Agnieszka Maksimowska (University of Guelph-Humber, Canada)
Only once in my life has someone told me an outrageous story that I believed. My friend Michaela and I were hiking the Napier Range in the Kimberleys. We had parked our Budget-Rent-A-Camper-Van at the visitor centre beside the only other vehicle: a black Holden ute with a plush Captain Underpants the size of a toddler in the back seat. But no car seat. We weren’t supposed to drive there: paved roads only. As Michaela navigated the red road, the vegan samosas and Coca-Cola turned in my stomach like a load in a washing machine. “We’re off to see the Wizard,” she sang. Red dust puffed up all around us. Some got inside the van. We closed the vents and giggled like little girls.
At the end of our hike was Tunnel Creek, and Michaela and I were nervous about wading waist-deep through the cavernous body of water. After she rhymed off the species of bats, reptiles and killing things that live in the creek, she told me the story about her friend Antonia Price. I didn’t even ask her, “Is it true?” because somehow I just believed that it was. Or maybe I was still thinking about the Ghost Bat, Australia’s only carnivorous bat. Or maybe about my mother, who said at the airport: “Why do you have to go there, where there are more things that can kill you than things that can’t?” That’s a mouthful, but she said it. “Why can’t you go to England?” I told her I’m more scared of people than of things. More English people have killed than Australian things. My mother looked at me, like she does every time I say a word ending with –ist or –ism, except when I told her her husband is a misogynist, and she liked that.
Anyway, back to Antonia Price. She was “young and hip, like you,” Michaela said, but that took me aback because I don’t think of myself as hip. I don’t have any tattoos and several of my front teeth stand up like the partitions of a revolving door. Antonia was a first year teacher at CLS, the City of London School, where sons of Prime Ministers and knighted pop stars and actors go. But Antonia had nothing to do with that world except teaching its youth. She brought the same lunch to school everyday: steamed rice and boiled chicken, like she had no teeth. Antonia took the Millennium Bridge to CLS from the tube stop on the other side of the Thames, even though it was farther. Walking to work was like walking into the mouth of St. Paul’s, the sun rising behind the dome like God in Renaissance paintings. When Antonia put up rainbow flags around the school to combat homophobia, they took them down the next day. She went to St. Paul’s at lunch and prayed for the conservatives and asked God for an economic downturn.
There was this one student that Antonia had in her senior class: Adnan Kashani. Adnan wasn’t particularly wealthy or connected. Not like the other kids. His name was the only one that didn’t originate from one of the British Isles. On the first day of school, he drew a penis on her swivel chair with White-Out. But she didn’t see him do it. Two boys who sat by the windows asked for her help deciphering Holy Sonnet X. You’re probably asking yourself, “She would do Donne on the first day?” but if you’ve been listening to anything I’ve been telling you about Antonia you know that she would. So those keen students who asked for help lingered on the line “Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men” while the artist was at work. You could say they were artist’s assistants. The penis was big and assertive, so it looked like Antonia was being penetrated by a cartoon when she sat down.
Several months later, it was some kind of school holiday and Antonia’s other best friend, Elizabeth, was visiting from Poland. Since no Brit moves to Poland voluntarily, you have to know that she fell in love with a Pole and said Krakow was the new Prague, except actually beautiful, not just in postcards. Antonia took Elizabeth out dancing to this new, exclusive club, where her boyfriend Paul worked as head of security. She met him at youth choir practice at St. Paul’s. Elizabeth couldn’t help herself: she called him Saint Paul. So the girls danced and danced and Saint Paul evaded punches and eighty-sixed blokes twice his size. Antonia had to explain to Michaela that the verb to eighty-six came from Article 86 of the New York Liquor Code in the 1940s, which described the situations in which alcohol had to be withheld from a patron.
“How did she know,” I asked Michaela as we were about to step into Tunnel Creek behind some Dutch tourists, “about the New York Liquor Code?” Dangerous things seem a lot less dangerous when rosy-cheeked men in flowered shirts and socks to their knees do them. A guide told us to watch for eye colour.
“Eye colour?” Michaela said.
“Red eyes can eat you,” the guide said. She was a petite girl in a safari outfit. Seventeen at most.
“Watch out for the red eyes. They eat all other colours.”
“Eat?” I said. I turned on my flashlight and held it over my head like a spear, surveying the black water and the Dutch man’s Hawaiian shirt. “We want the green eyes,” the guide continued, “green eyes are the fish; they eat the orange eyes. Orange eyes are the insects.”
“Look,” Michaela said, “there is orange and green. No red. Come on.”
The Dutch man turned around and grinned at us. We nodded politely to communicate to him to get on with it.
So, at the London club Antonia waded through revellers toward the end of the night to find Paul. She wanted to say good-bye. Paul stood in the middle of a scuffle. He was surrounded by drunk boys, one of them Adnan Kashani. Adnan’s comrades were verbally jousting with Paul, and as Antonia approached, Adnan left the scrum, unzipped his pants, and proceeded to urinate in the middle of the club. Intermittent colourful lighting illuminated the stream for Antonia. His stubby, flaccid penis. He wasn’t finished yet when Paul grabbed him by the shirt with both hands like he was holding up a wet shirt to pin on a clothesline. They descended upon Paul like lions taking down an elephant in that Planet Earth show. There were sounds like someone was breaking down cardboard in an alleyway, stomping on bubble wrap and popping it. And then the exacto blade to open up more boxes.
