Cassie had been ready for school for longer than she could remember. But now, she was grown up. Almost. Old enough to go to school at least. She could count to 100 and write her name, but, most of all, she was good at reading. Beside her bed, was her favourite book, Richard Scarry’s Busy Town. Lowly Worm was the best character. A hat-wearing contortionist, he loved reading too. He already went to school and was in Mrs Honey’s class. Mrs Honey was kind. Generous. Even though she was a bear, she was quite unlike one really. She never growled. Instead, she encouraged her students to make beautiful pictures. Cassie loved art; the pleasure of opening a crisp cardboard box of new crayons, warm wax under her fingertips, the blank potential of a sheet of butcher’s paper. She couldn’t wait to be at school. There, her pictures would be pinned to the classroom wall, and she could snuggle into the book nook. Warm. Hidden.
The new entrant teacher was her mother’s friend, Mrs Prendergast. Tall and loud, she wore two thick, long plaits that cracked through the air like whips when she moved suddenly. She moved suddenly a LOT. Along with her mother, Mrs Prendergast believed that children should be seen, but not heard. Tolerated. Just. Cassie felt diminished around her. Deflated. A balloon with insufficient air; wrinkled. Left in a corner. The two women often visited each other. After making coffee, they would sit with their fat, bare feet on the coffee table. They would talk about their husbands who could do nothing right. Who were always up to no good.
Mrs Prendergast’s husband worked at the local coal mine. One time, on a kindergarten train trip, the train had stopped to pick up the miners after their shift. Mr Prendergast, along with the rest of his group, had emerged from the mine’s dark yawning mouth. Shuffling wearily. Blinking in the light. Trailing coal dust as he clumped onto the train, his helmet light still on. He was a kind man, stoic and soft-spoken. Quite unlike his wife. As he had passed her seat, he had bent down, ruffled her hair. She wished that he were her father instead of her own.
Her father also took the train from their home to Greymouth where he worked as a car salesman, cutting corners, doing deals. Sometimes, he would take her to work with him. He would plonk her on his colleagues’ bulging laps where hands pawed her, and fingers played “incy wincy spider” with her knicker elastic. The men stank of beer and stale chips, but mostly danger. Then, she knew to sit still. As still and stiff as their old hen Henny Penny had been when the neighbour’s dog had jumped the fence, dragging its chain, jaws shaking saliva goblets.
Cassie also knew not to say a word when her father would twirl his secretary, Chrystal, around on her office chair. He would grab roughly at her breasts as she spun. His office was always stuffy. Cassie found it hard not to feel sick, standing so still, almost invisible. His mouth would make horrid slurping sounds and Chrystal’s face, blurred and tear-stained, leaked red lipstick onto her blouse. Cassie was sure that Mr Prendergast would not behave in such a way. Playing. Just playing, her father would say. She didn’t like that sort of playing. At school, she would play differently. Properly. From her yard, she could just glimpse the top rungs of the jungle gym, the small feet of children swinging high at lunchtime. She longed to be part of a group. There was safety in numbers. She knew that. Just seven more sleeps.
Every morning, before kindergarten, Cassie would look at the ponga tree outside her bedroom window. One tall spear tickled the roof, its tightly furled leaf a tentacle waving. She hoped that it would open for her birthday. Up close, she could see its soft brown down, like her mother’s legs before she shaved them. Its rigid shaft was bright green against the deeper hues of the native bush. There was a Hillman Hunter for sale in her father’s car yard the same intense colour. Her father had sat her in it a few times. Locked the doors. On the hot, red, cracked leather seats he had taught her about secrets. She didn’t like those secrets and, when she had tried to talk to her mother, it was clear that her mother didn’t want to hear them. Just didn’t want to know. Sometimes, she felt so full of secrets that they would explode from her like dirty coal dust.
On her birthday, Cassie woke early. Wriggled her toes. She was grown up. Ready for school. She had been on three school visits already. She knew about mat time when the children sat, arms and legs folded, eyes on the teacher, silent when she clapped. She knew there was a time for writing, for reading, for maths, and for drawing. She was looking forward to knowing what would happen when. No surprises. On hot blustery days when the children came in loud, full of summer playground pettiness and disputes, there was silent time. Eyes shut, lying on the mat in the afternoon sun, they would listen to Mr Brown mow the lawn, breathing the sweetness of the lawn clippings in and out.
Cassie practised her breathing. She tried to relax, to let her thoughts trickle through her body, down her fingers, down to the tips of her toes. It was hard to be so calm in her bed. Hard not to think of her father coming in. Staring at her. Sliding her body over so that he could slip in. Flipping her over like she was a BBQ meat patty. She opened her eyes. Today was a special day, not one for dark thoughts. At school, she would be safe, happy in the warm classroom with the bright carpet tiles, orange and yellow that curled at the corners. Through her bedroom curtains, Cassie noticed a subtle change in the morning dance of dappled light at the window. The ponga frond had opened. It moved gently in the light breeze, sighed a soft fuzz of brown hair against the window ledge. A birthday benediction. Today, she was sure, was going to be a great day.
