Tories

You make your first true friends at school. These aren’t the offspring of family friends, who you’re stuck with at barbeques and christenings and unless you go to some kind of Vegan iPhone Academy in Byron Bay, your parents aren’t there hovering above during lunchbreaks, guiding you away from ‘undesirables’, with lice and pockets full of rocks. The friends you make in school are friends entirely your own, friends you decide upon alone. And when I was six years old I made the very conscious decision to exclusively make friends with money.

Sure, in retrospect, it was probably coincidence that all my first friends came from large properties on the outskirts of my home town, all from farming families, the sons of sons of men with cattle and cotton. Logistically speaking, as a ‘townie’, it would be a nightmare to maintain these friendships, their homes down narrow dirt tracks, often an hour down the highway. But I fell in and stayed in. They were neatly-dressed and clever and good at sport. They would all evolve, somehow within weeks of starting school, into very popular students and I felt popular by proximity, which was more than close enough. They liked me because I was ‘funny’, which is primary school boy code for ‘very, very mean’. I felt wanted, an integral stitch that completed the circle, an anti-Groucho, willingly part of a club that would have someone like me as a member.

Mum referred to out-of-towners and their ilk as “Tories”, a kind-of derogatory regional Queensland slang term for the wealthy, deriving, strangely enough, from the conservative Tory party in the UK. Up until the time came for me to start school, Mum’s association with Tories had been the exchanging of pleasantries at the supermarket or arguing over the price of a bunt cake at the Anglican fete, perhaps the occasional eye roll when she’d catch them at the local agricultural show, all RM Williams boots and sleeveless cotton blouses and a single string of pearls, a uniform set in polished stone long ago.

There was never any real talk of money or class among the Tories, or at least I never heard, be it from child or parent, what anything was worth. There was something sinister in the not-saying or the not needing to say. An implied superiority, not built on a foundation of throwing money about or slyly mentioning the cost of the tennis court, but just in the living. It was the tidier shoes, the television curfew, the subscription to The Australian Financial Review and the impossibly plump skin, somehow existing beyond oil or blemish – better stock, better breeding. They knew and they knew I knew and I knew they knew I knew. What would be the benefit in the saying? Most notable were the brag bumper stickers - “My Child Attends Toowoomba Grammar School” - or, for the subtle, somewhat coded ‘TGS Rowing 1998’.

Their homes were never anything remarkable, but I was transfixed by how clean everything was. Linen was stacked in the cupboard by colour and purpose, leather boots were perfectly lined by the door as if the subject of a homey watercolour you’d buy at some slack-jaw town’s visitor information centre. Lounges and dining rooms (they were separate rooms in some homes!) all looked to be styled out of a page of Country Living. I knew this, because every one of these homes would have a copy of Country Living on the coffee table and I’d wake at dawn to thumb through the magazine and marvel. A bunch of old dry sticks, bundled and tied together with yarn, as a centrepiece? These people were bold enough to employ the literal definition of a faggot as table dressing. I tried doing a similar thing at our house once, pacing around the yard looking for twigs and discoloured bark to arrange in a vase, but it just ended up looking like I’d been swindled out of a bunch of flowers at a petrol station.

My best Tory friend was named Tom, a boy with permanently blushed cheeks and Kennedy hair. Of all my friends, everyone would refer to Tom as their ‘best friend’. And why not? He was an all-rounder, whip-smart, polite, comfortable, happy.  I wasn’t in love with Tom as much as I wanted to be him, Single White Female style. When I was 10 years old and exposed to chat rooms for the first time, my chatroom ‘girlfriend’ asked me to send a letter with a photo of myself. Shy, with big ears and an orthodontic plate, I put a photo of dear old Tom in an envelope. Luckily for us all, this was in the great Taggart ‘stamp drought’ of 1999 and the photo was never sent to what was probably 100% a convicted child molester.

Tom and I bonded over comedy, mostly. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Billy Madison, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Happy Gilmore – you know, the classics. Tom’s parents were obviously finger-on-the-pulse types, real culture vultures, because while he was banned from watching and talking about The Simpsons - “too immoral” - he was permitted to watch South Park. It was broadcast on SBS after all and the flatulent Terrence and Philip characters were French Canadian. I would often dazzle and impress Tom with my latest South Park swag – my ‘Oh My God, They Killed Kenny’ backpack or perhaps my trucker new cap, depicting Cartman vomiting green bile all over the rim.

Most fondly I remember sleepovers at his house, arranged maybe once or twice a year for his birthday or when my parents went out of town. We would ride out to his place after school on the bus, collected at the gate by his mother in a dust-flecked 4WD, which just appeared, like it had been traversing an African savanna. We’d spent the afternoons sitting with the sheep or racing each other on bikes along the dam wall. At night we’d sleep on the veranda, closed-in from mozzies, nothing to hear but the breeze and the faint bark of a working kelpie. It was Little House and I was a pre-pubescent, male, less-worldly Laura Ingalls Wilder. And yet, every so often, it would become painfully apparent that none of this was really mine. It was a visitor and Albert Ingalls at most.

