Counting To Eleven

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This is reworked from a shorter story that I wrote several years ago, so if certain references seem a bit dated that’ll be why. Some rough play here but all consensual. As usual with my stories, there’s a fair bit of talk before, after, and during the sex.

“RFS” is the Rural Fire Service, a large volunteer-based fire-fighting service.

*

I booked the snakes for St. Patrick’s Day. I’d like to say it was because of my innate sense of the perverse. But truth be told, I didn’t even notice the date until after I’d hung up the phone, written it in my diary, and started typing up the permission note.

Everything has to have a permission note, because god forbid the parents who pay to send their seven-year-olds to John Wren Grammar School should find out after the event that they’ve been playing with snakes. At that point it’s much too late for the word “non-venomous”. People get quite irrational about our scaly friends.

Of course, that’s exactly why I wanted to do it. Get in early, let the kids discover the beauty of snakes, nip those prejudices in the bud—well, that and it meant an hour when I could relax a little and let somebody else front the class. I love teaching, and I love the kids, but it’s hard work. So when I read in the paper that Prehistoric Park were available for shows I jumped at the opportunity.

Sad story there: they had a small zoo, but a few months earlier it had caught fire. They’d lost half of their animals and most of their buildings. While they were rebuilding they started doing road shows with the animals they had left to keep the cash flow going. I’d called them up and learned that for a modest fee I could get a demonstrator, assorted turtles, lizards, a baby crocodile, and five different snakes including a red-bellied black and a tiger snake.

I reluctantly decided to say no to the venomous ones. I didn’t think they’d be any danger to the kids, not with a competent handler, but the risk to my career was another matter. John Wren Grammar lets me teach in jeans and spiky hair because a marketing consultant told them they need to rebrand themselves as an Innovative And With-It School Of The Future, but they still have the same old conservatives on the board, and people like that get quite lathered up about silly little things like tiger snakes.

I finished the permission note—just the right mix of reassurance and vague noises about intellectual enrichment for your little genius-to-be—and sent twenty copies home in grubby bags and lunch-boxes. Sixteen of them came back in time, which is pretty good. None of the parents refused, although I had to reassure a couple of them that under no circumstances would I allow their children to be bitten.

At least, not by the reptiles. By lunchtime on St. Patrick’s Day my cheery good humour was getting distinctly strained. Little Mickey Carver, the class troublemaker, had been teaching his classmates the “tradition” of pinching anybody who wasn’t wearing green. Meanwhile Andie McKenna’s parents, who ought to have known better, had dressed her in bright orange from head to toe. It was just as well none of the class knew enough Irish history to understand the provocation, and I wasn’t about to enlighten them.

It was a relief when the bell rang and my charges stampeded for the playground. I retreated to the staff room—it was unseasonably cold and windy outside—and occupied myself with a biscuit and a hot chocolate as I thought about the McKennas. I have a lot of patience for children, but none for parents who go out of their way to make my job difficult, and this wasn’t the first provocation from that quarter. If they wanted to play games, well, I’d give them something to think about.

I knew they both worked. I entertained myself with the thought of sticking them with the sort of project that requires hours of parental assistance. A papier-mâché volcano might be a nice touch: a trip to the hardware shop, lots of work, and lots of mess. But it seemed unfair to punish all the other parents, and besides I didn’t have space in my classroom for eighteen papier-mâché volcanoes.

What else did I know about them? Andie had recently drawn a stick-figure that Alan Turing himself couldn’t have decoded, but which she told me was her father singing in the shower. That gave me an idea… and just as I was working out the details, my phone rang.

“Hello, Linda speaking.”

“Hi, it’s Judy.” She worked the front office; I had let her know to expect a visitor. “There’s a Kate Sutherland here for you. I’ve signed her in, she said she’ll meet you in the car park.”

“Be right there!”

I pulled on my jacket and made my way to the front of the school. She was standing in front of her car, a battered old hatchback dusty enough that I couldn’t be sure of its original colour.

Kate herself was a little shorter than me, and I thought a year or two younger. She had the sort of slightly-boyish face that I find hard to resist, and she was dressed in boots, khaki pants, khaki shirt…

“Hi! güvenilir bahis I’m Linda. You know you look like Terri Irwin in that outfit?” Very smooth, Lin. Bet she’s only heard that a few hundred times.

