I went to high school at the age of eleven. I had long hair, past my shoulders, because I was Feral. I enjoyed being feral.
The school had a problem with that. I found out on Day One that Being Feral was strongly disapproved of and severely frowned upon. To my everlasting surprise this was not only the case with The Management, of whom these things could potentially be expected, because it was virtually in their job description ("thou must hate kids"), but, almost even more so, with what can only be called, for want of a better word , my "fellow students". If Frodo had had a fellowship like that he never would have gotten out of The Shire, and Sauron would be ruling the entire world from Mordor as we speak.
Everywhere I went the other kids were hissing at me, spitting and slurring insults and abuse: "feral". That was a strange one, because I thought that was a compliment. "hippy" and "scum" were two other ones. Sometimes, in accidental fits of soaring inspiration, they managed "hippy scum". I was impressed. "bum", "bludger", "filth", "dero" were all predictable and tiresome. The most surreal was "beatle". I had to do a double take at that one. The Beatles were a very old band from a bygone era I had only ever very vaguely heard of and knew nothing about. So I went and looked it up, and found that they had some pretty good music. I discovered that at some point they had introduced the concept of long hair to a squeaky clean, square-cut, uptight and straight-laced world, millions of years ago. I wondered if they had been feral too.
Because I just shrugged off the insults and got on with my daily business, it was deemed by The Community Of Students that Something Had To Be Done About It. So at recess time they came and found me, and picked fights. So I fought. Every day, all day. I didn't mind, it had been the same throughout every one of the six primary schools I had gone to, so I was used to it. I was good at it. I had had a lot of practice. After a while I noticed that there were other kids that were being picked on too, who didn't fight back, and got trampled into the dirt. So I went and helped them out, and stood up for them. The Community Of Upstanding Citizens wasn't impressed, and they only hated me more for it. The Representatives of School Management that patrolled the battlefields of recess looked the other way, stuck their hands in their pockets and walked away whistling. I got detention in the first week at school. It was the start of a very long career in detention.
This went on for a surprisingly long time. When you're eleven time goes very slowly, the days and weeks and months are very long and drawn out, and it's amazing how much violence, abuse and hatred can be made to fit in. Outside of recess time, during lesson time, the physical violence was exchanged for mental abuse on the part of the teachers, in the form of sarcasm, continual insults, snide remarks, put-downs, and systematic humiliation in front of The Community Of Upstanding Citizens. The Community was very impressed. I was left wondering if this was really how things were supposed to be, but, because it had been the exact same pretty much everywhere else I had been, I didn't think too much of it, and just got on with life. In the house where I lived it was the same story, so I had no reason to believe the world could be any different.
Time went past, and I grew bigger and older. I became increasingly confused and disgruntled with the way things were, and started to imagine a different sort of a life. As I started to be able to think more clearly and independently, it occurred to me that there were several serious issues with this state of affairs, and I started challenging the Management. The Management did not take kindly to this. The Big Chief was called a Principal, possibly because he was principally a cunt, on principle. He took to following me around, to abuse me and try to catch me out doing Forbidden Things, such as breathing. He used to wait for me at the school gate in the morning, so he could get in early by having a good lay-in. I was bemused at the excessive amount of attention paid to me by The Head Honcho. Surely he had better things to do? I was vague on what the duties of a school's principal might include, but I found it hard to imagine that they consisted chiefly of following a 12, 13, 14-year old around the grounds just so they could abuse them.
It became clear to me, as the years wore on, that I was wasting my time in that place. My academic time was spent either getting kicked out of classes, standing, sitting and hanging around empty corridors with nothing to do, or, of course, in detention. My social time was spent fighting. It wasn't a very exciting or interesting life style, so I went looking further afield for more appealing options and discovered The Pub. It had lots of interesting features. There were random people there who talked without shouting or screaming abuse, and often smiled, or, completely unheard-of manifestation of the essence of humanity, even laughed out loud. I was shocked. What was all that about? More to the point, at The Pub there were girls. And beer. Those two things eclipsed anything else I had ever had any vague interest in, like fighting and staying alive, with meteoric speed. The world opened up into a cornucopia of boobs and glasses full of drink, a caleidoscope of delight and wonder, a feast for the senses. It provided a hugely welcome alternative to going to the school, and the choice between the two was not hard. Go to school, and be abused and fight all day, or go to the pub, drink beer and have my hands full of tits? It was a no-brainer.