As I became more and more aware I was not like my friends, I grew anxious about bringing them home. What would they notice? Could I throw blankets over the busted, broken lounge set and pretend we were painting? Would they assume the rotting rockmelon sitting in a birdcage atop a pile of empty boxes out on the patio was not mere gross clutter but groundbreaking, outsider art? And what of the freshly laid turd the dog had dropped like a precious parcel near the front door, what of that? For my tenth birthday I decided it was best if we outsourced and held the party at my favourite cafe – The Cosy Corner. The Cosy Corner sat at the end of a trio of shops, including the town florist (I hope you like gerberas and remember, it’s the nineties, so you do) and a sports shop-come-museum for intricately carved emu eggs called The Unique Egg, the town’s one true tourist stop if you don’t count the scene of the much-publicised ‘race riot’. The cafe served my favourite meal in town – chicken curry crepes. They were soft and buttery and tangy and absolutely straight from the freezer into the microwave. Think of the best meal you’ve ever had in hospital and it was almost as good. We all gathered at 4 o’clock for a crepe and perhaps a Fanta Spider. There must have been almost 10 of us around the table - my five Tory friends, a few humble townsfolk from my school and some stragglers from the Catholic School down the road. I looked around the group, at my mother near the head of the table, still dressed in her clothes from work, name badge still on. Something was happening. I felt sick, but not from the chicken curry crepes, they weren’t even defrosting. I was worrying – not about my daggy shoes or my Math homework or forgetting to tape my favourite show, Xena: Warrior Princess. I was worrying about money.

Mum’s a teacher. I know. Teachers don’t make a lot of money. I know. And what does Dad do? He’s a farmer. No he’s not. But he works on a farm. He doesn’t own the farm does he? No. So he’s a farmhand? I guess. Do they make a lot of money? Probably not. Tom’s father owns a farm. I know. Tom’s going to boarding school next year. I know. So are all your school friends. I know. Are you going with them? No. We can’t afford it.

I stood and addressed the table, stern, authoritarian, Joan Ferguson from Prisoner. “Now don’t go ordering just anything off the menu because we can’t afford it”. Of course Mum heard. My friend Candy would have heard and she lived in Dirranbandi. “Don’t be stupid,” Mum said, “they can order whatever they like.” I never considered she might be humiliated or hurt. I mean, I was doing her a favour. In my mind I’d just saved the family from crippling debt brought on by the overindulgence of crepes. “Why did you do that?” she asked on the drive home. “I was helping,” I explained. “But it’s true” I moaned, “we can’t afford it, we’re not rich”. Mum shook her head and launched into her usual Tyne Daly-For-Tony monologue. True, she said, we were not rich, nor were we poor. Then she’d give examples of poor people, which I will omit here, for the sake of her good reputation. Then she would reassure me that she had “money in places you don’t even know about” and I would dramatically sigh at the thought of Mum trying to position herself as some kind of Christopher Skase character, with hidden bank accounts on the other side of the world. She couldn’t even figure out the pay TV remote, how was I meant to believe that?

I’m not sure why Mum became a focal point of this early identity crisis, but she was dragged in by her sensible homypeds and a war raged on around her. It’s hard to imagine she enjoyed it. Mum, unlike me, had lived an entire life free of pretention. She never feigned interest in things which bored her, she never altered her voice depending on the company, never name-dropped or sought a ladder to status climb. Her happiness in her own skin, her own life was unnerving to me. I saw her contentment as a lack of trying and a personal affront to my own, desperate, bloody-kneed trying. It was part of this fierce, early Ayn Randian world view that I came to understand the only way we’d (I’d) be genuinely happy is if we pulled ourselves up out of this squalor (living in a nice brick house in town) and lived our best lives (on a property with upturned collars and horses and we might work out what polo is at some stage). We must try, but we must try while no-one is looking and we mustn’t ever appear to be trying because there is nothing sadder than seeing someone try, so we must try to keep our trying beneath the surface, boiling steady, and eventually, when the moment is right, we would rise up the ranks, buoyant like cooked gnocchi, successfully breaking into their raffia-hat clique. It sounds completely exhausting and I’m sure would have been, had the family gone along with it. They might not have even been listening to the plan. If it was Saturday night, they could have been watching The Bill. What I was offered was an opportunity to stay with the Tories, by way of a boarding school education. Mum sat me down at the kitchen table one afternoon and we ran through the options. We could pull the money together, she said. Or there were scholarships, I could try for one of those. Or I could stay in St George, sleep in my own bed at night, make new friends. Her offer was genuine, I knew it. But I also knew the selfishness it would take to accept it, the sacrifices she would make to pay for just one semester’s tuition. I knew it, understood it and aside from all of that, I couldn’t leave her. I was 10 years old.

My friendships had a use-by-date, souring with the ticking of a clock. I was angry at the Tories, I felt abandoned. I was always on the outside looking-in, but soon they would pack their bags for Toowoomba and Brisbane and I wouldn’t even have anything to look in at. And the anger presented itself in strange and exciting new scenarios. After one sleepover at my friend Sam’s house, I arrived home teary, sleepless, telling Mum I’d woken in the middle of the night to the sound of Sam’s mum and a group of her friends talking on the patio. And to this day I vividly recall waking on the floor in Sam’s room and peaking out at them, all gathered around an outdoor setting beneath a mast of fairy lights. Then the memory of it gets hazy, Stereophonic Festival-grade haze. But the version that I told Mum was that, as I’d awoken, a fact entirely unknown to the group outside, conversation had somehow moved to my family and in particular, Mum and in another particular, Mum’s weight. “They just were saying you were fat and laughing about it and all this stuff”, I’d told her, through a mess of those jet-stream jacuzzi tears, usually only triggered by the death of an animal or the Robin Williams’ Werner syndrome drama Jack. They were tears for her, for being spoken of in such a vicious manner and tears for me for having heard it and I hope my conscience was crying too in knowing that it was all too fortunate and coincidental and I probably didn’t hear anything of the sort and was fabricating the whole cruel tale. Perhaps the reasoning behind the lie was that I felt rejected by them, at war with them and I wanted mum to feel that way too. I still demand it of her, I still desire for us to be bonded in our hatred of someone or something, whether it’s who I perceive to be the villains on a reality cooking show or a writer she’s never heard of who was mean to me on a date. Or perhaps I did it because I was gay and I wanted to create DRAMA and Real Housewives was still 10 years away. All I know is that I carried that lie through school and university and Mum would bring it up from time-to-time and I would quickly change the topic, feeling a little pang of guilt deep in my gut as I pondered the needlessness of it all. Who is to say what really happened, who did or did not call who fat, who loved attention and who thought their insatiable appetite for gossip was victimless?

