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Edition 58

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Fiction

In 1974

SUE

SHIT, DAVID SAID. Look at this!

Julia Gillard was announcing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The whole country wanted those sinister priests to be held to account.

I figured she’d dressed for the moment: navy jacket over discreet white top, fine gold chain and earrings. She took questions from journalists and answered each with fine dispatch.

Yes, she said, people must know that we are looking not only at those who committed the crimes but also those who averted their eyes, who let the children down.

And yes, we will be looking at government schools where necessary.

God, I thought, I hope they don’t come after us.

David continued marvelling, incredulous and elated. I couldn’t tell him what I was thinking. He probably hardly remembers that year and those girls. He’d say, Don’t be silly, Susie-pet.

 

TRISHA

THE DAY IT all started, I had gone home with Jane. We were sitting on the sofa, talking together, when Jane’s mother appeared in the doorway.

I heard you say kissing. Is that what you said? Kissing?

I started to giggle in a way I couldn’t control.

What’s going on? she said.

Laughter burst out of Jane and me. We collapsed, our hands grabbing each other, still laughing.

What is it, girls? She crossed the room and stood in front of us. What’s been happening?

My heart started bouncing so wildly I thought she’d see it jumping underneath my school uniform. My mouth went dry and weird.

I heard Jane take a breath. She pressed her arm against mine.

Mr Vincent, she said in a tiny voice.

Her mother’s face screwed up. Mr Vincent?

Yes, said Jane. He kisses us. Her voice was even tinier.

I was holding my breath, afraid of what might happen next.

What? she said. He kisses you?

Jane nodded.

Where? On your cheek? Her hand went to the side of her own face.

Jane shook her head. On the lips, she whispered.

Her mother looked from Jane to me.

And you, Trisha?

I blinked.

Yes, said Jane.

Oh, my God, she said. Come over here to the table.

She helped us up, a tangle of arms. Jane and I sat at the table saying nothing. Our eyes met and then looked quickly away. Her mother brought in a tray she’d been preparing in the kitchen: glasses of milk, Iced VoVo biscuits, two apples cut into quarters.

I was watching her carefully, waiting for an explosion. I was sure we would get into trouble.

So tell me, she said.

Her voice was calm. My parents said she was strange – is this what they meant?

Tell me about it. Her eyes were moving from me to Jane and back again.

He kisses everyone, said Jane.

Everyone?

Yes.

On the mouth?

Yes.

Since when?

From when he first came.

Since last year when he came to the school? Her voice was sharper now.

Yes, I whispered.

You mean, he’s been doing it all through fifth grade and is still doing it this year?

She didn’t look angry with us. She looked sort of upset instead.

He only did it to me once, Jane said.

When? She leaned forward towards Jane.

At the beginning.

Oh, darling. What kind of kiss?

On my mouth.

Oh no.

The next time he tried to do it, I told him to please stop because it embarrassed me, Jane said.

Oh, how fantastic. A little smile started to slide onto her face. Her gold hoop earrings swung as she nodded at Jane.

Was that all he did?

Yes, said Jane.

I remember, her mother said. I remember… She was speaking sort of slowly. One night you said something that made me wonder. I thought maybe some boys were getting at you. I told you that you never had to let anyone do anything to you that you didn’t want.

That’s why I told him to stop.

Her mother smiled at her. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, they were directed straight at me.

And you, Trisha? What has he done to you?

I couldn’t speak. I looked at Jane.

Recess, whispered Jane. He takes her into his room at the back of the class.

What? Every day?

I nodded.

What does he do, Trisha? Her voice had gone even softer.

He says I’m making coffee. But I don’t. It was hard to look at her because her eyes never left my face.

He pulls me between his knees.

She nodded slowly, as though moving in time with the pace of my words.

He holds me there with his knees.

Still she nodded.

And then he puts his tongue in my mouth.

Oh, Trisha.

Tears started to roll down my face. She pulled out a hanky – a red-checked one, the first time I’d ever seen such a hanky – and gave it to me. She just sat there, her face sad, until I stopped.

It’s different with everyone, said Jane in a rush.

What do you mean?

Well. He takes Emma and Michaela in at lunchtimes. Different days. They never know which day.

This is into his back room? she asked.

Yes.

So he doesn’t go to the staffroom like other teachers?

He stays in the room, said Jane.

And Sandra, I put in.

Sandra?

Sandra Buxton, I said. She’s bigger than the rest of us, she wears a bra and… I trailed off. I had found my voice and then I lost it again. Saying was too hard.

Go on, she said quietly. What does he do to Sandra?

He likes her the best, Jane said. He gets into her sleeping bag on school camps.

Suddenly we both started giggling again. I could see him in the corner of the dorm where he’d told Sandra to put her stuff, bending towards her, talking to her.

Her eyes shot wide open.

That poor kid, she said.

He likes her best, I repeated Jane’s words. He’s always talking to her.

Sandra hates it, added Jane.

Of course she does, said her mother.

I picked up a biscuit and took a small bite. Iced VoVos were my favourite, but it felt like cardboard in my mouth.

Is there anyone he doesn’t do something with? Jane’s mother asked.

Only me, said Jane.

And that Chinese girl, I said as I gulped down the wad in my mouth.

She was new and he kissed her one day, Jane chimed in, and she left early and never came back.

Good on her! her mother said and we all let out a laugh that snorted in our noses. But I wondered how she did it, that Chinese girl – how she just got away.

Then we sat silent for a while. I looked at my Iced VoVo, with its corner missing.

The first thing, Trisha, Jane’s mother said, is that I need to talk to your parents. Jane and I will take you home. Will your mother be there?

No! I yelped. My heart began its thudding again, harder this time. You can’t tell her.

Yes, she said. She looked steadily at me. We have to do this.

Finish your milk, she said, standing up. Then we’ll drive up to your place.

I lifted the glass to my lips. I thought I might choke if it got into my mouth, so I put the glass back on the table.

 

I OPENED OUR front door with my key, leaving Jane and her mother to follow behind when I walked into the kitchen. It was warm because Mum was ironing and there was a pile of pillow slips, edges all sharp.

Jane’s mother said, Hello, Mrs Johnson. I’m sorry to barge in like this.

Mum was staring, her eyes bulging.

I’m Spa Grant, Jane’s mother said.

Yes. I know who you are, Mum said. She reached and turned the iron off but she stayed standing behind the board as though it was a counter.

I once heard Mum talking to Dad, saying, Hepzibah Grant! What a ridiculous name! And as for Spa…

Dad had laughed and said, A mineral spring! What a thing to call yourself!

And they’d talked about her earrings, those gold hoops she always wore. Big enough for a bangle, Mum said. They make her look cheap.

Jane’s mother took a little step forward. It’s about Mr Vincent, she said, looking at Mum, holding her eye.

I had my back pressed against the fridge.

What about him? Mum looked as though we’d brought something stinking into the room with us.

He’s been doing things to the girls in his class. The gold hoops glinted as Jane’s mother spoke.

