(extract from a novel in progress)
Mick sat dangling his feet in the waters of the Pond, a secluded billabong fed by the waters of Concongella Creek. It was sufficiently far from the road that the sounds of horse and cart were inaudible. Only the occasional growling of a motor truck on its way to Ballarat could be heard. Looking down at the reflection of his face, he noticed how the blue grey leaves of the gum trees behind him seemed to move and shimmer in the ripples made by his toes. He tried to match his name to the face that looked back at him from the water.
In his mind he held his name. He turned it this way, then that. No matter how hard he tried, this piece of the puzzle just didn’t fit. Mick. Turn it this way. Mick. Turn it that way. Mick. You may as well call a sheep a bloody duck. Mick wore his name like a shirt on backwards. He couldn’t put words to how he felt. Like an itch but no rash. Like when you put your shoes on the wrong feet. In frustration, he kicked the face in the water, grabbed his dusty satchel, and headed off to school.
State Primary School number 362 was one of six structures that sat on the Wimmera Plain that defined the township of Quartz Reef. Next to the one-room school was a tiny teacher’s residence that sidled up to it for company. Further down the road sat a church dressed in weathered boards that continued to peel in the persistent heat of summer. Thin, rusted sheets of corrugated iron stayed on the roof, more from habit than as a result of the few nails that remained. A flat sheet of tin crucified to a rickety wooden frame announced that this was St Mary’s Catholic Church. The cow that fed on the long grass nearby cared little for religion, however, it enjoyed the shade offered, and donated a large turd in appreciation.
Mick creaked his way a step at a time toward the enormous schoolhouse door that kept the heated breeze from cooking the juvenile ingredients within. He pulled the handle hard and a gust of warm air escaped. A stronger surge of hot air muscled in ahead of him flapping the covers of twenty-nine dog-eared books, sitting on twenty-nine dilapidated desks. A thirtieth desk sat empty, brooding at the very front of the classroom waiting for Mick. Again.
Godfrey Lawrence Howard stood at the blackboard. The children rarely called their teacher by that name. They called him The Ferret, as it better reflected his slight build and pinched face. The Ferret stood, tapping his cane rhythmically against his thigh.
Mick stood at the back of the class. His hands began to sting and burn in anticipation. As he walked up the centre aisle, he could feel the sneers of the boys on his left, and hear the smothered snickers of the girls on his right. The school had a motley mixture of ages and heights, but a strict divide existed between the genders. Boys baked on the west side of the room, because their windows faced a sun whose heat dropped birds from their branches. The girls sat on the east side protected from the direct sun. Occasionally the steamed odour of unwashed socks and sweaty armpits would waft from the boys as they cooked on the other side.
Mick reached the front of the room. The Ferret smiled and grabbed his arm. He held it out with his left hand, and swooped the cane downwards with his right. A loud whack resonated around the room. The whole class jumped. Mick cried out and squeezed his hand between his thighs to try and numb the pain. The Ferret demanded that Mick present his other hand. Mick tried to be somewhere else in his mind. But he was blasted back into the moment as white pain leapt from his outstretched hand. The Ferret turned him around to face the class, and used the cane to prod him toward the empty desk. A few boys smirked at him. Most of the girls looked away, except for Sheila who held his gaze with those big gentle eyes.
The Ferret spent the rest of the morning droning the same stupid lessons he’d been teaching for years, but Mick was too angry to listen. Finally the lunch break came and Mick made his way outside with the other kids. A mob of boys joined Moira Jones and her footy and headed toward the top yard. ‘Kick it here Jonesy!’ Paddy yelled. A group of older girls ignored Sheila and headed for the asphalted area on the shaded side of the school. There were chalked hopscotch games still there from yesterday. Some of the younger children drifted toward the seesaw, braving the heat of the wood that seared their backsides.
Mick waited at the foot of the steps with Sheila’s dog Stretch. The twist in her leg made the task a bit difficult, but eventually Sheila joined Mick and Stretch and they made their way to the shady green canopy of the peppercorn trees. This was their safe place where they talked every lunchtime and sometimes after school. The grass was always soft and lush from the nearby rainwater tank that leaked all year round.
‘Just wait! One day I’m gonna tell that bloody Ferret what I think!’ said Mick. Sheila just nodded. She and Mick would often sit on the banks of the Pond, close to the creek that wound its way through the scrub at the back of their family farms. They would throw twigs in the water and Stretch would happily leap in and fetch them each time. Mick was a great storyteller and Sheila was a good listener.
