Pageant Part 5

While Braydon and Kassie debated the merits of his drinking Coke, Braydon’s teacher was in a debate of her own. The town grapevine was more efficient than any telecommunications network could manage and the news had already reached her that Braydon’s father was in town. Kim was relatively new to the town. Moving to Victoria as a teenager, she had gone to high school an hour away and then, as many like her did, had moved to Melbourne for University. Her first school had been in the city but the country had drawn her back, in the form of Craig, a primary teacher who helped her find a job at his school and also helped her find friends, accommodation and, with time, an engagement ring. It was he that Kim was now debating. The topic of the debate, however, had less to do with the arrival of Braydon’s father and more to do with the Christmas pageant that the two of them were organising.
In the past, the town Christmas pageant had been a humble, if somewhat awkward, affair. The school CRE teacher typically pulled out a song for the primary school to sing which had been stored somewhere in a cave where songs went to die, grabbed and salvaged barely moments before it breathed its last, only for a group of indifferent pre-teens to ensure that it well and truly died, never to be seen or heard again. This year, when she had suggested to the teachers that the children might like to sing “Christmas Is a Birthday Party”, Kim, whose church upbringing had introduced her to that song in its 1980s heyday, quickly interjected, “Or perhaps we could do a play this year.” Craig, who promptly kicked her under the table, did not do so in time to prevent the inevitable; now he and Kim were simultaneously writing and directing the first town Christmas play, a task which had repeatedly threatened the security of the ring on Kim’s finger.
The topic under discussion now was what to do with Braydon, the eager student who was equally capable of delivering brilliance or an all-in brawl, depending on how he felt on the night.
“His father’s come to town,” said Kim. “We can’t take the part off him now.”
“He’ll kill us all,” said Craig.
“That’s an exaggeration.”
“Only slightly. You saw what happened last week. Are you seriously saying there won’t be any problems on the night?”
It was true. Joseph’s black eye was taking longer than expected to go down after the First Shepherd had punched him, and Mary was still too scared to appear on the stage without holding her mother’s hand.
“We could always find a part for Tayla’s mother to play,” she suggested. “Then she could go on the stage with her.”
Craig looked at her. “We’re not writing another part just for Tayla’s mother.”
Kim paused. He had a point. The script had already taken long enough to write alongside reports and emails to parents. But there had to be another option.
“He needs to be on stage,” she persisted. “His father’s here. He has to have a part to play.”
Then a picture came into Craig’s mind. There was the tree. It was at the centre of the stage, just as it would have been – of course – in the original manger. Everyone gathered around it. No-one could miss it. And, if harnessed to the top of the tree and smothered in a sufficiently constricting costume which prevented him from speaking or moving – perhaps, just perhaps, Braydon could be contained.
“Honey,” said Craig, “have you thought of making him the star?”
Kim stared at him. “I don’t get you,” she said. “First you tell me to take him out of the play altogether, now you’re saying to make him…what…Jesus?”
“No,” said Craig. “Not the star of the show. I mean on the tree. The star on the Christmas tree.”
Kim stopped. That certainly was an idea.
“He has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” Kassie recited. “Sugar’s bad for him.”
“It’s a special occasion, Kass,” said Sue, before the debate could continue. “Just one,” she added to Braydon.
Grant returned from the kitchen with two cans. “Want one, Kass?” he asked. Kassie reached out and took the can without saying anything, glaring at Braydon as she did so.
“They’ve got practice tonight for the pageant,” said Sue. “Want to take them?”
“I’m the angel,” said Kassie.
“Which one?” asked Grant.
“I thought Gabriel was a boy angel.”
“That’s what I said,” Braydon shouted. “But Miss Swan said that angels are…andro….andro…something.”
“Androgynous?” suggested Grant.
“That’s it.”
“I don’t know what that means,” said Kassie.
“It means you could be a boy or a girl.”
Kassie frowned. “But I am a girl.”
“You’re a sook,” said Braydon.
“Well I’m not the one that was crying before.”
A pillow flew at Kassie’s head.
It was some minutes before the fight was more or less settled, Kassie in her room crying into the pillow that Braydon had thrown but no longer screaming, and Braydon out in the back garden kicking rocks against the fence.
“Well handled,” said Sue.
“What?” said Grant. “That was hardly my fault.”
“You had to go and explain androgynous to them.”
“Well, it was the teacher’s fault for telling them the word then not explaining it.”
“Of course. Blame the teacher. Just like you did all through school.”
Grant stood up.
“I can’t do this, Sue,” he said. “Not after I’ve just been here five minutes.”
Sue was moments from saying, Then leave. You’ve done it before. Only the look on Grant’s face told her not to. His eyes were glistening. They never used to glisten like that.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
His lips frowned. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I just…you need to know that I’ll stuff it up sometimes.”
Sue said nothing. Her eyes were on him.
“Give me some space to stuff it up.”
“Okay,” she said.
He grabbed her hand briefly. “I’ll go get Braydon.”
“Okay,” she repeated.
Grant opened the sliding door and walked outside. In a moment Sue looked over and saw him kicking rocks beside their son.
Go to Part 6