“I know, believe me, I know. I used to do this stuff in jeans and a flannel shirt, but everybody expects Crocodile Hunter these days. Gotta give the public what they want. Help me with these?”

She popped the hatch open. In the back of the car she had a stack of Tupperware boxes along with a satchel, a perspex screen, and a long metal stick with a hook at one end. “Won’t need the hook today, but if you can take the bag and those two I can handle the rest. Are you okay with carrying snakes?”

“Sure, I love ’em.” Each of the boxes contained an old pillowcase, and they shifted and squirmed as I picked them up.

“Last time I did one of these at a school, the teacher flipped out and dropped three boxes when she realised there were snakes in them. God only knows what she thought they’d be.”

We carried the boxes in, chatting as we stacked them behind my desk and cleared some space for her to show off her animals. Kate was doing a Master’s in biology, working for the reptile park to supplement her research grant. It wasn’t too long since I’d been an impoverished student myself, so we commiserated.

“Kate, if you don’t mind leaving the critters with me and waiting in the staff room for a few minutes, I’ll call you when we’re ready. The bell rings at quarter-to, but it takes a little while to get them settled.”

“Fine by me. I could do with a cup of tea.”

I pointed Kate towards the staff room, then sat back in my chair, looking at the boxes. I could hear a scraping noise from one of them—maybe a turtle, or the crocodile?—but before I had time to resolve that question the bell rang and the teeming hordes appeared. Henry first, clutching his book; he’d have spent all lunchtime in the classroom reading if I’d let him. Then a gaggle of girls, Alice Chan and her friends, who played hopscotch nearby. Mickey, and that was unexpected; he was usually one of the last to show. One by one, in twos and threes, they straggled back into the room, and I started counting heads.

By the time I got to fifteen the noise had risen considerably, and I had to break up a group who’d started the pinching game again. But Mickey, who ought to have been in the middle of it, was sitting quietly at his desk, looking towards the front of the class. Something wrong? I’d have to check that later. Sixteen, seventeen… close enough.

“Hush now, ladies and gentlemen.” As I talked Andie slipped through the door, grass stains all down the front of her dress. With any of the other kids I’d have wondered if they’d fallen over or been in a fight. With Andie, it was more likely she’d been lying on her face hunting for grasshoppers, or perhaps rubbed it on herself to fit in for St. Patrick’s. She had an unconventional approach to life’s challenges.

“Now, does anybody remember what we’re doing this afternoon?”

“Reading!” chorused half a dozen voices.

“Not today. Anybody… Mickey?”

“Snakes!”

“That’s right!”

Just on cue, there was a knock on the door.

“Come in!”

Kate walked in, smiling at the class. A couple of late-comers attempted to sneak in behind her. I pretended not to notice them.

“Children, this is Kate Sutherland from Prehistoric Park, and she’s here to show you something special.”

“GOOD AFTERNOON MISS SUTHERLAND!” All together, just like I’d taught them. Almost a miracle.

Kate beamed at them. “Good afternoon, children! Now, who can tell me what snakes are like?”

“Cold!” “Scaly!” “Poisonous!” “Thin!” “Nasty!” “Slimy!”

“Well, let’s see about that.” Kate nodded to me, and I passed her the first box. She popped the lid off, reached into the pillowcase, and pulled out a rather handsome-looking snake, red and black and orange, about four feet long and as thick as my thumb.

“This is Rory, and he’s a corn snake. He comes from America.” She held him up and walked forwards to give the class a better look. “He won’t bite you, he only eats small animals. Now, would anybody like to pat him? You can touch him if you’re gentle.”

Mickey’s hand shot up. I tensed a little, expecting a St. Patrick re-enactment, but when Kate held out the snake Mickey just reached out and stroked his back. It was the first time I’d seen him do anything gently.

“That’s the way. Now, what does he feel like? Is he cold?”

“No, he’s warm. Just a little bit.”

“That’s right. If he was outside he’d be colder, but he’s been curled up where it’s warm. Snakes like warm places. Now, is he slimy?”

“No! He’s smooth.” Mickey was still stroking the snake.

“Yes, he’s got nice dry scales. Now would anybody else like to hold him?”

