All Good (short story) part 1 of 2
I’m at the closest thing my rural high school has to a counsellor, Mr. Hawkin. I’ve seen him draft an email in my presence and according his signature block, his job title is actually “behaviour management specialist”. I once asked him what he studied at university and he said he studied education.
His office, a temporary demountable on the school’s perimeter, is only accessible via the lunch oval so everyone knows when I’m going to see him. Today, I’m telling him that I keep thinking about death – not my death, just the very concept – to test how responds (I’m lying, of course). He doesn’t, really; he just stares and then says a different thing.
“I notice you have a lot to say on Wednesdays. Is there something special about them? Wednesdays, I mean.”
“No. I just like missing maths,” I say, which is half-true.
“You’re not depressed, Thomas, you’re a teenager. A thirteen-year-old,” he says then. He’s trying to challenge me, I think. He’s always telling me I’m not depressed and rejecting my diagnoses, even though he’s just as unqualified as me, I suppose.
On Wednesdays after school I catch a bus to go see Dad at the hospital, or at least I have been since October last year. He’s the only patient in what one nurse once accidentally called “the mental health ward” in my presence. She looked at me when she said that and apologised. Don’t know why. Of course, that’s where he is. I get that.
Dad’s talking to me from his bed and a male nurse sits across the room watching us. I think he must supervise it – as in, it’s his job. I don’t ask.
“I’m getting out soon,” Dad says.
I look to the male nurse. He nods, but then adds cautiously, “Graham, nothing is confirmed yet.” Dad ignores him.
“Tell your mother. And then next week tell me how she responds.”
“Where will you go?” I ask.
Dad looks to the nurse now, too, as if I’ve stumped him. The nurse talks warmly; softly.
“Your Dad got you uncle’s farm property. When he--”
“When he died. You remember Uncle James?” Dad asks. I nod. I wasn’t allowed at his funeral, but I remember he lived on a big farm outside town.
“I’ll tell Mum tonight,” I say, watching his response. He smiles. His teeth are sparkling; then I remember he got new dentures back in November.
I’m watching the six o’clock news when Mum comes home. She looks at me as she walks past and then at the TV, making a face.
“The news, Thom?” she asks.
I shrug. She walks into the kitchen. I hear her unpacking her work bag.
“Dad said he’s getting out soon.”
I crane my head to watch her face, trying to remember it so I can report back to Dad. She just keeps unpacking her bag, then opens the freezer.
“I thought I asked you to thaw this chicken for me.”
“Why can’t Dad stay here when he gets out?” I ask.
Mum walks in and sits next to me on the couch but doesn’t change the channel.
“I don’t particularly want to have this conversation, Thom. I’ve had a day.”
On the news, the main reporter is talking about Kevin Rudd, the prime minister, and ‘a public declaration by Asylum-Seeker Resource agencies declaring Mr. Rudd’s refugee policies “inhumane”’. It then cuts to a different reporter standing at a protest in one of the big cities, interviewing a handsome, brown-skinned man holding a picket sign. He’s saying something forceful into the microphone about his human rights. His face and hands are moving purposefully, and I think he’s beautiful.
I think about the passionate refugee that night while touching myself in the shower and I guess that’s the first time I’ve ever written something like that down.
At lunch the next day, I’m sitting by myself and Rory McClarskon from the grade above me walks up, looking like he’s trying to puff his chest out or something. His friends from the table he sits at are watching him and me, eager to laugh or something.
“My Dad reckons he saw your Dad runnin’ down the main street naked and scaring tourists and says he’s a fucking lunatic,” Rory says to me. His friends watch me more, studying me for my response.
“So? That was three years ago.” One of his friends guffaws but I can tell Rory is disappointed I’m not more angered by his basic statement of fact. And I’m not.
He frowns and grabs my sandwich from me and spits between the bread. I don’t think he planned that because it was so graceless. He walks away, calling me a name I don’t hear for sure but might have been faggot, I dunno.
Mum leaves curried sausages in a container for me to heat up for dinner and says she’s going out for drinks with a new friend from work that night. I don’t like curried sausages and she knows this.
“She’s got a son your age, you know. They just moved to town.”
“I don’t remember any new kids at school.”
“He goes to the private school. I set it up for you to see him on the weekend, to hang out. His name’s Levi. You need friends.”
I’m not shocked she’s aware I don’t have friends anymore, even though I never told her what happened. I just nod.
“Have you thought any more about Dad?” I ask, following Mum to her room. She’s putting a blouse on and closes the door half-way, so I don’t see her. I smell her spray perfume.
“No and stop asking. Go, please. I’m getting changed.”
Levi lives out on an acreage just outside town. You can still see the main street but it’s technically a farm. I walk up the driveway. I’d seen this house before walking to school the long way, I realised when Mum dropped me off, because it’s so big and up a hill, overlooking the town.
He must be rich, and I wonder why his Mum works with mine.
