Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Fall by Paul B Spurling

The following is the 'title track' of sorts from a collection of short stories I've written (called 'Ways To Fall') about growing up at the end of the 1970s.

Mr Holland was called upon to take our class one afternoon in mid-1978. Both a genuine eccentric and a monumental bore, his opening gambit was suitably representative of the dark duality that lay at the core of his nature.
      “What are some things that spring to mind when we think about dreams?” he asked.
      Damon Wilson raised his hand.
      (Every class seemed to have its perennial whipping boy. And Damon Wilson was ours. Always eager to please, he provided the ball with which the – always grimly fought – lunchtime soccer matches were played. His largesse in this area, however, went largely unrewarded. In fact, for several weeks during the mid-winter of 1977 he was made to suffer the ultimate indignity of being barred from taking part in matches that featured his own ball, discarded after his usefulness had subsided like the pink strip of gum that came with our Scanlen’s footy cards.)  
      “They’re topless,” Damon answered in an inexcusably clumsy attempt to characterise the ephemeral nature of dreams.
      “Ah,” said Mr Holland, eyes glazed over in reverie. “Those topless girls.”
      “Can anyone name any words that rhyme with gate?” he then asked, the sudden change of topic no doubt brought about by the realisation that his previous outburst had been a severe misjudgement, contravening as it had, most of the unwritten laws pertaining to the teaching of primary school-aged children.
      Damon, perhaps sensing that his stocks may have actually just risen as a result of his role in the ‘topless’ fiasco, was quick to take up the challenge.
      “Kate,” he said as he turned and flashed a hopeful grin at Kate Menzies, leaving us in no doubt as to the who the ‘Kate’ in question was.
      There was a collective gasp around the room; did he really just say that?
      “Name another one,” said Mr Holland in an almost adversarial tone.
      “Date,” Damon shot back.
      As combatants they were well-matched: A teacher with all the acumen and deportment of an idiotic ten year old; and an idiotic ten year old.
      “What sort of date?” Holland asked, seemingly keen to circumvent any potential confusion created by the word’s homonymous nature. “The word ‘date’ can have more than one meaning, use it in a sentence.”
      “I’m taking a girl on a date,” Damon said.
       Given that all this was widely perceived as a public declaration of love for Kate Menzies, it was an incredibly risky move on Damon’s part. It seemed that the only conceivable way that he could save face was for her to reciprocate these feelings. Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, in the six months or so that followed, Kate’s few public utterances in relation to Damon ranged from the merely derisive to the potentially libellous.

And yet; twelve months later, with Kate long gone (an army brat, she left at the end Grade 5), what had seemed like a debacle at the time had in fact served to provide Damon with a whole new persona in our eyes – no longer a target of derision, he had metamorphosed into ‘the guy who liked Kate Menzies’; a guy to be reckoned with.
      In fact, by September 1979 his cachet had increased to such an extent that an invite to his twelfth birthday sleepover had become the hottest ticket in town. There were three spots up for grabs. I was a shoe-in, as was Adrian Gallon; and under normal circumstances the third invitation would have had Neale O’Loughlin’s name written all over it. However, Neale was very much persona non gratis after he had spent the previous month waging an ill-fated smear campaign against Damon. His contention, which ran contrary to all available evidence, was that Damon was a burgeoning homosexual and, as such, he had taken to exclaiming “Wilson’s a poofter!” at regular intervals during morning assemblies.
      (At first these pronouncements had been delivered with the wild eyed enthusiasm of an old time preacher all liquored up on sacramental wine. However, they became progressively less evangelical with each muted reception from the congregation of unbelieving students. Based as it was on the flimsiest of pretexts (Damon was known for directing his amorous attention toward a girl for Christ’s sake), the rhetoric, no matter how much hellfire you cloaked it in, simply rang false in our ears. At the time it was akin to standing up at Wimbledon and stridently proclaiming that McEnroe had no touch at the net.)
      The resultant lingering bad blood between Damon and Neale meant that there was a spot at the party up for grabs. And Michael Russell was only too keen to step into the breach. In fact on receiving the news that he’d nabbed the last invitation he made a beeline for Neale and thanked him for his indiscretions.
      He wasn’t afraid to rub it in either.
      “It’s gonna be awesome,” he said in a choked voice that betrayed anticipation of a romp that would border on the bacchanalian.
      “Whatever,” said Neale, rightly sensing that the chances of the party reaching such (or any) levels of debauchery were exceedingly slim.         

