As she drove south from Sydney
, Cassie Sleight wondered, How many people make decisions based on the emotion of the moment? Fed up with her impossible situation, when she had seen a means of escape the year before, she had taken it. Ticking the box anywhere in New South Wales on her application, she had left it to chance where she ended up in the approaching Bicentennial year. Cassie hoped now that she would not regret acting on that impulse.
With her view framed by her car window, Cassie turned off the highway toward Keimera. The road still glistened from the night rain. Tall, Norfolk pines marked the boundary of the harbour park on her left. A long string of shops stretched down the street on her right. Cabbage tree palms grew out of the footpath every few yards and shaded the shopping strip. Purple and white agapanthus bobbed in the morning breeze at street corners. There wasn’t any sign in the town of the drought that gripped the hinterland.
Uplifted by the beauty of the township, Cassie drove slowly past the pink Federation post office, looking for a sign to the school, and then turned right toward the foothills. The street leading to the school was typical of coastal country towns. It was wide with a row of trees creating pools of shade down the centre.
Little of the school was visible from where Cassie parked. In fact, the place looked deserted. Aware that it was almost though it was, in the rear-vision mirror. She settled her dark hair, hating the way the curl had tightened with the humidity. Not for her, the big hairstyles currently in vogue.
After locking the car door, Cassie looked down at her clothing: a simple white shirt, a flowing denim skirt, and her favourite black shoes. She looked the part. All she had to do was be it. Teaching is another form of dance, she thought, a simple matter of learning the steps and getting in time to the rhythm of school life. I can do this.
With her footsteps echoing in the school driveway, Cassie looked for signage. She found a portable blackboard with ambiguous writing where the driveway opened into the main quadrangle.
Double doors? Which ones? There’re lots, Cassie thought, scanning the area. It was then that she noticed the assembly dais much like the one used at her old high school. Given the conformity of school layouts, Cassie assumed that reception was in the far left corner obscured by the dais.She was right. Pausing to visualise a confident entrance, she took a deep breath and pushed the opaque glass doors.
Inside, people stumbled, domino like, into one another. 'Hey, watch it!’ protested a number of voices.
A man in jeans and a blue striped shirt near Cassie rubbed his shoulder while the dowdy woman next to him complained about the damage to her shoe and toes. Cassie looked at the crowd. Many of them wore variations of denim though a number had opted for beige or brown shorts, socks, and sports shirts. Had the school population grown in size or was there a big turnover in staff?
‘Excuse me,’ Cassie said, her path blocked. ‘I need to get to the reception desk.’ Nothing happened. ‘Excuse me,’ Cassie spoke louder and tapped the shoulder of the man in front of her.
He turned and looked at her. His, ‘Do I know you?’ unnerved her.
‘No … I’d just like to get through, please.’
Other eyes now focused on Cassie. She felt her cheeks quivering, swelling, reddening but knew it was mostly an illusion. When she was twelve, she had actually consulted a mirror and discovered that what others saw had little to do with her sense of self when under stress. Ignoring the speaker, she edged her way through to the centre glass cubicle and willed the red to subside.
The grey-haired receptionist, apparently deaf, took her details.
‘Why hasn’t that old mare been pastured?’ It was a male speaking from somewhere nearby. Cassie looked at the receptionist. She obviously had not heard.
‘I had to tell her four times!’ the speaker continued.
Registration completed, Cassie waited, wedged between a pipe of a man and a barrel of a woman. Neither was inclined to talk. She glanced around the small room, looking for a friendly face or for someone who felt as lost and unsure as she did. Unsuccessful, she worked for self-possession through distraction.
Looking at her shoes, Cassie realised shoes were the only remaining link to her life as a dancer. Was that why she loved them? That day’s shoes were from Spain and Flamenco in style. She loved the filigree lacework over the toes. The ratio between heel, arch, and ball was perfect.
A booming male voice read out three names, ‘Chandran, Smith, Sleight.’
The crowd parted like the Red Sea allowing two women to enter the office to the right of the receptionist but it closed on Cassie. Exasperated by the deafness of the people in her path, she resorted to tapping, edging, and finally vigorously elbowing a route.
Stepping into the office, signed as Deputy Principal, she saw a man in the centre of the room. His dark hair was slick. His manner oozed authority. She assumed he was the Deputy Principal but soon realised her error.
The Deputy sat behind a paper-littered desk. His face resembled that of a basset hound, and he seemed small com- pared to the man before him. Cassie suppressed a smile when she heard the Deputy addressed as Mr Barker. Unfortunate name, she thought.
Cassie studied the two other women. They formed a sharp contrast to one another: a middle-aged Indian with beautifully coiffured hair and wearing a green sari, and a peroxide blonde whose dress hugged her full figure.
