The Teacher's Secret

The Teacher's Secret

by Suzanne Leal


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781760297053
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 07/01/2018
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Author of The Teacher's Secret published in hardback 15th May 2017 and paperback 1st March 2018

Suzanne Leal is a lawyer experienced in child protection, criminal law and refugee law. A former legal commentator on ABC Radio, Suzanne is a regular interviewer at Sydney Writers’ Festival and other literary functions. She is the senior judge for the 2017 NSW Premier's Literary Awards.The Teacher’s Secret is her first novel published in the UK. Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband, David, and her four children, Alex, Dominic, Xavier and Miranda.

Read an Excerpt



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 job just 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 place so 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?

Further down from the jail, closer to the water, are clusters of public housing. The flats themselves are rundown and there are always the louts and the drunks — that's a given — but there are worse places to live. Elsie and Len, for example, they've done all right, and out of habit he slows down to look for them. Whenever he sees Elsie walking to school, he'll stop to give her a lift. It gives her a buzz to drive into school with him and he likes to make her happy.

After the flats, the road dips down and swings around past the golf course. Bright green at its best, the summer has brutalised most of the course this year, leaving the edges of it pale and dry. But perched on a cliff, almost falling into the ocean as it does, it's still his favourite place to be, drought-stricken or not. From here, he can see past the rock pool and across to the skinny little inlet they call Brindle Bay. It's not fancy so it's never attracted a crowd, and only on the wildest days does it bring the surfers down from Raleigh. Which leaves it pretty much free for the Brindle Public kids.

The school itself is a block up from the beach, on the corner between the football oval and Brindle Memorial Park, which, years back, used to be a dump. Hard to imagine that now, he thinks, as he swings into the staff car park and turns into what is, unofficially, his space.

He grabs his battered old briefcase from the seat beside him and gets out of the car, slamming the door hard to make sure it shuts properly. He's halfway to the staffroom before, remembering, he turns back. There, on the back seat of the car, is a batch of Michelle's cupcakes: a tradition for the first day back.

The walk up to the staffroom is slower this time, what with trying to balance the cakes and hang on to his briefcase at the same time. Luckily, the playground is quiet. Not for long, though: tomorrow, when the kids start back, the noise will be deafening. He misses them over the summer break, and he's always dead keen to see them all again, to hear what they've been up to. Which is not to say he doesn't appreciate having the first day without them, so he can get ready for the onslaught. Pupil-free day, that's what they used to call it. Until someone in head office decided there was a problem with that — disrespectful to the kids or some such rot — so now it's become a 'staff development day' instead.

Voices float down from the staffroom. As he reaches the doorway, he pauses for effect, holding the plate of cupcakes in front of him.

When Tania sees him, she starts to clap. 'It's Michelle's cakes,' she calls out.

Terry feigns outrage. 'Sometimes I think that's all I am: a courier for Michelle's cakes.'

Tania hoots. 'Not true, Terry, not true. We love you as much as we love Michelle's cakes.'

Terry puts the cakes down at the far end of the large table that nearly fills the room.

'Can we have one now, sir?' Tania asks him, her voice a high-pitched whine although, as ever, her eyes are sparkling. She's had some sun over the break — the last of the idiot sunbakers — and her skin is glowing. She reminds him of a hazelnut, everything about her a shade of brown: dark brown hair, light brown eyes, soft brown skin. 'It's the Koori in me,' she says. 'That and the Mediterranean.' The Koori from her mum, the Mediterranean from her dad, who calls himself Italian even though he was born in Brindle.

'You still shouldn't bake yourself.' That's what he tells her, year in, year out. And he knows that makes him sound like her father but he can't stop himself. 'None of it's going to save you from a melanoma.'

Tania, though, seems to think her heritage gives her some sort of immunity. 'You burn, I absorb.'

Well, that's rubbish, he thinks to himself, but he lets it go for today. Instead, he shakes his head at her. 'Ms Rossi,' he says, 'you know the rules at Brindle Public. Michelle's cakes are not to be eaten before ten-thirty.'

Tania slumps back in her seat. 'But I'm hungry now, sir. Have some pity — I'm on Year 5 this year.'

He's not budging. 'Ten-thirty, Ms Rossi. Then you can have two.'

Beside her, Belinda is laughing. Terry gives her a wink. 'Welcome back, Ms Coote.'

He has a soft spot for little Belinda. He knows he shouldn't think of her like that, as little Belinda; she's a colleague and colleagues need to be treated with respect and all that palaver. But he can't help it. She's little Belinda to him and that's all there is to it. And she's a sweetie. She really is. Just what you'd want in a kindy teacher. She's probably not much more than twenty-five — she's only been out for three years — but it's hard to guess her age just by looking at her. Because she's so little and round. Like a dumpling.

