Blesok no. 60, May-June, 2008

What to do at the time

Thomas Shapcott

At fifteen it is still possible to be hurt by almost anything. The protective skin has not grown and the quick response still waits until midnight to assert itself. Too late, the enemy has marched off in triumph and timing. At midnight, or two a.m. only the pillow, now damp with sweat, is more a mockery than a solace; it not only has lumps and hollows, it surrounds your face and thinks of suffocation. It is in the plot, also.
    In the other bed, against the fibro partition in the sleepout, Jim is snoring lightly. He means no harm. He is impossible. Jim doesn't seem to feel anything: Jim is the ultimate frustration.
    Mick heaves over to his left side and doubles up the pillow to raise his head, see if that will do any good. He knows already this is a vain exercise. He has tried it before. Through the glass louvres there seems to be the promise of a breeze so slight that it does not even stir the leaves of the Camphorlaurel tree overhanging their side of the house. Mick believes he can feel it, though. He tugs back the damp sheets to let it circulate along his limbs, even though his summer pyjamas stick to him. There is almost a coldness from his eroding sweat, at least for the first minute or two. Both Jim and Mick wear singlets day and night; to absorb the sweat rather than for any protection. Their mother warns them it keeps their white school shirts drier and cleaner. When he unpeels his singlet in the bathroom at night, Mick often senses it is twice as heavy as when he initially tugged it on. Sometimes, this weather, he has to change his singlet in the morning, too.
    Tonight he knows he will twist and squirm and finally drag it off, despite warnings about catching a chill or letting his chest be unprotected. It is Jim, over in his bed, who catches colds and who is vulnerable to asthma, not Mick. For all his stoicism, Jim is the one their mother frets about, Mick can see that easily enough, even though she tries to hide it. No wonder he loses his temper at times; wouldn't anyone? Anyone, except Jim. Mick has already unbuttoned the pyjama top. It, too, is clammy. Summer nights when the humidity does not drop and the breeze refuses to give even some pretence of coolness, are the worst. The top is off now, and Mick shoves it under the sheet, rather than toss it onto the boards. Now he can get rid of the singlet. He feels its wetness but he rubs it over his smooth chest as if that will mop up the dribble of moisture. This garment is tossed over the side.
    Mick does allow the night air to wash over the upper part of his body. It is almost a defiance, secretly disobeying Mum's orders. At school today – yesterday, rather – not only had he failed to win the one hundred metres freestyle but he had let Garth Rasmussen lord it over him in the dressing sheds after, hounding him with a wet towel flick and joking about Mick's white skin where the sun did not get to it. Rasmussen was brown all over and was always skiting about how he went sunbaking with his cousins in the dam back of their place. His girl cousins.
    It had got to Mick, not because of his pallid tummy and rear but because Rasmussen kept calling him girly-white, girly-white. Jim always warned his brother about his 'Irish temper' even though it was years. But Mick had very nearly been dead set to front up to Rasmussen there in the sheds even though Rasmussen was a good foot taller and built like a tank. It had taken self-control. Mick was good at self-control these days. It had been years since his last turn and he was just a kid then. That whole afternoon locked in the bathroom. He remembered it all right. Of course he remembered, it wasn't his fault.
    But Rasmussen was something different. He was deliberately trying to get Mick's dander up. That's why Mick chose to ignore him. Well, almost.
    Some of the others had stepped in; but that was not the reason. And it wasn't because Jim had warned him, with that won't-you-ever-learn look of his. The real reason had been that Mick could not think of any retort that would wound Garth Rasmussen.
    He had got beyond thrashing out blindly in a temper. He knew in his heart that words were more lethal than hands and arms and going crazy. You must watch that sharp tongue of yours, Mum said. Did she realize that she had made him secretly proud of his wounding way with words? Jim was his first experiment. Well, not experiment exactly; but Jim was always around and that silence of his was always galling. Mick had become the verbal rapier, Dad had said.. He was all too aware of that, but it had not helped him in the dressing sheds today. The wounding words had not come. Where was his famous 'sharp tongue' now?
    What he really wanted was to brand his enemy with a potent nickname, one that would cling to him like spiderwebs, like his own shadow, to follow him everywhere, long after school, a name that would be so accurate and so cruel Rasmussen would never be allowed to forget it, would never outlive it. One that would replace Garth with a name like Filth, but more clever and more ruthless. It would not matter that nobody might remember who first coined the word, the word itself would take over. There must be such a word.
    What was the name that came to him ten minutes ago? Already vanished, now it prods Mick like a finger on his bare chest till he tosses again, and groans, so that Jim over in the other bed raises his head a moment as if awakened, but then collapses back and draws his sheets over his head. He begins snoring lightly, as always, something to do with his nasal cavities Mum said. Mick stays rigid for a few minutes. He knows there is no hope now; the word has vanished.
    Jim seems always to need his bedsheets, even blankets in summer. They have different metabolisms.
    Mick, though he might be pallid, has some inner body heat that insulates him whereas Jim would not dream of discarding his singlet, even on a hot night like this is. Mick's chest, though bare now to the air still seems swathed in the surrounding humidity and the dampness swaddles him as if to constrict all volition.
    The sheets are tugged right back. He raises his hips and tugs down his pyjama shorts. He looks over to where Jim is sleeping; Jim has turned his face to the wall now and is rumbling quietly; almost with satisfaction, Mick thinks, and feels the usual pang of envy.
    Lying naked on the hot bed is to invite the other sensations and Mick knows by this stage he is past caring. He also knows he will feel guilty later, but already the stronger process has begun, and once commenced it has its own inexorability. Does Jim never have these feelings? Mick has never detected any signs. But perhaps Jim is more sly than anything in his character seems to indicate? Perhaps Jim is more subtle? Mick cannot work his brother out though, being always there, perhaps there is nothing to work out. Jim is who Jim seems: silent, practical, pretty unemotional.

