My PE/Health Science teacher, Ms O’Brien, had thick red hair that tumbled forever down her neck. Most of it plunged towards the small of her back, but other smaller strands curled up around her creamy ears like tiny, languid cats. Her sport had been gymnastics, but she’d grown too tall for competition. Still, she had that bearing and that precision in her movements. Also, her back had this captivating sway in it, which made me think of the bow from a green plastic bow & arrow set I once had as a little kid. She contained some of the same magic.
When Ms O’Brien wrote on the blackboard, her bottom moved beneath the fabric of her skirt. It moved of its own accord, but always in sync with something else, something stronger, something bigger than all of us. At times, when she was stretching up to reach the higher bits of the board, it seemed like a meniscus of lake-water over lazily rising trout. At other times, in a flurry of words or in the midst of a rough diagram, it reminded me of those amazing banners that crowds of soccer supporters hold up in European stadiums.
It was a pretty rough sort of boys’ school – not the sort of school you’d ordinarily wave poems around – but there was something about the poems I’d write about Ms O’Brien that seemed acceptable. In fact, I was something of a star. After classes, I’d show my creations to classmates and they’d read appreciatively. They’d usually cheer at the rude bits, but increasingly they fell silent during the more reflective passages. Some other kids started to write odes and tributes for Ms O’Brien while they too were supposed to be labelling the cardio-vascular system or matching stretches to athletic disciplines. Doodles and illustrations, courtesy of a few boys who weren’t so keen on putting their thoughts into words, found their way into the body of work too. Pretty soon we had a sort of workshop going. We had no formal meeting place or readings, but every week or so – sometimes more often – a group of seven or eight of us would somehow assemble. Because I was accepted as the leader, boys would show me their scribbles first. I’d give their work a quick look over, then tell them to go ahead. I never vetted anything, so I’m not quite sure what that approval process was all about. I suppose it gave them some confidence. It certainly gave me confidence.
Sometimes we collaborated – combining text and drawings in a hardback scrapbook I’d bought from the school stationery shop. One time, in art, we made a bawdy A3 poster that we kept folded inside the scrapbook. It had this intricate sketch of Ms O’Brien looking demure in a totally filthy way (Jerry Taylor drew it brilliantly). Next to the portrait, Michael Young had drawn a giant phallus that was taller and wider than Ms O’Brien, complete with bulging veins and cum squirting up. It was the Empire State Building of cocks with these crazy, reverse raindrops. Ms O’Brien’s portrait was eyeing it. I wrote a poem alongside the shaft of the penis:
Your hair flames
My cock strains.
Between your thighs
My cock lies
Most of my work was much nicer than that, or at least more imaginative, but the collaborative nature of this meant I was writing to different parameters.
Ms O’Brien elevated us above normal life, but she also anchored us in some sort of real-worldliness. We became very knowledgeable about women’s clothing. She must have been a regimented woman because her outfits were a simple variation on a simple theme. If she was teaching in class, she wore a knee-length skirt and a loose-fitting blouse. Simple, elegant, yet there was something French resistance or at least 1940s in the look. Maybe even a bit Linda Carter playing Wonder Woman’s secret identity. If we were doing practical PE classes – in the gym or on the rugby field clambering over hurdles in the wind – she wore shiny tracksuit bottoms, long-sleeved t-shirts, runners and ankle socks with those little bunny tails. So if there was a change in the routine, such as a hot day forcing her into short sleeves or undoing a blouse-button, a jolt ran through us. Any new item caused a stir.
‘New blouse, Miss?’ someone would start up.
‘Ah… yes,’ she’d reply, a little uncertain.
‘It’s nice,’ someone else would say.
She’d look down at herself and maybe pull back her shoulders. If it was a skirt, she might hold it out a wee bit like she was a little girl and give a slightly playful twirl.
‘You think?’ she’d ask, glancing up.
‘Where’d you get it?’
‘Glassons,’ she’d reply, before re-examining herself. ‘They had a sale on last week.’
‘The one in town?’
‘Goes well with those shoes, Miss,’ one of the boys who liked feet would say, maybe Grant Moller.
Harmless stuff, but some kids had to go off to the toilet. Whatever you did, it certainly wasn’t about soaking up classroom time. Some of us even flipped through the soggy junk mail that sank to the bottom of our letterboxes, looking for items that might suit her.