Lorna, Levi’s mum, answers the door and greets me enthusiastically, smiling and saying, “Levi’s in his room, Thom,” and I notice a slight accent I’ve never heard before.
I wonder if Levi needs friends the same way I do and whether he’s even going to want to hang out with me. I haven’t been on a “playdate” arranged by my mother in years and I am suddenly aware how strange this all is. I kind of want to turn around and pretend I never came.
I am led through the cavernous house and meet Levi, who’s in footballs shorts and a singlet, laying on a beanbag before the TV in his bedroom. He has a pedestal fan turned on and pointed right at him. He moves to greet me, and I sit awkwardly on his bed as his Mum leaves us alone.
“Thom.” He sits up and turns to me and looks at me as if studying me. I find my self judging his face unwantedly, but I do quickly note his strong features. He has the jawline of a much older boy.
“Our Mum’s are friends, they organised this,” I say, in case he is confused.
“I know. Have you watched Monty Python?”
I don’t know the words he’s saying and must look unsure. He grabs a DVD from a shelf by his bed – Monty Python and The Holy Grail – and puts it in the DVD player. It must be a test of some sort, so even thought I find it hard to get into without any context and find some of the jokes repetitive, I laugh when he does and tell him I liked it afterwards.
“It’s my Mum’s. She has all the DVDs.”
“The next one’s a bit…you’re not religious, are you?”
I remember going to Church only once for Christmas and shake my head. I know Mum was raised Catholic, but she’s also told me she doesn’t like the Catholic Church, which confuses me. Dad doesn’t talk about God or anything like that, except when he’s sick.
“Good,” he says and puts the next one on: Life of Brian.
Dad gets let out of hospital before next Wednesday and instead of visiting him there I get dropped at Uncle James’s old farm. Dad walks out and waves at Mum and she drives away. I can’t see if she waved back.
Inside the house, Dad has moved in, but he has less belongings than there is space. It looks half-empty and I’m quiet, taking it all in.
Dad finally says “Hey, your uncle left his car. You wanna learn to drive?” and I nod my head.
Soon we’re out in the paddocks in an ancient car that took a few tries to start and Dad is showing me when and where to release the clutch and talking at me about it all. Finally, he lets me sit in the driver’s seat and all the things going on at once are too many to keep track of, but Dad just laughs when the car lurches forward, then suddenly stops.
“You stalled it, don’t worry,” he says and shows me how to shift into second.
By the time the sun is setting, I’ve gotten better at it and I realise Mum will be back in fifteen minutes, so I tell Dad that she’s probably on her way. I stop the car.
“Did you talk to her for me?” he says, resting his hand on the gearstick.
“She won’t talk about it.”
He just nods.
“Can you ask her if…when I’m moving back in?” he says, looking at me. He seems embarrassed.
“I can, but I think I already did?”.
“Try again, Thom. For me. Tell her I’m better, and I’m on the strong meds. Which is true.”
When Mum picks me I say none of this to her but try to think about when a good time would be to ask her. I can’t imagine one.
Levi apparently invited me over the next Saturday via his mother and I find myself there again. I guess it went well. He and I are up to Meaning of Life when I ask him:
“How come your Mum has an accent?”
“We’re from South Africa,” he says, then adds “but we’re white. You can African and white. Some people at school don’t get that.”
“Obviously, you’re white,” I say, feeling smarter than everyone else for getting it.
“My Dad’s still back in Johannesburg. He’s a surgeon there and he’s just sorting some stuff out before he comes to live with us in Australia.”
I wonder if this is the actual truth or if it’s like how I say to people we’re waiting for my Dad to get better for he moves back in, even though I have no idea.
“Does your Mum love your Dad? Like does she talk to him?” I ask, trying to test it.
Thom looks at me like I’m crazy.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. Don’t worry.”
Thom asks if I want more cordial and gets up to refill his drink.
It’s a Tuesday and I get home from school to a note from Mum – ‘went out after work…be be back late. Food in fridge xx’.
I stay up and wait for her and she’s isn’t too late, it’s only nine PM when she gets back. She’s dropped off by a taxi and walks in, dropping her bag and she sees me straight away.
“I’m not that drunk but didn’t want to risk driving and getting breath-tested” she says, pouring herself a glass of tap water. I didn’t ask.
“I want an answer about Dad.” I’m trying to sound forceful, but she just ignores me and goes to bed.
I go to see Mr. Hawkin for the first time in a few weeks.
“What is it today, Thomas?”. He’s drafting an email at his computer, only half paying attention.
“Do you know my Dad?”
He stops typing. He turns to me now, making meek eye contact.
“It’s a small town, Thomas,” he says.
“Do you know about him?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” I think he’s lying.
“Why won’t my Mum let him live with us?”
He pauses and takes a deep breath.
“Do you want to speak to your Mum for you? If you’ve got questions like that…”
I notice Mr. Hawkin has grey hairs; I never noticed before. I realise I have no idea how old he is.
“No. Don’t worry.”
