It was the beginning of September when Snotty McFee's mother began to make trouble at school.
Snotty McFee wasn't popular. His sneezing habits had something to do with it - who wants to be seen hanging out with a kid who does gigantic sneezes all the time and sprays everyone within a kilometre? But that wasn't all. Snotty McFee had what my mum would call "social problems". He just wasn't on the same wavelength as the rest of us - like if we were talking about our favourite television shows, Snotty would say really excitedly that his favourite show was "Here's Humphrey". Or if we were talking about our favourite sport, his favourite would be chess. As you can see, there was clearly a problem.
Snotty McFee's mother made an appointment to see Ms Sposato about nobody liking him. The whole class knows this because Ms Sposato discussed it with Snotty when she got his mother's note and we all listened in. After she spoke to Snotty McFee, she sent him on a long message right around the school and asked us to come and sit on the floor so she could talk about him behind his back.
"Children," she said to us, "I want you to be extra kind to Snotty McFee at the moment because he doesn't seem to be able to find a special friend to play with."
"But he sneezes on us all the time..." called out Jane Salpietro.
"Be that as it may," said Ms Sposato sternly, "it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to make every member of St Maria Goretti's feel like a part of the whole school family."
It was hard to know what Ms Sposato meant when she talked like that but I think she was telling us to play with Snotty McFee. I decided to give it a go, so at playtime I asked him to join in our soccer game.
He thanked me but he said his mother wouldn't let him play soccer because he might hurt himself. I told him not to tell his mother but he still said no. About ten minutes into the soccer game the stupid grade fours came and started playing, so we left the field and I bumped into Snotty McFee who was standing by himself near the toilets. I asked him if he wanted to walk around with us and he smiled gratefully. I felt kind of bad because I didn't really like him.
When Jason McWhirter saw Snotty walking around with us he said, "Wanna join our club, McFee?"
"What club?" Snotty asked. I got red in the face because I saw what was coming.
"The Cool Club," Jason McWhirter said smiling. Everyone else smiled too, except me.
"What do you have to do to... to... ah.... ahhhh.... AHHCHOOOOO! ....join?" Snotty McFee sent a wall of spray into the air in front of him and Jason McWhirter dodged expertly.
"Say it, don't spray it, McFee!"
"Sorry," mumbled Snotty, "What do you have to do to join?"
"We have very strict rules and you have to pass the initiation test."
Jason McWhirter was bursting with giggles as he explained to Snotty McFee that to join the club, he had to pull down his trousers in the middle of the school oval and sing the St Maria Goretti school song. Snotty McFee blushed and ran his hands around the band of his bottle green school trousers that were, as usual, pulled up way past his middle. He told Jason McWhirter that he didn't think he wanted to join the club after all and then everybody started to make chicken noises and telling him he was a girly Collingwood supporter.
Snotty McFee started to get angry and told everybody that he wasn't afraid.
"Prove it," said Troy McKenzie who had joined the group as soon as his sixth sense told him that somebody was going to make a fool of themselves.
"Alright, I will!" shouted Snotty McFee above the chicken noises. He walked purposefully towards the middle of the school oval. Heaps of kids followed laughing and shouting and we all watched as Snotty McFee, face as red as a tomato, pulled down his trousers to reveal homemade tartan underpants with a ladybird trim. His white dimply legs wobbled as he sang the school song at the top of his voice. We were laughing and cheering so hard that we didn't notice Ms Sposato, who was on yard duty, walk up to see what the crowd was looking at.
Snotty McFee was just getting to the school song chorus - the bit about representing your school with pride and courage in the face of adversity, when Ms Sposato yelled at the top of her voice, "Snotty McFee! Pull up your pants!"
Snotty McFee tried to grab his trousers which had lodged themselves firmly around his chubby ankles. He jumped around as he pulled but unfortunately Snotty went toppling over onto the grass and the crowd went hysterical. Ms Sposato stomped furiously over to where Snotty lay writhing on the ground, bent over and hauled him up by the scruff of his collar. She grabbed the back of his trousers and pulled them violently back up again. Snotty McFee winced.
