The early morning sun streamed through the frosty glass of the spare room’s only window. The angle of the rays, coupled with the passage permitted by the gaping wooden slats of the attached blind, saw much of the light fall upon the computer work-station. It was radiant. The fake white pine finish distributed fuzzy halos all around the room. The glare spuming from the monitor made sighting the screen nigh impossible.
Adam O’Doherty, sitting at the station, holding a worksheet he had intended to upload to school, the very same worksheet that was now so much meaningless drivel, appeared to have no problem whatsoever. His eyes were wide. His gaze was fixed. He had hardly blinked in the half hour he’d been online.
“This is a joke,” he said. “It must be a joke.”
After a seventh read-through of the text on screen, Adam rose from the chair and returned to the main bedroom. Maddy was still asleep. She lay at the edge of the mattress, on her side, right arm pulled across her body and hovering out over the edge of the bed, left arm wrapped around her as-yet-unexpanded midriff.
Adam got down on both knees and squeezed her suspended hand. When she failed to stir, he gave her shoulder a nudge. The hanging arm jerked back into a position that covered its counterpart and criss-crossed the abdomen. The eyelids remained shut.
“Go have a shower,” she mumbled. “I can get my own breakfast.”
“Did you send me a message?”
“Did you send a message to my mailbox? This morning or…during the night?”
Maddy opened one eye. “You’re joking.”
“You did get up during the night though, didn’t you?”
“Yes. For a pee.”
“Did you go on the computer?”
“No. I went on the toilet as usual.”
“I did not go on the computer. I had a pee then came straight back to bed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Adam. I am.” Maddy lifted the sheet. “How about you, Kiddo? Did you sneak out last night for a play around with Daddy’s documents? Have a little surf of the net? A wee hack-attack?” She yawned and rolled over.
Adam twitched and fidgeted. He needed her to come clean. He needed a logical explanation. Tell me you did get on the computer, babe. Tell me you had a sneaky peek at my files. Tell me you wanted to totally mess with my mind. And, please, for God’s sake, tell me how you managed to email me about a file you’ve never seen, from an address that can’t be found, as a person not yet in existence. Adam nudged her again.
“What are you doing, fella?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“What is it?”
“I just wanted to say…that…well, I won’t be mad or anything. You know? If you…you know, tell me the truth.”
The pedestal fan juddered as Maddy squinted at her husband of nine years. He was a child. A child claiming to be sick on the day of the big test. She shook her head. “Don’t worry, Kiddo,” she said rolling over once more. “Your Daddy isn’t barking mad all the time. Just when he’s got to go back to school. Good thing it’s his last hurrah.”
A minute’s silence was interrupted by the first, wispy snores of Maddy’s renewed sleep. Adam considered a third nudge, but refrained. He rubbed the back of his neck and retreated.
The light inside the spare room had intensified. Fathering The Foetus – the instigator of Adam’s bafflement – was one of several shining glossies on the top row of the bookshelf, to the right of the computer station. Adam snatched it up and scanned through the contents on page three.
No chapter about replies.
“How about a low-five, Prof?” he said and punted the ‘Number One New York Times Bestseller!’ into a corner box filled with spare coathangers.
At the desk, a pewter bottle opener in the shape of Singapore’s half-lion, half-serpent guardian (Reg O’Doherty had given it to his eldest son as a lucky charm for his writing) burned white hot, causing Adam to shield his eyes as he sat down. He moved the souvenir to a shaded spot and glanced at his watch. He would be late. The standard excuses – malfunctioning alarms, domestic emergencies, traffic chaos, lethargy, indifference, disenchantment – he would’ve traded the current circumstances for any one of those. They were weak and unprofessional.
And completely plausible.
“This is a joke,” he said, reading the message through for the eighth time. “It must be a joke.”
From: "Tin Lid" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Adam O’Doherty" <email@example.com>
Subject: RE: Um…hello.
Hey, thanks for your message! Reading’s not my strong suit right now, so The Guv helped me piece it together. Helping me with the typing too as it happens, despite only coming in at around 40 words per minute. Omniscient, but not good enough to be a temp apparently.
As far as I can teIl there are no problems. I’m feeling good, strong. Not sure I have much shape at the moment, but what there is of it I think is fine.
A Life preview? Wicked! Tell me what’s outside the bubble!
Adam sat alone at the staff table, staring at the printout. Lunch – the last scrapings of Monday night’s stir-fry – lay before him, untouched in the fifteen minutes since its emergence from the microwave. To his right, the clock above the reconditioned Westinghouse fridge ticked over to twenty-past twelve. To his left, the staff whiteboard warned of a fire drill in the next week. Beyond the common room, Carsmair State High School huffed and puffed in the throes of Day One, Teaching Period Four, establishing routines, defining expectations, forgetting holidays, counting minutes till the bell.
“What the hell do I do now?” he said, looking toward the ceiling.
“You could assist me in getting my year nines to fall in love with algebra.”
Adam felt a hand on his shoulder. He snatched up the e-mail, folded it into quarters and tucked it into his breast pocket. As he observed Dilip Shastrani move to the other side of the table and sit in the chair opposite, responses to the inevitable inquiry flooded his mind: ‘The paper?…It’s a lesson plan…It’s my union dues…It’s a chain letter…It’s the Magna Carta…It’s the last will and testament of my much-loved, much-misunderstood Great Aunt Herbie O’Doherty…What paper?’
