Extract from The Track (Unfinished novel 2019)
Life at St John’s wasn’t easy. But then again, it wasn’t that hard either. On school days we’d wake at 6.30am, polish our shoes in the dormitory and then get dressed into our school uniforms before filing down to the refectory for breakfast. Breakfast would be cereal and toast washed down with milk straight from the farm and coffee, which I was never allowed to drink at home. Of course, this being the case, I drank lots of it.
Coffee was another of those things in life that made you feel so grown up when you were thirteen or so. We used to make a kind of latte like drink by putting four or five heaped teaspoons of sugar into a mug to which we added a little bit of boiled water and then stirred into a paste. Once the paste was of a sufficient fluidity we’d pour in boiling water and milk and the result was an extremely sweet coffee with a frothy sort of top. At the time we thought it was all very sophisticated.
After breakfast a dozen or so boarders would then be rostered on to do the washing and drying of the numerous plates and cups and bowls used for breakfast while the others had a bit of free time before going to class. And by free time, I really do mean free time.
In summer we’d play quadrangle cricket where a hundred kids would stand around as fielders and two boys would bat. It was tip and run and with so many fielders it was hard to stay in. As such the batsman changed almost every few balls, unless there was a dropped catch or a missed run out. It was complete bedlam but fun. The bowler would bowl, the batsman would try to slog it as far as possible away from all the fielders, someone would either catch the ball, which meant they earned the right to have a bat, or drop it, which meant they had the ball and earned the right to bowl. In all my years at the school I never bowled a single ball and batted for a grand total of one ball. Still, it was fun.
In winter it was footy, ‘forcings-back’, where one team, and I use that word loosely, would be on one side of the quadrangle and the other team on the opposite side. The idea was to kick the ball further than the opposing side and therefore force them back, thus winning. If a player from one team ‘marked’ the ball, that is, caught it on the full, then they could advance ten steps before kicking it back. However, given that the players ranged widely in talent, height, strength and ability, no-one ever seemed to actually win, and if they did, then no-one really cared. If I recall correctly, I may have managed to get a couple of kicks over the years.
When not playing yard cricket some of us would hang out near the bike racks which were behind the physics labs. This was a terrible oversight by the designers of the school who probably thought that they were putting the unsightly racks out of sight and out of mind. This was not the case.
And so, it is a bright sunny morning and, having had no luck trying to get a bat or a bowl in the mayhem that is quadrangle cricket, I wander around the back of the physics labs. The buildings themselves are squat, uninspiring brick buildings with flat roofs and probably build it the 1960s. Unlike the rest of the school, which is a wonderful example of turn of the century architecture, these are the ugly modernisation and rationalisation of education and they stand out like the proverbial sore thumb, or dogs balls on a mouse, whichever you prefer. They reek of 1970s institutionalism, that peculiar impersonal, cold, unwelcoming feeling of modern schooling. Apart from that, they are simply ugly. We are the student clones from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. We are the sausages in the educational sausage factory.
Around the back of the building I find Robbo and Paulie and a number of others from my year. They are slagging goobers, that is, snorking up great lumps of phlegm from the back of their throats and then spitting them at the top rail of the bike rack and cheering as they drip down, the winner obviously being the one who can produce a goober, called ‘hangers’, that hangs the furthest. It is revolting, but we are teenage boys.
Paulie prepares himself and then produces a huge snork. He then coughs up the green, disgusting greenish blob and spits it at the bike rack. It sticks and wobbles but resolutely refuses to hang. Everyone stares at it in anticipation but it doggedly refuses to play the game. Then, just as everyone is losing interest, it slowly, almost imperceptibly, begins to stretch towards the ground.
“Err, gross.” I say.
The goober stretches further, going past a previous effort. The boys gathered around the bike rack cheer loudly.
“Come on,” yells Paulie, urging this repulsive little ball of goo to stretch even further.
We stand there and watch in fascination as it stretches further and further, overtaking a number of previous efforts. Other boys groan as they realise they are no longer in the game. It stretches even further, this is remarkable. It’s still a long way from being a record, which was set last year by someone in Year Ten, but it’s a pretty good effort. We cheer louder.
Paulie, Robbo and I are at the front completely and utterly captivated by what is going on. There are more cheers and we cheer as well. Then suddenly there is silence. The cheer dies in our throats and we turn around to find one of our teachers, a Mr Logger, commonly known as ‘Logger the Flogger’, is standing behind us. His face is red, puffy and somewhat bloated. Although I don’t realise it at this time of life, he is obviously a hopeless alcoholic. Apart from that, he does not look impressed.
Within minutes we are standing outside Flogger’s office. The corridor of the old school is dim and gloomy and the wood panelling, worn and scratched over many decades of existence seems to emanate a particular feeling of apprehension. Even the school building itself feels as if it is punishing us. We know what is coming and we know that it will hurt, but again, like many things at this age, we see it as a badge of pride.
