The teacher

MICK FELT EXCITED coming down on the train but got cornered in the carriage by a tall heavy-boned old man with grey hair, who plonked himself down with a suitcase on wheels as they pulled out of Kerang. The man was a slow-talker but nevertheless up for a chat, and straightaway he offered Mick a sugarfree gum and made it known that he was a retired school principal off to visit his daughter and grandchildren in Malmsbury. When Mick made the mistake of telling him that he too was a teacher, currently in Mildura, the retired principal began to describe how ‘perfectly content’ he’d been during his years in education – mainly country schools, from Portland to Wodonga – and how every day in the job had been ‘a gift’ he derived ‘an enormous amount of satisfaction from’. By the time the old bloke had stood up to tip his luggage onto its wheels and get off at Kyneton Station, Mick was himself  ‘perfectly content’ to see the back of him.

Mick was meeting Kathy in Geelong. She was working these days in Werribee and together they’d drive down to the B&B, which was on a property Mick knew well. James Secombe, a farmer turned greenie who’d helped them out every year with the school vege garden during Mick’s years on the coast, had bought the place back in the late ’80s with the idea of creating a permaculture model. By 2000, with scars all over his big-browed head from bashing it against the brick wall of shire regulations, James had given up and taken his ecological vision up to the Riverina. Last Mick’d heard of him he’d built himself a houseboat, had a hothouse on board, no-dig veges on the roof, a compost dunny, and was sailing the Murray west towards South Australia to highlight the demise of the river.

As Mick and Kathy drove the back route along the Crimea Road the churning began. Mick felt like they had been his kids. Four or five generations of them. He’d watched them crying for their mummies on the first day of prep, watched them overcome lisps before the onset of speech therapists, saw them assemble their first alphabets, sentences and paragraphs, and grow into pre-puberties of truancy or talent, or both. For better or worse he’d been privy to the family tragedies, the post-romantic fallouts of the parents, the petty neuroses behind the small town faces. And when their time had finally come to leave the education bubble and go out into the big bad world he’d always remembered to sit down with a shiraz in the poolroom and write them personal and, he liked to think, perceptive letters of congratulations and encouragement for the future. 

Kathy had been there too, though only for the last vicious winter. She was brought in by the department as a ‘coach’, ostensibly to observe the tensions within the staff and to grease the wheels of transition. But Kathy and he had hit it off. And not just professionally. In the end when she went in to make her report she’d had to admit to the regional officer that she’d become a little biased. It was a shame, Mick thought, because otherwise she may have had some influence. But Kathy couldn’t pretend. It was impossible for her to tell a fib or be ‘unethical’. She was one of those women for whom dishonesty meant a bright crimson blush from head to toe, even before the thought had formed in her mind to tell a lie. 

Gimme Shelter was what old James Secombe had called his property, but when they eventually swung out of the back road and were approaching the gate Mick noticed that the old sign, which had been slashed out of a slab of ironbark with a chainsaw, had been removed. In its place were slanting lino tiles designating the road number and below that a small sign signalling the B&B – Downtime

They drove over the cattle grid and down the drive. As they rounded the bend under the old ficifolia Mick was pleased to discover that despite the new sign the place looked relatively unchanged. When James Secombe had shacked up with Toni, the Croatian widow he’d met doing amateur theatre in Kuarka Dorla, together they’d turned the stockbitten acres into a food-producing haven. From the passenger seat Mick could see the leaves of Toni’s olive rows still flicking in the breeze on the slope, the stone fruit and dams looked healthy as ever. It made sense, he thought, that old James had made sure the place had sold to sympathetic types. 

At the front door of the main house they discovered the new owners were on holiday and the place was being looked after by the son and daughter-in-law. They were friendly enough but seemed a little stymied by the fact that Mick had a prior connection to the place. They pointed out the new straw-bale cabin on the other side of the lily pad dam, took Mick and Kathy through a rigmarole about the solar hot water from the rainwater tanks, handed over the key and the wi-fi password and left them to it. 

