20. The Undiscovered Country
The return journey from Windsor was a quiet one, which was fine by Clive, and once Michael had reassured him of the fact that he was going to be better, but just needed some time to think, that was all Clive needed to drive back to Chatswood without much of a concern in his bald head.
The scope of it all was intimidating for Michael to comprehend. Forces beyond his control had somehow implanted his consciousness in the body of his childhood self, for reasons that couldn’t be explained. Thankfully, there was now someone in Hank that he could talk to and share this unique and perverse frame of reference. The numbers were staggering. The very idea of there being parallel universes and realities was staggering. Then the fact that Hank was 211 years old, that was an entirely different swift kick to the head for Michael.
The thought occurred to him, and frightened him, that he may be stuck in this revisitation forever, that he may have to re-live the past 25 years of his life. He quickly brushed the thought away, deeming it too depressing, to looming and threatening a thought to comprehend. He didn’t have enough of a memory for the various Melbourne Cup winners to really capitalise on that; he could recall Makybe Diva winning some races, but he couldn’t pin down the years. He was never much for the sport of kings. He thought, perhaps, he should hold back on warning people about the Port Arthur massacre, given that the end result of it was a nationwide ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons, which as a result prevented any mass shootings from happening in Australia after 1996.
So altering known history was out; profiting from gambling was probably out as well.
But then his train of thought made an abrupt U-turn back to Hank. He was 67, but this was 67 this time around. The man was mentally 211. Michael couldn’t help but think he had the capacity for extraordinary insight, or be subject to nigh-on crippling boredom.
He tried to think about what he could have possibly done to alter time as much as he apparently had. He thought perhaps he had changed things by kissing Susan. Or by winning that debate. Perhaps Archer was a school that hedged its bets on being academic winners in every regard, and enrollments were off because of the result. He could only speculate.
Michael was back at school the next day, reassured to a point and determined to keep his head low. He returned to the library that lunchtime, a fuller, restored appetite in tow. He was once again devouring the SMH, when his eyes stumbled upon a Column 8 piece of note.
THE TEACHER at the centre of the high profile story involving vaunted ‘enfant terrible’ Michael Curtin has retired from the profession. Mr Leonard Gunn, whose doubts about the young newsmaker’s academic abilities first came to the attention of Herald readers in April, has formally retired from his employer of 24 years, Wellings Grammar. ‘It was just time to hang up my hat,’ Mr Gunn told Column 8.
It was once again the mention of his name in these broadsheet pages that made him crave cheesecake. A broad, irreplaceable smile spread across his face as he read the piece again. He looked up to see Mr Sutton smiling back at him. They shared that moment; it was the small victories that bound them.
The family was sitting around the living room watching a variety show that evening when the phone rang. Sophie jumped up to answer it, expecting it to be one of her friends from Wollstonecraft, ringing to discuss what they were wearing at the time. Disappointed when it wasn’t what she was expecting, she yelled out.
‘Michael, it’s for you.’
‘Who is it?’
She re-entered the room, shuffling her be-socked feet as she did.
‘That Dr Weaver guy.’
Michael cast aside his paperback copy of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, another one he’d never read, but was enjoying less because of it being a key text in his new 2 Unit English class. He was promoted to Sixth Year, and suddenly the workload was less than a doddle for him. He had in fact marvelled at how much work there really was; it’d be a king-sized nut for most adults, let alone a teenager. Thankfully he had his restored, sponge-like brain back, soaking up all the information he could immerse himself in.
Knowing that Hank was phoning made him nervous – had he discovered something? Had he experienced something negative? Was there more news? Michael crouched next to the phone table and put the heavy receiver to his ear.
‘I wouldn’t think featuring on Column 8 is anyone’s definition of laying low.’
His tone was abrupt.
‘I don’t control the editorial of the Herald, Hank. That had nothing to do with me.’
‘Your history teacher resigned as a direct result of you. It made the papers. You’re not keeping a low profile.’
