I lay buried by a deep, bottom-of-the-ocean sleep. For the past hour I’d struggled to surface, never quite managing to swim away from my troubled dreams before sleep dragged me back down to her heavy depths. It took a stray beam of sunlight to tickle me awake. The day’s last rays had crept under the cover of the clouds and into my room. Dom existed, yet somehow I’d made it home without my world shattering – how, I don’t know. I certainly couldn’t remember doing so. I plunged into bed and so into exhausted dreams, where Dom had spent the day appearing relentlessly in every scene, finally merging into a blend of Jason and Bradley, always watching me, a clipboard in hand. I’d wake with a start, surprised to see no one standing at the foot of my bed taking notes. Then sleep would pull me back under her waves to repeat the cycle over, and over.
The day’s heat had wrapped me in a layer of sweat. Reluctantly, I opened my eyes while pondering the eternal question: was I half awake or half asleep? The translucent curtains limped over me in the heavy breeze. Watching the play of dappled light across the ceiling, (which was painted a colour lying somewhere between aqua and lime) for a few moments I happily believed I lay dozing under a tree. Dom would never lie dozing under a tree. Not when there existed minions to destroy.
As teenagers Dave and I had often wandered the bush and camped out for a night or two. The love stemmed from those times we’d gone camping with Dad. Mum never came. With Dad we’d explored many a place for weekends and holidays, but as he slowly drifted away so did the camping into the realm of myths, until Dave and I were old enough to go on our own. (I still wasn’t sure what had happened, but the times away, the laughter, Dad’s boyishness which erupted half an hour into the drive, the stories he told after dinner around the fire: for some reason it all stopped.)
On a clear night I’d lie and stare at the stars, wondering how the heavens could hold them all. Beside me, Dave spun ever more fantastic tales, as our Dad had once done. One warm afternoon, after a swim in a half-empty river, I lay dreaming under a banksia. If I didn’t look, I could see hundreds of bees swarming through the tree, yet if I focused on a single pink flower I was lucky to see one. So, instead of wasting my time concentrating, I simply lay there and watched the tree buzz. If I closed my eyes I could hear the colours. Even now, lying here half asleep (or half awake) in a different house in a different time, I could still hear the bees and smell the pollen. I could even taste the colours of that day.
I’d later gushed about this buzzing tree to Mum and Dad, desperately wanting to share how the sounds became colours. Anything to stop the pontifications and condescending observations which, with the passing of years, accompanied the main course of every meal. Barely raising his rheumy eyes from his plate, Dad merely replied, “The colours and music of memory exist only in the eyes of God.”
That was when it all began. Sitting around the dinner table, hearing the tone of Dad’s annunciation. More than his words, the timbre of his voice crumbled everything from that weekend into a grey powder to be sprinkled over our meals, despite all those years he’d come away with us, laughing around the campfire or swimming with us in the surf, dumping first me then Dave under the waves. Now even the thought of those days was tainted, and from that moment I knew my slide away to be irreversible.
I stirred, breaking the magic of the light playing across the ceiling. Is that what all this now meant? Dom, and all that had happened with Jason, with Dave – merely an aberration in God’s eyes, existing only if He chose to see it? I should just let the past go, and trust to God to remember, or forget. My Dad had done so, stumbling to old age with footsteps ever more frail as he let drop everything from his mind, leaving it open only for God’s glory.
I rolled over and played with the watch clinging to my wrist. All that lay buried in the time before memory. And sleeping under the stars – long before Jason. If only, instead of wandering the bush collecting rocks, Dave and I had sat with Mum and the church ladies over milky tea and ethereal sponges, we might’ve learnt some practical skills to help us survive this world. We might even have found our own place in the gossip pools which lapped around us in rippling circles. Yet neither Dave nor I had inherited that innate skill (which Mum so desperately cultivated) of being noticed by those ladies who partook of Holy Communion while counterbalancing delicate hats with slabs of gold around their neck.
“I like your boots,” one had condescendingly let flutter to my feet as she passed in the church portico. “Where did you buy them?”
