Read Sticky Beak Online

Authors: Morris Gleitzman

Sticky Beak (2 page)

I blew the jelly out of my nose and ran out of the hall and thought about hiding in the stationery cupboard but came in here instead.

I'd have ended up here anyway because the principal's office is always where people are taken to be yelled at and expelled and arrested.

There's someone at the door now.

They seem to be having trouble opening it.

It's pretty hard getting a grip on a door handle when you've got Jelly Custard Surprise running out of your sleeves.

I'd help them if I wasn't shaking so much.

 

The door opened and Mr Fowler came in and it was worse than I'd imagined.

It wasn't just his sleeves that were dripping with jelly and custard, it was most of his shirt and all of his shorts and both knees.

On top of his head, in the middle of his bald patch, were several pieces of pineapple. Ms Dunning always puts crushed pineapple at the bottom of her Jelly Custard Surprise. It's delicious, but it's not really a surprise, not to us. I think it was to Mr Fowler though.

He saw me and just sort of glared at me for a bit.

I tried to stop shaking so I wouldn't drip on his carpet so much.

It was no good. I looked down and saw I was standing in a puddle of passion-fruit topping.

I made a mental note to write to the Department of Education and explain that it had dripped out of my hair and not out of Mr Fowler's lunch box.

Mr Fowler didn't seem to have noticed.

He strode over to his desk and wiped his hands on his blotter.

I waited for him to ring the District Schools Inspector and say, ‘I've got a girl here who's been mute since birth and she came to us from a special school fourteen months ago and I thought she was fitting in OK but she's just sprayed two hundred people with Jelly Custard Surprise and so obviously she's not and she'll have to go back to a special school first thing in the morning'.

He didn't.

He just glared at me some more.

‘I've seen some clumsy acts in this school,' he said, ‘but I think you, Rowena Batts, have just topped the lot.'

I didn't reply because my hands were shaking too much to write and Mr Fowler doesn't understand sign language.

‘I knew it was a mistake having food,' he continued, starting to rummage through the top drawer of his filing cabinet. ‘That floor was awash with coleslaw from the word go. I nearly slipped over just before you did.'

My legs felt like they had jelly on the inside as well as the outside.

‘You OK, Tonto?' said a voice from the door.

It was Dad.

His face was creased with concern and splattered with custard, and for a sec I thought he'd changed his shirt. Then I saw it was the blue satin one he'd been wearing all along, but the red jelly had turned it purple.

‘I'm fine,' I said, trying to keep my hand movements small so I wouldn't flick drips onto Mr Fowler's files.

Ms Dunning came in behind Dad, just as splattered and just as concerned.

She gave me a hug.

‘When you have bad luck, Ro, you really have bad luck,' she said. ‘And after all the hard work you put into tonight.'

She wiped something off my left elbow, then turned to Mr Fowler.

‘We want to get home and cleaned up, Frank,' she said. ‘Can we talk about paying for the damage tomorrow?'

Mr Fowler looked up from the filing cabinet.

‘No need,' he said, holding up a piece of paper. ‘The insurance covers accidental food spillage.'

Ms Dunning gave such a big sigh of relief that a lump of pineapple slid off the top of her tummy. I caught it before it hit the carpet.

I could tell from Dad's face he wanted to get me out of there before Mr Fowler discovered a clause in the insurance policy excluding jelly.

To get to the truck we had to go through the school hall. It was full of people wiping each other with serviettes and hankies and bits torn off the ‘Farewell Ms Dunning' banner.

I held my breath and hoped they wouldn't notice me.

They did.

People started glowering at me from under sticky eyebrows and muttering things that fortunately I couldn't hear because I still had a fair bit of jelly in my ears.

Amanda came over, her hair rubbed into sticky spikes. ‘If Mr Fowler tries to murder you,' she said with her hands, ‘tell him to speak to me. I saw you slip.'

I felt really proud of her. Not only is she kind and loyal, but I only taught her the sign for ‘murder' last week.

