The Boy with the Broken Arm
One wet, cold September night some years ago now, a boy was born. It was late, his father, a veterinary surgeon, was out tending to another birth, a cow, in a time when it was hardly expected that a father would be in attendance for the birth of his child, he would be much more likely to be asleep, or having drinks with friends, than with his wife about to give birth.
But this father had work to do, and so he tended to the cow, who delivered a healthy calf. The boy too was healthy and, after the mother had been released from hospital, he was welcomed into the home. Barely a year later, another boy was delivered in the middle of the night, although this time the father was at home sleeping, for the next morning he still had work to do, cows to tend and other animals to treat.
Although the family was not, by contemporary Western standards, wealthy, they wanted for nothing, though extravagant holidays were not part of it. The children didn’t know what extravagant holidays were, so they never missed them. Other families would head for the beach, the families of teachers and public servants, the children would come back with stories of catching fish and playing games with the other children in the caravan parks and playgrounds. The eldest boy grew slowly, he was of some concern to the mother and father, although not enough for them to ever believe that his slow physical development was something to be worried about.
At the age of five, when it was time to start primary school proper, first class, he was told by the deputy Principal, whose job it was to allocate children to their respective classes, that he was too bright to be in the bottom class but not bright enough to be in the top class, how a teacher would be equipped to ascertain that is another matter, and so he was put into the middle class, with Mrs Lawless, who was told the same thing, that he was neither too dim nor too bright, and as such he would be in her charge for the year.
During this year the young boy broke his arm when his younger brother, who was already taller and bigger than his older brother, pushed him from the top bunk of their shared double bunk bed as they were play acting one afternoon, while their father, who was meant to be keeping an eye on them while their mother slept, too drifted off to sleep and left them to their own devices. The younger brother, who was more mean spirited than his older brother, decided that he would assert some kine of authority over his older, smaller, brother and pushed him off the edge onto the hard timber floor.
Both parents were startled by the crying of the boy, while the other brother laughed, the boy’s father sprang from his bed and picked the boy up, telling him to stop crying, that he would take him to the hospital. The father made a temporary sling for the boy from his veterinary equipment, plonked him in the car and drove him to the hospital. As they were driving to the hospital, the boy started complaining and crying from the pain and so the father instructed him how to hold his broken arm in such a way as to alleviate the pain that was coursing it’s way though his small body.
Once the father had dropped the boy to the hospital he shortly left to go back home, to try and make peace with his wife, who though young, was strong willed and knowing. She blamed the father for neglecting the children, while the younger brother escaped punishment. The young boy recovered and eventually came home, arm still in a sling, covered with a cast so that his arm could heal; and covered in spots. He had contracted measles whilst in hospital, which both parents deemed more serious than the broken arm. The young boy remained bedridden for three weeks, isolated from the rest of the family and unaware that this was anything out of the normal. He just assumed that when you broke your arm you’d come out in spots and have to spend three weeks in bed.
While he was in bed recovering, the younger brother would come into his room, despite the fact that he had been ordered to stay out, and laugh at the older boy. His father told him to stop laughing but still the younger boy laughed. He seemed impervious to threats of punishment, while the older sick boy seemed affected by his brother’s taunts. Never the less, the boy, in time, recovered, he returned to Mrs Lawless’s class and continued being seen as ordinary, not too dim and not too bright.
His broken arm though, never completely healed. From the age of eight, he wanted to play cricket and he did, although his younger brother was still taller than the boy. He played soccer in the Winter months, running around like most young boys do, never really excelling but being useful, in short, ordinary. Being ordinary is more useful than being exceptional and so ordinary it was to be. He was still having trouble with his right arm, for the three years that he had lived since he had broken it, the arm had been giving him trouble, pain and spasms that sometimes would go away after half an hour, sometimes would last for days, and even being at the point where, although it seldom happened, he would catch a cold because he had been outdoors trying to make up for the fact that he was smaller than his younger brother, and he would miss school while he recovered.
One day his father took him out to work with him, a farmer had a rifle with him because he was shooting kangaroos that had long since become a nuisance, threatening the land that the farmer’s cattle was inhabiting, breaking fences and eating the hay that had been meant for the cattle. The boy asked the farmer what the gun was for and the farmer told him, asked the boy if he’d like to try it, with his father’s permission. The father said he could try it as long the farmer closely supervised the boy but warned the farmer that he would not be very good with it because he was an ordinary kid who did things rather ordinarily.
