Sarah Clark felt like a freak for two and a half years. It started when she received a leather-bound copy of Othello for her twelfth birthday and ended when her English teacher showed her exactly what was meant by the beast with two backs.
In between, she read every one of Shakespeare's plays and then moved on to his sonnets, before discovering Marlowe, Donne, Pope and Marvell. With peers who read nothing but TV Week and parents who were inclined towards the Financial Review, Sarah was forced to conceal her literary leanings. She hid poetry anthologies under her bed and read Emma by torchlight, the way boys her age read Playboy. For the first two years of high school, she came top of her English class without opening a single school book. It wasn't necessary since the curriculum consisted of a few familiar texts, plus comic strips and newspaper clippings.
Then on the first day of the third year of high school, Sarah met Mr Carr. He was unlike any teacher she had ever encountered. For the entire forty minutes of his first class he spoke about why Yeats was relevant to Australian teenagers in the year 1995. In the second class, Sarah put up her hand to make a comment on something he had said about Hamlet. When he called on her to speak, she started and could not stop. She stayed in his classroom all through lunch, and when she re-emerged into the sunlight and the condescending stares of the schoolyard cliques, she was utterly changed.
Mr Carr began an active campaign to keep Sarah's love of learning alive. To prevent boredom, he brought her books of his own from home and gave her a note that allowed her to access the senior section of the library. Every novel and play and poem was discussed in depth. She had never received a better compliment than when he told her that he knew she would love a particular piece because it was his favourite too.
While Mr Carr was shaping Sarah's mind, her body was changing of its own accord. Small, painful breasts appeared overnight, as did ridiculously placed hair. She kept waking up in the middle of the night to find her blankets tossed to the floor and her hands tangled up in her pyjamas. Whenever the School Captain, a lanky blond boy named Alex, walked past, Sarah had an inexplicable urge to press her thighs together. She started to daydream about how to become more beautiful.
One day in June, Mr Carr asked Sarah's advice on how to make Shakespeare more exciting for the class. The sonnets studied so far had failed to ignite a spark of enthusiasm in anyone except Sarah, and he thought she could help identify where he was going wrong. The problem, as Mr Carr saw it, was that many of the sonnets dealt with themes that couldn't be understood by your average fourteen year old kid. Sarah told him that the average fourteen year old understood plenty about love and lust and longing; it was the language that put them off. After all, she said, every second song on the radio dealt with the same themes as old William, albeit with more grunting and less wit.
He laughed a throaty laugh and reached across the space that separated them. His hot, damp hand settled on her bare knee. Sarah noticed, all at once, that his forehead was shiny and the blinds were lowered and the door was closed and her heart was racing. She didn't move or speak. Breathing was all she could manage.
Mr Carr leant forward in his chair and moved his hand to Sarah's shoulder, then let it slide until it rested on one of her never before touched, brand new breasts. She felt like she might cry, but she also felt a sick kind of excitement. She sat very still with her arms at her sides and watched as he stroked and kneaded her breasts through the cheap polyester. His gold wedding band caught the light, and she wanted to reach out and touch it, but didn't. He was saying her name over and over, so that it no longer sounded like her name at all, but like one those mantras that Buddhists used to go into a trance.
One of his hands slipped inside her shirt, under her bra, and she was shocked by the thrill she got when his fingers caught hold of her left nipple and squeezed. Ohsarah. He moved forward, right to the edge of the chair, his head lowered to her chest, his shins pressed hard against hers. She had to bite down on her lip to stop herself from laughing. How strange that a smart and accomplished man could be reduced to such an undignified state just by touching her breasts!
Mr Carr stopped chanting her name, and the room was silent except for his rasping breath and the rustle of her shirt as he unbuttoned it. Then Sarah felt his tongue sweep across her nipple; she let out a surprised gasp. This excited Mr Carr even more, and his head all but disappeared into her half open shirt as he fell to his knees in front of her. A giggle escaped her, which Mr Carr obviously interpreted as encouragement. OhSarahohSarahohohohohsobeautifulSarahoh.
He pushed her legs open and knelt between them, his head still buried in her chest but his hands pushing up her scratchy pleated skirt. Sarah tried to remember which underpants she had put on that morning. She hoped it was not the pair with little ducks. If Mr Carr saw little ducks on her underwear he would think she was a child, and then he would stop. But he couldn't see her underwear anyway, because his mouth was still latched onto her nipple as if he was a hungry baby and she was a mother with heavy, milk filled breasts, instead of a girl with hardly enough to fill a training bra.
The foregoing is excerpted from Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022