On the morning I woke with Jon I looked out the window at the flat, scissored streets and grimy lanes of Brunswick. We were not meant to wake together. My flat was on the third floor and I watched a bottlebrush tree waving furiously in the wind. I had a student-teacher coming in to learn the cruelty of fifteen-yearold boys, and last night’s wine hurt in my throat. When I saw Jon’s shoes at the end of the bed, their shadows cast large in the glare of the morning sun, I put my hand over my mouth in an unintentional, ugly mimicry of a silent movie actress.
I met Jon almost a year ago, in one of those fierce, tearing nights at a Collingwood pub, when jugs of beer make you raw and earnest, and you believe everything you say. Jon wore sneakers and tweed pants and was recognizably hopeless. I saw his broad palms and narrow wrists, and the book he clutched to his side in soft protection. He put his hand on my back when we walked up Princes Street to another bar and then I knew.
I was used to being unloved and Jon had a wife – some slow, certain-faced woman I had seen getting out of a car one day – so I could already tell how much fear and distance was breathing between us. In Abbotsford, I teetered forward, waiting for him to ask me up, and he said, ‘Shall we?’ I thought he was brave then, even gallant.
I had climbed the cramped steps to what he called his studio – a tiny peach-coloured room, with a dusty easel and a barred window – and paused in the doorway. There was no bed, just a greying armchair and thin plastic yoga mats laid across the floor.
It was a beginning and there was a blankness in me that was attracted to the pedestrian drama of an affair: the reassuring parameters of its disappointments, the ordinariness of its false starts.
Jon illustrated children’s books. He hated politics; he liked to watch world news; he had read all the great Russian novelists; he usually came before I did; and he felt I was reminding him of something he had once lost. After we had been sleeping together for a few weeks he said, ‘Mary’s an absolute survivor and I admire her for that,’ and I realized he was letting me know that the two of them would also survive me.
We didn’t talk about the future. He spent three months in London with his wife and I tried not to sound pleased when he rang. We played at mundane domestic rituals. Once I made spaghetti with mussels but he was running late and ate so quickly that he burned his tongue. I wiped the sauce off his chin as he ran out the door – he was meant to have been watching football with an old friend. I would rub moisturizer into my skin in the evenings, seeking his reflection in my dressing table mirror, pressing my fingers firmly across my eyelids, then sweeping them down towards my chin, all the time hoping he was watching.
He read to me before he left at night. His voice was pleasing: smooth and light. I listened to the rhythms, the catches and pauses in his voice, and tried to predict when it would all end. I had feigned emotional immunity for so long it was difficult to recognize an honest feeling. We were losing pleasure in each other’s bodies and pretending not to notice. I was a comfort for Jon and he was a distraction for me. It was an ugly but unabashed exchange, a deal.
We saw each other every week or two, during which there was desire but also terror. I shuffled him out of my flat in the early hours of the morning, looked the other way if I saw people we both knew at Coles, and wore secret bruises on my hips beneath my work clothes. I had thought I was better equipped for these useless jolts between terror and comfort, than for love.
I looked out through the window at one of Australia’s ridiculous native plants shaking in the wind, with its rusty-red flowers bright splashes against the foliage, and let my gaze flicker over what I could see of the lanes and tarmac of Brunswick. Then I fixed my eyes on his shoes.
The phone rang. Jon’s face was buried in one of his hands while he slept, a near picture-posed tableau of despair. The crumpled bedsheet had left tiny red lines, the imprint of a seam, on his arm. His fingers were lying loose off the side of the bed. My alarm clock glowed sullenly. Quarter past seven.
When our evasions were kinder, we had joked about finding organizational skills we’d never before summoned. He left for home on time, even if it meant doing the maths to establish whether there was time to have sex again before he left, or wiping himself clean with a face cloth in the bathroom so that the sharp smell of me was replaced by the tepid drift of rose-fragranced soap. I joked about watching the clock as he thrust inside me but this was too much: I was meant to accept his circumstances but not parody them, to wish for a different future without actually expressing it.
