Arlene followed Steve’s gaze. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He said, ‘First thing Monday,’ then he tightened his grip around the neck of the paper bag, something to eat in his office once the bell rang and all the students and teachers were in their classrooms. Immediately Arlene wanted one too, then, a doughnut with sugar crystals on top. There were still four or five on display in the plastic cabinet at the school canteen. But would she have time to eat it before class? And, if she hurried to finish it, would sugar get caught in the pinch parts of her lips? Some of her students were bound to find that funny, not that she cared. Jay Bennison, with his mouth open in a bray of laughter, big horsey teeth showing, and the girls, Jasmine and Bella and Olivia, fingers pressed to their lips. ‘Um, Miss? You’ve got something …’
‘First thing Monday,’ Steve said and smiled without opening his mouth, tired and worn out. And then he stared right at her. Surely he was thinking she was worthless and too large for his confined and neat space. Arlene felt her big beige shapeless bra beneath her shirt and the thud of her heart.
She watched Steve’s back as he walked away, then followed him at a distance to the administration building. He walked down the hall in his suit and those flash sneakers that everyone knew he’d bought in Japan. She wondered if he knew she was there. Without turning, he bounded up the last few steps to his office.
Arlene stopped and said hello to his secretary, stupid Debbie, who chitter-chattered non-stop even through all this latest drama. Then Arlene went the other way down the hall and crossed over to the post boxes where all the staff got their daily messages and mail. Printed on a sticker beneath the first box was ‘Steve McMahon—Principal’ and Arlene stared at it, black writing on a white sticker, for so long that the letters turned into numbers then the numbers turned into cells under a microscope, then the cells into arrows. She wanted to do something to that sticker, to the envelopes and stack of white and yellow pages that were lying inside. Perhaps removing a slip of paper would trip him up, even for a bit.
‘Hello again!’ Debbie said, rushing through the doorway. She stood at the sink and rinsed her mug. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
‘Oops, that’s the bell!’ Debbie set the mug down with a clang in the dish drainer.
‘So it is,’ Arlene said, and stupid Debbie laughed.
Arlene spoons powdered chocolate into her favourite blue teacup, adding a dash of boiling water, mixing it to a paste. Then the warm milk. A Sunday afternoon tradition. There’s nothing to be nervous about tomorrow, isn’t that what Debbie had said while she switched off the lights in the office on Friday afternoon? Or did she use the words in particular, or as far as I know? People who work with children every day should be clearer. That’s yet another thing Arlene knows. Things with teenagers can be misconstrued so easily.
Later in life it’s a badge of honour for famous people who were lazy-bones ratbags at school to look into the camera and say, ‘My teacher said I’d never amount to anything,’ and the crowd goes wild and the TV presenter beams. My teacher said indeed. Arlene had never said those words. None of her colleagues would ever say such a thing. Maybe an oblique comment about persistence or skill-set or attitude—god, let’s talk about attitude, Arlene thinks. But out of all the things, those comments are the ones remembered? Well, it hurts. That they don’t hear the bit about adverbial phrases or narrative voice in Heart of Darkness or Harald Jäger at the Berlin Wall. Of course not. But to use newfound fame to drag someone’s name—and profession—through the mud on live television is just plain wrong.
That boy Alex had been a ratbag.
In the Briscoes’ yard, the big dog Froggett starts up with his barking. Would her neighbours be back today? Or was it Sunday next week? Arlene had listened through her open laundry window to Mrs Briscoe speaking on the phone before they left for holidays with all four children—a nightmare indeed. Mucky, screechy kids they are. She flinches at the dog’s barking, the poor thing sounding utterly miserable. Her earlier calmness drains away. How funny that dog owners seem not the least bit interested in dogs. But Arlene, now tired and on edge, shouldn’t poke her nose in.
