We fought each day to get on the school bus after school; we’d bump shoulders and shove each other and push and laugh and pull each other around, the drivers impatient for us to board.
One day I got on first and the driver said: “You fight your way through and you haven’t even got your money ready.”
This became standard banter, repeated umpteen times with numerous variations: “You fight your way through and you’re bereft of liquid capital.” “You fight your way through and your credit cards have expired!” “You fight your way through and all you’ve got is Turkish lira!”
I had a motive to get on quickly: Her.
My motives then were unclear, unrecognised or hidden. If I got on quickly I could see her walking away from school, the path she traversed disappearing behind a fence that bordered the school next door. It was essential I saw her each day going home, especially Fridays when I didn’t want the joy of forthcoming weekends to be crushed by undesirable breaks in routine. If she didn’t appear I’d feel as if I was missing out on something unfolding behind my back; so it was vital on Fridays that I elbow my way on board with a fury that could leave my competitors flabbergasted.
“You take this seriously,” someone said, as if there could only have been one motive for my behaviour – love of victory.
Late entries onto the bus produced anxiety: Had she already gone past?
If I saw her, and usually I did, I could relax. Every day I looked at a calendar that I kept under clothes in a cupboard in my bedroom. I would unfold that folded up sheet of paper, marking down specific symbols on the days when I’d made her laugh or we’d spoken or we’d smiled at each other, each event given a symbol, the moons, half-moons and crescents on that calendar suggesting that my feelings may have been reciprocated. A full moon meant I’d made her laugh; a crescent indicated that we’d smiled at each other. On “golden” days all three symbols could be seen. Half-moons indicated that communication had occurred.
This youthful indulgence I didn’t realise then was the basis of record-keeping, a good practice I used later at university with excellent results: recording people’s characteristics so that I would have something interesting to tell them if we met.
But that was at another time.
I first saw her on day one of year two of high school: that long, honey-coloured hair, that tanned skin, those little freckles dotting the bridge of a ski-slope nose and those mother-of-pearl blue eyes, like slithers of opal, made everything slow and haze, she sharpened in the centre, me flying without moving; then my mind rushed, heart shoved into fifth gear, effervescent radiance pouring from that face, that hair, that figure, her lovely legs protruding from a short, concertina, school-girl skirt, violent, smooth, abrupt, full-blast sensuality deposited, like transparent plastic, over a mug unprepared for such beauty. Her existence occupied me constantly. I jelly-fish throbbed in distracted yearning, too ill-equipped to do anything about it, except record it, like a love-sick geologist recording emotion nuggets in the dreary layers of routine. Love songs gained esoteric dimensions.
Because we were only together in a class once, I spent my time glimpsing her from a far; I started ringing her at home from phone boxes. The phone would ring, my temples would fizz and squeeze, she’d answer, and....I’d have nothing to say. Packed with panic, I couldn’t even think, let alone speak. Punctuating the silences, she’d ask: “Are you still there?” She would receive a squeaky: “Yes.”
Days were dominated with me procrastinating about when to call. I’d ring six digits, stop, shaken by realism, convincing myself that another time would be better. I lived in daydream craving, my continual creations of her eternal love bearing no resemblance to actuality; I had dreams of rescuing her from wild monsoons on tropical islands; I fantasized about seducing her with flamboyant phrases. I was a perfect being in my dreams: cavalier, witty, free...No one can tell me that they are the best years of our lives: All that desire without the social skills to satisfy it, a constant tumbling down an endless slope, constant failure in a world of savage hope, spinning over and over, falling, tumbling, striking rocks and bouncing, limited-perspective ineptitude seemingly endless.
One day on the phone – her patience was unlimited – she said: “I’ve got an inferiority complex.”
A what? I thought.
I’d never heard the expression.
“Why?” I asked, realising that if she was suffering from some strange psychological quirk, then I must have been suffering from every quirk possible.
My complex was a pizza with everything on it: A pizza complex the works.
“I’m not sure why,” she said, capable of talking about her feelings, a vast step forward in battling complexes.
My complexes had been so ingrained that admitting their existences had been impossible.
I hadn’t heard the expression “inferiority complex” because there wasn’t any conversation in my house and I didn’t read. My mother had disappeared years before and my grandmother was constantly furious with my father’s drinking and womanising.
Then emerged my life’s first stroke of genius: “Is it an inferiority complex or lack of confidence?”
I asked this once I knew what she meant.
Unconsciously, I had created a break with the past. She had made me think for the first time, instead of dreaming up heroic nonsense.
“Good question,” she said.
My God, I thought, we’re really communicating. I need a new symbol.
“I would say it’s a lack of confidence,” I said, “and nothing else.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because you’re able to say that you’ve got an inferiority complex. You’re able to say this to people who don’t frighten you – who you feel confident with. If you feel confident with one person, you can feel confident with everyone. I hope. I think.”