‘You see they’ve got 40% off store-wide at Farmers, Miss?’
‘Not really my style, thanks Grant,’ she might say, giggling slightly.
‘Yeah, but they’ve got great season’s ends on boots.’
‘OK, boys. Let’s get going. Page 71…’
We never had the slightest idea about her personal life – boyfriend or not – and we liked it that way. There was once a rumour that she was a lesbian, but no one in their right mind believed it. I’m pretty sure it was started by this kid who was only at our school for about a month. He came to our workshop once and didn’t even bring anything to read.
The whole Ms O’Brien thing changed for me late in my School C year. It was a Wednesday, PE practical in the gym. We’d played volleyball: red and yellow houses versus green and blue. We (red and yellow) won, so there was quite a bit of cheering. In an oddly spontaneous action, I booted the volleyball across the gym and yahooed out, fist clenched in celebration. I turned around to make my way to the changing rooms and Ms O’Brien was standing there with her arms folded. It was a very hot day – like an oven inside the gym – and she was wearing a sports singlet/bra combo. Her arms were tremendously buff, almost chiselled, but still with this fine, delicate texture and quality. It’s not like you wanted to touch them so much as use them to recalibrate your senses.
‘Into the office, Novovich,’ she ordered (she always pronounced my name perfectly).
She was furious, and was flexing and straining in an odd way. The whole encounter was out of character for both of us – Ms O’Brien always had a soft control over us, but we’d toe the line anyway. It was sort of a non-aggression pact. But something had happened here. She was really pissed off.
‘Now!’ She was pointing. I headed off to the gym office and stood waiting while everyone else got changed and trudged off to the science block. I saw the straggling line of them heading across the First XV field, their heads into the wind, their grey untucked shirts flapping behind them.
When she finally came into the office, she shut the door behind her. I had expected her to have calmed down while she had been putting away the volleyball net or whatever she was doing, but she looked furious. Her eyes were glowing unnaturally.
‘Jacob?’ she said. ‘Is a volleyball a soccer ball?’
I didn’t say anything. She unzipped a tracksuit pocket, pulled out a piece of paper and began firmly unfolding it. The blood ran to my face, and I looked down again at my commando shoes.
‘Is it a rugby ball?’
‘Is it to be kicked?’
I was still looking down, but I could tell she had unfolded the piece of paper and was holding it out in front of her, smoothing its creases, studying it. She turned it around.
‘This is your work?’
I looked up. It wasn’t the poster. It was a poem I’d written on foolscap the day before. I still have no idea how she got it.
‘No one else has seen it,’ I said, looking back down.
‘No one else has seen this poem?’
‘Well that’s alright then, Jacob, isn’t it? That’s fine. Is it?’
‘No. Not really, Miss.’
‘Would you like to read it out to me, Jacob?’ She was holding it out. ‘Would you like to read out the poem you have written for me?’
She walked over and put it into my hand. Actually pulled open my thumb, inserted the piece of paper, and closed my thumb and forefinger gently on it. She’d never touched me before. She walked backwards, her green eyes still looking at me, and sat down on the desk, crossing her legs. She was looking at me in such a strange way.
Next to her, on the top deck of a double in-tray where it was always kept, was the sandshoe the male PE teacher whacked us with. She picked up the sandshoe and started spinning it on its sole in her palm.
‘Go on. You’ve written that lovely poem. I think you should read it out. Go on, to me.’
‘Miss, I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry. What’s there to be sorry about?’
‘Miss.’ I was pleading. ‘I didn’t mean for you to see it.’
‘It’s just a poem, isn’t it? They are your feelings aren’t they?’
My skin was alive with every molecule of air. I used to wear my big brother’s PE shorts, and I was suddenly aware of how inadequate and ancient they were. How tight in places, baggy in others, threadbare in others. I felt their seams on me. My yellow house singlet hung heavily on the back of my neck. My arms were cold. There was a rubik’s cube lodged in my throat. I shook my head, staring at the hard pointed toes of my commando PE shoes.
‘It’s just a joke.’
‘It’s a joke? Really?’
‘Hilarious. Am I a joke to you, Jacob?’
‘No, Miss. Not at all.’
‘Well then, what’s the joke? I guess that means your feelings are a joke, Jacob. Are your feelings a joke?’
I didn’t answer.
‘If this is a joke and I’m not funny, then I guess you must be a joke. Are you a joke, Jacob? It looks that way to me.’
