One down, three up – by Ashley Sievwright

When I was in my early teens we had a battered little yellow Yamaha 100. It was a standard one down, three up gearbox. Down into first, then up through the rest of the gears. Neutral hovered somewhere magically between first and second, and it was such a bugger of a thing to find.

We lived in a small country town in Western Victoria. My dad was a carpenter, my mum was a waitress, and my sister was three years younger than me.

Dad would build us a new house every few years. We’d live in it for a bit, and then, when the garden was established, he’d sell it and we’d rent for a year while he built us another one. We lived all around the place, sometimes right in town, and sometimes out on a little bit of land, but it was such a small town that it didn’t matter where I lived, I never had to change schools because of moving so much.

During my early high school years we were out on a farm. Well, it wasn’t a farm as such, in the proper sense of the word, but it was a few acres of land – a house paddock and a dam paddock with about 20 or so sheep. I had already been riding motorbikes for a few years. We’d grown up with them, my sister and me. We’d mostly just hack around on them having fun, but we also used them sometimes to round up the sheep.

We kept the sheep only to eat. When it was time to slaughter a few, we’d have to round them up into a little yard up near the house, then a mate of Dad’s would come over and would kill three or four – a couple for us to put in the deep freeze, and one for himself as payment for doing it. Dad would wrestle a sheep out of the pen. His mate would slit its throat, then hang it up to drain the blood. He’d slit the skin up the belly and down the legs, then whip it off like a sheepskin-coat-with-legs from top to bottom. Then he’d lay the skin down and cut the belly of the sheep so its guts would flollop out into the skin. We’d tie it up by the legs, take the bundle of guts over under the pine trees that lined the paddock and bury it there. I remember the sheep that weren’t yet killed being particularly wide-eyed and constantly moving around in their pen, tip-tap-tapping on their hooves and looking wall-eyed.

The seat of the Yamaha was cracked, the petrol tank and the muffler dented, and it was always flecked with mud. We’d roar around the paddocks in all seasons. In summer we’d wear shorts and teeshirt, but gumboots so our shins didn’t get thrashed by thistles. It was a small bike, but we were only stick-armed kids, so if we tipped off, which we did regularly, and it fell on top of us, we struggled to get out from under it quickly. We had heaps of burns and welts on our inner thighs from that overheated muffler.

My sister and I were very close growing up, but I’m surprised I didn’t kill her on that Yamaha. One time we tied an old pram to the back of the bike with a length of rope, and I towed her around in that, quite fast down the track to the dam and around the dam banks and along our various dirt tracks criss-crossing the paddocks. She was pitched out more often than not, but she just got back in again – every time. She was pretty tough.

I had a fairly easy home life. Dad was a bit strict, but Mum was easy going and my sister and I would have a ball playing in the paddocks, on the bikes, in the pine trees, in the haystack, all over the place. Even so, I wasn’t a rough and tumble kid. In fact, I was quiet and bookish. But I loved the land and games outside. I was just as happy riding the motorbikes as I was inside reading or drawing a comic book based on the characters from my favourite movies.

Alongside this pretty benign existence at home was my life at high school, and high school, of course, was a different story entirely.

At school I was teased pretty badly. I was called a ‘faggot’. I was quiet and I didn’t play sport. I was skinny and sort of pretty. The girls loved me. The boys didn’t know how to place me. I was never beaten up, but I was often tripped or pushed into lockers, or had food thrown at me. One time a boy spat a huge golly right on my chest across the table – in class. I was sent out to clean up, but I don’t think anything was done to him. Maybe he was moved across the other side of the classroom.

It wasn’t easy. But, strangely, in looking back at it, I don’t feel that I was singled out particularly. You were either tough or you weren’t, and if you were tough, you teased, if you weren’t you got teased. It didn’t matter for what. For me it was for being a ‘faggot’.

I hated it at the time, being bullied. I felt ashamed and embarrassed, about what they were saying and doing, but as much about my inability to stand up to them, to stop it. I didn’t want mum to know because I didn’t want her to be hurt. I didn’t want anyone to know. I just wanted to sneak in to school late, keep out of everyone’s way at recess and lunch, keep an eye out for any boy who might target me, and then sneak out of the school by some side gate or something. Of course there were times you couldn’t avoid the bullies – in class and on the bus. The bus was the worst, because there were no teachers around. Those times you just had to put up with it.

No other boys wanted me to sit with them on the bus. Not, I think, because they were bullies themselves – some of them were my ‘friends’ if no one was looking – but because I might draw the fire of the bullies and a bit of the teasing might splash off onto them.

One time I remember I had an apple-core thrown at me from the bus as it dropped me at home and pulled away. I don’t know who threw it. It could have been one of many. It hit me on the head and bounced off. Mum was in the yard doing something – I can’t remember what. She didn’t see the apple core hit me, but I felt so awful inside that the bullying had come so close to my home, to being revealed to mum. I didn’t say anything or do anything. I just walked up the drive with apple in my hair.

We were all trying to get by unnoticed, all the boys who weren’t alpha.

It was an existence of stealth, and when that didn’t work, dumb endurance.