'Good holiday?'

She beams back at him. 'Terrific,' she says.

He knows she's single and he's always waiting to hear if there's someone on the horizon. Not that he'd ask her, not straight out like that, but Tania gives him an update every now and then. It always astonishes him how women talk. About everything. Nothing too personal, nothing too intimate to share with the sisterhood. And he's surrounded by them. Everywhere he bloody looks, there they are, the sisterhood again. Not that he minds being the only man on staff. Just me and the girls, that's what he says.

There's a small kitchen area in the staffroom and before he sits down, he makes himself a cup of coffee. 'Anyone else?' He turns to do a head count, but there aren't any takers. Nor is there any sugar. He makes a mental note to pick some up during the break. Without it, the Nescafé's bloody awful, but at least it's hot.

He sits down between Belinda and Tania, with Helen and Elaine opposite him. 'So here we are again.'

Helen gives him a dry smile. 'Least I get to escape next year.'

She's been threatening to retire for years now. 'Really?'

'One more year,' she says, 'that's all I've got in me. Then I'll cash in the super and take off travelling.'

Himself, he's never had the travelling bug. In all the years, he's never wanted to leave Jinda — or Brindle, for that matter. 'How long's it been for you then?'

Helen taps the table with the back of her rings. 'If I make it through this year, I'll be up to twenty-five.'

'Twenty-five.' He makes a whistling sound through his teeth. 'That's some sort of anniversary, isn't it?' He elbows Tania. 'Help me out, will you, love? Twenty-five years — what sort of anniversary is that?'

'Silver, Terry. It's silver. I can't believe you don't know that.'

Terry nods at Helen. 'See, love? Silver. We'll have to get you a silver tray or a watch or something to mark the moment.'

But Helen just shakes her head at him. She's let her hair turn grey and now she reminds him of a sparrow. It's the haircut as much as the colour: flicked back and layered so that it looks like she's growing wings at the side of her head. Her clothes are sparrow-like, too, all browns and beiges, without a splash of something to brighten them up.

Beside her, Elaine Toomey is almost the polar opposite. A real fashion plate. Today she's in white trousers and a loose silvery top. As always, her hair is long and blonde, even though, after Helen and Terry himself, she'd be third in line for the prize of longest-serving teacher at Brindle Public.

She's brought her coffee with her, takeaway from downtown Henley — eight kilometres north of Brindle but a world away — because she's still not convinced that anyone in Brindle can make a decent brew.

He watches her cradle the cup in her hands as she takes a sip. 'How is it?' he asks her.

The resumption of their morning ritual makes her smile. 'Perfect,' she says in a soft cultured tone that's out of place in this little enclave where, for the thirteenth year running, she'll be taking the Year 1/2 class.

His eye on the empty doorway, he leans across to her. 'So,' he says, his voice a stage whisper, 'have you seen her yet?'

Elaine purses her lips and, her eyes also on the doorway, pretends to shush him.

He turns to the rest of them. 'Anyone seen the new boss yet?'

'Acting boss.' That's all Helen says. The others look blank. They know her name — Laurie Mathews — and they know she's come not as a school transfer, but straight from head office, from some management position. Policy or something.

Checking his watch, Terry raises an eyebrow. 'Well, by my reckoning, she's late.'

That makes Belinda titter but Tania just rolls her eyes. And as though it's all been scripted, that's when they hear footsteps coming down the hallway. Quick, heeled footsteps. Regular, not rushed, not tripping up in haste. Click, click, click, click, click, click, stop. And then, there she is, in the doorway.

God, she's young. That's his first thought. So young that, for a split second, he wonders whether she's a student teacher. But her face is set with a look of authority that immediately puts him straight.

She's wearing a suit, which is odd, given that the last person to wear a suit to Brindle Public was the pollie who popped in a couple of years ago to talk to the kids about Anzac Day. Or Remembrance Day. He can't remember which.

Like the pollie, she's fully kitted out. Only she's in a skirt, not trousers. She's got the suit jacket buttoned right up although it's still the middle of summer. Christ, she's even wearing stockings. If he could get away with it, he'd lean over to Tania and whisper to her, Think she's missed her stop, don't you?

The woman's eyes flick around the table. There's space for her to sit close to the door but instead she walks right around the room until she's at the head of the table, just where the cupcakes are. For a minute, Terry thinks that's why she's chosen that spot — so she'll be closest to the cupcakes. Instead, without a word, she reaches over, picks them up and takes them over to the kitchen bench.

Oi, he wants to call out, oi. He can't believe she's done that, just up and moved his cupcakes without even a mind if I pop these over on the bench?

She sits down at the table, opens her laptop and turns it on. Only then does she address the group.


Excerpted from "The Teacher's Secret"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Suzanne Leal.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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