– from here, fact –
The author, Sebastian Porteus, had been a pupil at the school that I had left only six months before. His seven-year stretch ended five years before mine began, so there was no possibility of us having met. The knowledge that we had walked the same avenues and corridors heightened my enjoyment of his novels, even though no mention of the school was ever made in them.
The school was a traditional one, where the pupils boarded in dormitories between the ages of 11 and 18. I had enjoyed the experience, finding proximity to others a stimulus to forming intense relationships, and a catalyst for humour. Feelings of betrayal, isolation and hate could run deep at times, as they do in all schools, but in my case these miserable phases passed quickly.
Several of my friends despised its memory. They regarded me, I know, as a compliant individual, lacking in the rebellious spirit that was to be expected of a young man of that age. How, I wondered, had Sebastian fared there?
The reading took place in Glebe, not far from my rented bedsit in Newtown. Cafes and easy-going restaurants neighboured the scruffy but sizeable bookshop on Glebe Point Road. I liked the shop; its shelves were over-stuffed, piles of books stood at slight angles on the worn carpet. I paid my small admission fee and walked up to the meeting room.
There were between ten and fifteen people milling about, some talking, some like me, gazing at the book-laden tables. Two rows of chairs faced a small podium at one end of the room. Bending slightly, smiling down to his companion, a tall man with very short grey hair held my attention; Sebastian Porteus. This man, who gave so much of himself away in his strange, psychologically troublesome novels was talking merrily in soft English tones, barely four feet away from me. I had estimated from his school dates that he was thirty-three, although he looked older. He was extremely thin, but muscular and broad in the shoulders. His new book was about a dancer, and I wondered if he had ever trained as one.
I took a glass of tepid wine from one of the tables and sat down. The organiser of the event requested that everyone to take a seat. He waited for silence to accumulate, and introduced the two authors who would be sharing excerpts from their new works. The first to read was an Australian poet who had just published his first novel. He wore a threadbare T-shirt and his hair was slightly dishevelled. However fluent his prose, however delicate the rhythms that it contained, he flattened it with his monotonous, nasal tone. I followed the narrative for a good five minutes, but nothing seemed to be happening. My eyes slid across to Sebastian, who was seated behind and to the left of his fellow writer. He was looking up at the poet respectfully, but his eyes were not focused. A slender finger was wedged between the pages of his own book. He looked nervous. His free hand dropped to find the glass of water that he had set down by a chair leg. His gaze roamed. I turned away as he looked in my direction.
The Australian poet stood down. We clapped. Then, as Sebastian took his place, the members of the small audience shuffled and settled into their plastic chairs. There was a murmur of anticipation. Sebastian, I felt, was not the main attraction here tonight, for the poet had won national prizes and was more of a household name to the average Sydneysider. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to lean forward as a unit, impressed by Sebastian’s grave presence, or by memories of his previous work.
He thanked the poet, and mentioned that he had once lived in Glebe. He had written part of his first book here, overlooking the street from a small bed-sit; an aspiring author with his typewriter. Then he started to read. He read slowly and was not afraid of silence. He let the words sink in. Through economy he achieved clarity, and clarity endowed his short sentences and his insightful, surprising similes with beauty.
He read excellently, from two sections of the book. It had already achieved a degree of infamy for its graphic descriptions of sexual abuse – the author was thought by some commentators to have ‘sold out’- but the reading confirmed what I already knew, that Sebastian was concerned not with titillation or a short cut to notoriety, but with the human response to pain. With guilt, loss and isolation.
He stopped reading. Questions, we were told, would be fielded by the authors as they signed books. I bought two copies and stood in the short line that had formed by Sebastian’s table. The poet, I noticed, was confronted with a longer queue. When it was my turn I handed the two copies down to Sebastian and asked him, in response to his question, ‘Who shall I sign them for?’ to dedicate the first to a friend of mine. As he did this I said, “We’ve both enjoyed reading your books… Actually, I think we went to the same school as you…” and I mentioned its name. He looked up, genuinely surprised.
“You went there!”
“Yes. I caught a real sense of the place in your first book.”
“Mm. I suppose there was…the ring fence…the boundaries…” The book had concerned a young man growing up in a stifling village, and the new life that he found in London.
“But it’s changed now, I’ve heard, hasn’t it…the school? Don’t they have girls there now?”
“They’re just about to introduce them.”
“Well, when I was there, life was easy…there was only one choice.” Quite spontaneously he had started talking about sex.
“Yes. You can say that for the place. It made things quite straightforward in that respect I suppose.” He was seated, I was standing. He looked at me for a further second, and wrote in the second copy.
On the stairs I opened my copy, and read the dedication.
‘To a fellow victim – although you probably don’t know the half of it
All the best.
The evening was only partially spent. I walked down Glebe Point Road, away from my hotel, and tried to cool my flushed cheeks. The water of Rozelle Bay came into view, surmounted by the lights of Balmain and the brief sweep of Anzac Bridge. I wanted more. I wanted to spend more time with him.
