Monday, June 24, 2013

Chapter 4 Visitors from the Department


The phone rang just before Ella arrived.
  Brian Witz?
  Speaking. Who’s this?
  My name is Richard Walters. I work for the Education department’s Human Resources Unit. I also liaise with government workplace insurers. I’d like to speak with you. How are you set for today?
   Well…I am quite busy. How long will it take? Can we do it tomorrow?
   Well, it will be about half an hour to an hour of your time. It’s probably better to get this interview over and done with. Haven’t you got some family staying with you? Maybe they could look after the children for a short while.
   Oh, yes but first I want to know what the purpose of your interview is. What do you want from me?
  It’s purely a formality. I will have a partner with me and he will take notes. A Mr William Robins.  Do you mind if the interview is recorded. It is no big deal. We just have to investigate all possibilities in cases like this. I hope you understand. We are only doing our job .
   I am sure you are. Did you see Maria Costella a few days back?
   Yes. We did. Word gets around, doesn’t it?
Brian was not quite sure. He looked over at the clock. 10.30. Maybe at 5 Ella could take the kids out to a movie or for something to eat. He also wanted to speak with Maria before they came over.
  Could you leave me your number and I will ring you back? I have to make some arrangements for my children’s care.
    Look Brian, it’s purely a formality. As I said we have to satisfy ourselves with regard to the manner of your wife’s death.  We’ll ask you a few questions and then we’ll be off. You will sign a statement of course. And that’s it.
   Richard, I am sure, it is only a formality but I always get legal advice before I sign anything.  I would want a friend in the legal profession to look over any statement before I sign it. I hope you understand.
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. A soft intake of breath was all that indicated Mr. Richard Walter’s exasperation or perhaps his irritation that this small task was going to take so long. His reply was soft.
   Alright then. Suit yourself. But it is probably better for your mental state to have this whole business over and done with and then you can get on with your life.  There was a clipped chill to his tone. How about 11.30. OK.
   No. I am sorry that’s inconvenient for me. I think 4.30 this afternoon would be better.  Goodness me, Brian thought to himself, this man is persistent like a dripping tap but he was damned if he would let them walk over him. They could come this afternoon and that would be that.
   Alright. We will change the appointment time of another person we are interviewing. We will fit you in then.
   Is it possible to have a friend present? I think I will feel more comfortable.
Again a long pause. Richard Walters weighed up the proposition. Finally.
  Alright. Why not. We will see you at 4.30 this afternoon.
  Good. Brian said, I am grateful for your consideration. Immediately he put down the phone, he dialed Maria’s number. The phone rang out several times so he left a message on the fourth time for her to call him. He must get her mobile number as soon as possible. Then he tried Rita’s mobile and she was at a coffee shop with of all people, Maria. He told her about the phone call. Both of them immediately offered to be present with him at the interview. Maria suggested that he meet them at Rita’s house. He had to wait for Ella to return before he could go. Tommy and Tracey also needed a mid morning snack.

