Short chapters inspired by my new, coming of age novel, Sandbanker, available at no bookstores near you (yet)
The bell at St Christopher’s was not a real bell, made of brass or anything, but electric — it droned, like the torpedos in River Raid. (I didn’t actually have an Atari 2600 to test the theory, and didn’t really know anyone who did, at least someone who I could ask, but that’s what I’d heard.) Whoever they’d gotten to ring the school bell on that Friday afternoon had morsed-coded ‘S-O-S S-O-S’, and everyone had a good laugh about it, but I would’ve bet a case of chocolate frogs they had no clue what it meant.
I remember it was a Friday because last period on Fridays was always biology with Mr Phee. If you’d seen Mr Phee in the street you’d have thought he was hard — he had an eye patch and his mouth always seemed to be stuck in a growl, like when a dog sees another dog across the street — but if you were in Year Eight biology, you’d have known that he was more boring than chips with no sauce. I would’ve donated half my mitochondria to have Miss Wren — who was a shorter version of the pretty girl from Sale of the Century but with better teeth — but at school you don’t get to pick your teachers, they pick you. What made Year Eight biology even worse was that Mr Phee always made us stay after the bell. Other teachers use to just dropped their chalk and stand back like we were killer crabs trying to escape out the door. But not Mr Phee. He’d keep scribbling notes on the blackboard, blaring at us in his megaphone voice, or he’d read in silence as if we were all stuck in the fifth dimension where 3:20pm and weekends didn’t exist. That day, Mr Phee was stewing on about space and NASA and how to spell ‘nebulae’ for ages (he was supposed to be teaching us about phloem) when the bell went off. Everybody started packing up as normal, but Phee gave us the ‘the bell is for me not for you’ speech, and then drilled at us with his eye until we went quiet.
“I just want to share with you a particularly momentous event in the history of science,” he said, ignoring all the ‘But siiiiirs’. “Can anyone anyone tell me why?”
The fans squeaked and a group of kids sprinted past outside. Mr Phee’s eye sliced the room looking for someone to decapitate, but no one had their hand up. If you ever asked or answered a question after the bell you may as well have sticky-taped ‘nob’ to your head. Your locker’d get spitballed and you’d have to hang out in the music room at lunchtimes for the rest of your life. I knew the answer of course, and Mr Phee’s eye knew I knew the answer, but we had a secret understanding: if I answered more than two questions during the lesson, he had to pick on someone else. That day I’d already told him what a male plant’s penus was called, and had spelled out the singular of ‘algae’.
“I know you all can’t wait to get home and play marbles, but you might be surprised to know that there are bigger things out there.” More silence. “A whole universe is spinning around you, millions of galaxies, travelling at lightspeed, crashing into each other every day. And we’re here on this little blue dot – an orgy of primates, have shaken their sticks at the sky, cursing and praising their stars.” Seconds were whooshing by. Mr Phee put his hands on his hips and his good eye bulged in its socket. “But soon we’ll be primates with a telescope — the Hubble telescope — the stick just got longer. Do you understand?”
I counted the fans squeaks. Ten. Fifteen. Eighteen.
Mr Phee sighed and scratched his good eye. “Off you go.”
The room rattled with pencils and the feet of chairs scraped on linoleum, then everything disintegrated into nothing.
Everyone has a bus personality. They’ve got one even if they’ve never been on a bus before. You’ve got your talkers (mostly girls), yellers, readers, bawlers, farters, sleepers, sweaters, burpers, plus the corpses who just sit and stare out the window at the flying syrup of trees and tar. They’re kind of like zombies, but quieter. On our bus, the bawlers always sat up the front near Doug, sometimes three to a seat. Behind them you had the readers, sweaters and sleepers in the mid-section, plus some yellers, although they quickly got promoted to the back if they’re cool enough or could tell more than one joke; in the last three rows were the not-so-cool yellers and the upcoming farters and burpers; these guys usually inherited the back row when the farters and burpers left school. Talkers were the hardest to place – they pretty much sat everywhere. The confusing thing is, you can be a talker and a burper, or a sleeper and a bawler, or even a sweater and a reader, but once you’ve been a member of one group, trying to burp or fart your way into another is like trying to be Chinese — almost impossible. There could be more types, but if there are, I haven’t seen them. When you’re in the same bus every day with the same people for as long as I was during school, you’ve pretty much seen all the main ones anyway. So I’ll just say it now: I was a reader, still am I guess. I had a library bag — a stripy, old pillowcase with a pull cord on the top — and I could always read when the bus was going over potholes, or was constantly breaking in traffic, or going around corners; in fact, no matter what the bus was doing I never ever felt like I was going to spew, even in the afternoons, when the bus for some reason always smelled of Mr Sheen.
