With This Excellent Machine, novelist Stephen Orr takes us back to the Adelaide summer of 1984 where teenager Clem Whelan is unsure of what to do with his life, trapped in the suburbs and spying on his neighbours to make sense of the world.
Ellman Street wasn’t so dangerous on a Wednesday afternoon. Probably never dangerous, although you could see in the door at the Crazy Horse, men at a bar, and girls with T-shirts that covered way too little. Black footpaths, because they’d waited too long to hose off the vomit. Anonymous doors with steps leading down to basement tatt parlours, with handwritten offers of masage by the ½ hr. There were Middle Eastern joints with shishas on the footpath, and an old toothless guy selling newspapers. I went into the Loussier Café and ordered a coffee. There was a boyfriend/girlfriend combo in the corner, he in a sort of Gandhi, no-salt-tax pullover, her in a jumper and poncho. I sat, waited, listened, as he said something about her mother’s cooking, and she agreed.
I took out one of my photocopies. Fight Dementia. And started reading. The importance of a controlled, unstressed environment …
The boyfriend raised his voice. ‘You’ve never once said anything good about her.’
The girlfriend, laughing. ‘You’re so full of shit.’
I glanced over, but realised I shouldn’t have, as they both glared at me.
… in which the person with dementia follows a familiar routine …
I’d visited the library, taken out a pile of books on dementia, and read. I’d told Mum I was going to study meiosis and anaerobic respiration, but this seemed more important. I’d marked pages, then copied the bits I guessed we’d need to know.
… the frustration caused by being unable to meet other people’s expectations may manifest …
Mum needed to know; we all did, despite the fact there was no discussion, meetings in Pop’s absence, even statements of outcomes of doctors’ visits.
He said, ‘You’ll never move out.’
‘If she said jump under a truck, you’d do it.’
Good stuff. I wanted to write it down, but couldn’t. Ellman Street, it seemed, could furnish enough material for years.
The girl placed my coffee on the table and I tried to look hip. ‘Hey.’
Then he came in. I stood, motioned, and said, ‘Mr … Nick.’
He saw me, came over and sat down. ‘How are yer, Clem?’
‘Good … good to see you.’
It’d taken me a while to call. I’d held the number in my hand, sweated it clean, wondered if there was any point, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Nick was gone. I’d phoned, my finger shaking in the holes. Awkward. Enough words to arrange a meeting close to where he’d got a new job as a designer in a print shop.
He called across the café. ‘Short black.’
Flat white seemed inadequate. I was drinking Lanark Avenue; him, Ellman Street. He wore an old T-shirt, holey, food-stained; I had a nice shirt Mum had ironed. He’d bearded up, but I’d shaved (the bit I needed to). He’d moved on; I’d stayed behind.
Soon things loosened, and he started telling me about it. ‘It was fuckin’ ridiculous …’
Fucking. I was right in the middle of it now. Relationship bust-ups, Nazis, prostitutes, teachers so bad they got sacked. I was living the life. What was that smell? Of course, weed. And by the look of Nick’s eyes, he’d been into it too.
‘I was called in and they slid this bit of paper over the desk. Mr Andrews, you haven’t responded to our suggestions. And I said, Cos they’re fuckin’ stupid.’
‘A form they give dodgy teachers. “Guidelines for Appropriate Conduct in the Classroom”. You know, be a mature role model … shit like that. I said, If I do what’s on there I won’t be much of a teacher. And White said, That’s just the point. You’re not their friend, you’re their teacher.’
He thought about it some more; maybe these were new thoughts.
‘That’s what I reckon, Clem. These people never succeeded in teaching, you know, at a personal level. They didn’t have those skills. So when they got to run things … See, that’s the world. Loada bullshit. But if you say that you’ll never have a quiet moment.’
This seemed fair. Only the Ron Glassons of the world had peace, and that was because they were always keeping their head down, refusing to engage.
‘I told White it was a load of old bollocks and she said, Fine, that means we have to move you on, and I said, What’s that mean? She said, How it sounds.’
‘Move you on?’
‘Apparently there were a few schools I could choose from. Most of them completely feral, or a thousand kilometres from anywhere. Places where, I guess, they figured I couldn’t do any damage.’
‘And you said?’
‘I said, Fuck yers. Take your job and stick it up yer arse.’
I smiled, imagining it. ‘How’d she respond to that?’
‘Well, Mr Andrews, that just proves what we’ve suspected all along.’
‘I can hear her saying that.’
‘You poor bastard. Stuck there.’
‘Only another few months. I wanted to drop out, but Mum wouldn’t let me. I still might.’
‘No, you won’t. Few more months. You’re a smart kid. You need to go to uni. You don’t wanna let them get in your way.’
The boyfriend got up and left. She lingered, looking out the window, but not at him. I guessed it was for the best and he’d find someone better, and she would too, and they’d get married and have kids and not even remember this day.
‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘we were all pissed off. We complained, and then started a petition.’
‘No fucking way.’
‘Whole class signed it, and Peter, next door, said don’t give it to the school cos they’ll just bin it. He said to send it to regional office, which we did, but …’
‘They’d be an even bigger bunch of pricks than White and her little cocksucker.’
Cocksucker. Good stuff. Lennon in his unmade bed.
‘And the fool we’ve got now.’
‘Like you said, coupla months, then you don’t have to listen to it. Then you become famous and paint them or write about them and for the rest of history people will remember what you said, not what they’ve done.’
This was a nice thought. ‘It was good with you. We all thought we could, you know, get to do what we really wanted.’
‘I guess it’s only April.’
‘You’re what, seventeen? Look at me, thirty-three, working for nothing, drawing shit for brochures.’
‘Can’t you find something else?’
‘One thing about teaching. It paid okay. But the more you get paid the more you need to keep yer trap shut.’
Just what Lennon had said.
‘So I feel better,’ he said. ‘When I get up and slip on me pants I know I’m not gonna have to face White, or some other arse. That’s more important, eh, Clem?’
‘I reckon you’re right.’
‘That’s why you phoned, wasn’t it? Cos you wanted to know? I mean, you only go round once.’
Fighting Dementia. Nick noticed, read the title and said, ‘There you go. Keep teaching art at Gleneagles then you start forgetting where you left your keys, your car, your house. Quite fuckin’ pitiful, really.’
He smiled. ‘You always said that: guess, guess, guess. Who’s got dementia?’
He drank his coffee in one go. ‘Bit of a shit. What did he do for a living?’
‘Mechanic. He loved it … loves it.’
‘I hope he’s okay, Clem. But I reckon you’ll look after him.’
It was then I realised Nick wasn’t coming back to Gleneagles, and he wouldn’t teach me again. No instruction on media, and drawing line, perspective, or how to think about art, people, life. No more words, even. Nothing.
‘You gotta say hello to everyone,’ he said. ‘Especially Curtis. He’s a mad bastard.’
I studied the sheets: shapes to name, number sequences to complete, words to remember (noticeable circumlocution of synonym substitution). This need to define and describe always let you down. ‘So, I guess I’ll be seeing you.’
He waited. ‘Keep painting.’
I knew it was my time to get up, go out, walk away. I hope he watched me go, and I guess he would’ve checked the envelope I left on the table, with my stencil, Mr Bulljaw, and the note saying he could use it if he wanted.
Stephen Orr’s This Excellent Machine is out now through Wakefield Press