‘It got set in stone before you and I spoke. It was outside my control.’
‘You’re going the right way to really upset the apple cart, Michael.’
‘I’m not doing anything like it. I’m just living.’
‘Really? You’re a 12 year old boy studying for the HSC. You think a school like yours is going to let a thing like that go unpublicised?’
‘I can’t control what they do. And I’m not dumbing myself down for anyone. You, the school, anyone. I can’t sit around doing elementary chemistry all day, Hank, I’ll end up popping my god-damned clogs.’
There was silence at the other end of the line. Michael looked around the room to see if anyone was listening in.
Hank sighed. ‘You remember the butterfly effect? It’s the smallest things that can have an impact. You win one of those debates, maybe it was that win that your participation in which was the one thing that robbed one of your opponents of that last shred of ambition that drove them to study harder, get into Law and wind up being the barrister prosecuting a murder case. Or that Column 8 piece, your teacher, Gunn, he stays on for another year, teaches one of your classmates something that inspires them to do something great. You indirectly rob the world of greatness.’
It was Michael’s turn to sigh.
‘Christ, Hank. What do you want me to do? I can’t just blend into the furniture. I want to be able to do something productive with my time. This is my life, after all. Who knows how long I’m stuck here.’
‘Pull your head in, son,’ Hank said curtly over the phone. ‘If I know anything about shifting and timelines, it’s that you’re never ‘going home’. Your consequences have actions. Remember that, I can’t make it any clearer that this is serious.’
‘All right, all right. I get it. Play my cards close to my chest.’
‘Your actions have consequences, Michael.’
And he hung up.
‘Fucking hell,’ Michael said to nobody in particular as the repeating beeps of a disconnected line blared into his ear. Michael put the receiver back down just in time for the phone to ring again. Thinking it was Hank having another shot at it, Michael immediately cut him off.
‘Consequences, Hank, I know.’
A meek, confused voice came down the line. It clearly wasn’t Hank.
‘Is that Michael?’
‘It is. Who’s this?’
It took a moment. He hadn’t spoken to her since their infamous moment behind the gym, and he’d since been through the emotional ringer. His entire life had been put upside down, again. Then, he realised fully who it was.
‘Oh. Oh! Susan. Right, yeah, sorry. I just got off the phone and thought you were someone else.’
‘Right. Well, it’s me.’
‘It is. How are you?’
‘Yeah, fine. Good.’
‘I haven’t heard from you. I called, but you never called back. I even wrote you a letter.’
Michael had been made aware of both of these factors, but given his low mental state at the time, he hadn’t cared, and given his moral quandary about the girl, he wouldn’t have known how to had he not been clinically, or cosmically depressed.
‘Yes, I do. I mean, I did. I got them. I’ve been a bit unwell of late.’
‘Nothing serious, I hope.’
‘Oh, no. Just your standard teenage angst and bouts of clinical depression. Heavy medication and the like. All out of the woods now.’
‘That does sound serious.’
‘I’m just having a bit of fun with you. Needed to sort some things out, was feeling a bit low. I’m fine now. Just fine. How are you?’
There was a pause from Susan. Michael thought it was because she was angry at him – she was in all likelihood.
‘I’m good. School’s a hassle.’
‘Sure, sure. I’m studying like a madman at the moment too. 2 Unit English. Heart of Darkness. Sucking all the fun out of great literature.’
There was another moment of silence.
‘You’re doing 2 Unit English?’
‘Yeah, they figured I had it in me. I had to start a long way behind, but I’m getting the hang of it.’
‘But … but you’re only year 7.’
‘This point’s been made more than a few times.’
‘That’s crazy. How did you do that? I can’t believe it.’
‘Well, it’s happening. No big deal, really. I mean, better to get it over with, don’t you think?’
Susan exhaled, frustrated.