Dad was president of the Parents and Citizens’ Association, and he always said he knew everything that was going on at the school. I could see Mum clenching her jaw.

Then Mrs Grant started speaking again. The girls have told me that Mr Vincent has been kissing them – and other things.

That was it. Mum turned on me. Trisha! her voice was screechy. Trisha! What lies have you been telling?

Jane’s mother spoke quickly but her voice was still calm.

No, Mrs Johnson. I’m sure Trisha is not lying.

Her arm reached out towards me as though she wanted to pat me but I was too far away. She stood on her spot across from Mum.

He’s a good man! Mum snapped at her. A good teacher!

Yes, Jane’s mother said. He’s apparently a very good teacher. I got Jane moved into his class last year because of that. But this is about something else, Mrs Johnson.

I knew then that she wasn’t going to let it go.

This is girls gossiping, that’s all! Mum’s eyes were huge and she was trembling slightly.

But Jane’s mother responded quietly, in a way that kind of frightened me. This is the first time they’ve told anyone, she said.

By ‘anyone’ she meant a grown-up. We talked about it to each other. Who’s had to stay back for lunchtime. If he did something new to someone. Did he touch Sandra down there?

He makes Trisha go into his office at the back of the room at recess, she said. He makes her stand between his knees and he holds her like that with his legs and then he sticks his tongue in her mouth.

My legs were going wobbly. Mum screamed Trisha! at me again.

It’s the truth, Mrs Johnson. She was giving me such a kind look that tears tumbled out of my eyes. I couldn’t stop them.

It can’t be true, Mum said. But the screech was dying away.

They told me other things, Jane’s mother said.

Oh, no, I thought. No more, please.

But she told Mum about Sandra and Emma and Michaela and Sally. Mum got quieter, but her mouth was doing its stressed thing, tightening her lips then letting go, over and over. Just when it felt like my knees were about to give and have me sliding down to the floor, Jane’s mother said they’d better be leaving. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news, she said. She stepped forward and circled my left wrist with her hand for a moment. Her eyes were kind.

As soon as they’d gone, Mum took me by the arm and marched me to my room. You’re staying in here, young lady, she said. I don’t know what to think about this! And did you see how short her skirt was? She’s got a hide. Talking about other people – look at her!

She wasn’t making sense. When she closed the door, I fell on my bed and cried.

 

AFTER A WHILE, I heard Dad come home. Mum’s voice started up straight away. When Dad knocked on my door, I was blowing my nose with the red-check hanky Jane’s mother had given me. It was wet all over.

What’s been going on, Trishie? he asked.

At that, the softness in his voice and his pet name for me, the crying took off again. He sat beside me and patted my shoulder.

There, there, he said. There’s no need to cry.

I snuffled it up. I didn’t want him getting angry too.

Mum’s told me what Mrs Grant said. Is it true?

I nodded, watching him over the scrunched-up hanky I was holding to my mouth, to see what he would do.

His eyes slid away for a bit. Then he turned back to me. He really takes you into his office every day?

I thought of that morning and his tongue, so big and wet. And his smell. I just nodded, yes.

Why did you tell her? Mrs Grant? Why didn’t you tell us?

I shrugged.

Well, he said. Well.

I could see he was thinking, making a plan like he did when something went wrong around the house or on a camping trip. Last time it was the S-bend in the laundry. A solidification of lint, Mum called it. Dad got advice from a plumber and then he dug it out and flushed away the residue. He was so proud of himself for not having to pay the plumber.

Okay, sweet, he said. I’ll look into it. You wash your face and come along to tea.

He believes me! I thought. Thank you, God. Dad believes me.

At dinner, some peas fell off my fork onto the new carpet. Off-white, Mum called it. She yelled at me but Dad said, Leave her be, Pam.

After we’d eaten, Dad said I was allowed off the washing up because he and Mum needed to talk and I was to go to my room. I sat at my desk with a book in front of me, listening to Dad’s rumbling voice, deep with soft edges. He got louder and harder when Mum got screechy.

After a while, he went to the phone where it sat in the hall. He dialled numbers and then I heard, Martin? Maurice here.

Martin? The school principal? He was ringing Mr Chumley? Dad was friends with Mr Chumley, being the P&C president. But telling him about Mr Vincent?

I opened the door a crack.

I heard him say, That Grant woman came here bold as you please and told Pam. Could be she stirred the girls up. She’s into women’s lib, you know.

I gulped. Did that mean he didn’t believe me after all?

There was silence and then he said, Yes, all the girls in the class.

More silence while Mr Chumley was talking.

Yes, I agree, he said. It can’t all be true.

Back and forth they went, Dad and silences. Towards the end, Dad said, Yes, a quick resolution. Probably a storm in a teacup. Then he laughed at whatever Mr Chumley said. It felt as though they were laughing at us, at Jane and me.

I went back to my bed and lay there. I thought about how my stomach twisted and started aching every morning leading up to recess. It would kind of flip over when the bell went. Maybe once a week Mr Vincent didn’t say it – Trisha! My coffee! – and laugh as though it was a joke. Sometimes he would wink at one of the boys as they went out to play.

I got into my pyjamas and went to bed. When Mum came in I said I had a headache, which was sort of true.

Haven’t we all, she said in her poor-me voice that meant her headache was worse than anyone else’s.

Let’s hope it all blows over, she added.

All blow over? What did she mean?

I pulled back my curtains and watched the bare branches, black against the sky. I could see stars between the shapes the branches made.

 

SUE

IT STARTED WITH Spa Grant. Of all things, she rang me at home on a Saturday morning. I’m so sorry to do this, Sue, she said. To break into your weekend. I found your number in the phone book – there’s not too many Blanchards.

No, I said. Three, I think, at last count.

Small talk, phone books. My mind was revving. What was going on? I only knew Spa as a teacher. For two or three years we’d run into each other at seminars and some guest lectures on radical education where we found ourselves together in the group arguing against the conservatives. But for her to ring me at home was hard to credit. Let alone on the weekend.

Something serious has happened, Spa said, at Hampton Primary where my daughter is in sixth grade. You were the best person I could think of to talk to.

Surely you need to talk to Martin Chumley, I started.

He doesn’t like me, Sue. He won’t even say hello to me. And this is bigger than him. The department needs to know.

She was talking fast. Spa could be overbearing at times, push her opinions too hard. What on earth could this be about? I straightened the pencils beside the telephone. I pushed against my reluctance.

Okay, what is it, Spa?

A teacher called Jonathan Vincent has been kissing the girls in his class, she said. Doing sexual things to them. I thought of you. The position you’re in now.

What?

I was trying to grasp what she was saying. This was not something I’d ever heard of.

Are you sure, Spa?

Yes, Sue. These children are genuinely upset. There’s no doubting them.

Well–

Trisha Johnson is Jane’s friend, Spa interrupted. Her father is head of the P&C, so Martin Chumley will know already.

I’ll get in touch with him, I said.