I was crying and nodding.
Ms O’Brien watched me cry for a while. When she spoke again, something had changed.
‘I’m the only one here so it shouldn’t be embarrassing. It shouldn’t be embarrassing at all, Jacob. You’ve written it, you should read it. Go on. Don’t be ashamed.’
So I read it.
Your pubis is tended by a team
of the world’s finest craftsmen
including barbers, painters and Chinese calligraphers.
Its line and depth and golden colour
are a cross between a cloud and
the finest English garden.
Your delicate feet
are fashioned from dolls’ porcelain.
Your toes are like rain.
Each heel like a fresh green walnut.
Your soles are arched like a bridge in a Japanese garden.
Hummingbirds gather at the small
of your back.
Your calves are double scoops of hokey-pokey.
I looked up once or twice, the way you’re taught to when you’re reading to an audience, and I could see her eyes were closed. She’d stopped twirling the sandshoe in her palm. It sat in her lap. After I’d finished, she still had her eyes closed. After a while, she opened them and, quite matter-of-factly, put the sandshoe back in the intray, got off the desk and came over. I wiped my eyes and sniffed deeply, and, as her green eyes approached, looked down. I saw her shoes come into view and stand opposite mine. Pink and white Nikes about the same size as my Commandos. I felt a hand on my shoulder, twisting me gently so I would turn around. She guided me to the day-bed they had for sick and injured kids. I sat down and she sat beside me. She put her arm around my shoulder and rustled my hair a bit, then pushed back the dog-eared bits near my ears. I wanted to go to sleep.
I shrugged. I could feel her warmth through her t-shirt, and her moisture.
I nodded. There was a pause.
‘Is that a good thing?’ she asked.
I gave her four firm, quick nods. Then we laughed. Our bodies were touching and we laughed like I imagine soldiers might laugh, or old friends, or lovers. I thought I was going to break away from myself, like I was going to take her – or anyone I wanted – by the hand and float around the school and suburb and hill where I was born, and point out beautiful things below. She wrote me a note for my science teacher and we wiped the laughter away. We didn’t say anything. Not a word.
Walking to science across the First XV field with my note, it felt like the rubik’s cube that had been in my throat had shrunk and slipped into my solar plexus. I felt sick in a giddy, wonderful way; I was a little kid and it was the summer holidays and I’d been running around with my green plastic bow & arrow set all day, so busy that I’d forgotten to have lunch.
In classes with Ms O’Brien, things between us were fine, although I was fairly quiet. Very slowly, I joined in the class wardrobe discussions. Once, during a debate about the merits of a Canterbury cap she’d borrowed from her sister’s husband, she took it off and shook her hair down. I’m sure she was looking at me through her hair, smiling, sharing herself with me again.
We didn’t have any more workshops. It didn’t seem right. I didn’t actively discourage further meetings, but they just never happened. I suspect I’d been driving the process all along. The school year finished.
When I returned for the start of my sixth form, Ms O’Brien had gone overseas. No more information than that. A new mob of third formers started who had never even seen her. That was strange to imagine.
Sixth-form year passed without an incident to rival Ms O’Brien. I left school and was determined to be a writer, so I signed up for the dole and filled a hardback journal with poems and stories. I tried to expand my repertoire beyond Ms O’Brien, but my characters were invariably red-headed women with emerald eyes and hokey-pokey skin (even if they weren’t, they were). Sometimes, like Japanese pornography, these women had crazy superhuman strength and abilities. Even I could see that what was going onto the page wasn’t convincing. The few times I went out with a girl were terribly anti-climactic. Girls expected me to know what to do, or resented me for thinking I did. Thin girls with undefined limbs.
Then, just a couple of years after I left school, I thought I saw Ms O’Brien. My parents had been hassling me to get a job or go to varsity or just do something; a journalism cadetship was their preferred option. In the end I chose a forklift course because it wouldn’t seem like a complete victory for them. And the strange thing was, not only did I like it, I was really good at it. I don’t know why I was so good – I’d never driven a car particularly well or been much chop mechanically – but I just felt at home in a forklift. I liked the smell of natural gas exhaust and the fact the steering base was at the back. Odd things yes, but they meant something to me. My instructor, Pete Bridewell, reckoned he’d never had a student like me. After I’d manoeuvred my rig around cones to pick up a pallet (or over rice-paper to take a soufflé out of an oven), he’d look at me with an odd tenderness. He was a man whose sense of purpose and dedication to his job either made you happy or sad, depending, I suppose, on what was going on in your own life at the time.
