Edward was a model paper plane perfectionist. He shaped long, pointed planes that flashed through the air like darts, wide flat-bellied planes that yawed and pitched like bombers. He invented ones that dove and reared up then crashed out like fighters. Others floated so high for so long they lanced the sky and shrunk into the distance like real jumbo jets that never returned. He even crafted ones that were more like birds than planes – wings and bellies gliding so low they tickled the bull grass like pelicans landing in the bay. And there were the creations you could never predict where they’d go with each throw – ducking left and right and swinging up and down like timorous finches.
Dunston told his father and he ordered the finest Origami paper from Japan over the internet. With his friends Russell and Aaron, they doggedly followed pictured instructions that came with paper. But their attempts fell rather then flew like flies passing through a discharge of insecticide.
Lieb was the classroom critic and orator. He could wring fortune out of failure and log roll triumph into humiliation. It came at a price. And his schedule stayed light because everyday everyone’s attention turned to something new. Callum was a yo-yo perfectionist until Daryl brought his jar of marbles to school. After Hula Hoops were introduced Erin was crowned Queen, then Squareball courts were marked out with chalk and Aaron was coronated the King.
Justine, Freya and Jessica become a tripartite of skip rope perfectionists when the class was asked to participate in a Heart Foundation fundraiser. They skipped in tandem with one rope or spun two that burred like egg beaters and cracked like whips when they dusted the bitumen. They took turns dashing in, pronking and oscillating to the iambic rhythm of a schoolyard chant before ducking out the far side as if they’d rushed through a waterfall and not gotten wet.
Dunston told his father and he bought the ‘Ninja Strike Skip Rope; for Professionals Only.’ It had a black polymer cord connected to silver moulded grips with lighting stickers on the sides and an odometer on the right handle which scored the number of rotations. It didn’t help Dunston stick a double skip which Jessica, Aaron and Saul could do without screwing their face up in red and cheating by jumping off the raised embankment along the lower side of the playground.
Justine, Saul, Freya and Daryl were congratulated for the highest scores in the Skipathon. But Dunston’s father sponsored him fifty pounds for time completion rather than setting an amount against number of completed rotations. Dunston was awarded a gold badge with a heart etched on it that Dunston threw in his bag and forgot about.
Finn was Edward’s best friend in the world since grade two and assisted his airplane designs. Finn’s unfettered input often ended in failure but they were fanciful and fun to make and spurred Edward onto more advanced and adventurous designs. When they calculated a lustrous veneer would reduce resistance and maximise updraft Edward tore pages from his mums’ fashion magazines. When they determined a stiff framework was required Finn slunk into his dad’s old study, careful not to touch anything and lifted the expensive printing paper that had turned jaundice in the machine’s tray. When they hypothesised only the lightest structure would suffice Edward grabbed large sheets of newspaper after his parents folded them like blankets and finished their breakfasts with an expedient final gulp of cold coffee. Although after what happened, Edward noticed Finn didn’t talk as much anymore. And he didn’t come round as much to play.
The following day Dunston arrived at school with a radio controlled plane. The entire class “wooed’ at recess, watching it throttle through take-off and whine like a lawn cutter into the air. It rose high over the old pine tree and Edward’s elegant designs silently slicing the sky behind the noisy cavalcade were instantly ignored.
Dunston’s plane crashed snapping the wing on its third flight because Russell was wrestling him for control of the remote claiming Dunston promised to let him have a turn. Dunston denied this. But this too was forgotten as summer hit hard.
Straw and brick lizards emerged from under lose wooden skirting and cracks in the convent’s foundation by the communal bubbler and bike racks. The class was studying biology and Austin was an animal catching perfectionist. His burly legs kept his carriage upright and indomitable as he scooted methodically up and back along brick walls, over steps, and between crevices. He possessed a preternatural instinct to track poikilotherms and predict where hollows in the mortar joined and exited. His arms and hands were sinuous spring traps held outstretched to strike, always from behind and facing the sun.
When the other boys tried they lacked the technique and strategy. They hadn’t the patience to let a lizard fall drunk with sleep in the sun. They slapped cupped hands down onto brickwork with confidence, drew in their fingers like a net, and revealed empty palms like magicians mystified by their own trick.
Josephine was the classroom socialite. She was coat-racked a lesbian by the other girls in class, including her best friend Phoebe before they even knew what the word meant. She called them fascists but stopped short of classing them enemies. She concluded when she turned six life was too short to take people personally. And she started the rumour herself because she liked to control everything about herself including insults.