So I went to school when the pub wasn't open, in the mornings, and when the pub opened I disappeared to a happier life, a temporary bubble of joy that would burst at closing time and a return to an existence of aggression and violence. The landlord of the pub was a dodgy old fellow who was bending and twisting every rule in the book, and didn't mind 14-year old school kids hanging around there. It had an upstairs floor that was dark and shadowy, and as long as we stayed up there and out of sight we could drink beer and fondle each other as much as we wanted for all he cared, provided, of course, that we paid for our drinks. He was, truly, an Enlightened Being. From time to time the pub would get raided by the coppers, in their ongoing attempts to shut it down on whatever grounds they could find, and on those occasions we retreated another level further up, up a flight of stairs and behind a closed door, where we were invisible, could hear all the arguing and fighting with the police downstairs, and could happily continue to drink beer and fondle each other, even more so because of the darkness and cramped conditions.
One day I turned up at the school, possibly because the pub was shut, leaving me with no other option. The Head Honcho came looking for me, murder in his eyes. He demanded to know where I had been. I thought that was a very strange request, since I didn't think it was any of his business what I did outside of the school in the privacy of my own life, and I told him so. It must have been what he had been waiting for all this time, because he swung wildly and aimed for my head with a punch that was designed to put me in hospital. He might have forgotten that I had spent every waking hour in his hellhole of an institution fighting to defend myself against people who were being raised and educated to be just like him, so I ducked and got him instead. He tried to grab me, so we scuffled, pushed, shoved and punched on, till I got him on his arse on the ground. Enough is enough. In the time it took for all that to happen The Management and Community Of Proud Upstanding Citizens had called the coppers, and they were now pulling up at the gates with lights flashing. I turned tail and ran away. I jumped the fence, bolted down the road, and disappeared.
I walked into the Long Grass, and followed the sun.
There was a highway, and it would lead somewhere, I figured. I would work it out as I went along.
So I walked, and hitch-hiked.
I found that a lot of people were prepared to give rides to a very young person, and even though I was often met with quizzical glances and pointed questions, by and large they helped me out and left me alone. Sometimes they would try and have sex with me. When it was women I gleefully consented, when it was blokes I punched and ran.
At night the Long Grass closed over my head, a protective cover screening me from the outside world. No one can see through the Long Grass. Out of sight is out of harm's way. I slept with a knife in one hand, and one eye open. When I came upon towns and cities where the Long Grass gave way to concrete and broken glass, I sought out the quiet places, dark, shadowy and secluded. I slept in ditches, under bushes in city parks, under bridges, in sewers, behind churches, on half-finished construction sites that were abandoned for the night. They offered a roof when the rains came. Bush was always better, safer. Caves were as good as the Long Grass, they were hard to get to, out of the way, and very private.
Securing food was an inescapable necessity. I became very good at shoplifting, and thought of it as my trade. Usually I would steal food, but occasionally I'd get my hands on things that had a dollar value on them, and I flogged them off on the street, raising money.
Mostly I looked for work anywhere I could find it, anywhere where no questions were asked other than 'can you stand up and breathe'. I followed the fruit trail, long before this was known as an official thing, and followed the seasons around, harvesting things as they ripened in various places and latitudes. There were mangoes, lychees, tomatoes, oranges, grapes. I climbed trees and picked and collected, loaded trucks and lifted and shifted. I worked with old blokes with faces like tanned leather, who were permanently pissed, and at night, around the fire, would howl with the agony of being alive, and pick fights with themselves. I worked with women lean and tough and wise to the world, who would take off their tops in the dry heat and work with their tits dangling out free, singing old songs and laughing at the top of their voices. Sometimes they were accommodating at night, other times they weren't.
I saved up every cent I earned and hid it on my person. I bought a cheap old guitar and started playing music in the streets of some of the larger towns I passed through. It was easier money than back-breaking labour. People threw at me whatever they thought they could spare: mostly small change, and sometimes burning cigarette butts or rotten fish, and, always and everywhere, insults and abuse, in plentiful supply and free of charge.
In a period of unprecedented prosperity I lashed out and spent $20.00 on a tent, then spent another $15.00 on a large sheet of builders plastic to keep the rain out, in the wet season. I had become a First Home Owner. The Long Grass closed over the roof of builders plastic when the knock' em down rains came, and I was dry, hidden, and as safe as a house. When the rains stopped I rode horses and rounded up cattle. The stockwhips used to drove mobs of cattle on through dry country were mostly used on the backs of the beasts, and sometimes on us mob working them. You didn't say anything, because if you did you got the sack.
Other times I went out to sea in leaking boats to catch fish, and I sold it back in town. There was a dark night with a gale with teeth in its throat and murder in its eye. The seas rose up over the bridge as the boat ran away in front of the storm in complete radar-white-out and impenetrable darkness. I steered the boat through the night while the crew slept, then handed over to the captain at the end of my watch. When we were almost safe, he drove the boat straight onto a rock at full speed and sank us in three minutes flat. I was the last person to abandon ship; the captain had been first to jump overboard. 'Save yourselves!' he shouted, and jumped without looking back. He was a cunt. We swam against the tide and up a river mouth, and found dry land alive. That storm blew for a week. In that time six more boats went under. We were the only ones who survived. Three weeks later one poor fella washed up on a beach miles and miles away, with a liferaft tied around his hand. It hadn't done him much good.
