One lunchtime, Varahna the piranha came to visit. I didn’t call her that, though someone did, not a child, either; a member of staff. It was in the yard. The lady hugged her and gave her a kiss. You aren’t meant to, are you – call children names and kiss them? Not in primary school. Not in any school. But Varahna didn’t mind. She stood for a moment, giddy from the hug or the kiss, then grinned. She was a sweet girl.
I hadn’t seen her for a while. She came looking for me. I was alone in Year 5, eating a sandwich. She was alone too.
“You taught us about a rat.”
I did. It was actually a bilby, but it looked like a rat. We called it Bob the bilby. It wasn’t in the lesson plan. I was pleased that she remembered. As we chatted, Varahna drew pictures on the whiteboard with the teacher’s black pen. A Year 5 girl came in to get something. She’d been in once already.
“Varahna, are you still here? Stop bugging sir!”
Then she went out. After a few minutes, Varahna pulled off her headscarf, shook her hair and told me to feel it. She didn’t put the scarf on again. When she left, she was holding it in her hand. I got to the door first and placed my arm across it.
She hesitated, then ducked under – she wasn’t very tall – and scurried off giggling. At the end of lunch, when the children were lining up outside, some Year 5 girls ran over to me. They were breathless.
“Varahna said, ‘I want to kiss Mr Spaid and marry him and live with him and have babies with him.’” I smiled and said she was sweet. They looked surprised. “Do you want me to be angry with her?” The girls were still doubtful, so I added: “It was a bit inappropriate.”
In the classroom, someone saw a drawing on the board, in black pen, in the bottom, right-hand corner. Varahna had rubbed off what she’d done, except for one, little heart. She told me to leave it there. The corner was the safest place, at the bottom (she couldn’t reach the top). The heart was on its side, the pointy bottom facing right, as if it was lying down.
“Varahna did that,” a boy said.
“How do you know?”
“She does hearts like that.”
It wasn’t her first. It got rubbed off, but I didn’t do it. You take care of your little hearts.
On Monday morning, at the girls’ school, I had Year 7. A girl removed her headscarf, like Varahna, but she didn’t speak; she just put it on the desk beside her. Another child glared at her and asked accusingly, “Why did you take your scarf off?”
In the afternoon, I had Year 10. We watched Of Mice and Men. A video is easy in summer term, especially after lunch. They’d read the book, but now all the copies were shut and stacked neatly on the teacher’s table. It was dark and warm inside the room. Heavy curtains kept out the sun but swelled from time to time with a gust of air. We came to the part when Lennie kills Curley’s wife. She tells him to touch her hair. He’s about to touch it; you know he’s going to. A couple of girls called out instinctively, together, like a chorus, “Don’t do it!”
“It’s too late, girls,” I intoned. “There’s nothing you can do. Destiny will take its course.”
The class exploded. Then he killed her, and the bird flapped violently inside the barn. I didn’t find any sympathy among the girls, not for Curley’s wife. She was a man-eater, a slut who had it coming.
“You girls are hard-hearted.”
“Do you feel sorry for her?” someone asked, surprised.
“I feel sorry for everyone.”
I’ll remember that lesson – and the lunch hour, the sideways heart. I’ll remember Varahna the piranha.