First published in the Rubery Short Story Award anthology, Still Life, 2015. Also published in Best Australian Stories 2015, and The Australian newspaper, as an extract.
Some things happen without any warning or deliberation. Wu Wei. Action without action.
Jase finds me up in the corner of the west paddock, re-stringing a section of fence. I watch him stalking his way up the line, his shaggy mop of hair like an African marigold just past its heyday.
‘George Carlyle,’ he greets me, grinning. ‘You guys are hard to find.’
He watches me remove the elbow length leather gloves and push my sunglasses up. In spite of these tokens of protection, I’ve just given myself a long, complicated scratch on my shin from the violent scrolling of barbed wire back into its inert coil, the shape it apparently wants to hold forever. That’s an interesting thought, and if my schoolmate hadn’t just shown up, I would probably have sat down and dwelt on it at length.
I’m so pleased to see him that I hold out my hand to shake his, and watch Jase cover up his embarrassment by turning the handshake into a complex series of rapper moves, ending with a loose man-hug. I figure we have maybe twenty-five minutes until my father comes back from town, and in that time I have to sweep the driveway, put the spuds on and set the table. I can’t stop smiling.
Jase helps me put my tools into the bucket and we run down to the house with the shadows from the trees licking our backs.
‘Where’s your old man?’ Jase asks, and I glance at him, trying to gauge if he’s running a gauntlet by showing up here. Other kids had done that for some months after The Mrs Hatten Incident.
‘He’s in town,’ I say, opening the front door. ‘He’ll be home soon.’
‘Wow,’ says Jase, following me into the kitchen, apparently disinterested in that piece of news. ‘Your house is really tidy.’
I’ve never been to Jase’s house, but I’ve seen his mum pick him up from school in a green station wagon. She looks neat enough.
I choose two large potatoes out of the box in the pantry and scrub them clean in the sink. The water on my hands is neither cool nor warm and the potatoes’ eyes are plugged with red dirt, which runs like paint over my hands. On my way to the oven I prick the potato skins with my fingernails to stop them from exploding. Jase is slouching in the doorway to the living room, taking everything in. I still can’t stop smiling.
‘Do you want some water?’ I ask him. There isn’t anything else. We’re out of milk and my dad never buys juice, soft-drink or alcohol. Which is fine by me.
‘Nah,’ says Jase. He picks up a tape measure from the dining room table, turns it over in his hand and puts it back down again. ‘Your house is so masculine.’
I get two plates out of the dresser, two knives and two forks. I set them on the table, then arrange salt and pepper, two glasses and the water bottle in the middle. Then I go to the sideboard and get two red cloth serviettes and fold them beside the plates. Jase raises his eyebrows.
‘What are these?’ my dad said, the first night. He didn’t look at me.
‘Serviettes,’ I said, aware I was walking a fine line. When I’d found the tablecloth and matching serviettes in the hall cupboard, I’d briefly considered spreading the red cloth on the table, collecting wildflowers to go in a jam jar.
‘What’s wrong with paper towels?’
I could have said, paper towels are disposable, a reflection of our throwaway society, these ones are pretty, but instead I said, ‘We’ll save money if we don’t use paper towels every meal.’
My father picked up his fork and speared a chunk of meat. ‘Well, you’re washing them,’ he said.
‘How’s that new English teacher?’ Jase says, as he watches me sweep the drive. He offered to help but when I told him we only owned one broom he went and sprawled on the front steps.
‘Which new teacher?’ I say, but I turn my body away because I know who he’s talking about.
‘Miss Grantham,’ he says, as though her name is a caramel he wants to suck. ‘She’s hot.’
Is she hot? She doesn’t look hot to me, she looks soft. Her hair is brown, pulled back into a loose ponytail, more and more wisps escaping throughout the day until sometime around 2pm her hairband gives up altogether and springs away, releasing the rest of her hair in a glossy curtain. Her face is freckled, her cheeks as round as a child’s. Everything about her looks soft, her long skirts and shawls, her small freckled hands, her neat sandalled feet. She looks, I think now, still turned away and sweeping in large efficient strokes, like a mother should look.
‘I don’t imagine there’re many Taoists at Clarence State High,’ she said to me in her soft, low voice, the day she returned my essay on the Three Treasures. She pronounced it properly, so that the t sounded more like a d. And I sat there beaming at her like the Buddha, imagining those hands smoothing my hair back and plumping my pillow.
When she moved off, Clunker said, ‘I could eat her for breakfast.’
‘I have her on Wednesday afternoons,’ I say to Jase.
‘I’d like to have her every afternoon,’ he says.
He’s lying, and I wonder why.