During the morning, after “show and tell,” when Tom, a freckly boy with gangly arms, shared news of his new baby sister and Cassie’s neighbour let everyone hold her pet guinea pig, it was art time. The class had been learning about dinosaurs. Mrs Prendergast passed around big picture books about earth millions of years ago. They were to draw their favourite dinosaur. Cassie chose a stegosaurus, tracing her fingers along an illustration of its muscly body, tipped with sharp spines that radiated in all directions. She wished that she had a fearsome spiky tail. Sometimes, armour was important.
She smoothed out her large piece of paper and chose her crayon colours: bright yellow for its body, blue for the plates that marched down its back, angry black for its gnashing teeth. She planned to colour the sharp tail spikes red. Red for danger. Red for the blood she had once seen smeared down her parents’ wall after an argument. Red for the poisons in her father’s shed and for Chrystal’s lipstick on a white blouse. She hoped that her teacher would ask about the colours. Then she would tell her secrets, spitting them out like acrid vomit. Her artwork took shape slowly; hard pressed crayon lines that smudged, a long tail that stretched into one bottom corner. After colouring the body yellow, Cassie added some brown splotches to the stegosaurus’ body, just a few. For camouflage. She knew it was good to be able to hide, to step away from the world.
Once finished, she looked across at Julie’s work at the desk beside her. Julie was hunched over. Drawing was silent time and so Cassie couldn’t ask her what sort of dinosaur she had chosen. She guessed a diplodocus. The low-slung creature had its toes sunk into marsh. It had an incongruously small head atop a powerful neck. But she had given it a crooked circle for its tail. Like a rabbit, Cassie thought. She knew it wasn’t right and decided to help. She picked up a bright orange crayon. Deftly, she drew a long tail, just like the one in Mrs Prendergast’s book. She gave it an extra curl at the end for good measure. Julie paid no attention. She was focused on drawing a rainbow above her dinosaur, bright arches of colour that bled into each other. That tore at her paper.
Suddenly, Mrs Prendergast appeared. She leaned close to the girls, slammed one fat hand, chalk-dusted mint green, down hard on Cassie’s desk. Thwack! It was the sound of her mother’s wooden spoon against her bottom, the sound of her mother’s head banged against a wall, feet kicking the skirting boards. Colourful crayons scattered everywhere as she marched Cassie to the front of the class where she held her rigid, one hand, fingers splayed, pressing her head hard. Cassie felt pinned, like a dead museum bug. Cassie, Mrs Prendergast told the children, had broken an important class rule. But which one? Everyone sat silent, wide eyes averted. They all knew what was coming. Cassie looked at Julie, who sat seeping slow tears. Under her desk was the stegosaurus drawing, which Mrs Prendergast had ripped in half.
The teacher jerked Cassie’s arm straight. Her fat braids were lashing lunging angry snakes as she smacked her hard. Five times. With each burning smack, Cassie flinched but she kept her shoulders straight, her small feet planted firm like a ponga tree in a storm. She was determined not to cry, not on this, her first day of school. The day that should have been great. Mrs Prendergast’s arm flapped grotesquely as she smacked. Thwack! Her fleshy lips were mean and wet, spit-splattered. “Small children need to know their place and to keep their hands to themselves,” she shouted. “You need to mind your own business.” Her eyes were piggy eyes. There had been a dead boar with the same eyes on the back of a muddy ute in Greymouth once. Small eyes. Cold. Like a dead doll’s. They did not sparkle like Mrs Honey’s did in Richard Scarry’s Busy Town.
Behind Mrs Prendergast, Cassie could see the book corner with its plump velvet cushions. Books on the shelves. She thought of Lowly Worm, with his green hat, his jaunty tie, and his pile of books. He was always smiling. Real smiles too, not the pretend ones that she sometimes did when she stretched her mouth as wide as she could. Then she would laugh, perhaps a little too loudly. A little too fake. A clown putting on an act. Putting on make-up as her mother would do after a night of arguments, dabbing her cheeks hard with her powder, smears of lurid green on her eyelids. Cassie was sure that if Lowly ever had any secrets, he would tell them to Mrs Honey, and she would know what to do. But life, she was beginning to realise, was different from what happened in her books. It was unfair. Even when a person tried to do the right thing, even when they were so full of secrets that there was no room left to breathe, things could get worse. In Busy Town, Lowly Worm had Mrs Honey and Mr Fixit Fox who repaired all sorts of problems. But now, Cassie knew that she was alone. Just a five-year-old. Mrs Prendergast finally stopped shouting. She directed her to stand in the corner facing the wall. By twisting her head slightly, Cassie could see her stegosaurus picture. Nothing more than scraps that needed to be tidied away like broken dreams.