In a minute, I was going to leave my room and go downstairs to the college lounge, and listen to Martin tell Cameron, Eddie and the other guy with the glasses about the secret of the Dark Elves in our Dungeons & Dragons game. I didn’t know what he was going to say yet, because he wouldn’t tell me when I asked him. It’s what they hadn’t understood about Dark Elves all along.
I just had to wait until next meeting, like everyone else. That was what he said, when I was walking backwards up the stairs in front of him and asking him about it. I kept getting in his way. The carpet on the stairs had jagged red swirls that could have been fire coming out of the mouth of a dragon.
As he looked up at me, his stigmatism gave a little wobble under his glasses. ‘I’m not going to tell you, so give up already,’ he said.
Then when we got to Floor 2, he half picked me up around the shoulders and shunted me out of the way. He was a Judo black belt and built like a tree trunk. His various theme t-shirts rode his middle like a whisky bottle stuck in a too-small paper bag.
‘What if I already know?’ I yelled after him.
‘I doubt it,’ he yelled back, the light glinting off his glasses as he went in his door.
That was two weeks ago. In a minute I was going downstairs finally to hear about the Dark Elves, but right now I was snapping my hair clip open and settling it properly on my head. Now I was popping a pore on my nose, and wiping my fingernail on a tissue.
My college room was an off-white box, no cornices. Or maybe it used to be white and it got dirty. It had chocolate-coloured floorboards. Stuff that I liked was stuck on the walls: a poster of the aphorisms of Yoda; the woodcut of the fourth day of creation from the Nuremberg Chronicle; a Tolkien calendar; a photo of my cat; a photo of my littlest brother when he was knee-high, in a blue tracksuit; and a Garfield cartoon.
Behind me in the mirror was a piece of the sky over north campus—little bits of clouds pootling past. Down in the carpark the dust in the gravel would be blowing whirligigs.
Now I was resettling my jeans around my hips and wiggling my feet in my runners. I was trying to look cute and nineteen, but not too cute and nineteen. Normally when I caught myself in a window I looked either dour and thirty-six, or dour and twelve. There was something about my face that was not quite right, as if it was too long. Sometimes I used the wings on the wing mirror to look at myself from different angles, to try to see what it was.
Now I was pulling up the doona and throwing it over the sheet, and closing my laptop, and kicking all the clothes on the floor into a pile, and making sure there was no underwear sticking out of anywhere. Because Martin might come up here afterwards, maybe to read the Yoda poster—he never had before but you never knew. In a minute now I would open my blue door (for Floor 3) and go downstairs past the yellow doors for Floor 2 and the red doors for Floor 1 into the lounge, and hear the secret about the Dark Elves.
The lounge was a huge and cavernous off-white box on the ground floor of the college, a lot like a transit lounge, except the furniture wasn’t bolted to the ground. Martin, Eddie, Cameron and the other guy with the glasses would be in the far corner, away from the TV, and they would have pulled some chairs into a circle. Martin would have his feet on the coffee table, because he would think everyone was waiting for him to talk. One of the boys would have put out his two specially made twenty-sided dice, which he kept in a case, on the table. But there were not usually any dice rolling till a bit later: not until Martin, the dungeon master, had talked for quite a while. There would be Cheezels, and probably beer, on the table also. The Judo was not the only reason Martin was built like a tree trunk.
I thought they would have pulled up a chair for me. I thought Martin would wait for me to come down before he took his feet off the table and told the secret.
The trouble was I really knew crap-all about the Dark Elves. So I was not going to get it, the secret. I used to read part-illustrated D&D fantasy books when I was twelve or so, but I only remember all these pointy-eared people dressed in purple going around in a gang and having fights. The secret was probably something Martin had wondered about when he was playing the Realms campaigns for D&D second edition, like, fifteen years ago, and then was resolved in some big finale when he was playing the Realms for third edition seven years ago, but now he was going to do some sort of retcon on it that was one giant in-joke on stuff no one else knew about to begin with.
Martin was twenty-seven, came from Germany when he was eight, and had lived in college for five years. That explained some things but not everything.