Kate took Rory around the class, showing him to each of the children while explaining where he came from and why he was called a corn snake. Some of the children looked a little nervous türkçe bahis but none of them ran away, and most of them ended up patting him. Alice Chan even let him coil around her hand before Kate retrieved him and continued talking.

“Now the next one I’ll show you is called a Children’s Python, from Queensland.”

I handed her the next box—our fingers brushed—and she wrapped Rory around one arm before producing a smaller snake, dappled grey-brown. “Can anybody guess why she’s called a Children’s Python?”

And so on. I settled back and watched the show, assisting Kate by handing her the new boxes as required and stashing the old ones back behind the desk — though Rory didn’t come back, and I figured she was saving him for an encore. Now and then I got to handle one of the snakes, but mostly I had one eye on Kate and one on the children, making sure none of them were getting into trouble.

But Mickey, the closest thing I had to a problem child, was rapt. He stared at the snakes and hung off Kate’s every word. I made a note in my diary: snakes for art class, snake description for creative writing.

Meanwhile, Kate continued. Once she’d finished with the snakes she showed off three baby turtles, each small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, and a gecko with bulging eyes and translucent skin. Then at last the pièce de résistance, the crocodile. He was about two feet long, adorable to look at, and utterly ferocious. Kate set him on the floor and used the perspex screen to keep him at bay as he charged at her trying to bite. After a few minutes of this she picked him up, snapped a rubber band over his jaws, and let the children stroke his back while she explained the differences between alligators and crocodiles.

“Well, I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today!” They awww-ed, and she nodded, packing the crocodile away into the largest of the boxes. “But if you want to learn more about animals, come visit us at Prehistoric Park! We’ll be re-opening in June. Thank you for being such a lovely audience!”

I stood up. “Well, what do we say?”

“THANK YOU MISS SUTHERLAND!”

“Now, children, time for PE! Don’t forget your sports clothes! And wash your hands, you’ve been handling animals!” I watched as they grabbed their bags and charged out the door to the gym. The bell meant a free period for me, and I was going to use the time to prepare for their next class. But first to finish up with our visitor.

“Thanks, Kate. That was really lovely.”

“You’re welcome. Your kids are so well-behaved!”

“I wish they were always that good! Let me help you with these.” I picked up one of the boxes, but she seemed hesitant, a little awkward. “Something up?”

“Yeah.” She sounded half embarrassed, half amused. “It’s Rory. He’s, um, tangled up in my bra. Could you give me a hand?”

“Oh! Oh, sure. Let me just get the door.” I locked it, to avoid having to make unconvincing explanations to any passing colleagues, and came back to her. “Is it…?”

“At the back.” She tugged her shirt loose from her waistband and leant forwards with one hand on my desk to support her. I stood behind her and lifted her shirt, trying to concentrate on the job in hand and not on any other aspects of the situation. Like the things that would be so easy to do, the things I’d done last time a woman had offered me her back like this… and definitely not to think about how nice that back would look with a few stripes.

Where was I? Oh, yes, removing the snake. He was twined around the back-strap of her bra, and although I was doing my best to be professional about it, it was impossible to get at him without contact. (You don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying it if there’s no way to avoid it, right?) Kate flinched as my fingers touched her skin; as I tried to pull Rory away she rocked backwards, bumping against my hips.

Damnit, woman. Don’t tempt me.

I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hang on, and I didn’t want to hurt him by pulling too hard. If I couldn’t get him to let go, then I’d have to resort to unfastening the bra—but just as I was trying to think of a professional way to broach the subject, he moved his head, and I was able to dislodge him and pull him loose like a colourful piece of spaghetti. I stepped back with four feet of mildly disgruntled snake in my hand as Kate straightened up and tucked in her shirt again.

“Thanks so much for that. I thought you were going to have to take my bra off there.”

“Oh, I wish.”

Had I really just said that? Oops.

But she didn’t react, just turned to put Rory back in his pillowcase. “Well, um, I’d better get going. I’m taking a lab at three-thirty, and I need to drop these fellows home first.”

I helped her out to the car and thanked her again. As she drove off, I reassured myself that there was no serious damage done. Even if she’d heard, even if she’d realised I’d meant it, she didn’t seem offended. I still felt a little silly for blurting it out, but it was a nice thought.

The güvenilir bahis siteleri rest of the afternoon passed peacefully enough. By the time my kids got back from P.E. they’d burnt off some of their energy, and mental arithmetic practice kept them out of mischief until the final bell.