“Oh, Dad got them for me in London,” came my innocent answer, for at that time Dad was often overseas. We could never afford to go with him; the Church paid his fares so he could travel to far-flung places then report on how many souls were being saved in the world wide struggle against damnation. This time he’d been called to present his findings in London, in ancient buildings housing a chill air which soon settled on his lungs and never left. With every trip he brought home a morsel or two for Mum to snaffle then later drop into the faded china cups as she served those she desperately wanted to call friend. Her husband’s ill-health proved a small, but necessary, sacrifice. A thing to be served along with the cracked meringues (the burnt bits scraped away.)
“Oh darling, listen to you, name dropping!” Mum drooled as the others laughed. Even now my cheeks burned at the memory. What had I said wrong? The boots were from London, I was thirteen, the woman my mother slavered over had asked, and at school the nuns still caned those who lied while God condemned them to hell. I only did what these women always did while arranging the flowers. Now my Mum laughed along with everyone else, using the moment to sidle closer to these ladies – and away from me.
I snuggled amongst my pillows and began counting the stains on the ceiling. Next I triangulated them, calculating just how many three sided figures I could squeeze into that small space. Was this how the ancient gods built the universe, jamming as much chaos as they could into the celestial spheres, never bothering to worry about the difference between random and pseudorandom numbers? Losing count around one hundred and twenty-nine, I turned once more to my watch. Ten past six. Some time still before I had to think about getting ready. This was the week for waking up early.
So saying, I rolled out of bed. Wrapping my summer doona tight despite the heat, I made myself comfortable on the window sill near my bed. The day had almost gone; another hour and all would be dark. I gently tapped my forehead against the glass, my translucent reflection nodding back and forth against the fading block of flats across the way. At least Grace Kelly had a murder to witness in Rear Window, not to mention the clothes she wore.
If not a murder, just what had I found? Dave’s collection of stones, which told me nothing. (Maybe their story dated to an older time, unrelated to all this. Dave’s riddle could be childlike in its innocence, and he could’ve made up the box – indeed, probably did put all the stones together – months before his…his…his accident.) Now Dom had returned to haunt me – how on earth had he learnt of my existence up here? Just what on earth did he have planned, and why did he even bother? Surely my brother’s destruction had proven more than enough. And Jason? Had he really been up here recently to organise his TV presentation? Surely he had unnamed underlings to do such things. All very odd, but nothing to do with Dave. As always, I read meaning into empty shadows.
My reflection rocked back and forth in the window, in time to my swaying. A gentle murmur flowed from beyond my room, such as a jellyfish must hear as it floats helplessly amongst the waves. Or a tree as the autumn wind swims through its branches, sending a rainbow of leaves shimmering to the ground. The incessant murmur had lapped at my door as I slept, and fractured words crept into unwanted dreams. With this being the third bible study since coming here, I now recognised a few voices begging for forgiveness for the same sin so vehemently renounced last time, and the time before... At least I knew who not to date. (Whom? Who? Such things had once been important, corrected without thinking.) Jesus was called upon a lot – especially when the prayers revolved around those who had strayed. I could feel the stares pawing at my door.
Such palpable love.
They were nearing the bit I loved most, when one by one each supplicant gave loud thanks for all their worldly successes. Just one of the many reasons I couldn’t join them. How could I sit there, empty mouthed and hollow hearted, while everyone else praised God for their wealth and their promotions, their cars and their perfect smiles? Always something amazing to be thankful for – those cursed by misfortune, or simply bad luck, had no choice but to fade away until things improved and they could face their peers, all smiles and immaculate teeth once more. An evening of prayers, with never a mention of camels nor the eye of a needle.
I’m not sure when I fell out of love with God, for I’d been in love with him for so long. Perhaps when I fell out of love with everyone else. Times innumerable I’d sat in church under the gaze of the saints. Gazing at the watery blue and gold of Our Lady’s robes, or at the snake writhing under her delicate foot, I’d prayed so many times to the Virgin to intercede on my behalf, yet God, it seemed, chose differently. I’d been steeped in sin since my baptism, more piled on me with every Sunday sermon until I could not escape. How could these others on the far side of my door be so blessed, as to strut unburdened and full of self-worth, while my prayers fell about my fettered feet, as cold as the faces peering down at me?
