When he arrived at work, Barry left his car and ran for the neighbouring horse paddock, a sweaty oilskin over his head and a pouch of tobacco in his pocket. He rolled himself a cigarette with numb morning fingers, coat hood sheltering his activity from the rain. Barry’s life was divided between two places he was not allowed to smoke: the local high school where he taught English and Drama, and the Arohanui eco community where he normally resided. Sometimes, at home, he smoked in his car with all the windows closed, while his neighbours sat around the rough sawn communal dining table and talked, he imagined, about cancer. ‘Breathe deeply,’ Joyce the American yoga teacher would say to him, when she had him captive on a rubber mat on the floor of the Lotus Lounge. ‘Why are you always so negative, Barry?’ Anna the robust Dutchwoman asked him at dinner. It was all very well for her to say, given that she spent all day around vegetables.
At seven thirty, Barry stubbed out the butt on a fence post that was ashed with several years’ worth of his stubbed butts, and walked calmly to the staffroom. ‘Morning Barry, how are you?’ The deputy principal greeted him with the breath of a corpse. It was the product of coffee hitting a diseased stomach too early, a few red wines the previous evening, and a lost toothbrush.
‘Brilliant,’ Barry replied as he scanned the room. Brian the librarian was reading his usual morning paper. Tina from science was eating microwaved porridge. As it was a Thursday, the counter was bedecked with decorated cupcakes: the anorexic economics teacher had been baking again for the starving children of Africa. A jar next to the cupcakes read NO IOUs. In a corner, Glenn the evangelical misogynist was talking enthusiastically to the wet-eyed student teacher from Auckland. Through her blonde fringe her eyes cast a glow of genuine terror. Barry thought about rescuing her, but consoled himself in his guilt by deciding that talking to him wouldn’t be any improvement. He’d been assigned as her mentor, but despite her ridiculous beauty, he couldn’t overcome his disinterest in spending time with her.
At the bell, Barry was waiting in his chair. The three students who had arrived on time sat together, emanating awkwardness and speaking softly in a teenage language he didn’t understand. A few more students arrived over the next few minutes, making as much noise as they could, so their lateness would not be overlooked. Barry ignored it. Year Eleven Drama had a theoretical roll of twenty, but fluctuated between five and twelve. Their work towards a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not progressing well. As Barry handed out the scripts, Cameron Jonas moaned and said, ‘Sir, why do we have to do some boring shit about fairies?’ Barry ignored him and said ‘Ok, morena everyone. We’ll try Act Four, Scene One to start with.’ It was convenient that the four lovers were asleep at the beginning of this scene, as none of them were in class that day. ‘Where’s Oberon?’ Barry asked. Yesterday Oberon had been Justin Marsh, who was playing rugby today at a school sports exchange.
‘Sir, he’s probably drunk at home,’ said Jackson Whatu.
‘Jess, can you read Oberon?’ Barry asked.
Jess scoffed. ‘I can’t be Oberon, I’m Titania.’
Barry thought he heard Cameron whisper, ‘He’s been smoking his special tobacco again.’
‘Guys,’ Barry implored, ‘we’re supposed to be performing this in four weeks. Remember, this is for an assessment.’ After ten minutes of arguing, and protesting that they were there and it wasn’t their fault, the players assumed a stubborn silence. Titania applied her lipgloss, glared at the director, and began.
Year Nine English were kept in that morning because all the blue and red coloured pencils had gone missing again. Barry passed around an ice cream container and said ‘I’m not going to look, I just want you to quietly slip them back in.’ The container did several rounds, slowly filling, until Barry gave up on the final missing red, and let the students file out morosely. He was just grabbing his banana and his keys and heading for the horse paddock, when Sarah the student teacher appeared in the doorway, and he remembered they were scheduled for a ‘discussion.’ Sarah would be teaching her first lesson last spell that afternoon, and was already squirming.
‘Did you see that boy?’ she asked, in a horrified whisper. Barry smiled at her, perplexed. ‘He had a giant purple bruise around his mouth.’
‘Oh, yes, Tom,’ Barry said. ‘Don’t worry about him. It happened in my class on Monday. Kharma Te Rangi took my coffee cup and told him to suck it onto his face for as long as he could. So he did.’
‘Oh.’ Sarah blushed. While Barry looked at her the redness deepened, until her hair seemed like snow and her eyes shone bluer and bluer. He found himself deciding that he wanted to sleep with her. He looked at the tender cuffs of her grey silk shirt, and thought about the tiny wrists beneath.
‘Here’s my lesson plan,’ she said, handing him an A4 sheet. Everything was neatly arranged into boxes titled Topic, Learning Outcomes, Links to prior learning, and so forth. ‘Oh, training college,’ Barry sighed. He began to read aloud, partly out of habit and partly in an attempt to embarrass her further. He could almost feel the heat from her face. ‘Year Twelve English,’ he read. ‘Topic: The Scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. Activities: Think/Pair Share ten minutes. Character role play twenty minutes… ’
Sarah interrupted him. ‘I was thinking, to make it fun, I could get them to imagine they were the characters, and have a conversation. Like, pick any two characters and talk to each other. You know, about what they’re thinking and that.’
