In third term our English teacher Miss Sotheby had an accident. I only discovered after the weekend. That was on the day my allergies were being tested. All spring I’d been sneezing my head off, and now summer had come but I hadn’t stopped. I had a permission note so I could leave school early. My parents had trusted me with an envelope of cash because the Macquarie Street specialist demanded payment up front.
I was late as usual and missed assembly. I’d been waiting at the shops for the girls from the other school to piss off. Three or four of them used to hang around outside Con’s milk bar. “What are you looking at?” they’d sneer if I tried to walk by and burst out laughing. I hated it. So I kept skipping assembly.
That was all right because Miss Sotheby let us take a seat whenever we arrived. Miss Sotheby was the single decent English teacher we’d had. Before her there’d been Miss Pink who ran from the classroom screaming. And before Miss Pink we’d had Rex Slade, who everyone called Sex Raid, with good reason.
Miss Sotheby actually had a university degree. But she was over thirty and over-thirties were classified as sub-human then. She also had bad legs, which didn’t cut it in an age of short skirts. Anyway, she obviously loved literature. She even listened to our imbecilic opinions on it. During her lessons the class would go completely quiet. A minor miracle.
Only this time Miss Sotheby wasn’t there. Instead the class was rioting. Chalk was ricocheting off the walls and the ceiling and rolling under the desks. I started scrounging up broken pieces. In the middle of it Fat Man was still sitting with his feet up reading his copy of Go-Set. I aimed a few pieces at the picture of Mick Jagger on the cover. Then I threw a piece really hard and accidentally hit Fist in the eye. He doubled over and at first I thought he was faking. But when he took his hand away his eye was full of blood. Mainwaring and Chifley helped him to the sick bay since he couldn’t see properly any more. I felt a bit bad because Fist was bigger than me. But Chifley promised not to dob me in.
After we ran out of chalk and the fighting died down I asked where Miss Sotheby was and Polio said in hospital. The English teachers had been at Mr. Slade’s house on Saturday night and Slade had poured boiling coffee on her leg. Rembrandt said she’d probably been trying to rape him and he’d had to fight her off. Everyone laughed.
So now there was no English lesson. We were supposed to have a double period and then farm mechanics when Mr. Skinner usually didn’t show up. I told Rembrandt I had a note and he said we may as well leave now. He stood on the teacher’s desk and announced he was taking me to a brothel because on Monday mornings there were never any customers and you could get a fine root at a discount.
When we arrived at the station the train was waiting. Rembrandt stretched out on the seat, unlocked his Globite school case and took out a book called What is Property? On the flyleaf he’d drawn a tossil with big hairy balls. It was hotting up and I could feel sweat trickling from my armpits under my shirt. Inside the left ball he’d written “CHURCH” and inside the right one “STATE.” A big drip of sperm had “OPPRESSION” written on it. “Property is impossible, because it demands something for nothing!” he recited loudly. The only other passenger quickly left and while they were complaining to the station mistress the train departed.
Rembrandt and I rode to Town Hall. Even though the dentist was down the street and around the corner Rembrandt shoved me onto the Bondi bus and we got out at Kings Cross. I followed him along McLeay Street past the cake shops and cafes and fish and chip places. Every few yards was a doorway with a prostitute. You could tell because they had lots of make-up and false eyelashes and they kept asking, “Do want a girl?”
Rembrandt stopped outside the Pink Pussycat to examine the photos in the display case. There was a great big Maori bouncer in a dinner suit who smelled of aftershave and cigarettes. Little old men with berets were walking their sausage dogs and they were stopping to shit on the footpath outside the strip club. I started sneezing. Some of the prostitutes were pretty old and ugly and other ones looked drunk or mad. But there were also sexy ones with hot pants so tight you could see their cracks. All you had to do was pay them money and you could go upstairs and do it.
Rembrandt introduced me to one. She had blonde hair and high boots and her name was Colette. She was gazing across the street at the Hells Angels parked outside Les Girls. At first I thought Rembrandt was only fooling around. Then he asked her how much and she blew out her cigarette smoke and sucked it back up her nose and said, “Twenty,” and he said, pointing at me, “How about half price for his first time,” and she inspected me and said, “For half price you get it with the hand, that’s all,” and Rembrandt said, “Okay, but I get to watch,” and she said, “Sure,” and then I thought, Oh, shit, maybe I was wrong and Rembrandt wasn’t fooling around and I was going to have to go up the stairs and take off my school uniform in front of her and actually do it, which was not possible, and I started inventing excuses about having to go to the doctor to test my allergies and Rembrandt started laughing at me.
