WILLIAM DUTTON WAS still walking towards school. Two decades after he’d finished, still. Carrying his guitar, head down, mumbling to himself, resenting that he had to go, waste another day, fill in shitty little forms that he always got wrong, screwed up, started again, or forgot to attach, eliciting a reminder email. He didn’t even like schools, but where else could a guitar teacher get work? He didn’t like how the bell was the same bell as in the ’70s – loud, metallic, unable to compromise, still cutting days into geography-sized pieces, unwilling to allow sunshine, Ginsberg’s hipster funk or fun. Fun. Fancy that. And the way teachers stood in hallways discussing assessment criteria and performance standards, like the boys were goats to be fattened to fetch the best price at the abattoir. He hated his pigeonhole, because it never contained anything he was interested in, just more work, more shit to fill in, more complaints from parents. And he hated them too. Why couldn’t they just teach their own kids, or feed them, take them to sport, imbue manners? Yes, manners. They had to be imbued. He couldn’t understand what people talked about in staff meetings. What did it matter if socks were worn below the knee? Or if no one had completed their sixty hours of professional development? What was professional development? How to make an effective rubric? Rubrics. Fuck. More shit, less interest than Mein Kampf – although at least that started a war.
He entered through the big iron gates, crossed the Brother blah-blah memorial lawns, and stopped to admire a life-sized statue of Mary. She was wearing a smock filled with needles from nearby pine trees, and there was mud on her feet from where the principal’s car drove past every morning. Her marble arms were missing. A handwritten sign, covered in perspex, explained how this was the work of vandals.
Good Friday. 1954. The Virgin was desecrated, and partly restored. Due to a lack of marble, and suitable craftsmen, the Holy Mother was left in her present state to reflect the suffering of Jesus on His cross.
Nearby, a brass plaque beside a carpark told the story of Irish monks who’d inspired the founding of Lindisfarne College – a lifetime spent copying Bibles, developing cataracts and freezing in a cave. That was devotion, the boys were told by the college’s surviving Brother. Eadfrith and Ethelwald, the love of God and porridge.
Tons and tons of it, still served in vats in the boarding house.
William was suffering on his own cross: the prospect of seven hours of guitar lessons. His small room in the music suite. Eight teenage boys murdering Deep Purple, each of them fresh from PE lessons, smelling like old plums gone bad on someone’s back lawn. He’d taken to keeping a can of deodorant in his room, but only used it after they’d gone, unable to tell them the body starts doing its own thing after thirteen years of age.
He walked past a sandstone mansion that had once been the centre of this forty-acre property. Now it was the administration building. The tiles on the entry porch had sunk and cracked. The white paint was peeling. There were proud flags, but these too were threadbare around the edges. Still, there were iceberg roses, figs in giant pots and BMWs and Audis left running on the gravel drive as mums ran inside to pay their fees.
Lindisfarne House, as it was called, was the college’s showpiece. For years its floorboards had creaked under the weight of black-robed Christian Brothers, the boys who carried their books, red-necked boarders and Van de Graaff generators. Now it was home to HR managers, finance officers and assistant principals with massage chairs.
Lindisfarne College was the poor cousin of a family of elite schools. It had managed to borrow and beg enough money to build an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a new science centre and library, but it still had plenty of hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter classrooms from the ’40s and ’50s. Cracked mortar rooms, their old wiring covered with asbestos, cornices coming away and walls crumbling where nails had been hammered in. Threadbare carpet and the smell of boys – eighty years of them, caught in an eternity of Pythagoras and cold showers, waiting for Godot as the smell of paint and more perspiration filled their rooms and dreams.
Boys – foursquare and basketball in the twenty minutes between Latin and Bach. Pasties with burnt edges dropped over the Thoreau Wing balcony. Cricket bats in cracked leather cases. Leftover spag bol in Tupperware eaten cold under dying jacarandas. Boys – grunting, spitting, picking fights over whose brother had the hottest Monaro.
William entered the music suite and climbed the stairs to his teaching room. His first student was already waiting for him. ‘G’day, Charlie.’
‘Sir,’ the boy replied, catching his teacher’s eye and then looking away.
‘Been waiting long?’
‘A few minutes.’
William entered the room and switched on the light. The fluoro flickered and then came to life. That was the Lindisfarne way – things working despite age, ability or lack of maintenance. Like most of the teachers – grey-bearded, nasal-haired men with their own body odour issues. Yes, they all knew their stuff – got their boys through with near-perfect scores – but whenever you needed light they always flickered. Lindisfarne teachers always had at least one button missing from their shirt. Some had descended to picking their nose in class.
‘Sit down, Charlie,’ William said, pulling up a chair for the boy. ‘I’m late. Am I late?’
‘No, I’m early.’
‘Good. Should we start with some scales?’
Charlie took his acoustic guitar from its case as William spread the sheet music on a stand. ‘How did you go?’ he asked.
Charlie bit his lip. ‘Okay, I guess.’
‘It’s just remembering.’
‘Well let’s see…sit up straight.’
Charlie straightened his back, looked at the music then slouched again.
‘Straight,’ William repeated. He stood, came around behind the boy and pulled his shoulders back. ‘Like that…can you stay like that?’
‘How tall are you?’
‘Taller than my dad.’
‘That’s not a height. You must be five eight. You’re gonna have to put your shoulders back.’ He continued applying pressure. ‘Can you keep them there?’
‘If I let go?’
William let go and the boy held himself straight. ‘I can’t do this and play.’
William sat down and the boy began. He started on a low E and made his way up the fretboard. William watched his fingers: long digits covered in sun-bleached skin. Knuckle-bound fingers – clumsy, craving precision – stretching and twisting up a path of semitones.
William was consumed by the small, simple movements. He slipped in and out of this hypnosis, trying to make a remark, but failing. He wasn’t really listening or watching. His eyes moved onto the boy’s long and slender arms. Awkward, bent up at improbable angles – marionette arms, bouncing about in defiance of music.
Charlie was looking at him.
‘Good,’ William said, coming out of his trance. ‘But you’ve slouched again.’
Charlie shrugged. ‘You never see Chris Shiflett standing like that.’
‘He doesn’t need to. He’s got millions.’
‘I don’t want to be…classical.’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘I’m not interested in Mozart.’
‘Listen, Charlie Price, I’m getting paid to teach you good habits. All of the Kurt Cobain stuff, and the wanky solos, that comes later.’
Charlie had a broad smile across his face. ‘I didn’t say I wanted to be Kurt Cobain.’
‘It was just a wild guess.’
‘I just want to be a good guitarist.’
‘Well, sit up then.’
Charlie straightened, and then slouched. ‘What?’
‘Christ.’ William knew there was no point pursuing posture. It wasn’t that Charlie didn’t agree, he just didn’t agree enough. His mind couldn’t make the connection between a straight back and a blues riff. He understood. He’d once been fourteen years old. He could remember not seeing the point of folding and putting away clothes he’d be wearing the next day. Of hanging up towels that dried just as well on the floor. Of having to tell his parents about the book he was reading when they didn’t read (or seem to care about) books.
‘I tell you one thing,’ William said. ‘You wanna be a star, you learn how to write a good song.’
‘I can.’ Charlie took out his iPhone, offered William an earpiece and took one for himself. He pressed play and they listened. It was solid, grunting, granny-flat rock – Charlie and two mates – guitar, drums, bass and vocals. The song described how love made you feel when it’s hot, when it’s cold, when you’re down, when you’re happy, when you’ve had enough. There was barely a riff that hadn’t been stolen, a chord progression borrowed or lyric reworked. Charlie was still blue without you, suffering without his lover (like no other) and searching for a way to fix this thing that’s torn us apart. Despite this, the song worked. It was fresh, catchy, in-your-face, smelling of Rite Price teen spirit.
Charlie was taken by his own music. He stretched back in his seat, tapped his feet, stared at the wall and smiled.
William could see how tall he really was. It was as though his legs had been stretched by some device. They were more scaffold than limb, clamped at the knees, narrowing into gristly ankles that somehow supported his whole body. He studied the boy’s face. His pine-blonde hair, twisted into dreadlocks; a small, refined nose, ending in a finely chiselled tip; flat, broad cheeks and brown eyes that were hidden, curious, peeping out through slits like gun emplacements.
Charlie looked at him. William closed his mouth, removed the earpiece and said, ‘Not bad.’
‘It’s got quite a catchy chorus.’
‘Yes, keep at it. You fellas played anywhere yet?’
‘Just my living room, when Dad’s at work. Mr Ordon lets us have a room at lunch sometimes…if the Glee Club’s not singing.’
William was caught up in the boy’s eyes. ‘That’d be your thing, wouldn’t it?’
‘You wouldn’t know who she was?’
‘On Moonlight Bay.’ Screwing up his nose.
A WEEK LATER William was back outside the Lindisfarne College music suite. He looked at the whitewashed walls, the tinted windows and brass plaques to honour former music masters. He didn’t know why this annoyed the hell out of him, but it annoyed the hell out of him. Wasn’t music meant to be risky? Wasn’t it meant to say something? Didn’t it have the job, like books and poems and paintings, to question? So why the obsession with Beatles medleys, My, my, my Delilah and ABBA tributes? Was it that music, and what he was meant to pass on, had become so much wallpaper? Admired, and made, by the ordinary? And if so, where did that leave him? A perfectly respectable Sid Vicious?
Pete Ordon, Lindisfarne’s head of music, approached him from behind and held his shoulder. ‘How are you, Jimi?’
‘Good,’ William replied, pointing to a pair of school-blazered, saxophone-playing teddy bears in the window. ‘Your idea?’
Pete lifted his eyebrows. ‘One of the mums – she hand-sewed the blazers.’
‘You should go clean her pool.’
‘I’d rather fuck a donkey.’
He visualised a Volvo mum waiting outside a classroom, trying to catch a glimpse of something else to complain about. ‘We should make them do something useful.’ Then he sensed his friend was eager to return to work. Always eager. Too ambitious. That’s what had ruined him.
‘How are your students going?’ Pete asked.
‘Fine. Usual bunch of little rock stars.’
The stocky teacher smoothed the greying hair on the sides of his head and grinned. ‘Well, you’re just the one. What’s your group called?’
‘That’s how long we’ve been playing.’
Pete loosened his tie and said, ‘Don’t give up…any day now.’
‘Fuck off, no one’s paying you to compose symphonies.’
‘No one listens to symphonies any more.’
William smiled. ‘That’s okay then. Sit back and teach. Whatever happened to that string quartet you had performed?’
‘It was recorded, and copies distributed.’
‘What, ten, twelve?’
‘Three hundred. What about Nixon’s Cat?’
‘Nimrod’s. You’d be surprised.’
Pete started to go but then stopped short. ‘I meant to ask if we have any decent guitarists this year?’
William visualised the faces – the sweaty brows and big ears, the pimples, the peach fuzz and clumsy fingers. ‘Little wog called Alessio…Scuzzi, Scuzzioso, something. Very classical. Straight back. Bought himself a foot stand.’
‘And Charlie Price, you know him?’
‘Great kid. Very serious. Works his arse off.’
William could hear himself saying it, but didn’t quite believe it. Charlie was an average student, not the type who could sightread a piece first time. William could see himself in Charlie – all of the desire, the rock’n’roll fantasies, the smashed guitars and witty replies at the press conferences he held in his head – but whether he had the determination, stamina or talent to achieve anything of this remained to be seen.
‘Do you get much out of him?’ Pete asked.
‘Well…he’s a nice enough kid.’
‘I had him last year. Shy as all hell. Reckon I got three words out of him.’
‘Really? He talks to me.’
‘Good, he must like your lessons. Not that he’s unpopular. All the other boys flock around him – you know, being athletic. But he never seems that interested in them. Often see him in the library sitting by himself, reading.’
William thought this was strange. ‘Some of them mature earlier.’
‘I suppose. His mother died of cancer a few years back. I remember them having a service in the chapel. The whole junior school was there. Charles, he was in the front row with his mates, and his dad, and I thought it was strange how he just stared at the ground the whole time.’
‘That explains it, eh?’
The music department secretary stuck her head outside the door. ‘Pete, parent on the phone.’
‘Tell ’em to fuck off.’
She stared at him.
And he was gone – past the school crest on the wall, the coat of arms acid-etched into the glass doors and a young boy waiting with his saxophone. ‘Mr Ordon swore,’ he said.
William took a step towards him and whispered, ‘Keep it to yourself. He’s under a lot of stress.’
William started his day with Alessio, who explained how he’d been studying a video of Segovia and wanted to learn to play in the same manner – the runs, the fingerpicking, the dancing fingers and light touch.
‘As I say to everyone,’ William explained, ‘it all comes back to scales.’
‘I know as far as F sharp.’
‘How much practice do you do?’
‘Three hours a night.’
William knew it couldn’t be true. Three hours would produce a half-decent ‘Cavatina’. But here was a small, stove-shaped Italian who could barely produce an in-tune ‘Three Blind Mice’. ‘Three hours?’
There was no point arguing. He’d only tell his mum and then she’d be on the phone blaming him for her son’s lack of Segovia-like attributes.
After Alessio there were another three beginners, and an hour and a half of clock watching and wandering thoughts. At one point he saw himself standing up, walking from the room and strolling across the Lindisfarne lawns. He could see himself sitting under a pine tree, lighting a cigarette and stretching out on the soft grass, covering his face with a cap and cursing the armless Virgin. The city skyline made him think of Turkish coffee, garlic sauce and cold beer. But then he opened his eyes and saw ten stumpy fingers murdering ‘Yesterday’.
A simple melody, he thought. How can you get it wrong?
‘No,’ he said to the boy, moving his fingers. ‘Up close, behind the fret.’
But then, during his last lesson before lunch, he looked up to see Charlie standing in the doorway. He stood to greet him. ‘Come in, Charlie, sit down.’
He pulled out a chair and they both sat down. As Charlie unpacked his guitar he flicked through the boy’s music folder with refreshed eyes. ‘So, how did you go?’
‘Okay, I guess.’
‘You’re still guessing?’
‘The more you do it the worse it sounds.’
William held up a finger. ‘That’s a good sign – repetition. That’s how you learnt your times tables, wasn’t it?’
‘And Hail Mary, and Our Father. They’re more interested in that crap here. Sorry, you’re not Catholic?’
‘It might come in useful one day.’
‘When you’re on your deathbed.’
Charlie just laughed. ‘Tables’d do me more good.’
William sat up. ‘Okay, let’s hear you then.’
Charlie looked at the music, squinted, adjusted his guitar and positioned his fingers.
‘Watch the music, not your fingers,’ William said.
‘Then I won’t be able to play.’
He started off with the G major scale. As he played he bit his bottom lip, pushed his tongue against the inside of his mouth, fumbled, stopped and looked at William apologetically, then kept on slowly and carefully as he moved up the fretboard.
William was studying his face.
Cancer, he wanted to say. That must have been hard.
I guess, he could hear, as a reply.
Do you miss her, he imagined saying, but this time there would be no reply, as the boy looked down at the ground and shrugged.
Instead he said, ‘Excellent. You seem to have the pattern. Keep it up. Use it as a warm-up. I know you’d rather be playing “Smoke on the Water”, but any idiot can do that stuff. Now, your pieces.’
Charlie continued. William looked at his tightly twisted dreadlocks. ‘I like your hair,’ he heard himself saying.
Charlie stopped, surprised. ‘My sister does it. She’s a hairdresser. I can ask her to do yours if you like.’
‘No, I can’t see it. I had a mullet at one stage, a permed mullet, but that was before you were born.’
Charlie was smiling, and William felt he had to keep going. ‘My mate’s girlfriend was training to be a stylist, so.’
Charlie screwed up his nose. ‘You, with a perm?’
‘They were strange times.’
‘You’d look good with dreads. She wouldn’t charge.’
William could feel himself approaching the line, and watching and listening to what was on the other side. He could smell youth and fear, and the excitement of everything for the first time. He could hear a buzzing guitar and flat notes, and felt the vibrations through his fingers and toes. Staring into Charlie’s eyes, he wondered what to say. At last he managed, ‘You should come and play a few numbers with my band.’
Charlie smiled. ‘That’d be great. I’d love that. What sort of things do you play?’
‘Mostly original. A bit of distortion, a bit of attitude. You know, Sid Vicious. You do know Sid?’
‘We’re a little bit punk.’
Charlie’s smile widened. ‘No pop?’
And then they stared at each other again.
‘Fuck, that’s what I want to play,’ Charlie said.
William just smiled.
‘I better not say that, eh?’
‘Just make sure no one’s listening.’ And then, continuing to forget he was a teacher, William showed Charlie a few blues patterns he could play for solos.
Charlie too had forgotten it was a lesson. This was black and sticky, and rock’n’roll; it was a recording studio at three in the morning, a hotel room, a front bar – anywhere but school. He was no longer sitting beside his teacher. It was someone else all together. As he practised the box pattern, bending notes, hearing real attitude coming from his fingers for the first time – he forgot who he was.
He was no longer wearing a uniform, a tie. He’d moved beyond Pythagoras and yard cards into a world of his own devising. There were no rules, no paths to stay on, no tenses to stick to – just a string of unremarkable sounds that followed each other into melody. He had no control over them. They seemed to have their own life. They sang – ranging high and low, groaning, fading. This was a lesson that couldn’t be taught. ‘It’s so simple, but it sounds so good.’
‘Exactly. It’s the blues – poor man’s music.’
And he was back on the strings, obsessing.
William looked at the clock and noticed they’d gone fifteen minutes into lunch. Still, he didn’t say a word. He played some chords and Charlie improvised over them. Half an hour later the lunch bell sounded and he said, ‘Okay, that’s it. I think we lost track of time.’
‘Who cares?’ Charlie said, sliding his guitar into its case.
‘Your mum might,’ William replied, realising his mistake. ‘Or your dad.’
‘He wouldn’t care.’
‘Yes, he would.’
But Charlie just looked at him and shook his head. ‘Next Thursday?’
‘Do you teach before then?’
‘Okay. See ya.’
William extended his hand and Charlie shook it. ‘Rock’n’roll.’
‘Fuckin’ eh,’ the boy replied, grinning.
‘IT’S JUST UNLIKE you,’ Damien Price said to his son, as they sat opposite each other in their living room.
‘I didn’t realise the time.’
‘Well, he should’ve.’
Charlie had no reply. He just sat back with his feet on an old coffee table, staring at another dumb game show. At fourteen he’d already worked out that most people were stupid. Magazines provided ample proof: baby bumps, Malibu mansions and a thousand Ken and Barbies lip-syncing their way through life. That wasn’t the worst of it. At least they’d found a way of making money. It was the morons who paid to read about it. And here, more peanuts jumping around on the telly.
He watched the audience encourage the contestant. Yes, this is why there’s rock’n’roll, he guessed. In the absence of revolution, anarchy or sensible people running things, a guitar, bass and drums would have to do.
‘Tell him to sort it,’ Damien Price growled, picking a crumb from the corner of his mouth.
‘It was my fault.’
‘This goes on your record.’
‘No, it doesn’t.’
‘It does. I’m not paying eight thousand a year…’ He trailed off, and sat looking at the card in his hand:
LATE SLIP: Charlie Price
YOU ARE TO REPORT TO STUDENT SERVICES, TUESDAY, 12.55,
COLLECT GLOVES, BAG AND TONGS, FIND A YARD DUTY TEACHER AND COLLECT RUBBISH UNDER SUPERVISION FOR TWENTY MINUTES. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN AN AFTER-SCHOOL DETENTION.
‘What were you doing?’ Damien asked.
‘Can you at least look at me when you talk?’
Charlie looked up. ‘We were practising.’
‘You must have heard the bell.’
‘It’s a soundproof room.’
‘Okay, bullshit, but it is.’
Damien sat forward. ‘Watch your tone.’
Charlie watched an ad for an exercise machine. He looked at the male model and said: ‘He shaves himself.’
Damien sank into his seat. The springs were gone, but there was no money for repairs. That, he guessed, was what Charlie didn’t understand: there were a lot of other uses for eight thousand dollars – a stove with a working hotplate, rising damp in the bathroom. He knew there was no point nagging his son. He didn’t listen, and he certainly didn’t hear. He called it Charlie’s World. Charlie lived in Charlie’s World. Unless there was something he wanted to hear.