"What on earth is going on here?" she yelled at the huge crowd. We all stopped laughing and looked at Ms Sposato. She could get really cross when she wanted to and there was no telling what she might do. I looked at Snotty McFee standing next to Ms Sposato. He was trying to do up his fly but the zip was stuck. He looked silly, but just then I felt really sorry for him. I'm not sure why I felt sorry for him, but I thought of something my mother always said, "There, but for the grace of God, go you". I suddenly had an awful thought, what if I was Snotty McFee? How would I feel?
Ugh, what a horrible thought! I could never be like Snotty McFee. I barracked for Essendon and my favourite television show was Beverly Hills 90210 - just like everybody else. Still, I couldn't get Snotty McFee out of my mind and I knew that we were all in big trouble.
Snotty McFee's mother arrived at school after recess and had a long talk to Ms Sposato and Snotty. The three of them stood over by Ms Sposato's desk and talked in serious murmurs while we all did story writing. Snotty McFee's mother was what my mother would call an "unfortunate woman". She was ugly to look at - not because of her long pointy nose and little sharp eyes and the fact that she had no chin and a big hairy mole on her cheek - but because she had a really mean face. She was all points and angles - not like Snotty at all. He was all round and lumpy. Right now, he was round, lumpy and miserable.
Snotty McFee's mother kept talking in nasty whispers and stopping and giving Snotty a poke in the arm with her long bony pointer finger. Snotty McFee started crying after the fifth poke and I felt really sorry for him. I looked over to Jason McWhirter and he looked like he felt bad too. I caught his eye and shook my head slowly to let him know that this was all his fault. He bent his head down over his work and looked uncomfortable.
I looked over again at Snotty McFee's mother. She was making Ms Sposato angry. I walked quietly over to the bin behind Ms Sposato and she didn't know I was there. I listened to Snotty McFee's mother who was talking really quickly in a voice that would have made my dog howl.
"In all my born days," she said poking Snotty again with her finger, "I have never heard of such a revolting act as pulling down your pants in front of everyone. Scotty McFee, you're a disgusting child. Your father and I have never liked you ever since the day after we brought you home from the orphanage. You've got no friends and it's no wonder! You're a nasty little boy and you don't deserve such a wonderful home and parents like your father and I! I've worked my fingers to the bone for you and what do I get in return? Getting called to school because my son can't keep his pants up!" As she paused for breath, she swung her bony arm and swiped Snotty McFee across the head.
Ms Sposato pushed Snotty McFee out of the way and said in the kind of voice she uses just before she's about to explode, "Excuuuse me - but I think THAT kind of thing is inappropriate!"
By now, Snotty McFee was standing miserably in front of his mother, tears pouring down his face. Everybody in the room was watching and for once Ms Sposato didn't tell us to mind our own business and get on with our work. She looked so angry and she just glared at Snotty McFee's mother.
One of Snotty McFee's ears had gone bright red and I figured that it was the exact spot where his mother's open hand had landed.
"Well boy, what have you got to say for yourself?" said Snotty McFee's mother poking him roughly in the chest.
"I... I... I... I'm sor... I'm sorry... ah... ah... AH CHOOOOO!" Snotty McFee sent a wall of clear spray from his nose and mouth right at the front of his mother's neatly pressed white linen blouse with tiny embroided tulips in it. She was being so mean that she didn't even see it coming until her tulips were well and truly watered.
Snotty McFee's mother looked down at her blouse, which was covered in her son's liquid, and she looked horrified. "Oh, oh, oh," she screamed, "I'm supposed to be meeting Deidre for lunch in twenty minutes. I can't go like this! You are a truly revolting child!" With that, she stormed out of the room without even saying goodbye to Ms Sposato. It was just as well because Ms Sposato was displaying all the well known signs of blowing her top any minute. Her nostrils were flaring and her fists were clenched and her face looked calm in a really frightening way. I finished sharpening my pencil and I crept back to my seat. The volcano was going to erupt.
Ms Sposato kept us in at lunchtime - everyone except Snotty McFee. You could tell that Ms Sposato was about to make us all feel guilty about Snotty McFee's mother. She sat neatly in her chair and her eyes looked downwards.
"I'm very disappointed," she began in a very quiet voice. She swept her deep brown eyes around at all the grade 5s and I nearly cried. She looked wounded deep inside.
"I'm wounded deep inside," she said. "At St Maria Goretti's we are a big happy family and it hurts me to my core when one of our members is unhappy - or teased..."
