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  • Published: 17 March 2020
  • ISBN: 9780143789628
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $32.99

The Origin of Me

Extract

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According to family lore, exactly forty weeks after my father won the prestigious and fiercely contested GravyLog® Pet Food account for his advertising agency, I was born. Whether his victory had inspired the little guys to swim harder or it had more to do with the favourable new position my parents had found themselves in is a disputed element of the story. But the date of my birth is not. It was the twelfth of February, the same day that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. I know – incredible. Three illustrious figures sharing a birthday. My parents couldn’t decide between Abe and Charlie, so they settled on Lincoln.

On the origin of the little brown spot, I’m more dubious. I’d neither seen nor felt the thing at the base of my spine before turning fifteen last year, but when I visited Dr Finster he said it was a birthmark. I wasn’t about to ask my mother if it had always been there. She would’ve asked for a look. The doctor reassured me the matter would remain strictly confidential, and urged me to return if I noticed any changes. Over the following months, its development was gradual enough to deny . . . until late last year, when my first and only girlfriend, Nicole Parker, inadvertently touched the tiny nub. Her crushing reaction set off a series of events that resulted in me being torn from my old public school on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and transplanted into a private institution in the Eastern Suburbs.

Today marks the end of my first week at

CRESTFIELD ACADEMY FOR
THE EXCEEDINGLY GIFTED AND
DANGEROUSLY PRIVILEGED

If Aunty Beryl filled her tank with unleaded petrol at $1.65 a litre and stopped once on her way from Sydney to Dubbo, how much would it cost Uncle Barry to reach Coonabarabran if he drove twice as fast in his V8?

Today Mr Monaro wrote that and nine other absurdly challenging questions on the board and barred us from leaving until we’d solved them. All I could think about was the fact that Uncle Barry wasn’t helping to reduce global warming. I chewed my pen and waited for inspiration. Nothing came except the taste of ink, so I prayed for a small natural disaster to pull me out of the room. The answer arrived in the form of Tibor Mintz, who’d been performing the role of my personal Orientation Buddy with excessive enthusiasm all week.

He approached Monaro and whispered something behind a cupped hand. Monaro nodded and tilted his head away, obviously not enjoying Mintz’s breath humidifying his ear canal. Mintz scanned the room, sucked air between his disorganised teeth and said, ‘Lincoln Locke. You had an appointment with the school psychologist Dr Limberg in Student Welfare at fourteen hundred sharp. The time is currently fourteen twelve.’

The guys up the back laughed. I stashed away my junk and made a snappy exit – though not snappy enough to evade Mintz, who was waiting in the hall outside.

‘Thanks for that,’ I said, thrilled at having mental instability conferred on me in front of my new classmates.

‘Would you like me to escort you to Student Welfare?’ ‘You’ve helped enough already.’ I turned and headed off.

‘Wrong way!’ he called out, but I kept walking till I was out of his sight then checked the school map on my phone. Let me get this straight: Crestfield is a maze, I’m the new lab rat, and Limberg . . .? Well, you get the picture. Only problem being, this little rodent wasn’t hungry for cheese.

Student Welfare was not some poky room in the admin block but an entirely separate wing accessed by the HALL OF CHAMPIONS, an inclined passageway hung with black-and-white blow-ups of students performing sporting feats. The first was a runner breaking through a finish tape; next was a back-arching high-jumper, then a Becks look-alike demonstrating his ball skills. All were blond except for the final student, a backstroker with a shaved head about to release himself from his starting block, snarling with dental perfection. Above the shots on one side was a blue banner with gold lettering that said, AUDE ALIQUID DIGNUM. And on the other, a banner with the translation: DARE SOMETHING WORTHY. Frankly it was all a bit too Leni Riefenstahl for my liking. I watched her film Olympia in History last year – epic but with sinister overtones.

The sound of pan pipes, rushing water and assorted bird calls greeted me at Student Welfare. The carpet and three of the walls were moss green; the fourth was papered over with an enormous rainforest print, with the word

B R E A T H E

superimposed on it. The receptionist sat beneath, following the instruction but not doing much else. She was wearing a natty cape and a cap with a red cross on it, the kind of gear a kid playing hospital might wear. In the centre of the room was a massive fish tank surrounded by leather sofas, one of which was occupied by a miserable squirt with a precision bowl cut.

‘Lincoln Locke?’ the receptionist said.

‘That’s me.’ Approaching the counter, I realised that except for the thick-framed glasses, which curiously had no lenses, she looked very much like one of my classmates, Isa Mount-something, who’d been absent from Maths.

‘You’re twenty-five minutes late. Take a seat. The doctor will be with you shortly.’

