When the day came it seemed little had changed. The same buildings stood firm, accompanied by a couple of new teaching blocks that referenced a modern, institutional style. The boys had different haircuts but wore the same uniforms. Richard arrived just as assembly ended, the forecourt flooding with dark blue blazers and grey trousers. He began to feel distinctly out of place when a woman in a short skirt showed him into a room and asked him to wait. Richard smiled politely. She left, pulling the door behind her.
The room was dim despite two large windows. One faced south to the forecourt, the other was sheltered behind gardens of shrubs. Timber wall panelling and glass display cases featuring trophies and cups of various sizes lent the chamber a dignified purpose. A painting of the original school building on Petrie Terrace hung over a monstrous sideboard. On this sat a vase of fresh lilies and a tray of drinking glasses. A water cooler had been installed in the corner. Oversized armchairs took up most of the remaining space. They were old chairs but appeared barely used.
The door opened and a man wearing a grey suit appeared.
“Mr. Turner,” he said, gripping Richard’s hand, “Good to meet you at last and welcome back. This must bring back memories. By the way, congratulations on your book.”
“Have a seat.”
Richard obeyed, springs subsiding under him.
“The Writer-in-Residence is just one addition to our programme. When I took up this post, the school was ripe for change. My first initiative was the pastoral care system.” The Headmaster rose from his chair and went to the sideboard, picking a clean glass and pressing it against the cooler. A clear stream filled the glass, bubbles bursting up in the tank like farts. “There’s more accountability now. Of course, that affair with Carey did not help.” The Headmaster stood at the forecourt window, fingers stroking his chin, and eyed Richard side-on.
“Yes, terrible business.”
“But we’re through that now. In January we’re opening a middle school, years six and seven. There’s scope for fellows like you.”
Richard shifted in his chair and sank a little further into the leather.
“Take time to settle in. Make use of the facilities. We’d like you to feel at home.”
The school board was buying up all adjacent properties as they came on the market. For the duration of his term, they had provided Richard with a small, double-storied timber cottage on the other side of busy Gregory Terrace as both workplace and residence. The lower floor was gutted, the internal walls removed, just a kitchenette, a café table and a couple of chairs remained as concessions to domestic necessity. The floorboards had been stripped and sanded back, unfinished as if the workmen were unsure of what to do next. He felt hesitant to walk over them, fearing he would mark their soft, dusty surface.
This atmosphere of incompleteness reminded Richard of his failings. Thirty-seven, patchwork resume, single – again – and, to use his mother’s expression, a confirmed bachelor. When she died, Richard sold her house and had the proceeds divided up between his sisters and himself. There was just enough to buy a dilapidated bungalow. He soon tired of do-it-yourself weekends. It remained another work-in-progress.
In the cottage provided by the school, the bedroom and bathroom were upstairs, along with a room designated as his study. Equipped with the latest computer, it gave off a characteristic taint of newness. From the desk, he could see across to the south side of town and the eclectic disorder that purported to be a city.
Another writer had initially been chosen. A well-known and highly celebrated author, this man was also an old boy of the school. Parents and students were excited by his imminent arrival. But at the last minute, he withdrew having apparently received a better offer. Richard wondered what the reaction had been when his own name was announced as the replacement.
After university, Richard had gone into the public service. In the evenings he wrote and had managed to publish a number of pieces of short fiction. Then, after accepting a position with a tabloid newspaper, he found himself struggling. The pressure of deadlines and editor’s directions choked his creativity. Bored and personifying his lack of interest, he turned up repeatedly late to the office. Eventually, the choice was made for him. He was sacked. He turned to charity, at least positions in the charity sector. The first of these involved teaching teenagers what was euphemistically called creative writing but turned out to be a kind of delinquent baby-sitting funded with crime prevention money. He despised the aggression of his charges but conceded the job was not too bad overall. The worst of them were usually too wasted on pot to attend. His friends had teased him about it.
“There must be some hotties.”
“They’re 16 years old!” he’d cry. “They’re just kids!”
During this period he managed to produce his first novel: a bleak, moralistic tale about a girl falling through the welfare system. The book had been published but only after Richard yielded to it being marketed as ‘young adult’ fiction.
