(This story is a chapter from a longer work in progress, A Thousand Benedictions.)
For a reason Mr Tamsin made clear at the beginning of the course, which Joel now strained to recall, feedback in Creative Writing for Beginners was conducted in pairs. Because Mr Tamsin’s cruelty was not always subtle, he had paired Joel with a shy boy, Phillip, who wore a dog collar. Phillip’s creative writing sought to explore a netherworld of feudal knights, sorcerers, goblins and nubile women with names like Fern and Glayde, whose masochism, Joel felt, was a thin veil for his own. His latest work had the title The Curse of Mandralor, and after a complex plot involving the deaf-mute ‘King Mandralor’ and a magical talking dog called ‘Volto’, it concluded with a graphic description of decapitation by broadsword.
‘The end,’ Phillip announced as he finished reading the story. He looked up at Mr Tamsin, his neck and face flushed with embarrassment. There was a silence as Mr Tamsin considered the fingernails of his left hand, leaning against a desk at the front of the classroom. Without looking directly at Phillip, Mr Tamsin asked him a question.
‘Why is it that Volto hesitates before advising King Mandralor of the death of the maidservant, Joyce?’
Phillip looked through the pages of his story, running his fingers across a few lines at a time. He came to the last page again, and looked up at Mr Tamsin, who returned his gaze, chewing his bottom lip impatiently.
‘Um, well, I think he was sort of, um…depressed.’
‘Magical talking dogs don’t get depressed. If anything, they are in a state of perpetual euphoria due to their extraordinary gift of the gab.’ Over the course of Creative Writing for Beginners, under even the most benign forms of scrutiny, Phillip had demonstrated a siege mentality that drew heavily on his refracted sense of how dignity might be maintained in the face of what he considered suspicious inquisition. The no-win strategy he deployed in these episodes of interrogation with Mr Tamsin was inarticulate antagonism. In his mind, he took up a heavy cudgel against Mr Tamsin.
‘How do you know so much about magical talking dogs?’
Like a cobra appraising a mongoose, Mr Tamsin moved his neck to lower his head, in an effort to take Phillip in with more ease.
‘Phillip, your story gives us little to go on in relation to Volto. We know that he is magical – talking should be enough for any dog – but you announce Volto’s every appearance with, “Volto, the magical talking dog”.’
Mr Tamsin beat two pencils on his thighs with a degree of skill that surprised Joel, and made Phillip sick at heart for Volto.
‘Volto, the magical talking dog!’
The drum roll stopped abruptly as Tamsin slapped the pencils on the desk, folding his brown arms across his chest, slowly shaking his head.
‘But then it’s just Volto again. And now you explain to us that he’s depressed. I suppose if my every action and every utterance were guided by your dim wit and your slow pen, I might be depressed, too. But perhaps you’re intentionally employing an antique literary device, Phillip? Is that what you’re attempting here?’
‘Oh, because for a moment I thought this might be an example of doggerel.’
Mr Tamsin suddenly exploded with a laugh that was like a convulsive rasp. It crinkled his expression, turning his eyes into tiny upwardly curved slits. After a moment, he realised that no one was sharing in his joke, so he quickly composed himself, pinching the bridge of his nose.
‘What do you think, Joel?’
Joel was unprepared for the question. He hadn’t liked the story much, but he had to admire how prolific Phillip had been. Even though the completed stories for this exercise had a word limit of three thousand five hundred words, Phillip’s story was at least five or six times that, Joel had guessed. He hesitated. He wanted to extend the discussion of Phillip’s story for a simple reason: it deflected Mr Tamsin’s attention from The Actress Liar, the title Joel had settled on for his own story.
‘Well, I suppose it’s an interesting idea.’
‘What is it about this idea that makes it interesting to you?’
‘When you set this exercise as homework, I suppose I just wasn’t expecting to hear a story from the point of view of a dog. I mean, a story written in the voice of a dog.’
Mr Tamsin blinked at Joel.
‘I mean, you know, because dogs can’t really talk.’ For a moment Mr Tamsin considered Joel’s point.
‘That’s right, Joel, dogs can’t talk. Phillip, your story, for all its mouldy towers, its fearsome knights, its helpless princesses, vengeful kings and moody, chatty puppies, is dull and unimaginative – it fails.’
Phillip looked from the pages in his hands to the floor and grunted that he understood what Mr Tamsin had told him. Suddenly, Mr Tamsin looked at Joel.
‘Why do you punish the girl in your story, Joel?’
‘Um, well, I thought that it was more like real life.’
‘But you see, when you patronise characters in your fiction, when you hate them as much as you hate this girl, your work is diminished. It’s not reflective of anything like real life, but rather of a small mind.’
‘I don’t hate her,’ Joel lied.
‘Well, let me tell you what I think. From the moment you introduce us to this character in her red, Chinese dress and her bone cardigan, the impression we get is that you loathe her. Your story becomes nothing more than a passive-aggressive fantasy. Who is she?’
‘She’s just a girl in a story. She’s made-up.’