The Deputy Principal spoke, ‘I assume you’re Mrs Chandran.’
Rajes Chandran graciously inclined her head.
‘I’m afraid that’s where my powers of deduction end. Which of you is Sam Smith?’
‘I am,’ said the blonde, ‘but I prefer to be called Samantha.’ ‘I see that you were a mobile teacher for six months at Wollongong. But you’re a local though, right?’
‘Yes. Wollongong was a long commute.’
‘Hopefully, your probation paperwork will arrive in the fullness of time. And as for you, m’ dear,’ the Deputy now spoke to Cassie, ‘years of education equip me to deduce that you are Cassandra Sleight.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cassie replied, missing the attempt at humour. ‘You realise that your probation is for a year? Keith Coachman here is Head of English and History and your immediate supervisor. Apart from whole-of-school staff meetings, I’ll have little to do with you apart from leave forms. You see Keith for everything else. I hope your stay with us is a long one, ladies. Unlike other faculties, Keith seems to have problems holding onto his female staff.’
‘A matter of professional dedication. Literary subjects involve a lot more work and can’t just be taught from a text book.’ Coachman was dressed in a khaki suit, white shirt, and bow tie. ‘Your orientation material, ladies, is upstairs.’
‘And how many men does your department boast?’ Rajes asked.
‘Eleven.’ Coachman directed his next comment at the Deputy. ‘I had hoped repeated requests for a larger staff room would’ve been approved for this year.’ He looked intensely at the Deputy. ‘I’d like to tell the men we’re moving in before classes resume.’
‘Oh … I thought … the Boss decided that classroom pressures are too great. You’ll have to stay put.’
‘They won’t like that especially with three girls to cram in. We’re not sardines you know. At this rate, we might even start behaving like lemmings!’
‘Not my decision; take it up with the Boss.’ The Deputy Principal, sensitive to the potential for confrontation, shifted the papers on his desk.
Coachman weighed up the wisdom of a skirmish.
‘On your way out, Keith,’ the Deputy said without looking up, ‘tell Jim I’m ready to see his new Science staff. I’ll see you noon at the executive meeting.’
‘Twelve?’ Coachman’s voice had an unexpected edge to it. ‘I thought the meeting was at ten. Is it still in the Boss’ office?’
‘No, um …’ The Deputy Principal’s face flushed. Coachman’s brow beetled.
‘Another of Rhonda’s stuff ups?’
The Deputy hurried on, ‘Oh well, I guess she’s been pretty flat out down here. The venue has been changed to Home Ec. Kitchen 3. The Boss has decided to keep the Inner Sanctum clear of meetings this year. Don’t forget to send Jim in with his new science staff.’
The Deputy shifted the papers on his desk again. Cassie looked at Keith Coachman. Something was happening here. She did not understand what.
Coachman suppressed his quip, swept past the women, and headed toward his domain. The women followed in brisk pursuit.
The rest of the day was a blur of information and a muddle of impressions.
During the drive to the boarding house, Cassie sifted through the day’s images. The staff room was cramped and hot. The men were a defensive pack obviously resentful of female intrusion. The English Head appeared to be a control freak. The identities of her colleagues were a jumble. Overwhelmed by the number of names she would have to learn, she did the maths: five classes times thirty students. God! That is one hundred and fifty names to know and identities to work out. Eleven men in the faculty, not to mention the rest of the staff! How will I ever remember them all?
‘Tea, George?’ Minna Madison sat in a large wicker cane chair. She was a small woman who liked to think of herself as plump rather then overweight. Plump suggested an attractive, soft ripeness of the figure like in Rubens’ paintings. George, her husband, thought of her as having a Mae West figure without the ‘Come up and see me sometime’ attitude. Minna loved life and everything in it.
Politically active since her twenties and on the local council as an independent, Minna had been the mayor for a number of years until the party machine ousted her through a series of unfounded accusations. Her regular, insightful articles written for the local newspaper extended her influence in the community, adding to the other aldermen’s resentment. By contrast, her role as Branch President of the local Country Women’s Association had been unchallenged and lengthy.
‘I’m fine with this one, love,’ George replied. ‘I don’t like the chances of those rock fishermen if their bait is what I think it is.’ He had thinning grey hair and the characteristic oversized beer belly common among many older Australian males. He sat in a squatter’s chair, binoculars glued to his face.
‘I’m worried that we haven’t heard from Mike, George. Tell me again what you said to him.’
‘I can’t remember the exact words, Min.’
‘Don’t expect you to. Just the salient points.’
‘I told him about the vacancy at the newspaper but left it to him to see the advantages compared to labouring.’ George returned to his scrutiny of the anglers, moving to the southern end of the verandah.