Someone had left a copy on the bookshelf of the study alongside past editions of the school yearbooks. Richard found the one for his year. He lingered over the sports photographs; teams of husky young men dressed incongruously in blazers and dark football shorts, their legs spread salaciously. They were golden boys: irrepressibly dominant and born to good fortune. He could see them now, swaggering and bullying their way around those dreadful years as he did his best to blend and appease. He’d worked hard to slip invisibly through his education avoiding notoriety, a shadow of no concern to anyone, his purpose being survival more than anything.
He turned a page and there was a picture of him, unglorified, in a single class group photograph with his wiry hair and nervous smile. A little thinner and fresher in the face but, somehow, remarkably similar and peering expectantly at his prospects.
He shut the volume and slid it back between the others. Beside the bookshelf was a poster featuring an eagle flying over a mountain and the words:
No one can predict to what heights you can soar.
Even you will not know until you spread your wings.
Some schoolboy had crossed out the last two words and scribbled “her legs” in their place. He suddenly felt quite anxious and questioned why he had accepted the position at all. Without a further thought, he pulled the pins from the poster, rolled it up and stuck it in the waste bin.
Richard’s working day started late, usually not before half-past ten. The boys ambled across the road and filed through the picket fence, selecting chairs in the front garden. He saw, at most, two small groups each day. There was no indication why these particular students had been selected from their peers; they certainly were not the best scholars. Many seemed indifferent to any academic endeavour, more interested in football or sports generally. His regular sixth form group appeared evenly divided between footballers and intellectuals.
“What are you studying in class?” he asked them one day.
“Macbeth, Animal Farm and David Malouf’s Johnno,” the Indian boy answered.
“And a play called Away by Michael Gow,” added the one with ginger hair.
“He wrote a play called Furious,” said Richard. “Any of you heard of it?” They looked back with a blank alertness he found disturbing. He imagined them, cocky and sharp, boasting to each other about sport, girls or their weekend parties. He had to remind himself that, despite robust bodies and claims on the future, their life experiences were limited. Whatever happened, he thought, he would remain in charge.
“What’s it about, Sir?”
“You don’t have to call me ‘Sir’.” The boy, who had been silent up until then, reddened. “You can call me Richard. I think that’s okay because I’m not a teacher and we’re not really at school are we?”
There was a visible settling and easing of limbs. Behind them, the sibilant camphor laurel caught the afternoon breeze. Sunlight spattered over the group. One boy rose from his chair and lit a cigarette.
“In saying that, it’s probably not a good idea if we compromise the opportunity we have here.” The other boys looked at the smoker who, in turn, reluctantly stubbed out his smoke. “Right, who here wants to be a writer? Or a journalist, or something like that?” Four of them put up their hands.
“Amongst other things,” Ginger added. Richard raised his eyebrows hoping for elucidation.
“I am a writer,” the smoker said solemnly.
A huddle of girls from the sister school wandered by, eyeing the boys provocatively. One of the sportsmen wolf-whistled at them, turning in his chair.
“Onya!” cheered his brawny mate.
“Hotties!” added another.
“They’re always doing that,” the Indian boy said to Richard against passing giggles.
“She was after Julian,” one of the footballers said.
“Julian you stud mate.”
Slouching back the boy named Julian smiled at the girls as they walked off. That quiet confidence was what Richard had craved most at the same age. Julian turned back to the group; tossing his blonde locks with an equine flick. He had made the same gesture on arrival when they sat down together under the trees. Show pony. The self-assured expression and broad shoulders embodied an enigmatic appeal: vaguely familiar yet subtly repulsive.
The lunch bell sounded and the boys took off back to school.
Richard finished his laps with a sense of achievement. He hauled himself out of the pool pleased to have discovered a time of evening when no one was about when he could swim without interruption, the day boys long gone home, the boarders busy with evening prep. He could rinse off and get changed in peace.
Whenever he remembered his physical education classes, the same distinct image teased its way into Richard’s consciousness. Amidst bodies rummaging through bags and wandering towel-clad to the constantly steaming showers, two seniors, one sitting fully clothed on a bench talking to his friend who was standing. As the seated boy spoke, the other disrobed before him, tugging off sports gear until he was completely, spectacularly, naked. That the seated jock could appear so indifferent to such an uninhibited exhibition remained with Richard, but the scene held no appeal now. If he reflected on it for too long he felt nauseous. He had a strong aversion to grubby, stinking adolescents. But at sixteen his lust had been almost unbearable.
