Fiction #49 The storyteller
The chatter in the lunch shed at my primary school was noisy without being overbearing. It was the heat that was overbearing. This was an era when air conditioning was almost unheard of, certainly in the rural community where I grew up in the Murray mallee region of South Australia.
‘I need a drink,’ I muttered to anyone who was listening. Sweat made my shirt and shorts clammy and uncomfortable. I took the tin mug from my school bag and walked to the end of the veranda attached to the single classroom. This doubled as a lunch shed, a place to keep our bags on the dozens of hooks hanging on the wall like two rows or upside down question marks. Two low wooden and very splintery benches ran the entire length of the partially enclosed veranda, one against the stone wall and the other against the tin wall opposite.
I reached up to lower the spout of the water bag hanging from the rook. Its canvas sides were darkened by the rain water seeping through. The occasional drip added to the small pool wetting the cement underneath. I filled my mug and took a long swig of cool water. It was far cooler than the rain water from the tank a few steps away.
‘Fill up me mug, too ferret face,’ Rodney demanded. ‘Gotta broken arm so it hurts to get a drink.’
I knew that he could manage very well without my help, but ever since the accident in the cricket game a few weeks ago, he played on everyone’s sympathy. His plaster cast was grubby and tattered top and bottom. I can still remember the crack as the ball hit the bone and broke it. I can still hear him screaming for his mummy, like a two year old in terrible pain, not the bully boy we had grown to know over the last few years.
Rodney swallowed the water without thanking me for helping him. He hung the mug on the first hook on the top row. He always demanded the same hook, punching anyone who violated this unwritten law of the school playground. He wheeled around the corner and headed off down the hill to the oval. He still played cricket despite the fresh memory of his recent accident.
‘Anyone for a story?’ I said as turned to the remaining children in the lunch shed. I knew that Rodney would not return to bother me until the teacher blew his whistle to mark the end of play time. About half a dozen of the younger children still loitered over their cheese or apricot jam sandwiches. All of them nodded enthusiastically.
‘Sit closer together – there next to Peter,’ I instructed. ‘When you are ready I will start the story.’ I reached into my bag for a shoe box. The bottom of the box had been cut out in the shape of a television screen. Television had just started broadcasting in the eastern states but no-one in our community had ever seen a television set, except in glossy pictures in the Woman’s Weekly magazine. Even if there were broadcasts available in our district, none of the farmers in the area could have afforded a set anyway.
‘Is everyone ready?’ I looked at my expectant audience, their eyes wide open and their mouths gaping with half eaten bread crusts, or pieces of apple. I turned one of the dowels stuck through from the top to the bottom of the box. As it turned the attached strip of paper moved like a film strip across the front of the box. A picture I had drawn appeared in the opening and I stopped turning. I started telling my latest story…
‘Once upon a time there lived a…’ I was a firm believer in traditional beginnings. For a few minutes I related the story shown in the picture, before turning the rod again to reveal a new picture. And so the story continued. The young children laughed at the funny parts, gasped at the frightening bits and applauded wildly when I announced the end of the story.
I had just finished the story when Mr. Ewing the teacher came out of the classroom and blew his whistle. For some reason we didn’t have a school bell, and with no mains electricity in the district yet – power was to arrive here some years later – a siren was out of the question. Any meetings at night were conducted using kerosene lanterns.
I was about to pack my story box – my pretend television set – back into my bag when Rodney and the rest of the boys stormed around the corner and into the lunch shed. He raced over to my bag and snatched the box from me.
‘Whatcha got there, ferret face?’ he sneered. ‘You been playing with the little kids again? Cricket not good enough for you?’ He looked at my diorama, peering at the drawings I’d done. ‘You’re a pathetic little mousey worm. This is worse than dog poo.’
‘Give it back, Rodney,’ I protested, ‘that’s mine. No don’t pull it apart.’
He placed his hands on the edges of the box and pulled, ripping the box into two pieces. He then ripped out my careful drawings and ripped them too. I tried to stop him, but he was both taller and stronger and kept it all at arm’s length.
Rodney ran across to the rubbish bin and stuffed my pride and joy into the food scraps.
‘There you are maggot,’ he yelled. ‘I’ve put it in a safe place for you.’
He hadn’t noticed Mr. Ewing coming up behind him. ‘Rodney Henschke. Come with me.’
‘Ye-ow – that hurts teach!’ He screwed up his face as the teacher’s firm grip on his ear took effect. ‘Leg-go of me ear.’