***

Damon’s mother and younger sister joined us for the earlier, more formal part of proceedings and maintained a commendable level of buoyancy throughout. Mrs Wilson in particular seemed to revel in the fact that her son, for so long an outsider, was finally coming in from the cold; she showered praise on each item in an unremarkable parade of gifts, and shrieked with delight as Damon performed the unexceptional feat of blowing out candles on a cake. This good cheer perhaps reached its peak with the (largely unappealing) proposal that she “adopt all three” of us.
      Meanwhile, I had been distracted by the tempting presence of the PYE three-in-one in the corner of the room; and after the last strains of an unfocused ‘Happy Birthday’ had faded, I could no longer resist its siren call.
      I flicked through the LP rack. They were all there: Hotel California; Rumours; Saturday Night Fever; Frampton Comes Alive!; and perhaps most inevitable of all, Hot August Night.
      “That one’s mine,” said Mrs Wilson. “Oh, he’s wonderful, don’t you think?”
      “Yes,” I lied; my only exposure to Neil Diamond being ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ (a duet with Barbra Streisand), which I had found interminable.
      As I drew closer to making a decision about what to play – I was done with the albums and had started in on the 45s – both Damon and Mrs Wilson began selling me the virtues of their respective favourites: Damon outlined an argument for ELO’s A New World Record as the ultimate party starter (“It’s got ‘Livin’ Thing’ and ‘Telephone Line’,” he screamed to no great effect); while Mrs Wilson simply re-iterated her affection for the estimable Mr Diamond (“He puts so much emotion into it,” she said, pointing to Hot August Night’s overwrought cover photo as evidence).
      However, all this lobbying became academic when, amid the older singles and smattering of recent hits (i.e. Lene Lovich’s ‘Lucky Number’; ‘Pop Muzik’ by ‘M’; and Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’), I spotted the telltale Channel 7 logo.
      ‘Up There Cazaly’ was put on constant rotation. As an addendum to each play we took great pleasure in yelling “Footy, it’s great to have you back” in the booming style of Seven spruiker ‘Uncle’ Doug Elliot, thus acknowledging the tune’s origins as a TV promo spot.
      (In 1979 Mike Brady and Peter Sullivan (a.k.a. The Two-Man Band) wrote and produced a jingle to promote Channel 7’s VFL football coverage. The resultant song had such a rousing refrain (‘Up there Cazaly, in there and fight!’) that it quickly transcended its humble beginnings as a mere advertising tool to become a huge hit when released as a single.)
      After the sixth play there was a perceptible downshift in the mood of both mother and daughter; and though I told myself that it must have been the sheer repetition that they were tiring of, a more honest appraisal of the situation would have revealed that what we were doing was intrinsically uninteresting.
      And after one more play they’d had enough.
      “We’ll leave you guys to it,” said Mrs Wilson as they made their getaway.