It was unsettling being here again, in the exposed awareness of so many past events. The Headmaster’s invitation to use the pool had triggered a temptation, certainly unexpected, to return and search for the reality of the place. To reconcile his adolescent obsessions with the cold salve of hindsight. Now here he was, in the same change-room that figured in his memory, the putrid odour of running shoes and unwashed sports gear vying with an unintended allure of bleach.
He stood for longer than necessary under a hot jet, enjoying its delicate hammering on his shoulders. Here, at the dead end of the L-shaped changing room, he finally felt at ease. His life was different now. He had taken no interest in his body at school. He was not athletic in any way. The compulsion to play sport that appeared to engulf other boys had failed to stir in him. His attitude changed at university where he made the link between sport and sex. His body became a commodity and for a long time developing it was more important than pursuing a career associated with money or influence. Then, and in the ensuing years, he had put in a lot of hours at the gym. He was proud of his physique and knew it still held the promise of attention if he chose to use it.
Drying off, his reverie was broken by the hissing of a disturbed urinal and the echo of footsteps from around the corner. He imagined a swarthy rugby player in jersey and shorts, perspiring and breathing heavily. In the brief silence that followed, Richard felt himself tense and could hear the pulsing of his own blood. The footsteps came closer.
The intruder appeared. An old man in overalls. The stranger nodded acknowledgement then disappeared again. A cleaner looking for a lost mop or something. Alone again, Richard finished drying himself, pulled on his clothes and left.
On an afternoon when his classes had finished, he decided to walk to the bottle shop to buy some wine. By the time he arrived back, the scholars had left for their families in distant parts of the city. He was reluctant to return to his desk despite a self-imposed deadline. He knew he was procrastinating but crossed Gregory Terrace and entered the school anyway.
The grounds were quite deserted. With all these memories of feeling trapped, it was strange to be able to walk around so freely. He found his favourite block of classrooms. Ironically still known as the New Building, it had been constructed in the twenties and, from open verandas, offered an unsurpassed view over the rugby ovals and across to what claimed to be the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere. As he stood beside the gaping bag racks, he recollected daydreaming through his maths classes, watching the changing skies and waiting for hours to pass.
On one of the ovals, he spied a solitary figure. A youth with longish hair practising sprints. The hairstyle would not have been permitted in Richard’s time. Some of the rules had obviously been relaxed. He squinted. Was it Julian? Too far to see. The athlete sprang off down the track. Richard contemplated taking a closer look. The boy was a loner, ambitious like him, although his own ambition ran a more intellectual route.
The figure looked up and saluted. He gestured back without thinking, an instinctive, effete wave. Then the athlete turned back to his task. Richard left the veranda and retreated back to his cottage.
“Is it true you were bashed on the weekend?”
He looks squarely at the other boy.
Piss off,” he says under his breath and walks over to his friends sitting on their usual benches under the Moreton Bay Figs. They are dodging pieces of fruit pegged by members of the fourth form who know the senior boys are fags.
When he arrives they are having an argument about how to deal with the problem of flying mandarin segments.
“If you didn’t look so camp they would leave us alone!”
“Me? What about you, you big girl!”
“Oh, I hate you! ‘Big girl’ That’s what that evil phys ed teacher says. It’s so offensive!”
“Shh! Keep your voice down or we’ll be bashed!”
They giggle as another bit of peel passes over their heads.
Nick is standing there and drops the soggy sandwich he’s been feeding himself. “Yeah, c’mon, I’ll bash ya,” he growls sarcastically, raising his fists, dancing a pantomime of brutish threat.
The trees are still heavy with moisture from last night’s downpour. It clings to their leaves and drips unpredictably into the wool of his blazer. Later, in the classroom, the musty smell will be an annoyance as he worries about the blazer shrinking and looking more ridiculous than it does already.
“Watch out, here come the Rugby-Heads.”
He looks over to see three boys striding across from the Great Hall. The boy in front is Gary Bishop, the one who was pinning back his arms on Saturday night. The trio is joking about something and one of the others keeps looking over, smirking stupidly.
