"Life of Bryan,"
by Helen Patrice
Tom was bullet-shaped. His balding head came to a slight point, and shaved grey hair clung to the sides like slicked fur. His shoulder were slumped, curled in on themselves, but when he walked, he gave the impression of pushing forward, almost elbowing his way through empty air. His eyes were pale blue, and the cleanest thing about him. He wore a worn, dirty blue polo shirt, a grey rain jacket, and darker grey jeans. Cheap white sneakers completed his outfit. His clothes smelt stale, with a hint of Brylcreen that had never quite washed out of the shirt’s collar.
He stared at me across the brown table. He didn’t want his ten year old son reading any more than he could. Which was very little. Enough to recite what they wanted at the fish and chip shop, enough to know what packaged meals were.
It was my job to teach Bryan to read.
Tom never said, in parent-teacher conferences, that he didn’t want Bryan to read. Those remarks were saved to be muttered at me as we left those conferences.
While the school principal soared through fantasies of Bryan making it all the way to Year 12, with a little bit of help from a teacher’s aide, and the classroom teacher set impossible goals of full Year 5 literacy and numeracy by the end of the school year, Tom shot me icy looks, and nodded in fake agreement with everything the school teachers said.
Tom sent Bryan to school because that was the law. Now that his ex-wife was dying of cancer, Tom was all about the law. He no longer phoned in fake reports of child abuse by his ex-wife. He no longer sent his grown children to snatch Bryan from school, telling him he needed to be protected from his crazy mother. His grown children still did as they were told, mostly. Tom had no need any more to keep Bryan at home, telling him everyone was a spy.
Now that his ex-wife was dying, Bryan lived with him full-time, and there was no need to turn his son’s mind any further. It was twisted hard.
My mouth alternated between floods of saliva as I swallowed words, desperate to keep my job, and a hint of quickly eaten chocolate lodged up around my molars. I smelt my own sweat tinged with rose geranium deodorant, and hoped that no one else could. If I appeared nervous, that was a sign of weakness, and something I didn’t want to show, and the Education Department disapproved. We must be strong in front of parents.
Bryan was ten years old, with the literacy level of a five year old. He couldn’t read, write much beyond his name, maths was a mystery to him, and all he knew was the best players in the Hawthorn football team. He didn’t have a ‘deaf accent’ because he’d only been rendered deaf at the end of the previous year, during a bout of meningitis. His twin cochlear implants were new to him.
When I took the job at Maltern Valley Primary School, I was told that Bryan had a hearing impairment. I was supposedly the fresh-on-the-scene hot shot teacher’s aide with All The Hearing Impairment Expertise.
Fact: I have two hearing impaired children. Social Security decided I was under-employed, and insisted I retrain as a teacher’s aide. I did so, because refusing meant no Social Security money, and we needed that $103. I paid for the course. I came out a teacher’s aide, who didn’t want to be one. I attained every job I went for, because I Knew Disability. I sure did. I had it at home, so why wouldn’t I want to do it for work?
Several weeks after the start of the school year, I read Bryan’s file: two cochlear implants. Yes, I knew about those. Suspected intellectual impairment. Yep, I suspected that. A report that hinted at psychosis. Well, that explained a lot.
I had the job because no one else would touch this complex boy, and I had the job because I wasn’t told the half of it in the interviews. Just ‘new cochlear implants’.
I was stuck, because to leave the job meant no Social Security $103 for eight weeks, as a punishment for not doing as I was commanded to do. There was no way the school would sack me. Who else would take the job? No one.
Tom waited for me outside the conference room.
“What’re you teaching him?” he whisper-barked at me. “Some hippie-trippie shit?”
I wore a carnelian pendant decorated with tiny silver angel wings. Carnelian to keep my blood from boiling, angel wings to give me the patience I didn’t have. My rose geranium deodorant must have leaked.
“Cooking,” I said. “If Bryan does his work all week, he gets to cook with me on Fridays. I’ve told him no boy should leave home without knowing how to cook scrambled eggs, and a chocolate cake.”
“He can’t read a fucking recipe!” Tom said, heading off towards the bus stop. He couldn’t read, so didn’t have a car licence. Nor did the family have the money for a car, or even bicycles.
“Not yet,” I said to his back.
His spine stiffened. He turned around. “Don’t you get my son smarter than me. We do all right for ourselves just the way we are. I can find out where you live.”
Bryan learned to read a recipe. Along the way, he learned that two half cups make a full cup, four quarter spoons make a full tablespoon, what the words for sugar, milk, eggs, and vanilla were. We made failure cakes at 180 degrees, and 400 degrees, to see what would happen.
His classroom teacher had presented him with the too-hard Grade 3 text books in front of Bryan’s Grade 5 class. If he had a go at my secret stash of Grade 1additions and subtractions, he was allowed to bring a friend to cooking. The highlight of his week, and big status in a place where he had none.
Bryan learned to say the ‘p’ in ‘cup’. He started reading newspaper sports page headlines about his beloved Hawthorn Football Team. I told him he was killing me with his footy knowledge, and I got out the phone book to look up ways of escape.
“Look Bryan, there’s a Helen’s Hair Affair in Burwood. I could go work there before you kill me with more Hawthorn info. No, I’m not pointing out the ad. You find it, Mr I Know Everything About Hawthorn.”
Tom found out where I lived. He came one day, armed with bricks to throw, because his son had read out the football scores and announced that Hawthorn won by eighty six points.
His grown daughter dragged him away, shouting that the police would shit all over him.
She was secretly reading to Bryan at night. She read the whole of the first Harry Potter book in a whisper, after Bryan was in bed, and while Tom watched ‘Law and Order’.
I saw Bryan a few months ago. He’s twenty now. On the streets, sitting on the foothpath with a hand-lettered sign. “Homeless. Please help.” It was all spelled correctly. He was talking to himself, rocking a little. He wore a dirty blue coat against the cold wind. I swallowed my last bite of Cadbury chocolate bar, and tasted a swallowed exclamation.
I dropped $10 in front of him. He didn’t recognise me. He didn’t see anyone, except the people in his mind.
There was no sign of Tom. I was glad. Even an ex-teacher’s aide, long out of the Social Security system, has limits. They are just beyond my fist, my boot, and my screaming voice.