Australian crawl

‘Even the rain is drowning,’ he mutters.

If Thomas could only recover, or genuinely imagine, what it was to be. Instead his feet move damply and his mind glitches. Over and over, the same thoughts, the same corrections, the same aimless abstractions.

If only they could see.

Today, he’d looked out across the classroom, grasping for some recognition. Instead he’d encountered the quizzical, stammer-faced expressions of children; and behind those expressions, the sharp-featured ruthlessness of their parents. Correction: his own callousness reflected and enlarged.

Because what you deflect through speech cannot be suppressed in gesture, and these children see through him. Each year they see through him, eventually.

What don’t they see through?

It has nothing to do with penetrating awareness, he thinks. For them, there is no substance. There is surface, then more surface behind that surface. They see like bullets entering the forehead and exiting through the rear of the skull – of a hologram.

None of which explains the figure Thomas presents to the world: a man carrying a crumpled ten-speed bicycle on his shoulder through wet, inner-city streets on a mid-winter’s night, doing his best not to crumble beneath it.

Nor does it account for his next thought.

Waiting for the pedestrian signal to turn green, eyes fixed on the rainwater swelling at his feet, he thinks of casting the bicycle aside and …

But the idea passes and is replaced with another. They have seen into the core of my insincerity, he muses, and now tear at its flesh after the merciless fashion of their generation – with the glazed look.

Here is how it is, he thinks, my entire life devoted to the problem of the inexpressible.

He’d been speaking to his tenth-graders about a celebrated poet, an overwhelmed figure who wrote wounds instead of poems, and in doing so verified the profundity of collapse, the remorselessness of misfortune.

Where are Thomas’s wounds?

In the classroom, while pointing at the board, focusing attention on a poignant semi-rhyme, he froze. Without realizing, Thomas had set for study a poem – maybe the only poem – that could encapsulate the full dimensions of his inner agony.

How could it have come to this?

He thought of wiping the board clean and starting afresh with a different text, saying something offhand, like ‘whoops’, but surely they would see through such a direct evasion? They had done so before when, scanning a randomly selected passage from a Hardy novel aloud, he’d broken out coughing, taken time to recover, and sipped some water before resuming at the following paragraph. His tormentors were not so easily fooled, however, and begged him to continue from where he’d left off. As always, he’d succumbed.

His whole inner life had been devoted to the problem of double-speak, but in the classroom, double-speak yields feebly. The only invariable truth being whatever’s hidden will surface.

But, if buried beneath all of those layers, there is nothing, nothing whatsoever, what then?

The full dimensions of his agony, Thomas had discovered, incorporate its formlessness. His once solid grievances have dissolved into a simple – what could be simpler? – emptiness.

Because poetry had nothing to do with it, and disaffection in the classroom was the subordinate clause of a relentless life-sentence: ‘the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man,’ writes Hardy.

And here stands emptiness, drowning in the rain, staring into the busy intersection, and thinking, at last, of that final hope. The trudge from one alienation to another has become too much.

It began innocently enough, as a wager with himself, a way of keeping up appearances in his own mind. The facade of living with a passion, a real passion, to animate the hotch-potch of parts clingingly faintly to his person, his corpus.

Laura was ten years his junior, new to the school, fresh from the graduate diploma and ready to take the bull by the horns. He’d been assigned the task of seeing her through the first year, showing the ropes, lending support.

He did not relish the prospect. It was an addition, and for Thomas, additions meant only one thing: new possibilities for tragedy.

And now, six months on, his bent and buckled bicycle bears testament to the predicted calamity. No, not predicted through fatalism, as he had briefly, insanely suspected, since fatalism has met its match in Thomas Brown. Fatalism has nothing on the unvarying misfortune, the punitive life urging him on.

It was easy enough for Thomas to fly under the radar. In the five years he had been teaching at the school, he had not made a single friend. His colleagues understood his domestic obligations and forgave his shyness. After a few months they stopped asking him along to the end-of-week drinks; after a year they stopped inviting him to dinner parties and joint family excursions. And this suited him well.

His confinement was not entirely due to Jess’s illness, strictly speaking, but because his whole life was now configured around caring for her and their daughter. He had room for no other concerns. Social occasions like these, he knew, were mere preliminaries; their chief purpose was to construct a community of care. He yearned for no such community. He had enough care in his life. Besides, what could he possibly offer anyone? Exhaustion? A void?

He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing at the intersection. It’s possible, just possible, that the traffic cycle has passed him by. There is a faint sense of time-lapse, a hint of people surging past. Someone looks into his face, then withdraws, perhaps disappointed, but more likely afraid.

Everything seems to happen at once, and Thomas is at the centre. He is a fixed element in a swarming cosmos, and he knows it through his skin. He knows with a certainty so deep, so elemental, that he can strip himself of all the burdens right now, just by taking the plunge.

For six years he’d been drowning. He’d stopped desiring, stopped hoping, stopped living; for those six years he had devoted himself to a lost cause beyond all lost causes, to a constant failure rendering all notions of failure abstract and wallowing. His wife, first, robbed of vitality. His daughter, second, robbed of comprehension. And then: a wager of passion.