She wakes up to the barking, again. Panic bulges. Her first thought is that it’s Monday morning already. But yellow afternoon light winks through the gaps in her blinds. Just a Sunday afternoon nap. More barking, rising in pitch and alarm, until Arlene lifts herself out of the window seat and checks outside. There’s no movement on the street. In the kitchen she finds two ends of a loaf of raisin bread and half a cup of grated cheese in a packet in the fridge. She tips the whole lot into an ice-cream container and then she pushes through the timber gate that separates her house from her neighbours.
The Briscoes’ yard is nothing more than four or five concrete slabs, unconnected, like dominoes scattered, with weeds in between. The children’s paddling pool is puddled, half-inflated, in the corner. On the clothesline are thin towels pegged tightly, faded and stiff from days in the sun, a pair of men’s boxer shorts and two women’s bras. Arlene would never dry her underwear outside. Since girlhood she has hung it over the railing inside her wardrobe, leaving the door open an inch so the whole lot can breathe.
‘I’ll have Debbie schedule an email invite for first thing Monday,’ Steve had said. That jam doughnut in its white paper bag, Arlene can picture it now.
She lifts the latch to open the gate to Froggett. A slice of the yard appears and Froggett’s face is pressed up, snarling, but harmless. She edges through and he is on her. Not barking but almost speaking: rowrowrowrow. His excitement and the smell of him are nauseating. She drops the ice-cream container and Froggett puts his nose in for a sniff, but he’s more interested in her. The German Shepherd is too big for this yard. She’s not afraid of him one little bit and it’s almost flattering the way he seems to think she’s capable of playing with him. He weaves between her legs like a cat. She lifts a foot to get around him but she trips and strikes her head on the hot metal latch. Her mind is chaotic with pain. She panics: no-one will find her, no-one will miss her, a body laid out in the sun.
She feels the tender skin above her right temple and realises it has split open. She stumbles. Steadying herself on the fencepost, she pushes Froggett off with her free hand. She lets herself sob at the sudden agony, hoping no-one has seen. Stupid dog, bad dog.
Alex had been bad, nothing oblique about it.
She stumbles out. Froggett’s face is pushed up to the gaps in the fence. As she closes the gate behind her, she thinks, vaguely, water? But surely the Briscoes would have left water. If people are fancy enough to go away on holidays, they can damn well direct a hose into a bowl. That poor wet nose. ‘Okay, that’s enough, Froggett dog,’ she says loudly. She touches her forehead and when she brings her fingers in front of her eyes there is blood.
Serves her right. Live and let live, hadn’t that always been her motto? Not enough people these days can leave well enough alone. Everybody has an opinion, nobody has ever done a bad thing themselves. Oh, one day in town she had watched a girl—couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18—chasing after her daughter on the street. When she caught the toddler she told her what she was going to do and then she did it: pulled down her pants and gave her a couple of quick hard smacks on her naked bottom. Arlene stood, keeping her opinion to herself. But others around her couldn’t help themselves. A pair of young women clomping past in heels said, ‘That’s actual child abuse.’ An old man watering plants outside a shop told the mother she should keep her hands to herself. ‘Go fuck yourself,’ the mother had told him. Arlene’s breath caught in her throat, but that’s what you got for putting your nose in: a go fuck yourself and zero gratitude.
For many years, she would have given anything to have a small child of her own. The wish of him, this never-been son, was a bright bead of an idea until, one day, aged about 45 or 46, she’d woken up from a nap in that grim and grey time before dinner, and all the shininess and possibility of a baby in denim overalls had gone. He would never exist, and she regretted what a fool she’d been. Now here was another thing she must endure. Why must things come together for other people?
Arlene’s mind flashes once again to the meeting due to take place in Steve’s office tomorrow. She has forgotten about it for at least half an hour, since the trip through the gate to Froggett. None of it is her business. Why must she be the one at fault? She who has moved through life, knitted as small as possible, trying to never touch the sides. She returns from the bathroom with a band-aid, smoothing it above her eyebrow. She tears the band-aid wrapper into tiny pieces and is seating herself in a straight-backed dining room chair, when the telephone rings from the wall in the kitchen. Arlene is still. She is suddenly woozy. She pictures the red macramé owl on the wall beside the receiver, its nutty eyes and fish-like tail. The phone rings out to silence. Then it starts up again. She steadies her hand and reaches for the blue teacup beside her. The persistence of this caller. Finally, it’s silent.