Plus, it seemed, their prayers were answered straight away. Not for them the years of doubt, the dark nights of the soul. Not for them the fall of man nor the burden of original sin. They walked in this world as if born unblemished, with no curses tumbling down the generations. The voices I now listened to saw no absurdity in talking to God as a humble equal, or to non-believers with the tone of condescending superiors.
I couldn’t help but notice these past few weeks how Jesus had become everyone’s best mate. Also, the whole concept of the Trinity vanished. It hadn’t been so when I was a lass. Three equals as one, one as three: a mystery beyond the wisdom of St. Augustine as he paced along a forgotten beach. (Had he ever been tempted to go surfing?) A three-personned god to batter my heart no more; instead, beyond my door Jesus stood mingling and greeting as if at a cocktail party on the upper floors of a cruise liner, the women wearing glittering gowns with a plunging back and a train stretching forever, and not only the captain but the entire crew were knocking back the drinks and singing karaoke while no one manned the bridge.
Meanwhile, Dad sat at home, forgotten, waiting for someone to visit. Perhaps He had dementia. ‘I created the world, you know!’ ‘Tha’s nice, dearie, try and eat a little more of your veggies, help keep your strength up. Here are your tablets. Oh, and your Son rang earlier to say He’d be busy for the next forty days and nights.’
And the Holy Spirit. Never Ghost, never Dove. The troubled middle son. The sort of son people only make vague references about. Brilliant, in His own way, of course, but... misunderstood. Special. Just needs to find a way to express Himself. Must’ve been raised by nuns. Probably on ritalin, or excused with the diagnosis of Asperger’s.
Still wrapped in my cocoon of doona and pillows, my head resting against the glass, I could hear the voices of my dead parents condemning me to hell for such thoughts. I sighed once, then again, more loudly. It didn’t matter. No one heard me.
Slithering off the windowsill I shuffled across the room, picked up Dave’s special box and shuffled back. Making myself comfortable once more, I opened the lid and peered inside. Stare as I might, I saw no clue into my brother’s thoughts. I picked up a small vial of saltpetre and held it against the fading light. I had no idea of its chemical name, for Dave always preferred the old-fashioned nomenclature. Was that relevant? I stared out the window, tapping my fingers on the sill. Although I’d yet to make it to the library to find the appropriate articles, I suspected that what I really needed was an old-fashioned textbook. Not just to check the names of these stones, but to learn their stories from times of old. Something releasing a musty smell with each page turned, the paper luxurious under my fingers.
Another stone in this collection – a gem, if I was to be accurate – was a Tigers Eye. Yet again I hadn’t the foggiest about it s scientific name, despite all those years listening to my brother. I simply loved the waves of yellow floating through the nugget of brown rock.
After watching my reflection yawn, I began tapping my fingers. Dave must have such a tome somewhere, hidden away in one of these other boxes I’d salvaged from my aunt’s. Then I could see how simple this all was, how stupid I was being in over-thinking everything. Remind myself yet again that these were just stones in a box, and there was no message.
As I sat pondering non-existent conspiracy theories, a soft knock was followed by Kayl sliding his head around the door.
“Everyone said you’re asleep but I thought I’d check,” he drawled. “I’m on tea detail. Care for something?”
“Oh, thanks. Maybe just a cold drink, if it’s easy.”
Shutting the door quietly behind him, Kayl looked around for somewhere to sit. My modus operandi didn’t allow for much choice. Stacks of papers and books and movies towered at precipitous angles, which at times I moved in significant sequences I doubted even an anthropologist could decipher.
Kayl plonked into a small space on the only chair, and contented himself with a sigh on realising he couldn’t swivel it back and forth. I had yet to see the lad sit still.
“You look comfy there,” Kayl said. “Wish I was small enough to fit on a window sill.”
“Wish my bum was.”
Kayl grinned his lazy, lopsided grin, and turned his attention to the ceiling.
“How’s the murder mystery going?” I asked.
“It’s a bit difficult tying the Grey Nurse and the desks together,” Kayl said.
“Because an incorporeal spirit can’t interact with the physical world?”
“What?” Kayl turned his stare from the ceiling to me.
“Ghosts, by definition, are ethereal, and therefore don’t have a physical presence. Therefore, they can’t do anything physical. Like stab a person.” Or sit on a tree branch, watching a funeral.
Kayl grinned and, moving some books from the desk onto the seat, sat on the desk and rested his feet atop the books. I bit my tongue, but kept an eye on my books.
“You say the weirdest things, Steph,” Kayl said as, perhaps in answer to my glance, he lifted his feet off the books. “It’s just the Grey Nurse is just not exotic enough. I mean, she seems a nice person, and I can’t imagine her killing anyone. Nice people are always so boring in books. And I can’t see how she exposes anyone as being the murderer, without it being too clichéd. Besides, you know, Grey Nurse, has to be set in hospital, which, let’s face it, is not that interesting either. Been done a hundred times. I want the setting to be somewhere unusual.”
I slipped off the windowsill once more, my doona still pulled tight. In the book being read outside Jesus was the good guy. Did Kayl find Him boring also?
“Tell me,” I asked, “whatever happened to the Holy Spirit?”
“Holy Spirit? What do you mean?” Kayl seemed in no hurry to play tea lady.
“Well,” I continued as I waddled around the room, “back when I was in convent school, the Holy Spirit was ever vigilant, a dove showering light over the blessed.”
“I didn’t realise you were a Tyke. That explains a lot.”
I turned to Kayl, trying desperately to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. Spock made it look so easy. At least I could do the Klingon hand salute, though it was rarely called for in the boring world of my day-to-day life, and impossible to achieve while holding up a doona.
Vulcan, I corrected myself. Vulcan hand salute. Not Klingon. How could I make such as silly mistake?
“Converting a Catholic is worth more points than converting a heathen,” Kyle continued. “Heaps more. Inside knowledge makes you a greater challenge. Bradley won’t let you go easily. Especially since your argument.”
“Our argument? What argument?”
“Telling him not to disagree with you. About fossils or something. No one ever disagrees with Bradley. I think he was secretly impressed.”
“Whatever,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, (the movement hidden by the swaddling). Bradley was way down on my problem list at the moment. And if Bradley thought that an argument, he’d obviously never met Dom. “He was in a lot of the stained glass windows in the school chapel,” I continued. “The Holy Spirit that is, not Bradley. He’s the ideal shape and size. Can be portrayed in so many ways, you see. These days,” and I continued my shuffling, “no one seems to speak about him, unless they start talking in tongues. Which I hear Bradley does.”
“Not quite,” said Kayl. “He just translates.”
“Yep. The Holy Spirit enters him and allows Bradley to translate when someone else speaks in tongues. Few have that gift.”
Despite my best Inquisitional stare, Kayl stared innocently back at me, looking for all intents as if he believed what he’d just said. In anyone else, I’d be disgusted. With Kayl, well, he didn’t set out to hurt or upset me. As he didn’t take anything seriously, there seemed little point in being upset by the things he said.
Tired from the intellectual effort, I slumped onto the bed. “The better part of man,” I muttered, “is soon ploughed into the soil for compost.”
“Well, that’s cheerful,” Kayl answered as, with his feet resting against the seat, he began tilting the chair back and forth. “Did you just make it up?”
“No, it’s Theroux... don’t you guys ever read?”
“What on earth for? We’ve got the Bible.” My visitor finally stood up, his gangly frame filling the room. “You know, why don’t you come on out and join us?”
I shook my head. “I can’t, Kayl, I just can’t.”
“Why not? We’re not that scary, you know.”
“It’s not that, Kayl, it’s just that... I just don’t believe. Not any more.”
“Oh, is that all that’s stopping you? It doesn’t matter,” Kayl said. “Who does? I mean, really. You don’t have to sit in here and be lonely, you know.”