“That Gary Bishop is so ugly.”
Not only that, he’s as thick as a brick, he thinks to himself, watching the big-chested thug walk by, hips thrust forward as if he has coconuts for balls. Bishop fails to look his way. He feels the pinch of pain in his ribs. One of his friends is staring at the blue ring around his eye.
“Richard, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Was Nick with you when it happened?”
“I told you, I don’t want to talk about it.” He glances at Nick who is silent, devouring another sandwich. It’s always damp here whether it’s been raining or not. The figs split and rot after they fall, leaving a mess like an incontinent animal on the wooden benches.
“I’ve gotta go,” he says. “Dalton wants to see me.”
He carries himself through the quadrangle feeling watched from every direction. It’s a clear day, the glare strong from the low winter sun. Entering a dark passageway, he starts slowly up the stairs. Another blazer is descending and he flinches as they pass, his vision still adjusting, unable to make out who it is.
“Nice bruise, Turner.”
Mr. Dalton sits alone in the classroom. He’s been marking papers. He signals to pull up a chair. The windows are shut, trapping the precious warmth. It’s quiet, like a theatre where actors rehearse to rows of empty seats.
“Well, the way I see it you’ve got two choices, Richard.” Dalton is sitting so close their knees could touch. His breath stinks. “You can let it go and put it down to experience or you can make a complaint. If you do that you know the Headmaster is going to want to know why you were in town drinking on the weekend. You’re not exactly innocent, are you?” Dalton cocks his bald pate, squinting. Slicing the laminated surface of Dalton’s desk, the sunlight creates a sharp but temporary edge. “It’s approaching the last few months at school. Exam time. It’s your decision, Richard, but do you really want to kick up a fuss about this now?”
As he sipped his Merlot, Richard pondered the circuitousness of the Headmaster at their first meeting. Was it suspicion? Was he sounding him out? Everybody knew about the scandal. Carey had been the guidance counsellor for over two decades. He was almost an institution himself and had the confidence of the teaching staff, the parents and, particularly, the boys. But Carey’s guidance was far from professional. Hypnosis and massage were the tools of his deception. Trust was his protection. He had been helping himself to boys for years.
Richard was relieved that he had not been the counsellor’s prey. At the same time, he regretted an absence of encounters with his peers. He passed silently through each year with unspoken crushes and infatuations, oblivious to the affairs and clandestine romances occurring around him, all of which he heard about later through Nick. The captain of cricket and a prefect in the boarding house. The head boy and one of the debating champions. A stunning young economics teacher with, well, Nick of course. As a schoolboy, Richard’s own experimentation remained limited to solitary episodes of self-pleasure until, when the opportunity finally presented itself, a few encounters with a dreary but unreserved senior from the local Catholic girl’s school offered him temporary redemption.
Throughout those years he was caught up by his clumsy body and the opinions of others. Leaving Brisbane had enabled him to escape it all and reinvent himself.
“You can’t write that!”
“Yeah, as if the teachers are going to allow obscenities in the school anthology.”
They sat on chairs arranged in a rough circle in the garden of the cottage. As the debate continued, Richard observed the sportsmen were diligently working on their poems. Perhaps he had made a difference after all. Only Julian seemed distracted, not engaged in the discussion, sitting back and staring into the middle distance. Richard noticed how neatly he wore his uniform. It wasn’t only his good looks but also self-pride that made him stand out. And he wasn’t really part of the jock group. One of the sportsmen hawked and disturbed the next thought. When he looked up, Richard caught Julian’s eyes just before they glanced away.
Collecting himself, he asked, “Any other opinions on censorship?”
“Sometimes it’s necessary to use swearing to show the voice of the character,” said the Indian boy.
“Well there are words themselves but also what the words are about,” explained the smoker. “Personally, I think we should break some taboos.”
“What, like getting pissed on a weeknight?” said a footballer.
“Like your old man, Julo,” added his mate. Julian accommodated the proceeding laughter with his usual silence and smiling tolerance.
“Actually,” the smoker began, “I was thinking more about issues like drugs, masturbation, homosexuality…”
“No way, that’s sicko.”