Some drivers you could flash your maths homework at and still be let on the bus. Not Doug. He had eyes like a supermarket scanner, and if he didn’t peep when you showed him your bus pass you’d never make it past the first set of aluminium poles. My pass was always in its plastic cover, which was attached to my backpack, so all I had to do was turn a bit, wait for Doug to mumble, then keep going. That day, I got a seat next to the window and straight away pulled out Magician: the thickest book I’ve ever read up till then. I’d gotten up to the bit where Pug was just about to be mauled by a wild boar and was dying read on. I remember I was almost going to fake a temperature after lunch so I could have read it in the sick bay, but Tammie Forsyth had her period or something and spent practically the whole day in there. So you can imagine I was pretty keen to get back into it, and I was concentrating so hard on trying to find the exact word where I’d left off, I didn’t notice the girl with green eyes and treacle hair ascend the stairs of the bus.
“Hey Pheebs!” Someone behind me called out.
My head looked up before my brain did and it took a while for me to understand what was going on. Then everything went into focus and I nearly bit the tip of my tongue.
Phoebe Jordan was getting on the bus to Shelley Beach.
Out of every girl into the entire school, if there was anyone that I rather be stuck in a tent on the top of a mountain with, it’d be Phoebe Jordan. I watched her as she climbed the stairs, then demolish Doug with a flick of her ponytail. She followed Tiffany Whatshername and another year twelve girl with the pig-nose down the aisle. Girls like Phoebe Jordan get instant entry to the back zone; no questions asked. No yeller or farter would dare give her any grief, otherwise they’d be sucked down to the front faster than a gas cloud in an open window. She passed me and I pretended to read, even turning a page so it looked like I was totally into it. Why would a Port Harbour girl be going anywhere near Shelley Beach? I wondered. It has no cinema, no restaurants, no shops (only the local, but it closes at seven, nine on Fridays), only one sealed road and a gross sewerage truck that drives around in circles all day. It’s hard to imagine that someone like Phoebe even knew where Shelley Beach was. If the town centre of Port Harbour was the Sun, we wouldn’t have been Pluto. We were a blip. Just like I was at that moment. A blip.
Tiffany Whatshername wafted past and so did a cloud of piss-smelling deodorant. As I turned another page, my eyeballs made a hard left. Phoebe had unbuttoned her uniform (underneath was black Billabong t-shirt, which I knew was a Billabong t-shirt, although I could only read ‘llabo’) and she’d textaed her nails black. Her socks were pulled up to her knees — something all the girls at school were doing even though it wasn’t strictly uniform — and on the back of her upper leg, just beneath the rippling lip of her skirt, was a coffee-coloured comet-shaped birthmark.
I was concentrating so hard trying to look down and look at Phoebe at the same time, I nearly crapped myself when Matt Casey swung his bag into the rack and dropped his swollen arse next to me.
“Shift up,” he said, breathing like a dog chained to a clothes line. Matt’s a talker and he’s the fattest guy at school. He’s a year ahead of me; supposed to be two but he got held back, and he still picks his nose and eats it. As soon as he caught his breath he elbowed me in the ribs. “Did’ya see who just got on?” he whispered and plucked on his shirt to release his man boobs.
“Only Phoebe Jordan! Man, what a piece of tail.”
“Oh, her? She’s alright,” I said, trying to play it cool.
“Alright?” Matt scoffed. “What, you wouldn’t kick her out of bed for farting?”