Josephine decided to grow up early and was phlegmatic to the frivolities of recess and lunch break and the shrieks and yelps that filled the still air. That is why she noticed Finn was too. Finn actually liked the ruction of the school yard. He wasn’t small or weak and because he wasn’t the best or worst at sport he enjoyed it. That wouldn’t wash with Josephine who felt sorry for him after what happened the same way she felt sorry for reading on the internet about a tragedy befalling her favourite Hollywood stars.
Finn’s reticence was owed to his discovery of motion film over the Easter Holiday. Not cinema pictures, DVD’s or downloads on the internet or Iplayer – real film, celluloid. He stumbled on an old 8mm projector in a plastic case like mum’s sewing machine while going through his dad’s old stuff. It was packed in a cardboard box that smelt like old books and vacuum dust. He guessed she meant him to find it because she didn’t hide in the places she kept his birthday and Christmas presents. When she came home from work and saw Finn set up the projector she smiled like she was lying, or hiding something. It was a smile he’d not seen before and confused him.
After dinner when it got dark she retrieved a shoe box of loose reels and boxed films from her bedroom. Finn was seized by the magic the moment the lounge room went dark and he heard the projector steadily clacking like an artificial heart with the lamp illuminating another world onto the white sheet his mum hung over the curtains.
The projector dragged film over sprockets, munched it through the gate and across the lamp at twenty-fifths of a second because Finn later discovered that is the speed the human eye processes images. It expelled the thread of fingernail images at the back of the machine and automatically wound onto a receiving reel. The constant whirr gave Finn the feeling of comfort or solace – he couldn’t quite decide but it was like wearing winter pyjamas on a cold night.
Finn’s mum told him he was the baby on the picnic rug, splashing in paddling pool, sitting distraught in front of a cake glowing with candles, zipping down their old driveway on a plastic yellow tricycle with orange wheels and green handlebars he could almost remember. He recognised his mum. She looked thinner and younger and urbane with longer hair and sunglasses like turtle shells. In a one shot she smoked while laughing freely and pushed camera away. The camera wobbled and Finn saw his dad leap in front of the picture and bound over to a pair of swings in a park where Finn sat in a rubber saddle like a tubby ball of flesh. His dad had long wickets of dark hair down the side of his ears. As he pushed Finn he goofed around like a kid, waving and making silly faces that Finn couldn’t remember. He was shocked to see how much of his dad, how much detail his memories forgot.
Finn’s mum quietly got up and went to toilet as the film continued to chomp through the projector. He heard his mum’s subdued sobs muffled by a hand over her closed mouth. He then heard the medicine cabinet open, pills rattling in a plastic bottle and the toilet flush.
It grounded on the bitumen and writhed beneath bike wheels like a beached worm. Ants sallied instantly into an insurmountable regiment. They engulfed the amputated flesh like seagulls on an abandoned picnic of fish and chips. The boys laughed. Erin and Olivia peered down curious about what was so funny. They ran off squealing – not because they were necessary disgusted. They were at the age of acting out roles like shoes to decide which matched or suited them most.
When Dunston told his father about the lizard he told him not to worry. It would grow back. ‘It’s a natural defence,’ his father said in case a bird attacked. ‘Better its tail than its head,’ he chuckled down the phone line. His father bought Dunston a ‘Critter Trapper 5000.’ Everyone ‘ooowed,’ and ‘aahhhhd,’ when he showed it in class. Daryl asked how it worked and Dunston said, ‘Pheromones,’ proudly even though he didn’t know what that was.
Russell and Aaron helped him set it up under the verandah at the private entrance to the convent. Peering through the wooden lattice that fenced the two-step gap between the dirt and decking it looked dark and creepy and smelt like snake skins. It was perfect. Sister Margaret found it three days later compacted like dirt. It was full and blackened with centipedes, slatters, spiders, beetles, bugs, cockroaches, caterpillars, moths and grasshoppers. They were frozen by death and pressed hard up against the plastic prison exposing segmented jaundice bellies, barbed legs, pincers, antennas and black-tack eyes.
The whole classed ‘ewed,’ except for Erin and Olivia who ‘eeked.’ Dunston punched Russell in the arm for forgetting who then punched Aaron in the arm for forgetting. They had got distracted by Dunston’s new portable ‘Adonis video game console.’ But this again was all forgotten as Lieb announced he had just seen Hitchcock’s The Birds, before everyone else in class had ever heard of it.
Lieb’s parents were both university professors. As a precocious offspring he felt charged to preserve their cultural and intellectual integrity and edify the class’s standards with referential and bombastic speeches. At lunch he guided them scene by scene through the film, easily shaping a more terrifying version in their nubile minds than the master himself. He beaked his hand with his thumb under his fingers and cocked his arm at the elbow and described murders of crows pecking and gouging the eyes out of rampant villagers.