The boy took to shooting and became, for his age, an excellent shot. He was so good with it that the farmer told his father that he was a natural, that he should get him lessons. Within a few months, and approaching his ninth birthday, the boy was having weekly lessons from the farmer in how to shoot at a target, mainly empty drink bottles and other objects that the farmer had placed on the ledge some hundreds of yards away, to see how good the boy was with his accuracy. The activity also went some way to strengthening his arm, if not strengthen it then to take his mind away from the fact that his arm had been broken, that it was giving him trouble and that his younger brother was taunting him about it.
Even though the boy did his school work and kept up in class, being no more than slightly better than ordinary, he longed, each day, after school, to go out and practice his target shooting. His thoughts would wander to trying to improve his hit rate, or to making the practice more challenging. His teacher, the farmer, would take extra care to make sure that the boy didn’t become obsessive about his practice, even though the farmer was enjoying teaching him the rudiments of looking after a rifle, safety, and responsibility, to ensure that, if he was going to kill a kangaroo, that the carcass of the animal was fully utilised and that he showed due respect to the process of killing an animal.
The boy’s father, the veterinary surgeon, seemed pleased that his eldest son, was displaying not only an interest in something that the father could identify with, but in something that was displaying the boy’s skill and intellect. Meanwhile, the younger brother was studying hard and taking a keen interest in soccer.
Then, on his tenth birthday, he was given a .22 calibre rifle for his birthday, while his brother received a bike for his. The boy’s father however, put strict conditions on the use of the rifle, mainly, that it was to be stored on the farmer’s property and the it was not to be brought back to the house and that he was never to be on his own when using the rifle. In return, the father gave free veterinary advice to the farmer, which showed that the boy was loved by the father and that he was prepared to forgo things of his own, namely valuable income, for his eldest son to be happy. The boy would also have to undertake an accredited firearm safety course before he could use it.
As he grew older the boy became stronger and even though his arm that had been broken was still, from time to time, giving him trouble, he became better able to deal with the discomfort that his arm caused him. He came to believe that the discomfort had more to do with using the rifle and having to have the arm grow in strength in order to use the rifle correctly. His brother continued to play soccer and do his homework, while the boy practiced his marksmanship, as well as doing his homework, which was a also a pre-requisite for being allowed to use the rifle. His father surmised that it was easier to allow the boy to pursue what he saw as his passion rather than have to discipline an irate child deprived of something that he loved. The father very often took the line of least resistance with his two sons, allowing the mother to exert discipline and order. The father was busy pursuing his own passion, that of treating animals.
One Saturday, while the younger boy was playing soccer, and the father was driving the older boy out to the farm so that he could practice his marksmanship, the father pulled over the side of the road to tend to some greyhounds. The owner of these dogs stood silently behind a brick wall, along the road to the local tip. The owner wanted the greyhounds, racing dogs that had not performed to expectations, euthanised. The boy asked the father why this was the case, why he was going to kill these three animals, who had not done anything wrong. The father told the boy that there was no law against euthanasia for animals and that if he didn’t do it in a humane manner then the owner would just take the animals down to the river and drown them, merely for not running fast enough.
So the father took a needle and did what he was trained to do and drove off to the farm so that the boy could practice with his rifle. The boy’s anger with his father and with the owner of the greyhounds was directed towards the targets he was aiming at. The farmer detected that there was something wrong and so brought the practice session to an end, and instead he made him clean the rifle and learn some more about rifle safety.
The elder boy was still smaller than his brother and it still created tension between the two boys. The younger boy would still tease his older brother about his size and fact that he, the younger, was a better soccer player, although they were equally competent, some would say ordinary, with their schoolwork. The older boy continued with his rifle practice and learning the piano while his younger brother continued with his soccer and with taunting his older brother about his size. The older brother was also afraid of the dark. He would usually have to turn out the light at night because the younger brother went straight to sleep while the older boy was reading. He would prepare the sheets of his bed so that once he’d turned out the light and run to the bed he could dive under the covers and hide from whomever he was hiding from.