Ella arrived back from the coffee shop to the joy of the children. They had finished demolishing and decorating the lounge room and couch. They were starting on the kitchen and the downstairs sleep out before Ella put a stop to the mess making. Tommy was drawing pictures and he used the walls of the house as his canvas. Lorri had bought special pens that you could wipe off with wetex or damp cloth. But he worked with surprising speed and the furious concentration that was the prerogative of youthful creativeness. Tracey just liked to rearrange the furniture and make little cubby nooks. She would drag out the doonas from the bedrooms and drape them over the chairs and couches. The towels from the bathroom indicated doors. She had worked out a whole new interior design and made the space under the dining room table a small goods store with various items from the pantry. They were using the monopoly money from an old monopoly set. Ella came in to close up the shop and got them to help her replace the doonas back on the beds and put the towels away. Brian felt helpless. They never listened to him and he would end up doing it. What did women have he wondered, that made them more effective in the home. Yes, I am sure he thought there are some guys who are just great with cooking and cleaning, but unless it was a car that he was cleaning, the dusting and floor washing left him feeling helpless. As for ironing clothes, forget it, he always bought drip dry for as long as he could remember. Lorri hated ironing and her clothes also testified to that fact. Ella was different. She said ironing helped her to think and she liked to wear her jeans ironed with creases and her cotton tops and trousers might look casua, but it was a worked out casual. She ironed her underpants, her towel, her bedsheets and her pillow cases. She would have even ironed her brassieres if they needed. Brian once asked her why and she said she liked the feel of ironed clothes’ crispness on her body. Privately Brian attributed it to their mother who also liked ironed tablecloths and napkins and their father’s shirts were always precisely ironed. When children are little is sometimes, monkey see and monkey do. One of the things that Brian had loved about Lorri was her lack of pretensions and down to earth approach to problems as well as the fact she did not iron. They had received two irons as wedding presents and these were stuck in the garage except when Ella visited. As a joke they had bought Ella her own ironing board for the guest room. When Lorri was nine months pregnant with Tracey they had Ella stay for a few weeks. Ella busied herself washing and ironing the baby clothes that arrived just after the birth. Lorri used disposables despite being given a huge box of 72 cloth nappies by some environmentally conscious friends they had at the gun club where they would go target shooting on a Sunday. They used them as mops for vomit or spilled items, wiping the windows, shoulder protectors from baby burps but only once or twice did these squares of toweling grace Tracey’s bottom. Ella washed and ironed them for Lorri. Lorri said to him one night, your sister has an obsessive nature. It will be very hard for her to find anyone who will put up with all that ironing. By the way, do you think she has a boyfriend? Deep in a magazine on the latest IT techo-creations and aids, Brian shrugged.
  Lorri nudged him again. She is twenty-eight. It is about time she thought seriously about meeting someone and settling down. What do you think?
Brian shrugged again. I don’t know. I’d be wary of putting that to her. She is pretty independent. She might think you are trying to control her life. Unless you were very discrete, ok?
  Like how Brian? Getting a barby going and inviting her with say half a dozen single guys and inviting one or two other single women, but making sure they were as unattractive as hell, so she could have her choice of single guys. Brian folded the magazine over and looked up at her.
  You might be going to all that trouble for nothing, you know.
  But why? I know my mother thinks she is a lesbian. Lorri sighed. She said it is not normal for a young woman not to have a boyfriend or at least flirt with available men. Ella is just a very serious person.
  You are right. My sister has always been passionate about causes and things. She is very busy writing at the moment. She simply does not have time for a relationship, boyfriend or husband. Your mother belongs to the age where women were nothing without marriage and a husband. That is how women gauged their worth society. You mother thinks every single woman has to be available for any single man that shows the slightest bit of interest in them. Not to do so means that you may be not normal or a lesbian. I think Ella wants more from a relationship or a partner than the fact that he is a man and she is a woman. Give her some space.
   But she is so great with the kids. She would be such a good mum.
   But that doesn’t mean she has to marry the first man that offers.
   She should also not be too fussy. She will miss the boat and then she will really be in trouble.
  No she won’t. She will do what she wants in her good time.
  We need to help her find someone.
  Why? What if she sees it as interfering? She may not be ready yet.
The conversation continued into a fight and it ended when Lorri’s mother also took up the torch and argued that Ella had definite strange tendencies. Brian ended up telling Annabel to stuff off and he and Robert Lorri’s dad had nearly come to blows. Both had been of the opinion that Ella was reasonably attractive and they could not understand why or how she was still single at 28 years of age. There had to be something wrong with her.
  Sometimes he wondered about what she was doing in Sydney but figured it was none of his business. Yes, she was nearly thirty and her biological clock was tick tick tocking, but she was an intelligent human being and she knew that too. She may just have other priorities, he thought.
Quickly he told her about the phone call from the Department.
   So have someone with you when they come. Don’t get caught up by them.
