22. The Girl on the Platform
The trophy he had won for his speech and presentation was disproportionately large and hard to handle. He remained bereft of the upper body strength he would – theoretically – one day possess, and it was still a question of adjustment for him to remember that he had a child’s body. Holding it to one side, he posed for a couple of photographs with Katharine McNeil, the State Education Minister and the Prime Ministers, former and current. Holding back tears, Katharine congratulated him and swiftly moved into the arms of her proud, comforting mother.
It was at that point, that Michael found himself in the shadow of Dr Rogers, who made his presence known in what at the time seemed like a bafflingly intimidating manner. Looming over his victorious student, he wore aviator sunglasses for reasons he wasn’t making apparent until he spoke – the man was clearly off his brain, either medicated or drunk.
‘Interesting speech, Michael. You’ll certainly go places.’
Michael smiled, nervously, not knowing who was watching or what Dr Rogers’ game play was. The principal waved at nobody in particular and took a step away from the child at his side. It was at that moment that Clive tapped Michael on the shoulder.
‘Very proud of you, my son.’
Dr Rogers noted who it must have been, despite his 80-proof state of mind.
‘We all are,’ he pronounced too loudly. ‘Fine, boy. Fine, fine boy.’
Clive looked down at Michael, smiling. Dr Rogers moved to Clive’s side and whispered something in his ear, then waved again at the invisible person he had alluded to earlier and strode off in their direction.
Clive’s smile had vanished.
‘What did he say, Dad?’
Clive shook his head. His expression of pride had vanished, and was replaced by one of abject shock and horror.
He looked down at his son. A bead of sweat appeared on his bald head and slid down the side of his face.
‘You have to clear out your locker tomorrow.’
Michael’s heart sank, contrary to his perceived place of distance and disdain from the school. Rejection was, at the heart of it, a painful thing, no matter who was dealing it out.
He shook his head with disbelief, and then saw about 10 metres from him, Hank mirroring his action in the same way.
Undoubtedly for different reasons altogether.
Basically fired from a school. That had to be another first.
It had been quite a year, and a torturous one at that. The very notion on its own of being subject to history as he already knew it was overwhelmingly fraught. Michael had never gotten a negative prognosis from a doctor, or faced anything more devastating than his mother’s passing. But knowing that there was no moving forward, no return to his present, hit him square in the soul. The very real idea of having to re-live his entire adolescence, then his 20s, and to endure the struggles that led to his eventual success was too much to contemplate.
En route to his local train station, having had everything now taken from him and his very own past re-written, he thought, albeit briefly, about ending it all. Perhaps self-deliverance was the key to escaping this torment, this life lesson excised from The Twilight Zone where he was doomed to repeat those life lessons he had already stacked up.
It was bullshit. He wanted to spit in the face of God for the slight, for the torment, for being teased in this manner – made to re-experience a pair of decades he would have preferred to not have to experienced in the first place. And to top it all off, they who would have benefited most from his unique experience had refused to accept his admittedly self-sabotaging bit of ranting and had shown him the door.
He wasn’t going to have it. He had his precious, his knowledge. He couldn’t bear the notion of having to sit back and watch the twin towers fall again, to see his mother die again, to see his father endure that again, to see ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ become a hit again. All the rejections, the disappointments, the resentments, the built up aggression, cynicism and derision that had founded his adulthood could not endure the same slings and arrows.
He’d sell his unique talent, this sense of timing, place and insight, this wisdom beyond his years to television networks, advertisers, freak shows and circuses for all he cared. He’d do something, anything to control the situation again. He didn’t need an education, he’d had one. His literal one, and the hard lessons learnt from a life of excess, one spent in the pursuit of happiness and pleasure. One where falling short on either count felt as if the universe was in cahoots to unseat him.
He’d make bets where he could recall the winners. Melbourne Cups from the early part of the 21st century, the ones that Makybe Diva won over and over. The AFL Premierships that West Coast won in the early 90s, the Brisbane three-peat in 2001, ’02 and ’03. You could bet on anything! The Silence of the Lambs sweeping at the Oscars. Clinton, W. Bush, Obama. Italy 2006. Whatever.
