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Authors: Suzanne Leal

The teacher's secret

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‘What happens when we are forced to leave what we love? Our life's work, our marriage, our homeland?The Teacher's Secretis a delicately woven tapestry of interlinking stories that reveal the ordinary struggles of decent people in the small town of Brindle. Built of richly conceived characters—teachers, mothers, wives—it draws you in to the web of relationships in and around a little public school, its dramas, crises and victories, as people navigate their own and bear witness to each other's struggles. It is a story of rupture and repair, about the betrayals of the past, and what happens when the systems and institutions we trust to guide our lives fail the humans within them. This is a big-hearted book about a small community and how small acts of kindness and courage, and the willingness to face the truth, restore the human spirit to a sense of new belonging.' JOANNE FEDLER

Also by Suzanne Leal

Border Street

Praise forBorder Street

‘Utterly engrossing and moving . . . An exquisitely poised and intelligent unveiling of secrets; a book honouring the hidden, the intimate and the painfully unresolved.' GAILJONES

‘A book that looms closer with every page . . . By the end, you start seeing the characters on the street, and you hear their voices in your sleep.' MARKUSZUSAK

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The extracts from Roald Dahl'sCharlie and the Chocolate Factoryon pages 225, 226 and 227 are reproduced with the kind permission of the Roald Dahl Literary Estate LLP and the Penguin Group.

First published in 2016

Copyright © Suzanne Leal 2016

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The AustralianCopyright Act 1968(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin

83 Alexander Street

Crows Nest NSW 2065

Australia

Phone:(61 2) 8425 0100

Email:[email protected]

Web:www.allenandunwin.com

Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia

www.trove.nla.gov.au

ISBN 9781760290559eISBN 9781952534133

Typeset by Post Pre-press Group, AustraliaCover image: Wander Women Collective/Getty Images

for my parents, Barry and Roslyn Leal

and

for my husband, David Barrow

CONTENTS

TERM 1

TERRY

NINA

TERRY

SID

TERRY

NINA

TERRY

NINA

JOAN

REBECCA

MEL

NINA

TERRY

LAURIE

TERM 2

NINA

JOAN

MEL

NINA

TERRY

LAURIE

NINA

REBECCA

TERRY

TERM 3

JOAN

NINA

SID

MEL

REBECCA

TERRY

NINA

SID

REBECCA

TERRY

NINA

JOAN

NINA

REBECCA

JOAN

TERM 4

SID

JOAN

REBECCA

MEL

REBECCA

NINA

TERRY

NINA

TERRY

REBECCA

NINA

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry

His eyes spring open and, in the minutes before the alarm rings, he thinks about the day ahead. He looks forward to the first day of term the way the kids look forward to the first day of holidays—with a jump of excitement.

Beside him, Michelle is still sleeping. He smiles as he looks across at her. In sleep, there's something that takes away all the years so that she seems little more than a girl. He's a lucky man, that's for sure. He only needs to look at her to remember that.

When the alarm rings, she stirs. Drawing a deep breath, she moves her head and, with the brush of her hand, pushes a lock of hair from her face. She rubs her eyes before, very slowly, she opens them.

‘Good morning, sweetheart,' he says softly.

It takes her a moment to focus. ‘Hello,' she says, her voice thick with sleep. ‘What's the time?'

‘Ten past seven, love.'

‘Already?' She yawns. ‘Can't be.'

While she stretches, he gets himself dressed. Today he chooses his orange shirt, because it's cheerful, teams it with a pair of long trousers and his Rockports and he's done.

In the kitchen, he works his way through a bowl of cornflakes, drinks a couple of mouthfuls of tea and heads for the bathroom. As always, it's a surprise to see himself in the mirror: a figure on the way to becoming an old man. There's even silver in his moustache these days.

All in all, though, it's been a good life; a fortunate life, even. He's not saying it's been plain sailing, that's not what he means. And certainly, there are things he'd have changed if he'd had the choice.

Like being a dad.

Because he'd have liked that. It's one of the things he'd have most liked.