Spa went on talking. Michaela…touching a breast…Sandra…Trisha…tongue kissing. I wanted her to stop.

Getting into her sleeping bag, Sue! The girl was ten when it started.

Spa was a maverick; she put noses out of joint by being too direct. Before I came on board, the department put her in an experimental unit with problem kids, disaffected teenagers. They thought that would keep her quiet but somehow she was always popping up with her ideas about respecting students, about teachers giving up authoritarian power. She’s just too much, people often said. And now this.

As if sensing my hesitation, she said, I’m a mother here, Sue. I rang you because we’ve talked together. But if I was just an ordinary mother, someone you didn’t know…

Yes, yes, I see, I said.

Something has to be done, she said. There she goes, I thought, laying down the law. I shook my head – but at the same time, my mind was racing to encompass what she was saying, to take it in.

I’ll see what I can do, Spa.

 

WHEN I FIRST rang Martin Chumley, he said, Maybe it’s best to play it down. I could have a word with Vincent and hope it fades away.

But Spa Grant would want more than that, I said. From what she told me, it’s fairly serious.

I guess so, he said. I wish to God she wasn’t involved.

You need to talk to all the parents, I said. See if what Spa says is true.

All of them?

Yes, Martin, I said. I can’t see where else to start.

Well, there goes my golf, he grumbled.

In the afternoon, David and I went for a walk up the mountain behind our house. I love being in the bush. There was a huge cloud of cockatoos, all screaming at once, swooping up and down the valley beside our favourite path. When we reached the top we sat down with our thermos and fruitcake. I couldn’t stop talking about it, wondering if the things Spa had said could possibly be true.

You’ll work it out, David said. You’re good at puzzles.

It was true. I liked to solve things and get on to the next problem.

Martin rang that night. All the girls confirmed what Spa had said. Vincent had done things to every one of them. Martin was meeting with the parents in the morning. Well, all except Spa. He thought it best to leave her out of this.

He rang again, after the Sunday meeting, to tell me that half the parents wanted action taken. The other eight thought it better to put it behind them, to pretend it never happened.

Where does that leave us? I mused. With only half wanting to go ahead?

All night I worried at it, made lists in my head. Each time I seemed to be falling asleep – bang! Vincent, Martin Chumley, Spa Grant – it all came rushing back.

I’d been left with this idea of ‘going ahead’. What did that even mean?

 

AT 7.30 ON the Monday morning, I was pacing around my desk. The sun was still rising over the hills to the east, puffs of fog rolling over the trees. I’d straightened the papers on my desk, I’d snipped the brown bits off the ferns on my windowsill and I’d prepared a new folder with Hampton Primary written on it.

Martin had rung back last night to ask me to ‘deal with Spa Grant’. She’s too much for the other parents, he said. Pam Johnson said she never wants her in her house again.

I said I would, even though the thought caused a prickling sensation to wash along my arms and a surge through my stomach. I’m hesitant by nature. I like to measure, weigh and check things before I decide. Spa is the opposite. She seems to have such certainty in her own judgement that it frightens people, including me. Where we connected was that we both wanted a looser, more creative education system – we wanted improvements on the sausage factory.

I washed up and cleaned the bench tops thoroughly, and then I rang her.

Eight parents don’t want anything done? she sounded appalled.

That’s right, I said.

Those poor girls, Spa said.

I stayed silent, didn’t know what to say. I wanted to snap at her, to tell her how gritty my eyes were from lack of sleep over this.

Waiting here in my office, I had visions of Vincent suing us. I wasn’t even sure what it meant. Libel? Defamation? It was clear we had to be careful. But we couldn’t have him in that classroom with the girls, now that the secret was out. My mind was rushing hither and yon, darting down cul-de-sacs. Every now and then I fumed: How dare Spa drag me into this! I kept seeing her as a tiger, roaming the outer reaches, roaring indiscriminately. But the whole thing had a life of its own now. It involved Martin Chumley, the parents. Me. I felt scattered and exhausted.

I came to a stop by my window. Down in the car park, with its bare winter trees, Bob and Brian were talking. I warned them last night, broke into their Sunday evenings and told them to come in early. They’re the ones I trust not to panic, to help me fix this. My fingertips drummed on the glass.

Hurry up, I muttered at them.

 

TRISHA

ON SUNDAY MORNING, Mum and Dad went to the school to ‘sort out this rubbish’, as Dad called it.

I lay on my bed and stared out the window. At first I saw only the trunks of the two silver trees, but then something caught my eye. It was the tiniest green tip, a little pointed thing, at the end of a twig. Then I saw that they were all over the tree. I stayed there, watching those green tips. I even tried to count them for a while.

It was nearly lunchtime when Mum and Dad came home. They were quieter than usual. Was that a good sign or a bad sign?

Mum came into my room. I’m sorry, Trishie, she said. I know now that you weren’t lying.

She sat beside my legs and reached for my hand. She was close to tears so I let her squeeze my fingers. I couldn’t feel it much. My hands seemed to be a long way away.

She kept talking – about the other parents, things people had said.

I interrupted. What did Mrs Grant say?

Oh, she wasn’t there. Daddy and Mr Chumley thought it would go better without her. She can be so…

I stopped listening.

She believed me straight off, I thought. She didn’t have to hear it from other parents.

After a while, Mum left my room.

 

WHEN WE WENT into class on Monday morning, Mr Vincent wasn’t there. The girls were quiet, giving each other little looks.

What’s going on? Neil Corcoran asked.

After a long pause, Jane said, Nothing.

They knew then that something was up.

Why isn’t he here? asked Johnny O’Brien.

I felt prickles across my neck.

Why are you all so quiet? Neil sounded angry.

Reg Miller said, He’s here. I saw him down at the office.

Then Mr Vincent was at the door, coming into the room. My heart was hammering so hard that it hurt. There was complete silence. No one moved.

Get out your readers, he said. He looked over our heads instead of at us. He walked across the front and down the side of the room near where he had made me sit so that I was close at recess and went into his office at the back. He closed the door, kerplunk. He’d never done that during class before. He only did it when one of us girls was in there.

Then, like a school of fish moving at the same time, everyone reached for their readers. It took me ages to find my place. Not a sound came from behind us. No one looked around. I peeked out of the corner of my eye. All the girls were holding their books at just the right angle, like I was, like we were in a photograph.

I wondered what the other girls were thinking. But mostly I kept seeing Spa Grant’s earrings, those big gold hoops swinging when she talked to my mother. I wondered how she could do this, make things happen so that Mr Vincent and all of us, the whole class, were sitting here hardly breathing, waiting to see what came next?

Later he gave us some maths to do but he went back to his office and stayed there with the door shut. When the bell went for recess, he didn’t move. The boys started getting up, and one by one the girls did too. Should I wait and see if he wanted me to go in there? Jane was standing near the door. When no one else was left, I went to her and we walked out together.

The other girls were in a huddle, muttering and whispering about what their parents had asked them, what had happened at their house. Jane and I sat on a bench and ate our apples.

