Mr. Fenwick stared hard at the back wall of the small room. He was standing with his left foot perched on the desk in front of him, absentmindedly pulling at the short hairs on the front of his shin with his right hand while he spoke.
“The term we use for this phenomenon is price inelasticity. On the other hand, if demand for a certain product falls as a result of an increase—”
“Mr.Fenwick I need to go to the toilet,” interjected a weedy, red headed boy named Michael.
“Very well then. Off you go,” replied the teacher without trying to disguise the annoyance in his voice.
Spontaneous conversation broke out following the interruption.
“Quiet please,” ordered Fenwick, then noticing a couple of girls giggling with their heads bowed at a corner desk he added, ‘Christine and Sharon. That means you too.”
The students noticed Mr. Fenwick had begun to rub and wring his hands together in agitation. A sure sign that he was losing his composure.
Fenwick paused before continuing. His train of thought had been derailed and his eyes wandered around the classroom as he searched his memory. Each student felt the burning glare of Mr. Fenwick’s eyes as he examined them, looking for clues in their faces.
“Craig Dyson!” exclaimed Fenwick as he watched his student writing on the desk. Craig looked up quickly to see his teacher standing a metre away from him with his arms folded. He was about to receive one of Mr. Fenwick’s infamous little lectures.
“Due to the fact that I am no longer speaking, Craig, I am wondering why you are still taking notes. Further—”
A quiet titter from behind caused him to stop talking and spin quickly to find its source. Unable to discern which of the bowed heads produced the noise, he issued a loud caution against any further sound and returned to Craig’s lecture.
“Furthermore, I am also curious as to why you are not using paper. Could you enlighten me? Do you have any paper?”
Craig was thinking hard of a good line to use to Mr. Fenwick. He had to save face. All eyes were upon him now and he could feel the fire of embarrassment scorching the back of his neck. Before he could speak Fenwick was at him again.
“I tell you what, Craig,” said Fenwick with his voice rising. “You can stay here after class and clean your desk of all that rubbish and nonsense that you put there.”
“I didn’t do it all, Mr. Fenwick,” protested Craig.
“I don’t care. You will clean it all off during your lunch break and as a reward I will give you some paper on which you will write, ‘I must not deface school property’ five hundred times.”
“That’s a bit much Mr.Fen—”
“How about a thousand times then?”
“Sir, I was only leaving a little note for my girlfriend in the next class. She misses me, you know how it is.”
Craig was pleased to hear the muffled sniggers of his classmates. However, he was disturbed to see that Mr. Fenwick’s face had changed colour. It was purple.
“Get out!” roared Fenwick. “Wait for me in the hall. Just outside the door. Go!”
Deciding against any more wisecracks for the time being, Craig slowly rose from his chair and sauntered out the door.
After watching him leave, Fenwick turned to the rest of the class and began to speak in a slow measured tone as if he was trying very hard not to swear.
“I won’t be long. Be quiet while I’m gone. I won’t tell you again. Be quiet or you can all join your clown of a mate out there for lunch.”
No one said a word. Mr. Fenwick had become very angry in a very short time but that was not unusual for the elderly economics teacher. The students knew him well. They knew the right buttons to press to get him fired up. Likewise they knew when to stop, unlike the court jester, Craig Dyson.
Out in the hall, Fenwick said, “Craig, this is not the first time I’ve caught you writing on the desks. Didn’t you learn anything from last time? Are you thick? Or are you deliberately trying to annoy me and big note yourself in front of your mates?”
Fenwick glared at Craig waiting for an answer. Craig stood staring at the floor wondering if his teacher expected an answer or if these questions were rhetorical. Mr. Fenwick loved rhetorical questions. He scratched his head and began to speak but Fenwick beat him to it.
“God damn it, Craig! At least do me the courtesy of looking at me when I’m talking to you,” he exploded.
Craig’s hand froze on his head as he lifted it slowly. Focusing on Mr.Fenwick’s chin, he finished the scratch he had started then said in mock disgust, “Mr.Fenwick, please mind your language.” He smiled as his teacher opened his mouth, a red oval in his plum coloured face.
But no sound came out. Craig watched Mr.Fenwick’s eyes open wide in fright as he grabbed at his chest and crumpled to the floor like a discarded rag doll.
Swearing out loud in horror, Craig raced around to the school office which was fortunately on the same floor and only 200 metres away. He ran faster than he ever had before and was completely out of breath by the time he burst through the office door. Painfully extracting the last gasp of air from his lungs, he yelled, “Call an ambulance! I think Mr. Fenwick had a heart attack!”
Once confident he had convinced Mrs. Kelso, the secretary, that he was deadly serious, and having recovered sufficiently from the sprint, Craig sped away. Back to the hallway where his teacher lay motionless on the hard floor. Craig noticed his classmates had gathered around Mr.Fenwick. Weedy Michael saw him coming and called out, “You killed him man. You killed him!”
“No!” Craig yelled back before turning to take flight again. Down the stairs to the back of the building. And out. Across the grassed concourse and through a hole in the fence. A few minutes later he collapsed under a shady tree, exhausted.
An hour later, having heard the ambulance come and leave again, Craig made his way to the Sutherland Hospital which was only 10 minutes walk from school. He was sure they would have taken Mr. Fenwick there.
When he arrived he inquired at reception in the Accident and Emergency section. Yes, a Mr. Fenwick had been brought in and yes, he was all right and yes, Craig could go in and see him.
Dry-mouthed, Craig followed a nurse down a winding corridor. She stopped and pointed out Mr. Fenwick to Craig who mumbled a thank you as she left.
The sight of his teacher lying there with various wires connected to his hairy chest and wearing an oxygen mask caused Craig to cry immediately. Fenwick’s face was as white as the sheet on which he lay.
As Craig shuffled closer, he no longer saw a boring old economics teacher who was fun to tease. Craig saw a man. An ordinary man. Could have been his own father lying there, lucky to be alive. He felt so guilty. If only he could trade places with Mr. Fenwick.
Leaning close to his teacher, Craig whispered, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Fenwick. I’m so sorry. I…” Craig ran out of words as remorse swamped him.
“Who’s that? Who’s there?”
Craig was startled by Mr. Fenwick’s voice and briefly considered running away again. He knew that would be wrong but he was frightened about how the old man would react to seeing him there. Just as he began to move away, Fenwick said quietly, “Is that you Craig?”
“Yes, Mr. Fenwick. I … I came to see if you were OK. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’m so sorry,” sobbed Craig with lowered eyes because he was too ashamed to look at his stricken teacher.
Mr. Fenwick motioned for Craig to come and sit by him on the bed. Craig was confused and ceased his crying out of anticipation. What would he do? Or say?
Fenwick grabbed Craig’s hand and held it for a moment as he smiled faintly and said, “Thanks for coming, Craig.” The two sat there in silence acknowledging the significance of what had happened and realizing they would both leave the hospital changed for the better.
David Cairns is married with two children, and lives on the south coast of New South Wales in Australia. He works part-time as an English language teacher, and also operates a collection service for the Health Department (that’s the “mortgage” job). He writes in his spare time of which he has very little. He has had six short stories accepted for publication so far, and Devolution is his soon to be published first novel.