I was just lucky the Hells Angels revved their bikes and a police car came along. Colette threw her cigarette on the bonnet of a Valiant and jumped straight in with the cops and they drove off before anything else could happen. Rembrandt called to her, “Colette! Je t’aime!” But she wasn’t paying any attention.
After that we walked round the corner past the El Alamein fountain, which was spraying water over the old men and their sausage dogs. Further along there were more Hells Angels revving their bikes outside Bourbon and Beefsteak. We passed a tattoo parlour and more cake shops and then we headed down McLeay Street where there weren’t so many strip clubs or prostitutes and eventually we reached a place that was like an ordinary house and Rembrandt shoved me towards the front door. It wasn’t a brothel though. It was the Yellow House.
I knew about it because I’d seen it on GTK. It was a commune where there was supposed to be a twenty-four hour happening although when we got inside all we could hear was Jethro Tull. The front rooms were empty except for art and a white cockatoo perched on a doll’s house. It shat on the roof when it saw us. At the rear was a place called the Infinity Room and inside we found Mr. Giles, Rembrandt’s old maths teacher, who was the person Rembrandt had actually brought me to see although he hadn’t mentioned it.
I hardly recognised Mr. Giles. At school, before he’d been declared an invalid, he’d worn a shirt and tie. Now he was in a ripped up chamois singlet. You could see chest hair pushing through like grass. He had purple bell bottomed pants and as much make-up as Rembrandt’s prostitute friend Colette. His hair was longer. He was sitting on a beanbag with a woman in a bowler hat. There was another man with hair falling down over his face making him look like Cousin Itt. The furniture was coated with glue and white feathers like one of the chicken processing factories that Mr. Cox used to take us to on agriculture excursions. That was art. But the thing I noticed most was the woman in the bowler hat had a see-through top. You could see her nipples as plain as day.
Mr. Giles fell down a few times but when he succeeded in getting out of the beanbag he hugged Rembrandt as if he was some guru. The see-through woman kissed him. They really fussed.
Mr. Giles said, “What an unexpected pleasure. This calls for champagne!”
“And cigars,” Rembrandt said. “Let’s not forget the cigars.”
Mr. Giles said, “Who has the money?”
Rembrandt pointed to me. He meant the cash in the envelope. Mr. Giles made the see-through woman accompany me because I didn’t know my way to the pub and I was in school uniform. I tried making conversation but I didn’t know anything about art. Still I noticed how everyone was ignoring her nipples, even the old men with berets. In the bottle shop she snapped her fingers and I handed her money from my envelope.
Back at the Infinity Room the man who looked like Cousin Itt had stripped off his velvet shirt. Mr. Giles too. He was as hairy as a goat. They popped the champagne and poured me a glass except Cousin Itt took it so he had one in each hand. That was sophisticated.
Mr. Giles toasted, “To world revolution!”
“To Che!” Cousin Itt toasted. It was the first thing he’d said.
Rembrandt toasted, “To the Marquis de Sade!” The cockatoo raised its wings and shrieked.
Then they helped themselves to cigars because the see-through woman had stopped at the tobacconist. The trouble was that Mr. Giles couldn’t find his lighter and the see-through woman’s was empty and Cousin Itt didn’t have one.
“Didn’t you buy matches?” Mr. Giles said.
“You didn’t say to.”
“How are we going to smoke our cigars?” Mr. Giles sounded sarcastic, as if he was back in the maths classroom asking someone to solve a quadratic equation.
“Are you going to smoke them?” Rembrandt said even more sarcastically. “What a novel idea.”
Then Cousin Itt said, “Just roll up some paper and light it in the water heater.” Mr. Giles groaned as if he was being asked to run a marathon.
“Don’t use my magazine,” the see-through woman told him.
“Lord preserve me should I ever despoil your copy of Home Beautiful.”
Rembrandt told him there was paper in his school case. So Mr. Giles opened it then he went to the kitchen and there was a ripping noise and we heard him call out, “Oh, shit!”
