GOOD INTENTIONS Ch 8 (Second Draft)
My first mistake today was opening my eyes. Second mistake was getting out of bed. I had been on a good thing during the night, and I should have stuck with it. I woke feeling like I was made of wet cement. I wasn’t congested, but breathing was hard, laborious. Yesterday’s kicking would be the the trouble there. When I staggered into the tiny, grotty motel bathroom with its nasty uneven tilework and stained mirror, I saw the full, bruised horror of what those bastards had done to me. There would be no hiding it from Mum and Dad.
Not that Dad was paying attention to much of anything, and Mum had already left for work for the day. She was on earlies. Dad sat outside, leaning against his car, chain-smoking, sucking them down as if they might be his last. He told me he’d be taking me to school, and he’d be collecting me in the arvo, no worries. “Gotta make meself useful somehow, eh?”
The long drive through sudden rain to school was a silent torment. The car stank of stale cigarettes and misery. Dad had nothing to say, but I could see him strangling the steering wheel like it was his mortal enemy and he wanted the bastard to suffer before he died. I cracked my passenger side window open a little. The air was cold, and there was a spot or two of rain, but it was fresh. It didn’t stink of failure and hopelessness and frustration.
We pulled up outside the school without having said a word to one another, without having the first clue what to say. “Well, gee, Dad, it’s a shame you’re not well. I hope you feel better soon,” I could say. Or I could say, “Hang in there, Dad. It’ll be okay.” I remembered Future Bastard saying in his letter that in his time he visits Mum and Dad, and they’re elderly, but close, closer than ever, and happy, nothing like they were now. As if all of this, now, has been wiped away or forgotten. How could I tell that to my dad and give him a sense of hope? “Forty years from now, you and Mum will be happy old farts together!” Forty years? Who could wait that long for happiness? What were you supposed to do in the meantime? What did Future Bastard suggest about that? How do we get to that future? How much broken glass do we have to crawl over to get to the good stuff?
Still, there were a couple of things. I told Dad, because I thought I should, that I saw Detective Lockley yesterday, about the case. This did surprise Dad out of bubble for a moment. “What’d he want? He didn’t contact us.”
I said I remembered something that might be useful. I said Lockley made a note of it and left.
Dad looked confused, a bit puzzled, but also distracted, his own entire world of shit trying to interpose itself between us already. “Orright,” he said. “Have a good day. Stay outa trouble now,” he said, and drove off, winding his window up against the rain. I saw him through the rear window lighting a cigarette. I was covered in bruises and scrapes, and he’d said nothing about them.
I shuffled up the walkway, heading for the lockers, remembering yesterday. There was one thing I could tell Dad, I realised, but I had no idea how I could do it. I could tell him I loved him. Because I did. He and I were clearly cut from the same screwed-up tree. I needed no convincing from Future Bastard that I had the same illness as Dad. It was obvious to me. I probably would have guessed, in time, when I was older.
Had I ever told him I loved him? I didn’t think I had. Even thinking about made me sweat with nervousness. It made me feel antsy. I didn’t like the thought. It wasn’t a good thought. It was too much. Too emotional. Too sincere. Too direct. Maybe too simple. Because my feelings were nothing if not complicated and messy. Sometimes I hated his self-pitying guts, but then I hated that in myself, too. I hated that he and I were so much alike. I wished I’d taken more after Mum. She was a nurse, and had that self-less service to the community thing going, and she was formidable and strong. She took no bullshit, least of all from Dad and me. I would love to have been like Mum. I had no trouble telling Mum I loved her, and did so at least once a week.
So what was it about Dad that put me off that way? Because there was something. Something really basic and fundamental. It’s hard for a boy to have big feelings, big mushy feelings, for other men. Brothers, uncles, dads, granddads, whatever. You can be as mushy as you like with the girls and women in your life (and you can be an absolute arsehole and pig), but with guys it’s all different. With guys you can be friends, and you can be mates. Somehow there’s a difference there. Mates and friends, not the same thing. They say this whole country was built, was forged, in the spirit of mateship that first appeared when Australian troops served in World War I, at Gallipoli, in 1915, when Australia as a country was only as old as I am now. People tell you that those soldiers’ mateship got them through a brutal campaign failure, and that that was the birth of what it means to be Australian.
I’ve never known what to make of this story, this idea. I’ve always been an outsider. No-one has ever invited me in. I don’t know about mateship. I’ve had a few friends here and, and a few people I’ve managed to get on well with, despite everything about me that makes me not want to deal with people at all, that makes me want to go off by myself and read or write. But this famous Australian mateship, the charge running like a live wire through the heart of the country? I have no idea. I’ve only been here fifteen years. I’m new.
