Extract from WINDSONG



Chapter 1








I stand by the old lemon tree, watching the boys kick a football around. Suddenly the ball takes an unexpected arc and veers towards me. I manage to angle it back to the group and Adam gives a shout of approval. Good one, Dad! My son has certainly come a long way from that sullen boy I met at Armidale railway station last year. At that time I could hardly bear the prospect of putting up with him for the school holidays. Now his praise delights me. I feel a surge of pride and love for him. But then, so much has changed. More than I could ever have thought possible. Particularly given my state of mind a year ago.


My life was at its lowest ebb. I’d taken long service leave and retreated to Armidale. Holiday or escape, does it matter? I came back to this town to reconsider my life.  My drinking lapses had wiped reassuring definitions off the blackboard. The police had stopped me at 2 am as I drove along Hunter Street on the wrong side of the road. On weaving my way from the nightclub, it seems I turned right instead of left. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic at the time. The officer who pursued me breathalysed me and ordered me into the paddy wagon. I was contained overnight in a cell. In due course the magistrate fined me $1200, revoked my license for six months and told me a man in my position should think most seriously about his actions. I agreed. My accustomed detachment was no help at all in this situation. This weak-willed fellow standing before the law was irresponsible, stupid and a danger to society. I had no respect for him.

     Suddenly I understood why people sometimes turn their backs on family and career and disappear. Oh, I don’t mean suicide. I just needed to get away and think. I confessed to my headmaster, a decent man who allowed human nature its down side. I outlined the facts and admitted my behaviour had been appalling.

     “It’s a pity, Martin. There were promotions under consideration.”

     He didn’t need to spell it out. I looked away, through his window where the cathedral was framed against an autumn sky.

     “You’ve long service leave, haven’t you?”

     I nodded. “Six months. Wouldn’t that disrupt the curriculum?” Of course I hoped I was indispensable.

     The headmaster didn’t think so. “This is a coincidence. You remember Peter Barnett?”

     I scanned the page he handed me. It was an application from the English teacher who’d previously held my post. He was back from a three-year stint in America and sought a relieving position.

     “Six months. That should work. Just about see the year out.”

     He sat waiting while my gaze was drawn again to the window. That soaring spire filled me with loss that clenched my gut. I swallowed an awful sadness. My voice sounded thick when I answered him.

     “Yes. I heard Peter was back.”

     “He evidently wants a job. Might even have brought back some fresh ideas.” He’d chastised enough schoolboys to know the right place for the lecture.  “Martin, I know you’re a dedicated teacher. You get good results and the boys like you. But you’re wise to step back and take a good look at things. Pull your life into shape. I’ll approve the leave. Shall we get on with the paperwork?”

      He didn’t say he’d be glad to see the back of me, but the school had an image to uphold and parents read court reports. So that was that.

      Also in trouble, a small boy lurked outside the door. I almost knocked him down. “S-sorry, sir,” he stuttered.

     “My fault,” I assured him. “Headmaster’s ready to see you.”

     His timid smile faded and I touched his shoulder with the sympathy of conspirators. The stairs bore the wear and tear of a million shoes. Institutional smells of ripe fruit, wax polish and damp paper wafted in the corridor. A bell shrilled, followed by the scrape of chairs and the press of eager feet. I no longer had a place in this life I took for granted and frequently complained about. The Renaissance man self-image – teacher, composer, philosopher – lay in the dust. I had classes after recess. For now I had to get away. Ignoring the throng of boys I went quickly to the exit.

     It was settled by Friday. Peter was keen to start immediately. I could meet him the following week and, after suitable briefing, be free. Colleagues on leave frequently set off to visit the Greek Isles or Europe. No hope of that! Apart from the justifiable fine I had to pay, my perennial financial problems ruled out travel. I decided on Armidale, where I’d gained my degree and met Annie. That love affair ended when I moved to Sydney. Annie stayed put. I heard she’d married almost at once and soon had a baby. We didn’t keep in touch. Sometimes I’d think of her, living her domestic life in that high altitude while I rummaged in the morass of Sydney bars and dives. Maudlin on whisky and lack of sleep, I’d think Annie, you had a lucky escape. In those days I fancied I was the ‘80s answer to Bob Dylan. And I did have my moments when I gathered my audience in my hands. But most of the next years were lost in moving, marrying, and staring at two strangers, my wife and my wailing baby son. It was presumed I would change light bulbs and push a lawnmower. Fights, recriminations, tears. Divorce. I was shattered – by my own failure to honour vows, as much as by the loss of Carol and Adam. 

     Of course there have been women since; interesting liaisons, but I’ve ensured nothing’s turned too serious. I set aside artistic dreams and settled for life as a teacher in a provincial city. No more trouble. No more binges. I’ve inherited my father’s weakness for drink. He was that perennial fraud; a man who kept up appearances while spending his worst nature on wife and family. Compared to his temper and abuse, my lapses qualified as mere peccadilloes until the reality of a cell and a magistrate put paid to that delusion. 

     It was time to move on. My plans fell into place. I gave Peter a run-down on the curriculum. It happened that he was looking for accommodation and agreed to sub-let my unit, fully furnished even down to my cat, Seiko. Essentials I packed into a couple of suitcases. I booked a train ticket. The day before I was due to travel north, I took a last stroll through Newcastle town. Armidale was an inland city; I would miss these glimpses of ocean visible beyond the high-fenced railway lines. I stopped in at Pepperinas for a decent coffee and quick book browse. The thought of calling in to the school crossed my mind, but approaching the gates I changed my mind. Farewells had been said. I didn’t belong there now. Instead I crossed the road to the cathedral and took a back pew, grateful for the respite. I’m not a believer but I do respect tradition. I sat a while, distracted by a fluttering above my head. My course was as astray as the sparrow vainly circling the vault of an illusory heaven.

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