“Now that they’re gone…” Damon said as he jiggled the latest issue of TV Week in the air like it was a tambourine.
      Our interest suitably piqued, we clamoured around him as he flicked towards the television listings at the back of the publication.
      “Friday,” said Michael matter-of-factly; not for him the pre-assumption that Damon’s sphere of awareness included knowing what day it was.
      Programs with a ‘G’ rating were, of course, dismissed out of hand. Programs rated ‘A’ (for adults) were viewed with deep suspicion. It was the usually off-limits ‘AO’ (adults only) programs that we were looking for.
      The pickings in this regard were decidedly slim. The only program that even vaguely fit the bill was the awkwardly titled Dracula A.D. 1972. I was initially sceptical; whilst the film did indeed boast an ‘AO’ rating, it came with only two additional caveats: ‘Horror’ and (the perennially un-enticing) ‘Adult Themes’.
      “It doesn’t say ‘Nudity’,” I protested, pointing at the offending section in the magazine. “Or ‘Strong Language’.”
      Unfazed, Adrian put this down to a simple oversight by an apparently mentally incompetent sub-editor.
      “That doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Whoever wrote those must have shit for brains!”
      The argument itself may have been laughably uninformed, but it was presented with such pithy √©lan that it would have seemed churlish of me not to have been convinced.
      “True,” I said.
      And, as mine had been the only dissenting voice with regards to the film’s bona fides, a consensus had been reached.
      As if on cue there was a knock at the door.
      “I’m not opening it,” Damon said defiantly. We all knew why. The spectre of O’Loughlin had hung over proceedings like Banquo’s ghost.
      “You have to,” he said, as he fixed his eyes squarely on me.
      “Why do I have to open it?”
      “You’re still friends with the prick,” he said accusingly.
      It was true. I had not actively encouraged Neale’s behaviour, but neither had I condemned it. Being made aware of this sin of omission produced an unexpected pang of guilt and I dutifully made my way over to the door.
      “If it’s him…” Damon thought for a moment.
      “Yeah?” I said, poised at the door.
      “…tell him to piss off.”
      “Right.”
      I fully expected it to be O’Loughlin: there had been an additional two knocks during my negotiations with Damon; and this bull-headed persistence was fully consistent with the O’Loughlin character – never the folding type, he always played his hand out.            
      I opened the door.
      “Oh, er…hello.” She seemed confused. “Is Damon around?”
      Lauren, the girl (from) next door, was a year ahead of us, and was now at secondary school. It had been nearly a year since I had last seen her; Damon used to occasionally point her out on the playground as she skipped rope or dangled upside down on the monkey bars.
      These lunchtime sightings had always been strictly from a distance; and seeing her at close quarters was a revelation. Augmented by the liberally applied blue eye shadow (de rigueur at the time), her turquoise eyes danced in front of me; her auburn hair – now long and lustrous – tumbled over her slender shoulders; and don’t even get me started on her perfume. The combined effect was enough to render me mute, and I didn’t respond to her initial query as to Damon’s whereabouts.
      “Well,” she tried again, hand on hip. “Is he here?”
      I remained silent.
      She actually rolled her eyes as she brushed past me with gift in hand, en route to the birthday boy; and I formed the distinct impression that she had been less than impressed by my impersonation of an open-mouthed imbecile.

“We should put it on,” Lauren said as Damon studied the record label on Earth Wind And Fire’s ‘Boogie Wonderland’; her present to him. “Give it.” She snatched it back from him and treaded softly through the minefield of rejected singles that surrounded the stereo. “So, what’ve you guys have been listening to?” She lifted the turntable lid. “That’d be right,” she sneered, as she consigned poor old ‘Cazaly’ to the interchange bench.
      She put on ‘Wonderland’ and immediately started bopping along to its soul-infused disco groove. Now, a form guide about the relative chances of each of us joining this flame-haired beauty on dance floor would have read something like this:

1. Damon Wilson: Little or no self-consciousness. Used to ridicule. And he knows the girl. The overwhelming favourite, and a safe bet at 3-1;
2. Adrian Gallon: Possessed of a quiet self-confidence mixed with a potentially useful slight over-estimation of his own romantic appeal. Well worth a flutter at 8-1;
3. Paul Spurling: Preternaturally shy, easily embarrassed and seemingly hard-wired to avoid risk. Don’t waste your money. 50-1; and
4. Michael Russell: Are you fucking insane? 250-1.

      And so it was with both shock and awe that we watched Michael, the darkest of dark horses, step onto that floor. His face may have turned an alarming shade of red; as a mover he may have been displaying a level of ineptitude rarely seen in any discipline; he may have even been on the verge of pissing his pants. But he’d done it; he’d broken through. He was dancing.
   
My gut feeling had been right about Dracula A.D. 1972; the only vaguely titillating moment occurring during the opening credits when a group of female party-goers gyrated their hips suggestively in close vicinity of the camera.
      “This is ruder than a porno,” Adrian yelped excitedly, if inaccurately.
     