“Well, I agree,” said Richard. “Don’t you think this is a good opportunity to show the reality of your lives?”
“Are you saying we’re poofters?” demanded one of the footballers.
“I think he meant wankers.”
“Sir, our parents are paying good money to see us succeed. I don’t think we should let them down.” There was an outburst of laughter.
“What do you think Julian?” asked Richard.
“Whatever,” he shrugged.
“Not so sharp but what do you expect from someone named after a Rugby player.” The smoker was claiming back some territory.
The breeze had picked up, stirring a pile of leaves on the paving.
“Julo doesn’t wank Sir, he’s got too many women to satisfy.”
“Well I’ll make a deal with you,” Richard said to all of them. “You write on something you are passionate about and you don’t need to break any taboos.” He gestured towards Julian. “Write about football if you want.”
“Athletics,” replied Julian. “I don’t play football.”
“Hey we’re wrong,” one of the footballers slapped his mate on the chest. “He does enjoy the solo sports!”
Richard turned his back on them and faced Julian. “But weren’t you named after a footballer?”
“That’s my Dad. He wanted me to play. I used to do gymnastics but I got too tall. So now it’s swimming in summer, track, and field in the off-season.”
“Oh Julian, he’s hot for you.”
For a moment, Richard thought he would blush, but one of the quieter boys did it for him. It made him angry they could still produce this reaction. He reassured himself they knew nothing about him.
“Okay guys, that’s enough for today. Keep working on your ideas. I’m sure you won’t have any trouble making them confronting.”
Some weeks into Richard’s residency, the Headmaster asked him to start attending school assemblies.
“You will appreciate it,” the Headmaster insisted. “It will make you feel part of the school family”.
The teaching staff still sat on a stage in rows, facing throngs of boys. Two opposing forces; the larger, an army of almost two thousand, approaching the prime of their manhood. The smaller battle-weary contingent, arms folded, perhaps a little apprehensive whether they had the power to resist their antagonists in the event of an uprising. The hymn was announced, the assembly stood and after a brief but faltering introduction from the pipe organ, all broke into song.
Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voi-ces;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoi-ces.
The boys droned on, individuals making up their own sardonic lyrics, unheard above the din.
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours to-day.
Richard scanned the front rows and saw the ginger-headed boy. Further to his right and back a row was Julian, arms crossed like a presence from the past, slipping out of his yearbook in confident mimicry.
After assembly Richard went to the common room and found himself once again in the company of the Headmaster.
“Richard! What do you think of what we’ve done with the place?”
“Oh, excellent. Very… resourced.”
“We hope you’re going to do good things with our boys. You know it’s their grammar that needs work. I spent a whole period with a fifth form English class last week repeatedly explaining the difference between ‘might’ and ‘may’. They have no idea about tense you know.”
Richard noticed dark clouds shifting in from the north. The rugby ovals were in shadow. At their edge, an embankment of acacias dropped sharply to the railway tracks beyond which lay more playing fields and a sylvan golf course. Crossing the overbridge a thread of footballers headed out to training, their burly bodies a giant blue caterpillar escaping to the forest.
“Looks like we might be in for a storm.”
They tumble out from the cinema, loose headed from the gin. He can’t even remember what they’ve just seen. The whole point was to get drunk anyway. A busy Saturday night. A group of young Christians is gathering outside Festival Hall, making declarations about the Bible while singing veneration to a guitar accompaniment. They’re all smiling rapturously, a few clapping their hands. Couples walk past arm in arm or embrace as they point into shop windows. He stands outside a parking station with Nick, boozy, wondering what they’ll do next, hoping the night is just beginning.
Then he sees them, coming out of the steak-house across the road. The Second XV out celebrating the end of season. He turns to Nick to see if he’s noticed.
“C’mon, run!” Nick orders.
“Why?” Surely Nick is overreacting but, as he turns back, the footballers are striding across the road and upon him.
“You faggot, Turner!”
He cries out as his arms are pulled back sharply, buckling at the first blow, a strike to his jaw.
“Take this, cocksucker.” He tries to get down, to protect his face. The guy holding him lets him go then and he drops and curls his body in, feeling the thump of boots in his stomach and back.
It doesn’t hurt as much as it should, he thinks, finally realising what is happening. It’s all too unreal, a nightmare perhaps. Then everything stops and goes quiet.