Instead of sitting, I checked out the fish: three big silvers and one small pink guy hovering near the coral. Whenever the silvers approached, the pink guy took refuge in a miniature ruined castle. I tapped the glass to say hello, accidentally causing him to dart into open water. The big silvers surrounded him and nipped at his tail. I rapped the glass again and they swam away, but it was too late. Little Pinky was paralysed and started to sink.

The receptionist was throwing me a stink eye, so I sat and perused an old copy of the school magazine, E X C E L S I O R! Crestfield’s first eleven had won the cricket, and Alakazam Smallgoods was sponsoring the jazz band’s trip to Tasmania. Exciting times – free cabanossi for the horn section! I pulled out my leaking pen to have a crack at the cryptic crossword.

1 Across: Brad idly arranged insect displays (8 letters). So . . . Brad’s a lazy entomologist, but that has twelve letters. I read all the across clues and none of them made a lick of sense, then the sick kid next to me started rocking and whimpering, obviously in dire need of distraction from his pain. So I said, ‘Pssst, kid! I think I might’ve killed that pink fish.’

His head sank between his knees, and he groaned.

‘Please don’t upset the other patient,’ the receptionist said.

‘I wouldn’t classify myself as a patient,’ I said. ‘I’m just here to—’

‘He killed the fish!’ the kid blabbed.

‘Don’t worry, Byron. He’s just in shock,’ the receptionist said.

‘Poet or parents’ preferred holiday destination?’ I whispered.

Kid didn’t answer.

A lady in a cream suit and a powder-blue shirt came out of her room, spoke briefly to the fake nurse/receptionist then turned to me and said, ‘Hello, you must be Lincoln. I’m Dr Marion Limberg. Please follow.’ Rectangular glasses, shiny black bun, slight European accent – she could’ve been an SBS presenter.

Her room was mostly white, with monochrome farm photos and frosted windows, vast white desk, iMac, potted white orchid and a scent diffuser producing a fine mist that smelt of lavender and something woody. ‘Would you like some water?’ she said. ‘It’s filtered.’

‘No, thank you. Am I in trouble?’

‘Of course not.’ She leant forward, steepling her pinkies. ‘It’s customary for new students to receive a personal introduction to our counselling services. You’ll come across many exciting challenges on the road ahead, and we’re here to help you. Crestfield Academy is so much more than a school, Lincoln. We’re your second family.’ She handed me a tissue.

‘Thanks, but I won’t be needing that.’

‘There’s ink on your face.’

I wiped my mouth and checked the stained tissue. ‘Wow! It looks like a map of New Guinea.’ I showed her and she almost smiled.

‘Interesting observation – perceptive. Perhaps we could do a small exercise? When I hold up the image, tell me what you see – whatever pops into your mind.’ She pulled a card from the drawer then checked her watch. ‘I hope you don’t mind me recording the session for later analysis?’ I shrugged. She tapped her phone and placed it between us. ‘Subject: Lincoln Locke. Visual recognition: level three. Commencing two-forty.’ She flipped the card to reveal a black-and-white graphic. ‘What do you see?’

‘A sad Japanese princess blowing a kiss.’

‘Anything else?’

‘The head of a praying mantis, or maybe a space alien. A frying egg and an eight ball. Could I please hold the card?’

‘Certainly . . .’ She craned her head towards the phone. ‘Subject now revolving card.’

‘A pirate’s been shot in the head. Or is that King Henry?’

‘There are no correct or incorrect answers.’

‘There’s a rabbit and a chicken laying an egg.’ I didn’t mention the underpants in case it revealed some latent fetish.

‘Anything else? Anything at all?’

‘Underpants?’

‘Thank you.’ She returned the card to the drawer. ‘So, your parents have separated and you’re currently living with your father?’

‘Did you glean that from my answers?’

‘The information was in the student profile questionnaire they completed. Here at Crestfield, we take a holistic approach to our students’ wellbeing. We encourage parents to be actively involved in their children’s schooling.’

‘My parents run their own businesses, so don’t expect to see my mother making devon sandwiches in the canteen.’

‘The school café doesn’t use processed meat.’

‘But Alakazam Smallgoods sponsors the jazz band.’

Limberg frowned and wrote something in a folder – possibly ‘combative smartarse’.

‘Do you ever experience feelings of animosity towards your parents?’

‘Never,’ I said, denial curling my top lip.

My mind raced back to midway through last year. Following months of sniping and standoffs that had culminated in the perfect shitstorm of my mother’s fiftieth birthday, my parents began a trial in-house separation. Intended to foster a calmer atmosphere for my sister Venn’s HSC preparation, it only made the place crackle with unresolved tension. And not wanting to exclude me from exam thrills, they made me sit the Crestfield Academy entrance test – six gruelling hours. I gave it a good shot, never thinking I could possibly make the grade.