The kids at school, they're pretty upfront with the questions. ‘Sir,' they'll say—especially the new ones; the ones that don't know him so well—‘how many kids have you got, sir?'

Mostly, he'll just shake his head and play it straight. ‘No kids,' he'll say. Other times, he'll make a zero out of his thumb and index finger and hold it up. ‘Zero,' he'll say. ‘I have zero kids and one dog.' That normally works a treat. It always does when you add a dog into the mix. Because in the end, nine out of ten kids are more interested in dogs than babies.

Sometimes, though, he'll squat down and crook a finger to draw the kid close. ‘You know how many kids I've got?' he'll whisper. ‘Hundreds.'

Michelle isn't so good on the questions. Of course she tries; she says all the things he's heard other people say—other people like him and Michelle, people without kids.Kids?she'll say.It's a full-time jobjust looking after Terry.That's his cue to look a bit guilty and hopeless, like he's owning up to it: that she's right, he's the reason why. Truth is, they tried and they tried: the natural way, the medical way. Nothing worked. For a while, they spoke about adopting, but in the end nothing came of it. Strange to admit it now, but he can't quite remember what happened: whether it all got too complicated with the forms and the procedures and the waiting and what have you, or whether, in the end, they just got tired of it and called it a day. It's all a long time ago.

And now's not the time to be thinking about it anyway; now's the time to get going. But first he pops back into the bedroom, a fresh cup of tea in his hand. It's part of the morning ritual: he gets up and gets himself ready, then makes Michelle a cuppa to have in bed. And although her eyes are closed again when he comes in, her lips curve in a smile as soon as he puts the cup down on her bedside table, a soft chink of ceramic on the wooden coaster. ‘You all ready?' she asks, her voice throaty.

‘All ready,' he says. ‘Funny, though, to think of the year without Diane.'

Eyes open now, Michelle gives a stretch. ‘They'll have a ball, the two of them,' she says, stifling a yawn. ‘A year travelling the world. What's not to like about that? I'd do it in a flash.' She sits up and reaches for the tea. ‘I still think you should have put your hand up for the job.'

It's not the first time they've had this discussion. ‘It's not my thing, love,' he tells her again. ‘You know that. When have I ever fancied myself as head honcho?'

‘They'd have given it to you, you know that, don't you? I mean, you are the assistant principal. Diane said you would have been a shoo-in.'

He dismisses this with a grunt. ‘Elsie's reading now,' he says. ‘Got to make sure she doesn't forget how.'

He finds himself whistling as he drives. As usual, there's no traffic. It's one of the things he likes about living in Jinda. Because it's at the tip of the peninsula, it's a bit like living at the end of a railway line: everyone else gets off first so you end up with the carriage to yourself. It's a tranquil place to be. And it's by the water, which he loves. From their balcony, they look straight across the bay to the shipyards and the loading docks. At night, it's a picture, with everything lit up and bouncing and sparkling off the water.

There's only one road out of Jinda. It starts small but eventually fans out into the three lanes that head straight for the city, which is why there are so many commuters living in Jinda. Terry's just glad he's not one of them: all that traffic and hoo-ha in the morning and the crowds of people spilling out onto the footpath once you're there. It's not for him. Even Raleigh—only a fifteen-minute drive from Jinda—is getting too busy for him these days. That's where Michelle works, three days a week, as the receptionist in the medical practice.

Terry works in Brindle, which is just before Raleigh, and if he takes the direct route—straight along the main road, then right at the lights—he can be at the school in less than ten minutes. He prefers the scenic route, though, so he turns off earlier, just before the jail, and heads down towards the water. When they first arrived, it used to give him the heebie-jeebies, having a jail so close by—and a big one too, so big it was almost a little suburb in itself—but Michelle never minded. At least it kept the house prices down, she'd say. Otherwise what chance would they have had of buying a placeso close to the water? And as for the odd escapee: what sort of idiot would hang around in Brindle or Jinda rather than hop-skipping it as far away as they could?

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