Damien had his son’s long face, but it had been pushed out by time. He had his blue eyes and arching brows, but his nose was flatter, finished with a few fine capillaries. He had the Price shoulders – flat, strong and mechanical where they attached to arms. His body was narrow too, although he had a potbelly that could be hidden with a loose shirt.
‘So, now you’re stuck picking up papers,’ he said, undoing his belt, loosening his tie and refolding the yellow card.
‘You’ve gotta sign it,’ Charlie said.
‘And what if I don’t?’
‘I’ll get an after-school detention.’
Charlie watched as his dad took a pen from the pocket of his Datsunland shirt. He looked at the cursive letters trailing across his chest: ‘It’s a World of Datsuns out there.’ And wankers, he thought.
Damien signed the card and flicked it across to him. ‘So what else happened today?’ Opening a can of beer.
‘We’re learning about mitosis.’
Damien drank and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Charlie looked at him. Disgusting, he thought. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the way he always hitched his pants, blew his nose into a handkerchief he refolded and pocketed, walked around the house in his undies, cut his toenails on the lounge, cleared his throat and spat in the garden. It wasn’t as bad as the dumb game shows he watched, the way he called women ‘love’ and ‘darl’, the way he unpicked his undies from his bum and said, ‘Yes, too true’, as he listened to shock jocks.
‘Cells…like bacteria?’ Damien asked.
‘And that’s it?’
‘So that killed an hour. What about the rest of the day?’
‘I dunno. Stuff.’
Damien stared at his son. He had no idea what to say to make conversation, to connect, to create some sort of spark. All that was required of him, it seemed, was silence, cash and food.
I could put you in a state school, he felt like saying, but didn’t. His son was at Lindisfarne because his wife, Carol, had wanted him there. It was one of the last things she’d said to him. ‘He’s so handsome in a blazer, isn’t he?’
Damien dropped his stare, following his son’s leg down to the threadbare rug. ‘I got you pasta for lunch tomorrow.’
‘You wanna do the crossword with me?’
‘Not now, Dad. I do that stuff all day.’ He stood and looked at the television.
‘We gotta fix your hair or there’ll be another letter home,’ Damien said.
‘They can’t make me.’
‘It’s my hair.’
‘It’s their school.’
Charlie looked at the contestants jumping around, clutching their oversized cheque.
‘Perhaps Nicole will come over,’ Damien said.
Charlie looked at him. ‘You’d think they’d worry about other things.’ He went into his bedroom and sat with his guitar on his lap. Then he tried to remember the box patterns that William had showed him.
After tea he was back at it, and at eleven o’clock his father called out from his room, ‘Put that damn thing away, and get to bed.’
So he switched off the light, and continued practising without plucking the strings.
Still, Damien could hear him. He said nothing. He spread a newspaper out across his bed and started searching the classifieds. He checked that all of his Datsunland ads had been put in correctly: a 2001 Toyota Camry, new tyres and low kilometres; a 1993 VP Commodore with reconditioned engine; a chirpy Volkswagen Golf; a couple of Corollas; and a Nissan Skyline that was equal parts attitude and horsepower, which he knew he’d have sold before the end of the week – some nineteen-year-old with a pocketful of McDonald’s money and two capped teeth.
De Fazio, Simon. 1971-2010. Now you’re in God’s arms …
He remembered sitting on his bed with Carol, as she read the notices aloud. He recalled saying, ‘What do you read those for?’ and her replying, ‘They’re sad.’
He remembered thinking, All very nice, but what’s it got to do with us?
Now he knew. Everyone ended up in the classifieds, one way or another – birth, marriage, food processors or death. It was just a matter of time. The classifieds brought people together. They were most people’s most public moment – all that was left of a life that had seemed bigger and more promising.
He remembered how long it had taken him and Charlie to compose Carol’s notice. How they’d agonised over every word. Loved mother. Although this couldn’t begin to describe their love for her. Nonetheless, it would have to do. Damien still had the notice in a photo album somewhere. And the invoice from the paper, the same one he got every week in the mail at work: subtotals, units, rates, GST and the amount payable within fourteen days. So that even in, and despite, death, the economy kept moving.
Damien let his hand drop back onto his pillow. He pushed the paper off the bed, thought about switching on the radio but was asleep before he could decide.
WHEN CHARLIE ARRIVED for his next lesson, William was waiting for him. He took him into the music suite’s performance room – a space big enough to seat two hundred people, decorated with photos of everyone from Bach to Santana, smelling of a new carpet with the school’s crest woven into it. He took him onto the stage and showed him the set-up: two stools, music stands and a pair of electric guitars plugged in to Marshall amps. ‘Have a seat,’ he said, indicating.
Charlie put down his bag and acoustic guitar and sat on one of the stools. Then he picked up a black Stratocaster copy and looked at him.
‘Go on,’ William said. ‘It’s mine.’
Charlie laid the guitar across his knee. He turned up the volume and played a chord. The sound came out of the amp in shards, and William reached over to turn it down and switch pick-ups. Charlie tried again. ‘Smooth.’
‘Try the pedals.’
Charlie looked at the pedals at his feet: distortion, reverberation and a little green box flashing with the words ‘Frequency Shift’. As he tested the sounds he grinned at William, who sat back contentedly, occasionally leaning over to adjust the effects. ‘The distortion was the first one I bought,’ he said. ‘When I was sixteen.’
‘Nice,’ Charlie replied, feeling the music through his feet. ‘I’ve saved up $150, but I want to spend it on a decent guitar.’
‘Good idea.’ William picked up the other guitar and sat down. He took a moment to think, adjusted the volume and said, ‘I tell you what – you save two hundred, I’ll sell you that one.’
Charlie’s face lit up. He moved the guitar around, felt the varnish on the neck and the roughness of the strings. ‘It feels great.’
‘It’s a nice instrument. I mean, it’s a copy, but not like the Korean shit…stuff, you get today.’
Charlie looked at the guitar, and then his teacher. ‘Okay. Deal.’
‘It’s got a case, cord and strap.’
He was already thinking of ways to save the money faster. He’d just thrown in a paper round, refusing to work in 40-degree heat for three cents a paper when Murdoch had billions. He could always ask his dad for a loan, but probably wouldn’t get it for a guitar. Then there was his sister, Nicole, and her boyfriend, David, who’d already offered him a few loose joints.
Even bribery crossed his mind. Dad, you’ll never guess what Dave offered me.
Charlie looked at William and pleaded, ‘Please don’t sell it to anyone else.’
‘I’ve had it twenty years. I’m not in any rush.’
‘Give me a few weeks.’
‘Take your time.’
Soon William was fingerpicking some jazz chords and Charlie was playing his box patterns over the top. William watched how the boy had learnt to bend notes, flick his fingers off the strings, repeat phrases with minor variations and improvise melodies and riffs that were complete, sweet and singable. ‘Very good,’ he said, as they played. ‘Maybe you won’t be a Segovia.’
But Charlie was consumed, his eyes lost on the fretboard, his thoughts dissipating in a haze of blue notes, fade-outs and amplified fifths. He remembered the pedals. He went from one to the other, trying out their effect on a lead break, lapping up the growl of fat chords. After a while he said, ‘I suppose I better show you my scales.’
William shrugged. ‘No, that’s okay. As long as you’re still practising them.’
‘I can tell.’
Charlie hit the distortion pedal and played ‘Smoke on the Water’. Then he looked at William. ‘I got a detention the other day.’
‘Our last lesson…I was late for science.’
‘We weren’t that late.’
Charlie leaned forward. ‘It’s this prick I’ve got. He locks the door at five past two and makes you wait outside. Then he lets you in, with his hand out like this–’ Charlie lifted his head and pouted his lips. ‘Your diary, please, Mr Price. Perhaps next time you’ll clean out your ears. I’d have thought a musician could hear a simple chime… Wanker.’
‘And what about your dad?’
‘Yeah, the usual speech.’
William tried to make light of it. ‘Well, that’s his job I suppose.’
‘Apparently. Still, he doesn’t go on about it.’
‘He’s a good dad?’
‘He’s okay, I guess.’
‘Yes, I guess, Mr English teacher.’
William adjusted his guitar on his knee. ‘Well, you’re lucky. My dad made me practise outside. Forty degrees, out you go – under the bloody peach tree. Half an hour a day, then he’d make me put it away. This is why you’re failing maths, he’d say. Which was probably true.’
‘No, Dad doesn’t mind. As long as I’m still getting A’s.’
‘The stuff they give us isn’t that hard. I know more geometry than my teacher. So, Dad sort of expects it from me now.’
‘He’s a lucky dad.’
‘Well, you know, I can’t afford to lose another parent.’
William wondered if the boy was inviting him to ask, or whether it had just slipped out. At last he said, ‘I heard your mum died?’
‘Not when you’re fourteen.’
‘I was twelve.’ He looked at his teacher. ‘Twelve.’
William knew he wasn’t good at death. ‘Do you miss her?’
Charlie licked his bottom lip. ‘I was twelve.’ He tried to remember her. He could still see the outline of her face – her long, blonde hair, her brown eyes – but he was concerned about the detail. He knew she had freckles, but he couldn’t see them. And what were her eyebrows like – black, brown, did they finish short, or curl up on the ends? Was her neck long, and wasn’t there a small mole towards the back? Were her lips smooth, or marked with light creases? He looked up. ‘But you know, she bought me my first guitar.’
‘When I was little. One of the half-size numbers from Kmart. And I’d just strum it and sing. I have a video of it. Bloody awful.’
He could still see his dad, sitting on the lounge in his pyjamas on Christmas morning, looking at Carol and shaking his head.
‘Cheer up,’ she was saying. ‘He’ll lose interest.’
He was a blond seven-year-old in summer pyjamas, swimming in a sea of wrapping paper, sticking his tongue out at the camera his sister was holding. Back in the rehearsal room, Charlie reached his leg down and turned off a pedal. ‘She’d be happy, if I got good.’
‘She would,’ William said, choosing to stop short of anything sentimental.
They returned to their jam and before long they slipped into a twelve-bar blues that soon transformed into a poorly croaked ‘Hound Dog’. Charlie was giggling, laughing at his teacher’s voice, taking a chorus himself. Then he stood, shaking his hips, sticking out his tongue, hammering at the strings and unsuccessfully attempting an Eddie Van Halen fingertip solo on the fretboard. They became louder and faster until Charlie ended up on his back turning circles on the carpet. William was just watching, laughing, wondering how he could go from a toy guitar to this display in such a short time.
A marvel, he thought, seeing so much potential in front of him. What could be – smart, inventive, original. Before all the mistakes – the longing, testosterone, planning, scheming, wanting, thinking critically about how much a bridge could support or what drove Lady Macbeth; before girls, and women, and comments muttered when someone else got the promotion he deserved. Failing to see that there were other solutions. The correct path. The path of no regrets or suffering. The path that no fourteen-year-old in history had ever found among the undergrowth of the adult world.
Pete Ordon came in and they both stopped. A dozen or so new parents stood behind him and he said, ‘This is Mr Dutton, our guitar teacher.’
William’s lips zipped and his eyes bulged. He looked at Charlie. The boy broke up laughing, and he played one last chord.
CHARLIE SAT WITH two friends with their backs against a wall, watching the Year 7s and 8s play basketball. It was cloudy but warm, and the bit of drizzle that fell was dry before it wet anything. He’d just finished the sandwich he’d made that morning: tough fritz and stale bread, allowed to sweat in Glad Wrap and cook in his bag as it was crushed by textbooks.
‘How can you eat that shit?’ Nick, one of his mates, asked.
‘I’ve gotta make my own lunch. What have you got?’
‘A Chickadee.’ Displaying a deep-fried chicken portion that oozed fat from every crumbed pore.
‘Why don’t you buy something?’ Aaron, another friend, asked, wrestling with a pie that was coming undone around the edges.
Charlie watched a pair of younger boys mucking around, pushing each other, until one of them said the wrong thing, or shoved or pulled too hard, and then they were exchanging blows. A few friends pulled them apart and there was a standoff. Aaron spat gristle from his mouth and called, ‘Go on, get into it.’
Then it was over, and the boys continued their game as if nothing had happened. Soon they were passing the ball to each other and laughing.
‘Pity,’ Nick mumbled.
Silence. Flies. Someone spitting. The sound of balls hitting hoops. A voice calling, ‘Penis head!’ Chip packets shoved into the cracks between the bricks of the wall.
‘What’s after lunch?’ Aaron asked.
‘Edwards,’ Nick replied.
‘He’s okay,’ Charlie said.
‘Yeah, blah blah, twenty minutes later he’s told you what a carnivore is. It eats meat!’
Silence. Nick looked at Charlie. ‘Let’s see the letter.’
Charlie took the note from his pocket, unfolded it and handed it to him. The brown-haired boy started reading.
Dear Mr Price,
In reference to our recent discussion, I must say it is disappointing to see Charlie arrive at school today with an even more inappropriate haircut…
Nick and Aaron examined Charlie’s hair more closely. Yes, the dreadlocks were gone, combed out into the usual peroxide frizz, hair sticking out in every direction but down, but in their place was an even more creative style, courtesy of his sister. She’d come over the previous evening, especially. Set him up in the backyard with a towel around his neck.
‘You got in trouble for the dreads?’ she’d asked, connecting the trimmers to three short extension cords.
‘So?’ He’d rubbed his toes through the dead grass on their lawn. ‘It’s my hair.’
‘Dad wants me to get rid of them.’
‘You don’t have to.’
‘They’ll suspend you.’
‘They never suspend anyone.’
So there she was, as day turned to night, spraying and combing his hair, pulling at the knots as he ground his teeth, squinted and told her to be more fucking careful.
‘Fighting words,’ Dave had said, sitting on the porch rolling a cigarette.
Charlie had just glared at him. ‘It fuckin’ hurts.’
‘Watch yer language, y’ little prick,’ Nicole had said, slapping his shoulder.
Then she’d said, ‘This letter, just said no dreads… Didn’t say…?’
‘What?’ Charlie asked, trying to look at her.
‘Keep your head still.’
‘Something nice and short.’
‘Not too short.’
She’d grinned, bit her tongue-ring and set to it. A few minutes later Charlie had looked at Dave and asked, ‘What’s she doing?’ But he’d just smiled.
Ten minutes later she’d said, ‘There, that’ll do.’ She’d handed him a mirror. Charlie had looked at himself and said, ‘Fuck.’
She’d shaved the sides of his head almost clean. Then etched a lightning bolt into each of his temples, shaving down to bare skin to get sharp lines.
‘What’s wrong?’ she’d asked.
‘Now I will get suspended.’
‘Dad will freak.’
She’d shook her head. ‘No, it’s fine. Short, clean and Catholic.’
‘Fix it, come on.’
But she’d just folded her arms. So he’d taken the clippers, switched them on and had a go himself. ‘Cow. You can tell Dad.’
Luckily, Damien had stayed back at Datsunland for a sales meeting. When he’d got home he’d called out, ‘Charlie, you in bed?’
‘Yeah, I’m tired.’
‘No more guitar then?’
The next morning he’d tried to wait until his dad had left but he couldn’t draw it out. When he’d emerged from his hole, Damien had said, ‘What the hell happened to you?’
‘It was Nicole.’
And then there was the usual lecture about rules, respect and responsibility. ‘This will go on your school record,’ Damien had explained. ‘One day you’ll ask for a reference, and what are they gonna write?’
‘She went stupid. I told her not to.’
Damien had stopped to think. ‘It’s the bloody boyfriend. Just you watch who you end up with.’
Nick and Aaron were laughing too. ‘It looks shit,’ Aaron pointed out. ‘You should’ve just left it.’
‘My sister’s a bitch.’
He ran his fingers through the stubble. ‘At least if you’d left it, you coulda got some street cred – told people your dad was a Fink.’
A ball came towards Charlie’s head and he lifted a hand to deflect it.
Is this the best I can do for friends? he thought. He looked at Aaron, munching a tuna sandwich, and wiping his nose on his wrist. ‘What did you get for the geometry test?’ he asked.
‘D, I think.’
No, there wasn’t much to be said, or learned beside the basketball court, Charlie guessed. Just more of the same – balls through hoops, sweat, comments about Mrs O’Brien’s cleavage (visions of her leaning over to check their spelling), banana skins softening on hot concrete, untucked shirts and red cheeks. He stood and gathered his books.
‘Where y’ goin’?’ Nick asked.
But he didn’t answer, sauntering across the patched bitumen, dragging his feet, his shoulders drooped, his back bent. He made his way to his locker and dumped his books inside. There were five small German soldiers climbing the walls and ceiling of his locker: the beginning and end product of a father-son model-making phase.
Twenty minutes later he was sitting alone in the library, staring into a monitor, studying the lyrics of Xavier Rudd’s ‘Let Me Be’. William had played him a few of his songs, and he was hooked – the rhythm, the untamed hair; words that were angry in the nicest possible way; a man at peace with the patch of earth he’d been plonked down on, with whatever god had put him there, and the prospects of a musical life.
Xavier Rudd. Yes, he’d buy the CD. Thirty dollars to set him on the path to Shangri-la. Or, alternatively, money towards his new guitar.
He had to stop and think.
He was surrounded by half-a-dozen groups of chess-playing geeks. He studied their pimples and steady hands, and wondered where he really belonged in the Lindisfarne scheme of things.
WILLIAM AND CHARLIE ran down Ferngrove Street in the rain. Covered their heads with their guitars, skipping to avoid puddles, hitching their backpacks across their shoulder and laughing. ‘Shit,’ William said. ‘All of my music will be wet.’
‘Run!’ Charlie shouted, charging across a driveway, narrowly avoiding a reversing car.
They finally arrived on the porch of number fifty – a rental warhorse with dirt for lawn and weeds for a garden. The landlord had supplied the guts of an old washer and a cut-down forty-four gallon drum as a plant pot. The iron fence had come away from its posts, although someone had tried to repair it with wire. There were the remnants of a concrete path and a hole filled with cracked plastic where someone had once put a pond.
Charlie shook what hair he had and the spray caught William in the face. They entered a hallway cluttered with unpacked boxes, an ironing board still in its plastic, soccer balls and tennis racquets. There were piles of books that rose like crankshafts from the carpet, folders full of yellowing lecture notes, a box full of chipped Buddhas and even a wetsuit and skis. William opened a linen press, took out a towel and handed it to Charlie, who knelt down to dry his guitar case.
‘Should you dry yourself first?’ William asked.
Charlie wiped his face.
‘Do you want dry clothes?’
‘Well, it’s better than I guess, I suppose.’
William creaked across the floorboards, into his room. He closed the door, stripped off and changed into an old business shirt and shorts. Then he opened a drawer and found a clean T-shirt and shorts for Charlie. When he returned the boy had dried both guitars, standing them up against the hallway wall.
‘There you go,’ he said, handing him the clothes. ‘Bathroom’s there.’ He indicated.
He went into the lounge room, collapsing onto a vinyl sofa. He sorted through a pile of CDs on the floor, looking for his latest Nimrod’s Cat demo. When he looked up – out of the room and across the hallway, through a gap in the bathroom door – he saw Charlie standing in his shorts, drying his long, brown legs. He stopped to ask himself what he was doing. Wasn’t this breaking some rule? Something in the fine print of his registration documents? Something about familiarity, decency, duty of care?
Charlie had been his last student for the day. He would’ve had to dismiss him at 3.25 anyway. There were only so many times you could play scales and studies and poxy little folk songs about maidens in meadows fair. Music became stale – and that’s when kids lost interest.
So, he’d thought, why not take him home and show him my guitars? What’s the harm? I’m the teacher. In loco parentis. And he could hardly bring his whole collection to school.
Still, he was sure he was doing something wrong. He’d gone through life with this feeling. That he’d forgotten an exam, missed his mum’s birthday, shrugged once too often or looked uninterested.
Charlie came into the room and stood barefoot in front of him. William looked at his flat feet and asked, ‘Drink?’
‘Here it is.’
