Where There’s Smoke
“FEARLESS,” says Brock Tranter, running a hand through his impressive, Californian mane. “All great art is fearless.” I should be getting this down, like everyone else, but I’m yet to see how teaching art is art. Not the way I teach it, anyway. Then there’s my hand, still sore from this afternoon’s boxercise. I nod instead. “I can see people nodding,” says Tranter disparagingly, so I stop, “but I wonder—who in this room has the courage, the kind of to-hell-with-it courage Vlad Nabokov had, to walk into their classroom and be fearless? Who?”
Not me, that’s for sure. About the only courage I know is the Dutch kind, and I haven’t touched that for weeks. Eight, to be precise, minus two days. Tonight will be a true test, especially if Brock Tranter keeps dropping Vlad Nabokov’s name. I mean, to work the Russian master into a seminar on Australian boys’ education—that’s one thing. But Vlad? You’d think Tranter played cricket with the bloke in high school. Or hoops, or whatever else they play in California.
I check the time on my phone—under the table, like my students—as a photo of a young girl appears on the interactive whiteboard behind Tranter. A ‘tween,’ I believe they’re called. She’s wearing a lacy camisole and winking at us. “Consider Lolita,” says Tranter, stepping onto the stage at the front of the classroom and approaching the screen. He slides a finger across the girl’s torso. “Would such a masterpiece have been created if Vlad Nabokov cared what people thought of him?” “No,” the class responds, heads shaking like fairground clowns. I rotate mine a few times too, although out of disbelief that Tranter’s using a novel about a man’s erotic obsession with a twelve-year-old to inspire school teachers. “Was Vlad thinking, ‘will they think I’m a pervert? Some sicko for making my protagonist lustful for this?’” “No,” we say again, Tranter’s hand still stroking the tween. “You hear me,” he continues. “The second you doubt yourself, your pedagogy becomes limp and timid.” He holds himself as taut as possible, allowing us time not only to write the words down, but underline them too. “Now, what kind of teenage boy is going to respond to limp and timid?”
“But Mr. Tranter,” says Helen Poulos, who this morning cited haiku-writing with Year 7 as her favourite teaching moment. Talk about limp and timid. “Shouldn’t our teaching strategies reflect our students’ individual learning styles?”
“It’s Helen, isn’t it?” says Tranter, even though he’s been trying to seduce her all day. Her and about eight others. He holds her gaze for a good three seconds, then pinches the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger—his way of signposting that what’s coming next is big. “Great teachers,” he says, “and I believe you all have the potential to be great teachers, understand that extraordinary educational outcomes are never the result of pandering to your students’ various whims. Great teaching’s about being bold. Bold enough, dare I say Vlad Nabokov-like enough, to teach your classes what they need to learn, not want to learn.” With his right hand he makes a fist, our cue to be ready for more call-and-response. “It’s about being, let’s say it all together…”
“Fearless,” says Lydia Voss, onto her third cigarette this loo break. “I guess flying thirteen hours to another continent and announcing to a roomful of strangers that you’re a pederast—that’s pretty fearless. Honestly, how many times do you think he said it?”
“Were you counting?” I say.
“Only till he hit twenty.”
“I thought I was bad—trying to reel off the twelve Olympians.”
“Let me guess. You forgot Hephaestus?”
I guess you never had a teacher Vlad Nabokov-like enough to make you remember. Do you want one?” she says, offering her box of menthols.
“Nah, I prefer second-hand smoke these days.” Which is true. I quit smoking the day I quit the booze, and funny, I haven’t missed it near as much as all the other times I’ve quit. Admittedly, I’m chewing through two sleeves of Nicorette a day, but progress is progress, as my support group says.
I bonded with Lydia at morning tea, after we’d caught each other rolling our eyes during one of Helen Poulos’s haikus; she read ten. Then we were paired up for boxercise, holding the punching bag for each other as Tranter implored us to jab through our deepest regrets. She punched hard, which is probably why I overdid it, not wanting to seem limp and timid in comparison.
“To Dionysus,” says Lydia, toasting with her water bottle. “Can’t believe I made it this far.” She swills a good third of the bottle’s contents, then exhales violently. “If that doesn’t make me fearless,” she says, grimacing, “nothing will.”
“Vodka?” I say.
“Gin. Want some?”
“You bet I do. I don’t need it though.”
“Nice. No doubt what Vlad Nabokov would’ve said. I bet you never turned down a drink in Nyngan.”
That’s where Lydia’s teaching, Nyngan, a little shithole in western New South Wales where binge drinking’s the dominant religion. Like her, I went there straight after uni, on a teaching scholarship that helped fund my early experiences with alcoholism. I thought it would be a good place to paint: all those dusty plains, a wasteland of browns and reds. In the end I painted only beer cans, mainly because I never owned a recycling bin, and there were hundreds piled up on my back porch. “Channeling Warhol?” a colleague asked when I showed her my work. More like Jackson Pollock.
