Authors: Bernard Beckett
It’s election day
in contemporary New Zealand. A young father confronts a teenage burglar. A psychologist’s political stand threatens to see him driven from the university community. A staffroom argument flares up – does a playground fight warrant a student’s expulsion? A young girl sets about mending her broken heart, a skinhead riot erupts and Richard, the biology lecturer at the heart of this simmering forty eight hours, must deal with the secret which compels them all, unknowingly, to the same conclusion.
, an absorbing and darting novel, a varied cast of characters is linked by chance and circumstances. With a powerful, addictive intensity Bernard Beckett composes a corrosive song of our times.
‘RIGHT, WELL, PERHAPS we can make a start…’
The noise in the staffroom quickly faded. Here was the principal’s single trick: silence was attracted to him. Peter Lambert. A tall man, gaunt in the style of an undertaker. He had been at the helm for fifteen years, outlasted his detractors, refashioned the school’s motto around his own. ‘Doing better through valuing doing better.’ The sort who took joy in such recursion. The sort who had a motto.
Luke had never been sure what it was he wanted. Not a motto. He slotted it between motor home and moustache in the list of such things and tried to ignore the principal’s voice. Luke had washed up at the school five years ago, spat out by the shipwreck of a ‘high needs’ experience: decile two and falling. Nicholson High by contrast was featureless, unremarkable.
Luke shifted in his seat to duck beneath the glare of early November sun. The sky this morning was a nostalgic blue and the wind was pausing for breath. Regathering. As were they. Each Friday the students were granted an extra hour’s sleep while the staff dedicated the beginning of the day to professional development. Luke surveyed his colleagues. They brought to mind a leaking air bed, optimistically inflated, determined to last the night.
‘So this morning we’re looking at the second of the school-wide goals on our Strategic Plan: eliminating violence. As you will
from the hui we held back in May, we made a commitment to
revisit this issue once the seniors had moved into their exams.
‘Now, up here,’ Peter Lambert pointed to the wall, where his PowerPoint pulsed on the whiteboard, ‘you can see the results from the survey carried out by the ministry team at our request. And here I’ve arranged the incidents by percentage of students reporting, and here by the seriousness of the incident … Yes, Martin?’
Martin taught mathematics. He wore jeans with sneakers, and on days like this, a waistcoat. He also taught a little history, which he thought made him broad-minded and interesting. His lifelong skinny frame, now in its fourth decade, was relaxing into a haphazard sort of lumpiness. His thinning hair he gelled into a series of hopeful spikes.
‘I thought we agreed after the hui that we wouldn’t look at any more figures. I thought we agreed that if we spent all our time analysing the problem, that wouldn’t leave any time for, well, solving it.’
Luke remembered no such agreement. What he did remember was the management unit Martin had applied for, for co-ordinating the school choir, a payment the previous co-ordinator had enjoyed as of right. Peter Lambert had declined the application, on the grounds that the choir’s membership had fallen, in part due to its boycotting by the principal’s daughter Marie, of whose dope habit her father remained oblivious. As Luke heard it, this happened after Martin had informed the daughter she needed voice training, a small mistake brought about by the pressure of report week. So now the principal was subjected to this petty interruption, a challenge to be both acknowledged and ignored; another pointless pinprick in the carcass of This Fucking Job, which had been on Luke’s list for some time.
‘It’s a good point, Peter.’
The room fell quiet, for people were afraid of Sarah. She was an old curmudgeon from the English Department, her cynicism
with erudition. The fear she carefully cultivated, emerging from her lair only to breathe hot scorn on those who dared disturb her. Luke had never much liked her, an opinion he kept to himself.
The principal’s brow tightened.
‘If you would just let me finish please, what I was about to suggest …’
‘We know what we need to do,’ Sarah’s voice crested, before swooping down on her signature pronouncement. ‘And no amount of talking is going to change the fact that we’re just too gutless to do it.’
Peter Lambert’s head bobbed as if sprung from the neck, conjuring the hint of a second chin. ‘I am aware that some of you …’
‘It’s not some of us.’
‘I can assure you, Sarah …’ the principal’s voice rose to meet her objection. He had not survived this long without a firm grasp of the numbers. He was disliked by some but supported by more. This simple mathematical fact provided him with the confidence to govern and that confidence in turn assured him the numbers. ‘People have sat in my office and expressed privately views which they may well not be comfortable about sharing in a forum such as this.’
