This is how I remember it.
Twenty-five year eleven girls at Vaucluse Convent for ladies. Mrs Raj is our new and exotic biology teacher who speaks with an accent and wears brightly coloured saris over a cropped bodice. I can still see the line of her coffee coloured flesh between the waist of her sari and the edge of her top and I wondered two things: Why isn’t she cold and what do the nuns think? This is in the late sixties. Women do not expose their midriffs except in advertisements for bathers or those Metre Maids on the Gold Coast. The nuns are already railing against the amount of leg showing under our school dresses when we hitch them up desperate to wear a mini dress, a la Jean Shrimpton.
We are sitting on our high stools in the new science block, which was built on government funds where the old tennis courts once stood. Our arms are adjacent to the bench tops in pale pinewood. The copper taps each shaped like a swan’s neck fall into sinks along the line of bench.
‘Each of you girls take a glass.’ Mrs Raj has put out a series of clear glasses and set them on the bench top, one per girl. ‘Now I want you to spit into your glass.’
What! A murmur from the classroom that bounces off the walls. What is she saying?
‘Spit into your glass, girls, as much saliva as you can get.’
We look at her face. She is serious. We spit away. Giggles, grunts and the splashing whistle of twenty-five girls spitting into glasses.
‘Now set the glass in front of you and wait.’
The puddle in the bottom of my glass of bubbly saliva is thick and sticky. My stomach roils as if I have exposed something that should not be seen; as if I should rinse the glass under the tap for fear that others will see it too. I cannot look over at the other girls’ glasses. It is as if we have been asked to take our clothes off and we are standing naked, eyes ahead, hoping that no one will notice our vulnerability, that no one will cross our gaze.
‘Now,’ says Mrs Raj. ‘I want you all to drink it back up’
‘Yuk,’ the class calls in one voice.
‘Do as I say girls. It will not hurt you.’
Loud swallows and grunts as each girl tries to take back inside the saliva she had so eagerly parted with a few minutes ago. It is cold on my tongue, worse to swallow than medication but I get it down.
‘Now, girls, the reason I have asked you to do this is to show you the difference between the inside and the outside.’ Mrs Raj is serious. Her voice does not falter, even underneath the singsong lilt of her Indian accent. ‘When the saliva is in your mouth, as it is every minute of every day, you don’t notice it. Your saliva is you. Spit it out and it becomes not you. Drink it back and it’s like something completely foreign to you, when only minutes ago it was you.’
Mrs Raj beams a smile that shows all her large straight teeth, white against the gleam of her skin. The red smudge of paint on her forehead matches the redness of her lips and the faint blush in her cheeks.