At the meetings, other than Martin, there was always Eddie, Cameron and the other guy with the glasses. They got some ring-ins from O Week at the start of the year, but those had wandered off by this time. Sometimes at the meetings there was also the fat guy called Trevor. And the Spanish girl who didn’t say much, who was kind of his girlfriend. Though it was hard to tell. The first time she came, the other guy with the glasses said, ‘We have a girl!’
I didn’t know what that made me, and I just had this feeling that I needed my friend Nikki from school to be there, and then I would just fleetingly squeeze one tit at her and roll my eyes.
I hadn’t talked to Nikki in ages. I was a good hour and a half away here in college. You used to see people seven hours a day, five days a week. There was no need to pick up the phone and say hi, how are you to their parents and ask if they were there, and leave a message and have them get back to you two days later, and then have them not be able to do anything anyway because they were a trainee receptionist now.
After that D&D meeting the other week where Martin wouldn’t tell us the secret yet, Martin and I went to an AGM for one of his other clubs, the Volkswagen Appreciation Society. It was mainly for guys who worked on their own Volkswagens and needed other guys who had an owner’s manual that wasn’t missing page 32. It was only a small club but they needed names on the books for the funding.
I was lined up at the bain-marie at the dining hall, dishing out my dinner, when he asked me to come. He’d doubled around from the end of the salad table. He touched my arm from behind. He was wearing a purple T-shirt from a women’s marathon he did volunteer admin for—sometimes he liked to boast about stuff, like T-shirts, he had gotten for free.
‘Hey there,’ he said, settling his glasses on his nose. There was something funny about the way he said it, like he was worried.
‘Hi! How are you?’ I turned around and said. The way he sounded, sort of urgent and embarrassed—I was like a dog pricking up its ears. I got out of the queue so I could talk to him properly.
‘Listen, ah, the Volkswagen club AGM is on, and we need some extra names for the books. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in coming for the one night?’
‘Yeah, all right. When?’
‘Tonight. I’m heading off about ten to eight. I could meet you in the lounge.’
‘Great.’ He smiled and went off.
Then I had to go back to the start of the queue to get my ratatouille to go with the potato and beef.
Initially when I was getting ready to go in my room, I put lipstick on, but then I felt stupid and rubbed it off. We took the alley between the library and Medicine. It was dark and there were strings of lights in the trees. ‘So do you actually like these guys,’ I asked, ‘or are you just, like, using them for their carburettors?’
‘It’s the wiring I’m having trouble with, where it all got dinged in,’ he said. Around the edge of the quadrangle we went, with its cordoned-off lawn in the middle. ‘There’s this Damian guy who’s a dickhead. Spouts his mouth off, doesn’t check the manual. But the rest of them are all right.’
‘That’s good,’ I said.
‘You don’t have to say anything, anyway,’ he said. He touched my arm. I wanted to touch him back, but I couldn’t think of a reason. We were passing a bricked alley, with a cul-de-sac off it with rocks and ferns and a barbeque.
‘Huh,’ he said, stopping. ‘We had a club function here once. But they don’t seem to use it any more.’ He took a few steps further into the darkened courtyard, peering into it, looking for some reason like my dad peering at paint tins in the shed.
‘Maybe there were too many cracks for people to drop their sausage down,’ I said.
I took a few steps after him. I felt like I wanted to fight with him, like when I would try to stop him going up the stairs at the college and he would laugh and wrestle me out of the way.
He turned around and half bumped into me. We both stepped back. I couldn’t see him in the dark, or hardly, but I could hear him breathe like he was smiling. That breathy sound you make when you smile. I smiled too.
He said quickly, like talking to himself, ‘What the hell.’ He seemed to be taking his glasses off. He did that sometimes, to rub his eyelids.
Then he was kissing me. Then he put his knees between mine and pulled me down across his lap on a bench, and then his hands were all sorts of places. I thought, what if I have a zit. I can’t remember if I have a zit.
There was this one taste bud on the side of his tongue that was rough—maybe it was a blood blister or it was scalded or something—I could feel it go past every time he slid his tongue in and out of my mouth. That went on for a while.