‘First thing Monday,’ Steve had said. She’s known Steve for years—well before he became her principal. Here was a man who was nothing more than every other young male graduate who slept off hangovers under their desks, while women like Arlene covered their classes. Arlene had known many Steves and many Debbies, Alexes, Yvonnes. She’d passed them on playground duty, tried to teach them. Car-pooled with them into town for the swimming carnival. Some of her students had given her Christmas presents, let Steve not forget that. One 15-year-old who found it hard to make friends presented her with a drawing he’d done in art class. On the back he’d written, ‘Don’t give up and may you never forget who you are.’ Imagine that. Of course she had kept it.
The fooling around between Alex and Yvonne—Miss Gallagher—had started after the swimming carnival the previous year, apparently. Arlene absolutely did not know this part of the drama. All that bare skin at the pool and sticky sunscreen, hair dyed green and blue with soggy twists of crepe paper covering every damn surface. From what Arlene had heard, it had gone on for at least five months.
Steve’s sneakers, the ones from Japan, are grey and yellow. This man, their boss, announces at staff meetings, ‘I’d better start wearing something more professional with these suits,’ and Arlene’s colleagues chuckle. But of course he never does; it’s his ‘thing’. Men get away with that sort of business. Women get to cover their classes. Men like Steve get to call Arlene to interrogation meetings to see what Arlene may or may not know. They get to grill women with impunity, clean forgetting about their own transgressions.
‘First thing Monday,’ he had said, and smiled. Arlene sets her cup down. She could do with a sandwich or a few crackers to fix her blood sugar after this dizziness. Froggett begins to bark again. It echoes through the house. She touches her clammy, plasticky forehead. She’s done her bit.
But she thinks again, water, and pictures the yard. The water in the slumped pool is probably crawling with bugs, microscopic parasites. Her neighbours should be ashamed. Arlene crosses through to the kitchen. In one hand she collects four salty crackers, pops two in her mouth and takes two more. With the other hand she fetches another empty ice-cream container and stands it beneath the cold running tap.
She gets flashes of it every now and then. She had been passing the sports shed. She saw through the gap where the doors didn’t meet. Just a fragment, the event obscure and only half-seen. And what would her thanks have been? Alex and Yvonne telling Arlene to go fuck herself? And she couldn’t even be sure of what she’d observed. After all that, if she’d told anyone, she might have been accused of lying. Of being an old busy-body. Her eyesight wasn’t perfect. Oh, she could guess all right, but was a guess enough to go on?
It was nonsense to say Arlene was responsible. Nonsense to assign blame, to threaten consequences for not reporting. All she had ever done was put her head down, just about spent her whole life like that.
Steve had said, ‘Please show up on time,’ as he smoothed down his silver tie and crumpled the paper bag in his fingers. ‘I’ll arrange for the appropriate people to be there.’
Froggett is in a frenzy. Holding the ice-cream container of water, Arlene crosses her lawn. She keeps hers tidy. She takes down her towels when they’ve dried. Everything is in its place. She keeps her nose clean, and that’s something to live by. At the gate, Froggett must sense her and he becomes even more excited, speaking again: rowrowrowrow. The last of the sunlight is fading and it is hard to see. She’s dizzy from the bump on her head, and at the back of her throat she can taste salt and the crackers feel gluggy. This time tomorrow it will all be over. Fine, she thinks. She will sit in front of them and say her bit and then they will leave her alone.
Because no-one is watching, Arlene puts her lips to the edge of the container and drinks. •
Laura Elvery is a writer from Brisbane. Her debut collection of short stories, Trick of the Light, is out now from UQP.