Mick and Kathy went straight to bed. They tore at each other like there was a war on and afterwards Mick noticed his churning had gone. They sat out on the narrow verandah with fresh blue towels wrapped around, looking across the lily pads James had nurtured in the dam, the swans and coots and moorhens upon it. They had a complimentary locally-brewed stubby each, breathing out in sighs and small jokes after the drive and the lovemaking. 

LATER ON THEY drove into Kuarka Dorla for tea. There was a nice Portuguese place there which Mick used to book for staff break-up nights. He’d checked online that the same family still owned it, the Montelusas, and indeed they greeted him at the door as if they hadn’t even noticed he’d gone. Which was kind of unnerving, but saved any awkward conversation.

The next morning he woke early as a nor’-easterly pinged in the cabin’s new roofing iron. He got up and sat on the verandah in his underwear with another stubby from the minibar, though this one wasn’t complimentary.

When Kathy woke up she called him in. He put the half-drunk stubby on the glass-topped table and took her from behind. Then he went down on her until he thought she’d wake the couple in the main house clear across the dam. Then she did the same to him. By the time they walked out to the car with sunglasses on and the furry blue bath towels slung over their shoulders, the wind had really whipped up. Mick said a swim in the ocean first thing was one of the things he missed most. They drove out past the ficifolia, over the grid at the gate, and onto the main road.

At the beach under the bluff the car park was empty but for one Wicked van, its window shades still up and the thick atmosphere of sleep all around it. As they got out of their car Kathy pointed at the message: This van is rented by f**kwits to f**kwits. Mick laughed and told her if push ever came to shove he could drive off into the sunset in something like that. Kathy screwed up her face and said he’d be driving alone.

As it turned out she was the first into the water. Overcome by the sight of the ocean Mick had laid out his bath towel on the sand and flopped down in the familiar smell of kelp and marram grass. He shut his eyes on the sting of the salt and tuned instead to the memories it triggered. 

Eventually he propped up on an elbow and watched her go about it. She stood for ages in the marbled slack of the white water, wincing at each new wave. Then finally she dove headlong and came up like a seal in her black one-piece, her hair slicked perfectly back. The sight of her swimming on a fine morning was enough to do his head in. Nothing in Mildura touched him like that. Nothing was that attractive and nothing felt that bad. 

He stood up from his towel. The wind had died off a bit. An occasional frisk of spray flung back off the waves was the only sign now. No whitecaps further out. No oblique angle to the swell.

AT THE LAST meeting, when it was clear he was done and dusted, he’d said straight-out to the new principal that if she wasn’t a woman he’d deck her. Well, it was too late for niceties. The union rep was in the room with them, he was both safe and unsafe. So he said it. He told the union rep too that with friends like him he didn’t need enemies. He knew that such behaviour would justify in their own minds the decision that had been made, but he said it anyway. Somewhere inside, he figured, if they were at least half-human, the truth would stick. They would know. At some later junction in their lives perhaps, when the passage of time demanded a different perspective, they would recall how brutal and compromised they had been. 

What they wouldn’t know, what they couldn’t see, was the magic of the ordinary little school they were wrecking. He’d not only set the agendas, he’d mowed the oval, cleaned the spouting, fixed the aquarium, run the fairy-floss machine at the fair. He’d liaised with the local children’s author, the local bobcat driver, the Red Cross and the library bus. He’d protected his staff through deaths and breakdowns, knew way too much about everyone in the town, but never betrayed a trust. Yet the department couldn’t know all that, it wouldn’t show up on any website’s data, they weren’t interested in fact. They’d sent their drones in from some other planet and nothing he could say would stop them inheriting the earth.

He walked towards the water. This wasn’t what the HR guy in Mildura called ‘closure’. It was more like a saltwater boil. The beauty of the day made him shudder now and he broke into a jog. In a clatter of slapping flesh he swam right past Kathy and kept going, pounding the waves through the offshore spray and up and over the welling of his dreams, until he slowed off and began weeping as he swam.