Then he said, his voice sort of choked, ‘Up,’ and lifted me under the underarms and pushed me against the wall. I held on to him. I had begun to be able to see the outline of a fern frond in the darkness.
I didn’t think it was possible that I was there with my pants around my ankles, and he was inside me. I wondered if we went back out now, would the AGM still be running, would people we knew still be around, doing what they would have been doing. Would the alley still lead to the same buildings at the end.
When we had pulled our pants up again, I held on to him and leaned against the wall for a while. I had never touched him just there on the back before. He had a bump there, probably a mole.
When we came back from the AGM, and the glass doors of our building swung shut behind us with a rubbery sigh, he said, ‘You want to come up to my room?’ The lounge, off to the right, was bright and empty like a late night train station. So for the first time, when we came to the second landing, I turned down the corridor with the yellow doors.
All the walls of his room were covered with bookshelves, books and comics stacked up on their sides. He’d chocked his bed up on a second frame so he could store other stuff underneath. When he held the door open for me to come in, I had to squeeze past under his arm. Past his torso. There was only one chair, and he sat in it, by the desk. He said I should sit up on the bed, but it was high up and I’ve never been able to jump up and backwards to sit on things: I always miss and slide back down again. There were kids who could get out of the pool like that but I couldn’t even manage it forwards—I had to go for the ladder. So I just stood. After a bit he was showing me a book, so I came over to look over his shoulder.
Under the window he had this little sunlamp rigged up over some pots. They were orchids he had bought cheap in a lot from a nursery that was closing down. They hadn’t been in flower when he got them and they still weren’t, and he was trying to find out what type they were. He’d been going through a big colour orchid book to try to find the right leaf shape. He couldn’t find it, but he was showing me all the ones he’d found that were similar but not quite the same.
He had a lot of tapes, but not many CDs. He started to say, ‘Suppose you’re into that synthesiser shit?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Do you like AC DC?’ he asked.
‘I used to be into AC DC when I was kid,’ I said, ‘I had a black T-shirt with skulls. I was rocking on.’
He pointed at the AC DC tapes on his shelf, and nodded.
I was all drippy from before when we were having sex. I really needed to get to the loo. I always felt funny about going to the bathrooms on other people’s floors—sometimes they had their own little potplants in there.
When I got back to my room it was two o’clock, and I sat on the bed and thought about whether I should do anything. I felt like there should be something you could do, even now afterwards, even though I knew there wasn’t. There was that pill you could get, but I thought about that, how I would have to make a doctor’s appointment and miss my morning lectures. I’d have to find a doctor. I didn’t know my Medicare number, and I’d have to ring Dad to get it.
So in the end I did nothing. I sat on the bed and thought about my stomach. Whether I could hear it ticking or something. I looked at the fourth day of creation on the wall and thought, ha ha. Then I slept in and was late for English.
A funny thing happened the day after that. I was coming down the stairs to where the reception counter and the door to the lounge were, and Martin came out of the lounge.
He was wearing a red freeby T-shirt and looking grumpy. The counter cut him off at the chest, and he was rubbing his stigmatism eye under his glasses, and he had started doing it just as he passed the poster display and came level with the aloe vera plant on the counter, and it looked like the aloe vera was poking him in the eye.
I kind of clenched all over. I think if I hadn’t been too far down already, I would have jumped back, up around the corner past the landing, to hide. As it was, I just stood there like a person who was getting an electric shock. But he was going out the front door of the college, so he didn’t look up, and he didn’t see me. So I guess nothing happened.
And then it was a week later, and I ran into him outside Mech. Eng. He had on his I-won’t-just-be-on-north-campus-today clothes. Jeans, not shorts. A puffy tracksuit jacket thing over his T-shirt.
And I thought, I bet he doesn’t know which ones my not-just-north-campus clothes are. And he hadn’t even talked to me all week—after I had had to clean myself up in the loo in the middle of the night, clean myself up from him, and then just sit there on my bed wondering. I think I cracked it a bit, then.