I picked up the phone, ‘It’s too early to ring someone,’ and hoped I hadn’t forgotten an excursion. Silence. When I swung my legs out of bed, my bare feet landed on the splayed back of Anna Karenina. The title page had fallen out and there were small pencil drawings across it: wombats with tea party paraphernalia looked perkily at a river. Jon’s sketches.
An automated voice message, the captured ghost-sound of a person, asked if I would accept the charges.
I knew who was ringing at almost exactly the same moment she
began sobbing. ‘Lou?’
‘Alice. It’s no good. It’s all coming apart.’ I heard traffic and the hoot and sway of a train pulling out in the background. I hadn’t seen my younger sister, who lived in Sydney, in six months, since she’d borrowed eight hundred dollars for drug counselling and had nothing to show for it but her remaining purchases: a store of exotic goods, expensive cheeses and a flimsy metal scooter. She had told me on the phone that she went to the chemist every day with her methadone prescription but then she said a lot of things.
‘What’s no good?’ Thick silence on the line. ‘Where are you?’
Jon stirred. Through the gauzy piece of fabric that covered the side window I saw my neighbours in the flats opposite, lying on the carpet watching cartoons. Spoons idled in bowls of porridge on their fifties dining table.
‘I had this dream. Dad was in it. And then on George Street I thought I saw someone.’
She was in her twenties but she still sounded like a child.
‘What?’ If I could see the neighbours, they could probably see me. I was naked, hunched forward, poised for combat. Ludicrous. I pulled a corner of the sheet across my breasts and huddled my back against the wall.
‘Come on, this silence is expensive.’ It was becoming hard to remember speaking to Louise without this shapeless fear descending – the dark fog of it settling around me, seeping into my skin and hair.
‘Dad was talking to me, he knew who I was –’
‘Of course he knew. It’s Jeremy he forgets,’ I told her. ‘He knows
who you are.’
‘– and he said he had a surprise and that Jeremy was alive in an underground castle and we could visit him. And Dad had this red suit. In the dream.’
I should have put the phone down. I could sense the agitation beneath her careful lack of purpose. I swallowed. ‘You’re mixing things up with real life.’
Her crying was repetitive, strangely mechanical, unremitting and tinny like those toy dolls engineered to sound like babies that cry when they want to be fed. ‘Who did you see?’ I had a sudden longing, brief and mildly disingenuous, for Louise’s chaos to be my own, even though I knew her confusion was also fraudulent.
I watched through my neighbours’ window, as the host for the cartoon channel clutched her stomach and pretended to laugh. Behind her, on a smaller screen, a cat got hit hard on the head with an axe. There were tiny red hearts on her dress.
‘I don’t have time for this, Louise. What do you want?’ I used my teaching voice, clipped and firm. She was going to ask me for money.
‘I thought it was her. Probably not. On the street. Going into Chinatown. And I saw this TV show on . . . arsonists? Delinquents. But that was before.’
I tried to imagine our mother’s face, the way she used to look, but the picture I summoned up was faded like old wallpaper in the sun. She had worn her fine blonde hair up, dragged into a ponytail, and she stooped her narrow shoulders when she was tired; she sang along to the radio on weekends. But my mother’s distinguishing features were erased; her outline was suspiciously general, her expression robbed of purpose.
Since Louise had ended her love affair with heroin she saw, or pretended to see, a fleet of ghosts, long left-behind people from our childhood. Months ago she couldn’t stop talking about one of the boys in my brother’s class, when all I could remember of my brother’s childhood torturer was the way he moved, thickly, with a gait too awkward to be a proper swagger: just a jumble of menace and desperation as if his body were not quite his own.
‘Sleep it off,’ I said.
‘I’m not high.’ I knew she was. ‘Please don’t be a cunt, Alice.’ After I hung up, I unplugged the phone.
