The school was a plain one: red bricks, concrete playgrounds and wire mesh fences, hand paintings on the windows and bottle-brush trees along every path, and it had the most valuable view in the entire city. Even from the carpark I could see right past the heads out into the Pacific Ocean. It was not my choice to send Lorelei to a Catholic school, but Diane’s new husband was lathered in dollars and could afford to invest some pennies in the education of my daughter (for which I praised the virgin Mary every holy day) and she seemed to be truly happy. That most of her teachers were, as far as I could tell, not deranged, was an added bonus.
I kept the engine running for the aircon and hopped out of the car. Some flowers were wedged under the back bumper. I took two of the least damaged ones and went over to the playground fence. Lorelei was sitting in a circle on the grass with four girls.
“Justin!” she screamed and ran over to me. I’d never had a real objection to her not calling me dad, or father or papa or anything other than my real name. I thought it made our conversations more intimate and authentic.
“Happy Birthday, cantaloupe!”
“I don’t know that one,” she said.
“Eggplant. Did mum drop you off at school today?”
“No, Daniel did.”
I handed her the flowers. She smiled. Even at seven years of age she’d known how to tranquilise my embarrassment . “Sorry I haven’t brought you your real present. How about I drop over tonight and give it to you?”
“What’s the real present?”
“It’s a secret,” I said and scoured my entire store of memories of kids’ toys. Lego? Hmm, too expensive. Barbie dolls? And assent to my daughter growing up to be a subservient housewife? No, thanks! Plush teddy bears?
I was screwed.
“But it’s going to be good,” I said.
“Mummy won’t like that.”
“That’s because she has no taste, flip-flop.”
If you were wondering about the peculiar way in which I addressed Lorelei, it was a game we would play, the rules of which were not at all complex: I call you the name of something relatively common as it is known to the English or to Americans, and you’re supposed to understand the reference and then translate it back into Australian English. Admittedly not a challenge for most television-addicted adults, but to a seven year-old girl with no front teeth and the most cunning, submarine-green eyes you will ever see, it was astonishingly distracting.
“No, mummy won’t like that you’re coming over.”
That manipulating tramp.
“Let’s see about that.”
A woman cleared her voice behind me. Lorelei tapped my shoulder to tell me somebody was seeking my attention, but I let it wait. I wanted to hear this woman clear her throat a second time.
“You should stop smoking Principal Cockwood,” I said and turned to offer her my hand.
“It’s Crockwood, Mr Armstrong, like I’ve said before and I don’t smoke,” she said and stared at my hand through her owl glasses. She was possibly, no probably, the most accurate, living impersonation of a stick I’d ever seen
“You know I cannot let you back on school grounds, Mr Armstrong.”
“Not even to see my daughter on her birthday? Typical. But may I remind you, Mrs Dagwood, that in accordance with section-”
“The police have already kindly informed me of the relevant legislation. I have posted several copies around the entrances to the school.”
“The 1998 amendment?”
“I’ll be on my way.”
“If you don’t want me to call you-know-who, I think it best.” The stick-insect softened. “Sorry, Lorelei. Your father has to go now.”
“Yeah sorry, cookie. Mrs Wockcood is right. I’ll you tonight, ok?”
“I love you.” And fuck you Headmaster.
Now, by now you’re probably thinking that I’m a bit of an arse. I won’t deceive you by saying I’m not, and I’m not even drunk, but I’m only a bit of an arse, not the full arse; not the raging maniac-arse who ruptures an intestine at the slightest provocation, or the articulate, paranoid delusional-arse, who burps hysterics and has fantasies of Armageddon; I am none of these, but I may have been a little naughty. I may have taken Lorelei on a camping expedition to a small island five-hundred metres from the coast of Coffs Harbour on a rubber dinghy (we were having fun until the tropical storm hit); and there was that time I assaulted Daniel with a porridge-filled condom. Yes, that was regrettable. But he had started it by misinterpreting the constitution and burning the sausages at the same time. So, despite the charges against me, I have always meant well.
I turned the air-conditioning up and let the cool air run over my face and shoulders. Lorelei was sitting with her friends again, all of them laughing and animated, surrounded by screaming, magpie calls and the gentle pops of bouncing balls; they were all playing together in that blissful world of children where every problem seems as important as the catastrophic collapse of a colossal star. Trivial.
A high pitched whirring distracted me from my reverie. It was coming from the rear of the car. Possibly from the boot. Well jump up and sing a song of praise. This day just got better. My knowledge of cars extended well beyond knowing where to put the petrol to actually being able to drive them, however, my mechanical knowledge was limited and I dreaded finding the decaying corpse of a rusted muffler or broken axle or something equally as confounding underneath the taxi. I hadn’t even thought it might be something else until I saw it.
In the boot stood the silver, corrugated suitcase of my escaped spaceman, only now it was open and displaying some sort of tablet with a screen, with what I could only described as a holographic pandemonium of numbers and shapes flashing across its surface. Before he’d made his dramatic exit the spaceman had explained that he’d just spent thirty-eight hours in transit from London and only always carried hand luggage – without exception. At the time it seemed merely soporific, but now the full portentousness of his bizarre ranting had become clear and from this I could deduce only one thing: this device, whatever its origin or purpose, had an excellent battery life.