The day went on like that: him in his room at the back, poking his head out like a tortoise to give us something to do.

When I got home, Dad was on the phone and Mum seemed cranky. I went to my room. I felt as though a big wave was washing around me and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I didn’t even know if I wanted to stop it or not.

 

SUE

AT THE END of that first day, I went home with a raging headache. David made me my usual brandy and dry. I fell into an armchair and closed my eyes.

The hours in the office had whirled round and round. We tried to find precedents. I vaguely remembered rumours of a teacher at a high school doing something like this, but nothing ever came of it. Bob knew of a similar case. But that was all we found: a mist of maybes.

I set Bob and Brian onto finding a lawyer who had handled something like this before. There were none.

I talked with John, the department’s director. He was a bit of a fluff-head, inclined to get anxious; part of my role was to try to calm him down when things got hairy.

I’ll work out how we can fix this, I told him.

Good, he said. Yes. Good.

I walked out thinking, Weak as piss, worried I’d almost said it out loud. I was shocked at myself: this wasn’t me, a person of such language and judgement.

By the time I was back at my desk I had the beginnings of the headache.

Martin Chumley wants Vincent out of the school but neither of us could work out how to achieve it, I told David. We spoke several times today. He has told Vincent he can be in his classroom but must not have anything to do with the girls.

I’d hardly opened my eyes since reaching the armchair. David could see I wasn’t going to be making dinner so he decided to get takeaway from a new pizza place nearby. He mixed me a second drink and drove off.

 

WHEN I GOT to work next day, Martin Chumley had already rung three times.

What is it, Martin?

You won’t believe it. It’s incredible. He was loud, almost shouting. The last one has just come in.

The last what?

I have a pile of papers here. Applications for transfer. Every teacher has applied for a transfer.

What do you mean? What on earth was he talking about?

Here, Sue. He spoke as though I was standing beside him, rather than being in my office on the other side of town. In the box that requests the reason for the transfer, every one of them has said they won’t stay in a school where Vincent is teaching!

What?

Don’t you see? Martin said. Now he has to go.

At least he sounded sure of something. My mind was spinning, looking for something to hold on to.

Yes. I suppose so. I kind of laughed, a touch hysterical.

Who started it? I asked.

I honestly don’t know, he said.

Well, they did a good job.

Martin gave a bark of a laugh. They sure did. We’ll need a replacement.

Yes, of course. We’ll find someone.

I sat for several moments staring at the phone. Every teacher? I flew to the door and called out to Bob and Brian.

We stood in a triangle in my office. Vincent has to go now, I said.

But where will we put him?

They meant ‘which school’. We all stared at each other. Eventually, my eyes left their faces and focused over their shoulders.

There, I said, and I pointed through the glass wall to the empty desk in the open area, the desk that was being used as a depository for boxes of stationery. We all looked at it, the yellow wood with the green mock-leather top, a shaft of sunlight lying diagonally across it.

Brian said, But what will he do?

Our resident pedant, always wanting details signed off. I rolled my eyes. You’ll think of something for him, I said.

I was almost sarcastic, which wasn’t fair, but I was a little light-headed from Martin’s call. Could it really be so easy to get Vincent out of the school?

 

BY FIVE O’CLOCK I had another headache, a sharp ring of pain around my skull. Driving home, I kept hearing Spa saying, I’m a mother here, Sue.

I found myself trying to imagine what Spa felt about her daughter, what it was like for the parents – especially the parents of the girl with the sleeping bag. My mind would baulk at these thoughts, and then start again somewhere else. Girls in a classroom. School camps. The things he had done.

Spa came to mind again and I realised I’d felt a flash of jealousy when she said that about being a mother. No, a ridiculous thought.

 

TRISHA

THE NEXT DAY, Mr Vincent stayed in his back room all morning. The boys were grumbling but the girls were still quiet.

After lunch, he came in and stood in front of us. For a second I thought everything was going back to normal. I could tell the rest of the class thought so too. But he just stayed there until Neil said, What’s happening, sir?

I’m leaving, he said.

The boys all gasped. Some groaned. They really liked him because of all the extra time he spent before school showing them different sports. Some of the girls gasped too. I couldn’t stop watching his scratchy little beard, knowing how it felt when it was pushed up against my face. And the smell of his breath, the taste of his mouth. I felt dizzy, as though I might vomit.

I won’t be here tomorrow, he said.

Neil shouted, Why?

Because some people are making me go, he said.

He looked around the class then. His eyes stayed on Jane a second or two longer and when they met mine, I couldn’t tell if he looked longer at me because of how my mind was banging.

Why are they? Neil’s voice was getting louder.

They just are, Mr Vincent said, and he looked out the window as though the answer was in the playground somewhere. Then he turned back to the class and said, But I’ll be back. I’ll be back.

I felt confusion in the room. What was happening?

Everyone get a new reader, he said sharply. No one is to move until you’ve read and answered every question. In your best writing.

While we worked, thumps and bangs started coming from his office.

He’s packing, someone hissed.

I sneaked a look and saw him lifting books from a shelf. Jane turned around and caught my eye.

 

WHEN I WENT home, I poured some milk and took small sips. Mum was peeling potatoes.

She said, What’s wrong with you?

He says he’s leaving, I answered.

Her eyebrows shot up. So soon?

He told us some people were making him go, I said.

I thought that’s what you wanted!

No! I said. I just wanted him to stop. To stop what he was doing.

Well, you should have thought of that before you told everyone, she said.

The boys are saying it’s our fault, the girls, I said. And I started crying.

Mum came and put her arm around me, which was nice, but then she said, Such an uproar over a few kisses…

You don’t understand! I yelled at her.

I pushed her arm aside and ran to my room.

He’d stopped, hadn’t he? For two days I hadn’t had to go to his office. He hadn’t touched me. He hadn’t touched anyone else either. So why did he have to leave? Why couldn’t he stay and just teach us?

 

SUE

JONATHON VINCENT ARRIVED in the office on Friday morning. I was surprised. I had imagined a large man, but he was nuggety and short, with a beard and piercing eyes. I hadn’t planned for this moment, so my arm jiggled back and forth, unsure whether to put my hand out or not.

He solved my dilemma by glaring at me and saying, Someone’s going to pay for this.

Anger was pouring off him, burning darts of it flying from his eyes. I recoiled involuntarily, even took a small step back.

We’re working out a procedure, was all I said to him.

Huh, he muttered. His frown had furrows, two deep black lines across his forehead.

This is Brain Chevalier, I said. He’ll show you around.

Vincent was so puffed up in his rage, his strutty walk so ridiculous, that I smiled to myself as I turned away.

Bob told me that when he showed him to the desk, he said, I won’t be here for long.

I wished he wasn’t there at all, but was unsure what else to do with him. Sacking a teacher was well nigh impossible. Especially in Canberra’s first year of running its own show with the new Schools Authority for the ACT. Well, it’s certainly going to test our mettle, I thought.

