8 August 2016

A listlessness hung from the rising sun. Nearing midday, her eyes still hadn’t fully adjusted from oilblack darkness. Had they been kept pitched by the remaining willpower. Willpower damaged by flecks of that unbearable thought: defeat.

The line twitched forward, sweeping Ella with it.

She became conscious of her slouched shoulders, her stooped stance. She didn’t resist, the passive doldrums taking hold as if to say I have the confidence of an egg.

The swinging crucifix. Bent double over a wooden desk filled with testosterone-induced teenage fantasies, Ella could remember looking up and seeing all the expressions his face allowed. Maybe I could reprogram him, she thought, so his face could let out some affection now and then.

The emptiness of a daydream. The readiness of a fool. The surrender of a cynic.

Battered by reality Ella was inured to it. Now only gently fucked. No surprises.

She had assumed the withdrawn role of Plaything. Of Toy. Warmed up leftovers from his last feeding frenzy. He who taught her functioning hierarchy, an imaginary concept in denial of meaninglessness. Nobody cares if you’re the boss; but he was still the boss.

I want more than this, she had told him, or nothing at all.

What are you talking about? Have you lost your mind? He responds, as always.

Ashamed, she would lower her head and flick peanuts from the lacquered table top, trying to distract from her apology.

Excerpts from the conversation generously distributed over a mechanical thought process. Her days since were marred by her uselessness to generate empathy. Even sympathy today.

pwumm the room would say each time a uniform step was taken by the year level. With that particular pwumm Ella had reached the front of the line. Any minute they would call her name. Her label.

The good times, the sweet nothings came instantly to her. Like the time he had raced her home from the bus stop for reasons she had forgotten now. Laughter, joy, aching legs and a stitch. Now her aching heart, cut swift and pegged to a clothesline like a goonsack with a tear. Drink my fucking love.

Then there was that time she said,

Wanna race home from the bus?

He laid his dead eyes to rest in hers before,

What are you, a fucking child?

He had won all sorts of rounds, games and plays. By the end he only showed genuine care notwithstanding lack of affection when he bent her over that fucking desk.

I love you, she called into the void many times.

Had his cheek not been pierced by a chrome lever, neck snapped as close to instantly as reality allows. Had he not decided to navigate that blind corner with the confidence of a much younger man, she might not have ended up alone. All the worse when the school was mourning the loss of their favourite Media Studies teacher.

Did you know Mr Bennett? Her mother asked on the morning it happened.

No, Ella lied. Why?

The news didn’t bother her, and that bothered her.

Next, a voice called behind the makeshift curtain.

Ella stepped through, breaking from the line.

Sit there, he directed, adjusting his lens. Next he approached her, moving her head with his hands, thumbing her chin, narrowly missing her eyes more than once.

Perfect, he muttered, moving back to behind the camera.

They had considered postponing the school photos to allow the students to recover from the news. The proposed date moved the photos from March 1st to April 1st, but this clashed with several Year 12 excursions. Next they decided to shift it back to March 25th, but the school musical interrupted the photo rooms. Admittedly, they could have chosen several other dates, but that would have required reprinting all photo forms and a late cancellation fee. So March 1st remained.

Tilt your head slightly to the left.

He paused. No, he continued, my left.

The photographer’s upturned nose and constant wince reminded Ella of Him.

Okay, he said flicking two buttons on the camera, not giving her even a remote possibility of eye contact.

Say Collingwood.

Collingwood, Ella mumbled from motionless lips, preserving her deadpan expression.

The photographer’s eyes dragged in a wide circle. Look, Elsie, how about this? his hand hung in the air, palm upwards, like he was asking for her to hand him something. Just say cheese.

The photographer’s hands fastened over the camera once more.

Again the deadpan, Cheese. Lifeless, stolid, like the pastel blue sheet hanging behind her.

Like Mr Bennett after he came; a rapid burst of juddering before collapse crushing the air from Ella. Stillness, which smelled like sex. The chrome lever entering flesh, stinging at first, easing into place. Thrusting, thrashing, collapse. Stillness. A peremptory grunt, the final signal of life, the wound too deep and severe to heal itself now. Semen and blood, holy vessels of life. Now in suspended animation.

All right, the photographer gave a clap, just smile.

Ella nodded and her mouth formed a crescent of sorts, the corners of her lips elevated. As they rose into place, her cheeks shook, strained. Her eyebrows rose slightly and the paint began to crack. A jagged square from her cheek broke off to the ground and branches sprung over her nose, mouth, eyes and forehead. A rusty whine whistled through her pores, and much like strings snapping from a tightly wound guitar, strands of paint peeled from the slowing machinery of Ella’s face.

Perfect, the photographer grinned, snapping the curtain open for all the denizens of the school to see. Eyes grew and melted overlapped in a tired haze. The photographer pawed for the camera unable to look away. He smiled. This is the best one yet.


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