I looked down at Dave’s collection where it rested in my lap. A house full of people my age, and I had nothing to say to them. If I could just bring myself to open that door... The nuns had done their best, but even back at school I’d failed to understand why faith and belief had to be so concrete and so visible. Why everyone had to know about the good you did. And since Dave left – well, I no longer saw any point. “I’m sorry, Kayl, I really appreciate the offer, but I just can’t.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “We’ve got a movie night next Friday, if you change your mind.” He loped the few steps to the door. “Well, the others will be wondering where I am. A cold drink, you said. Anything to eat? Mum’s been baking.”
“Need you ask?” I said as I watched Kayl open the door. “Thanks for thinking of me, by the way.”
Kayl just grinned. “Gotta keep Louise on her toes.”
I shook my head but smiled as the door closed. Picking up a pencil from my desk I started sharpening it, the shavings curling prettily around the metal blade. Then, after blowing my nose, I unscrewed my fountain pen. No, it didn’t need refilling; a pity, that could the fill the vacuum of a whole one and a half minutes. What I needed now, instead of Bradley using the gift of tongues to his advantage, was a giant sized Pooka called Harvey to keep me company. To help me learn the abstract ways of doing good quietly, in my own lovely form of madness. I could do nothing for myself.
I lay my forehead gently against the window. The coldness of the glass felt vaguely refreshing. I could see, reflected in the glass, some text-books dozing on my desk. They kept their covers closed of their own accord, wisely divining my lack of interest. They proved quite unappealing at this hour. At any hour, really. Which was why they’d lain untouched since my exam.
Which was when I should’ve kept running and never stopped, for that was the only chance the gods had ever given me to escape.
As always, a lavender sea of blooming jacarandas heralded in the end of the academic year. The trip to uni wound through streets of colour. Every first year student knew that once those flowers appeared it was time to start cramming for the final exams; being in my post-grad years, I knew the time for cramming had long passed. What wasn’t known by now would never be known. And much of what was known today would be forgotten tomorrow. As I sat waiting for my viva, I could see a glorious jacaranda from the library window. I’d been staring at it for the past hour, my absent stare alternating with watching a rickety fire escape rust away on the outside of a brick building across the courtyard. The summer air shimmered above a hodgepodge of corrugated iron roofs.
The sun poured through the lead light windows and danced into the room. I felt comfortably sleepy; if it weren’t for my impending viva I could happily sit here all day. I liked this attic room, where I could kick off my shoes in private and curl up in the chair. It was a world removed from the rest of the uni. Even the quietness of the main reading room on the floor below seemed busy compared to this hidden corner.
I shut a journal and dropped it on the growing pile beside me, enjoying the slap as it hit the other magazines. The sound let me feel I’d achieved something. I preferred sitting here to being at home, where I’d just be flicking listlessly through the TV channels or pacing my room. Nine paces up, nine paces back. Three across. It drove my flatmates mad as they worried over their own exams.
Besides, I could see no point in re-reading my notes at this late stage. The only way for my saturated brain to absorb more facts was by loosing others – such as the PIN for those various bits of plastic in my wallet. I’d already embarrassed myself paying for petrol a few days ago. Instead, I stared out the window as I waited my turn to sit the viva, the next step towards that ever-distant higher post-graduate degree. Each candidate now had forty minutes of grilling before a group of examiners to cover years of study, giving pat answers to the randomly-fired questions, no time to think a problem through in all its complexity – that only wasted time. Examiners have always been impressed by a glib answer and quick recall, and not by the art of thinking. No one likes to admit the skill inherent in using a textbook, pondering a problem, taking time to find all the interconnecting pieces. Or finding a way for them to connect better. Even examiners prefer a disjointed sound-bite followed by a quick exit to a well deserved lunch break.
Sitting here in the library with a supply of out-of-date journals simply gave me a place to hide before making my way to the College, since it took a miracle for anything to hold my interest now. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow I’d learn to just sit again, and do nothing. Maybe tomorrow I might feel like shopping, or walking, or risk dining alone. Tomorrow. The exams would be over, and a new life begun. (Tomorrow, always tomorrow, as with all my promises – each day I sounded more and more like Scarlett O’Hara: tomorrow, tomorrow’s a new day, I’ll think about it then. How would the examiners cope were I to wear a dress made of curtains? Would they notice? Even if, like Carol Burnett, I wore the dress with the curtain rail strung across my shoulders?)
