I'd just started high school, which was an old boy’s boarding school in the process of becoming a co-educational day school. At this stage, there are still boarders, and it’s still boys only, but most of the students are day students. Because of its boarding school origins, there’s a lunch hall with different cafeteria food every day – awful pizza, nachos with beef still pink, pies replete with pig’s anus, all washed down with washed down cordial.
I’d stopped eating lunch several years earlier, in year four. I’d previously eaten gherkin sandwiches each day, taken to school in a white plastic lunchbox, but the teachers had told us that “If you don’t eat your crusts, you won’t get curly hair”. The only kid with curly hair was Joshua, and he was a terrible bully who once put his hands around my throat for touching his hat. I hadn’t touched his hat. The conversation went like this:
“Why’d you touch my hat?”
“Then how come Dan said you did?”
“I don’t know.”
In kinder, Joshua had pushed my friend Nathan into the trough into the boys toilets and pissed on him. Needless to say, I didn’t want curly hair, so I stopped eating my crusts. I was embarrassed about it, so I ate the sandwiches with my face pushed down all the way into my lunchbox so no-one would see, then put the lid on before hiding the lunchbox back in my bag. My mum got mad at how much wastage this was, and started to cut the crusts off thinly. This made me MORE embarrassed, so I stopped eating lunch altogether, for the ten years.
At the new school my mum wanted me to try lunch again in the lunch room, so I did, and it was awful, so I quickly stopped going into the lunchroom to eat, waiting instead outside for the other boys to finish so we could carry on our lunchtime shenanigans. Very few boys brought their own lunch, but some sat down outside, including Danny, a shy but kind boy, the sort to be a good friend. Unpretentious and interested in fishing. He sat on the tiled area above the park, and ate his lunch, and I’d sit near and not eat my no lunch. I was shy too, so for many lunches we didn’t speak, just existed in the same space. One lunch, the conversation went like this:
That continued for a week or two, and eventually we actually had a conversation and made friends. My friend from primary school, Ryan, joined us after he ate. Andrew A and Pat both knew Danny, and they spent lunch here too. Ryan’s friend Andrew T started coming. Tim and Peter and Tippo eventually drifted in, and finally, a year later and after the school admitted girls, new kid Chris Goff became one of us. We were a bona-fide clique.
Every clique needed a spot, the spot you eat lunch at, and the tiled area above the park was ours. Intra-clique feuds and drama ensued, and parts of the clique would drift away or try to find a new spot, and the others who were mostly their friends would follow, and the spot would migrate. First, from the bottom of the tiled area to the top of the stairs at the same tiled area. From the tiles to the footpath next to it. From the footpath to the other nearby park. To the concrete area across from the park, where we span coins in the game knuckles until we all had scars. Eventually, the group crossed the road to yet another park, the one with the bench chairs above the tennis courts, near a grassy spot where we played rough-and-tumble games of FalconBall and on Wednesdays, “Beat up Swift Day”.
This park had a concrete slab, bolted to it, two park benches, facing each other at conversation distance. We sat here and talked a lot. One day, Pat (who was fat, even his name rhymed with fat) went to the tuckshop and bought $5 of raspberry straps and came over and started handed them out to everyone in the group and even everyone in the year. A few minutes later, Mr. Colles came over.
In the library there was a Macquarie dictionary, and if you looked up the word “Fuckhead” someone had written “Mr. Colles” next to it, and we all thought he was a fuckhead. Next to the word “Fuckable” someone wrote “Ms. Rogers”, the librarian, and we all thought she was fuckable.
Anyway, Mr. Colles comes over and tells Pat he can’t buy $5 of Raspberry straps, and he takes them away, and doesn’t even give him his $5 back, which is 100% unmitigated bullshit because a) that was his money, b) he was sharing them with everyone, not even eating many himself and c) that was a lot of money to just take from a kid.
A few days later, Pat bought a chocolate bar from the tuckshop and ate it on the concrete patch with the benches, and some of it fell off while he was eating it. It was summer, and over the summer break that patch of chocolate melted and reformed many times, forming a hard crust.
There was a kid called Lucas, who sometimes got nosebleeds, and one day he was hanging out with us, and he had a nosebleed on the concrete patch with the benches, right where the chocolate was. After it dried, Peter and Pat stomped on it and it formed a co-mingled hardened crust with the chocolate, that didn’t even go away in the rain. We called this the “Lucas-crust”.
We invented another rough-and-tumble game, “The Machine”. Six boys would sit on the two park benches, and the challenger would declare a level, then walk through, in-between them. At level 0, the sitting boys would say insults. At level 1, gentle strokes, which was somehow worse than any other level. At level 1, soft punches. Each time you beat a level, you were allowed to pick a level higher, and each higher level, the higher the assault, the stronger the punches. At level 5 you could kick as well as punch. At level 11, you could pull the challenger back in the machine to prevent them escaping, and hit them more. Theoretically, the highest level was 20.
One day, Tim decided to challenge The Machine on level 16, the highest anyone had got. He endured the punches. He weathered the kicks. He passed two boys, four. Nearing the end of the gauntlet, he was almost home free.
It was past level 11, so pull-back was in effect. Tim made a run for it – his leg grabbed, pulled back. Tim fell, almost flat on his face. His hands caught him, but now he couldn’t block the next attack. Someone grabbed him, pushed his face down – he had fallen right above the Lucas-Crust. “Noooo!” Tim screamed, but there was no mercy in the machine.
His head was pushed down, into the Lucas-Crust. He tried to hold his breath and closed his mouth. The Machine rubbed back and forth across the concrete, his skin ablating on the concrete, his own blood now mixing with that of Lucas and the chocolate. Afterwards, he went silent and unmoving.
We didn’t play The Machine again after that.