Lessons, by Julie Duke

Monique edged her way down the swaying bus to an empty seat near the back, avoiding eye contact with the other students. She lunged into a seat, shuffling across to the window, and pulled a textbook from her bag before stuffing the bag down between her feet. She opened the book and tried to study but with all the excited chatter going on around her she could not help overhearing all about the party at Tammy’s on Saturday night – the one she had not been invited to.

She tried to close her ears when she heard Tim’s name mentioned, not wanting to hear how he had slipped out of the party and into the moonlit garden with Mandy. Tears pricked her eyes and she squeezed them shut, hanging her head. The thought of Tim kissing Mandy plunged her into depression, while jealousy raged through her veins. In her dreams, it was her Tim took outside.

No matter how much she tried to deny it, Mandy was everything she wanted to be – slim, blonde, pretty and popular. Monique sighed. Life was not fair, but she knew all about that.

The eldest in her family, at seventeen, she was taller than her parents. The rest of her family were short and slightly built with light brown hair but she got her height and her black wavy hair from her real Father, the one she had never met. People often commented on it, making her feel the odd one out and never quite part of the Wainwright family, even though Roy was a wonderful step Dad.

She did not fit in at school either but, too big to go unnoticed, she had learnt to hide inside her books instead. Being an ‘A’ grade student did not help but it gave her an excuse not to have to try and interact with her peers.

“Mandy’s so lucky.” She heard the wistful note in Kylie’s voice.

There was a murmur of agreement amongst the group and it dawned on Monique she was not the only one with a crush on Tim. She turned her head away, looking out of the window, tears blurring her vision. Even if she were the last girl on earth he would never look at her.

After dinner that evening, while her Mum was putting the younger kids to bed, Roy told her about some people he knew whose son was failing year twelve. They could not afford extra tutoring and he asked if she would mind if he offered her services instead.

“I know how good you are at explaining things. I’m sure you could help him but I didn’t want to offer without checking with you first.”

“Don’t they run tutorials at his school? Our school has them at lunchtimes and after school.”

“I think he plays a lot of sport so he’s often training. The only time he could study would be Sunday mornings. If he came to the house, would you help him?”

Monique shrugged. “I guess.”

The following Sunday the boy turned up at their house. Monique’s jaw dropped when Roy led Tim Edmonds into the lounge. Monique had never considered the possibility the boy might go to her school, or that he might be the object of her dreams! Her heart skipped a beat while heat flooded her cheeks. The look of shock which crossed Tim’s face said it all and he stopped dead. With a haunted desperation his eyes darted around, looking for an escape route.

“This…this… isn’t going to work… Mr Wainwright,” he stammered, backing away. “I don’t want everyone at school knowing.”

“Come on Tim, don’t be stupid. Monique is very smart. She’ll be able to help you.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” she promised, hanging her head, tears filling her eyes.

She understood his reaction. He had his reputation to consider. She was not cool to be seen with and, if anyone found out she was tutoring him, he would become the laughing stock of the school. Tim shuffled his feet, his hands in his pockets, and looked at the floor.

“I know you need to pass year twelve,” Roy coaxed, laying his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “Your parents can’t afford a tutor and I’m sure Monique could help.”

Tim shook off his hand.

“You could give up some training and take some of the tutorials at lunchtime or after school,” Monique suggested.

Tim shot her an angry look. “Then everyone would know!” Still shuffling his feet, he turned to Roy. “Look Mr Wainwright, thanks for the offer. But it’s not going to work. What if someone saw me coming here,” and with that he bolted out of the house.

Roy hurried after him. “I’ll give you a lift home.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll jog.”

Holding back her tears, Monique ran to the sanctuary of her bedroom.

At school the following day Tim avoided her but Monique began to notice little things about him she had not been aware of before. Being so popular he often joked and fooled around in class but now Monique saw through his façade. He was not an accomplished student and, confronted with something he did not understand, he mucked around, causing much hilarity amongst his peers.

A week passed and Monique tried hard to forget the humiliation of Tim’s rejection. Returning from the bathroom one evening she paused in the darkened hall, overhearing her name as her parents talked in the lounge.

“I’ve talked to Bill and Margie again and they’re still keen for Monique’s help,” she heard Roy say. “Tim’s brother has just bought a house on the other side of the bay and they asked if we would mind Monique tutoring Tim there. Could you drop her off this Sunday though? Tim’s brother has offered to drop her home.”