As they were leaving I stopped Andie and chatted with her for a few minutes. By the time I was done, we had agreed that her dad would be coming in for Show and Tell to sing to the entire class. I was only sorry I couldn’t see his face when he found out he’d been volunteered; they do say most people are more afraid of performing in public than of death.

When she was gone I worked out the next morning’s lesson plan, made sure I had the books I needed, and picked up a few odds and ends to leave the floor clear for the cleaners. I was about to lock up and go when I noticed something on the bench next to the door: a Tupperware box, not quite empty.

Oops. I’d had that box in my hand when I went to lock the door. I must have put it down there before coming to rescue Kate from Rory’s clutches.

I tried calling Prehistoric Park, but nobody was answering the phone. Then I realised I had Kate’s number from when she’d called me from the car park. I was about to dial it when I remembered she was teaching a lab class, so I resorted to text.

Hi, this is Linda. I think you left a python here.

No immediate reply. I occupied myself with a book for ten minutes, and was just considering whether I ought to take it home for the night when my phone buzzed.

Oh no! In lab two more hours. Can come back 6:30?

Have to be out by six for lockup. Can drop her off later if you live near the uni?

I do. Would be awesome. Will call later. Tkx!

About half an hour later, just as I was pulling into my driveway, my mobile rang.

“Hi, Lin here.”

“Hi, it’s Kate. Sorry about that, I was in the middle of stuff and couldn’t talk. I can’t believe I left her there.”

“My fault. I had the box in my hand when I went to lock the door, and I left it on the bench there.”

“Oh, okay. No harm done. You sure you’re OK to drop her round?”

“Yeah, I’m headed that way tonight anyway for my film group.” I wrote down her address and agreed to meet her there about half-past six.

As I drove, I considered the situation. I was still feeling bruised after splitting with my girlfriend six months earlier; it had been a friendly break-up as these things go, but still quite painful enough.

I knew I wasn’t ready to start dating again—and in any event I don’t date people I’ve only known for a few hours—but I thought it might be nice to hang out with an attractive and intelligent woman. Who knew, if the vibes were right, I might even do some idle flirting.

She must have heard me arrive at her apartment, for she had the door open before I could knock. I noticed she’d changed clothes: jeans and flannel, just like she’d mentioned before.

“Hi Linda, thanks so much for doing this! Usually I count the boxes when I load them into the car, but with all the trouble Rory gave me I forgot.”

“It’s really no problem. This little lady’s very well-behaved.” I gave her the box and stood there on the doorstep, unsure whether to prolong the conversation. I’ve never been good at talking to people my own age, never been sure what to say and what to leave unsaid, and I was still trying to figure her out: queer, or just a straight woman with a thing for practical clothing?

As I stalled, Kate tilted her head. “Hey, you’re a snake person, right?”

“I sure am.”

“Would you like to see the others? If you have time?”

“Others?”

“I have lots more here. Looking after them until the park’s rebuilt.”

“Oh, I’d love to! Film doesn’t start for another hour.”

“Well, then, welcome to my humble abode.” She stood back from the door and waved me in. The place would have been tidy if it hadn’t been so full of reptiles and related paraphernalia: boxes stacked along the hallway, glass tanks on every flat surface, a bucket of gravel, crickets and mealworms for the lizards. I didn’t check her freezer, but I was willing to bet it was full of frozen rats and mice.

Kate gave me the guided tour, mentioning where each of her animals had come from and describing their different habits and personalities. My interest in reptiles is amateur; I love them and I can tell you the basics, but when it comes to sexing a snake by its scales I’m lost. She was a professional and it showed.

As she explained the characteristics that allowed one to distinguish between Morelia spilota spilota and Morelia spilota variegata, I contemplated a different problem: how to identify the elusive Homo sapiens sapphica. I’d been on the lookout for clues: a box set of “The L Word”, a Sarah Waters paperback, that sort of thing. But there was nothing, not so much as a Tegan and Sara CD.

On the other hand, there was nothing that obviously said “straight”. No Valentine’s cards, no photos of boyfriends. As far I could tell from her shelves the most important man in her life was David Attenborough. And there’d been something more than accidental in the way she’d reacted when I’d touched her back under the bra-strap.

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