Have you ever felt lost in your life? Like a character who has stumbled into the wrong story. You weren’t supposed to be here. This was not the adventure you had mapped out in your adolescent dreams. All you can see is the same stressful day reoccurring for the next twenty years before a psych ward claims you. When did the aspirations do a midnight flit? Was it after the first student lied about you? After the first time the weekday refused to end when you shut your eyes? The cliché of a rat on a wheel continually revolves around and around in your head. Planning, teaching, admonishing, marking, worry, nightmares, blame. Planning, teaching, admonishing, marking, worry, nightmares, blame. Planning…round and round. You would choose a cliché – typical and indicative.
This is what Annabelle is mentally writing as the opening paragraph of her first novel as she robotically walks to class. The humidity is oppressive – claustrophobic. Hat on head, she weaves her way around the loiterers – sidesteps bands of unruly boys; ignores their shirt ends flapping in the wind, mildly observes the giggling pods of girls; gold earlobes glinting in the sun. She adjusts her yellow scarf, worn to convey an arty bent. She fixes a smile and summons the energy needed to face Year 10 English. Energy better spent on the remaining 324 pages she has yet to imagine.
The students line up noisily – if you could call it a line. It is more of a straggled impression of a pregnant snake recently run over by a road train. The front of it starts out resembling a line (usually the early ones know how to do these things) but as time goes on and the latecomers bound in, adjoining themselves to the head rather than taking their proper place shamefully at the tale and the teenage girls who prefer to chatter, gather in clusters, instead of silently waiting in the correct formation, it becomes a distorted mass. Annabelle stands at the door and fumbles with her keys. Finally managing to get it open, she turns, sighs in resignation, and says, “In you come then, Year 10.” As usual, no one takes any notice. In fact, the only response is rather an odd one, but she has found children are rather odd. The boy at the front looks aghast and turns to his counterpart in shock,
“Did you see that, Eric? The door…?” He pushes at it nervously and slowly enters.
That is all it takes. The rest of the bunch surge behind him, a tsunami of hormones and sweat, jostling to get to the back row. Shaking her head, Annabelle follows them.
“What are you lot doing inside?” Ronald Mac strides into the room, laptop bumping rhythmically against his showy, overdeveloped thighs – shorts one size too small surely? Annabelle looks up confused. Why has he interrupted her class? His arrogance is as pungent as his overpowering aftershave.
“Door was open, sir” the students chorus.
Fuming, Annabelle attempts to raise an eyebrow to convey her surprise at the rude intrusion. “Mr Mac, can I help you?”
He ignores her, rather like she imagines he ignores his slight imperfections when preening in the mirror at the gym. “Right, you’ve got me today so get out your exercise books and write this heading…” Whiteboard marker brandished, with the focus of a cross-fitter completing a personal PB, Ronald makes his way to the board. It appears he intends to take this lesson. She knows she should protest but suddenly she feels the energy drain out of her. Why not? Let him endure the fifty minutes. He seems so keen, so robust, and besides, as she looks down, she realises there is nothing in her hands and no laptop on the desk. She drifts to the cupboard; she will stand here in the corner and observe. She lets her gaze settle on the students. The thoughts return, they fall into a rhythm in her head: Got to plan Year 11 Lit. Was I clear yesterday when I explained Thesis Statements? Don’t forget to follow up that detention at lunch. Twenty-six essays to mark on the weekend. What if Jeremy fails this unit? I hope I sleep tonight. Why didn’t I write a thesis statement on the board?
It’s interesting watching from this vantage point. Ronald is clearly caught up in his performance and cannot see what she can. Slight manoeuvres of hands under tables sliding into pockets, quick furtive glances, thumbs sporadically jerking and then freezing when he turns to play to the class. One girl (a quiet one, so Annabelle can’t remember her name – quiet brunettes with bland features blend in her head) is pulling her pen apart and Jeremy (defiant, loudmouth with bully parents) surreptitiously types on his laptop. Annabelle can’t see what he is typing but she doubts it has anything to do with English. She thinks about interrupting Ronald to alert him to this blatant disengagement when his booming baritone cuts the air,
“Jeremy, get off your laptop!”
Annabelle snaps back to reality. I should float – use proximity. She reprimands herself and begins to move around the room. Jeremy has started to take down the notes, but she notices he is omitting key information and his lazy scrawl is hardly legible. She hovers behind him, a little nervous to intervene. Last term, his mother wrote an email to the Head of School, accusing her of ‘picking on him’ after he failed to pass in his final assessment. Inhaling deeply, she screws her courage to the sticking place and leans in to whisper gentle encouragement.
“You might need to be able to read what you write Jeremy.” (Humour is generally the most effective approach with the difficult boys.) “Slow down.” Jeremy starts in his chair and shivers. “You know you are worth a capital I. ” she adds as Jeremy’s hand shoots into the air.
“Sir! Sir! It’s really cold, can you turn off the aircon?”
Groans punctuate the classroom as students protest. “It’s not cold” “Don’t turn it off sir!” “Put a jumper on!”
Ronald pauses, “You’re not even under the aircon Jeremy. Man up.”
He turns back to the board. Annabelle feels a sudden rush of pity for the gangly boy, the goosebumps rising on his pale, skinny arms. She gives his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Like a Skyrocket, Jeremy explodes from his seat, and turns on the boy next to him.
“What the fuck!” he cries, pushing him hard. “What’d you do that for?”
“Jeremy, outside now!”