He produced a CD with a plain cover. Someone had listed the names of the tracks in a small, blue scrawl.
1. The Spider Revolution (Dutton and Fraser)
2. Me (Dutton and Fraser)
3. The Day Before Yesterday (Dutton and Fraser)
He took out the CD and loaded it into a disc player. Charlie took the cover and read it. ‘Who’s Fraser?’
‘An old friend. Bass. Not that he can play beyond the first three frets. And not that he actually writes the songs – but it keeps him happy.’
The music started. Loud. Distorted. Thrashed out in major and seventh chords. Driven by a simple bass line and frenetic drums.
Charlie sat on the lounge and listened to his teacher’s singing.
Here, coming out of the sky
There are moons and stars and plastic forks
Brides with their hair on fire
And postmen on Zimmer frames
More guitar, more smashing cymbals and a buzz-saw riff. Charlie started playing it in the air, biting his lip. ‘What’s a Zimmer frame?’
William held out his hands and attempted to look frail. ‘You know, the thing geris have.’
‘What’s the song mean?’
‘What’s it matter? It’s rock’n’roll.’
Charlie lay back and looked at the ceiling. Rock’n’roll, he thought, trying to imagine a postman with a Zimmer frame.
Here, coming out of the ground
There’s holes and steel and plastic pipe
Boys with their arse on fire
And firemen with cobblestones.
It’s a spider revolution
Coming out of the sky
Charlie’s first reaction was dumb, dumb, dumb, but then he looked at William and said, ‘Rock’n’roll?’
‘Well, it’s bound to annoy someone.’
‘Which is good?’
William sat forward. ‘Charlie Price, where’s the rage?’
‘School detentions…this is how you get back.’
‘Firemen with cobblestones?’
‘Okay, bad example. But what about that cruise ship that docked in Sydney? A quarter of a million dollars for a ticket. Meanwhile, half the planet starves. See, rage.’
‘But you didn’t write about a cruise ship.’
‘You didn’t.’ Charlie didn’t even grin. ‘Anyway, cruise ships don’t piss me off.’
‘There’s your first song.’
‘What, “Fuck Off, Biology Teacher”?’
‘Why not? Only, don’t tell anyone I suggested it.’
Charlie smiled. ‘Yeah, Mr Attitude, don’t tell anyone I suggested it.’
William moved across and took him around the neck. He tapped him on the head a few times and said, ‘Hello, anyone home?’
Charlie was almost giggling. ‘Get off.’
‘“Fuck Off, Biology Teacher”…the headmaster would love to hear me play that one.’
‘I’m forty. You’re fourteen. You write it. You sing it.’
Charlie pulled himself free. ‘I will then.’
William looked at him, and believed him. ‘Well, just be careful.’
‘Firemen with cobblestones…’
William was torn. There was no denying it, twenty years did make a difference – between what you thought and what you said; between poems scribbled in the early hours and words left unwritten; between lifted eyebrows, head shakes and mumbled comments, and diplomacy. It seemed that growing up was about packing things away in your head. Reaching compromises with yourself. Watering yourself down. And no amount of pretending, of cryptic lyrics or catchy riffs, could change that.
The second song started slow, decorated with finger-picked guitar.
All of the bits that you see
The broken glass and torn shirts
The remains of the years, blown away
Sitting forgotten beside gas bills, and old shoes, and love.
‘They’re your words too?’ Charlie asked.
‘My attempt at poetry.’
‘No, it’s good.’
Nothing left to see
With the best bits taken away
Brushed from the skin like a sting
Emptied of someone I love, her smile, her hair in my eyes.
Charlie listened as the guitar improvised. William stared across at him. ‘It’s hard to get the words right.’
‘Is it about someone?’
‘I bet it is.’
And the final chorus:
Emptied of someone I love, her smile, her hair in my eyes.
More quiet arpeggios. Then Charlie whispered, ‘It sounds like pain.’
‘How does that sound?’ William asked. He waited, but there was no response. ‘I think I know how you feel.’
Charlie looked confused. ‘How I feel?’
‘You’ve already worked it out.’
‘That I’m surrounded by…fuckwits?’
‘For now. Later on you don’t have to put up with them. And you meet other people – people you recognise.’
‘And I get to leave Datsunland?’
William said, ‘Shit, I forgot why I brought you here.’ He led Charlie into a back room, switched on a light and said, ‘Welcome to Axe World.’
‘Wow,’ Charlie said, surveying a dozen or so guitars on stands, amplifiers of different shapes and sizes, posters of Frank Zappa, Santana and Segovia.
William pointed to the poster of the classical guitarist. ‘See, it’s you.’
‘Well, what do you think?’
Charlie ran his hand over an old Telecaster. ‘How did you afford all these?’
‘They just sort of…appear. Supplied by the guitar fairies. If you have enough they breed.’
William took the boy on a tour of his collection: a pair of resonator guitars, one wooden and one aluminium-bodied; acoustics, nylon and steel-stringed; two basses, Stratocaster copies; a Telecaster, a mandolin, a ukulele and the pride of his collection, a black Les Paul from the 1960s. ‘The real thing,’ he said. ‘This would set you back fifteen thousand now, but I got it from a pawnbroker for two hundred. See, you gotta keep your eyes open.’
Charlie touched the Les Paul and looked at his teacher.
‘Go on,’ William said.
He sat on the floor with the guitar in his lap, plugged it in and switched on the amp. Played a single chord. ‘What a grunt.’
‘Try the pick-ups.’
He switched from one to two to three pick-ups and tried again. ‘You can feel it in your fingers.’
‘Nice, isn’t it?’
‘You sure you won’t sell me this one?’
An hour later they were still there – Charlie sampling the guitars, improvising and starting spontaneous jams with his teacher. Eventually he looked at his watch and said, ‘Shit, not again.’ He stood.
‘Wait,’ William said, scampering across the room and picking up the black Strat copy he’d promised him. As he put it in its case he said, ‘You may as well take this now.’
‘Yeah. It’s just sitting here. You may as well be playing it.’
‘What about the money?’
‘When you’re ready.’
William threw a cord in with the guitar and presented it to the boy along with a small practice amp. ‘There, can you carry it all?’
LATER THAT EVENING Charlie was dry. From the heat of a grill cooking cheese toast, from a two-dollar shop bar heater on his legs, a dog-smelling towel. He was still wearing his teacher’s T-shirt and, now, a pair of Fred Flintstone boxer shorts and woollen socks with holes for the toes. He had his feet on a coffee table that was covered in junk mail. His acoustic guitar was nestled in his lap – its veneer scratched where he’d tried to fit screws for a strap. As he sat cocooned in his chair, his shoulders slouched, his head drooped, the guitar seemed to become part of his body – an extra, clumsy limb that moved in time with his torso.
‘Go on then,’ Nicole said, pulling stringy cheese from her mouth.
‘What do you want to hear?’ Charlie asked.
‘What do you know?’ Dave said, sitting forward, pulling a layer of burnt cheese from Nicole’s toast.
‘Fuck off, make your own,’ she said, slapping him.
Charlie started fingerpicking as best he could, a sequence of broken chords he’d learnt from William. Some of the bass notes were wrong and he acknowledged this with a shake of his head. Then he stopped.
‘Keep going, it’s good,’ Dave said.
‘I just worked it out.’
‘You’re really getting into it, eh?’
‘It’s hard to put it down.’ He worked on a difficult chord. ‘And it’s good when you…come up with something.’
‘But getting good’s only half of it,’ Dave said. ‘Then you gotta be able to sell yourself. So, start with friends.’
‘We’re not gonna laugh,’ his sister added, kicking his leg.
‘Doesn’t bother me.’
‘Go on then.’
This time he started with full chords, played to a strong rhythm. He sat up, his back straightened and the music became louder, cleaner, driven. Then he was singing Xavier Rudd’s ‘Messages’, his eyes drifting across the carpet, his licked lips and bitten tongue gone, his flat feet tapping as a toe emerged from its hole with a long, crooked nail.
His body started to rock and, although he was tall and lanky, there was a measure, a sense of proportion, a pulse – movements that went beyond the awkwardness of his fingering and timing. There was an inner-music that informed him, and he was following it – not in any thought-out way, but a learning to crawl, walk and run way.
He stopped playing.
‘Fantastic,’ Dave said, wiping crumbs from his attempt at a beard. ‘Does your little group play that one?’
‘No, they just want to hammer the same three chords.’
Nicole was smiling her look-at-little-brother smile. ‘Has anyone else heard you?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Well, if he heard that he might be more interested.’
Charlie couldn’t see it. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Bullshit,’ Dave said. ‘You got it all, buddy, except one thing.’
‘In yer face. You gotta learn to say, Here it is, like it or lump it.’
‘Nah, people make up their minds.’
‘People are fucked in the head. They’re told to like Céline Dion, they like her. They’re told to watch MasterChef. You gotta be there, right in their face.’
‘That’s not me.’
‘It’s not anyone. You gotta make yourself.’
Charlie stopped to think. Dave was probably right.
Breasts on a billboard, that’s what William always said. That’s what it took to get ahead in music – breasts on a billboard. And for the rest there were a hundred half-empty pubs, ringing ears and work on Monday. You could always find a gimmick – eighteen earrings and pasted-on attitude – or else there was an eternity of Motown revivals. But, Charlie guessed, the only real choice was to be honest and say, This is me, these are the chords I pluck and the words I sing. ‘Xavier Rudd, he’s good,’ he said.
‘Yeah, but he’s out there,’ Dave said.
‘So am I.’
‘No, you’re in here.’
‘It’s early days.’
‘You have to play that for Dad,’ Nicole said.
‘It’s not his thing.’
‘What is then?’
‘Bullshit,’ Dave said. ‘Have you played that for anyone else?’
He stopped to remember the afternoon on the tennis courts. A few friends were playing and he was sitting in the shade, serenading them. Then a small group of girls in their early teens approached. By the time he saw them it was too late to stop – so he cut his losses and fingerpicked a few simple chords he couldn’t stuff up. He diverted attention by watching the tennis, calling out comments like ‘Nice lob’ – hoping the girls would keep walking.
But there they were, gathered around him, sitting down on the concrete. ‘Do you know any Green Day?’
‘I don’t play pop.’
‘What do you play?’
‘Hard rock, grunge.’
‘Go on then.’
He reluctantly played a few bars of ‘In Bloom’, but then stopped and said, ‘I can’t play that stuff on an acoustic.’
‘What about J. Lo?’ a girl asked.
Charlie looked at her. ‘Fuck.’
Back in his lounge room, Charlie looked at Dave and said, ‘I couldn’t get rid of them.’
‘So what did you do?’
‘I packed up and came home.’
‘Why?’ his sister said. ‘All those girls?’
Nicole shook her head. ‘You should’ve asked one of them to meet you at the Plaza on Saturday.’
Charlie played a series of harmonics across the bridge of his guitar. ‘Twelve year olds?’
‘So, you gotta start somewhere.’
She grinned. ‘Charlie Price?’
‘There’s no special lady in your life?’
He turned red and threw a cushion at her. ‘What about you?’
She grabbed Dave’s arm. ‘I’ve got my man.’ They kissed.
‘Do you mind?’
‘I bet there’s someone.’
‘I go to a boys’ school.’
‘All the more reason. What about that friend of Dad’s…his daughter?’
‘Fuck off. Just ’cos you started early.’
‘That kid from Magill.’
She moved towards him. ‘Yeah, so what do you reckon?’
‘You’re the expert.’
‘That day Mum came home, and you two were in your room, and she couldn’t get you out.’
Nicole sat back and remembered, eventually sniffing and wiping her nose on the back of her hand. ‘I reckon you saw that in some movie.’
Then she stared at him. ‘And so what if we did?’
Charlie knew there was no point arguing with his sister, so he started playing again. He picked and strummed the chords he’d already worked out for William’s ‘Me’. There was a descending bass – long notes underscoring a melody all loss and indecision.
The first thing he’d done when he arrived home was put William’s demo into his disc player, tune his guitar and start playing along. He soon had the melody in his head and then the words, and the feelings behind them.
Neat, he’d thought, that even a teacher could come up with something this effective. Which proved that music was within his grasp – and maybe that William, this unshaved, foul-mouthed excuse for a teacher, was someone far more than just report cards and scales, impatient eyes and the tedium of a thousand ‘Streets of London’.
All of the bits that you see
The broken glass and torn shirts
The remains of the years, blown away…
Nicole could hear the longing in his voice.
He’s calling for Mum, she guessed.
As he had for the weeks and months after she’d died, as he lay awake in bed, eventually turning over and burying his head in his pillow. Some nights it was tears, others a naked loneliness, and other nights a catalogue of problems. Who would be there, talking to the mums at school pick-up, or organising the notes on the fridge so they got to football on time? There were buttons that would never get sewn on and problems that would never get explained (such as why his aunt and uncle had separate beds). Who would cook his favourite chow mein and polish his shoes?
Nicole was still living at home at the time and she’d come into his room and crawl into bed next to him. ‘You okay?’
‘Fine.’ Turning towards the wall.
‘You better get to sleep,’ she’d say, choosing to avoid the emotions they’d already waded through a hundred times.
Months later the longing was still there, as was his father, standing in the hallway at 1 am, his hands on his hips. ‘Charlie, just close your eyes and get to sleep.’
Sitting forgotten beside gas bills, and old shoes, and love.
Which was the image Charlie had of his father, towards the end of Carol’s illness, as he sat at night at the dining table surrounded by accounts, unfinished homework and X-rays. He’d try to talk to him, but he would only ever mumble, and return to his pink and yellow forms.
Come on, Charlie, Nicole would say, and they’d go out into the back yard.
Carol was there, sitting in a cracked plastic chair in a ring of camellias, staring at the grass. She’d look up, smile and reach into the pocket of her dressing gown.
There, she’d say, handing them a ten-dollar note.
Moments later Nicole would have the pool ladder over the back fence and they’d escape down the laneway and around the corner to Nick’s fish shop.
Once, coming back over the fence, Charlie slipped and cut his leg on the galvanised iron. And although she was sick, Carol jumped from her chair and came running.
Although it wasn’t so bad, and soon all three of them were sitting on the grass eating vinegar-soaked chips.
The sort of shit you remember, he guessed.
Damien came in and stood looking at them. ‘Go on,’ he said, as Charlie slid the guitar between his knees.
‘Go on,’ Nicole insisted.
Damien dropped his keys in the ashtray on the coffee table and sat down. ‘Know any Neil Sedaka?’
‘No,’ Charlie said. ‘It’s one of Mr Dutton’s songs.’
Damien tried to look interested. ‘Mr Dutton? The musical guru?’
‘He plays in a band.’
And then Charlie realised he was wearing his teacher’s T-shirt.
‘Something soothing,’ Damien said. ‘I haven’t sold a car in three days.’
Charlie continued, avoiding his father’s eyes.
Nothing left to see
With the best bits taken away
Brushed from the skin like a sting
Emptied of someone I love…
He slowed, realising, lapsing into a round of fingerpicking and hum-med melody.
Damien looked at Nicole. He’s good, he said with his eyes.
Someone I love, that’s what he said, Damien thought. Someone I love. Which, he guessed, was a Neil Sedaka sort of thing anyway. He waited for his son to clarify this but there were no more words. Just someone. Mr Dutton’s someone.
‘That’s very sad,’ he said, when his son had finished.
‘No, not sad, it’s beautiful,’ Nicole said, wiping the last of the crumbs from her top.
‘Not on my carpet,’ Damien grumbled.
‘Nicely done,’ Dave said.
Damien was studying his son’s face. ‘Who’s it about?’
Charlie shrugged. ‘I dunno, these sort of things are generic.’
Dave sat forward. ‘Play the Rudd, Charlie.’
So he sat up and tried again. The rhythm started slow, but then took care of itself. Nicole and Dave sang along and Damien tapped the beat on his polyester slacks. For a moment he seemed taken by a thought, then said, ‘Maybe there’s a few quid in it, after all?’
Charlie studied his face and saw the hint of a smile, and found the will to keep going, to struggle with the last verse.
HALF AN HOUR later, Charlie was sitting in his room, sprawled across a bed that hadn’t been made for weeks, scribbling chords on manuscript paper. Occasionally he’d look up at the few posters tacked to the walls – stripped down Red Hot Chili Peppers, a Bavarian landscape his mother had put up and he’d never had the heart to take down, Hare Krishnas in a shopping mall, Ian Thorpe with a sharpened arrow drawn through his head, and a magazine photo of Heinrich Himmler to remind him of school.
He could hear his father, sister and the boyfriend in the lounge room. Long pauses. Someone rustling paper, then Nicole reading: ‘On September three, two years to the day since you went away. And yet there’s never more than an hour or two goes by that we don’t think about you. Around the table, you’re still here, and every time we have scones, we think of how yours were the best.’
And his dad, in his gruffest, no-nonsense tone. ‘What have scones got to do with it?’
‘I was trying to personalise it. I hate all that forever remembered bullshit.’
There was a long pause, maybe as Damien read. Then, ‘How much will this cost?’
‘We want to pay.’
‘It’s about eight dollars a line.’
‘Not that much.’
‘For a Saturday ad–’
‘Dad! We don’t care about the money.’
‘It’s money you can use for other things.’
‘It’s for Mum.’
‘She’d agree with me.’
‘It’s not the point.’
Charlie looked up at a crack in the mortar and studied it. He could guess why his dad had fallen silent. The usual response. According to his father, you just had to get on with life. Otherwise it would turn into The Bold and the Beautiful. There was a photo on the telly, and of course you could talk about the way she laughed, or used gallons of spray to kill flies, or never changed a toilet roll. Real things. Solid things.
But there was no point going on all night, or too often.
He heard his dad say, ‘You’re determined?’
‘Well, let me pay half.’
‘No, we want to pay, Dad.’
Charlie couldn’t hate his dad for this. After all, he was no more demonstrative himself. He looked at his new song, the piece he’d promised William – an ode to every foul-breathed science teacher on the planet. It was a string of words stuck together with attitude – half thought-out feelings that described some mostly imagined angst. But that was okay. It was rock’n’roll, and allowances could be made. He picked up his new guitar, plugged it into the amp and switched it on. There was a hum, and he adjusted the volume. Then he started playing the sequence of chords he’d come up with.
He followed his chart carefully. Yes, he was interested in his words, but this performance was more about introducing his new axe to his dad.
Instead, there was Damien, standing in the doorway. ‘Where’d you get that?’
‘I’m buying it.’
‘Buying, or bought?’
Charlie knew it wasn’t sounding good. ‘Mr Dutton was selling it, and he gave me a good price.’ He played a riff, high up on the fretboard, as if this might help his cause.
‘So you still owe him for it?’
‘What’s a bit?’
‘D’you think you should’ve asked me first?’
‘I got it cheap. If I’d bought this in a shop…’
‘You’ve already got a guitar.’
Charlie watched his dad waiting, thinking, biting his bottom lip, each of his thoughts advancing and retreating.
‘Mr Dutton asked you if you wanted it?’
‘Yes, when I went to his…’ He stopped, teetering on the edge, trying to think of other ways to justify a guitar. ‘It’s not gonna affect my grades.’
‘I didn’t say it would.’
‘It’s a hobby.’
‘How much was it?’
And they were off, on a discussion of money – learning to save, part-time jobs, setting goals: a car, uni fees, a holiday.
‘My point is,’ Damien said, ‘just cos y’ got it doesn’t mean you gotta spend it.’
‘What do I buy?’
‘Look at me, I haven’t sold a car for two weeks.’
‘You just said three days.’
‘Closer to two weeks. And don’t be smart. If there are no sales, there are no school fees.’
‘What’s that got to do with a guitar?’
Damien pointed at his son. ‘Listen…’
Nicole was in the hallway. ‘Dad.’
‘Come here a minute.’
He was staring at his son. ‘You can give it back.’
Charlie sat up. ‘Why?’
‘If you want a guitar, ask me. We’ll get you one for Christmas.’
‘That’s another three months.’
‘He’s letting me have this one.’
‘It’ll still be there.’
‘Dad!’ Nicole called.
She took him by the arm and led him back to the lounge room. Then she sat him down and said, ‘Calm down.’
