The Teacher


Sheila Kohler



This Friday afternoon, because her mother’s chauffeur, Wilson, is getting married and cannot pick her up, Pamela sprawls impatiently on the red polished stairs in the shadow of the white gabled school buildings. Still in her school uniform, the short brown tunic and heavy lace up shoes, and the panama hat with the brim drawn down, she gazes at George who has been asked to drive Pamela and Miss Milner home. George, who is used to waiting for white people, patiently flicks his duster at the shining surface of the big black car or stares ahead in grave silence, waiting for Miss Milner.

The girls are all surprised that such a young, pretty English teacher fresh from Oxford would bother to come out all the way to a boarding school eight miles outside Johannesburg in the middle of the veld, where she has been struggling to get them to finish reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream by half term in Pamela’s second form class. Gossip has it that she has been sacked from her previous position in a prestigious school in England for some scandalous reason and sent out to relatives in South Africa who have found her a job at Pamela’s boarding school.

Here the girls are allowed out only one Sunday a month and for one long weekend at half term. Pamela usually enjoys the drive home with Wilson to her house in Dunkeld, perhaps almost more than the visit home when she has to sit through long dull dinners with her mother’s friends who drink a great deal of hard liquor and talk increasingly boringly about the weather, not an exciting topic in Johannesburg where the sun seems to shine every day.

George is looking his most dignified, wearing his chauffeur’s cap, a black jacket, and his shiny black shoes, standing in the shade, polishing the clean car, with his stiff abrupt movements, despite the heat of the November day. He even has on white gloves.

Pamela has known George since she was first sent to boarding school at age seven, when her father had died, and George had carried her trunk into the long dormitory in the Junior school in his khaki trousers and white shirt.

Now Pamela watches the sun turning orange and sinking sadly between the oak trees that line the driveway. She knows her mother will have a splendid meal prepared for her and will be waiting impatiently for her arrival. In her mind Pamela already savors the roast chicken and the crispy roast potatoes, the big bowl of fruit salad.

But what has happened to Miss Milner? Mrs Kelly, the geography teacher, comes out onto the pergola at some point and says, “Are you still there, you poor child? I’ll go and see what has happened.”

But all the other girls have left, by the time Miss Milner finally arrives, tripping down the steps, panting a little, one white hand holding her hat to her head—a wide-brimmed straw hat with a blue ribbon round the brim that matches her eyes. Her thin cotton dress with a low V- neck, a tight silver belt around her small waist, and a full skirt is blown against her slim body, by the late afternoon breeze. Pamela thinks that Miss Milner with her flushed cheeks and slender body looks rather like Lady Hamilton in the copy of her portrait by Reynolds which hangs in the common room. Pamela can see she must have been putting on her lipstick and powdering her little nose, as her lips are glossy, and her nose white. Her reddish hair, which she wears in a pony- tail in class, lies in loose rebellious curls about her shoulders.

Watching her, as she descends the steps in her gold sling-back sandals, and smelling her pungent perfume, Pamela wonders what scandalous sin she could have committed in her previous school, what she could have done to be banished all the way out here. She wonders, too, how long she will stay. It is already clear she has had difficulties maintaining order in the class room since she arrived, but many of the new teachers do not seem able to control a class full of lounging South African adolescent girls who giggle at the slightest suggestion of sexuality in a text and whose attention wanders all too easily to the subject of boys.

George, who opens the car door for Miss Milner, waiting for her to get in, his head slightly lowered, on the contrary, has never done anything slightly scandalous– Pamela is sure. He has worked at the school, doing the most menial of chores, down on his hands and knees, polishing and scrubbing, most of his life. He is probably the member of the staff who has been here the longest and even remembers the early days of the school when it was run by the two spinster sisters with the funny names, who had come out from Scotland to South Africa, in the early 1900’s, the Misses Ramsbottom. They had bought up the high commissioner’s Dutch gabled house with its red roof and white gables and the surrounding flat farmland and turned it into an elite boarding school for girls.

