Mr Llampe regarded himself in the mirror. He did not see the three black hairs that grew like leeches on the broad tip of his nose, just as he did not see the blackheads that pocked the valleys on either side of his nostrils. Mr Llampe was shortsighted but had never become aware that the soft focus with which he viewed the world was intrinsic to him rather than to things. In consequence he had a generous and kindly nature. What Mr Llampe saw about his face was that his eyes were dark and soft as the eyes of a dog and that his lips were full and smiling. He did not imagine that he was a handsome man but he surely imagined that his good nature was apparent to all around him. Indeed he imagined that the goodness that he wished upon the world shone out from him like light or warmth.
This was a comfort to Mr Llampe in his loneliness. Regrettably, despite the company of his wife and daughters, Mr Llampe was lonely. He had to admit this to himself. His family had preoccupations of their own unmatched to his, so they did not speak much to him. Mr Llampe could not talk to his girls about about his students and he could not talk to them about the music, food or clothes that they debated day after day. Their interests were just not interesting to him and he was not going to insult them by pretending. Not again, at least.
He might have talked to his wife Roslyn about his students. He would have liked to do so, and sometimes actually did, but Roslyn emphatically did not wish to indulge him in this. It led to ill feeling when he could not stop himself sharing his concern for a child on drugs or heading for trouble with the police. Roslyn was a medical receptionist for a gastroenterology practice, which drained her of any empathy for youths outside her own home. Her two daughters were more than enough for her good nature. Mr Llampe accepted that sharing his professional concerns was asking too much. He would have liked Roslyn to have had more time for him on some personal level, but since the failure of their last romantic weekend away, he had accepted that all was over in the intimacy department.
He did not blame her. He hardly blamed himself, but it was true that for several years the sight of Roslyn’s torso, naked or otherwise, had reminded him of a barrel or a sack of potatoes, causing any sexual thoughts he might have felt fluttering at the edges of consciousness to retreat into the safety of solitude.
Alone in the shower, memories from his youth amplified with pornographic fantasies and a quick tug could bring him to a prompt release.
Mr Llampe generally succeeded in not reflecting upon his sexuality. He held a kind of faith that he was doing no harm in his choice of what he thought or did or did not do or think. He was lonely, but he knew he was a good man innocent of actions that hurt anyone. If he ever thought an evil thought, God knew he had no intention of carrying it out. Beneath his evil thoughts was a bedrock of good intentions and above was a clear demonstration of well-intentioned actions.
Therefore Mr Llampe looked in the mirror with occasional sadness but no qualms of conscience.
As it was a summer morning, Mr Llampe dressed in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, ankle socks and a pair of black shoes. The ankle socks were an innovation from two summers earlier. They replaced the long socks that had been his summer habit for twenty years. Ankle socks had impressed Mr Llampe as a young and sophisticated choice. He was aware he looked like a dag to his students, but he hoped that the ankle socks were enough to hint to them that he was perhaps not as daggy as he seemed. He did not want them to think he was cool — he considered his conservative persona important to their welfare — but he wanted them to understand that there was more to him than met the eye. A little doubt about the mysteries of his character was healthy, he hoped.
Outside summer, Mr Llampe wore long trousers and a tie. The tie was sometimes colourful, taking over the ankle sock role in his attire. Or so he hoped. As he walked into the kitchen to make his breakfast, Mr Llampe recalled that his ties sometimes excited playful comments from his students. One or two comments was a success; more was too much. The bright pink tie had been a simple disaster.
As a gesture, Mr Llampe’s ankle socks were getting old. They had long passed without remark. He wondered if he should consider adding sports shoes. Idly, he wondered if Ms Chrysler, the fashionable young teacher who taught in the classroom next to his, would notice sports shoes. Ms Chrysler had never commented upon his clothing, just as he had never commented upon hers. He never would comment upon Ms Chrysler’s clothing, which was too alluring, one of the reasons why Ms Chrysler had trouble controlling the older boys in her classes. She would eventually learn to pull it back a bit. In the meantime, Mr Llampe remained willing to intervene on her behalf. He had only done so once, when the level of uproar next door had demanded a response. He had gone into her room and called for order before he even realised she was there: she was not at her desk, but seated at the back of the room.
Ms Chrysler had indicated subsequently that she would prefer him not to undermine her authority. Mr Llampe said nothing to express his view that Ms Chrysler had little authority to be undermined. He understood the importance of authority, that it slipped away all too easily. He had no intention of undermining Ms Chrysler’s authority, but he wished that she realised that it was a subtle challenge to his own if his students could hear a ruckus next door and he did nothing to condemn it.