‘I’ve been working so hard these past couple of years, I’m doing everything to get the marks I need to get into Law, and you come along and are doing it in year 7 without really raising a sweat?’
‘Look, I think it’s better we change the topic of conversation.’
‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now. This sucks.’
She was rather upset. He’d inadvertently annoyed her but he wasn’t sure precisely how.
‘Look, I’ll help you out if you need it, give you some notes or something.’
‘Thanks, but I can do fine without you. I have to go, my mum wants the phone. See you later.’
And she hung up.
All a bit melodramatic, wasn’t it?
After a moment, the vapours of the conversation bubble dissolving in front of his eyes, he put down the chunky receiver and wandered towards his bedroom. The lights were off, and a pale yellow streak of street lamp was illuminating the edges of his basic furniture. He looked out the window into nothing, and replayed the conversation in his head.
She was jealous, or hormonal, or frustrated. Or all three. She was clearly peeved at his being so young and being at the same academic level as she was, him taking on the workload and pressures, the intellectual burdens and time constraints, the pressure from above and from every other angle. And he was doing it without raising a real sweat. She was the fat kid starving herself while the natural athlete powered down ice cream and cheeseburgers. This was a sharp pang of guilt in Michael’s side.
But then again, it wasn’t. She couldn’t know the truth about it, that he was going about it all with comparative ease, but the other stuff, the big picture stuff, was so much more encompassing, burdening, bludgeoning than the simple problems of not necessarily getting into the university course you wanted to do.
Hank was right about Wellings, however – should Michael get a good enough HSC score and be admitted into UNSW to do law or something equally impressing, august and noble, there is no chance in hell the school wouldn’t jump at the chance to wave their flags of accomplishment for all and sundry to see – our boy did this, we taught him all he needed to know, it was our teachers, our environment, our standards of excellence that got this juvenile from puberty to post-grad in the blink of an eye. If it can happen to him in a year, imagine what it could do for your kid in six.
Michael mentally paced back and forth all whilst standing still, gazing out through the gaps in his bedroom Venetians; the light dancing off the horizontal strips, casting shadows on the floor and walls, all warped outlines of the naked branches and twigs of the front garden trees.
Between the possibility of denying someone more hard-working, deserving of a place in UNSW Law, and taking up such a slot in a field he had no interest in studying when he went through this merry-go-round the first time… something wasn’t sitting right. Hank had worked his way into his frontal lobe.
Stay, leave, study, skip it all. Embrace possibility or become a tourist in recent history. Every possibility danced about his cerebral cortex. Perhaps he could take his training and experiences, add it to his notoriety and find his way to NIDA, or skip the education part of it and use the same notoriety to get work on stage, or film, even. He was an actor, the skills hadn’t left him; he knew how to play to a camera and had a significant amount of experience and professional work under his belt.
He never even contemplated the idea of being a lawyer before. He didn’t like the law. He didn’t care for any of the lawyers he had ever met, and he’d employed several of them himself. There was something odd about the idea of succeeding beyond your years, or what was expected of you. As a student, the expectation was that you’d go into Law, Medicine or Engineering. As if the other trades and professions didn’t need someone with exceptional skills or wits.
Fuck it. He’d stay at school, but he’d slip out of the spotlight, find his way back into Fifth Year, give it more time, soak up more experience and reduce the mounting pressure he felt on himself. Not like it actually mattered, the pressure. What was going to happen, really? He didn’t get into a course he didn’t want to do to become someone he didn’t want to be. Nobody is at a loss there. Much less him; even less so, the bar.
The light flicked on behind him. His mother stood in his doorway.
‘Whatcha doing, Mikey?’
He turned to her, and smiled.
‘Nothing. Just thinking.’
‘You’re such a serious little man. Thinking in the dark like that.’ She walked over to him, and held his head in her hands, stroking back his hair. ‘My serious little man.’
‘I’m all right. Just giving some thought to what I’m doing in Sixth.’
