Across The Wash

Excerpt from “Across The Wash” © Leigh Coad, 2018

looking back
we sail around
the moon

My mother relinquished me on a Thursday night. Handed me over like second-hand shoes that didn’t quite fit. I was eating a Quiche Lorraine at the time. I remember the TV guide lying open at the page on which her favourite shows were listed. I guess she wasn’t expecting a knock on the front door.

She didn’t even have the decency to weep.

Six years later, the memories came flooding back. The homes—nine, at last count. Or was it eleven? The confusion of feeling unwanted.

The cop car… cringing in the back seat beside my brother who hummed nervously. The fug. The stink of sweat and fast food. Of urine, the shame of it. The modulated voice of the policewoman. My father sobbing beneath a streetlamp.

The schools… there’d been so many. Friends shredded, like ghosts that vanish with the morning light.

My current school abutted an overpass. Trucks, pick-ups, low loaders and tradie flatbeds thundered by spewing lead and making everyone crazy. Was it the air that morning? My lead-addled brain? I heard a police siren and ducked away, trying to blend in with the quadrangle asphalt. I felt as if I were about to be snatched again. My heart rocketed. A buzz-saw drilled my brain. On and on the horror went, until suddenly my pulse began to calm. The walls rolled open, and I squinted skywards through slotted hair. The sun sparked off English teacher Petro Justin’s windscreen.

He released the horn, gripping the steering wheel. The delivery van swung out of the swerve and continued trundling along the street to the rear of the school grounds.

The rumble of the English teacher’s wagon brought me out of my funk and back to full awareness. He spun through the entry of the staff parking lot with a squeal of brakes before rolling hard left. His fingers, reclining on the rim, caressed the controls. A ruffle of stones sprayed sideways as he eased his station wagon clunker into position along the east wall of the Assembly Hall, landing it alongside the Principal’s Thosmobile—a four-seater Leyland Mini Moke with a frayed canvas roof.

Hoisting myself up, I brushed my uniform down and resumed slouching across the quadrangle. Striving for cool and unencumbered, I dodged shards of plastic and shrivelled peel. I kicked away a crust and skewed a rotten apple core to my right, before regaining a semblance of sang-froid. My hands were grimed with sweat. My synapses were in disarray.

I retied my shoelace with an exaggerated flourish, hoping this chisel-jawed chalkie Adonis wouldn’t catch me gawping. His hair was plastered into submission, each wisp artfully controlled by a subtle slick of gel. I locked in his every movement as he wrangled books into his gym-toned arms. New to the school, he was tall, thickset, broad shouldered.

I assessed his stride—and his strides—the military cut as he sailed off across the sea of gloop, the leisure area of this institution for less-than-privileged pupils. Now here was a dude dressed to tailored perfection. He was spruce. He oozed composure, moving within a whisker of aloof.

A heartfelt ‘Oh, man!’ burst from my lips.

Thirteen out of ten for his well-packed derriére. Clench… release… clench… release. He drifted past a gaggle of Skips playing handball before fading off into the dim interior of the red-brick building.

The wind lofted my skirt, revealing the safety pin in the hem. I hauled my eyes back into their sockets and schlepped towards the smell of burnt toast.

Inside the canteen, volunteer chalkies, flag arms flapping, underarm cleavage protruding from sleeveless nylon tops, thrust slices into toasters. They clattered about, breaking the fast for the Wogs and Skips whose olds had shoved them out the door with only fresh air to sustain them.

Welcome to my life… before… before… things changed for the better.

‘Hi, Missl’, ‘Hi, Miss!’ and ‘Hi, Sir!’ I murmured, rather than recite their names, rather than be regarded as the biggest oil spill to have slimed through the gates of Junction Secondary.

‘Good morning, Marine!’ The sports mistress assessed my legs, her pale gaze lingering on my thighs for longer than was necessary. A series of foster step-dads, boyfriends and uncles had looked at me in the same way.

‘What kept you, Miss Roux?’ The Year 12 coordinator gave me a white-toothed, compassionate smile.

What kept me? I could hardly confess to having spent time assessing the new English teacher Petro Justin’s ergonomically efficient rear end. I hoicked my nose in the air, tugged at my hem to ease the pain of the safety pin’s jab.

‘Everything all right at home?’ The IT instructor, who wore unnervingly tapered crosshatched trousers, scooped yoghurt into his mouth.

He licked the spoon with a whitened tongue and tossed the empty container into the gridlocked bin beneath the counter where it teetered precariously.

I had discovered over the years that the least these snoop cubes knew about me the better.

‘… all right at home?’ My mind switched to the high-rise, to the hoons racing their bikes along the balconies, to the regular drug busts on Saturday nights. Still, it was better than the alternative—the unfamiliar fibro cottage in a distant suburb with lino on the floor, a lumpy narrow bed and nicked nosh hidden beneath the mattress. We all stole food.

Someone crooned, ‘Sure you’re okay?’

I affected a shoulder rotation; laughter cracked from deep within my throat and I assumed a soupcon of derision, enough to steer them off the track. Was my life to be defined forever by domestic upheaval, by failure and undisciplined parental cravings? Defined and redefined—a revolving door of definition?

Somehow my wild hair and long slender legs seemed to make me unsuitable for placement in the average foster home. Either that, or I’d been unlucky. I had blanked out the number of times drunks had flashed me. For a long while I’d been rudderless but now, in the kinship care programme, I was beginning to put down roots, to heal. I no longer felt on the outside, looking in.

The Locker Bell rang, loud and protracted. The Wogs and Skips faded from the canteen window, the teachers began to seal the softened butter, slide soapy cheese into the refrigerator, twist ties around bagged bread.

The Locker Bell shrilled again. A flash of grey blurred across the vinyl tiles, paused, red eyes glaring, rodent whiskers twitching. My muscles tensed. My scalp hurt. I wondered if I was about to slither to the floor before being chomped into a thousand pieces.

I had been bitten once, way back, in the stockpiled, bud butter dwelling of my early childhood. This incident, reinforced by recently reading the prescribed and existentially challenging La Peste, made me terrified of the Black Death. Of rats heaped upon the steps. Of pestilential pustules. Of chills and swollen, tender lymph glands.

‘Rack off! I, I I’m okay,’ I managed to whisper to the circle of concern hemming me in.

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