With a glance at my watch, I reluctantly uncurled my legs and, like Audrey Hepburn’s princess in that classic scene from Roman Holiday, fumbled under the desk with my foot for my missing shoe. Wandering down the spiral staircase to the main reading room, I placed the stack of journals in the returns basket, which nestled comfortably between two arched windows which would rest well in any medieval cathedral. A soft light fell through the colours of the stained glass into the reading room. The quaint glass figures, with their slim bodies and large heads, seemed on holidays from earlier centuries, come for a leisurely look around the library and perhaps for something to read on the long trip home.
In one long, thin window an apothecary stood enclosed within a circle of red, whilst in the window beside him a blood-letting physician stood busy in his own circle of yellow. Baby-cheeked angels hovered in the background, while a unicorn peered coyly over the physician’s shoulder. A few demons rolled in agony in the foreground, (whether before or after the doctor’s ministrations remained delightfully unclear). Swirling flowers of reds, blues, yellows and greens flourished along the border.
A riot of colours fell from the window and played over my feet. Perhaps this might prove a portent, and soon Charlton Heston would walk through the doors, dressed appropriately for a biblical epic where every look proves prophetic.
I turned on my mobile to double-check the time (in case both my watch and the clock on the wall were wrong), but really to see if I had any messages. There were none. Dave had rung a few days ago; said he was busy, wouldn’t be able to call until this afternoon. But maybe someone else would. A few friends had called a week or so ago, but no one cared enough to chase me down before this final exam. Not even Jason.
I spun on my heel and headed out the library door. After all, why would anyone bother to call me? Pudgy and plain, always working, or studying ... no one in their right minds would choose to spend time with me. What honour lay in that? If life truly were a movie script, mine would be the blank bits, where unnamed extras pretend to talk or dance or simply walk across the screen in the background, exiting stage right, as the attention fell on someone else.
I took my time heading across campus, to where the College waited a few streets away – a gentle half-hour walk to relax me. One night (I was often there at night, due to late tutorials) I’d spotted a pair of rabbits hopping across this lawn. Another time, with the full moon casting shadows as I walked, a fox had darted across my path, its impossibly lush tail glinting in the moonlight.
“Well, naturally, I assumed that goes without saying. It’s obvious that physiological temperatures cause uncoupling of the protein receptor...”
I stared miserably out the bay window. A caustic web of words draped across the room, clutching with sticky tendrils any who passed, whether they stood as part of the inner circle, or, like myself, sat awkwardly in a leathery chair.
Despite the wisdom of my tender years, I remain perpetually surprised by how much people expose of their true selves when stressed. A guy I’d once dated (briefly, foolishly, after Jason, till he passed his exams and found someone who didn’t work or study or stress-out all the time) claimed he could judge those couples with a future, just in the ten minutes or so it took him to do an epidural on a woman in labour. Some partners held their beloved’s hand, others stared out the window, a few fainted. Some weren’t even there. Twas a wonder, really, he’d given our own relationship a whole three months. Maybe I should’ve stared out the window more. Like now.
Staring out the window. Waiting, like the others in the room, to be summoned before the examiners. Waiting to be granted forty minutes to dazzle, so that someone else could fail. Already the written exam a few months ago had culled our number by a quarter; the pass rate today would be less than one in three. For some, it was the first time they failed anything in their life. Each year a few quietly, some messily, committed suicide.
For the past hour I’d hunkered down in this vast room with some dozen others. Now the number had been whittled down to six. Once through those doors, no one came back. Everything ran under the precise tyranny of time. Each candidate had to arrive by twenty to one at the latest (for a one twenty start), and remain locked in this room until called for, even if their viva was hours away. Toilet breaks allowed only under strict supervision. It wouldn’t do for the examiners to have to think of too many questions. Not after a long lunch.