At the birth of the new millennium, the Tories fixed their straw hats and left for boarding school. After all that build-up and hysteria, Y2K had left the computer alone but stolen my friends. They promised to keep in touch, but the letter-writing was mostly one-sided and dried up altogether a few weeks into the first term. Soon the only memory of them in town was their parents. I’d occasionally pass one in the supermarket during their weekly grocery-run. Some would offer polite chit-chat, a fleeting smile, a nod; others, nothing at all. I wondered for a long time if they were relieved to be rid of me, but perhaps ‘relief’ is too strong an emotion, wildly inflating the impression I made on their lives. Even so, it must have brought some comfort at least that the chapter was over. Though their sons were now several hundred kilometres from home, the parental grip was tighter than ever. At boarding school the children would study and eat and play cricket and take ecstasy with a set more acceptable. They’d still choose their own friends, of course, but the pool of new mates had been downgraded from ‘Olympic’ to ‘paddling’. That’s a metaphor, excuse me. The actual pools at boarding schools are, obviously, fucking enormous.

I started Grade Six and started again, making new friends and the same mistakes. I grew taller, not wiser. I didn’t look back all that often. Children are so wild and resilient. What happens? It’s like we lose practice of picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off. The stakes get higher, but we get weaker. We lose sight of our futures because we’re already living them, we become introspective and sitting in the dirt doesn’t seem all that bad. I think about that time more now than I ever did then. I’m on my phone before bed, flicking through social media profiles, trying to find old friends in faces as broad and tired as mine. And I’m stuck wondering what my life would be if, while sitting at the kitchen table with mum all those years ago, I’d made a different decision. I doubt it would have made me happy. One of the pure joys of adulthood is finally reaching all those assured, happy-making milestones – coming out, getting a place of your own, finding a boyfriend, finding a decent job – and emerging the same clueless piece of shit you always were. 

Joan did.

When I was 10 my best friend was television. I’m quite aware television was friends with other children around that time, but it definitely preferred me and I’m sorry you had to find out this way. I spent so much time with the television that Mum, encouraging a very healthy relationship, had purchased Austar – a form of subscription television available only for those of us lucky enough to live an idyllic existence in the middle of fucking nowhere in regional Australia. I spent every afternoon doing homework in front of the TV (my nickname for it). I watched Nickelodeon and TV1 and The Comedy Channel, the latter of which had begun playing repeats of late night talk shows during the day. 

When I was 10 I was first called a “faggot”. It was a word I hadn’t heard from television, of course not, we were best friends. It was a word so unfamiliar at the time I had to look it up in the dictionary. “A faggot is a bundle of sticks!!!” I proclaimed to my bully Chris the next day, proud at my literal cleverness. “No, you’re a gay faggot,” said Chris. Oh, that made more sense, I thought. It turns out it wasn’t the last time I was called it. It caught on. My last name literally rhymed with the word, almost as if to make the job easier for morons.

When I was 10 I saw Joan Rivers on an American talk show, on my best friend television, and I knew I had to be better. I’d heard the phrase ‘acid-tongued’ before, but had never seen it demonstrated in a master class such as this. Joan took on the stars of the day and I remember practically convulsing with laughter, the first stand up to ever make me fear for my own health. She was brutally funny. ‘A bundle of sticks’ wasn’t going to cut it. Joan showed me that you could be mean-funny and thank god, because it meant I saved face, I won occasionally without resorting to physical violence, but mostly I just got by without going home feeling humiliated and shitty every single day. School is war and you’ve got to use everything you have in your arsenal. Joan did.

When I was 16 I stayed home from the first high school party I’d ever been invited to because there was a Joan Rivers special on TV. I could get drunk and not have sex whenever I wanted. I knew where my loyalties lay.

Get ready to hear the word ‘trailblazer’ a lot, because, for once, it fits. Joan Rivers was a trailblazer. She burnt the shit out of that trail and anyone who followed was just walking on coals. And what a pleasure to see this old Ed Sullivan Show clip doing the rounds in the week leading up to her passing, a reminder of just how sharp she could be, of how much truth she could get away with, while your parents were still in nappies. She didn’t just tell her own truth, but she called out inane, self-serving celebrity bullshit that we might otherwise have mindlessly accepted without comment or critique. Celebrities can be monsters and Joan, though a huge celebrity herself, was also a torch-wielding villager. Without Joan, I fear celebrities might finally rise-up and kill us all.

She did everything, went everywhere. She wrote and directed a feature film in 1978. She was the first female comedian to ever appear at Carnegie Hall, the first to guest host The Tonight Show, the first to ever have her own talk show. She starred in a TV movie...as herself. She wrote books, she did Broadway, she conquered reality TV long before Ice and Coco, she never stopped working. To remember her simply as “that old woman that made fun of gowns” is akin to remembering Bette Davis as “Miranda Pierpoint from Wicked Stepmother”. If you are a 13 year old who hated Joan because she once said something less than kind about a Selena Gomez mullet dress, please go and watch this. If you are a comic who crowned himself King Feminist by disparaging Joan’s looks in the lame defence of another, please go and write some new material or consider another profession.

In the age of social media rage over every off-colour line, a rage that deems all context irrelevant, a rage that burns brightly and fades as soon as the next pun game-worthy scandal rears its ugly head, Joan mastered in the art of not apologising, of standing behind your joke, of standing your ground. It was a practice not always applauded, but an important one, particularly for women and gay men, who often feel the need to apologise not just for what they say or write, but for their existence in general. Joan led the pack and where others would raise a white flag, she raised her middle finger.