My alarm went off. I switched over to the radio. I preferred the incessant list of loss that was the news on Radio National to talkback, which made me despair of people. Jon and I argued about this. He said, ‘Who are you to judge what’s important for other people to talk about?’ and I said, ‘There’s a war on and this woman is talking about her chickens, her fucking chickens for fuck’s sake, and permits for coops in the outer suburbs.’
I opened a window to let the summer heat in.
Jon had always been more expansive, more magnanimous about other people’s lives, because he didn’t care what kind of mess they made of them.
In the glare of the sun, his eyes were puffy. His mouth drooped down.
I thought of letting him sleep so that the horror, when he got up, would be his own. I sprayed deodorant everywhere, stepped into yesterday’s skirt and picked up my keys. My bedroom felt like a box: a small cell with a low ceiling. After I packed up my books and papers, I put my hand on Jon’s shoulder and said, ‘All right.’ I ran the back of my hand along his cheek. He jerked awake.
‘God, fuck, what time is it?’
Already, he was reaching for his watch, tripping as he grabbed his pants.
I ran down the stairs fast so that I wouldn’t have to listen to him call his wife.
When I got to work, the school was teeming with kids and the sun burned heavily on the playground swings. Some of the plastic equipment was too warm to play on. I taught in a school that had a reputation, a bad name. I’d been at a professional development session last year on ‘the gifted child and the learning-challenged child’. Integration and special needs staff cutbacks were being repackaged to us as a teaching opportunity. Another teacher, plump and cynical, had asked if I was from the school with ‘all those commission kids’ as if they were a mutant scientific aberration, some special strain of childhood.
I had grown up in a housing commission place just when the suburb was changing, and the Department of Housing sold some of its high-rises and let you buy out homes you had been renting. There was no community I remember belonging to back then, just parents who tended fussy gardens or built new window frames to hide the monolithic, clear structure, the architectural sameness that signified public housing. We’d got the kind they weren’t building anymore by then, a fibro-cement townhouse, semi-detached, with a tacked-on brick porch out the front and a scrap of garden for a backyard. Our parents had stood on the patch of yellowing grass out front and clinked their beers together when they bought that home.
I realized recently that my mother’s unerring instinct for the bottom line, as much a habit for her as the red elastic bands she kept round her wrists to tie back her hair, was caused not by being famously poor in a poor suburb but by having married a man who thought he was meant for greater things. Her realism, her grimly practical thinking, kept shame at bay while my father was inventing devices that he swore could make them thousands, or drawing renovation plans on bits of paper in between trips to ask for beer on tick at the local shop.
On my way into the staffroom, I nodded my head to the two brothers who were puffing on cigarettes just outside the gates, next to the not-so-temporary mobile classroom that had been erected three years ago, and wished I could join them. The Thomas boys were poor and rude. Chris was a punk and went straight to the principal’s office with each new piercing. He wrote gentle sentences in sloping handwriting.
Hamish was fair and battered with bruises. To questions he’d often just hiss ‘Cunt’ and then look slightly surprised at himself. There was nothing like teaching high school to remind you of the pure, determined torture of children. When I started teaching I saw an earnest girl with intricate braids lean over to one of the shy girls who sat next to the door and say, ‘I’m going to set you on fire.’
When I first taught history to Chris in Year 7 he thought the marches against the Vietnam War were not worth learning about.
‘Miss,’ he tried to explain to me, ‘it’s not new that everyone’s got bombs. People don’t wanna hear about it. We know. I get to explode people on the computer.’
History was about novelty and gore, video game gruesomeness, to Chris. He wanted to be astonished by something, to learn about ancient torture weapons or to gawk at the wretched bodies of landmine victims, to see the number of ways human beings could die, to be stilled and open-mouthed at the misery we can inflict on one another.
It was the same for lots of these boys: they hated the state, they loathed the cops and they couldn’t care less what the government was doing, some kind of reciprocal adolescent rightness for the fact that the government wasn’t too interested in them either.
By the time I collected my whiteboard marker and spare books, I was late. In the corridor outside the classroom, my students were lined up in jagged rows near the door.