At least Ben Hur had others to fuss over him before his big race, people who believed in him, and a god from whom he could beg forgiveness just before he set out on revenge. I sat here alone, unsure as to how much more of this room I could tolerate. The smell of aging leather hung heavily in the air. Shelves of old books stared down from the walls, alongside dusty portraits of past faculty presidents. I watched as one candidate took down a dusty tome, printed somewhere in the 1930s. You never know. Examiners loved dredging up titbits from their youth. Most had stopped learning – and begun forgetting - the moment they got their own letters.
“Did you read that article in the latest journal – I only got my copy two days ago...” The voices sparred on. Just this once, I silently pleaded, couldn’t the guys (well, two guys and a girl, to be precise) give each other a break? Give everyone a break. They must’ve come out of the womb duelling.
I stared resolutely out the window. Those bits deep inside had started stirring again. Unknown bits, frightening bits which simply waited their chance to swell and overwhelm me. They were the stuff of medieval frescoes, dark and horrible, the chattels of nightmares. Demons of the inside, waiting to grab and drag me screaming down into the flames of hell.
Slowly, I drowned out the noises of the room and instead focused my attention on some white roses blooming just outside the lead-light windows. A few petals had tiny pink spots caused by the poorly chosen watering system, which watered the petals more than the roots. As I looked closely into the snowy lushness, (the empty words filling the room still spinning menacingly towards me), I smiled. The petals, as they broke free of their encapsulating buds, lay deep under a wandering carpet of green.
The mere sight of the aphids crawling over one another brought my jittery stomach to a halt. Despite all the money the University gleaned from fee-paying and overseas students (not to mention government subsidies, registration fees, other fees, courses, journals – the list was endless) the Faculty couldn’t even keep its roses free of aphids. I doubted the examiners even made it outside to enjoy the sunshine on a crisp day such as today. The aphids, in contrast, were having a lovely time.
Tomorrow, I promised as I watched the aphids revelling in their lush paddock, I’d sit down and paint this. God, how long had it been? High school? I might even splurge on a canvas and paint these roses, complete with the aphids crawling all over them. No; I’d paint it from the aphids’ point of view. Much more interesting.
The door opened and a lady entered, flooding the room into silence. Her outfit alone marked her as an exam groupie: a precise herringbone skirt with a crisp, finger-pleated shirt tucked precisely into a straining waistband. A cameo brooch clutched everything tightly together at her throat, glasses hung on a chain around her neck, and the ensemble was topped with an immobile helmet of grey, permed hair.
Exams breed such women. I’d first encountered them prowling between the rows of desks during the HSC. At every exam since, these women (and the occasional man) shook off their mothballs and fussed up and down amongst the candidates. A few were as warm as honeyed toast, offering glasses of water and reassuring pats. Most proved drier, taking arid delight in ringing bells at just the precise moment, crisply handing out extra books, sighing if a pencil needed sharpening. I’d long guessed the pecking order to be intense. Occasionally, a favoured lady was allowed to give the ten minute warning, but only the chosen one could call out: “Candidates, cease writing!” Another, in protest at being overlooked, would petulantly cross out any words which dared to stretch themselves across that fateful finish line.
After fussing through her list the woman chose two offerings – myself and another - and hustled us both from the room. After leading the way along a narrow, winding corridor, she then paused in dramatic silence beside a desk tucked into a small alcove. Despite the firmly shut doors, I could hear a faint murmuring fleeing from two rooms a little further down the hallway.
“Now,” the woman whispered as she took me firmly by the elbow, “Dr Allen, you stand here, you’re to go in Room Eleven, and you, Dr Krima... Kriman... Krimanino, you’re for Room Twelve. You both must stand further back, beside these chairs. No, no – you can’t sit down!” she hissed quickly, reaching out to the other candidate as his knees started to quake. The woman glared at the prim velvet on the stiff-backed chair to make sure it hadn’t been damaged, then puritanically consulted her fob watch. “Good. Four more minutes.” She returned to her desk, busying herself shuffling papers whilst glaring at us over her bifocals.
The desk was of the old fashioned kind, with a roll top, lots of tiny drawers and, I hoped, the mandatory hidden compartment. Maybe it held a vial of universal acid. Or throat lozenges flavoured with bitter almonds.
