If she’d swerved any harder, she would have crashed right into the lake. In the eerie twilight, the deer seemed to come out of nowhere, darting silently into the road. Of course she’d been startled. And for a few seconds all she’d wanted was to run – throw caution to the wind, shake off gravity, be gone.

In recent years, she’d watch students bent over their desks, pens softly scratching, and a scene from the nature channel would float into her mind. A herd of elk in long grass, nestled meekly against one another. She had no idea how they grew or reproduced but, ever since that programme, thought of them often. Their chestnut fur and affection for each other. How they were wary by nature, and never spoke – at least not that humans could hear – and liked to chew on leaves. They probably had fleas, there was no way around that; every animal does. But, then again, maybe none of this was true. Maybe it was all wrong. It wasn’t based on anything, and biology had never been her strong point.

No one ever broke the rules. Hushed chatter rose from the desks, occasionally crescendoing into the crash of an ocean wave, or the clamour of a wet market. Sometimes a question would leave the class in deathly silence. Sometimes an eager voice would pipe up and shatter it.

‘I don’t think things are as bad as the protagonist makes out.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘The narrator is so fixated on her own suffering, it’s way too heavy-handed. The novel opens with, “Fear torments me, making me almost lose my mind.” Right from the start, it’s just one crazy woman ranting to herself.’

‘But the tone is very detached. What’s your basis for calling it heavy-handed?’

‘I actually like the victim,’ someone else chimed in. ‘Maybe she enjoys the misery. Do you think it’s easy to write from a victim’s perspective?’

‘It’s an easy way to win sympathy from a reader.’

Bursts of laughter, sighs, some students nodding, others shaking their heads.

A brief debate. Whispers over the desks from those who didn’t participate. She waved her hands to quiet them, pressing lightly
on the air, as though conducting an orchestra.

‘Do we have to rush to a conclusion? Are there clear answers, or could it be that the ending is left open to interpretation?’

She liked talking to them. Their voices filled the classroom, rising and falling like bouncing cicadas.

‘But is it so difficult just to say what happened? Why does it have to be so ambiguous?’ said one student.

‘This is why I hate metafiction,’ said another, picking up her books and hugging them to her chest as she walked out. ‘It’s too hard to understand.’

Even the sighs and complaints sounded like the low moan of a plucked string.

There was a telecom tower outside the classroom window. Through the slits in the blinds, it looked small and far away, like a tiny decorative sticker that kept sliding into her line of vision. When the pollution was bad, it was hardly visible, but in the evenings, driving home along the expressway, she could see it clearly in the distance, tip flashing boldly. An inland lighthouse, high above the sea of lights below, alone and cheerless in its corner of the night sky.

Our lives depend on it, she’d think to herself, every so often. Imagine that. Without it we’d be so much lonelier. But the tower itself didn’t know. It sent out hundreds of thousands of messages, every single day, and it had no idea.

For a long time, she’d been careful to steer clear of trouble at work. She was thirty-five and had held her position at the university for four years, but still felt like a baby just learning to crawl. The most she ever spoke was in the classroom. And sometimes she wondered what those docile young elk took away from her classes. Another day rolled past, and what had she said? Had she been careful enough? Could someone have misinterpreted her words? Had she been true to herself ? She’d been heeding these warnings since her very first day.

‘They’re very young. They may look like adults, but inside they’re still children. In many ways, they don’t yet know right from wrong, or understand the potential consequences of their actions. As their teachers, we have to be extremely careful what we say.’

This was said so seriously, she almost wanted to laugh. But no one else in the room seemed to find it amusing. Several teaching contracts had expired, and would not be renewed. This was announced at the meeting. Announced, not discussed: the committee had made its decision. Very little was said. Items were read aloud and token comments were added, as usual. It was a routine affair, during which no one would object and nothing would change.

The colleague beside her sighed softly. She heard him shift closer. ‘Better not go making problems round here,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t be like them. Sued, fired . . . didn’t you start at the same time as her? Did you know her?’

She said that she wasn’t sure. Maybe in passing.

New Town Blues