Mick is the one with the highs and lows, the mad, bad feelings and the rages. He is the one who has inherited the Irish genes and Jim comes from some other, stoic line of the family, the father's side.
    At a certain point the ears take over, the pulse in your ears reflects the other, mounting pulse and the entire body moves into one single unity, your thoughts then are absorbed into whatever it is that commands you. Then it is done and if you are lucky you will sleep at last. The body discharges itself of tensions; even the night air works with a sort of gentleness to turn sweat into coolness, if only for a short while. Mick does not even remember what it was he had been so restless about.
    Garth Rasmussen is not even a shadow in his memory. Jim, over there, breathes on steadily. The luminous dial on Mick's wrist-watch is not going to force him to look yet again; the damp feel of his hair against the churned up pillow eases its pressure; he knows he will have to locate those pyjama shorts sometime before morning but not now, not now. He draws the bedsheet up around his shoulders and, though he does not realize it, Mick curls into the foetal position.

* * *

At breakfast Jim is first up and has already piled his plate with four weet-bix and is now spreading sugar into hillocks and ridges before inundating the lot with the fresh milk brought in from the milkman half an hour ago. He shaved again this morning and there is a speck of white froth under his right earlobe. He is humming quietly as he pours, probably oblivious that his mouth let anything like musical sounds pass. Jim tends to capitalize on his silence. He did wish their parents Good Morning; humming was enough.
    Mick enters slowly, rubbing his hands through tousled hair and checking the time on the ornamental clock above the mantelpiece. The wristwatch with its luminous hands and dial was a birthday present last week and he still feels the need to check it constantly. Jim has a watch with a leather protective case, like they use in the airforce, he says. It means that he has to unclip it each time he needs to check the time. Mick was at first a little jealous of the neat, professional look of his brother's armpiece but he quickly realized the drawbacks, even though Jim pointed out how useful it was for games like football. Mick does not play football. His glowing numbers and pointers are in some way the product of radiation, he has been told. Radiation kills, Jim quipped. In the dark, though, the glow seems almost magical. Power. Mick couldn't care less about the so-called harm; if it were dangerous, wouldn't they have banned it, or something?. Jim has no answer to that. Their father continues to read his paper, over all this quibbling. He is used to it.
    Besides, that was last week's issue. Jim now wears his watch with its leather band and cover as if it had grown on his wrist, naturally. Mick's watch has an expanding metal band; it still sometimes catches the hairs on his arm. When it has tugged off all the hairs round your wrist you won't even notice it, Jim had said. Jim's watch does not have an illuminated dial.
    Mick sits at the table and his mother brings him two eggs on toast and asks him if he wants some bacon, she has fried some for Dad, she says. Mick hesitates and then says No. When she sits down beside him he asks her if it's today she is going to town with Aunt Meg.
    That's clever of you to remember, she says. Your brother asked me to watch his tennis semi-finals but I told him not today, today is the day of the big outing.
    I knew it was special, Mick says. You don't hide things from me, you know. I could tell.
    She ruffles his already tousled hair and gets up from the table. You really must get your hair cut this week. Both of you, she says, but they know it is only Mick whose mop is so unruly. Jim's hair is straight; a bit of Brylcream and it stays flat all day.
    Now you will do your piano practice when you get in, she says. I won't be here to remind you.
    As if he needs reminding.