‘Him telling me…’
‘Calm down.’ She sat beside him. ‘It’s what he needs.’
‘It’s not the point.’
‘He likes it, and he’s good.’
‘He can’t just go spend hundreds of dollars. He needs a new blazer.’
‘Kids don’t care about blazers,’ Dave said.
‘Well, they bloody well should. If he wants he can always go to a state school.’
I don’t care, Charlie wanted to call out, as he sat listening in his room. I never asked to be sent there. Jesus and First fucking XI cricket. So, pull me out, if that’s all that matters.
He turned to look at himself in the mirror, and looked away. Breathed deeply, and then cracked the knuckles of his left hand. Wait, he told himself. Wait. He knew that when his father settled things would be okay. And Nicole, she could steer him around, in the same way Carol could.
Charlie heard his sister say, ‘How about, instead of putting this in the paper, we help him with his guitar?’
‘No, you wanna do that, you do it.’
There was a long pause.
‘Well?’ she asked.
‘He can keep his guitar. It’s just, he’s got no bloody concept of the value of money.’
‘That’s old enough.’
‘It’s self-expression,’ Dave said. ‘These are the angst years, Mr P. Remember?’
‘I was already running bets when I was fourteen.’
Nicole said, ‘Dad, you shouldn’t expect too much too soon.’ She waited. ‘He’ll get there.’
Later that night, Damien went into his son’s room, sat on his bed and said, ‘Sometimes, Chucky-boy, you have a way of…’
‘Pissing you off?’
They looked into each other’s eyes, but then drifted away.
‘It’s just that it was cheap,’ Charlie said.
Damien looked at the scar on his son’s leg. ‘I know. If you like, you stick with it. But get good.’
‘I want to.’
‘Treat it like a violin. You wanna be in an orchestra, you gotta take it seriously.’ Then he thought: If nothing else, it beats selling cars. ‘Still, I’d rather you be an engineer. I heard those fellas in the mines make a hundred and fifty, a hundred and eighty a year. And you’ve got the brains for that. You know you’ve got the brains for that.’
‘That might be okay too.’
‘More than okay. You don’t want to end up selling cars.’
‘Why not? Christ…’ He let his head drop.
‘I’d be an engineer, if it interested me,’ Charlie said.
‘And have your band on the side?’
Charlie looked at his dad. ‘But you still like your job, don’t you?’
Damien laughed. ‘It’s just what you get used to.’
No, not good enough, Charlie thought. Not when every day you get up and shower, pull on your pants, your shirt, your tie, your socks – forty years of pulling on your socks.
‘The thing is, they just keep sending those bills,’ Damien said. ‘And engineers, that doesn’t bother them at all, but the guy that works at Datsunland…’
Charlie looked at his new guitar, leaning against the wall. ‘So I can keep it?’
Damien stood. ‘Go your hardest.’
CHARLIE WOKE TO the door opening, mumbling, someone pounding around his room, picking up clothes, throwing them in a pile. Then his father’s voice, ‘What a bloody disaster. You can deal with this today. Okay?’
He turned to face the wall and produced a sound that wasn’t quite a word.
Damien turned on the light and started gathering clothes from the floor – a tie, shorts and a $75 school shirt. ‘The laundry’s two doors away.’
Socks – grey turned brown, embedded in the carpet – and at the bottom of the pile, his blazer. ‘Christ, you could at least hang this up.’
Damien picked it up, brushed it off and sniffed the air. ‘What’s that?’
It only took a moment for Charlie to remember.
He’d gone onto the main oval to play soccer, but then lost interest. He’d seen a few friends from another class sitting under the scoreboard, staring at him, grinning. He’d wandered over and asked, ‘What’s up?’
‘Sit down, Chucky,’ one of them had said.
And he’d sat down.
The boy had looked around, and then at him, before producing a half-smoked cigarette. ‘Go on.’
Charlie had scanned the oval, and stopped to think. ‘You’ll get suspended.’
‘No one’s ever been suspended. Go on.’
He’d looked at the cigarette – red-tipped, glowing and whispering his name. Come on, it said. One puff, no obligations. If I’m not as good as you think – stand up, walk away. But if I am… You’ll be joining our little group, Charlie. Don’t you want to?
He’d taken the cigarette. Wanted to try it more than anything in the world. But like Mr Delgado had said, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. It was a law of physics – you can’t get away with anything. Someone is always watching, writing in the detention book, asking for your planner and saying, Your parents will need to sign this.
I don’t have a mother.
Well, perhaps I should phone your father.
But caution wasn’t working.
‘Go on,’ the boys had urged. ‘It’s burning down.’
Back in his bedroom, Damien was sniffing the blazer. ‘You haven’t been smoking?’
Charlie sat up. ‘Sorry?’
His father moved the blazer under his nose. Charlie could feel the morning cold on his chest and fastened a single button on his pyjama top. ‘I was sitting with these kids at lunch and one of them got out a pack.’
Damien stared at him.
‘Dad, that’s the last thing I’d do. It’s instant suspension, I’m not that stupid.’
‘Well, you must be, you were sitting with them.’
‘It’s not so easy, just to get up and leave.’
Damien smelled the blazer again. ‘It’s bloody easy. That’s what you’ve got legs for.’
‘If they suspend one, they’ll suspend you all. What else would you be there for?’
‘Is that what a teacher would think?’
Charlie was studying stickers peeling from his wardrobe door. After a few seconds he couldn’t avoid looking at his father. ‘What?’
‘That’s the truth?’
‘I know some experiment. But others…’
‘What, now I’m taking drugs?’
‘I didn’t say that. Even fags, that’ll go on your record.’
‘I’m not stupid, Dad.’
Damien threw the blazer in his son’s lap. ‘You better hang it out to air. Smells like you’ve been in a pub.’
‘I’ll pick up my clothes.’
‘I’ll be on a pension if I wait for you.’
He picked up the T-shirt William had given Charlie on the day of the rainstorm visit. ‘This isn’t yours?’
‘It’s an adult’s.’
Charlie searched for a story, but nothing came to mind. ‘It’s Mr Dutton’s.’
‘Why have you got it?’
‘He lent it to me…when my shirt got wet.’
‘When was that?’
He explained, and when he’d finished, Damien asked, ‘What, he asked you there?’
‘Yeah, so I could see his guitars.’
Damien sat on the edge of the bed. ‘And this was when you were meant to be having a lesson?’
‘An $18 lesson?’
‘It’s all part of it, Dad.’
‘I wouldn’t have thought.’ He looked down at his faded moccasins. ‘That man’s not a bit…strange?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘You just looked at his guitars?’
Damien waited. ‘Well, I tell you, he’s not meant to do that.’
‘There are reasons.’
‘Don’t you mind. He asks again, you say no.’
‘Cos I said so, that’s why. And the law says so.’
Charlie couldn’t see the problem. ‘He’s okay.’
‘Was someone else there?’
‘That’s the problem. Supposing something had happened?’
Charlie wasn’t stupid. Years of evening meals had been eaten and homework completed to a soundtrack of current-affairs programs. Dodgy car dealers, finance companies and faulty ab-flexers had competed for time with slightly bent trigonometry teachers and Little Athletics coaches. Much had been hinted at, but little described in detail in the 6.30 timeslot. Nonetheless, it didn’t take much imagination.
Charlie didn’t always reveal the full scope of his understanding to his father. He’d learnt to pace himself, release information sparingly, and even act. Nothing melodramatic, just a shrug here and there, a look of surprise, a sudden lapse of memory
‘You tell him, Dad’s paying for lessons – at school.’
‘A teacher should realise these things.’
‘He does,’ Charlie said. ‘But it was just…’ There was no point arguing. ‘Okay, I’ll tell him.’
‘You just played his guitars?’
Moments later, loading the clothes and powder in the washing machine, Damien wondered whether he should speak to someone. Guru Dutton seemed to be becoming a strange presence in his son’s life. Charlie’s smart, he told himself. He saw him reading the Australian for hours, watching documentaries about deep space and studying stray textbooks he’d found in labs. But he wasn’t sure if smart meant savvy. How much did Charlie really understand?
CHARLIE SLIPPED DOWN into the yellow seat cover.
This, he thought, is possibly the worst moment of my life.
He studied the three-foot fibreglass chicken head on their bonnet. ‘Drop me around the corner,’ he said to his dad.
‘Don’t you want to show your mates?’
The chicken car had arrived at Datsunland as a trade-in. It was a yellow Volkswagen with wings painted on the side, blood-red hackles dangling from the doors and a plastic beak wired to the front grill. The words ‘Charlie’s Chicken Feast’ (in the shape of bones) were painted onto the side of a pair of drumsticks welded onto the roof. ‘Just here,’ Charlie said.
‘It’s too far to walk.’
‘No, it’s not.’
It wasn’t the first bizarre trade-in Damien had brought home. There’d also been a ‘Cowasaki’, a motorbike with a cow’s head and a tail used to deliver ribs, and a sort of disco Festiva with shag carpet, a mirror-ball, strobe lighting and a turntable connected to a boom box in the boot.
Damien pulled over and Charlie got out with his guitar. He looked around. Luckily the street was deserted. ‘Are you bringing it home again?’
‘Of course. I might even keep it.’
Charlie knew his dad was kidding. He had that smile, and his tongue in the side of his mouth.
‘Thanks for the lift.’ He closed the door and stepped away from the chicken car before anyone noticed. He walked the extra block to school and arrived late. Then went straight to the music suite for his lesson.
William was waiting for him. ‘Late night?’
‘No, I had to walk,’ Charlie explained. ‘Dad has this…chicken car.’ He told the story of how Damien had arrived home the previous evening, sounding his Dixie horn; how he’d taken him for a drive, waving to neighbours and friends as he’d covered his face. ‘It smells like KFC.’ He sat in a sweaty chair. Opened his bag and produced William’s shorts and T-shirt – freshly ironed, folded, smelling like lemons. ‘Dad did them,’ he said, placing them on the table.
William’s face flattened, turning neutral and then serious. He took a moment to study the razor-sharp folds and asked, ‘Your dad?’
‘So, you mentioned your visit?’
‘Right… I suppose I better teach you something.’ He opened his book of scales and flattened the pages on the music stand. ‘Should we make a start?’
Charlie looked at him, unsure. ‘I guess.’
‘You’re still guessing?’
Charlie took out his guitar and threw the vinyl bag aside. ‘Thanks for showing me your guitars.’
‘No problem. Now, D major, two sharps – all the way up to the tenth fret. Off you go.’
Charlie looked at the music and started playing. He could feel William’s eyes on his hands and fingers. He made a mistake and stopped, looked up and smiled.
‘Don’t stop every time you make a mistake.’
There was something missing from his teacher’s voice, and he felt flat, disappointed. ‘Usually I don’t.’
‘Most of the time people won’t notice. It’s called bluffing.’
‘Are you good at that?’
Charlie started again. He finished D major and then moved on to A and E – pages and pages of scales, as William said nothing. Finally he asked, ‘Is that enough?’ and William replied, ‘Believe it or not, this is about the most important thing I can teach you.’
‘No, it’s not.’
That’s not what you said before, he wanted to say. What happened to rock’n’roll, in your face?
‘Right, “The Ash Grove”,’ William said, opening another book.
‘Not that one.’
‘Yes, that one.’
‘Is there something wrong?’
William sat forward. ‘We’ve been wasting too much time.’
‘It’s not a waste. I’ve been practising these pieces–’
‘“The Ash Grove”.’
‘You’ve got the shits.’
‘And you’re gonna have to watch your language. I got into trouble for that too.’
Charlie stood his guitar between his legs. ‘When?’
‘Let’s take it from the bridge.’
William stopped to think. ‘Who else knows you came to my place?’
‘I’ve probably told a few people. So what?’
William leaned forward, took a deep breath, let it out slowly. ‘I thought you would’ve guessed, Charlie. It’s not something a teacher usually does.’
Charlie tried to remember exactly what he’d said to his friends as they waited outside the canteen. It’d started off as a brag, but then someone had said, ‘You went with him?’
A few more people had overheard, and there was a mixture of silence, muttered comments and a wolf whistle.
‘Fuck off,’ Charlie had said, leaving the line and heading for the library.
Back in the bunker, Charlie waited for William. ‘I just told a few people you had this whole room full of guitars.’
William was silent.
‘I can’t see the problem.’
‘You remember Brother Powell?’
‘But he was a perve.’
Everyone remembered Brother Powell. He was legend. His life had become a flummery of facts, lies and scenes stolen from books and smutty movies. The truth didn’t matter any more – time only remembered the juicy bits: Brother Powell in a long, black robe, pacing change rooms, making no attempt to hide his wandering eyes.
‘Okay, I get you,’ Charlie said. ‘I was just so impressed with all your guitars.’
‘What did your dad say?’
‘Said it’s $18 a lesson, stick to the music.’
William clapped his hands. ‘And so we do. “The Ash Grove”.’
Charlie took a scrap of paper from his pocket and put it on the music stand. ‘You remember, we were discussing attitude?’
‘And you challenged me?’
‘“Fuck Off, Biology Teacher”. Remember?’
He started playing a loud, syncopated rhythm. Tapped his feet and moved his body to the beat. Then started singing.
String of Words
Goin’ round in my head
Bullshit things that needn’t be said.
Signs and symbols, dates and names.
He crashed down on the strings for the chorus.
Take me away from this zoo
Let me do what I wanna do
Now it’s time to be free
Let me be what I wanna be.
And returned to the syncopated introduction.
William smiled. ‘Very good.’ Picking up his own guitar, studying the chords and searching for the rhythm. Meanwhile, Charlie was off again.
String of Words
Filling my days
Spilling from lips in predictable ways.
Written in rhyme
Filling my head, wasting my time.
William was hooked. The song was fast, furious and angry, and better than anything he’d ever written. The lyrics were in turn poetic and threatening, heartfelt, dark and real. He studied the characters that formed these words: a capital R that should have been lower case; words crossed out three or four times before one was chosen; a stray sum; a drawing of Mr Shahriar, the student teacher; small, constipated cursive that crawled up, down and across the edges of the page.
They finished, and William congratulated him.
‘It’s just something I’ve been fiddling with,’ Charlie said.
William thought it strange that his best student couldn’t look at him as he said this. ‘Charlie, you’ve got talent, real talent.’
‘Well, I suppose it’s better than “The Ash Grove”.’
‘So I don’t have to play from your book?’
William sucked in some air. ‘For homework. And make sure your dad hears it.’
Charlie grinned and William stopped himself from taking his shoulder, or messing his hair. Is it too late to adopt Charlie Price? he wondered; Charlie, testing and rejecting; Charlie, stopping to think and stick yellow Post-it notes around his brain as a reminder of how the world worked, its cogs and gears, its pretensions and pains; Chucky, letting his thoughts and feelings settle across the Lindisfarne lawns like a mist of cheap deodorant.
‘Again?’ William asked, forgetting the rest of the speech he’d planned. Lessons about distance and professionalism – hard work and friendship through respect.
‘If you’d like,’ Charlie said.
And they were off again, Charlie singing his ballad of discontent about teachers other than William. They hammered through the chorus and William found a harmony that filled out the melody, the angst, the sentiment.
This is what caught Pete Ordon’s ear, as he walked past. He stopped at the door and listened.
String of Words
Goin’ round in my head
Bullshit things that needn’t be said.
He peered inside and saw them playing, singing, their eyes moving between the music and each other.
Bodies, amorphic, interchangeable, flowing with the rhythm. Laughter, when the soundtrack slipped, or they missed a beat. When they finished, just a few words, a nodded head, a smile. Although no one seemed to be learning, or teaching, anything. It was a coffee clutch – unstructured, lacking books and pencil marks on manuscript paper. There was no sense of awkwardness or frustration. Just a can of Coke that they shared without wiping the lip.
The bell rang and they dared to keep playing for a few minutes, before they thought better of it.
‘Would you mind if I took a copy?’ William asked, picking up the food-stained page with its scribbled palimpsest of reworked words.
‘If you think it’s okay.’
‘Listen, we’re playing at the Gov tonight. I might show this to the fellas.’
‘You wouldn’t mind if we had a go at it?’
William was glowing. ‘Listen, Mr Price, this is good. Don’t underestimate yourself.’
Charlie started packing his guitar. ‘That’s what Davo says.’
‘My sister’s boyfriend. Dad doesn’t know he sells pipes at the Brickworks on Sundays.’
‘And you, you’re little Mr Innocence,’ he said, messing the boy’s hair, grabbing his shoulder and squeezing it.
‘I wish I could come tonight.’
‘That’d be good, but difficult.’
‘What time do you start?’
‘Past my bedtime.’
And William scowled. ‘I guess.’
CHARLES BRACED HIMSELF. He did up a button on his sports shirt, as if this might help – an inch less flesh, manners his mother had taught him. Then he stood in the doorway clutching his diary, looking out at his dad, watering the garden. ‘Oh, I forgot,’ he said to himself. ‘You’ve gotta sign this… Would you mind signing this? Dad, I think we better talk.’ Although he was willing his hand to open the flyscreen door, it wouldn’t budge.
Damien was hosing gravel back into the gaps in the driveway. Charles thought it strange how such small details always formed the background to the disasters of his life – staring at a crack in the wall as he cried himself to sleep whispering his mother’s name; the mud splashed on the side of the ambulance parked in their driveway; Mr Britten’s crooked fringe, as he led the memorial service. Debris that made enormous things small.
There was no point thinking about it. He opened the door and jumped down the front steps, hoping his father would start a conversation about roses or rusted fence posts. Instead, Damien just kept watering, his head down, his shoulders slumped.
Damien looked up. ‘I didn’t know you were home.’ He noticed the diary and his face hardened. ‘Tell me it’s an excursion.’
‘It wasn’t my fault.’
‘It was Mr Neil again.’
‘I come out here to relax, to sprinkle the lawn…’
‘Remember, he gave me lines.’
‘To pull a few dead leaves from the aggies, say hello to the neighbours. And then…’ He indicated the diary.
Charlie stepped forward. ‘Listen to this: Neil says, “It’s obvious that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones”. And I put my hand up and ask, quite respectfully, “Don’t all objects fall at the same speed?”’
Charlie could remember the moment, and he wanted his dad to experience it too. He could see Mr Neil coming over to him and leaning across his desk so that their eyes were only a few inches apart. He could smell his Old Spice and see the hairs flaring from his nostrils; see the liver spots on his cheeks and the wrinkles in the corner of his eyes. He could hear him say, ‘No, Charles, that doesn’t make sense, does it?’
And he could hear himself reply, ‘I remember this bloke dropping this match and this stone, and they both hit the ground at the same time.’
Mr Neil stood up and just looked at him. ‘Who was this…bloke?’
‘On the telly.’
‘Ah, The Simpsons perhaps?’
Charlie’s face screwed up. ‘No, it was some science thing. And that’s what they said – everything falls at the same speed. It’s because gravity is a constant – 9.8 metres per second, per second.’
Mr Neil returned to the front of the room. ‘Now you’re talking about acceleration.’
‘That’s what gravity is,’ Charles replied.
‘Not at all,’ his teacher bluffed, pausing to double-check the facts in his own mind.
‘It is,’ Charlie said.
‘Watch your tone.’
‘It’s the same thing.’ He started flicking through his textbook. The teacher came over and closed it. He grabbed it back and continued.
‘Give it here,’ Neil ordered.
‘Why should I?’
‘I won’t ask again.’
Five minutes later, Charlie was walking across the tennis courts on his way to the Focus Room. He was already thinking about the consequences – the detention, the re-entry contract and his father’s reaction – but he was so furious he just didn’t care.
This wasn’t the first time he’d crossed swords with Neil. There’d also been a discussion about reproduction, when his teacher had insisted that identical twins came from separate eggs. How could that be, Charlie had asked. Isn’t it a case of one egg and one sperm, and the egg splits? No, Neil had growled. Eggs don’t split. Charlie had known he was wrong, but let it go. Soon Neil was showing them an overhead of a before and after penis. See if you can get that wrong, Charlie thought. Neil was saying things like, It’s there for one reason and one reason alone, gentlemen – and he was almost grinning. Then there was a transparency of the girl’s bits, and he mumbled something like, I imagine you all have a lot of questions, eh?