We got the Honda 250 when we were a bit older, and of course it had a lot more power which we loved. In the winter the two of us, me driving and my sister on the back, would ride through the overflow of the dam, a large section where the water stretched off into the paddock, not deep enough to go over the top of your gumboot. We’d ride the bike into the middle of the overflow swamp, stop, aim the back wheel at the neighbour’s property, put the front handbrake on, then drop the clutch and spin the back wheel so this massive big arc of mud would spurt out the back and all over the neighbour’s cows.

I find it easier to remember what other people said about me, or what I was teased for, than what I was actually feeling myself. I think back to myself at that time and I don’t for a moment remember thinking about myself, who I was, or what I was. Not really. It was all just about staying out of the way and keeping quiet.

Did I know I was gay? Not really.

Perhaps I was especially naïve, but in my early teens, I honestly and truly believed that every boy at school felt like I felt.

It was the only thing that made sense. I was quite a ‘normal’ kid, from a normal family, and just about every other kid and family were just like mine, or one of a very limited number of variations thereof. And so I thought that all the other ‘normal’ kids felt like I felt, or was beginning to feel. I didn’t question it. I didn’t think that I was different or unusual.

If I thought about gay people, and I guess I must have, given I was teased about being a ‘faggot’, I did it in a way that had nothing to do with me. My ideas were shaped by what I knew, and I knew nothing. In short, I thought that gay men were paedophiles, ‘kiddy fiddlers’, men who dressed as women, or men who had deviant bum sex – and whatever that was, it wasn’t something that a normal kid like me did.

‘Gay’ didn’t exist, in a way – as far as I was aware, it was some sort of deviancy, and I wasn’t a deviant, I was just a quiet country boy.

If I thought about my future, and again I suppose I must have, although I can’t really remember doing so, I imagined that I would go through school, have girlfriends, probably take up a trade, maybe working with my dad, get married, build a house, have my own kids, and then eventually send them to school and start the cycle all over again.

I had a girlfriend in year 11, and we wrote long love letters to each other every night – well, taking it in turns so that we could do homework on the ‘off’ night. And on the few times we could meet up outside school we would walk up and down the main street and sit in the Botanic Gardens and maybe kiss a bit.

I worked with my dad as a labourer on the school holidays.

I thought my life was mapped out.

As I went through high school I began to realise that what I was feeling was not universal, that other boys did not have that same feeling I had about boys.

I had a friend who played basketball. I’d sit on the side-lines watching him practice, minding his stuff, and feel such pangs of pride watching the way he covered the court, and the lanky layups he’d do. He was just a skinny spotty kid with lank brown hair. I thought we were just really good friends for a long time, but then I realised I was a little bit in love with him.

And then, of course, in my mid to late teens, my interest in other boys’ bodies became difficult to ignore. Some of the boys had porno mags, and I’d be interested in looking at the men more than the women. In the change rooms after PE, I’d try to sneak a look at the top alpha guy naked – one of the worst bullies, actually. Naturally he was bigger than the rest of us, stronger, had matured quicker, and had a big cock and a heavy set of balls. He didn’t mind showing it all off, and more than once flashed the girls a brown-eye out the change-room doors with his nutsack swinging between his legs. They screamed and ran away, but I wonder if they loved it as much as I did.

I looked as much as I thought I could get away with, but still I didn’t think of myself as gay, because I had no real frame of reference to understand what that was.

Then, when I was in year 12, we got a gay man as an English teacher.

He was handsome and unmarried, which was instantly sus. The rumour soon went around the schoolyard that he was a ‘poof’ and so it began. Everyone would say rude things about him in the yard, and be as naughty as they could get away with in all his classes. Boys that he paid attention to in class – just normal teacher attention – were singled out at recess, and this boy would be his ‘bum chum’. I was fascinated by him, but at the same time terrified that somehow all this ‘bum chum’ stuff would somehow deflect and land on me.

In the mornings a young man with very yellow peroxided hair and earrings, presumably the English teacher’s boyfriend, would drop him off out the front of the school in a beat up Torana.

One Monday morning – and I remember this very clearly – we were all lined up in our forms on the bitumen basketball courts at the end of A Block. The Headmistress, an old woman with suspiciously black bouffant hair, was standing on the first landing of the external fire-escape and addressing us. I can’t remember what she used to talk about, but I’m pretty sure we would sing Advance Australia Fair. We’d stopped singing God Save the Queen in the 70s.

This one morning, assembly had just got underway when the Torana pulled up at the curb and my English teacher got out. He was late. He slammed the door and walked to his place near his form, and as he did so the peroxided number in the Torana pulled out onto the road, then dropped the clutch, spun the wheels and did a big smoky burn-out. The tail of the car shifted, the tyres bit, and he tore off down the road. We could smell the burnt rubber.

I was shocked at how blatant it all was – in front of the Headmistress no less! – and also elated, as I think any schoolboy is when witnessing misbehaviour that he’s not a part of and is not going to get in trouble for.

