ADAM’S STORY (5)
Adam was a country boy. The Hopkinson smallholding was fifteen k’s from Somersetville in the foothills of the high country. The town had elm- and oak-lined streets; Edwardian shop fronts and Victorian houses; a footy and cricket oval in a large reserve next to the river; and the standard British Empire Post Office and Town Hall in sandstone. Luckily, it wasn’t on the main Sydney-Melbourne road or railway line, so it hadn’t for the most part been ruined by development – and modern architecture. Only a few trendy excrescences had been built in the town center, though there was the usual ring of ugly bungalows in the newer suburbs. It was charming. Tourists loved it.
Adam hated it.
He hated school.
He hated the school bus.
He loathed and detested the blokes on the bus.
“Hey, look who it is! Queenie Hopkinson. Come and sit next to me, queenie.” Ben diDorian made the same joke every morning. Adam ignored him, as he always did. Secretly he fancied Ben. Ben played forward for the under-18 team. He had a perfect footy player’s body, muscular without being too big, broad shoulders, long lean legs and a six-pack stomach. His eyes were a deep chestnut brown. He was a total arsehole.
There was a vacant seat next to Tanya d’Loia, and Adam took it. Fiona took the seat behind.
“Go and sit somewhere else, creep.” Tanya was spiteful and stupid. She was pretty, on the surface.
“Fuck off, Tanya!” said Adam’s sister, Fiona, “you lezzy cow.”
Tanya gave her a poisonous glare.
Everyone was afraid of Fiona’s tongue. She was afraid of nobody. And she loved and worshipped her older brother, more than she loved her mother, her best friend Venetia van der Westhuizen, and almost more than her dog, a little chocolate-brown daxie called Fishy. She saw his shame, his loneliness, his unhappiness, when no one else did. Though Adam would rarely acknowledge her in public, he loved her. Later on, when she knew more about the world, and the secret rooms of the human heart, she supposed that the reason she and Adam were so close were precisely because he was as much a sister to her as a brother.
Even when she had been six to his nine, at the age where boys despise girls, he had looked out for her, and made sure she was OK, had played with her, entering into the full fantasy of her dolls and their lives, and had told her stories about magical far-away places where beautiful princesses in dark castles were rescued by handsome princes and lived happily ever after. When the bullying and the ridicule started, it was Fiona who defended him. When Adam reached the age when boys should be starting to get interested in girls, and he didn’t, it was Fiona who covered for him. She guessed long before he did that he was gay. She didn’t care. Her wit and sarcasm were formidable weapons, made even keener because she was a girl, and couldn’t be beaten up. Fiona was as intelligent as Adam, but she had learnt to conceal it, wiser than her brother in the ways of the world.
At the school gate, Adam and Fiona parted without a word, as they always did. He was embarrassed that his younger sister had to look after him.
At break, Adam went to the school library. It was dangerous to be in the school playground. The school had a no-bullying policy, but it was never enforced. And none of the teachers liked Adam, except for Beryl Titney, who taught him clarinet and sax. She was in her late fifties and had no illusions about the usefulness of school. In the staff common room, she was known as the resident cynic. “Education! Pah! They’ll be no better than cannon fodder for the banks and shops and factories. And none of them will ever learn to think.” It wasn’t just the teachers who were wary of Beryl. Most of the pupils at the school were a little frightened of her, for she was blunt to the point of rudeness. She thought that Adam might just have what it takes to be a musician, a great musician. Like Fiona, she discerned his nature long before he did, and was well aware of all he would suffer because of it. No one knew it, but Beryl Titney had learnt tolerance the hard way, and though Adam didn’t much remind her of her long-gone Johnny, she felt she’d been given a sort of second chance. Besides, Adam played beautifully.
On the bus home, Grant Thompson, with a sardonic gleam to his eyes, asked Adam who he was going to the year twelve formal with. He knew Adam didn’t have a girlfriend.
“Not even your boyfriend?”
Adam ignored him.
As usual, it was Fiona who came to his defence. “You offering, Grant? You’d make a lovely couple.”
“What would you know about it?” Grant blushed an angry red.
“What would you know about life, you pathetic loser?”
Every day Adam would do his homework, then go for a long walk over the hills with Fishy. Fishy would listen when Adam talked, cocking his head on one side. Adam knew that only Fishy and Fiona loved him unconditionally. In winter, his mother would warn him not to stay out too late or go too far – in the high country, the temperature would drop precipitously as soon as the sun set, and just before dawn on a clear night, the thermometer would fall to minus five or six degrees centigrade. Adam would always agree, a ritual that brought his mother comfort but made no difference to him. Adam wore his special jersey that his granny had knitted him, and his windcheater. It wouldn’t be warm enough if he stopped moving, but his mum couldn’t afford the expensive padded jackets that other boys had. It didn’t worry Adam.