THAT NIGHT, ON the way to the Montelusa’s, Mick got Kathy to drive there ‘the ugly way’, down past the gravel pits on the Messmate Road. In the early years, before the campus merger, he had decided to take the students to the pits for an excursion. No one was happy about it. Roughly speaking the parents were divided into two groups: what he called the Na’s (New Aspirationals) and the Ol’s (Old Locals). The Na’s thought visiting the pits was a totally redneck idea and the Ol’s thought the gravel pits were the kind of place you only went to on the weekends. Or maybe after dark to pinch some for your garden. But Mick knew the kids would love it and when they came home with their projects outlining the colourful history of the nearby Jarosite mine and the way the local ochres were traded amongst the Aboriginal tribes before white settlement, the scales fell from the parents’ eyes. What first appeared to be some blokey bias towards Tonka trucks and ecological vandalism had ended up being a cultural and environmental history lesson. He knew that none of them, Na’s nor Ol’s, would drive the gravel-paved local roads the same way ever again. 

So it was, he said in the car now, concluding his description of the excursion to Kathy as they passed the pits, and so it shall be. She took her hand from the gearstick and put it tenderly on his thigh. 

At the restaurant, Frank Montelusa, the father of Nita who ran the kitchen with her ex-comedian husband Slim, made a beeline for Mick as soon as they’d sat down. Old Frank had taken an interest in Mick years before, when he learnt how respected he was as a teacher on the coast and had always, in that old European way, asked him for his opinion on federal politics or controversies in the local area. They’d had some good laughs in the past too and the old Portuguese man, short and pale but still with an auspicious crop of thick black hair, was delighted to see Mick again. They both commended each other on their appearance. Then Frank recommended the cuttlefish pasta. He brought a bottle of his own wine to their table, ‘on the house’, and said he’d sit down for a chat after they’d eaten.

Over the meal Mick explained to Kathy how Frank Montelusa had fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and had then been forced to leave Portugal in the terrible days under Salazar. He has stories, Mick told her, lots of stories.

The pasta was delicious and Kathy had the rabbit, which was every bit as good. When old Frank came by to sit with them afterwards Mick said that he’d just been complaining to Kathy that there was no food as good up on the Murray. Frank frowned enigmatically at the compliment. He set three glasses of Madeira down on the table, and pulling up a chair he said: You get beautiful wine up there, no? And oranges?

Mick chuckled darkly, raising his glass and saying something to the effect that you can’t live on wine and oranges alone.

Frank Montelusa was very courteous towards Kathy but it wasn’t long before he’d called his wife Marta over to free him up for a conversation with Mick. Their talk turned to Mick’s dismissal, his unhappiness at his new school up north. In response Frank unrolled a long yarn about events leading up to his coming to Australia. His hometown, the town of his birth, had become dominated by Salazar’s troops. They knew what side he was on and in a midnight raid he’d barely escaped with his life. He described the long journey he took, the tears he wept into the moonlit wake of the ship. And then he talked about the racism he encountered when he’d arrived in Geelong. It had confused him, he said, made him terribly homesick. He’d worked around the clock in a fish-processing factory on Corio Bay and it was only when his brother Santo followed him out and he met Marta, that the pain began to ease. The wrench in his guts. The diarrhoea. The nausea. But still, he said, shaking his head in sad remembrance of difficult times, even still I have nightmares. Not about Spain or Salazar’s thugs or leaving my parents behind but about those fellas in that factory in Geelong.

Mick and Kathy felt like honoured guests that night and they also caught up with Tony Oberman, who’d been the PE teacher in the last days of Mick’s tenure. Tony was in for takeaway dessert but joined them at the table to catch up on old times. He was still at the school he said, still taking orders from ‘Maggie’ – the nickname the new principal had got due to her Thatcheresque management style – but said that as the PE teacher he wasn’t so badly affected. She doesn’t really care what happens out on the oval, Tony told them. There might be a bit of ‘numeracy’ involved in the scoring but there’s bugger all ‘literacy’, and she doesn’t care about anything else, we all know that.