Charlie had gone home and told his dad about Neil’s lack of knowledge and Damien had said something like, Is that the best they can do for eight grand a year?
So, Charlie assumed his dad would understand when he invoked the name Neil.
‘Remember him?’ he was saying, standing on the cracked path.
Damien was still trying to find solace in his watering. ‘What did it matter if he was wrong? He knows most things, doesn’t he?’
‘But twins, that’s so obvious. Non-identical, two eggs, two sperm–’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Damien said. ‘He didn’t chuck you out because of that.’
‘He was wrong.’
‘So what? I’m no bloody Einstein, but that doesn’t mean…’ He trailed off, his eyes fixed on a lavender that needed pruning. ‘This is all the bloody time now.’
‘You and your attitude.’
‘Listen to you. You know better than anyone, don’t you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Just ’cos you’re a teenager doesn’t mean you can be a pain in the arse. What would your mother think?’
Charlie couldn’t fathom a reply.
‘I’m wondering whether this guitar fella’s got anything to do with it?’
‘Cos I went to his place?’
‘And other things.’
‘Watch your tone!’
There was a brief pause, but the tension didn’t subside.
‘I reckon you should give that guitar back.’
Charlie stepped forward. ‘No.’
Damien turned off the tap and started reeling in the hose. ‘Until you can learn.’
‘I’ve already paid some of it.’
‘You’ll do what you’re told.’
‘Cos of a fuckin’ detention?’
Damien stood up to him, glaring. ‘You watch your mouth. Where do you get off talking to me like that?’
‘You can take it back tomorrow.’
Charlie stared at him. He threw the diary into the garden and stormed inside. Damien listened as doors slammed and curses were thrown about the hallway. He’d never seen his son like this before. Angry, yes, argumentative, but his passion was always curtailed by reason. Here was a different creature altogether – loud and furious. Here was someone with a face and voice he could barely recognise. Something was pulling at him, and he was responding.
Maybe he was falling in with a bad mob. Cigarettes, attitude and fuck you stuffed into the bottom of blazer pockets. But why would he? He’d always laughed at the look-at-me mob, the rebels with nothing to rebel against, the Goths looking lost in shopping malls.
And then he emerged from the front door in an unironed polo shirt, shorts, anklets and sandshoes. He walked down the path and out the front gate.
‘This your big performance?’ Damien said.
But Charlie just kept walking.
‘Where you off to then?’ He was unsure of what his son was capable of in such a state. ‘Okay then – keep your bloody guitar.’
Still, no reply, and then Charlie was gone.
CHARLES STOOD AT a bus stop, watching as the 104 slowed towards him. The doors opened and he climbed aboard. He took out his wallet and said to the driver, ‘I need to go to the Governor Hindmarsh. Do you know where it is?’
‘Other side of town.’
‘I’ll drop you in Grenfell Street, you’ll have to get the 151.’
Charlie opened his wallet. ‘Can you break a fifty?’
The driver felt in his pocket and produced a plastic bag full of coins and notes. He sorted through them and said, ‘No.’
‘Go on, get on.’
The door closed and the driver pulled out. Charlie sat at the back of the empty bus. As they coasted down the hill he studied familiar streets. Places devoid of any life. They were debris, filled with the scraps of lives lived in one place doing one thing. Even as he thought this he knew it was an arrogant view, and probably wrong – but he wanted to trust his instincts. It was his right, he thought, perhaps even an obligation, to reimagine Lindisfarne in a different way. He felt happy leaving his suburb behind – and could imagine doing it in a more permanent way.
He left the bus in the city, found the stop for the Port Road buses and waited fifty minutes for a 151. Then there was another slow drift westwards, past car yards and pawnbrokers, an old servo converted into a statue farm and the brewery dripping lights and stale yeast into what was left of the Torrens River.
The bus dropped him across from the hotel. It was a stone building, left trembling on a busy corner between factories and warehouses, workshops promising half-price CV joints. The stonework had been painted black and there were neon signs advertising everything from dark lager to Drive-U-Home Safely cabs. There were posters advertising bands, lingerie and even a vegetarian, multi-faith picnic in Bonython Park. The whole pub was protected from the sun by split awnings flecked with something that looked like vomit.
He entered through a hallway that smelt of beer and smoke. The music on the PA was heavy on the bass and he could feel it through his feet. He quickly forgot about his dad and buses and old men with their tomato plants. Here at last was some sign of life.
He noticed a barman kissing a girl, groups of men in expensive looking suits and a table surrounded by twentysomethings smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, laughing on each other’s shoulders and draining pints. He wandered through a maze of smaller rooms and ended up in a large beer garden that was enclosed on two sides by shade cloth. There was a stage at the front and a drum kit with the name ‘Nimrod’s Cat’ in black letters. He saw a few of William’s guitars on stands.
William stood in front of him, smiling. He grasped his arms and squeezed them. ‘This is a surprise.’
‘Are you here with your dad?’
‘No, just me.’
William took a moment. ‘Ah…’
‘He said it was okay. Said perhaps you could drop me home.’
‘I could, but it’ll be late.’
William wasn’t convinced. ‘Haven’t you got school tomorrow?’
‘Yeah, but I’m not ten any more.’
He paused, studying the boy’s eyes for clues. ‘Well, if you’re sure.’
‘I was surprised too. I said I’d like to come and he dropped me out front.’
With every word, Charlie could feel the walls closing in around him. Then he thought, So what? This is it. The Father, Son and Holy fucking Ghost. The hum of Marshall amps and the smell of Jim Beam. Noise to split your eardrums. Shredded vocal cords.
‘Do you want a hand setting up?’ he asked.
MEANWHILE, DAMIEN WAS driving around the back streets of Lindisfarne. He’d see someone and stop and ask about his son but they’d just shrug or look at him like he was some old perve.
He’d waited an hour after Charlie left. He was ready for him to come in the front door, and he was going to say, Come and sit with your old man, and let me say sorry. He was going to be watching the television, as if nothing had happened.
But then it got dark, and he started to worry. He searched his son’s room, found his phone and looked up his mate’s numbers. He phoned them, or their parents, but no one had seen him. He told them Charlie was late back from swimming training, but not to worry, as he often ended up at someone’s house and never thought to ring and tell him.
He pulled over and stopped to think. Took a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. Then he read the scribbled words:
String of Words
Goin’ round in my head
Bullshit things that needn’t be said.
Then, beside the title of the song, he noticed: ‘For WD, as promised’.
He wondered what the promise was. And wasn’t that the sort of secret shared between father and son?
Christ, he thought, I haven’t even seen this Dutton fella.
But again he figured that WD must be okay. He was a teacher – educated, experienced with kids. And there were so many letters after his name on the reports that came home.
WILLIAM WAS DISAPPOINTED with the crowd. The usual group of friends, and their friends, a few regulars, one or two drop-ins, but no cult following, no word of mouth.
Charlie sat and watched as the band worked through a mix of covers and originals. He recognised songs from their demo and listened as they murdered ‘Me’ with raw guitar and thumping drums.
He sat at the band’s table. Earlier, he’d listened to them discussing life, love and music. He’d marvelled at sentences containing four or five fucks, at the way insults, philosophy and song mixed in a salad of voices, at the way sex ebbed and flowed into the conversation until they remembered his presence. He’d listened as they’d agreed that marijuana was a domestic necessity, as they’d mocked Classic Hits radio and rap and laughed about people who wore the collar up on their polo shirts. He’d soaked in their body language and odour, their cheap cologne and stale clothes, their greasy, uncombed hair and two-week growth. He’d longed to be ten years older, and one of them.
They’d left plenty to drink on the table: half-empty beers, vodka and William’s untouched brandy and Coke; free grog, another benefit of the rock’n’roll lifestyle. He watched as cold beads formed and ran down glasses.
Fuck it, he thought. Just a taste, a half-glass. Why not? What’s stopping me? I’m not the one threatening to take away people’s property. Since when does doing the right thing ever get you anywhere? He could see his folder full of certificates, a wall covered with ribbons and medallions, trophies and the memory of a hundred aunties saying, What a clever boy!
Waiting until no one was looking, he picked up one of the beers and drained it with a few gulps. Then he tried the brandy, and the vodka.
William was wet with sweat. He was screaming into the microphone, growling the words so people could feel the heat of his emotions. As he sang he looked at Charlie.
The beginning of everything, he thought. Every word, urge and action. He met his eyes and they both grinned. He studied his face and the low-set curve of his nose. Then, as he turned away, he noticed him picking up a drink and draining it. He looked at the table, the empty glasses, and met his eyes again.
The song continued, verse after chorus. William was tired, and mostly drunk. He kept moving on the spot to stay upright. He could feel his head spinning. Fell forward, back. Returned to the microphone and screamed the start of a chorus, but then ran out of voice and left the rest unsung.
Between songs he told the crowd, ‘One of my students is here.’
Charlie held up his hand and looked around, but the room was spinning.
‘We’re gonna do a song.’ Motioning for him to come up.
Charlie shook his head, but William unplugged his guitar and fetched him. The boy stood, walked around the table and tripped on a rug. Steadied himself, and climbed the three steps onto the stage. William handed him one of his guitars and as Charlie strapped it on he said, ‘This is my debut.’ There was a fringe of laughter.
Then he started grinding away at the chords. William joined in and they managed a two-guitar version of ‘String of Words’. After a loud ending, Charlie stumbled back to his seat. The other members of the band looked at William and smiled. He shrugged, approached the microphone and said, ‘Charlie, no more grog.’ The crowd laughed again.
They played a slow version of ‘Blow up the Pokies’ and Charlie watched as William raised his head and sang in a crying whisper as he reached for the high notes. For a moment he was with, and was, his teacher. In the middle of his warm, forget-the-world glow, he’d forgotten all about Damien, Lindisfarne College and Datsunland.
During a break in the performance, Charlie headed to the toilet. Walked in and found William against a wall, kissing the girl from the front bar, as she ran her hand over his chest and the top of his legs. ‘Charlie, this is…Sarah, wasn’t it?’ his teacher said, as the girl turned her attention, said, ‘Hi, Charlie,’ and asked William, ‘How old?’
‘Too young for you.’
But she wasn’t about to be put off. She stepped towards Charlie, and again, closer, before saying, ‘You’ve got the bluest eyes.’
William seemed content to watch as Sarah kissed the boy, then used a single hand to guide him into a vacant cubicle.
Charlie was unsure. Maybe this was part of it, the fun, the game. But then she kissed him again, ran her hand over his chest, down across his crotch.
‘Let him go,’ William said, sliding down the wall to the ground.
But she just closed the door, pushed him into a corner, and started wrestling with his fly.
Charlie was terrified. He tried to protect himself, push her away, but she just became more determined. ‘D’yer wanna show me?’
William laughed. ‘Leave him be.’
She was in, investigating, and he froze, realising there was nothing he could do about it. The terror left him empty, vacant, unable to act. She just kept going, kissing his lips, face, neck, lower, as William said and did nothing, as she put her tongue in his mouth, as he waited for William to stop her, but realised his teacher wasn’t about to, and he’d have to save himself. He pushed her away, fixed his pants and opened the door. Looked at William and said, ‘What are you doing?’
William wasn’t sure about anything. ‘She’s just…’
Charlie ran from the toilet, through the maze of rooms and out the front doors of the pub. William took a few moments and then followed him. When he caught up he asked, ‘Where are you going?’
Charlie didn’t reply.
‘Listen, she was just…you know…’
Charlie stopped and stared at his teacher. ‘You were gonna let her…?’
‘No, of course not.’
He started running. Turned into an alleyway and sprinted. William tried to follow him but couldn’t keep up. Stopping, he looked in all directions – through mostly dead trees, parked cars, fences topped with razor wires – but Charlie was gone. He turned into a road protected by a boom gate and as he did a security guard appeared from a doorway. ‘Private property.’
‘Did you see a boy?’
He returned to the road. Ran towards an intersection, looked around but couldn’t see anyone. ‘Charlie!’ The name rolled down the empty street, echoing off factory walls. ‘Charlie! Come on! I’ve gotta take you home.’ He stood and listened. Heard a forklift reversing and the sound of metal dropping on a concrete floor. Then someone calling, ‘Two inches, more like three.’
He turned and walked back to the pub. His heart was racing and he felt almost sober. There were waves – the dark, chemical smell of the street, and the thought of what had happened. After a block or so this realisation flooded over him. He sat on a planter box and his head dropped between his knees.
The music had gone. Now it was completely different. Now he was watching from his window, waiting, planning what he’d say.
CHARLIE SPRINTED THE length of West Avenue – a full kilometre of old workers’ cottages, scrap yards and ruined homes waiting to become car parks. He tripped over gutters and cracked pavements, swerving to avoid low tree branches, postboxes and a couple walking home from a local pub. ‘Slow down,’ one of them said. ‘What’s the rush?’
But he just kept running. The endless hours of training, the PE lessons, the ribbons and trophies were coming in useful. Somewhere in front of him was safety – his father, whose doubts about William, it seemed, might have been well-founded.
He stopped and leaned against a brick wall. Saw the girl’s fingers and face, but tried to block them out. William’s body, collapsed on the tiles, his heavy head and red eyes. He continued and found a main road. Looked both ways, unsure where the city lay, his suburb, home. Turning right, he kept walking up a gradual incline that stretched three or four kilometres before dipping behind a railway crossing. His legs were heavy, tired from running. Every time he heard a car he looked over his shoulder, ready to slip behind a bus shelter or squat in bushes. He spat, but couldn’t get rid of the taste. So he stopped and drank from a tap attached to the side of a MG dealership with an empty showroom.
An old sports car drove past, slowed and sounded its horn. A group of teenage girls waved and called out to him and someone asked, ‘What’s your name?’
Without thinking he shrugged, and they laughed. ‘Is the city this way?’ he asked, and they replied by offering a lift.
‘No. I’m okay walking.’
The car sped up and disappeared around a corner. The road was empty. His mind was racing. In a flash of light and noise he heard the band and saw the lights, and remembered. The evening had promised a new world of sound and smell, a glimpse into the adult nirvana that had always escaped him. He’d always longed for it, felt older than he really was. But, it seemed, it wasn’t all he’d imagined it to be. Now, it felt like he’d lived three days in one.
The bus, when did I catch the bus, he wondered. Yesterday afternoon? The day before? And when did I argue with Dad?
His father? Still waiting for him, he supposed. Back home on the other side of the city. So far, and with the buses finished for the day.
A moment later he was kneeling in a garden of pine chips, vomiting, spitting brandy-flavoured chunks from his mouth. He looked up at a ‘Mr Exterminator’ sign, a pair of angry Rottweilers in a car yard, and cursed his teacher. He saw a taxi, crossed to the middle of the road and hailed it. It stopped and a small Indian man wound down the window. ‘Where to?’
‘You were going the wrong way.’
He got in and the driver planted his foot and completed a U-turn. ‘You have money?’
‘Can I see, please?’
He took out his wallet, opened it and displayed a fifty dollar note.
‘Thank you. You have been drinking?’
‘If need be, tell me before your sickness.’ The driver indicated and turned right down a road Charlie remembered. ‘Otherwise there is a $60 fee.’
He nodded. ‘Okay.’
The driver looked at him in the rear-vision mirror. ‘How old are you?’
‘Seventeen? You look too young to be out by yourself.’
‘Well, I’m not. I’ve got a girlfriend.’
‘Is she nice?’
His eyes were on the meter. ‘That goes fast.’
‘Don’t worry, fifty will cover it.’
GREG FRASER, THE band’s bass player, stood waiting for William at the door of the pub. ‘Come on, everyone’s waiting.’
William walked past him, through the maze that led into the beer garden. ‘I’ve gotta go.’
‘But we’ve got another set.’
‘The kid’s pissed off. That fuckin’ bitch tried to…’ He climbed onto the stage, packed his three guitars into their cases, wound up his cords and approached the microphone. ‘That’s it.’
No one seemed concerned. The crowd had dwindled to a dozen or so. Someone called out, ‘What about a refund?’ But most people hadn’t paid anyway.
‘It’s your bedtime,’ William replied, and the voice mumbled something about them being shit anyway.
‘What are you fucking good at then?’
A beefy, bald-headed man stood up.
Greg pulled him aside. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘In the middle of a gig? Do you know how hard it was to organise this?’
‘Do you think this lot will notice?’
‘It’s not the fucking point.’
He drove around the dozen or so blocks that made up Brompton and Bowden, accelerating, braking, looking down alleys and side streets, narrowly avoiding parked cars and knocking over a wheelie bin. He suspected he might have hit a cat, but didn’t care. Just after midnight he emerged onto the main road and tried to decide what to do next. Only a few cars, mainly taxis. He drove towards the city, crossing the Parklands into North Adelaide. Nothing. Just a few pissed uni students, a prostitute, more taxis. He turned towards home, shutting off the radio so he could think.
THE STILLEST PART of the night. A rescue helicopter appeared from over the hills, flying low towards the city. Damien followed its path. Some cocky’s son, smashed up in a ute, he guessed. He was pacing the brick path that wound through his front garden. This is where it had all started, and where it would finish, he hoped. He tripped on a paver and stamped it down with his foot. A branch had grown across the path and he leaned over and snapped it off.
He knew, despite all this drama, he was the luckiest father alive. Charlie was a boy who listened and learned, observed and imitated, mastered and excelled at nearly everything he set his mind to. He was a set-and-forget sort of kid, a teenage crock-pot, an aspidistra that kept growing in a dark corner. He’d watched his son’s temperament develop. Seen how he’d become serious and smart, funny and ironic, and with this, slightly superior (without saying as much). He’d watched his will set hard, so that when he decided to win, he would win. If he decided to give he would empty his pockets, and heart, of everything. If he decided to daydream he would invent other worlds, and if he decided to love, he would walk across hot coals to share whispered thoughts.
Damien had spent hours driving around Lindisfarne. Nothing. He’d walked through the school, checked the pool, the hayshed – anywhere Charlie might have retreated to. He’d been stopped by a security guard and explained the situation, but was asked to leave anyway.
Nicole and Dave pulled up in an old Laser. Nicole got out, slammed the door and said, ‘Nothing?’
‘He won’t be far.’
‘It’s not the point.’ She came around to him. ‘He’d know this would upset you.’
‘He’s a kid, they don’t think.’
Dave jumped the fence and stumbled onto the front lawn. ‘We walked all the way along Fourth Creek.’
‘We gotta call the police,’ Nicole said.
‘No, then we’ve got social services coming to interview us.’
They all sat on a bench on the front porch. They were mostly quiet, but after a while Dave said, ‘I did this.’
Nicole looked at him. ‘What?’
‘Ran away. The whole day. Most of the time I was up a tree in the back yard.’
Damien leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. ‘Why?’
‘I can’t remember. But I was always planning to run off. Had it all worked out. You know – no one gives a shit if I’m dead or alive.’ He sat back and studied the stars. ‘Don’t worry, he’s too smart to go far.’
‘It’s my fault,’ Damien said.
‘It is not,’ Nicole replied.
‘A bloody detention. ’Cos he argued with this teacher who was trying to tell them some bullshit. Charlie was setting him straight. Can you imagine it?’
Dave grinned, watching how the stars turned from white to red to blue. ‘I can just hear him. “Excuse me, sir, but is that right?”’
‘What was he saying? Identical twins come from different eggs. Any idiot knows that’s wrong.’
Nicole nudged Dave.
‘What?’ he replied. ‘I knew that.’ He noticed a meteorite burning up. ‘Even the teachers at my crap school woulda known that.’
‘So he argued with him,’ Damien said.
‘But he shouldn’t have argued with you,’ Nicole said.
‘It was me.’
‘He’s smart, but he can also be a smart arse.’
‘I told him he’d have to give the guitar back.’
Dave sat forward. ‘I bet that got his hackles up.’
Nicole looked at him. ‘You don’t even know what a hackle is.’
‘It’s the red thing on a chook.’
Silence. Crunching gravel. They all looked up. Charlie stood at the gate, motionless.
‘Welcome home,’ Nicole said. ‘Come in, I’ll fetch your slippers.’
Charlie took a few steps forward. ‘Dad…’
‘You all right, son?’
Damien walked through the garden, opened his arms and reclaimed his son. ‘Jesus, you had me worried.’
He held him close. Smelled the smoke and alcohol on his clothes, but didn’t care. He took a few moments to feel his son’s breathing, his warmth. Felt thankful that time had reset, again, the way it had begun. That Charlie was six again, and upset because of what someone had said; nine, left out; eleven, twelve, wanting to be with him, ask him questions, come to the car yard and sit in the Datsun that was left there for old time’s sake, and the cats. That no matter how much his son grew, or learned, or was tempted, he always returned.
‘I’ve been an idiot,’ Charlie said.
‘No, I have,’ Damien said. He stood back and looked at his son. ‘You’re not hurt?’
‘Where you been?’
He didn’t answer, and in these two empty seconds Nicole came forward. ‘Well, where?’
‘Bullshit. You smell like beer.’
‘I’ve been walking.’
Nicole was studying his face, searching his clothes for clues, sneering at him. ‘We’ve been looking all night.’
‘That was bloody nasty, Charlie. Didn’t you think about Dad?’
‘You’re lucky we didn’t call the cops. Fuck, Charles, you’re so selfish.’
‘I’m sorry!’ he shouted, glaring at her. ‘I didn’t think. I was angry.’
‘We used a tank of fucking petrol looking for you.’
There was silence. Damien held his son’s shoulder and said, ‘It’s all over now, eh, son?’
Charlie looked at him, desperately.
Damien turned to Nicole. ‘That’s enough.’
But she was still staring at her brother, her face set hard.
‘Go on, hop to bed,’ Damien said, and Charlie went inside. To his room, where he sat in the dark and watched his dad farewell Dave and his sister. He followed his progress back into the yard – as he stopped to pick a spent flower from a rosebush. He could hear him coming inside, carefully closing the flyscreen door. Could hear his keys rattling on a ring on his belt. The sound reminded him of his dad’s Datsunland keys. He’d seen them, hundreds of them, labelled with little stickers with licence numbers. And every evening at five (as he watched, as a kid, from his dad’s office) Damien would go out into the lot and hand lock each car. Watching his father drag himself from car to car always made him feel sad. He would watch him search the chain and then try two or three keys before he found the right one, working them in difficult locks, using his knee to force doors shut.
Sun-bleached, fender-dented cars waiting for some kid or single mother to buy them out of desperation. Each car full of a hundred stories that hadn’t quite vacuumed out – conception and trips to the emergency department, drive-throughs and drive-ins, baby vomit on the carpet and cigarette-burnt leather.
Charlie could hear his father coming towards him, down the hall, his weight settling on the floorboards. Then he was in the doorway, whispering, ‘How about we both have a day off tomorrow?’
‘Something we never do? Go see a picture, eh?’
‘You and me?’
Then Damien said, ‘It doesn’t matter, son. Nothing matters.’
And he was gone.
Charlie pushed the clutter from his bed and lay down. His eyes adjusted to the dark and he could see the shadows the moon made across his wall. He noticed his new guitar on its stand, gleaming.
He lay awake, counting the half-hours. Listened to his dad snoring and the old clock in the hallway that lost three minutes a day. Sometime in the coldest part of the night he opened his window and sat staring out at the shapes of trees and cars, porches and an old fridge in their neighbour’s driveway. He could smell orange blossom and it took him back.
He was sitting in the garden with his mum and he said, ‘What’s that smell?’ She pointed to the mandarin tree.
That’s all he could remember – a fragment. He didn’t know what she’d said or what they’d done next. If it was a Saturday or Sunday, or even if it had really happened.
He took a book from his desk drawer. DH Lawrence. Not that he’d ever read it, but Carol had written her name inside the front cover. He studied the scrawl – the loops, the clumsily joined letters, the heavily dotted i’s – and felt even more alone. A tabby walked onto the lawn and looked up at him. He opened the book and found a small newspaper clipping.
Price, Carol. Passed away peacefully on May 21. Dearly loved and devoted wife of Damien, loved mother of Nicole and Charlie. We are so grateful we were able to tell you how much we loved you.
He closed the book and said a prayer to his mum. He told her he’d had a bad night, but that things would be okay. He said, in thoughts more than words, that there was no one, really, he could trust, and learn to love, and she told him (he sensed, somehow) that he was wrong.
He put the book away and returned to bed.
For the next hour he thought about the mess he guessed he’d created. He decided there was only one way to sort things out. He got up and walked from his room. Moving slowly into the hallway, he placed his feet where he’d learnt the floorboards wouldn’t creak. Then he stood in his dad’s doorway. There were no sounds, but his presence woke him.
‘That you, Chuck?’
‘What’s wrong?’ Damien said.
Charlie tried to say it, but couldn’t. Instead he whispered, ‘Just getting some water.’
WILLIAM HAD ALSO made it home to bed. He was lying with his hands behind his head, thinking. It wasn’t my fault as such…I guess…although… He thought about the boy and how, in a way, he was just playing with the idea of being grown up. Putting aside one thing to try another. Although some things weren’t as plastic, flexible, forgiving. Choking hazards. That was made clear on the bag. Or skateboards – a fast-track to a greenstick fracture. But there were other things that came too soon, too suddenly.
He put on his thongs, went out the back door, up the driveway and along the street. Walked for a full hour – along the banks of the river, up paths winding into the hills of Morialta Park, along old quarry truck roads – finally emerging on the edge of a high cliff overlooking the city. He stopped well short, looking down at the old quarry below, the adjacent suburbs, nearby roads and shops. Estimated his height – fifty, sixty metres. He picked up a rock and threw it over the edge.
It fell quietly, slowly.
He looked out towards the sea. It was dark, and you could only tell it was there by the presence of distant freighters.
Then, back down the hill, to Lindisfarne. A few minutes later he was standing outside Charlie’s house. As he watched the boy’s window, he wondered whether he shouldn’t knock, go in.
Inside, Charlie was almost asleep. He opened his eyes when he heard the start-and-stop slap of thongs. Sitting up, he looked out and saw the dark figure, but it passed quickly.
IT WAS A spot they’d returned to a thousand times: a stretch of asphalt behind Kmart. Cracked and full of potholes, and no one bothered parking there. The Trimboli fruit truck was always left under a nearby fig tree, but that didn’t bother them.
They’d set up their own BMX track, consisting of a series of jumps. First, a shopping trolley laid on its side, with a piece of old particle board propped up as a ramp. This allowed them to fly a metre or more in the air before coming down on a couple of flattened cardboard boxes. Second, a garden bed they’d turned into a jump. This feature dated back to when they still fit on their bikes. Now they were far too big to ride them safely, but that didn’t matter. In fact, it was just the point – knees sticking out over handlebars, feet too big for pedals, bums too big for seats.
Finally, there were a series of fruit crates supporting more flattened boxes. These formed a series of cardboard valleys and hills that often collapsed under their weight.
Vince Trimboli didn’t seem to mind their mess. They’d move it aside, and he’d come in and out with his truck. Sometimes, when other kids mucked it up, he’d tell them to piss off. He’d give Charlie green bananas to give his dad, but Charlie always chucked them in the cardboard crusher behind Coles.
Charlie went around the course three times. Simon, one of his oldest mates, timed him. ‘Fifty-four seconds,’ he said, when Charlie skidded back beside him.
‘Fifty-four? I counted forty-five.’
Simon didn’t care. ‘Fifty-four, not a winning time, Chuck. You’re losing your edge.’ He handed over his watch, sat on his bike and said, ‘When you’re ready.’
Simon was off, over the trolley, through the garden and up and down the cardboard valleys. He went back a second time, and a third, pulling up a few inches from Charlie’s thonged feet.
‘Fifty-eight,’ Charlie said.
Simon shook his head. ‘Okay, you still haven’t beaten forty-eight.’
‘Forty-eight my arse.’
‘You sayin’ I’m cheatin’, Chucky?’
‘You’re full of shit.’
‘Forty-eight, I swear on the Bible.’
‘G’day, Charlie,’ a voice called.
Pete Ordon stood watching them. He was dressed in long shorts and black socks. He smiled at Simon, although he didn’t know him. ‘Nice little set-up you’ve got here.’
Charlie didn’t know what to say. ‘We can get around three times in under a minute,’ he managed, thinking he was looking and sounding too childish.
‘Very impressive. Haven’t broken any bones yet?’
‘No…although I did chip a tooth when I was twelve.’ He opened his mouth to show him and Pete tried to look interested. He said, ‘I’m after a hose reel.’
Neither of the boys replied.
‘Anyway, I’ll let you get back to it.’
He walked on, almost tripping in a pothole. Simon looked at Charlie. ‘Cleo’s Most Eligible Bachelor.’
Charlie punched him on the arm. ‘Shh.’ Then called out, ‘Mr Ordon?’
Pete stopped and turned back. Charlie rode his bike over and pulled up in front of him. ‘I was wondering, there’s another guitar teacher, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, but he mainly teaches seniors. Why?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Do you think he’d take on a Year 9?’
Pete shook his head. ‘We only change teachers if there’s a very good reason.’
Charlie turned to go. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Do you have a reason?’
Pete studied the boy’s face. ‘You don’t like the way Mr Dutton teaches?’
‘No, it’s not that.’
‘You don’t get along?’
‘You look like you get along, when I see you working together.’
Charlie struggled with the words. He knew he shouldn’t have mentioned it. Now there’d be questions, suspicions – more stuff he couldn’t squeeze back into the box. ‘We do get along. I’ve learnt a lot.’
‘I just thought, it’d be good to try someone different.’
Pete stared at him, unconvinced. ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ he said. ‘You can’t pick and choose.’
‘Sorry. See you later.’ He returned to Simon.
‘What’s up?’ Simon asked.
‘I was timing, it was forty-seven seconds.’
‘That doesn’t count.’
Charlie had had enough of jumps. ‘Wanna ride into town?’
‘It’s miles,’ Simon replied.
WILLIAM’S HEART WAS racing. This was a moment he’d been dreading. He’d rehearsed it a hundred times. Tried to think of the right greeting. A solemn, ‘Hi, Charles’, or a pretend-nothing-had-happened, ‘Hey, Charlie’. He’d planned where they’d sit, and how he’d broach the topic. But as he watched the boy approach the music suite it all seemed to mean nothing. He sat, placed his acoustic guitar across his legs and leaned forward, pretending to study music. Looked up at the door; down; up again.
‘Hi,’ Charlie said, in a monotone.
‘Hi. Come in.’
Charlie sat down and took out his guitar. There was no conversation, and William guessed he was right to have been worried. No instant forgiveness; no best chums again.
Charlie looked at him without speaking. William let his eyes slip onto the boy’s long neck, his windpipe, the gentle pulse of an artery. Then, as soon as he realised, he looked at the music. ‘How are you?’
William felt he’d got it all wrong. Confused one thing for another. Fucked up a perfectly good kid, perhaps. Kid. Under the Christmas tree. He remembered it. How you sat, with your knees bent, as you unwrapped presents. But then shot forward when you saw one with your name on it. Kid. As you pretended it was quite matter of fact, but felt the world glowing.
Charlie played scales. Every note, perfect. He stopped and waited, and William said, ‘I’m surprised you came.’
‘I heard you were asking about another teacher?’
Charlie looked down, confused, but then said, ‘That girl, she would’ve kept going.’
There was a long pause; just the hum of the air-conditioning.
‘And you just sat there, letting her…’
Now, William caused the silence.
‘And you were laughing.’
William had nothing to say, because there was no excuse. She would’ve kept going, and she might’ve made him stay, in his corner, in the cubicle. That was the reality.
‘I decided to stop learning,’ Charlie said. ‘But Dad wouldn’t let me.’ He explained how, when he’d brought this up, Damien had got out of his seat, searched through the receipt box and returned to him, waving a piece of paper in his face. ‘Look,’ he’d said. ‘Ten lessons, $180. Non-refundable. See that bit there?’
‘Fine,’ he’d replied. ‘I’ll keep going.’
Damien had sat down. ‘Too bloody right you’ll keep going. I thought you liked the guitar?’
‘What about Guru Dutton?’
‘You sick of him?’
‘No.’ Studying his face. ‘I just thought, maybe I could try a different instrument.’
‘You gotta stick to one thing.’
‘I was thinking about clarinet.’
Back in the bunker, Charlie had moved on to his set pieces, some of which he hadn’t tackled for weeks. He played slow, measured phrases. There was no attack, no anger, no straying from the small, black dots on the page. No bullshit things that needn’t be said. William watched and listened, and felt like he’d lost him. A wall of politeness, of bars in their correct measure, had gone up between them. Although he was only a few inches from the boy, he knew he’d drifted away. As the realisation fully dawned, he felt worse than ever. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘That’s how it is. I’m no saint.’
‘Did you think that?’
‘You’re a really good kid. Really grown up. So…’ But words eluded him. ‘We’re friends?’
Charlie dared to look up, but only for a moment.
WILLIAM TAUGHT ANOTHER four lessons. Luckily he had drills to fall back on. The words were mechanical, the music lifeless, as usual. By mid afternoon he’d made his decision. At four o’clock he packed his gear, left his bunker and walked into Pete Ordon’s office. ‘That’s me done,’ he said.
Pete was busy transposing charts. ‘See you next week.’
‘No, that’s me done.’
Pete looked up. ‘What?’
‘There’s one more week for the term. Tell the kids I’m sick, and I’ll refund them.’
‘What are you crapping on about, Dutton?’
‘You’ll fix my pay?’
Pete stood, came around his desk and closed his office door. ‘Sit down.’
William stepped back and reopened it. ‘Thanks,’ he managed, leaving the office.
Pete stepped out after him. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ he said, as a couple of boys walked past. ‘What’s up?’
But William was gone.
CHARLIE DIDN’T TOUCH either of his guitars for days. Then, on the weekend, he flicked on his amp and tried to remember a riff William had shown him. Damien popped his head in and said, ‘I remember that one.’
‘It’s the Beatles.’
‘Yeah. Baby’s good to me you know… Is this the guru?’
‘No, I heard it somewhere.’
Charlie had gone over William’s words a hundred times. As always, bullshit things that needn’t be said, excuses, little grovelling whispers that didn’t attempt to understand or make good the situation. But, then again, everyone he knew was flawed. His father, of course, lost in a haze of retreads and cracked dashboards. His sister, with her allergy to work, dwelling in a Young and Restless world of celebrity-slimmer magazines. Nicole, wearing out couches as early visions of foreign correspondent-cum-author faded to a soundtrack of discount rugs – as hair went unwashed and armpits unshaved. Davo, floating through some dream world in a patched inner tube, complaining about distant dictatorships as he failed to establish any sort of order in his own life.
But all of them people. Real. Fully formed. Functional. Aware of their own limitations.
I’m no saint…
A week later he was back in the bunker. He was surprised to see a tall man with almost no hair, wearing a tie and business shirt, sorting through piles of music.
‘Now, you are Price?’ the man asked, without looking up.
‘Come in. Sit down.’
He did as he was told. The man turned and studied him, picked up and put on a pair of glasses, squinted, studied him again and crossed his legs. Then he sniffed, wiped the tip of his nose with a long, bony finger and tried to smile.
‘Where’s Mr Dutton?’
‘My name’s Mr Lewis. I’m taking his spot.’
He didn’t understand. ‘What, he’s on holiday?’
‘No, he’s left. So, you’ve got me.’ He smiled a strange, crooked smile.
Charlie stared at a print of Weber hanging on the wall. He noticed his enormous sideburns and high collar. There were mountains, Bavarian hunting lodges and deer in the background, and he sensed that the scene was not quite right. He looked back at Lewis, who was still smiling strangely. ‘Why did he leave?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He didn’t even say goodbye.’
‘Maybe he owed someone money.’
Charlie glared at him. Fuckwit, he thought. He knew why his teacher had gone – given up his job, his income, maybe even his future.
‘Okay, let’s hear this, “The Ash Grove”,’ the teacher said, indicating the music on the stand. ‘Mr Dutton said you were working on it.’
‘So you’ve talked to him?’ Charlie asked.
‘And what did he say?’
Lewis screwed up his nose. ‘Good luck.’
Charlie felt defeated, cheated. He remembered the afternoon in William’s guitar room; smelt their wet clothes, and heard the chainsaw from next door. The air was heavy with the smell of wet grass and soil and damp. It was as though it had happened years ago. There was no forgetting the hum of William’s amps, the double-coil growl, the sight of his white feet folded in front of him – his uncut toenails, a hole in his T-shirt, a half-smoked cigar in a saucer. He could remember every word his teacher had uttered – descriptions of fuzz boxes, caring for pick-ups, the joy of taking a Les Paul out of its case. He played his piece and Lewis asked, ‘How long have you been working on this one?’
‘As well as other stuff.’
‘I see.’ Lewis tapped a pencil on his teeth. ‘You’re going into Year 10, you need to know more.’
‘Sightreading, finger-picking, sitting properly.’ He stood behind Charlie and pulled his shoulders back.
‘Ask,’ Charlie said, pulling free.
‘Your technique, it’s sloppy.’ He sat down. ‘Mr Dutton, I heard he liked his rock’n’roll?’
‘Well, that’s good, but you need a proper grounding.’
‘We did all that. He was always making me play scales.’
Lewis had him playing exercises for the rest of the lesson. At the end he smiled with approval, saying, ‘Excellent, you have made some progress then.’
Charlie leaned over his guitar and asked, ‘Is that all we’re gonna do?’
‘No, we’ll have some fun too.’
‘Rhythm and blues.’
‘Is that what you like?’
‘Who’s that? You wait!’
Charlie was examining the hair in his new teacher’s ear. ‘What about modern stuff?’
‘Red Hot Chili Peppers?’
‘That stuff’s easy…if you’re half-decent.’
Charlie sat back. ‘Some of the riffs are…’ But he drifted off, realising there was no point.
TWO WEEKS OF holidays passed and Charles returned to his world of unwashed T-shirts, cardboard jumps and walks through Morialta Park with Simon. They went to the city on the 104, drank gallons of frozen Coke and sat through martial arts films that Charlie couldn’t stand. ‘This is such bullshit,’ he’d whisper, breathing in flakes of popcorn and coughing.
‘Beats Hugh Grant.’
‘As if I’d see Hugh Grant.’
He returned to school – fresh blazers and pants that couldn’t be let down any further. The hum of a bank of pie warmers in the canteen, handball, leaves blowing across the tennis courts, mixing with paper, plastic and feathers from the farm. There was expectation and holiday stories, someone’s sister pregnant again and someone’s dad trading up to an SS Commodore.
Mr Lewis gathered his four best students (the only ones who could hold a melody, Charlie told Damien) into a guitar quartet he called the Bright Lights. He made them practise together every Tuesday and Thursday lunchtime, endlessly flogging the same three pieces until at last he announced, ‘We’re ready.’
‘For what?’ Charlie asked.
‘Your first performance. Why else do we learn music, boys?’
None of them could provide a reason. Charlie had his own suspicions of what the Bright Lights was all about. He guessed it was Mr Lewis trying to look good in front of his Catholic overlords. If he could prove his worth they might keep him on beyond his contract. Davo had told him how the whole world turned on three pivots – money, power and sex. He’d often stop and cross-reference his friends, teachers, relatives and daily events against these criteria, and to Dave’s credit he surprisingly seemed to be right.
So, there they were, on stage in front of a full school assembly. They each sat in a plastic seat, one foot on a stand, their guitars placed neatly across their knees. Mr Lewis stood in front of them with a baton. ‘Sit up straight,’ he whispered, and they all responded.
Fuck, Charles thought, looking out across the grinning faces. How did it come to this?
Lewis had polished his shoes and shaved an extra half-inch off his sideburns. He was wearing a pinstriped suit that threatened to cut the circulation to his legs. He’d attempted a bow tie that sent entirely the wrong message to eleven hundred boys. He’d drowned himself in musky cologne that did little to counter four generations of stale BO in the Brother Dalrymple Memorial Hall. He smiled at the boys, cleared his throat and turned to the audience. After adjusting the microphone, he said, ‘I’m pleased to introduce you to four very talented young men. This first piece is called “The Ash Grove”. I hope you enjoy it.’
He counted them in and they played their parts from memory. Charlie was in charge of the melody; another, a counterpoint in bass notes; a third, arpeggios and finally a short Italian named Di Censo who played broken chords to disguise any bum notes.
But there were none. Lewis had made sure of that. What the music lacked in soul it made up for in precision. They had become a steam engine. Their arms were pistons, their hands cylinders. They’d practised so much they couldn’t have made a mistake if they’d wanted to. The professor (as they called him) wasn’t about to let four smelly, awkward teenagers blow his big moment.
They finished and there was light applause. They made their way downstairs into a change room and packed away their guitars. ‘That was a complete success,’ Mr Lewis said.
Charlie wasn’t so sure. ‘They were laughing at us.’
‘Didn’t you hear them?’
‘Calm down, Charlie.’
‘I felt like a complete…’ He looked at the other boys. ‘Well?’
No response. He returned to Lewis. ‘Mr Dutton wouldn’t have made us do that.’
‘What did Mr Dutton teach you about performing?’
Charlie knew he was headed for the Focus Room, but he didn’t care. ‘We played a real gig, at a real hotel.’
‘If that’s how you feel, maybe you should…seek him out.’
Charlie realised that Lewis was being too reasonable. You couldn’t argue with common sense. So he said, ‘It’s just, I like other things.’
‘If you want Mr Dutton’s number, I can get it.’
Charlie paused, then continued packing.
‘I’m not saying you can’t like that stuff, Charlie, but I get paid to teach you something else.’
He zipped up his bag.
‘As was Mr Dutton.’
Charlie’s eyes narrowed and he could feel his heart racing. ‘You don’t know what he taught me.’
And what he wanted to say – music’s the least of it, you silly little prick.
A FEW DAYS later there was sun; a fern with four fronds burnt brown, an oleander dropping dead flowers on uneven pavers and a camellia in just the right spot, flourishing. There was a pergola, its wood rotten, its shade-cloth flapping in a light breeze, and an old barbecue built from leftover house bricks. Charlie sat in half-shade, on a cracked plastic chair, at a plastic table. He stared at a blank piece of paper, bit his lip, and finally started writing.
Howdy Mr Guitar Teacher,
It’s me again. How are you? I’m shit at writing things. Hey, I’ve just taught myself ‘Revolution’. You probably know it, but I heard a slow version, and apparently Lennon was stoned…
The letter continued for a page and a half, outlining what he’d been up to. Most of it was a critique of his new teacher, the ‘Incredible Shrinking Chrome-Dome’, the chinless wonder who was forever talking about his golf handicap, clearing wax from his ears and scratching his balls.
He sealed the letter in an envelope, addressed it and thought, Why not?
Walked the two blocks to William’s place, and slipped the letter into his box. When he got home he went to his room and picked up his guitar. He could hear the chooks still, and the rooster you weren’t supposed to keep in the suburbs.
WILLIAM WAS CONTENT. Like a possum, sitting on a branch in a tree, waiting for food to come to him. His plasticine face was finished with the hint of a smile. He held his body still, barely moving, breathing long, shallow breaths.
Greg counted them in and they started to play. It was Nimrod’s Cat’s weekly rehearsal, although they hadn’t met for nearly a month. There’d been weddings, birthdays, work, an ingrown toenail and a dog to be put down. So they were rusty. The drums and bass didn’t quite gel. The rhythm guitar was behind the beat and William couldn’t reach notes he’d sung a few weeks before. There was a lethargy in the back room of his Shangri-la.
Still, they’d promised him a no-covers rehearsal. No Beatles, no Stones, no Pistols. Not even a ‘Long Tall Sally’ whipped off as a warm-up. Today it was all about engineering – the oxywelding of guitar, drums and bass. Improvising. Testing and rejecting dumb lyrics and over-complicated riffs.
Homestead Seven Hundred
I love your halogen plates
The cactus in your gravel
The sound your toilet makes
William’s new song was slow but loud, underscored with power chords and beefy bass notes. He raised his voice, shouting high notes until they were all gravel, nodding at the others when he needed a harmony. They were unsure, but followed their scribbled charts carefully, powering along when they finally reached the chorus.
Homestead Seven Hundred
Your quarter-inch snot-green turf
I’m coming through your French doors
You’re heaven here on Earth
They stopped for coffee, to slouch in the lounge and watch Viva Las Vegas. As they took in the corny lines and lip-synced songs, William could see Charlie sitting on the rug beside him. He could see him scanning their CD, looking up at him and asking questions. Could remember the words he’d read that morning.
As he sits listening he picks snot from the corner of his nose. Then I see him rolling it into a ball, and flicking it.
He could remember Charlie’s description of his argument with Lewis in the change room, of the quartet’s performance, the way his new teacher smelt of parmesan and wet dog, how he walked like a pigeon, and rolled his r’s when he pronounced words like ‘arpeggios’. He could remember the tone of the letter, hear Charlie’s voice, see his smile, his hands moving in perpetual motion, his shoulders drooping. He could see the glow of his skin, the fine line of his eyebrows. And he could hear his half-child, half-adolescent voice breaking, conserving words like they had a dollar value – until he thought of something and sat forward, animating his hands and voice.
CHARLIE WAS FUMING. Storming down Edwards Avenue, away from Lindisfarne College – from D-average students who ruled the basketball courts, telling him he needed to ‘shrink a little’; away from endless overhead transparencies – pages of facts no one was ever going to remember, thousands of words they were made to copy into their books for no good reason; away from the smell of the canteen – chicken-nugget rolls and hard-bottomed pies – as they were made to queue in the sun clutching a fist full of sweaty money; away from change-rooms that denied them the smallest bit of privacy; but worst of all – away from Mr Neil.
He tripped, turned and kicked the tree root. ‘Fuck.’ Hitching his schoolbag over his shoulder and continuing. He could remember Neil leaning over him, his face an inch away from his nose, smelling the science teacher’s breath and seeing the yellow margins where his teeth met his gums. Hearing his voice: ‘So, are we going to go through all of this again, Mr Price?’
‘Which reminds me, I never received an apology for last time.’
‘You’ve got a short memory. If you look on your Focus Room card it says, quote,’ – he took a yellow card from his top pocket – ‘Before re-entering class it is the student’s responsibility to negotiate terms with the teacher.’ He looked up. ‘Before entering class.’
‘I didn’t realise.’
‘How many years have you been here?’
Back on Edwards Avenue, Charlie was livid. He moved to avoid a pile of dog shit in the middle of the footpath. What sort of person just leaves it there, he thought, going on to consider the merits of its colour and shape, and how its maker managed to leave it in exactly the same spot every few days. He read fresh graffiti on a Stobie pole – ‘The Vagina Cooling Machine’ – with a picture of a man with his glasses bolted onto the side of his head. He crossed the road to avoid a mum with a pram and two kids in tow; she called something to him but he just kept walking. Then he realised she was an old neighbour. When he looked back she was gone. He kept walking, turning into William’s driveway. He climbed the few crumbling steps to his front door and knocked.
Then he waited, feeling his heart racing. He wiped sweat from his face.
William opened the door. ‘Charlie.’
‘G’day, Mr Dutton.’
William was wearing a T-shirt, boxer shorts and thick socks. ‘You okay?’ he asked, sensing the boy’s distress.
‘It’s Mr Neil.’
‘He sent me out of class again.’
William was trying to hide the relief in his voice, the simple, quietly spoken thank-God-it’s-all-over happiness that was washing over him. He could feel his fingers shaking, and his eyes were swimming in Charlie’s. There was a drop of sweat about to run down the boy’s cheek and he wanted to wipe it, but dared not.
‘I could get suspended,’ Charlie said.
‘No one’s gonna suspend you.’
‘Neil said they might. He’s such a complete fuckwit.’
William looked up and down the street. ‘Come in.’
They sat in the lounge room. Charlie dropped his bag and took a moment to remember. The shag-pile carpet. The springs erupting through the leather lounge. The piles of CDs and books. Then he looked at William. ‘He hates me.’
‘Jesus, I can’t imagine you taking on Neil.’
‘He always starts it.’
William noticed Charlie’s scuffed leather shoes, his long socks fallen down around his ankles, his legs covered with new scars and bruises and a graze just below his left knee. ‘You hurt yourself?’
‘I came off my bike.’
He noticed his shorts – too tight, faded, fraying around the edges – and his shirt, stained with what looked like paint. ‘So, what’s Neil upset about this time?’
Charlie sat forward. ‘We were doing this prac, mixing chemicals, and Simon, who was working with me, dropped a pestle and it cracked in half. Along comes old knob-nuts and starts in on me. I told him it wasn’t me but he says, “This is typical of you, Price.”’
‘He wouldn’t listen?’
‘He wouldn’t give me a chance. Eventually I just…exploded, and called him something.’
‘I don’t know…wanker…something.’
‘That’s my boy.’ William grinned, touching him on the shoulder.
‘Then he says, “Teachers don’t have to be abused by students.” And I said, “It wasn’t me.” And Simon says, “It was me” – but he wouldn’t listen. “Verbal abuse,” he says, and he takes out his little yellow card.’
William was enjoying it. ‘Once he said to me, “So, old man, you up for a bit of golf?” Like that…old man. And I said, “No, I can’t stand golf.”’
‘That sounds like him.’
‘Well, at least you stood up for yourself.’
‘But when he said verbal abuse, I just thought of what Dad would say. I tried to back off, I said, “Sorry, that just slipped out,” but then the whole class laughed and he was even more pissed off.’
William couldn’t help but smile.
‘It’s not funny.’
‘I’m in deep shit.’
William put on his serious face. ‘It’s good that you came and told me.’
‘I know, I just…you’re the first person I thought of.’
‘If I could do something to help, I would.’
Charlie’s face mellowed. ‘I guess I’ll just have to tell Dad, eh?’
‘Guess you will.’
‘He’ll freak out.’
There was a pause, full of possibilities and risks. William was the first to jump in. ‘How you been?’
‘Lewis made us get up and play “The Ash Grove”.’
‘So you said.’
Charlie saw his letter on the coffee table. ‘You got it?’
‘Thanks. It was funny. You’re a very funny writer.’
‘Cos I always fuck things up, eh?’
‘Uh uh – language, Mr Price.’
‘I fuck things up.’
‘You don’t. You just like to get to the bottom of things. You’re honest, and you have a low tolerance of…’
‘I’ve got some yellow cards left over, you know.’
Charlie grinned. ‘Really?’
William stood. ‘Fancy a drink?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘What about Coke?’
As William fetched a couple of Cokes, Charlie picked up his guitar and said, ‘I told you I learned “Revolution”?’
And he played – the blues chords, the elastic riff – and started singing. William returned and put the drinks on the table. He sat beside Charlie, busy playing around with the song – growling then whispering, throwing back his hair like a rock star, racing, shouting and then finishing with a flourish of chords that nearly broke a string.
William applauded. ‘Very good. But what about your scales?’
‘Screw my scales.’
William had a drink, took the guitar from his student and said, ‘Here’s one I’ve written.’
Homestead Seven Hundred
I love your halogen plates
The cactus in your gravel
The sound your toilet makes
He sang the song right through, occasionally meeting Charlie’s eyes, looking away and back again. When he was finished Charlie asked, ‘Are you doing that with Nimrod’s Cat?’
He nodded. ‘The chorus sounds good with the big chords.’
‘It was great playing with you guys.’
And before he knew what he was saying, William said, ‘We should do it again.’
He censored his own thoughts, but it didn’t seem to matter. ‘Look at this.’ He showed the boy a small, hand-torn leaflet promoting a party they were playing in two day’s time. Charlie studied the photocopied image of the band. ‘It’s amazing, when you play a chord and the amps just roar.’
‘There’s nothing better, eh?’
‘And your voice just cuts through everything.’
William picked up his drink. ‘Well, ask your dad. Why not ask him if he’d like to come along?’
Charlie’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘I bet he’d love to hear you.’
‘I bet he wouldn’t.’
Charlie folded the leaflet and put it in his top pocket. Perhaps, he thought, it was William’s way of repairing things: bring your dad, your sister, your uncles, everyone. From now on it’s all about rock’n’roll. ‘Bright Lights,’ he said. ‘You should’ve been there.’
‘And he conducted?’ William asked.
‘Like this.’ Charlie imitated a conductor, flinging his arms about and almost knocking over a lamp. ‘Come on, boys, nice strong beat. I’d just love to get up there with one of your amps.’
‘Not much chance of that now,’ William said.
Charlie waited, half screwed up his nose, like he’d just been embarrassed by one of his dad’s farts. ‘You know, you didn’t have to quit.’
There was a long pause, the sound of roof iron expanding and a rubbish truck revving up a few blocks away. William said, ‘I just…’ But realised there was no way of explaining.
‘You got more work?’
‘Soon, I hope. At this school full of religious zealots.’
‘There’s no chance you could come back?’
Their eyes met. ‘I was a real bloody idiot,’ William said.
Charlie’s face was blank. Like he didn’t realise what William was saying; why he needed to say it, why there was, or ever had been, a problem. ‘You’d need to work on your parenting skills.’
‘If you ever had kids…although, for that to happen, you’d have to attract an actual female.’
William smiled, and felt happy. He messed the boy’s hair and pushed his head away. ‘And you, with your tantrum. Oh, run away!’
And they were laughing, William pretending to strangle him, Charlie pushing him back. They fell to the floor, and William’s head narrowly avoided the coffee table. He looked up. ‘Focus Room!’ Grabbed Charlie’s leg and twisted it.
Eventually they sat opposite each other with their legs crossed. Charlie’s top button had come off and William found it on the rug. ‘Ask your dad,’ he said, returning it.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘At least ask him.’
Charlie stared at him. ‘It’s okay. I’m a big boy now.’
‘So, what’s he like, your old man?’ William asked.
And Charlie started to explain.
THE NEXT DAY William looked it up in the book: Datsunland (PJV Nominees). He found the address, scribbled it on the back of an envelope, grabbed his keys and wallet and set out.
Datsunland was one in a string of car yards lining the northern arterial. Each looked the same – cracked bitumen littered with mid-priced Toyotas and low-kilometre Korean numbers for the kids. There were strings of coloured flags fluttering in the KFC-scented breeze, sandwich boards with ‘Must Sell 2-Day’ and scaffolded backdrops with painted images of everyone’s favourite uncle in polyester pants.
Datsunland was down in the feeding chain of second-hand car yards. Its fences and gates were rusted, the ground cracked and full of weeds where deep puddles formed around the cars on rainy days. The office was a transportable purchased as education department surplus. Inside there were still holes where the blackboard was once mounted, and above this a faded capital- and lower-case alphabet that someone had tried to scrape off but given up on.
William pulled up in front of Datsunland. He turned off his engine and studied the cars. There were a few old Mazdas at the back decorated with fluorescent ‘$999’ windshield posters. Towards the front there were early model Magnas, Lancers and Corollas and an out-of-place Saab Cabriolet with a ‘Low Price Today Only’ sign sitting on its roof.
He got out of his car and walked into the yard. Wandered between the cars, pretending to read information hanging in the windows. Strangely, he could only see one Datsun: an early ’80s 280ZX. Still, judging from the state of the faded sign at the back of the yard he guessed it was just a name that had stuck. Maybe someone thought it too good a brand to give up. Datsunland. Oz with hubcaps – some sort of fantasy world minus the fantasy. He noticed a young man washing cars, and a girl sitting beside him filing her fingernails. The only would-be customer was a mum with her pockmarked son inspecting a Nissan Pulsar.
A nasal voice came over the PA. ‘Damien, telephone please,’ and he watched as a man emerged from a back shed and wandered into the office.
He moved closer to the office and looked in the window. He saw Damien Price on the telephone, shaking his head, sorting through a pile of papers on his desk. He studied his face. There were traces of Charlie – the curve of his nose, his flat forehead and compact ears. He could see a photo on his desk: Damien and Charlie sitting on a jetty, fishing. Charlie was younger, his head rounder, his smile broader. Damien had his arm around him, and he was holding up a small fish.
There was another photo – a woman, but she was hidden behind a glue pot and stapler.
He rehearsed the words in his head.
You must be Damien?
He imagined shaking hands and Damien smiling and thanking him for being such a positive influence on his son. The older man would say, So, you’re Guru Dutton, eh? Before long they’d be sitting in his office drinking instant coffee. He’d say, The reason I’ve come is, I’d like to invite you to a gig. It’s my band, but Charlie’s going to get up. Damien would smile and look interested and say, Ah, I think I’m a bit old for all that, and he’d reply, It’d mean a lot to him. Then there’d be a pause. He didn’t want to ask you, he’d continue. But I think, perhaps…
But then from inside the office Damien slammed down the phone. He walked out, sliding the glass door behind him. Turning, he said. ‘You after some help?’
William stared at him. ‘No, thanks, just browsing.’
IT WAS A backyard party. A friend of a friend of Greg’s brother was getting engaged. Christmas decorations had been taken out a few months early, strung up through trees, fence posts and an old Hills Hoist with a ten-degree lean. There were a few card tables covered in pizza, No Frills dips, empty beer bottles and full ashtrays. A series of old pots had been packed with ice and filled with beer.
The band had set up inside the shell of an old lean-to. They’d strung up their banner and put their amps out in full sun. There were cords snaking everywhere, held together with gaffer tape and bag ties. Everything led to a mixing desk, and this was plugged into an old power point that hung loose from the wooden frame of the lean-to. Groups of twenty- and thirtysomething teachers and brokers, gardeners and dropouts stood about talking. There was a dog, and he was sniffing people’s feet, dry-pissing on the skeleton of an old fruit tree and barking at a pair of pigeons.
William and Charlie sat together on the dead lawn. There were cracks in the soil where the grass had died and crumbled away. Weeds growing in the dust. Nothing but the memory of green buffalo.
Charlie was playing William’s acoustic – the riff to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
‘You’re murdering it,’ William said.
‘It’s hard,’ Charlie replied.
‘Slowly…you’re just playing a broken chord.’
William sat close to the boy. He took the fretboard and tried to show him the correct fingering. Charlie tried again and William guided his hand. As they played, Pete Ordon came in a side gate. He looked around, but couldn’t see anyone he recognised, so started to separate his six-pack of beers and pack them in ice. Then he noticed Charlie and William on the grass and wandered over to them. William looked up, saw him and leaned back with his hands on the grass. ‘How are you, Pete?’
‘Good. And you?’
Pete looked at Charlie. ‘Good to see you here, Mr Price. How’s the BMX going?’
Charlie avoided looking at him. ‘Fine.’
‘No broken bones?’
‘And what’s today? A bit of extra-curricular?’
William studied Pete’s face. He noticed how his head had cocked up, his eyebrows raised. ‘He’s gonna play a few songs with us,’ he said.
William sat up, placing his hands together in his lap. ‘How’s my replacement going?’
‘Very organised. Had this lot playing at an assembly.’ He indicated Charles.
‘I heard,’ William said. ‘“The Ash Grove”?’
‘I never got around to all that.’
‘Well, he comes very well recommended.’
‘By who?’ Charlie asked.
‘Whom?’ Pete corrected, glaring at the boy.
Pete just looked at him. ‘Well, Charlie, Mr Dutton did up and leave us.’
‘But he wants to come back.’
Pete looked at William. ‘Really?’
‘See, that’d be a problem, Charlie,’ Pete continued. ‘We only need so many guitar teachers.’
‘Well, get rid of Lewis.’
‘Everybody hates him.’
‘I don’t know about that.’
‘I do. Everyone says so.’
‘That’s not what I hear.’
‘From his students?’
Pete looked at William for support, but didn’t receive it. ‘Well, Charlie, you should make a petition.’
Pete paused. ‘No, there’s more to it, isn’t there, son?’
William shook his head. ‘No, it was my doing, Chuck. Like they say, you reap as you sow.’
Charlie grinned. ‘You make your bed and you lie in it.’
‘It takes two.’
‘There’s no business like show business.’
‘Once bitten, twice shy.’
‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’
They continued their game as Pete watched on. ‘Well, good luck,’ he said.
‘You too,’ William replied, watching as Pete turned and walked off, looking for a familiar face. He found Greg and they started talking. As Charlie returned to his riff, William watched them. He noticed how they leaned into each other, shrugged, and seemed so serious. He saw them turn, look at him and Charlie and then look away. He lay back on the grass and wondered. He’d been drinking other people’s beer and now he’d half-emptied a bottle of someone’s brandy. He looked up at the sky and felt the ground moving beneath him.
Christ, I’m drifting again, he realised. But then thought, So what?
He was happy to hear Charlie’s bung notes and buzzing strings. He was glad to smell him, sense him. He sat up and took the guitar from him. As he played ‘My Sweet Lord’, he taught him where to sing the ‘Hallelujahs’ and ‘Hare Krishnas’. After a while a few people joined in. He was happy, lost in the only world that seemed to make sense to him. But all the time there was the nagging feeling that he’d stepped out of reality and would have to return when the song ended.
Three and a half minutes, he guessed. Maybe four, maybe five. But that’s it. That’s all the escape you get, he sensed, as his singers returned to discussing their cars and mortgages and he was forced to play the final chord.
Then Charlie said, ‘Hare Krishna? I thought you were Christian?’
‘Pray for us.’
William returned the guitar and said, ‘You know, since I’m not paid to be a role model any more, I may as well tell you: there is no God.’
Charlie grinned. ‘Nobody believes in that bullshit.’
‘And, since you’re no longer my role model, what else would you like to admit?’
William looked at him, unsure. ‘One question each. Complete truth.’
‘So…why do you hang around with a sod like me, when you should be off chasing girls?’
‘I could ask you the same question.’
‘But I asked you.’
Charlie thought for a moment, then said, ‘Physically, I can see something in them.’
‘Coming from a boys’ school, it’s been difficult to find some one with… What I mean is, I’ve met some girls but then they’re taking your picture with a phone, and messaging their mates.’
‘You need to meet a kindred spirit.’
‘Someone you can relate to?’
‘Exactly. Right, my go. Same question.’
William thought for a moment and said, ‘Same answer.’
Charlie was confused. ‘But you must have plenty of friends.’
William looked up and Greg and Justin were standing above them. ‘Come on,’ Greg said.
They started with Charlie’s ‘String of Words’. Charlie sang the verse and William joined him for the chorus. There was only one microphone, so they sang together, their faces an inch or two apart. They tried to avoid each other’s eyes but it was difficult, and they ended up smiling at each other, laughing.
DAMIEN LOOKED AT his watch. It was after ten. He was angry, again. Still, he knew there was no point going over old ground. It was just a phase. He felt he was getting off lightly. Six, twelve months perhaps and Charlie would come good. He’d relearn the art of conversation (this time with actual thought-out words), mingle, appear to care about other people, lose his awkwardness, gain stature, strength and grace.
A car pulled up further down the street. He stood behind his oleander and watched. The engine idled. He could hear loud, muffled music. A door opened and Charlie got out. He leaned into the car, said a few words then slammed the door.
Damien went inside. Turned up the telly and sat in his recliner. Picked up the phone, held it to his mouth and waited. As Charlie came in he said, ‘Okay, Rob, gotta go. See y’ tomorrow.’ He rang off.
‘G’day,’ Charlie said, standing in the doorway.
‘Christ, you’re sunburnt.’
‘His dad still sick?’
Charlie took a moment. ‘He looks okay now.’
Damien stared at the television then back at his son. ‘What did you say it was?’
There was a long pause. Damien watched an ad for a luxury car he guessed he’d never be able to afford. ‘Liver?’
‘He in pain?’
‘He wasn’t there much.’ Charlie seemed happy with his answer, and his dad’s response. ‘Well, good night.’
Charlie went to his room, peeled off his shirt and smelt it. No smoke. Just the same, he took off his shorts, went into the bathroom and buried his clothes at the bottom of the wash basket. He returned to his room, found a pair of boxers in a pile on the floor and slipped them on. The birch tree was scraping his window, so he opened it, broke off the branch. Then he sat on his bed, looking through his latest copy of Rolling Stone.
How depressing, he thought, looking at a picture of Keith Richards – sad, pathetic old man. Maybe I need a plan, he thought. Something to do when I’m too old to rock’n’roll. Write novels. Produce other people’s music. Or die.
Damien was standing in his doorway. ‘They go yellow.’
‘People with liver problems.’
Charlie shrugged. ‘He didn’t look yellow.’
Damien sat on the end of the bed. He took the leaflet he’d found in Charlie’s shirt pocket and pressed it flat on the sheets. ‘Look what you missed.’
He just stared at him.
‘All right,’ Charlie said. ‘But I didn’t think you’d let me go.’
‘You could’ve asked.’
‘I didn’t think…’
‘How often do I say no?’
Charlie stopped to think. ‘It was just ’cos it was Mr Dutton.’
‘What would I have against Mr Dutton?’
‘Because I like to do stuff with him.’
Damien shrugged. ‘So?’ He looked at his son. ‘I trust you,’ he said, realising these might have been the dumbest words he’d ever spoken. ‘Can I trust you?’
Charlie was studying the way his carpet had faded, and come apart. ‘Mr Dutton, he’s a top bloke. I mean, a good teacher, but not like the other idiots. You know?’
Charlie met and kept his father’s stare. ‘Thanks,’ he whispered. Then he pointed to William on the leaflet. ‘That’s him.’
Damien studied his face. ‘I’ve seen him.’
‘At work. He was looking for a car.’
‘Are you sure it was him?’
Damien pushed the leaflet aside and said, ‘Your mother was always on about Jesus this, Jesus that, eh?’
‘And her rosary, remember her rosary?’
‘I still got it.’ In his bedside drawer, on top of a pile of freshly ironed handkerchiefs. ‘Remember how she used to say, “Life is a gift from God?”’
‘Always. She said you repay it by doing what you’re good at.’ He stopped to wipe sleep from his eyes. ‘She’d get out her Bible at bedtime and off she’d go – The Pharaoh ruled over the Israelites. And there’s me, tuning into the races.’
Charlie sat forward. He could remember her with her Bible. ‘What would she say?’
‘Turn that rubbish off! And I’d say, “If you turn yours off.”’
Charlie took a deep breath and then asked, ‘So, you think maybe that’s what I’m good at?’
‘Who knows? But you’ve gotta try everything. Otherwise it’s off to Datsunland.’
‘But you like cars.’
‘Yeah, that’s right, I like cars.’
There was a light breeze coming in the window and the sound of cats in the undergrowth. Damien stomped on the floorboards, but they didn’t stop. ‘How did your concert go?’
Charlie’s eyes lit up. ‘Great. We played my song.’
‘Ah, the bullshit song?’
‘Yes, it’s good, isn’t it?’
‘It is. The sort of thing people want to hear.’
‘And we jammed on a few more. “Revolution.” Want to hear?’
Before Damien could answer Charlie had his guitar across his legs. He bit his lip as he concentrated and played the blues riff. Occasionally he’d look at his father and Damien would nod approval.
Damien looked at the leaflet and the grainy, photocopied image of William Dutton. He was relieved.
In the moments after the noise subsides, he guessed, everything becomes clear. How the bits are just part of the whole, and how this drama of colour and movement is over before you know it’s begun. How the things you say and do, mostly, can’t and won’t change anything. Almost like it’s all said, done, scripted, made, finished and you’re just waiting as the clock ticks, the hours unwind, down to minutes, and the moments, smelling of cut grass and hair oil, coming away from whatever it was you thought was holding life together. But nothing is. Just chance, accidents, good fortune, sometimes. As he heard Carol (in her last few hours) saying, There’s no point worrying. Everything will be perfect. Everything.
He looked at the boy and for the first time saw fine, black hair on his arms. He was surprised, mildly shocked – but not concerned. Everything about his son was new – his proficiency with bar chords, the croak in his throat, the valley across his chest.
Yes, he thought, remembering awkward prayers. It’s all part of the deal – love and six month’s free registration. An eternity of agapanthus shedding their flowers.
WILLIAM SAT, LOST, watching the latest E! News. There was a mental breakdown, an unwanted pregnancy and a writers’ strike. The host had a habit of sitting forward, twisting his fingers together and smiling at his TV audience. William wondered why he appeared to be so happy. Was it surgical, well rehearsed? Was this a valid way of earning money? And who was watching?
He heard a knock on the door and muttered, ‘Fuck off!’ He waited but the knock returned. So he dragged himself up, walked across the room and opened the door.
It was John Mosby, principal of Lindisfarne College.
William searched for a response. ‘John.’
The older man wore a dark suit, white shirt and a red and green striped tie. He had a principal’s face – shaved and buffed, unemotional, waiting to sit in judgement. His eyes were brown peas in a white pudding. He was well fed. His teeth were even, with the slightest gap at the front. ‘Can I come in?’
William showed him in and cleared junk mail and soiled clothes from the lounge. He removed an empty Coke can from the coffee table and asked, ‘A drink?’
‘Careful where you sit. There’s a spring coming up there.’
Mosby checked before he sat down. William sat opposite him. ‘How are you?’
He could feel a tremor in his fingers and arms and hoped it wasn’t noticeable in his voice. ‘Everything going smoothly at Lindisfarne?’
‘I miss my little room. With my little window, and all that BO.’
Mosby tried to smile. ‘You’re probably wondering why I’m here.’
‘Well, maybe it’s because you want me back.’
No reply. A bad sign, surely, he guessed.
Mosby sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees. ‘It’s about one of your students.’
‘Oh? Who’s that?’
‘A Year 9, Charlie Price.’ Mosby waited for William’s reaction.
William knew he had to stay calm. ‘I taught him for a while.’
‘I’ve heard you spend a lot of time with the boy.’
‘A lot of time?’
‘Time outside of school.’
‘He’s been to see my band. And he’s played with us.’
The principal waited. ‘And?’
‘He’s been here?’
‘Yes. He came to see my guitar collection.’
Mosby smiled a sly smile. ‘William, you know the rules.’
‘Did he have his parents’ permission?’
‘I suppose not.’
‘So, whatever he says, a court will believe.’
William shook his head. ‘Come on, John, he’s not like that.’
‘That’s not the point. The thing is, you broke the rules.’
‘Okay, perhaps I shouldn’t have done it.’
‘You certainly shouldn’t have. You know who’ll end up wearing it, when it comes home to roost.’
There was a long pause.
‘And you socialise with him?’ Mosby asked.
‘I’m not breaking any laws.’
‘To be honest, it might all be very… It might be good for him to see these things. But–’ and he raised and lowered his voice, ‘–you know as well as I, it’s not about reality, it’s perception.’
‘What’s supposed to have happened?’
The principal shook his head and used his outstretched hand to make a point. ‘Listen, I’ve seen this happen before, William.’
‘He hasn’t got a mum,’ William interrupted. ‘I help him. He’s flourishing. Next thing you’re saying–’
‘I’m not saying anything.’
‘Bullshit! You think…’ He trailed off. ‘He’s a smart, curious kid.’
‘He loves music. He loves the guitar. And not just the stuff he gets at Lindisfarne.’
Mosby stood up. ‘Well, that’s good. I didn’t come for a fight, just a friendly word of advice. If the gossips take over, you know how it is. I’ll have parents writing, questions from the Board.’
William looked at his old boss. ‘But what about the kid?’
‘I’ve got eleven hundred kids, William. I don’t want Today Tonight as well. You want people talking about you?’
‘They will. Keep going, they will. Then it won’t be me, it’ll be the cops at your door.’
William was caught in the middle of multiple truths. He thought for a moment before deciding there was no point continuing.
‘So,’ Mosby continued, ‘I’ve spoken to you, I’ve made my position – the school’s position – clear.’
‘And I’m going to make a note of this, and date it, and sign it.’
William stared at him. All at once he remembered how much he hated schools, their bitumen yards, their fences, their drabness on warm spring days. ‘Okay, John, you’ve made it clear.’
‘I tell you, William, something like this would travel like wildfire. Some of those soccer mums, they’d have it around the school in hours.’
‘Should I ask where you heard?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘William, I’ve known it myself. You feel all chummy with a kid, and then you stop and realise…something you’ve said.’
William lowered his head. ‘Okay.’ Then he shot up, walked to the door and held it open. ‘All the best.’
‘I take it you don’t want to ask me back?’
‘That’s a separate issue, isn’t it?’
AN HOUR AFTER William’s talk with the principal, he entered the grounds of Lindisfarne College. He walked through the wrought-iron gates. His feet slipped on the gravel and he could smell pine oil around the chapel. He was still furious. He walked with fast, measured steps that left indents in the soft grass. Entering the music suite, he looked around for signs of life. He heard a brass ensemble playing a chord full of slightly flat notes. Then Pete’s voice. ‘What was that?’
‘Bar nine,’ someone replied.
He walked into the rehearsal room and saw Pete standing in front of a group of seven or eight primary boys. ‘Hello, Mr Ordon.’
‘Mr Dutton. You wouldn’t mind coming back in an hour or so?’
‘Have you got a moment now?’
Pete put down his pencil and followed William out of the room. The moment the door closed after them William turned on him. ‘So?’
‘Cut the bullshit.’
They stood facing each other.
‘Why the fuck would you do that?’ William said.
He noticed how Pete was examining him, forensically: the food stains on his T-shirt, his unshaved face, slumped shoulders and bloodshot eyes. But he didn’t care. It had to be made good. Fixed.
‘You look a mess,’ Pete said.
‘John said, “I’ll be writing all this down, and dating and signing it.”’
William wiped his lips on the back of his hand. ‘He says, “I’ll pick up the phone, and I’ll call the cops.”’
‘Could you blame him?’ Pete said.
‘You could’ve talked to me first.’
The students filed out of the rehearsal room carrying their instruments and music. ‘Bell’s about to go,’ one said.
‘Okay,’ Pete replied. ‘Make sure you practise.’
The boys left the suite. Pete stared at William. ‘What’s going on with Charlie?’
‘You don’t get it, do you?’
‘No, I don’t. Tell me.’
William shook his head. ‘That was fucking gutless, Pete.’
‘Charlie asked to swap teachers.’
‘The way he looks at you. I’m not blind, William, or stupid.’
They stopped as a cleaner passed through. Pete took him into his office. He sat in his chair and said, ‘I read about this teacher who was deregistered. He took the boy for hockey, and used to drive him home.’
‘Fuck. Come on then, say it.’
‘This stuff’s always in the papers. People see it. That’s what John means.’
‘Bullshit. You’re just having a few bob each way.’
‘Believe what you want.’
William knew there was no point continuing. ‘You think I’ll get another job now?’
There was a pause, and then he stormed from the office. He walked from the music suite and stood on the grass in front of the windows dressed with teddy bears.
What was done was done. There was an order at Lindisfarne. It was reflected in the neo-Gothic columns on the music suite. The smooth rendering on the walls. The rows of office windows in the administration block. It was all about lines and sequence and where you were placed. There was no point imagining circles, or abstractions, or conceptual lines – dream lines, what-if lines. It was about the solid, the real. The way things always had and always would be done.
Lindisfarne belonged to people who were happy moving along the lines. Who moved slowly, in small steps, or invented algorithms to move at a faster rate. People who saw the lines as sensible, logical, laid out in the only way possible. As something to be gotten up for in the morning. To dress in a suit for. To eat toast and drink No Frills tea for.
William sat on the grass overlooking the main oval. He watched a group of boys playing rugby. Some had their shoes off and nearly all of them had their shirts untucked. They tackled roughly and once they were down they rolled on each other, fighting for the ball.
He squinted and noticed Charlie among the group. He was standing back, eating a roll or sandwich and occasionally, when the ball came near him, he would approach it, push one of his mates, laugh, and then shout something across the oval.
A feeling came over him as he watched. A suspicion, a hunch that became solid, real – like the poplars moving in the wind on the edge of the oval as the distant city sweated fuel and light. William’s feeling concerned the boy, Charlie Price: a child still roasting in the glow of a long, hot childhood.
The mind I’d have, if I had my time again, William thought. The body I’d walk around in. The nose I’d turn up. The tongue I’d stick out. The songs I’d sing.
Someone pushed Charlie and he dropped his roll. He ran at the other boy, dragged him onto the ground, stood and placed his foot on his stomach. Then the other boy grabbed his leg and pulled him over.
Charlie gathered his lunch and tried a final karate kick on the boy as he stood.
William felt completely empty. This wasn’t his world, after all. His world was full of people he didn’t like, who turned on him, daily, drawing blood, saying things to make him remember his unhappiness. His world was an hour wasted trying to requisition stationery he couldn’t properly justify. His world was full of people who walked past him, but pretended to notice other things. Then there were the complaining parents he couldn’t understand, the memos about lights left on and food left too long in the fridge. A world full of Post-it notes raining down on him, reminding him to cook, write, submit, clean, service and deliver.
‘You idiot,’ he whispered, watching the boys, feeling the walls of Lindisfarne closing in around him.
He noticed that the tall, thoughtful, standalone boy looked happy. It was his choice – to be there, in the thick of it, but apart from the others.
Charlie looked up, took a moment and then waved to him. William waved back. Charlie picked up his shoes and ran up the hill to him. ‘You’re back?’
‘I just came to see Pete.’
They sat together. Charlie spread his feet out on the grass. He stretched out his legs and William could see his long, arching bones. His knees were knobbly, and William watched as he wiped a fresh cut on his leg.
‘Having fun?’ he asked.
‘Sometimes you actually do kids’ stuff?’
Charlie shrugged. ‘It’s killing time. What are my options? This place is so boring.’
William looked into his eyes. He noticed his cheeks, flushed, and a small, brown freckle he hadn’t noticed before. ‘Boring, but necessary,’ he said.
‘That becomes evident later. Not so long. Another four years, then you can start living.’
Charlie looked at him. ‘Haven’t I started already?’
‘I can’t wait four years.’
William turned and whispered to him. ‘There are these wonderful things called girls.’
‘You’ll find yourself staring at them, hanging around them, trying to be funny.’
‘And then you’ll get in a shit-hot band, make a record and earn millions.’
‘I’ll just join you guys.’
‘We’re just a bunch of old geriatrics. But you…’
Charlie could see a change in his teacher: a stillness, a resignation that had replaced words with smiles, anger with acceptance. But this must have been good, because surely, this man couldn’t change. If he could, or did, then everything he’d come to sense and understand would mean nothing. Life would just become discount beans. He smiled and tried to reanimate his best friend. ‘I’ll be the front man, and you geris can be my backing band.’
William stood. ‘And I’m sure you’ll be shit hot.’
‘Where you going?’
Charlie stood beside him. ‘I’s gonna say, when you had your next jam, is it okay if I came along?’
William hesitated. ‘There’s nothing organised yet. But I’ll let you know.’
Charlie took a few moments and stared at his favourite teacher. ‘Mr Dutton, you okay?’ he asked.
‘Did you ask Mr Ordon about getting your job back?’
William almost laughed. ‘He said they’ll have to wait and see.’
‘Maybe next year?’
‘Maybe. See y’ round, Charlie Price.’
They stared at each other. The air was still, heavy with pine oil.
‘Oh, I almost forgot,’ William said. He took a set of strings from his pocket and handed them to the boy. ‘Fender. Phosphor bronze. Medium gauge.’
Charlie smiled and took them. ‘Where did you get them?’
William indicated the music suite. ‘Dickhead’s office.’
‘Back to your lunch break, please, Mr Price,’ a voice interrupted.
William looked up to see John Moyle standing on the rise with his arms crossed. ‘Mr Dutton was just on his way, weren’t you?’
THREE WEEKS WENT by and Charlie hadn’t heard from him. So, one cool Saturday morning he went to his teacher’s house and knocked on the door.
William answered. ‘Charlie?’
‘G’day. I hadn’t heard from you.’
‘I’ve been busy.’
‘You had a practice yet?’
William bowed his head. He saw that the cracks in the concrete path around the house had widened. Weeds were already coming up. He looked at Charlie and he was still smiling, waiting. ‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
William looked at a fresh scar on the boy’s cheek. He saw that his eyes were moist and clear, and there was food dried on his chin.