Now, in the late 60’s, George supervises the dining room staff, and even oversees some of the work in the vast gardens, though he does not move as fast as he once did, has grown rather stiff and gaunt, and his hair is now completely white . It is his son, James, who follows Miss Milner onto the steps, carrying her two small suitcases, one in each hand, who has been educated by the Jesuits in Natal, and wanted to be a lawyer, but has come up to Johannesburg to take over much of the garden work at his father’s request. A tall, broad- shouldered dark- skinned young man, the garden has flourished under his capable supervision: the cannas tall, straight and orange, the hollyhocks, which grow up the stone wall, pink and white, and the aloes bright and stiff in the rock garden.

George now walks up the steps and barks orders in Zulu at his boy, no doubt telling him to hurry along. James takes his time on the steps and then, slowly and effortlessly, swings the light suitcases into the trunk of the car while Miss Milner looks on, bright- eyed.

Pamela watches as Miss Milner turns to George’s son and reaches out to shake his hand. The son looks at her for a moment, and Pamela sees a strange expression in his eyes. He has not lowered his gaze or lifted his hands in some sort of thank you salutation. He is looking at her directly, as if there is something he would like to say. George, too, is watching this interaction with his stern expression.

The son finally shakes Miss Milner’s hand and speaks to her in Zulu, saying, in a low voice, “Hamba kahle,” which Pamela knows means good-bye or more literally go carefully, but sounds now in his deep bass voice almost like a caress. Miss Milner, who seems to have learned at least a few words of Zulu during her short stay, repeats the Zulu good-bye. Then, smiling, her small white almost transparent teeth catching the light, she stoops slightly and slips lithely into the back of the car. George shuts the door on her firmly, while Pamela, glad to be going finally, scrambles in on the other side. They drive off in silence as Miss Milner turns her head to wave at James and then sits looking out the window in a distracted, dreamy way almost as though she were not aware of where she is or who sits beside her.


In the Car

Usually, on the drive home Pamela enjoys the sudden feeling of freedom as the big car rolls silently down the long driveway under the oak trees, and out the black iron gates. “Hurrah! Hurrah! Freedom at last!” she would shout sitting next to Wilson in the front seat, taking off her panama hat and sometimes even her lace up shoes. She would talk non-stop—she has known Wilson since she was a small child, after all, telling him everything that had happened at school as he drove slowly, turning his head frequently to listen to Pamela , and to laugh loudly at her stories about the exploits of her various eccentric teachers—there is one, the one who had told them Miss Milner had been sacked for scandalous behavior, who has them shut the windows so that she can gossip about the other members of the staff. Or sometimes Pamela talks of the escapades of the girls themselves who manage to have midnight feasts or even to escape the school to run across the veld to visit Sir George Farrar’s grave and that of his dog.

Wilson in his turn would occasionally tell her interesting, mysterious things that Pamela is certain he does not tell her mother. Once he has told her solemnly, crossing his arms across his chest, that eventually the blacks will simply cross their arms and refuse to work for the white man.

Now they drive on in silence, George driving rather faster than usual, it seems to Pamela, overtaking a car with another coming toward them. George now works for the school in various capacities, and occasionally drives the head mistress, Miss Nieven herself, in the black school car, if she has to go anywhere in an official capacity. Because of his seniority, he has the unique honor of serving Miss Nieven her meals in the quiet, panelled study where she eats in solitary splendor, the purple velvet curtains drawn on the bright highveld light. Pamela wonders if Miss Nieven ever feels lonely, despite her little dog, Peter, who sits outside her study door and growls at the girls when they go by and stamp their feet at him.

Does Miss Nieven actually enjoy eating on her own, and does she have to eat the same awful food they all have to eat, and, what seems unlikely to Pamela though surely they must be more or less the same age, and have known one another for at least thirty years, does she ever ask George who is a black man, a Zulu originally from Natal, who has never learned very good English, to sit down and talk to her? Does he ever confide his deepest secrets and fears to her? Or does he maintain the stiff silence that now fills the car.