* * *

Lunchtime is the time for his last practice for the Championships, the big ones, and he is determined about the one hundred metres.
    Mick is in the pool almost before anybody else and has done three lengths before the next group comes ambling down the slope to the school baths, Garth Rasmussen among them.
    Mick concentrates on the task ahead. He always does ten lengths of the pool, to limber up, and then gives himself a rest of five minutes before he gets the school coach, or one of the juniors, to time him for the one hundred. Four, five, six, seven, eight. Garth Rasmussen, he becomes aware, is there in the next lane and he is forcing the pace. Almost without being aware of himself, Mick is keeping up. He is competing. This warm-up swim is not intended for speed, it is for muscular co-ordination and efficiency. Rasmussen knows that but he is the sort of jock who would compete with his own shadow and then complain that it did not work hard enough. Garth Rasmussen has nothing better to do.
    Mick eases back over the last two lengths of his warm-up. He watches Rasmussen do a further two lengths before he pulls up in the adjacent lane and gives Mick a splash. What is it with Rasmussen?
    There's another six for you to do yet, Mick tells him, but Rasmussen tugs off his rubber cap. The ash blond hair falls over his face and he flicks it back with a jerk of the neck.
    That's your problem, Turner, you always go by the rules. It's not rules that win races, it's cunning. Pity you never learned that one. That's why I'll lick you hollow, see if I don't.
    And he throws his cap over the edge and dives back in, even though it has been forbidden to swim bareheaded in the pool, school regulations. Rasmussen's blond hair will turn green, Mick tells himself, and wishes it might be so.
    Lined up on the block later, for a last practice, Rasmussen is three lanes distant but Mick knows he might as well be right alongside, his whole body a sneer. Garth Rasmussen might have that golden brown skin, and there are no freckles at all; and he might be a lot taller, and yes, he is built like a tank. But on the other hand, he is not really all muscle, there is some flab you can see from the way his navel dimples and there is already an incipient double chin. Not that anyone minds any of that: Garth Rasmussen has his own band of cronies and is notorious for his hand-outs of minties and jaffas, filched from his auntie's big general store over the other side of town. Rasmussen has a big mouth (in more ways than one, Mick thinks) and very even teeth, like an advertisement, but otherwise why should he have such tickets on himself?