Yes, she was sometimes hard to defend, hard to love, but who isn’t? If you didn't let yourself enjoy her talent because you didn't appreciate some of her comments in later years, congratulations on setting yourself up for a joyless life. Joan was a comedian, not a guru, not a UN Peacekeeper, not your mother. It was never her job to parrot your political beliefs back to you. That is literally nobody’s job.

Thank you Joan Rivers for your courage, for constantly selling shit on QVC but never selling-out, for being funnier than anyone has any right to be. Now, I’m going to go and spend some quality time with the television. 

Act One

 

When I was 14 I wanted to be an actor. When I was 7 I wanted to be an actor-slash-singer, but somewhere along the way (*appalling rendition of Somewhere Out There from An American Tail at Goondiwindi Eisteddfod circa 1998) I lost my voice. Trouble was, in my town there were few outlets to perform. I briefly attended a drama class outside school hours and though I loved my teacher, Auntie Jane, her advice never quite extended beyond “Project your voice, Peter! Let your words hit the wall”. In fact, she said this so much it became something of a catchphrase  – her very own “Sing out, Louise!”. Two long St George summers passed and Jane was gone too and as much as I wanted to believe shouting at walls would make me the next Pacino, I sought something more intensive. In mid-2003, a pamphlet arrived at our school announcing The National Institute of Dramatic Arts were running short courses on the Gold Coast during the September school holidays. I applied for a week-long short course in Introduction to Screen Acting, already mastering stage work, after performing in three whole sketches, including one at a church function. I was set.

Having spent most school holidays there, I thought I was pretty familiar with the Gold Coast. I’d seen all the big sights – Australia Fair Birch, Carroll & Coyle, the Southport Aquatic Centre, the Hungry Jacks outside Australia Fair Birch, Carroll & Coyle – however the short course was held at a private school on a side of town I’d never been before. The school was easily the most impressive place I’d witnessed up close – sandstone buildings that looked grander than our Shire Council headquarters, an oval with lush, green grass, a theatre with an actual stage instead of just a corner with an off-cut of grey carpet placed atop milk crates. The school canteen was catering the short course and I’d been sent a special form asking if I had any special dietary requirements. At St George SHS if you were vegetarian it meant you ordered a sausage roll and just picked at the pastry. It was my dream school. It was like a high school out of an American film, which could only mean two things – I was either going to have the time of my life or I was going to be covered in pig’s blood and murder everyone with my eyes.

I filed into the room with an A4 sheet stuck to the door – “NIDA- Introduction to Screen Acting”. Most of my classmates were already inside, casually chatting, eyes darting toward the door when anyone new pushed their way in. I found a spare chair near the window and tried to look confident in a way that said “I have friends, they just aren’t here right now”. How did people do that before the iPhone? How did people busy themselves in those awkward, tense moments to appear nonchalant? I tried to configure a pose, appearing deep in thought when my mind was completely vacant – just like James Franco does in his films and also in his real life. ‘The Thinker’ was soon broken by the arrival of our teacher and our first instruction was to get into groups of two and perform an improvised scene that would introduce us to the group. Not a beat had gone by and I looked around only to notice everyone had already found partners. How did that happen? Sure, some seemed like old friends already but others must have just grabbed the wrist of whoever was closest, fearing they’d be the odd number. The odd number sitting like a statue near the window. Luckily I was paired with a late arrival – a shy girl named Emma who smiled at me in a way that said she was just as nervous as I was. It put me at ease. For our scene Emma and I chose to do a chat show segment in which I insulted her and she acted offended. It was a fortunate coincidence that I’d been cosplaying the role of mean smart-arse for 14 years prior. Lumps in our throats, we got up and killed it. Sort-of. People actually laughed at our gags. Emma told the class she wanted to win an Oscar. I also wanted to win an Oscar. I sat down and Emma told me I was funny – “just like Rove!”.

Introductions took up our entire first period and I was starting to wonder if NIDA actually had anything else planned for us. Didn’t they know what to do with a group of young actors when they couldn’t tell them to take off their clothes? In any case, I wanted it to continue for as long as possible. Lunch was approaching and it filled me with anxiety. Where would I sit? Was the library even open and, if so, would they allow me to eat an egg and lettuce sandwich in there while reading the Courier Mail classifieds? The bell rang and I looked across the room to find Emma, who’d already been claimed by a group of three, fashion-forward girls. They looked like the cast of Sex and the City and I looked like I was in the cast of a show that HBO never picked up because the test audience fell asleep during the first screening. Maybe I could find a toilet stall to have lunch in? I knew the school would have awesome toilets. Emma eventually caught my eye and as I prepared to look away, she waved me over. “Come have lunch with us!” she said. The girls nodded and so we all looked for a shady knoll. “You were really funny,” one turned and said. “Like Rove!”

The girls weren’t Heather clones. They we’re all different shapes and sizes, but when arranged just right, formed a tight, unbreakable Tetris block. Toni was tall and wore a faded denim Kangol, with one long, chestnut braid hanging out the back. Quiet and wise, she was like the mother of the group. And Mama liked her City Beach. Lish, on the other hand, was Toni’s offsider, best friend and, for all intents and purposes, could have played her rebellious teenage daughter in a telemovie should the opportunity arise during the course of the week. Lish was short in stature but had huge white teeth permanently in a grin, eyes that blinked behind mascara and took all her style cues from Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes and hey, who didn’t? Bigger than the rest of the girls but never less confident, Mel had chemically-straight jet black hair and long jelly nails. She was older than the rest of us but boasted that she was technically still a virgin, having only allowed an anonymous young man to make love to her cleavage at a party. We looked up to her. Emma, my rescuer, was the youngest and she had blonde hair that she capped with a fuzzy pink felt beret. She’d modelled in a Big W catalogue but had always thought of herself more as an actress. Her acting hero was Kirsten Dunst and her favourite film was a sexy dull Dunst-vehicle called Crazy/Beautiful. Emma signed her name with the tag “Almost Famous”. Being famous was very important to us all. In a few days time we’d all buy disposable cameras and pose in front of a fountain near the entrance of the school, recreating a scene from ‘90s classic Clueless. It was very, very cool and so were we.