Mr. Ewing dragged the reluctant ear – and its owner – into the shed next to the classroom. This was the woodwork and craft shed. Our teacher fancied himself as a carpenter and gave the boys weekly lessons in the craft. Meanwhile, his wife took the girls in sewing and basket making classes.
‘Stand there!’ he demanded. ‘Not a move.’
Rodney rubbed his sore ear making it even redder. ‘You’ll pay for this Ewing. Wait ‘til my father hears about this.’
‘Then I’d better give you something else to tell your father.’ The teacher had reached into a storage space and had retrieved a yard long piece of dowelling. He lightly tapped the rounded wood into the palm of his hand. ‘Make sure you tell your father everything, about how you teased a fellow student, how you snatched his property from his bag and how you not only destroyed it but disposed of it in the rubbish bin.’ He paused for his words to sink in, gently tapping his palm for effect.
‘You’re not going to…?
‘But what did I do wrong?’ he whined.
‘Are you deaf as well as stupid?’
‘Don’t call me stupid! I’m not stupid!’ He spat the words out with venom. I watched spellbound and noticed that these words took the normally mild Mr. Ewing by surprise.
The tapping continued while Mr. Ewing considered his options. ‘What I’ve called you is nothing compared with what you called your classmate Thomas.’ The teacher turned to me. ‘Thomas? You okay?’
I nodded and moved a little closer to the open door.
‘Rodney – you need to apologise to Thomas.’
‘I won’t. That weasel stinks like a fox’s bum. He only wants to play with the little kids. He is such a baby.’ For his last word he used a babyish, whinging sound. He thumped his plaster cast down on the bench. Chips came off and fell like confetti to the floor.
‘So – no apology?’
‘Stuff you teach. An’ stuff that baby too.’
‘You leave me with no choice.’ Mr. Ewing caressed the stick in his hand. I noticed how stained his finger tips were. From tamping down his pipe I figured. He was the first person I’d ever know who actually smoked a pipe. I had seen plenty in photos in magazines and books, but not in real life.
‘Whatcha gonna do?’
I noticed Rodney’s eyes narrow into those cunning slits he often displays.
‘What?’ he said, as if he didn’t comprehend this simple instruction.
‘Bend over with your hands on your knees.’ The teacher continued stroking the wood. I momentarily saw a cloud of sadness drift over his craggy face. It was deeply tanned from many hours spent out in the wheat fields of the district. He picked up some extra money in the summer holidays sewing wheat bags for the local farmers. I’d spent several happy days helping him and my father bag sewing.
Rodney backed towards the corner of the shed. Mr. Ewing grabbed him behind the neck, forcing his head down. ‘Bend over with your hands on your knees.’
Finally Rodney, resigned to his fate, complied.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
I watched in horror as the piece of dowelling swung rapidly into contact with Rodney’s buttock. Mr. Ewing straightened up, ran his fingers gently over the wood once more, and replaced it on the rack. The victim backed white-faced against the wall. His lips trembled, a sliver of saliva dribbled to his chin and I thought I detected a hint of tears shimmering in his eyes. In all of our years together in the same class, I’d never known him to be caned, no matter how much he had teased, taunted and annoyed the other children.
As we proceeding back into the silent classroom, I couldn’t help thinking how life with Rodney Henschke had taken a sudden nightmarish turn.
© 2015 Trevor Hampel
All rights reserved.
- Although I have listed this piece of writing under fiction, some of it is true, based on a real life – mine.
- This piece was originally written as a warm-up writing exercise.
- You can read more of my stories here.
Today’s writing prompt is a little different.
I took the photo above a few years ago on a wonderful tour of magical Morocco. My wife, daughter and I spent two very interesting weeks on a guided tour by mini-bus visiting some of the highlights of Morocco. We visited ancient Roman ruins and modern mosques, the sands of the Sahara desert and the frenetic market places in the exotic cities of Fez, Rabat and Marrakech.
One quiet rural town we stayed in was Midelt where we were taken on a walking tour of some of the local farms. While on this walk I spied this local woman at a water source. I am not sure what she is doing with the pot in her hand. It is at that point I want your imagination to kick into gear.
Here are some suggestions to get you going:
- Imagine you are the woman in the photo – describe a typical day in your life.
- Write a short description of the scene shown in the photo and your reaction to it.
- Wrote a poem about the hardships of rural life in a country like Morocco (or any other country you know well).
- Make a list of the differences between your life, and what you can imagine this woman’s life might be like.
- Use the photo as a jumping off point for a short story with you as the narrator. Place yourself in the scene and imagine what happens next.