One day I fetched up on a shore, with sand behind me and salt water in front of me, both stretching out into infinity and further than the eye could see, and with no sign of life either way. I wondered what lay on the other side of the water. So I took a deep breath, walked into a post office, filled out a form and tried for a passport. To my relief I was able to get one. I put my head down and my arse up, saved up, and got on a plane to have a look at the rest of the world.
I walked around the world, sussing it out, having a good old sticky-beak. I hitched rides on trucks, motorbikes, tractors and donkey carts, rode stowaway on quiet night trains through unknown foreign countries, and stole passage on unsuspecting ferries servicing remote far-flung islands, beyond the reach of roads and planes. I walked across sky-high snow-covered mountains in their winter time, with snow drifts blocking up the passes and lying piled up high on the side of the road. I traversed plains and deserts, slept in forests and swamps, under stars and in the rain. I got harassed by police, fought with customs officers, and got locked up and banned for life from entering countries. When that happened I doubled back, found another border crossing and sneaked over at night.
Mostly I just walked.
I walked around in circles, cutting laps and doing the rounds around the world, till I couldn't remember which way was which. The sun came up and went back down again. The stars wheeled overhead. Drunken planes, rattling trains, rickety boats and rusty four-wheel drives, freezing mountains, baking deserts, dripping jungles and heaving oceans, reindeer tundra, black bear forests, camel sandhills and dolphin seabays all blended into one long dusty highway of confusion.
Time went past. Dust settled, and the Long Grass grew, gently waving overhead in the dry breeze, dragonflies dancing around the heavy seed-heads, long-time source of traditional food of The Old People.
Women came and went and laid down beside me in my swag, Second Home in combination with a tarp. My First Home had washed away in the shipwreck long years before, along with everything else I had owned.
Sometimes the women stayed, mostly they went. I was perennially puzzled at women's lack of preparedness to live in the Long Grass. I pointed out the benefits to life in general: clean air, healthy outdoor living, fresh organic non-chemical-tainted meat. They were not convinced. I laid down a dead kangaroo at their feet and cut it up for them. They ran away. I scratched my head in confusion. The ways of women were mysterious.
One woman came and stayed.
I blinked again.
Now there was a baby as well.
This complicated matters.
The baby lay on the swag in front of me. I offered it a piece of freshly cut kangaroo meat. The baby chewed on it a bit, spat it out and glared at me accusingly. It occurred to me that it would probably need teeth first. I tried a banana. This met with greater success.
The baby shat itself comprehensively. We observed that the banana did not look overly different coming out the back end than it had looked going in the front end, although it certainly smelled a lot worse.
The woman took the nappy off the baby and took it down to the river to wash it out. I went and sat next to her, to keep on eye out for crocodiles while she cleaned recycled banana out of the nappy. The only crocodile currently present was an old toothless softie, known to everyone locally as Victor. He used to crawl up on the bank and open his mouth, saying 'feed me'. We used to give him fish and show tourists how they could, if they were careful and he was in a good mood, sneak up around the outside of him and pat him on the head. I winked at Vic. He stared at me and gave me a cold, green, double-eyed crocodile wink back. Usually as long as he was around the big nasty ones would stay away. His kind were all right, they used to leave people alone, and we used to swim around them, no worries.
'I need to get a job,' I said, 'the baby needs more bananas.'
'It's true,' she nodded, 'they do not, after all, grow on trees.'
I thought about that one for a bit. I scratched my head again.
'Yes ... her-hum,' I replied, non-comittantly.
'What will you do?' she said, scrubbing the nappy with a piece of sandstone.
'I have no idea,' I admitted.
'All right.' She started wringing out the nappy, then said, 'Are you any particular good at anything?'
I gave that one some long hard thinking. 'Not really,' I frowned, 'except going walkabout. I'm really good at that.'
She looked at me thoughtfully. 'Yes, you are,' she agreed. 'You reckon you could make a living out of that?'
I stared at her. It was a surreal proposition. 'I wouldn't have a clue,' I said truthfully. I peeled another banana and fed it to the baby. 'I might try and find out. It's an interesting idea.'
So I went to The Big Town, found a library and sat down to read, leaf, browse and peruse. Against all expectation I found a course where you could learn to teach other people to go walkabout. I was gobsmacked.
We rolled up our swag, picked up our baby and shifted to where the course was run.
I blinked again.
Now there were two babies.
I got a Ticket In Going Walkabout. I was very proud.
I looked at the two babies. Keeping up a steady supply of bananas to them was turning out to be a demanding job, and the woman couldn't do it all by herself. It seemed, in actual fact, to be not the best time for to be going walkabout with other people without them.