 

AFTER LUNCH, BOB and Brian came in and told me they had exhausted their search for a lawyer. Then Bob added, Except for the one who said he’d heard of this sort of thing once – in the Scouts – and that no one wanted to touch it so they told the families to go to their church for advice.

At least he’d heard of it. I got the number from Bob and called him. He seemed to want to bury me in legal jargon.

There must be a law, I interrupted.

Well, there is. A family would have to bring a charge and then it would be their daughter’s word against his.

But there’s sixteen of them.

One case at a time is how the law looks at it.

That can’t be right, I said. These girls were nine, ten, eleven.

Yes, well that’s how it is. He at least had the grace to use a regretful tone.

But it’s been going on for eighteen months!

Yes, I know it’s difficult, he said, with a smoothness that made me want to shout at him. The law requires concrete incidents. And witnesses, he finished.

It’s children who are the witnesses, I sighed. It was going to be harder than I’d imagined in my most sleepless nights.

I took some deep breaths before I explained it to Bob and Brian. I was glad to have them – they listened well, they made suggestions. I was sure Bob would back whatever I decided and Brian would go along with it, though I’ll never really know what he’s thinking. He muttered something about being glad he didn’t have daughters; I wondered if he meant that girls were too much trouble.

 

WE BEGAN RINGING around the states to see if other schools had handled anything like this. Four of them said something came up once but that it had always been handed back to the parents. In some cases, they just moved the teacher to another school. I wouldn’t be going down that path, so there was at least one thing I was sure of.

In the weeks that followed, I tried to ignore Vincent, to not look through my glass wall to the desk where he sat, often with his head in his hands. The more I tried to block him out, the more I was drawn to watch, as though he were an exotic creature, a tarantula perhaps.

We all thought him guilty. The lawyer had warned us about behaviour that would indicate a presumption of guilt. I had begun to have visions of Vincent suing us. I wasn’t even sure what it meant. Libel? Defamation? It was clear we had to be careful. But as the days wore on I continued to watch. I
honed it to the occasional glance, supplemented by my peripheral vision. I knew every time he left his desk.

I’d often find myself staring out the window, trying to imagine the things he had done. Holding a child between his knees and feeling to see if she had breasts. I’d feel my face twisting with the effort, the impossibility of it.

On the eighteenth working day after it had started, I accepted the lawyer’s advice. Set up a tribunal, a panel of three. Call the parents in so they have a chance to tell their story, have the legal situation explained to them and see what they want to do.

John insisted I lead it. No one knows more than you do about the whole hullabaloo, he said. I want it dealt with quickly.

I smiled at him. Should be you, I thought. Chicken.

The other two will be Bob and Kathleen Fogarty from the teaching school at the university, John said. She’s solid and reliable; she won’t panic no matter what happens. I hear there’s gossip about two women being on the tribunal.

We’re pioneering all over the place! I joked to David that night.

It took several more weeks to set it up. The lawyer rang to tell me we must see Vincent. He has a right to be heard, he said. You need a record of the interview.

Of course, I said, my shoulders sagging. I’d hoped he would somehow be dealt with elsewhere. Not by us. We weren’t trained for this.

Driving home, or in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, my mind would return to what Spa said. I’m a mother here, Sue. She probably didn’t know that I didn’t have any children. When I try to imagine how it might be for her, I see a void, a nothing. I cannot picture children where I have none. I nearly asked David if he thought our not having children might affect my thinking, might be what makes me impatient – but it’s too tender, that place between us, so I never managed to get it out.

 

TRISHA

THE NEW TEACHER was Miss Fairley. She was strict with the boys, which was good, but she didn’t do the fun things that Mr Vincent did. The boys were still angry – no one had told them why he left. In some ways it was as though he was never there.

Mum found the red-check hanky that Mrs Grant had given me. It was under my bed, dried stiff from my crying. What’s this? she said, and held it in front of me, her fingertips holding one corner as though it was a dead mouse.

When I told her where it came from, she screwed up her face and then she washed and ironed it into a triangle.

Give this to Jane, she said in the morning. I don’t want to be beholden to that woman.

She patted my shoulder as I left and said, I’m glad you’re settling down, Trisha. She didn’t know what was going on inside me. I felt sort of separate from everyone.

One night I heard Dad say that the department is all in a dither about what to do with Mr Vincent. I didn’t want to know anything about it.

 

SUE

WE MADE IT a joke, finding a proper space for our ‘tribunal’. The agency’s accommodation, fit for a new authority, was a year away, so we had no conference room, nothing suitable

The corridor, perhaps? Bob guffawed one day.

We chose a disused room, a narrow space with one wall of glass. We put a lengthy table in there, three chairs for us so that we looked out, and two facing us, for the parents. There was a trolley for water and tissues. I tried to think of everything.

We shuffled Vincent off to a school with a class of difficult boys. After his five weeks with us, he had to be out of the office while we had parents coming in.

The day before, I bumped into him near the kitchen. He slowed and leant towards me as I came through the door.

You won’t get away with it, he hissed.

Mr Vincent – I began.

Those little bitches lied.

I pulled back, as though from a striking snake, and walked away.

 

THE FIRST MORNING of the tribunal, we were all nervous. Three blind mice, three little piggies, the three bears – was Spa Grant Goldilocks? My mind was having flights of unruliness.

I went in early, stood behind that rectangle of a table on my own. I lay my writing pad, the notes from the lawyer and the list of questions on top, and made sure they were squared in front of the middle chair. I set the blue pen David gave me for our tenth anniversary and a newly sharpened pencil parallel to, and half an inch away from, my pad.

Then I stood with my fingertips on the rim of the table, checking the room: the cream paint aged to ochre, the grey carpet curling in the corners. It was the best we could do.

Vincent’s words came back to me. Little bitches. My shoulders shifted up and back. If Spa Grant was a tiger, at least my bland exterior – the brown skirt with the pearl-buttoned beige blouse – was concealing a feral cat.

Bob and Kathleen and I shuffled sideways in the skinny space and slid into our chairs. Brian brought Martin Chumley in first. He sat opposite us. We went over how he’d found out, how he didn’t believe it initially. He was worried that it was Hepzibah Grant who had brought it to light.

She’s inclined to exaggerate, he said, and I thought she might have made this up.

I watched him, feeling my face become a stony mask.

You’d heard it from her too, he gabbled, so I didn’t know what to think. That women’s lib stuff, you know, and he sniggered.

Kathleen heard my sharp intake of breath. She shot me a look. Then she turned to Chumley and took him through the events that had involved him.

After that, we took a breather, sipped our glasses of water. I finished a note on the paper in front of me, taking my time.

When I looked up, I saw that Chumley was sweating, a light sheen across his face. I asked, Did you ever have an inkling, a suspicion, that all was not well around Mr Vincent?

The teachers thought it was strange that he hardly ever came to the staffroom. That he stayed in his classroom, Chumley said.

Did you ever wonder why?

I put it down to his commitment. He seemed to only care about teaching. The students loved him. Those words hung in the air between us.

