The Paler Shade of Autumn

By: Jacquie Underdown

“I’m not going, Mummy, I can’t go.”

Autumn wraps her arms around her mother’s legs and shoves her face into the flowing fabric of her long skirt. Tears leave their damp trace on the bright floral material. Mrs Leone half-smiles at the male teacher who keeps glancing from the watch on his black, curly haired wrist to the classroom full of eight-year-olds, chattering like a cage full of excited budgies, waiting for him to commence their first day of grade three.

“I don’t understand what’s happening here, she hasn’t been like this in prior years,” says Autumn’s mother, Mrs Leone.

The teacher nods his balding head, sporting a sparse comb-over, and thumbs his thick glasses back onto the ridge of his nose. “It’s quite normal, Mrs Leone. I can take her in and get her settled?” he says, clasping Autumn’s hand. Autumn twists her hand from his grip.

“No!” she screams. The children in the classroom snap their heads around in the direction of the commotion, eyes wide. “No!” she screams again. “I’m not going to school, Mummy, please don’t make me go.”

Mrs Leone feels her stomach tighten and that place in the middle of her chest, directly beside her heart, tingles—her maternal instincts have sounded. She rubs the top of her daughter’s hair, wet with perspiration and nods at the teacher. “I’ll take her home and give her a rest today, and see how things are tomorrow.”

“It’s up to you, Mrs Leone. I do, however, think it’s best she attends the first day like the rest of the children.”

Mrs Leone throws her hands on her hips and sighs. “I can’t very well send her like this.”

The teacher nods. “I guess not.” He bends down so he is at eye level with Autumn, though her face is still buried amidst folds of skirt. The overwhelming stench of his aftershave makes her want to throw up her breakfast, which seems to have worked its way up and lodged halfway between her throat and stomach.

“Autumn,” he says. She directs her swollen, bloodshot eyes towards his. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Autumn doesn’t answer. If she has any strength, any command, any choice, as an eight year old, she will not be seeing him tomorrow. Mrs Leone clasps Autumn’s hand and pulls her along the wide, corrugated-iron-roofed pathways, out of the school grounds, towards the car park.

They arrive home to a house still bearing the effects of the Monday morning rush to hustle two children to their first school day of the year. Pyjamas lie crumpled on the lounge room floor and a loaf of bread, a tub of butter and a jar of Vegemite are strewn across the kitchen bench. Breakfast dishes fill the sink and the grey Burmese bleats at Mrs Leone’s feet willing a few shakes of dry cat biscuits to appear in her empty bowl. Mrs Leone flicks the kettle on to boil, pulls a cup out of the cabinet overhead and places it on the bench. She spoons a full teaspoon of coffee into the mug and speaks for the first time since the school incident.

“Are you going to tell me what happened back there?”

Autumn’s eyes widen. She fights hard to stay strong and keep the tears away, but her throat is thick and aching. “Mr Mason is not a good man, Mummy.”

“Oh, really,” she says. “In what way?”

Autumn shakes her head and lowers her eyes. The topic is forbidden, embarrassing. She opens her mouth, but instead of words she can only find breath.

“In what way, Autumn?”

Autumn blinks, but the tears still spring to her eyes. “He’s not nice to some of his students.”

Mrs Leone’s shoulders gravitate forward. She lowers her voice, keeps it steady. “How so, Autumn?”

Again Autumn flutters her eyelids, condemning the pesky tears telling her she isn’t as brave as she thinks. Telling her that she is merely an ingenuous eight-year-old girl who has witnessed something horrifying. “He—he likes to, he makes…”

“Yes, Autumn?” she says.

“He touches the girls.”

Mrs Leone’s heart thumps like the hoof of a mad buck. She has to turn to the kettle that has started to boil, angrily whistling its monotone tune, to hide her gaping mouth, her eyes round with horror, instead of their usual almond shape. As she turns back, keeping her eyes on the mug she is filling, focusing on the aromatic stream that rises from it, she asks, “Touches how?”

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