“You’re right,” she said.
Her grateful voice filled me with confidence.
“And fantastically handsome,” I added.
Her laughter was better than any medicine. Years of psychological counselling could not have matched the therapeutic splendour derived from causing that chortling.
“You don’t agree?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she replied.
Suddenly my head was a pond into which cascading thoughts started falling.
“I’m resolving difficult problems and all I get is a maybe.”
“Maybe we could meet at lunchtime tomorrow? I have to go. My mother is annoyed with me being on the phone.”
“What knight of the rectangular lunch table could refuse an invitation so sublime from a lady so delicate? See you tomorrow, she of the honeyed follicles.”
“See you tomorrow, he of the honeyed phrases.”
I heard a lovely chuckle as the phone went down. I was under a typically starry Western Australian night sky. The shimmering upon black-velvet above contained the serene promise inherent in my new confidence. I had been freed from the irritating shackle of timidity and the aplomb exposed by the ripping away of that gaudy exterior had burst forth like the stars, revealing a real future. I had detected that Angela had a vast capacity to experience bliss – like me.
I had used the excuse of studying in a public library to ring her from a phone box. I didn’t walk home, I glided, each step a slow, graceful descent back to precious earth.
My mouth widened in my facial spotlight when I saw her at lunchtime. She was delighted by the delight in my eyes. I hadn’t bothered to mark anything on the calendar the night before.
I said: “Did you notice the confident way I confidently approached you to express my confidences?”
Her face was a universal staging point for bliss. All joy emerged from that point.
“I’m confident,” she smiled, “that you’ll make more and more confident approaches.”
“You can be confident that the confidence in my confident approaches will get increasingly confident as our confidences proceed.”
“Let’s drink to confidence.”
We touched glasses and drank to confidence.
A month later, Alastair, the school’s coolest character, said to me: “Charles; you seem ambivalent towards battling to board your home-bound conveyance. Can one assume that a philosophical shift has transpired?”
“One can assume, dear Watson, that one’s previous elbowing, pushing and shoving has been deposited into the bin of irrelevance, for when amour blooms before one’s inflated nostrils one receives a shunt into greener pastures upon which pointless violence is only for the lesser.”
The group that fought to enter the bus was packed in preparation for the bus’s arrival. Alastair was always picked up by his mother in a Rolls Royce, the Rolls always arriving before the bus, enabling us to get treated each day to the sight of Alastair climbing into its back seat, instructing his mother not to depart until he had lit up a cigarette. His mother found it as funny as the rest of us. In this theatre, Alastair’s first drag got followed by his “demeaning” gesture of wafting his right wrist to indicate that his mother then had permission to set in motion his “home-bound conveyance.” This act came from the same liberating need for repetition that led to the constant use of: “And you haven’t even got your money ready!” And love itself emerges from this need to repeat things that demand repetition, like affirmations of the necessary, the positive and the enhancing so that the hope of a wonderful future gets maintained.
One day, I asked Alastair not to let his mother drive off until I’d said something to her.
The Rolls arrived. I went to the driver’s window.
“Hello Charlie,” Alastair’s mother said. “How are you?”
“Fine, thank you, Misses Burgoyne,” I replied; “apart from one thing that needs amending.”
“Alastair should be smoking Benson and Hedges and not Marlborough; you know – when only the best will do and all that.”
My hands, like parallel clapboards, emphasized my point’s gravity.
“Yes, I see,” she said. “We’ll have to have a good talk to him about this.”
“So you should,” I replied. “A chap with your son’s impeccable standards should only be smoking a product whose elegance is boundless.”
“Quite right,” Missus Burgoyne replied.
“That will be all for now,” I said. “I trust my point has been made clear.”
The clapboards reflected an assertiveness that could only be described as irrefutably reasonable.
“Yes, absolutely,” Misses Burgoyne replied. “I’ll look into it immediately.”
There was some cheek in this given that Alastair’s father was Marlborough’s chairman in Australia. Only six weeks before I wouldn’t have done this.
When Angela heard about this she gave me a kiss so succulent that it felt as if every cell in my lips had been made to vibrate when in contact with her mouth.
“When only the best will do,” she said.
We’ve now been married for thirty years. This has come about because of an unexpected moment of clarity in a difficult telephone conversation that caused the gorgeous rage of confidence to gush forth. Maybe a similar moment occurred in a nanosecond that led to life on earth?
In those thirty years, we haven’t had one serious argument, excellent chemistry beautifying differences.
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes fine wine, art, photography and bullfighting, which probably explains why this Australian lives in Madrid. Although he wouldn’t say no to living in a château in the French Alps. 87 of his stories have been accepted by 73 different magazines.
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