Fuck you, Hank. I’m making this life my own. Fuck the consequences. Fuck Wellings. Fuck history.
The school experience was over. It was tumultuous, and Michael couldn’t help but feel dispossessed as he sat on the train, sifting through some of his essays, returned with glowing references and high marks. If nothing else, he was in fact the prince among children and had been acclaimed by mid-level high school academics. But praise is praise, and nothing more.
Mr Sutton had angrily pleaded Michael’s case before Dr Rogers, and was summarily fired. Taking it on the chin before taking it to the union to file his grievance, the mentor found Michael emptying his locker into his vinyl school bag, and had done all he could to offer words of encouragement. He had smiled, but the words were all-but falling on deaf ears by then.
He was desperately, crushingly resigned now to the fact that he was stuck in the late ’80s, and despite the fact that he had not in any way ignored history, he was still doomed to repeat it. It was axiomatic, but unfair. But with a fervent disregard for consequences and the nourishment of a bolstered ego on his side, he was almost starting to enjoy himself. There was, it seemed, nothing as elevating as being hailed a wunderkind, even if what he was really doing was little more than a perverse, inexplicable form of mental puppetry.
Michael had turned down Clive’s offer for a lift to school; he had figured his last two journeys on that train line would have served as important kind of bookends to the experience.
It was mid-morning, and the carriages were empty. He sat with his bag on his lap, despite the fact that he could have occupied four seats on his own. The bag, as it was, provided some measure of comfort. For what, he wasn’t sure. He was leaving a place he felt he had no rights or desires to be at. It should have been a joyous moment.
The train pulled in to Lindfield station en route to the city via Chatswood, and Michael looked out the window onto the platform. The gardens surrounding the station were well maintained and lush, part of the benefits of living in one of the city’s ‘nice’ areas. It was quaint and cute to his sensibilities. It was at that point that he was struck by a glimmer of recognition. Dale, his former father in law, was standing on the platform. Initially, Michael recognised him, but registered the salt and pepper grey of his hair was completely dark brown. He thought nothing more than, it’s Dale with hair dye.
Then he noticed Mary, his former mother-in-law was next to Dale. She had a perm, it was ridiculous. And it was at this fleeting bit of judgment that Michael’s heart all-but-literally sank, when before him was the 11-year-old version of Bethany, looking directly at him from the platform through the train window.
Michael felt the blood drain from his face. He had never known Bethany at this age, but it was unmistakably her. He had seen photos of her at that age, there had been so many photos of her that he had seen; they had burnt themselves into his memory to the point where they were forever etched there like a watermark. He looked down at this young girl on the platform and instinctively lunged at the glass, his hands pressed against the pane, smudging his prints on it.
He wanted to cry out, to call to her, but his mouth wasn’t working. No sound could emerge from him, all he could do was scream with his eyes.
She looked back at him, and at that precise moment, Michael knew she recognised him. She bit her bottom lip and her chin began to quiver as she extended her hand towards the carriage.
Michael thought he was having a heart attack. But he couldn’t move. Bethany began to silently cry. Her parents were chatting, oblivious to this scene.
Why aren’t they getting on the train?
With his mind in pieces, Michael summoned his energy and opened his mouth to inhale. At that point, the hissing sound of the closing doors rang through his ears and the carriage shuddered forward.
From the station platform, the young girl looked solemnly at him, and mouthed a pair of genuine, heartfelt words.
The train pulled out of Lindfield and continued on its journey. Michael did as best he could to maintain his line of sight to this girl on the platform as she became smaller and smaller. She very rapidly fell from sight.
Disconsolate, he collapsed back onto the beige double seat, trembling. His hands were, to him, covered in thick translucent goo, as viscous as honey and nowhere near as sweet. His mind became a battlefield of thoughts, anarchistic and helter skelter. He couldn’t fathom any of them, and noticed it not one bit when he pissed himself. The train arrived at Roseville, then Chatswood, and he didn’t get off. It continued on through the lower north shore and crossed the bridge, arriving at Wynyard. It was only when it pulled into Town Hall that Michael got off and changed platforms, having regained enough composure to realise he needed to go home.