I mean… He had the grace to blush. It just seemed like a package: his unusual skill as a teacher and being a bit eccentric. That’s how I thought of it.

I was glad to see him squirming a little. He was the longest-serving primary principal, and many of his fellow principals thought him a god. I went along with this view myself for years; but watching his balding head gleam, I saw him for what he really was: an old-school conservative who did the job moderately well.

As he stood to leave, he chiacked with Bob, trying to carve a slice of blokey authority across the room. I saw this as his attempt to take the credit, to sideline me and Kathleen. It was true that he had handled the whole matter surprisingly well – but at that moment I wanted to slap his sanctimonious face. This is about those girls, I thought, not you.

 

THE NEXT DAY, we started to see the parents. We saw one couple at a time. They had to sidle into the cramped space from the door on the side of the room, then squeeze into their chairs. It broke the ice a little: us apologising, nods and smiles across the table. Once they were settled, we took them through our questions. We didn’t ask what Vincent had actually done to their daughters, and none of them volunteered this information. We had decided to avoid such embarrassment. Everyone knew what we were talking about.

We left Spa till last. We’d never discussed the reason for this, but had all agreed on her position on the tribunal list. She’d started it, after all, so perhaps it was about circularity, a small honouring.

She came alone. She mentioned that Jane’s father was away at a music camp. She was wearing boots, stockings and a skirt all in black with a polo-neck sweater in a delicate light grey. Her golden hoops loomed large.

We set out to ask her the same questions we’d asked the other parents, but her answers immediately took us off course. Martin Chumley hadn’t spoken to her at any stage. She wasn’t at the meeting with the other parents.

When I referred to ‘the interference’, the term we had decided to use throughout, she jumped in. What do you mean? Are you talking about the tongue kissing? Or holding girls between his legs with his knees? Or telling one that he loved her? Or getting into bed with Sandra? Goodness knows what he did there. What are you referring to?

I raised my hand to intercede.

Euphemisms don’t help, Sue, she said. Her eyes never left mine. Interfering, diddling, molesting – they obscure the truth, she declared. I couldn’t look away.

We need to be clear what we’re talking about, she finished.

There was a beat, a wave of shock along our side of the table. I couldn’t do what she asked but I pursed my lips in acquiescence as her eyes still held mine.

I did manage to say, He kissed all of them, I believe.

A few minutes later, she pulled Bob up for the same thing. He blushed and I suppressed a smile. That was Spa, vigilant about pricking pomposity and evasion. I could see she was right but I still couldn’t do it. We rushed on to the final topic. Bob explained that the only legal channel was for her to bring a civil case and that it would be her daughter’s word against Vincent’s before a magistrate.

Really? One on one?

All of us were watching her. She looked along the line of our eyes, the three of us. I was really hoping she’d do it. All of us wanted someone to act, now that we’d come this far.

You – the department – can’t you do something? A group case? she asked.

Not permissible under the law, said Bob.

I’m afraid not, Kathleen added. Spa’s face crumpled.

I wanted to reach over and touch her hand. She clenched her jaw and took a quick sniff. She straightened her shoulders and said, So it would be Jane’s word against his? In a court?

Yes, I nodded.

I’m not putting my daughter through that. Scorn fairly dripped from her words.

We sat in silence. No, of course– Kathleen began.

Is anyone else doing it? Spa asked.

No. No, they’re not, we all said at once.

Good, she said. It’s barbaric.

She locked eyes with me. Isn’t it? she said.

I blinked and felt my upper lip compress. I had assented, I had agreed with her, and I didn’t care whether the others had seen it or not. Impartiality out the window.

So what happens to him then? Her tone was belligerent, yet we all copped it, her anger.

He won’t be teaching again, said Bob.

You better make sure of that, Spa said. Her voice plummeted now, depleted.

She took a deep breath. Then she nodded, at me first, then Bob and Kathleen, as though dismissing us. She was finished. We all stood with her.

Thank you, Spa, I said.

She turned to me as she hefted her bag onto her shoulder. Yeah, well, she said.

Her black suede boots with their scalloped tops made me think of Nancy Sinatra a few years earlier, the wild wonder of those words sung in that thumping female voice. These boots are made for walking… One of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you.

Spa had walked not over us, but through us, through our mealy-mouthed carefulness, our lawyer-shaped words.

 

THE NEXT MORNING, I woke with a start. I’d had a restless night, in and out of a sleep wreathed in fantastical dreams. The one that woke me was full of things falling apart, of plans going awry – a supreme worry dream.

Still half dozing, a memory of Uncle Jim jolted me wide-awake.

He was looming over me. When I was seven, eight, nine, he used to cup his hands on my bottom and say, Two peaches wrapped in satin! It made me feel special but because he did it around corners so no one saw, it was secret. The last time he did it, he leaned forward and licked my ear as well. He smelled of beer and cigarettes and it tickled so I giggled.

Like that, do you? he asked.

I did kind of like it, but he was so big that his body made everything go dark. He moved to another city soon after, so it never happened again.

I lay there going over and over it. It hadn’t done me any harm, had it? I never told anyone.

That wasn’t quite right. I did tell David – on our honeymoon. He’d met Uncle Jim twice. I only told him what happened, not how confused I felt. He shrugged and said, He was probably just being affectionate. He seems a nice bloke.

I’d never referred to it again.

Now I thought of those girls…a whole class. That nuggety presence, his lair at the back of the room.

 

TRISHA

ONE NIGHT WHEN I came to tea, I heard Dad say, Mr Vincent.

What’s happened? I asked.

He won’t be coming back to school, Dad said.

I nodded. What did that mean? Where was he going? The secret world of adults was so annoying.

Halfway through tea when they’d forgotten it and were talking about getting more gravel for the driveway, I said, Is he going to get into trouble?

They stopped talking and stopped eating. Dad looked stupid because his fork was halfway to his mouth.

No, Trishie. Well, not really. A little bit. Mum turned to Dad as though he might be able to answer.

They’re trying to make sure he can’t teach any more, Dad said.

I suddenly saw him how he was before it all started. How friendly and funny he was, how he loved teaching us.

I’m not hungry, I said. Can I go to my room?

Mum did a big sigh. Yes, okay then, she said.

I wanted to ring Jane but I didn’t know what I would say. Ever since that day with her mother, Mum and Dad didn’t want me to be friends with her. So I rang Michaela and we talked about Miss Fairley instead, her funny walk and how she didn’t teach so well – not like Mr Vincent, though we left that unsaid. No one talked about him anymore.

I went and lay on my bed. Those green buds had turned into leaves, bright green baby leaves. In the late afternoon, the sun shone through them and lit them up like little flags.

 

SUE

I’D BEEN DREADING the interview with Vincent. How could we create the semblance of a genuine exchange? But since the morning of my dream, it was as though I had cleared a muddy windscreen. Where before I was focused on protecting the department, on having a halfway decent process, now it was all about him.

