First published in Studio: A Journal of Christians Writing, Issue 142,  Exhibition Award Winning Prose
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I called him God. I didn’t imagine he was an old man in the sky with a white beard, but he was the one teacher who instilled in me a sense of awe. When we had finished our work on Henry IV or Wordsworth’s poetry, God would tell us little anecdotes of his life and we would piece together some of his life. God was a man of consistency. Every day he wore, as convention and the school demanded, a white shirt and tie. According to God, his tie was ochre-coloured. We thought it had been dipped in a can of tomato soup.
He had competed at least once in the Olympics, because we had heard from the Headmaster how God had won Gold in the hurdles. It was fitting that we learned that not from God, but from the Headmaster, who wanted to hold God up to us boys as an inspiring example. No, what we heard from God was not the crass business of winning but the heavy feel of competing: the determination in the heart, the wind in the hair, the solidity of the wooden hurdles when your running shoe clipped one, and the leaden feel in the shins when you have exhausted the lactose in your muscles, and lie panting for life on the track-side turf.
This is what God talked about, and sharing a room in the Olympic Village with John Landy, and the great miler’s bleak depression after winning the famous race in Melbourne during which Landy had gone back to check on the fallen Ron Clarke. And about Maria, his first wife, whom God met in a Rome night-club during the 1960 Olympics, and brought back to marry in Australia over her father’s strong opposition. God told us, in moments of candour, how happy he and Maria had been together, and even about the grief they felt at not being able to have children. Such intimacies to be shared with teenage boys!
God knew, I think, about our family, my Mum and me living in a cramped caravan on the edge of town. God knew, or suspected, the extent of Mum’s drinking, her total lack of house-work and the days when there was nothing for me to eat. He found me in the library one lunch-time where I had gone to hide rather than open an empty lunch box in front of other boys.
‘It’s alright,’ he said gently, ‘I’ll get you something,’ and five minutes later he returned with a chicken sandwich. I’m sure it was half his lunch. ‘You can’t eat in here,’ he said, ‘Take it outside to the lunch area.’ I turned to ask, or say thanks, or something, but he shooed me out with a wave of his hand.
In Grade 12, I was 17 and living in the squalid caravan mainly on my own. My mother had met a bloke from the eastern wheat-belt, and her interest lay more there than with her son at home. I convinced myself I cared nothing for my mother. She did make sure I had money most weeks (I suspect now it was Brian’s money, not hers), so I budgeted for food, carefully saving any money left over for the weeks when Mum didn’t show up.
I began to take school more seriously. I knew that I would have to pass English, God’s subject: the other subjects not so important, because University entrance that year required English and any four subjects.
Sadly, I didn’t have God for English that year. Miss Peters was a new teacher, and I couldn’t tune into her approach which she called Higher Criticism.
One morning I went to the teachers’ room and asked for God.
‘Mr Cross left some weeks ago, Thackrah.’ The Deputy Headmaster, like most teachers, called me by my last name. He went to close the door. I pushed back on the door.
‘When will he be back?’ I asked.
‘He’s not coming back,’ replied the Deputy.
‘At all?’ I stuttered.
The door closed as I stood there, the chill July wind at my back. I tried to think. How would I get through the year without God?
I knocked again.
‘You again,’ said the same Deputy, irritated.
‘Where – where can I find him?’ I asked, ‘Where did he go?’
The Deputy shrugged, then decided to take me into his confidence.
‘Nobody knows, Thackrah. He failed to come into school three weeks ago. We tried to contact him at his home, but he was missing, gone.’
The Deputy saw the expression on my face.
‘Sorry,’ he said, and shut the door again.
Through the wooden panels, I could hear him laughing merrily at some joke.
I went away stunned. I had counted on God being there. He made the shit world I lived in okay. God gave me a reason to hope, to look forward to making something of my life. Now I felt like I had when Dad died; a sadness, and an emptiness scraping my insides.
I couldn’t face school any more that day. I went back to the cramped caravan. I dug out from my biscuit tin the $50 I had been saving. At the train station, I bought a one-way ticket to Perth.
In Perth, I wandered aimlessly. The first night I slept near the train station on the steps of the G.P.O. They were cold and hard. I think I slept for only half an hour. A guy sleeping nearby offered me a tablet ‘to get through the night’. It helped. The next night I bought another. My $50 was gone. I walked over the Causeway to Victoria Park. I scavenged food from rubbish bins behind the supermarkets. I could just exist on the bread, fruit and vegetables I foraged. I was bashed several times, breaking my upper jaw bone and having my lacerated lips sewn up at Royal Perth Hospital. I lost track of days. I was living day to day like a wild animal. It was frightening, depressing and lonely. I had no reason to go on; and insufficient reason to end it. The tablets, when I could get one, made life almost bearable, but I needed two, then three, to get the same effect.
Then one day – it must have been six months after I arrived in Perth, because it was so hot and dry the bitumen paving crackled – one day when little kids played in the water-feature at Elizabeth Quay and their delighted peals of laughter were the only sign of life in the city, I had my few possessions wrapped in an Anglicare blanket and slung swag-like over my shoulder. My shorts were dirty. My torn T-shirt smelled. My thongs were cracked, but I needed them to protect my feet from the heat of the pavement. I dragged one foot after the other, so weary that my thongs sometimes caught against the cracks in the footpath. I was using all my energy just to walk down Barrack Street towards the river. One foot after the other. No lactose in my muscles. I felt drained and exhausted – every muscle ached. There was no juice in my legs. I wanted to lie down on the grass in the Supreme Court gardens, sleep and never wake. God, I wanted to die.
‘It will be alright, Brett.’
At first, I thought God’s voice was coming from high in a tree, then I saw him. He was standing on ground higher than where I was. He must have recognised me, and his face showed deep concern. He was dressed as for school with white shirt and his orange striped tie. I reached out to touch him, to check he wasn’t a heat mirage. I fell to the ground at his feet. It will be alright, Brett, a voice said in my head. God, missing; but I had re-connected.