Ronald has spun around. He seems to have grown two inches taller and his voice has dropped an octave whilst simultaneously rising in decibels. Annabelle is impressed; If only she had his presence, if only she could grow in size and volume when confronted by provocative students. A woman yelling is never impressive – the pitch is too high, there’s no impact. She often thinks she sounds like a cat on heat – not at all the desired or appropriate effect.
Jeremy suitably abashed, slinks outside.
With the intensity of sumo wrestlers preparing to battle, gathering clouds squat over the valley in which the school sits. The room darkens. An odd raindrop taps a warning on the tin roof. Annabelle looks to the outside courtyard. An ominous breeze is tugging at the palms that line the pathway just beyond the window, teasing the litter on the grass. She hopes it is not the threat of a storm. She hates driving in the wet and it can be torrential at this time of year. The rain begins to spatter, patter, and then pound as if God were a teacher who had held on throughout a six period day and at last is able to relieve himself.
Jeremy is at the door.
“Sir, can I come back in now?” he whines.
“In! And no more bad language.” Ronald brusquely gestures in response.
The lesson continues for another ten minutes without further disruption. Annabelle remains at the back of the room, looking to see that students are not deviating from the task and worriedly checking for signs the downpour will abate. Several girls put their school jackets on as she passes but their focus is admirable.
Then at two o’clock, two figures appear at the door, shaking their umbrellas. There is a polite knock. Shuffling in awkwardly with one of the counsellors, the Principal appears sombre.
“Sorry for the intrusion Mr Mac but I need a few moments of your students’ time.”
Ronald shrugs, “Go ahead Mr Bolton, they are all yours.”
At some point in this exchange, the student mass becomes a wriggling serpent; it shifts, coils and hisses.
“Who’s that bloke?”
” The Principal idiot!”
“What’s going on?”
“What’s she doing with him?”
“If I can just have your attention, Year 10…” The Principal clears his throat.
Well yes you can, but may you? Annabelle automatically responds in her head.
“When you are quiet…” He waits as the serpent slowly settles. “Thank you, Year 10. We have just received some very bad news and before it gets out on social media or you hear it second-hand, I wanted to tell you what the school knows.” The class shushes, expectant faces all raised in anticipation, eyes widen as they lean forward.
Nothing like a good piece of macabre goss. The thought springs into Annabelle’s mind before she can stop it.
The Principal takes a deep breath, “I have just heard from the family this afternoon… I am very sorry to have to tell you all this… but your teacher, Ms Jordan has passed away. She was found this morning. I can’t go into too much detail,” he lifts a hand as the shocked murmurs begin, “but what I can tell you is that Ms Jordan was a very dedicated teacher who devoted her life to her students. Her husband wanted me to know that she was found at the kitchen table, her laptop open and your assessment papers in front of her.”
“Did she kill herself?” squeaks the girl in the front row (Shannon – with the band aid covering her nose ring).
“No, no, nothing like that,” the Principal quickly interjects. “We’re not exactly sure what happened but it was a natural death. This is understandably a very distressing event so if any of you need to talk to someone then…”
During his speech, Annabelle is having an outer body experience; the room wavers in front of her and the Principal’s words have become an indiscernible distortion of sound. Why is he telling them she is dead?
“I’m right here!” she goes to protest, making her way through the desks towards him. “Look at me!”
Although she has raised her voice, no one seems to be taking any notice. Some of the students have begun to cry in their dramatic teenage ways – faces scrunched, shuddering sobs, acne reddening with the effort. Annabelle gets right to the front of the classroom, just as thunder smacks the blue grey sky hard followed by a flash of lightning, causing the whole class to start in fright. There is an awful scream.
“I just saw her!” Jeremy has jumped from his chair and is pointing right at Annabelle, shaking like a palm frond in a cyclone. “I just saw Ms Jordan! I swear!” His eyes roll back in his head and his body crumples; Ronald just gets to him before he completely collapses on the floor.
“Call the nurse!” The counsellor is shouting instructions, the students are wailing, and Annabelle is nodding frantically and repeating,
“He did see me! I’m here! Right here! He saw me! Where else would I be?”
She lurches around the room, appealing to student after student. A hysteria has taken hold, they seem to sense her presence, shrinking away, gasping and gripping each other. Jeremy has come to but is quietly moaning.
The Principal can’t seem to call order. He stands in the centre of the mayhem, ineffectively clapping his hands and calling, “Eyes to me!” which just adds to the general chaotic racket.
The realisation is slowly sinking in. They can’t see or hear me.
As she comes to grips with this, Annabelle retreats to the corner and slides awkwardly down the wall to sit on the floor, legs splayed. No one notices – not even the fact that she is wearing a pencil skirt that has ridden up and now her knickers are definitely on view. That is the clincher.
I’m really dead, I really am. She thinks and then the more terrifying thought follows…If I’m dead, why am I here? Her stomach churning, Annabelle suddenly recalls a distant night of wine and deep discussion on what the afterlife might look like. Her words return to her.
“I think you go wherever your brain takes you – whatever you fixate on becomes your reality when you die.”
Her tongue is fat and furry with the sour acidic aftertaste of shiraz.
I will never escape the wheel.
I am here forever.
And for the first time in a class, Annabelle drops her voice an octave, raises the decibels and screams.
Nicola Pett recently begun to explore gothic writing as a form of amusement and finds it quite cathartic. She lives with her husband and three children in the rainforest in Northern Queensland, Australia. She has worked in Media, The Arts and Education.
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