It was one of those stinking afternoons in February. The classroom was stuffy with BO and dirty feet. Flies buzzed listlessly against the double-hung windows that yawned to catch non-existent breezes.
Outside the sky was smoke-white and shimmering. Trees sagged. Crows hung limp in their black feathered suits, too hot and bothered to raise a decent cark.
Our teacher, Mr O’Reilly, was an earnest young man straight out of teachers’ college. But, at the age of ten, I thought of him as neither earnest nor young. To me he was simply LOUD. He shouted the lessons, shouted your name, shouted when you were good, and ROARED when you weren’t.
In truth I was terrified of him.
That stifling afternoon he ordered everyone to take out their composition books.
The entire class groaned. Writing was not a favourite pastime, and especially not so in ninety-eight degree heat. Mumbling gave way to the swoosh and clatter of exercise books skimming across desk-tops. Then the only sounds were the scrape of pencils on paper and the thud of Mr O’Reilly’s pointy leather shoes on bare floorboards. He would stalk the aisles between desks like a panther. This was his habit. And, when you least expected it, he would pounce. His hand would slam on the desk and you’d be dinner.
Open in front of me was the blank exercise book. A double sheet of vast white paper ruled with faint blue lines. Vacant and empty. Stalling, I sharpened my pencil, watched the shavings curl up in the clear plastic container beneath the blade. When the point was like a needle I shoved the blunt end into my mouth. Aahh, the taste of graphite in the afternoon!
A blob of moisture rolled from my forehead onto the page. That wide blank page. Its only blemish the sweat of my brow. Words would not come. What could I possibly write about anyway? The holidays were long gone; my life was as boring as a week in bed with the measles.
Everyone else seemed engrossed in the task. Some even smiled as they scribbled. How I envied them! The first sentence was always my stumbling point. No matter how hard I tried, I could never come up with those wondrous words to kick-start a story of stunning proportions.
My eyes floated outside, searching for inspiration in the crackle-dry grass of the playing fields or the chirp of the cicadas in lantana along the boundary fence. My chin rested on my hand and I stabbed the blunt end of the pencil into my cheek.
When it came it was swift and deadly. The hand – smack – on the desk. I jumped so hard the pencil nearly pierced my flesh. His face loomed above mine; his breath stank of egg-and-lettuce sandwiches.
‘Why aren’t you writing?’ he shouted.
I whimpered something unintelligible, even to me. Something about not being able to start. That I’d tried … and tried … at that point I crumbled.
Then he said something that actually made sense. ‘Leave half a page blank and write the middle instead. When you’ve finished the story, come back and write the beginning.’
All these years later, using a computer instead of an exercise book, how easy it is to begin in the middle and end at the start! After all, no-one knows how the story was written but you.