He had said nothing to Ms Chrysler along these lines. Reconsidering the matter over his weetbix, he wondered whether in fact a subtle challenge to his authority was actually what Ms Chrysler intended. He thought of the way she smiled sometimes when the principal was speaking. It was an improbable response to the principal’s earnestness.
Ms Chrysler would learn, or she would not last. He only hoped she would do no harm. He corrected himself: she did a lot of good with some students.
Farewelling his wife drove Ms Chrysler from Mr Llampe’s thoughts. On the way to school he considered, abstractly, his chances of rising to deputy-principal. They were slim, as they required two or three competitors to eliminate themselves by death, disgrace or disinclination. Mr Llampe had no expectations of success. He did the right thing by the school because it was the right thing.
It was the usual sort of day for Mr Llampe. He anticipated a soft start with year seven, only to have that hope disrupted before first period when Ferdie Goncalvo produced a dead cat at the assembly. It was a very dead and smelly cat, and when Ferdie threw it towards a group of girls it nearly engendered a stampede. Luckily for Ferdie, Mr Llampe was the nearest teacher. He made Ferdie put the cat in a bin and take the bin to the garbage exchange, then he took Ferdie to the teacher’s washroom and made him clean himself up. Lastly he put Ferdie on afternoon detention, mainly to keep Mr Brendel off Ferdie’s back. Mr Llampe was then late for first period, so that his year sevens were unable to settle.
The odour of dead cat seemed to follow him through the day, although he had to be imagining it. His year nines — not the class with Ferdie in it — wasted second period talking about Ferdie and the cat. Playground duty at recess was a relief. Third period was free, but lost to the principal, who wanted to discuss next term’s timetable. Fourth period was advanced maths with year eleven — a pleasure to teach. Mr Llampe took lunch at his desk, marking homework, which he handed back to his year tens in fifth period. Sixth period was mathematics life skills with his other year eleven group, of whom the most annoying was Matthew Enson.
Matthew was terrible at maths, although he excelled in many subjects, especially English, which he happened to take with Ms Chrysler. Matthew once told Mr Llampe that he only took maths life skills because his father insisted, and that he would be happy with a bare pass. Mr Llampe found this insulting.
Matthew Enson thought he was clever. Mr Llampe thought Matthew was clever too, but he preferred clever teenagers who were less full of themselves. Mr Llampe strongly suspected that Matthew was the demon behind the Ferdie Goncalvo Instagram page, a nasty little site that showed Ferdie doing all sorts of dangerous, ill-advised, stupid things. It made Ferdie look like an idiot, and because he really was an idiot, Ferdie loved the attention. Ferdie Goncalvo’s Instagram was famous all over the school. The cat would be on it soon. The cat would have been Matthew’s idea. Mr Llampe could not prove it, but Mr Llampe was no fool. Matthew was friends with Ferdie, and there was no reason for this to be so except that Ferdie was a useful tool in Matthew’s war on standards.
Matthew was a kind of terrorist, really — at least in his own mind. Mr Llampe saw through this, and worried about the boy’s home life. What anxiety was he hiding behind the bravado? Would he return his talents to a good use, or fall completely into smartarse foolishness? He was at risk of underperforming in his HSC. He was at risk of taking others down with him. He was wasting his potential. Watching this was almost more than Mr Llampe could bear.
That afternoon, Matthew was sly, and did less than usual to provoke Mr Llampe. Was his instinct protecting him? His classmates were seething with energy. Mr Llampe confiscated two phones. He ploughed through the lesson and set extra homework. Sometimes Mr Llampe would stay behind with his senior classes at the end of the day, chatting and handing out useful advice, but not today. He went back to the admin block to collect Ferdie. They went together to the counselling room, where Mr Llampe explained why it was not a good idea to bring a dead cat to school assembly. Ferdie smiled, but could not explain why he had done it. He denied the suggestion that it was Matthew’s idea. Mr Llampe had a moment of weakness.
‘Matthew said it was his idea,’ Mr Llampe said.
‘Did he?’ Ferdie said. But then he examined Mr Llampe’s face, and retorted, ‘No, he didn’t!’
Mr Llampe was a poor liar. He abandoned his enquiries. He wanted Ferdie to understand how shameful it was to play with a rotting dead animal; at the same time, he wanted Ferdie to know that Mr Llampe cared for and respected him. It was impossible. Ferdie smiled imbecilically at him. As soon as he decently could, Mr Llampe released Ferdie.
The nastiness of all this upset Mr Llampe’s stomach, so he stayed behind marking papers for a while. The school was quiet as a morgue by the time he left at 6pm. The carpark was almost empty: he saw his car, the battered van that belonged to the cleaner and also the red Honda hatchback that belonged to Ms Chrysler.