He comes to, awake to the pain. Clutching his side, he feels gobs of spit on his ripped shirt. His other hand is numb, wiping bloody drool from his mouth. He tries to stand, dizzy, tries to look around for Nick. His shoes are scuffed and bloodied and he sees more blood on the footpath and more spit. Struggling to open one eye he begins to cry and then panics. Are they still there? He stands shaking, waiting for Nick, wondering what to do.
Across the road, the Christians have stopped singing and are dispersing. Some of the girls hold their hands to their mouths, gawking at him. The couples wander past, pointing and looking disdainful.
Nick appears from around the corner of the parking station, cautiously picking his way between lumps of phlegm on the pavement. “Are you all right?”
He feels like he is crying. At least there are tears draining from his stinging eyes. He’s angry now he knows the footballers have gone and he’s angry with Nick for having deserted him.
“Yeah, yeah I think so,” he says cradling his face with his good hand. “I think they broke my lip.” The salty taste dribbles into his mouth. Nick takes him back into the cinema toilets so he can wash his face. He’s okay but he doesn’t want to leave the toilet. Nick urges him on, walks him to the train and they say goodbye.
“We have to make some decisions,” announced Richard, “about which pieces will be included in the anthology.” They were outside the cottage, under the trees, discussing the merits of a poem titled The Old Boys Know Best written by a younger student.
“That’s a faggot poem,” volunteered a footballer, and was congratulated with guffaws from a few others.
“Do we have to choose school related stuff?”
Richard nodded. “I think it would be appropriate to have the broadest range of themes possible. Topics that are significant to you: sex, drugs…”
“Rock & roll?” offered the smoker.
“Sport,” added Richard turning to the appropriate targets.
“My Dad’s an old boy,” Julian said.
“Really?” said Richard. “When was he here?”
He copies out three lists of his attackers. At the top of each list, he writes the name of the ringleader, the one who pinned back his arms. He puts one list in his wallet. Another he glues in his journal. The third list he puts in an envelope that he sends to the ringleader. He remembers their names and does not want to forget.
“Our parents want the best for us,” said the Indian boy. “They love us. They want to give us the gift of an education.”
Julian’s revelation had led the group into a discussion about the merits of being an old boy’s son. Richard sat in silence, resting his head in one hand, clutching his roll of names with the other. The school motto, at the top of the page, glared back at him. An admonition, or perhaps a prediction, of his fate.
Nil Sine Labore
Under the emblem was the surname he had looked at so many times but neglected to recognise, lost amongst the others. He checked through them again, but ‘Bishop’ was the only one on the list.
“They put us here because they think they can buy us an education,” said the smoker.
That evening Richard had just uncapped a bottle of merlot and was about to pour when he heard someone knocking. He put down the glass, went to the door and opened it. For a moment he was face to face with his nemesis illuminated in the porch light. He heard himself actually gasp before his brain kicked in. It wasn’t Gary Bishop’s but a softer, more open face looking back at him.
“I brought these,” Julian offered a six-pack.
“What are you doing here?” Richard glanced around to see if anyone else was about. “School’s over. It’s dark. You should be home.”
“I’ve been told I have to write something for this book you’re putting together.”
“Yeah, or I fail English.”
Out of school uniform, he was a typical adolescent in skate shoes, skinny jeans, and hoodie. But there was something about the kid’s expression, a kind of silent plea, Richard had seen it before.
“Come in.” He let Julian pass, carrying the beer. Still in shock, the roar of vehicles as the traffic lights changed reminded him he had not closed the front door. With a gentle push, the latch clicked and the street noise muffled to a hum.
Standing in his kitchen was the teenage son of his teenage assailant. Carey, of all people, came to mind. Carey who would have taken this boy straight upstairs for ‘relaxation therapy’. Carey who, finally exposed, had gassed himself in his car.
“You prefer wine?” Julian held up the six-pack and nodded towards the open bottle on the counter.
“I can’t accept those.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Richard took the six-pack from him and placed it on the kitchen bench. He screwed on the bottle cap and put the Merlot in the fridge.
“Sit down,” he said. “So you need something to write about?”
“Let me tell you a story about your dad.”