By FC Malby
Flashing their upper lashes with the allure of Sirens, they compete for his attention; mythological creatures, femmes fatales. The attention of a man in his thirties with eyes drooping at the edges hardly seems worth the effort.
‘Katie, can you give me the answer?’ he asks, pointing to the blackboard. Chalk dust scatters to the ground with the excitement of a single indoor firework.
I look up, half listening, ‘four thousand two hundred and eighty six, Sir.’
‘And I thought you might be somewhere else. Good.’
Three of the creatures turn and glare, determination fixed on their perfectly manicured faces. I glance at the magazine. He hasn’t noticed it resting on my school girl knees; he is filling their heads with knowledge. Knowledge is power, Dad had said, unoriginally, at the dinner table. No, I wanted to say, knowledge is freedom, but it was not worth the effort. He was already on to the next topic and facing my brother. You become invisible at the ends of his sentences, left to linger like an old piece of scenery pushed to the back of the stage, or tucked away behind the scenes.
When they let me out of this institution, the knowledge I collected elsewhere – in books and documentaries – will give me freedom. The Sirens at the front of the room aren’t free; they long for affection and crave his gaze. The unrequited longings of school girls are an unfamiliar subject to me.
Young girls talk of love with a frivolous excitement, expecting outdoor fireworks: Rockets, Catherine wheels, commitment perhaps. No one commits to a Siren; she is a play thing, a fleeting fancy.
Love is not handed out on demand. It is shared freely, without overt displays of peacock’s feathers, their colours fanned to attract a stranger’s gaze.
‘Class dismissed.’ We close our books. ‘Katie,’ he says with a wry smile. ‘See me after class.’
These words are commonplace. The Sirens file past him slowly, seductively; then leave the room. He speaks of the need to be alert and to focus. He attempts to hold my gaze. I look down at my ankles and shove the magazine deeper into my bag. He flatters me with promises of a bright future, but I want to escape. I nod, turn away and leave swiftly. My feet clatter on the staircase, my footsteps echo against the corridor walls. I turn left on the first floor and go into the library, trying to avoid leaving at the same time. He often gets into his car as I wait for the bus. It may be a coincidence, but I see him loitering in the car park, fiddling with his brief case in the boot, folding his jacket.
Mr Parker talked about probability in Mathematics last week: the probability of falling off a cliff, the probability of becoming an accountant, the probability of getting straight A’s. I’m more interested in the probability of becoming a photographer, a writer or a journalist. We don’t have journals or papers in the house, but I pick them up on the way home and tuck them under the mattress. Dad would lose a hair or two if he knew I was looking at anything other than one of those garish teen magazines or a comic book. I don’t know anyone my age who reads the papers, but I like to know about tsunamis and global warming. I’m inspired by Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. I don’t care for Pythagoras theorem, or quadratic equations. When will I use them? Tell me. When? I don’t want to hear about the periodic table. I memorised it in ten minutes, but where will it get me? Sirens belong to the sea, where the wind and waves wash them ashore.
I make my way down the stairwell and out into the street. Standing by the bus stop, I see Mr Parker and my stomach lurches. He is parked by the front gates, a few paces away from where I’m standing. He looks up at me. The others fail to notice. I turn away. The bus arrives, and I climb the steps and find a seat in the back corner, away from the staff car park, but he is still looking. I want to be invisible, to travel to far off shores. I realise that my time here is drawing to a close and I can make my own choices when I leave. Until then, I will have to endure the Sirens and Mr Parker, the endless lessons that teach me what I already know. Until then I will continue to read the papers and to dream.
One day the Sirens will be lost at sea under the swell of the waves, as they clamour for attention. I’ll forget these moments when my heart races and I wait until I can escape his gaze. I’ll read and travel, write and learn. As the autumn leaves fall from the tree, so I’ll fall, from his stare, into a different line of vision. I will find the voice I have been searching for and write about the world. He raises his hand as I look up, and I wonder how it is that nobody else sees. I wonder why his attention strikes fear in my heart. The Sirens sit at the front of the bus passing glossy magazines back and forth. They giggle and grin, and I realise that I will never be one of them, never feed off the gaze of men. The bus pulls away and my heartbeat slows to a steady pace. I look out of the window, exhale and close my eyes.