“Phew! Something smells like a cross between a wet dog and a publictoilet!”
Ava pushed her curly red hair off her face. She picked up a box of seedlings and gave the compost heap a dirty look.
The teacher in charge of the Year 5 Gardening Group, Mr Fernleigh, walked over to her. He stepped on the balls of his feet, leaning forwards as if he was walking intoa strong wind.
“I see you got first pick, Ava,” he said when he reached her. “What have you got there?”
“Ah, Acacia,” said Mr Fernleigh with a dreamy smile. “It’s my favourite genus of plants.”
“Oh, right,” said Ava, who didn’t know much about the scientific names of plants. “I like wattles,too. My favourite is Queensland Silver Wattle. I’ve got three!” She lifted a tube containing a seedling out of the box.
Mr Fernleigh stroked the tiny plant. He seemedtobe unaware of the contrast between his ragged fingernails and the plant’s velvety leaves.
“Lovely,” he said. “Right-o. We’d better make a start.”
He picked up a large gum leaf.
Ava tilted her headtoone side and frowned. “What’s that for?”
He pressed the gum leaftohis lips and gave a piercing whistle.
Ava jumped in fright and threw her hands over her ears.
“That was really loud, Sir!”
The other members of the gardening group looked at Mr Fernleigh in amazement.
“Gather round, everybody,” he called.
They hastened over and stood in front of him.
“How did you do that, Sir?”
“Can you show us?”
“That was awesome!”
Mr Fernleigh held up one hand. “All in good time. Let’s focus on the task at hand. Does anyone know howtoplant a seedling? What would you do first?”
A large boy with golden skin put his hand up.
“Dig a hole twice as big as I need.”
“Spot on, Christopher. Does anyone know why?”
Several students put their hands up. Mr Fernleigh chose a girl whose white hair looked like stuffing bursting out of a cushion.
“To loosen the soil so the roots can go intoit.”
“Spot on, Flossie. What would you do next?”
Flossie picked at her bottom lip. “I’d water the seedling.”
Flossie rolled a flake of lip skin between her finger and thumb. “So the soil wouldn’t fall off the roots when I pulled the seedling out of the tube.”
“Excellent. What would you do next? Someone else. Ava?”
Ava noticed that the two most popular girls in her class, Fallon Connolly and Kiana Kamaka, were walkingtowards the Gardening Group. She felt her cheeks redden.
“Squeeze the sides of the tube. Then press the bottom of the tube with my thumb. Then slowly pull the seedling out,” she muttered.
“Excellent. Keep going. But speak up so everyone can hear you.”
Ava glanced at Fallon and Kiana. They were almost within earshot. She fired sentences out of her mouth like an auctioneer. “Put the plant in the hole. Make sure the surface of the seedling’s soil is level with the surface of the surrounding soil. Fill in the hole. Press the soil so it’s firm.” She drew in a deep breath.
“Slow down!” exclaimed Mr Fernleigh with a laugh. “But that’s exactly right.”
Ava glanced at Fallon and Kiana again. They were lurking behind the gardening group like sharks lurking behind the breakers at the beach. Fallon was holding a note.
“One moment, girls,” Mr Fernleigh saidtothem. “Can someone else tell me what they would do next?”
“Water it?” whispered a girl with short black hair, called Brydee. She kept her eyes fixed on her feet.
Mr Fernleigh looked at her kindly. “Can you tell me why?”
Brydee twisted her handstogether. “To pack down the soil? And give it a drink?”
“Spot on, Brydee. What would you do last? Someone else.”
“Put mulch around it,” said a wiry boy, called Nikhil.
“Why would you do that?”
“To stop the water evaporating,tokeep the soil moist andtostop weeds growing.”
“Excellent! You lot are really on the ball.”
The members of the gardening group smiled at each other. Fallon groaned and re-braided the end of her blonde hair. Kiana inspected her nail polish.
“Is everyone clear on whattodo?” asked Mr Fernleigh. “See me if you have any questions. Right-o, you can make a start.”
He turnedtoFallon and Kiana. “Now, what can I do for you?”
Fallon thrust the note forwards. “Mr Benson asked ustogive you this.”
Mr Fernleigh glanced at the note.
“Gather round, everybody,” he called.
The members of the gardening group put down their seedlings and tools and walked back to Mr Fernleigh.
“Mr Benson has asked me to read this note to you,” he said. “ ‘The School Cross Country will be held next Friday, the twenty-second of April. All students eight years and older are encouragedtoparticipate.’ Right-o, that’s all. You can go backtoyour planting.”
Ava walked backtoher seedlings. She heard footsteps and spun around. Fallon and Kiana were walking behind her.
“You’re not going in the cross country, are you Ava?” asked Fallon, stroking her braid.
“I don’t know,” said Ava.
“You can’t run,” said Fallon. “You came last in the100 metrerace in P.E.”
Ava felt her cheeks redden. “My shoe came off. Anyway, long distance is different.”
“It’s harder,” said Fallon with a superior look. “If you can’t run 100 metres, you won’t be abletorun 2000 metres.”
Ava clenched her fists. “I will be abletorun 2000 metres. In cross country, you don’t havetorun fast.”
“Just as well,” said Fallon with a sneer.
“Yeah, just as well,” echoed Kiana.
Fallon and Kiana high-fived each other and walked off, laughing.
Ava scowled as she watched them go. I AM going in the cross country, she decided.