I made him come up onto the Union balcony to have coffee with me. This is how I did it. He said, ‘If you want coffee, come back to college and get it from the urn there.’
‘You want to spend more time in that building,’ I said.
‘It’s too expensive,’ he said.
‘You earn more than me.’
‘I have expenses.’
‘And I don’t?’
‘No, not really.’
I stared at him. So he had to have coffee with me.
Then we were up there, elbows on the concrete balustrade. The coffee cups made gritty clinking sounds when you put them down. You could see a lot of campus from up there: the Smythe towers down by the creek, the moustache of shrubbery on the Engineering lawns.
First he talked about the kids in his chemistry class. He had to repeat the class because he was part-way through when his scholarship ran out and he had to start that first restaurant job and couldn’t get to the labs. He talked about the way the kids all snickered up the back of the lecture theatre and passed notes, how they didn’t have the most basic mathematics.
He’d taken his jacket thing off, and he had a Volkswagen T-shirt on underneath. The underarms showed yellow when he stretched his arms above his head; the ribbing of the sleeve hems popped off his biceps. His glasses glinted in the sun.
Then he talked about the lab demonstrator. He said, ‘So I say to her, “Listen, sweetheart.” ’
‘Did you really say “sweetheart”?’ I asked.
‘No, but I should have,’ he said, chafing the heel of his hand on the balustrade.
‘Doesn’t she have a PhD?’
‘I wouldn’t be calling her “sweetheart”, is all.’
‘You’re not me,’ he said, with a little grin that made his eyes look small under his glasses.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Anyway.’ He picked up his cup and saucer. ‘Three bucks twenty. Hope it was worth it.’
Back at college, Dad had left a message on the voicemail in his jolly phone voice, saying ‘How’s my girl, then?’ Then the pause, then the embarrassed ‘yep’, and the other pause, where I could just hear him getting annoyed, looking at all the little buttons on the phone and wondering whether he had to press one.
The weather was warming up, and I got out a skirt to wear the next day, but I had to put it in the wash instead, because it smelled like wardrobe. Then I thought, crap, need to shave my legs. Then I thought, who’s going to notice. Then I thought, well. My empty hair follicles got goosebumps when the sun went behind a cloud.
I called Dad back and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’
Then maybe I could have said something else, maybe I could have asked him for my Medicare number, but I didn’t say anything. I could have said a lot of things, and then who knows what could have happened? I thought there were people in the world who would have said something then, and I thought they probably had a completely different life from mine.
The day after that, I saw Cameron from D&D in the corridor outside my lecture. He was excited. He said, ‘Hey, did you hear about Martin?’
‘No, what?’ I said.
‘They cut his shift at the kitchen at St Mary’s, right, and he was going on and on about it, and then the Chemistry tutor told him to shut up, and he went, like, ballistic at her. It was totally sick.’
He sounded like he did when he got excited running the stats for a new piece of armour in D&D on his calculator. He did an impression of the Chemistry tutor: ‘And she was like, “I don’t have to tolerate your speaking to me like that!” and “Don’t think you can come back to this class!” ’
I went straight back to college and straightened myself out in the mirror—stuck my hair back down, tugged the gape out of the front of my shirt—then I went over there, across the gravel carpark, over the lawn and into the old arched arcade. I found Martin in the east hall of St Mary’s, slopping himself out some leftovers like kitchen staff always have to do. All the tables and chairs had been stacked away, and I came up to him across the parquetry. It was quiet and my rubber sandals were going scuff-slap, scuff-slap. And then I was behind him and he still hadn’t turned around.
‘Hi,’ I said, and I touched his back.
He whammed the long-handled spoon onto the serving deck, enormous clang of metal on metal. It jarred up his arm into his back, and went into my palm like electric current. I took my hand off him.
The east hall has this enormous cavernous raftered ceiling and a hard waxed floor, and if you were leaving, and someone were to walk after you, you would hear them. But there was just the sound of my sandals going scuff-slap, scuff-slap, all the way back across the floor.
