The accident happened on a Friday. It was reported on the six o’clock news. At half-past four the cameras found the street and interviewed the nurse on the lawn. His neighbour; she just happened to be a nurse. She rolled him; he screamed. A tragedy, he was such a nice man. A young man, a teacher at the local school. A nice, quiet man. A lovely friendly face at church.
Friday morning he walked to work. He had the feeling in his throat he couldn’t swallow. The fine hairs on his long legs rose and fell with the brush of his silver trousers and his steps beat a nice rhythm with the box of matches in his pocket.
When he arrived at work he immediately noticed that all of the children were gone. In their place were bears and policemen and nurses and princesses and about a hundred mermaids. He pressed his wide palm against his cheek and felt himself there: it was odd how he should be there. For lately he had the feeling he was not. The vague texture of stubble brushed against the heel of his hand and he thought of sand. Between his toes, that’s how it ran in the cells of his mind. Slipping, it was a fragile and slippery thing, he had not a hold of it: he slipped. And the sand whipped against his bare ankles, tight under the spoiling sun, as the doctor emerged from the flapping blue tent holding the baby. Her red and yellow sundress. It too flapped against the pale arms of the white-skinned doctor who shook his head, there was nothing he could do. The baby flapped. The tumour was too mature, too progressed. On the inside of her tiny red lip was where it grew, big and bright as an orange.
‘Scotty. Meeting in the library, mate.’
Tom rapped his sporty knuckles on the frame of the door.
Inside his classroom, where rainbow fish swam across the ceiling and numbers full with glitter climbed the walls, Mr O stood facing the window. Outside the ghost gums bent and twisted in the heat, the leaves crackled as they fell, the children called. They made those awful sounds children do. A call in the throat, a gurgle. A kind of cry of grief or joy or grave disappointment, there in the throat. Mr O brought out the box of matches with the flaming red-haired lady on the front. He shook the box and it was a fine neat nice sound and he liked it. Then he followed Tom down the amphitheatre stairs, across the quadrangle, to the library.
In the library he took a seat. The tiny raised bumps on the little red chair pierced through his silver trousers and he remembered the first job he got after he arrived, in a clothing factory. The work was monotonous there and the days were long, but at least the chair he had to sit in was respectable. It seemed to him that everything wrong with the public education system in Australia came down to those little red chairs. The way serious adults discuss serious matters with their knees around their ears. That, and what happens to them on dress-up days. He was then in the company of one Red Riding Hood, one Hungry Caterpillar, and at least three giant purple crayons. Judy, the Relieving Principal, wore a short blue satin dress.
Judy began the staff meeting by Acknowledging Country. She took out a small plastic comb, the kind used in barber shops, and paid her respects to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation all the while tilting her head and running the comb through her hair then switching sides. She rummaged around in the bag at her feet. The staff waited.
‘Drum roll, please.’
Tom started a drum roll on the desk and Judy secured a platinum blonde wig to her head. Then she stood up. The staff clapped. The wig had two long plaits, with each falling over a breast. There was a wooden spoon fastened to a little white apron tied around her waist. Judy picked up the wooden spoon and tapped it against her thigh.
‘Goldilocks,’ said Tom.
Judy clapped her hands. Then she sat down.
She used the meeting to reiterate the program for the Book Parade Assembly. There was a series of reminders regarding the Junior Athletics Carnival. Everybody was to check username and passwords for reports, due to stage supervisors next Wednesday. Towards half-past eight, the conversation descended to tea towels. Lucy was taking annual leave, someone had to put up their hand.
‘Thanks, Tom. But you were on tea towels in Week 2.’
She said it to Tom but she was looking at Mr O. The fury rose up in him as bile. For hadn’t he done what was right? Hadn’t he fed and watered that baby in secret for close to three weeks and hadn’t he risked his tail to run all the night long through the bush and through the town to bring her there, to that meeting of white men in their white tents? To have her cured?
‘Scotty. That okay?’
‘Good on you, Scotty.’
It was a desperate heat outside. That heat sank into his skin and he would have felt very relaxed with that, only he was having the feeling he couldn’t swallow. There was something growing in there, something with legs and with eyes, something of the monkey and the devil and he couldn’t stand it. He had done what he could. What more was expected of him? He picked up the baby and wiped off the black shit with his hand. The tumour by this night was glowing red, thick and heavy with the veins that fed it, and other little tumours grew out of it now like the eyes of potatoes. He was looking into these eyes, fluid with fatigue, as he stood in the white tent, all white and flapping in the still night with every movement, like the wings of a blackbird. He stood there in the wake of the wings, cooled, bouncing the baby up and down in his arms as the interpreter told him what the white man was saying. No, they could not operate. It was only a matter of time. He thought: So that is that. He thought: I must move quickly. He never noticed the little girl. She’d been following him since he’d left the library, playing a game. He had not yet noticed the little girl but that was the game.
Her name was Coco Friedricks. She was seven years old. On the day of the accident she arrived at school holding a lone chicken nugget that she was still eating. Coco was the smallest child in the class, a child with a too-loud voice for her size, a child who frequently complained of mysterious illnesses, though she was hardly ever ill.