When we weren’t taking photos (and it did take up a lot of our time, spending days winding that little plastic wheel to find the next print) we were doing what every group of young teens do – making fun of everyone who wasn’t us quiet enough so none of them would hear. Our teacher earned our ire straight away. We called him Bitch Tits, because he had muscular pectorals. Achieving to be both mildly homophobic and sexist at the same time, before you dob me in to Jezebel please consider the nickname was a group effort, we were all fourteen years old at the time and therefore legally horrendous and I would call him by his real name in this story, if I only I could remember what it was. Bitch Tits, aside from his upper body bag of meat flaunted daily in low-slung v-necks and patterned dress shirts with liberally loosened buttons, was mid-to-late thirties with thick black-rimmed glasses and dirty blonde hair desperately clinging on against the natural order of things. He spoke with a lisp and was nasal, but each word somehow formed perfectly in the air, crisp and clear as it fell upon us. He’d found the most camp way to be intimidating and demanded respect. Are you imagining Christoph Waltz in a remake of La Cage Aux Folles? Good, keep with it. Bitch Tits spoke to us not like children, but as peers. He’d never talk about his personal life though. It wasn’t uncommon – he was a teacher after all and we’d only be spending five days together so what was the point? Two of the girls saw him one night after class. They were late night shopping at Pacific Fair when they noticed him in Myer, picking through some more low-cut floral dress shirts and possibly surgically removing the top buttons. “So anyways, we saw him like...shopping for shirts! Can you believe that? And we were like ‘Hey sir!’ and he just like, froze and looked at us.” “And then what happened?” I asked. “Oh, we just like, went back shopping or some shit.” We weren’t actors. We were storytellers.

But Bitch Tits really got our good side. Most of the hate-fire was reserved for a classmate - Katrina. Katrina was beautiful and talented and quiet and therefore, quite obviously a moll and fair up-herself. She wore all black and her long blonde hair tied up in a neat ponytail. I’d never seen someone so effortlessly graceful. I imagined she woke up like that. Not in a normal bed like the rest of us peasants, but in a bed on the set of a Revlon commercial. In class, she’d sit, absorbed by all the wisdom Bitch Tits was willing to impart. She’d occasionally lose eye contact, if only to grab an HB pencil and a pair of half-glasses from her bag to take notes. Was this girl for real? Katrina’s only friend was a Lindsay Lohan type, all freckles and sass and raspy-voiced, right before Herbie got Fully Loaded. We didn’t learn her name and we certainly didn’t mess with her. She had the crazy Musical Theatre eyes.

In  case you were wondering, there were three boys in my course. There was the tiny, whisper of a boy who, on the first day, introduced himself as Darth Vader and was never heard from again. The was another named Daniel who attended a local Gold Coast high school and was shy and very, very talented in an understated way and therefore may as well have been a part of the furniture, such was he noticed. And then there was me - Rove.

As the week rolled on I shrugged off “comic acting” – I mean, how degrading – and I threw myself into some intense character work. In an improvisation session that lasted one and a half hours, I portrayed Sam from the popular drama, I Am Sam. In what can only be described as an incredibly sensitive performance, I rocked on the spot and made spider shapes with my hands and repeated lines and re-arranged markers on a desk. I bonded with the girl who was doing her interpretation of Juliette Lewis from The Other Sister. More students switched their act halfway through to chew on more nuanced mentally-challenged roles. It was like that film The Idiots, with less urinal assistance and penetration. I also filmed a scene from American Beauty. I was grateful to receive the role of Plastic Bag Weirdo but was concerned that the script excerpt we’d been given didn’t make any sense. Years later, when I watched the actual film all the way through, I discovered Bitch Tits had forgotten to photocopy an entire page of dialogue. When I brought up my confusion at the time he’d simply mumble “Use it!” or “We’ve only got five minutes.” He’s still the best director I ever had. Oh, and I also played one of the male leads in Looking for Alibrandi. Not the sensitive, suicidal Matthew Newton role, but the tough guy, love interest role. I was so typecast.

By the second last day of camp I started to think about what returning to my real life, my real school would be like. I’d never made friends outside my own school before. Most of my friends had been friends since birth, stuck with me, for better or for worse. I’d never felt “chosen” before. And why had I been? I began to second-guess it all. Had I been their prop – a mere coat stand for pleather jackets and denim kangols? Was I there as the personal photographer, chronicling each day’s outfit like an amateur Bill Cunningham? Or had I been used, just as I had been by friends in primary school, to come up with creative insults to hurl at the unsuspecting and the undeserving? Of course, it was all terribly unfair. These girls didn’t look like Heathers because they weren’t Heathers and though I couldn’t accept it at the time, I could be every bit as toxic as them. The American film location we all inhabited didn’t make them the mean girls of Mean Girls. They were good at school and charming and funny. They had part-time jobs and families and lives played out off-screen. And sure, like any fourteen year old, regardless of gender, they were a little vain, but it was the much less devastating pre-Instagram vanity of the early noughties. And perhaps what I liked about them most is they liked me. For five days I didn’t feel so alone. I knew they weren’t playthings, Bratz dolls come to life. They were real humans, still figuring it all out – just like me, Rove. It was a great comfort. I knew those girls weren’t hanging out with me because they felt sorry for me or as a favour to my parents. I knew they were hanging out with me because they didn’t feel threatened by me sexually.