When I’d taught the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the Greek students said his grandfather wept on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution and thought that the failure of Communism meant history was over. The other students had tried to say the foreign words in heavy accents like the spies in early Bond films, dragging out Glasnost until it sounded like a Scottish toast.
‘Perestroika’s like the end of the world, right?’
‘No, that’s apocalypse.’
‘Where everyone got nuclear rays.’
Now, the neat girls at the front were folding paper into cubes to make ‘Pick-a-Box’ games and a few of the boys chucked a footy between the sections in the back row.
‘Sit down. I will start naming people. Nicholas. Thanh.’
I handed back their creative responses to reading they’d done on the gold rush. I asked them to take out worksheets on the Cold War and tried to teach past their impervious faces – defining terms and wishing I’d thought to organize a DVD. I wrote ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, ‘Communism’ and ‘the West’ on the board with a skittering hand.
Selena Papas, in the back row, waved her arm in the air until I could no longer ignore it.
‘Miss, Miss. Why do we have to do this?’
‘Do what, Selena?’
‘Why do we have to do the Cold War?’
Chris made a face. ‘It wasn’t even a real war.’
‘Well, it’s an important part of history.’ That wouldn’t do. I rubbed the back of my neck. ‘With the Cold War . . .’ I turned to face the board and then spun back. ‘Who decides what becomes history? What counts?’
They waited patiently for me to provide the answer, curious and detached. I was confusing them. ‘Okay, this is meant to be twentieth-century history. So how do you know what the big events are?’
Selena chomped on her gum. ‘You tell us.’
‘Yeah, but . . .’ Out of my depth, I fell back on the textbook. ‘With the USSR as it was then, and the United States, there were two major superpowers competing. We had the arms race, the space race. There was an escalation that many thought would end in nuclear war.’
‘So there was a lot of hope, in the wake of the Cold War, that arms spending would go down and that there’d be a more peaceful time.’
Selena tilted forward on the edge of her chair, her elbows on her desk. The other kids were enjoying her eagerness, her recent transformation from teacher’s pet to anti-authoritarian. Her eyes were rimmed with blue mascara. They weren’t meant to wear makeup but I wasn’t going to send her to the toilets to wash it off.
‘But it didn’t.’
‘Go on, Selena.’
‘It’s not more peaceful. Now America’s on its own and there’s still war.’
‘That’s because America’s the best. They can,’ Chris said.
I moved from the board into the small knot of kids clustered near the window.
‘My country’s the fucken best, not America.’ The Greeks, the Turkish kids, the Vietnamese raised their voices. No one laid claim to Australia until Hamish began chanting, ‘Ozzie, oi!’ in a goofy voice.
I shouted. ‘All right. Calm down. Obviously, some of the people who thought that the end of the Cold War would mean a less militarized world were wrong.’ They ignored me. They defended their countries in the name of Eurovision, of sport, of food, and of triumph in armed conflict.
‘Selena. Nicholas. Mustafa. Sit down. Chris says America can begin wars. Why can they?’
‘They’re the biggest,’ Chris said, bewildered at the riot he had begun.
‘They don’t have the largest population or land mass. What else? Theo?’
‘They won that war . . . the Cold War, and now everyone’s afraid of them?’
‘Possibly. Any other ideas?’
‘They’ve got the biggest army.’
‘There are different aspects to an army. America has more nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. Selena, do you agree? Why can America start wars?’
Chris had another go. ‘They know they’re right so their army believes what they’re doing.’ He waited. ‘Morale.’
Selena looked at me. ‘Because they have the most money.’ The bell rang.
I met the student-teacher in the staffroom before the afternoon classes. She was nervous, with chipped nails and a small frame. She was dressed in a pinstriped suit and wore fashionable glasses with geometric black frames. There were streaks of blonde cut through her black hair and she had applied shiny grape lipstick, which was slightly smudged around her mouth. I was relieved she wasn’t eighteen and petrified or wildly enthusiastic.