They laughed and when they were leaving Tony swapped mobile numbers with both Mick and Kathy and promised to stay in touch. There were no such promises from Frank Montelusa, just warm double-handed handshakes and a deep wet sadness in his eyes. Mick promised he’d follow up on the book Frank had recommended on the Carnation Revolution and also that he wouldn’t leave it so long next time before coming back to visit.

AFTER THE DAY on the beach and the wine and Madeira, Mick and Kathy were both pooped when they got back to Downtime. They fell asleep on their own sides of the bed. In the darkness before dawn Mick woke with a dull pain down his left arm and panicked. He groped his way out onto the verandah with a glass of water. Tried to breathe deeply. When the sky above the dam lightened with a foretaste of the dawn he calmed down, figuring he’d just slept awkwardly. He watched the sun come up through the trees and the swans untuck their necks from the wings of night.

When the light came on strong it reminded him of the Sunraysia’s dry heat. He dreaded having to go back. Perhaps he could forget teaching altogether. Maybe the Montelusas would give him some work in the restaurant. Just until he got on his feet.

By eight o’clock, James Secombe’s lily pad dam looked muddy and forlorn and the swans had flown off like cumbersome jumbos. He could no sooner be a waiter in a restaurant than swim to King Island. He was a one-trick-pony. They were starting to appreciate his methods up north but the problem was all that angry red dirt. The riverbanks cracked and exposed, the country worn out by the dry surmise of farmers who lacked James Secombe’s vision. He rose brusquely from his chair and strode purposefully down the verandah stairs to the dam.

Kathy slept deeply until after nine and only awoke to the sound of Mick in the shower. She took that to mean they weren’t heading to the beach first thing. When he appeared in his blue towel he asked whether she might like a drive around the road to Minapre for breakfast. Kathy felt tired still from Frank Montelusa’s wine, she thought a swim was what she needed, but she nodded and said she’d take along her togs. A drive around the coast for muesli and a coffee was hardly an awful prospect.

By the time they’d climbed the bends into the beginnings of the Otways, Mick was silently staring away from her, out to sea. And when they were descending through the S-bends onto St Patrick’s Rock he asked her to stop the car.

What’s up? she said.

I don’t want to go to Minapre.

Okay, we’ll turn around. We can get something somewhere else.

No. I don’t want to turn around.

Kathy looked through the windscreen. A black stick-figure was riding a wave across the point. Mick looked too, but saw nothing. He would bump into people he knew in Minapre. It would be like when somebody died: the commiserations, the faltering condolences, life marching on regardless. Any honesty he could muster to the inevitable enquiries about his new situation would have to be lousy with dark humour. The jokes would remind people how fond they were of him, they’d relax and clap him on the shoulder, then carry on down the street. Get on with their lives. But he couldn’t get on with things. He was at a bloody B&B for chrissakes, he had no place to be on the coast anymore. 

Kathy was waiting. Her hands in her lap. The mood was familiar to her. She thought of her father and his brothers standing speechless around the gyros on the day her grandfather had died. She recognised the unfathomable feeling, of something irreversible, unquenchable too. The sadness of men was like the Mariana trench. Silent, blue to black, the deepest thing on earth. 

The surfer flicked off the wave and another rolled in behind it. The Great Ocean Couriers truck went by. She recognised the logo. They’d brought a couch down for her when she’d first been posted. They were friendly blokes but now the truck passed too close and the car shuddered where she’d parked it beside the road.

Eventually they agreed to drive right through and beyond to Wye River. Passing the swing bridge in Minapre on the way Mick switched on the radio. They crawled up the main street and by the time they were rounding the point at the southern end of the town he seemed to be breathing easier. They cruised along, with the road to themselves, over the succession of falling creeks. With eyes closed he recited the names to himself, like players from the footy record: St George, Sheoak, Cumberland, Jamieson. Then, as an olive branch, he remarked how dumb it was to feel so lost in a landscape you knew so well. Kathy nodded, relieved, and said that was well put. 