Some of the girls started crying but Ms Sposato continued talking almost in a whisper. I could see Snotty McFee outside the classroom window. He was playing hopscotch by himself and he looked miserable too.
"How do you think we could all solve this problem together?" Ms Sposato looked around the room and when she looked at me, her dark brown eyes almost burned into mine. I felt obliged to put my hand up.
"Maybe we could be extra nice to him," I suggested knowing that it wouldn't work for long. Kids can be nice to someone when they feel sorry for them, but the feelings don't seem to last. After a couple of days, the person starts to annoy you again and then you forget that you're supposed to be nice to them. Ms Sposato nodded at my suggestion and looked questioningly at everybody else.
Troy McKenzie yelled from the back of the room, "Why don't we set the school on fire and let Snotty McFee rescue everybody?"
Ms Sposato practised what she called "active ignoring" on Troy McKenzie and picked Sharyn Amott who had her hand up. Sharyn Amott was the smartest kid in grade 5 so we all listened to what she had to say.
"Ms Sposato, I think we should build up Snotty McFee's confidence, but we should do it gradually so he doesn't notice. One person could tell him how nice he looks and then the next day, someone could tell him that he does neat work and after a while, he might feel better about himself and we might get to know him better."
Ms Sposato's face beamed as she thanked Sharyn Amott for her suggestion. She told us to try to be positive towards Snotty McFee and she picked Sharyn to give today's compliment. We all piled out of class and I watched Sharyn Amott go up to Snotty McFee, pause and then finally say, "Snotty, I've never seen anyone throw the stone so accurately in hopscotch," and then she walked off. Snotty McFee looked surprised and his forehead creased as if he'd never received a compliment before and didn't know how to react.
I went up to Snotty wanting to say something nice too, so I told him that it was bad luck having such a rotten mother. Snotty McFee looked at me sadly and then his eyes filled with tears. He blurted out his life story.
"I was born of poor but honest parents in Castlemaine..." he began tearfully, "My mother was a beautiful ballerina, but she couldn't dance and hold me at the same time so she had to give me to the orphanage. My new parents got me when I was just a baby. My new dad is really nice, but my mother..." his voice trailed off and I nodded understandingly.
"It'll be alright Snotty," I said as I patted him on the back, "Maybe your mother will move to another country or die in a chainsaw accident..."
Snotty McFee said thanks for my kind words, but he didn't look very optimistic. I felt so sorry for him that I offered to walk home with him that afternoon. He looked grateful.
As we approached Manning Clarke Drive, we stopped at the curb and waited at the school crossing for Bill the Lollypop Man to take us across. We said hi to the back of his pink and white plastic coat and we got a fright because Bill answered in a lady's voice - the Lollypop Man was a lady!
"Where's Bill? What have you done with him?" I said accusingly to the lady. She laughed happily at our surprise and told us that Bill was taking a holiday to far north Queensland and she would be filling in for him for a month. I liked old Bill and I thought that the crossing just wouldn't be the same without him. I was just about to whisper this to Snotty McFee when I saw him staring at the Lollypop Lady. She was smiling a lovely smile and chatting away to Snotty McFee.
"You're such a handsome boy," she said patting his round cheek.
Snotty McFee blushed and told her that it was nice of her to tell him that he was handsome even though he knew he wasn't. The Lollypop Lady looked hurt and bent down to Snotty McFee's level. She told him that she really, truly believed that he was handsome. I think Snotty McFee believed her because he smiled a shy smile and said goodbye and walked off down the road.
After that day, me and Snotty McFee met the Lollypop Lady every day after school. The whole class was trying to be nice to Snotty McFee, but it was the Lollypop Lady who really seemed to make him happy. She pretty much ignored me and focused all her attention on Snotty McFee.
He told her about school and she said that he looked like a very intelligent boy. He told her about Ms Sposato and she said that Ms Sposato was lucky to have such a wonderful boy in her class. He told her about his father and how special and kind he was and she said that he was lucky to have such a great son. It went on and on but what amazed me the most was the way Snotty McFee looked at her. He just stared at her with a silly half smile on his face but she didn't seem to notice. She just smiled right back and told him to call her Madelaine.
