No Ghosts This Year #8

That lunchtime, before Drama class, Philip had nearly lost a prop that he’d brought from home for the performance they were doing, and had spent so much time running around looking for it – opening up and emptying the contents of his bag and locker, checking his home room, everywhere he could think of – that when he had arrived in class, he had been more flustered than usual for an afternoon class. And, to top it all off, when he’d finally come to class with his prop in hand and sat down, the boy next to him, a new boy to the school called Simon, had said, “I thought I smelt something.” It had taken a few minutes to realise that this was Simon’s latest joke – he was using it on most people in the class that afternoon – but even then the joke had stuck on him like his sweaty shirt did. The whole lesson after that, he’d had that same feeling about him as though he were no longer inside him but watching. As he had lain on the floor pretending to be a paintbrush, talking about what a hard master Van Gogh was, with the coloured wool he had brought to school gathered around his head, he had felt as though that very well might have been true. Better to be a paintbrush than what he was.

And so, by the time Sarah had come to fetch him, Philip had nothing to say. There had been plenty of material for conversation throughout the morning: all the ridiculous and frustrating things his teachers had made him do, as though they mattered at all by this time of year. Yet the afternoon’s Drama class had overshadowed all of that, and done so in a way that words could not convey. The mute position he’d taken on the Drama room floor seemed somehow the most fitting way of expressing what had been and gone through the day. Sarah tried to make conversation a few times but, failing altogether, had settled into silence herself, though almost certainly a very different silence to the one that Philip inhabited.

Sarah would not, for instance, have been ruing Philip’s awkwardness with Laura that morning when passing the milk-bar had made him think of her offer to walk to school together. Nor would Sarah have felt that odd mixture of fear and shame that assaulted him when they approached Burden Street. Yet she would certainly have shared his surprise at seeing the police barricade outside Number 12, yellow-and-blue police tape marking out a temporary fence across the front lawn and white-and-blue cars in the street. And, in that moment of shared surprise, Sarah’s silence turned to now expressing Philip’s thoughts when she said, “What happened here?” But before she could speak Philip’s thoughts had turned to white noise in his ears.

No Ghosts This Year #5

A knock on the door. The door began to open. He hurriedly poked his head out from under the covers. It was Sarah.

“What are you doing?” she asked, looking a little oddly at him.

“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just reading.”

“Under the covers?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“No reason.”

A pause. He slipped the book under his pillow, hoping Sarah didn’t see the action, then slid the covers off and stood up, with a face that said, Nothing to see here.

“Do you want me to pick you up from school tomorrow?”

“Sure,” he said. It felt strangely grown-up having your sister pick you up from school. He wondered if Mark’s sister could drive. He didn’t know if Mark had a sister.

“Okay,” said Sarah. She stood in the doorway for a moment. “Are you alright?”

And, though he felt quite sure that he was, for some reason his voice squeaked a little when he said, “Yeah.” Was his voice breaking? He was a bit young for that, wasn’t he?

“You sure?” Sarah insisted.

“Yes, I am sure,” he said, thinking that a more formal reply might be more convincing. And Sarah, recognising at least that no other answer would be forthcoming, gave him a peck on the cheek and went out, closing the door behind her.

He paused before picking up the book again, but soon he was so immersed in that strange, staccato world that he forgot the conversation. So immersed in the odd and frantic world of the character’s brain – a brain that feared an eye, and the pounding of a dead man’s heart. Immersed, he must admit, in a mind that had resorted to murder. Nothing else could enter his brain until he reached the final words – Tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart! – and had found in that phrase something that grabbed him and clung to him like an oddly caustic limpet.

He had carried it with him, wordlessly, as he said good night to his family, turned off the light for the night and crawled under the sheets, with Edgar Allan Poe still at his head, beneath the pillow. And as he lay there he found the limpet still present, though it seemed to be becoming larger, stronger, almost in the atmosphere around him. And he found that all conversations and all things that he had read, seen and known that day were replaced with the face of the man in the street – why was he there? – somehow changed, turned not so much sinister as knowing, and replaced too by the pounding thought, prompted by nothing but his own pulsating mind, that he, Philip Savage, was the real danger, and that a pounding, murderous heart, uninvited yet thoroughly expected, was beating all about him. Quick, the air seemed to say, listen to his hideous heart! And sleep, he knew, was unlikely to come that night.

No Ghosts This Year #3

“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”

Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.