One morning, Pete got a call from a mate who worked in the industry. They had an immediate opening for a top-notch forklift driver at a boutique freight company out at the airport.
‘He’s the best I’ve ever seen,’ I remember Pete gushing on the phone while I sat on the other side of his desk, smiling. Even though I loved the polytech course, I was relieved when I was granted an early pass with credit so I could take the job. I had been the leader of the O’Brien literature workshop at school, but at polytech I was on my own.
The boutique freight operation was in an old hanger that had been renovated and fitted with alarmed cages and atmosphere-controlled annexes. The facilities maintained an air of sophistication: the wooden beams were exposed, the concrete floor was polished.
Most of the time it was just me and the clerk, Len. He had a wallplanner above his desk where he’d marked his favourite flights in yellow highlighter. The one, bold orange stripe standing out was the weekly Singapore Airlines service.
‘This is it, mate,’ he briefed my on my first day, pointing to the orange stripe with a huge metal ruler. ‘All the girls are lovely, but Singapore Airlines girls are the business. Mecca!’
I thought he was all shit. I couldn’t imagine air hostesses going for guys like us. But he wasn’t all shit.
‘We deal with jewels, Jacob. Antiques, fine wines – things of beauty. But we work with our hands. That makes us interesting.’
As I considered the theory, he came up with something else: ‘I’m rapt you’re on with me. The last guy was ugly.’
We quickly found that our ethnic pairing – I’m a blue-eyed blond, and Len was Maori with a dash of Chinese – gave us an intro into most groups in the airport scene. To the girls, one of us always appeared to have a familiar face and some common ground, or, conversely, was exotic enough to be vaguely interesting. And the incongruity of our jobs was intriguing to them and intimidating to the airport drones who just moved bags from A to Z. At our best, we were Biggles crossed with Indiana Jones crossed with that dancer out of Chippendales who (un)dresses as a plumber. At our worst, our airport security passes showed that at least we weren’t going to kill anyone.
On good nights, when we were drinking in an airport house bar booth with the girls, a story would come out of my mouth in the right way and everyone would be quiet at the same time and the rhythms would be right and it would go down superbly and it felt as good as flying above my suburb with Ms O’Brien. But when we’d leave the house bar and move up to the girls’ rooms, things would get out of hand.
Len would always score first, wordlessly leading a girl into the adjourning room. My move would then go something like this: turn around from rummaging through the hotel room’s tiny fridge to find myself alone with a grown-up woman. With Len and the other girls there, I could listen and laugh. I could use one of my pre-written speeches or stories, and then just fill in time by asking questions about stuff. Those new earrings? They’re nice. Where’d you get them? But alone, it was different. Was I to try and kiss these women, my lips gasping like a goldfish? Was I to talk amusingly, my voice like a child’s?
So I developed the foot-rub. It became my speciality. It created something intimate, something neither of us were keen to talk about with other people. More often than not, the poor thing would be asleep in no time, for I quickly learned to soothe the aches that job inflicted. Then I’d lie beside them for a while, perhaps releasing their hair, petting the curls around their ears. I’d gently roll them onto their sides and lie on the edge of the bed. I’d watch their shoulders rise with their breaths, watch their bottoms move beneath their skirts. I’d place a blanket over them and follow their outlines with my hands, tracing the shape of their souls.
One morning, Len and I were in the terminal. Len was getting takeaway coffees and I was watching three Singapore Airlines girls disappear towards a departure gate. I knew enough about sexual politics to understand that one of the reasons they were ‘Mecca’ is that they didn’t drink with us – or anybody – in the house bar. But, that said, there certainly was something about their bearing, their gait, their pride, their precision. Immense. The one in the middle looked non-Asian. She was tall too. She looked exactly like Ms O’Brien. I wanted to run after her, but suddenly Len was beside me, handing me a coffee.
‘It’s not as if they’re more beautiful than the other girls,’ he said. ‘That just depends on your flavours. But with the Singapore Girls, there’s something else. The way they carry themselves.’
He was exactly right. You could just watch them walk away from you, down the maze of airport alleys. It was as if they were walking to some place better. Some place where they could see everything happen below them.