Mr Tamsin smiled as if he understood that there might be things about his story that Joel might not want to disclose or share with him or Phillip. He took a deep breath before continuing.
‘Okay. In its own way, your story is just as nonsensical as Phillip’s and, in its own way, just as dull. Neither of you can reasonably expect to pass in this course if you continue to present me with such poorly expressed, banal rubbish.’
Joel had had enough experience of modern adult learning to know that assessment of this kind was uncharacteristic. He’d known acquaintances who had attended art history classes, whose essays were nothing more than postmodern plagiarised sentences passed with high distinction, or people who studied Old English having read no more of Beowulf than the précis on the back cover of the paperback; people who went out to dinner with their tutors and consistently received passing grades. But that was not how Mr Tamsin conducted Creative Writing for Beginners.
Mr Tamsin had introduced the course by giving a lengthy talk on the power of words, and the simplicity of pure expression. He concluded by reading aloud paragraphs by Anton Chekhov, Patrick White, Henry James and Raymond Carver. He had been a stern and exacting tutor, reducing one girl in class to tears when he demanded that she stop reading her story – a mood piece about lesbian infidelity – saying that it was so badly written and paralytically infantile that no conclusion she concocted would revive it. When the girl protested that Mr Tamsin was not allowing her ‘voice’ to be heard, he replied that he certainly was not, and that when she decided to stop bleating and write something worthy of his attention, he would listen.
Mr Tamsin had never enjoyed Joel’s fiction, or Phillip’s, or anyone else’s in the class, with the exception of a small Algerian woman called Meredith, whom he never reproved, and would often speak with when the class ended. One week, when Phillip was away, Mr Tamsin paired Joel with Meredith. She had written a story about the repair of a radio, which Joel had found boring. At the end of the story, Mr Tamsin grinned, showing nearly all of his perfect teeth, and said something to Meredith in French, to which she replied:
‘Merci, merci beaucoup, Monsieur Tamsin!’
‘Non, non, s’il vous plait, appelez-moi Winston.’
Phillip and Joel’s fiction did not move Mr Tamsin to French superlatives, but leaning against his desk, he appeared to make a snap decision.
‘Joel, I want you to write the same story but this time from a neutral point of view. Try to take the judgment out of your sentences. Let’s see if that wrings out the bile in your prose. Phillip, I want you to write a story in the present, with no knights, kings, princesses or magical talking dogs. Keep it strictly three thousand words in length – not a syllable longer. I want you to offer each other feedback based on what you have learnt tonight. I want your stories ready to read in two weeks. Do you have any questions?’
Both Phillip and Joel were mute as they stuffed their manuscripts into their backpacks. Only Joel thanked Mr Tamsin as they left.
In the fluorescent light of the hallway, Phillip walked slightly ahead of Joel with what appeared to be a slight limp. He was fumbling in his jacket pocket and stopped by the Coke machine. For no other particular reason than that they seemed united in humiliation, Joel stood by Phillip as he fed coins into the machine. Without turning to acknowledge Joel, Phillip spoke.
‘Have you got twenty cents?’
‘I think so.’
Joel dug into his pocket and handed Phillip a coin.
The can clunked into the bottom of the machine. Phillip snapped it open and shrugged his backpack onto his shoulder.
‘I don’t seem to be able to write a story that Mr Tamsin likes.’
‘Well, to me he seems like someone who just doesn’t know how to teach.’
This thought hadn’t occurred to Joel before, and while it certainly in no way excused the fact that he couldn’t write, it seemed nonetheless true. Phillip seemed unconvinced by what Joel had said, slumping into an orange plastic chair set against a notice board.
‘I don’t know. I think I get it when he talks to the class, but then when he pulls shit like that homework assignment, I just don’t think he knows where I’m coming from.’
‘But he always gives us homework.’
‘I know, but real writers aren’t given homework.’
‘Well, I suppose he thinks that’s the only way we’re going to learn.’
‘I’ve never written a thing for his class.’
‘But I’ve heard all your stories, from when we started this course.’
As he said this, Phillip reached into his backpack and pulled out a manuscript that was at least several hundred pages thick. He handed it to Joel. Scrawled across the first page was the title Kornholt, The Avatar of Cunning written in brown ink, and underneath it a drawing of a sword dripping with blood.
‘I wrote this – it’s my first book – before I enrolled in this course. It’s where I get all my stories.’
Joel stared at the cover page, which looked a little battered and dog-eared.
‘What…you mean everything you write comes from this book?’
‘Yeah. Whenever we get homework, I just adapt one of the stories from Kornholt.’
Joel leafed through the manuscript. It was handwritten in delicate cursive script. At various points in the book, small ink drawings appeared: on one page a braid of hair, on another a clock face suspended above a field. On another, a tree surrounded by musical notes. Phillip noticed Joel looking at the tiny picture.
‘That’s “Pallidor, the singing tree”.’ Joel laughed a little.
‘A talking dog and a singing tree. Well, at least Mr Tamsin can’t accuse you of having no imagination.’
Phillip took another mouthful of Coke and stared at the top of the can.