“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”

Philip lifted his arm to point in the direction of Burden Street, before realising that this meant the man was going in the same direction as he was, a thought that made his head spin a little. This could be difficult, if they found themselves walking close to each other. How was he to avoid stranger danger in that case? Perhaps he should just tell the stranger which way to go and then wait until he was gone before walking further himself.

“It’s up that way,” he said, still pointing. “Turn right, then left, then right again.”

He’d given the directions without really thinking about them. But were they correct, he wondered? Suddenly he doubted himself, but didn’t want the conversation to go on any longer. It made little difference if he sent the man off the wrong way. He’d never see him again. So he said nothing more.

“Right, left, right,” repeated the man, still from behind.

“Yes,” said Philip, looking straight ahead once more.

The man smiled as he walked past Philip to go up the hill. “Thanks, mate,” he said, and kept walking. He didn’t look back. Philip stood still and watched him go up the hill. He’d wait until the man was out of sight before continuing on his own way home.

*

There wasn’t much time for Philip to regain focus on his time travelling. At first, he found himself altogether unable to return to the adventure on which he had been embarking only a minute ago; somehow, his brush with possible, real-world danger had taken his focus off time travelling and smoking without health risks to wondering if he would ever see that man again and if, indeed, seeing him again would be a safe or perilous thing. Yet there was no time even for reflecting on that, because he was startled again by the sound of a car horn behind him. Looking back with a jolt (and no small fear that his decision to give directions might already be having treacherous repercussions) he saw his sister, who was surprising him not only by honking her horn but also by being alone behind the wheel of a car.

“Get in!” she called, pulling up beside him and leaning over towards the passenger window.

“What are you doing here?” he called back, too surprised for that moment to have the presence of mind to get in.

“Driving!” she called back, an answer that was, for that moment, sufficient reason for him to get in beside her, although not particularly informative.

They were halfway up the hill that the stranger had only just surmounted when Sarah said, by way of explanation, “I got my license!”

“But why aren’t you in Melbourne?” asked Philip, still confused and reluctant to accept the facts set out before him.

“I came for my license test,” she said. “Surprise.” Then a pause. “Aren’t you going to say, ‘Congratulations’, or something normal like that?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Philip. “Congratulations.”

They sat quietly for a moment, Sarah too focused on changing gears at the top of the hill, Philip too thrown by all these unexpected encounters to know what to say. Then he remembered the question that had most been on his mind since getting in the car, and asked, “Were you driving to get me?”

Sarah laughed. “Nah, I just wanted to go for a drive. I only finished my test an hour ago. But I saw you there and you looked so forlorn. I thought I’d give you a lift.”

“Thanks,” said Philip, not liking the description forlorn, but, in truth, too forlorn to think too much about it.

After a moment, Sarah said, “Were you talking to that guy before?”

Philip sat up. “Which guy?”

Sarah pointed ahead of them. They had caught up with the stranger, who had taken the first right and was heading towards the next turn.

Philip swallowed and, for some reason, said, “No.”

Sarah paused, and said, “It looked like you were.”

“No,” said Philip. “I wasn’t.”

And that was that: a pointless lie, a conversation that went nowhere. They turned the corner and Philip avoided the man seeing him as they drove past. That, as far as Philip was concerned, was that. Yet his heart pounded particularly hard as he entered the house when they arrived home.

No Ghosts This Year #2

The walk home was generally a relief. Mark caught the bus home, so he wasn’t around to be a nuisance. And mostly Philip had the time to himself, to think and daydream. Sometimes he would take a book with him and try to read as he walked, but that was a hard thing to do. He knew the walk well and hardly needed to look where he was going to take the correct left and right turns, but he hated having to interrupt his book every time there was a red traffic light (“You would have been happier in this town when there were no traffic lights,” his grandfather had once said to him, “then you could read without stopping”), and once in a while there was a dog that had left a little treat for him on the ground, waiting for careless feet to tread in. No, it was generally best to look where he was going. It was difficult to do that and read at the same time.

You could get quite far in a daydream, of course, even if you couldn’t read: far away from Mark, and far away from PE and Maths homework. You could get to a place where it didn’t matter so much if your hair was messy or you stank, where no-one was likely to take a specky on your back. Only, there were obstacles still to daydreams: the realities of classmates that saw you while you were walking, for instance. Where they were likely just to ignore you at lunchtime, you seemed to become much more interesting when they saw you outside of school. If they saw you while they were standing by the milk-bar, they might call out, “Hey Savage!” as though that were a particularly original (and biting) thing to say. If they were doing something forbidden for kids to do in school uniform – smoking, for instance – they might append an offer to the “Hey Savage”, like, “Wanna smoke?”, knowing, of course, that the answer would be no. That was the point of it: to provoke him into saying no. Had he ever said, “Sure!” and gone over to smoke with them, the appeal might have worn off quickly. Or he might have opened up something altogether new in his relationships with his peers, an entirely unknown and dangerous dimension: unknown and dangerous to all involved.

