He wondered for a moment if John Baker was leering at him. There was something in the neat smile and the deadly sheen in his eyes that suggested to Jim that maybe, just maybe, he found all of this commotion slightly humorous. Indeed, in Jim’s deepest and darkest thoughts, he suspected that this was the chance the boss had been waiting for. The perfect opportunity to dredge him out like an irrigation channel, scraping out years of bile and other emotional detritus. Payback day, perhaps.
He was wearing his ‘official’ suit, the black number with the velvet trim and the neatly pressed shirt. He was even wearing leather shoes instead of the clod hopper workbooks he usually wore, with pristine dress socks. And his tie wasn’t multicoloured and loud… just a simple economy shade of rusty red. He wanted to talk ‘business,’ and had dressed for the occasion.
Only he was wearing that self-satisfied grin, the sort of grin that Jim referred to as the shit-eating grin. It was that grin he wore when he was bawling out his staff, even though the glint in his eyes, like cold steel, told all that dared look that this was a serious deed.
“I’ve rang the union,” he told Jim.
“What have they got to say?”
“Oh, the usual.” The comment was delivered deadpan, but was loaded nonetheless.
“What is the ‘usual?’” Jim asked, noticing the emphasis he put on the word usual. Somehow, in the last infinitesimal milliseconds, the word had developed several hundred new levels of meaning, much like the shades in between black and white. “Do I have a case?”
Baker paused, his Adam’s Apple bobbing abruptly up and down. He diverted his eyes momentarily, the movement magnified by his spectacles. A breath shuddered from his chest, a hastily lost breath, followed by an equally hasty intake. Then he looked up at Jim, his blue eyes hard and cold, lips pressed together tightly so that they formed a jagged pencil line on his mouth. “It’s hard to say, Jim,” he admitted, splaying his hands in front of him. “I mean… there were hardly any witnesses…”
“Hardly any witnesses?” Jim shot forward in his seat. “What about all the kids standing around gawping?”
“Do you seriously think students would make reliable witnesses?”
“…and what about Andy?”
“He arrived too late.”
“The damage had been done.”
Jim paused. What did that mean?
As if hearing Jim’s thoughts, Baker continued: “He didn’t see how the altercation began. He only saw the end bit… where you had Lachie… I mean, Lachlan in a headlock…”
Jim frowned, leant back in his chair, feeling it groan under his weight. A thoughtful hand went to the side of his face, gingerly caressing the dark purple smudge mark located there. “What you’re implying is that maybe I attacked Lachlan. Is that right?”
Baker once more caught a shallow breath. His eyes roved around the room in one swift movement before centring on Jim. “You know what the legislation about this sort of thing says…”
“The Child Protection legislation? Yeah, I know about that. What about Occupational Health and Safety? What about the legal rights of the victim?”
“And just who was the victim in this instance, Jim?”
The challenge was uttered so softly that at first Jim failed to hear. It wasn’t until a few moments had fluttered past did Jim realise what had been said. And it wasn’t for another few moments after that that Jim realised that the challenge had been meted out. And now, John Baker sat on the far side of his overly large desk, his left leg resting over his right, thin arms folded over his even thinner chest, his eyes glaring across the space between Jim and himself. It was his eyes that said the most. His cold, challenging eyes, firing icy torpedoes of accusation in Jim’s direction.
There was a bitter silence for several minutes, broken only once by the click of Jim’s throat as he swallowed. At length, shaking his head, Jim pushed his chair back.
“The two of you have a history,” Baker offered, both as explanation and a further riposte.
“Mm,” Jim said, with a wave of his hand.
“Albeit not a pretty history.” Another sally.
He repeated the same guttural noise, the same gesture of his hand. He was now staring intently at the floor, unable to look into his boss’ eyes… afraid perhaps of seeing that shit-eating grin. A veritable red flag.
“And you did cross the line.” The matter-of-fact manner in which Baker related these points may have blunted his tongue’s sword, but each checkpoint (Baker made a habit of counting off points on his fingers) cut deeply nonetheless. And something in those deadpan thrusts indicated to Jim that perhaps Baker was enjoying this. Enjoying this immensely.
“I was defending myself, John. You understand that don’t you?”
Baker may have understood that… but Jim very much doubted he was going to say so. He was right, too. “That doesn’t justify what you did. You went too far.”
