In those days classrooms were mostly quiet. In the still, hot days of February we would sit with sweaty hands pushing our slippery pens across paper that stuck to our arms. Outside the cicadas kept up a ringing chorus, above us the ceiling fans swished impotently at the hot air. You could hear someone walk along the verandah occasionally; sometimes a squeaky desk would open and close, or someone whisper.
Then the bell went. We waited and Mr Bee lifted his head and said without expression, “Put your things away neatly and then you can go.” Then he went back to his marking but not before saying to me, “You can stay for a few minutes. Bring your work out to my table.”
I stood by his desk while the others left. Outside I could see Mr Mac’ dismissing a class from physical fitness. He was throwing a cricket ball from hand to hand while he talked. We all liked Mr Mac’ even though he was tough. His warm up was simple. “Everyone run around the goal post and last one back gets the bat.” When he trained the boys for hockey he taught us how to protect our privates. “You have to take care of the family jewels, boys,” he said. And he let us laugh that a teacher would even allude to our balls. It made us feel grown up even though we were only twelve.
But Mr Bee was different. He arrived in our town over Christmas when it swam in the heated air. The dusty buildings, the bush and ocean floated drunkenly, distorting abstractly under empty Australian skies. He was only young but he seemed dull like our fathers. His hair was stuck back with some kind of oil; his old-fashioned glasses black-rimmed and large. When he was on playground duty Mr Bee found a tree and stood under it sipping a mug of tea. We avoided him like kids do when they know that an adult is slightly afraid of them.
I watched Mr Bee’s hands move and noticed his watch. 10.35. If he let me out now I would still get fifteen minutes of recess. Up close, you could see the sweat on Mr Bee’s forehead glow. He kept touching his glasses against his nose even though they hadn’t moved. I could tell he hated our town, that he would be gone by next Christmas like so many teachers before him.
Finally he said, “You can go.” I walked to the sliding door and opened it. The noise of children wafted into the room with the smell of fruit and sandwiches. Mr Bee looked at me from his desk. “Do your fly up,” he said. Then he added, “And make sure you don’t tell anyone, alright?”
I made my way down the verandah past the staff room. Mr Mac’ came around the corner and bumped me against the wall. “Whoa!” he said. “You OK, feller?” Then he brushed past me and opened the staffroom door. For a moment I heard grown-ups talking and the clink of plates and cups. Mr Mac’ slammed the door quickly but I heard him say “Bloody kids!” and some ladies laugh.