I let out an ambiguous chuckle. I would have joyfully wrapped my head in the blankets and let the fumy tentacles of her fart strangle me to death, but I wasn’t going to tell Matt Casey that. “Dunno. What’s she doing on our bus?”
”She’s friends with Whippsy. Must be staying over at hers.”
“Tiffany Whipps.” He curled a wiggly finger into his nostril. “She lives down the road from me. Her mum’s friends with mine. Mum says the Whippses’ve gone Bali for four weeks. Tiffany’s got the whole place to herself. Gonna be some mad parties there. I’ve been to their house. They’ve got a pool and a spa and a pool table. Sick house.”
An orange rolled from the front and hit my foot. I sent it flying backwards with a chip of my heel.
I showed Matt the front cover of Magician. He dismissed it with a blubbery fin.
“I’m not into dragons and all that shit. Sci-fi is way better. I saw RoboCop the other day. You have to see it. Full-on action.”
“Sound good,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. and corkscrewed a hand into his pocket. “I think I’m going to buy the video. Chewie?”
“Thanks.” We both took a strip each, lowered our heads and slipped the chewing gum into our mouths. Chewie was banned pretty much everywhere at school; if you got busted with it – even carrying it – they’d make you pick up fifty papers at lunch.
“Awesome effects too,” Matt continued. “Best I’ve ever seen. You got a video player, right?”
The orange rolled back from behind but this time it passed right through my feet.
“Nah. Mum is always saying she’ll buy one, but she never does.” Fact was, we were too skint to even buy a tele. Aunt Silke got one for us on the condition that I was only allowed to watch the seven o’clock news. Dagmar, my mother, let me watch whatever I wanted when she wasn’t in the loungeroom. But she was always in the loungeroom.
“We’ve got two. Could’ve made a copy for you.”
Doug lasered us through his spy mirror one last time and the bus grumbled out of the bus bay. One of the yellers whooped. I kept my book on my lap in case Matt got tired of talking, but that kid never closed his pie cave for anything. This is why I hated talkers. When their brains stopped feeding their mouths, somehow their mouths kept going, just like our caramel Datsun when the petrol meter was in the red. He told me how many records he’d bought, which ones he liked the best (he said Alice Cooper was better than Poison) what he’d eaten from the tuck shop that week, what he was going to eat tomorrow, whether each car that passed us was a V8 or not, how rad is new cricket bat was and just about everything ever written in the history of boring.
There was a wicked game for situations like this. I’m not one hundred per cent, but I’m pretty sure I invented it. At least none of the other kids was playing it as far as I could tell. First you have to have a window seat, (you can still play in the aisle but it’s like playing UNO with normal playing cards — it gets crap after a few rounds), then you have to find a dead bug or drop of water or something small stuck to the window which you can focus on. It’s best to be sitting on the left side, since there’s not as many cars, but the right side is alright too. Then, keeping your eyes on your speck, you move your head and steer your speck around or over whatever is passing outside. Move your head downwards and your speck will fly up over the trees, move it to the left and you’ll be dodging poles and semi-trailers. The aim is to keep your speck from being rammed by traffic or slamming into a signpost, or whatever else comes at you. I was an expert so I could keep my head fairly steady and still manoeuvre my speck without looking like I was having a fit.
Which was what I was doing: weaving in between white lines like a pro, while Matt Casey blabbered into the nothingness, when all of a sudden my game began to lag, and I ran straight into a koala crossing sign. Doug shifted gears and everyone on the bus made a simultaneous bow. Even Matt stopped talking to stand up and see what was going on.
“Alright, everybody listen up!” Doug was out of his seat, arms flared and holding two invisible cartons of beer. “We’ve got the Sandy kids comin’ on, so I want the big kids to move back and take up the empty seats. I want to see the back seat full. You hear that, Mr Quigley?”
It wasn’t the first time we’d had to pick up the Sandy Beach kids ‘cause their crap bus had broken down. They wore a yellow and green puke uniform and were too dumb to go to a normal school. Not only that, they were a bunch of bawlers. Doug started clearing out the front and half the middle sections to let them on, and Matt and I turned around to look at the available seats behind us.