It turned out however that all of this skylarking comprised merely the undercard to the main event: assessing the relative merits of select girls in our class. To aid this process we adhered to a fairly standard (not to mention sexist) rating system, awarding scores out of ten.
      The clandestine atmosphere – it was by then well past midnight, and it felt like the rest of the world was asleep – meant that there was an implied confidentiality agreement in place; and I found myself able to admit to things that would have seemed impossible at a more sensible time of day.          
      Still, I wasn’t about to abandon completely a well-practised line in misdirection; and when asked to express my feelings for Jenny Clark – the class’s one traditional beauty – I was quick to shift focus away from the specific, stating a preference for blondes in general.
      “Yeah, yeah,” Adrian said, awake to what I was doing. “But what about Clarke?”  
      And for one brief moment (of insanity) I considered giving the game away; I considered admitting that I  couldn’t so much as look in Jenny’s direction without getting what can only be described as an electric shock through my body.
      “Nine,” I said blankly, not necessarily fully capturing the essence of how I felt.
      The suppressions involved in my equally glib evaluation of Helen Davies were even more pronounced. (About a year previously we had been asked to come dressed as farmers to celebrate the Melbourne Agricultural Show (‘The Show’). Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there would be a photographer from the local paper turning up, there were few takers; and those that did come dressed up had made very little effort. Except for Helen. She donned bright red overalls (which looked brand new, bought especially for the occasion), a milk pale, and a hat; she even had piece of straw in her mouth. I couldn’t relate in any way to the impulse that had led her to come to school dressed like something out of Oklahoma!; an impulse that could only have been driven by a generosity of spirit undiluted by cynicism. She saw life as something to participate in, not mock. I thought she was awesome.)
      “She’s a nine too,” I said.

***

The next day when we entered the Waverley Roller Skating rink to the sound of an in-house DJ introducing Squeeze’s ‘Cool For Cats’ it was immediately apparent that I would enjoy roller skating considerably more than I had its evil twin: ice skating. (I had tried ice skating once about six months previous and hated every aspect of it: it was cold (obviously); the blades had been sharpened to a knife’s edge (I had foolishly elected to test this degree of sharpness with my fingers with predictable results); I found the actual skating itself next-to-impossible; and perhaps most troubling of all, the music being piped through the PA system was courtesy of ‘easy listening’ radio station 1377 3MP – there was something singularly distressing about crashing to the ice with Dan Hill’s ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ in the background.)
      Damon – the only one with any roller skating experience – advised the rest of us to spend a moment or two on the carpeted area outside the rink familiarising ourselves with the specific techniques involved in this new sport/pastime; and Michael and I did just that, while Adrian, roundly dismissive of the need for these preliminaries (“stuff that for a joke”) took to the rink without delay, as cool as you like.
      As we slowly but surely made our way along the carpet in tandem, Michael and I thought we were making good progress; and then Adrian breezed past. He took the opportunity to imply that what we were doing was indicative of abnormally high levels of oestrogen: “Don’t fall Ladies!”
      The end of ‘Cool For Cats’ coincided the arrival of a new DJ in the booth; and he wasted no time in announcing that he would be taking requests.
      “You’all say it, and I’ll play it,” he said, affecting a ludicrous American accent.
       Michael looked at me; he knew where my mind was going.
      “Sharona?” he said. (The previous month had witnessed the rapid ascension of The Knack and their single ‘My Sharona’: a song in which the singer brazenly, and possibly ill-advisedly, makes it known that he is regularly sexually stimulated by the “younger kind”; these dark underpinnings however, were obscured somewhat by the two-note octave riff that otherwise dominated the track.)
      “Yep.”
   