“Too far?” Jim hissed, all fear of meeting Baker’s eyes now evaporated. He raised his eyes, seeing Baker’s hand raised; he had indeed been checking points off with his fingers. “Look at my face, John, and tell me that I went too far. You see this cut—” Jim laid his finger on the butterfly strips that criss-crossed over his right cheek—“that was Lachlan’s Harley Davidson Ring. And I have a lump on the back of my head the size of an egg from where that bastard king hit me. Both of those shots—and probably five or six more—he got on me before I even thought of retaliation! And then his dead shit friend Benny Gooding decided he’d have a go. Two on one, John… and it probably would’ve been a lot worse if I hadn’t retaliated. All of those kids would’ve liked to kick my arse.”
“I wonder why,” Baker muttered dryly, a hand roving up to his face to conceal a smirk.
“And what do you mean by that?” Jim retorted.
“You’ve had it in for those boys ever since you got here four years ago!”
“Bullshit nothing! You’ve constantly derided them, hackled them, and insulted them. Did you expect nothing to happen because of it?”
“I never insulted them, John, and you damn well know it. And I’m not the only one in this school who has had run ins with them.”
“The point, Jim, is that you over reacted! You totally lost control in front of a large and impressionable group of children! You broke Benny’s nose and almost broke Lachlan Murray’s neck!”
“Would you rather they’d broken mine?”
“Stop being so dramatic, Jim. For Christ’s sake…” Baker rose from his seat, and paced the floor. “You have to see this altercation from the Department’s side. We’ve a public image to maintain.”
“Lachlan had a switchblade.”
Baker closed his mouth.
“He threatened to cut me.”
“We searched him. We found nothing. All I know is that Andy Johnson saw Benny Gooding with a busted nose and you and Lachlan wrestling…”
“I didn’t start the altercation.”
“You may have exacerbated it.”
“You told the boys to clean themselves up.”
“I told the boys to clean their area up.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.”
“Well that’s what happened.”
“Look—what happened before is immaterial. What really matters is that this whole thing is cleared up to the satisfaction of everyone involved. You, the school and the students involved.”
“By making me a scapegoat?”
“That’s what is happening, isn’t it?”
“You don’t have to say anything.” Jim got slowly to his feet. “Ever since Tuesday you’ve given me nothing but empty assurances. ‘Everything’s going to be fine,’ you’ve said it over and over again—but is it? Everything isn’t fine! It’s not! I can’t even go to the fucking pub without catcalls from the street.”
“This is a small community… you’ve got to understand.”
“And I’ve heard nothing from you defending my character. All I’ve had is empty promises and a lot of silence.”
“I’ve made a few phone calls…”
“So have I. The Union said students can be witnesses.”
“Hostile witnesses, maybe.”
“But witnesses nonetheless!”
“Look… you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”
“And you’re being a stubborn, arrogant prick.”
Baker’s cold eyes suddenly narrowed. “Insulting me isn’t going to help you.”
Jim stared back, the hairs on the nape of his neck teased by some invisible fingers. “What are you going to do, fire me?”
“And give you an avenue for an unlawful dismissal lawsuit? Come on, Jim! I didn’t come down in the last shower you know! Consider yourself on indefinite leave with pay.”
“Why won’t you help me?”
“I am. I’m giving you stress leave and the pay to go with it. I can’t do any more.”
“You can defend my reputation!”
“How? By saying that you drink three beers a night instead of four? Damn it, Jim! Stop being obstinate! You’re lucky you haven’t had your sorry arse dragged off to jail!”
“That would have suited your purposes though, wouldn’t it? You would have liked a better pretext for firing me, wouldn’t you?”
“Look… our past disagreements mean nothing. This is entirely different!”
“Maybe, maybe not. But any undermining of the foundation is good, now, isn’t it?”
For a moment, Jim felt sure that Baker was going to acquiesce with him. But at the last moment, he lowered his eyes, and said, with a voice softer than snow and devoid of any emotion: “please leave Mr. Hallaron… before either of us say something we might regret.”
Jim held out his hands in resignation. “Fine,” he replied. “I know when I’ve lost.”
He backed out of the door, surprising himself by closing it gently. He further surprised himself by grinning at the secretaries as he sauntered out of the office, sure without a doubt that they had listened to more of that exchange than they would care to admit.