‘Cuts’. This word dominated schoolyard talk. How many did you get? Who did it? Did he use a ruler or a cane? How much did it hurt? Say it again, cuts, there’s a reason why it was called so.
Flogger, however, is particularly cruel and rather than use a cane or a ruler, he uses a thick strip of leather which he flicks in a particular way onto student’s open palms. It is agony and leaves huge welts on a student’s hand. It is also rumoured that he broke a student’s hand in one fit of rage. He also doesn’t appear to know the meaning of the word restraint. As we stand there we hear the siren ring to start the school day. I can imagine the students as they file off to their classes and I wish that I was with them. We are now seriously regretting our early morning amusement.
The old wooden door ominously creaks opens and he appears at the door. Paulie, being the ring leader, is the first to be called in and we hear the familiar and frightening ‘WAP, WAP, WAP’ of the leather strap. Except, rather than the usual two or three ‘waps’, we hear six, and then seven, then eight, nine, ten, eleven… twelve.
We stand very still. My legs are shaking and I have a horrible tight feeling in the back of my throat. I think I’m about to burst into tears or vomit. I manage a quick glance at Robbo and he seems also on the verge of tears. His face is red and screwed up and his lips appear dry. He is rocking back and forth ever so slightly.
The door opens and Paulie appears. His face is contorted in pain and he is holding his right hand with his left. I notice a smear of blood and suddenly I feel like running. My legs are shaking and I feel as if I am about to explode. I am terrified. However, I don’t run, I am too scared even to do that, and Paulie passes by me without acknowledgment. He walks slowly down the bleak corridor and I hear a slight whimper as he disappears around a corner.
I am next.
The door is still open and I step forward. I can’t think and my mouth is dry. Flogger closes the door behind me.
He is not a big man, more medium height with a pot belly and a balding head. He is probably aged in his early fifties but I am not sure of this. He wears glasses, thick black plastic rimmed style glasses that magnify his eyes so that they appear bigger than they actually are. He is standing in front of a huge wooden desk that is covered in piles of books and sheets of paper. In his right hand is a leather strap, the leather strap. He is nonchalantly slapping it against his open left palm as if goading me, trying to terrify me.
He need not try. I am terrified, beyond words.
He says something about bike racks and disgusting habits and you should know better but I can’t understand a word. It’s just gobbledy-gook and I am feeling very vulnerable and small. He doesn’t even tell me to put out my hand. I just do it, as if hypnotised. And yet, my hand is curled up into a fist and as hard as I try, I cannot uncurl it to expose the fleshy part of my palm. This simply enrages him more but I manage to find my voice and protest that I simply cannot open my hand. It is literally frozen.
And so he whips my knuckles. The first strike is agonising and I am sure it has broken my little finger. The pain is intense and I feel a tightening in my throat. He strikes again and my eyes begin to fill with tears. The pain is indescribable. He pulls his arm and wrist back again to strike but this time I pull my hand away.
This is a mistake. Suddenly he loses all semblance of control and wildly slaps the leather strap down upon my hand, my arm, my shoulder and even across my face. I cower and cover my head with my arms but it is no use, he continues. WAP. WAP. WAP. WAP. WAP. I lose count of the times he hits me with that little implement of torture.
Time becomes distorted. Seconds seem like minutes. My eyes are watering and I cannot breathe. The leather strap continues to pound down upon my hand and arms. Each strike is like the slash of a sword.
Then it is over and I find myself standing in the hallway whimpering. I can vaguely hear Robbo screaming but I am in too much pain to even register the fact that he too is copping a beating, and probably worse than mine. Bizarrely, I recall thinking that, maybe if he gets tired, he won’t be able to hit Robbo as much. However, the sound continues and I know this is not the case. I feel like a coward but there is nothing I can do so I exit the building and, once outside, walk slowly across the deserted asphalt yard to the toilet block located in the middle of the quadrangle. The toilet block is empty so I find a cubicle and lock the door. I cry and cry and cry like I have never done before. However, it is not just the pain, it is thought of the terrible cruelty and the feeling of helplessness. It is acute humiliation. Apart from that, I genuinely thought I was about to be killed such was his rage.
That night we eat our dinner, have a shower, watch some television but don’t say a word. The embarrassment we feel is immense. The school nurse, an attractive woman in her early thirties comes and sees us and gives us aspirin tablets. She also cleans and disinfects Paulie’s hand. She is nice and sympathetic but she cannot do anything. This is an old institution and this is how it has been done since the school started, since time immemorial one could say, and women remain firmly in the background in this deeply misogynistic Catholic institution. These days one can read of Victorian era cruelty in schools but one would assume that you would not find it in the Australian education system of the 1970s. How wrong you would be.
Of course, Flogger will be cleared of any wrong doing by his peers. After all, even if he had gone too far, which he plainly had, it was the student’s fault, obviously. In time such things will be forgotten. Life will move on. However, it’s not the pain or scars that will remain.