Rugby union is a Richard Carlyle Approved Activity (an RCAA), one of very few, so I’ve played every winter for the last six years. Does rugby contravene the principles of Taoism? Probably, but I’ve found that I can channel the violence on the field around me into something like a dance. I play better rugby now that I’ve stopped trying to force my way forwards.
‘Fuck, George, you never get dirty,’ Clunker, a forward, complained to me once. His massive chest smoothed out some parts of his jersey, ruched others. ‘But you kick like a fucking ballistic missile.’ He slammed me across the shoulders in what I took to be a gesture of camaraderie.
‘Jason Reilly’s a faggot,’ Clunker said a few weeks ago when we were standing in the canteen queue. ‘Look at him, little poofter.’ Across the asphalt, Jase was dancing with some of the girls from our year, exaggerating all his hip movements and shaking out his red bush of hair, singing in falsetto, until eventually the girls had had enough and pushed him away good-naturedly. ‘Fuck he can surf though,’ said Clunker, rotating a finger in his ear hole.
I laughed out loud. I keep doing that lately, even though I try not to.
Spattering gravel warns us. By the time the sedan pulls into the garage I’ve finished the sweeping and Jase has sprung to attention, tucked his shirt in and done something to tame his hair. I have butterflies in my stomach.
When my dad unfolds himself from the car and walks over to us, unsmiling, Jase extends his hand like a bank manager. No rapper moves now. ‘Mr Carlyle,’ he says. ‘My name’s Jason Reilly. I’m at school with George.’
My dad looks at Jase’s hand like it’s a dead invertebrate, no surprises there, but then puts his own hand out and shakes it, once.
‘Did you get that fence fixed?’ he says to my chest, wiping his hand on his trousers.
‘Bring in the shopping.’ He turns away and stumps into the house without making eye contact with either of us. I have a personal theory that my father hates himself so much he can’t bear to see his own reflection in other people’s eyes. He re-emerges at the doorway and addresses the clothesline behind us. ‘Put that broom away.’
‘Man,’ breathes Jase in awe. ‘He is one hundred percent 1950’s.’ He ruffles his hair back out of place. ‘You call him sir?’
‘I have to go in now,’ I say.
There is not a single tree on our entire holding. Not even a shrub. Just concrete, lawn and pasture, all bullied into neatness. But the bush closes in around us like a big messy hug, and at this time of day, when the sun has already left the land but still strokes the highest limbs of the trees, I feel like the dot inside the yin-yang symbol, the chaos within the order. The farm only started to make sense to me when I saw it in juxtaposition with the bush. Sunny side, shady side. Hard, soft. Taoism has saved my life.
‘Can I come back?’ asks Jase, collecting his bike from the side of the house. His helmet squashes his hair down but it protests out the sides.
‘Yes,’ I say. My father hadn’t told him to leave, which I take to be a good sign. Then I remember the slow wipe down the trouser leg. I smile to take the sting out of my words. ‘But not too often.’
I eat each night to the screech and ring of cutlery. Most of our meals are mute affairs.
‘The school gave me a laptop today.’
There’s a very long silence while my father cuts his rissole into small pieces, all the same size. ‘You will not use it.’
I wait to see what will happen. All the things I could say (they gave them out to everyone in my class, we have to learn how to use them, we have to use them, this is the 21st fucking century) are, one by one, sent out of my mouth on a breath, without ever being spoken. I place a piece of potato on my tongue with immense care, and spend the next moments considering the texture of the skin compared with the mealy body, the brown and white taste of it. The first of the Three Treasures is compassion.
‘Yes, sir,’ I say at last.
My father’s relief is palpable. He wipes his mouth on the red serviette, visibly stained, and then stares at it for a while, as though in confusion.
‘Who was that boy?’
Which boy? I almost ask. I don’t think of Jase as a boy, or a girl for that matter, or even a human being. Just as himself, Jase. ‘Jason Reilly.’ I stop myself from smiling, just in time. ‘He’s in my grade.’
‘Does he play footy?’
I don’t even consider lying. ‘No.’
‘What did he want?’
My father exists within the uncomfortable belief that other people act only out of greed and need. He has no friends. None of his co-workers down at the depot ever come here, although they wave at me on the street, and clip me over the earhole after a good rugby match.
The possible retorts crowd my mouth and I wait until they’ve wandered off, single file, before saying, ‘He’s my friend.’
My empty mouth feels dry all of a sudden, because I can already hear him saying the terrible words, in the same way he’s just dismissed the laptop, lying in my schoolbag across the hall, filled with unfulfillable potential.
You will not see him. He cannot come here.
It’s some time before I realise that my father has aligned his knife and fork and risen from the table without speaking.
