6: SIZE NINE BRAIN IN A SIZE EIGHT HEAD (Updated)
I could have sworn that PS had not been there the first several times I had tearfully read the letter. I was sure it hadn’t been there. It made me look around, but I was still alone in the locker area, sitting in a heap against the wall, my legs stuck out in any direction, the remains of the box in my lap, the wrapped up iPhone still in the box–I felt as if I dared not touch it. And if it was true that the Time Traveller had spent a thousand dollars on it–I could not even imagine such a sum! It was too much. You simply did not spend such money on gifts for other people. Mum and Dad had been very firm about bringing me up. We never had much money. A simple but heartfelt gift was always tons better than something flashy, expensive, but empty, more about the way it looked than the way it felt and what it meant.
I could be entirely wrong. This thing from the supposed future might be genuine, and there might be genuine time travel, and not just Doctor Who, but I was finding it hard to believe. What the PS said was true. I did feel overwhelmed and abused and traumatised. I did want to jam the whole package in a bin, expensive luxury item or not. I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to be left alone. All my life people more powerful, or just stronger or more daring than I was had picked on me, had tried to drive me from the herd, to make me drive myself from the herd. Their efforts so far were working. I no longer felt part of anything, whether the school community or even the larger country of Australia. The country belonged to strapping white people who loved sport and the sun and beer. There was no place for bookish shy pasty-skinned boys with bodies like beanbag chairs who just wanted to be left alone to read books.
So I sat there, breathing so hard I could hear it rushing in and out, ragged, as if even my breath was worn out from everything happening. I felt used and abused. Manipulated, lied to, played with by people with so much power they lose sight of it. Hey, kid, here’s a fabulous artifact from the future–but I won’t even tell you how to switch it on, let alone how to use it or make it go. It’s got a time travel program on it, but again, no information on how to make it work, let alone how something so profoundly implausible even works in the first place. Nothing, just the casual, arrogant assumption that I’d somehow figure it out, I suppose, because he figured it out when he was me.
There was so much screaming and wailing in my head right now. I wanted to believe what he said about my dad, and even about me. But it hurt to be so full of emotion and thought. I sat holding my head, as if to hold it up, as if to keep it held together. It felt like I had a size nine brain in a size eight head.
I ran to the school Admin Block, propelled by the sheer force of my hatred and anger; I could feel it roiling and burning behind me, expanding and pushing me like rocket exhaust.
At Reception I phoned Detective Lockley (“he’s out on a job right now, but if you leave a message…”), and said I needed to see him. I had some new information. What he would or could do with this information, with this time-travelling Apple iPhone 7, I did not know, and right at that moment I didn’t care. I wanted to be left alone. I was desperate to see “the Future” I’d been hearing about since I was a kid, but not like this, assuming any of what the man had said was even remotely true. I was prepared to age my way to it the hard way.
I had to leave a message for him. The person I spoke to said they would get in touch with him right away, that my case was a priority, and to just wait. Okay, fine, I thought. And made a photostat copy of the letter for myself, which I stuffed into my bag. I told the Reception staff I was about to go to see Mr Shit, my Maths teacher, then I was planning to sit in the Library all afternoon, writing. I was supposed to be in classes, discussing books, answering questions, doing tests, giving talks, answering questions, finding out about secondary sexual characteristics–but at least for now all I wanted to do was sit and write. I could not have cared less about my schoolwork, and there was a small department in the back of my overworked mind where the supervisor was concerned about my attitude and who even ventured the view that the mindless activity structured by regular schoolwork might provide a useful way to work my way through difficult times. I said the hell with that!
I caught Mr Shit (not his real name) between classes, as he was wiping the blackboard. He was an overweight guy in “walking shorts” and sleeveless jumper, with long socks up to his hairy knees. He hated every aspect of teaching high school mathematics. He believed life had let him down. He had been meant for the groves of academe, important universities, advanced degrees, robes and mortarboards. The accoutrements of his proper station in life. It was all a long way from small, airless, desperate rooms here in the outer suburbs teaching teenagers with brains like semi-matured cheese the finer points of trigonometry, or answering their question, “when will we ever use this in our adult lives?” It was conceivable that maybe one or two kids would use it. The rest of us? Like hitting your head with a hammer, glad when it was over.
“Ah, Mr Bradford, you do you show your face at last! Lovely to see you! Been a long time! Got something for me?” He had a trademark look, the sour smirk. It told you he once enjoyed witty badinage, but the tragic circumstances of his life now were such that his sense of humour had been fractured and was inoperable. All his jokes were cracked and hurt. There was no joy in him. His bones were made of bitterness.
I pulled out the assignment I’d slaved over for a week, and which I finished before my life had exploded in my face. I glanced at it, my fumbled, inelegant, clumsy answers. My average assignment score was 4/10. Once I’d scored half a mark out of 10. Mr Shit liked to mark my work with me standing next to him at his desk with the whole class in attendance, and he liked to hoot, laugh, dance and cavort about like a chimp on helium when I got a question wrong, especially if it was hilariously wrong. There was no need to humiliate me this way. He did it to no-one else. But it is a big part of why he was known as Mr Shit.
I put my assignment on his extremely tidy desk. I smoothed it out as best I could. I felt as if I could vomit from nerves. It looked fragile, a simple thing made of paper, alone in the world. I stood back, away from the desk, where it was as if you could smell rotted meat and blood from past kills.
“Nothing to say for yourself, Mr Bradford?”
I glanced at him. Thought about everything going on. Looked at the door. The glare of light outside the dimness of Mr Shit’s cave.