At the end of the week, Snotty McFee told me that he loved her. I told him not to be silly and that she was way too old to marry. He said that he didn't love her like that, he just loved her. I told him to get a hold of himself and then I changed the subject by asking him to come to the school fete with me on Saturday. He said he'd have to ask his mother.
Snotty McFee telephoned me that night and said that he had good news and bad news - the good news was that he was allowed to come to the fete and the bad news was that his mother had to come too. He told me that his mother didn't want him gallivanting about on his own, getting up to goodness knows what. Oh well, maybe we could lose her.
On Saturday, Snotty McFee's mother picked me up and drove us to the St Maria Goretti Annual School Fete And Animal Judging Competition and she didn't stop talking all the way there.
"I don't know why they have these stupid fetes! There are goodness knows how many things that people are allergic to: animals, hay and even those stupid yellow wattle flowers at the nature stall. Why people should give up valuable time to go to these things is a complete mystery to me. In my day, respectable people never went to the school fete - only common people went - and of course people from other countries. Oh goodness, Scotty, you don't think there will be any New Australians there, do you?"
Snotty McFee didn't answer his mother, he just looked sad. We pulled into the school driveway and Snotty and I quickly jumped out of the car and began to run over to the Ferris wheel.
"Scotty Winston McFee! You come back here this instant!" yelled Snotty McFee's mother. "And where do you think you're going?" she demanded.
"On the Ferris wheel," said Snotty quietly.
"Not without your mother," she said, grabbing him by the arm and walking him firmly towards the giant Ferris wheel. Over by the Ferris wheel, near the cake stall, I heard a familiar voice call out hi to Snotty McFee. Snotty McFee's mother stopped dragging him and turned towards the voice. It was the Lollypop Lady, Madelaine.
"And who pray tell are you?" said Snotty McFee's mother in her nastiest voice.
"I'm Madelaine," said Madelaine holding her hand out to Snotty McFee's mother, who ignored it.
"What are you doing talking to my son?"
Madelaine smiled her warm smile and she explained that she had met Snotty at the school crossing. Snotty McFee's mother just glared at her. She said loudly to Snotty that if he was talking to low-class strangers on the way home from school, then from now on she would drive him there and back. Snotty McFee's lower lip trembled even though Madelaine gave him a warm, soft smile as she continued on her way over to browse amongst the Trash and Treasure.
I couldn't sit next to Snotty McFee on the Ferris wheel because his mother insisted on sitting with her son, but even though I hopped onto the nearest bell shaped compartment, I could still hear her sharp, whiny voice.
"What a nasty looking woman," she said, obviously talking about Madelaine. "How could you talk to such a common person as a school crossing attendant? Don't you listen to what I teach you about talking to the right people? How do you ever expect... oh, oh!" The Ferris wheel began to move and Snotty McFee's mother grabbed onto the small safety bar and pushed it down in front of her. I could hear her screams as the Ferris wheel took her higher and higher into the air.
Snotty McFee looked down at me in the next compartment and smiled weakly before turning to pat his mother's arm to try to get her to calm down. Finally the screaming stopped and the nagging started again at almost the same instant.
"What a horrible ride!" she spluttered. "Fancy paying good money to be scared out of your wits! I've a good mind to sue the school!"
Snotty McFee desperately tried to calm his mother down, because although she had stopped screaming, her loud voice was carrying across St Maria Goretti's and people were starting to stare.
"Mum..." he tried to interrupt but she wouldn't be stopped.
"Do you have any idea of the dangers involved in this kind of sub-standard machinery?"
"I'm so scared that I'll just have to cover my eyes before I have one of my dizzy spells," said Snotty McFee's mother pulling her purple floral scarf from around her neck and wrapping it firmly around her eyes.
"Well, that's a bit of an improvement," she sniffed as the giant Ferris wheel continued to turn more quickly.
From where I was sitting, I could see Snotty McFee's mother squirming in her seat and I could hear her voice and so could everybody else at the fete. One by one, people stopped walking around the stalls and stood still, looking instead at the spectacle of the tall, thin ugly woman screeching from the Ferris wheel with a purple floral scarf wrapped firmly around her head. I watched too, as their carriage began to rock.
"Don't you interrupt me, you rude child! Haven't you learnt any manners? You never speak unless spoken to."
"Don't you "but mum" me," she replied giving him an elbow in the ribs. Snotty McFee gave up. If I were him I would have run away to South America as soon as the ride was over.
