I shall never forget what happened when I was 8. I was at Bogong primary school, the only primary school of Bogong. I had been thoroughly engaged in a game of tackle footy - technically, tackle football was forbidden, because there were too many injuries, but if you kept an eye out for the teacher and grew adept at changing playing styles mid-game when you saw them approaching, you could often get away with 20 minutes of tackle in a 30 minute lunch-break.
Except for those keeping one eye out for any approaching teachers, our attention was wholly focussed on the game of tackle, and so none of us were aware of exactly what was going on in the trees nearby, until Jeffrey began to wail.
Jeffrey Sabir was one of the kids in our grade, but none of us were really mates with him. His skin was a light brown sort of colour, he always smelled a bit odd and had weird food in his lunch - instead of sandwiches with vegemite and cheese, or ham and tomato, he had a heap of veggies wrapped up in a roll, or sometimes he had a pizza that didn't really look much like a pizza at all.
When the screaming started we stopped the game and looked around to make sure no teachers were coming. There was one marching over the hill, and if we hadn't noticed Charlotte Myers standing over Jeffrey, we would probably have continued the game, playing touch until the teacher left our line of sight and then reverting back to tackle.
But Charlotte Myers standing over a crying kid: that was worth investigation. She was a grade 6 girl - lofty heights when you're only in grade 2 - but even though we'd never had many opportunities to directly interact, everyone in the school knew Charlotte Myers.
At a glance, you probably wouldn't think that she was anything to write about. She looked like your standard goody-goody; brown hair, freckles, white teeth that she obviously brushed three times a day, a wide-brimmed hat that she made sure you noticed if she saw you wearing a cap - "A cap doesn't offer adequate sun protection because of the ozone layer.” I don't think anyone of us knew what the ozone layer was, but we knew that you couldn't wear a cap because of it.
But what set Charlotte Myers apart from the other goody-goodies of the school was that she was the goody-goody. School captain, sports captain, debating captain, and even though none of us cared about it, we all knew that she was the forerunner for Dux. If there was a school assembly where Charlotte Myers didn't come up on stage at least 3 times, she was either sick or away at an inter-state sporting event.
We reached Jeffrey and Charlotte Myers at the same time as the teacher did – Mr Bainstrom, his name was. He was with the “special ed unit”. A year or two back they'd brought a demountable, put it at the side of the school, and called it a “special ed unit”, which meant that we had to play with a bunch of spastics during our lunch break.
None of them was much fun except for Oscar Nolls, who was a spastic that you could really wind up. You could just pick any topic – the sky being blue, whether an atom was bigger than a molecule if spaceships were ever going to come to earth – and as long as you picked an opinion opposite to his and made everyone else insist that it was true, he was guaranteed to just go off about it, shouting, waving his arms, frothing at the mouth.
The trick to spastic-baiting was to get out of there just before the teachers came, because as long as you weren't stupid enough to pick on one that knew your name, there was never any evidence, and you could live to laugh another day.
I was good at it, so I'd never been caught, but I'd seen Mr Bainstrom go off at a group of kids for picking on Oscar one time. He was terrifying. He wasn't a scary-looking man most of the time (he had glasses and not a lot of grey hair) but if he caught you spastic-baiting, then he would yell and carry on almost as much as they did. It was quite a show, as long as you weren't the one being yelled at.
Charlotte was sitting on the bench next to Jeffrey when we got there, all prim and proper. Jeffrey had noticed the arrival of the teacher and stopped bellowing his lungs out. We hung back next to the trees, and Mr Bainstrom didn't even notice us. He looked a little confused like he didn't quite know what to make of the scenario. Charlotte Myers, wonder-child, sitting next to one of the little immigrant kids. Who was crying.
Mr Bainstrom knelt down in the dirt next to Jeffrey.
“What's wrong, mate?”
Jeffrey spluttered out and started to wail again. Mr Bainstrom turned to Charlotte, who shrugged innocently.
We all waited for a minute or two, and once Jeffrey had regained his composure, he tried again.
“She...she took my turban!!” Jeffrey exclaimed, and burst into sobs once more.
I had noticed that something looked different about Jeffrey but hadn't been able to place it. He wasn't wearing his turban, a strange sort of cloth hat that he wore the time, even indoors. All the other students got in trouble when they ran around under the sun without a proper wide-brimmed hat (because of the ozone layer) but no teacher ever said anything to Jeffrey about it. I had discussed the inherent unfairness of this with my mates once and had felt better about it when they'd pointed out that he was already as sunburned as he was going to get.
“Where's his turban, Charlotte?” Mr Bainstrom asked, trying to get a grip on the situation.
