The silvery craft slides through space. On the warm planet below, the operators of primitive radar devices lurch into panic, then stand, bewildered, as the solid object fades from their screens.
On board the space vessel there is also high drama.
“I understand the necessity for rules, but this is a case where the rules are not just. Without our help the good that is on this planet will die. Along with the rest.”
“There is nothing we can do.”
“There must be!”
“There is not.”
Annie liked walking through the yard. The milling bodies ignored her and she could ignore them. She observed the clouds that drifted across the sky and, despite her distress, noticed the smell of damp earth.
The nightmare that had brought her sharply from her sleep in the small hours of the morning, was still replaying itself in her head. Most of it had been the confused jumble of a bad dream: spaceships, witches and giant rats. Yet somehow everything revolved around Cassie.
When she had moved in with her friend a year ago, Annie had cared for her at a painful time. Was her subconscious telling her it was time to leave? How was the dream connected to the terrible feeling that would not leave her – the feeling of daggers over her head, fear feasting in her belly? And why was Morgan in the dream?
Her attempt to make sense of the irrational was disturbed by students fighting as they waited outside their classroom. When her arm shot out to grab a boy by the sleeve it was a purely reflex action.
“What’s your name and form?”
“Jason Reels. Miss. 8C,” was the startled reply.
“Do not,” Annie spoke distinctly, “under any circumstances, allow me to see you hit another person. Ever! Do you understand?”
“I’ll be letting your form teacher know about this. Now wait quietly for your teacher.”
Why are people so surprised by war? Annie wondered.
Someone had let their pigeons out to fly and the sound of purring pigeon wings attracted Annie. She watched the flock swoop and dive around the school, idly wishing she could rise above the anxiety that had settled into her guts, then turned her attention to the group of Year Nine students waiting by the portable classroom. A deep breath and she arranged her brightest and strongest smile over her teeth.
Sullen grunts mingled with pleasant greetings as Annie checked the door. Good! The handle was dry and clean and the key-hole free of match-sticks or chewing gum. She put down her bag and began the tug and jiggle ceremony that was necessary to open the door.
“I said QUIETLY to your seats!”
“But Miss, this table’s wet.”
“He pushed me!”
“I was here first.”
Annie knew better than to expect the brief silence to last.
“Use some of the newspapers to dry the table; it’s only rainwater. Joe, you sit there; Frank, over there. Now settle down every-one!”
The cheerful tone was difficult to find today. Annie often became annoyed at the way people thought about teachers. “We’re either dedicated individuals sacrificing our lives for the sake of our students,” she would say, “or slack bludgers who are paid too much and have too many holidays.” She was annoyed at never being able to live up to one ideal, and aghast at being accused of the other. A lion-tamer would get danger money for this. She found reassurance in her favourite private whinge as she organized the class, trying not to let her thoughts turn to last night’s haunting vision.
“Well 9B, I’ve managed to organize the excursion for you.” Annie did not like excursions, though organizing them was usually the worst part. “We will be going to town on Thursday the 19th. I will be giving you the forms to fill out tomorrow.”
“Which film are we seeing, Miss?”
“Do we have to go to the gallery?”
“Can we have free time in town?”
Images of students escaping in the city, getting squashed by traffic or drawing dicks on museum exhibits, taunted Annie’s brain. She ignored these – anxiety before an excursion was normal.
“As we have discussed, in the morning we will visit the Art Gallery. While there you will choose two pictures, or sculptures, or other works of art, for your written exercizes. Then we’ll have lunch in the Botanic Gardens and go to see I was a Teenage Aardvark.”
“Not that f***ing shit!” This in a low voice.
“I beg your pardon!” The sudden silence became expectant as Annie turned to face Jason. Another Jason! Perhaps the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages should refuse to allow parents to name their sons Jason. It would certainly make my job easier, thought Annie as she took the deep breath necessary to keep her calm enough for what she knew was about to happen.
“We’ve spoken about bad language in the classroom before, Jason.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I heard you.”
“It wasn’t me. Why do you always pick on me?”
“I don’t pick on you. But you frequently behave inappropriately. Often I ignore it, but we spoke about your bad language only yesterday.”
“James was swearing too.”
“I didn’t hear him – and this is about you, not James.”
“You hate me, don’t you?”
“No.” But I hate having to argue with you every class. “Go and stand outside the door – we’re wasting class time. . . . Now, please.”
“Stand outside please, Jason.”
“My mum’ll tell Mr. Hardy you’re picking on me.”
I just wish you’d stop picking on me. “Thank-you Jason.”