Mick looks round for someone to time him, ignoring Rasmussen who has finished his warm-up session. Jim appears on the scene, his tennis semis must be over (and it is obvious at a glance the results have not been good). Jim and Garth Rasmussen are sort of friends, they are in the same Chemistry and Physics class and sometimes come home together to make what Mick calls stink-bombs under the house, while Mick does his piano practice upstairs, getting louder and louder and repeating the scales that he knows drive Jim mad. Scales are the one thing that he can get a rise out of his brother from. Major. Minor. Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor, then, because he knows it will really work horrors on Jim, Mick does four octaves of the whole-tone scale. Then he begins the arpeggios. He can do this for hours.
    Jim ambles over just at the right moment to be handed the stop-watch from the Prefects' Locker. Jim was Butterfly champion last season but tennis has taken him over. Or it had. From the way he gives Mick a glare it is clear that this is not the best day for requests but Mick has no option. He pretends not to notice when Garth Rasmussen steps over beside Jim and moves with him to the pool end. Mick gives his brother a loud warning, and then dives.
    There is something compelling about the body in freestyle. Water slides along you and the precise arm movements, the regular sideways slant of the body and the paced way the mouth takes breath all combine to make one realize the neatness of speed. Mick's legs, bound together almost, into the kicking rhythm, six to an armstroke for the racing effort, seem to be machines of their own volition, this could go on forever: his first turn at the fifty metres is copybook and he does not need to listen to his brother shouting the number, he knows he is ahead. Ahead of whom? Ahead. Ahead.
    At one hundred metres he gauges the arm thrust and hits the end rail. This time he looks up expectantly. Jim lurches over and thrusts out the stilled stop-watch. They smile at each other. It is the first time there is the sense of something shared. But almost at the same moment Rasmussen is also beside them.
    Time me now, Turner. That wasn't altogether too bad, young Michael. Now it's my go. Your brother thinks this will be a walkover, Jim, but I've been doing a lot of training up in the dam. Corrie races me. You should see her in Speedos. You should see her without Speedos, but not on your life old sport.
    And Rasmussen gives Jim a shove before he leaps up to the starting post, still laughing. Mick pulls himself out of the water but he knows he has to see just how close his enemy gets to his own new record. His mother, last week, called Mick a Water Otter.
    It is painful to watch. Rasmussen swims like a porpoise, all over the place, rolling and heaving. But he does have that added length and it isn't all flab in there. He can crack the pace.
    Jim gives a shout: for the first fifty metres the two have just about broken even. Mick senses suddenly that his brother might even be hoping that Rasmussen tops him. Would he have been so hearty had he won his own game? Mick separates himself a little from his brother. One of the younger kids comes out with his towel and offers it: Mick gives him a grin of thanks and realizes his attention has been diverted.
Diverted long enough to let Rasmussen's pace fall somehow out of his mind. He returns to his brother just in time to note the stopwatch as his brother clicks it immobile. Jim looks up to Mick and wags a finger. There is just one second between them.
    Mick can't believe it. He had been sure Rasmussen was already flagging after his fifty metre turn. And the turn itself was all water and splash, too untidy by far, enough to get him disqualified in any reasonable competition. That would never happen here, in this school. And not with Rasmussen. Mick knows he would score on points in any fair competition, but when was competition fair?
    That sounds the sort of thing Rasmussen would say.
    It will be a good battle, Jim says and crosses over to Rasmussen to give him the news. They crow together, as Mick cannot help noticing.
    Keep your mind on the swimming and not on your cousin's speedos, Jim advises his friend and they both chortle. It is so unfunny.
    Mick had known, absolutely, that he had given of his best. He had done that race against himself, solo in the pool, even if silently in severe competition with the stationery Rasmussen. Every kick had been pure vitriol.
    Rasmussen comes up to him then, benign because Jim is near at hand. That was with one hand tied behind my back. As it were. Tomorrow's the real test. And he gives Mick a slap on the back so that it leaves a red mark on his fair skin. There is no way out of this.
    Mick towels himself vigorously. He steps into the shower and lets the cold water wash the chlorine smell off. Jim is still laughing with Rasmussen as he strips off and has his own shower, on the other side of the stalls. At one point he looks over at Mick. He seems almost embarrassed. Mick cannot help it that his skin is so pale. So pale and so freckled where the sun bites it. He took up swimming because it was a way to get into the sun and the water with some purpose, he had thought it would help that look, like a peeled potato, which has been with him for life. Jim and his olive skin: he can stay out in the sun all day and it never matters. Mick has only ever seen someone else as pallid as himself: when Johnny Armstrong came to the school from down in Melbourne, last year. It is terrible to be embarrassed by oneself.
    Two of the other boys come in. That was a good cracking pace, Turner, one of them says. Wish I could manage that just for the fifty metres.
    Nah, his friend says, Turner's the white seal, you're the pet cocker spaniel. And they both set to with their towels. Mick pushes through their maelstrom and heads for the clothes pile. Jim and Garth Rasmussen are still talking in the showers, about girls and whatever else causes Jim to laugh so blatantly. It is not like Jim at all.
    Mick feels even more vulnerable. Why should that be?