– from here, fiction –
As I passed the broad windows of numerous restaurants I wondered if Sebastian had been taken out to dinner by the organisers, or by his publishers. Before the reading he had been speaking with one woman in particular – a tall, chic lady with a smooth bob of black hair. Perhaps she was his publicity agent. Perhaps the poet would have joined them.
The sky was black now, so the edges of the street glowed with the warmth of busy and sociable interiors. Just as the possibility of a chance meeting with Sebastian, never truly entertained, began to recede from my mind, I caught sight of the striking lady with the bob. She was sitting at a corner table in an upmarket Italian restaurant, her lips brightened by red lipstick. Sebastian sat opposite her. He was doing most of the talking, sitting at an oblique angle to the window through which I was staring. His slender hands were moving with animation. Once, he looked straight at me, but did not appear to see me. I imagined that the darkened exterior had turned the window into a mirror. And then he pulled away from the table. I watched him as he placed his cream napkin next to his glass of red wine and strode toward the door. He pulled it open.
“Join us. It’ll stop you staring.” His voice was free of anger or annoyance. I followed, without saying a word, and took my place on a hastily drawn up chair.
“Veronica, this young man, Stephen isn’t it…”
“…he went to my old school!”
Veronica turned to face me, her black hair gliding around her pale, slender neck, and said, “Pleased to meet you. Sebastian mentioned you earlier on. You brought back a few memories apparently. He was just describing the place. Quite horrific by all accounts.”
“Well, it was interesting.”
“No…horrific is exactly the right word,” said Sebastian. He picked up his glass, and drained it of wine. I sat there, speechless in the face of such intensity. I was experiencing a familiar feeling. I had had this conversation before. Sebastian would not relate to me, for I could not admit to similar feelings of antipathy for the school.
“Some of the stories I could tell,” he said.
“Yeah. Get three old boys together and listen to the tales,” I said, half-heartedly.
“You could say that for any school though,” said Veronica. Sebastian nodded, without disagreeing. But nor did he agree. Silence augmented the power of his presence.
“So, you had a good time there?” he asked, suspicious of me now.
“Not bad. I was quite ready to leave by the end though.”
“I was ready for a long time. I remember…” but he did not finish the sentence. If my wish had come true, and we had been able to talk through the whole night, we would not have got to know each other. But my comments, innocuous and bland, had confirmed for him that passivity, that acquiescence to power, of which I had been accused before. In the face of blind authority, he could comprehend no response but rejection, rebellion.
“How did you cope with the place?” he asked.
“I kept my head down, took no sides…how did you?”
“Ah, well, I think you probably know as much about that as I do, having read my books. No, don’t get me wrong, I am very happy with my life, it is not dominated by bad memories…but the influence of that school should not be underestimated.”
“You despise its memory?” I asked, but it was more of a conclusion.
Veronica tore a piece off a bread roll, and dipped it in a dish of oil. She glanced at me, smiled, and said, “But surely Sebastian, pain is not a prerequisite for good writing.” She had identified the source of my increasingly glum expression.
Sebastian’s mind, compressed by education, by the same staid, rule-bound system in which I had found a degree of comfort, had become hard and clear. Released at last into the world, he had gazed through that lens, one that split and dissected all that passed before it, and he had found himself able to interpret behaviour in a unique way…but always, always in the shadow of his own, traumatic experience. Words flowed through his fingers. Could I, complacent, moderately popular, rarely the victim of bullies, ignorant of the pain of rejection by cliques and fashion, develop my mind into a microscope of similar delicacy?
“Pain? No, of course not. But depth of feeling is, or should be, I believe.”
“Well, your books certainly give that,” observed Veronica. “Did you see them back there? Some of them held their breath for the first two minutes, I swear. Better than the other chap.” Her Australian accent fell away with the word ‘chap’. I laughed. She had done it on purpose, to lighten the air.
– from here, truth –
“I’ve interrupted your dinner. Sorry. You must have had it up to here with people who think they know you. I’ll be off.”
Veronica clearly agreed; “Goodbye Stephen,” she said.
Sebastian rose to accompany me to the door. Passing other tables, he dipped his head, and whispered,
“I know you Stephen. I know your kind.”
I stared at him, troubled. One of my palms rested on the cool glass of the door.
“You stood by, and watched… the ones like me. The victims.”
An argument formed in my mind, but his intensity pushed it to the back of my mouth. I could not answer. He knew me. Yes, he understood my complacency, my good fortune, my ability to look away.
Before the door had closed behind me he had returned to the table and started a new conversation with Veronica.
Philip Berry writes fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. His work has appeared Headstuff, The Guardian newspaper, Metaphorosis, Hypnopomp, Liars’ League, Ellipsiszine, Hypnopomp and Bunmbury Magazine among others. He lives and works (as a doctor) in London.
Twitter: @philaberry http://www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com