‘Aha,’ said Barry, with a cynical smile. He’d stopped trying to make English fun in the late nineteen eighties.
‘Do you think it will work?’ As she looked into his face for a sign of approval, he realised she was serious. He wanted to say something cinematic, like ‘Honey, let me tell you a few home truths.’ He wanted to say, ‘Whatever you do, so and so will sit there gazing at herself in a compact mirror. Such and such will be drawing male genitalia in the back of his copy of the book. What’s his face will have the appearance of intense concentration, but only because he got stoned at lunch time.’
He said ‘Sure, it’ll be fine.’ He made some half-hearted excuse involving photocopying. He was desperate for a cigarette.
Sarah’s lesson didn’t go as badly as Barry had expected. He sat at the back of the room behind his cluttered teacher’s desk, where he never usually sat. He looked at the blue training college form he was supposed to be filling out, and lost concentration. His stomach was rumbling audibly. He’d only had one sandwich for lunch, and half of it was crust. Every week Barry made five painstaking loaves of wholegrain bread by hand, kneading the dough with more of a hatred of humanity than a love of wheat. And every week the loaves were quickly disposed of down the gullets of his neighbours and the tourists from Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It was the beginning of peak WWOOF season at the moment, which meant a constant influx of virile Germans, space cadet English girls on a world tour of spiritual and sexual proliferation, and Koreans from the cities who carefully pulled out vegetable seedlings and left the weeds. Last night he had been lying in the outdoor bath, soaking out the poison of another day at work, when he’d been chanced upon by a WWOOFer woman, who was wandering through the trees in a dirty white dress, like a shade. She’d sat beside him and talked for a while, oblivious to his slack nakedness, clearly unconcerned about his hairy chest and bald patch. She’d offered him a toot on a green glass pipe, which he’d accepted. He’d wondered if she might climb in with him. He was still considering what could have happened as he watched Sarah testing all his whiteboard markers. Upon finding one that worked, she began to draw a map of character relationships. Her trembling hand made a spidery two-way arrow linking Prudence and the Scarecrow. ‘So, how do you guys think she feels about him?’ she asked. The room fell silent at last, and remained that way for a painful number of seconds. Then Kim Walker said, ‘Um, like he’s an old perve and stuff.’
Barry remembered the floral-sweat scent of the WWOOFer’s dreadlocks. When he was just starting to enjoy her company, she’d said, ‘You must be pretty happy here, living the dream.’ Then he’d asked her to leave him alone.
‘How do you think that went?’ Barry asked Sarah, after the three-twenty bell. Her crimson colour returned. ‘Okay,’ she said. She adjusted her armful of books and then added, ‘To be honest, I felt like a complete fool the whole time.’
Barry’s cue had come. He breathed in and said, ‘You know, when you’re a teacher, that feeling never really goes away.’
He’d found out she was staying at the Watson’s farm, which was only a couple of ks from Arohanui, so he offered her a ride. He regretted it as soon as they drove out the school gate, her in the passenger seat where chickens sometimes roosted. He realised that his car was filled with dropped nails and bits of rope, and had various scrawled reminders stuck to the dashboard. It was the Ford Falcon of a madman. It stunk of tobacco and the spillings of secret beers (Arohanui was also alcohol free). They rounded the fern-dripping bends of the one lane road, they saw the odd sheep picking its way through the scrub. ‘This was my dream once,’ Barry said, confusing Sarah and the dreadlocked girl in his head. ‘A bit of land, planting trees, working with kids. Trying to change the world for the better.’ Sarah didn’t say anything in response. She was gazing out the window, with the wistful expression of a girl who is thinking about a very, very attractive man who happens not to be there. ‘I started out teaching in South Auckland,’ he went on. ‘In some ways that was even worse than up here.’ He laughed. ‘Had a knife pulled on me once.’ It didn’t matter that she wasn’t really listening. He was talking to someone who wasn’t talking over him. ‘I could write a book about all the things kids have called me. You learn to ignore it.’
Sarah got out at the Watson’s gate and said goodbye courteously. Barry watched the breeze lift her skirt and expose the backs of her knees. Following his earlier decision that he’d like to sleep with her, he made another, more noble decision not to act on it. He waved to no one and turned the car around. But he didn’t go straight home. He parked by the estuary and sat looking at the muddy tide, fiddling with his keys in his lap. He watched the pied stilts standing nonchalantly on one leg. He thought to himself, if I have to spend one more day in that shit place I am going to freak out. If Joyce talks to me one more time about homeopathic remedies for smoking cessation I am going to scream. He saw a heron lift itself out of the water and thought, if I drive in there, would anyone notice? At low tide the estuary mud was bejewelled with the roofs of abandoned vehicles. He thought to himself, I live in a land of immense natural beauty, and incredible human stupidity. He tried to breathe deeply, but didn’t enjoy it. He returned the key to the ignition.