Authors: Peter Carey
Gaby was in the foyer on the day it collapsed and hurt the gym teacher. Where had the state funding gone? Ask her father. She had a fifteen-year-old classmate who had been left in charge of the family while his father returned to Denbo to marry another wife and thereby protect the family’s property. The school hired an Arabic teacher, but it turned out he was a Coptic Christian and the Muslim families did not trust him. The teachers doubtless gave their all, but everywhere there was cultural resentment and misunderstanding. Gaby watched her maths teacher insisting that a Muslim boy look him in the eye, a request the kid could not obey because it was disrespectful. Even she knew that.
She was in the Roman room when a mild, polite Turkish boy urinated into the plastic bin containing Lego blocks.
The urine could be seen, quite clearly, pooling in the bottom of the bin.
What’s this, Feyyas? the teacher asked. The liquid was pale yellow.
It’s water, Miss.
The teacher was also a mild and decent person, up to that point anyway. She was buxom and pretty with long dark hair. Get a cup, she said.
The boy fetched the cup and the previously mild teacher tried to make him drink his urine and the previously mild boy punched her in the chest.
So I wasn’t surprised to find Gaby sneaking back to Carlton to visit her old friends. Was I a bad mother for letting her? Sometimes I was left in Patterson Street alone and I hated it, but I was always happy to think she was somewhere better than I was. I was not complacent. I was vigilant in fact. If she was sleeping over I would always call her at ten o’clock and—when I had got past the recorded message—we always had our whispered conversation.
Patterson Street was neighbourly enough. The Greeks were polite but stand-offish. The Italians were chatty, united by their hatred, of the plane trees, and of the council which neglected to collect their fallen leaves.
Gaby was soon friendly with them all. With me she was different, displaying a sort of moral vanity. The complications of the game were beyond belief, descending to her hiding or destroying her hairbrush and therefore preventing me brushing her hair. Of course I had a hairbrush of my own, but that went missing too.
None of this could be acknowledged or addressed directly.
I had been hysterical and deceitful but I had loved my daughter, indulged her, cooked her the food she liked, helped her with her homework, set aside those long erratic Melbourne summers so she would know that she was loved.
I would not abandon her. When the Sydney Theatre Company cast me as Yelena Andreevna in
I stayed in Melbourne rather than abandon my daughter.
Apart from all the branch members who annoyed me shitless, the only visitor I got was Frederic’s mother. She scraped her dirty van against my fence and produced, from the passenger door, my red-faced daughter. Meg Matovic had come to demand that she, Gaby, stay away.
Your daughter has a key to my house, she cried but I was more concerned that our neighbour could hear her. Mrs. Messite was sweeping her plane leaves down my way. I wanted to get Meg out of earshot, but I didn’t want her inside my house. She was waving something silver at me, a key.
There were words engraved on it.
Pick up key. Go west
This key fitted her front door, Meg said. If she ever found my daughter inside her house she would have her done for Break and Enter, don’t say I wasn’t warned.
I thought, was she really saying that my heterosexual daughter had designs on her clearly homosexual son? I asked her what we had to be so frightened of.
She snatched off her ridiculous cloche hat and I saw her dirty pinned-down hair. We are very private people, she shouted at Mrs. Messite who retreated down the lane.
It’s just a game, Gaby said. Please, Mrs. Matovic. It’s really just a game.
Where do you think she sleeps? Where? You’re her mother. Do you know?
I had no choice but get her inside, seated at my table. I told her Gaby stayed with her girlfriends on Keppel Street.
Do you know the parents?
Don’t insult me, Meg.
Her eyes were roaming the dining room. I thought she was coveting my Clarice Cliff vase.
Call them, said Meg Matovic, handing me my own telephone. Ask them if your little angel has been sleeping in their house.
Gaby sat with arms folded, refusing to engage with either of us.
I dialled the number. It was answered.
Gaby’s lost her homework, I said. I wonder if she left it at your place.
Meg Matovic smiled sarcastically as I heard the answer she expected.
So, she instructed, ask this woman when she last saw your daughter.
Had I not called that very number three or four times a week? Had I not always found my daughter on the phone? Confidently I asked the question.
Gaby returned my gaze. She knew what I was hearing and she showed no fear.
He phreaked you, Meg Matovic said as I hung up.
Gaby rolled her eyes. It was, apparently a huge offence to use “phreak” as a verb. As for me, I heard “freaked,” I did not understand that her disturbing son had been able to divert my call from Keppel Street to Parkville. Gaby always picked up, and I always saw her, in my mind, in a nicely furnished renovated terrace house in Keppel Street. Why would I possibly think she was in bed with a boy in Royal Parade?
I understood like you understand you have fainted in the street.
So, said Meg in a nasty singsong voice, I had to take away his phone line. They won’t be pulling this one again.
Good, said Meg Matovic, and your little grass will stop snooping in my house.
I did not see her out. I stayed at the table looking at my girl. Her lips were swollen and her eyes puffy which I recognised from occasional symptoms of my own. So my daughter was sleeping with a boy. I was not stupid enough to think that I could stop her now.
Frederic must be very clever, I said.
He’s a genius.
I did not see that would be the problem. All I recognised was the urgent need to get her on the pill. I did not say this right away. I made tea and put some biscuits on a plate. I tried to use the notion of Frederic’s alleged “cleverness” to get around to contraception but when she understood what I was doing she was outraged.
You’re pitiful, she said. All you can think about is sex.
You sleep with him, don’t you?
You are such hippies.
Gaby, do you sleep with him or not?
We’re not dogs if that’s what you think.
I was thinking, he is bisexual, of course. They all are now.
That’s so stupid, and disgusting. Frederic has a computer. You couldn’t imagine what we do.