Checking the mailbox a couple of months later, I found a bulky envelope addressed to me with AUDE ALIQUID DIGNUM in gold on the corner. I tore it open and read that I’d been offered an interview at one of the most well-equipped, academically prestigious and sportingly competitive schools in the state. Terrified at the prospect of going there, I took the letter out the back and set it on fire. Valmay Harris, our next-door neighbour, stuck her head over the fence and asked whether I was burning something.

‘No,’ I said, clapping the embers out. I thought I was in the clear until a few weeks later, when the school rang to find out why there’d been no response. Dad asked if I’d seen the letter and I lied.

In that moment, the bitter seed of deception embedded itself in the soft pink tissue of my heart. Till that point in my life I’d been scrupulously honest with my parents, even when they confronted me about smoking grass. And that hadn’t even been pot – just lawn clippings wrapped in a banana leaf, which was more humiliating. It wasn’t so much the act of lying about the letter that bothered me as my father believing the lie. Even worse, I knew that my grandfather, Pop Locke, who used to be a postie, would’ve been mortified that I’d tampered with the mail – a federal offence if it hadn’t been addressed to me.

In August I’d been interviewed at Crestfield, and a month later was offered a place in Year 10, which surprised me more than it did my parents. They’d still have to pay full fees, but, as they constantly reminded me, they could afford it, and only seven students were being given the opportunity. The idea of being separated from my mates to go to a school on the other side of the bridge prompted an immediate no. Dad told me to mull it over. In October he moved out of the family home at Signal Bay and into his recently vacated investment apartment in the city. The actual geographic separation of my parents after twenty-five years together, though incredibly sad, palpably reduced tension in the family home.

Now to explain my ex-girlfriend’s pivotal role in this chain of events: Nicole Parker was a committed Christian who, having made some sort of personal purity vow, restricted our level of physical contact to handholding and the occasional snuggle, which drove my sexual tension to unbearable levels. Over the following months I progressed from casual to excessive masturbation, judging by the level of skin irritation and, on one occasion, actual bleeding.

One night, at the height of my frustration and despondency, I went alone to a party at my best friend Tom’s place behind Avalon Beach. Nicole unexpectedly showed up and, even more surprisingly, we had our first kiss. It was incredible, but in the excitement she slid her hand down my back and touched the nub, which was by then slightly hairy. Nicole’s abject revulsion and swift departure propelled me into my first drinking binge with enough determination to obliterate myself.

At 2 am, my sister Venn found me facedown, unconscious and soaking wet, near the water’s edge. The next morning, Mum banned me from any further association with Tom and his brother Blake, even though we’d been best friends for ten years, gone to the same schools, rode the same waves – and they’d had nothing to do with my blackout. Following a massive argument, she called Dad to settle the matter. They decided that at the beginning of the next school year I would attend Crestfield Academy and live with him during the week.

So yes, Dr Limberg was right on the money. There was a degree of residual animosity towards my parents for sending me there.

‘Have your fellow students been welcoming?’ she said.

‘Bent over backwards.’

‘According to some feedback, this week you’ve spent almost every recess and lunchtime alone in the library.’

‘Are we under video surveillance or something?’

‘Mrs Deacon, our head librarian, noticed you sitting alone on consecutive days. She logged her observations on The Owl, the faculty network and student monitoring system, which automatically sent me a Hoot. Lincoln, why do you think you’ve been isolating yourself?’

At that moment, a ladybird landed on Dr Limberg’s lapel. I have no recollection of my reply, other than evasive rambling, because I was focused on the insect taking the scenic route towards her neck, its orange-and-black markings a dramatic contrast to the cream material. It disappeared over the lip then re-emerged on her shirt collar. I didn’t warn her because I wanted to see how far the ladybird could get before she felt it.

‘There’s a lot going on in that head of yours. Experiencing anxiety is a natural response to all of your big changes. But I have a feeling there’s something else really bothering you.’

I felt a distinct, almost electric tingle in the nub that made me flinch – as if it wanted to claim responsibility.

‘Please be assured that you can tell me about anything at all and it will remain confidential.’

‘There’s nothing I can think of.’ Again the tingle and flinch.

‘I’d like to see you in a month’s time, just to touch base.’

Bad choice of words. ‘But I don’t have to?’

‘Coming under duress would be counterproductive – ooh!’ This time Dr Limberg flinched. She reached to her neck and brought the tiny insect close to her face. ‘Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home! Your house is on fire, your children are gone.’ She blew the bug onto the white orchid.

‘It’s after three-thirty. Can I go now?’

‘Of course.’

A ladybird is supposed to be a sign of good luck, but that nursery rhyme was hardly brimming with optimism for the little bug’s future.


The Origin of Me Bernard Gallate

A beguilingly original and satirical debut novel of friendships, imagination, and the bodies we live in

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