He was leaning against the bonnet of an old car, smoking a cigarette. I hadn’t seen him before then. It was as if he’d materialised out of the smoke of his cigarette, right in front of my eyes. He looked straight at me, as he huffed out a cloud of dirty fume, which dissipated into the grey, pre-dawn atmosphere. I blinked and looked down quickly. He seemed bemused as I hurried past him, through the chicken wire fence that clawed the bottom of the clouds, into the Institution.
Yesterday I wrote to the Tuitionary Oversight and Management Board requesting a transfer into another division. As a child I had been identified and accepted as a pupil. I do not remember the process, but I have been told that the position was a great honour. I was not aware of any other positions.
I wrote: ‘I am identified as 11118668J, I attend the South Eastern Public Institution.’ I had considered a more extended description, to more easily locate myself to the Board.
Perhaps; ‘The Institution is enclosed by a ten metre high fence topped with shiny razor wire, and patrolled by silent officers in faded black uniforms. Building rubble chokes the trampled grass, and from out of the clay and stones protrude angular grey concrete slabs, as if dropped there carelessly by giants. On the West side, beyond the fence, there is a small nature strip that occasionally grows daisies. The pupils study in glass rooms on Personal eLearning Devices, attentively monitored by Supervisors. The curriculum, provided generously by the Board, is fascinating. Pupils study tirelessly in efforts to one day be as accomplished as the Supervisors. However, as you must be aware, Supervisionship isn’t the ultimate ambition of all pupils…’
I decided not to add this second part for fear of discrediting the indeterminable knowledge of the Board. They would surely be offended at my assumptive ignorance, surely they knew more about the ambitions of the pupils than I could.
I had signed and sealed the letter before I realised that I didn’t know where to send it.
‘Australia has long attracted undesirables from uncivilized continents because of its unrivalled natural beauty.’ I read, under the watchful eye of the Supervisor. I clicked ‘NEXT.’
‘Because of this, the Governing Board of Australia has begun work on a scheme involving the construction of an Exclusion Wall.’
‘Question: What has the Governing Board of Australia begun work on?’
As I tapped in the answer, I looked around for the Supervisor, who had moved on. Instead, I saw a faded red car parked on the other side of the fence. He was leaning on the bonnet, watching. I had the sensation of being a mannequin in a display case.
I turned quickly back to my study, sinking down in my chair and trying to become invisible. The artificial lights shone garishly. I tried to focus.
‘Children younger than three who eat dirt are 17 times more likely to become mass murderers by the age of 35 than children who eat Sterilised Packaged Foods™.’
I sat alone on the perimeter of the fence. It was Intermission, and other pupils were eating or just staring into nothingness. I watched as they attempted to sit in groups on metal benches which were too hot to touch. I sat against the chicken wire, darting a hand through it when I was sure all the Supervisor’s gazes were averted. I picked only a small handful of the daisies, so as not to alert anyone to my game. In my lap I weaved them together into a chain, which I slipped onto my arm. A car rolled by on the molten asphalt beyond the thin strip of wilting grass. As I held my arm to the light I heard the driver expel air suddenly, as if to laugh. I whirled around to glimpse his half smiling face before he disappeared in a smoke of burning rubber, like a genie back into his lamp.
A nearby Supervisor frowned and altered their course to pass by me on her round. I slipped off the daisy chain, and passed it quietly under the fence behind me.
He was standing at the gate when I arrived. I looked around as I neared him, but there was no one else. He beckoned to me. Hesitantly, I obeyed.
‘I have something for you.’ He said. He reached into his jacket, moving slowly as if I was a horse that had got itself caught in barbed wire, trying not to startle me lest I do more damage. I felt like I was caught in barbed wire.
‘Here.’ He said. His voice was deep and gravelly. I looked; he held out a wreath of daisies. I looked into his face for the first time. He had an abnormally wide jaw covered in soft bristle, his eyes were dark and his mouth was twisted up on one side. I didn’t move.
He faltered a little. ‘I made it for you,’ he said. I watched him, motionless. Eventually, his arm dropped.
He looked behind him, at the grey building that the grey dawn was breaking over, and huffed out a cloud of condensation. I took in a slow, silent breath that made the bottom of my lungs ache, and let it out slowly. We stood for a moment in uncomfortable silence.
‘Why do you go in?’ He asked quietly, still not looking at me. ‘Why do you keep coming back?’
The gate stood open beside him. I stared at it blankly.
‘Come with me.’ He said suddenly, turning back. ‘I can take you away from here, I know a place. Will you come?’ He seemed hopeful.
I watched him for a long time, watching his face spasm with hope and apprehension.
‘Let me think.’ I said finally.
He nodded and let me by without a word, though I felt his insistent urgency, like a bird ensnared in a net.
I watched for his car from the classroom. I sat by the fence at Intermission. I couldn’t study. My attention persistently drifted to the walls of glass, searching desperately until the tsk of a Supervisor snapped my attention back into the real world.
He didn’t come again that day, nor the next, or the next. I tried to think about it, like I’d said I would. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be away from the Institution.
I thought about the pictures that we studied of the Australian outback, with endless red sand and plastic blue skies. I wondered if there was a place where patches of daisies stretched out even further than the unnaturally red sand: as far as the mind’s eye could see. I thought about skies that weren’t empty or grey. I sat at the fence and felt the grass on the other side, and pretended I was lying in it, looking up into a blue sky that wasn’t empty or grey. A Supervisor passed by, and I withdrew my hand.
He stood waiting at the gate. He held in his hand a fresh wreath of daisies. He was searching the horizon. He smiled when he saw me, I sensed his apprehension.
The urgency in his voice was compelling. I watched the way his lips moved, forming words of conviction and persuasion. I liked the way the breeze ruffled his hair. His hands, delicately holding the slightly wilted chain of flowers, were wide and rough. He gesticulated gently, as if he was coaxing a wild animal to climb into a cage. Or out of a cage.
Eventually, he fell silent. I wanted to touch him, to feel the roughness of his palm, the softness of the bristle on his cheek. I looked into his dark eyes for a long time.
‘What do you mean you can’t leave?’ He whispered hoarsely when I told him. ‘You’re standing at the gate! No one is making you walk in there!’
I shrugged, and muttered something about doors being windows.
He stared into my face for a long time, and I became uncomfortable. I shifted my weight, and fidgeted with my hands, and finally looked at the grey concrete beneath my feet.
He heaved a great sigh, and I saw the daisies drop to the concrete. He left me there, murmuring something about ‘leading a horse’ and ‘water’. I heard the screech of tyres on concrete. Then he was gone.
I bent to pick up the chain. As I walked through the gates, I pocketed the languid flowers.
He has been gone a week now. He won’t come back. I keep a daisy in my pocket most days. It feels like I’m carrying a little piece of him.
A Supervisor passed by me at the fence yesterday. I hurriedly hid my daisy in the folds of my skirt, but too slow. He frowned and walked on.
A cement truck arrived this morning. By Intermission, the daisy patch was gone. In its place stood a sign. It read; ‘SOUTH EASTERN PUBLIC INSTITUTION.
WARNING: ELECTRIFIED EXCLUSION BOUNDARY MAY CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH.’