Their father could tell that his older son was a more sensitive boy than was his younger son but he also understood, in his own mind, that there was nothing he could do about it. The brothers never played together or did things together, they remained distant from one another, unless either of their parents gave them cause to have to co-operate with each other, such as cleaning around the house or mowing the lawn.
The older boy would sometimes wet his pants at school, which created a series of awkward and embarrassing moments, when he would rush out of the classroom, only to not return for the rest of the day, and having to explain things to his parents and to his teacher. As time went on both of the boys grew, the older boy started to catch up in size, ever so slowly with his younger brother but still he could see that he was beginning to sprout. The two brothers, though, remained distant from each other. The older boy, more sensitive and attuned to things that went on outside, such as the incident with the greyhounds, and the younger boy, more robust, such as not thinking twice about teasing his brother about his size and such as continuing to laugh about pushing him from the top bunk of their bed, started to become young men. The younger boy was outwardly more competitive than the older boy, the older boy internalised his feelings, preferring to take his frustrations out when he was practising his marksmanship.
One day he brought home the meat of a kangaroo carcass that the farmer had butchered for the boy so that he could present it to his father. The meat, subsequently, was cooked, the family had meat enough for weeks afterwards. His father would go on fishing trips with his friends, and he’d bring back a catch that, along with the kangaroo meat supplied on a regular basis, was enough to feed the family, without having to buy meat. It was about this time that the father started to do well in his veterinary practice, and to celebrate, to add to the necessary new deep freeze purchased in order to store the meat and fish, a new lounge suite and dining table was purchased, along with a colour television set, which excited everyone in the household, as colour television was a new phenomenon for everyone in town.
By the time the eldest boy was fifteen, he was entering and winning shooting competitions, bringing home trophies, of not just dead animals, but silver metal trophies, medals and certificates. It was around this time that he told his father that he thought he might join the army because it was a good way to get paid for using a rifle. His brother said that he didn’t know what he wanted to become but that being in the army was stupid because other people would shoot at him, he wondered to the rest of the family why his brother wouldn’t know that. His father suggested that he may not be robust enough to join the army but the boy replied that it was the best way for him to use his marksman skills. With that determination, the boy’s vocation seemed set in concrete.
When the boy was getting ready for his final year of school his father decided that the family would take a holiday to New Zealand. The father was born in New Zealand and wanted to take his wife and children there, to show them where he was born and to take in some of the tourist attractions that New Zealand is known for.
The boy was hoping to land a spot in the armed forces when he finished school, he’d learnt during English class that by seventeen a person is able to viscerally work out what they want to become, and thought a holiday in New Zealand would be the perfect way to start his final school year. His father had a busy work schedule prior ro going on their holiday, the night before leaving he had to attend to Miss Reeves’ cats. Miss Reeves was a local eccentric who owned twenty five of the creatures. She rang the house at 10pm, pleading with the vet to come out to her house as Malcolm, one of her favourites, had been bitten by a snake.
When he got there he realised that Malcolm had not been bitten by a snake but was merely dehydrated. He gave the cat an injection of electrolytes but Miss Reeves was still convinced that Malcolm had been bitten by a snake. When she was presented with the bill, a mere five dollars, she queried it, saying ‘Mr Newman, that is not right. I know anti snake venom is expensive and yet you have only charged me five dollars.’
He replied, knowing that Miss Reeves would not accept his story that Malcolm didn’t have a snake bite, ‘you see Miss Reeves, I get my anti snake venom for free from the hospital when it goes out of date. I can’t charge you full price when I get it for free.’ He had to concoct the story because he didn’t want to argue with Miss Reeves, when all he wanted to do was get back home and to bed for a decent nights sleep.
The next day dawned hazy, they had two flights to catch, one from their town and the other out of Melbourne to Auckland. There were arguments along the way, such as a disagreement between the father and mother about the time it took to get ready, whether they were going to miss the flight and what the other was wearing, while the two boys went along with things and, for the most part, did as they were told.
The older boy saw his father’s behaviour as strange, that a man so meticulous in his work could be so carefree in everything else, wandering around the house feeling sure he’d forgotten his keys when they were neatly nestled in his hand. The eldest boy called him the absent minded professor, at which his father laughed. He made a few phone calls before they left the house and then went off on their holiday to New Zealand. They didn’t visit the father’s home town, there were too many other things to see and do and besides, the father decided he didn’t want to visit a small New Zealand town where there would be nothing for the boys to do, so they stayed on the tourist trails, visited Maori a meeting place, known as a Wharenui, saw a haka being performed, took a tour of the National Museum in Wellington, and went white water rafting.