The day before he was to appear, my contact in the Queensland department rang. Vincent had come from there, so I had asked what they knew about him. He told me there had been several meetings because it was all so sensitive but that he’d finally been given clearance to tell me what happened. Vincent had been a high school teacher, but they’d cut him loose because he’d been molesting the girls in his classes. They gave him a reference as an innovative teacher and fudged his experience to make him look like a primary specialist by saying he would be good at preparing Years 5 and 6 for high school.

We reasoned that he wouldn’t be attracted to such young girls, he said.

You what?

Yeah. Sorry about that. We thought we were doing the right thing.

Well, it certainly backfired!

Yeah. I can see that now.

We’re conducting a tribunal to collect evidence, I told him. We’re seeing Vincent tomorrow.

I’m glad we didn’t have to do that, he said.

No, you just sent him to us, I replied.

He laughed and said, Good luck.

Bastard.

 

WE PLANNED THE wording of our questions down to the finest detail, and decided who would ask which ones. When he came in, we stood, said good morning, observed the proprieties. He grunted in reply. When I sat, I put my hands flat on the table beside my files, holding firm.

I opened my mouth to start, but he jumped in. Do I get to question them? The people who made this all up?

Mis-ter Vincent! I said, weighting my syllables carefully.

He focused on me then. I took a breath and managed to speak calmly. I’d like to fill you in on what the tribunal has found so far, I said.

Made up, you mean, he snarled.

I ignored that and began the summary we’d prepared. When I spoke about seeing the eight parents who wanted the matter pursued, he let out a hoot of laughter.

They pursued me, he said. Their precious girls all wanted to be in my class. They rubbed up against me.

We stared at him.

Kathleen took a deep breath. Mr Vincent, she said, these girls were nine, ten, at most eleven years old when these events occurred.

It’s their word against mine! he snapped. And that Spa Grant, she’s evil.

We were silent again for a beat. I pictured Spa sitting there, her fierce dignity.

Suddenly Bob jumped in and rushed ahead, giving up on our careful plan. He explained the law to Vincent, and ended by saying, In such matters, a family must bring a charge and then it’s your word against the child’s.

Yeah, said Vincent and I swear he smirked.

He’d been here before, I realised. He knew the law, probably better than we did. I bared my claws.

All the parents have declined to take the matter further, I said crisply.

Vincent’s eyes widened and then he smiled. So I go back to my proper job?

No, I answered.

I could feel Bob and Kathleen on either side, the three of us swooping in.

It’s very difficult, I said, to dismiss a teacher. But our decision has been helped considerably by the information we received from your previous employer.

What?

We know that you were removed from a high school position because several students complained about you, I said. It was believed that you would not treat primary school children in this way.

Now he kept quiet. He was watching me closely.

The director has discretionary powers, which he can use in circumstances of grave import. My tongue curled around the words, relishing their formality.

They stopped him for a few seconds and then he said, I’ve never hurt anybody. You can ask them. His outraged face was childlike.

I went on, implacable. The director has determined that immediate dismissal be set in motion. You will receive your full entitlements for unused leave.

He blinked and became very still.

We will also be notifying every educational authority in Australia of our decision to terminate your employment, and the reason why. His eyes narrowed, but stayed on me.

It is our intention, I finished, that you will never work as a teacher again.

His eyes flitted from us to the floor and back.

Have you any questions? Bob asked.

That Grant woman, Vincent said. She’s in your precious department. She’s the one who should be sacked. Is she going to be investigated?

Mr Vincent – Bob began.

All of them. It’s a conspiracy.

I stood up. Thank you, Mr Vincent, I said. We will inform you of our decisions regarding these alleged events in a formal letter. It was my only slip-up.

Alleged, he yelled. That’s it, alleged! Nothing has been proven.

Bob and Kathleen were standing by then as well.

As though it had been choreographed, the three of us nodded to him and swivelled to the left. We trooped along our table and out the door. I turned back and said, Thank you, Mr Vincent.

I clicked the door shut. Round the corner, well out of his sight, my body broke into a little jig.

Oh, Sue, you are naughty, giggled Kathleen.

Let’s go for a drink, I said.

 

TRISHA

MUM KEPT TALKING about high school and how it would be a whole new phase of my life.

You’ll love it, she said.

I gave her a look, and then went back to my comic book.

I just want you to buck up, Trisha! she said. Stop this moping.

Dad’s decided he no longer wants to be president of the P&C. It’s the Vincent business, he said one night. It just did me in. It’s not what I signed up for.

Mum said, Maybe we could invite the Chumleys for dinner here.

Sometimes I just wish I’d never heard of Mr Vincent. And even Mrs Grant. Between them, they’ve made a terrible mess.

 

SUE

THE LAST TIME I saw Jonathon Vincent was when I handed him the official letter. I stood and moved from behind my desk when he came in. My skirt swished as I turned to face him. I felt the sinuousness of my cat-spine, my new certainty.

I didn’t invite him to sit. As he took the envelope in his fingers I saw that he was grinding his jaw. Against my will, I focused on his face, piece by piece: the stubbly beard, the reddish nose, the watery eyes. He was struggling to hold back tears. The revulsion I felt lifted for a moment: he was a beaten dog.

The termination is effective from today at 5 pm, I said.

Fuckin’ bastards. He was muttering through clenched teeth so it took me a moment to work out what he’d said.

You can take your personal effects, I said, and leave now if you wish.

He have me one quick look, a look where his eyes failed to meet mine, before he walked out. I watched as he passed that desk he’d sat at for all these weeks. He didn’t even glance at it. But he did hold his head high.

 

I GRADUALLY GOT back to my normal work routine. There were satisfactions in it, but truth be told I missed the drama and the urgency of the Vincent business, the feel of those claws.

Spa and I continued our old pattern, bumping into each other in professional settings. There was slightly more warmth, more eye contact than before, but nothing anyone else would notice. At these events, I always felt there was a thin line connecting us, a set of tiny lights sunk in the floor, winding through chairs and around tables from me to Spa. I had no idea if she felt the same.

Then one day, maybe two years after Vincent’s dismissal, I looked up from a pair of shoes in a shop window and saw her.

Are you buying? she smiled.

Not sure, I smiled back. I do need a new pair of good blacks.

I’m after sandals, she said. Those are nice. She pointed to orange leather thongs decorated with gold flowers. I tried to smile in agreement.

Sue, I’m so glad to see you, she said. Her eyes were sparkling at me. The most extraordinary thing happened last week.

What?

My doctor rang me out of the blue the other night. She’s sort of a friend as well. She said, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, Spa. But I have a question for you.’

Where this could possibly be going? I thought. In spite of all that had happened, we’d never spoken of personal matters.

Betty – that’s my doctor’s name – said, ‘Do you know a man called Jonathon Vincent?’

I gasped, and started to laugh.

I know, said Spa. Isn’t it incredible? So I said, ‘Yes, I do know him. Why?’

Betty said, ‘He’s a patient of mine. I decided to check with you because he says you ruined his life.’

Spa beamed at me. Ruined his life! Isn’t that fantastic. Ruined his life. Couldn’t be better.