Finn didn’t admit that he had already seen it on film, or that he owned the seventeen minute abridged 8mm version. It was good but it wasn’t that scary. In the shoebox his mother gave him, Finn had inherited Airport, a ‘70’s disaster film in which nothing actually disastrous happens, Black Hole, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back: Part I, and was tacitly assured he was getting part II for his birthday. There was Steven Spielberg’s personal edit of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, a version of Lawrence of Arabia that managed to cut two and half hours into a single 400m reel without any action, a live Beatles concert from the Hard Day’s Night album and two signature examples of Ray Harryhausen’s clay animation with Clash of the Titans, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger that had both turned red with age. The collection also included a number of three minute cartoons; Woody Woodpecker, The Roadrunner and Mighty Mouse but they were silent and Finn decided cartoons weren’t funny without the sound effects.
That weekend the local video store was astounded when the two weekly copies of Birds were requested by fifteen phone calls. But this was soon forgotten as summer made way for autumn and the athletics sports carnival loomed. When Dunston told his dad he bought him silver and black chequered trainers designed by engineers who worked for Ferrari. They even put a transparent air cushion in the sole. Dunston was quick but Saul was a Jewish hare and Phoebe a puritan deer that dominated the running events. And Russell’s bellicose size and boorish strength gave no contest to javelin, shot put and discus. The same way at every aquatics carnival Callum was a fish in the pool and Olivia a frog.
Finn got excited when the days shrunk. When the wind turned cold and emptied the trees of leaves and the class ate lunch inside because rain lashed the playground it reminded him his birthday was near. Dunston shared the same birthday as Finn, which made the rest of the class almost as excited as their own birthdays. Every year Dunston invited the entire class, including the nerds Sean and Emily and tomboy Kelly.
They were extravagant and exaggerated, decorated in a theme, crowded by parents, toys, music and magicians and the backyard was inflated by activities. Prodigal plates of food painted every raised surface – the kitchen table, dining table, coffee tables, picnic table. They even erected trestle tables there was so much food: sausage rolls, spring rolls, baby frankfurters, baby pies, rissoles, double choc brownies, chocolate crackles, butterfly cup cakes, fairy bread that always seemed to taste better at parties than when the kids made it at home, sponge cakes plastered with icing, Swiss rolls with lemon butter, vanilla slice, caramel slice, honey joys, donuts filled with jam and custard, and parquet patterned bowls full of barbeque crisps, Cheezels, bit sized chocolate coated honeycomb, chocolate raisins and bullets that no kid ate, sugar babies, choco babies, silly snakes, strawberries ‘n’ cream, jelly beans and musk sticks. Everyone won a prize and left at the end of the day with a lollybag the size of a grocery bag and second slice of cake in a ziplock bag.
No child slept well that night. But Aaron and Daryl were the ones who never learnt to stop eating at Dunston’s birthday parties. Each year one of them got sick, vomited in the backyard, had their t-shit changed for one of Dunston’s that he hated, brooded for ten minutes then went back to eating. Finn went last year but he remained cloistered in his own ruminations.
Dunston liked and hated his birthday at the same time. He liked getting presents but always got what he asked for so he never felt surprised. He liked the party because his dad was there, but his mum and dad invariably found a way to have an argument somewhere they thought Dunston wouldn’t notice.
Finn’s favourite birthday was the year before when he was supposed to go to Dunstons house. His mum pretended to take him there but drove to Edward’s house instead. He was already waiting out the front, hopping with anticipation like he needed the loo and wearing a proud grin because he’d kept the surprise secret for so long. There was even a moment he thought his guts would burst. The three of them went into the city. They saw Batman, even though they shouldn’t have been allowed admittance because they were too young. Afterwards they had lunch at Burger King. Finn’s mum let them order anything on the menu. And one of the staff brought out a Neapolitan ice cream birthday cake. There was even an instant that may have been a minute when Finn forgot and it made him fervently happy then sad like waking from a dream.
Edward wasn’t ordinarily good at keeping secrets though. When Finn showed him the 8mm projector he was hooked. He was so animated by the copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Finn’s mum bought on Ebay for Finn’s birthday Edward spilt the surprise a week early. He had already spent three days goading Finn saying ‘If you want me to tell you, I’ll tell you.’ And when Finn finally hesitated Edward blurted it out. It didn’t matter because Finn looked so wonderstruck Edward felt his reveal was more physically than the roll of film itself. They wouldn’t be able to watch the movie until he got the present on Saturday anyway so Edward convinced himself he did nothing wrong.
