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Chapter 16: The Red God Rage
By Doug Posted in Term 3 on July 11, 2019 0 Comments 10 min read
Chapter 15: Full Contact Sport Previous Chapter 17: Who You Are is Where You Are Next

The year is compressing, gathering itself into a final spring into the unknown, and it feels as if bonds are loosening, fraying. I remember the end of my school year, that bittersweetness, as we sang, tipsy, at someone’s 18th, singing Green Day’s Time of Your Life – another country’s anthem of the moment we’d appropriated, and one that has not aged well. Spurred on by the energy of the kids, I bound down the steps at the school when I arrive next only to hear Michelle gasp. “Sir! You’re not as old as you look.” Thanks, I mutter. The women who work at a prominent AFL club have been here today, talking about female power in male clubs at Bree’s Girl’s Club. She’s walking on air. “So inspirational,” she gushes. “To see powerful women in the flesh…”

Paul, too, is airborne, readying himself for a holiday trip back to Malaysia. That floating life, reasserting itself. “Cos he’s a rich bastard,” Aadan interjects, earning an awkward grin. Zahi jumps on: “He’s a Rockefeller – you know, the guy who had three heart transplants and lived to 100.” Three, I say, sceptical, and Zahi nods like it’s God’s own truth. I look it up later and see the Rockefeller factoid was a piece of satire that, through internet alchemy, later turned into rolled-gold fact, a fact people like to believe because it affirms something gut-true, that rich people are horrible. My own was a dinner party faux pas when I trotted out the claim that Aborigines were counted as fauna until the 1967 Referendum, to make a point about white forgetting or something else very inner-city, only to have a sceptical mate fact-check me there and then on Google and prove me egregiously wrong. 

At the Horn table, the daily skewering of all sacred cows goes on. Play, play, play. But this time, it seems, the giddiness of an ending means boundaries are being crossed, because Aadan is asking how much Paul gets for his weekly allowance, a pointed barb. Paul dithers, decides to answer directly. “$600,” he admits. There’s a sudden hush. Aadan falls into a reverie while he tallies up what that is per year. “What the fuck bro,” he says, after a pause. “What the fuck.” Michelle chimes in. “Wallahi, that’s my whole family’s Centrelink!”

“What? You asked,” Paul says, on the defensive. He casts a glance around the room, looking for allies, settles on Marco. “Marco gets the same as me.” Marco – a quiet Italian, parents from the global class – doesn’t like this attention, shrugs it off. Aadan grins. “But that guy is humble.”

Now Zahi jumps in. “You going to pray in Malaysia,” he asks, a raised eyebrow. “Five times daily,” Paul says. Zahi scoffs. “Lying is a SIN,” he says, and Paul grins heartily. I breathe a sigh of relief. The moment of unease, my middle class hackles raised at the hint that Awkward Truths Lay Ahead.

But then I hear Paul telling Zahi to shut up, quite loudly, and I tune back in. “Money doesn’t matter in life,” he’s saying. “But things matter.” He’s still got a half-smile, as if he knows how it sounds, to say fashion and good food and nice apartments – they’re what matters. He tries again. “If I had no money, I wouldn’t care as long as I had my health, family and friends.”

I try to intervene by asking what Paul has planned in Malaysia. But I only inflame things further. “I’m gonna get my ears pieced,” he says proudly. He’s no doubt thinking of the jewellery pairing options. Aadan whoops. “Ear piercings! That’s lady business. Only girls pierce themselves.”

Paul, calm: “You don’t like it? But I’d look hot.” Aadan scoffs. “You faggot. You would not. You Yes voter.”

It’s a month out from Decide if Gays Can Get Married Like Heteros, and the surveys are arriving daily. Progressive, wealthy Paul is openly shocked. “So tell us – are you voting yes or no,” Aadan asks. “I’m voting yes,” Paul says, defiant. “Are you?” “No! Why would I want to see two guys kissing on the block,” Aadan says.

I catch a glint in his eye and figure he’s trolling for a reaction. Paul sees it and laughs. But Zahi is the true surprise. He bites down hard on the bait. “I’m voting no. I’m offended by it,” he says, a note of stifled anger.

“You don’t get a call on that,” Paul says, striving for calm. Zahi’s in no mood for conciliation. His face contorts with disgust. “This guy must be gay, why else would he be offended by that?” There’s a long ooooo from the girls, who are watching avidly, home-made drama right there.

And then Paul ventures too far. “You’re on a humanitarian visa. How can you vote no?” At this, the African boys reel. Their shared religion, shared minority status – all ripped away, and all that’s left is a new divide, progressive elites versus the rest. Aadan is in first. “What the fuck cuz. I was born here. Were you? I’m more Australian than you.”

Paul, curdled rage: “Do I deny that? But why would you, as an immigrant, vote no?”