‘I’ve always been encouraged.’
There was quiet in the hallway as Joel felt the weight of Phillip’s novel in his hands. He could hear laughter and a conversation he couldn’t quite make out some distance down the hall. He looked back at Phillip slumped in the chair and found himself snagged in time, caught in a moment of seeing him afresh. He was wearing a pair of black jeans almost faded to grey, and soft brown leather boots. His black t-shirt, which was frayed at the neck, had had the words Search and Destroy screen-printed on it years before, but now the lettering cracked in fine lines across the fabric. The silver chain around his neck fell beneath his t-shirt; there was a scar that ran from under his ear, disappearing under his collar. The black jacket he wore was frayed at both wrists.
Phillip looked up at Joel, sensed that he was being appraised, and felt immediately self-conscious – and vaguely suspicious. He stood up, taking his manuscript from Joel, snapping them both into a moment of confused embarrassment. Phillip seemed to be shrugging as he spoke.
‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go to work.’
Joel immediately understood that he had revealed something about himself that Phillip hadn’t fully understood.
‘It would be good to read your book. I’d like to.’
Phillip turned to Joel, his bag swinging on his shoulder.
‘Oh yeah, well, it would be good to hear what you think. Take this first and we can talk about what to do – my number is on the front.’
Phillip put his backpack on the lime-green lino and pushed his manuscript into it. He stood awkwardly. Joel felt a sudden jolt of embarrassment, as if he were being called upon by Phillip to terminate the exchange with a pleasantry in the way royalty might signal the end of a polite conversation.
Joel offered his hand. Phillip stared at him blankly. He was certain that this gesture meant something, he just wasn’t sure what. Joel wasn’t sure either. His hand hung in space for a moment before Phillip slapped his palm.
‘See you next week. I’m gonna catch the bus.’
Joel waited for a moment as he watched Phillip walk the length of the hallway, over-lit with fluorescent tubes, towards the glass doors leading outside. Joel turned and walked to the door at the opposite end of the corridor. He thought to call out to Phillip as he left the building, but when he turned, the corridor was empty. Mr Tamsin suddenly appeared in the hallway, juggling books in one arm and locking the door to the classroom with his free hand. He turned and looked at Joel, grinning broadly as if his hypercritical malice was being locked away for the week in the empty classroom and this personable, charming son of a Sri Lankan chemist was once again free to move among others in the world, until that door was unlocked once again.
‘Ah Joel! Goodnight, see you next week.’
Joel turned, pushing his way into the cool breeze of the night. He walked down the paved steps to the broad, concrete path that lead to the roadway.
Across the road, off in the distance, he could see Phillip, with his slight limp, walking to a bus stop by a flashing pedestrian crossing. Joel stood on the corner, looking back at Phillip as he checked the timetable at the bus stop. For a moment he thought he saw Phillip talking to himself, but then a gust of wind brought the sound of his voice across the road and through the trees to the quiet path where Joel stood. The sound he heard was singing.
Joel stood in the corner of the platform, among strangers. The train entered the underground tunnel and the others waiting on the platform came to life, holding shopping bags, folding newspapers. Joel leaned against the wall. As the train ran along the platform, he stared through the carriages, catching his reflection in the windows as it slowed to a stop at the station. He found a seat in a corner where he could look at the others in the carriage, leaning his head against the cool glass of the window. He crossed his arms and held his elbows, looking out at the passengers: a woman with a child, some students, and three girls standing by the door in netball uniforms and headphones. The train emerged from the bright tunnel into the dull light of the evening. The fluorescent tubes overhead flickered on and off as the carriages swayed across the tracks. Joel told himself he would call Phillip tomorrow. Just after the train passed over a low bridge across a river, almost imperceptibly, it began to slow. Joel had made this trip hundreds of times, and he saw the shifting landscape from the window as a series of patterns that marked the progress of the train. A covered swimming pool, a backyard playground, a sandpit, a gently curving path to a clothes line, today pegged with sheets and towels. Joel reached into his backpack and pulled from it Phillip’s story, the paper riven with a deep fold down the middle. He began to read. He stared down at the words of Phillip’s prose and wondered about the world from which they were drawn. Not the world of castles, knights and singing trees, but the world Joel glimpsed through Phillip’s frayed jacket sleeves, the unknown adventure of the scar on his neck, the loving bonds suggested by the chain he wore, the summers that had aged his black t-shirt to a weathered bluegrey tone. What secret damage had left him with a slight limp? What kinds of joys or distractions permitted him to sing alone in the alcove of a bus shelter? Joel remembered the crumpled Phillip who had sat drinking Coke as someone braided with equal parts faith, simplicity and mystery. It didn’t matter to Joel that Phillip couldn’t write. That was probably one of the few things they could share. The train slowed as the platform slid into view, some billboards blurred as commuters stared into the carriages.
Without acknowledging him, the three netballers moved, shuffling their bags to one side with their feet. As the automatic doors slid open with a mechanised sigh, Joel stepped out of the carriage into the cool darkness of the evening.