Tenderfoot

Conjugate

Author

Madeline Hermawan is a third year English/French major at The University of Western Australia. Her affection for writing has developed belatedly with Conjugate, her first piece of creative writing since early high school. Next year, she hopes to be reclining on a park bench reading Flaubert to Parisian pigeons.

by Madeline Hermawan

This is my great empire, spawned from thought and built with expert hands. The hardback buildings stand on a foundation of wood and are adorned with ribbons, withstanding dust and age and bitter silence. Sliding one out from the landscape sends a tremor from horizon to horizon. The shelves sigh wearily. The clock responds with a creaky tic. Everything tilts. Everything distorts.

In these books I found infinity. I inherited most and bought the rest, smelled them, perused them and delved headfirst into their cool pages. I surfaced for air in a minotaured labyrinth, the dirty trenches of war, a scene of diseased romance, a pool of hot blood. This was all I knew, but not necessarily understood. There were gaps that screamed silence. My mind had been flooded with these books and now the yellowed pages have melted into black text. Voir reads as voix.

Now I’m gasping for clarity. I’m drowning in the melancholy of regret, rage of confusion, and fear of the mind. These buildings quiver at my touch. Yet the most unstable and ill-constructed building is this one – this tortured testimonial – which I slot in the centre of the shelf. I am conceiving it and building it and lamenting it continually. I anticipate its collapse but can’t help stacking the bricks higher. When it falls, four others will too, and the civilisation will be nothing but ancient ruins, tinder for fire, and ghosts of wasted potential.

Here are the chapters that failed me, where I mistook a matchstick for a pen and set myself alight…


My literature class was a compact group of eight. Three kept to their own devices in some sort of masculine or subversive mystique I never quite understood. The remaining five of us formed a tight friendship. I was closest to Forster, amicably referred to by his last name (no one used his first name, not even he himself). He was a shortish, neat-haired boy who perpetually donned a scissored tie. We shared similar tastes in authors, bantered in comfortable rhythms, and shot each other a knowing eye when a classmate regurgitated our ideas, which was often. The others were Thompson, a jockish boy whose stupid face belied his sharp mind, Ellis, a closet fan of feminist writing despite his temper, and Lawrence, a keen fellow with attentive, yet judgmental eyes.

They were the only boys I genuinely liked in the school. We all had other groups we hung around with, acquaintances really, but we’d always stick to each other without trying to make it seem so. We were hungry and competitive. We had fire in us where everyone else seemed barely smouldering or as cold as ash.

One day, we discovered that Thompson had completed Crime and Punishment before the rest of us. Heat instantly rose off our shoulders, threatening to ignite our clothes. We sweated and itched, made library reservations, spent all-nighters reading instead of doing physics or maths or anything unrelated to this one dead Russian. We clawed for acknowledgement. “I’ve read it too”, met with “So have I”, and most importantly, “What did you think?” Relief set in, but it was merely a temporary distraction from some other ember in the background that needed only oxygen.

Our teacher, Mr Crawford, taught in such an uninvolved manner that his presence seemed hardly necessary. He merely served as a figure for legitimate education, with an inflated ego that only expanded with his increasing age. We only deferred to him on the premise that he hand us books and assignments to devour, which he did somewhat absent-mindedly. He let the five of us spin off into tangents about eunuchs and folklore and murder, or whether or not we thought certain poets were “pansies” or just possessed a “feminine touch” (Ellis flared red-hot at these “sexist” interludes). Crawford always sat encased in his grey coat despite any change in weather. He kept an amused smirk the entire time as if he was watching animals in a zoo. Sometimes he’d provoke us with peanuts of “hardly” or “prove it” or a heavily loaded, well-timed rolling of the eyes. I suspect he was quite a competent old man, though he rarely elaborated on anything and expected us to do it ourselves.

We all performed expertly in assignments and exams, barring the inevitable flop now and then. Crawford marked well and justly, and exerted a condescending humour by sticking gold stars onto faulted or recycled essays. We dreaded turning to the last page of a report, waiting for a glimpse of something shimmering, while discreetly glancing at everyone else’s mark. Lawrence, severely unprepared for one poetry essay, turned to his last page and found it covered with a constellation. Crawford had scrawled “Connect the dots” and we concluded via ruler and pencil a fatal score of 3/10, shining in the paper sky. We laughed endlessly at his expense, but also became somewhat scared of Crawford’s cruelty and worked especially hard for the next assessment (no gold stars were gifted, thank God). I think he liked the five of us, or at least talked to us explicitly more than to the three in the back row who viewed us with slit eyes. Needless to say, they shared a galaxy of stars between them.

After debates in class, the five of us rarely reconciled. Forster and I usually maintained the same position and took turns sparring, claiming victory half of the time. Lawrence opposed everyone but opted to shake his head violently instead of arguing, and Ellis and Thompson were notorious yellers, disturbing classes as we filtered down the second floor hallway. We continued combat until we hit the far courtyard, or even our dorms. Arrogant and indignant, we boiled with opinion overnight, so when we saw each other in the hallway we’d tip out pre-thought objections like acid.

Any offhand comment like “Sometimes Fitzgerald is such a whiner” or “Red symbolising love-and-war is so banal” would accumulate in a month-long feud (“Every author is a whiner, I mean have you read Heart of Darkness? Who even ca-ares? and “Ubiquitous, not banal. Wait, is that the right use of the word “ubiquitous”...?”).