My father spent several years in prison, before I was born. I’m not sure what crime he committed, but I think it was one of the felonies that get you a ride in the electric chair in some American states: armed robbery, murder, rape. I know nothing about his childhood, or his family of origin, whether he was an only child, or if I have aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents somewhere on the planet. My mother ran off when I was four, with a man my father worked with at the depot. I don’t remember anything about her, not even what she looked like, but once, when I was in the supermarket with my father, we walked down the laundry aisle and I smelled her. I kept going back to that aisle and trying to pin down the exact bottle or box that her smell had emanated from, but it was elusive, like the scent coming out of a lomandra flower, that disappears when your nose is right up against the spikes, but nearly knocks you over the moment you turn away. Eventually my father tired of my absconding and smacked me, hard, although I was almost nine years old.
I tower a foot or so over his head these days and since I’ve become a closet Taoist we’ve moved past the yelling cheek smacking defiance hitting cycle, I believe, but my stomach still roils whenever my father is displeased with me.
Mrs Hatten was my teacher in year six. When I made some comment in Health about the origin of babies and the class dissolved in hilarity, Mrs Hatten thinned her lips and asked to see me after school. When all the other kids had gone she gave me a book to put in my schoolbag: Where did I come from? I read it when I got home from school, sitting on my bed, and I remember finding it fascinating, and not in any way disgusting or rude or dirty. But those were the words my father used when he found the book where I’d left it on my bedside table, and those were the words he shouted at Mrs Hatten the next day, so that the whole school heard, even though they were in an empty classroom with the door closed. Mrs Hatten shouted too. She shouted, if George comes to school with any more bruises, I’m calling DOCS. That made my dad stop shouting and leave.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, that night at the dinner table. I still wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong, but I wanted my father to stop looking frightened. Even inexplicable anger was better than the terror I’d seen in his face since his blue with Mrs Hatten.
I remember that he picked up his knife and fork as usual but then held them like drumsticks for a long time, an Energiser bunny all out of batteries. Then he dropped his cutlery and put his hands to his face. I still remember the way his shoulders shook.
When I found the book about Taoism in the school library, I made sure I never brought it home. I keep it in my locker and read it in the lunch hour or in between classes.
At ten pm my father switches the light off in the shed, and comes back to the house. He shuts off the lights in the kitchen, locks the front door, enters the hallway and stops outside my room. I lift my head. He knocks.
‘Come in,’ I say. I mark my place in the chemistry textbook and turn to face him.
He looks out my dark window and clears his throat. ‘That laptop,’ he says.
‘What would you be using it for?’
‘Assignments mostly. Typing out assignments. I have computing once a week, I’d use it then too, in class.’
My father frowns at the window, possibly at his own reflection. ‘You couldn’t use it to look up porn or something?’
‘No, sir,’ I say gently. ‘We have no internet here. And I’m not interested in porn.’ It’s the truth, so I make sure it sounds like it. The second of the Treasures is moderation, which porn ain’t, from what I’ve seen of it.
My father digs deep in his trouser pockets as though looking for change. His discomfort is catching. Then he looks at me. ‘Because, you know, I wouldn’t want you finding out where babies come from or anything like that.’
My father has made a joke. His first ever joke.
I smile. ‘No, sir.’
He nods and turns, stops at the door. ‘I’ll have to think about it, the laptop.’
‘Goodnight, son,’ he says.
I love you, Dad, I don’t say. ‘Goodnight, sir.’
‘You know they have machines to do that these days,’ says Jase watching me sweep, twirling a football in his hands. My father is out but he’ll be home in an hour. ‘They’re called blowers. My mum rang up this lawn mowing company once and asked for a mow and blow. I nearly pissed myself.’ The north-easterly has scattered gum leaves all over the driveway, even though the nearest tree stands a hundred metres away. I love that. ‘Where’s your mum?’ Jase asks.
‘Gone. Where’s your dad?’
‘Dead. Hey! I see what you mean. We could set them up, my mum and your dad, make our own Brady Bunch.’
The thought of my father making anything as commonplace and convivial as a blended family is laughable. But I don’t feel like laughing. My throat is thick and tight, so the next words are forced out of it, against any will of my own.
‘I don’t want to be your brother.’ I make myself meet his eyes, even though it’s as painful as looking straight at the sun.
He plays with the ball in his hands, rolling it, patting it into the air, and then drops it on the ground and lets it roll away. He looks out across the farm with a 180 degree glance that lasts for several seconds and ends up on my face. ‘I see,’ he says, and there’s no mockery in his eyes. He does see.
He walks over and takes the broom out of my hands. My arms fall to my sides as though they’ve been deboned. He lifts one of my hands and places it on his chest, over his heart.
The third Treasure is humility, not putting oneself first in the world, but sometimes things happen without any warning or deliberation.