Laura, the new music teacher in his charge. Her long fingers, blonde hair, high cheekbones, her gaze – its sheer intensity, face tilted slightly upward as though in judgment, the olive skin. And yes, her tall, slender frame, her smell – what was it? – full-bodied, alive. Formidable.

Laura possessed what Jess had lost and their daughter, Zoe, would never attain. An appetite for life, a greed for sensation.

Jess was trapped in a frozen sea; no ice-axe could crack its surface. Zoe had no language or life beyond the confines of her obstructive brain, her erratic senses. Six years old and unresponsive.

Jess would look into Thomas’s face as though horrified to find a creature – any creature – peering back.

Zoe was drawn in by accidents of light. Whenever something flashes in his eyes, hers watch the dance. Whether or not she watches with them is anyone’s guess.

That is home. That is where his legs have taken him, day in, day out, unquestioningly, for five years. But not through loyalty or love. It has not been nobility, or bravery, or even martyrdom. Thomas has walked home each night, quite simply, because – like Jess and Zoe – Thomas isn’t there anymore. He is submerged in responsibility.

The ten-speed drops by his side. Nothing. No clang, no splash, just release.

He’d been saved by the bell, on the very edge of insanity, forty minutes into an impromptu lecture. His theme had been that this poem – one of our greatest, most enigmatic poems – was in fact a spell masquerading as a poem.

‘What is a spell?’ he’d asked the class meaningfully, not having the faintest clue how to answer.

First, it is a formulation, or a form of words – like a poem.

Second, its mode is incantation, sometimes sung – like a poem.

Third, its purpose is enchantment – like a poem.

And it went on like that, a series of inspired banalities, blatant misreadings presented in the form of a lesson, an incantation, a self-enchantment.

Because, despite himself, Thomas was enchanted. He seemed on the edge of a great discovery. He was speaking about this poem – no, this national treasure – as no-one had ever spoken of it before. It came alive through him. He seemed to know its every nuance; he found emphases where there were none. He exposed the poem’s authentic, if well-disguised, concerns and argued sternly for their prominence. He modified expressions, unpacked and then adapted the rhyme scheme, added voices and perspectives, randomised the adjectives, and finally – although he could have gone on – noted each instance of every letter’s appearance and separated them into alphabetised lines.

This, he said, pointing to twenty-one lines of as, bs and cs, was the essence of the poem’s magic. And Thomas believed it. What’s more, he believed in his right to believe, since the poem was self-evidently his, Thomas’s, poem. The great landmark in Australian letters was the incarnation of his very soul!

When the bell rang, right at the crucial point, he thought, just as he was making headway, Thomas finally looked down into his student’s faces. And what did he see?

No, they were not staring in slack-mouthed wonder.

No, they did not look up to him in worship, having imbibed every succulent morsel of inspiration, and eagerly awaiting more.

No, they did not look at him in timid fear, afraid that his lunacy might manifest in explosive violence.

No, none of this. None of anything.

In their faces the same blank repose; in their gestures the same relish of home time; in their exercise books, no doubt, the same quantity of words slavishly transcribed.

They had witnessed nothing.

Thomas’s inspiration, his breakdown, had made no impression on them at all.

Weeks before, Laura had taken him in her mouth like an asthmatic, gulping deeply, intently, magnificently. It was like nothing he’d experienced. Thomas felt launched. He reached orbit before sling-shotting past the moon, into deep space. But that was just the first stage of his replenishment.

Laura’s orgasm was epileptic. Her whole body dilated – not just the pupils – expanding, then glowing. A supernova. The experience was so immersive that Thomas, poor creature, couldn’t help but weep. He’d been rescued from oblivion. He was, he knew, alive again.

And a day later, when Laura told him it was all a terrible mistake, that if her boyfriend found out he might become violent – there was no telling what he would do – Thomas crashed to earth. Lazarus had risen only to be informed, regretfully, that the miracle was an aberration, an accident of wonder. He was Frankenstein, charged with life but decomposing at the seams, wanting nothing more than his final, rightful burial.

If there are enigmas in life, Thomas Brown is not one of them. As he slips out of his clothes, slowly, deliberately, he feels synchronised. It isn’t a decision; it’s propulsion. The rain pats his shoulders, then his chest, approvingly. As it streams down his back he feels sacrosanct. This is a baptism, a blessing, a reconfiguration. He steps from his shoes like a spectre. He will take the plunge. He will merge with the flotsam, the human waste, the pulsating leftovers. Another life awaits him on the other side. He will be reborn. He will regain his hunger there, his thirst, his self-conviction. Now – intones the voice. Now. Now. Now.

And it is accomplished.

A crowd gathers around and more come hurrying. The intersection is drained of motion. Some run through the streets, gesturing.

‘There’s someone down there.’

‘Why? What’s happening?’

From our vantage point on the curb, peering down the street and slightly across, his arms rise and fall like an Olympian’s. They move seriously, calmly, rhythmically. His face is a mask of serene intent.

The crowd watches in silence as he flaps and kicks, flaps and kicks, slowly squirming forward along the gutter. The rainwater pools at his rear then streams smoothly by. His face is concentrated. His body glistening. He is swimming.

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a reviewer and essayist (Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books, Music & Literature). He is a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and was awarded the Adelaide Review Prize for short fiction in 2009.

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