“I suppose no one from school would see Tim and Monique over there,” her Mum agreed. “And Monique wouldn’t tell anyone at school.”

Monique sighed, and continued to her room. It was not as if she talked to anyone at school anyway.

On Sunday morning Monique drove her Mum to Tim’s brother’s house, adding another much needed half hour to her driving log. Situated on a large block the single level home with attached double garage was located in a good neighbourhood.

Having decided Tim must be serious about improving his grades, the thought of spending time with him made Monique’s stomach begin to churn as they walked up the front path. Away from his peers, and getting to know her a little, he might start to look at her differently, and she hoped his brother would leave them alone. Anticipation ran through her and her mouth grew dry.

After agonising all week over what to wear, in the end she chose a simple summer dress which flattered her fuller figure, knowing fashionable cut off shorts and shoestring tops did not suit her. Lacking the confidence to set her own fashion statement, she longed to conform but fashion was not designed for girls like her. Somehow shoestring strap tops never looked the same accompanied by her supportive bras.

The place looked deserted but her Mum gave her an encouraging smile as they waited at the front door, inhaling the heady smell of freshly mown grass. The flowerbeds around the front door had been cleared and, although the surrounding beds were knee high in weeds, the improvement was pronounced. Monique clutched her assortment of textbooks, her body taut with nerves. A young man opened the door after their third knock, looking half asleep, wearing only his boxer shorts. He did a double take when he saw them, running his hands through his tousled brown hair, and his face turned pink as he stared at Monique.

“Oh, wow, I’m sorry. I forgot you were coming.”

He beckoned them in and they followed him into the lounge. Cardboard boxes were piled in one corner and the sofa was strewn with clothes and newspapers. Although sparsely furnished, a huge flat screen television dominated one corner of the room.

“I’m Tom, Tim’s brother. Here, have a seat,” he offered scooping clothes off the sofa. “Sorry, my flatmates are really untidy.” He piled the clothes on top of the boxes and shuffled the newspapers into a pile. “I guess I’m not very domesticated either,” he added with a sheepish grin.

“Your parents said you’d bought this house,” Monique’s Mum said, looking around, and Monique cringed, knowing how embarrassing parents could be. “I thought you’d be older.”

“I’m twenty three and, yes, I have bought it.” He grinned, a wide boyish sort of grin which reminded Monique of Tim. “I’ve been concentrating on the garden. It was a real mess,” and waving his arm around he added, “We’re still unpacking.”

“You have a big job on your hands by the look of it.”

“Yep.” Tom shrugged. “But I got the place at a good price so I can’t complain.”

Monique perched on the edge of the sofa, clutching her textbooks. She gazed around the room, being careful not to look at Tom, and she could envisage how pleasant the room would be if it were tidy. The carpet needed vacuuming.

“I’d better go,” Mum said, glancing at her watch. “What time is Tim supposed to be here?”

“Any minute now.”

Monique hastened to her feet, following them to the door, and they watched as her Mum drove away. There was still no sign of Tim. Tom closed the door with a sigh.

“Here, let me take those for you. They look heavy.” He smiled at her, gesturing to the books she still clutched. “I’m not much of a host, am I?”

Monique gave him a small smile, glancing at him from beneath her lowered lashes as he took the books from her. Their hands touched.

“Tim told me you were smart but he didn’t tell me you were pretty.”

Monique’s face grew warm under his continued gaze and, plucking up all her courage, she raised her eyes to his. Their eyes met and Monique she found it difficult to breathe as her heart began to race. No one in her life had ever looked at her like this before.

After a moment Tom tore his eyes away and, motioning her with his head, he strode down the hall and into the dining room. Monique followed. He cleared a space at one end of the cluttered table and laid her books down.

“I’m sorry the place is such a mess. I was out late last night and it looks like my flatmates have left half their breakfast on the table and gone out.”

Monique bit her lip and shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

He smiled at her. “I’d better go and have a shower.” He seemed reluctant to leave. “Tim should be here soon.”

“I…I could do the dishes…”

His eyes lit up. “Oh, yeah, that would be great. Thanks.”

He backed out of the room, still smiling at her. When he disappeared into the bedroom she set about clearing the table, a smile coming to her lips, rapt that he liked her. She stacked the dishes beside the assortment already piled haphazardly on the bench and ran hot water into the sink.