  Yeah, I am going to talk with Maria and Rita now. One of them will be with me, this afternoon.
   So what exactly do they want from you?
   They said it is simply a formality. Not to worry and we should get it over and done with as soon as possible.
   I guess they are frightened of being sued. Or something? Who knows.
   You go now and meet Lorri’s friends. I’ll take the kids out to the park for a couple of hours around four, ok? So if it is really only a half hour to an hour they should be gone by the time we get back, right?
   Have dinner ready for us when we get back, ok? Let’s do a stir fry tonight. She called to him as he went out the door.

Arriving at Rita’s house he found both women sitting with serious faces in the kitchen. Rita had left the back door open down the side of the house. Sitting down, he got straight to the point.
  Maria, what exactly did they want when they came over to you?
   Well, that was the part that bothered me most in the interview. At first, I was sure they were just doing ‘a formality’ like you said. However the older guy, what’s his name Richard, Richard Walters he is a real sleaze bag. He’s an ex lawyer. He tried to infer that she was really deranged and brought up the fact that she was on a work program to improve her teaching performance.  He literally wanted me to support his contention that she was unbalanced and he also dropped a comment that you were six years younger than her and she had had the kids in her forties.
  And what the hell is that ment to infer?
  That she was somehow very immature that she could not seek a partner who was at least around her age. Also wanting kids into her forties, well she should have just accepted the fact that she wasn’t going to have any. He asked me if she had spoken about IVF and was she receiving treatment?
   None of his bleeding business.
   Then he asked if she took a lot of time off during her pregnancies.
  What a bloody load of bull. Lorri was fit and healthy for both pregnancies despite being nearly forty four when Tracey was born.  How did he work her age into the equation as being the problem?
   Oh that was interesting.  Question; how did you feel when the news broke at work that she was pregnant? Didn’t it strike you as odd that she was in her mid forties and she was pregnant? You are teacher. She was a teacher. Wouldn’t you have expected her to be satisfied with her youthful husband? After all child bearing is the prerogative of younger women like you. You are around thirty, I take it?
  So what did you say to him when he said that?
  Maria crossed her arms. I looked him straight in the eye and said, why should I have thought it was odd? I was bloody glad that here was an older woman who really wanted kids and she was pregnant and she was a great teacher. She really cared about the students and was a good colleague in the staff room.  Then he looked at me and said, well, Maria, you are an intelligent woman and you are probably aware of the risks of middle aged pregnancies. Don’t you think it could have been somewhat immature of her to have a child at her age? I mean she was closer to fifty at the last one than forty. How could she cope with teaching and child rearing at the same time?
  Rita broke in. So what did you tell him when he said that?  Lots of good teachers have children and teach – some of them teach full time.
  Maria paused. Yes I know. But I could see that he had his opinion and he was trying to wheedle me into a corner to admit that secretly I thought women who had babies at forty plus are stupid and neurotic. I don’t. She looked across at Brian. He was very persistent. I came away from the meeting feeling like I wanted to throw something hard at his head. He pushed and pushed the line, suggesting ever so subtly that women who have babies past their late thirties are somewhat neurotic, even unbalanced.
   Finally Brian spoke. What about the other guy with him? The one who was taking notes.
  Not a word from him almost the whole time. Except to ask if I minded making them a coffee. He also had a recorder I believe, although I specifically requested that there be no recording. I really did not want what I said to be taken out of context.I think he had something in his coat pocket. He kept patting it. You know people’s body language gives them away at times. I did not want to confront him or ask to frisk them for recording devices. I took them at their word.
  He asked me if I minded if the interview was recorded.
  Did he now? I was sure the other guy was recording and taking notes. He scribbled away furiously for the whole hour or so. You can say no but they have the technology to record anyway and you would never know.
  Rita shifted in her seat. There is not a lot of trust left in work relationships is there? Nowadays.
  Why don’t I go with you? Maria asked him. It would give them a bit of a shock, don’t you think?