They returned home after two weeks away, the mother feeling exhausted because she was constantly finding things for the boys to do and organising the itinerary, the father feeling energised because he has seen his homeland again and the boys feeling like they wanted to spend longer in New Zealand and not have to come back for school.
The two boys argued with each other while they were in New Zealand but their father said it was no more than two normal ordinary brothers would behave and that it was nothing to be concerned about. One thing that the father made an effort to do whilst in his homeland was visit his daughter’s grave in Mangatinoka. She had been the first born of their children but had died at three days because she had a hole in her heart. Her mother had contracted german measles while she was pregnant and the baby’s condition had been left undiagnosed. It was before he had decided to come to Australia to pursue his veterinary career. He stood at the grave side for half an hour and stared, while the mother stood back a few paces and stared into space. The older boy asked his father how he felt about it and his father replied ‘it’s just one of those things.’ He refused to talk about it further.
Their mother said that, when she got back home she would go and visit her elderly parents in Brisbane. Her parents didn’t like their daughter’s choice of husband, they didn’t like anything much, and so the visit was always fraught with tension, words not said that ached to get out. ‘Dad is not well,’ the daughter would say. ‘They’re not after more money are they?’ said her husband.
Her parents were poor, they lived in a rented two room flat, it consisted of a kitchen/dining area and a living room which doubled as a bedroom. They sat on the beds, which doubled as sofas during the day, watching television, knitting or stamp collecting, and which pulled out to reveal beds at night. Her father, the boys’ maternal grandfather, had just three fingers on his right hand and a missing thumb on his left. He said that he lost them in a lathe, which is why he couldn’t fight in the Great War, but the suspicion was that he was a malingerer, that he cut them off deliberately, to avoid having to serve.
‘What do you think Dad, do you think Grandpa cut his fingers off on purpose?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the father, diplomatically deciding not to buy into the argument. But he suspected he did, he knew he didn’t like him and the feeling was mutual.
‘I’ll go up for the weekend before school goes back,’ said the Mother.
She also had a new school year to look forward to, she was a piano teacher and herself a gifted pianist. She had students to teach, forty of them, with varying degrees of talent. A few showed such potential that she introduced them to Franz Liszt. She played Liszt herself, not the transposed Liszt that the majority of modern pianists played but the originally scored Liszt, the music the great composer went to great lengths to compose so that women could not play it. But the mother would have none of it, she would play his Étude d’exécution transcendante d’après Paganini the way the old dead composer did. She’d stay be up until midnight, swearing at him, as she practised the Etudes, the Symhonies, the Preludes, the Concertos. ‘Damn you Liszt’ she would say, and the whole household suffered because of it.
She was tough to learn from but she got results, her students loved her, mothers spoke of their sons and daughters “trying to please Mrs Newman.” Her standards were so high she told some of the parents that she didn’t think she could teach their child any longer because they weren’t practising enough. Word got around about her lack of tolerance but no one took her on because she was always right.
Both boys were told, when lessons were in session, which started straight after school, to get out of the house or be quiet, to study in their rooms, to go and visit a friend, anything other than hang around the house making a noise, a nuisance of themselves, disturbing piano lessons. The father was still working and would head for the golf club when he’d finished for the day so as not to disturb the piano lessons.
‘Hands Fiona,’ she’d say ‘Lift the hands, you’re punching the pedals, caress them, caress them. You’re playing by ear again, you’re not sight reading. If you want to be great you first much learn to sight read. You should want to be great. If you want to be great you first must learn to sight read, even the most ambitious works, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, even Liszt.’
One of her crowning achievements was playing at the opening of the newly finished school hall. The school had purchased a grand piano to augment its false grandeur and the playing of the aforementioned piano by the school’s salaried music teacher at the aforementioned grand opening was designed to christen the building.