Paul was lucky. He only got a cut along the forearm, and “the bastards didn’t get any tendons,” he said, “although they did almost butterfly my muscle.” Paul used to work at a butcher’s. Antonia was surprised by his use of butterfly. She imagined colourful insects flapping around the club in the pretty light, comically counteracting the violence and chaos.
Adnan came to school on Monday looking like a toothless racoon. He had two black eyes and was missing his four front teeth. He kept shoving his tongue in the space while Antonia taught her lesson about the connections between colonization and globalization. She didn’t ask Adnan if it was Saint Paul who did that. Then they watched a documentary about Jamaica’s fraught relationship with the World Bank and the IMF. Antonia circled the room like a lioness around her kill. Adnan slept through most of the film, but Antonia elbowed him awake every time she walked up to him.
By the end of the school year the summer in London was a scorcher. At the Graduation Ceremony, students and faculty wore black robes and marched like penguins in the direction of hard-working fans. Their hair blew romantically. Each student who received a CLS diploma made a short speech. Some thanked their pals, most provided clichéd Churchill or Gandhi quotes. A few kids blew kisses to their mums and nannies in the audience. Adnan stood at the microphone and Antonia noticed that he wasn’t wearing the tevas he had promised to. His shoes were black and laced and polished like all the other graduates. He leaned into the podium and grabbed a handful of his own hair, held onto it for a moment too long, like he was worried or devastated about something. When he took his hand away his hair was a mess: crumpled like the linen dress under Antonia’s robe. She was seated with the other teachers beside the stage so all she could see was Adnan’s profile, and he couldn’t see her. “It’s a miracle,” Adnan said, his voice gravely, “that I’m graduating. I want to thank Ms. Price.” Antonia’s stomach landed in her lap. “For being the only teacher who ever made me care about school.” He turned and looked into the rows of teachers, at Antonia whose face was being studied by her professorial colleagues and her admiring student. Several more kids spoke while Antonia held the same pose, the same gaze, motionless with surprise.
After the ceremonies Adnan was not among the virgin-punch sipping crowd. So Antonia sent him an email. She told him she was over the moon about his comment. That gratitude like that is affirming for a young teacher like her. He wrote back:
you are really a great teacher. what you were doing about homophobia at cls was awesome. i hope you know that it was really inspiring to see someone try to do something to change people’s attitudes, even though you were getting shit from those above. although you may not know it, i always admired you for trying to make that school a better place for people. i hope the passion that drives you to do those things never dies.
They kept in touch. He went to university in Canada, in British Columbia, where, in his words, “he could get the best weed and the prettiest sunsets”. He sent Antonia movie scripts he wrote, short stories, tales of boarding school intrigue and teenaged recklessness. It amused her to read the club pissing scene in a script called The Family. Her feedback was honest and direct. Show, don’t tell, she wrote in the margins, seven times in the 125-page manuscript.
Adnan took Antonia out for lunch one day when he was back in London. “To thank you for all the times I was such a pain in the ass,” he said. She accepted the wild salmon baguette and sipped white wine while Adnan drank only coffee and told stories of massive online Poker earnings, racialised and colonised space sociology essays, volunteer trips to Latin America, and weekends in Vegas on a buddy’s lear jet. “The sickest ride,” Adnan said, “ever! Moët on the way down, Cristal on the way back.” The contradictions in Adnan’s personality made Antonia want to cry. She didn’t finish her lunch.
“I bet she longed for boiled chicken,” Michaela said to me.
“No,” I exclaimed. Michaela turned to look at me, bewildered. “She longed for him to be thirty already, to get on with it, to get it. I get it. Fucking youth. What do they say about youth?”
“That it’s wasted on the rich?” Michaela said.
“On the young. It’s wasted on the young.”
That summer, two years after Adnan’s high-school graduation, Antonia left the U.K. to teach an English course in Greece. Saint Paul called Antonia in the middle of the night, a couple of weeks after she lunched with Adnan in Covent Garden. She was asleep in a shitty hotel in Athens, jetlagged and disoriented when she heard Paul’s voice on the crackly phone. Telephone lines in Greece made Antonia feel like she was being tapped, recorded by the KGB. She expected to be abducted and flown to Siberia. “Babe,” Paul said. “Sorry to freak you out, but a friend of yours was killed.”
Antonia sat up in bed like a mechanical doll. Her friend of hers? Her whole body vibrated. Her brain scanned her mobile phone list: Elizabeth, Jeff, Michaela… “Adnan,” Paul said. “The kid I punched out at the club. I just saw his face in the paper.”
The boys were in Canada. Adnan died in a speeding car with the British Prime Minister’s son and the son of a Canadian diplomat. Adnan was not the news.
I was at my mother’s house preparing for a family barbecue when I heard about the three kids “killed while off-roading in a high-performance vehicle in Muskoka”.
“Who buys their kid a car,” my mother said, “worth more than a teacher’s retirement?” My mother is a teacher. She was butterflying chicken breasts for the grill. She cut herself. Mounting a television on the kitchen wall was a stupid idea. She sucked on her finger and said: “Reckless. Stupid and reckless.” I stared at the three photographs on the television screen like a woman possessed. Adnan’s face: black eyebrows, as if smeared on with charcoal, toffee skin, a crooked smile. Dimples, like a little kid.
“Who was driving?” Michaela asked me. We sat on a grassy bank on the other side of Tunnel Creek. I told her. The afternoon sun baked our shoulders. Mine were turning watermelon pink.
“I cried after seeing that story,” I said. “Complete strangers and I cried. What did Antonia do?”
Agnieszka Maksimowska has just completed her first year of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, Canada. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching high-school English and Social Science, practicing her head stands, or planning her next trip.