Back he came with the flaming paper. He lit everyone’s cigar and almost set his chest on fire. He flopped onto the beanbag and made a farting noise. “Now, entertain us,” he commanded Rembrandt. “He was always entertaining us in my maths class.”
“How would you know that?” Rembrandt objected. “You were always asleep.”
“See what I mean,” Mr. Giles said.
But next to where Rembrandt was sitting was a little Tibetan coffee table with three or four overflowing ashtrays and a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Rembrandt flicked through the pages and found something he could recite.
“Here we go,” he said. He waved his arm about and put on a Chinese accent. “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigour and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”
Then he clapped the little red book shut and the others stared for a while without speaking, as if they were listening to an echo dying away. Mr. Giles was the first to burst out laughing. Then Cousin Itt. They urged Rembrandt to read more. I was feeling a bit left out. I didn’t understand what was so hilarious about Chairman Mao. So when they finally got sick of it and seemed to have nothing to say I told them what had happened to Ms. Sotheby.
“Jesus!” they shouted. They looked horrified. But after a while Mr. Giles started giggling again.
“They used to burn witches,” he said. The see-through woman giggled.
“Witches,” she kept repeating. “Ha, ha, ha.”
Mr. Giles said to Rembrandt, “What’s French for witches, mon ami?”
“Les horizontals,” Rembrandt replied.
“Les horizontals! That’s very good,” Mr. Giles said. No one said anything more about Miss Sotheby after that. Rembrandt tried reading Chairman Mao without a Chinese accent. It wasn’t as hilarious. They despatched me and the see-through woman for more champagne.
Eventually I told Rembrandt, “I have to go to the doctor. Are you coming?” But he ignored me.
“We have to bake bread,” Mr. Giles explained. He winked at Rembrandt and Rembrandt winked back. But they kept on talking and laughing.
Anyway, I really had to go. I walked down William Street and through Hyde Park and started looking at the numbers in Macquarie Street. I was sweating by the time I rode up in the lift to the eighth floor.
The nurse checked her calendar and said I was late. I told her I’d lost my watch. “Do you know that you need to pay before you see the doctor?” That was why I’d brought the envelope. But after the champagne and cigars it was nearly empty and so I told her instead that I didn’t know. She looked cross. She said she’d have to give me a bill and I said that was fine. She folded it into another envelope.
I waited an hour. Then she took me into the doctor’s office. “So you got lost, did you?” he announced, as if I was an idiot. I said yes.
He sat me in a chair with armrests and said, “I’m going to make a series of tiny scratches on your forearms and then test a number of materials by applying them to the scratches and we’ll see how you react.”
He held something that looked like a pen nib and made three lines of scratches down my right arm and my left arm. He had a case of little bottles and he used cotton buds to dab a sample from each bottle on one of the scratches. “Now we’ll wait ten minutes,” he said, “and see what you react to.” After that he left the room and I stared out the window at the fire escape. I could hear traffic down below on Macquarie Street.
When he came back in the room he said, “Well done! Look at that.” I hadn’t been paying any attention. I examined my arms and I practically had the plague. “What a sensitive boy you are.” I was allergic to everything. Each scratch had swollen into a little red lump. He wrote down on the card and said he would send a letter to my doctor and that the scratches would heal in a day or two though they might continue being itchy. I hadn’t noticed the itchiness. Now it started driving me mad. “Don’t,” he said. “Just leave them and they’ll settle down. Once you’re home you can dab calamine lotion on if it continues to bother you.”
I walked back to the Yellow House. My scratches were driving me up the wall and I kept stopping to rub them on my shirt.
Inside the Infinity Room the champagne bottles were empty, the cigars were smoked and a loaf of bread had been freshly baked in the shape of a phallus. Rembrandt complimented Mr. Giles on his artistry. He took a breadknife and sawed up the baked balls. Mr. Giles was lying on his beanbag next to the see-through woman who was twirling his chest hair round her finger.
“Where did you get to?” Mr. Giles asked me.
“I was having my allergies tested,” I said with a slice of ball in my mouth.
“We all know what you’re allergic to,” Rembrandt said, sawing the head off the phallus.
“To imperialist war mongering!” Mr. Giles proclaimed.