“He's just being an attention-seeker, Mr Bainstrom,” Charlotte Myers replied, her freckled nose upturned.
“Well it's great that you know how to do my job for me, Charlotte, but he says that you've taken his turban. Where is it?”
“I put it in the bin.”
Talking back to a teacher is something impossibly terrifying to do, but amazing to watch. Charlotte Myers was probably aware of the seven of us, standing near the tree, silently cheering her every move. She was talking back to the teacher and stirring up the foreign kid – she could have had us carrying her stuff around for a year if she'd wanted to, just out of sheer admiration.
Mr Bainstrom obviously wasn't expecting this. Charlotte Myers, super kid, had taken Jeffrey's turban and put it in the bin, and was being smart to him (and not the good kind of smart) with no sign of fear. We watched him as he tutted his tongue for a few seconds, looked at the bin, looked at Charlotte, looked at Jeffrey, and went back to tutting his tongue.
“This bin, Charlotte?”
“Yes Mr Bainstrom. And the next one along.”
“What do you mean, 'and the next one along'?”
“I cut it in half so he couldn't wear it again.”
At this, Jeffrey burst into a fresh round of tears. You'd think that he'd have known what was going to happen, wearing his silly towel to school, but Dad always said that Indians didn't have half the brains that we did.
Mr Bainstrom peered into the bin over his glasses. It was the one that didn't have a proper lid, so every time it rained, the bin would fill up with a kind of sludge that smelled horrible. Donald Perkins had been suspended after he started a sludge-fight one week, and Ricky Fitzgerald had once been dropped into the bin-sludge and never had the guts to tell who did it to him.
It had rained a few nights ago, and so the bin wasn't full of sludge, but it still smelled pretty bad. That's probably why the Jeffrey was sitting near it, because the smell reminded him of home.
“Now, Charlotte, why did you put Jeffrey's turban in the bin?”
“Don't worry, Mr Bainstrom, he deserved it.”
A disciplinary teacher's element is a student who looks at his feet, mumbles replies to every question, maybe starts to gently sob. Yelling at them is fine because they're ever so clearly guilty. Charlotte Myers was doing none of those things. In fact, she seemed...well, not “proud”, but there was certainly no trace of remorse in her demeanour, and so Mr Bainstrom was clearly out of his element.
“You let me decide that, Charlotte. Just tell me what happened.”
There was another pause, and Charlotte Myers stared Mr Bainstrom in the face. She seemed to be mentally weighing up her options, and when she replied, it wasn't with an explanation, it was with a question.
“Did you know, sir, that Jeffrey is an Islam?”
She seemed to spit the last word. None of us boys standing around the tree had ever heard of an Islam before, but we all glanced over at Jeffrey, and he definitely looked like an Islam to us. One of the worst Islams, too, probably.
“Yes,” Mr Bainstrom replied, his brow furrowing. “Jeffrey's parents are Islam, and so that makes him a Muslim.”
A Muslim. That sounded even worse. All of us committed that word to memory, Muslim. His parents were Islams, and that made him a Muslim.
“Do you know what that means, Mr Bainstrom?” Charlotte Myers once again spat out the question. Her eyes, normally wide and innocent, had suddenly hardened, tightened, become more intense.
“I really don't think that's relevant right now, Charlotte. Why did you throw Jeffrey's turban into the bins?”
Charlotte's mouth, as she replied, went through a variety of expressions. It seemed to be snarling, spitting, but more than anything, there was a strange grin on her face as she spoke.
“I think it's always relevant, Mr Bainstrom. Jeffrey's an Islam, and that means that he doesn't believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour. It means that he's going to go to hell. That's always relevant, Mr Bainstrom. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour?”
We turned to look at Mr Bainstrom. I don't know about the other boys, but I was starting to suspect that maybe Mr Bainstrom was an Islam as well. When we looked at him, he was standing differently – except for the time we saw him go off at the spastic-baiters, Mr Bainstrom always had a slightly weary stance. He seemed like the kind of man who was used to the world...not ignoring him, but using him as a doormat. But now, just like the time he went off at the spastic-baiters, he didn't look tired, he didn't look like a doormat. His shoulders were thrown back, his upper teeth were showing as his lip slightly curled. He looked like he was ready for a fight.
“I told you, Charlotte, that's not relevant right now.” Mr Bainstrom said, with a hint of force, and a growl dancing around his words.
Charlotte Myer, however, wasn't backing off either.
“I'm not afraid of you, sir. You might be the boss of the school, but Jesus Christ is the boss of the world. There's nothing you can do to me that scares me more than hell scares me, sir, and hell is where all the Islams and the Muslims are going, as well as anyone who doesn't stand up to them.”