“So who made you come?” Lydia asks. “I’m guessing you didn’t volunteer.”
“Head of Department,” I say, which again, is true. What I don’t tell her is that after my latest performance appraisal, in which I scored a twenty-one percent student/parent approval rating—a record low for Luiten Grammar—Deborah had no choice but to send me. Reform or retrench, I believe the memo from the Principal read.
I’m not sure why I’m holding all this back, pretending to be someone who has it vaguely together. Normally when I meet someone I can talk to, I let rip with all the gory details—the divorce, the breakdown, the booze—within two or three lines of dialogue. Is it possible my social competencies are returning, like my support group said they would? Or is it Lydia, this slightly overweight but deliciously cynical chain smoker, who’s making me try to be better? “She didn’t warn me it would be like this,” I say.
“You mean, so American?”
“I was thinking lock-up-your-daughters creepy, but yeah. What about you?”
“The Federal Government, believe it or not.”
“Are you a spy? Being prepared for some international espionage mission by learning Brock Tranter’s top ten tips for being fearless?” Witty, I tell myself. Keep it going.
“There’s probably more to infiltrating al-Qaeda than telling them what they need to hear.” That’s witty too. “Have you heard of the Chin-Up program?”
“No doubt another shameless attempt by this corrupt government to buy votes?”
“Maybe. It’s aimed at raising the self-esteem of teenage boys in the bush.”
“Well, I can relate to being driven to depression by Nyngan.”
“Andy, you hardly seem the depressive type to me.”
Not the depressive type? If only she’d seen me this year on my wedding anniversary, the one that would’ve been our tenth. Seen me locked up in my bedroom for the full twenty-four hours, two bottles of Bombay my only rations. Seen how I needed gin then. If she knew this Andy, I’ve no doubt she’d be spending her breaks with Helen Poulos and the rest of Tranter’s harem, not engaging in breezy banter with me.
“It’s a quarter past,” I say, rounding up a few minutes. I’m in no rush to hear more Tranter, but I also don’t trust myself to keep the darkness of my past concealed. Not when the topic of depression’s on the table. I’ve been caught out before, effortlessly making quips when boom, out of nowhere, I blow it. “You ready to go back in?”
Lydia puts her hands on her hips, puffs out her not insubstantial chest—the Strongman pose favoured by Brock Tranter in all his brochures. “I’m ready to be the best me I can,” she says, with near-perfect timing, then gulps more of her drink.
“You’re going to be plastered,” I say.
“And you’ll be jealous.”
Helen Poulos is jealous, that’s for sure. As Lydia and I re-enter the classroom, Tranter is receiving a neck rub from Susie Thorne, a French teacher from Ballarat who wears a nose ring. “Feels good,” Tranter says. “But I can’t believe you guys call it a mass-age. Back home, we say mas-sage. We’re all about the second syllable.” Susie giggles, as Helen Poulos bounces a biro off an exercise book.
“Can’t wait to read the haiku about this,” Lydia says.
She should be sitting next to me, so I can enjoy more comments like this before the seminar ends. I’ve only known Lydia eight hours, but there’s something about her, a misfit quality, that’s captivating. I’m just about to ask her to move, when Tranter speaks instead.
“Educators,” he says, “please resume your seats.” We do, and as before, Lydia and I are separated by eight metres of carpet. Mercifully, Lolita’s gone from the whiteboard, replaced by an old-fashioned yearbook portrait. It’s Mr. Briggs, we’re soon told, Tranter’s eighth-grade history teacher. His hair is caked in Brylcreem, his bow tie from the wardrobe of Indiana Jones. “This man,” says Tranter, shadow-boxing at his old mentor, “was the most fearless educator I’ve known. Let me elaborate.”
He’s been elaborating all day. Since seven a.m., it’s been a festival of elaboration, made bearable only by Lydia. Before Tranter elaborates even more, a young man sporting facial hair not quite robust enough to be a goatee appears at the door. He’s wearing three shades of corporate beige: sandy brown slacks, an oatmeal polo, and a visor somewhere between fawn and latte. Both headwear and polo are emblazoned with the words ‘Team Tranter’. These motivational types—they love their alliteration. “Good to go in thirty, boss,” the kid says. “Roger,” says Tranter.
“Leonard Harris Briggs,” Tranter says, in full elaboration mode, “started every one of his lessons by doing twenty push-ups. He did this every day of his career until he retired at seventy. At first, we all thought he was a raving lunatic. But in time, we understood what he was doing. He was showing us, ‘If an old man like me can do this, think what you can achieve.’ Lenny Briggs, folks. A man who was truly…”
“Fearless,” we all say. I look over at Lydia, who updates the tally in her notebook with zeal, then winks at me. Not the kind of Lolita wink we were subjected to earlier, but a genuine, you’re-with-me kind of wink. It strikes me that this is the first time a woman has flirted with me since Flick, then I worry it’s only the gin winking.