He preferred the unknown dimensions of his daydreams. At least then he had some control over what happened within each dimension. Recently, for instance, he had discovered that, in his mind, he had mastered the power of time travel, and found that it was remarkably similar to an H.G. Wells book, just without the bad special effects and furry monsters of the old film version your father showed you. In that world he could smoke without getting lung cancer or being grounded, because that was what happened in H.G. Wells books. Indeed, you could do basically everything that would be misinterpreted or misconstrued in a world that simply did not understand imagination or the desire to be somewhere or someone else. So long as he could be in his imagination without anyone seeing that he was “playing imaginary games” (something that, he had learnt a few months ago, he and his peers were all now too old to do), he was fine; he could do whatever had struck him as interesting or worth doing, without fear of it being twisted against him. Hadn’t it been Mark who, back in Grade Three, had seen him and his friend Tim, no longer at the school, playing a game themed around the French aristocracy being guillotined, and had said by way of explaining away their game, “They’re homosexual”? Now it struck him that this had only revealed a lack of imagination or historical knowledge on Mark’s part, not anything negative about himself or Tim, but he could hardly have said that at the time – or even now, for that matter. People like Mark didn’t care about being unimaginative or historically ignorant. It was almost a badge of pride. No, it was best to keep his many worlds inside his head. That was best for everyone.

He was all set to explore one of these worlds on his five minute walk home (ample time for a time traveller to use gainfully) when from behind him came a voice that he didn’t recognise. It wasn’t Mark – that much was impossible, since he would be on his way home on the bus by now. But neither was it anyone from his year level. It was an adult’s voice. He paused, unwilling to look behind him, the stranger-danger talk firmly in his mind.

“Sorry to bother you, mate,” said the man. “I just need some directions.”

Philip remained where he was but tilted his head a little towards the man. He didn’t recognise him, but something about the man made him seem harmless enough. He looked like someone his parents would invite over for dinner – though that was hardly a guarantee of safety. “Even if someone you know well makes you uncomfortable…” his teachers had said – at which Mark had called out, “Ben makes me uncomfortable!” and the lesson had changed from being about stranger-danger to Mark’s stupidity. Not unusual, he reflected. Though it had made the moral of the lesson a little hard to recall at this moment.

“Can you tell me where Burden Street is?” the man continued. “I…” A pause. “I got the train here and thought I could walk there from the station. But I’m lost.”

No Ghosts This Year: A Story of Advent #1

img_0539-2hen holidays came, it would be okay. But for now Philip just had the long waiting days. The sun deceives us, he thought, into believing it’s holidays before it is. Last weekend he had made the mistake of sitting out on the verandah with his book, like he used to do with his sister in that first glorious week of holidays at home, and nice as it had been for those hours of warmth loosening his tautened face, once over it only made more agonising that gap between now and the time when holidays properly began. Now he was stuck in that odd limbo period in which teachers pretended that the work they were doing now still mattered but when things like reports and awards had not yet arrived to make the year’s struggle seem somehow worthwhile. They were too old for colouring-in (and he probably would have found it babyish to do now, though he remembered with a certain fondness the focus that shading carefully within the lines had brought him), yet they were too young for work experience or introductions to VCE, too young for anything that was truly important.

What was this now? An odd form of torture designed to keep parents from having to pay for extra child care before Christmas? The days were flusteringly hot and the rooms not air-conditioned. Today he had come in from lunchtime sweaty and irritable. His hair, he knew for a fact, was sticking up all over the place because of the ridiculous hats they had to wear in the summer months. And now he was seated at a large square of tables at the centre of the music room where everyone could see everyone else and there was no hiding while he tried to flatten his hair with his hand so he didn’t look like some strange antennaed alien while they did their listening journal for the afternoon – this one a recording of a highly inappropriate carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. If only it was the bleak widwinter, he thought. My hair wouldn’t stick up like this in winter.

Wha-at can I bri-ing him, poor as I aaaam?