On a Friday of teary goodbyes we decided to keep in contact forever and we did for three months over MSN chat and boy, did it seem like forever. Outside of that NIDA bubble we didn’t seem to have all that much in common. Emma was always talking about the beach (“That place? Oh, I don’t like taking my shirt off.”) and Toni had actual drama, with actual family and friends (“Oh, he’s sick? That’s too bad. Hey! I transcribed the words of one of the Alex Trebek SNL sketches!”). I saw Lish and Mel just one more time, over the summer holidays of ’03 and we had a blast (I minded their miniature inflatable backpacks while they hit on 19 year olds in Cavill Ave).

Before we left camp though, Bitch Tits asked if we wanted copies of our scenes for our “show reels”. Sure, I said. Who knows when Home and Away might decide to cast a pale, introverted boy with a solid one-pack? Something happened when I finally got my hands on my bulky VHS reel and pressed play. I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like my voice or the way I held my face or the way I walked as an actor. It was a different feeling from those glamorous film stars who can just never watch themselves on screen. I was genuinely embarrassed. You know that moment in which you discover you aren’t half as good at something as you thought you were? For me it mostly happened in primary school, on football ovals and in a compulsory Line Dancing class. I just wasn’t very good. I didn’t want to humiliate myself. And acting - I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was just something about pretending to be someone else that seemed so fake. And I really did prefer being good at things. I once saw a grown man playing a fence post in an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz at Beenleigh Theatre. Continue acting and there was my future. A picket, far from pro-am. I wanted to be a singer-slash-actor, but ended up being a nothing-slash-nothing. It’s tough when you realise that you have a passion for something but don’t have the talent to support. I was lucky that my moment came early, at my grandparents house staring into a TV screen and not on the set of Australian Idol staring into Kyle Sandilands' bloated, joyless face.

When I returned to school I pasted all my photos of my newfound drama buddies on the cover of my school diary. It was a message to my school friends – “If I lived on the north coast of New South Wales, I’d be hanging around with these attractive people who GET ME, not you losers”. They didn’t seem too bothered. And that was fine. I’d returned to a place where nobody really gave a toss about drama. There was no regional theatre, no real measure of good or bad. And in that time and in that space, I could shine for just a few years more.

Formal Derivative

Nobody looks worse than they do on the day of their school formal. Perhaps, maybe, the exception is the day you are laid out for the mortician, but even then, a more delicate shade of blue eye shadow is usually applied. The formal is one of those rare events for which so much energy is poured into looking incredibly radiant and naturally beautiful that almost always, the opposite is achieved. “Put on a little more spray tan”, one friend might say to another over a pre-party primer of Malibu & Coke, “People might still be able to tell the real colour of your skin”. “Pass me that curler,” a girl may demand, staring at the mirror with the intense kind-of focus she lacked in her final exams, “These blonde-highlighted hair extensions don’t quite resemble the dags hanging off a ewe’s arse”. A boy might sit at the table with his father and ask “Should I go with the white suit with the snakeskin tie or the fluorescent green pimp suit with the feathered fedora? I don’t know what’ll work best here in 21st century regional Queensland”. A class formal photo in the country looks like a collection of nominees, if the Daytime Emmy’s gave an award for Best Performance by a Teenager who looks like a mid-forties Soap Opera star.

Some girls spend months organising the colour of their dress -  “You can’t wear Cerulean Blue, Diane. I am wearing Cerulean Blue. You’ve known that for months. Besides, you’ll look like a fat bitch” – not to mention the feuds over accessories - “If you wear a mini tiara too, I’ll kill myself. I will. I’ll fucking kill myself”. While many of the boys pretend to be nonchalant about their appearance, they too look for a suit months in advance, hoping to uncover the perfect pinstripe to compliment their gelled hair and frosted tips that are “actually very in-fashion, okay?”.

I secretly knew the fact I’d learnt how to tie a Windsor knot especially for my formal would turn the most heads. “Look at that Windsor knot” they’d whisper to each other over the canapés. “No wonder he’s going to uni”.

 

+++

 

I once saw a formal video in which a girl was carried to the venue by four Samoan men. I was driven there in my mum’s Mitsubishi XS Tourer. From there, I merely walked into the venue, with none of the fuss and pomp I’d seen in my years of watching American prom films. In those films, the students always glide down a large staircase looking like a screen star in Hollywood’s golden era. But our venue didn’t have a staircase. In fact, the largest staircase of any public place in St George was the stairs leading up to the council building and even then, there’s nothing terribly glamorous about descending down four steps.

A few students had already arrived and paced around the St George Cultural Centre foyer, anxiously awaiting the night to truly arrive. For a moment, I found myself standing with a girl from my grade, with whom I had something of a hate/hate relationship. If there was ever a time for formal niceties, there’d be no nicer time than...well...the formal. “Hi Prue. I like your dress” I lied. I’d always prided myself on my ability to lie to a person’s face, but perhaps her nose for bullshit was her most sincere talent. “Your pimples look nice with your suit” she replied with a grin, her eyes batting dutifully as if there were anything behind them. Prue was an evangelical Christian and, on a daily basis, participated in the evangelical Christian tradition of having great disdain for the world around her.  This was the same girl who’d argued that homosexuals should be stoned and refugees shot. When we’d comforted a classmate after a friend of hers took his own life, Prue chimed in with an upbeat “Oh, never mind. He’s in limbo now”. On another occasion, when the tuckshop served a one-off special of fried rice, Prue could be heard lamenting “What is with all this ethnic stuff anyway? This is Australia! Meat pies! Sausage Rolls!”. I neglected to tell her at the time, but the tuckshop also regularly served something known as a “Pizza Rounder” - a bastardised, microwavable interpretation of a Calzone. Such an Italian delicacy on the menu flying under her radar may have induced such a rage it would cause her to throw a Molotov Cocktail through the tuckshop’s rickety screen door. However the Molotov was invented by the Finnish, so no doubt, she’d have avoided it too.