Our days were filled with mini-melodramas flitting from frustrated slamming of books to silent, tense contemplation, with an occasional lunchtime truce. Winning meant vindication. A halo of relief and pride encircled us for days; we were untouchable, we were right. The subsequent boasting was both inevitable and expected, and depending on the result, either satisfying or tortuous. We relished in the ferocity of it all. It rejuvenated and exhilarated us. No one kept an official tally of victories but we remembered all of them like milestones. I think we appreciated this more than we ever expressed, beyond a conceding shrug of the shoulders or a brief pat on the back. We learned more from each other than from any curriculum. Cynical and proud as we were, we had our honest moments.

When Forster discovered Baudelaire, he ushered me into the library corner with boyish immediacy. He cracked open the canvas cover and began to read. It enchanted us like an optical illusion. It skewed our focus into something amusing and perplexing. We took turns whispering passages aloud, swirling phrases into the mildewed air and savouring them for hours. The rasping r's and vaporous u's, a smooth cedille, a spiky acute and a mellow grave: we tasted them all. Our voices sounded older in a foreign tongue and we craved its authority. I strained to listen, committing Forster’s pronunciation to memory. We read the English versions second and didn’t bother discussing them. Their sentiments seemed obvious; crudely filtered.

Forster lent me his anthology shortly after, the copy where he wrote down his thoughts in the margins. His annotations were obscure and written in an indecipherable script, some pages entirely in capitals, “TABERNACLE!” and others crawling with crude drawings. I scarcely added my own, but on the few occasions I did, I kept them fairly standard: “flower symbolises delicacy/decay”, “persona anon?” He didn't seem to care, or perhaps he didn't notice. We kept this exchange to ourselves. Other times, we’d spend free periods in the empty chapel and consolidate a new offensive for class debates. The headmaster launched a full inquiry into the “disgusting culprits” who poured candle wax onto the pews and marked the bibles with red pen (“Needs work”, “Example given?”), but we were too clever and proud to be caught so easily by meddling parsons.


Then Forster began to withdraw. It seemed sudden and subtle at the same time; a simultaneous well-planned retreat and a flailing, backwards fumble. He operated at quarter capacity. I tried to capture him again with childish arms, but he evaporated in front of us. I interrogated myself for an eternity. I thought it was my fault. In fact, I hoped it was so I could apologise, for whatever obtuse reason. But all the questions and assurances I threw out lay sprawled and empty at his feet. He didn't seem to care, or perhaps he didn't notice. Our minds had been so synchronised that I refused to believe one of us was lagging behind. Even so, I wasn't sure which one of us it was. I couldn't ask. Words became arbitrary and wrong. Soon they would escape my insight, too.


We fought with ourselves to become more focused. Exams loomed. Teachers exaggerated “important points” and “helpful hints”, their insecurities about being successful educators both blatant and embarrassing. It only crossed my mind to start panicking when Forster didn’t come to class at all the next week. We fell acutely off-balance. Reciting stanzas on request had always been our drinking game, but when I forgot the second half of ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, I was met only with a solemn silence. Crawford, however, snorted from under his grey carapace and I imagined throwing my book at him like a Molotov. The boys gave me sceptical looks when I admitted my lack of contact with Forster. We staggered through the lesson and parted ways immediately at the door.

Forster came sporadically the next week, yet his absences remained unexplained. We descended into a strange staccato: self-conscious movements of pen clicking, side-glances quickly deflected, forced agreements and banal discussion. He started to carry his anthology with him in his blazer pocket and ceased surrendering it to me at all. I tried without success to bury my curiosity. During study period, I suggested a trip to the chapel to dispel some of the tension but he quietly declined, leaving me feeling guilty for even bringing it up. The remaining four of us flew between frustration and concern so frequently it was almost violent. We fought to find the right approach – sympathy, anger, pleading? – formulating a battalion of questions which we never posed. More irritatingly, Forster’s unpredictable truancy didn’t seem to bother Crawford in the slightest. I saw them talking privately after class one day, when Forster hid his gold star from prying eyes. He refused to talk to me about it. I seethed with a multitude of feelings so molten they were indistinguishable.


Forster laid a firm hand on my shoulder as he strode towards his table. He gave me the mischievous smirk he reserved only for church. I feigned confidence when Crawford distributed the exams in his usual stoic demeanour, but Forster genuinely looked prepared. I stared at him half-quizzically, half-elatedly. He responded with startlingly alert eyes, burning with such determination that it frightened me. I took it as a measure that he was here, and really here. Even today, I barely remember what I wrote. I only have the moving images of Forster scrawling through endless reams of paper, impossibly hungry.

When he failed to show up again the next week, I volunteered to deliver his exam. Crawford looked at me with a horribly vague expression as he handed it over, and as soon as I reached the stairwell, I paused to read it. Forster usually surpassed me in exams by a decent margin, but remembering his fierce gaze made me feel particularly anxious. He would triumph over all four of us. Undoubtedly. Yet there were no markings on his paper anywhere. Not one tick or gold star. I felt a creeping sickness as I turned over the front page. I began to read.

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So where do I go from this precipice? Where will he go, or is he forever, imperceptibly beyond me? I have read his paper over a thousand different ways, trying to extract its essence with my grasping hands. But it escapes me still. I delve backwards in time and see us in the library corner, our murmurs blending together, becoming inseparable. I lunge forward only to feel myself splintering. And here we remain, delirious with the shelving and re-shelving, the borrowing and returning of words. When he speaks, I am frightened by the raw, bright timbre of his voice, so miraculously echoless. I remain mute with my ear pressed against his door.