‘Hi Mr O.’
She was dressed as a mermaid like most of the girls her age but what set her apart was her tail. It was sewn with tiny aqua sequins and moved of its own accord. Now she swiped a bit of hair out of her eyes with her forearm and the tail swung behind her like a lazy snake. Oil on the tips of her fingers. Glistening.
‘Mr O, I feel sick.’
She wore a pair of black lace-up boots that day, the kind teenagers wear at night. The boots reached up to her knees. One of them was unlaced. Now she stuck out her foot and looked at him.
‘Double knots, please.’
Mr O worked while Coco ate and chattered, lost her balance with the effort of staying still, saved herself as children do by pressing her oily hands into his shoulders. He wanted to look up but the light flashed and the shells rained down and a smaller child, perhaps no more than four or five, was pressed to his back, fingers bearing into the flesh of his shoulders, face bearing into his neck.
‘But what about this one?’
The shoelace dangled in the air. The bell went for morning assembly. Coco was absorbed by the hundreds of characters all going in the same direction. Mr O followed the rest of the children to the field and stood there, straight as a pole. When it was over he led his boys back to the classroom, past the bubblers and across the asphalt and under the scribbly gum. From a low-lying branch a length of bright blue rope hung like a noose. There was a tap at his hip.
‘Can I get the roll?’
‘Yes, Hannah. Off you go.’
All day the class was unsettled. Zara wet her pants and wouldn’t say yes despite the stream trickling from her chair. Frankie did not want to work on the computer so he threw a jumbo die at the monitor. Indigo found a piece of Blu-tac on the floor and got it stuck in her hair; there was nothing to do but cut it out. Lulu’s eczema was so bad her eyes were swallowed with wrinkles and often she whimpered and that made it worse. It was a very unsettling thing for the children to come to school all dressed up. When Mr O called the roll that day, he did not put on a funny voice. There was no Heads-Down Thumbs-Up after recess and nobody got told to Move Their Peg. All this unsettled the children. They were unsettled through Reading Groups. They became bored and unhappy in Spelling. At the Book Parade Assembly, Judy noticed 1/2O were very noisy and called attention to it in front of everyone. The reputation of the class was only slightly redeemed when Coco won a prize for Most Creative Costume. She chose a big book about reptiles. The parents sitting close to one another up the back of the hall complained. It was a rip-off. Coco’s mother was a famous dressmaker.
Back in the classroom shortly before home time Mr O read the children Coco’s book. It was a good book about reptiles. There was a lot to talk about. There were a lot of facts and some opinions. The book rhymed very well. Mr O learned something himself – he never knew the difference between a gator and a croc. The children stared up at him as he read and something grew in him. The walls around the room pulsed like they were veins. Every book in the place throbbed like a hot little heart. She was such a solid warm hot weight in his arms, such a pleasure. She was sweet and a pleasure and she gurgled with pleasure in his arms, her round warm body and swollen belly swimming in that red and yellow sundress. He began to move quicker; she bounced in his arms. The tumour, thick and angry, pulled down her lip as he ran, his sharp limbs running, away from the white tents and back through the town and through the bush and through the night to his hut in the field. He must have slept some, for he woke at dawn dripping wet. The tumour had burst. She was screaming. From out in the dark morning the Chief called. He thought: I cannot sleep. He thought: I must train. All the boys around him, dressed up like soldiers, flanked him and held him up and he knew what he was after all not just the father of the devil he was –
‘I feel sick.’
‘It’s home time soon.’
Zane put up his hand.
‘But what’s a fact?’
‘A fact is something that is true. Today is Friday. That’s a fact. What about The season is summer?’
‘Fact. It’s hot.’
‘Yes. Because it is summer. What about I am a teacher?’
‘Mr O, I feel sick.’
‘It’s nearly home time. Coco feels sick? Fact or opinion? April.’
‘Exactly. You can’t know she feels sick. It’s just a feeling. Feelings can’t be true. What about I am beautiful? Hands up if you think that’s a fact. Hands up if you don’t. Zane?’
‘Because you’re very dark. You’ve got a lot of black. Your coat is black. Your hair.’
‘You have this all here.’
(The thick scar across his neck shone pink that day. Belly of a shell.)
‘You’re a boy.’
‘Can’t boys be beautiful?’
‘Not everybody thinks you’re beautiful. So it’s an opinion.’
‘That’s good. That’s good. Yes Roco?’
‘But what’s a fact?’
So Mr O explained it again, and the children scooted closer to his gigantic shiny feet and looked up at him. He was so tall up there and the children liked him very much. He looked so peculiar to them and he smelled so strange and the children liked those aspects of their teacher in the way small children do. He was talking, yes, speaking soft for it was quiet. The shelling had just stopped, and the body on his back was gripping with tiny fingers as the fear in him faded, and the grass when he stood and when the body slipped off was sticky and wet. Big hands took him from behind and forced him to his knees. He kneeled there. The bright morning sky. And he saw how the sun swam into the landscape and rolled away again. And they had him by the hair. They pulled back his head so he could see only the sky and as the blade of the machete began to split the skin of his neck the shelling started up again, and they disappeared. He was alone for just enough time, face down in the field, to know the thing had to be done.
Judy knocked on the door. The children were as if in some kind of trance.
‘Mr Ogwaro, can you pop by my office? Say quarter past?’
Mr O tried to swallow but there was definitely something lodged there. He held onto that book and brought it down to his knees several times for the book had a weight to it, on his knees it was a weight and he was meeting it and he was there and that was something. There was the feeling in his throat he could not get at, that was true, but he could not get at it, could not get it away. There was all of the smoke and the stuff in his eyes; the stuff in his mouth and skin and eyes and he thought to himself he might stay there, face down in the field, only there was the thing and it had to be done. So he stood. In his big black boots. And it occurred to him the horizon was gone and he saw nothing but each step ahead of himself and he stumbled and was blind and he arrived at his hut. His tongue hurt and he couldn’t breathe and there were pieces of the puzzle lodged inside every place of him and he stood on two feet encased in shiny black and he felt those boots as the things they were – too heavy and too strange – and as he made his way, slowly, to where she lay. There were iron plates of steel banging in his chest. He approached the baby; had already forgotten her name. Nyaring. And that was his shame.
There was such a great lot of black space in the space between where she flapped her little black arms and where there was all the black dirt, and it seemed to him, at eight years old, as if the space there was there for a reason, like it was waiting for something. Like it was waiting for him to do what he had to do. He thought: But her face is looking up at me. He thought: What about her little feet, which kick? But he covered her over with dirt.
‘So we’ll meet at quarter past,’ said Goldilocks.
He looked at the children, some of them were still on the carpet, wiping the blades of their machetes with fistfuls of straw. He kicked that dirt over until only a shade of the red and yellow sundress showed through and then someone handed him a stick on fire and he went to the other boys, who were waiting, and he threw that stick and together they watched the hut go up in flames.
‘Okay Mr O?’
‘Yes. Of course.’
He clapped his hands in the way that makes children clap their hands and listen.
‘Home time. Chairs under. Bags. One line at the door.
He wondered how her body would know it was time. He thought: But what if she just lies there, not crying and not moving, as the flames lick the hut down floor to roof? And the army rolled out, putting their pencils in their tins and strapping their bags to their backs.
‘My tummy feels sick.’
‘It’s home time now, Coco.’
He collected her reptile book from his chair at the front of the room.
‘It won’t fit.’
‘Of course it will.’
He fit the book inside the bag. She was beside him as he led the line of children outside. He stopped on the verandah to get them settled before taking them down the stairs.
‘I feel sick,’ said Coco.
He put his hand gently on her shoulder and drew her in so she stood at the front of the line. His hand was on her shoulder.
‘I’m line leader,’ said Tilly.
‘It’s all right, Tilly.’
‘Mr O,’ said Coco and that’s when she vomited. It was a sudden and violent thing. The rush of sick sprayed all over; she made a move as if towards him, her hands reached out. And the teacher raised those long dark arms, as if to stop her, or perhaps he was meaning to draw her in, but something happened, and the child lost her balance at the top of those stairs, and she fell backwards down the stairs. Her legs doubled over like she was a doll, and she might have been hurt bad or worse in the fall but she only lay there at the foot of those stairs, a little stunned. Soon she would get up; strawberry milk and sausage roll for tea. But her teacher saw only the boots, which kicked through the black of that day and then were still, and he took off in great long strides across the quadrangle and out the school gate. The school behind him crumbled under the weight of the flame. Ahead of him were the fields, the grass long dry and hurting when he fell, stiff in places with blood. And still he ran. Away from the fields and into the bush. He ran in the wrong direction and he ran through until morning and when it was morning he hid and then he slept and they came for him and nearly took him only they couldn’t, there were too many boys in there, and he got the idea from the ones he saw tied to the branches of the trees and sleeping. He cut one boy down with his machete and stole the rope, and he ran all night and with the sunrise he found a branch, well concealed in foliage, and he strapped himself there to hide from them and he slept. In his sleep the black wings thrashed. The blades cracked like whips in the air and caught the first rays of the moonlight and he untied himself and climbed down from the tree and wrapped the thick rope around his tiny waist and ran.
When he came to the house he opened the door and walked down the hall. His steps on the rug made a soft and simple sound. At the end of the hall he opened the door of the study. It did not creak. He went along the hall to the other end of the house and unlocked the door and went down into the garage. Inside the garage was his canary yellow GT351 and beside it a drum of fuel. He unscrewed the cap and left it on the bonnet of the sunny car. He carried that drum inside and poured the fuel around the place. In the study he splashed it over the piano, the coffee table, up the curtains, down himself. He lit the matches one by one.
The old dog curled up in the armchair woke with a start. But she was not insulted by the smell of the fuel or the feel of it on her soft skin. As the flames got going she only flopped off the chair and stretched and yawned. She kicked out her back legs and little flecks of fuel flew off like they were soap suds from a bubble bath. He lay down on his back in the middle of the room. It seemed the decent thing to do. And he wanted to do the decent thing. He lay down on his back like that in the middle of the room, not knowing that when he died it would be all the way down Cardigan Street, face down on somebody else’s front lawn.