“We can’t stay long,” I tell her.
Susie nods, gets out of the car then looks back at me. “Would you like to come in, Ms Teal?” Even at a time like this she does not forget her manners.
“I’ll wait in the car,” I reply, and watch her walk through the small iron gate that squeaks on opening and clangs as it shuts. I’ve not been to Susie’s home before, a small, neat transportable on a few acres of land that speak of a time of dreams and hopes when fruit trees and vines were planted, rose bushes too. Now it looks a bit neglected, like those dreams waned when Susie’s mum got sick. I watch Susie step onto the verandah, see the door open and her dad come out. Watch them hug. Social Services would not approve, Susie seeing her dad without their permission. As for the physical contact between them …… a sick society, where father and daughter hugging can be seen as anything other than what it is.
Susie’s dad looks my way then the two of them walk towards the car. I’m relieved. I worried that they would go into the house because the SS is bound to ask me for every detail of what happens here. He looks older than I remember, the night he came to collect Susie from our end-of-year disco. It’s a shock to see how aged he’s become in just a few months. His wife’s illness, the worry of the children, and now this.
“Ms Teal,” he says, stopping short of the car and nodding his head to me. “Thank you for this.” He stops, swallows, then looks at me, eyes glistening in his lined, weather-beaten face. “Please ….. look after Susie for me.”
I nod. “I will. I promise.”
Susie gets in the car and sits so upright, a determined look on her face. She is doing this for him, showing him she’s okay, that she can handle this. I watch him in the rear mirror as we drive away. He has the same serious look on his face. I can see where Susie gets it from.
I go straight to my classroom instead of my usual route via the staffroom …. don’t want to run into Melva or Bill, not ready to talk with them just yet, and I certainly don’t want to run into Janet. Talking with Jim last night made me feel better, calmed me down and made me believe it would all be okay for Susie and her family. No grounds for any action, he said. I hope he’s right.
Tommy and Sam are waiting on the steps of the wooden transportable that is our classroom, big open grins on their faces as they greet me. I let us in, hear some choice language and laughter as they unpack their bags in the porch. I gather Tommy’s cold drink bottle leaked its sticky contents all over whatever he has in his school bag. I start opening the windows, am still struggling with the first one when Tommy takes the window pole from me with a grin and a “She’s right, Miss Teal” and neatly hooks and undoes the catch then hoists the window up. I leave the pair to it and check my desk for any notes the relief teacher might have left.
Around mid-morning Bill appears at the door, responds to the kids’ “Good morning, Sir!!” with a “Good morning, scallywags,” and while the class laughs at this he asks me quietly if I have a moment. We talk in the porch, classroom door closed behind us.
“How did it go yesterday?” he asks, studying my face with a concerned look.
“They didn’t get back to you?” I’m surprised. I was hoping he’d know the outcome of their investigation, hoping he’d have news that it had all been sorted. That means he also doesn’t know about me being escorted out and cautioned by the police. A kindly caution, delivered by one of Jim’s mates. “According to Jim’s mate at Durra Police, they have no grounds for any charges so hopefully Susie’s dad has been cleared and the kids are back home.”
“Hope he’s right,” Bill murmurs. “This kind of mud has a way of sticking.”
“Has Janet told anyone else?”
“No,” he shakes his head. “We talked yesterday. She understands the confidentiality aspect of this.” Then he gives me a look. “She’s absent today. Stress, she said on the phone.”
“She’s stressed!!” I snort, roll my eyes. “That’s rich, that is!!”
“I think she might have put one and one together and worked out where you were yesterday. Her stress might have something to do with not wanting to face you today.” He gives me a look. “El, you can’t hassle her over this.”
“I know!” I bristle. “That’s your job!”
Bill’s smile is a little weary. “I asked her about the drawing.”
“Social Services has it now, but I looked at some of the other drawings.” He shakes his head. “If they’re any indication, Jim’s mate is right about there being no grounds.”
“What were they?”
“Totally innocent.” He gives me a look. “It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”
I agree. Our interpretations give more insight into us than into the work we’re interpreting.
“Are you okay?” The way Bill is looking at me, I think he knows more than he’s letting on. “Jim rang,” he goes on to explain. Trouble with being so close to someone, it’s hard to keep a secret. “He was worried about you.”
I should be grateful I have two friends who share such concern for me. So, Bill knows. “They insisted I leave Susie with them. I refused. They said I wasn’t her parent or guardian and apparently being her ex-teacher doesn’t count or that I promised her dad I’d look after her. I’m afraid I lost it, Bill.”
Bill’s face relaxes into a grin. “That’s hard to imagine,” he says, chuckles at the look I give him. “I gather the police officer was quite sympathetic.”
“Well, they all know Jim at Durra Station, so …..” I shrug. “He’d contacted them earlier, so they knew what was up.” Yes, Officer Jones was sympathetic. I don’t think Susie’s was the first case of this kind they’ve had to deal with.
At this point the recess bell rings. The door opens, Tommy’s head pokes out. “Ms Teal? The recess bell went.”
“Yes it did, Tommy,” I agree.
“Can we go?” he grins.
“Only if you’re a scallywag.”
Tommy laughs, his head disappears back into the room. “If you’re not a scallywag you can’t go to recess,” he tells the class, then charges out the door, grabbing the prized football from the sports box as he goes.
Bill and I walk together to the staffroom where Melva greets me with a concerned, “Are you okay, love?” She assumes my absence yesterday was due to sickness.
“Must be something going around,” says Alison, eyeing me warily as I join her at the bench to make my coffee. “Janet’s away today.”
“I don’t think it’s catchy,” I assure her. So nobody knows about the Social Services fiasco. Not yet, anyway. I plonk myself down on the chair next to Melva.
Alison joins us, sits at the other end of the table, putting Melva between her and me. She places a hand on her forehead, a pained look on her face. “I don’t know, Lucy. I’m actually not feeling all that well myself.”
I give her a look not all that sympathetic. Alison is the drama queen of the staff. At least she’s taken over Melva’s attention, saved me from any awkward questions.
The second book in the ‘Mundoo’ series, contemporary fiction set in a small country town in coastal South Australia