Aadan scoffs. “Don’t assume how I vote. I’ll vote Greens or Labor, screw the Libs. And I’m voting yes – it’s no difference to me. One in ten niggas are gay, right?” Michelle chimes in, trying to dampen the building tension. “I’m voting yes too,” she says.

But all interventions are too late. Zahi is muttering to Paul. His anger is a quiet, scary thing, the more because he’s usually so affable. But this – the claim that because he’s a migrant means he has to kowtow to progressive causes – has enraged him. He’s muttering that Paul is not a true Muslim, that real Muslims oppose homosexuality.

Paul shakes his head violently. His own rage builds. “Shut the fuck up about religion, you dumb bastard. Have I ever said anything to you about it? Islam is a broad religion.”

From there, the conversation gets lower, quieter, nastier, the barbs more pointed, dropping into red-god-rage, as the two mock each others girlfriends. Paul – eyes stark in his face, teetering on the moral high ground. Marco is laughing awkwardly, the girls for once silent, and at last, Zahi rears up, points at Paul, and asks him in a surprisingly courtly voice, to step this way, step outside.

Aadan moves in. “Come on cuz, leave it,” he says, but Zahi can’t hear anything with the blood pulsing in his ears. And Paul – Paul just walks away, face red, eyes wide and unblinking. Fighting is far too undignified. And now – as friends intervene – the two seek solace in screens at the opposite ends of their tables, frantically typing to friends about The Other One.

As the VCE kids move off to class, Aadan lingers to ensure nothing breaks out. “Well that went from roasting to fighting quickly,” he says to me. I stay another moment in the empty room, trying to catch my breath, feeling disheartened. The gulf yawning between people. And – if I’m honest – my own inner-city elitist bullshit took a blow. Here’s me wanting everyone to think the same. Isn’t gay marriage a self-evident good thing? Who does it hurt?

Outside the school, I see Paul walking stiffly towards the bus stop. He’d nearly made it through the year as a hovering observer, drawing entertainment from the banter and bickering and tensions. But today, his invisible armour was breached. Today, he was  pulled down to where everyone else lives.

The Knot of the Year

I’m nervous when I come in two days later. The bitterness of the fight, the intensity of feeling – it feels like this episode won’t simply reset, that grudges will be held. But yet again, the school surprises me. It feels like a carnival. Everyone in casual clothes, the last week of term, the last long term of Year 12. I wander the halls. With everyone out of uniform, you can easily see the traditional/Westernised split for the Muslim girls – hijabs versus leggings. The knot of the year is almost undone.

And in the common room, Zahi sits like a princeling, holding court with the Horn boys. No girls to be seen. I glance around, baffled. Of course – Paul has flown to safety in Malaysia, a well-timed holiday. And with his rival exiled, Zahi has taken centre stage – even if he did manage to turn up to a casual day in uniform – “I remembered half-way here,” he admits. Now he grills Kevin about sex. “You done it?” he asks. Kevin, lounging as always. “Nah.” Zahi frowns. “But you had a girlfriend in the States, right?” Kevin evades deftly. “That’s my private business,” he says. Zahi gives up. Instead he makes an announcement. “It’s 2017 – the year of sex,” he booms. “Tinder, Bumble, everything.”

Hang on – what about your girlfriend? He grimaces. “Didn’t last. She’s already been with two other guys.” He rubs his head unconsciously. His hair – shaved for her approval – is at the stubbly itchy stage of regrowth. He boasts of his options, of how his aunties and uncles send him messages on WhatsApp, saying he could get married now in Somalia if he wants. Do you want to get married, I ask. He grimaces. “Nuh. Year. Of. Sex.”

Amelia has done Kevin’s hair in a style borrowed from the Vikings Netflix series, half his scalp wrapped into a long tight cornrow, half left springy. The Viet boys come over to inspect Kevin’s latest remodelling. While everyone is distracted, I ask Zahi about the fight’s aftermath. He snorts. “Man, Paul was being racist. That humanitarian visa stuff? And then bringing up my private affairs in front of the girls. Talking about my ex girlfriend. And he wouldn’t step outside. I knew he wouldn’t. It showed he had no balls.”

Marco is listening in, grinning. “Take Marco,” Paul says, nodding at him. “He jokes around, but if he talks shit, he means it. He’d step outside with me. He’s a man.”  All eyes on Marco, who shifts uncomfortably. Aadan notices his pristine white designer sneakers – easily a thousand dollars. “Why’d Marco come to this school though, with those shoes?” “I’ll tell you why,” Zahi says, reclaiming the spotlight. “To flex on people. To stomp on us.” Chameleon whiteboy Kevin jumps on. “Look at my shoes,” he says, raising worn leather. “Marco wants to think he’s better than us, but he’s not.” Marco isn’t enjoying the attention. He prefers a quiet life in the background. Seeing this, his mates relent. “Well, Marco is a rich prick. But he doesn’t flex like Paul,” Zahi says.

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