“This is not the last you will hear from me, Mr. Seale!” Mrs. MacLarty rose from her chair in the headmaster’s office, picked up her large leather handbag from his desk, and headed towards the door. “I shall expect to hear that you have given that maths teacher a good dressing down!”
“Goodbye Mrs. MacLarty.” Chad held out his hand, unsurprised to find his gesture rebuffed. He smiled tightly instead and then winced as he heard his visitor turn on his PA.
“Silk flowers! Really Justine, you’d think a school like this would organise a regular delivery of fresh flowers. We used to have to pick roses for the headmistress’ office every morning in my day!”
“The drought has been going on for months, Mrs. MacLarty. Shall I walk to your car with you?”
Chad’s features relaxed as the old woman’s voice disappeared down the passage and he idly wondered if Sonja Drake would be in the staffroom. What had she done to upset Mrs. MacLarty’s granddaughter this time?
“I shouted at her. I am sorry, but I couldn’t handle Robyn’s arrogance a moment longer. She talks while I’m explaining; she openly chews gum; doesn’t do her homework; and she refuses to come to extra lessons.” Sonja looked across the polished desk with tears damming in her eyes. Chad nudged forward the box of tissues. This was the third time they had met in three weeks.
“I’ll chat to Robyn,” he said quietly. “Meanwhile, keep your temper under control for another thirteen terms and the girl will be out of our hair.”
Sonja burst into tears. “Can’t she be moved to someone else’s class?” Chad shook his head slowly, cringing inwardly at the snorts and nose-blowing in front of him.
Justine brought in a mug of coffee and two shortbread biscuits after Sonja’s departure. “Another Scottish drama?”
Chad laughed. “Another day in the life of Chad Seale. Could you get hold of Robyn’s tutor please? I’d like her to be present when I chat to the girl.”
“He’s in a meeting Mrs. MacLarty!” Justine spoke loudly enough to alert Chad seconds before his door burst open the next morning. He and his two deputies turned to face the older woman framing the doorway while Justine peeped over her shoulder, looking apologetic.
“Mr. Seale! I had my early morning routine rudely interrupted this morning. Yes, rudely interrupted by a telephone call from my granddaughter.” She glared in the direction of the deputies. Both vacated their seats immediately.
“Good morning Mrs. MacLarty. I’m sure you realise you are interrupting my meeting, much as your morning tea was interrupted.” Chad was in no mood to be deferential.
Mrs. MacLarty sat down heavily. “I need to speak to you now!” She dismissed the deputies with an imperious wave then dumped her handbag on his desk. Chad nodded to them as they left. Her opening gambit was familiar: “I’ll remind you that I have donated a lot of money to this school …”
“Like chapel windows, a new wing for the Music School, and the Lisa MacLarty section of the library …” the deputies sniggered their way down the passage towards the staffroom. “Will we ever be allowed to forget her generous donations?”
Chad felt wrung out after his visitor left an hour later. Justine handed him a rescheduled list of appointments along with an announcement to be read out at the morning assembly. “She’s prepared to pay for more computers in the Maths Hub,” he said wearily.
“As long as it is renamed the Lisa MacLarty Maths Hub?”
“How did you guess? I suggested her granddaughter show some progress in maths before she does that.”
“A good move. Perhaps the heat will be on her for a change.”
It wasn’t. While the young girl settled down in the maths class for a while, Chad continued to entertain visits from her grandmother: the English teacher shows films all the time (it’s called Film Study); my Robyn doesn’t want to visit the beach on Friday (it’s part of the natural science practical); really Mr. Seale, you ought to get that French teacher to remove those bolts from her face (she’s a student, here for only a week); the swimming coach won’t even consider Robyn’s talent …
Chad tried to avoid her at every school function they had, but she would ferret him out in the end, causing him to endure her complaints in public. Justine tried confining her to appointments, but Mrs. MacLarty ignored them. “I don’t think I can handle this woman a moment longer,” Chad confided in one of his deputies. “Her granddaughter needs a muzzle too.”
He was at the end of his tether. Scanning through the subject reports before signing them, Chad could tell his teachers had had enough of the granddaughter too. “Justine, please ask Meaghan and Jill to see me sometime today. I must get them to tone down their reports a little: there’s a difference between blunt truth and diplomacy.”
It was a fresh November morning when Chad surveyed the school campus from the large windows in his office. A sense of satisfaction settled round him at the sight of the bank of rainwater tanks outside the science block and the glimpse of the tops of the paper and glass recycling bins situated on the terrace below. A large poster calling for donations of running shoes caught his eye. He smiled, thinking of the compost heaps behind the swimming pool and the vegetable garden next to the tennis courts. The school was moving in the right direction. Slowly, amidst considerable opposition from some of the parents, but the journey towards sustainability would be worth it.