She detested all school music teachers, perhaps because they fell in their duty to provide her students with the musical education she felt they deserved. She regarded most teachers, but more particularly music teachers, as dilettantes. She considered that the teachers college, where they obtained an all too easy qualification, arranged so that enough of them could be loosed on children whose interest in music became little more than a space filler prior to lunch, was a musical and cultural wasteland. She particularly despised the school’s senior music teachers ability to play the piano, considered her a journeyman. It wasn’t that she despised her as an individual, it was that she despised her calling herself a musician, a pianist, when she considered her to be little more than a second rate musicologist, who could play the odd tune.
So when the came time for the opening ceremony, and the playing of the piano, the journeyman school music teacher couldn’t bring herself to play even something perfunctory, a prelude, a Bach prelude, anything. The music teacher notified the school Principal on the morning of the concert.
The Principal was left in a bind, he had rung around to see whether anyone else on staff might be capable of faking a Beethoven prelude, there were no takers – “‘she’s the only one I know who can play anything decent’” cried one from the corridor. “‘I can ask if any of the music students can play for us,” “that’s rather embarrassing isn’t it’” asked another. “‘We can sell it as promoting our students.’” Then one of those self same students suggested the young boy’s mother, one who had previously been tutored by her – “‘you could ask Mrs Newman.’”
So it was. The boys’ mother picked up the phone shortly after 9am on the morning of the opening ceremony of the new school hall.
‘Is that Mrs King?’
‘Who is this?”’
‘It’s Clara Pullman from the high school. I’m the secretary to the Principal.’
‘I have been asked by the Principal if you are available to play the piano at the school.’
‘What is the occasion?’
‘The opening of the new school auditorium.’
‘I see. When?’
‘Today.’ Clara Pullman was at this point taking deep breaths, ones designed to lower ones heart rate.
Again, ‘I see.’
‘I know it’s short notice.’
‘How perceptive of you. Short notice is not what I would call it. Rude and presumptuous is what I would call it.’
‘I’m sorry Mrs King but it’s rather a case of getting us out of a bind you see.’
‘What type of bind would that be then?’ Knowing precisely the bind they were in, she wanted them to work for it. She didn’t have anything against Clara Pullman necessarily but she did despise the idea that she was a backup plan. Yet the self same woman would bake a cake for her eldest because he took the blame for Charlie Elks kicking the football through the louvres at the back of the house. She knew Charlie had kicked the ball because the eldest boy was so quick to take the rap, while Charlie stood there with his supercilious grin figuring he could pull off this type of ruse for the rest of his life. He might have argued that the eldest boy should have saved it but Gordon Banks wouldn’t have got to the ball. It was wide.
‘Well, you see the music teacher…’
‘Yes, Giselle Radowski. Well, she has had to pull out you see, something wrong with her wrist. She can’t play.’
‘You’re right, she can’t play.’
‘Yes, well uhm, can you help us?’
‘Oh yes I can certainly help you.’ Clara Pullman was relieved, her shoulders rose from the stoop, her teeth became visible, she’d be able to tell the Principal (who is provided a title here for the purposes of continuity only, not because he was any good at his job) that she had found a solution, a pat on the back a least, perhaps extra responsibilities. ‘The question is not one of whether I can help you, the question is one of whether I am prepared to help you.’
‘I guess Mrs King you have us over a barrel,’ continued Clara Pullman, ‘it’s important to the school because we have purchased a new grand piano. Everyone is expecting a recital, of sorts.’
‘It kind of begs the question as to why you firstly didn’t realise that Giselle Radowski would never be able to play any sort of decent piano recital and secondly, you didn’t have the courtesy of asking me to bail you out just a little earlier. When is this recital?’
‘Eleven o’clock.’ Clara held her breath, the student in Mrs N——’s lesson sat on her hands studying Bartok while she waited for my the boy’s mother to get off the phone. ‘I’m sorry Mrs N——.’
‘I still have students.’
‘I will need to let the Principal know.’
‘Tell your Principal that I will bail him out.’
‘Thank you Mrs N——, thank you.’ And Clara Pullman would go on giving thanks for the next hour, as if she had supped with royalty, or celebrity. She would, Clara Pullman, discover, when she sat in the audience with the students, with the teachers, with the performers, with the dignitaries, that she had been talking to royalty, musical royalty, Liszt type royalty.
‘Hands Fiona, lift the hands, you’re punching the pedals, caress them, caress them. You’re playing by ear again, your’e not sight reading. If you want to be great you first much learn to sight read. You should want to be great. If you want to be great you first must learn to sight read, even the most ambitious works, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, even Liszt.’
