pen up again and gripped it tightly, forcefully, but it wouldn’t stop. All she could do was ignore it. Let them make of it what they would.

At first she had thought everyone was looking at her, knowing and appalled. She stared them down, ready to deny insinuation and even accusation. But gradually she realised they were focused on fundraising and family matters and the trivia of their week. They knew nothing of the drama in her heart and her head. What little people they were, oblivi­ous to the passions of the world, only half alive. Still, she’d known that long before she’d had animated congress on the principal’s desk in among the requisitions for sports gear and counting books.

Except for Sarah Howard. Sarah looked peaky. And was it her imagination or did she flash, right at the beginning, the briefest look of shock, and even disapproval, before she looked up and away? Was there something she’d seen? Something left over: hair from Brock’s moustache? Part of a requisition stuck to her top? Jennifer nonchalantly ran her hands down her shoulders and wiped her face. And then Sarah was gone, citing illness. Probably that was all it was. The walls were no doubt lined with generations of gastric bugs, conjunctivitis and diarrhoea.

And now, as the meeting devolved into quibbling over whether they should serve cake or slices at the next event, Jennifer had to fight the temptation to relive that moment on the desk: a remarkable, unhinged moment; if she hadn’t been so in it she might have been out of her body, somewhere above, marvelling at herself and what was going on.

She couldn’t actually remember the last time she was interested in sex, let alone ravenous for it. Occasionally she submitted to one of Andy’s perpetual suggestions, but the pleasure was limited and an inconvenience more than anything. Of course, she knew the gratification would be greater if she could stop herself running through checklists in her head of things to do and things that hadn’t been done. Something about sex with Andy aroused in her a sense of duty and a sense of duty not done. Certainly not the things he hoped would be aroused.

It hadn’t always been that way. In the early years she liked nothing more. But a child, a house, responsibility, a big workload—and knowing a man so well you could predict his next ten moves—destroyed desire.

Sudden, inappropriate, illicit sex with Brock was so dif­ferent, so unexplainable there was no way of understanding it. It was, at the very least, out of character.

But it wasn’t unexpected. She’d known it was coming the minute he made that stupid comment—‘Not if I see you first’—at his house after she’d spent ten minutes sur­reptitiously surveying the flatness of his stomach and the smoothness of his skin. She’d had a boyfriend who used to say it. The only real boyfriend before Andy and her only other sexual partner of any significance. She didn’t under­stand what he meant then and was still none the wiser but it was like hearing a song from two decades ago and being instantly transported. She wanted what he had and she wanted it now.

But she had to wait until he arrived at the same conclu­sion himself. She would not be a predator. She would wait for him to move. The risk that he would be revolted by an older woman, married and matured by childbirth, was too great. She knew from beach holidays that compared to other women of her age (only just forty) she was in good shape, but that wasn’t necessarily any consolation to a man (she imagined) who was used to the pertness of women in their twenties.

When he’d finally, daringly, squeezed her buttock, even though she had responded to it almost immediately, she’d almost laughed out loud. The simpleness of men. He could have asked her round for a drink to discuss the meeting or written her a secret note but, no, he had grabbed her on the arse. Thankfully she had been bending over at the time and her gluteus maximus was suitably flexed.

She dared not even imagine what would happen if Andy or their daughter Madison, or anyone in this meeting, found out. If she thought too much about the worst pos­sible outcomes she knew she would fall apart, collapse in an amorphous mess of flesh and blood. Her little orange plastic seat was a perch on a knife edge. On one side she could see life continuing as normal: husband, daughter, family, farm, business, community, garden, school; and on the other, the complete destruction of everything.

And yet she couldn’t honestly say to herself that she regret­ted it in any real way.

She wasn’t in love with Brock, she was pretty sure any­way. She had no need for love or romance or understanding any more than she’d previously had a need for sex. He was a good-looking man in a tanned, hairy sort of way. Jenni­fer knew he was in his early thirties (she had checked) and he was fit, slim and managed to make joggers with socks pulled up a bit too high look passable. But even that didn’t matter. Something strange inside her craved his maleness: young, out of context, linked to nothing she’d ever known, maleness.

She shifted in her seat and tried to make sense of what was going on in the meeting.

Betty Thomson was asking her favourite question about whether they should have the water from the bubblers tested for quality and chemicals. It was somewhere in the department notes that schools should test water quality, and Betty wasn’t the sort of person to let something like that go, despite the fact that kids had been drinking water from the bubblers that came from the rain that fell on the bloody roof and ran into the tank for fifty years without incident.

Jennifer forgot Brock for a moment and looked into the restless eyes of Betty Thomson. It was commonly accepted that women were good with detail and, while she agreed, Jennifer often thought it was to their detriment. She liked to say to them: ‘Just let it go’, but knew it upset them and made them feel fussy and inconsequential.

Then Elise complained again about the barbecue never being properly cleaned and how it was a health and fire haz­ard and Angela brought up the topic of the garden bed that ran the length of the front of the school. Half the plants in it were dead and the other half were weeds. They had been meaning to rehabilitate it for months. Could they set a date to do something about it?

‘Spring,’ Jennifer said, and closed the meeting.


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