Too soon, the school bell sounded and they made their way back to class. The Ferret stood impatiently at the door. He growled at Moira to go and wash her face and hands, and told Sheila to get a move on. As Mick walked past, the Ferret smirked. Mick went to say something, but was distracted by other events that unfolded.
Stretch reckoned he was a really good judge of character. He heard The Ferret growl at Sheila. So while The Ferret looked at Mick, Stretch crept quietly up to The Ferret’s shoes, and pissed on them. By the time the teacher realised what had happened, Stretch had bolted for Brown’s paddock, where he sat and smiled. The Ferret took his shoes off and washed them under a tap. He picked up a stone and threw it at the dog, but it landed twenty feet short. He put his sodden shoes back on his feet, and squelched his way back to the front of classroom. A small pool of water formed next to his shoes as he stood there. He glared at Sheila. As the owner of the dog, he would have enjoyed making her pay for his humiliation. But he knew that was a line he could not cross. Yet.
The children smothered their laughter behind stone faces. Except for Tommo Reynolds whose laughter echoed from the rear of the room.
‘Stand up Reynolds!’ yelled the Ferret.
Tommo slowly stood. At fifteen years-old he was already the size of most adults. His was tall and built like a Mallee bull, so none of the other kids commented on his darker complexion.
‘Get up here Reynolds!’ The Ferret pointed with his cane at a spot in front of the blackboard, but away from the puddle.
Mick boiled. It seemed he was caned most days. He admired Tommo and looked up to him. Not just physically, but also because he had this inner calm, a strength that people like the Ferret would never understand. He wished he could be like Tommo, but that inner voice would always whisper, ‘You’re worthless. You’re chipped crockery mate. You’re not even a real bloke.’ And then the anger would turn inward and he’d hate himself. Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t noticed that the Ferret had made Tommo bend over. The Ferret walked down the aisle, past Mick’s desk, so he could get a run-up with the cane.
There are moments in life when our hearts take control, and we act in ways we could never imagine. Those times when you look back, shake your head and say, ‘I don’t know how I did that, but Wow!’ Mick saw the Ferret hold up the cane and begin his run. It was his mate up there. He knew the pain Tommo was about to feel, because Mick felt it every other day. Mick yelled out, ‘No!’ In the slightest of movements his right foot moved from under the desk to the centre of the aisle. The Ferret wasn’t watching. He had eyes only for his target.
Children talked about it in hushed admiration for years. The legend grew as the story aged. No one could remember who it was that stuck their foot out just at the right moment. But certain images will be etched into their minds forever. The Ferret had tripped, slipped, then done a watery skid toward the stunned Tommo, who had a second or two to glance back in horror at the terrified face of the oncoming man. The Ferret stuck his foot in the puddle next to Tommo, who ducked just in time. The Ferret screamed and somersaulted over Tommo, through the teacher’s desk, and headfirst into the blackboard.
No one moved at first. The Ferret was slumped motionless behind the splintered devastation of the desk. Sheila was the first one to move. She checked out the teacher and found he was bruised but alive. She called out to Moira, ‘Go get your mum, Jonesy, and tell her to bring her buggy just in case!’ Then she sat down next to Tommo who was seated on the floor. ‘You alright?’ she said. Tommo just nodded.
Sheila’s eyes searched the room for Mick, but he was long gone.
Sheila found Mick some time later at the Pond. Mick’s gaze was focused on two sticks with a remarkable resemblance to a broken cane. They floated there with his thoughts, on their way to the Wimmera River. In his heart he wished he could join them on their way out of Quartz Reef, past the Grampians, and into a future where he could be himself. But at least he’d had a win. Sheila joined him there on the bank. She leaned forward and saw the smile on his face.
‘Did ya see him go arse over turkey in the puddle?’ she asked.
‘Yep,’ he replied. And the sound of their laughter echoed like a pair of kookaburras, through the leafy canopy, beyond the little town, and on to the far horizon at the edge of the Wimmera Plains.
This chapter is the beginning of a fictional piece built around a snippet of truth I was told by Dad’s sister years ago, before I came out as trans. They lived in rural Victoria in the 1930s. She said they had a cousin who dressed as male in public, but was allowed to dress as female on the farm. They found him hanging in the barn dressed as a girl when he was a teenager. My story is built around that event, and written to honour the transgirl that died and the many trans kids that struggle today.
Tina Healy is an advocate, peer support worker and an elder in the transgender community. She is a dad to her children, grandma to her grandchildren, and just ‘Tina’ to her community. Tina was co-coordinator of Gender Diversity Australia, and is currently co-coordinator of Alphabet Soup – a peer support group in Melbourne and regional Victoria. Now semi-retired, she is following her passion as a writer.
This story was previously published in Bent Street 1.