Stephen Williams - Nothing But Rainforest first page

Tagola High School, Southern Highlands, PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Tuesday, 17th February 1987

Written on the blackboard in neat capitals with a border of flowers was, WAITING FOR MR JONE. On the wall next to it was a photograph of a man stood beside an older man and woman. On his red sweatshirt, it said, Brooklyn College.

Simon Jones leaned forward against the front bench looking at the students, his pale fingers fumbling the chalk. About thirty brown faces stared at him, mouths open, pens and pencils pushed into their curly hair. They stopped talking. He ran his fingers along the back of his collar. Outside, a cock crowed.

Pinned to the walls were American public health posters from the fifties. Next to a cross-section of the heart was a poster of a woman cowering beside a man holding a club. Yu no ken paitim meri. Wife beating is a crime.

He started to feel warm and pulled off his sweater. A few girls and women sat at the left side of the room. The boys and men had the rest, squeezed six to a bench. String bags were piled against the sinks and gas taps. Most of the students’ clothes were made of synthetic fibres and had wide collars. Some wore a grass skirt or loincloth. He breathed in, a smell of smoke and sweat.

His hands gripped the Formica bench. “Hello, my name is Mr Jones, with an S. Jones.”

A girl at the front picked her nose. The iron roof creaked under the sun.

“Sorry I’m late. I had to go on a course in Port Moresby to learn Pidgin. I’ll be teaching you science for the next two years. But first, let’s find out more about each other. I’ll begin with me, then it’s your turn.”

They nodded and he wondered if they knew what he was talking about. A small pale-skinned boy rubbed his face as if waiting for a bedtime story, then sniffed back a green stream of snot. Simon tried not to look.

“I’m from England. About six months ago I wrote to an organisation called Voluntary Service Overseas. I had an interview, then they asked if I’d like to teach at Tagola High School. So here I am.” He released his grip on the bench. “Put up your hands if you’d like to ask some questions.”

Below a sign which said, SPEAK ENGLISH AT ALL TIMES, a man at the back with a broad nose and yellow ochre rubbed into his beard raised his arm. He must’ve been as old as Simon. “How much are you paid?”

Simon grinned. “Same as the locals.”
The students laughed all at once as if it’d been rehearsed.
“Are you married?”

“Not yet.”

And there was more laughter and he felt like a game show host. He tried to relax and smile. A boy at the back whispered to his companion.

“Have you any brothers or sisters?” a girl on the middle bench asked. Her orange and green nylon shirt was stretched tight across her breasts, the buttons almost breaking off.

“Just a sister.”

“Oh, I am sorry.” She cupped her face in her hands. Her friend, who wore the blue dress of a nurse, leaned her head against her shoulder. “Did your other brothers and sisters die?”

“No, my parents only wanted two.”

“I’m sorry. How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-seven.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in.”

There was another knock.

“Come in.” Simon opened the door.

A thin man with bushy hair and a moustache stood holding the hand of a boy of about eleven. Both of them gulped.

“You say it,” the boy said.

“Mr Jone, we are sorry we are late.” The man spoke as if it had been practised, then muttered something.

“Pardon?” Simon put his head close to his.

“We are new,” the man whispered.

“It’s okay. I’m new too.” Simon led them to the front desk and the boys squeezed up to make room.

With hands in his pockets, he strolled from desk to desk looking at the students’ work. Ruled diagrams of chemical apparatus and neat writing. He wondered which tribe the students came from. Huli or Duna. Stapled to the back wall of the classroom was a drawing of a pair of feet dangling. Mental Health #4 - Suicide? On a piece of paper next to it were the twenty-five school rules, which began:

 

    1. A boy must not touch a girl.
    2. Boys and girls are not allowed to spend time together in private.
    3. A girl must not go anywhere on her own. She must have other girls with her.
    4. Notes and messages must not be passed between girls and boys.
    5. Presents or exchanges of food between boys and girls should be made only in the presence of the duty teacher.

 

There was a sigh from the boy in front as he underlined the date.

“Could I look at your book?” Simon asked.

4/10, it said below a diagram of a leaf. Try harder.

“What was your last teacher called?”

“Mr Johnson. He came from America on contract. That is him.” The boy pointed to the photograph of the man in the red sweatshirt. “He was strange. Called us by our last name. Sometime he lose his temper and run into store room.”

A bearded man at the back raised his hand. “He would shout at us and would not come out. A week before our exams, he disappeared.”