It was Finn’s mum’s idea to celebrate his birthday with a movie night. Together they designed movie club membership packs. They laminated membership cards with Finn’s uncle’s laminator and included crazy straws, variegated plastic beakers, a can of coke, a half-buck of sweets, a microwave sachet of popcorn, a pack of glow-in-the-dark stars, and an attendance card with an intergalactic hologram on the back. Finn intended to host a monthly movie night and loyalty stamps on attendance cards would be rewarded with Star Wars pencils, erasers, sharpener, and notepads his mum bought.
When news of Finn’s rival party reached Dunston he charged at Finn through the playground with Russell and Aaron attached to either shoulder creating a vee of wake. His punch was more a culmination of momentum like a shove rather than a genuine swing. Every junior saw Finn fall backwards onto the pavement. Finn silently got to his feet, brushed the dirt off his uniform and picked the gravel out of the skinned ball of his hands. His taciturn poise cooked Dunston into an odium of a verbal denigration he couldn’t understand, predict or control. As his vehemence weakened he recognised it was pity in Finn’s wet gaze that provoked him and made him shout,
‘At least I have a dad.’
The schoolyard sheltered a gasp. Russell and Aaron looked away in shame. And Dunston, wrestling to bury his compunction, stood obstinately until Finn walked away.
Edward, Austin, Pete, Sean, Emily, Kelly and even Josephine attended Finn’s movie party. Josephine had declared she was vegetarian and learnt Finn’s mother was too, which Finn said made him three quarters vegetarian. But it wasn’t really the compatible food at Finn’s party which attracted Josephine. It was a calculated gambit. Her greatest fear was exclusion and there was something unreadable about Finn. She couldn’t afford not to be the first person to share in something great.
Josephine wrote, ‘The magical warmth of the projection light suffused the room and evening with unparalleled mirth and goodwill this reporter has ever witnessed. It wasn’t just the portent of the lounge room turning black before each screening, the nachos, vegetarian burgers, or Finn’s choice of cine film. The true champion of the night was Finn himself.’
Josephine described his comical interludes as ‘soufflé’ because of the fragile honesty and truth in the performance. ‘No wait, wait,’ came the cry behind the blinding curtain of light, pen torch rattling in Finn’s mouth as the film shuddered to a whining jam. A spool came lose because he forgot to fasten it, clunked to the floor and unravelled across the carpet like a toilet roll. He once realise too late he was projecting a film backwards because he never rewound it. He swore in French, ‘Putain,’ and ‘Merde’ when he fed a reel through in reverse and the sprockets chomped holes in the wrong side of the film and bit his finger. It made us all giggle like nutmeg and icing on mince pies.
Josephine said “Angus, Finn’s uncle was equally funny the more he drank and forgot and stumbled and swore at the light switch before each movie. ‘You can just go to hell whatever your name is… Mr light guy,’ he said before Close Encounters, before apologising ‘I’m sorry people – I don’t do this often.’ Finn’s mum made fun of him. The light snapped off and Angus clapped his giant mitts and said, ‘Okay, we have it together people,’ and we all laughed.”
“Then I forgot the world for seventeen minutes. It melted away in the loud clamour of the projector and warm eyelid shine animating fantastical imaginations.” Josephine declared it the ‘new youtube’. She described in detail the birthday cake Finn’s mum made as “a staggering achievement of gastronomic design and flavours.” It was a swimming pool cake. The foundation was sponge. The tiling was jam overlaid with cream. And the water was blue jelly. The fence was made with chocolate fingers and it was even decorated with candy bananas, liquorice allsorts and sour ring to match inflatable toys on the water. She signed off with “Finn, truly is an Amateur Perfectionist Projectionist,” and gave details of a repeat movie night in a month’s time.
Lieb who was now Josephine’s boyfriend promoted Finn’s movie night in the weekly newspaper, calling it a cinémathéque. Dunston got a Blu-Ray drive and high definition flat screen television the size of a ping-pong table and retaliated with his own movie night on the same day as Finn.
Lieb, Saul, Darryl, Callum, Freya and Jessica attended Finn’s with the group that was at his birthday. Finn didn’t realise how much he was involved in the event. His effort and comical mishaps were part of the charm. Being the Amateur Perfectionist Projectionist Finn could never really appreciate the movies. He had to sit beside the projector for when it inevitably fucked up. A blinding sheet of light spilled through the grill casing from the projection lamp to obfuscate Finn’s vision while the bruit of the engine swallowed the soundtrack. But Finn didn’t mind. He had watched them so often he rarely looked at the film. The real picture for Finn was the room. He loved hearing the laughs and gasps that were always different and in different places. Only he spotted furtive first touches of hands and interlocking fingers. It reinforced what Finn had learnt to love about life – it wasn’t predictable.