If he could have changed anything about his life, it wouldn’t have been the country shire he lived in, or his mother’s poverty, or his own plainness – it would have been his sexuality. He thought he was the only queer in the world. He knew of no one in Somersetville who was gay, though he had heard the word. He’d seen brief newscasts of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney on TV, but they didn’t seem to have anything to do with him. The pictures of drag queens and leather-clad bikies and men wearing lycra shorts repelled him. He didn’t know that there was a whole fractious tribe out there, throwing off their cloak of invisibility.
He never made it to the year twelve formal. He had no girlfriend, and his mother couldn’t have afforded the cost of the suit hire anyway. Nor did he go to the valedictory dinner. This caused considerable offence, because he was dux, he’d won the maths prize, the music prize and two state-wide scholarships – the Salvario Clarinet Award and the Peacock Mathematics Trophy. (He had also been accepted into Melbourne University, which had never happened before to someone from the school, but that was only announced after Christmas). At the valedictory dinner, as each of his awards was announced and he didn’t walk up to the podium to accept them, and make a good (but insincere) or a feeble (but heartfelt) acceptance speech (either would have been satisfactory), there was a stirring in the audience. They knew he hadn’t left the town, that he could have come if he’d wanted to. It was bad form. But Beryl Titney was pleased at the effect his boycott had, and angry with the town wives in their out-of-date dowdy finery and the men in their misshapen suits and lumpy shoes, their hearts hard with judgment.
Adam had told her at the lesson two days before prize giving that he wasn’t going. “None of them cares about me, or likes me. Why should I play their game? The school doesn’t want me.”
“Because it will diminish you not to be gracious,” she said reprovingly.
“They all despise me. They dislike me. And I don’t care about them.”
Beryl secretly sympathized with him. The most brilliant boy the school had ever had, despised and shunned, mocked and bullied, and no one had lifted a finger to help him, to be kind to him, even to educate him properly. But now that he had done so well, surprising everyone except Beryl, he was suddenly someone worth having. The school was enjoying its vicarious fame and the front page reports in The Herald-Sun and The Age. They were offended that Adam didn’t quietly go along with the charade, pretend how grateful he was to the school, how happy he’d been there.
Years later, when he received an invitation to an alumnus reunion, he debated replying with a cutting refusal, but in the end threw the invite in the bin. A couple of days afterwards, Tanya d’Loia, of all people, phoned him up and asked if he would be coming. She sounded nice on the phone. If he hadn’t known her he might have been misled. But instead of telling her to get lost, he produced a small falsehood. “I will,” he said, “be overseas at the time, in Germany and the US.”
There was a respectful silence. “Do you still play clarinet?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he said, waiting for her to go away.
“You used to play so well,” she sighed. He hadn’t known she’d noticed, and if she had, that she’d cared. He didn’t answer, biting back all the words that came to mind.
Though nothing was said directly after the valedictory dinner, in conversations at the supermarket and the bank, it was made plain to Mrs Hopkinson that the town disapproved. She and Adam quarrelled about it. He was too ashamed to tell her how the boys had bullied and mocked him, the beatings in the playground, the dunkings in the toilet, the calculated cruelties on the playing fields, the spiteful insults of the girls. Only Fiona knew about them, and he concealed much of what was done to him even from her. He felt deep down that he was in some way to blame for being bullied, that his difference was his fault and that he should try harder to be like the others. But they never gave him a chance to, never responded to his overtures. “I don’t want to see this town again, or any of the people in it,” he said, with harsh determination. “They can all fuck off.”
“Adam!” said his mother, “language!” putting her hand on her heart to show how shocked she was. She had known he was unhappy, but not why. She had a vague idea that in time, all the unhappiness would be resolved, without quite knowing how. Her clumsy attempts to quiz him about it had met a brick wall. She wasn’t heartless, unless to be indifferent and thoughtless and self-obsessed is to be heartless. Some part of her cared. A little.
Adam would never have gone back to Somersetville after he left to go to uni, not even to see his mother, if it hadn’t been for Beryl Titney. She helped pay his college fees, and he felt obliged to go and see her. Besides, he had developed a liking for her, for her blunt distaste for all the shibboleths and sacred cows of society. He wondered sometimes whether he was her only friend, and there were times, when, apart from his sister, she was certainly his only friend. They wrote to each other, but as is the way, she was a more frequent correspondent than he. Her letters were funny and filled with mordant comments on the town’s minor celebrities. His were shorter and not so witty. Yet he would make a point of going to see her whenever he was in town, but of never otherwise leaving the smallholding except to catch the bus to Wangaratta where the Sydney-Melbourne express trains stopped.