The front door burst open, making her jump, and two young men swaggered in, laughing. They did a double take when they saw her at the sink and stopped dead, their mouths dropping open. At that moment Tom appeared from his room, buttoning his shirt, his dark hair wet from the shower.

“Monique,” he began, coming towards her, but then he saw his flatmates and his footsteps faltered as he registered the startled looks on their faces.

His flushed face only enforcing their assumptions, his flatmates looked from him to Monique and back again. They nudged one another like children, their grins growing wider. Monique stared at them, but as it dawned on her what they were thinking she dropped her gaze, her face growing warm. Tom came to stand beside her.

“So are you going to introduce us?”

“Yeah, sure, sorry.” Tom wiped his hands on his jeans, shuffling his feet. “Monique, this is Brad and John, my flatmates.”

“Hi.”

“Hi.” The boys grinned at Tom. With a wink Brad grabbed John’s arm and said, “Come on John, we’d better leave these two love birds alone,” and, with a sketchy wave, he dragged John back out of the door before either Tom or Monique could think to deny it. “See you around babe.”

Monique’s mouth dropped open, stunned. Tom’s expression looked much the same and he shot her a worried glance.

“God, I’m sorry,” he apologised, his face growing even redder. “I’ll explain everything when they come back, I promise.”

Monique saw his eyes were glowing and a silly grin plastered itself on his face and she guessed he was flattered by his flatmates assumption he had brought a girl home last night. Although uncomfortable with the idea, in a way, it flattered her too, to think that someone as nice as Tom could be attracted to her.

‘Babe.’ Monique savoured the word and smiled, turning back to her dishes. Tom’s flatmates seemed to think she was all right and it boosted her low self confidence.

At that moment the front door opened and Tim traipsed in. His expression was sulky and a look of disappointment crossed his face when he saw Monique. He slunk into the room and pulled out a chair at the table, collapsing into it without a word.

“You’re late.”

Tim shrugged, scowling at Tom. They glared at each other. Monique pulled the plug from the sink, pretending not to notice the tension between them, and wiped her hands on the towel. She pulled out the chair beside Tim.

“I brought all my textbooks. I didn’t know what subjects you wanted help with.”

“I’ll do some unpacking,” Tom muttered and he disappeared into the lounge.

Monique looked into Tim’s miserable face, realising he did not want to be there. Taking a deep breath she did her best to draw him out, trying to ascertain which subjects he needed help with. Unco-operative and sulky, the session did not go well and, considering she was giving up her time to help him for free, she found his attitude difficult to handle. She tried hard to explain things to him but, after an hour of his bad behaviour, her patience ran out. She wondered why she had ever found him attractive. He thought himself so cool but now she saw him as he really was – a handsome loser.

Compressing her lips, she slammed her textbook shut. “I’m wasting my time. You’re obviously not interested.”

“You’re just a useless teacher.”

Monique’s jaw dropped but before she could think of a suitable retort Tom appeared in the room, an angry frown on his face.

“I’ve been listening. I’ve understood every word Monique has said.” He glared at his brother. “If you don’t take advantage of Monique’s help now, you’ll fail school. Life’s not all about girls Tim. You have to think about your future and what sort of career you want.”

Tim shrugged, glaring back. “I might follow a career in sport,” he said, shoving back his chair.

He stood up. This time Tom rolled his eyes. The brothers stared at one another for a moment before Tim broke away, stalking along the hall. He slammed the front door behind him.

“Gee, I’m sorry,” Tom said, sinking into Tim’s vacated chair with a heavy sigh.

“It’s not your fault.”

Tom looked up at her with a grateful smile. “We’re not close, as you can see.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I used to be jealous of him, you know.” He shook his head in wonder. “He always made friends so easily and everyone liked him.” He looked at her. “You probably know he has girls literally dropping at his feet. He mucks around and everyone thinks he’s great.” He shook his head. “I have to work hard for everything I want.” He let out another heavy sigh. “I guess you won’t be coming back again next week.” His eyes met hers and Monique’s heart began hammering. She gave a small half shrug. He continued to stare at her. “I…I don’t suppose…,” he began, before dropping his gaze to stare down at his hands. “Would… would you consider going out with me?”

Monique let out the breath she had not realised she was holding. She smiled.

“I’d like that.”

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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One Response to Lessons, by Julie Duke

  1. Pingback: April Short Story Comp – Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

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