“To something that starts with W and ends with K.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” the see-through woman yelled, accidentally yanking Mr. Giles’s chest hair so hard that he shouted. She’d only just noticed my arms. “What happened?”
“That’s the allergy test,” I told her. “They’re finding out what’s making me sneeze.”
“But can’t they use yoga,” she said.
“Yoghurt!” Mr. Giles shrieked.
“No. Yoga, you idiot,” the see-through woman said. “It fixes your breathing. It’s all about breathing, yoga is.” And she expanded her chest and held it to demonstrate.
“Yoga,” Mr. Giles scoffed. “You might have spectacular tits, Sandra. But where were you when they handed out the brains?” Sandra must have been the see-through woman’s name.
When they’d stopped mocking her Rembrandt walked into the kitchen. We heard him swearing and he came out with What Is Property? “Who did this?” he wanted to know.
Mr. Giles blinked and said, “I needed to light the cigars.”
“So you used fucking Proudhon?”
“So? You didn’t pay for it,” he objected, which was true. It had “City of Sydney Public Library” stamped on its edge. Rembrandt waved the damaged book up and down like a dying bird and went through the door. He seemed disgusted. Mr. Giles looked a bit worried and after a few tries he escaped from his beanbag and followed Rembrandt into the kitchen.
“I didn’t fucking steal it!” we heard Rembrandt shout. “I fucking expropriated it. And look what you fucking did. You fucking ruined my glorious drawing, you poncing philistine.”
Then there was a loud smack and Mr. Giles stumbled backwards into the Infinity Room landing on his arse. He nearly flattened the cockatoo. It squawked and hit the ceiling and feathers fluttered down from its tail. Rembrandt had split Mr. Giles’s lip. It was a bit frightening. At the same time I had this stupid thought that now we knew Mr. Giles was also allergic to fists and I almost started laughing with embarrassment. Rembrandt stormed back in the room and chucked the book. It bounced off Mr. Giles’s forehead and upset some ashtrays.
“Let’s get out of here,” Rembrandt said. He was in one of his towering rages. I thought we better go.
Rembrandt kept being angry all the way down William Street. As we passed the showrooms with the Bentleys and Rolls Royces he muttered, “Fucking arsehole prick,” and, “No fucking respect.” I had trouble keeping up. It was even hotter now. I was sweating like a pig and my arms were itching. We walked back into town where men in Santa Claus costumes were obstructing the Christmas shoppers. One looked like Lenin, only barefoot. Another had pulled off his beard to fan his face.
I thought Rembrandt was heading to Town Hall station to go home, but instead he kept marching down George Street. When we got to the cinemas he announced, “I need to see a movie.”
So we saw Ned Kelly, the one with Mick Jagger as the bushranger. When we were buying tickets the woman at the counter screamed. “Are you all right?” she said to me. Rembrandt told her I had the pox and then she just seemed to get cross. That was the last of my parents’ money.
Unfortunately Rembrandt didn’t appreciate the movie. We left before it finished. “Who would have thought being an outlaw involved so much mincing,” he commented.
At home I gave mum the bill. “Why didn’t you pay?” she said. I told her I must’ve lost the money. She started to get emotional. “Oh, Richard,” she said to me, “that was fifty dollars. How could you lose that?” I shrugged. “And look at your arms,” she said after a minute. “Go and dab some calamine lotion on them.”
The lotion didn’t help. I must have woken a hundred times during the night to scratch. At school the next day we had English again for first and second period. Miss Sotheby was still away nursing her burned leg. Rembrandt said, “Come to the bookshop with me. I need to expropriate another Proudhon.” Wall promised us he’d get our names marked off the roll later. Rembrandt and I caught the train into town and walked to the Third World bookshop where I was going to be a decoy while he stole the book. “Do you want anything for yourself?” he asked on Goulburn Street.
“What about a Ho Chi Minh tea towel?”
“Okay,” I said.
As usual, the bookshop owner was perched on his stool behind the cash register stroking his long brown beard and reading. I could smell incense. I started sneezing again. On the wall was a poster for In the Year of the Pig. Rembrandt rummaged the bookshelves. Customers entered and sneaked through the little bead curtain up the back to examine the pornography. Rembrandt was searching for Proudhon. I pulled books off the shelves at random. Nothing was sorted and there were stacks in the aisles, all different topics jumbled up. I found a little paperback called Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Kafka, which was an interesting title because of the way they used the comma before the word And. I thought you weren’t supposed to put a comma before And. I started reading. Without thinking I drew circles around some of the paragraphs and after that I felt I’d better buy it.