Levi added me on MSN at some point and invited me to sleepover at his house that Saturday night. He says he got some DVDs of Monty Python’s old TV show from the library and he’s never seen them, and when I come over that’s what we’re watching. They’re not as good as the movies.
There’s a moment where credits run between episodes and he turns to me.
“I was talking to someone at my school who used to go to your’s. Glen Davison. He said…”
He thinks about this carefully, then adds:
“He said you’re a loner. No friends. I don’t care, I told him you’re cool. But is true?”
I don’t want to tell him, but not explaining it would be worse.
“I used to…have friends, if that helps. Some kid in the grade above me – he’s a real dick – he hates me, and he just turned them all against me one day, was saying shit about me on Myspace and all that. I don’t know why.”
My honestly lingers in the air stupidly, for too long.
“That’s okay. Don’t worry,” he finally says and plays the next episode.
I look at him from the corner of my eye, grateful for him charitably ending the subject. Sometimes when I think about the passionate refugee in the shower I also think of Levi. I don’t think it’s okay to say any of this aloud, but I wonder if it is felt similarly by him. I doubt it strongly. I plan to test it.
Levi returns later with a bowl of chips and puts them between us. He reaches his hand in for some and I do, too, at the same time. His eyes are trained to the TV, but I watch him, my hand touching his. He’s digging for a handful of chips and mine just lingers. Slowly, I think he realises. He turns to me.
“What are you doing?” he asks, pulling his hand away.
I start to panic. I make a series of uh and nothing I wasn’t doing anything noises but I actually don’t know what I’m saying. I stand up and Levi is staring at me.
I just walk out and he’s calling after me. His Mum isn’t home, and his house is dark; I think she’s at the pub with mine. Levi starts to follow me, but I reach the front door, walk down the hill, and into town, not turning back.
Mum’s not home, which I expected. I can’t face her and I’m sweaty from the walk. She’s left the car behind, so I assume she’ll be late and drinking.
I reach under the welcome mat for the spare key and notice a copy of the car keys attach to the keyring. I stand at the door, deciding what to do, before walking to Mum’s car.
It has gears, like Dad’s, and then I look around the street. It’s dead out.
I can’t explain how I come to be driving Mum’s car, just that I do. It lurches out the driveway (I haven’t done reversing yet with Dad) and slow, so slowly, down the street. I stall it a few times but there’s no one out to see. I flick the headlights on after a few tries and start driving to Dad’s.
It takes Mum only five minutes to get to the farm, but my driving is so slow that after ten minutes I’m only just outside town. The roads are unsealed and at one point, still slowly, I lose control of the car. It’s stuck in the drainage ditch now and not moving. My panic has subsided and has been replaced by confusion about what to do next.
Within a half hour, a fat police officer pulls over. I’m standing by the car.
“I would ask for your license, but something tells me…” he trails off, seeing my face.
“Oh. Thomas Sterling. I know your Mum and Dad,” he says.
“Everyone knows my Dad.”
Mum picks me up in a taxi after the police officer has towed the car from the ditch. He’s actually really nice and explains to Mum something like you’re really luck I found him… that I don’t hear very well, then Mum apologises and thanks him profusely.
Driving home, she’s silent for a while but I know I’m in trouble. When we get close to home, she finally speaks. She’s seething.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing? Do you know how embarrassing it is to get a call from the police about you around people I work with?”.
I cross my arms, turning away. This makes her angrier. She’s angry enough to stop the car and pulls over on a random street.
“Answer me Thom! Were you going to your Dad’s? What gotten into you?”.
“Why won’t you tell me whether he can live with us?” I ask.
I watch her face soften.
“Oh. It’s about that.” She takes a deep breath.
“He’s better now. He’s taking his meds, Mum.”
“I’ve known your father a long time, Thom. Longer than you. Twenty years longer. He’ll get better, sure, but he’ll get sick again. I know he’ll get sick again. I have to make decisions for—”
“I want to live with him,” I say, and Mum starts the car again in response.
“I doubt that would be safe or appropriate. Tomorrow we’ll talk about your punishment.”
I wonder what she could possibly do me at this point.
By eleven o’clock, I hear Mum’s air-conditioner turn on and then her snoring. She must have taken a pill. I’m too edgy to sleep; I make a plan and pack a bag.
I sneak out with my bag through the laundry and start my long walk. Dad’s is a short drive but probably forty-five minutes to walk. I hope the police officer who called Mum is off shift now. I recoil from every car that passes me.
I walk by the drainage ditch where I lost control over the car earlier in the night. I’m not far from Dad’s and when I finally approach his fence-line I can see all his lights are on.
I don’t knock, just walk in. The house is still half-empty, and Dad is sitting at the kitchen counter, doing nothing, just sitting under the light. I notice how much weight he’s put on his hospital from this angle, which is a side effect of his medication. He looks at me, almost as if he has been expecting me somehow.
“I’m staying with you, Dad.”
He just nods, looking at the bag.
“Good.” I’m shocked by this. He doesn’t even ask how I got here.