‘You’re not enjoying it?’
‘It’s not that. I don’t think anyone seriously enjoys it, how could you? All that pressure, all that work. Everything else going on.’
‘They being kind to you at school? The other kids, the teachers?’
‘The kids are fine. Better than First Year. They have their own problems, they’re way too busy to worry about the likes of me.’
Sylvia smiled, and sat down on the edge of Michael’s bed.
‘You didn’t make your bed this morning?’ she asked.
‘Big ticket items, I guess they got the better of me.’ He sat next to her.
‘I forgot to tell you, your Mr Sutton called this afternoon, asking if it would be ok for him to enter you in the New South Wales speaking competition.’
‘And you said?’
She smiled again.
‘Told him it was fine with me. But I didn’t know if you’d want to. You’ve been having a lot of the limelight shine on you of late. I thought perhaps you’d like to take a break.’
Michael thought about it. A vacation would do him the world of good, or so he hoped.
‘That’d be good. We can go away?’
‘Sure. Your dad’s got some holiday leave up his sleeve, so we could look into it. We’d have to wait for Sophie to be on holidays.’
Michael shook his head. ‘She’d spend the whole time brooding, wanting to get home so she could call her friends and tell them about how rubbish the whole thing was.’
‘You should be kinder about her. She’s your sister, you never know what you’ve got until it’s too late.’
Michael made himself not mention anything about sickness, cancer, death, the future. There was no cure for the breast cancer that would kill Sylvia in all-too-few years. Telling her this now would no nobody any good.
‘Mum,’ he began, shifting closer to her on his unmade bed, ‘what would you want to tell me, like, advice you’d give me, if this all went away tomorrow?’
She looked at him with a furrowed brow; a slight crease that formed between her eyes whenever something puzzled or bothered her.
‘What, like if your dad or I died? Or something else? Are you worried about nuclear war?’
Michael shook his head. ‘Not so much about nuclear war, no. I think that ought to play itself out.’
‘So what is it?’
‘Well,’ he thought about navigating this conversation to broader, more hypothetical waters.
‘Things change all the time. Ray Bolger died in January, and he was the Scarecrow, so, you know. Things change.’
Sylvia laughed. ‘It’s a little different. He would have been a thousand years old.’
‘I don’t know how old he was. But I thought about that, him. He was always alive my whole life,’ causing Sylvia to smile at the idea of this little one’s ‘whole life’. ‘It’s just that if – God forbid – you died, is there anything you’d want to tell me, anything you think I’d need to know moving forward in life?’
They were sitting in silence on the edge of his bed. The tone had gotten suddenly and conspicuously serious.
‘I’m not going to die.’
‘No, I know that, I mean, it’s a long way off. I just think that sometimes it’s best we take advantage of those moments to share things with each other. You can do what they say that older people do and impart wisdom.’
She smiled again and hugged him.
‘You’re a special man,’ she gushed. ‘OK.’
She let him go, and thought for a spell.
‘You’re going to be great at whatever you want to do, and I think that one day you’ll be smarter than everyone you know. I think you’re already smarter than me. Everyone who meets you will love you, and you need to make sure that whoever it is you end up with is the right person for you. Not just the first person to show any interest in you.’
Michael nodded. ‘Girls can be confusing,’ playing the downy innocent for all it was worth.
‘I suppose I would want you to know that I’m proud of you, no matter what you end up doing, or who you are. I know you’re wonderful to your soul.’
Michael was touched by the sentiment. He looked at his hands in his lap and instinctively tried to stop himself crying.
‘Are there any girls you like?’
‘Yeah, but the right one for me is still out there somewhere. I don’t think I’ve met her yet.’
‘She’s a lucky girl.’
Sylvia kissed his forehead and left the room. Michael was left thinking about the pain that he was going to have to endure again saying goodbye, again, to this woman. He’d already gone through it once; this second run at it was going to be a beautifully gift-wrapped torture.