Pamela would like to talk to Miss Milner about so many things: the books she has loaned her, for example: Miss Milner has encouraged Pamela, who at thirteen is an avid reader, in her unorthodox readings of D.H. Lawrence and even loaned her “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” where Lawrence writes so excitingly of “fire in the loins.” There are many banned books in South Africa including one called “Black Beauty” which the censors seem not to have read, believing the horse is a woman of colour.

She would also like to tell Miss Milner how much she has en-joyed her piano playing. Miss Milner plays the piano very well and has entertained both the girls and some of the staff, who have stood at the back of the paneled common room, tapping their toes and swaying back and forth and clapping their hands in time to the music, while Miss Milner’s white hands with her long white fingers flew up and down the keys of the upright Steinway , looking over her shoulder and glancing recklessly, her blue eyes blazing suggestively at her audience, while singing, “All you need is love.” But conversation somehow appears difficult to Pamela as Miss Milner seems hardly conscious of Pamela’s presence. Miss Milner gazes dreamily out the window and occasionally moves her lips almost as if she were talking or perhaps singing to herself.

When George comes to a halt at a crossing of the roads he turns and asks politely if they might like a little air. Miss Milner says nothing, but Pamela says that would be a good idea. Miss Milner is wearing some sort of pungent perfume that is giving Pamela a head ache. George opens the windows, and Miss Milner leans out almost as if she would like to leave the cramped space of the car and take off into the hot air.

They take several unexpected turns, and Pamela gathers they are dropping Miss Milner off first, which seems to her a tiresome detour. They go up a long, acacia- lined driveway to a grand looking Tudor style house, with blue and white hydrangeas in tubs outside the front door, which surprises Pamela as she had somehow expected Miss Milner or her South African relatives, despite the teacher’s pretty light- coloured clothes, to live somewhere more modest. Why does she even bother to teach, Pamela wonders.


The Hands

George stops the car in the shade of an acacia tree and gets out politely to open Miss Milner’s door. Pamela, who feels she wants to shake the teacher’s hand at least, gets out too, and stands watching as George opens the trunk and leans in to take out the suitcases. As Miss Milner reaches in to help, George brings the lid of the trunk down suddenly on Miss Milner’s hands. She screams out in pain and stands looking down at her hands which George has now liberated.

“Sorry, Miss,” he says and looks suitably chagrined.

“You did that on purpose!” Miss Milner says, turning to George in surprise and anger, weeping loudly. She looks down at her bruised fingers. “You have broken my fingers. I’ll never be able to play the piano again!”

There is a moment of silence as Pamela stands there looking at poor Miss Milner’s bruised hands. Are her fingers really broken? How hard had George brought down the trunk? Was it an accident? Miss Milner turns to Pamela and says, “You saw what happened, Pamela! You saw what he did to me! We have to report him immediately! Come with me up to the house! I’m going to call the police. ”

All her life Pamela will remember that moment of decision standing by the car, the slight breeze lifting the light feathery leaves of the acacia trees, the red sky behind, the fast fading sunlight.

It was a moment when she learned about the heady sensation of power: aware of both her control over the lives of the two people before her and the difficulty of making such an impossible choice: looking from George, who stands so still staring at her with his solemn gaze, George with his ancient, dark, and drawn face, his high cheek bones and blank expression, his life of honest back- breaking toil, and Miss Milner, who has so bravely, Pamela is aware in that instant, broken all the absurd rules which divide the races, Miss Milner who has let Pamela read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who weeps in her thin expensive dress, her blond curls in disarray, and looks at Pamela with her indignant, hopeful, and suffering gaze.

Afterwards Pamela is not sure if she has just chosen the easy way out, if she is simply thinking of the roast chicken and roast potatoes, or if she has responded to some more legitimate claim.

Whatever the reason, Pamela finally shakes her head and says she saw nothing. “An accident. I wouldn’t make a fuss,” she says to Miss Milner, just as her mother tells her when something hurts, and climbs back into the car. George drives off faster than he usually does, and Pamela’s last glimpse of Miss Milner is through the back window of the car, standing there staring at her with complete incomprehension.