When I looked around Travers was standing next to me. I hadn’t seen Travers since he’d been expelled from school for selling copies of Student Underground. But I remembered him because I was hoping to get myself expelled too.
I’m not sure Travers knew who I was. I was three years below him. But he recognised my uniform.
“I used to be an inmate of that soulless prison,” he remarked.
I said I remembered him in the debating team.
“What are you doing here?” he questioned me.
I showed him the book. “Ah, the Oxford comma,” he said. “Clearly an educated author.”
Then I said to him, “Did you hear what happened to Sotheby? She ended up in hospital.” It was the only thing I could think of that might impress him.
But he said, “Yes I’ve just been to visit her,” which was about the last thing I expected.
“What? Did you go to the hospital?” I asked as if I hadn’t heard.
And he said, “Yes, as soon as I found out. She’s pretty badly blistered all down the side of one leg. It looks horrible. But she’s in good spirits. That’s actually why I’m here. I’m hunting for things I could give her to read. She’s confined to bed for a while, unfortunately. Oh, she’ll love this one.”
He showed me the book, but I didn’t say anything. I just stood there until Travers went back to inspecting the titles on the spines. For some reason I put the book about Dostoyevsky back on the pile and wandered to the front of the shop and out onto Goulburn Street where the traffic was rushing past. I stood there. Some grit went into my eye. After a few minutes I came back in. By now Travers had an armful of paperbacks. I wanted to say something but couldn’t think of what it was. He looked at me again and continued his searching. He’d collected a bunch of detective stories, Maigret ones like my father sometimes read.
I suppose it was because all the time Travers was at our school he’d kept getting into trouble and eventually ended up being expelled that I was expecting him to make another tasteless joke about Miss Sotheby, the same as Rembrandt and the other kids. I’d had no idea he was going to take it seriously. He even made it sound as if he was one of her friends. And then all of a sudden I had this odd feeling of embarrassment. After all, what happened was serious. Why was I joking about something that was actually serious? I mean Miss Sotheby’s accident. What was the matter with me? I was being childish. All of us were being childish.
Just at that moment Rembrandt gave the signal and I had to return to the counter and create my distraction. I found my book on the pile and started digging out coins from my pocket very slowly to drag out the whole process. But the owner wasn’t distracted. Out of the corner of his eye he kept squinting at Rembrandt and Rembrandt wasn’t trying very hard to not be caught either. When he walked past the counter he even did this mincing like Ned Kelly. As soon as he stepped out the door the owner yelled at him. Rembrandt took off and the owner jumped from his stool. He was a lot faster than you’d expect for a man in a corduroy jacket. But still he had Buckley’s. Rembrandt was a good runner and he vanished up George Street. Anyway, if the owner had caught him Rembrandt probably would have punched him in the lip like he’d punched Mr. Giles.
I waited. The owner was muttering something about fucking thief when he came back. I could have taken advantage of the situation and absconded without paying. But for some reason I didn’t feel like it. I just wanted to pay. The book cost me ninety-five cents. I found Rembrandt at Town Hall station. We stood on the platform waiting for the train home. He flicked through the book he’d just stolen and started reading out his favourite bits such as, “Property is impossible, because, if it exists, society devours itself.” He was pretty pleased.
When he’d finished reciting I asked if he’d got me a tea towel and he said that was such a petty bourgeois thing to ask. “So you didn’t get one,” I said. I went back to the bookshop and bought a Ho Chi Minh tea towel on my own. That cost me another twenty cents.
At home I had to invent something about why I left school early. I told mum that I’d gone into town to search for the money because I had an idea where I lost it.
“Did you find any of it?”
Mum started to get emotional again. I gave her the tea towel as a present because she liked Ho Chi Minh. But it didn’t cheer her up.
Simon Barker is an Australian living in Sydney, although for a number of years he lived in the Bay Area of California. His stories have appeared in New Ohio Review, Water~Stone Review, Event, and other publications.