Pageant Part 4

Grant looked at the mug, then up at Sue.
“Thanks for the tea,” he said.
“No worries,” she replied.
“When do the kids get home?”
“How are they going?”
“Not bad.” Then, “Braydon fights too much.”
“Does he?”
“I’ll have to have a word with him then.”
“You can try.”
A pause. The tea was milky. Milkier than he liked it. Sue always made it that way, he remembered. There was a chip on the other side of the cup. It was an old, old cup. He wondered how long it had been since Sue did the books for the company. Five years, maybe.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“The Colonial. On High Street.”
“Of course. Have you checked in yet?”
“I checked in before I got here. It looks okay. Big room.”
A fly buzzed around their heads. Someone had left the fly-wire open. Maybe the kids. Grant looked at the window for inspiration.
“Have you had rain lately?”
“A bit.”
“That’s good. It’s been raining in Melbourne.”
“It always rains in Melbourne.”
“True. But it’s rained a lot.”
“I haven’t been there for a while.”
“You should.”
“Haven’t had any reason to.”
“I guess not.”
Then a sound at the door. Kassie.
The day had taken its toll on Kassie. Even before she encountered her tear-stained and sulky older brother at the bag racks, she had spent the day over-heated and frustrated – a combination of teachers demanding her to know what sounds “j” made, classmates bickering and her best friend Katie telling her all about her AMAZING holiday plans. Coming home to find a man sitting in her living room who was supposedly her father was more than she could manage.
“G’day Kassie,” said the man.
She sniffed and ran off to her room.
“She’ll come around,” said Sue. “Just give her time.”
Braydon, on the other hand, needed more time than was available to him. The streets he walked along were neither long enough nor private enough for everything that was going on within him. Nor were there enough rocks for him to kick. When he arrived at his home far earlier than he had hoped or expected, he paused at the door, staring at it, almost willing it to be inaccessible to him. Then, slowly, with a mammoth exercising of will, he opened it and looked through the door. He could just make out the edge of a man’s arm from within the couch.
“Braydon?” His mother’s voice.
He took a step inside.
“Your dad’s here,” she said. “Come and say hi.”
Braydon took another step until he could see the man sitting on the couch. He was cleanly shaven and wore a checked shirt. He had glasses. Braydon had never imagined his father wearing glasses.
He paused.
“I took so much shit for you this week,” said Braydon.
“Don’t swear, Braydon,” said his mother.
“Come here,” said his father.
Slowly, Braydon approached a man who was simultaneously a stranger and altogether familiar. His eyes, without their glasses, were almost identical to his, and his mouth sat the same unsteady way on his face. He didn’t exactly look like a man who could fly, but then neither did Clark Kent. There would be a time, Braydon thought, when he could demand a demonstration, but perhaps not today.
“G’day,” said his father.
“Hi,” said Braydon.
“Do you want a drink?”
Braydon looked at his mother, as though for permission. Before she could respond, Kassie was in the doorway.
“Don’t give him Coke,” she said. “You’ll regret it.”
Go to Part Five