My English teacher pretended nothing had happened, just stared up at the Headmistress waiting for her to continue speaking, but a minute or two later I saw him smirking into his polo-neck.

I was good at English and enjoyed his classes. I loved reading and writing and he was the only one of my teachers who had ever really encouraged that. I loved it. He would bring me specific books to read outside the curriculum, and I ate them up.

During my last year of high school we had quite a few new teachers fresh out of college. I presume positions in the city were more sought after and were nabbed by the more experienced teachers. Or maybe the young newbies were sent down to country schools for their first placement as a matter of course. They were so city-ish, slightly punk seeming to me, but then again what did I know about punks? One of them, a woman with an asymmetrical haircut and a whiff of patchouli about her, got a bit tipsy at the school social and pretend-slapped me for some reason, which we all laughed at.

They were all pretty friendly with the students, and would chat if we saw them down the street, or muck around with you if they were on yard duty, talking to you as if you were a contemporary. The English teacher was one of this mob, so I never thought it was at all odd when he invited me to come over to lunch on a Saturday, as I had a book to return to him.

It was summer. I remember I was wearing a teeshirt, a pair of horrible short little Stubbies shorts, and those thongs you used to get back then, the sort that were like liquorice allsorts, black on the top and bottom but with a layer of blue in between. I was a real dag.

I remember he lived in a flat. My family didn’t know anyone who lived in a flat. Everyone we knew lived in a house on a quarter acre block, or on a farm.

He had made lasagne for lunch. There was no sign of the boyfriend. I gave him back the book that I had loaned from him – I can’t remember what it was – maybe The Picture of Dorian Gray or something like that.

And it was fine. The lasagne was nice. He was telling stories and talking about the book and it was all interesting.

But then it happened. I laughed at something he said and accidentally spat a bit of lasagne out of my mouth. It flew out and somehow landed on my foot – my bare foot in those thongs. I was mortified. It was a big gob of food, half chewed. I was so embarrassed. I felt like such a yokel. I could feel my skin burning like anything.

And then I noticed him looking at me. Just looking steadily at me. Right in my eyes.

And for some reason I date my awareness that there was this whole other gay world back to that moment. It was the first moment I realised there was something else going on inside me, and that, in fact, not every other boy felt like I did, and that perhaps the life that I had been brought up to expect, a trade and family and the quarter acre block, my future, was not for me. He looked at me in a way that no other man or boy had ever looked at me before – with desire.

Nothing happened. I probably blushed some more. He looked back down at his lasagne and had another bite. It was a blip and it passed. We finished lunch, and soon after that I went home again.

But I knew something else about myself that day.

I knew that two men might look at each other in that way and that it was something different – something else. From there I began to see that difference in every aspect of myself. I didn’t understand gay life with a blinding flash, but I recognised at that moment that there was something else in me all along. I understood my basketball friend was a crush. I had a name for my desire to look at male anatomy. My awareness dates from that moment.

I guess my English teacher must only have been in his early 20s himself at the time of the lasagne-spit incident. And I must have been, what, 16? It didn’t seem wrong that I was at his house, and it didn’t seem wrong that he looked at me with a sudden undisguised lust, just for a moment. I guess it is a bit wrong given he was my English teacher, but as nothing happened, and as it was the beginning of my self-awareness, I can only think back to it with gratitude.

My English teacher showed me that a gay man could be a regular everyday guy with a regular everyday job, be smart and handsome, well-read and well-spoken. He showed me that a gay man could have a sassy peroxided boyfriend who could drop burnouts. And he gave me a glimpse of something else that was inside me.

I’m incredibly grateful to him, really. He was my only gay role model.

It was only when I left the country town where I had been born, left everything I had grown up with, that I really began to understand myself at all. I went to Uni, discovered all these other gay men, and gay places you could go, came out to my sister (she knew already), had a boyfriend, had lots of sex, fell in love, then fell in love again. All this stuff that I was totally unaware of all through those adolescent years in high school.

When I left home, Dad let me take the Honda 250, and that was my main mode of transport for a year or two. But long trips on the country roads were dangerous and tiring, and a month or so after a close encounter overtaking a semi, I had a bad accident. Well, it wasn’t bad, in that I was barely hurt, but it must have looked incredibly spectacular. A car pulled out in front of me in town. I wasn’t going fast, but I couldn’t do a thing about it. I hit the front wheel and somersaulted across the bonnet and onto my back on the road on the other side of the car.

People ran from everywhere. I was dazed. They helped me get my helmet off, and one kind fellow told me there was a doctor over the road and that I should go over and make sure there wasn’t any damage.

The only damage I was aware of, apart from being a bit shook up, was my balls. I had slid forward into the petrol tank before coming off, and I’d bashed my balls so hard they felt like they were up under my ribcage. I had a thick-throated ache of agony in my guts. I shuffled over to the doctor and he asked if I was hurt.

“Just my balls,” I wheezed.

He took a quick look.

“You’ll be right,” he said.

The Honda 250 was a write-off.

Bio:

Ashley Sievwright is the author of The Shallow End (‘A steady freestyle commentary on sex, celebrity and suntanning’) and Walter.

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