“Now 9B. Where were we?”
The voice from outside was low but insistent. “In a f***ing portable, bitch!”
Annie strolled to the door to face the offender. Look you juvenile punk – don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs. “Get your books and take yourself to Mr Hardy’s office. . . . Don’t argue, go!”
The sneer on his face was triumphant. “I’m gonna get you!”
Jason’s words seethed into the room as he left. Well, at least things are moving now. The boy had been restless for several weeks. His behaviour had been deteriorating and the last few days his belligerence had barely remained within acceptable levels.
“Miss! He really means it.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Stacey.” If I had a hundred dollars for every time a student threatened me I ‘d be living in the south of France by now. Annie turned to the necessity of dealing with the class.
“Take out your books. Instead of talking about your news item as we’d planned to do, write half a page explaining the article you have found. Then make a journal entry about art galleries and, if you have time, go on with your stories. I’ll write all that on the board for you, with a few suggestions to help you think about galleries. Any questions?”
The room settled to the rowdy buzz that meant the class was working. It was funny how a confrontation with one student would often settle the rest. Annie patrolled the room once, confiscating a bunch of elastic bands and a mobile phone on the way.
“But I’m not playing with it, Miss.”
“You won’t need it then, will you?”
She sat at the desk, marked the roll and prepared to write a report for the principal. Just another day in the trenches. She hoped Jason would still be at the office when she got there after class.
Annie sat in front of 9B recalling the pile of correction on her desk that had snarled whenever she had come too close to it that morning. She was glad it had not avalanched. It would take the emergency services at least a day to dig her out. Another thrilling night for the Red Pen Avenger! I’d better get this report written before it joins forces with the correction. She looked around the class as she organized her thoughts. Caught in a rare working mood, they were bent industriously, only occasionally chatting with their neighbours.
A sudden wave of déjà vu passed over Annie. The smiling faces of a long teaching career were weighed down by monotonous dramas created by volcanic adolescents. Sometimes the job didn’t seem worth the effort. Sometimes she wanted to give up.
And then, last night . . .
Morgan Sortilege. The name would not leave her. Why? And what could she do? She was not teaching him this semester. “Excuse me for disturbing your class, Mr. Williams. Could I have a word outside with Morgan about a recurring bad dream I’m having?”
No. It just wasn’t going to work. But 9B were! Actually sitting, busily doing their work!
Annie fought off the urge to pull a face at the class then turned to the window to disguise her smile.
Through the window she saw Jason, now with his schoolbag, heading towards the gate. When she abruptly stood he noticed her, and gestured in her direction. His words were battered by the breeze, but the one-finger salute was unmistakable.
“Kylie, would you please take this note to Mr Hardy.”
* * *
Linda was leaning against the car, waiting impatiently.
“Why are you always so late, Annie?”
They arranged themselves in the car. Linda was not a talkative girl and Annie had often appreciated being able to drive home in silence. It gave her a chance to leave behind whatever had happened at school. Today was different.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, kid . . .”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
“Sorry. Linda.” It was suddenly hard for Annie to admit to superstitious rubbish aloud. “What do you know about 9B?”
“What do you mean? I’m not going to dob on any-one. What’s happened?” How could Annie possibly ask what she really wanted to know? She did not know how to bring up Morgan’s name without seeming daft.
“Jason’s in trouble for swearing and disobedience. I’m worried about him. He wasn’t this bad when he first came to the school. Something’s not right and I thought you might know something.”
There was something about Linda’s reply that made Annie glance over at her. When she saw the stony expression she was shocked. The last time she had seen Linda look like that was at Jack’s funeral. That was over a year ago. For her to suddenly draw in on herself like this when there was no reason . . .
“How’s James? You two are still going round together, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. He’s okay.”
No sign of sun past the frozen mountain.
“He has enough fun in class – sometimes his jokes and comments are very disruptive. Would he listen if you asked him to stop?”
“Maybe he’d stop if you stopped picking on him!”
Again you’re picking on me!
“I don’t Linda. You know I wouldn’t. But I thought you might be able to talk some sense to James – he won’t listen to me. Look, kid, is something bothering you?”
“I’m all right.”
“Doesn’t sound like it to me.”
“Well I am. Just leave me alone. And don’t call me kid.”
Driving on in silence, Annie was stunned. Linda took after her mother and had a stubborn streak a mile wide, but she was slow to upset. As she considered what she would say to Cassie, Annie felt that uneasy sensation tunneling into her stomach again.
Maybe it’s something I ate?