‘Don't feel bad, Ro,' called out Megan O'Donnell's mum, scraping custard off her T-shirt with a knife. ‘I'm on a diet so I'd rather have it on the outside than on the inside.'

There are some really nice people in this town.

But I do feel bad.

I felt bad all the way home in the truck, even though Dad made me and Ms Dunning laugh by threatening to drive us round the orchard on the tractor so all the codling moths would stick to us.

I feel bad now, even though I'm standing under a cool shower.

Because I didn't slip on some coleslaw and accidentally lose control of the Jelly Custard Surprise.

I threw it on purpose.

 

The great thing about talking in your head is you can say anything you want.

Even things you're scared to say in real life.

Even to your own Dad.

He's just been in to say goodnight.

The moment he stepped into the room I could tell he wanted to have a serious talk because he'd changed into his black shirt, the one with the yellow horseshoes on the front. Dad always wears that when he's planning a serious conversation.

‘Feeling better?' he asked with his mouth.

Dad doesn't seem to talk so much with his hands these days.

‘A bit better,' I said. ‘How are the boots?'

‘Gave them a rinse and they're good as new,' he said.

‘Belt buckle?' I asked.

‘Pretty yukky,' he said, grinning. ‘Jelly in the eyeholes. Had to scrub it with my toothbrush.'

For about the millionth time in my life I thought how lucky I am to have a dad like him. I bet there aren't many dads who stay calm when they've got jelly in the eyeholes of their cow-skull belt buckle.

Dad cleared his throat, which meant he was either about to get musical or serious.

‘Tonto,' he said, ‘Amanda told me how that pud got airborne tonight. She said it was cause you turned away real quick while I was singing. I didn't think you got embarrassed any more at me having a warble in public.'

‘I don't,' I said.

It's true. I did when we first came here, before people got to know Dad, because I was worried they'd think he was mental. But then one day I realised I didn't mind any more. It was at the wedding. The wedding was the happiest day of my life, and even Dad singing ‘Chalk Up My Love In The Classroom Of Your Heart' to Ms Dunning at the altar didn't change that.

‘So,' Dad went on, ‘tonight's little mishap wasn't on account of me singing?'

I shook my head.

I know it wasn't, because Dad's sung heaps of other times since the wedding—at Ms Dunning's birthday party and at the school fund-raising bingo night and at the dawn service on Anzac Day—and no food's ended up in any electrical appliances on any of those occasions.

Dad looked relieved. Then he frowned, like he does when we're playing Trivial Pursuit and he gets a question about astronomy.

‘Do you reckon there's a possibility,' he said, ‘that tonight's mishap was the result of stress?'

‘What stress?' I asked.

‘The stress,' he said, ‘of you having a teacher who's also your mum.'

‘Definitely not,' I said, almost poking his eye out with my elbow. My hand movements get a bit wild when I'm being emphatic.

There's no way that could be it. I love having Ms Dunning living with us and she was tops in class. The number of times she must have been tempted to tell me to pay attention or I wouldn't get any tea, and she didn't do it once.

‘The only stress I've suffered this year,' I said to Dad, ‘was when that committee in Sydney ignored my nomination of her as Australian Of The Year.'

I was ropeable. How many nominations do they get that have been signed by thirty people? Even Darryn Peck signed after I gave him two dollars.

Dad looked relieved again. ‘Just checking,' he said. ‘By the way, Tonto, now she's not your teacher any more, it'd be real good if you could call her Claire.'

‘OK,' I said, ‘I'll try to remember.'

Dad frowned again, but this time really hard, like when the Trivial Pursuit question's about the digestive system of the West Australian bog leech.

I waited for him to speak.

I could see there was something else he wanted to ask me, but he was having trouble getting it out.

I decided to step in before he risked his health by standing on his head or doing any of the other things he does when there's a bit of tension in the air.

‘Dad,' I said, ‘I'm really happy you married Ms Dunning. I mean Claire. I think she's great and I wouldn't swap her for a prawn sandwich, not even with the crusts cut off.'

Dad grinned and gave me a big hug.