She would turn her attention to the school auditorium once she had finished with Fiona, ten year old Fiona, who would surely be great if firstly, her mother had anything to do with it but particularly if the teacher had anything to do with it. Fiona finished her lesson early so that she could put in the twenty five years worth of practice required to play in front of a thousand people and hold their attention for any longer than the short introduction.
Turning her attention to the opening of the school auditorium meant rummaging through her sheet music, of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and of course Liszt, tucking them under her arm and making her way to the school so that she could at least familiarise herself with the surroundings, the instrument, the chair she would sit on.
So she tucked the manuscripts under her arm and strode out of the house, determined to show the Principal, given the title for identification purposes only, her husband, who would not care whether she played, for whom she played, for how long she played or under whose commission, the students, who would never have heard this music delivered like this before, and Giselle Radowski, what a real pianist could do.
Given fifteen minutes, she played for those glorious minutes – Brahms to start, then Beethoven’s Fifth. She paused during a Chopin Etude, she looked up into the audience, smiled a smile that eliminated all intransigent thoughts, and moved into her work, next with Liszt, the Hungarian Rhapsody to be precise, toying with the melody, the left hand flourishing like a maestro would with his orchestra and the right hand dancing like a reinvigorated Nureyev. Then she pulled out the third and final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor Opus 23, thought to be unplayable by many in the musical establishment. It was a piece she’d go to when she was agitated, or was needing to release an energy only a gifted artist would ever understand. The piece muscled it’s way around the fringes of the new auditorium and enveloped the centre of it. The full effect of the concerto required a bank of violins and a convoy of woodwind but on this day she didn’t need them, she would use the keys beneath her fingers alone to impart it’s power. The movement finished with her playing the violin part from the piano, a feat of power and intensity no student, teacher or special guest would ever be witness to again. She played for another fifteen minutes, playing Beethoven’s Eighth Sonata, sight reading everything and if the Principal (who retained the title against all odds) didn’t like it then she’d let her transfixed audience have some more. The students stood and applauded while Ms Radowski stood at the edge of the auditorium bamboozled by what she had just heard.
‘Your course.’ The woman, who in another time, Rory thought, would surely have been a delightful woman, but not today, looked too busy to engage with him other than in cursory tones.
‘What are your subjects.’
‘I’m do-doing doing Economics 1, Political Science, Statistics and History.’
‘Good, you’ve got a Political Science tutorial, Room 226, in half an hour.’ The woman, the registrar, looked down, ruled a pen through his name and yelled. ‘Next.’
Rory started scurrying towards the hole in the wall that housed the ATM machine. He was hungry and he wanted something to eat before the tutorial. He fingered his jeans pocket for some change, he realised that even with a novices notion of what a sandwich and a take away coffee would cost, that he didn’t have enough, so he relied on the hope that his bank account would have enough funds to spit him out fifty dollars.
His father made irregular deposits to augment his part time job in the pub. Room 226 was a good walk away, he’d be late if he lingered fine dining style, it would be take away everything.
He arrived at the tutorial, “tutes” as they’d become known, sweating from the effort. ‘Grab a seat,’ said Lex, it was short for Alex he’d later find out, the tutor, without looking, motioned rather obviously to the chairs. Rory sat down as far away from Lex as he could, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself, didn’t want to be asked questions he didn’t know the answer to, didn’t want to be seen as too political. His parents, he had surmised, were to the right with their politics, although he wasn’t sure about that. He just assumed that because his father was a professional man that he’d be more inclined to support the so called free marketers. His mother was more strident in hew views on most things but he could never quite nail down exactly what her political affiliations might be either.
More students entered Room 226 and Rory started to twitch, still not sure whether he belonged there let alone whether he wanted it to be so. There were about fifteen of them, all hopeful, some displaying a certain bravura, others a shyness that perhaps betrayed an aloofness, perhaps just a shyness bordering on total introversion.
From his chair facing away from the door, Lex spoke. ‘The first assignment will be about the role of government. Just take a copy of the details and hand them around.’ He wanted to move the tute along, to settle the class in quickly.
‘What if you want to overthrow the government?’ said one student, who seemed intent on establishing an altogether different tone.
‘What’s your name,’ said Lex.