Pageant Part 3

Braydon felt conflicted about his father. Over the years, he had taken something of a bullet defending a man whom the whole town hated. But his stories of his father’s superpowers had done nothing to aid the cause. When he had told his friends that his dad was coming to town that Christmas, they had said, “Yeah, like he was going to come every other year,” and Braydon’s insistence had only made them remind him of all the things he had alleged his father could do, which had in turn made Braydon go red and hot, punch the bag rack, then run away. Having not seen his father since he was four, and insisting to this day that his father could communicate with aliens, had x-ray vision and could, when the occasion called for it, fly short distances, he wanted to finally see the man again. But he also hated him, both for leaving and for causing him so much trouble in his absence. Perhaps, he had begun to wonder, it wasn’t worth defending his father’s honour any more. But he didn’t know what alternative that left him with.
Kassie having been only two years old when her father had left, felt less of the attachment to him that Braydon did. Nor did she share her brother’s faith in their father’s superpowers. She had seen Braydon break his wrist, arm and leg in the confidence that he too could fly short distances, and repeatedly saw him in the schoolyard defending the existence of those same powers in their father. It never seemed to lead anywhere good. All the same, she wanted to see her father, no idea what it would be like or where it would lead yet feeling somehow that it was something that should happen.
The day that their father was expected to visit, Kassie waited for Braydon at the usual spot in the car-park. When he didn’t appear and the school was slowly emptying of children and parents, Kassie went looking for him, finding him hiding behind the bag rack outside his classroom, arms around his knees and some distinct smudges on his face. Knowing that her brother hated anything related to tears, most of all in himself, she just said, “Let’s go home,” and he slowly stood up and walked with her. They didn’t speak for some time, until they were only five or so minutes from home, when Kassie, unable to be quiet any more, said, “What do you think he’ll be like?”
“Who?” said Braydon.
“You know who,” said Kassie.
“Dunno,” said Braydon.
For a moment there was silence again, then Kassie said, “He won’t have super-powers.”
Braydon stopped walking.
“You know it’s true,” said Kassie.
Braydon said nothing.
“We can still love him even if he doesn’t have super-powers,” she continued.
“Shut up, Kass,” he said.
Kassie looked at him slowly. “You can’t tell me to shut up,” she said.
“Just wait,” he said, voice trembling. “Wait and see. When Dad’s here, he’ll show you who’s right.”
Kassie was tired. It had been a long day and it was hot now. She left Braydon standing on the street corner and walked home by herself.
Meanwhile, the street still buzzed with news of Grant’s arrival in town, and the sight of his daughter walking home drew neighbours to their curtains and, with vague excuses of pulling out weeds and getting things out of cars, some ventured out of their houses, said things like, “Afternoon, Kassie,” and, “Where’s your brother?” Kassie mumbled, “Afternoon,” and, “Having a sook somewhere,” and kept going, but behind curtains the rumours and speculation continued.
“She’s got no idea.”
“Yes she does. She’s a chatty little thing most of the time.”
“Maybe she knows.”
“I reckon she knows.”
“How would you feel? Meeting your dad for the first time since you were a baby?”
“He wouldn’t mean anything to her.”
“Yes he would. He’s her dad.”
“Some dad.”
“Dickhead of the century.”
“Watch your language. The kids might hear.”
Those at their curtains or lingering in their gardens then saw Braydon walking slowly, kicking a rock around in the middle of the road. Some spoke; most said nothing. The tell-tale signs of crying on his face made them more tactful than usual, at least to his face. Behind curtains, the commentary continued.
“Poor kid.”
“No wonder he stuffs around.”
“Worships his dad.”
“Wouldn’t if he knew.”
All the while, the man of the hour sat in the living room of his old house, awkwardly drinking tea out of a cup that said, “McKenna Electrical,” and wondering where the last five years had gone.
Go to Part Four

Pageant Part 2

Though some would no doubt leave this detail out of their versions of the story, Grant did in fact tell Sue that he would be coming to town that Christmas. Braydon and Kassie both had parts in the Christmas pageant and he wanted to be there. It was all arranged quite politely, if a little awkwardly, with the kids buzzing about expectantly and nervously, in the days beforehand.

Yet for most of the town the first sign that Grant was back was the sight of his car coming down the main street.

Come, they told me, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum...sang his stereo, and everyone nearby turned and looked.

“It can’t be,” said Trish.

“He’s got a nerve,” said Ethel.

“Who does he think he is?” asked May.

“I know a few people who wouldn’t mind putting a few dents in that car,” said Bernie.

“He still owes me a hundred bucks,” said Rob.

Grant must have known that tongues would wag, but he did not seem to mind. A new-born king to see, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, his stereo continued, unabashed through the open window.

“Thinks he owns the place,” said Kev.

It wasn’t exactly true. He owned half the house which he was driving to, and owned the car he was driving in, and had an equal share in the children he had come to see. That was as far as his perceptions of ownership stretched. But his window was open, which was a sure sign if ever there was one that he didn’t care at all about the townspeople who cared equally little about him.

“Do you reckon Sue knows?” asked Trish.

“Probably not,” said Rob.

“Typical,” said Ethel.

“Who does he think he is?” repeated May.

Her question was so pointed that none of them felt they could respond.

Our finest gifts to bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, the stereo persevered. Kev bent down to pick up a weed. The car moved out of view and they all went back inside.

In the afternoon, the town was buzzing with the news. Newcomers, which meant anyone who had moved to the town since the second world war, who knew nothing of Grant or the reasons he had left town in 2008, had to have the whole thing explained to them, much to the delight of the Ethels and Mays of the community. The Kevs and the Bruces, meanwhile, served a clarifying role, correcting everything their wives had said and generally making the whole story more confusing than it had been at the start.

“No, you’ve got it wrong. He moved to Ballarat first.”

“No, it was Bendigo.”

“I heard he lived in a caravan.”

“In Warrnambool, wasn’t it?”

“No, that was after he moved into that hippy commune in Benalla.”

“Benalla? I heard it was Shepparton.”

“It definitely wasn’t a caravan. It was a bus.”

And so on.

The details, however, on which the community agreed were as follows:

That Grant, husband of Sue, father of Braydon and Kassandrah, had walked out on his family one day in early 2008;
That before leaving he had begun to go, to use the technical term, crazy, and had taken his craziness to various parts of Victoria before settling in Melbourne as a place where his craziness could pass unnoticed;
That the children had grown up with little or no contact with him;
That no-one had heard from him since.

That was the simplest form of the story. In more elaborate versions, Grant had started a cult; some said it was based around reading people’s energy through Thai massage, others that he predicted life events based on how people spoke while running. In other stories, Grant had had a vision of the Virgin Mary and had gone to live in the desert in obedience to her but had been stopped in Portland because his car wasn’t roadworthy. One recurring theme was that Grant’s mania had been of a religious kind. Most people also agreed that he was a loser.

Everyone, that is, except for Braydon and Kassie.

Go to Part Three

Pageant: An Advent Story (Part 1)

Last year I decided to write a Christmas story which I would post each day on my blog through all of Advent. The result was the story “The Gift”, which you can still read in instalments here if you care to look for it (just search for “The Gift” and it should come up easily enough). This year I have been slightly less ambitious and, admittedly, less organised, but I have inspired nonetheless to post a new story, in the ten days between now and Christmas. The story concerns a nameless country town, somewhere in regional Victoria, where an ill-fated Christmas pageant takes place. I know only a little more than you of where the story is going, as I am writing it only a few days ahead of posting it. But I hope you enjoy it and that it can help put you in the mood for Christmas, especially those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, for whom Christmas is a time of heat-waves and unexpected downpours, high fire danger and families coming together awkwardly at the end of an exhausted year.

Pageant: An Advent Story

In the years to come, opinions would vary wildly as to how it came about that Braydon broke his arm, Tayla ended up buried beneath several sheep and Kassie came to be sitting in the corner of the stage crying. Kim and Craig, both backstage until the last moment, observing it all, had their own ideas, but the cast and the audience – some hundred or so parents, grandparents, siblings and assorted other local well-wishers – also represented a wide spectrum of alternative views on the subject. Some – in particular Kassie – argued that it had been a mistake to ever let Braydon play the part of the star, while Braydon’s mother on the other hand insisted that it was in no way her son’s fault, a position made increasingly hard for her to maintain because her daughter and her recently reconciled husband took the opposing view. While she initially doted on her injured son as though he were a kind of wounded hero, the father took the more straightforward approach of saying, “Braydon, you were a dickhead,” a view which, in the end, even Braydon found himself compelled to accept.

There were, of course, those – you know the sort – who blamed every other circumstance or person possible and took what was, relative to the rest of the universe, only a small occurrence as an opportunity to cast allegations against everyone with whom they had experienced any degree of animosity. They could be heard, in the post-office or in the aisles of the IGA, saying, “Are you incinerating that I…” or, “Well, who was it then who put the frogs out? You tell me that?” And those with good sense tended to give such discussions a suitably wide berth, lest they too be drawn into decades of exponentially exaggerated local grievances.

On the whole, most people agreed that the pageant had brought the town together that year more than it had ever done before, and, once the differences of opinion about Braydon’s complicity had become, if not resolved, at least somewhat domesticated, his parents’ reconciliation stood as a living reminder to the town of the good which the pageant had done. Yet there were still those who insisted that the father’s return to town in mid-December had been the beginning of all the problems that had followed, and, though small, they were a vocal group – vocal enough that it seems worthwhile now to tell the story again from the beginning.

It is always hard to know where to begin such a story, intertwined as it is with so many generational disputes, shifting boundaries, properties changing hands, cattle grazing in the wrong paddock and general communal ambiguities blowing about in the municipal wind. Yet, since the accusation stands that it was Braydon’s father’s fault and that he should have left his whacko ideas in the city where he’d taken them all those years ago, it seems best to begin with the sound of his car driving down the main street, for the first time since 2008, Christmas carols blasting through the driver’s window, and a general sense of no-good-likely-to-come-from-this on every street corner that he passed.

Go to Part 2