My request for ‘My Sharona’ was refused.
      “Johnny played it ten minutes ago,” the DJ informed me (in a perfectly serviceable Australian accent).    
      “What about the B-side?” I said.
      “The B-side?”
      “Yeah.”
      “What about it?”
      “Did he play that?” I said, attempting to steer this increasingly circular and almost wholly pointless conversation back on track.
      “I doubt it.”
      “It’s called ‘Let Me Out’, you should play it.”
      “Is it any good?”
      “Yeah,” I said, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was a turgid piece of filler (hence its B-side status).
      “It better be.”   

I entered the rink and started skating. Pretty soon Michael appeared alongside me.
      “Did you request it?” he said.
      “Yeah,” I said. (Technically this was true of course).
      “Cool.”
      “But he’s gonna play ‘Let Me Out’ instead,” I said with an optimistic inflection, trying my best to sell the un-sellable.
      He wasn’t buying.
      “What the hell’s Let Me Out?” he barked.
      “The B-side,” I said, as I made a sudden acceleration, keen to avoid getting caught in the same conversational net twice inside two minutes.

‘Let Me Out’ was declared dead-on-arrival, with reactions to it ranging from bored indifference to outright hostility (mostly courtesy of Damon, Adrian and Michael who absolved the DJ of any blame, apportioning it squarely on my shoulders); and the DJ needed something to resuscitate the situation fast: he needed a sure-fire hit.
      His choice was inspired: Patrick Hernandez’s exuberant ‘Born To Be Alive’. Those who had been deserters during the brutal ‘Let Me Out’ regime skated back onto the rink; I resumed cordial relations with my mates. In all the commotion however, I had failed to notice the arrival of Helen Davies and Julianne Pearce (who Adrian, in his wisdom, had adjudged to be “only a six” the night before) who were now, as Adrian pointed out with some glee, sitting on the sidelines doing their skates up.

My plan was simple: I’d set off around the rink, gradually picking up pace until reaching maximum velocity right in front of the two girls; and they of course would be enthralled by, and yes attracted to, this superhuman display of speed.
      I reached the top of the bend (the girls were in the middle of the straight, still about twenty metres away) just as the song was reaching the bridge; after a degree of existential searching in the verses Patrick had come to the conclusion that the vagabond life was for him and, armed with this new self-knowledge, he was now emphatically stating that it was “good to be alive”; this message was carried by an outrageously infectious disco beat, and the combined effect drove me to hit speeds that should have been well beyond me given my limited experience: it was good to be alive.
      As I passed the girls I decided that it would be prudent to check that they were indeed privy to this Herculean effort, this pinnacle of human endeavour; I hated to think that it was all for nothing.
      In the act of confirming that the girls were indeed watching, I only lifted my eyes from the floor (to which they had hitherto been glued) for a moment but it was enough; I lost my footing and fell. The force with which I hit the floor was so strong that the ensuing pain seemed to take on an identity all of its own; and it was speaking to me, telling me that any and all (not just poorly conceived) attempts to impress girls would end this way: with me flat on my face.      
      To compound the problem I had managed to clip the leg of a fellow skater (he was about 16, and was wearing an old Alice Cooper t-shirt) on the way down, causing him to suffer a fall equally ignominious as mine.
      Damon, a witness to the whole sorry affair, skated past.
      “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I fall arse over tit all the time.”
      The Alice fan who I’d knocked for six was considerably less supportive however, as he weighed in with his thoughts as to my skating ability and persona in general:     “Why don’t you learn to skate you fuckwit!”
      I glanced over at the girls: they were still watching.

I retired to the lounge area just as the DJ announced that it was “time for the couples’ song” (a time when the rink becomes the exclusive domain of appallingly smug couples, who skate around hand-in-hand to a sappy track). His selection was Peaches & Herb’s ‘Reunited’, a track that I found vaguely cloying under normal circumstances, but now sounded like the music you would hear in hell.
      “Okay, this one’s for the couples, so take your partner by the hand guys,” the DJ said, his American vowels making an unwelcome return.
     Any goodwill that I might have had for the DJ was rapidly dissipating; in fact, now he was starting to shit me.
     The other three – banished from the rink due to their lack of respective partners – approached me. Damon was their self-appointed spokesman.
      “This ‘couples’ thing is crap,” he said.
      “Yes,” I said.