Last I heard, she’d married off, had kids and had gone into childcare - sadly not as a child, but as a Carer. Of course, a child’s mind is compared to a sponge, absorbing the knowledge of those who most surround it. Such a reassuring thought for all the mums and dads to ponder when next on the lookout for a place in their local crèche.  

Everyone pretended to be the best of friends at the actual formal event – a striking departure from the days leading up to the function and a concept that made me weirdly uncomfortable, despite my own out-of-character complimentary behaviour early in the evening. A professional photographer from out of town had set up a portrait corner, draped in deep-blue velvet, I assume to give the photographic memories of that night that classic North American brothel feel. I was asked to be in a photo with my friends Ben and Katrina – “the acting crowd”. As card-carrying veterans of the high school acting community, they asked us to strike “zany” “offbeat” and “hilarious” poses for the camera. Katrina knelt with her hands held high, like a cheerleader who’d just successfully somersaulted to a big finish. Ben stood on her left, hands cupped around his mouth, as if bellowing like a frightened coach on the sidelines. I held one hand out like a humiliated robot about to shake someone’s hand. I didn’t really get it. They didn’t ask me for a second photo.

We made our formal entrance amongst family and friends, striding in through the front doors, alone. Years of petty fighting over formal partners had exhausted the teachers and caused the school to abandon the tradition of students pairing-up with a random member of the opposite sex. The rest of the night, however, was strictly traditional. We cut the cake. We ate a meal of meats and defrosted vegetables from a bain-marie. We danced an official dance to Peaches & Herb’s camp disco hit “Shake Your Groove Thing”. I’d failed to completely memorise the choreography that consisted of all but six movements. Athletes and academics sashayed past as I waddled along, doing my best impression of what I thought a dancing human may look like. Tables were pushed to the walls and the adults joined us to waltz the night away to a married musical duo in their late sixties, who had been hired after previously thrilling a lively crowd at September’s Anglican Diocese Ball. They played the sexy, modern hits for us celebratory teens – from Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” all the way to the floor-humping beats of Eddie Cantor’s 1925 Number #1 hit “If You Knew Susie”. By the time the pair hit percussion on the musical washboard, the cleaners were busy stacking chairs.  

 

+++

 

The after party was held at a student’s property just off the main road on the outskirts of town. Set up by the riverbank, there was the obligatory bonfire and a portaloo and eskies of all shapes, with XXXX and Bundy Rum and Passionfruit UDL’s all floating in miniature pools of melted ice.

I sat beside the river for hours with my friend Ben and an entertaining girl who’d graduated years ago and had turned up at the party “just because”. She’d been living in the city and had travelled and was worldly. I tried to keep up and spoke of things I’d never read and things I’d never seen and though enjoying the odd serenity of adolescent drunkenness and country music radio, I stared across the murky brown waters of the Balonne River for a long while, slightly cut-off from the revelry. I was surprised at how unfulfilled I felt in that moment. It must be what people who run the 400 metre track race in the Olympics feel like. Sure, they’d made the distance, but what was the point if they ended up where they’d started?*

I did what I always do when surrounded by people with nothing to say at all. I drank. I drank everything I’d brought with me. Then I drank something someone else had brought. It was blue. Then I called it a night relatively early. Others stayed to see morning, but I summoned Ben, who was staying in town with me and we walked home – all eight kilometres home. No less than three cars offered us a lift into town, but I waved each and every one on their way. “We’re fine,” I answered for both of us, as if I were so entitled. “We love walking!”. I stumbled past the town grave yard, stepping in a ditch, before pissing against a gate. We finally made it into town, touching pavement. I ran a stick against the fences of teacher accommodation shared by young school staff, waking their dogs before scurrying down the block and around the corner, home and out of sight.

 

+++

 

The morning after the formal, everyone looked luminous. We were allowed a late start to the school day. Everyone arrived around 11:45am, their skin ruddy from hot showers and abrasive make-up wipes, their clothes fresh from dryers and hair, pulled back and lazily tussled, speaking volumes of sexual misadventures and, in my case, the misadventures of going home and watching comedy DVD’s in my pyjamas. We sat in a demountable building sitting alongside the Science Block - a building usually reserved for the kids of the Special Education Unit. It was apt, as unbeknownst to us, we’d be receiving a special kind of education that day too; “special”, as in unwelcome and hostile.

As a post-formal, pre-graduation activity, the principal had organised a self-defense seminar, hosted by a local Taekwondo enthusiast, whose eyes constantly darted around the room, as if she were Sarah Palin and we were the wide-eyed mother’s of Bambi, just doing the damn best we could there in the wilderness. As she addressed the class, we lay our heads against various items of furniture in our immediate vicinity, hoping, rather foolishly, that we’d perhaps blend into the plastic chairs or laminate-top desks. A few well-mannered students joined the activities, kicking and thrusting to the choreography of their leader. She looked around at the students, like me, nursing hangovers with unreserved pity. What a sad and sorry bunch she must have seen. Could we not all be cast in her mould? Would my generation ever work hard enough to witness the success she’d experienced, rising up to the ranks of part-time/casual receptionist at a rural Doctor’s office? She needed to speak up. It was her moment, her time. She cast her eyes around, locking with any pair that dare meet hers. She directed her permanent frown at me, while saying to the group “Y’know, when youse kids go the big smoke or wherever your movin’ to and your walkin’ home from some nightclub...” Wow, the lady really had me pegged. She continued, “Youse might be cornered by some big guys and then you’ll regret that you didn’t listen to me!

I took her words to my gut, punched, wounded, winded and paralysed for a few minutes. I imagined that day she described, walking home idly from a nightclub, before being pounced upon by inner-city ruffians. I imagined laying there in a gutter, actually winded and paralysed this time, blood trickling into a storm drain from a gash on my head. I imagined losing consciousness, eyes rolling back into my skull and the final dying thought, “No regrets. No regrets”.

