I picked up the keys during the last week of break. The Head of the English Faculty had left them at the office with a couple of folders containing unit plans for the senior classes I was taking over. The new classroom was a pre-fabricated room at the east corner of the school. I spent the afternoon pulling staples out of the walls and arranging the desks. I saw no other staff while I was there, only a grounds-man pulling a pair of bins through the empty courtyard. Beyond the yard, between the F Block and E Block buildings I could see across the sports field, empty of souls. A school in the holidays was always a faintly haunted sight, like an undisturbed surface on a lake.
The rain is everywhere tonight. It is the sound of gravel on the roof and I can’t help but lie in the warm darkness to listen.
Life demands a lot of me lately, so I’m off to see to that. I’m sorry my posts are now thin and far between. I’m sorry if you’ve found this blog recently and haven’t heard anything of me yet. Things may dissipate. One day I may find time again. Hopefully, we can meet over a word or two.
Winter’s breath creeps over the neighbourhood. Frosts bleach the front yards and rooftops. The morning chorus is absent now, a stillness pervades. I carry a carafe of warm water with me when I leave each morning, my car an icicle. As I pour the water over the windscreen the water snap freezes against the cold glass. I’m always grateful if I make my commute early, so I can stop at the Continental Bakery and get a flat white and a warm cheese scone to have first thing in the classroom. The smell of the scone and coffee are the reassurance of an old friend.
Some mornings are difficult to leave my bed. A contingent of thick blankets keeps me toasted inside, and it takes several dares to get up and get dressed. I pull the curtains to find my window obscured. The condensation beads and trickles down leaving clear veins to see the morning outside.
I met a friend I used to live with for beers on Saturday afternoon. As the evening rolled round we decided to tag one on and went out. We drank rum at The Dirty Land. The barman handed Riki a small bag of indescriminate dust and we had a line for old time’s sake. I forgot the rest of the night. Except, there was a sad feeling I remember, when I realized that some nights out I could spend the night talking to friends, that night I spent most of it talking to strangers about their work. I wanted to be in my own bed by 3 in the morning and drove the back roads home.
At work on Monday morning I arrived at the same time as Tania from the room next to me. She told me she had almost crashed on the way to work trying to photograph the sunrise. I agreed it was a beautiful sunrise. I used the word crepuscular because that’s the kind of thing English teachers do when they’re not talking about movies or other staff.
On Monday night I laid pieces of paper across the floor boards that creaked so I could map the best way to run silently from one end of the house to the other.
The first days back at school I felt empty. The kids were excitable and managed to make me laugh. It was reassuring to find a routine. Dad went in for heart surgery on Wednesday, and it wasn’t until they wheeled him away that it all hit me. Alone in his hospital room I stood at the window and felt the grief lift me. While dad was in surgery I went with my sister and his girlfriend to a nearby pub. The girls drank a bottle of wine and I sat on a pint for a couple of hours. At one point I went out and paid a stranger a dollar for a cigarette. I gargled water and washed my hands in the bathroom so they couldn’t smell it on me. Back in the ICU the first thing dad said as he came round was that he was so grateful. My sister cried and stroked his hair. He told Penny he wanted to take her on holiday. He told us to thank the nurses. He held my hand. Dad hadn’t held my hand like that since I was an infant. And I realized then about he and I. It takes a deft and heavy weapon to surface our feelings. Heavy enough was the weight of dad’s heart.
The following night she text me and invited me round. Just one last night. I went out to her place at the beach and we drank wine, finding songs on the internet we both liked as kids. She asked me to stay and we found each other again in bed. When she kissed me I briefly forgot who I was.
I visit dad’s on Good Friday with my sister. It’s another wet day and they have the wood-burner stoked and hot, the lounge is an oven. We bring pizza and wine and my sister’s shih tzu puppy, Freddie. My old cat, Mr Jones, sits up and watches the pup and doesn’t seem too excited, but dad puts him outside anyway. As dad let Mr Jones out he called Sophie, the Labrador, to come in from her kennel. As we talked we also talked to the dogs, reassuring Sophie that Freddie was okay, not to be rough. Freddie went on bouts of exploring. Sophie followed him and lied down at a distance to watch. The Grey One, my sister’s old cat, whom Penny is sure is a psychopath, walked across the terrace and looked in on us. He pisses on Penny’s gumboots and leaves and we don’t see him again that afternoon. He’s just letting the pup know he’s out there, dad tells us.
Dad’s medical folder was on the coffee table and I read through it with Penny, she explained the black pieces of his cardiovascular map. They just have to fix some of the plumbing, dad says. The ticker is okay its just the plumbing.
My face becomes red. I take some of my layers off, and occasionally I go and stand outside near the rain to cool off. I talk to Mr Jones to see if he remembers living with me in the city and dad comes out to check I’m not smoking out there. I ask him if he’s been sleeping at night and he tells me he’s been sleeping fine but the medication has him getting up to pee during the night. Later in the afternoon he tells me about the dream he had a couple of nights earlier. He could see from above the surgical lamps as a surgeon was operating on him at the table. He wanted to call out and tell the surgeon not to cut where he was about to, but he couldn’t speak in the dream.
Autumn has been wet. Weeks have dithered beneath a long cloud. Toadstools and mushrooms grow in the fields, leaves stick to windows and wind-shields, small lakes gather in the swales and gutters around the school grounds. At interval I make coffee in the maths department staff room. Carolyn has baked hot-cross buns and the staff are enjoying them with their morning tea, a large daub of melting butter, the smell of baked cinnamon, nutmeg and raisins fills the room. Outside, in the middle of the F-block courtyard, the lone apple tree is almost bare. Its spindly limbs still carry some green apples and when a breeze passes it rains amber leaves across the courtyard. A pair of girls walk through the peppering of windblown leaves. They raise their hands and twirl.
We meet at the pub on Sunday night. Varnished pine floors and rimu tables, the light dim to soften the fall into the working week. She wore a red sweater and lipstick, her skinny jeans rolled up from her patent leather oxfords. As she paid for a pint of pilsner at the bar I smiled to myself. This young woman that had appeared from the internet wore reality well.
The hours crooned and we traded our stories and awkward taunts, family histories and past employment. After our second pint I guessed she was a Virgo, and she couldn’t quite believe that I had guessed it so easily. The bartenders turned all the stools onto the tables and mopped the floors around us. They assured us it wasn’t any kind of hint that we should leave so they could close.
The autumn Sunday was powder blue. I washed the sheets of my bed. I ate tomatoes and toast outside in the sun, watching the sheets on the line inflate and curl in the small breeze. My house-mate made mango tea and joined me in the sun. We argued over who’s love life was the poorest.
Late in the afternoon I visited my mother’s for dinner. My step-father was out front, cut and polishing the car in the driveway. My brother and his girlfriend were hidden in his room. I talked with mum in the kitchen about her latest paintings while she peeled vegetables and made me a cup of tea. She told me about my sister. She asked me about dad’s heart. My step-father passed the windows of the kitchen, a leaf-blower whirring in his hands. He’s got three stents, she reminded me.
I finished my tea in the lounge and watched the last half of a wildlife documentary on TV. Under the Teton Range in Wyoming a colony of beavers were building a dam in a small creek. My step-father joined me and the industrious animals had us smiling and shaking our heads. In night-vision we saw the interiors of the damn. In time-lapse we saw trees felled and cut to pieces. In computer-generated graphics we saw the pond fill and tributaries reach out into the forest around it to float in more timber. For so long, this had been our Sunday ritual I had forgotten about. No matter how different the tastes of my family, we always enjoyed watching wildlife docos on TV together. We all found something remarkable in the talents of other species. My brother and his girlfriend soon joined us, and we gave names to the beavers. The lake froze and the young were pampered and warm in the dam. Mum served our dinner in the lounge so we could watch the end of the documentary. The warm comfort-meal on our laps. The roasted meat and vegetables covered in gravy, the smell of tarragon, rosemary and parsley.
A coronary bypass. This is the what the stranger tells my father. And his insides sink and his head fills with the machinery of clocks and measuring tape. He calculates his age. This is not something he is sure of any more, these days he has to count, he has to remember what year it is. And he looks at the stranger’s hands, and he thinks he’s the same age, thereabouts. There are scars around his knuckles but the open hand is soft. And these hands will be inside his chest. This stranger will come the closest to his heart. And my father thinks of his girlfriend, and children, his brother and sister. He thinks of his age and he measures it. Is that really long enough?
My classroom has become a clubhouse at lunchtimes. Juniors sit out on the front steps and sunbathe. They lie across the cement and grass and as I approach their legs recoil to make a path for me to the door. Inside seniors lounge around the desks sharing youtube clips and rumours from the parties on the weekends. The girls ask to play their playlists through the AV unit and tell me why we should study the poetry of the Broods and Lorde in class. Some draw pictures on the whiteboard. Some share slices of their mother’s baking. Mostly I work there but occasionally I listen, who’s got a crush on who, why won’t they txt me back, I don’t know what I’m going to do in the real world.