‘Well John,’ leaning on his elbow and bearing down on his bifocals, ‘why don’t you tell us why you’ve chosen Political Science.’
‘I’ve started a group called Left Action and I want the flawed economic rationalist approach that this government endorses to be destroyed. Trickle down economics is a lie. Neo liberalism has had its day.’ The incendiary nature of John’s opening gambit threatened to steal the oxygen in the room, until Lex, the wizened old soul, re-established equilibrium.
‘You want to overturn the whole capitalist order eh! You’re in the right place if you want to throw those sorts of ideas around then.’ John chuckled and then snorted, relieved that he’d outed himself early, put down a marker. ‘Anyone else want to throw their two bobs worth in?’
There was silence, of the type that makes for a group unease and that at any moment could lead to all out laughter.
‘What are we going to be talking about?’ asked another.
‘The subject is Politics, the assignment you have to do is the Real Role of Government, which no doubt, people such as John here, will tackle with great alacrity. That’s all I want you to do, write two thousand words on the Real Role of Government. If you want to overthrow it then fine, tell me, but you should also tell me what you’d replace it with. And anarchy will not be considered an adequate answer.’ Lex paused and looked around the room, his gaze momentarily locked on Rory, noted his visage of diffidence and moved on.
‘Are we going to be talking about how Government screws us?’ came the cry from the corner.
‘What do you mean by screwing us? asked Lex.
‘Well, my parents can’t buy a home, it costs them more in rent than a mortgage would cost them but they can’t get a loan.’
‘Is-Is-Is that the fa-fault of the government or the fault of the banks?’ Rory broke in. He was now engaged with the class.
‘That’s a good question,’ said Lex, not bothering to ask Rory’s name.
‘It’s the fault of the government,’ said John. ‘They set the rules, they could change the rules if they wanted but they don’t want to. Their raison d’etre is self preservation. They don’t care for the people at all.’
‘But-but if we didn’t have government what would we we have?’ said Rory.
‘We’d have rule by the people.’
‘Don’t we have that now,’ said another voice. A young woman who had been sitting passively, observing, head down making notes. Lex struck a bullet like gaze at her.
‘Olivia Prendiville,’ said she, self confident, assured, not even waiting for Lex to ask her to identify herself.
‘Yes, we have that now but we’re going to discuss how it can be improved, even dismantling it if John has his way.’
‘What about other big issues?’ said one.
‘Is that a question or a statement?’
‘Whatever you want it to be.’
‘What are the other big issues then,’ asked Olivia.
‘What about peace in the Middle East?’
‘That’s not part of the syllabus,’ said one.
‘How do you know it’s not part of the syllabus?’ came the rhetorical flourish from Rory, with the emphasis on the “know”, not the “you”, as if to soften the blow.
‘The issue of peace in the Middle East is surely not a political science subject, it’s more for international law students isn’t it.’
‘It’s political,’ said Rory.
‘We can discuss the Middle East if you want to,’ said Lex.
‘The issue of whether there’ll be peace in the Middle East and how you’re supposed to go about achieving it is surely not a serious question.’
‘It is to the Palestinians,’ said one, who hadn’t yet said a word.
‘And the Israelis,’ said another in response.
‘So the question is really a rhetorical one then,’ said John, who’d found something else on which to engage his mind.
‘It’s not rhetorical at all,’ said Lex. ‘Let’s just for this moment, treat the question as a solvable one. All governments have to have a position on it.’
‘So you obviously have an opinion on the subject, seeing as how you raised it,’ said Olivia to the person who raised the subject in the first place. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Are you Jewish?’
‘No I’m not.’
‘So do you have an opinion,’ said John.
‘Is that a no, you don’t have an opinion or a no you don’t think there will be peace in the Middle East?’
‘No, I don’t think there will be peace in the Middle East.’
‘Have you told them?’
‘Who do I tell?’
‘Got a feeling they already know.’
‘Then why do they keep having summits and signing treaties and so on and forth?’ asked John, joining in the joie de vivre that seemed to permeate this group of rather serious people.
‘You’re asking the wrong guy.’
‘They’re playing each other that’s what I think,’ said one.
‘They wouldn’t be the first,’ said another.
‘Are any of them listening to the rest of the world?’
‘Who should they be listening to?’ said Lex.
‘Tony Blair?’ And at that riotous laughter broke free. It was from James, who laid down the morning’s wit, delivered without warning, like all true wit. Their was a lull, the students caught breath, Lex smiled, as if he was onto something. He needed to bring things back into line.
‘No one listens to Tony Blair,’ said John, as James sat with a self satisfied look, comforted that he’d contributed enough.
‘Tony thinks they do and that’s what’s important,’ said another.
‘Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, people like Tony, who retire from public life, bursary in hand, steps up to an even bigger stage, collects his fee, only for even more people to not listen to him.
‘We’re veering a bit out of control here I think,’ said Lex. He directed the tutorial back to the predictable, outlining the various types of government the class would be studying, in touching on the history of various types of governments, the role of the democratic process in forming government, before moving onto political philosophies, neo-liberalism, democratic socialism, economic rationalism, what is working and what isn’t, and why. ‘Neo-liberalism has run its course,’ said John, interrupting Lex with an incendiary retort. Lex, cheerfully ignoring the remark, went on to tell the class what he expected from everyone, essentially engagement, the limits he placed on his own largesse and how much the tutorial class contributed to their progress towards successful completion of the subject.
As they started to pack away their books, their computers and their mobile phones Olivia, who had been sitting nearby James, leaned over towards him, craning her head slightly to the left and introduced herself into his world.
‘What made you choose Political Science?’
‘I app app applied for the Army but got rejected,’ said Rory.
‘You got rejected from the Army? That’s weird.’
’So I thought I’d I’d go to university and do a meaningless degree.’
‘Arts? Hah, I’m doing Arts, double degree and Law.’
‘I’m just doing Ec-Ec-Economics, plain sad old Economics.’
‘Why did the Army reject you? That sounds ridiculous.’
‘Something about blood pre-pre-pressure,’ he explained, as he packed a faux leather case full of student paraphenalia. ‘My father th-th-thinks it’s an excuse they use when they’ve over-recruited. He offered to take my case up with the Minister responsible but I told him not to w-w-worry about it, I’d go to uni instead.’
‘They’re two very divergent paths, from the Army to university.’
‘They’re they’re they’re both institutions I suppose.’
‘What do you think of John.’
‘Th-th-th-the the guy who wanted an overthrow of the capitalist order?’
‘Maybe he needs to r-r-read less Brecht and Marx and listen to more Tom Petty and chase girls. It’s easy to be against stuff but it’s a lot harder to stand up for what you’re for.’
Olivia let air out of her lungs in almost unprecedented laughter, threw her head back in classic academic orgasm, and tilted her head towards Rory, as one of Tom’s backing vocalists might stare at the star, inviting the blonde hair to laugh at her in return. Free Fallin’ as a meme for all university curriculums.
‘Tell me, why did you want to join the Army in the first place?’ Olivia paused, thoughts running like lengths of string through her mind, coming to no conclusion. She juggled words inside her head before settling on these. ‘If you don’t mind me saying so, you appear to be too smart to be in the Army.’
Rory proceeded to tell Olivia about growing up as the son of a veterinary surgeon, not a vet, his father would have corrected him, being given a rifle and being taught to shoot by a local farmer who had need to be rid of kangaroos spoiling his land. He told her how he got good at it, how it became an outlet for him, escaping from the taunts of his younger brother, how he entered and won shooting competitions, of how he could knock the cap off a bottle from a hundred metres. He told her that it was his idea that he’d join the Army because the Army appeared to be he best way he could continue to use his rifle, even though both of his parents looked down on the idea. They suggested that as Shooting was an Olympic sport he could try and make an Olympic team but he wanted more than just competition to drive his passion. Olivia stood transfixed by his story, quickly putting together the missing pieces, except for his stutter, which she didn’t understand and didn’t dare ask him about.
‘I have a lecture to get to,’ said Olivia, ‘I’ll catch you next time then.’ And off she walked, giving him a cursory wave as she turned to provide him a conciliatory smile. Political Science as a university subject had withstood the ravages of time, it had retained its status despite, or perhaps because of neo-liberalism. Politics forever studied as a science and not an art, contrary to popular consensus, where surely, if politics were a science then there would be absolutes that students could rely on, affording them a degree of comfort whereby certain disagreements need not occur, where emotions were now placed to one side so that the principles of the subject could be learnt without the rancour that so divides post modern study.