Much to my surprise, as a sideline, as a bonus extra to the Ticket In Going Walkabout, I also got an Education Ticket. It meant I was allowed to Educate, a License To Grill.
As part of getting the License To Grill I had to go to a school and pretend to work there for a bit. I selected the roughest, meanest, dirtiest, poorest, most run-down and most neglected school I could find, so far on the wrong side of the tracks that the tracks were not visible to the naked eye, and pulled up in their car park in my rusted-out four wheel drive. I stared at the entrance. My hands gripped the steering wheel with a white-knuckle death-grip, and I hyperventilated for half an hour. I thought of the babies, who were running out of bananas, and went in and did what I had to do.
The sun rose and set, the Earth turned.
Much against every single better judgement and instinct I possessed I accepted work in a school as a Grill Licensee. The promise of a plentiful supply of bananas clinched the deal. I bought a brand new pair of shorts, patched up the holes in my best t-shirt and acquired a pair of socks. It took me a while to work out what they were supposed to be for, but I got there in the end. On your feet, right. With shoes, as well. It was a strange notion.
On my first day I was asked to instruct a group of kids in the finer points of Going Walkabout. 'Hah!' I thought, and my spirits lifted considerably. 'That's more like it.' When I found out that this consisted mainly of getting the kids to read an article about going bush, while firmly restrained within the confines of the school and not being allowed out anywhere, my spirits dropped like a koala with eucalyptus poisoning.
On my second day I was asked to escort a group of kids on a beach walk. My soul sang and danced with joy. The freedom of the sand, the delight of the salt water. This would be awesome. When I found out that the beach walk consisted of getting the kids to walk on a concrete footpath behind the dunes for 500 metres, turn around and walk back the same way, I was gobsmacked. I consulted with the other Licensees To Grill. I was informed that the kids were not allowed to either take their shoes off, walk on the sand, go anywhere near the water's edge or climb on the sand dunes, because all of these things were considered "far too dangerous", the risk assessments hadn't been done and anyway the Licensees hated walking through sand. I gaped at them with my mouth wide open. They stared down their noses at me and sniffed haughtily and with no small amount of constipation. My soul lost its voice and sprained an ankle.
On the third day I was asked to supervise a group of kids over lunch time. Puzzled at what they were doing I turned up at the room where they were, and found five of them sitting carefully apart from each other, arms crossed over their chest, and mouths shut. I smelled a rat immediately. I approached one of them, a scrawny kid with zits on his face and gel in his hair, and resolved to find out what was going on.
'Hey! Psst!' I said, in a low conspiratorial tone.
He startled out of his day-dream, or, possibly, just out of his comatose boredom. 'What?' He looked at me with confusion and apprehension.
'What are yous doing here?' I whispered. 'Why are yous all sitting here like this?'
He stared at me. He opened his mouth, then shut it again. Eventually he managed, 'We're supposed to sit here and do nothing.' He added, 'Sir.'
I looked over my shoulder to see who he might be addressing like that. There was no one there. I looked across to the other side of the room. No one there either. The horrible and inevitable conclusion stole over me like a B-52 carrying a nuclear bomb appearing on the horizon.
'You talking to me?' I nearly choked. 'Don't call me "sir"!'
He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. 'Uh ... all right. Sir.' He looked embarrassed. 'It's just that they tell us we have to, si ... uh, ... you know.'
'Don't ever call anyone "sir",' I hissed. 'You call anyone "sir", you're telling them that they are better than you. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights!'
His mouth hung open and his eyes bulged. He nodded, wordlessly.
'So, now, tell me,' I continued, determined to get to the bottom of this, 'what are yous all doing here sitting around like this doing nothing, wasting your time? Why aren't yous outside kicking the footy? It's smoko.' I looked at his uncomprehending face. 'You know, break-time. Recess.'
His eyes flicked from side to side, as if trying to check if someone was setting him up for the stitch-up of the century. They weren't. Finally gathering all his courage, he looked away, and mumbled out of the corner of his mouth, 'We're in detention. And you ...', at this he glowered reproachfully, '... are supposed to be supervising us.'
I almost died.
My heart stopped and shattered.
Here I was, in detention again, after all those years, but this time on the wrong side of the fence. There was no way that was going to happen on my watch. It was like asking the fox to guard the chicken coop, with the door off the latch and wedged wide open.
I told them all to go.
Reluctantly and hesitantly they shuffled out, unsure of what they should be doing. I instructed them to go and hide from any marauding Licensees until lesson time started, and they disappeared, glancing over their shoulders bewilderedly.
I picked up my wages of blood, crime and treason for that day, and walked out of that place.
In front of me the sun was setting over the mountains.
I knew where I was going.
There was no amount of bananas in the world that would ever be able to persuade me to do this ever again.