* * *

The last of Mick's 'wild Irish' fits was the worst. Mick remembers it because he can still feel, somewhere deep inside, the outrage and overriding fury of that outrage, when he discovered Jim had meddled in his clothes' drawer – Mick's drawer, the second from the top – and had taken the special packet of Transfers Aunt Aggie had saved from her cereal packs and handed to Mick when he called over with the chokos from Dad's garden. Mick had hidden them under his hankies, thinking they'd come in useful sometime.

Jim, without asking, simply took them and used them on his balsawood planes. He had built six of them, they were his pride and joy. He had varnished four and was waiting for new transfers of Air Force emblems for the others. Mick tore downstairs, two at a time, and crashed open the gate to the downstairs work room where Jim kept his models and his unfinished planes. He thumped Jim over the back with both fists, then pounded him over the head where Jim was sitting. Before even screaming out his rage Mick swept the finished models from their shelf, breaking them, and would have picked up the chisel from the bench if Jim had not been quick enough. Mick had the advantage but Jim had the precision. Mick ended up pushed to the concrete, kicking and flailing as Jim finally pinned him down, after much effort; though Mick's strength in these outbursts was almost unnatural. Jim had learned a few tactics of his own, and he had the merit of cool-headedness.
    He felt misunderstood.

* * *

    It is two days later; the morning of the swimming championships. Jim is clearly nettled that their parents have promised to be there. They did not turn up for his tennis contest. Just as well, he thinks but that does not really help. Mick, as usual, manages to be centre-stage. Jim eats his four weet-bix stoically and shuts up. When his mother asks him about the chemistry test he grunts. He rises from table just as Mick comes in, sluggish as usual. He pulls the pud too much, and that's the truth. No self-control at all. One day Jim will have his own separate room. Even if he has to leave home to do it.
    Good luck today, Mick, Jim grunts as he whips out his bicycle-clips and heads off. Mick looks up and gives a smile, almost of gratitude.
    But at the lunchtime break, just before the races begin and the people are allowed into the school grounds for the contest, Jim, who has been uncharacteristically grumpy all morning, not his usual self-contained self, gets involved in a stupid argument with one of the kids. It is not even someone he has much to do with.
    If I had a brother like Mick Turner I'd get some brown boot polish and polish him up; he's so white it makes you sick, Colin Thompson had said.
    That was it. Jim grabbed him by the scruff and pushed him against the big Jacaranda by the tennis courts.
    What's that you said about my twin?
    Can't you take a joke? Why are you and him such different colours, but? Suss to me, that is. Very suss.
    Jim was into him and even he was surprised by the vehemence. It took Garth Rasmussen to break in and intervene and even then Jim turned on him and they ended in a wrestling match on the lawn, almost within sight of the Headmaster's upstairs verandah. It became a real fight.
    Mick heard of it from one of his classmates. He rushed around and found Jim sprawled under Rasmussen and still struggling.
    Something like a white sheet of fury entered Mick's spirit then. He threw himself on Rasmussen, fists gripping and with a strength that clearly took Rasmussen unprepared, surprising him with a force that unbalanced him and left him sprawling. Jim, released, started to pick himself up.
    Mick had to be forcibly restrained by two or three of the onlookers. His freckled faced was flushed deep red and his eyes were almost unseeing in their wildness. They were frightening.
    Rasmussen began laughing, awkwardly, as he dusted himself down and stood up to resume the conflict- with whichever of the brothers chose to be in it. Both, if necessary.
    But that was quickly avoided. Let your brother fight his own battles, one of the boys hissed to Mick. You two can't gang up like that, let him finish where he started off. It was his fight. And Mick was shaken by several arms gripping his shoulders, to make sure he heard what was being said.
    Slowly he nodded, and then pulled back.
    Quick! Teacher! One of the others whispered. They all dispersed into separate parts of the yard and Mick was led away by some of the other members of his swimming squad. He was still shaking with something of an echo of that rage, the madness that claimed him and took over, like the times he was a kid, before he learned.
    He had found himself fiercely protective in a way he had not been prepared for. That image of Jim sprawled, on the ground, straddled over by Rasmussen and struggling to get free: what you do at the time of your first emergency is not quite what you might have anticipated, nevertheless what you do is absolute ground base. It is what matters.
    Mick had never thought of his twin in those terms. He had never even asked himself (why should he?) what really matters.
    He looked over to seek out his brother. Jim and Rasmussen over there, laughing together, chiyacking each other.
    Mick turned away. No. It's no surprise. That deep rage which spurred him into action had been self-generated, no doubt about that. And yet, no, not self-generated, it was something quite outside self.
    He walked up to them and they quietened down.
    He caught Garth Rasmussen's eye and held it. You lay a finger on my brother, I'm telling you, you'll have me to contend with. Like you say, Rasmussen, it's cunning that counts, and once I start nothing can stop me.
    Aw, Mick. Come off it. Jim attempted to intervene.
    Once you get me going, you will regret it, Gat Ratmutton, ask Jim, he will tell you; Mum calls it the wild Irish but if I get started I can't stop. So don't get me started, Ratmutton.
    Now Mick… His brother attempted a laugh but nobody was convinced. They were all waiting.
    You tell him, Mick repeated When I was twelve that time you all thought I'd gone out of control. Out of control, that was what Dad said, but I was a machine then, I was a machine.
    Not here, Jim whispered. Mick, you're getting yourself worked up…
    Too right I am. But I'm telling you, Ratmutton, I can be subtle, too, I can play my own jokes if I have to; remember the salted weet-bix, Jim? Remember that time?
    Jim looked almost grateful. His brother had somehow defused himself, that frightening head of steam had been prevented from building up. When was it, two years ago? Jim knew his brother's eye was no longer fixed onto Garth Rasmussen. Jim played back the opening.
    Not the week of the salted weet-bix! he exclaimed with such unexpected vehemence that everyone broke up. Jim Turner was not noted for dramatic acting; that was his brother's line. They all wanted to know more, and even Mick ended up laughing and explaining.
    Jim let his brother move back centre stage.
    Every morning, regular as the milkman's horse, Jim has these four weet-bix. Mick gave a wink to his brother. You can time him, too. Quarter to eight on the dot – pick up the weet-bix packet, shove out four Weet-bix. Reach for the sugar bowl. Three big spoonsfull of sugar, over the weet-bix. Pour in the milk -- from the side, never on top. Let the milk seep up the dry sides and when the sugar begins to melt and not before, then Jim shoves in his spoon and the swishing and dunking begin. It is 7.48 exactly by then. I've timed it. Regular as clockwork.
    Mick's always running late, his brother put in.
    Weet-bix, sugar, and then milk. In that order. Every time. What would happen, Jim, if you put the milk in before the sugar? I've even suggested Jim put the milk in first, like an ocean to float his weet-bix in. You think he's interested?
    Only Mick would suggest milk in first. He's got no sense of order.
    Well, I decided something had to be done, before Jim turned into clockwork himself. I got up early before piano practice and I filled the sugar bowl with salt. No one saw me.
    But didn't your parents……?
    Dad doesn't have cereal and Mum always waits till we're finished. Jim is always first with the sugar bowl. In this case, with the salt bowl.
    But you can tell the difference. You can feel it.
    At a 7.48 a.m.? Jim didn't give it a thought.
    That's true. Not at first.
    Until he took his first mouthful.
    Ugh! I'll get you for that, Mick. I'll think up some revenge, just you wait.
    I'll help you, Garth Rasmussen said. Who could endure salt on his weet-bix? What a sacrilege to a weet-bix. What did it taste like, Jim?
But Mick gave his brother a bear-hug. Jim's making deep plots, I know. Will my stamp collection be safe? Or has Jim hidden plans to short-sheet my bed and sprinkle it with pepper? Tell you this, salt weet-bix, once tasted never forgotten.
    Mick's black rage seemed as if it had never existed it had evaporated so completely. Jim looked on, hands in pockets, his fingers rubbing bruised knuckles against the tight cloth.

* * *

They all ended up in a gang making down to the races. Mick in the centre and Jim more or less quietly mingling with the others. Not with Garth Rasmussen either. He remembered being under him, and carried his own quiet feelings of unforgiveness.
    It was, in fact, Jim who insistently spread the tag name of Ratmutton till it became currency, at least for that year.
    Mick himself was looking forward to the big race, almost upon him. It did not matter, now, that when he stood on the blocks, his tight belly and muscly buttocks under the Speedo racing togs were pale as a peeled potato, or a white seal.

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