“Zero empties,” I said and swallowed hard like there was a golf ball stuck in my throat. Matt didn’t reply. He just sat there looking like a pig would look in the an abattoir waiting room. If anyone was going to get a dead leg or wet willy today it’d be him. He heaved himself out, plucked at his t-shirt again and delivered himself to the back of the bus. Meanwhile, I pretended to search for something in my bag so I had time to check out which seats were free. The back row was totally out of bounds so I didn’t bother looking there; all the high-ranking yellers and talkers had had first dibs on it anyway. Phoebe Jordan was already sitting next to Tiffany in the second back seat and was surrounded by fawning talkers and yellers. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d had to sit near her, or even in the row behind her. Pass out or vomit most likely. Then the whole bus would have to stop and get out while they cleaned up my puke; and they’d have to carve ‘chunder bum’ on my tomb, ‘cause that’s what I’d be known as for the rest of my life.
I saw Matt rush at seat next to a Scott Anderson, a harmless year elevener – he would have been my first choice since he was good at science. A burper snickered something about chicken nuggets and the back seat exploded.
The Sandy kids monkeyed on and Doug began assigning seats with flicks of his dagger nose. When he saw me he flicked it so hard in the direction of the back seat I almost flinched.
“Go on, up the back,” his nose said.
I slung my bag over my shoulder and trundled down the tunnel of legs and backpack straps. I’d never seen the bus so full. Sprouting out of every seat was a blue shirt with a head. I turned and looked helplessly back to the front, my home, but all the seats had already been overrun with bawlers. They were spuming into the aisles three to a seat. So all I could do was reverse moonwalk back to the middle.
“No standing!” Doug’s eyes blasted at me through his mirror. The blood rushed to my ears. I was the only one standing. “No standing, Millar!” he repeated. I thought he was going to throw one of the invisible cartons at me.
I heard muffled laughing. Someone burped and a boy’s voice yelled out “Shit for brains”. My ears must’ve been bleeding they were so hot.
“Hey, you big boys,” Doug flicked a dagger into the back corner. “Shift up. Let him in the corner. Quigley… Can’t have anyone standing. If I break hard he’ll go straight out the front window.”
The back corner? My heart thumped out a pathetic alarm. Phoebe Jordan is not even there, I tried telling myself — she’s on another bus making another loser feel like a jellyfish in a sodastream. Nathan Quigley, one of the original farters, lifted his knee to let me in. I thought he was going to let one rip but he didn’t. “Be my guest,” he said and shoved me in the bum with his elbow. I stumbled forward and hit my head on the window, something which, fortunately, no one seemed to notice.
The corner of the bus near the exhaust pipe was the hottest place on earth. Your shoulder burned, and every five minutes you had to sit forwards or else your shirt stuck to the seat. And I couldn’t open the window either — if someone a few rows up spat out the bus the gob slingshotted out and got sucked right back into the bus… right into your face.
I’d never sat this far down before. It was a strange view. Rows of heads and coloured backpacks, pigtails, shirt tags. They talked about which teachers smoked, who liked who, weekend surf reports and smoking. The girls called the boys disgusting and the boys proved it by farting and burping. I laughed with everyone else, and it was funny, but only a bit. In the blurry part of my eye I saw the glowing buttery blob of Phoebe Jordan. Her hair was as straight and smooth as a shower curtain and when it fell forwards, I could see the little bump on the back of her neck. There were dozens of tiny white hairs sweeping down her back, I wondered what it would be like to touch them with my finger, and then (and I swear I’m not a pervert and never will be) with the tip of my tongue. I wondered if she would like it. About ten minutes after we left Sandy Beach, the back row started playing corners, even though we were on the highway and there were no corners at all. Being at the end of the row, I got squashed pretty bad, but it didn’t hurt really; it only forced the sweat out of the back of my armpits and down into my pants.