At Wye River a front of westerly cloud had moved in and the breakfast was expensive compared to Mildura or Werribee prices. Mick explained how Wye was almost a childless town, being so far from a primary school, but that in summer all that changed. The caravan park on the riverbanks rang with hordes of city kids running wild from dawn to dusk. But in the café now there were only couples like them, reading the papers, tapping at their phones. It was convivial but morbidly sedate. When they finished their food they both agreed to a walk on the beach. But just as they got up to pay it started raining. 

They stood under the covered deck of the café looking out across the road onto the river mouth. The chemistry of the air had changed, the light had lowered through the she-oaks, the slant of the rain was a charcoal drawing. She touched Mick’s arm. He had been powerfully thwarted. He was holidaying as a ghost. Each new bend of the road, each shift of weather, each wave rolling in held a memory and therefore a freshly painful connotation. She knew the drive back would be worse. 

She shouldered deep into him and hugged him tight. But she knew immediately it was the wrong thing. The press of her body seemed to quarry some greater gulf between them. Kathy’s hands eventually fell to her side and she watched as he stepped silently away, out from under the awning. He paused briefly at the roadside for a few cars to pass, then crossed alone to the beach. 

ON THEIR WAY back, as the car crested a shoulder and they began the descent towards the St George River bridge, Kathy saw a young woman standing in the middle of the road urgently waving her arms. She quickly accelerated and veered across the white lines to pull over into the dirt parking bay beside the bridge. 

They both got out. The air was genuinely cold now, and the young woman’s face was flushed. She was wearing only tights with thongs but had a puffy gold coloured Michelin-man jacket on top. She’d been fishing with her boyfriend on the rocks below the road, she said, and she’d seen something strange wash up in the waves. She’d told her boyfriend, but he was concentrating on catching snapper. She’d clambered over herself to take a look, she wasn’t sure whether it was alive or dead, whether it was human, or what it was. She thought she’d seen it move but was too scared to go close enough to find out. 

Kathy looked at Mick. He showed no reaction, his face was pale, completely blank. 

What do you think, Mick? she said at last, after explaining to the young woman that he was local. 

It was as the words had passed her lips that something in him finally woke up. That’s how he told the story later on. He’d taken a deep breath, blinked, and said calmly: I think we should go and have a look. Then, turning to the young woman, he’d smiled and added: You were probably wise giving whatever it is a wide berth. Well done. Let’s go see.

They went down the steps to the beach, Mick and Kathy following the woman’s directions along the tea-coloured curl of the river and across the shallow braided mouth. Even from a distance they could see a suspicious shape on the rocks where she pointed, but as they drew nearer Mick put their minds to rest when he said that he thought it was a leatherback turtle. Very rare, he explained. Deepest diving reptile on earth. They quickened their steps towards the rocks.

When they got to it the turtle was lying belly down, its flippers splayed out to either side of its enormous carapace. Even as she experienced the initial shock of its size, the turtle reminded Kathy of a flying thing, something that had flown and crashed, but to Mick it seemed somehow recumbent, like a person in an armchair. Its leathery shell was covered in spots but marked by five clear lines running longways and inward to a point at its tail. Its head was huge and crinkly and seemed inflamed, its eyes small, open, and terribly still. It was obvious, even to the young woman in the Michelin-man jacket, that the creature was dead. 

It was also obvious that they were in the presence of something out of the ordinary, something great. They all felt it. 

Mick began to wonder aloud just how recently, and how exactly, it had died. There were no obvious wounds, no sign of plastic or trawler lines. It was washed up as if perfect, on to the complete imperviousness of the shore. He said that he’d been told once that leatherbacks can live to three hundred years old. 

There was a silence then, but for the sibilance of the sea. Finally the young woman in the Michelin-man jacket grew overwhelmed. Turning towards Kathy she began to cry softly on her shoulder. Kathy tenderly stroked her hair. Mick looked at the two of them, then at the turtle, then raised his eyes beyond. Sighting the young woman’s boyfriend still fishing further out on the rocks, he felt suddenly that the whole world had become a mirror. Or, as he described it later, a prism through which he could see things as they really were. The dead turtle, the sadness of the women, the man fishing as if oblivious on the rocks. A clarity came over him like the sea itself. He closed his eyes and felt it washing him clean.

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