So then it was the D&D meeting, and there was something strange about Martin as I was arriving, as if he were looking at me too much. I sat down in the circle of the yellow chairs and took a beer. I didn’t usually take a beer.
Martin said, ‘Are you even old enough for that?’
‘You know very well how old I am,’ I said.
Then Martin was telling his thing that he’d come up with for the Dark Elves. ‘The Queen Mordana murdered her household spider god years ago. But its flesh was imperishable. Now one of her pages hides behind the body and imitates the voice of the god, saying whatever Mordana tells him.’
I couldn’t believe it. I had heard this before. I remembered being in the school library, in one of the two reading chairs next to the three aisles of non-fiction books. There had been gossip that the Year Twelves were going to hide a fish somewhere in the library, and I was half reading the book—its cover had purple, spiky font—half speculating about where I would put the fish if it were me.
‘That’s what you’ve been sitting on for two whole weeks?’ I said. ‘I read that in a book when I was twelve.’
Martin took his glasses off. ‘Excuse me, what book?’
‘I don’t know—it was years ago. But that is totally ripped off.’
‘Excuse me,’ Martin said.
‘Okay, so, you guys are having a domestic, so let’s just …’ said the Spanish girl who never normally said anything.
‘There isn’t anything to have a domestic about,’ I said. ‘I’ve read it in a book.’
Martin said, ‘This is an original campaign, I spent a lot of time on it to keep you guys happy, and I don’t appreciate …’
‘All right, come on, let’s go,’ the Spanish girl said to Trevor. They got up and left.
I could feel everyone avoiding looking at Martin or me, like we had both become the wrong ends of magnets.
Martin ate a Cheezel, and said, ‘I’d appreciate it if other people would bring some food to these things sometimes.’
We played on with Cameron, Eddie and the other guy. Eventually we died from a Beholder with ten eyestalks and a big claw, because Trevor, who played the priest, wasn’t there to heal us.
When the meeting was over, I got up and followed Martin across the lounge.
‘Would you stop following me?’ he said.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I won’t.’
I followed him up to his room, and when he had shut the door behind us, I said, ‘I could be pregnant and you don’t even care.’
‘What?’ he said. ‘Aren’t you on the pill?
He was angry. He sounded like an angry, adult man, far too old to be my friend.
‘No. Why would I be on the pill?’ I just sounded stupid, and like I was going to cry.
‘Jesus Christ, fucking nineteen-year-olds,’ he said. He had his hands in the air.
‘You’re the one who is fucking nineteen-year-olds,’ I said.
And I thought I should go then. But then I realised he had gone to stand behind the corner of his bed so I had a clear path to the door. He wanted me to leave. He was just going to let me. I was closer to the orchids in their little pots than he was. I started throwing the orchids out the open window. One, two, three, I managed. They sounded like clay ducks being shot.
I went back for a fourth, and he was there, and wrestling with me. The window was in a narrow little corridor between the end of his desk and the wall, and we were crammed in there, twisting around and fighting.
He had both my wrists, and I got one free, but he caught it again. We were breathing crazily, like horses. I half fell. The corner of the desk stabbed into the back of my leg, and now I was crying. He let go like I was on fire. And then I nearly fell over properly. He caught me, and hugged me.
‘Come on, now,’ he said, patting me. ‘Come on.’
I was getting his shirt wet. I tried not to snuffle.
I said in my crazy person’s weepy voice, ‘Why do you hate me?’
‘I don’t hate you,’ he said.
I had never heard him speak like this before. He didn’t sound angry, or like he was criticising someone, at all.
‘I just …’ he said. ‘I won’t be able to pay the rent and I’m probably going to get kicked out of here, and I can’t deal with this.’
‘With me, you mean. You can’t deal with me.’ I had calmed down a bit.
He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he said, ‘I don’t understand girls. As you can tell.’ Now he was kind of laughing.
I had stopped crying.
‘I’m probably not pregnant,’ I said. ‘I mean, it was only the once.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ he said quietly.
He took the last orchid off the shelf himself, and we leaned out over the window sill together. He threw the orchid out, and we watched it sail down until it exploded below like a star.