Minna leant back in her chair and chewed her right thumbnail in contemplation. George had said so much less than she had wanted. With Mike, less was better. She knew that now.
It had taken Michael’s unannounced departure north to teach her that. He’d left in anger and inflicted six months of sleepless nights and anguished days on them because his whereabouts were unknown. In the three years that followed, they saw him a mere handful of times. Minna felt the alienation in each courteous visit from him. Mike held her at a football oval’s distance but not so George. His failure to understand her feelings strained the marriage.
‘Min, one of them has caught something. A bloody snapper! Bigger than a politician’s ego.’
Dimly registering George’s conversation, Minna’s thoughts were fixed on the past. Clever, athletic, and very social, Michael had been headstrong as a sixteen year old. He was restless when left to his own resources and always wanted to be out-and-about.
Minna’s arguments with Michael mostly stemmed from what she thought of as misused time. She felt study had to be a priority. He was capable of being school dux. He should be dux. He would not be if football, dancing, and his mates continued to distract him. The scenes between them had been loud, emotional, and hurtful. Michael would not be steered. Needing defense, he had used knowledge of his parents’ relationship problems as a weapon against his mother.
George had stood by mute, which Michael interpreted as censure of Minna. George’s silence had infuriated her, as did its effect on Mike. She had fought battles on two fronts and lost. The loss added to the rift between husband and wife that both masked with talk about the inconsequential and mundane.
Rattling around the expanse of the house, they had tried to cope with its sudden emptiness, each in their own way. George found comfort in increased workload while Minna turned her energies outward into the community. The only positive that Minna saw in her son’s abrupt departure was the severing of his relationship with Kate Denford.
‘Min, you’re not listening to me!’
‘I am. Something about a fish being landed. I’m glad some- one got what they were fishing for.’
Upset, Minna said, ‘I need my sunnies. Won’t be a tick.’ Would she ever get over that grief, she wondered as she entered the house. She had hoped Michael would return with George the week before, and with that return, her hope for reconciliation be realised. Now, she thought, it might never happen.
Aware of his wife’s upset, George wondered what he hadn’t said.
On her return, Minna was again in control. ‘And how was your day?’
‘I’ve been wondering lately if the real killer of the elderly is boredom. Fishing, bowling, and relaxing aren’t what I’d thought they’d be. What do other old men do with their lives once they retire?’
‘You’re not old. It takes time to adjust to changed circum- stances.’ She felt her emotions bubbling just below the surface and tried to cover them by pouring another cup of tea.
‘Not for me, thanks. What I lack is a sense of purpose. Reasons to get up in the morning. You’ve got them. I need them.’ George stood. ‘Want a hand with the washing up before I go down to the pub, love?’
‘No, thanks, I’ve some council work to do first. This will hold until the dinner wash up.’
‘Righto. Dinner at seven?’ ‘Yes.’
Minna watched George saunter across the expanse of lawn at the front of the house. There wasn’t any point trying to help him. An ideas man, he prided himself on finding solutions often before a problem presented. It was for that reason that they had taken in boarders after Michael’s departure.
With land rates in Keimera spiralling upwards and worried that their income would expire before they did, George had persuaded Minna to rent rooms in their sprawling home, build up their nest egg, and enhance George’s potential superannuation payout. Three of the four vacancies had filled quickly. The house again echoed with the clod of adult feet and the chatter of young people, distracting the Madisons from their son’s absence.
On his way into town, George realised that his marriage had foundered on daily ritual and the pressures of life. They had been dry-docked, and he had not realised it until his retirement the year before. Since then, he had analysed his marriage, determined what was wanting, and how to refit it. The repair to the hull, all things going well, would be that
Rounding the final curve leading to Pipers Point, Cassie caught her breath at the sight. Madison House, a white two-storey colonial mansion, dominated the crest of the peninsula and was the only house visible.
Pulling over, Cassie reread the directions on a small piece of paper that had bookmarked the street directory.
The reality of Madison House was far different from her expectation of a small family home with a room to let. It was obvious even to Cassie’s uninformed eye that the house was his- torically significant and represented something of the former pastoral glory of the region. Why would someone who lived in a house like this rent rooms? As a child, she had wondered what life in such a house was like. Now she would find out.
Cassie looked back down the road before she pulled out. The view was fantastic with uninterrupted views of the town’s harbour, its marina, and the southern coastline.
The driveway snaked up to the rear of the house, past two acres of terraced gardens that swept down to the cliffs. A large shed that at one time had housed tractors and other farm equipment now housed a car. To the right stood a garage.
Pebbles crunched under foot as Cassie walked toward the back verandah. A number of doors opened onto it. Unsure as to which door to knock at, she hesitated.
Want to read more?