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee caught his attention. When had Justine placed it there? The school bell rang, sending girls scurrying off to their classes. ‘There’ll be complete peace in five minutes and then I can start drafting my report for Council,’ he thought happily.
“Mrs. MacLarty! You cannot go in unannounced!” The alarm in Justine’s voice was evident.
Chad heard the familiar heavy click-clack of Mrs. MacLarty’s shoes outside his door; he caught the panic in Justine’s voice (“Mrs. MacLarty, at least let me announce your arrival!”); and he heard the stiff retort, “That won’t be necessary!” Without thinking, he slipped off his chair and hid under the large polished desk!
From his hiding place he could hear the collective intake of breath at his unexpected absence. “His coffee is still steaming!”
“Yes, I placed it there a moment ago.” Justine sounded perplexed. “Are you sure you didn’t pass him in the passage?”
“Would I have come all this way if I had?”
“He can’t have gone far. Would you like to wait in my office while I find him?”
“I’ll wait here!” Chad heard the scrape of the chair followed by the soft hiss of the cushion as Mrs. MacLarty settled down to wait.
It was a long wait. He was cramping all over after an hour but dared not move. She was clearly sitting comfortably and had even laid claim to his coffee! Every now and then she would kick against the desk. Chad, who would have preferred an open desk was now absurdly grateful that his predecessor, a woman, had opted for a closed front. Some of those kicks were very close to his ear.
The bell rang between periods. His cell phone, which he had placed in his top left-hand drawer, rang from time to time and emitted an increasing number of message beeps. He could hear Justine murmuring on her telephone next door. During the course of the second hour he heard one of his deputies implore Mrs. MacLarty to leave. “It’s unusual for him to have left without telling us, so it must be an urgent matter. I’ll call you as soon as he comes in.”
“I have all day, young man, I can wait.”
Chad couldn’t see his watch and had lost count of the bells. He felt numb all over and was sure his neck was about to snap. An eruption of happy noises told him it was break time: he had been hiding under his desk for three hours. How could he emerge and still keep his dignity intact?
Justine came in again, as she had several times already. “His car is here and so is his cell phone Mrs. MacLarty. No-one has seen him since his arrival early this morning. This has been such a long wait for you – oh, Mrs. MacLarty, you’re crying!”
Crying? Mrs. MacFarty crying? Chad wished he could see this. Perhaps he could leopard crawl out of the room. His back hurt.
“My dear, Robyn is such an ungrateful wretch. She tells me she wants to board at a school in Johannesburg next year. After all I have done for her!” Her sobs were audible to Chad under the desk.
“Did you want to tell Mr. Seale that Robyn is leaving?”
“I wanted to give him a piece of my mind.” There was no fury left in that tired old voice. “I wanted to know why this school that I have loved so much and to which I have donated so much money has made my granddaughter so unhappy that she wants to leave. She’s my only grandchild you know, and I’m already eighty-five!”
“Come and sit on the couch over here by the window and I’ll order tea for us both.”
Chad’s head was spinning with relief: he’d be able to quietly extricate himself; he would be able to stretch his legs; he would be able to lie on the floor and breathe! Fresh air!
“I’d rather sit here Justine. I feel closer to Mr. Seale here. It’s as if he could hear me.”
Chad’s heart sank. His cramping muscles strained and sent shooting pains up his spine and down his neck. He listened to the litany of wrongs – after ten months he could reel them off by heart. He heard the clink of tea cups; he heard the crunch of biscuits; he heard his stomach give a protesting growl; and he heard Justine gently telling Mrs. MacLarty that she might consider the she might be the root cause of her granddaughter’s unhappiness.
“Look at it this way,” Justine spoke softly, “there’s a boarding house named after you, a section of the library, and the Maths Hub has your name associated with it.”
“Yes, but –“
“Robyn is a very ordinary, loving and loveable little girl Mrs. MacLarty. She wants to be like everyone else. She wants friends because she is Robyn, not because she’s the granddaughter of the wealthiest patron of the school.”
“Her tennis coach refused to recognise her talent.”
“On the contrary. Robyn was selected for the A team – a tremendous feat for such a young girl.”
“Then why -?”
“Robyn bowed out of tennis for fear you would renovate the courts and have them named after you. She wants to hide from that.”
Chad’s stomach protested more loudly than before in the brief silence that followed.
“Mrs. MacLarty, it’s after eleven already. Would you like me to chat to Robyn’s Housemistress to see if she can spend this weekend with you? I feel sure Mr. Seale will acquiesce to that. Then the two of you can chat openly.”
Chad heard the scraping of the chairs, the grateful “Thank you, my dear,” and the blissful sound of those dreaded heels fading down the passage. He had just managed to get out onto all fours and stick his head out from under the desk when he heard Justine laughingly call out, “Coffee?”
“How did you know I was here?” he gasped.
“I saw the toe of your shoe when I was looking for your cell phone. Your drawers are a mess by the way.” She winked at him.