Fiction #48 Cry Baby
‘You will respect Margaret in the same way as you speak to Mr. Ewing,’ my father announced the day before she commenced. ‘Teachers deserve your utmost respect.’ His deep gravelly mallee farmer’s voice rang in my ears as I meandered through the green-grey foliaged mallee scrub on my way to school for the new school term.
Already the north wind was whipping up snakes of dust curling along the ground and as I followed the railway line through the cutting the blast of hot air brought sweat patches to my shirt like some bizarre way of wetting myself. By way on contrast the sweat beads on my skin dried almost instantly.
I went to a small, one-teacher school in rural South Australia. Well, most of my primary schooling was with the one teacher, Mr. Ewing. For one memorable year it became a two teacher school. The assistant teacher was Margaret, who just happened to be my second cousin. That relationship gave me no advantage in the classroom. Margaret treated us all the same, even handed, fair, authoritative and with good humour.
Rodney hated her. And he hated me for being related.
‘She hates me,’ he hissed at recess on the first day. ‘Tell her to stop, ferret face.’ He thrust his pimply face towards my nose until I could see food scraps on his teeth that had not been brushed in weeks. His foul breath washed over me like a salami tsunami threatening to drown me in the detritus of Rodney’s disgusting diet. I knew his diet was disgusting; he’d sat next to me at lunch time too many times.
I tried to move towards the play ground. Rodney shoved me against the wall. He had received dozens of reminders from Margaret in the first two hours of the school year, to the point where Mr. Ewing had to intervene.
‘This is your last warning, Rodney Henschke,’ he said leaning over his desk. ‘One more step out of line and I will be forced to call in your parents and tell them what a pain you are.’
‘You don’t scare me,’ sneered Rodney. ‘My father is chairman of the school council – and don’t you forget it. He’ll get you sacked, he will.’ His smirk spoke volumes. I remembered how he took exception to a detention the year before. A two year old would have been proud of the temper tantrum that resulted. The very next morning Mr. Henschke was on the door step of the classroom.
I had just arrived at school; others were still drifting into the school yard. Pre-school games were starting to get under way in various parts of the yard. One group of older girls sat giggling in the shade under the old peppercorn tree on the northern side of the playground. Three of the younger children were having races across the crusher dust covered area next to the classroom. They all stopped in their tracks as Rodney’s father launched into a vitriolic verbal attack on mild, well mannered Mr. Ewing.
The teacher backed defensively into the classroom. I could still hear the irate parent shouting, but now the words were muffled by the thick stone walls of the classroom. Leon and I sneaked around to the southern side of the building and looked in through the window. The adults were sitting at the teacher’s desk. Rodney’s father was still shouting but I didn’t take any notice of what he was saying. He stood up and towered over the figure of Mr. Ewing. His blotched face bulged with veins I thought would burst any second, and with a greasy finger he poked the teacher’s chest so violently Mr. Ewing’s shoulder moved with each jab. I was just waiting for the follow-up punch; his other fist clenched and unclenched threateningly.
I eventually managed to escape the attention of Rodney. The new school year seemed to be off to a sour start. I was looking forward to having my relative as another teacher in the single classroom. She was mainly attending to the younger students while Mr. Ewing taught the older classes, including mine. This was to be my final year at primary school. High school beckons, but first I needed to complete the seventh grade. In my class were my cousin Greta, my neighbour’s daughter Suzette, Leon another neighbour and Rodney. We’d been right through primary school together.
This recess time was no different despite being the first one for the year. The younger children gathered at the sand pit, groups of girls took over the playground equipment and the boys headed for the open area affectionately known as the oval. It was a square shaped patch of dirt bounded by mallee trees and the southern part of the school building. Unlike true ovals it boasted no grass except after rain, something we didn’t see much of in this part of the country.
Many of the boys had quickly organised a game of cricket. John and Martin were batting, Ken was the current bowler and the younger students had fanned out across the dust bowl as fielders. Some of them were quickly bored with the game and were already fidgeting and ready to start chasing one another as an alternative game. They knew from past experience that their chances of having a bowl were slim; their chances of batting were even slighter.
Leon and I, now free of the attentions of Rodney for a few precious moments, wandered into the game. We chatted about our holidays. Leon, with his slow nasally drawl, droned on and on about motor bikes, the new tractor, harvesting the wheat crop and the farm animals in his care. He sounds just like a slightly shorter version of his father, I thought. And just as boring.
While we were the best of friends we had few things in common. It was a strange relationship brought about mainly through lack of other potential friends. In a small rural school in a small town there were few opportunities to make friends; you put up with what was available. Leon was the only one my age; I certainly didn’t want to make the effort to befriend Rodney.