I shook my head and left without a word, without a backward glance. I went to the Library, and pulled out my notebook, calm as you like. I had just had my first successful interaction with one of the greatest tormentors in my life. Mr Shit had earned his name. He had reduced me to tears often. He had always won. But not today. It felt good. I felt as if I could fly.
It was nearly lunchtime, and I was actually hungry, though I was also exhausted. I wondered how poor old Zonk was going at the vet hospital. If Zonk died I didn’t know what I’d do–the Zonk! I felt as if we’d always had her. Nine years of my life. We got her when I was about six or seven, when I was starting primary school, sometime around then? I remember how small she was then. I remember how she got outside, onto the busy road, and a car had clipped her–very lucky it hadn’t been worse!–and she lost her front right leg, but recovered so fast it was breathtaking, heart-filling.
I thought, too, about Future Bastard. In high school Social Studies class they like to tell you about powerful, advanced, usually European cultures coming upon less-sophisticated indigenous cultures in other countries, and whether they intended it or not, those weaker cultures were generally wiped out but for a few stragglers. Contact with advanced civilsations was deadly, and I was feeling very much like a primitive indigenous culture on the receiving end of a first contact with an unthinkably vast powerful culture who might as well be aliens from the stars. I felt pulverised.
The bastard believed he was doing me a good deed, sticking his nose into my life, and winding up dead for his trouble, somehow. There was a woman out there, “the Widow”? Fiona Something? Part of me did believe him. That’s what made it burn so much. It would be easy to dismiss obvious nonsense and fantasy. You wouldn’t miss it. You could flick it away like a fly. But when it was something you secretly wished was true, when it was a thing you always wanted, that’s when it was unbearable, when it destroyed everything in its path as it whirled and tore through your head, uprooting trees and sweeping away the roofs of houses. Because I did want it to be true that my dad was a decent, kind, loving man who was just sick, who couldn’t help what his illness did to him. That explained so much. I was gravely troubled by the suggestion that I was the same, and had the same illness. Did that mean that I was heading down the same road my father had travelled, into the same tightrope-walking future? Did I want to live in that future? Could I see myself there?
Could I see myself grown up and middle-aged, 54 years old, living in an age of casual time travel, a time machine in every pocket, writing a letter to my teenage self, because of a powerful urge to help him understand his otherwise fathomless father? Wasn’t that a decent thing to try and do? Yes, I agreed that it was a fine idea, a great gesture. But it messed with my head too much. It expected me to accept too many impossible things at once. I couldn’t do it. I was just a dumb kid. I longed for the gleaming science fiction future, but to have that future reach back in time and land in my lap was outrageous. What was I to make of it?
“Robbie?” It was a girl’s voice, English accent, friendly.
I jumped, startled, as if electrocuted, and clutched my chest.
The girl came and stood next to my carrel, leaning against it. This was Jane Reid, English, strawberry blonde hair, scattering of freckles, blue eyes, nice smile, pretty. She was, I had always thought, as strange, in her way, as I was in mine. She didn’t recoil in horror from me. In ballroom dancing classes, she was happy to hold me properly. I always had the sweats (and suddenly had a good one going right now: I could feel it turning my scalp into a mangrove swamp, soaking the back of my shirt), but she didn’t seem to mind. I knew she had an older brother. Maybe that helped? She asked me why I wasn’t in class. “We” were supposed to be in English right now, trying to figure out Julius Caesar.
I told her, my mouth suddenly dry, making it hard to talk, that I wasn’t feeling well today, which was truer than I realised. I couldn’t imagine sitting in a classroom trying to pay attention to a teacher. I asked what she was doing here. I didn’t ask the real question that the voices in my head wanted me to ask, which was, “Why are you toying with me like this? We both know you find me disgusting.”
“Miss Petty sent me to get a couple more copies,” she said, rolling her eyes and flashing a wry smile. “Any excuse will do, eh?”
I nodded agreement, distracted and troubled, listening to the voices. Jane had beautiful knees, and I would never be worthy of touching them.
She leaned a little closer. My heart boomed. I leaned back, afraid, trying not to show it. “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you look really awful, Robbie. Are you okay? Are you upset about–” She was kindness and friendliness itself, so why couldn’t I believe she was for real? Why did I have to feel so suspicious? She was gorgeous, but was she too gorgeous? Was she impossible? Was she my imagination?
I very nearly told her everything. I wanted to tell someone. I had nearly told the office ladies in the Admin Block. I’d even considered maybe telling Mr Shit, but of course, what did he care? He was the sort of person my suicide would deeply satisfy, the universe balancing its books at last. I stared at Jane. Her lips were perfect. She still wore scraps of tartan sewn onto the cuffs and pockets of her blue school uniform blouse in honour of the Bay City Rollers, even though most kids had moved on to ABBA or KISS.
I kept my mouth shut. How could I tell her when I didn’t really believe it myself?
But she said, “I heard there was a stink in the lockers today. Tracey Moss said you were hurt, and, well…” She was looking at my scratched up hands, and I could feel for myself my still ringing, throbbing head. “She said you got a real kicking?”
“It was fine,” I said. Australian men must never admit weakness in front of pretty women. There were rules.
“I want you to feel like you can talk to me, okay? I see things. I hear things, too. I’m not as stupid as you think I am–thank God!” She laughed behind her hand, and I smiled, too, until it made my face hurt, and I clutched at it. Jane gave me a look. “You need to see the School Nurse, dumb-arse.” I said I would see the School Nurse. I knew I was never going to see the School Nurse.
The awkwardness was interrupted when Fran the Admin lady appeared. “Phone call for you, son. A Detective Lockley?”
Jane, who had no idea police were involved, stared, dumbstruck, her mouth working.
I said I’d be right there.