In an effort to stop feeling like a sacrificial lamb, I tucked a stray bit of hair behind my ears. There was little point in worrying about my appearance now; I’d done my best, despite owning neither a twin-set nor pearls. As I waited out those eternal minutes, I snuck a look at the other victim. I didn’t really know him, although we’d once worked at the same hospital. Immaculate in his suit and tie, he fidgeted on one leg, nervously working through some problem on his fingers. I wondered what he seemed so desperate to remember. It wouldn’t come now. Catching his eye, I gave what I hoped to be an encouraging smile, but he simply stared back at me like a rabbit caught between unexpected headlights.
From nowhere came a memory of a cartoon I’d once seen when watching Kenny Everett, or The Goodies, or some such show in my misspent youth. Bambi versus Godzilla. A beautiful glade, a sweet little deer nibbling at the grass, all drawn in sepia. Suddenly, a giant foot descends, squashes the animal flat, and steps on. End of cartoon.
That’s precisely what this exam needs, I thought. I glanced at the woman sitting erect at her desk. An added bonus: both woman and desk would be swamped by paperwork.
The woman in question consulted her fob watch again. “One minute precisely,” came the hiss. She rose and led us to where a bit of white tape had been stuck to the carpet not far from the doors. “That’s right, toes behind the line please.” She then held up a small hand bell, her fingers clasped firmly round the clapper so that it wouldn’t, couldn’t, accidentally ring. “When the door opens, wait until the candidate comes out, then go in, but don’t sit down until the examiners invite you to do so. Now good luck to both of you,” she finished officially. If I hadn’t felt so queasy it would’ve been almost funny. Dave would kill himself laughing when I rang him later.
Silently counting the seconds off on her watch, the lady finally rang the bell. After a short pause, the door in front of me opened and the victim emerged. With eyes fixed on the carpet, he walked straight into me as he shook his head. Although twice my size, he didn’t apologise. He didn’t even bother to hide his smile, but after so many years or Uni and exams I was used to people playing life like they were on the rugby field, and all were fair game as long as the referee didn’t see.
“No, no, not that way!” The lady was off, directing her new charges down another labyrinth. I took a deep breath, rubbed my shoulder and entered the examination room. Three suits sat behind a desk. Two were enjoying themselves as they parried back and forth over the benefits of a certain hotel, while the other alternated his stare between his shoes and the ceiling. I thought of the aphids, and smiled.
This time, Bambi would win.
Then it was over. I walked out of the exam into the blazing light of day; next thing I stood inside the nearest take-away I could find, tapping my foot as I stood waiting for the cashier to serve me. I wanted to keep moving, but desperately needed a cold drink. Oblivious, the waitress simply stood behind the coffee machine, scowling as she frothed milk for another customer.
I could barely even remember the last forty minutes. Just flashes which came to me as I stood here, waiting.
“Three sixty.” The waitress, without glancing up, popped the cup on the counter and started reading a newspaper. “Two dollar coins,” she grumbled as the man in front of me handed over some money. “Have you got any idea how many people have given me two dollar coins today? My whole bloody float will be made up of them.”
I smiled foolishly as the woman slammed the register and fussed about change.
“Why the boss doesn’t make the coffee four dollars is beyond me. Never see him here, though, doing the takeaways. I’ll be running out of change before closing time at this rate. But it will be me that has to go to the bank, and lug the money back here.”
The coffee-customer left, and the waitress glared as I handed over my own coins. “You’d think somebody would have something other than two dollar coins.” Once again the slam of the register, the fuss about change. “Put my bloody back out again, lugging all these coins.”
Tired of being made to feel it was all my fault, I grasped my bottle of lemonade and left without a word. I felt guilty the whole length of the street for not having the right change. On turning the corner, I reached into my bag and turned on my phone. Just in case someone had rung to wish me luck, or see how I’d gone. I noticed a missed call from Dave, but before I could call back the phone rang.
That was when I should’ve started running, never pausing to look back. Instead, I foolishly answered, to hear the voice of a policeman.