Barry Keough Goes Downstairs


(April 1974)


Jan Herschel







He looked at the windows. Saltbush, seagulls, sky; sky, seagulls.

Saltbush.

A thousand miles of saltbush.

"Welcome to Siberia," he said aloud, "only hot."

He sighed.

He had fourth and fifth free on Fridays; he had an hour and a half to kill before lunch. He closed his eyes. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In this year of Our Lord 1974 he was forty-odd, forty-odd in this godforsaken vastness, and in this godforsaken vastness he had an hour and a half every Friday to look out the window and watch seagulls farting around on the edge of a desert.

He opened his eyes, stood up, and kicked the stool further when it fell over behind him. He’d be there next year when they did the timetable. He’d give himself sixth and seventh off, get out of homeroom and rack off back to Adelaide at lunchtime. Four and a half days a week of screaming kids, bald brick houses, endless sky and more endless saltbush; of nothing to do, nowhere to go but the pub or the pictures, of nothing, nowhere, nobody: My dears, he could see himself fluting in the lavender-lit recesses of The Shield, enough is enough.

And now at the windows even the seagulls were gone—pissed off to the roof or the school hall or the fish and chip shop down in the main town or back to the sea. Somewhere more promising. He sighed again, picked the stool up and put it back.

The room was empty. The tables were abandoned. He grinned for a moment, wryly, and took a deep breath. He wasn’t dead, at least. At least he could still grin at the sinuousness of boys escaping from Art.

And, my dears, he could see himself telling them at The Shield, the one with the fair hair and the alabaster skin, the one who could paint!

The way those edges formed in the kid’s eyes when he was looking at something—God, eyes like Cubist lenses. You could see him assimilating Picasso and Pollock. And the kid was how old? Thirteen? Fourteen?

Jesus.

In a couple of years, my dears, with those eyes and that diffidence, he’ll be as prime a piece—

Oh, Christ, his mind screamed. Jesus, no!

The carpark at The Bull and Whip. The new Port Adelaide, ponced up and trendy, trees looming. Gum-trees with whitish bark showing pale and ghastly blue in the mercury-vapour light, the light disembodying the whitish undersides of the leaves, cooling and hardening the fenders of the cars, enlarging the bright halo of hair that filled his eyes.

Oh my dears.

From the back of his mind the voice of his own recitation afterwards. He couldn’t shut it up. He was on a stool, at a table, in daylight, months later. He was shivering uncontrollably, but he couldn’t blur the vision, stop the voice. Couldn’t shut it down, shut it off, shut it up.

Oh my dears, he said afterwards, at home, on his own old rattan settee, after the whole thing had happened and they all sat listening, appalled, I turned around from the bar with nothing but a brandy and dry between me and early to bed. And there were those eyes looking at me, bright blind turquoise, eyes like the eyes on those grey stone statues of ancestors or gods they always set on hills to stare eternally at the eternal sea, that make you glad that mortal flesh can give a fuck And there, beneath those eyes, was a smile that aged on his mouth while he waited for me to get to it.

The kid was seventeen. In the football team at school. I’d never seen him. He said he’d never done Art because that meant you were one of the poofterhood.

Yeah. Well.

There he was. Proof positive that there’s more to footy than going arse over tit in the ruck.

The boy had smiled, embarrassed. Was embarrassed, but had kissed him beneath those mercury-lit trees, behind the bloody mercury-lit cars that just bloody stood there, getting colder.

Even then he couldn’t believe it.

My dears, he’d said afterwards, on his settee, in his dim lounge-room, said afterwards and wished he’d said to himself at the time, and listened, wished he’d smiled and waved the vision away, cried out his unworthiness. his shocked spinsterish prudery, ignorance, syphilis, anything: My dears, he said, I knew it couldn’t be true.

That he never really had a chance. Not at that.

Three days later the Principal had him in for a friendly chat. "To see where you’re going, my boy."

For one absurd and demented moment he’d thought the pompous old twit was talking about the new Art syllabus.

He’d gone quietly. Come quietly. Here, to Hell.

He’d arrived two weeks into the first term, into Mondays, Fridays, Tuesdays Wednesdays Thursdays, staring at seagulls and madness.

His neck and arms throbbed. His back felt as though it were torn. Cubist eyes and smile of roses.

A thousand miles of saltbush. An hour and a half.

He was cold. The room was cold. He moved, dragging his goosepimples to the light.

Saltbush. Sky. Air. Weather.

At every door and window there was nothing but heat and light and exhaustion. Everything was hot and bright. No darkness anywhere. Oh, no. We’re all hot and bright and empty here, mate, and just you try and say otherwise.

Red dirt blazed at the sky through the window, between his outspread fingers.

Red dirt blazed at the sky in front of you because you were there to see it.

And you were there to see it because you’d reached for the last mad bloody hope of your deluded bloody early middle age. For jailbait.

As though you’d’ve had any bloody chance with a kid like that if he hadn’t been just experimenting, getting cold feet, getting no cash no rush no revelation—You! Jesus, looking like a pale featherless chook in the mirror in the mornings, a pale, featherless, balding chook at night. And definitely not rich. Red dirt blazed at your eyeballs because you’d forgotten for a moment who and what you were. That you weren’t supposed to be what you were, even if there was nobody around to see.

The kid had seen.

As though at The Bull And Whip he could’ve seen anything else.

There was no one out there, past the window, to see.

You could prance around screaming like a bloody headless chook and there’d be no one to see.

Not here.

There was no one, here.

No one to talk to. No one to go to the pub with, home to.

No one to know if you shook and turned pale and trembled, sat still or ached or cried out or even breathed on window-glass.

No one.

There never had been.

He leant against the window, trembling.

He was still shaking as he started to walk towards the door. He let his fingers drag across the last empty tabletop. All that soft shining gone from the room, all that softness and laughter and shining coltishness, all that smooth gliding motion and raucousness that you wanted to lunge out at and smooth and ruffle and laugh and forget yourself in—Gone.

And he was here, probably for the rest of his working life.

He shivered through the door, locked it, turned and started down the stairs. Twenty years he’d been in The Department. Twenty years you paused, turned and locked the door to protect the bloody supplies, and all it left you was twenty years older with your heart and mind and dick out of control.

He turned on the landing. A seagull dived past the window.

Twenty down, he counted, twenty-five to go. Twenty-five more years of downstairs and along the corridor, outside and across the way. He sighed as he got to the ground floor and turned again. At least where it was didn’t matter. As long as the dunny door locked and you had a few minutes’ peace and quiet to flush the milk of humankindness away. To flush away—Oh Jesus wept!—the vision forming on the puke-beige tiles: a pair of Scottish parents promised their boy’s prodigious talent showcased (one day!) at Edinburgh; special Art lessons at home on Friday afternoons; himself at the centre of the expectant photograph, smiling in the midst of the happy family, unctuous, smarmy, corrupt. Q