“Hey, Whippsy,” Nathan said. Tiffany pointed her pig nose in my direction. Then Phoebe did too and they both stared at me; four pistachio nuts on two brown plates. I felt a blood balloon explode in my head, it covered the insides of my cheeks and ears with red. Quickly, I pointed at Nathan and flattened myself against the side of the bus.
“When’s the party?” he said.
“What party?” Tiffany replied.
“I heard your olds are away.”
“Who told you that?”
“Millar told me.” Nathan smacked me with his hairy thigh. He says he wants to come.”
I heard my name. If there ever was a case to use the ‘PUSH IN CASE OF EMERGENCY’ it was now. She was looking right at me. Waiting for me to say something. Something funny. Or smart. Or anything. My mouth fell open but nothing came out. Tiffany looked at Phoebe and they said something in their secret language. Phoebe laughed. Beautiful hiccups.
“Maybe this Saturday. We’ll let you know,” Tiffany said.
“Your friend’s weird,” Phoebe said scratching at the paint on her nails. In loser’s town, I was the mayor.
“We’re not friends,” I said and then immediately regretted it, even though it was true.
“Friends?” Quigley sent a spray of fine saliva through his buck teeth. “I didn’t know you had any, dipstick, apart from cream bun Casey, over there.” Matt turned at the mention of his name but dipped his head back down, when he saw who it came from.
“What’s your name?” Phoebe said to me, ignoring Quigley’s retarded cackling.
“Alex,” I said. The truth was the best answer I could come up with.
“Do you live at Shelley?”
“It’s my first time out here.”
“Really?” Was I that retarded? Really?
“You and your mum live up on the south side, don’t you?” Tiffany said. “Near the dunes. Where they want to put the outfall.”
“Yeah,” and then I did something I thought I wasn’t capable of: I said a normal sentence without even thinking of it beforehand. “The trucks came out last weekend to dig a few holes. Soil samples. The pipe’s going to run right underneath our backyard.” In fact, Dagmar had told me that they were going to come and rip the whole yard up, trees and all; even the outside dunny would have to go, she’d said, which made me the saddest of all.
“It’s not right. You should be protesting. It’s like that thing with the whales and all that. We shouldn’t be fucking up the oceans.”
“Just shitting in them,” Quigley said and the whole back row was a choir of laughs.
“Gross,” the girls groaned in tandem and then turned back around. I felt a little better, but I still held my breath for ages, trying to block out everything and making myself as small as possible. Quigley banged for the rest of the tripon about how good he was with knives. He farted once and it stunk like old underpants, then one of the burpers let a loud one rip, and Doug told him to shut up or he’d find himself hitching home. The bus got emptier and emptier, and pretty soon everyone went back to paying each other no attention at all. When we finally arrived at Shelly Beach, Phoebe Jordan and the other girls hopped off at the shop. I saw the backs of her legs and the tiny brown comet fly away, and it was like coming up from under a wave.
“See you at the party, Whippsy” Quigley said through the window to the girls, and then spat at a tree. They screamed and called him a wanker. He got out at the next stop. He tried to give me a dead leg on his way out but I made a lucky flinch and I felt his knuckle hit my knee cap. It must’ve hurt him ‘cause he called me a ‘little faggot’ and then lumbered out. After the bus had done the loop around the headland, me and the last of the bawlers got off and the bus headed back out to the highway.
“Bye, Alex,” Doug said without taking his eyes off the mirror.
As the empty bus rolled out of Shelley Beach, the bawlers scattered, leaving me in a cloud of yellow dust. The noise startled a nest of cockatoos and the screeched into the sky, spraying the tops of the gum trees like coconut flakes, and then everything went quiet. It might have been the start of a normal weekend — I would have ridden over to Bo’s house, listened to some music or mucked about in the dunes; then ridden back just before dark to find the last milk delivery of the week sweating at the top of our stairs — but I knew it was going to be anything but normal. I could feel it. An alien had landed; Phoebe Jordan was somewhere out there, in our little bowl of lantana and sand, and nothing was going to be the same again. I looked up at the space between the clouds where I knew the moon would be in a few hours, and wondered what this girl with the comet on the back of her leg would would make of our world. As I walked home it began to rain.