The local high school was not much chop, but your father was a clerk and your mother supervised three days at the Hillview old people’s home, so there was no chance that they would be sending you to the grammar school on the hill. Your mum said the school specialised in producing car thieves and teenage pregnancies, but she sent you there anyway. From day one you were terrified, but boredom had its moments.
The school was a prison. The kids guarded themselves. The Carter gang slotted right in. Your place in the scheme: you were a retard. Ugly, short, shit at footie. That you knew stuff just clinched it. There was bush behind the school where the kids went wild, but you couldn’t set foot there for fear of your life.
You were accused of attending Sunday school. You admitted it. It was not your fault. You did not like Sunday school, which was held after holy communion in the timber shed built behind the church. Three concrete steps up, windows covered with pages from the holy land colouring-in book, a tin roof. Hot in summer, cold in winter. For years you had Mrs Delmont, with her double chin and beehive hairdo, and you had finally reached an understanding. You ate the paste; she ruled the roost; she let you read when you were supposed to be filling in sheets; you answered all the questions left dangling by your classmates.
Suddenly Mrs Delmont was gone and Miss Fraser was taking Sunday school. Pretty Miss Fraser, with a triangular face and glittering eyes. Previous experience indicated that you made pretty girls feel sick. She pretended to be pleased to have you in her class. She made you scissors monitor; it didn’t fool you. Sure enough, she began to crack down. No more surreptitious reading, no more paste. Your mother wanted you to prepare for confirmation. Miss Fraser instructed you to prepare a lesson on the Trinity.
It sent you into a funk, and you wandered homeward thinking how one could be three and three one and the son his own father. Before you knew it your old friend Peter Carter had his arm around you, and his mates around you, all teeth. When you eventually arrived home, beaten and smelling of dog shit, without your glasses or your Bible reader, your mother proposed a visit to the Carter house. But your father said no. He said the whole Carter family were crims, and he didn’t want a punch in the head.
Your father was a tall man with a stomach like an apple. He looked awkward whatever he did: such as walking, or reading a newspaper. His hair was frizzy ginger and he kept it raked back. His bones were prominent. The sadness of his face forbid expressions of sympathy.
You watched them argue, which was rare. Your father said little, your mother much. He exhausted her stock of righteousness. You threw your shirt in the bin. You had a shower, which stung. Afterwards, your father drew you aside:
You don’t want to believe everything your mother says. This bible stuff. It’s all right for kids, but you have to grow up some time.
Your father did not attend church. You had imagined that there must be proper theological reasons for this that had not yet been covered in Sunday school. It shocked you to realise that he and you did not believe in God or your mother. You did not know your father. He had been keeping himself a secret. And that was his counsel:
It’s no good fighting it out with that thug. You have to stay out of his way and wait. Characters like that always get their comeuppance.
So you learned the secret way — how to enter school by the broken fence, how to approach the library under cover of the postman and leave in conversation with your history teacher, how to disappear in crowds. You learned to hold your bladder and your bowels. You befriended large girls to hide behind. You waited.
In your third year of high school, Peter Carter’s father went to gaol. The Carter gang’s reign of terror briefly flared to new heights, then Peter stopped going to school. The other delinquents wilted, headless, lost for malice, but not yet ready to jump the fence. Peter loitered outside the school gates, smoking, calling to his mates. The teachers could not shoo him away, so they called the police.
Carter burned down the gym and was sent to a reformatory.
You were so happy. You blossomed. You had some success repeating jokes that you had read in books. People had been laughing at you for years and now you encouraged them. You cultivated a silly giggle. You befriended more awkward girls who needed friends. You bought a pair of desert boots instead of new school shoes. Hairs sprouted from your upper lip and chin. For nine months your voice imitated seven kinds of squeaky door.
You grew two feet taller on a diet of sausage rolls and granny smith apples. Suddenly the girls were looking up to you. You began to think that there was some hope. You were a clown, with long frizzy ginger hair, Orbison specs and a pink and yellow zit on the tip of your nose.
When kids in general began to remember your first name, your girl friends took a proprietorial interest. They had seen you first. They shared your sense of humour. They really dug you. And you liked them, but not like that. No, you were getting ideas above your station.
In fifth form, the cool kids viewed you with affection and amusement, like a dog. The muscle guys liked having you around to remind them how good they were. And the pretty girls were developing a simulacrum of humour, which made room for you. Most boys were threatening, but you weren’t, and you understood some things most boys had no time for. All that reading suddenly paid off where you least expected it.
There were limits. Once, you got five minutes alone with Annalise Cuthbet when she was wearing nothing but a wet bikini and you told her that you really liked her, like really.
It was as if she had seen a cockroach. She said: Don’t ever say that again.
Which was hard to laugh off, but you managed. You steeled yourself for the group ridicule, but Annalise never said a word. You were grateful, but it only served to underline the lesson. A fool is safe but always a fool. You were elected Captain of the School. Why not? Somebody put your name forward as a joke. You were elected unopposed.