"This is the first time in my life I've been on such a thing, and now I know why I've never bothered!"
The Ferris wheel began to lose speed as the ride drew to the end. I stopped concentrating on the McFee show and looked around to take in the sights of the school fete. The stalls looked great and I couldn't wait to spend my pocket money in them. Just under the Ferris wheel was my favourite section. Every year St Maria Goretti's had an animal judging competition and the animal pen was just below me. All the kids brought along a pet and the principal, Ruthless McMahon, judged them at the end of the day. It was a great stall because in Langwarrin, lots of kids lived on small farms and market gardens, so the animal pen included horses, chickens and of course, Troy McKenzie's pig, Axl.
I could see Troy McKenzie in the animal pen feeding his pig some fairy floss and I watched when Ruthless McMahon came in and handed him a big straw broom. Troy McKenzie began reluctantly to sweep up what my mother would call "animal leftovers".
The ride was nearly over. I could see the other Ferris wheel carriages below me. I loved looking down on the bell shaped tops and see them gently swaying in the wind. I could also see the back of Snotty McFee's mother's head in the carriage above me. Her voice still drifted down and people were still watching her.
"When is this stupid ride going to finish?" she screamed, "I want to get off right now!"
"I think I'm having one of my dizzy spells..." she wailed with her scarf wrapped firmly around her eyes. I personally felt that the Ferris wheel wouldn't be so scary for her if she could see where she was going and I was thinking of yelling this out to her when the carriages ground to a halt. Snotty McFee and his mother stopped at the very top of the Ferris wheel and I was the next one down. The very bottom carriage had stopped on top of the red painted crosses on the ground and the two people jumped off.
Just as I was watching them run clear of the carriage, I heard Snotty McFee's mother.
"Thank goodness this revolting machine has stopped!"
I watched silently as she threw up the safety bar still wearing the floral scarf covering her eyes.
"But mum, it's not time to get off..." Snotty McFee tried to warn his mother but as usual she took no notice of him.
The crowd below watched her lift the bar. They watched her stand up. They watched her step forward. And then they watched her bounce from bell to bell - all the way down.
They listened as her screams faded with each bounce and they all heard the squelch as Snotty McFee's mother landed head first in Troy McKenzie's pile of animal leftovers - right beneath the sign that said: "Buy our fantastic manure - it will make anything grow."
I thought it was really nice of Madelaine to come to Snotty McFees mother's funeral when Snotty McFee's mother had been so mean to her at the school fete. But she was there smiling softly at Snotty McFee who was dressed in a suit coat and short pants. He sat up the front near his father. It was strange, but nobody looked very sad - in fact people sort of looked relieved. I guess Snotty McFee's mother didn't have any friends because the only people there were kids from our class and Ms Sposato. Ms Sposato had given us a list of instructions on how to behave at the funeral which included: don't stare at the coffin, don't cry or sniffle in a rude, uncaring way, don't pick your nose, don't bang the kneeling rests, don't put your hand up to ask questions during the service, and finally - no fake coughing when they light the incense.
We were all really good, except Troy McKenzie who walked slowly past the coffin after communion. He was right in front of me and I saw him bend over right at the head end of the coffin and whisper, "Hey, you looked really funny in the pile of manure with just your legs sticking out!" I heard him laugh softly to himself and walk back to his seat. Luckily nobody else heard him.
After the funeral was finished, we all went into the church hall for some cake and lemonade. I stood with Snotty McFee and his father while they smiled at the guests. Madelaine walked softly up and gave Snotty McFee a big hug and he introduced her to his father. She smiled at Snotty McFee's father and he smiled back. She shook his hand and he shook hers right back too.
Snotty McFee and I wandered off and sat on an old wooden church seat by the church hall wall. We watched as Snotty McFee's father chatted with Madelaine and we watched how she laughed and made him laugh too.
When everybody started to leave, I walked up to say goodbye and thanks for having me, to Snotty McFee's father. I heard him ask Madelaine if she wanted to come around for dinner and I heard her say yes. I heard him ask her how she had met Snotty and she told him that she was a school crossing attendant. They both smiled at each other. I said goodbye and as I was walking off, I heard Madelaine say: "I have only been a school crossing attendant for a year - you see, I used to be a ballerina."