His school bag awkwardly covering the round patch of urine-stained shorts, he got on a Hornsby-bound train profusely sweating, but calming himself enough to know what he needed to do. He’d go home, change, and find Bethany’s parents in the White Pages. He’d get to her house, he’d confront her. She’s obviously going through the same thing … we can help each other.
Even if she’s not, I can talk to her, get her to fall for me now, we can work on it together from a young age, we can learn from the mistakes. I can win her from where she is, fight the drama head on, win the future back.
It was a simple plan, it would have to work. Even if she had, somehow, been shifted in the same way as him, they would at least have each other. Maybe the whole thing would make sense if they could talk to each other about it. He was regaining his clarity and purpose.
It will be fine. It will be fine. It will be fine.
The London Underground is famous for many icons and practices, one more so than the ‘Mind the Gap’ logo, which festoons all of London’s rail network and on countless pieces of merchandise and paraphernalia. The Sydney rail network had no such iconography, which would probably have been useful a reminder for Michael at that moment he got off the train at Chatswood. His hand-eye coordination, still in a state of flux amid a minor growth spurt, was out of check when his shoe went more than half way between the train doors and the station platform. Enough pressure on the ball of his foot into the small but seemingly infinite space – the gap – was enough to send his right leg sliding down the edge of the white concrete, tearing off several layers of skin, leaving a small, red and unsightly trace of his DNA on the white edge of the platform.
A sharp pain shot through Michael’s body with electric furor, and he let out an anguished cry as the rest of his body stumbled onto the concrete. Yanking his leg from the gap and clutching it, he had no thoughts other than how much pain he was in, as it seemed to not only be his lower leg, but any part of his body that was covered in skin. His eyes were screwed shut from it, and it was therefore not surprising that he failed to notice the hard vinyl briefcase that was being held at what was his head level, by a finance executive speaking with misplaced arrogance on the house brick-sized cellular phone at his ear.
Michael fell, clutched his leg, his eyes welded shut, and the corner of the briefcase collided with his temple on the upswing.
And then, everything was, in every conceivable way, blackness.
It took him what seemed like ages to wake up. It was like being under a fog, similar to what he had read what it was like to be under the influence of heroin. There was no noise, everything was slow. His movements were mannered, as though he was in the weightless realm of space. His mouth was full, of what he could not tell, but he could neither spit it out, nor were his hands and arms working well enough for him to extract whatever it was.
He could breathe, but it was hard and slow. A weight pushed down heavily against the back of his head. He couldn’t see anything clearly, but there was colour, movement, animated as a Rorschach inside his eyelids. As if sheltered by thick black curtains, what sounded like a generator whirred with a rhythmic pulse in the distance. But it was hard to make out.
Time seemed to stand still, and yet Michael was conscious of there being an active moment. He was somewhere. He was conscious of himself. He knew he was, if nothing else, alive.
Whether time was moving forward in seconds or minutes was unknown. Days could have passed, as was the viscosity of his surroundings and the almighty haze over his mind.
He became calm, sated. The terror subsided.
A looming figure of a face appeared in front of him. His eyes still blurry, he couldn’t quite make out the figure in front of him. He wanted to speak, but his vocal chords felt weak, malfunctioning. He could taste blood, but it was softer, sweeter. The warmth of the blanket calmed him considerably. Thoughts of being on the station platform, and his leg injury had escaped him.
Was I trapped under something? Was there an accident?
A soft finger brushed over his forehead. He closed his eyes, opening them to a more focused sight – his mother. At least, she looked like his mother. She was, even for his recent lapse in space-time, young looking.
Her face was flushed red, and tears were running down her cheeks.
I’m OK. I’m alive.
His father’s face drifted into his field of view. Michael did what he could to smile. He felt them moving in closer, somehow making him feel like all was forgiven.
‘Hello, there…’ Clive said.
Michael found he was too weak, he couldn’t make his voice heard. He had no idea what had happened, but he was going to be alright. Another voice, a male, emerged from behind him. He didn’t recognise it.
‘Congratulations, folks,’ the voice said.
‘It’s a boy.’