‘What views?’ Sarah challenged but Peter Lambert was no fool. Nor was Sarah about to be cowed by his silence. She swivelled in her seat, her ample frame strangely camouflaged by the gaudy colours she favoured, her shock of red hair flashing its customary warning. She scanned her colleagues, daring them to speak.
Matt stood slowly, so as to exaggerate the weight of his fifty years. His stomach pushed hard against the green knit of his rugby club jersey. The grey trousers were forced low by the same protuberance and twisted awkwardly as he rose. Not an impressive looking man perhaps; but an impressive man nonetheless. His mana in the
was unquestioned, and his contributions, though rare, rarely went unnoticed.
‘Kia ora koutou.’ Matt sniffed and ran his fingers through his grey and black tangle of hair, as if troubled greatly by this necessity of speech. He paused, waited, dared Sarah to interrupt. ‘Tane Walters, Maddison Kohunui, Tyler McMillan, Tayler Ropata, Taupe Wylie.’ Each name was breathed out, becoming a sigh: a lament to the underachiever, the drug dealer, the thug. ‘The last five boys excluded from the school for acts of violence. We all know what you think is the easy solution, Sarah. What you think is the easy solution is more exclusions, as if any of these boys have become less violent as a result of being booted out of school. The thing you call us too gutless to do is cleansing this school of boys who are brown.’
Luke watched Sarah carefully. Anyone else on the staff would have backed down at this point, found a way of steering the discussion back to safer, colourless ground. Sarah, though, was
of consensus. It was why her students loved her.
‘It’s got nothing to do with being Mäori!’ Sarah said. ‘I don’t care if a student is green with purple spots, if he hits someone he has to go. If we don’t insist on that, then we are sanctioning thuggery, and if that’s about race to you, then you have a pretty low opinion of our Polynesian students.’
Matt leaned slightly forward, as if putting his weight on an imaginary walking stick. Again the pause was long enough to ensure every eye was on him. ‘I do have a low opinion of the chances of these students, Sarah. I have a low opinion of the opportunities we are offering them. I have a low opinion of our ability to provide them with an environment in which they might shine.’
Matt stayed standing and so Sarah stood too in an attempt to wrest back the physical advantage. But there was an ugliness to the move; its aggression was too naked. They faced off across the room, two of the most skilled and dedicated teachers on the staff,
ideologues both, pawing at the ground. All around him Luke could sense the fidgeting, people willing for this to pass.
‘A thirteen-year-old boy in my form class received ten stitches because he did not move quickly enough through a doorway. His assailant was three years older and twice his size. He pushed him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly in the head. Explain to me please, why it is unreasonable of me to believe I owe that boy some measure of protection. Explain to me why refusing to stand up to that sort of thuggery is not gutless. And explain to me how that makes me a racist.’
‘Nobody’s calling anybody a racist, Sarah.’
‘Why does he deserve to stay in the school?’
‘Tane’s was an extreme case.’
‘And today’s extreme becomes tomorrow’s commonplace unless we are prepared to do something about it.’
‘I agree with you. And I am absolutely prepared to do something about it. We all have to be prepared to do something about it. I just don’t agree with your solution, Sarah. I don’t agree that washing our hands of the problem makes it go away. We’re the last chance these kids have.’
‘All I’m saying is that when they put one of my boys in hospital, they have run out of chances.’
‘Your boys, Sarah?’
Matt smiled, his hand raised against further comment, as if he wished to say more. It was only when he was sure that every last person had registered the slip that he lowered it.
‘That’s not what I meant.’
But it was what she had said. Matt looked to Sarah, waited for a reply. She breathed in sharply, muttered something Luke could not hear, and sat. Matt waited another full fifteen seconds – Luke counted them – before lowering himself back into his chair.
This Fucking Job.
‘YOU’RE LATE,’ RICHARD bellowed from behind the desk of his small office. The administration had offered to move him but he’d always resisted, in a show of solidarity that played like
. The view from his window was uninspiring: a jutting concrete wall, a sharp corner of sky, low and moving fast, and the dark end of a campus car park, where rubbish and leaves circled. Some days it annoyed him. Bad days. Today was a bad day. A day to pass through, on the way to better things. She would make it worse.