 

*Although, to be fair, Cathy Freeman looked pretty damn pleased with herself when she finished in 2000.

+Names have been changed to protect the innocent and myself, for forgetting their real names. 

Playing With Fire

The fire alarm always rang in art class. Whilst most computers lay broken on trolleys and AV equipment showed little more than static, our high school's fire alarm was always in pitch-perfect condition. It sent out a menacing scream across the entire campus in perfect-unison, sneaking up upon sleeping teen mothers and receptionists nursing mid-week hangovers. Once it rang, students would be hurried out of the classroom, leaving behind paint brushes to bristle in clag muck and tortured clay moulds to explode in the reliably unreliable kiln. The teachers kept up an unconvincing masquerade of being hopelessly unaware of the farce unfolding around us all. “I didn’t think there was fire drill today,” one would say, notably leaving behind her own purse and phone in a nonchalant fashion. “This could be the real deal...now has anyone seen my coffee?” We’d walk to the oval at the front entrance of the school, supposedly the safest place in the event of a catastrophic fire. It was a foolish charade. In the event of a fire, the actual safest place would be “away from all the other students” who’d be sent into a disaster-triggered spree of mayhem, busily collecting their own items and tearing down everything else in the school not bonded with concrete. Also, the oval sat next to a largely-abandoned field of dry grass and tumbleweeds – a relative bushfire maternity ward. “Maybe this was their intention,” a classmate said, as we casually strolled in a huddled mass. “Maybe the real fire is on the oval and we are being marched to our fiery deaths”. Each of us in the class would run through the “most likely” list of local arsonists. We’d reconstruct the elaborate terrorist plot that led to the fire. Some would see friends from other classes walking by and scream “Fire! Fire! We’re all gonna die!” Oh, how we’d laugh. We’d giggle at a school ablaze, report cards disintegrating and school swimming trophies melting amongst the ashes. We’d rock and chortle and snicker at the very thought of flames consuming our science block, our tuckshop, our Manual Arts teacher. But one day, we fell silent and laughter lines were replaced by crinkled, worried brows. It was a warm day in senior year, and whispers of an actual wild fire had spread like...well...you know. The teacher’s expressions of concern appeared more valid, more genuine. We’d heard rumours of smoke coming from the chaplains office. He was a skate-boarding chaplain from the mean streets of Brisbane. He once mistook my general dislike of him as clinical depression. Perhaps he’s smoking out demons, I suggested. As we turned a corner, there it was - just as everyone had heard. A significant plume of smoke rose up from the chaplain’s office, though it was barely visible from all the firemen and women surrounding the open window. Along with the fire truck, an ambulance was parked just metres from the reception and officers made a bee-line for the glass doors, carrying masks and bottled water. We sat on the oval in our so-called ‘Care Groups’ – a group of students from a variety of year levels thrown together, most of whom, ironically, I cared very little for. As we waited to be addressed by the principal, a sceptical 11th grader called out, “It’s all bullshit”. But was it? I wasn’t entirely convinced. The ambulance officers appeared to be treating a boy for smoke inhalation. I squinted and recognised him as fellow school senior. His head hung low as he gasped for air. What was he doing in the Chaplains office anyway? I pondered. Was he, like the rest of office regulars, pretending to go through a sexuality crisis to take advantage of the air conditioning and stereo? Then – an answer. “What you’ve witnessed today has been a stunt to show you the importance of civil behaviour during our ritual fire drills,” said the Principal, grinning like she’d ‘Punk’d’ us bad. The lesson – treat fire drills seriously, because one day, there might be a real fire. Or there might just be another fucking stunt, I thought. They'd used lighting fixtures and a smoke machine left over from the school's 80's-themed disco to create a realistic fire scene. The staff, the firemen, the ambos...they were all in on it. Sure, as a student I felt betrayed and tricked, but more to the point, as a soon-to-be-failed actor, I was outraged. Why wasn’t I approached for the role of “Smoke Inhalation Victim”? I played Seymour in Little Shop. I had accents. I had range. I thought about the elaborate trick they’d pulled. This wasn’t a regular “gotcha” moment. We’d been deceived into thinking that our lives were in actual, physical danger. The possibility of something going wrong was beyond comprehension. People do crazy shit when faced with dangerous circumstances. They get handy with rifles. I’m not saying that people in high school were packin’ heat, but they weren’t just pleased to see you. It didn’t feel right that adults at school could lie to you – even to teach a lesson (the only exception being the fortnightly appearances of our Christian R.E. teachers and lying was part and parcel of their role). It’s only after you’ve finished secondary education that you realise your teachers, some of whom you idolised and trusted with every fibre of your being, lied to you on a daily basis. “Of course we’ll mark you fairly ...” they’d say, or “It’s important to learn algebra, because you’ll use it so much in your life after school” or “The PE teacher didn’t have it off with that student...they’re just good friends”. In Year 11, when people still regularly climbed it, my mother was lead by her geography teacher up Uluru, only to discover there was no ice cream/souvenir emporium on top as her teacher had promised. Only red, red dirt...and a few discarded chip packets, no doubt left as a loving and grateful tribute to the traditional owners. Teachers lied to protect us from ourselves. Still, it was a slippery slope from well-intentioned deception into the lurid depths of emotionally-scarring treachery. For a while after that brazen fire stunt, we questioned everything they told us. We were The Who and we weren’t getting fooled again. On one of the final days of school, we’d heard that, for the school formal, the principal had arranged a married couple in their seventies to play barn-dancing tunes on the washboard instead of the usual formal-party DJ. Yeah right, we thought. Pull the other one, Miss. The teachers insisted that instead of Top 40 hits, we’d be hearing covers of Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ all night long. ...and, almost as a cruel farewell, just this once, they’d told us the truth.
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