“We all have fears,” Tranter says, “some more limiting than others.” He walks toward me, and I worry that I might have to share. But then he takes a right, goes to Helen Poulos instead. “Helen,” he says, handing her a pad of notepaper, “please give each educator a sheet.” Helen smiles and performs the task, no doubt interpreting the request as an olive branch. She makes certain, though, that Susie Thorne’s paper is delivered last. “Now, what you’re going to do,” says Tranter, employing that trademark American present tense, “you’re going to write down all your greatest fears. These should be fears that don’t just hold you back as a teacher, but as a person. Right, you’ve got ten minutes.”
The class begins writing furiously, except Lydia—who’s focused intently on the pencil she’s wobbling—and me. During my forty-one years, I’ve had nearly as many fears as breaths. In fact, a lot of my fears have been about breathing. Fear of lung cancer. Fear of suffocating under my pillow during sleep. How can I possibly distill a lifetime of fear and self-loathing into a single A4 page? And what do I list first? Fear of rejection by Flick, the only woman to have understood my madness? Or the soul-crushing emptiness I’ve known since she left, that perpetual sense of nihilism that makes you want to pull the blankets over your head till you die?
I end up writing fear of being nude on the crapper when an earthquake hits, moments before Tranter calls, “Pens down.” Not a fear held by most Australians, sure, but at least one I can discuss without going into meltdown. And one, I hope, that might make Lydia smile.
“Wet grass! Wet grass! Wet grass!”
This is what they’re yelling as I walk down a human tunnel in the car park of East Katoomba High. In front of me is the kid in beige, high-fiving crazed school teachers, and beyond him a narrow trail of glowing coals, which apparently I’ve agreed to walk over.
“Remember,” says the kid when we reach the trail. “It’s only wet grass.”
I’m aware of hands on my shoulders—Brock Tranter’s hands, I deduce, as it’s his resonant voice behind me repeating, “Fear-less, fear-less, fear-less…”
I’m unclear how all this happened, how I came to agree to this insanity. I recall being in the classroom, drifting off into remembrances of things past as Tranter elaborated more about Lenny Briggs: images of Flick in a kimono when we honeymooned in Japan, the way her face scrunched up the first time she tried saké. I must have said yes reflexively, assumed that Tranter was asking another of his banal, wanna-be-more-like-Vlad-Nabokov? type questions. Not this.
“Are you ready to see something extraordinary?” roars Tranter to the crowd. They fist-pump and yee-haw, conditioned after only a day of American-style motivation to carry on like Spring Breakers. Then Tranter locks eyes with me and says, “Are you ready to do something extraordinary?” You have to be joking, says the voice in my head, but the one in my throat says, “Yes.”
“In these ashes,” Tranter continues, “are the charred remains of the fears you all wrote down earlier. Burnt. Gone. No more. When you leave this venue, you will go with the certainty that these fears can no longer burden you. You will depart brimming with courage, the to-hell-with-it courage all the greats have, to be…”
“Fearless!” cries the mob.
Knowing I don’t have long, I try to spot Lydia. I want to see what she makes of it all. Is she impressed by my Vlad Nabokov-like courage and soon-to-be-performed, fearless feats? Or amused by the irony of me—fearful, hapless me—being cast as the pièce de résistance of Brock Tranter’s ridiculous extravaganza? I scan the faces either side of the coals, but before I can find her, the kid with not-quite-a-goatee blows his whistle and I’m off.
I try to tread softly, keep a steady pace. I tell myself it’s wet grass stinging my heels, not the charred remains of a bonfire, and try to focus only on my steps. I’m halfway along, doing great, when I see her. Or at least the orange glow of her cigarette, at the far end of the car park.
And I realise I should be there, with her, sharing jokes about the fool on the coals, not playing that fool myself. I should be telling her about these demented faces, the way they urge me maniacally to the end of the trail. I should be telling her about an atmospheric pub I know up the highway, the perfect place for us to go and debrief. There, I should tell her not to drive out of my life tomorrow, but stay here in the Mountains a while longer, continue this thing we’ve begun.
Just as I imagine her hand beneath mine on the bar, I feel the transfer of heat from coal to flesh.
Peter Phillips is a Sydney-born writer who has lived in Hong Kong for the past seven years. His fiction has appeared in various publications around the world, including most recently The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. He holds an MFA in fiction from City University of Hong Kong and is a reader for the online journal Drunken Boat. According to all official documents, he has been male his entire life.