I introduced myself to her: ‘Justine? I’m Alice.’
She looked around the spartan room with its litre jars of instant coffee and squat microwave oven, and I felt that she was disappointed. When she showed me her lesson plans – a study of apartheid South Africa for a unit on modern history – I asked how she was finding teaching.
‘Good.’ She looked down. ‘I guess I’ll get better at it. I want to tell them off but I don’t know what to call them. How d’you remember all those names?’
The faint scent of the perfume she was wearing, along with the memory of Jon’s visit, made me feel nauseous but my voice stayed brisk and confident. ‘I can help with that.’
‘When I started, they swapped names for the whole of first term. What brings you to this illustrious career?’
‘I was in admin at a uni but I couldn’t keep up with all the new databases for the fee structures. So here I am.’
I smiled. ‘Year 10s can be difficult. For the first lesson they’ll probably be painful but you’ll survive.’ I hated the boarding-school cheer in my voice.
‘Everyone keeps telling me different things.’
‘One of the other teachers said, “Remember some of them are just horrible little shits” but Tom told me, “They’re great kids. Use multimedia.”’
I laughed. ‘Tom thinks multimedia’s always the solution. You can’t use a DVD in the first class. They’ll sense your fear.’
‘Hopefully I’ll get a nice easy private school next time.’
‘Yeah, where daddy owns a racehorse and you can threaten them with corporal punishment.’
She didn’t laugh.
‘Are you going to apply here when you finish?’
‘Teaching’s kind of putting me off teaching.’ She grinned, then looked aghast. ‘And I’ve still got two rounds to go. Tom said there won’t be anything because you might become a middle school next year.’
‘I’m sorry?’ Our enrolments had been dropping steadily. There had been rumours of funding cuts or streaming our older kids into one of the bigger schools in the next suburb since I started. But at open day, Tom, our principal, had just given a rousing speech to the parents about the unique community of the school.
‘I’ve probably got it wrong. He said something like, “We won’t be needing more staff. If anything –”’ she broke off and imitated a gesture I knew must be Tom’s, a patting of the air that suggested the desirable outcome would be fewer staff or no staff at all.
Our shoes squeaked on the floor of the corridor. The blue linoleum gleamed.
In the classroom I wrote her name on the board. Already the boys were switching chairs and throwing paper planes. I picked a note up off the floor. You cunts are sluts. Justine’s hands shook as she picked up the whiteboard marker.
They settled. ‘This is Miss Avery. She’s going to be taking you for the next week so I trust you’ll give her a taste of what teaching’s all about.’ There were a few uneasy giggles.
She looked over their heads. ‘Good afternoon everyone.’
‘Miss, have you got a boyfriend?’
‘Are you a lesbian?’
‘Why is your hair like that?’
Sam, one of my gentlest students, called out, ‘Shut up youse.’
I stood up. ‘Please behave or it’s detentions all round.’
Sam frowned at me. ‘How come? You never give detentions.’
Nam, who had been in Australia eighteen months, asked, ‘What’s “all round”?’
‘For everyone. For each of you.’ I smiled helplessly at Justine. ‘Like drinks all round.’
I sat near the front of the classroom and watched her spend too long in the circle of safety around the whiteboard. Jon would have spoken to his wife by now. Justine picked up her notes.
She cleared her throat and stared back at the doleful eyes of the students. She wrote ‘Population Registration Act: 1991’ on the board.
1991: the year the first Gulf War was waged under the first Bush presidency; the year the Soviet Union finally collapsed; the year the Birmingham Six were freed; Rodney King was beaten by police; Sonic the Hedgehog was created.
In 1991 Freddie Mercury dies of AIDS, Alexis Indris Sontana, who posed as a self-taught orphan from Utah and enrolled at Princeton University, is exposed as a fraud, Joh Bjelke-Petersen is tried for perjury, there is the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and New South Wales has a general strike. All history.
And in 1991 my brother died.