Although I didn’t realise it way back then, it was a minefield. I was married, probably innately conservative, maybe even naive, but the thought never occurred to me. They were forward, but I never felt anything like the attraction as obviously those who succumbed did. There was still something very much unformed about them, despite, in many cases, mature curves; and there was, to me, something necessarily inviolate. A few didn’t see it that way – and certainly not Mr Booker. The world was so much different then, and, of course, in their eyes, I very soon became ‘old’ so, if it ever was, it was no longer an issue.
In my first year of teaching, so close to where I live now in the island’s south, it was tough going in the classroom. I had no time to consider anything else, only to survive. By the end of that year I was on top it all in that small school on the rurban fringe of Hobart, and in 1975 I was transferred to a large provincial high. That was a very different beast indeed. That’s where I encountered them, those Marthas of my experience, and, in reality, there were very few years between them and me, a callow young man out front of their classroom. Martha types - while not exactly abounding, they were there.
To me, having taught so many of them over the forty years of my career, Cory Taylor’s ‘heroine’ is totally believable. Worldly and brazen, outwardly already a woman, but only sixteen, she was ready for the louche, alcoholic Mr Booker, a married teacher, but at least not at her place of education. He presented himself, was obviously much taken by her youthful attributes, and she was definitely not backward in committing to the affair, even if the results were not quite as disastrous as the back cover blurb may have the reader believe.
In the time setting of ‘Me and Mr Booker’, and when I was simultaneously operating in schools, there was less reserve between teacher and senior student than exists today. Of course the line was still there that was not to be crossed, but the hand’s off mantra so stringently enforced in this century, was a fuzzier notion, and rumours of overfamiliarisation were rampant. In my early years, one teacher was quietly shifted away when it became apparent he was enticing senior girls to pose ‘artistically’ for his camera, and another was known to be ‘entertaining’ some female students in his own abode. Two male colleagues were seemingly very enamoured with the same young lady, to the extent they were engaged in spatting over her, and a starting out female teacher was rumoured to be throwing parties for her senior lads. But all of that was when I too was a novice, and as the profession became hoarier and guidelines more rigidly enforced, ‘issues’ of that ilk diminished. So there were no Marthas for this teacher, thankfully, and that was the case for the vast number of my ‘fellow’ professionals.
I do remember one young lady from my early years in a vocation that was so much younger back then, and she came floating back as I perused ‘Mr Booker’- not that she behaved in any way resembling Taylor’s sexually overt fictional character. I took a shine to her and her to me, in a platonic fashion. Articulate, academically capable, elfin, with wonderfully twinkling eyes, she had several of the younger brigade of male teachers in a spin, as there were issues in her background that required much ‘counselling’. There was no hint of fuzzy lines being crossed and she was delightful company, seemingly more at home around adults than her peers. I remember feeling quite chuffed when she chose me as a partner for a dance at socials. It wasn’t uncool or sinister back then for staff to gyrate with pupils. In the end, it was my senior master and mentor who, realising her vulnerability, took her under his wing and saw her safely through her senior years, but more of him anon. All things come to an end, and the last I remember of her was a chaste kiss on my cheek and a whispered thank you in my ear as she bade me farewell me at her leavers’ dinner. I wonder now how her life panned out, if she made good use of her rich talents? There were others I vaguely remember who had ‘crushes’, gave me small tokens of friendship, and endearments in Christmas cards, but it was her face, rightly or wrongly, I recalled when I read this book.
In relating all this, and knowing what I know, I would never take the higher moral ground when it comes to Taylor’s Mr B – if we learn his first name I missed it – and his actions with Martha. The fact remains, and I repeat, she was only sixteen. Cory Taylor handles the subject matter very well, and a highlight for me of the book was the ‘screwball’ repartee between the two leading characters, covering up any inner turmoil present. The author’s fluid style captures the tenor of those times perfectly, of lives suffered away from, and mostly lusting for, big cities, where the ‘action’ was. Mr and Mrs Booker’s domestic world of booze and marital emptiness, presumably pining for a child that could not be, saw them befriend Martha and her ‘put upon’ mother. Mr B goes one step further and carries on his not so clandestine affair, a relationship that the reader knows will have to eventually unravel, presumably big time, and unravel it does. For Martha, losing her virginity to the Englishman is her escape from tedium into a more adult world, and she handles it all with aplomb, even if she half knows it is all doomed. There is not a ‘decent’ male to be had in the novel, with Martha’s estranged father being deeply flawed and odd, the brother only marginally less so. At least the women have excuses for being the way they were. Mostly, it seemed, they were ambivalent to the goings on, till Mrs B spits it volcanically. Nasty possibilities rear their head as to possible outcomes for the two affairees as the narrative progresses, but – spoiler alert - none are forthcoming, and the novel ends with more of a whimper than a bang, so to speak. It is decidedly a better work of fiction for that. It was not happy-ever-afters though.
And for a happy ending in similar circumstances, let’s go back to the man who shepherded the aforementioned non-fictional young lady, the one who shone so brightly in my memory during my reading of this fine debut. He too fell in love with one of his senior girls during his early years of teaching but, unlike Mr B, he waited for her to reach a more acceptable age. When I knew them they were happily married and devoted. She was gorgeous, and he went on to a long and successful principalship at one of my island’s prestigious schools for girls – and that’s the way it should be.
Cory Taylor with this, for me, has proven her chops and I avidly await the arrival of her sophomore effort, ‘My Beautiful Enemy’, due for release in April ’13 – a book that also deals with matters of the heart, but in very different circumstances. It’s in my diary.
An interview with Cory Taylor - http://sydneywriterscentre.com.au/podcast/corytaylor.htm