‘Move over wombat arse,’ yelled Rodney as he strode across the oval. ‘I’m batting.’ He snatched the bat out of John’s hands and shoved him forcefully. John staggered backwards, his mild protest wasted on Rodney.
‘Rotten Rodney rules again,’ muttered Leon who usually never said anything negative about anyone. For Rodney he always made an exception. The fights between Leon’s and Rodney’s father were the stuff of legend in the small community, and had come to blows on more than one occasion.
‘Send down ya best – and it’ll head over the border,’ he taunted.
Ken hesitated for a second. He took a few extra steps back before commencing the run in to bowl. For a ten year old he had a superb action – and he was fast. He bowled a super ball right up in the block hole and to Rodney’s dismay, the ball thudded into the stumps, sending the middle stump cart wheeling away.
All the fielding students cheered and danced wildly in celebration.
‘Shut up ferret face!’ Rodney glared in my direction. He turned, picked up the fallen stumps and set them up again. Ken reached out to take the bat to have his turn batting. School rules dictated that whoever bowled, caught or ran out a batman had the right to replace the dismissed batsman. Rodney shoved him away.
‘Get lost Ken! I’m not out – ya hear?’ He took guard again. ‘Now get back and bowl again – and this time wait until I’m ready, ya stupid mongrel.’
Ken was about to complain but thought better of it. He sullenly walked back to his mark in the dust and prepared to bowl again.
‘Are you sure you’re ready this time?’ Ken waited for a response. ‘Ready?’
Rodney looked around at the fielders, checking to see where he could hit the ball. He thumped the bat into the ground five or six times, swatted an annoying fly from his nose and then nodded at Ken.
Ken commenced his run. This time he steamed in even faster, grim faced and gripping the ball firmly. He came to the crease and let go and absolute screamer. The delivery was short and faster than I’d ever seen him bowl, but the beauty of it was lost on all the watchers by the result. The ball thumped short into the dry pitch creating a wild puff of dust before it reared up wildly. Rodney reacted with a jerk of his left arm, raising it up to protect his face. Everyone watching heard the loud crack as the ball crashed into his arm.
Rodney instantly dropped the bat and clutched his arm. ‘Mummy!’ he cried. ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ he ran off towards the classroom cradling his broken arm in his other arm, screaming as he went. ‘I want Mummy!’
We all stood around stunned by this sudden development. I glanced back at the disappearing figure of Rodney. I wandered over to the bat still lying where it had dropped. The ball had rolled only metres away.
‘That was a ripper of a ball Ken,’ Martin said. ‘I’m pleased you didn’t bowl like that at me.’
‘It’s what he deserved after I bowled him fair and square the previous ball,’ Ken said. ‘Still – I hope that I’m not in trouble with his old man.’
‘Who would have thought?’ I said.
‘That tough bully boy Rodney would be such a cry baby,’ I said. ‘I’ll never forget this day.’
‘And we can all make sure that bully boy never forgets it either,’ Ken added with a sly wink.
The new school year had suddenly taken on a much more positive feeling.
© 2015 Trevor Hampel
All rights reserved.
- Although I have listed this piece of writing under fiction, some of it is true, based on a real life. Mine.
- This piece was originally written as a warm-up writing exercise.
- You can read more of my stories here.
Here is another set of short story starters.
Just choose one of them and use it as the first sentence in a short story. In fact, you can use more of them if you wish.
1. Fiona straightened her dress, gently brushed a hand over her hair and knocked confidently on the door.
2. Her life was never the same after that first encounter with Harry on the train.
3. It was the start of a series of exciting events, but Geoff didn’t know it at first.
4. It took Joan a few seconds to realise that she was in terrible danger.
5. On his fourth attempt Ken finally made it up the steep bank of the river.
6. “I had no idea that Peter felt that way,” said Lauren.
7. It was not until Monday that Maureen realised that she had made a terrible mistake.
8. Nancy knew at once that she should have reacted differently.
9. How could Peter have foreseen the immediate consequences of his simple words.
10. Rowena saw her changed situation as a wonderful opportunity to get back at her “friend.”
You can access many more short story starters here.
Conditions of use:
- Feel free to use any of the story starters listed above. Change anything to suit your needs.
- Give it your best shot.
- Edit your work carefully before sending it off to a publisher or posting it on your blog.
- Let me know in the comments section how it went.
- If you publish your story on your web site or on your blog let me know so I can make a link to it for others to read.