Half the class still went to Dunston’s because he promised everyone could order individual pizzas and desert from Dominoes. He didn’t know what movies to get so his dad hired all the new releases from Blockbuster. Because there was so much choice and feature length running times restricted them to only watch two films, batrachomyomachia ignited in scrub blazes around the purpose built screening room where optical fibres glittered in the ceiling like stars.
Phoebe was deliberately avoiding Josephine because she was jealous and resentful she had her stupid boyfriend Lieb so she went to Dunston’s even though she wished she was at Finn’s. The squabbling irritated her. Her long pointed nose swayed like a rudder. It had a mind of its own and seemed to talk first because it eclipsed her olive-pip mouth with its shadow. She had learnt to use it to her advantage. She swung her nose decisively like a principle’s ruler-tongue and where it rested her decision was final. She chose Legally Clueless, and Road to Providence, which no one else particularly enjoyed.
Finn kept hosting a monthly movie night. The whole class, including Duston was always invited but Duston never came. Josephine and Lieb broke up, so when Lieb went to Finn’s Josephine vetoed the rest of the girls in class from going. Attendances were unpredictable, not that Finn cared. He was always lost in concentration and wonderment behind the projector and veil of funnelled light. There was always butter, salt and pepper and parmesan popcorn, hummus with pita bread, celery and carrot sticks and grilled hallumi and falafel balls that no one really knew what it was but damn it tasted good. Everyone who went agreed it was a brilliant night.
The days grew longer and more certain. It naturally shifted the class’s attention to apparatus with wheels. Everyone started turning up to school on micro scooters, skateboards, rollerblades, bmx’s, long boards and old skool scooters. Pete’s birthday passed and he became a Frisbee perfectionist. He could catch it in one hand, behind his back, under one leg and between his feet. He could even catch it on one foot and while it was still spinning kick it onto a finger. He fashioned different throw grips to make the Frisbee zing low and fast into the chest, drift high and fluctuate like a hawk hovering in wind over a landfill site and skip off the gravel. He could even throw it so it came back to him.
Everyone predicted Dunston’s dad would buy him an Aerloonie, designed by retrenched NASA scientists. They expected to see him rip it from the hip the next morning before class. They imagined it – fizzing out of his hand like soda pop, cutting deliciously through the air, cropping the tip of the old pine tree before losing sight of it in the scorched haze of early morning. They anticipated entering class with the sunken childhood lament for lost things like an escaped birthday balloon. But Dunston arrived for class with nothing new. He already owned an Aerloonie. It lay at the bottom of one of the garage chests of Dunston’s toys after he quickly became indifferent to them. As Dunston stopped bringing the newest contraption to class he noticed he was treated differently. Before the morning bell and at recess and lunch Russell and Aaron didn’t come find him like they used to. And he spent time wandering between the edges of circles.
Finn kept to his films. When Edward’s dad got a job on the other side of town he moved schools in the last term. Edward and Finn made their mum’s promise they could play together once a month. But it quickly became once every two months, six months and that was it. When the class stopped attending his movie nights Angus and his mum were always there so. They enjoyed the sessions no matter how many times they watch the same film so it didn’t matter. His mum equally wished he would stay the same and would change.
Dunston broke his arm just before the start of the holidays on a ‘slip n’ slide’ he set up in his back garden when his mum was shopping. Finn was surprised when she told him Dunston’s mum called and they arranged for Dunston to come over and play. He furtively gave Finn a present wrapped in paper with cartoon monsters on it. He whispered, ‘let’s go into you room to open it.’ It was a mint condition 8mm copy of Aliens. The stock had turned red but Finn thought it never did any harm to sci-fi films. Dunston explained only adults were allowed to watch it but he bought it with his dad’s credit card the last time he was supposed to have custody of him for the weekend.
Dunston asked Finn what it was like not have a father. Finn realised Dunston was apologising although he didn’t actually say ‘sorry’. Dunston admitted if his dad died it wouldn’t make any difference. Finn shrugged. Dunston said he always wanted to see Finn’s movies. Finn smiled. They closed the curtains, turned the air conditioner on and made spider drinks with creaming soda and bourbon bean vanilla ice cream.
A week later Finn’s mum asked what movies he watched with Dunston. She said Dunston’s mum called and said he had suffered nightmares all week. Finn giggled. They talked fervently on the phone for two whole hours. Dunston said he was bidding on Ebay for Superman III, the entire four reel set.’ When Finn got off the phone he asked his mum if he could play with Dunston again.