Brian shook his head. Bad idea. They will know we have probably discussed this at some point. However, I doubt that it would serve any real purpose. Better Rita who they have not seen. They may even be planning to interview her too. Who knows?
I want to ask you something. Rita leaned forward. Why do you think they are going to so much trouble to blacken her reputation?
   Maria answered her. It’s obvious. They don’t want to be sued or have to pay out money to Brian and the kids. They want to make sure her suicide is not connected to anything that has happened at her workplace. They could not give a shit about her. They just want to destroy her reputation because it looks bad for them. Do you remember the guy who had the breakdown after Barry and Lee had him on this Teacher Improvement Program? Apparently he was deemed not suitable teacher material despite a good working record in his previous schools. Lee thought he was gay therefore prey. She picks people who are flawed in her eyes and makes their life hell. Now he left for Maitland and topped himself in a motel on the Midland Highway near Dookie.
   I think he was before our time. People talked about it though. I heard that apparently he hung around the town for a few weeks after leaving the school.
    Rita spoke. Barry’s got a bit of pull with the police because he drinks down at the pub with them. They used to pull him over for the slightest thing. Sometimes it was not even real, but made up.  I heard Barry and the cops laughing about how they harassed the ‘fairy boy.’ His contract had expired by the time he put an exhaust hose in the back window of his car at the motel. Most people did not even know that he was dead or how he died. I only found out because I was storing some of his things and his Uncle and Aunt came down to collect them.  He’d been dead for several months. It amazes me how some people slide so easily out of the living. It is as if he was never here, hardly anyone remembers him. He was a decent enough guy. It was a pity that he came down to a country school like this.
  Why do you say that? If he was a good teacher, they should have been glad.
  Well they are idiots, aren’t they? He was a history and TAS teacher. He was very good from what I hear. I talked with his Uncle and Aunt. He had been divorced in his twenties and was just sensitive.  My Bill used to invite him over to play chess and have a few beers.
  Brian, I want to tell you that it is not about how well you teach in some schools. It is about who are your buddies. You have to play politics and help the right people at the right time. You can be a brilliant teacher but if the Principal doesn’t like you, you are literally stuffed.
  Ok. Let’s have lunch.  Rita, you and Brian should go around three thirty to be there before four.
  It was then as they were walking to the kitchen that Brian dropped the bombshell. Do you remember the stuff you brought me the other day? Both women turned to face him. Yes. What of it? Rita asked.
  Well, I found a diary she’d written.  The silence stiffened the air. It was in one of the boxes of resources and students’ workbooks that you had bought over the other day. Finally Maria spoke.
   Don’t whatever you do let them know it. At least not yet. Have you read it yet?
  Seeing as the police won’t give me back her letter which was addressed to me, I really do want to finish reading it and then I will decide where this is going to go.
  If you are thinking of suing them, Brian you have Buckley’s or none.
  Where is the diary now?
Brian carefully drew it out of the inside pocket of his jacket. I carry it with me. I am thinking of making copies for the kids for later and … suddenly he sat down heavily on the stool and began to cry. He felt mortified by his inability to control his emotions, but talking about her, holding her diary in his hands, it was all too much. He felt flooded. Rita gave him a box of tissues and a glass of water.
  I’m sorry. So stupid of me.
  Of for crying out aloud Brian. You have been so strong. It’s ok. It’s good to cry. It releases the stress toxins in the body. You need to cry. Maria patted him clumsily on the back. Look I am going to leave you to have some space, Rita stay with him at a distance so he does need you, you are there.
Rita moved over to the other side of the table. He wanted to scream out Lorri’s name but thought they would think him even more deranged than he felt. This afternoon he would have to appear very composed. Maria walked off to prepare their lunch.

   Rita held out her hand toBrian. Do you mind if I have a look at her diary. I mean I won’t read anything too personal, will I? If I read it?  He shook his head and handed the diary over to Rita and blew his nose vigorously. 

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