In her glee she flung her arms out.

I told Betty everything, said Spa. Isn’t it brilliant?

I stood there smiling at her, enjoying this madness in spite of myself, my better nature wondering if this was even legal.

I loved telling Jane, said Spa. I just wish I could have told those other girls.

Indeed, I said.

I never met those girls. I used to wonder about them. It made me think of the kids from a Year 6 class I’d had in my teaching days. One of them had the brownest eyes I ever saw. Another had a giggle that burst out of her at terrible moments, like when the principal told them a student had died. I remembered them singly and I remembered them as a bunch, a group of girls who might have supported each other. I liked to think the Vincent class was like that.

I wondered if Spa had any idea how hard I’d worked on it. For a brief, vain moment, it struck me that I wanted some acknowledgement from her. I shook the thought off, and we smiled our goodbyes – a hug was still out of the question. My smile lasted nearly all the way home.

When I told David about what Spa’s doctor had told her, he said, She deserved that, to hear that he was a mess.

His perspective on her, on what was due to her, jolted me into seeing that I’d had my acknowledgement from her all along. The first thing she did was phone me. She expected me to share her outrage. She had called me out to captain the team.

 

TRISHA

WHEN I OPENED the envelope, it contained an invitation that read ‘Trisha and Friend – Hampton Primary Fortieth Reunion’ in bold red letters. It startled me. I didn’t want to relive that last year of primary school. What were they thinking? I wouldn’t go.

But it stayed with me. For a week, two, three – I kept thinking about Jane. She was the one I wanted to see. If she wasn’t there, I could sneak away.

When we gathered at the hotel dining room with balloons and ribbons in the Hampton colours, the night began with shrieks of recognition – some people really did look the same. Jane’s hair was curly and greying, her long straight plaits quite gone.

Most people were alone, not carting their other halves around, their ‘friends’. Holding drinks in our hands, I heard a medley of children, work, houses, cost of university education.

It was hard for me to concentrate. My mind kept going to ’74.

Jane was beside me when I spoke, and that may have had something to do with why these words shot out of my mouth without volition to the five or six in the circle.

I said, I’ve been thinking about what happened, you know, that last year.

Why had I said that?

In the silence that followed, a ruffle passed through the room. It came to rest with a flexing of backs, shoulders, arms, among the girls. It was as though I’d let off an emergency beacon. Women in other groups turned their heads to us and two stepped over to our group.

By the time we settled at dinner, nearly all the girls were at one long table, the boys at the other. It’s how we were in sixth grade, after all.

I never knew how it started, said Francine.

Your mother, I said to Jane. Remember that afternoon?

And so we began, all leaning in. It was forty years later and child sexual abuse was now in the news nearly every day. We had a name for what had happened to us. Round and round we went, who knew what, the words parents had used, how we felt when he left, what the boys said about us.

I felt flutterings in the skin behind my ears. I’d spoken of it before but never to these women, the ones who actually knew what I was talking about, who’d been there too. Forty years. Forty-one if we included fifth grade. My head was lifting off my shoulders.

Where’s your mother now, Jane? Sally asked.

She’s still here, same suburb, said Jane. She smiled. She’ll love hearing about this, about us talking.

I used to wish she was my mother, I blurted.

Really? Jane’s eyes widened.

The way she believed us. My parents didn’t – not till they heard from the others.

The talk flared again then, about those whose parents went after him and those who didn’t, the division evaporated now. The table might have levitated and we wouldn’t have noticed.

 

A FEW WEEKS later, Jane rang and invited me to dinner with Spa. It was the first time the three of us had been together since that afternoon. Spa’s gold hoops were gone: she had small silver ones now, matching her hair.

How did they get rid of him? I asked.

Sue Blanchard, Spa said. She explained how she’d rung Sue at the very beginning, told us about the tribunal and all that Sue Blanchard had done.

Martin Chumley wouldn’t have believed me, she said. But I knew Sue would – and she was higher up in the system. And, she finished quietly, she did it. She got him out of teaching for good.

The room was warm, a fire in the corner, shades of maroon and orange.

Oh, and there was my doctor! The wonderful Betty, she chortled and told us about that phone call. About Vincent in pieces.

Jane brought in a dessert of stewed fruits and cream in little bowls that had belonged to her grandmother.

It changed me, I blurted suddenly. That whole event made my life different.

How? they both stared, their eyes round.

I saw that adults could be different. I saw that I didn’t have to be like my parents.

Wow, Spa said.

That’s a big thing, said Jane.

I still love my parents, I rushed to assure them. But from that time on, I wasn’t like them.

There was a beat of silence, then a log cracked loudly and sighed into several pieces. Jane and I reached for a top-up from the port bottle. Our fingers touched and we laughed.

Spa leaned forward. I’ll have some too, she said.

 

SUE

THE NIGHT DAVID and I watched Julia Gillard announce the royal commission, those days of grey tension came back to me. Vincent sitting outside my office, us scrambling to find a way to deal with him, Spa lecturing us about using the real words. The world has really moved on, I thought.

When the commission hearings began to be televised, I rang Bob at his nursing home.

I’m worried, I said, that we didn’t do the right thing. That we didn’t do enough. I’m worried they might come after us. Is that ridiculous?

I thought of that too, Bob gurgled through his emphysema. But I think they have bigger fish to fry – like the churches! He let out a wet cackle.

I cackled with him. But a small knot remained.

Day after day, I watched the priests and even bishops being paraded before the quietly spoken inquisitors. I was mesmerised by this real, high-level tribunal. David couldn’t understand why I was so captivated.

The commission’s clincher question seemed to be, Did it ever occur to you to take the information to the police?

As each of the men in black squirmed and mumbled, No, it didn’t occur to me, every shade of journalist in the land scoffed and harumphed in disbelief. Television specials were constructed to ridicule them.

It never entered my head. Spa didn’t go to the police. Even the lawyer didn’t mention it. People only took these things to the police back then if it was a stranger, like a pervert in a park exposing himself. But Jonathon Vincent, like my Uncle Jim, wasn’t a stranger. Everyone trusted him. I tried to imagine what would have happened if we had gone to the police. They might have laughed, I decided, or tut-tutted and said their hands were tied. It wasn’t in the culture then, to believe children.

I felt a little sorry for the men in black on television – not the ones who’d done it, but the ones who were meant to handle it, fix it, make it go away. They were being asked questions that did not fit the culture of the times. It could have been me there, trying to explain why Vincent hadn’t ended up in jail.

As it came to an end, I rang Bob again. He was in raptures about the commotion going on inside the churches.

I told you, he said. They weren’t after the likes of us. They were after the big boys.

Yes, they were.

And we did do something, Bob said. We got the bastard. My lips softened into a little smile.

Yes, we did.

 

 

While based on a true story, this is a fictionalised representation of the issues involved. All names of people and places that could conceivably be recognised have been changed.


From Griffith Review Edition 58: Storied Lives – The Novella Project V © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review