No-one I knew had a computer so I imagined some huge mainframe thing. Men in white coats.
2001: A Space Odyssey
What is it you do, darling?
Don’t even ask. It’s called Zork, Mum. She pushed away the biscuits and took my hand. Really truly, you wouldn’t understand.
It’s called what?
That’s only part of it.
Of course I did not understand, nor did I try to. I thought, at least she touched my hand.
Rewind. Pause. Play.
his phone line and he did not once blame Gaby. What that tells you is: he loved her. Meg had also hidden his coupler modem. Gaby explained exactly what a coupler modem was i.e. the thingo that connected your computer to the phone line. Without a phone line and a modem Freddo was completely cut off from the secret online world that had previously filled his whole existence.
All Gaby knew was you did not need a modem to explore Zork which was contained within the computer. Zork was enough for her and, almost unbelievably, it was for Frederic, for a while at least.
It was as if they were the only people in their world, the first explorers to map its tunnels. At this stage the maps were everything. Without a map you could easily waste an entire weekend searching for locations you had found already. Just one glitch: Frederic’s writing was awful, like the trail of an ink-dipped spider.
This was Gaby’s opening. She became the cartographer. Zork maps were what she dreamed about. When she read “sacred pleasure dome” she immediately saw the world of Zork. She did not care that the game was so pre-Nintendo, almost prehistoric. She liked it better than anywhere else she had ever been.
At the high point of THE ERA OF MAP DEMENTIA there were over twenty poster boards in Frederic’s room. Most were pinned on the Caneite walls, but there was a huge one on the ceiling. These were not simple maps, but lists of clues and cheats, for instance: how to short-circuit the restriction on how many objects you could carry. (You
inflated the raft and put all your stuff inside it and then deflated the raft.)
There was an epic RIP card behind the door. Meg Matovic had to look at this every time she finished her inspection. It memorialised the time Gaby had landed in an oubliette which she could only escape by dying. She would bash herself unconscious, then wake up and have to start again. It took five hours to die, but she would not be kept away from Zork.
Then Frederic cracked the code of Zork. Now they could invade and rule it, write new tunnels and new caves. They could introduce new characters and rename existing ones. This was the first time they experienced total ownership. You have just entered Twisted Zork.
Gaby stole a drill and keyhole saw from Patterson Street and removed four floorboards under Frederic’s bed and whenever Meg rattled on the chain she crawled beneath the floor and lay on the stinky gas and cat-piss dirt until she left.
Of course she lived part-time at Bell Street High School where she became mates with the black giantess Solosolo and through her, the brothers. Aleki and Peli introduced her to a better “recreational facility” than she could ever have in Carlton i.e. the wasteland of rocks and thistles past the old Kodak factory, between Newlands Road and Elizabeth Street where a gang of stringy bogans ran a scrap yard and would sell you a “shit-bucket,” e.g. an unroadworthy Datsun, for twenty bucks. Peli was Solosolo’s eldest brother, nineteen years old. Her younger brother—Aleki—drove the clapped-out Datsun around the paddocks across the creek from the Agrikem factory. Peli lay on the bonnet pouring petrol straight into the carburettor, flame erupting, burning hair and eyebrows while massive Aleki made 3D figure eights, sneezing and bouncing amongst the pitted brown rocks and boxthorns and purple flowering thistles.
This was fucked-up Samoa, not Fa’a Samoa, the “Samoan way of life.” They left the Datsun’s bonnet lying in the paddocks so the girls took possession and floated and dragged it down Merri Creek, between wattles ripe with crops of plastic bags, until they reached the rusty F J Holden stripped and abandoned in the water. Solosolo was the six-foot centre-back of Bell Street girls’ soccer team, but she was afraid of spiders. She sat with the little white girl on the slimy bench seat of the Holden, shrieking at the cold water on her backside.
Frederic waited for Gaby in solitude, rewriting Zork. He was the tapeworm. He crawled into its belly and became its god.
Sometimes Gaby was lonely. Sometimes she hung with a kid named Troy who had been expelled from Clifton Hill. Troy claimed to have a girl in Northcote but she was blatantly imaginary. He had cute lips, curling wild black hair, and mild brown eyes which secret softness he kept hidden in the shadows of his hoodie. His one true love was
and Gaby helped him search for it amongst the tree violet and fennel of Merri Creek. This wild weed was as imaginary as the girlfriend. When they finally did find a homegrown crop in the lane behind Service Street, a bald-headed bogan came at them with a shotgun. Get out of here youse little cunts before I blow your brains out. Gaby thought, I have seen an actual gun.
After school she and Solosolo raced and chased each other screaming amongst the wild mad fennel, two metres high, rolling down the bulldozed spill from Whelan’s tip, not stopping until they were wounded by a brick or buried spring.
The white girl thought, my life is starting. She was alive all day all night. The best part was when Meg left home to sell at the markets and Gaby and Frederic were free to do weird shit in Zork. In her ignorance, she did not miss being online at all.
One Sunday Gaby went to
, which was Samoan for church and prayers. Church, her mother cried. You can’t. This might have become a family story if there was a proper family anymore.
Frederic had a plan to steal a new modem and to access his neighbour’s phone line. He would not tell her how he might do that, but she never doubted he would do it and it would be against the law. They did their homework side by side and criticised their fucked-up parents. They ate pizza and searched for gold and jewels in the tunnels of the world of Zork. At this stage, she was the bossy backseat driver. Go there. Do that. Pick up. He smelled of lavender and his cheek was smooth.
Blind cars and feral trucks roared up and down Royal Parade. The trams rang their bells. No-one had any clue that behind that peeling pale-blue door there lived grues, zorkmids, and dwarves. Frederic introduced new actors and renamed the old cast. Thief was the first renamed identity.