“The singer,” he wrote, “sounds like a strangled cat, and the words are about as appropriate for Australia as the American national anthem.”

He was quite proud of that. He hoped his teacher would find it funny.

Across the table, Laura was looking over at him. He smiled at her, and pressed his hair down in case it was standing up again. Laura seemed to be laughing. Perhaps she found the song funny too. He could share with her what he’d written after class. It might make her laugh more. But Laura wasn’t looking at him now. She was writing in her listening diary.

I-if I were a she-epherd, I would bring a laaamb…

His feet felt fidgety and his pants were sweaty. The room stank a bit, and he was starting to have that feeling he sometimes did, that dislocated feeling, like he was watching himself, not participating in his own body. He had asked his dad once if he had ever felt like he didn’t really exist. Dad had said, “Yes,” and he’d felt that instant rush of relief that comes from being understood, only then Dad had continued by saying, “That was how we used to talk in the 70s,” and Philip had suddenly fallen from a state of being known to one of total disconnection. His father’s words had fallen flat on him. Was he talking about nothing more than what was trendy back when everyone was on LSD? He’d read about those days in a book once. He was fairly sure his dad had never taken LSD but the words had no other meaning to him than that. No, there was no understanding after all.

I-if I were a wi-ise ma-an, I would do my paaart… 

He held his hair down some more. Laura looked at him again and smiled.

Inspired by the smile, he wrote, “The writer has no idea how to rhyme. He’s obviously only just learnt how to write poetry in primary school. My little brother could write better poetry than that.”

Why had he written that? He didn’t have a little brother. Still, it was effective writing. He kept it in.

But what I ca-an I gi-ive hi-im…

Behind him some boys were laughing. Mark’s voice he recognised, Mark who had taken a specky on his back at the gym last week and feigned repentance and concern for him while the teachers were around only to mock him for his distress when the boys were alone in the change rooms at lunch.

“That’s gay,” someone said – probably Mark. It was the kind of thing he said.

“It’s talking about Jesus,” Laura called back.

Miss Brown said sshh and the lesson regained some barely-maintained control. Philip didn’t write anything more about the song. He didn’t want to sound like Mark. He gave the song three stars, closed his exercise book, and rested his head on his hand to press down his hair more. He hoped no-one could see.

As class finished and they left the room, he slowed down so that he walked through the door at the same time as Laura.

“Did you have fun playing with your hair?” she asked. 

He said nothing. His hands felt clammy.

“Good song, hey, Savage?” said Mark behind him. “You loved it, didn’t you?”

Philip slowed and slowed until he sank into the exiting mass coming through the door. The holidays could not come a moment too soon. More and more outside of himself, he watched as a small and insignificant child hid inside a mind that no-one could penetrate if they tried. The day, at least, was over.

The sun shines on Wyndham

The Antarctic wakes us with its morning missive blowing.
Swaddled and bubbling, children shiver across the road.
Crossing guard, I open my smile,
bouncing frozen legs to warm them.
To cross the road like a child, I
must race and look not to the side.
What winter brings will soon be known;
the sun still shares the sky.

Schoolyard Grace (After Les Murray’s “Equanimity”)

It is with slight trepidation that I tackle Les Murray’s masterful poem “Equanimity”. For one thing, it is my girlfriend’s favourite Murray poem, so I would hate to destroy it for her. It is also a very complex poem, with a challenging style to imitate. But the central idea – the beauties of common grace – is one which is important to me, so I’ve done my best to reflect that, taking as the context for the poem what, for me as a teacher, is the very everyday scene of a schoolyard.

Schoolyard Grace (After "Equanimity")

The unequivocal rustling of leaves declares the wind,
a relief where sun has scorched for days and grass lies
                             dead and thin.
Rain having fallen, in its way, on righteous and 
                             unrighteous alike,
we pause, not quite content, but fewer weights surrounding,
the heat like harness for now at least gone
and the heart somehow able to rest.
Yet does it rest? The day continues with its obligations;
doors open still, still shut, and corridors and boardwalks 
                            bustle
with children carrying books and truths
sometimes contained in books, some not.
And still the papers rustle, achieving the task at hand;
and still the bustle goes and goes, with lessons to learn,
and days to earn the approval of met expectations.
Grace like a silent spectator sits: grace in moment,
grace in movement. Hands move, attentive, yet
time contains the hope that now, this moment, is not All,
                              that days
pass nonetheless beneath the gaze of one who knows and 
                              holds.