It was so unusual for Ms Chrysler’s car to be there that Mr Llampe went back into the admin block to see if she was all right. The English staffroom was perfectly empty, just as he would have expected. He became mildly concerned about the whereabouts of Ms Chrysler. Returning outside, Mr Llampe walked into the main quadrangle and quickly surveyed blocks A, B and C. The windows seemed lifeless, including those of Ms Chrysler’s room. Then he saw movement near the ghost gum at the open end of the quadrangle, where the seniors had their benches and tables. Somebody was standing there, moving their arms. He could not see much more than an elbow, a leg. It was a student, senior, male.
Mr Llampe did not approach directly. With an instinct born of years of experience, he sensed potential to make a discovery. Circumnavigating block C, he approached the ghost gum under cover, tucking himself behind the brick stairway to the library where he might stealthily observe the boy and whoever he was with.
Before he could see, he heard a languidly amused female voice:
‘Don’t be a fool!’
Mr Llampe didn’t need to look to know that it was Ms Chrysler. He cautiously peeped around the corner. There was Ms Chrysler, and close by her, Matthew Enson.
‘No, I’m serious — can’t you tell?’ Matthew said, gazing as Ms Chrysler the way a dog watches someone eating. Mr Llampe thought he sounded smug and anything but serious.
Ms Chrysler tipped her head and threw her hair back from her face.
‘That’s not serious. You don’t even know what you’re protesting against. I know you. You just like to make a scene.’
Mr Llampe could not fault the words, but Ms Chrysler’s tone was all wrong. Mr Llampe pulled his head back as if burned. He could no longer see them, but it was as if he could see everything at once in the bricks a handspan from his nose.
Ms Chrysler was flirting with Matthew. They were talking without restraint. They had been talking for hours since the end of the school day. The nominal topic of their conversation was politics. Matthew conflated the humdrum bureaucracy of the school with the nature of the current government. Ms Chrysler both understood and disagreed, provoking Matthew with opinions too subtle for Mr Llampe to grasp, but which were clearly radical in their intent. They were the sort of radical opinions he had always suspected Ms Chrysler might hold, only more so.
Matthew Enson was struggling. Ms Chrysler was toying with him. She waited for him to catch up, then derided him gently. She was enjoying Matthew — that smartarse — in a way that she never enjoyed the company of Mr Llampe. As he listened, Mr Llampe reviewed the most pleasant conversations he had ever achieved with Ms Chrysler and confirmed that none had ever approached the fluidity and warmth of what he was eavesdropping on here.
Ms Chrysler and Matthew kept talking as the light faded to a dusky intimacy. The currawongs caroled their goodnights.
‘We should go,’ Ms Chrysler said, more than once, but made no move.
The longer Mr Llampe stood, the harder it was to leave. The longer he listened, the stronger the urge to look again around the corner, but also the greater dread of the embarrassment of discovery. What if they saw him now? In theory, Mr Llampe could simply step forward and it would be Ms Chrysler and Matthew Enson who would be caught out — but Mr Llampe knew that his face and voice would betray him. They would see at once that he had been spying. They would be undismayed. They would wait for him to leave, and then talk about him when he was gone. Mr Llampe could see this as clearly as if it had already happened. His face flushed and his bowels loosened. Abruptly he decided it was imperative that his car be gone from the carpark before Ms Chrysler went to her vehicle, lest it somehow give him away. Yet he remained glued to the spot, his legs stiff and cold, the leaf litter beneath his feet now nearly invisible in the darkness. Imaginary spiders spun around him. He continued listening. Ms Chrysler talked on. Matthew said less, but an imploring note entered his voice. What would Ms Chrysler do?
In the end, it was Matthew who said: ‘Shit, I gotta go home.’
‘You do,’ Ms Chrysler agreed. After a long round of goodbyes, afterthoughts, and more goodbyes, they were suddenly on the move. Mr Llampe fled back the way he had come. A jangle of emotions made his heart beat loud. He felt indignation, but also a wild joy, and unfortunately a tidal wave of sadness. He had seen a secret life and it was not his.
Mr Llampe was angry at Matthew Enson. If Matthew had a friend in Ms Chrysler, he should have known better than to exploit Ferdie Goncalvo. Even more, Mr Llampe was angry at Ms Chrysler, who seemed to know something he did not know. She seemed to be quite wrong and yet impervious to harm. He wanted to confront Ms Chrysler. No, he just wanted to talk with her. He wanted. He just wanted.
© 2021 Craig Bingham
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