‘I’m damaged goods.’
The kid’s legs don’t reach the floor, so his feet are free to take an excellent swing at the underside of the principal’s desk.
Thud. Thud. Scrape. Thud.
Choices. There is always a myriad of paths to ramble with these kids, the principal, Clary Channing, thinks. The trick is picking the one they don’t want you to tread.
Bradley Marshall, however, is a magnificent bluffer. Challenge the kicking or swallow the verbal bait—his phrase plucked from juvenile reports perhaps…excuses…passing the buck…pity…he’d pulled every one of them in the past.
Clary puts a heel to the ground and twists her roller chair slightly, enough for her to line up a sight of the low winter midday sun. A wall of windows to her right serves to bring the joy she deserves, the light, and a view of her children at play. A sense of space and the larger world gives her the impetus to think more deeply. Was he performing a double blind on her?
She pictures this smelly kid holding her gaze across a bridge table as he, with intent, misleads their opposition. Not kosher, but a magnificent strategy with the cards the two partners hold. Would his shredded runners beat the bejesus out of her bridge table too? Or would he hold firm, fart, and sit grinning like a monkey? She suppresses a rising giggle. If only these kids could really see her. Would they like her? Clary shifts in her seat to shake her inapt, meandering mind. She grins and plumps for the path most foreign to a kid who is used to being yelled at, cuffed, screamed at and probably booted.
The kicks die.
Peripheral school sounds find a voice, slithering under the door and through gaps in dry timber frames. A monochrome, functional circle on the wall drums a beat. Clary secretly hates the clock, drilled into the plaster opposite her desk and imprisoned in netted wrought iron, as with every other glass object in the school. Timekeepers are mystical instruments to Clary, keepers of the finite—the end of a class, a day, her fertility, but also holders of the infinite—love, the earth’s fecundity, eternity.
Clocks should be as fragile as time itself, yet as glorious and colourful as the times you enshrine in your heart, sear into your skin, those minutes and hours that linger in your eyes, even after the light has fled. Clocks should be vivid, as vibrant as the memories that power blood through your shrinking veins. Those seconds where life flourishes into a lush bouquet of promise and your path is littered with its perfection, time is their keeper.
‘Ask anyone.’ The words are a mere squeak. The boy knows she’s gone elsewhere, sure he’s lost the game. Scrawny little Bradley Marshall has the grace to lower his eyes when he speaks. This is his weakest play ever.
Ask anyone? ‘Bradley, boy, you disappoint. I expect more from…’
The tedious clock lets out a loud, challenging TOK, as if blustering to be heard. Look at me! Look at me! I’m at the top, made it to the twelve, you ignorant lame-brain of a teacher…take notice of me…LOOK TOK LOOK TOK…
The clock hand teeters, focussing only on its decline, and struggle, the forever struggle to lift, climb again.
Feeling she is losing control, Clary stares at the boy. If this child had been mine… The thought is a drug. She’d scoured the web. Courses for barren women? Serenity prayers for the infertile…PayPal or credit card? Bet your fusty Fallopian tubes there ain’t.
The kid leans forward. Not a movement she had seen in him before. It was always back, retreat. Such a slight shift though, only she would have noticed. Others stopped trying to read him years ago, their senses hollow-eyed as he spat, swore, yelled, lied, fantasised and whirled. They had stood holding the pin above him, needing to stick him to the normal, like an insect on a museum wall. ‘Stay, sit, shrink.’ She’d often watched the silent scream in a teacher’s chest.
The kid puts a hand on the desk. Clary is appalled, unable to decode the unexpected. His fingers twitch a tad, mother earth held fast in chewed-down nails. The drug kicks in, snuffing out the reality she doesn’t want to see … If this child had been mine … his mind … jam-packed every day with the earth’s stories, stuffed with the richness of a knowledge that would cascade around his tiny body, bloating him with expectation. The light changes, chastising her. There is always a payback, a barrier, a punishment somehow for her drug.
She looks down at Bradley. Rays from the window take on a thinness, a struggle to maintain the idea of their function around him. ‘Light? Am I light?’ it seems to be asking Clary, like a dying animal exploring its changes in being. The diminishing threads turn to the clock. The extraordinarily functional object shrugs with a stuttering tick. Dismissed, the sun rays struggle back to plead with the boy, sucking and tugging at his warmth and power to replenish their glow. The remainder of the room stands sentinel, dust mites stirring lazily in a glow that pats, strokes and tenderly nudges shadows out from corners and hiding places under furniture.
Only then, watching the shadows dovetail, swoop as a single soul and twist tightly around Bradley, does the Principal cry for the child. She forgets the quiddity that brought him to her chair. He had merely lathered the near-blind French teacher’s seat with super glue, giving the old man his choice: to stand, have the seat of his pants rent asunder or to wriggle out of them and sidle, pant-less, to the staff room. No. That was not trouble; it was a child flying his last flag of courage.
Look, Miss. Please look.
There was no bluff. The boy had clawed his way up to the twelve, to scream and shout in three words, ‘I’m damaged goods,’ that there was only one path left.
They never talked about it. She left that to doctors and welfare. But he knew she knew. He knew if he played the game they always played she would see his cards without him having to lay down every colour, shape and number. Without colouring in the darkness of the clubs and spades or the ruby blood of a shattered heart. That would be like being there again …
No need either, to trace the outline of the Kings and Queens. She knew all the players, even when they hid in the pack, among the wilfully blind who look, face down.