His hair smelt faintly of raspberry jelly.

‘We'll have to get you some new shoes,' he said. ‘Something with decent soles that'll grip coleslaw.'

I didn't say anything, I just tried to look as sleepy as I could.

Ms Dunning came in and gave me a kiss on the cheek and when I peeked she and Dad were creeping out of the room with their arms round each other.

They stopped in the hallway and kissed.

I bet there aren't many couples who still do that after a year of marriage.

It gave me a warm feeling inside.

But that was ages ago, and now I don't feel warm inside or sleepy.

I may never sleep again.

It's pretty hard to nod off when you've just chucked a dessert across a school hall and you haven't got a clue why.

 

Dad always reckons if you've got a problem, don't just mope around, do something about it.

When I woke up this morning I decided to do something about mine.

I grabbed my pen and tore a page off my drawing pad.

At the top in big letters I wrote, ‘TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN'.

Under it I wrote, ‘SORRY'.

Then I had a think.

I wanted to choose my words carefully because you don't just scribble any old stuff when you're apologising to two hundred people.

It wasn't easy to concentrate, what with Dad revving the tractor outside and Ms Dunning whistling really loudly to herself in the kitchen, but after a bit I decided on the right words.

‘If the school insurance doesn't cough up enough,' I wrote, ‘send the extra dry-cleaning bills to me and I'll fix you up. It might take a while cause I only get $2.50 pocket money, but I earn extra helping Dad in the orchard. Sorry for the inconvenience, yours faithfully, Rowena Batts. PS If there's anything that won't come out, bring the clothes round to our place. Dad knows how to shift problem stains using liquid fertiliser.'

When I'd finished I went into the kitchen to ask Ms Dunning to check the spelling.

She was standing at the stove reading the paper.

‘Look at this,' she said excitedly. ‘Carla Tam-worth's singing at the showground, next Saturday.'

‘I know,' I said.

‘Dad'll be over the moon,' she said.

‘That's right,' I said.

I didn't remind her that Dad and me had already been over the moon two weeks ago when the ad first appeared in the paper.

People who are having a baby in eight days go a bit vague, it's a known fact. No point making her feel embarrassed.

I made Ms Dunning take the weight off her feet while she checked my spelling and I did the eggs.

I've told her a million times that when you're having eggs with apple fritters the eggs should be runny, but she just can't seem to grasp the idea. She probably will when she's had the baby and her head clears, but.

Ms Dunning finished reading my public notice and got up and came over and put her hand on my shoulder.

‘Inconvenience doesn't have an “s”,' she said quietly. ‘Ro, it's a good notice, but you don't have to do this, you know.'

I turned the heat down under the eggs and explained to her that in small country towns if you spray jelly onto people's clothes, bitter feuds can erupt and fester for generations.

She thought about that.

Even brilliant teachers don't know everything, specially when they're originally from the city like Ms Dunning.

‘If I don't make amends now,' I told her, ‘in fifty years time you could find someone's parked you in at the supermarket just on the day you're rushing to get over to the bank to pick up your pension.'

Ms Dunning thought about that too, frowning.

For a sec I thought she hadn't understood all my hand movements, but then she grinned and I could see she had. She's very good at reading sign now, just not so good at speaking it.

‘OK, Ro,' she said, ‘go for it.'

She gave my shoulder a squeeze and hurried off to have a wee, which is something else that happens a lot when you're having a baby in just over a week.

I'll be going for it as soon as I've finished breakfast.

Actually I'm not feeling very hungry, even though the eggs are perfect.

Every time I swallow there's a knot in my guts the size of Uluru Rock.

I think I'm a bit nervous about facing everyone after last night.

I'll be OK, though, as long as I can get the notice photocopied and stuck up everywhere before an angry mob grabs me and strings me up by my feet from the Tidy Town sign.

 

As I left our place I saw something that made me feel better.

A rainbow sparkling from one side of the orchard to the other.

We get them sometimes when Dad's spraying the trees with the big blower and the sunlight slants through the clouds of spray.

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