She. Amanda Hume. Half his age, a career ahead of her.
maker. Activist. Recorder of the life and times of Richard Bradley. A film to mark The Institute’s thirtieth anniversary. An excuse for looking back, for a flurry of congratulations, some of them deserved, others, like the tone of reverence this documentary would settle on, misguided. Richard’s trousers dug into his
waist and indigestion burned the back of his throat. A fluorescent light overhead flickered, as if the world was asking too much of it, and a headache threatened to tighten on him. Thirty years. Too soon for a funeral.
‘This is a damn fool idea,’ he grumbled.
The cameraman, Greg, tall and thin, in tight, tall-thin-man’s jeans, was already setting up the tripod. He paused and looked to Amanda for direction.
‘Do we have to do this every time?’ Amanda asked with a sigh.
‘Go through this charade of reluctance. Point noted. You’re a humble, thoughtful man. Now sit back down in that chair, and let’s get on with the interview.’
‘I’m not sure I have anything to say today.’
‘Is that right?’ Amanda grinned. Richard had an awful flash of his future: himself trapped amongst blankets on a stained La-Z-Boy, with a view out the window to the communal garden; she a nurse, humouring him in his grumpiness, but one eye on her watch, counting down to the end of the shift. Shoot me first, he always told his son David, on the occasions David saw fit to visit. And the boy always smiled, changed the topic, humoured him.
Richard didn’t feel bad about his moods. It was expected of him: part of the legend pinning him to the specimen table. He was sure that on the occasions he was charming and agreeable people left feeling disappointed. Doubtless Amanda enjoyed being admitted to the club of those with whom he would share his displeasures. And Richard enjoyed it too. As long as he could ignore the fact that she admired him. That to her, he was still a hero.
They waited while Greg got the camera ready. A bright white light flicked on.
‘Shit! Do you mind?’
‘Sorry, you were looking a little dark there.’
‘And now I’m feeling a little dark. Is that better?’
‘So how’s your wife then Richard?’ Amanda interrupted.
‘Compared to what?’ he replied.
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘It’s her birthday today. I haven’t bought her anything, and God knows how I’m going to get to the shops today. What should I buy her? You’re a woman. Buy her something for me, will you? Here, take a hundred. Something thoughtful.’
Amanda waved away the wallet.
‘It wouldn’t be the same.’
‘It’s about making the effort. It shows you care.’
‘You think a person who didn’t care couldn’t fake shopping?’
‘If you care enough to fake, that’s still something.’
‘I don’t understand women.’
‘She’ll appreciate you made the effort.’
‘I won’t tell her it was you.’
‘I don’t have time either, Richard. I’ve got tomorrow to prepare for too, remember?’
‘Yeah, well I think I’ve changed my mind about that.’
‘You’ve already signed the contract.’
‘What if I just don’t turn up?’
‘You know that do you?’
‘You can’t help yourself.’
‘Now you’re sounding like one of them.’
‘I just record the events. I’m not here to take sides.’
‘You are on my side though, aren’t you?’
‘Of course I am,’ Amanda smiled. She was. He wondered how she would feel, on the day her dogmatic confidence was finally shattered.
‘You know, I wish you’d decided to write a biography instead,’ Richard told her. ‘Then you could make things up from home. I wouldn’t have to talk to you.’
‘You’d miss this,’ she replied, which was true.
‘Okay, we’re ready when you are,’ Greg told them. Amanda straightened and her face slipped into a mask of seriousness which made Richard think of a child in a school play. Or the twelve-
they put in police uniforms these days, and their younger sisters
who tried to sell him credit on his occasional visits to the bank.
‘All right, I think we’ve had enough of your childhood now,’ Amanda started.
‘That’s much how I felt at the time,’ Richard replied. The camera, like the multi lens gaze of the lecture hall, always relaxed him. He was a performer.
‘Now remember, just give us the whole story, whatever comes to mind. Ramble as much as you like. We cherry pick in the editing room.’
‘That’s a terrible metaphor.’
‘That’s why nobody’s making a documentary about me. Today I want you to talk about the first time you met Steve Watson.’