Then Eleanor Irving was standing in front of me, all five foot two of her and made of pale sticks, as if a stiff breeze might carry her away, wearing at least five layers of clothing against the winter chill, and she was staring up at me, pointing. “You! Robbie Bradford! What did you do, Robbie Bradford? What did you do?” She was a fury, her eyes boiling with outrage, but her mouth was quirked with amusement. She came up to me. “No, seriously. Jane Reid is going round saying you murdered a man and the police are involved and you’re in deep shit and she’s telling everyone!”
I was so shocked I laughed. I shook my head, and kept going, headed for the lockers, still laughing.
Eleanor followed, bouncing along at my side. “You did, didn’t you?”
“What do you think? Do you think I killed a man?” I’d known Eleanor since primary school. She was odd, like me, she didn’t fit in, didn’t try to fit in. She was an outcast amongst the girls the way I was amongst the boys. We were freaks together. She liked science fiction. I liked her, but I had no idea what to do about it, how to move forward with it. There were no guidelines. I kind of liked Jane Reid, too, but I knew without being told that she was unobtainable. I would forever have my nose and hands pressed against the glass window of the showroom where Jane Reid was on display, for exclusive clientele only. Scruffy, lumpen, sweaty creeps like me need not even enquire about her. But I knew Eleanor came from a family like mine. She was a scruffy ratbag, too. I wondered if she felt it, too, this wanting to move the friendship along, but not knowing how to do so safely. Because what if you tried to take a perfectly fine friendship, or friendship-like thing, and you became more than friends, but then it exploded in your faces, and you lost everything, including the friendship that had been working so perfectly well? I dared not ask, but I thought about it a lot at night, when I was supposed to be sleeping.
“I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t kill a man!” Eleanor said, and punched my arm. She peeled off and went to her own locker as I went to my own. My first class this morning was Maths again. Mr Shit. The verdict on my assignment.
Then I realised, all at once, where I was, and what I was doing. I’d seen movies where at certain moments of heightened perception the protagonist finds him in the centre of the frame, and all the other people around him are mere blurs and streaks that hum and hiss and whir past. This moment was like that as I stared at my locker. I opened my locker door. Would there be another JB HiFi bag and another Apple iPhone 7? How badly did Future Bastard want to help me out?
I opened the door, and my locker was my locker. No iPhones today. I released my breath and slumped against the frame, feeling the adrenaline subside. Feeling, in fact, a certain disappointment, to my surprise. I transferred tons of books and files and crap from my school bag into my locker, then grabbed maths stuff to take to class. So much lugging crap to and fro.
Then there was nothing for it. Time to go and see Mr Shit. On arrival, as usual, we all had to queue up outside the room. Usually, the queuing was perfunctory at best, even sarcastic, with lots of joking around. But as soon as I showed up, things went quiet. Everyone stared at me. Some, when I met their gazes, looked scared, genuinely scared, the way kids often looked scared of Mr Shit. That shocked me. How could anyone be scared of me? I was the least scary person in the world? Being scared of me was like being scared of cold, lumpy, poorly-prepared mashed potatoes.
Then we were in the classroom. Mr Shit was telling us about quadratic equations. It was baffling. He called me up to his desk, and I thought, God, here it comes. I’d hardly slept for worrying about this. He was going to eviscerate me. I was for it. It would be a public execution. I stood there, next to his desk, in the usual place. The class was silent, staring at me. The weird thing, though, was the way Mr Shit himself seemed oddly subdued. Even a little fidgety. He’d snapped a piece of chalk writing on the blackboard earlier, laying out some notes about those quadratic equations.
He pulled my assignment out of his desk drawer. I saw all the red ink, all the big red crosses. It was bad. It looked like I’d even gotten my name wrong. I felt myself clench, the way you might before your car hits another car, before your plane crashes. I held my breath.
Then he handed it to me, and clapped a hand against my shoulder, and met my gaze with his. He said, quietly. “Better luck next time, son.” He managed a weak but reasonably encouraging smile. I noticed for the first time, as the dizziness began to take hold, that all the questions in the assignment that I’d got wrong had detailed handwritten notes with them explaining what I’d done wrong. I stared and stared. I went back to my seat. Other kids stared, confused. I had received a royal pardon. I sat at my desk. I remember nothing about the rest of the class. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about quadratic equations.
Afterwards, Eleanor came up to me again. She saw that I was on my own. That people were avoiding me, even the bullies. As if I had a force field around me. She said, “Everyone’s shit-scared of you now, Robbie! Isn’t it great?”
“Even Mr Shit?”
Should I have felt pleased with this new power, this reputation? Should I make use of it? Should I fight against it, try to persuade people that I was the same old harmless, hopeless punching bag I’d always been? Who the hell was I, anyway? What was I? I felt like nothing. I felt dead inside, and just about dead outside. Waking up today was my first mistake, and I’d been making mistakes ever since.