As she spoke, she had slowly been moving towards Mr Bainstrom. He was still kneeling in the dirt next to Jeffrey, who had stopped crying. He, like us, was watching the amazing performance that Charlotte Myers was putting on. Mr Bainstrom wasn't even saying anything, he seemed to be transfixed as well. When she said Islams and Muslims, she spat again, and I saw some of it land on Mr Bainstrom's face. When she said 'stand up to them', she was towering over him. He didn't seem worried or scared, or even angry. He was just watching her like a snake watches a mouse, a steely look of focus in his eyes.
He waited until she'd finished, then stood up abruptly. I don't know exactly what happened, but one of his knees must have struck Charlotte or an arm slightly out of place. Regardless of what it was, Charlotte had to take two steps back, and when she turned around again, there was a trickle of blood coming from her nose. No one made a sound, not us, not Jeffrey, not Charlotte, not Mr Bainstrom. There was a minute of absolute silence, nothing moving except for the heaving shoulders of Charlotte and Mr Bainstrom. I don't think any of us was even breathing.
Charlotte Myers spat out some blood that had trickled into her mouth, and that broke the spell. Mr Bainstrom apologised, in a way that I've never heard anyone apologise before or since. It didn't sound like an apology, it didn't sound like a threat, it didn't sound like a warning – it was an apology that somehow managed to say nothing specific, yet be incredibly meaningful at the same time.
Charlotte Myers threw her head back. There was an ugly look on her face now, a smirk. A look that said “I own you.” To this day I don't know whether or not that first strike had been deliberate, but you could tell just by looking at Charlotte that she thought it had been and that she would use it to own him if he didn't toe the line.
“Mr Bainbridge,” she purred, like a cat about to strike. “At my old school, my P.E. teacher used to trip us girls if we didn't do what he said. Would you like to see how he did it?”
In Mr Bainbridge's face, where we expected fear, or nervousness, or even remorse, there was only defiance. Even at the age of 8, we knew that something had happened here, that the balance of power had somehow shifted. She was no longer the student and he was no longer the teacher. Something else had grown, some other relationship that was completely unfamiliar and utterly fascinating.
She seemed to take his lack of an answer for a yes, and she turned to the group of us, standing by the trees. In that moment, I would have given anything, anything to be the one that she picked to demonstrate on. Any kind of contact with Charlotte Myers in that group of trees by the school, it would forever mark you, I was sure.
But she didn't choose me, she chose “Bones”, a skinny boy called Tom Richards who was probably the worst footy player out of all of us but the fastest runner. You could have bottled the disappointment emanating from the rest of us, as Tom walked – almost floated – over to Charlotte Myers. He stood next to her, and the next minute, he was on the ground.
“You see,” Charlotte Myers said, with that ugly, fascinating smile, “he would trip us but you wouldn't even know that he'd touched us. Interesting, isn't it?”
Mr Bainstrom still didn't say anything. He just stood there, impassively staring at Charlotte Myers, as Tom ran back to stand with the rest of us. There was another brief pause, and out of the corner of his mouth, he said (in the weary voice that I always associated with him) “Boys, you'd better run along and get the nurse.”
None of us moved. The story wasn't finished yet, and we could tell. He didn't seem to care; he didn't even seem to notice. Charlotte continued staring at him, with that gloating look on her face. Jeffrey seemed to have shrunk like he wanted to be anywhere in the world other than where he was at that moment.
I don't know why he did it. I don't even know if he knew why he did it. But Mr Bainbridge stretched his left hand out and put it on Charlotte's shoulder. She didn't break eye contact for a second, and neither did he. His arm operated like the plunger of a pinball machine and with one, seemingly spring-operated movement, he shoved, and Charlotte was propelled backwards.
I wish that it had happened in slow motion, because then I could have given more details to the police when they asked me, but all I could tell them was that she stumbled backwards, and her head hit the bench. Mr Bainbridge stood there, his arm outstretched, stiff as a board, his face still completely without emotion. It seemed like we stood there, none of us breathing, staring at Mr Bainbridge, until Jeffrey's scream brought us back to the moment.
“Her head,” he gargled, “blood!!”
Mr Bainbridge's stance changed, from the warrior back to the weary school-teacher. He looked down at Charlotte, tutted his tongue, and told us that we'd better run and find the nurse.
All eight of us – the seven that had been playing footy, and Jeffrey as well, scrambled to action and headed off to the main buildings to find the school nurse. Jeffrey got transferred out of the school a few weeks later, and I never saw Mr Bainbridge again. Charlotte's funeral was attended by the whole school, except for Jeffrey.