“It is a fortunate man,” remarked Dilip, “who can ask ‘What the hell do I do now?’ on the first day back.”
Adam drummed his fingers on the table. He needed to appear mildly affronted instead of desperately relieved. “You don’t seem to be working too hard yourself, mate.”
“I don’t consider what I do to be work.”
“Wish I could say the same.”
“Ah, you will one day.” Dilip placed a fist against his heart. “The writer’s dream will become reality soon.”
“You sound pretty sure of yourself.”
“Aren’t you sure of yourself?”
“When it comes to the writer’s dream, I am.” Adam felt the folded paper in his pocket shift with each breath. “As for everything else…”
Dilip smiled and joined his hands. “We have a saying in India: ‘When the largest elephant leads, those behind are taken care of’”.
A gust of wind burrowed in amongst the pile of daily newspapers at the edge of the table. The front page of the top copy stood to attention, allowing Adam a brief, sideways view of the lead stories. There were no surprises. Deception, blame, hypocrisy, cynicism, conflict and a very fat pet, ranked together in a parade of columns and captions. The Sarge had got it wrong – the world wasn’t an unknown quantity at all. It was entirely predictable.
“Do you believe in miracles?” asked Adam.
“Miracles…” Dilip nodded slowly then with startling vigour. “Of course! In fact, I witnessed one just last night!”
“Yes. There was an Indian movie on SBS – ‘Karan Arjun’. Did you happen to see it?”
“No. I was…otherwise occupied.”
“Oh my word! Irrefutable evidence of the divine!” Dilip raised his hands toward the ceiling then brought them together in front of his chest. “Karan Arjun – they’re the heroes – their uncle is a nasty dictator type person, so Mum flees with them and raises them far away. A little bit later, Karan Arjun’s grandfather dies and they come to visit him. Unfortunately, the uncle gets hold of them and proceeds to-”
“Forgive and forget?” offers Adam.
“Not quite. He kicks them. He punches them. He stabs them. He drags them by horse along the desert sands for perhaps fifty miles, then he beheads them.”
“I thought you said he was nasty.”
“Oh, he burned what was left of them too – I almost forgot.”
“Just as well.”
Dilip retreated to his desk, opened his drawer then returned with a Carsmair State High fridge magnet. “Now Adam, my friend…if you can identify the great miracle that ensues, this is yours. A lasting memento of the time before the largest elephant took the lead.”
Adam performed a sign of the cross. “Okay. My guess is…they didn’t die.”
Dilip slid the magnet across the table then applauded. “Why write novels,” he beamed, “when you could pen Bollywood epics!”
“I guess they could still dance and sing too.”
“Better than ever! And they had plenty of reason after they killed the uncle by punching dragging, beheading, etcetera.”
“Ah, no hand of God for the nasty.”
“He never stood a chance. Not only were his recuperative powers far less impressive, he had to tackle Arnie Schwarzenegger.” Dilip made his fingers into a pair of scissors. “Nothing like a bit of creative editing.”
Adam snorted and took in his first mouthful of the stir-fry lunch. “Why do people swallow that sort of thing?”
Dilip paused, ran a hand along the surface of the table. For a brief second he saw something more than his opaque reflection in the aging, polished pine.
“Because it’s all they’ve got to eat,” he replied.
He whispered something Adam interpreted as either self-admonition or prayer. He then cocked his head to one side and smiled. “Theatres in India have ‘ground’ seats. They are exactly what the name suggests – you sit on the dirt. At about two cents Australian, it is the only place the poorest can afford and it is always the area that is the most crowded. Now, to us, Karan Arjun is pathetic, even for two cents. It is ridiculous. We poke fun at it. We laugh at its ‘miracles’. I have no problem with this – I think we are entitled. Especially you, Adam, the brilliant author!”
Adam smiled wanly. Dilip’s earnest kudos always pricked his ego. The man from a small country town outside Hyderabad had not read a single word of Adam’s creative scribblings. Ever.
“But it is important we have understanding of other’s views,” continued Dilip. “To the ‘ground’ people, Karan Arjun and thousands of movies like it are not ridiculous at all. They are not far-fetched. They’re not even possessive of miracles.
“The movie itself is the miracle.
“And it is beyond question, Adam. If heroes manage to stay alive after having their heads chopped off, that’s great. If Russell Crowe suddenly appears in a gladiator’s outfit or Nicole Kidman materialises on a trapeze, that’s even better! The people on the ground accept their miracle, whatever implausible form it takes. They cherish it. They are grateful for it. And they pray to the gods they’ll live long enough to experience it again next week.”
The bell to end Period Four rang out through the undercroft and across the courtyard. Dilip checked his watch against the staffroom clock. “Playground duty,” he said. “Time to play the nasty uncle!”
Adam recommended the office guillotine for any beheadings and tapped his fork thoughtfully against his cheek. He was about to resume eating when he felt Dilip’s hand contact him a second time. It was pressed against his breast pocket.
“Stay grounded, my friend.”
Adam watched the Indian exit the staffroom then ate lunch.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem