Maths 1 lesson, seated between girls — a school prefect and a sports champ. He liked both of them, but didn’t think they liked him much. In fact, he was pretty sure they thought he was a bit of a joke — not a real male and nothing to admire but okay at his schoolwork but so what. Those days his brother kept chooks that were being treated for stickfast fleas. The entire chook pen covered in ash and lime, dabs of kero and Vaseline applied to remove the fleas — flat black seeds with legs, pulsing, loaded with chookblood, burrowed in around the chooks’ eyes like putrid chunks of old mascara he’d drawn stick-figures with on the walls of his bedroom when he’d been five. His father had given him a belting. That day in Maths 1 the class was studying vectors. And then, above his eyebrow — on he, who was not the keeper of chooks and bantams — an irritation. Then a reflex scratch, then a leap onto the maths book opened page, and an “ugly eater of chickens” was on the loose. Then another. One hopping towards the prefect on his left, the other towards the sports champ — a star netballer — on his right. And the netballer in her sports tunic with lots of exposed skin, having just come in from a tournament and not being able to change, all sweaty and apologetic to the teacher who was sporty herself and understood… and the flea was about to arrive in her well-plucked netballish eyebrow and lodge, searching for shelter and purchase.
Or elsewhere, he thought, somehow elsewhere; smelling her sweat, he died again and again, inside and out. He died and thought, This isn’t right and I am going to suffer for her, for their indignities. He scratched his itchy spots and tried to feel as they — the girls — would feel in a short while, a very short while, when the fleas had finishing sucking sucking. But they were stickfast fleas and would probably stay for a while, get stuck right in, set like glue, at least until scratched or gouged free. But he wasn’t sure, he didn’t really know, and his mind was a swirling mess and he could smell himself bad. They’d dislodged from his eyebrow so easily! Maybe they’d grown tired of him, disliked the taste of his blood. Or maybe they had just gorged themselves.
A chook pen and a laboratory are a poor mix. His was no mere toy chemistry set, but a full lab built out of the extras and leftovers taken in lieu of payment for holiday work in a mineral analysis lab. He’d scored the job after doing work experience for two weeks and being “extra keen,” was seen as a “good prospect” by the lab owner. It didn’t hurt that the head chemist was keen on Mum, or so his Dad yelled at her one day after she picked him up after his Saturday morning’s work and they’d just walked in through the front door and Dad was yelling and yelling. That’s how he scored the Mettler balance, the organic chemistry equipment, and chemicals! his father had gone on, There’s something not right! And his Mum had said, I was only joking, Darl, when I said the man was handsome! He hid in his lab after that and didn’t come in for dinner. All that mattered to him was his lab and the prospect of the big discovery, what the head chemist called his “Eureka moment,” but laughing a little while saying it, which didn’t feel right. But chooks weren’t his concern! He let his chemical wastes flow out through plastic tubing into the chook pen, to the great upset of his younger brother. But mate, he argued, You’re dosing them in kero and shit anyway — they’re chemicals, too. The world is chemical. But his brother gave him a dagger look and it felt wrong, all wrong. Not that they didn’t fight, because they did, and an older brother always likes besting a younger brother, that’s the way of it he told himself, but this was different. There was a disturbance in The Force, he told himself in his back shed lab, Star Wars not long out in the theatres — they’d travelled all the way to Perth on the bus to stay with their grandparents so they could see it. He saw it three times but his brother found it boring the first time and spent the rest of the stay in their grandparents’ massive suburban garden, watching praying mantises in the box hedge and counting the red-tailed black cockatoos flying into the streetside eucalypts and becoming obsessed with the silkworms on the ginormous mulberry tree down the back around which all the world revolved.
Okay, so with respect to The Force, and to restore the balance and to show his experiments were dedicated to a better future for all humans and animals, he fenced off the “waste zone.” But maybe the fleas still had occasion to visit the toxic pit, the sump, and sample the cocktail of chemicals hustling over their iniquitous reactions. Maybe they were Frankenstein fleas, fleas with disturbing powers? This crossed his mind. What is science? He wondered.
The beheading haunted him, and as the fleas homed in on the girls, he thought of it. More because of the neighbors’ reactions, watching from their perches on chairs that lived by the fence for neighborly interactions and less than subtle spying, peering over the asbestos fence. His brother was still beside himself with anger and upset. They’d got home to find his father in the process of chopping off the head of the “old girl.” It’ll be tough, but she’ll drop dead soon and she’s not laying eggs anymore and waste not want not. The girls next door went to the religious private school and were home early and had got a box seat. But he and his younger brother had just ridden the five kilometers from their state school and were rolling and skidding into the driveway just when the axe came down and the body got freed and went for its bloody run before collapsing. He was so angry at his father for the hurt he’d caused his younger brother that he hurled his backpack to the ground and screamed, I hate you I hate you I hate you! His younger brother had run across to the headless chook and tried to comfort it and then ran to his father and snatched away the head and tried to stick it back on the chook’s body as the girls next door laughed so hard, the oldest one with the spunky ponytail yelling, I think I’ve piddled myself… Mum! Mum!
But the girls either side of him in Maths 1 class weren’t like those neighbor girls, he told himself, seeing again the stickfast fleas springing from around the eyes of the head of the chook his brother was struggling with, fleas maddened with the suddenness of requiring a new host. Frankenstein fleas leaping for their father’s ugly, gnarled skin, now leaping for the private school girls’ flagrantly fresh flesh hanging over the fence, exposed arms glistening in the late afternoon sun. Quantum leaps from down low to attain that skin, that flesh shivering and shaking with laughter.
No, this prefect and school sports champ were not to be mocked and didn’t deserve to suffer the fleas. Though the sports champ did punch him in the arm too often (and it hurt!), which disturbingly reminded him of the oversized boys of his own age who hassled him in the change-rooms; and the prefect did go out with the worst of them, the boy sports superstar whom the girl school sports champ probably thought should be going out with her, but he showed no interest whatsoever. Which, it suddenly occurred to him, might well be why he — no doubt to forever be known from this point as the dirty flea-bitten persona non grata piece of shit — the pipsqueak four-eyes, was sitting between them; the perfect buffer between codes of manners and achievement. He was, he knew, a nothing.
Yes, when the girls realized he was the source of the fleas, his life as he’d known it — rubbish that it was — would sink entirely into the abyss. He would never be kissed, would never be touched, would never even get to rub his bruised arms. He would be finished. His face flushed. His flea extraction holes itched, his acne bubbled to the point of bursting, and his crotch — insignificant, as he was told by the “mature boys,” that it was — ached and squirmed and just didn’t feel right. He shuffled cautiously, but nothing would go back into its right place.
But then, as an act of mercy, one of the fleas jumped back to his page (stats), and even more mercifully, a drop of his perspiration fell from his nose and landed on the flea, leaving it temporarily struggling in the water. He aimed a thumb at it and got it before it leapt, he felt its carapace and knew a little more pressure and it would be crushed, blood welling out.
But something made him hesitate, and the prefect said, Shit! And he got distracted and the flea wriggled free.
The whole class was looking at the prefect, and him next to her. All the boys wanted to be sitting where he was sitting, with the standard jokes being, He wouldn’t know what to do… He’d get lost in a threesome… and, The teacher has put him there because he’s a eunuch and he’ll operate like a force field (à la Lost in Space).
Shit! Shit! yelled the prefect. Enough of that! demanded the teacher, who would normally worship the prefect.
But Miss, something is on me. I felt it.
And then from the back, Miss, the little fella must be gettin’ excited sitting between the spunks! Yeah. He’s a little perv feelin’ them up! yelled another boy who’d already been suspended twice from school for filthy talk.
But before the teacher could tackle him, the prefect yelled again, Shit! And then after a deadly delay, a vacuum that made the flasks in the shed lab seem replete with oxygen, and he, the four-eyed bookworm dickless wonder, heard the deadly, fatal words: Look! I see it! It’s a flea. I’ve got a flea on me! Shit! Shit! Shit!
And as the sports star started to laugh at her rival’s agony, she herself became aware of an odd feeling in her brow, and reaching to scratch it, disrupted the second flea which had found purchase, or had retreated to a quieter place after the prefect’s screams. What the…? Shit! Me, too!
Death creeps up silently but quickly then it is loud and final and there is no heaven. And then he realizes, No, it’s worse than that — there is a Heaven and everyone remembers what happened on earth. There’s nowhere to hide, ever! The Force can’t protect you!
It was cowardly to do nothing, to say nothing, he admonished himself later. Cowardly to do and say nothing but just sit there and let it wash over him, the waves going on as if he wasn’t even there, not even a crag above the waterline. He wanted to forget it, to never mention it to anyone. Not even to his brother, who had caused the bloody problem in the first place. No, he didn’t even tell his brother — his brother of the chooks, his brother of the fleas… with whom he’d been angry enough to do something drastic, really drastic, like maybe, like maybe smash that bloody banjo that twanged away when he was trying to do his Maths 1 homework or more importantly his chemistry assignment… smash that bloody flea-ridden banjo or maybe sabotage the jigsaw puzzle that’d been weeks in the assembling. Then he thought of the beheading — it confused everything. It was a messy picture in his head.
But he did nothing afterwards as he did nothing at the time — letting the warm glow of immunity wash over him. The beauty and wonder of being considered so innocuous, so irrelevant, is that you can’t be considered the cause of anything. A benign and irrelevant entity, frighteningly close to being a waste of space.
But as the fury raged in the classroom, and a flea circus erupted, and bounty-hunter males entered the fray to hunt down the stickfasts, he just kept his head down, and concentrated on the graphs and figures in his book.
How can I have fucking fleas? screamed the sports champ. We don’t even have pets at our house. You… you! she pointed at the prefect… You’re always saving dogs and cats… You!
He cringed and sank into his seat as the girls yelled at each other over his head, his hair moving with their warm breaths, thinking, I shouldn’t cringe, I shouldn’t sweat, I should remain neutral, stay calm, ride this one out. I am not even here. But then the picture with the beheading — the beheading that disturbed and gathered him its horror and wouldn’t let go — and the anger and the thank goodness for small mercies blurred again, and kept on blurring, as he heard the prefect’s reply, and later as he replayed the prefect’s reply, delivered over his bent neck, You know, Sarah, you’re probably right… I took in a stray last night, and haven’t got around to de-fleaing it yet. Sorry, all!
And then she turned to the boy who divided her from Sarah, and spoke just loud enough for others to hear, spoke against the backdrop of confusion and excitement: Thanks for staying calm through all this, Jacob, you’re okay — you were so cool we forgot you were there.
John Kinsella‘s most recent volume of poetry is On the Outskirts. He is Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. With Tracy Ryan, he is co-editor of The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry.